I roll outside and hear a fiddle crying over the morning surf. Mindful of the tripping gaps in the wood porch slats, I skate to Jesse's side of the deck. He is sitting in his wheelchair, facing the rocky Maine coast, a portable tape player at his feet. He didn't push my rocking chair over the rail after all. I take a seat and rock in rhythm with the Atlantic, skate wheels spinning with me.
"What's this?" I ask, circling my finger at the string music.
"Violin tape I found. It was in the pie safe you was gonna junk."
"You like it?"
His crooked fingers mime on invisible strings. "Always felt I was meant to play the violin. Like I was a great violinist in a past life."
"This is a fiddle."
"Then a fiddlist."
I stop my rock for a still view of my brother, a pipe cleaner that multiple sclerosis confined to a wheelchair. He got old and crippled and I'll never forgive him.
"Ever try your hand at violin?" I ask.
"Never near one. Maybe I was meant to make them."
"You've been near wood. Ever shape a log into a violin?"
He frowns at the beach. "Reckon I was more meant to play one. If I had a violin right now, some karma memory would let me follow along with this tape. M.S. or no M.S."
On the down rock I lean forward and let the slant roll me across the deck. "Alright, big shot. You're on."
"On what? Where you running to, Jeffrey?"
"Work, man. What are you doing for dinner? I'm thinking fish sticks."
"When'd you go fishing?"
"Jesus." What a brother. I put on my hardhat, slip to my butt and scoot down the handi-ramp. "You're making me late."
The neuro doc said a less humid climate would better jive with Jesse's brain ailment, so we moved to Maine. I think the real reason Jesse wanted to move was to escape the buffoonery that, back in Kentucky, had made him a legend.
His first blunder of note occurred in the summer of 1941. After a sticky day stripping tobacco at Mr. Hullette's farm, we went with some boys to play Injun sacrifice in a wooded corner acre. It hadn't rained in a month. The brittle tobacco left our hands split and papery. The grass underfoot cracked like hollow bones. We stripped off our shirts and browned our faces with dirt. Jesse, picked to play the sacrificial virgin, donned a wig of tobacco leaves. We roped him to an apple tree and pretended to set fire to the straw between his astraddle feet.
"You ain't really lighting it?" he asked.
"You've gone cuckoo," we said.
"It'd make things more realistic."
It was crazy and so were we. Using a strike anywhere, we lit the straw, which took to fire with the spirit of gasoline. Jesse spit on it.
"That baby flame can't hurt me," he said.
"You think you're Superman or something?"
"I got baptized, remember? Since Pastor Estes dunked me ain't nothing can hurt me."
The older boys howled at this claim, but I took Jesse's confidence as a challenge. I jumped and hung from a brittle tree branch until it snapped off, raining dehydrated apple mush on Jesse. Then I dropped the branch onto the fire.
"That ain't doing nothing," Jesse said.
"Let's see if this helps." I pulled a flask from my butt pocket and dumped it on the fire. The flame snapped skyward like a sheet caught in an updraft. In a blink we were all ripping at the rope and patting out Jesse's feet, which burned the color of rotten bananas. He didn't walk for weeks. I couldn't sit for just as long, after dad wore out my behind.
Now I can laugh at the story, and I do while recounting it over my walkie-talkie to Jimmy, my traffic partner on the road crew. He and I hold signs at opposite ends of the construction site, which has cut the highway down to one lane. While I halt eastbound traffic, Jimmy directs cars going west. I lean against my sign pole and pivot to see if the hotfoot story made Jimmy smile. His back and the STOP side of his sign face me as SLOW abiding traffic passes.
"You doing alright, Big Jim," I say into my walkie. To my right, a jackhammer ting-ting-tings against the asphalt. The air is thick as tar. I squeeze the call button and holler, "You should check out my new roller blades. Over."
"I don't think those are regulation," he says.
"There you go quoting Mr. Hard-ass Cleaver again."
"If Cleaver said, 'Just hold your sign,' then yeah, I'm quoting him."
"I got my helmet on. Say, have you seen me spin yet? Look at this. See? Look, Jimmy. Over."
"Hold. Sign. Please."
"How about this deal: I'll spin and hold the sign. I can rotate near all the way around in a single twist."
For a few seconds the radio buzzes. Finally, Jim says, "I once did a spin while holding the sign."
"No way. Over."
"Yeah way. Disaster. The cars didn't know what to do. They were stopping and starting all over the place."
Jim likes to intone a preposterous inflection, like a lot of brats in his generation. Why can't kids today just say what they mean? It's all cocky backwards talk. To hell with them. The rest of my shift I play it straight, don't talk beyond the usual traffic coordination. It was boring as shit.
Sunday morning I haul Jesse to church in my van. While he gets sermonized, I skate through the surrounding fishing village in search of booze. Though I keep my wheels extra-tight, I have to slow myself on the downslopes by palming brick walls and parked cars, burning the skin off my fingertips. Up the street from the church, I find a market that doesn't regard Sunday alcohol restrictions. I buy a can of Octane Lite, an energy beer I've fallen in love with. I drink it on my pinguin walk back to the church and sit in my van until the church bells begin ringing and church lets out.
Here comes Jesse, pushed up the walkway by a little girl about twenty, thirty, who can tell an age these days. She hugs him, calls him Jess, says he better behave.
Now who's she? One skate out the door, I watch her plump butt shake back to the church, where the pastor and his wife pump the hands of passing congregationers. Everyone is so young.
"I thought today's youth was too scientific for church," I say.
Jesse sits next to his door, thumbs twiddling. "Can I get a lift in?"
"One sec." I skate up the walkway to the church. Braking still eludes me. To stop, I employ the pastor's wife's shoulder as a crash pad. Her pregnant stomach is so big I fear she'll pop. "Quite a nice one," I say, patting her stomach. I claim to feel it kick but her belly might as well be a lacquered beehive; nothing buzzes in there.
"Your wheel's on my foot," she says.
Again I apologize. The line stalled, I grab the pastor's arm. Firm. He's a feathered frock of confidence. I shake his hand while raving about Jesse's knack for the violin.
"Best violinist you'll hear in three states," I say.
"I um," the pastor says. "Lynn herself plays the violin."
"Ah yes. Lovely. But Jesse. It would be pure joy if he could play before the next service. I understand you have one tonight."
"Tonight we have the gospel review."
I plant myself between the pastor and an impatient boy waiting to touch the gilded hand. "Can't you squeeze him in? He won't play but one measly piece, father."
"He truly is gifted?"
"Best I ever seen."
"Well." He purses his lips, a hint about being put out. I don't waver. "That might not be a problem."
"The problem is my brother hasn't an instrument of his own. You say your wife plays?"
She waves at the pastor from a conversation with two young parishioners. The line begins scattering from single file. "She probably could bring hers," the pastor says.
"A venue and a violin." I grab his arm in thanks. Where does he find time for dumb bells? "You're lovely people."
I don't skate ten feet before the pastor calls out, "You be careful on those skates now." Want the last laugh, padre? Take it. I flex both arms, hamming it up before I return to the van. Jesse is too proud to ask about my business with the pastor. Driving home, I can't help prodding him. Inches from his face, I smush my thumb and index finger together.
"You know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin, and I'm crushing it 'cause you can't play it anyway."
"You don't know for certain I couldn't."
I slurp down the remaining spittle of Octane Lite and then toss the can over my shoulder. "Soon enough I will. I just cleared it with Father What's His Face. You're the main event at tonight's service."
Guys on the road crew love working Sundays, at least during the football offseason. The money's fine—double pay dents Jesse's shot bills leftover by Medicare—but I loathe losing my weekend to work. To add insult to injury, while directing traffic I'm stuck watching the ingrate free: lemon-sucking weekend drivers, one following another like cows led to slaughter.
"I tell you, Jimbo," I say into my walkie, "these schmucks got no clue about how good they got it. Over."
"I got honkers this side," Jim says.
"Roger that. They don't want to go anywhere but can't wait to get there. Over, buddy."
"These radios really are more meant for coordination than chit-chat."
"Coordination betwixt me and you, Jimmy Boy. Say: what're you doing after work?"
My van is parked in the improvised car lot a hundred yards beyond the work site. Jesse's frumped outline is in the front seat, head back sleeping. My focus shifts from Jesse to the line of cars. I wave back at a fellah behind the wheel of a mini-van. I hate when they wave. Thank god it's just a half shift.
"Jimbo I said, 'What're you doing after work,' over."
"Um. Meeting a friend at Applebee's, probably."
"Friend? Well the more the merrier. He'll want to hear this too."
Jesse's most humiliating jackpot took place in 1972. All summer, composite sketches of El Loco Killer resided on the front page of every newspaper in Kentucky. When El Loco's eighth victim, a drifter from Arkansas, turned up gut-shot dead in an open boxcar, every folk in town claimed an El Loco sighting. Hysteria hit critical mass when Sheriff Davies got a CB call from a deputy claiming he caught El Loco. Sheriff was at the Up All Night Diner working on a slice of Ruth's pecan pie.
"You can bet your neck it's the El," said the CB. "We just need somebody who speaks Mexican to translate the son-bitch."
A few tables away, Jesse coiled over his booth-back to survey the scene. "I speak a little Mexy," he hollered. Easy as that, my brother was set to interpret the interrogation of the biggest serial killer in Kentucky history.
"So we put Jesse and the El together," said Sheriff, later that night at the Up All Night. He had returned for another piece of pie and wound up surrounded by a crowd. "I tell Jesse to ask the Mexican why he killed 'em. Jesse nods, grinning like a shit eater. I say, 'Why'd he do it, boy?' Jesse don't move. Then the Mexican starts asking a bunch of questions, rapid-fire, speaking in tongues like. When the El pauses for a breath, I slap Jesse like, 'Well?' Jesse just keeps right on smiling."
Sheriff bit his lip. "Now here's what I want to know: How good does Ruth's pie got to be for me to think a hick like Jesse knows a lick of Spanish? Can anybody tell me that?"
By then, a US Marshall had caught up to El Loco outside of Lexington. The marshall said "Freeze" and then blew out El Loco's brains before he could stick up his hands in surrender. I classify the whole story as tragic, what with the body count and all. But it makes a fine enough story. I recount it at the Applebee's bar. Jesse sits to my right, too low in his wheelchair to see over the bar. The mud-stick drinks tap water. He laughed at the laugh-points of my story, when Jim and his buddy should've been. They sat on their stools, thumbs up butts, examining cups of wine.
"I don't get you boys drinking that old wine," I say. "They got all the new drinks you can try out. This one tastes like kids aspirin, only liquid."
"I'm skeptical about these caffeine-alcohol combos," says Jim's friend. He flashes a constipated grin that boils my blood. Cocky types always strike me as strange breeds. He holds his wine to the light like a scientist searching for something that ain't worth knowing.
"Put that glass down," I say. "What you need's action." Then I chuckle out the details of my brother's inaugural concert. Jesse grins through the whole thing. "And get this: Jesse's never played a lick of violin in his life. It'll be a bigger disaster than opening a woman's pots and pans cabinet."
Now I'm the recipient of a double stink eye. "That sounds like a bad deal," Jimbo says.
The friend leans forward and waves at Jesse. "Why you let him pick on you like that?"
"It ain't picking, per se," I say. "We have our own dynamic. Jesse gets my goat more than he means, so it all equals out."
"Are you a widower, Jeff?" the friend asks.
"No, but the cradle-robber who married Glynn after me is. Was. God, this conversation doth bore me too much." I stand but wobble and have to edge on Jesse's chair for balance. "Look. My brother's a super genius. Like one of those prototypes they say we'll all be in a million years."
"Is that right," Jim says.
"He's a prototype, I'm telling you."
"That too. You gotta come tonight. We could all ride together in the van."
The boys say they might meet me there. After they leave, the waitress comes over and smiles at Jesse. I ask the waitress for a hot dog to go. I back up from the bar so she can see my skates.
"Meals on wheels," I say. "Now about that wiener."
She sticks her tongue out like I've asked her to pull my finger. I don't get these new elites. They hate hot dogs for being made of leftover meat but praise Indians for using every scrap of dead buffalo. Gives me the heeby-jeebies, imagining those savages carrying wampum purses made of filthy buffalo scrotums.
Eh, bless 'em.
I wait on Jesse's bed while he primps in the bathroom for his debut performance. All day he looked forward to the trainwreck like a kid counting down to Christmas. It doesn't much surprise me. A life of humiliation must make him figure God owes him one. Time for the big man to pay up.
If Jesse is right and God does exist, He definitely owes my brother a make-good. Over the past twenty years, God has put Jesse through hell, kickstarted by Jesse's daughter's cancer diagnosis. That one played like a soap opera from hell. From there God treated Jesse to a divorce and the death of his parents. That last one touched me too—after all, those were also my parents in a ditch, hung upside down by their seatbelts.
Liver-spotted corkscrewed necks.
But God didn't top off my grief with a life sentence of failing motor skills.
"You about done in there?" I holler. Silence. I tap on the cluttered bedside table, on which stands a childhood picture of Jesse and me, sitting smiles conspiring. Under the picture is a cocktail napkin. ANDERSON COUNTY MOTEL EAST is printed at the bottom of the napkin, the name Louise handwritten above a phone number.
Jesse has squirreled the number of a mystery woman a thousand miles.
I grab the cordless from the table and dial.
"Hello?" Her raspy minx voice slows my blood to molasses.
"You know Jesse? Jesse Sutherland?"
"Jesus, yeah." She answers immediately, like my brother lives on her head. "Is he okay?"
"Depends on your perspective." I rattle out the details of his concerto. "Should be quite a show."
"Is Jess there?" she asks.
"He's in the bathroom practicing his fingering. Might you already know about his fingering?"
"Who are you? Why are you telling me this?"
"Because it's funny."
"No. I'm asking why you're telling all this to me."
I pour over my mental records for a Louise. Arms, shoes, a purse. Yep, women have those parts, but the woman on the line is a mystery. "Who else is there to tell?" I ask.
She hangs up. As I set down the phone, Jesse wheels out of the bathroom. A loose tuxedo hangs from him like a plastic bag caught on a treefinger.
"I thank you for this," he says. A smile conned out by the snake charmer. It's a fight to keep from cradling my head in my hands.
The empty church lobby is bathed in stained-glass sun. It unburies memories of setting up for mom and dad's joint funeral. I haven't been in a church since that day and don't much like being in this one. I get the itch to skin out, but then the long hallway shooting off the lobby relays sounds of metal banging against metal and rubber chair-feet farting on linoleum.
Jesse follows the sound. I grab the back of his chair and let him tow me down the long corridor to a set of double doors. Knees first he pushes into the great hall, which is filled with rows of cafeteria tables. In an open patch of floor, the pastor is unfolding chairs around a holstered violin.
"What's this room here?" I ask.
"Fellowship hall," the pastor says.
"Is the preacher hall broke?"
"If it's okay with Jesse, we can do this before the service."
I slump into a third row seat. My brother sits statuesque in the center of the chair ring, ignoring the violin at his side. By the time the pastor finishes setting up the chairs, my heart has quickened and skin tingles from every sweat gland cranking open.
"What will you play?" I prod, but Jesse's limp shoulders suck the fun from me. An instant regret flashes. I need air.
In three quick strides I reach the hallway. The foyer is filling with boys wearing mismatched suits and girls in jeans and royal French scruffs. The dissonant round of voices rumbles like an insatiable stomach. The pastor's wife squeezes out of the crowd, bow in hand, led by her pregnant belly. Thick as lemmings, the youths file after her.
"Where's everybody going?" someone asks.
"To watch Jess."
"You know, wheelchair? Cool old dude?"
"Cool old dude? Cool."
The throng of youth nets me and reverses my wheels. On the roll back to the fellowship hall, I overhear a woman talking about the dish she made for the after-service potluck. The way she says "chocklet pood'n" puts the morosest smile on my face.
"Thank god for women. Without you we'd all go hungry," I say. She frowns and I feel like an old crank. I feel even more decrepit when, back among the folding chairs, a blonde tells me to take her seat, speaking in a volume loud enough to wake the deaf. Lively boys draw the curtains and the pastor flips off all the lights except a track over Jesse's head. He is bathed in a halo. I realize that, of everyone from back home—parents, old friends, family—he's the only one not dead.
The only one not dead is handed a bow. He grips it like a plunger and then picks up the violin, arthritic fingers clamped on the neck like a butcher choking a chicken.
The pastor yawns to me like a proud kitty. He whispers, "Can this begin?"
"My buddy Jimmy might be coming. Eh, screw him."
"Have you prepared an introduction?"
I lean forward and steady him in my sights. "A poem, actually."
Here is my brother,
He's the world's biggest fool.
Can he walk on water?
Nah, throw him in the pond anyway.
Again I'm looked upon like a crank. But for my brother the room erupts in applause.
"Rip it up Jess," a sheep says.
"You're the man," says another.
Jesse nestles the violin in the crook of his neck, mimicking soloists he's seen on TV. With absolute care he settles the bow inches above the strings. The room silences in anticipation of his strike. The silence turns him vulnerable and they love him. Now they're hooting. Don't listen. Get up and go. Don't roll out. Stand up damn it and run.
They all love Jesse and I'm a crank.
"Well go on already," I holler. "Go on and play the sweetest damn music these fools will ever hear."