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Hal Prize 2017 First Place Nonfiction: ‘Things That Won’t Happen Again’ by Joanne Nelson

I’m washing my brother’s dishes. Actually, I’m boiling his flatware before I can begin the washing. It’s all that dirty: the knives and spoons coated with something filmy, the fork tines clogged with what might be old eggs. Other than the jarring sounds of pans sliding against pans as I search cupboards or move dishes from counter to sink, the cabin is utterly quiet, the heavy air undisturbed.

My brother Steven – bearded, thin, and haggard enough to appear Christ-like – says he might have barfed in the sink, but he’s not sure. He mentions this from the one comfortable chair in his cabin, where he sits naked from the waist down, cigarettes and vodka within easy reach, his long hands flat on the black leather armrests, his body motionless as he stares out the glass sliding doors to the woods beyond his deck. Steven’s golden retriever, her fur dull and matted, lies on the rug next to his chair. The dog doesn’t bark, or move her tail, but tracks my movements with her eyes.

The nakedness is fair. Steven ’s stomach is so distended from his failing liver that his pants are probably useless. Besides, he didn’t expect my visit. I’ve arrived without invitation, after driving on winter roads for several hundred miles, to see if he’s still alive.

 

In our last telephone conversation, Steven ’s voice was low and full of pauses. He described shooting pains in his chest, how little he ate, how much he slept. While driving, I prayed he hadn’t answered his phone for the last several days because it wasn’t charged or because he was sleeping a lot, lost in the wild colored dreams he’d been telling me about.

Both assumptions were correct. I discover this when I walk into his cabin, as casual as some neighbor with a coffee cake, although it’s chicken and rice I’ve brought to cook for him. When I call his name he doesn’t move from the chair, greet me, or rush to cover himself. He just says, “I’m not going to some damn hospital.”

Shutting the door behind me, I childishly reply, “No one asked you to.”

I’ve messed up before, arguing or trying to reason; or worst of all, using my social worker skills – something he always detected and mocked me for – to get him to stop drinking, to change who he’d become. Even now, way into my forties, I’m only the younger sister, and anything I suggest is unlikely to happen. So I’ll boil the flatware and wash all the dishes instead, because nothing is clean and I want to make him a meal. It’s unlikely the dishes will get dirty again once I leave, not with how used-up Steven looks, not after his admission that nothing stays down anymore except for vodka.

This is what I’m here for. With my grandmother and mother dead, it’s become my job to make a last attempt to save, or at least feed, my brother. I remember us eating meals together, the pancakes our grandmother made: the smell of bacon, the eggs fried in butter in a cast iron skillet. Our own mother always at the stove, making meat and potatoes and a vegetable each night. After supper the two of us would do the dishes together. Steven washing and me up on a stool drying each plate and putting it away in the cupboard where it belonged. I want to give this to him one more time, to change the air in the horrible cabin, cover the cigarette smoke, the unbathed body and dirty dog smell, change it to something like home – like our grandmother’s home. Like the people we were.

Steven knows this, I’m sure of it. There’s the way he mentions the sound of the chicken frying, and the way he sniffs the air as I turn the meat over in the skillet. I serve him such a small portion, resisting the urge to cut the meat for him. He eats everything on the plate, being precise about each bite, looking almost happy by the time he finishes. He tells me how good it tastes, but soon after he pushes heavily on the arms of his recliner to stand and make his way to the bathroom. I doubt he’ll reheat the leftovers I’ve wrapped and put in the refrigerator.

Steven returns out of breath and with a towel wrapped around himself and tells me, “Don’t go in there.” I pull up a hard kitchen chair and sit next to the table piled with weeks of mail. I’d much rather scrub at spots on the counter, or vacuum around the dog, but I’m remembering that Bible story, the one about Martha and Mary hanging out with Jesus, how Martha cleans while Mary listens. I realize I’m imitating the wrong sister, so I stop and sit down. It’s clear to me I won’t visit Steven here again. Not with how large his belly has become on his emaciated body or with the way he’s missing his ankles, his lower legs just swollen, jaundiced blobs ending in feet. One foot, I notice, has dried poop stuck to it. I point this out and he expresses minimal interest, just moves his head unhurriedly to look, and says he doesn’t know if it’s his or the dog’s. He does not attempt to clean himself. Still, I press where his ankle should be, and comment on how long the skin takes to bounce back. There are lines on both legs, streaks of ochre against his skin’s oddly yellow-tan color, like the straight roads on a map. They represent past bouts of diarrhea, I realize, but this time I stay quiet.

Despite the gravity, the finality of this visit, my heart isn’t pounding and my thoughts aren’t all jumbled and rubbery as often happens to me in a crisis. It’s more like the lingering cigarette smoke is a fog I wade through to face Steven. I fight the desire to pull back, to dissociate and watch the events play out from the ceiling somewhere or out in the woods – the woods my brother loved. I’m surprised by the memory of a phone call from months, maybe even a year, ago. He was sitting on his deck, tossing a ball to the dog he said – and drinking, from the sound of his voice. I was busy running errands and told him so. He mocked me and called me foolish for living my suburban life driving my van, doing everything from a list, and eating eggs only at breakfast.

“That’s what you’re doing. I know that’s what you’re doing,” he accused from his sunny patio. My stunned silence as I drove the curved roads of my neighborhood encouraged him to ramble on. He said I could eat anything, anytime – there were no rules. His words were sarcastic, his laughter cruel.

 

If I keep working, if I vacuum, as my mother surely would, perhaps I’ll make up for the chicken, do something right. There is a risk to just sitting with each other, not even a sink of dirty dishes between us. What if I say something wrong, open some old wound between us, and there is never another time to fix it?

I talk about my kids, ask questions about his dog, the best things he’s ever done, and about his worst memory ever. Without a pause, he tells about when he was a kid, maybe seven, and I was a baby. He was in the garage with our dad and Todd Markowski from down the block, who smoked smelly cigars. Steven sat in the driver’s seat of one of the old cars Dad loved to restore. I imagine the way his brown hair stood up in the back, his freckled face with its slanted smile. As Steven talks he looks out the screen window, at the spot between the pines where the deer come in the early evening. Steven was supposed to press the brake pedal so Dad could show Mr. Markowski something. He messed up – what little boy wouldn’t – pushed the gas pedal instead and caused some problem. Maybe the men jumped back, startled at the sound of the motor racing, or maybe the car lurched forward, Steven doesn’t say. But he tells about the swearing and name calling that came next, all in front of Mr. Markowski who kept smoking his cigar. Steven refused to go into the garage after that.

In my mind, as Steven talks, I add bottles of Pabst to the workbench underneath the windows facing the backyard, and a smack as he’s hauled out by his elbow, the harsh words ringing from him, as he runs to his room and slams his door. Or, it’s possible he sat frozen in the lousy cab of the broken car intent, despite the shouting, on the view of crab apple trees, wash lines, and our red-shuttered house outside the double glass of windshield and windows. Maybe our mother’s shadow moved past a window, carrying the new sister he wasn’t allowed to touch without cleaning up first.

Steven finishes his story and turns to me, “What you gonna do, write about it?” I remain silent, make no promises, already wondering how to memorize each portion of this day, how it might look on the page. I fear I’ll forget his sunken cheeks and ragged beard, or the way he lifts his unlit cigarette to his mouth inhaling and exhaling nothing. The drawn-out pace of his words, the raspy sound of his laugh, his light touch on my arm, and even the long imprint of my finger on his ankle make me wish for paper, some way to get it all outside myself.

His dog cries at the door and I take her outside. Tail wagging, she checks the air and tests the length of her leash while I pour corn for the deer from a bucket in the shed. I’m on Steven ’s property, his land ends where the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest begins, but it’s the crab apple trees in the backyard of our parents’ home I’m picturing. Steven could lean against a rake, motionless for long stretches of time. Mom and I would watch him from the kitchen window, her hand holding back the ruffled curtain so we could both see. I remember her exasperation at his lack of progress. How she’d say, “That kid … What’ll become of that kid?” I knew I could rake better, get rid of all the crab apples and make her happy if only I were big enough.

Later, as I drive away from his cabin, another memory returns. I’m still little, and Steven wants me to toss a football with him. Crab apples and yellow leaves litter the autumn ground. Our laundry line posts denote end zones. There are the rich sounds of crackling leaves and pigskin hitting palms as he teaches me to catch and pass. He plays defense and I make my slow way towards those laundry pole goal posts. Success is in the air, as he allows me to get close, oh so close, to a touchdown. And then he uses all his power to push me back to the fifty-yard line and tackle me until time is finally called and the game is over.

Driving south towards home I suppose Steven is in his chair, the dog stretched out beside him. They’ll both watch for deer that make their way out of the woods at dusk looking for corn. Later Steven will rouse himself enough to pour another drink or light a cigarette. I’ll futz with the car’s radio or talk on my cell phone. Both of us are moving on.

 

Joanne Nelson’s writing appears in literary journals such as Midwestern Gothic, Brevity, Consequence, and Redivider. In addition, she presents on topics related to mindfulness and writing, creativity, and the personal essay. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin where she leads community programs, maintains a psychotherapy practice, and adjuncts. More information is available at wakeupthewriterwithin.com.

Judge’s Comment

This is a gut punch of a story filled with indelible images – the clogged fork tines, the “jaundiced blobs ending in feet,” the imprint of a finger on an ankle. I can picture it all even as I don’t want to, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since my first reading. The starkness of the now is beautifully mixed with the past and what is, unfortunately, likely to happen next. – Nonfiction Judge Erika Janik

 

For a complete list of 2017 Hal Prize winners, click here.

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