6.04 / April 2011

Len and Ernie

listen to this story

My brother don’t know it, but he ain’t long for this world.  I’ve been carryin’ him around our whole life, and he ain’t never once carried me.  I’ve been eatin’ and drinkin’ and sittin’ and standin’ and walkin’ and talkin’ for him since we was born and I’m at the end of my rope.  It ain’t his fault he’s like that, but it ain’t my fault neither.  I’m bearing the bigger load.  He ain’t never had to step a foot in his life, I just carried him back and forth everywhere, like a cat does her kittens, straight in front, like it’s a job.  And it is a job.

Learnin’ to walk, it was harder’n anythin’, ‘cause I didn’t have the choice to fall forward.  It happened when I was older’n most kids, because of my brother, and my mama’d stand over us, holdin’ up my hands, ‘cause if I went down, I’d crush him.  It wasn’t too far to fall, but mama said we’d best be careful.  Didn’t walk till we was three years old and change ‘cause of it, and even then, slow and ploddin’ like an old dog.

Even now, when I’m walkin’, I’ve got to lean real far back just to bear his weight.  And my brother, he just sits there, waiting to move.  Sometimes he wiggles his fingers or twitches his toes in case I didn’t get the message already.  He’s got a system, where his arms mean “yes” and his feet mean “no,” but when he’s real excited or angry or somethin’ he’ll just flail both of ‘em around fast as he can.  It’s most troublesome in winter, when I’ve got him all wrapped up in coats, ‘cause it looks like somethin’s explodin’ out the front of my clothes.  Once, when we was out and about, he got a foot loose and a woman screamed and fainted.  She must’ve thought I grew him right then and there.

When we was born, they told my mama we was too sickly to separate.  Well, at first they said I was too sickly, but then those legs started kickin’ and they had to get to other considerations.  Doctors said we wasn’t supposed to live more than a few days, but I sure proved them wrong.  I’m twelve and a half now.  Halves have always been awful important to me, because I’m half more’n my brother is, and it’s the half that matters.  For all anyone else knows, he’s just some extra skin and bones I got to walk around in.  My brother ain’t got a head – least one you could see.  Far as you could tell, he’s just a tangle of limbs I got out front.  ‘Course, you ain’t the one’s gotta listen to him all day.

My brother’s real insistent about being his own self, even if he can’t do nothin’ without me.  He ain’t got a mouth, but he’s got a voice and it talks the whole day through.  It’s a strange sort of thing, havin’ him in my head without hearin’ him.  When we was little, I used to talk right back aloud to him till I figured out that no one else could hear him.  Mama told me I’m strange enough already and I best quiet down lest someone try to put me away.  She said to do it like readin’ to youself, though neither of us are much for books.  Got too much goin’ on in there already.

We was in this show a while, though it weren’t much of one.  All they did was have me take off my shirt and smile.  It was the only time my brother ever did have to sing for his supper.  They named him at the show.  ‘Fore that, he was just my brother, and that’s still what I call him and what he calls me.  It’s just “brother” and nothin’ else.  They billed him first, which I took offense to, as I was the one who was standing all with my shirt off up there.  I guess they figured he was the excitin’ part.  I didn’t want to do it, but Mama said it’d be for the best, ‘cause we’d have a little extra money around, and you don’t never turn that down.  I get stared at enough already, but my brother, he loved it.  He was the star for once, not like at the doctor’s when they are thinkin’ only of me, or with everyone but Mama who don’t know he’s around even, or out in the streets where he’s all covered up and a secret.  He would just glow after them shows, and talk a mile a minute about all them people who was lookin’ at him and thinkin’ about him and wantin’ to touch him.  Said it made him feel whole for once, like there was a place for him beside under my shirt.  And part of me was glad for him, ‘cause he’s still my brother, regardless, and because I could see if we was switched how I’d get jealous.

Thing is, though, the doctors, who don’t know nothin’ about my brother, say it’s either him or me.  He’s been growin’, they say, faster’n me, which is what they call a “serious issue.”  I am suffering from what they call a “failure to thrive,” which they say is a damn shame, as I am a bright boy with a good future otherwise.  They say that since I’m fine as I am, nothin’ missin’, they’ll just go in there and get rid of what’s extra.  Mama, she looked horrified, but they must’ve thought it was ‘cause of the surgery and all.  We ain’t never told them about my brother. Not in so many words, at least.  Sometimes, they ask me questions that sound like they want me to admit somethin’, but I always heed Mama and act like there ain’t nothin’ there but flesh.  My brother used to get real mad about it, but now that we’re older he sees how it’s best.  What he don’t see is what I don’t want him to.  Real early on, I figured out how to block him from seein’ things I don’t think he should, or that I want to keep all to myself.  At first it was just so I could spend more time with Mama without him nudgin’ and kickin’ all the time.  Then it was so them doctor’s wouldn’t suspect nothin’.  Sometimes I’m protectin’ me and sometimes it’s him.

“The extraction” is what they callin’ it.  I gotta go over to a special hospital and everythin’.  They say if all goes well, there won’t be nothin’ left of my brother but a few scars on my belly.  I ain’t never had a belly before, so I ain’t so sure it’s better than a brother.  What I am sure of is that we ain’t to tell him nothin’, lest we want a whole big fuss.  Seems like he wouldn’t be able to do much, but between them arms and legs and all that talkin’ he does, I’d be worse off than I am with it as secret, which so far, has only led me to a lot of thinkin’ and a big stomach ache.  Mama said it ain’t an inside one, like when you ain’t had enough to eat, or too much, or what have you.  She says it hurts cause I’ll be missin’ somethin’ soon, and that I’ll get over it in time, like her cousin Walter did when he lost those fingers in the mill, or how we all miss Grandma, but it don’t hurt as much no more.  “It’ll all be fine in time” is what she tells me.  “Sometimes what’s best ain’t the easiest.”

What I ain’t tellin’ her is that I ain’t so worried about getting cut open and stitched up as I am about what my brother’ll say when it’s over and done.  She don’t know him like I do.  She can’t hear him, even if she acts like he’s there.  He won’t take kindly to it.  I got trouble enough puttin’ a shirt on in summertime.  He’s got a real will, my brother, and sometimes, when it’s strong enough, he can move me as much as he can move hisself.  I can stop him now, but once there ain’t a self left for him to get hold of, I’m worried about what he could do.  Way I figure, he’s probably wanted a body his whole life, one that was all his, with nothin’ of mine in it.  I know I have, even I am used to him now.  If I was him I’d try somethin’.  It would only be fair, as I’m tryin’ something of my own.  It would be better, I think, fightin’ him for it.  What I’m most scared of is havin’ to walk around the whole rest of my life with him in there.  It’d be a lot harder to bear than these arms and legs could ever be.

Jaime Fountaine lives, writes, and performs in Philadelphia, where she is the host of Toiling in Obscurity, a quarterly performance series, and Second Stories, a monthly storytelling show, both at The Dive, and The Rant-O-Wheel, a storytelling competition at the Philly Improv Theater. You can find her on the internet at jaimefountaine.com.