Jeremy Bitz flipped open his tiny black notebook, encased in a folded leather case like the ones preferred by televised detectives. Niiiiceonly one item on today’s to-do list, scrawled in petite golf-pencil: Pick up harp strings.
The music store was only eight blocks away, so Jeremy Bitz decided to walk it rather than hire a rickshaw, which he did when something was 10+ blocks away. Which nothing was. He stepped outside his apartment, got his bearings, and marched out into the afternoon sun. He slipped on a baby bird and tumbled down the stairs to the sidewalk. He suffered from a series of compression fractures, the retropulsion of bony fragments into the spinal canal, and a progressive kyphosis of the spinal column. He tasted lemony copper and was struck by a vision of his mother spiking the punch at her wedding, an event that preceded his birth by four months.
Jeremy Bitz thought his soul was cleaving itself from his body but then realized he was being lifted by a kind stranger. He opened his eyes and saw her face, oval and shimmering, a benevolent alien constructed out of pure love. He would go with her wherever she went, Jeremy Bitz vowed. He would waft upon her big heaving ocean until the end of time. The lovemaking would start out elegant but become increasingly complex. They would have the same morning-breath. The coffee would be perfect. Their children would have solid, practical names and be handy around the house. Mornings would swallow the day. The showerhead would be exacting. Spankings would be administered. Paramours would be voracious readers. Hands would be held. Hearts would stop at the exact same instant
He felt a curious pressure around his buttocks, then a loosening as his wallet was removed from his hip pocket. She is giving my Medicare card to the ambulance driver, he thought. Things are proceeding very smoothly. Her touch is delicate.
Then Jeremy Bitz fell back down to the pavement, and through a halo of crimson pain he watched as the woman took his harp-string money and gave it to the hot-dog vendor down the street. ‘Wieners for all!’ she cried, ‘Totally on me!’ Jeremy Bitz lost all sensation in the lower half of his body and suddenly smelled wild strawberries due to a sparking synapse in his head.
Jeremy Bitz had three brothers:
Stephen, the oldest and luckiest, and possibly the smartest, who lived by discouraging anything good to happen in his life, and thereby ending up the luckiest man Jeremy knew. He was married to a woman his age who loved him and still was very pretty, Jeremy thought, and also had made enough money for Stephen retire at 39 from his job, leaving the pharmacy business behind for his passion: 10 hours a day of gardening organic crops in a small corner of their backyard in Michigan.
Second was Tiny, who talked to himself.
And third, David Jr., the youngest, their father’s pride, a dentist with four children, who every year organized The Brothers Bitz luncheon at his house in Bay Head.
Jeremy asked the taxi to stop at the end of the drive and saw David Jr. in the front yard of his house, showing Stephen and Tiny his new fishing boat, wrapped for winter under a blue tarp.
David Jr. ran across the lawn and hugged Jeremy before he was halfway out of the car.
‘How are you?’’
‘You look terrible. Are you depressed again?’
‘Well, go inside and have a drink.’
‘I don’t want a drink.’
David Jr. stepped back, taking the refusal on the chest. ‘Well, then you’re in denial on two counts brother!’
He laugheda big laugh with canyonsthen told Tiny to grab Jeremy’s luggage. Tiny, deep in pledging allegiance to the stern, ignored him.
‘Stephen, get Jeremy’s luggage.’ Stephen looked at them reluctantly. ‘He is the Brother Bitz this year.’
‘So? Why do I have to?’
Stephen peeked under the tarp one last time, but didn’t touch the hull. Its new paint smelled like gasoline. He found it hard to believe David Jr. would go through the trouble of owning something so large and cumbersome, nevermind seasonal.
‘You just do.’
Stephen half-waved to Jeremy as he passed them, stooped over to pick up Jeremy’s suitcase, then dragged it behind him into the house.
‘You know,’ Jeremy said, ‘you don’t need to boss everyone around so much. We’re all men now.’
David Jr. laughed and looked down the street. ‘You’re men, are you? All right.’ He snorted and wiped his nose. ‘Then why don’t you act like it. Hm? Those brothers of yours need someone to push them around.’ He looked back at Tiny, waving at the boat. ‘Tell me Jeremy: You think Stephen deserves that money he’s got? You think Tiny will ever meet a girl?’ He exhaled loudly and shook his head. ‘No, someone needs to help them. But I mean, fuck it. Personally I’m tired. Tired of being Dad.’ He looked down on Jeremy and winked, grabbed him around one arm. ‘After all, I’ll never have the honor of being the Brother Bitz.’
‘They’re still your brothers.’
‘Right. But I’m adopted. Anyway, let’s go inside. Dad would want us to.’
Jeremy stopped halfway up the flagstone walk and stared into the living room, at the large TV glowing through the window. David Jr.’s boys would be in there, tearing something apart with their baby-teeth.
‘He’s not here, is he?’ Jeremy asked.
‘No, Jeremy. He’s dead.’
David Jr. opened the front door.
‘No joke,’ David Jr. said, looking back, ‘Do I look like I’m joking?’ He frowned and reached out to grab Jeremy by the neck and pull him inside.
‘I’m just kidding, you dumbass. Jesus, you need me more than Tiny. Now why don’t you go get dressed.’
Tiny finished tying the boots, but stayed on his knees to inspect the carpet. Jeremy looked down on the top of his head.
‘Tiny, I hate this.’
‘We have an excellent return policy.’
‘Every year. I don’t know why we stand it. Honestly, who wants to be here? Besides David Jr.’
‘May I pay by debit? I would like to pay with debit.’
Jeremy showed Tiny where to fix the corset, then did it himself after Tiny noticed how the curtains billowed out when he blew on the window. This year, Jeremy noticed, the corset required sucking in his gut.
‘But none of us say no, do we? I mean, you live here, so I can understand. You have to be here. But Stephen, why is he so weak? Why does Melanie even let him come’
‘Do you have a minute to hear about our Homelink system?’
‘I know David Jr. has his heart in the right place. But there’s something wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.’
Tiny handed Jeremy his helmet. Staring into the mirrored faceplate, Jeremy noticed he had a large blackhead forming on the end of his nose. It had been there, on and off, since he was 19. He still didn’t know when or how it would return, and he’d never figured out how to get rid of it.
‘Tiny, listen for a second.’ Tiny stopped playing with the curtain and looked somewhere just above Jeremy’s left ear. ‘There’s an old legend Dad used to tell us about two bears who live together in the forest. You won’t remember this but listen. One winter one bear wakes up from hibernation because he’s had a dream he’s no longer a bear. He hasn’t eaten in months, and he’s starving. He looks at his friend lying next to him, thinks for a second, then eats him. And it’s only a month later, when he’s hungry again and walking by a trout stream, that he remembers he’s a bear.’
Balancing delicately on his toes, Tiny stood very tall and rested his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. His voice turned very deep.
‘I may have a delivery to make.’
‘Sure Tiny,’ Jeremy said, ‘I understand.’
Tiny had two rules about the bathroom: He never went alone, and he never let his heels touch the floor.
The backyard was hazy through the Brother Bitz helmet, but Jeremy could see David Jr.’s sonsall named after Revolutionary War heroeson the swingset by the fence. With gloves on, October seemed like winter, and Jeremy caught himself wondering when the first snow would fall in New York that season. Probably not until Christmas, he thought. Never soon enough.
His brothers were standing on either side of the empty swimming pool: David Jr. with his officiant’s cap and robes, Stephen behind the judge’s table. Tiny was allowed to hold the rope.
David Jr.’s wife Doreen had come out five minutes before, offering to make sandwiches, but she asked wearily, already knowing she wouldn’t need to go to the trouble. Only Tiny would be hungry, and he was on a diet. David Jr. didn’t eat during the day.
It had been a difficult 12 months since the last Brothers Bitz, and knowing he had the title role that year had not made the last weeks any easier on Jeremy. He had never felt so confined. His lifeat home, at workhad recently become very narrow, he noticed, like a tunnel digging itself through a mountain. Courtney had left him. The spinal injury was a 75 percent recovery. And the tunnel kept burrowing, as if there was gold at the end somewhere. If only he could find a side-door, he thought. Dig a way out without being seen.
Stephen lifted the flare-gun and rang the first of 12 bells. David Jr. began the inaugural proclamation, which Jeremy knew gave him another minute before he had to step forward. He thought about Courtney, and what California would be like. He wanted to wish her well, but he knew he’d regret it later on: It’s what she’d want him to feel. He had to find out on his own.
David Jr. finished his speech. He looked up expectantly. Stephen stared at the gun in his hand, then looked straight at Jeremy. The Brothers Bitz was an annual event, ever since they were children and David Jr. had an idea about a play they could stage in the basement’The Brothers Bitz,’ he called it; it would bring them together, he had said, like menand since this was just after he was brought home from the orphanage, their parents had gladly agreed to the idea and encouraged the other boys to participate, and even years later, when the boys were teenagers, if their parents had any idea about what happened every October, based on the bruises, the stares, the noise behind the storm doors, they at least had the respect for David Jr.’s situation not to chastise him too harshly.
Stephen, knowing all of this, closed his eyes when the flare shot up in the sky.
Sound flooded Jeremy’s earshe saw David Jr. smile and raise his fists. Tiny looked at Jeremy, did as he was told and pulled the rope, but at the same moment, somehow separate from his first motion, as if in another body, as if time had finally slowed enough for his message to travel all the way from his brain to his mouth without being scrambled, he mouthed to Jeremy, his lips moving like insect wings, there is a discount I forgot to mention.