Different Packages by C.W. Bigelow

     A week before mother died, William pounded frantically on my apartment door just after midnight. Like a jackhammer beating through cement it jolted me from a deep sleep and I vaulted across my tiny apartment – startled and driven by its urgency. Always a string of a figure, he appeared even more emaciated – the sweatshirt, paint speckled and ripped in the right shoulder, hung like a tarpaulin on his skeletal frame. His jeans, unrestrained and baggy, allowed his knife sharp knees to peek from ragged holes. Chocolate brown eyes, normally round and attention grabbing had grown to target size spheres in his gaunt, pasty white face and under them, deep black circles tugged at them like anchors.

     “Mother is going to die!” he blurted, breathless. Always dramatic; his deep voice was surf washing over gravel on the shoreline.

     Grasping the doorknob for support as my knees grew weak and shadows swirled in the room. Words gathered, but caught in my parched throat, afraid to escape.

     The thought of her succumbing like a mere mortal seemed preposterous. One fear was her exiting without attaining some kind of treaty – a final acceptance of me as her son, a final connection– without which my life seemed doomed to continue its useless, wayward path.

     A statuesque, mystical beauty that exuded controlled creativity and communicated in an addictive, trance-inducing manner; she was a hero to both of us, but she was William’s friend. The idea of her abruptly vanishing from this world nauseated me.

     Swallowing, my throat gritty, I garbled, “Did Dad call?”

     William gazed past me, his attention drawn to the windows, undraped and providing a clear view of the city’s lights sparkling off the snow. “He doesn’t know yet.” Pushing by me, he landed on the couch; his long body draping it like a throw blanket. Gasping for breath, gazing at the ceiling, he sighed. “I ran all the way over.”

     Shutting the door in a haze, I wandered across the room, the news fusing an out of body experience, allowing me to witness the travesty from another level of consciousness. Wearing the stunned expression of a prizefighter after fielding a fierce punch to the jaw, heart pounding, limbs shaking, I grabbed the arm of a chair to calm myself. Our world was crumbling, yet my brother lay with his arm draped over his forehead like a limp rope. His own lack of panic was alarming.

     “When did she tell you?” The thought of her confiding in William hurt, yet it came as no surprise. They were kindred spirits. I existed outside their circle, and as painful as it was I had no choice but to accept it. We were fraternal twins with no fraternity.

     William scoffed as he swung his rope-like legs off the couch – boots hitting the floor with a thud. “Do you really think she’d tell me or you, for that matter, before she confided in Dad?”

     “Then, explain – how did you find out?”

     He rubbed his eyes with bony knuckles. “I was working on a painting when a chill grabbed me. The colors of the paints began swirling and I envisioned the whole scene.” Shaking his head, covering his face with his hands, fingers stretched like long wires. “One moment speaking about the day’s events and in the blink of an eye she faints – gone. There was a sublime peace on her face if that’s any consolation.”

     All the tension drained, the need for urgent action disappeared as I sunk in the chair. Relief before anger and I wrestled with both emotions. “I could have had a heart attack!” A vision, for God’s sakes!

     William stood, stretching and yawning, before wandering to the window and gazing out into the cold night. “I felt it. Saw it.”

     “Who made you God?”

     He shrugged.

     “Whatever… Just don’t tell her. She’s liable to believe you and drop dead to make your damn prognostication come true.”

     I was afflicted with nausea and aches for two days following her death. Doctors said the undetected aneurysm couldn’t have been removed. It exploded like a bomb in a small vein at the base of her neck. Unable to eat for days, I sat fixated on the front door where William had made his prediction.

     I haven’t seen William since. Knowing him as I do, he accepts its special meaning and knows there is no worldly explanation. He accepts it, but knows I can never rationalize it. There is no guilt for deciding against acting on the premonition. He has always been a strong believer in letting things run naturally.

     A believer in numbers and numbers only, an accountant for God’s sakes, I find the guilt unpalatable. My suggestion not to communicate the vision keeps replaying as though the universe is laughing at me because I’ve lost my last chance to gain her acceptance.

     The wake was heavily attended. Her three men, robbed of the person who bonded and nurtured them, stood in the receiving line, somberly accepting condolences. I had to be introduced to many of the mourners, because most were William’s friends and admirers. Watching the lines pass to pay their last respects I grew more and more disconnected, alone in this throng of people because the lady they had come to say farewell to, had deserted me again and this time for good.

     It isn’t unusual to go weeks without hearing from William. During intense periods of painting he often turns his phone off and won’t respond to anyone. His studio is only five blocks from the apartment, but I rarely find him home. Father used to comment, “Two brothers as different as their parents. William means no harm. While he struggles with his thoughts and plans, he doesn’t realize we are around. It’s not his fault. He has no control over it. Just like his mother. Their connection is a gift, their vision far from our mundane, workman-like sight.” Still I struggle with it, even more so now there is no hope to change it. It’s not that I mind being like father, a businessman, so unlike Mother and William, who hovered in some parallel universe, but to be ostracized was unfair. Gesticulating, Father explained, “Your mother is magic. Having just a fraction of her attention is well worth it. Love comes in different packages, Sanders.”

     Twelve inches of new snow, icing on the four-foot mounds that line the streets. A bellowing wind cuts through the drifts, sculpting sharp lines and swooping curves, make venturing out risky at best. I gagged with the thought of walking into it. Cars parked along the boulevard are submerged beneath snowdrifts. The forecast is calling for wind chill of 40 degrees below zero.

     Her death weakened an already strained relationship. During a recent visit, William continued his silence about the event, to protect me, I can only assume. But it didn’t sit right and I couldn’t help attacking in numerous, unrelated ways, which made obvious my own discomfort, guilt and regret. My relentless anger was growing more unbearable each day, welling to the point of explosion, which for me was a new state of existence – ruled by emotion rather than logic.

     “Don’t you ever eat? Look at you! A strong wind would blow you off the ground. It’s not healthy. If you can’t afford food, you should get a real job.” The outburst astonished me, but was a relief. It was as though someone had loosened my sphincter and every bitch I felt about him came running out in a diarrhea-like jet spray.

     William chuckled, draped across the couch, at first ignoring the barb, totally understanding the motivation, and realizing counterattacking wouldn’t be productive. Proving me wrong was the furthest thing from his mind and educating me on the sad reality of his own situation held no interest for him.

     An impregnable, disturbing silence cloaked the room midst memories of her. William knew I hadn’t even begun to approach closure. In fact, at this point, I was afraid her permanent absence would etch a chip so deep in my shoulder I would never recover. As much as he empathized, William refused to feel remorse over the relationship he enjoyed with her. He cherished it and drew strength from it. In an attempt to burst the overbearing emotion in the room he decided to take the defensive role in the duel, in hopes it would snap my funk.

     “I do eat, not that it’s any of your damn business. Each day I wander out of my apartment and go to Dandridge’s for lunch.” His tone reeked of unplanned sarcasm.

     “What kind of food do you get?”

     William chuckled. “Are you my new guardian?”

     “Someone has to take care of you!”

     I’m afraid my expression was so haughty and serious William jumped up and bolted to the door. “I’m outta here!” His role of good guy and healer had reached its tensile.

     The air is brittle as crystal. Every breath freezes into ice. A few flakes drift to the ground, scant remains of the storm. Snow muffles the city. Few vehicles wander.

     Three weeks has passed since his last visit and I can no longer ignore his absence. Worry seems my inheritance. This newfound emotion is confusing, because Mother never seemed to worry about William. As the packed snow squeaks under my lumbering steps, I curse him beneath my steamy breath. Sleep has been staggered since her death, filled with visions of her sitting mutely with a stone expression while I plea with her not to leave, to give me another chance. The fact Father told me, before he escaped to Florida for the winter, “She loved you son. She really did,” only intensified my feeling of exile.

     William’s studio is in a 19th century Victorian house that has been converted into six flats. The building is always cold and silent, though all the flats are occupied. Lightly stepping over the icy cement steps between the snow-covered Pfitzers, reaching over the stoop like cupped hands, until I reach the glass inlaid oak door.

     The clammy dark hallway is covered by a balding carpet showing strands of pale wool like bones through skin. Trudging to the third floor – the wide wooden staircase groaning under my weight – tormented by visions of William frozen to death in his bed. I can’t shrug it.

     “William!” I cry as I enter his apartment. It slashes the silence like a sheet ripping in two. Smacked with the scent of paint, pungent like decaying apples in an orchard. To the right is a galley kitchen. Hoping to find coffee, though it is a long shot, because William never cooks at home. The tiny counter space is cluttered with coffee cans holding paintbrushes instead of coffee – sticks upon sticks, their bodies standing out of turpentine and water, their submerged heads drowning. The smell is so acrid I swoon with the first whiff and hold my breath from that point on as I do a cursory search for coffee.
Even the sink is filled with paintbrushes wading in containers of foul smelling cleaning solutions. Tubes of paint lay on old newspapers, their bottoms rolled up in various degrees of usage. He does conserve when it comes to supplies.

     Tucked into a corner of the high-ceiling room is an unmade mattress, a lone pillow wadded into a ball. The rest of the large room is stacked full of stretched canvases, some covered with tarps, some resting in easels, some others leaning on each other like cards ready to fall. Sunlight spills warmly through the towering front windows.

     “A damn warehouse.”

     The clutter in the cavernous room reminds me of William’s bedroom in our childhood house. This was just a larger mess. No one ever seemed to mind. Father simply shut the door. They ignored his mess. They ignored my neatness.

     The only evidence of William’s recent presence is a damp oil painting in progress.

     I’m rarely drawn to art, but the unfinished painting attracts me like a magnet. A wide canvas on a heavy easel. Two figures occupy part of the canvas – blue, white and bald, their developed muscle structure skinless, giving them a naked appearance. The first figure peered at me from a sitting position on a bench – knees crossed, leaning forward, arms draped over the knees. The second figure stands next to the first, backside facing me, gazing out what appears to be an understated window in the background. One knee rests on the bench with one hand propped on the seated individual’s shoulder. Its other arm is unfinished. From the curve and fullness of the buttocks, the standing figure strikes me as female.

     Dandridge’s is a coffee shop on Brady Street on the north side within walking distance. The cramped, tiny room’s only relief is its windowed front. Dandridge has a reputation of being patron saint to the city’s artists, so the walls are crowded with paintings – an assault of colors, shapes and sizes, contemporary next to traditional, geometric patterns overwhelming illustrations. Exhausted wood tables, precariously balancing on thin pedestals, crowd the floor.

     Uneasy about entering the room, anxious on my way to a window table. The mass of art attacks, and my dizziness knocks me off balance. Almost landing on my butt I grab a wobbly chair that drifts drastically and am able to keep from falling only by reaching out frantically and clutching the table. Embarrassed by my clumsiness, sweating, heart pounding, I quickly escape to the street, avoiding eye contact with other patrons. Outside, gasping, flogging myself for leaving my apartment in the first place, I give up the search, deciding to retreat back home. On the restaurant window is an announcement: William Pierce – ‘Studies of a Mother’ at the Wilson Gallery – January 25 - March 16.

     William and Mother’s futile attempts to break me out of my shell became fodder for Sunday night dinner conversation. Though I envied my brother’s gregarious nature, it drove me to fear outside contact. Over time, I accepted the oddities and always successfully fought any rare cravings to change, despite many small attempts by the family to break my shyness. The dinner banter, though uncomfortable, was palatable because, at least, it represented some kind of connection with Mother.

     “It was Mother’s idea to get you out and about. Don’t blame me. What did she always say, ‘He’s bound to petrify if we don’t help him develop some relationships.’ Of course, until Danly’s party, I always went along with her schemes because I thought they seemed like pretty good ideas – harmless little exercises to introduce you to the outside world.”

     The power of the “Danly Punch”, as it came to be known, represents their last attempt.

     And it was Mother’s idea, and only because of her, did I agree to go – so wrapped up in my own existence and angrily denying culpability for my oddness, I felt it was a huge sacrifice – one I was making for Mother – rather than realizing it was actually William’s sacrifice – one he was making Mother to help me.

     “I’m saddened by your long face every weekend, while William goes out and enjoys friends and acquaintances. It breaks my heart, Sanders. Doesn’t it bother you? Doesn’t it make you sad?”
Before I could respond, she answered, “Of course it does.”

     Of course it made me unhappy that she was sad and because she was so obviously sad and disappointed I took the challenge, took the gamble against my better judgment in hopes of alleviating her depression. Had I accepted the challenge in the spirit in which it was intended I might have gained and grown. But the reasons for our ongoing dedication didn’t even occur to me – a coming out party in which I was exposed, in a positive way, hopefully, to society.

     From our arrival and the excited greeting heaped upon William followed by a genuine look of shock by the hostess, Pat Danly when she saw me, I was forced into a defensive position.

     “Did you see the way she looked at me?” I whispered frantically as William hung our coats. Glancing nervously into the living room I pleaded, “Please get me out of here. I feel no better than some trash you’ve brought in.” The heat under my collar was stifling and I wiped my brow as my heart pounded like a hammer in my chest.

     William threw me a crooked smile and shrugged. “I just forgot to tell her you were coming. She was just surprised is all.” He wrapped his long arm around my shoulders and whispered with a chuckle, “I mean you can’t blame her for being surprised. It’s not as though you are a regular at events like this. Just follow my lead and stick by my side. Relax. You’ll enjoy this.”

     As we descended the narrow staircase into the basement, sweat engulfed my back. Perspiration wrapped me like a tight blanket and I was thankful for my heavy sweater to camouflage it.

     The basement was packed with familiar faces. Familiar only because I, from afar at school, always watched them – often as spotting William conversing with them from across the cafeteria or down the hallway.

     The astonished looks continued at each little gathering though William was able to soften them with his friendly banter and did his best to involve me in the conversations. Unable to find a comfort zone, I could only nod mutely and continue to sweat. I was finally separated when the music started and the partygoers coupled off. William began dancing with an array of girls, slipping from one to another, always welcome and able to engage them in conversation, spiced with laughter. I watched for a while from a corner chair, unable to keep from worrying that some of the laughter was directed at me.

     “They could’ve let me be,” I complained, welling up again with the fierce humiliation I experienced when a frustrated William told Mother of the incident the next day.

     “Falling asleep midst all the dancing, hugging, kissing, laughing was bad enough, but when your snoring rivaled the music… Just don’t ever ask me to take him out again!”

     She shook her head, shrugged, and said nothing. Her blank expression exemplified her total surrender, punctuated by a disappointed sigh that rang annoyingly in my ears. She simply walked out of the room, finally accepting the inevitable, leaving me forever abandoned. No more attempts were ever made. No longer did the dinner conversations include me and a relationship with Mother became the Holy Grail.

     The streets remained lined with white mounds. Vehicles wore red extension flags on their antennas to signal their whereabouts in hopes others would see them above the snow. The plowed walls had become so tall they began leaning in, forming tunnels congested with the chemical scent of exhaust. Snowflakes lazily drifted to the ground.

     The considerable crowd in Wilson’s Gallery milled from painting to painting. At first it reminded me of the crowd in Danly’s basement, but because I went unnoticed I felt more comfortable. I watched with a sudden pride as their heads nodded and interesting, energetic conversations took place in front of each of William’s paintings, which lined each long wall.

     Father slapped William on the back so forcefully I feared he’d choked on a piece of food when I entered the house. Ready to spring into action to help save my brother’s life, I cried, “What did he swallow?”

     Father looked at me strangely until he caught on. “No. No. We are celebrating. I’ll get you a glass of champagne.”

     “Your home early,” Mother said coolly, hardly throwing me a glance.

     “Sit down and join the celebration,” Father offered.

     “It won! I’m so proud of you!” she cried as she bounced from window to chair, unable to contain her glee.

     Still confused, I asked, “What?”

     “William’s painting won the Grand Prize in the Scholastic Art Contest! Beat every other painting,” Father exclaimed upon his return. He handed me a glass and raised his in a toast. “May this be the first in a long line of successes!”

     “It is just some street scene,” William shrugged, unaffected by the hoopla.

     “And it won a national competition!” Mother laughed proudly.

     Drifting past the paintings, amazed at the amount of work William had produced, I entered a small room full of viewers. The buzz was energetic and constant – positive in nature – as the crowd gyrated in methodical waves flowing toward the painting.

     Wedging into the back line, I waited. The progress was slow, but steady.

     “What is it?” asked a tall, lanky woman, rising on her toes to gain a better view.

     “I don’t know,” answered her companion, a stocky middle-aged man who stood his ground – guarding his space next to me.

     An elderly man on his way out of the room overheard their conversation and leaned toward them. “His newest painting. Just finished I’m told. Called The Connection.” He moved on without further explanation.

     “I’m glad he didn’t say anything else,” the middle-aged man said. “I hate it when some snob spews all this shit about what he read or what he thinks. It’s for me to decide, don’t you think?”

     I suddenly realized the man was addressing me and gulped, a hot blush creeping across my cheeks, feeling pressure to respond intelligently – but just nodded.

     The man tugged on his companion’s arm. “See Ann, this gentleman agrees with me. We have to figure it out for ourselves.”

     The Connection was the painting I’d seen in William’s apartment. Another figure had been added. An obvious likeness to the original sitting figure, though more squat of stature and I felt an immediate connection, a familiarity. I gulped hard and wiped a band of sweat from my brow.

     Still a distance from the duo, the new figure was clearly approaching them. Gasping quietly, I recognized the woman in the middle was motioning the figure toward them. A glowing comfort swept over me, and my smile broadened as I reached out to the painting. He heard the lanky lady comment, “Look at him. I think he gets the meaning of the painting.”

     The middle-aged man was exiting when she called after him, “Let’s ask him what it means.”

About the Author C.W. Bigelow: After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow has lived in nine states before currently living in the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have most recently appeared in The Scrambler,The View From Here,The Shine Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, Indigo Rising, Litsnack,Sister Ignition, Full of Crow, FeatherLit, Curbside Splendor, Literary Juice,The Dying Goose, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Five2One, Poydras Review,Potluck, Dirty Chai and has short stories forthcoming in The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories and Compass Magazine.