By Bart Comegys
Charlie tried explaining, but the infant weight on his shoulders and the tiny sneakers beating rhythmically against his chest mixed things up. The gravel and crushed asphalt crunched under his feet as he walked, and he held the kid’s knees to keep him steady up top.
“So she said I take things too seriously,” Charlie said. “And then she left.”
Jon walked next to Charlie, balanced on the white line that separated the shoulder from the road. They walked together in the dusty heat like weary soldiers, lost insects. “Uh-huh,” he said.
“Just left,” said Charlie. “Like that. Walked right out, you know?” He let the road swallow up some of his thoughts before he went on. It was hot out and the kid didn’t help. The kid just sat on Charlie’s shoulders and enjoyed the ride, pulling now and then on his hair, watching the heat shift down the road. “Do you think I take things too seriously?” Charlie asked.
“Mmn,” said Jon. He stared down at the line before him, one foot in front of the other.
“Are you even listening?”
“Sure,” said Jon. “Sure. You were talking about something.”
“Something,” said Charlie. “Well yeah, I guess I—hey, stop that, I can’t see.” He pushed the kid’s hands off of his eyes and stepped out of the dark and back into the hard light of a backwater road in late July. “I’ve been talking about Ebee.”
“No, I mean I—I don’t know.” They walked on, past patches of low, green blueberry bushes, where the specks of dark juicy sweetness were few yet and far between. The berries weren’t in season, but just a week or two more would find the three of them—Jon, Charlie, and the kid in tow—walking the same sad stretch of road trying to fill a plastic pail with the tart fruits of a long summer. Charlie thought of Ebee again. “What I mean is,” he said, “I can’t just let her—hey, really, cut that out.” He pushed the kid’s hands away from his eyes and forgot again.
“Just hit the little bitch,” said Jon.
“No, the kid. Just wail him a good one.” Jon turned to look at the kid on Charlie’s shoulders for the first time in a long time.
“I’m not gonna hit him,” Charlie said. “He’s not even doing anything, really.” A few more steps. “But I can’t get Ebee off my mind, you know? Do I take things too seriously?”
“Jesus, Charlie, it’s too goddam hot out to talk about this.” Jon kicked a pebble and watched it skip across the road and into the underbrush on the other side. Charlie adjusted the kid on his shoulders so he’d stop slipping down.
“This is pretty tough,” Charlie said. “I don’t see why you aren’t carrying him; he’s your brother, not mine.”
Jon looked up and smiled, eyes shut, into the hazy blue sky. “Yeah,” he said, and came back down, “but I hate the little shit.”
“You probably shouldn’t curse in front of him.”
“Fucker isn’t even old enough to talk yet. Probably doesn’t understand a word we’re saying.” He leaned over from the white line and poked the kid on Charlie’s shoulders. “Do you, shithead?” The kid looked at his older brother and smiled. He might have been sorry.
“What I don’t understand,” Jon went on, his feet never straying from the white line tight-wire, “is what the hell possessed my mom to have this thing. I mean it’s not like she needs another fucking kid. She already says I’m disappointing enough for three failure children. Fuck.”
Charlie didn’t know what to say. “Yeah,” he mumbled, and tried to untangle the kid’s hand from a knot in his hair. “I guess you’ve got a point.”
“A point? I’ve got the debate fucking won, Charlie. Hands down.”
“Yeah.” Charlie wanted to say something encouraging, something just to fill the space. He thought of Ebee though, and of the night before on the rusted old merry-go-round behind the elementary school. He thought of the spinning feeling when they stopped going around and the awful lurch when she left him there. The way he lay back and watched the stars all get eaten by the sickly orange glow creeping up from the horizon. The way he took things.
“Do you believe in God?”
Jon stopped, stepped off the line, stared at Charlie. Charlie turned to look at him and felt the kid swaying on his shoulders. The road buzzed then with the summer, like a broken light fixture that flashes on and off, flooding and draining a room. Jon looked his friend in the eye.
“How am I supposed to—Charlie, man, why the shit are you so serious?” He stepped back onto the white line that pulled him forward and kept walking home. Charlie stayed and watched as he stooped in a smooth motion and picked up a chunk of asphalt. The kid started to fidget and Charlie held his knees to keep him steady. Jon threw the asphalt across the road, following through on the motion to turn and face Charlie. “So,” he said, walking backwards, “you gonna fuck this Ebee chick or what?”