Gettysburg Review
Gettysburg College | Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Did Not Speak

Did Not Speak

I wanted my brother to die, or I wanted the wires stuck into his arms to wrap around his twenty-one-year-old body and never let go, the white hospital sheets enough to finally make him good.
    My father took me outside. We waited together while my mother and sister stayed behind in the hospital room. My brother had been unconscious for a couple days. The doctors told us to keep saying his name.
    My father bought a Kit Kat. He gave three wafers to me and kept one for himself. He leaned against a concrete wall while seagulls flew overhead. I know it was April, that I was seven, and I am almost certain the sun was shining on my father’s graying hair.
    Before being led out of the room, I saw a white cloth wrapped around my brother’s bed. I remember his body was swollen. And there was a machine beside his bed. I watched as it pumped air into my brother’s chest. Then took it back.

At seven I did not understand my brother’s injuries. I knew nothing of hematomas, of contusions, of the brain swelling and pushing against bone. I did not understand my trip to the hospital. I knew nothing of drug deals gone wrong, of unidentified assailants, of the force it takes to crack a skull.
    I only knew my brother was the reason my mother stopped cooking family dinners, why she refused to leave the house for weeks at a time. My brother was the reason my father always worked and wouldn’t stop working. I blamed my brother for most any bruise I suffered. He must have been the reason the cat was hit, why my parents slept in separate beds.
    My brother was the monster roaming our hallways at night, his footsteps always creaking, his hand always about to turn the knob to my door. He was the one looking through my second-floor window. I could see the moon casting his shadow. I could hear him tapping against the glass.

My childhood has a thousand spaces. I am searching for a misplaced memory in some crevice of my brain where my father is holding me.
    My thoughts return to the hospital—a seven-year-old son sharing a Kit Kat with his dad. But I can’t find the moment when my father kneels down in the jeans he has been wearing for days and pulls me toward him. When my father, his lips cold and dry in early April, kisses my forehead.
    I know my father walked with me out of the hospital. He leaned against a concrete wall. And my father’s lips were certainly moving. But no matter how I try, there isn’t any sound. My father’s words are gone.
    And so I keep searching my memory. I keep looking for something that means more than seagulls, April sunlight, a candy bar.

“We were young,” my sister says. “You were real young.”
    I am a freshman in college. The two of us are in a coffee shop, and for the last couple hours we have been comparing memories.
    “He had a moustache,” my sister says.
    “Dark brown,” I say.
    We discuss an Eagles poster above his bed.
    I ask if he looked like our father.
    “I’m not sure.”
    We can’t remember any pictures our parents have saved of him. We can’t remember posing next to our brother for a family photograph. For a few minutes we even consider that our parents might not have saved any pictures of us.

When I was nine, my parents moved me into my dead brother’s room. At night I slept in the same bed that one morning my brother rose from and never returned to.
    I lived amongst his belongings: a Marlboro trash can, a stuffed panda bear won at a carnival, a record player with a stack of records beside it, AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
    My mother told me not to touch anything, and so the room remained covered in dust. I didn’t even look at his journals hidden in a drawer. I did not want to know what they said. I was certain my brother’s words were still breathing.

Silence eating fast food for dinner, a Happy Meal with a small Star Wars toy. Silence sent to school each day in unwashed clothes.
    A letter from the principal requesting my mother wash her children’s greasy hair.
    My father waking at three in the morning.
    My father driving to his first job without the radio working, without the heater working.
    The television screaming in the hours before bed.
    The basement where my brother used to smoke pot.
    My father driving to his second job in a rattling car.
    My mother in her bedroom, her head resting on a dirty pillowcase, her face, without expression, lost in the silence of sleep.

“There was a fire,” I say.
    “Yes,” my sister says.
    I am twenty-four. We have been piecing together our memories for over six years.
    “In the kitchen?” I ask.
    “His cigarette caught in the trash,” my sister says.“But it was small.”
    I ask if our father put it out.
    “I can’t remember.”
    I ask if she remembers our brother stealing what little money, quarters and dimes, he could from our parents’ dirty clothes.
    I ask if she remembers our brother’s friends, how they never had names, how their hair was always long, their eyes heavy lidded, how their grins set off car alarms.
    I ask if our father ever threatened him, if our father ever changed the locks during one of those weeks our brother disappeared.
    “I remember Mom crying,” my sister says.

I wanted my father to be a hero. I wanted him to make sure my brother would never rise from his hospital bed. I wanted my father to kiss my forehead. I wanted him to convince my mother to cook again. I wanted my father to make sure no one would ever tap against my window.
    Whenever my father was home, during those hours between jobs, I would follow him. I would watch him eat reheated pasta at the table. I would watch the reflection in the mirror of my father’s upturned face as he shaved stubble from his neck. I would watch him watch television. I would look at the tips of my father’s toes sticking through the holes in his faded white socks.
    And always he was talking to himself. At the kitchen table, in the backyard while struggling to start the lawnmower, even when walking out the porch door. My father’s lips were moving; there were things he could not stop thinking. Things that needed to be said.

“I’m not sure,” I say.
    “About what?” my sister asks.
    My sister has been married for two years. We’re sitting in the living room of her newly purchased house.
    “The rocking chair,” I say.
    ”What rocking chair?”
    ”The one in the den,” I say. ”My arm was underneath.”
    “I don’t think so,” she says.
    “He rocked down.”
    “No,” my sister says.
    “He wanted to hurt me. I’m sure I screamed.”
    “It’s something I’d remember,” she says.
    “Dad was working, and Mom kept saying it didn’t happen.”
    “I don’t know,” my sister says.
    “But I see it,” I say. “I really do.”

When I was fifteen, my father started to come into my room when he had trouble falling asleep. He would lie next to me in my dead brother’s twin bed. The two of us did not speak. We would close our eyes and rest. Our shoulders and legs touched, and I could feel my father breathe. We stayed like this for hours, never falling asleep. The bed not big enough for either of us to move.

And still these missing spaces. Still this memory I keep returning to. The one whose details I am never certain of. How many different ways can I approach the day my brother died? How many more times can I take other memories in an attempt to make sense of this one?
    My father walked out of the hospital. He wore a windbreaker, or maybe a denim jacket. I think there were seagulls above us. The wind was probably blowing.
    I know my father slept next to me. I know he ate reheated pasta. He bought me a Kit Kat at the hospital. But I still don’t know what he was saying. Not while he tried to start the lawnmower, not when he shaved stubble from his neck, not even while I secretly wished for the death of his oldest son.

“I was in the backseat,” I say.
    I am talking with my sister on the phone. I am almost thirty years old and have moved two thousand miles away from home.
    “But he didn’t even have a license,” my sister says. She is three months pregnant and calls my mother at least twice a week.
    “Dad insisted,” I say. “They switched seats. Dad wanted him to drive the last mile home.”
    “And he drove into the porch?”
    “He drove through it.”
    “Are you sure?” my sister asks.
    “We almost made it to the backyard.”
    “Where was I? Where was Mom?”
    “I wasn’t buckled,” I say.
    “We were never buckled.”
    “I remember picking up speed in the driveway.”
    “I don’t know,” my sister says.
    “It happened. And there wasn’t any sound. None of us screamed. Dad didn’t even say, ‘Slow down.’ ”

 Silence driving to the hospital.
    My family walking disinfected halls, following brown arrows to a silent intensive care.
    My father drinking a cup of coffee.
    My brother’s head wrapped in a white cloth.
    My silent fear that he was tapping against my window.
    A tube pushed down my brother’s throat.
    My mother beside his swollen body.
    The long hours before my brother’s death.
    His chest rising as a machine pumped silent air.

The wind was blowing. An early April sun was shining on my father’s graying hair. I ate three wafers of a Kit Kat while my father chewed reheated pasta, while he shaved stubble from underneath his chin. I ate a Kit Kat while my father climbed into my dead brother’s bed.
    There was a fire in the kitchen. His records covered in dust on the floor. I wanted my brother to die. He stole quarters and dimes from my parents’ dirty clothes. Seagulls flew above us. I was seven. There was silence in our house, silence while my mother slept. He tapped against my window.
    And through these memories my father’s lips move. They move though my sister says my brother never rocked down on my arm, that he never drove a car through our porch. His lips move though my mother sent me to school dressed in unwashed clothes. I can see my father’s lips as he holds a glass of water, as he rises to go to work at three in the morning. My father’s lips move as he leans against a concrete wall—his youngest son eats three wafers of a candy bar, his oldest son hours from death. They move each day I wake in my bedroom two thousand miles away from home. They will never stop.


Steven Coughlin is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. He received his MFA in 2008 from the University of Idaho. His writing has recently been published in Green Mountains Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and Slate.

“Did Not Speak” appears in our Summer 2010 issue.