Phoropter

In this story, two brothers are bound and undone by two tragic, yet unrelated accidents. Read here:

No one deserves what you’re going through now, Charles thought as he looked at his brother. Wait a minute; did they even put this drip in right? Yeah, looks ok, adequate, anyway. You’re all I have left. Let’s let bygones be bygones, ok? Let’s just forget how you and Mom robbed me of a normal life.

Charles looked out the window and scowled. He’d specifically ordered a private hospital suite with a top floor view of the East River, but all Max got was a third floor room, a closet really, with a tiny window which overlooked a parking lot.  On the ledge, a couple mangy looking pigeons hopped about in a puddle of grimy rain water and rat droppings. Charles sat back and tried to get comfortable in the hardwood chair in a room that, despite all the state-of-the art medical beeping, bleeping bells and whistles was decidedly Spartan: no pictures, no frills, no cheer.  The only other chair was taken. That’s where Charles laid his overcoat and gloves, his doctor’s bag and a big cardboard box he’d lugged with him.  Charles turned back to his brother, who lay in the bed bandaged and motionless.

Jesus, Max, this accident, I MEAN, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? Grabbing the wheel like that, you could’ve killed both of us! And on what was supposed to be one of the greatest nights of my life. I told you that this was way more important to me than all the awards and diplomas in my office put together.  You knew Visions for a Developing World was my brainchild, and how it’s important, not just to me, but to everyone in the world who needs glasses. Sure, it would’ve been nice to get the recognition – the awards ceremony, the dinner in my honor and all - and with Mom gone, you’re all I have left to share my successes with. Well, no matter, If – no! – WHEN you can get out of this, Max, I’ll take six months off, and I’ll go back down to Honduras and take you with me.  Would you like that? I’ll more free eye exams, and you can help me by, I don’t know, taking pictures or something, if you’re still into that stuff. BUT, if you survive, Jesus, no, WHEN you survive all this, MAYBE YOU CAN EXPLAIN TO ME WHY YOU JERKED THE WHEEL LIKE YOU DID? Why you totaled my brand new Lexus? But - no, what am I thinking, forget it, alright?

“Excuse me, Doc, how’s he doing?”

Charles turned to see a young man standing in the doorway.  He had wild hair and a grizzly goatee. Who is this kid?  Is this one of Max’s little Bohemian friends? It occurred to Charles that he and this guy could conceivably be the same age, but people who were that age – in their early thirties – all seemed like kids to him.  And, with the way they most of them acted he couldn’t help treating them like subordinates.

“He’s doing fine, I guess,” replied Charles. “Under the circumstances.”

“That’s good,” said the man. “Hey, you probably don’t remember me. I was the E.M.T. at the scene. I’m Gavin.”

Charles stood up to shake his hand. “Nice to meet you Gavin.  I’m Dr. Armonk.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Gavin smiled back.

Charles sat down while Gavin went over to examine Max’s condition more closely. Despite the young man’s cheerful demeanor, Charles could sense Gavin’s barely hidden look of dismay.The young man reached into the pocket of his overcoat and took out a long stemmed flower which he placed on the tray next to Max’s bed.  There were already a half dozen other bouquets there, which Charles hadn’t noticed in the half hour he’d been here at his brother’s side.  That’s nice, it’s just been three days and look at all the attention he’s getting.  But who else, besides my colleagues, would’ve known about the accident? Was it in the papers or something?

Gavin looked over at Charles.  “And how are YOU doing?”

“Oh I’m OK. Just a few bruises, some minor scratches.”

“That’s good.  I meant, how are you doing seeing HIM here…like this?” They both shot a glance at Max.  Once again, Charles became aware of the oppressive beeping, the digital babbling, of the monitors.

“Oh… I’m alright.” There was an uncomfortable silence.  Charles looked at his phone to read an incoming text.

“You know,” said Gavin, “Your brother’s really quite a hero.”

“What do you mean?” said Charles, looking up to see if the guy was joking.

“He saved your life,” said Gavin.  Charles said nothing, so after a pregnant pause, Gavin continued. “According to the accident report, you were texting while driving and your brother jerked the wheel away from the truck in front of you.  That’s how come the front passenger’s side was crushed and your side wasn’t even hit.”

“Well, I’m not so sure about that…”   Why bother arguing with this fool?  He doesn’t know how many millions of times I was the one to save my baby brother.

                Charles stood up and cleared his throat.  He gave the man a kindly but authoritarian look, which was usually enough to get rid of people when he had more important things to do.  At first, Gavin didn’t seem to get the hint.

“Well, thank you,” Charles said to the E.M.T., flashing his winning smile and patting him on the shoulder. “Thank you for your concern, and thanks for stopping by.”  They shook hands and the Gavin left.

Ha! Max saving MY life, that’d be a change.

Charles’ cellphone rang. My office AGAIN?!  My staff is completely useless without me! He thought of letting it go to voice mail, but knew that his duties were far too important to leave to his interns or nurses, so he picked up the phone. “Dr. Armonk here,” he said and then listened for a few seconds to find out what the caller wanted.   He began to instruct her, a technician, on some post-op procedures that Charles wearily told her they’d gone over a thousand times.  Rather than blow his top, Charles spoke slowly and calmly, as if talking to a young child.

Just then a nurse entered the room.  She checked Max’s vital signs and adjusted his sheets. Then she turned to Charles.  “Sir, excuse me.”  Charles was oblivious to the woman. “You can’t use your phone in here.”

Charles glared at her and kept talking. “Also, remind Mrs. Arnold that she needs to use the eye wash three times a day.  No exceptions. We can’t have an infection –“

“Sir, it’s against hospital rules –“

“Hold on,” Charles told the caller, “I’ve got to instruct this nurse here.”  Charles was in no mood to be upbraided – and by an R.N., no less. “I’m well aware of the hospital rules, Miss, I’m a doctor.”

“Are you the attendant physician here?” she asked him.  There was sarcasm in her voice and her look revealed that she was tired of taking guff from doctors.

“Well, no…I’m the patient’s brother,” he said, almost choking up seeing Max laying there.

“Then you can use the visitor lounge down the hall for phone calls.”

“OK, then.” He hung up the phone. He stood up, extending his large frame. Though only 32, he was prematurely graying and, at 6’3”, had the look of an authority figure.  “That will be all,” he told the nurse, motioning for her to leave the room.  In a huff, she left.

Charles sat back down. He didn’t want any more insolence about calling on his cell so he began texting instead. He still had half a dozen patient follow-ups and the usual office issues (Insurance! Billing!) to deal with.  Though today was supposed to be his day off, he knew that if he didn’t take care of things now he’d be facing bedlam when he returned to his office tomorrow. As usual, there would be problems and emergencies that the other physicians in his group should have handled but either wouldn’t or couldn’t.  Charles would much rather have been home now getting some badly needed rest, but he was determined to wait until Max’s doctor arrived. We need to discuss his options. OUR options.

Suddenly, there was stirring from the bed.  Max’s mouth contorted around his breathing tube, giving him an expression reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream. His lips made smacking sounds; spittle and the occasional pustules of phlegm gurgled out and dripped down the sides of his mouth.  Charles stopped texting in order to wipe his brother’s mouth, using a washcloth near the sink. Though still unconscious, Max jerked his head away from the tube, and made small circular movements in a vain effort to lift his arms. This was pantomime Charles had seen from his own surgical patients dozens of times, usually when they were starting to come out of anesthesia.  Though it looked like Max was trying to levitate, his mangled arms and hands were too weak to rise more than a quarter inch off the bed.

“It’s OK, buddy,” said Charles as he readjusted Max’s breathing tube. “Rest up,” he said and then gently lifted the sheet to cover Max’s shoulders.  The patient let out a sigh and went back to his seemingly peaceful state.

                Checking the bandages around Max’s head, Charles couldn’t help smiling: despite all of the lesions, the gashes - even a chunk of Max’s long, wavy hair shaved off to reveal Frankenstein-like stitches on his scalp - Max was still a pretty good looking guy.  Better looking, Charles knew, than HE ever was.  With Max’s feet dangling over the bed, Charles remembered how the little runt had gone through a growth spurt in high school, finally reaching the height of six foot four, a full inch taller than Charles.  And Max was well proportioned too, for though he’d struggled in childhood with weight issues (“Fat Max”, Charles used to call him and encouraged the rest of the neighborhood kids to tease him with that too), by Max’s sophomore year he had slimmed down, joined the swim team, and gained the classic broad-shouldered swimmer’s body that remained into adulthood.  Charles, on the other hand, had been almost painfully thin throughout his boyhood, but too many hours of late night cramming for exams and endless pizzas and nachos had left him twenty-five pounds overweight by the time he was out of college.  Now, ten years later, those extra pounds had become a permanent fixture, as well as the occasional Benson & Hedges he learned to smoke in med school.  But Charles didn’t mind the weight or the nicotine habit:  these are the kinds of unhealthy choices that physicians are allowed – even expected to make.

Charles looked closer to examine the contusions on Max’s face. His brother’s high cheekbones and square jaw were still there, though his mouth was still pursed around the breathing tube, like a toddler who greedily slurping his high fructose corn syrup drink through a Sippy cup.  Beneath Max’s bruised and puffy eyelids, Charles saw his brother’s eyes excitedly dart to and fro. If Max was in some kind of R.E.M. sleep, Charles didn’t want to wake him. But Charles did have an urge to open Max’s eyelids for further examination - were those brilliant aquamarine orbs still there, the ones that all the high school girls used gush about?  Charles remembered how even a couple of the cheerleaders, two of the top shelf hotties at Washington Irving High School - had crushes on his brother. Charles shook his head, thinking how Max could’ve hooked up with either of them (or both) if only his brother had had enough self-confidence to have asked them out.

Despite Max’s good looks, Charles had never been jealous of his brother, at least not consciously. Certainly, Charles never lacked for feminine attention either.  In his mind, why would he?  He’d graduated first in his high school class, and though never a star athlete, had been on the varsity cross-country running team. Most importantly, Charles was somehow born with an abundance of confidence, a quality that attracted sexy women - as well as influential men.  Even now, with those extra pounds around his gut, Charles still regarded himself not only as one of the most prominent (and youngest) eye surgeons in New York, but also as one of the most eligible bachelors in town.  He certainly had no shortage of women. In fact, on almost a daily basis, his female patients (and a few male ones, too) who would flirt with him, hint that they were single, and ask him innocuous questions which he knew were designed to elicit his marital status. But as much as Charles loved all their respect and attention, he could never trust these women, these mostly Upper East Side Gold diggers.   Of course, that might have been some of mother’s doing since, when she was still alive, she had insisted that no girl was ever good enough for her favored son.

Now, almost two years to the day of her death, Charles concluded that being a doctor and a humanitarian was about all he could handle right now, and that romance, at least at this stage of his career, was a waste of his time. That was OK, though. While he sometimes resented all the responsibilities of his profession (and made a big show of it, too), he did enjoy its respectability and he LOVED its perks.  Perks like the medical groupies who’d satisfy his sexual needs, or, when he was up for a change of pace, plenty of money to pay for beautiful, intelligent, and discreet escorts who were energetically earning their way through college.

Suddenly Max made a low, guttural groan. Charles looked closely to see that Max’s lips were moving. Charles pressed his ear to his brother’s mouth but he couldn’t make out what, if anything, Max was trying to communicate.  Wishful thinking, I guess. Involuntary spasms.

Not knowing what else to do, Charles lightly patted his brother’s head.   He wasn’t used to touching patients and the truth of the matter was that he wasn’t crazy about touching people in general. That’s why he loved optical surgery – you didn’t have to touch too much other than a few eyeballs here and there, and eyeballs didn’t bother him.  Charles paused to rub his own eyes and in his peripheral vision he saw all the junk on the chair that he’d lugged to the hospital.

 “Hey Max,” he spoke softly, “I brought the stuff you were asking about on the way back from the airport the other night; you know, from Mom’s attic.”  Why you kept harping about those old photos and that silly old machine while we were rushing to get to my ceremony on time is beyond me, but, hey, if this’ll make you happy…if it will only wake you up.

Charles grabbed the box, sat down, and opened it up. A plume of dust flew out the box ends, making him sneeze. He dug in and grabbed a handful of dog-eared photographs from a big stack inside.

“Hey buddy, here’s a picture of me and you and that Catamaran we had.”  You know, Max, the boat you sunk.  In the foreground the brothers - they were teens then - posed proudly in front of a small, double hulled sailboat. Behind them, the Long Island Sound looked deceptively serene. Charles thought of how, not long after the picture was taken, they had decided to take one the last voyage before it started to get dark. Max nagged Charles about letting him captain the vessel, and, despite Charles’ misgivings, he’d finally relented and let Max take the sails. Max ignored Charles’ instructions to use caution in the crosswinds, and so he promptly tipped the boat over. Charles yelled “You idiot!” just as they were both dumped into the frigid waters. Charles almost forgot how, once they swam back and righted the boat, HE had done exactly the same thing, overturning the hull and leaving them to swim back to shore as the Catamaran caught a shoreward current and was dashed on the rocks.  Why didn’t Max balance that boat like I told him? C’mon, how hard is it to follow orders?  Not wanting to dwell on that boating mishap he looked for more photos.

 “Oh, and here,” said Charles, holding up another snapshot, “Remember Orville?” In the pic a smiling ten-year old Max held a curly haired mutt, while his older brother pointed to Orville’s eye. Or, rather, the socket where the dog’s eye had been. They had both loved Orville, especially Max, who had gotten him from a rescue shelter. But Charles was reminded of the time – a year before the picture was taken – when Max had left their gate open and Orville had run out and got hit by an oncoming car.   Charles’ stomach tightened when he recalled how Mom would make him and Max clean that disgusting yellow egg yolk-like substance that would drip out of Orville’s empty socket.  Then Charles smiled. I almost threw up back then, but now that slimy yellow matter dripping from the dog’s skull is nothing compared with the pus, blood, and other discharge I see with my patients every day.  He looked at the photo again.  Orville looks full grown so it must’ve been just a few months after this picture was taken that the Orv got loose again and was killed by that Sparkletts van.  Luckily, both boys had been away at camp at the time of the accident, though Mom blamed Max, saying the dog had no depth perception following the earlier accident that she had maintained had been caused by his younger brother.

 “Hey Max, when you come out of this, I’ll buy any dog you want in the whole world. Or just about anything you want in the world… within reason, of course.”  Yeah, IF you get out this. He let out a sigh.

Charles pulled out another photo from the stack: there was little Charles in shorts and a party hat, eating cake.  “Check this one out, Max, this is - um,” he looked on the back where his mother had inscribed “Charles, Age 9, at Max’s birthday party.” He shuffled through the stack for a picture of Max from the party but found none. Charles reached in the box and grabbed another stack.  “Let’s see what else Mom saved. Look, here’s picture of the two of us: this looks like my college graduation.”

Just then the nurse came back in, holding two vases overflowing with roses.  Charles immediately put the photos down, thinking he’d look silly showing pics and talking to a comatose man. The nurse put the bouquets down on the nightstand, checked on Max again, and made some notations on the marker board on the wall.  Charles hadn’t noticed before, but she was kind of pretty.  Pretty, if you like domineering women who have that just-stepped-in-dog-shit expression.

“Is he OK?” Charles asked her.

“You’re the doctor, why don’t you tell me?” she answered, still writing.

“Look, I’m sorry,” said Charles in a more personable tone, “I guess we got off to a bad start. I didn’t mean to be harsh with you before, you know, when I was on the phone, but I’ve got so many responsibilities.  I’m very… I guess ‘stressed’ is the word I’m looking for, though that seems like a colossal understatement.” He smiled his winning smile.  “I apologize if I took it out on you.”

The nurse turned to look at him; he made certain that to give her a sincere look. “That’s alright,” she answered.  “I’d be upset too, if, well you know...” They both glanced over Max, who had quieted down – no sputtering or gurgling – and now seemed to be resting well.

“Yes, I know,” Charles leaned forward to check her name tag, “But - Nurse Yates - do you know when the doctor will arrive?”

“Dr. Benedetti is running behind schedule,” said Nurse Yates, in a tone that was no longer hostile. Not friendly, but at least kind of neutral.  “My guess is he’ll be making the rounds here sometime within the next hour.” She started for the door.

“Wait. Nurse, please.” She stopped. “Since my brother’s been here, has he opened his eyes, or spoken? Or even exhibited any voluntary movements?”

The nurse hesitated, then shook her head and left.

Charles put his head in his hands. It’s been three days and you’re still just lying there. Wake up, Max! Please…just wake the fuck up!

Charles’ phone rang. It was his office again. He silenced the ringer and ignored the call.  The he looked around for another distraction. He looked inside the box of photos and found another cardboard box.

“Hey, Max, I found the Phoropter.  Just like you asked for.” Charles opened the box and pulled out a metal contraption adorned with all kinds of dials, lenses and levers, like some kind of Steampunk kaleidoscope or stereoscope once used for viewing risqué French postcards. Though slightly rusted, the Phoropter’s mechanics appeared to be intact. Charles examined the device and propped it upright on the nightstand.

“Look, son,” Charles said in low voice, imitating their father, who’d used the Phoropter in his office to fit his patients for glasses. “This?” Charles asked as he flipped a lever, changing lenses. “Or this?” He switched lenses again. “’Now, what looks clearer to you? This?” He twisted a knob. “Or this?” 

To Charles, the feel of the cold metal knobs and the hard, cracked rubber around the eyepieces brought back a flood of memories, all the happy times when the brothers would play in Dad’s office.  Charles remembered how his schoolmates used to bust his balls for preferring to play optometrist to playing doctor in the schoolyard.  It is true that Charles had developed an interest in eye care as a young child, but it was really more about him and Max getting to spend time with Dad. On Fridays, Bill would pick Charles up from school, get Max from preschool, buy the boys ice cream, and let them hang around his optometry and eyeglasses shop for the rest of the afternoon.  Charles always enjoyed trying to impress his father, pretending he could read the eye chart on the wall from the other side of the office.  In truth, Charles was near-sighted (he eventually got Lasik surgery – though only after his colleagues convinced Charles not to do the operation on himself) but he’d memorized all the tiny letters on the bottom of the eye chart. Then he’d stand at the end of the hall and tell Dad that he had bionic eyes.  His father, while winking to Max, always played along with his older son’s ruse. The young boys would try on all the old, discarded glasses, with all the goofy coke bottle lenses and nerdy horn-rimmed or tortoise shell frames. 

The biggest fun of all for the boys was playing with the Phoropter, which, even back then looked ancient.  Charles loved playing the optometrist - to play Dad - using his brother as the willing patient. He’d make the toddler look through the lenses, first one eye, then the other, making the vision as weird and blurry as possible.  Dad would crack up and joke that Charles was going to make Max blind.

Until his brother had mentioned the Phoropter on their ill-fated car ride together the other night, Charles hadn’t thought about that contraption in years. At least, he tried not to, and did his best to blot out all memories of their dad, after “That Time”, as Mom called it.  So after Dad died, she sold or gave away most of his things, including his optical equipment, but for some reason had saved the Phoropter, which was kept safely hidden and boxed up in their attic.

 While trying to prop up the unwieldy device in the hospital room, Charles thought of an incident that had occurred a couple years after his father’s death. Mom had taken the boys to the observatory deck at the top of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center, where they eagerly ran up to a row of coin-operated binoculars. To Charles, the viewing devices all looked like Dad’s Phoropter, but even at age eight he knew better than to bring up that sensitive subject to his still grieving mother.  But then my insensitive fool of a brother asked, “Mommy, can I have a nickel for the photorapter?”  Charles remembered laughing at Max. “It’s called a PHOROPTER, not a photorapter. That sounds like some Godzilla monster snapping Polaroids. Dolt!”  Charles remembered how Mom’s face suddenly tightened up, and she grabbed the boys’ hands and told them sharply that they had to leave – NOW.  Charles remembered thinking even back then that his brother had a knack for always saying the wrong things.  But it was also around that time that Max became a shutterbug, so, for Charles, Max’s nickname was no longer “Fat Max” but now “The Photorapter.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw someone come in the hospital room. Oh, good, Dr. Benedetti, just the man I’m looking for. But it was just Nurse Yates, bringing still more flowers. 

“It looks like your brother is popular,” she said as she put an elaborate floral arrangement on the desk. Max popular? Since when?  He gave the nurse a half smile and she left.

“Hey bud, you’ve got a lot of flowers, ‘a veritable shitload’, as you used say. Let’s see, who are they from?”Charles set the Phoropter down and scanned the cards that accompanied each bouquet.  Displayed alongside the rose that the EMT had brought were several massive, almost ostentatious bouquets, all with heartfelt notes from various people: a woman named Emma, another named Zoe, a couple who signed themselves “Brian & Samuel”, and a big bouquet of roses addressed to “Professor Armonk, with love and appreciation from Your Class.” Your class? What class? Charles vaguely remembered that years ago Max had told him he was teaching some “master class” in photography (whatever THAT was) out in Seattle.  A basket of orchids came from a gallery in L.A.

I didn’t know The Photorapter was still doing his picture stuff. Good, at least that’s one thing he stayed with.  I doubt he could have done that for a living, but I’ll bet it was -is, rather - a fun hobby for him.  Charles couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for himself, wishing HE had time for hobbies. But what would he do with his free time, if he ever got some?  I sure as hell wouldn’t be lugging around a bunch of cameras like Max. Charles recalled how annoying Max’s picture taking obsession had been by the time the both of them were in high school. Always pointing those Kodaks at us, freaking people out, and carrying those damn things around his neck everywhere he went. Just like Linus and his security blanket. But, oh, I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have given him so much crap about it. Let him have his little fun. Geez, what difference does it make now?  If he loved taking pictures, that’s all that counts. Still, those silly pictures were why he dropped out of optometry school in the first place and went off to lead the crazy life he had - like him joining the Merchant Marines and then not hearing from him for two years.

Charles bit his lip. Poor Mom. She was always so worried about him. And we were both so disappointed in him. Forget about her liver failure, what REALLY killed her was the toll Max took on her.

Charles glared at his brother, who suddenly didn’t look so innocent lying there. No, what really killed her was YOU. You laying into her about everything, giving her this guilt trip when YOU decided she was an alcoholic and YOU whined that she was a neglectful parent. Mom was right: ever since went into therapy, you became a self-righteous prick. Thank God I told poor Mom that those counselors you saw, those quacks, just made you shift the blame for your own shortcomings to Mom and me. Like, you know, blaming others for what happened to Dad. It’s funny, though, I’m the only one who DIDN’T blame you. How could I? After all the shit you pulled with us, and then dropping out optometry school, I could see why you had to move out to the Coast to get away from it all. I guess you were doing what all those flakes do out there: reinventing themselves and evading all responsibilities.

Charles thought about all the times he’d been left to comfort Mom while Max was off trying to “find himself.” Sure, you would come back on holidays, and on my birthdays and Mom’s, but that’s about all we’d ever see of you. Who knows what the hell you were doing out West all those years?  I could’ve taken off too, escaped the family drama and all, but I didn’t. Asshole.

 But wait; hold on, what the hell is wrong with me? I’m sorry for even thinking these thoughts. YOU’RE the one laying there, not me, looking like you’re about to, you, know…and I’m…I’m still alive. I’m sorry to think these bad thoughts of you, Max; you’re my only blood relative left. Charles looked to the floor. Mom gone, Dad – well….and no aunts, uncles, or grandparents left. It’s just us now, well, not quite. Just you, my burden, and me.

 Charles pulled out another pile of snapshots.  A photo fell out of its cellophane sleeve and landed on the floor. He picked it up.

“Look, Max, here’s Dad!” he pointed to the Polaroid shot that, though still yellowed, seemed to be in better condition the rest.  In the foreground, Dad wore a striped tank top and mirrored aviator shades. In one hand he held a garden hose, and in the other, a can of beer. Charles peered closer at photograph:  Dad stood in front of the driveway at their old Pleasantville house, behind their big boat of a station wagon, which was lathered in soap suds. 

“Hey Max, here’s Dad in our old Town & Country, you know, the one with those fake wood panels that were always peeling.” Charles zeroed in on the rear end of the car. “There’s that ‘OPTOMETRISTS DO IT WITH THEIR EYES OPEN’ bumper sticker that Mom hated, and then there’s the – “

Charles stopped himself. He angled the picture away from Max’s view, as if his brother were actually conscious enough to see what Charles didn’t want him to see.  Max wouldn’t remember this, SHOULDN’T remember this. He was only three. You should be thankful, Max; you didn’t remember much of anything.

Charles looked around, making sure no one else was in the room. Scanning top to bottom, he poured over every detail of the photo.  He could just barely make out two little boys popping their heads out the windows.  The older boy waved to the camera.  The younger one smiled and made a peace sign.  Charles turned the picture over to read the caption:  “Bill Armonk. Last picture.”  ‘Last Picture?!’ That’s it? That’s all Mom could think of inscribing?

Charles sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.  See, Max, like I told you a million times, I ALWAYS took care of you. After what happened, didn’t I tell Mom that you didn’t mean to do it? When you were out there crouched out on the front lawn – and I was crying too Max, in Mom’s arms, don’t think I wasn’t - I asked if her if you were gonna get in trouble…she just held me there, holding me so tight it almost hurt, I could feel her heart, I could hear her breathing. Her voice was about to crack, do you remember what she said? “NO, I’M SURE THAT LITTLE MAX IS SORRY ENOUGH FOR WHAT HE’S DONE.”

You should feel lucky when you said you never remembered that the ambulance came; that’s when those callous dickheads just came in and told Mom and me that Dad was a goner. You never saw when they made another call, and another car came, this time a hearse…two guys came, dressed in black.  Then they covered up Dad’s...crumpled body up and took him away…forever.

Charles wiped his eyes. He turned his chair to face the window.  If anyone came in the room again, he did NOT want them to see him like this.  He gritted his teeth and took a slow, deep breath, the way he’d always done when he needed to “man up.”

Max, I saved you even then, you ingrate, even though I was only five and YOU were the one who took our father away. Yeah, I know you were only three and that you shouldn’t have been blamed for what you did then. I know that now, maybe not so much back then, but I get it. Still – all actions have repercussions, right? Your whole life was – is – about doing things without ever thinking about the consequences. I mean, how many times did Dad tell us  - especially you, I’m sure of that  - not to roughhouse in the car? And I was supposed to be the one playing driver first, remember? You wanted to be the Green Hornet in the back and I was supposed to be Kato. We agreed on that game – YOU’RE stupid game! But then you started with your incessant nagging: “No, lemme drive, that’s no fair, it’s my turn!” All that babyish whining, waah, waah, waah. And don’t you remember Dad telling us about a zillion goddam times not to mess with ANYTHING in the car? Don’t touch the knobs, don’t touch the pedals! Even at age three you’d have to know what an emergency brake is for, right? I’m sure I did when I was three…

Charles felt sick to his stomach. All these memories, hidden for so long, shook him up. He felt a cold chill on his back, goose bumps on his arms, yet his face and the rest of his body broke out in a sweat. He fidgeted and squirmed like when he had to sit through Mass, but he couldn’t get comfortable while his body felt like it was freezing and scorching at the same time. His head pounded.  What is wrong with me, getting all worked up like this? Maybe I’m still just rattled from the accident. After all, it’s only been three days. It’s only natural that I’d still have some trauma.  He felt the room starting to spin as a new barrage of images flooded his mind: distorted funhouse mirror-like reflections off of Dad’s shiny black coffin of his long dead uncles and aunts, all looking ghoulish; the impassive face of the priest leading the shattered grievers in prayer; seeing Mommy’s tears through her mysterious black veil. Charles could almost now feel the clump of dirt in his small hands as he threw it into the ground and over the grave.  And he remembered little Max, little Fat Max, refusing to throw dirt on the coffin like he was supposed to, and then Max caterwauling through the rest of the service even though Charles kept telling his brother to shut up.  Just for you, Max, I told you that Daddy was up in heaven, even though I didn’t believe in any of that crap.  And still don’t. Well, maybe I do a little now, not all the religious bunk but that maybe there IS an afterlife. The point is that I was always trying to make YOU feel better. 

I’ve spent all my life doing that. Like when you lost that soap box derby race. In his mind’s eye he could still see Max in his Cub Scout uniform, bawling his head off about the wheels on his model car falling off, and Charles trying to calm him down so that Mom wouldn’t get upset too. That made him think of a time, maybe a couple years after that, when Max came in crying after accidentally hitting his bike against a neighborhood boy’s wheelchair, toppling the boy over. Poor Danny was thrashing about on the ground like an upside down ladybug, and I was the one who had to go out and help the kid get back on his chair. Brother, I love you, but you never, ever listened when I told you that crying like a little girl is not the same as actually manning up and taking action to make things right.  And you can’t always just cry and expect other people to help you. Why did I always have to be the one to console you, always having to tell you that things weren’t so bad, that everything was going to be OK? It was so embarrassing, having a cry baby for a brother. And more embarrassing later when you became sullen and hid behind those stupid cameras. Oh well, anyway, I guess that none of this matters anymore. It’s just as Mom said: “I’m sure Max is sorry enough already for what he did.”

Well, maybe you WERE and maybe you WEREN’T. It takes a big man to admit his mistakes but I wouldn’t have blamed you one bit for being ashamed. Of course, we ALL lost Dad, too, but WE weren’t out there whimpering about it to the whole world. At least not me.  YOU never heard Mom cry like I did, just about every night, when she’d come home late after working double shifts at HoJos just to feed us. And most of those times, I was the one who had to make YOUR dinner. Yeah, I was the one heating up Mom’s slop for you.  And consider yourself pretty goddam lucky that you were out there blubbering on the grass that day and didn’t see what I saw: Dad’s lifeless and bloody body, his chest flattened like, like a fucking tube of toothpaste under the back end of our station wagon.

Charles took out a handkerchief and daubed at a tear running down from his cheek.  He thought about every birthday, every Christmas and every Father’s Day without Dad; he recalled, with sadness, every single one his school graduations with just Mom there (and Max) and an empty chair next to her.  Mom would always tell me “Your dad would’ve been so proud to see you now.” That motto ought to be on my tombstone someday: Here lies Dr. Charles Armonk. His father would’ve been so proud if only could have seen what he became. A soft, bitter laugh escaped his lips.

But the laughter was short-lived. Overcome by deep existential feelings of loss and unable control his feelings any longer, he started to sob. He stifled his tears into his hanky the way Mom used to,  like all those times late at night when he’d hear her softly moaning in her bedroom, crying into her pillow, all alone with her gin. Back then, he sometimes would knock on her door and ask if she was alright, but Mom would either ignore him or curtly snap, “I’m fine, now just leave me alone.” Recalling Mom’s private moments of pain made him feel  rage  -  something he hadn’t felt in years – a rage directed squarely at Max.  The same rage towards his brother that Charles had felt throughout his life whenever something bad ever happened to him  - like getting a less-than-perfect grade, a patient not following up on his treatment, or another girlfriend leaving him, accusing him of being emotionally blocked.  He knew it wasn’t rational, but whenever things didn’t work out all he could think of were the years he lost having to baby his brother - and taking care of Mom.

But here was Max was just lying there in front of him, oblivious to Charles’ emotional meltdown. He felt his heart racing and his body quivering as if he was about to have a full-on panic attack.  If only he could get out of this room, get out of this hospital, and get his legs moving and breathe some fresh air. Once outside, maybe he could get his mind off all this by calling a patient or two, or taking a walk uptown to his windowless office, or maybe taking a walk across the park to take a nap at his equally windowless basement condo.  He’d definitely get a bite to eat first since he’d skipped breakfast just to get over here. But Charles knew he was stuck in this room like a prisoner,  having to wait for Max’s doctor. He needed to know the truth, to hear it straight from Dr. Benedetti. It’s been three days and Max hasn’t gained consciousness. What can you and the other doctors do? What do I do? I doubt Max ever had the foresight to make a will or sign a patient directive. Now, I’M the only one left to make any decisions for him.

Charles looked at his watch. Damn, he’d now been here for almost an hour and it looked like he’d probably be here for at least one more.  He hadn’t even had a decent night’s sleep in the past three days. Why do I always have to be tethered to this ingrate?! Charles took a deep breath and tried to think things through logically. Well, I’m tethered to him because that ingrate happens to be my brother, that’s why. In the meantime I’ve got to find something to do, anything, just ‘til the doctor comes. Wait a minute- here! We’ve got more pictures! There’s one - me as a toddler, Here’s one of me as a Boy Scout, here’s me winning a medal for the 50 yard dash, me holding up my acceptance letter to med school. Here’s a bunch more. Here’s me and Mom. Hmm, no pictures of just Max.  Maybe you were taking the pictures? Or you weren’t there? I don’t know. How am I supposed to know why no one ever took pictures of you? 

He pulled out a postcard from the pile. “Wait, Max, here’s one.” The postcard said something about a retrospective of the photographic works of Max Armonk.  A retrospective?!  The postmark is from three years ago; a year before Mom died. Don’t they only do these retrospectives towards the end of an artist’s life? I mean I would have only been 29 then, making Max only 27. It’s way too early to be thinking about your end, your final resting place. Not when you have your whole life ahead of you.   

Charles flipped the card over.  There was a thumb-nail bio of Max listing some of his major shows, some of the grants and awards he’d received, and a sampling of the other artists, composers, and dancers he’d collaborated with over the years. Kind of impressive, bro. I wish I’d known about your little gallery thing. Charles read this note, handwritten on the bottom of the postcard: 

“Dear Mom, I really hope that you can come out to see my show. I think you’d be very proud! I sent an invite to Charles too, so maybe you two can come out together? Either way, I hope all’s well with you. I miss you. Love, Max.” 

I don’t remember any of this. Wait, oh yeah, that’s right, I guess I did get something in the mail from you about this dealy-bob. And come to think of It, maybe you DID invite me out to some of your shows. But I never made to a single one.  C’mon, how could I, with all my responsibilities? With patients and staff who needed me to be at their beck and call all the time? With Mom always depressed about you and needing constant hand holding? I don’t think Mom ever made it out there to any of your shows either, especially after I convinced her that her health couldn’t withstand the travel out West…In a way that was true, but, I don’t know, I guess after all the shit you’d  pulled, I didn’t think you deserved any more attention…I guess that really wasn’t fair to Mom. And probably not fair to you. 

Charles’ throat felt parched. Reaching across the nightstand for a glass of water he almost knocked the Phoropter over.  Thankfully, born with quick reflexes (a major asset for a surgeon), he caught the device just before it would have hit the floor and undoubtedly smashed into thousands of pieces. 

“Max, wake up and look here! You wanted this old Phoropter and I told you I’ve got it!” Charles had the urge to look through its lenses, to see everything in this room, everything in the entire hospital, even, through its blurry and distorted lenses.  He balanced it back on the nightstand and put his eyes through.  “It still works, just like when Dad had it.”  He focused his gaze on the box of pictures, all the while imitating his father. “Which one looks clearer? This?” Charles switched lenses. “Or this? Let’s try this third lens. Do things look clearer now?” Something, though, was wrong with the Phoropter.  Every switch, every setting, and every adjustment, made Charles’ vision fuzzier, more distorted. Charles pointed the gadget toward Max.  Through the strange lenses, Max’s breathing tubes flew out at funny angles, like a Cubist painting, and Max’s head and blanketed body was all distorted and ghostlike. Demon-like.  Charles panned the device around the room, focusing on a sign in the far corner.  He narrowed his gaze on the miniscule letters, reading it as if he were reading an eye chart. What does this say? Y-O-U-D-I-D-I-T. Yes, it says YOUDIDIT. What gibberish! Oh God, what’s happening to my mind? It must be the trauma, the lack of sleep, the lack of food, my worrying about you…

He panned the Phoropter around until Mom’s box of pictures came into view. Charles focused it right into the center of the box. There’s a picture of me with that embarrassing AMC Gremlin I had, the one Mom made me promise not to ever let you drive… Remember Mom: “Your brother should never behind the wheel of a car,” she was always saying. That’s ridiculous, I told her. Max has to drive sooner or later, but she never listened to me, sorry Max. (Of course, maybe she was right…) Whoa, what’s this? “YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT”?!  Did what? I didn’t do anything! I was only five. There’s Max, his arms can barely reach the steering wheel…you little punk, yelling “It’s my turn! ” No, runt, you don’t get a turn…don’t be messing around in Dad’s car, he’ll kill you if he sees you messing around with that…he’ll kill me if I let you do that, he’ll kill us both, so just shut up! YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT. What the fuck is this hieroglyphic babble?  Max, I’m not taking the blame for this, why is it my fault? It’s not fair. I take responsibility for EVERYTHING, but he takes responsibility for nothing…so why do I have to take the blame now? Max is in the back seat, crying…shut up or I’ll reach back there and sock you. There! That’ll really give you something to cry about. Don’t be trying to hit me back, I told you I was gonna reach back there and strangle your ugly little head ‘till you’re blue in the face, and, no! No! Why did I do that? I touched the knob, the stick, the lever Daddy said never, ever, ever touch. But I never kicked it, wait, goddam it, I DID KICK IT. And now we’re rolling…how do you stop this thing? Which one’s the brake? I don’t know what to do!…wait, see Max, I did stop it. No, you idiot, it’s not too late…YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT. Where’s Dad? What do you mean he’s under the car? I didn’t do it on purpose. No! No, Daddy, come back! Don’t leave us. Please, Daddy!! We can fix Daddy up right, can’t we? Mommy, please don’t be angry, I didn’t mean to, I mean, Max didn’t mean to do it.  He was just playing around, he just wanted to drive, so he jumped up front, he pulled that knob, he didn’t do it on purpose, it was just an accident, What did you call it, the emergency brake? I, mean, he, he didn’t mean to hit it, we were just playing…Is he gonna get in trouble?  Mommy, how do you know that he’s really sorry? Maybe he’s just bawling like that so he won’t get spanked…No, we’re all sorry…YOUDIDIT, YOUDIDIT, YOU DID IT.  Max, I’m so sorry…I…well, you didn’t do it. I think…I may…have…no not may have…hurt…may have killed, no DID kill! You were hitting me and I kicked back and …I kicked the lever, the emergency brake, the car rolled down, I couldn’t reach the brake pedal, it’s not my fault, BUT it is my fault. Why the fuck is all this coming back again when I’d gotten this out of my mind a long time ago? I don’t want this in my head anymore…it’s not fair, no fair, Mommy…I DID! OK, are you happy now? What does everyone want with me? I know, I know…I… KILLED… DAD!! 

Charles tore away from the Phoropter, sunk down, head in hands, and unleashed a torrent of seemingly unending tears.  It was MY fault, Max. It wasn’t yours. It was never supposed to be anyone’s fault.  He gently rocked, trying to calm himself, but his heart was beating faster and faster, louder and louder within his body, which felt like it was about to explode. I  just want to go back so I can make everything right... I’m so sorry for what I did. I didn’t want to get in trouble, I didn’t want you to get in trouble. I didn’t mean for anyone to be blamed.  I hope it’s too late for you to forgive me…but please let me just stay here, just stay with me, Max… 

“Good morning, Dr. Armonk.” Charles felt a hand on his shoulder.  He looked up to see Dr. Benedetti standing there, holding a clipboard. “I’ve been running behind on the rounds. I’m sure you know how crazy things can be around here on Mondays.  But I really hate to be late with my patients especially when their families are here. I’m sorry.” 

Charles gently rocked, while he sniffled in the last of his tears.  Me too, Doctor, me too. 

THE END

Copyright Darren Gordon Smith