ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Kenneth first entered my mother’s house when I was in middle school. He was thinner then, not as fit as he was in the Marines, but still biking to work from his Pig Town apartment in Baltimore. He wore his hair in a ponytail and kept a dusting of stubble beneath his lower lip and generally maintained a uniform of white shirts, paisley ties, and dress pants to his job as a city planner, the city being one of the only employers to regularly hire ex-felons on parole. I did not know about any of this, of course. I just knew that I was the last child to meet my mother’s new boyfriend.
We would go into the city to watch games with Kenneth. Opening Day at Camden Yards was a ritual for some years, us high in the nose bleeds begging for peanuts, with the occasional football game to vary our suffering. Walking back late at night, I remember shouting Queen lyrics at the empty streets, not yet a city resident and thus not yet respectful of the sleeping, tired people piled up in boxes. Another time, when it was the two of us off to cheer on the Ravens, Kenneth offered me a bite of his sandwich, loaded with horseradish, then some of his Bud Light when I begged for relief. I spat both into a trashcan, Kenneth laughing away in the cold. I have enjoyed that combination regularly since, as Ashbery puts it, “Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings.”
And sometimes I would go into the city with Kenneth alone, and he would drop me near the harbor while he went to work, and I would busy myself with walking and benches. He wanted me to be a writer, so I’d be armed with a notepad and satchel and book and pen, and I would be okay.
Kenneth, barrel chested, could rattle a room when he shouted at the little figures on the television. He could rattle doors when he snored. Once he told me never to wake him because he might attack me. I wondered if I would be able to get in that first necessary strike, while he was still deafened by the sound of his own breathing. But one day he was quiet, asked us all up to our mother’s room, said that he wanted to marry her. We laughed, and she said yes, and I felt pity for him being so serious. I should have felt panic. I should have killed him.
Kenneth never struck me. He preferred to distinguish himself from my father. He was most agreeable in the early years while the parole was still ticking down, before his hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt was placed on the mortgage of my mother’s house. One year, he grew loud and stopped listening to my mother; another year, he grew bold, reprimanding us with shouts and threats. I did not assume anything because of these changes. I only assumed that things would not get worse.
Kenneth effectively barred me from returning to the house when I was in undergrad, shortly into my second year. Bleary eyed and paranoid, one day Kenneth let loose on my brother and me for having come home with flu shots. He shouted and banged around. I waited for him to stop and then took a book and walked to a creek where I read until my brother found me and drove me back to college, neither of us talking much. My mother did not know about the shouting or my decision to not come home again--she had other concerns.
A few months later, as the holidays neared and I readied myself on a friend’s couch in PA, my mother called to say she needed help moving out—there was a farm house for rent, and according to Maryland law she couldn’t divorce Kenneth while he was living with her. So she drove the three hours to get me and we drove the five hours back, lost and trapped on that terrible Jersey Turnpike, and we drove past the old house to the new one. My brother joined us shortly after. I would learn later that the reason for his absence was that he had gone to attack Kenneth but was too late: the man was fleeing in his broken car, the warrants for dealing having found him again, and my brother was left with his rage, shaking beside the soon-to-foreclose house.
My mother would get emails, phone calls, and texts from Kenneth, updates about his life. He was homeless. He was living on the border of one state or another. He wanted to die. He wanted her to know that he was sorry. When my mother would tell me these things, I would say: please stop answering. Block his number. Don’t let him find you anymore.
When I was in middle school, Kenneth would often come around to pick me up from school, or Boy Scouts, or band practice. And always the parents would see him and announce, “There’s your father.” And I would not correct them. My brother and I were not necessarily eager to replace our father with this stranger, but we were not necessarily against harmless mistakes. Over the years, Kenneth grew less amenable to harmless mistakes: the time I asked if he carried diseases; the time I declined traveling to Nicaragua to lose my virginity for money; the time I forgot to clean out the dog’s water dish before refilling it. He held it out to me, sloshing with hair and spit, and dared me to drink it. Now, as I wash my cat’s dish each morning before refilling it, I think of Kenneth.
What surprises we found in Kenneth. The stashes in the toolboxes; the knives in the furniture; the handgun. He told me once that, after meeting my mother, he stood on a dock by the Inner Harbor and wanted more than anything to throw himself in. He told me that my mother was the reason he didn’t, but this was after several Mike’s Hard Lemonades, before the bad days.
When I tried to kill myself, Kenneth nearly killed me. That was one of two times I saw him cry: that time, furious, remembering his brother; and then later, at the funeral of his mother, unable to read the speech that lay crumpled in his hand. Had my throat not been bruised by the rope, I’m sure he would have throttled me. My sister and mother sat yowling beside me, my brother standing in a state of semi-shock. What do you do when the neighbors come to tell you that they found Poor Reilly hanging? That Poor Reilly fell down in the mud and wept and turned red with embarrassment? I eventually stood up and told everyone that I was going for a run, and I did, my throat aching. I stopped at the turnaround—the top of a hill by some cornfields—and I thought of Kenneth’s dead, older brother—the one who spent his last days in a library, looking for answers—and I thought of the girl I loved—I thought of a lot of things.
The last time I saw Kenneth, my mother had snuck me back to the house, promising that he was gone for the weekend. It would be the last time I slept there. It was late and my mother was asleep upstairs, exhausted from driving and 3 AM alarms to get her to the restaurant. Neither my brother nor my sister were there, having long ago escaped that house. Something had to happen the next day, but who’s to say what?
I had over a woman—a high school fling who I was too cowardly to commit to—who would go on to escape that dreadful town, and we had spoken of the dead, and traced words on each other’s backs using our fingertips, and I was coming down into guilt when I wandered into the bathroom. Kenneth had insisted on renovating it himself and now, years later, the granite and tile were cracking, letting in the winter cold, rendering the shower and sink useless. I looked out the window, past where the dead and hollow tree used to be—the one where the starlings would nest, those birds that Kenneth hated so much.
I looked towards the garage. The support had gone out on one side—the side with the rotted enclosure where chickens once nested, now overgrown with bramble—and the whole white and flaking building was tired. I had spent so many days and nights in that garage—or on it, its rusted roof an easy climb. Sometimes I was helping Kenneth, sometimes my mother, and sometimes I was just manic and needed to move my hands. Crooked tables and carved bottles and bundles of rope—terrible, terrible ropes—had overtaken the space and made for many piles and nooks where Kenneth could hide little baggies or sharp and hateful objects.
I would often look out towards the garage, as it sat before the hills where the moon would rise and illuminate the cornfields. As I looked out the window, my feet numbing on the cracked tile, my eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness, and then I saw it—red ember floating by the slanted structure, Kenneth pacing around the dead gardens and shared drive. He stopped. We looked at each other. The ember extinguished. Kenneth got into his car—one of many he would try and fail to fix himself—and I covered my eyes as the headlights flashed over the house, then it was dark again.
Reilly D. Cox was born in Baltimore, MD and currently is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, where they serve as Design Editor for Black Warrior Review.
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