The two brothers tramped through the small section of forest that separated the road from the field some 200 yards away. All the trees were coniferous and the ground was a perfect mat of brown, dead pine needles that softly muffled their tread. Things suddenly got hushed in that little part of the forest, as if the rest of the world had no business being there. Overhead, the afternoon sun forced its way through the tree cover to dapple the ground with its light, showing several tiny specks here and a few large, illuminated blotches over there. The boys were very tired from the funeral and had been relieved when their mother — quite unexpectedly — told them to change out of their suits and go fly David’s model airplane for a while.
David, the older brother, carried the airplane. He was 11 years old and rather big for his age. He had tanned skin, black curly hair, and green, feminine-looking eyes. You could tell that within a couple of years he would need to begin shaving, and when he reached maturity his beard would be very heavy. He had a pugnacious look, a habitual, settled frown that jarred with his pretty eyes. As he walked, he stared straight ahead and said nothing.
David’s brother, whose name was Francis, had to alternately run and walk to stay up with David. Francis didn’t look anything at all like his older brother. At 9 years old, he was much shorter and had strawberry-blonde hair. His pale face was overspread with freckles and he wore black-framed spectacles that stood out on his face the way a loud tie does on a white shirt. Francis had a habit of always tilting his chin up and peering through his glasses as if descrying something far off in the distance. David hated how he did that. David hated a lot of things about his little brother.
Their mother said they could take a break for a couple of hours and leave the house on condition that they stuck together. She suggested the two boys fly the model airplane and warned David that he had to give his brother some turns. At that point, David would have agreed to anything. The whole week had been oppressive. Neighbors and relatives everywhere, the kids who lived nearby treating him as if he might break — he could barely stand it any longer. Their small, two-bedroom house filled up quickly and there was never any place to go with all those people. “How are you holding up, David?” he was asked over and over. “I’m okay,” he kept having to say.
“Did Mom tell you if we could keep the house?” Francis asked from the periphery of David’s vision, struggling to keep up with him and slightly winded.
“Why are you worried about that?”
“Don’t you want to stay?”
“I don’t care. Forget about it. I don’t even think Mom knows yet anyway. If Grandpa’s so rich, he can help us out.”
“Grandpa hates us.”
David had two names for his little brother when the grownups weren’t around. They were “shithead” and “you little shit.” However, something about the mournfulness of the day kept him from calling Francis either of those names just then.
Everyone in the small town knew what happened, of course. It was big news. The route the boys followed to the field took them by Stoots Variety Store and there were three townies idling by the Coke machine on the veranda watching them pass, knowing that David and Francis were the poor McCleary kids whose dad collapsed delivering the mail last Tuesday. Archie McCleary had been a letter carrier for many years and was well known in the little town. He was a tall, red-headed, pale-skinned man who walked with a pronounced stoop, as if the mailbag, after all those years, had finally bent him toward the earth with its weight. He was shy, yet genial, and always had a smirking, witty reply to anything anyone said to him. When the boys walked down the street with their father, people driving by always tooted their horns at him and waved hello.
David and Francis came into the field and were greeted by the sound of five or six buzzing, whining model airplanes. There were several clumps of older kids here and there with their eyes trained up at the sky, along with a couple of father-and-son duos; and, of course, there was Dominic, who was always there. Someone had a transistor radio playing; David recognized the voice of Ken Coleman, the Boston Red Sox broadcaster, made tinny by the small radio’s speaker. The Red Sox were playing big Frank Howard and the Washington Senators that day. David realized that if his father were alive, he’d be listening to the game on the front porch right now. That year’s edition of the Red Sox (1967) was particularly fun to follow.
“Are you gonna ask Dominic to take the plane off for you?” asked Francis.
David was actually considering just that, but Francis asking him changed his mind. “I can do it,” David said.
“Are you gonna land it too?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Shut up.”
Taking off and landing model airplanes were skills David hadn’t quite perfected yet, especially landing. He always needed Dominic to help him out. David glanced at Dominic while Francis shrugged off the backpack that contained the plane’s radio remote control unit and fuel. As usual, Dominic was wearing the plaid Bermuda shorts with mid-calf black socks and brown sandals. Typical, thought David. Immigrant. Boy, he wished he didn’t need that guy’s help.
The field had a system of smooth dirt tracks that served as runways. The boys prepped the plane and positioned it on one of the tracks for take-off. The tiny engine was fired and David began working the two toggle switches on the remote control with a frown of concentration on his face. Francis looked at his brother and held his breath; he had only seen David succeed twice at this. The airplane started off down the track unsteadily, wobbling and sometimes lurching to the right and left as David struggled to make it go in a straight line. Then, too quickly, the plane picked up speed and summarily flipped front-over like a shot duck.
“Shit!” said David.
“Aw, man! I thought you had it!” said Francis.
David repeated the operation two more times with the same result; finally, he gave the whole thing up as a bad job and asked Dominic to take the plane off for him. Dominic was a friendly man, one of those types who always enjoyed helping. When he smiled, you couldn’t help noticing how straight and white his teeth were, standing out the way they did against his black mustache and swarthy skin. Most people loved Dominic, but David couldn’t stand the way he dressed or spoke. That Italian accent of his made him incomprehensible. Dominic handed the controls of his plane to David and then, with David’s remote, he expertly directed David’s airplane straight down the dirt track and lifted it flawlessly into the air. It always looked so easy when Dominic did it.
“Thanks,” said David, re-exchanging remote controls with him. He wondered if Dominic had heard about his father. He hoped he hadn’t. If there was one thing David was sick of right then, it was pity. He didn’t need any more of it.
Some of the kids who came to the field could make their planes do barrel rolls and fancy loop-the-loops, but David, who had only been at this hobby for a couple of months, merely controlled the plane and watched it as it described wide circles and made occasional shallow dives and climbs. It was like flying a mechanical kite. There was a little bit of him up there, with the plane. He could actually feel the buffeting wind currents and the cooler air.
“Make it dive as close as you can to the ground,” said Francis.
“You want me to wreck the plane? When it’s your turn, you better not try it, Francine.”
David’s father bought him the model airplane for his birthday in late March. It was quite a thing for just the two of them to go to the hobby shop together like that, leaving Francis and Mom at home. David and Archie McCleary didn’t often do things alone. Since David was very young, he always had the feeling his father held him at arm’s length. Dad never liked him to sit on his lap, for instance, and a game of catch with the baseball seemed more a chore to his father than anything else. Nothing David said was smart or interesting enough; he could never hold his dad’s attention for any length of time. It was true that Archie was never cruel or harsh toward David — certainly he never hit him — but, rather than having that stand as a proof of kindness or love, David interpreted his father’s mild treatment of him as coming more from a lack of concern.
“Fly it towards that tree over there and make it go around,” said Francis.
But Francis, on the other hand, was a different story. Archie McCleary doted on that little kid — anybody could see that. Everything Francis did his father thought was either cute or clever. On top of that, the teachers at school raved about Francis, and each glowing report set Francis a little firmer in his father’s heart and squeezed David that much farther out of it. David thought of all the times Francis appeared as the favorite: Francis at the dinner table cracking Dad up; Dad and Francis in the den watching the same old crap on TV; Dad telling one of his buddies something Francis did; Francis, Francis, Francis…
What really bonded Archie McCleary to his youngest son was a shared passion for coin collecting. David could never understand what the big deal was about that. What pleasure could anyone possibly get out of looking at coins all day? Francis and Dad had two bookshelves absolutely crammed with coin books. Whenever Archie brought home, say, a shiny, uncirculated 1897 silver dollar he ordered from the hobby shop, it was an event. Francis’ eyes would go wide and Archie would beam at the enthusiasm his boy so sincerely shared with him. On weekends, Francis liked to help his father sift through his change jars; he even had his own magnifying lens, a really nice one that Archie bought for him. Although David didn’t care a bit for that old coin collection, he suddenly realized with a pang that it would all go to Francis.
“When’s it my turn?” asked Francis.
“Lay off, Francine. Your turn’s coming.”
“Mom said I could have more than one turn, you know.”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
“All you’re doing is making it go around in circles.”
“Can you do any better, you little pussy?”
“If you gave me a chance I could.”
Here was the main thing about Francis: he was such a little runt. Always bothering David, never letting him alone — Francis was like chewing gum stuck in your hair. David couldn’t take five steps out of the house without Francis running after him, asking him where he was going. “Don’t you have friends?” David would ask petulantly. “Why do you always have to bug me?” And, to add to David’s irritation, his friends actually liked Francis. They thought the little shit was okay. “You try having him for your brother,” David told them angrily. “You’ll see.”
Archie McCleary had his fatal heart attack during a streak of perfect heart attack-inducing weather: the whole week had been still and hot and muggy, with a relentless sun that shimmered too brightly through the thick air. You could hardly breathe. The street he was walking up that day was called Tip Top Street because it was the highest and steepest street in town. It was four-year-old Sally Jane Russell who discovered the boys’ father lying face down on the hot pavement; Archie had lost consciousness and broke several bones in his face and a couple of teeth for the simple reason that, not being conscious, he couldn’t break his fall. All the mail stayed in his mailbag when he hit the ground. Little Sally Jane kept her head and did something very clever and sensible for a four-year-old to do: she ran over to a nearby telephone pole, stepped up on an old milk crate, and pulled the fire alarm that was attached to it.
At 1:30 that afternoon, David was called from class to the principal‘s office. He wasn’t given a reason why, and as he walked down the corridor he racked his brain trying to figure out what he might have done wrong. Stepping through the doorway into the office, he was surprised to see Father Shea, his family’s parish priest, standing next to the principal, Mr. Keefe. Father Shea had a ruddy face that seemed particularly red when set off against his pure white clerical collar; it was a drinker’s face, really, David thought. Even the scalp showing through Father Shea’s thin, white hair was red. His large nose had a bluish tinge and his eyes were rheumy-looking.
“David, sit down here a moment,” the principal told him, indicating a chair near where Father Shea was standing. Then Father Shea informed David that his father was dead, and afterward led both he and Mr. Keefe through a little prayer followed by a quick Our Father and an even quicker Hail Mary. David thought he smelled gin on the priest’s breath.
David was allowed to collect his books and things and walk home from school early. When he arrived, he met Francis and Aunt Patty Cake already there at the house (her real name was Patricia of course, but the boys grew up calling her Aunt Patty Cake). He would have expected Francis to be blubbering at a moment like this, but then he remembered Francis rarely cried. The little kid would allow his face to crinkle up like he was about to bawl his head off, but he almost never cried. It was actually kind of weird when you thought about it. Aunt Patty Cake pressed David’s face into her big, perfumed bosom as she hugged him. “They made you walk home yourself?” she asked in a sniffily voice.
Their mother, when she came home late that night, was almost preternaturally sedate. Uncle Steve drove her home from the mortuary, and David was braced for an embarrassing gush of emotions when she entered the house. But his mother, after hugging both he and his brother, remained mostly silent and calm. By then, two of her other sisters had joined Aunt Patty Cake to help out. All the kids in school said his mother was pretty, and David had to agree, she was very pretty, even then. Archie McCleary had died at the age of 52; his widow, their mother, was only 31. David had just realized in the past year or so that this age difference (along with, perhaps, their father’s lowly blue collar status) must have been the cause of a rift between their mother and their grandfather. David wondered if Grandpa Bloom would actually condescend to join them in their time of grief. He doubted he would.
“Colleen, don’t you want to lie down?” Aunt Patty Cake kept asking David’s mother over and over again.
David knew he was taking too long with the airplane and should have handed the controls over to Francis by now, but he perversely kept the remote to induce his little brother to irritate him some more with his pestering. He didn’t need to wait long.
“Come on!” said Francis. “You’ve had it too long! It’s my turn, David.”
“What’s that, Francine?”
“Why is it you’re never called ‘Frank’? Huh? Why is it you’re always ‘Francis.’ Francis is such a pussy name, you know that? Maybe kids are called Francis at home, it’s okay there, but their friends ought to call them Frank. But you — you’re always Francis. That’s because you can’t be a Frank. Nobody could call you Frank. You’re too much of a stupid pussy to be called Frank.”
Francis brushed all this talk aside. “It’s my turn to fly the plane,” he said stubbornly. “I’ll tell Mom.”
“I’ll tell Mom!” David mimicked. “Here you go, you little fairy. Don’t wet your pants.” David handed the controls over to Francis.
David watched as Francis played with the toggles on the remote control. He could tell the kid really didn’t know what he was doing, but Francis was being so careful and tentative, David felt no harm could come to the small aircraft if he kept an eye on him. Slowly, inexorably, Francis was able to turn the plane around to head back toward them. “Keep the altitude the same,” warned David.
Then David started in on him again. “Why don’t you have friends your own age, huh? Why do you always have to hang out with me and my friends? Do you think I like you? Because if you do, you’re wrong . . . Francine. I can’t stand you.”
Francis by now had gotten the airplane to fly directly overhead and then started to swing it into a wide arc to head back out again.
“You embarrass me, you know that? Whenever I’m with my friends at school, or over at the basketball court, I hate it when you spot me and come over with all this ‘Hi, guys! What’cha doing?’ crap. Christ! It’s bad enough I have to share a bedroom with you, you bedwetting little creep. By the way, do you still wet your bed? Still got the plastic sheets, Francine? ’Cause it smells like it.”
Francis’ face started to collapse and go very pink. That comment about the bedwetting was a low blow. Man, if their father ever heard him say that, thought David. The plane had finished its turn and now started to fly away from them again. “You’re flying too low, shithead. Get it up higher,” said David. “Look out for those trees.”
Francis compressed his mouth into a grim, straight line and kept his eyes riveted on the model airplane. He was obviously trying hard to keep from crying. David saw the plane steadily rise and could tell it would easily miss the big trees.
The big problem was, David didn’t want to be anywhere just then. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t want to be home, he didn’t want to be anywhere. There was no place on this earth he could think of he wanted to be. Was there such a thing as nowhere? What did nowhere feel like? Maybe he just wanted to be dead, he thought. When people killed themselves, did they feel like this? They couldn’t stand being where they were, and they had no idea where they could go where they could stand it, so they killed themselves, right? He could run for miles and miles and suddenly stop and still hate the very spot he was standing on even though he had never been there before.
“No more Dad to laugh at your stupid jokes anymore, huh?” asked David, his voice cracking a little as he spoke. Suddenly his eyes got hot and moist. “How much of a hot shit do you think you’re going to be now without Dad around? Francine? Huh?” He saw Francis’ face go even pinker. You could see he wasn’t really concentrating on controlling the plane anymore.
“When I’m old enough,” David continued, “I’m gonna join the navy. I won’t even bother wait to graduate high school, that’s how much I want to leave. And understand this, you little piece of shit. I’m not leaving our house, and I’m not leaving Mom — I’m leaving you. Because I fucking hate you! I wish you were never born! I wish I had my own room, and it was just me and Mom and Dad and not you! Do you hear me? I fucking hate you!”
Francis turned to face him and let the remote control unit slip from his fingers to the ground. He dug his hand into the front pocket of his blue jeans and extracted a piece of paper that had been folded into a small rectangle. “Here,” he said, handing it to his older brother. “I found this in Mom’s top drawer.” Then he quickly wheeled about and ran away toward the woods.
David watched as the figure of his brother receded and finally vanished into the woods. Then he looked down at the folded up piece of paper he held in his fingers. He knew his mother kept the important family papers in the top drawer of her bedroom bureau. Lately, because of all this funeral business, he and Francis had seen her go through them several times. So what was this?
Unfolding it, he read, right up at the top: “Connecticut State Department of Health.” Then, underneath that, it ran: “Bureau of Vital Statistics — Hartford, Connecticut U.S.A.” And then, underneath that, David read: “Certificate of Birth.”
The document stated that David Michael Bloom was born in the town of Milford, Connecticut, on March 21, 1956. The physician, whose name was Walter Martin, M.D., attested that he had “attended the birth of this child who was born alive at the hour of 5:12 AM E.S.T.” The mother of the child was Colleen Frances Bloom. Her race was white and her age at the time of birth was 19.
There was no information about the father.
“What…?” asked David in a half whisper. He looked through it again. Then he noticed the airplane’s remote control unit lying there on the ground. That stupid plane was going to go out of range if he wasn’t careful. Numbly, he stooped down to place the birth certificate on the dirt path and pick up the remote. Immediately, a light breeze nudged the document a couple of feet away from him. He knew he should have pocketed the certificate first and then picked up the remote, but now it seemed too late to fix things because the plane was really becoming just a tiny speck way off in the sky. He fiddled with the controls and thought he saw the airplane alter its course very slightly, but it made no difference. Within half a minute, he knew the little plane wasn’t coming back.