by Steve Coughlin
He was the bedroom, the Black Sabbath poster thumbtacked to the wall. He was the unmade twin bed and dirty sheets my grieving mother refused to wash. He hovered outside the second-story window. My dead brother watching as I turned out his cracked lamp. He’d press his twenty-one-year-old hands against the glass, fingers pale and stiff, as I stacked his two thin pillows. He was the black and red blanket covering my shoulders, my sudden waking in a sweat drenched t-shirt. I heard his shallow breathing, searched for his shadow beyond the moon’s thin line. His mind still schizophrenic. His hand, I imagined, grasping a box cutter. I waited for him to walk toward me. He was the loneliness in the months after his death, the unanswered phone calls and unpaid bills—my father leaving each day for work. There was the heavy silence that followed visitors when they entered the house. There were the excuses they offered each time to leave. He was the bathroom door dangling from a hinge, the television screaming through the long hours of night, the fan in the den with a broken blade. He was my sister hiding each afternoon in her bedroom. I sat in his seat at the kitchen table. My mother, desperate for her dead son to return, placing before me his cracked white plate and orange drinking glass. Each morning he walked beside me on the sidewalk. Each morning his breath drifted into the cold air. He followed me down the hallways at school—in fourth grade, fifth grade—my older brother, his long hair unwashed, his back hunched, waiting outside my classroom door. There was the mustache he grew in the months before his death. There was the torn denim jacket hanging from his shoulders, a pack of cigarettes sticking out of the front pocket. My brother the murdered drug dealer. My brother, his mind a terrifying mess, laughing as I walked the train tracks, balancing on the rails, tossing rocks at windows. He watched me shatter bottles on the street. He told me to run and keep running when a neighbor’s voice called for me to stop. I was him sitting on the couch refusing to talk. I was him flipping the stations desperate to escape, my foot endlessly tapping, my fingers drumming on the remote. And when I tried to sleep, whenever I closed my eyes, I could feel him inside my mind. He said my thoughts were his thoughts. He said I too, twelve years old, would fall apart—that my confused mind would also make me light a fire in the school’s dumpster. He was the hockey stick still leaning against the bedroom wall. He was the hockey skates abandoned in his closet. I could feel him in the darkness, his hand about to touch my shoulder. I sensed the coldness of his skin. I heard the softness of his voice. He was the sleep that wouldn’t come.
Steve Coughlin teaches writing and literature at Chadron State College in northwest Nebraska. He is the author of Another City, a collection of poetry.