by Manuel Royal
Saturdays I visit Louisa’s grave with a three-pound hammer and flowers. Hibiscus, her favorite.
Disappointment has a smell. It’s soaked into my pores, like the smell of eight hundred thousand Luckies in Louisa’s leathery skin. She had a deep regret for giving birth to me. When I was little she squinted down at me through blue smoke, that candy-red mouth grimacing around a lipsticked unfiltered smoke. Shook her head slow.
I guess she would’ve aimed that load of disappointment at my father if he’d been around. I took it in the face, standing in for him.
Nathaniel’s father was the only good man, that’s what she said. I think he was one of the men who came to the house when I was seven, but I was trying first grade again so I was busy and anyway it hurts my head to remember way back.
My brother Nathaniel, the golden child. She knitted lambswool boots for him, a hundred pairs over the years. Sometimes we hadn’t any food, but vodka and Luckies and lambswool we had, soft as a moonlit cloud, nothing too good for the golden child.
Stone, not gold, Nathaniel was, for real. A stone. Sometimes a baby grows in the wrong place in a woman. It stops moving and speck by speck it calcifies, turns to a stone inside her.
Stone baby. There’s a Greek word, but it just means stone baby. That was Nathaniel. Brother Stone. Not moving; hiding inside her. Not-normal.
Louisa crazied up a different Nathaniel in her mind, the picture of health and joy. She wrote up his report cards, all A’s. Mother’s Day cards from Nathaniel came two hundred days a year. She wrote them, dropped them in the mailbox in front of the smokes shop.
Golden Nathaniel won trophies, being naturally a decathlete with perfect form. I heard all about it every night when I brought her dinner.
Stone Nathaniel stayed in her gut like a statue she swallowed. Sleeping maybe, building up a hideous strength year by year, nine months over and over. Stone-still like a leopard in a tree. Waiting to do bad.
I got no trophies. Brought home C’s. Look at a graph of schoolwide student performance. See the point marked “Average” — that’s me there. That little dot.
I was always where I was supposed to be, doing the expected. Average is normal, that’s me. Not Louisa, not Brother Stone.
I graduated and worked every day. Louisa caught me looking at apartment ads and pressed the end of her cigarette into the back of her hand until I promised to never move out.
That left a scar, and funny story, the day I turned 25 I came home (and made her steak because it was Wednesday) and Louisa came out in her maternity dress and looked up and said, “You’ve got his face” and she grabbed my head and kissed me, only time ever I think. It tasted like cigarettes and then she gave me the back of her hand, she had to reach way up, she said, “No good!” and swung hard. That rough round scar split my lip.
I never got mad, never. She was not-normal, imaginary golden Nathaniel was inhumanly perfect, gut-stone Nathaniel was a monster waiting to do bad, so I had to be extra-normal all the time to pull the household average closer to that dot, that safe place. So never, I never got angry.
Except one time. I think last year, just once. I’ll check the year on the stone Saturday, also I’ll bring a new copy of People to help remember what this year is (she still gets magazines in the mail, they don’t care she’s dead).
Right, so one time I got angry and I was bad. I remember it all dark, like dark night inside the house, and nothing but Louisa’s white thin face, blue smoke puffing from her red mouth. She said Nathaniel’s father Nathan was coming to stay and they’d be together, she and the only good man Nathan and golden Nathaniel, and she expected me to be gone, didn’t fit, not good enough.
So that was the one time, and it only lasted ten seconds. But I was pretty mad, and it was Wednesday again so I was pounding the steak thin like Louisa liked and the tenderizer sank into her soft head.
Ten seconds of being bad felt better than a lifetime of being not good enough.
Then my brother spoke to me. Finally. Right from inside of her, after all those silent waiting years. Brother Stone told me what to do.
I went out, locked up and broke into my own house, then broke into six other houses around town and used the same tenderizer on six people. Sorry, seven people, that one guy had a live-in nurse.
Brother Stone’s plan. He liked doing bad. Monster. But he was smart and it worked. Case is still unsolved.
I did everything he said except I didn’t cut him out of her.
I thought Louisa just crazied up Nathaniel’s father Nathan, but he showed up for real when they were putting Louisa’s box in the ground. Brother Stone kept shouting at me from in the box, said to put Nathan in the hole with him, but I didn’t have the tenderizer anymore and anyway they put in the dirt and I couldn’t hardly hear Brother Stone anymore.
Nathan went away after that, back to Ohio, but just to be sure I got a three-pound hammer and followed and put him in a quarry. Good enough. Every time I swing a blunt instrument I don’t miss. Good enough feels pretty good.
Every Saturday visit I look real close at the dirt because someday Brother Stone will climb up through the dirt. His little stone head will pop out and I’ll swing my hammer and do one good thing for the world.