Always Another Straw

Fiction
Tony Press


Chef's Special
Photo Credit: Scott Oakley

I’ve known my brother all my life but I never saw it coming. I didn’t know he was going until he flat-out told me across the kitchen table, the late August sun rising just a bit later than the day before. I was pouring coffee and he could have been saying, “Pass the cream,” like he’d done a million times before, but instead he said:

“Rob Berryhill’s giving me a ride to the station at eleven-thirty.”

“What’s he doing that for?”

“I’m going off to Denton.”

“Denton? What do you need in Denton?”

“I believe I’m going to the college there.”

And that’s how I learned Kenny had taken it upon himself to be a student. He was thirty-four, a full dozen years older than me. I did a computation and figured he’d been out of school as long as he’d been in school, then realized that no, that wasn’t quite right. But it had been a long time.

“When’s he doing that?”

“Who?” Kenny could play dumb when he wanted to. “Berryhill?”

“Yeah. Berryhill.”

“Eleven-thirty.”

My mind latched onto the only logical response. “Well, we still have time to fish. Let’s get moving.”

When we parked at the lake there was just one other vehicle, Charlie Boyd’s rusted camper-shell Chevy.

As we grabbed our gear, I asked Kenny, “What do you think of Charlie’s bumper sticker now?”

“What’s he got this time, I missed it.”

“It says: ‘My kid fought in Iraq so yours can party in college.’

“Does it? Is that what I’m going to do? I’m not even sure ‘party’ is a verb.”

“Don’t look to me. That’s for your professors.”

“‘My kid fought in Iraq, blah, blah?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Beats me. I didn’t even know Charlie had a kid.”

“I don’t believe he does,” Kenny concluded, and we dropped our lines.

We fished but it was desultory. That’s not a word I often use, but that’s exactly what it was. Or maybe it wasn’t, because it wasn’t negative at all. It is a delicious thing to greet the day with your brother beside you as the water laps at your feet. All things are possible in the morning sun, especially on a lakeshore. As I tended to do at that spot, I recalled Kenny reading The Wind in the Willows to me during my otherwise lonely childhood. That image from the “Gates of Dawn” chapter always sparkles to the surface:

“…in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event.”

I don’t know why teachers never assigned that book in school. I understand more things each year but some things refuse explanation.

On the way back to town we stopped at the pancake place. They don’t make pancakes anymore, haven’t changed the sign, but Della can still fry eggs, despite losing her best waitress, her husband, and three fingers off her right hand on Fourth of July weekend.

Kenny paid his respects at the counter and ordered for both of us. When he joined me in the corner booth I asked how Della was doing.

“Don’t know. I asked if the highway deciding not to come this way after all was maybe the last straw for her, but she didn’t say anything.”

“You’re sure she heard you?”

“Oh, yeah, it wasn’t true about her hearing,” Kenny replied. “She’s just tired of listening to people ‘half-commiserate, half-gloat’ about her old man and Irene, so she let on that she’d lost a bit in her left ear. Except for her hand, she’s fine.”

“You think her husband knew about the highway?”

“That’s another professor question.”

Della arrived with a pot of coffee and not one word. We followed her lead until she came back with our eggs, mine scrambled, his over-easy, home fries, and extra toast. Kenny tried again:

“Della, are you at peace so soon?”

“Do I look like I am at peace? If I do, you both need glasses. Or in your case, Kenny, a new prescription. The damn thing is she was such a good worker. She’s the one I miss. Piper, if this place ever gets busy again, you’ve got a job if you want it.”

“Thanks, Della, but I’m done with restaurant work—or any indoor stuff. I’m getting enough work with the tree service. But I appreciate it.”

Kenny asked her, “What about Clark?”

“What about him? He was pretty much a zero the last few years anyway. I don’t get what she sees that I didn’t, but I don’t guess I need to.”

She left us, leaving Kenny to confess what each of us remembered:

“We were sitting right here, the first day Irene came in, wearing that T-shirt that said Not Everything in Nebraska is Flat. I finally understood the term ‘visual aid.'”

“Maybe you are ready for college.”

We ate, nothing more to say. Kenny grabbed the check so I got the tip. Della called out as the screen door thwacked shut behind us, “There’s always another straw.”

“She’s developing a case of pessimism. You may be fortunate to be leaving town.”

“Fortunate or not,” he said, “it is time to go.”

Dust chased our tires as I eased out onto the two-lane. I wondered how long Kenny had known he was leaving today. I decided I didn’t need to know the answer. He interrupted just as I was concluding that thought.

“I have to admit, it is hard to imagine Irene running off with Clark. She’s the most gorgeous thing to ever hit this town, and Clark? Really? Irene and Clark? Hard to see.”

“Didn’t you always say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ stuff like that?”

“You did listen! Mother would have been proud. I mean, I tried but I knew Irene was never going to see me as anything but a big buddy. She sure did light up a room.”

“She does, she does. So what are you going to study over there anyway?”

“Does? I believe that’s a present-tense verb. I was thinking engineering, but maybe I’m a natural for English. ‘Does?‘ Do you know something I don’t know? I mean, something in particular, aside from the multitude of things you know that I haven’t a clue about.”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“I’m your big brother and I can toss you across a room if I want to, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell me.”

“Kenny, can you keep a secret?”

“Okay, yes, I can keep a secret.”

“Clark and Irene did leave together, but he just gave her a ride to the old Jefferson cabin on his own way out of town. Where he is nobody knows, and if Della doesn’t care, I don’t think anyone else needs to either.”

“You mean she’s been across the lake from us all this time? What’s she doing out there?”

“She’s painting. And meditating. And making room for me almost every night.”

“You rascal! You red-faced little punk! Damn! You and Irene. Damn!”

We walked back into the house. Kenny lugged his already-packed duffel bag to the porch to be ready for Rob Berryhill and I sat down on the steps with him. We sat a minute before he laughed, repeated his “Damn! Irene! Damn!” then jumped up and ran back into his room.

He came back and plopped a book next to me. “Give her this, will you. She told me she’d never read it.” It was The Wind in the Willows, the faded red paperback edition. “Now I know she’ll love it.”

“She’ll get it tonight. I was going to tell you, we were going to have you out to the cabin, have a barbecue, but here you are leaving town on us.”

We heard Rob’s VW before we saw it. It coughed and barked but it always got people where they needed to go. Kenny hugged me and whispered:

“Piper, I have to admit I’m jealous as hell, but I’ll get over that. Mostly I’m thrilled for you. My baby sib is growing up.”

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Tony Press lives near San Francisco and strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses, Boston Literary, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, Qarrtsiluni, Rio Grande Review, riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Naugatuck River Review, Postcard Press, Right Hand Pointing, Spitball, Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature, Toasted Cheese. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

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