The Only Way to Fly
When I got into
New Orleans at three o’clock that afternoon, my brother Eddie was waiting for
me at the Greyhound station. Seeing him for the first time in fifteen years,
remembering what he’d done to me when we were younger, which went by the name
of rape, and worse, since we were brother and sister, incest, I felt sick,
rubbery in the knees, and I didn’t know if I could go through with what I’d
come to do and kill him. But I told myself that by the end of the day, he’d be
dead, and this would be over.
“How the hell are ya, sis?” he asked
me—like he didn’t know. Like this whole damn mess of our lives wasn’t his
fault. And now he wanted me to sign over my half of our parents’ house on
Louisiana Avenue Parkway, so he could sell it off to a goddamn real estate
developer and pocket the dough. For my pain all I had was the memory of those
windchimes Mama had hung out my back-bedroom window, sounding while Eddie
climbed on top of me and shoved his little bitty dick in me. That was why I’d
come back here with my plan to kill him.
“Divorced,” I said, trying to sound
cheery about it, “for one.”
And I showed him the tan line on my
finger, which hadn’t filled in yet. Not that I was a big believer in romance,
since getting dicked down against her will by her own brother has a way of
shattering a girl’s illusions, but the fact that marriage hadn’t worked out was
still a disappointment. My ex was a former Army Ranger, and we’d shacked up for
a couple years in an RV near Point Reyes in Northern California, but one thing
had led to another, both of us damaged goods, with what his Army shrink called
PTSD, so before too long, try as we might to figure things out, we’d had to go
our separate ways.
Eddie’s lip drooped, like maybe he’d
had a stroke in the fifteen years since I’d seen him, but I guessed some things
hadn’t changed because he was still a slob. He was in a Saints warmup jersey
with food stains down the front—like they would’ve let him anywhere near
training camp, not even if he did play linebacker back in his salad days at
Brother Martin—and he was out of breath, winded walking from his car. “I didn’t
even know you was married,” he said, huffing.
“Happened so fast, I almost didn’t
know it, either.” And God, it felt like it had been over just as quick. My
brother’s face was pale, doughy. Did Eddie still feel possessive of me, like he
had when we were teenagers, and he used to chase off my boyfriends?
“No suitcase?” He licked his lips,
like maybe he was catching on I wasn’t planning on staying that long. Sweat was
running down his face, which looked like a banana Moon-Pie. My guts twisted up
like a towel with a pit bull tugging on the other end of it as I remembered all
the things that he’d done to me, and I hated him, but he was my brother, so for
a second, God help me, though I was still planning on watching him die, it was
good to see him, too.
Nope, I told him, just that backpack,
which I slung over my shoulder, and which he wasn’t going to touch. Wasn’t much
in there except a change of clothes, a battered copy of The Sirens of Titan,
a Kurt Vonnegut novel I’d managed to read twice on that fifty-five hour bus
ride, and a Bowie knife that ex had given me, which before the end of the day I
planned on driving into my brother’s brain, so as to put us both out of our
He grinned. That was the name of a JJ Cale song Daddy had loved, from the Troubadour
album, and which in our generation, a band called Widespread Panic had covered.
In my greener days, I’d followed that band around the country, living rough, a
free woman, sleeping under the stars, but as far as I’d gone, I’d had
unfinished business here at home. Besides which, for some of us, as the great
poet and philosopher Robert Earl Keen says, the road goes on forever, and the
party never ends.
only way to
fly.” That was the next line of the song. But it was also, in my experience,
true, even if sometimes the things that weighed us down weren’t things
at all. Could fit my whole life in a shopping cart, and I’d spent half of it
sleeping under bridges, but for years I’d struggled under a weight, so I was
here to get rid of something by settling the score with my brother, and maybe
to get a piece of myself back in the bargain.
We drove his maroon Chrysler, like
riding a great big humpback whale up Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
around here.” I rolled my window down. Fifteen years ago, before Katrina, the
last time I’d visited, this had been Crack Central. Now, judging by those
swanky food courts and the bike racks along the sidewalks, it was for the
tourists and the yuppies. I wasn’t sure which was worse, the way it was then or
the way it was now.
“Storm come through and blew
everything away.” Eddie was still trying to catch his breath. His fingers
gripped the wheel, sticking to the leather, so they made a sucking sound when
he pulled them off. He was in khaki shorts, and blue veins showed in his legs.
“Best damn thing ever happened to this place, if you ask me. Give us all a
chance to start over.”
And he made like he was pulling a
lever, flushing everybody out of the neighborhood—like that storm hadn’t nearly
washed his ass out of New Orleans, too. Before they kicked off, our parents had
helped Eddie get back on his feet, buying his first rental unit. Now, he owned
twenty-five of them, short- and long-term vacation stays, and he was spitting
on Mama and Daddy’s graves by selling their place out from under me.
“You should wash your ass, Eddie,” I
said, “because it probably smells.”
He’d always been so easy to mess with
that I hardly took any pleasure in it.
“You don’t need to be mean.” He raised
an arm, gave his pit a sniff. Probably would’ve tried to smell his own balls,
if he could’ve bent far enough. He was pouting. A briefcase was next to him on
the seat, like he thought he was all that and a bag of donuts.
“I’m joshing you.” I cuffed his
shoulder, so he jerked the wheel. “Don’t take it so hard.”
Parliament, same brand Daddy used to smoke after he hung up his spurs as a
session guitarist and drove a United cab, but Eddie made a face, fanning a hand
under his nose.
you mind? I been off them cancer sticks six months now, doctor’s orders, and
Christ, but it’s hard to be around.”
did you turn
into such a big, wet pussy?”
a fight, not yet, so I took another drag and threw the butt out. I reached over
and gave his knee a squeeze. I’d only been smoking to screw with him, anyway.
Almost four by the time we got to our
childhood home, the place where we’d grown up on Louisiana Avenue Parkway.
Inside, those rooms were the same as when we were kids, only now they seemed
smaller, and it rocked me to be there after a decade and a half. In the living
room, that orange couch was sagging into the floor, and it looked like someone
had taken a sledgehammer to the walls. Standing by the back window in my old
bedroom, I tried to psych myself up for what I had to do, which was murder, by
any other name. Had a ticket on the next bus home to San Francisco, which was
scheduled for six, and I was going to disappear back into the streets of that
city, like I’d never been to New Orleans.
“You all right staying alone?” Eddie
was in the doorway. I’d been so lost in my reminiscing that I hadn’t heard him
come in. In that overgrown backyard, the windchimes Mama had hung all those
years ago tinkled, bringing back tortured memories of those nights Eddie had
come to my room, shoving his pointy little pecker in me, and I shivered. The
room was empty, gutted. It smelled like garbage, mold, piss, and Eddie:
man-scent, meaty and unwashed.
“Where’re you planning on sleeping?” I
couldn’t believe he thought he was going to make me stay here. The place
probably didn’t even have electricity, and I couldn’t see a mattress anywhere.
But that was typical Eddie: he’d lock me in the basement, feed me dogfood, and
make me crap in a bucket—worse—if he could get away with it. “Don’t tell me you
got yourself a little girlfriend.”
like when we were kids. Not that Eddie ever had a damn girlfriend. Not unless
he cornered the poor thing and forced her.
“Got a place Uptown.” He looked
pleased with himself, a regular cock-o-the-walk, like he’d just been made King
of the Krewe of Rex. Like those lily-livered bluebloods that passed for royalty
in that city would ever have the likes of him.
“Uptown?” I’d spent half my life
grubbing in the dirt with scum like my brother, living in dumps that made this
place look like a palace. After that divorce, I’d slept in a friend’s car.
Since then, I’d been laying my head in a tent near the Yang Sing Chinese restaurant
on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and I had no work, nothing coming in
except a cash grant from the city for less than a hundred bucks a month, so
yeah, Uptown, that hacked me off. “Aren’t you hoity-toity. Guess you’ve come up
in the world, haven’t you, Eddie?”
Eddie put his finger to his lips and
leaned closer, like he was about to whisper a secret.
to tear this place down, anyway. Been five years since Mama and Daddy went, so
you know there’s no sense sitting on it any longer. Sooner we unload it,
especially with the housing market the way it is now, the better.”
And he opened that briefcase and
handed me the paperwork, which would make my share of the house his. Gave me
the ballpoint and turned his back, so I could use his shoulder to sign.
“That ex of mine was an Army Ranger.”
I clicked the pen, and I might’ve shoved it into the back of his neck, jamming
it into his occipital lobe and swirling it around like stirring a cocktail.
don’t have to
do this, but I’m sitting pretty, and you’re the one taking a Greyhound and
probably selling your ass for a hit of crack, so if you want any dough, sign,
and when this place sells, maybe I’ll kick down a couple grand. You can jerk me
around, hold out as long as you want, but then it’s a waiting game, and I
guarantee you, baby girl, that I can hold out a hell of a lot longer than you
paper out on his shoulder, let the backpack with the knife fall down my arm,
catching it in the crook of my elbow. Always knew he was out to screw me, but
still, it stung. The son of a bitch.
This place’ll sell for three or four hundred thousand, easy.”
shorts up, sniffed. “You know what they say about beggars and choosers.”
hit close to
home, but what could I say? “Guess you’ve got me, Eddie.”
it’s your tough titty, so sign.”
I signed my name, Cassie Urbanski,
next to his, giving up all legal claim to our parents’ property. But my name
meant nothing. I had no bank account, no address, and except for once a month
when I went to pick up my assistance check at the CAAP office on Mission Street
in San Francisco, there was no way to find me, so I was like dandelion seed
floating in the wind.
“You remember those things we did when
we were younger?” I blew on the back of his neck, so the little white hairs
stood on end. Sure, he remembered, I bet, just like I did. We’d done them in
“What’re you talking about?” Eddie
breathed harder. Lord knew he wasn’t in shape for any kind of excitement, so if
I got him all hot and bothered, maybe he’d stroke out and save me the trouble
of stabbing him. Those chimes Mama had hung in the backyard tinkled, like on
those nights Eddie’d come to my bed with his pinching fingers, begging me to
let him cop a feel, squeezing my titties, until he’d pinned me down and taken
what he come for, shoving it in both holes. “You wanted that, too.”
Took all the self-control I had, but
my voice was steady. “You really believe that?”
he gave me a crooked smile. “Why else would you have done it? You were plenty
into it. Yeah, you had a good time.”
like now that he had to think about it, he wasn’t so sure.
“You hear those windchimes, those ones
Mama hung in that tree?”
Eddie’s back stiffened, like he was
starting to get it, the reason I’d come here. But he laughed, like I was just a
strung-out old crack whore. “What the hell are you talking about? Jesus, sis,
you might want to get your head examined if you’re hearing those chimes because
they’re long gone. Shit, I took that tree down, too.”
But no, they were ringing, clear as
day, and a breeze was coming through the window like it had on those nights.
Under the smell of piss and body odor, under the stink of rot, mold, and
mildew, that house still smelled like home. Sad part was that I’d never had the
heart to tell Mama and Daddy about Eddie, so they’d never understood why I’d
left, and they’d probably gone to their graves blaming themselves for their
wayward daughter. “Sometimes I think I still hear those chimes every night.”
they say about California.” He chuckled, still Mister Cool, Calm, and
Collected. “What ain’t fruits and nuts is cereal.”
Up to then,
I’d still been wondering if I could actually kill him, my own brother. But for
whatever reason, that was what sealed the deal and made me mad enough I knew I
could do it. He couldn’t even get the joke right.
“It’s flakes, Eddie. That’s the
punchline: California is like cereal because it’s full of fruits, nuts, and
turn, his fists balled, an angry look that sent shockwaves down to my knees
because of how many times I’d seen it when we were younger. “You always did
think you were smarter than everybody. Maybe it’s time somebody taught you
better than that.”
holding that pen, and I dropped it. Dropped that piece of paper I’d just
signed, too. I unzipped that backpack, stuck my hand in.
you got gumbo on your shirt.”
ex hadn’t given
me much, but he’d taught me a few things about human anatomy, and he’d showed
me how to use that knife.
down the front of his jersey, I drove the blade into the side of his neck,
slicing between his C6 and C7 vertebrae, cutting the spinal connection to his
brain—lights out—and putting him down like an animal. It was over in seconds.
He jumped like I’d given him an electric shock, and he dropped like a puppet
getting its strings snipped.
me about the blood, and it was a regular Old Faithful. That was why I’d brought
that change of clothes. As it turned out, the water hadn’t been shut off, and
the power hadn’t been cut, either. That was nice. Been a while since I’d taken
a hot shower.
was quiet. Took me a minute to realize it, but those chimes were gone. Was I
crazy, like he’d said? Had I been imagining them? No, sure enough, I’d been
hearing them all those years, and they were finally done.
and my old clothes in the sink, dropped them in that backpack, and threw it
over my shoulder. Later, I’d get rid of it, stuff it in a garbage bin when the
bus stopped in West Texas, but even now, my load felt lighter. In the mirror,
blue eyes glared out of a stranger’s face. She was that person you try not to
see on the neutral ground shaking a plastic cup, holding a cardboard sign. You
look at her all asquint, and you’d just as soon forget her, drive past, and
never know her story.
I found a last hundred bucks in his wallet. That
would get me as far as I needed to go, or anyway, as far as the next thing,
back home to San Francisco.
writing has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2012, Witness,
Great Jones Street, and many other places. He won the 2019 Gold Medal
for Best Novel-in-Progress from the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society. He lives
in New Orleans, where he makes a living as a freelance writer and editor. He
has taught writing at a number of institutions, including San Francisco State
University, Northwest Arkansas Community College, and the New Orleans Writers
Workshop, which he co-founded. He moonlights as a country singer.