My Brother, My Father
Stefani Nellen

My brother Andy stood on the crowded platform at Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof, motionless amidst the hurrying Germans. He waved at me with his left hand as I dragged my trolley towards him. His right sleeve was rolled up and tucked together where his hand should have been.

I stretched to pat his back. My belly rubbed against his.

Andy worked in a supermarket at Patrick Henry Village, but he’d taken days off for my visit. One evening, we strolled along the Neckar. Andy fed stale bread to the geese from a paper bag.

“I honestly don’t know what love is,” I told him.

Andy squeezed the paper bag between his handless right arm and his torso and reached for the lump of bread with his left hand. He tore off pieces of bread and tossed them in the water. Geese zeroed in on the floating lumps and quacked for more.

“I don’t know what it is,” I repeated.

Andy twitched his stump. “You want to make sure a girl cuts off a piece of you before you die, Chuck,” he said. “You want people to remember, and you want to remember, too. I remember her every time I try to feed the ducks and drop the bread.”

We rented a pedal boat. Andy let his left hand float in the water and squeezed an open can of beer between his knees. He didn’t pedal. My belly sloshed back and forth as we moved in a wide circle. Adolescent Germans and cuddling couples overtook us left and right.

After some minutes of brooding silence, Andy splashed me with water. “Why do you still talk to dad? What do you talk about?”

“About the surgery. And the soup he had for dinner. I don’t know. He’s lonely.”

“How come,” Andy said.

I stopped pedaling. “He wants to write to you. Can’t I give him your address?”

Andy stomped on the pedals. “Like hell.” The can slipped between his knees. He reached for it with his stump. The can tumbled over and spilled beer between our feet with a faint hiss.

“Damn it!” Andy hit the pedals again. The boat lurched forward. To keep us from hitting the boat next to us, I pedaled along with him. The boat straightened out. The scent of beer rose from the bottom. The foam spiraled between our feet.

“Lonely,” Andy said. “He deserves to be lonely. Being lonely is the tip of the iceberg of things he deserves.” He pedaled faster. “He’d deserve it if the surgeon forgot a scalpel in his fat stomach.” His cheeks bulged in the evening sun, wobbling in synch with him pushing the pedals, nostrils pumping, eyes squeezed shut, an angry babyface. We’d left the other boats behind and approached the shadow under the Alte Brücke. I stopped pedaling. The boat swerved to the left and headed for the pier.

Andy’s breath came short and fast, rhythmic, a steam locomotive. He twisted the small steering wheel with his good hand and set us on collision course with the mossy stones.

“Andy,” I said, “stop!”

He knees moved like pistons. I threw myself against him. We slid over, his legs lost contact with the pedals, the boat tilted. My girth kept me locked against him, breathing against his neck, his stump squeezed against my breast.

We drifted until the boat hit the pier with a soft crunch.

Andy picked up the empty can and crunched it with his left hand. “How can you stand him?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just can.”

* * *

Andy wrote seldom. I e-mailed him pictures of Becky and my daughter throughout the years, bragging with my fatherhood. Each Christmas, I sent him a photographer-engineered portrait of my family, until Andy replied. “You all look real sick in front of that shade of khaki. Thought you’d like to know. I suggest pink for next Xmas.”

Andy moved back to the States, settled in Dayton, and worked in a bookstore. He complained about losing his hair. After a while, his letters stopped.

* * *

One evening, a year or so after my divorce, Dad and I sat in his backyard. The sun shone on the table between us. His gnarled hands made a ring on the table. At that time, it was already questionable whether or not he understood everything I said. Both his brain and his ears were tired. He was seventy years old on paper, ninety in his body, from drinking.

The falling leaves and the smell of moist wood and fires made me feel my life was not completely over, but at a point where it wouldn’t change anymore, so I might as well judge it right there and then.

I made a ring with my hands, like Dad, and looked up at him.

Dad nodded with his toothless smile. His eyes were like an animal’s, brown and good.

A neat row of boxes and folders sat in my basement. All the useless things I’d protected from mold. I looked away from Father, at the lawnmower sitting on his lawn.

Something dry and hard crawled over my hands. I had to think of a turtle, it moved so slowly. The hard and dry thing rested on my hands for a while. It was my father’s hand. When he saw that I saw it, he patted my hands and smiled.

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