A quick introduction: I’ve co-opted the name “quick story” of a once popular literary website, now sadly gone from cyberspace. I’ve never been a big fan of either “flash fiction,” although I once called my works under a thousand words “microfiction.” Flash suggests that the work won’t long remain in your thoughts, which is not always the case. Micro suggests a work in miniature, or perhaps on a technological topic. But a quick story means not very long, and suggests an impact of undetermined duration. So I like it a lot, and that’s mostly — but not always — what you’ll read here at “My Brain on Grape-Nuts.” According to WordsIntoTime, “Social Distancing” will take you 9.7 minutes to read.
I’M STANDING on a red X in the checkout line at the hardware store. There are about fifteen of us on these circles, waiting to buy our screws and bolts and lawn food. I left my phone in the car, so I’m bored, just looking around at all the signs which read PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING and checking out how many people lined up in front of me aren’t wearing masks. “Her Strut” by Bob Seger is playing over the tinny little speakers in the ceiling. The music sounds like it’s been run through a food processor.
I think I recognize a guy way up the line in front of me and something goes, “Aw, SNAP!” in my brain, like on the internet, and I think it’s my little brother. He’s chunky, unkempt, has really bad posture. Just like my brother. But it probably isn’t my brother, who could be the guy who invented social distancing, because he wouldn’t be standing in a shopping line. But if it was him, and now I’m sure it’s not, he’d think social distancing was a great idea. He would be loving it that people had to stay six feet away from him, not trying to talk to him. He’d be glaring at them, just in case they were drifting off their circle or scooching up too close behind him. My brother would be the first to join the Social Distancing Police.
I’m sure you’ve seen the phrase on little kids’ T-shirts (OK, maybe adults, too) that goes “Doesn’t Play Well With Others.” That was my brother. I was always bringing kids home after school for cookies and milk and horsing around, at which point my brother would go into his bedroom and lock the door. When you’re a little kid you don’t really analyze other kids’ behavior except maybe to think “He’s kinda weird.” I don’t know what other kids thought of him, because he pretty much never let anybody close enough to decide if they liked him or not.
Our parents were killed driving home from a New Year’s Eve party my senior year. Hit a deer and that was that. Our aunt and uncle came to live with us and my brother hated it. When I was about to leave for college, he bolted out the door, got a job at the sawmill, bought a little land on the edge of town and built himself a cabin close enough to walk to work. People said they saw a car out front once in a while, maybe belonging to some townie girl, but never for long, and never twice.
For my part, I’d stop by the mill or his place once in a while because, after all, he was my kin and I should be responsible for him if I could. He never invited me into his house but came outside, usually with a big cigar stuck in his mouth and a can of beer in his hand. It was a handsome little house, what you might call rustic, with a small wooden porch and a rocking chair my brother sat out on in the nicer weather. Beside the house was a small garage, rustic also, with a door that rolled to one side, triple-padlocked top to bottom. I would ask him how everything was going and he would grunt and nod his big shaggy head. Any more personal questions he would ignore or just stare at me with his steely-small blue eyes until I shuffled away.
One time I said, Hey, let’s go down to the Crescent, get a burger or something, but he just turned and started back toward his front door. It made me feel like he was dismissing me, I suppose, because I shouted at him, You ass. He stopped, turned, and said, Opus esse uno, unum cognoscenti. Then he said, I don’t want to talk to you. If I ever do, I know how to contact you. And he gave me the finger.
Well, that of course was very unsettling for me, but there was nothing I could say or do about it. It was painful every time I drove past his place. It made my moods range from self-pity to fuck-all and everything in between. I realized that the remark about how blood is thicker than water was at best ironic. But all the same, I kept wondering what would make a man isolate himself like this. Was it a feeling of superiority, like being able to spew aphorisms in Latin? Was it a deep-seated insecurity? Low self-esteem? Some inability to join the human race? Did it have to do with our parents’ death at the whim of fate?
Over the years I gave up trying to psychoanalyze my brother, adopting an it-is-what-it-is attitude, which was certainly comforting for my own mental health. Then one day I drove past to see his driveway and lawn strewn with police and sheriff cars, their lights flashing. Officers in assault gear hunched behind car doors, pistols and rifles drawn, all pointing at my brother’s front door. One cop was yelling unintelligibly into a bullhorn. A few spectators watched from a respectful distance. The blood drained from my head and a cold chill went up on the back of my neck. The sight was so horrific I almost lost control of my car. I slammed on the brakes. The tires dug into the dirt and gravel to an abrupt stop.
As I watched, my brother stepped out onto the porch beside the rocking chair and put his hands on his head. Officers rushed up and grabbed him, forcing him face-down on the lawn, and handcuffed him. I now noticed that some were wearing blue windbreakers with three white letters on the back: I R S. Then they roughly dragged him to his feet and shoved him toward a black Suburban. Several other officers ran toward the house and garage. Two of them busted the locks off the garage door and gave it a shove. The Suburban started up and moved toward the garage, its headlights illuminating the interior. I saw big, square, chest-high piles of what looked like currency, neatly stacked on pallets. The officers conferred, decided to lock up the garage again and moved toward their cars.
Within a minute or so, everyone was gone. The front door to the house stood wide open and I entered my brother’s house for the first time. There was an easy chair. No TV. All the walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books. I stepped over for a closer look and saw novel after novel by authors, many of whom I recognized. In one corner I spied tall stacks of books on the floor, all the same book. The dust jackets read Death of an Anarchist, and bore the author’s last name, but I didn’t recognize it. Shelved behind the stacks were multiple copies of other titles, all by this same author. I picked several and opened them to the back of the dust jacket, where the author’s bio and picture usually appear. Each just said he was author of other titles, but none had a photo.
I turned around and saw a tiny, tidy kitchen fronted by a rough wooden table and a ladderback wooden chair. An old upright manual typewriter stood beside a tall stack of typed pages. I started to put the books I held down, but changed my mind. As I left, I closed the front door and slipped my mask up over my nose.
Social distancing my ass.