Of Knights and Men

Michael shuffled into our bedroom, sidestepping the large X-men action figures that were engaged in an epic struggle on the floor. So epic, in fact, that Michael hadn’t picked up those toys in over a week. He was holding a book, one of his big books with the glossy pictures and large, bold faced words. 

    “Read,” he grunted, tossing the book onto my bed. He stood there, staring at me until I set aside my comic and sat up. 

    “New book?” I asked.

    “Yes. New book. Has knights. Dragons, too.” My brother grinned, and I saw his yellowing teeth, the teeth he refused to brush, just like the unibrow that was starting to grow between his eyebrows that he refused to shave. He was nineteen, and outweighed me by a hundred pounds. He resembled a bunch of large rocks, hastily stacked together, a goofy smile and glazed eyes painted on. 

    “Have you tried reading it yourself?” My voice took on a parenting tone that I hated, but I couldn’t help it. Michael’s brain operated at a third grade level; he was like the Incredible Hulk: big, strong, ugly and dumb. When I read “Of Mice and Men” in my English Comp class, I called him Lenny for weeks. Then we got the part where George shoots Lenny in the back of the head, and I stopped calling him that.

    Michael looked at his feet. “No, Paul, I ain’t tried reading it. I just like the pictures. You read it to me though, right?”

    His stilted, stumbling speech, his big, sad brown eyes. I sighed and patted the bed next to me. He grinned, and hefted his giant body onto the bedspread, the entire frame groaning and squeaking. He smelled like body odor and bubblegum; he’d just gotten home from his job pushing carts at the grocery store a few blocks away. Sometimes kids in my school would talk about him, make fun of him, call him the Troll, like from Harry Potter. I wanted to stand up to them, be the heroic brother and all that, but I always kept my mouth shut. It was easier that way.

    We flipped open the book. It was called “Medieval Magic”, and depicted a trio of Knights as they battled all sorts of creatures to get a legendary sword, held by an evil king. I didn’t see why they needed the sword after they killed all the monsters, but Michael thought it was the greatest book in the world.

    “Turn back! Turn back!”

    I flipped back to a page that showed a hooded rider on a black horse that had red eyes. The rider was retreating from the castle where the knights had defeated the king. 

    “Who’s that?” Michael asked.

    I shrugged; it looked to be a page we had skipped; it was right between the Knights striking the king down and seizing the sword, and the celebration in the castle. I leaned down and read aloud: “The dark King was defeated… he retreated into the night, but swore his revenge on the Knights.”

    “What does that mean?” Michael asked. He looked very alarmed. 

    I laughed. “Just means that the bad King will be after the Knights again. Like in Power Rangers, how the bad guys come back?”

    He nodded. “Goldar comes back all the time.”

    “That he does.”

    Michael took the book and hoisted himself up, grunting with the effort. He snatched the book away and paced the room, flipping through the pages, unibrow furrowed. I could hear the rusty gears turning in his mind, the entire mechanical system lurching and groaning as it strained to produce an idea. 

    I picked up my comic book and went back to flipping through it, my thoughts consumed with a girl in my Civics class. I heard Michael rampaging around the room, pushing toys out of the way, upending boxes of Legos, muttering to himself the whole time. Our room was stuck in a kind of limbo; I’d long since given up toys, but Michael clung to possessions and refused to throw them away. 

    “Where is it? I know I had it. Where? All toys, where is it?”

    I thought about getting up and helping him, but my daydream with Civics girl had progressed to a homecoming date, so I relaxed and ignored my brother. It would be easier to help, because I would get yelled at for the state of the room, but I didn’t care. Being Michael’s caretaker was exhausting; he pissed the bed, so our room always had a stale, urine smell like it was a men’s locker room. He threw all of his clothes on the ground, so they got musty and gross until I finally stuck them in the washer. Every afternoon he upended the room, looking for an action figure or his old skateboard. His mind was a lumbering locomotive; clumsy, rusty,  but once it going it was very difficult to stop. He got fixated on ideas, and if something got in the way or the schedule changed, he’d just plunge on ahead. One Halloween he’d dressed up as a werewolf, with fur patches coming out of an old shirt, and blood capsules in his mouth. When he bit the blood capsules, he swallowed the fluid and became sick. He threw up twice but still kept using the blood capsules. He just kept saying that he was a werewolf.

    “Ah!” He whirled around, brandishing a plastic, grey shield we’d gotten from the dollar store. He’d wedged the strap around his wrist. “I’m a knight!”

    “Yep. Now you need a sword.”

    There was another crash, a Buzz Lightyear said: “To infinity, and beyond!” and then Michael was brandishing a green lightsaber. There was a whistling sound, and then the hard plastic came rapping down onto my knuckle. 

    “Ow! Fuck!” I leapt off the bed and shoved him, but he hardly moved. 

    “I’m a knight!”

    “You’re a retard, that’s what you are.”

    Downstairs, my dad roared: “Don’t call him that!”

    “Tell him to quit hitting me!”

    “Michael, stop hitting!”

    “I’m a knight!”

    My knuckled was actually bleeding. I brushed past him and went into the bathroom to rinse it off. When I came back into the room, Michael was tying an old t-shirt around his head. “Knights wear these under their armor, right Paul?”

    I gave him the finger, then snagged my coat off the door hook, and went downstairs. My dad was watching baseball, making his way heroically through a case of beer.

    “Where ya goin’?” he asked.

    “To do a lot of drugs and get several girls pregnant.”

    “All right, then. Be home before dark.”

    I didn’t understand my relationship with my dad. Sometimes we got along great; went to ball games, would joke around and watch Austin Powers movies. Other times, he was mad at everyone, mad at me, mad at my mom, mad at the world. One week, I could get away with anything, like the time I blew up Tommy Lince’s mailbox with a bundle of firecrackers. My dad shrugged, told me I should’ve used an M80. 

    Flip the switch, hardly a week later, why isn’t the room clean? Why don’t you have a 4.0? Cut your hair. Fix your clothes. Get that fucking look off your face.

    I went outside, pulling my hood up in case October decided to piss on me. It was chilly, my breath fogging in front of me. When I was a kid, I would pretend I was Godzilla, breathing breath-fire over the city. I decided to try it again, now that I was a teenager. 

    It wasn’t the same.

    I wandered the side streets of my town, gazing at peeling paint and muddy, cracked sidewalks. Grey skies, grey houses… there was an old man sitting on his porch, rocking back and forth in a chair, staring at me… he was grey, too. Everything grey, pasty, sapped of color and strength.

    In my English class, we had a word of the day, and Friday’s word was “melancholy”. It meant: “a feeling of pensive sadness, often without a known cause.” It fit, fit very well, depressingly well. 

    And it was trash day! That fit too. In front of each house was an overflowing trash bin, bulbous sacks of garbage spilling out over the rims, lazy October flies buzzing around them. Every three house or so there was an eviction; mattresses cast out, couches hanging off the curb, bags of clothes stacked like bodies in a zombie horror film. I saw two men wearing gloves and masks hauling a dirty freezer out of a house with a sagging porch. The bottom of the freezer caught on the last step of the porch, and it jolted; the men lost their grip and the freezer crashed to the ground, the door flying open and a bunch of soupy, peach colored water spilled out. The men coughed and gagged, backpedaling away.

    “Why didn’t you clean it out?!”

    “I thought it was empty!”

    I smirked as I walked by, glad that other people were having a terrible day too. I rounded a corner, and passed another junk pile. There was a bunch of toys, a green and blue table set, a Dora the Explorer scooter, and a huge, wooden rocking horse with multiple trash bags slung across the saddle.

    I walked past, stopped, turned around, walked by it again. I walked back and forth three times, trying to decide. How pissed was I at Michael? How much effort did I want to put into an apology? Did I want to encourage his new interest that led to him swatting me with a lightsaber?

    I stood with my hands in my pockets, glaring at the rocking horse. It was built like the Trojan Horse; it stood almost chest level to me, with thick, sturdy legs and a wooden saddle bolted on. It was ugly as shit. It looked like a horse with some sort of mental disorder; the face was crude, a bad carving job, and someone had glued googly eyes on it, so the thing looked like it had been bricked in the head. 

    “A retarded horse for my retarded brother,” I said. The words felt cruel, mean, but sometimes I needed to say it. To be mean. Everyone spent so much time tiptoeing around Michael, doing their fake parent voices, reading him books, always giving in when he threw a tantrum. He was supposed to be my brother. My older brother. Tommy Lince had an older brother; he drove a Mustang and bought Tommy beer. My brother pissed the bed.

    I was halfway home when my anger faded. It wasn’t Michael’s fault. It wasn’t his fault that he’d be a virgin forever, or that he’d never have kids or have a job better than pushing carts. It wasn’t his fault that the most complex thing he could think of was dressing up like a knight from a kids book that blew his goddamn mind. 

    I decided to get the horse out of the trash. But I couldn’t get it alone.

    ***

    “Mike! Where’s that wagon you had?”

    He came thundering down the stairs, nearly crashing into me on the landing. “Huh?”

    “That red wagon? Where is it?”

    “Basement, maybe.”

    “C’mon, give me a hand.”

    Normally if you asked Michael to do something, he’d flat out refuse; it was one of his frustrating qualities. You’d ask him to take out the trash and he’d act like suddenly his disability was debilitating, that he didn’t know left from right. 

    But not this time. He seemed to sense something was going on, something possibly to his benefit. He came into the basement with me, and we dug his old red wagon out from under the stairs, and he even used his Lenny strength to carry it up.

    “Get your coat,” I told him.

    He got it, grinning. “Where we going?”

    “You’re going to help me. We’re going to make you into a real knight.” I left him at the door, tying his shoes, and stuck my head into the living room. Dad was engaged in a final battle with his last four beers. “I’m taking Michael around the block, there’s some toys in the trash.”

    “Wash your hands,” he replied.

    I led Michael to the horse, half-listening as he chatted away. 

    “I’m going to be a real knight. A real one. How’s that? Paul’s got a surprise, huh? Paul’s gonna make me into a real knight. Wow. I’m so excited.”

    We got to the pile, and I pointed at the horse. 

    “It’s got trash on it.”

    “I know, Michael. We’ll clean it.”

    “It’s not black.”

    “Jesus Christ, I’ll spray paint it, alright? I think Dad’s got some in his tool box.”

    We took the bags off and pushed some of the soggy boxes of junk out of the way. “Help me lift it, we’ll put it on the wagon,” I said. We both leaned down and grabbed the bottom. Grunting, we lifted the horse and set it down on the wagon. The base was too large, but we managed to wedge it on there, the metal edges catching on the legs.

    “You push, I’ll pull,” I said.

    Together, we lunged and huffed the rocking horse back to our driveway. It nearly fell once, when we were crossing the street to get back home, but Michael managed to catch it. “Don’t want my horse hurt,” he said.

    We set it down, and I got my dad’s spray paint out of his tool box. “Stand back,” I told Michael. The last thing I needed was for my mom to come home while we were huffing paint fumes.

    I sprayed the thing down, coating it with thick, black streaks. I ran out of paint near the end, so I couldn’t paint the underbelly, but by then Michael was bouncing with excitement. He’d gone inside and came out with the book. He looked like a housing inspector as he examined the horse, comparing it to the picture. 

    “Red!” he exclaimed. He went into dad’s tool box, and came back with the red tape we used on the tail lights. He fumbled with it until I put the spray can down and helped him tear off two pieces. He placed them over the googly eyes.

    “Looks good,” I said. It didn’t. It looked like a warped Halloween decoration, but Michael was thrilled. He ran inside (my dad yelled at him to stop slamming the fuckin’ door) and came back with his shield, the lightsaber, and the t-shirt around his big head.

    With my help, he got on board the horse, and rocked it back and forth, waving the sword over his head. “Knights!” he cried.

    I nodded, smiling.

    “Do I look like the picture, Paul?”

    “Yeah. Exactly like it.”

    He stopped waving the sword and got off. He picked up the book and examined the picture, the one with the dark rider. “No, not really. Look.” He pointed at the castle, then ran his chubby finger along to the lake, then finally to a dead guy hanging from a post that I hadn’t noticed before.

    “What, you want me to hang someone from a tree and build a castle?” 

    Michael laughed. “No, you’re not strong enough. That’s okay. You did good. Almost got it right.” He patted me on the back. “Good try. You’re a good little brother. But you need me to take care of you still.”

    He walked away, holding the sword, and I watched him go, dumbfounded. He was a glorious, idiotic, and majestic Knight. 

    He was my fucking hero. 

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