“You boys are just putting stress on your knees, pulling at each other’s ankles like a couple of monkeys. That old clothesline won’t make a bit of difference and if you keep on, it’s gonna just fall with the both of you. It can barely stand up to all the laundry in the house.”
Arnie’s mother watched her 2 sons go through the same routine every summer. Steven was noticeably taller than his older brother, which was something of a burden for Arnie, who would constantly walk in on the right conversations at the wrong time.
Their real mothers were not the same. Their blood fathers never met, but they took equal turns dangling from the clothesline—3 copper strings with vinyl coating resembling aquamarine veins tightly coiled around the hollow points and screw heads strong enough to hold their disproportionate weight. Even though there was a skewed height-to-age ratio between them, Steven and Arnie still wanted to be at least as tall as their old man (Michael). Arnie knew him as a guy who idolized pulp anti-heroes like Tarzan and The Punisher. Steven admired his dad as a dedicated hunter.
They took equal turns alternating roles as stretcher/stretchee—one boy would hang from the edge and the other would tug at his brother’s knees until instructed otherwise.
Afterwards they’d rush into the bathroom and mark their progress on the wall with a sharpie and Michael’s tape measure. Some days they were taller, some days shorter; their lines were too bold or too weak, their hands weren’t steady when they made the mark, etc. In Steven’s case, it was all these completely explainable things, but for Arnie, there was more to the story. He had plenty of suspicions.
That’s not to say that Steven wasn’t self-conscious about things, such as his weight. Being a slightly chunkier kid than many in his class, he garnered more than his fair share of school bus teasing. Arnie publicly admonished anyone making comments about his brother, but secretly found a bit of resolve in the fact that he wasn’t as fat.
It can be said that Steven’s negative self-body image had something to do with his choice of the family dog, Beau—a basset hound with an abnormally stout center of gravity. Beau’s ears drug the dirt. His snot was always black.
Beau’s tongue was always parched and flecked with white paint chips and in the shade of his doghouse his eyes were cerulean.
His water bowl was constantly empty. His general demeanor was getting nastier with the negligent days that lay ahead of him.
“He’s been in that pen for so long now, he’s gotten territorial, what with the coyotes sniffing around the chicken coops at night… And you boys hardly change his water pan anymore. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.” Michael would often complain.
But to be fair to Steven, he had his reasons for avoiding the dog pen. Beau had bitten him twice by the time the Fabri boys were 7 & 8. It was especially devastating for the boy [Steven] who wanted the dog in the first place. Now he refused to step within more than a few feet of Beau, who held onto his previous aggression without chance of changing.
* * *
That afternoon Steven and Arnie had been at their stretching routine for a good hour when their mother called from the kitchen window, asking the boys to take Beau some food and water for the day. The two gathered the bag of Gravy Train and a used milk jug filled with tap water. When they approached the fence, Beau spit and snarled at their feet from behind the gate, tugging at the leash so hard that it began to loosen from its hook.
Arnie opened the gate and went to open the GT bag while Steven slowly made his way toward the watering bowl. Beau was within reach when he went to pour. Arnie heard a rubber snap, before turning to find his brother wailing beneath the dog, his bloody wrist in its mouth.
* * *
Without hesitation, Arnie lept over the fence and landed just shy of breaking his ankle in a full sprint to grab one of the tobacco sticks the boys had been sword fighting with earlier. By the time he returned, Beau had moved from Steven’s wrist to his shoulder, the frightened kid rolling around in the dirt with black snot dripping off the side of his face. Arnie swung as hard as he could catching the dog in the left temple and sending it careening into the fence. Steven scurried to his feet and rushed to the house. Their mother finally aware of the situation, ran out to meet him, scooped him up and carried him inside.
* * *
“Get out of there and lock that pen this instant Arnie!” she bellowed as the screen door shut behind her. When everything had settled, the boys out of harm’s way and Beau secured once again, Michael came home and found his youngest son’s blood in the grass.
* * *
Eventually the clothesline gave way like their mother had promised. Arnie was around 4’7 when his brother weighed 185 lbs. It knocked the wind out of Steven, but didn’t curb the constant bragging that ensued for weeks if not months after the wires had snapped.
The fall itself was a result of a record-breaking hang which lasted 5 minutes, 6ft off the ground. Steven proved his point well enough, that even though he weighed more than his older brother, he could still hang in there the longest.
From that moment on the competition escalated between the Fabri brothers—stretching gave way to constant provocation, only halting behind the white noise ringing in their ears watching the sun fall away at dusk. Steven and Arnie were prone to the same high pitched silence; listening for coyotes in the brush below the acreage, both boys’ languid, short tempered spirits in bare feet—thirsty and poised on the limbs of a mimosa tree.
Steven was obsessed with collecting the cicada/locust skins on the branches he could reach. Sure he was taller but still unable to climb as high or see as far.
Arnie justified his impulse to shame his little brother with Beau’s one good eye, Steven’s subterfuge, his fat fucking cheeks and the obviously different reception they’d get at family/school/church gatherings. Steven was clearly nervous about talking about his brother around his friends. Arnie’s impulse control revolved around his exposure to confusing and socially embarrassing situations and when Steven would say something to the effect of:
“Well, we’re both adopted, but I think his mom is black or something. My parents kinda keep it all a secret,” and Arnie was in ear shot, he responded with an observation of his own.
Arnie’s mother was always on guard about his impulse control problems, making the unexpected practically nil when it came to all things Arnie related. Even as an infant, she was older than Methuselah to the boy; Mother Methuselah and her token black baby were a sign of goodwill and devotion in the eyes of the congregation at the Mt. Washington Baptist Church.
Veda Fabri did what she could to keep watch over the boys volatile interactions and the Holy Spirit was a constant rock in her corner—a corner bereft of contemplative silence—a portrait of the real nuclear family hung by the nail of instinct and ready to crash out of sight at any moment.
Michael Fabri: “And Arnie’s not getting any better from what we can tell. When he hit the dog and took out its eye, we chalked that up to him just, you know, looking out for his little brother. There weren’t nothing malicious about it. He was just scared.”
Pastor Wayne: “And what do you think’s caused his latest behavior?”
Veda Fabri: “The boys like to pick at each other, a lot, and sometimes they get carried away is all.”
MF: “No Marie, there’s rough-housing, and then there’s this kind of sh-, pardon me reverend, this kind of stuff.”
PW: “When you say this kind of stuff, you’re referring to one particular incident, or several?”
MF: “Depends on how you look at it. You’ve been to my house Brother Wayne. You know there’s always stray cats of some sort wandering up the hill and making their bed under the house. Mind you, I’m not really big on cats, but the boys really take to ‘em and after everything that’d happened, well, me and Marie decided to let ‘em keep a few kittens from a litter that had popped up last summer.”
VF: “It was more your decision than mine, I’d like to add.”
* * *
MF: “… Anyway, a few weeks ago me and Marie come home from work and find Steven crying at the kitchen table. The only thing we can get out of ‘em is: They’re just hanging there. Help them. He just keeps sobbing and repeating himself, over and over. Help them, help them. And he’s got these little post-it-notes strewn out all over the table—it’s clearly Arnie’s chicken scratch.”
VF: “That’s when I look out the window and see ‘em.”
PW: “See who?”
MF: “The kittens, well not all of ‘em, but we’re betting all that Arnie could round up. He’s got their paws tied together with big bands of yarn and duct tape, hanging from the clothesline like little P.O.W.’s. He’s not hurt ‘em really, but they’re all just hanging there crying and struggling to work free of the knots.”
PW: “Where’s Arnie in all of this?”
* * *
VF: “He’s hiding on the side of the house. I’d say, he more or less bragged about it when we found him. Half the time we leave ‘em alone we can worry about maybe an argument over the TV, or maybe a door is off the hinges by the time we get home. We’ve really come to expect that and the boys know there are punishments for their bad behavior. But this, this… And it didn’t stop there. If it’s not something alive, Arnie’s taking Steven’s stuffed animals and country tapes—burying them in the backyard. I don’t want to say we’ve come to the end of our rope here, because through all of the tantrums and everything, we’ve dealt with it the best we know how. He breaks things on purpose. He fights other kids at church, school, daycare you name it. But those are manageable, simple problems.”
MF: “We don’t know what the right punishment should be here Brother Wayne. How do you chastise a boy for doing something like hanging cats from a clothesline? Do I spank him, ground him, put him in a hospital? What?”
PW: “Well although I am not one of those preachers adverse to the ways of modern medicine, I certainly don’t think a mental ward is the solution here. What Arnie seems to be lacking is proper guidance. I say that not as a reflection of your parenting skills, but more about the connection with his spirituality lacking in his day to day interactions, not just with yourselves and the rest of the family, but his peers as well. Without God in our lives, sometimes we can only see people for their flaws, what they’ve done wrong to us and clearly Arnie’s placed a fair amount of blame on his younger brother about the dog’s eye.”
“So he’s acting out in the only way he can without really hurting something that Steven holds dear. Even though it’s hard to see, there’s still love shown for his brother. There’s a bit of mercy that only comes from true compassion.”
VF: “… I don’t know Brother Wayne. I see little diff-”
PW: “The point, Sister Veda, is that God is watching over the boys and has stayed Arnie’s hand in times when he really needed it. That’s a blessing we should not exploit necessarily, but take advantage of before the situation progresses any further. We all know your family as regular attendees to Sunday/Wednesday services. Brother Michael, you’ve been a real asset since taking on the role of deacon in our congregation. But what I notice when I look at little Arnie, ducking down in the pews when the songs are sung and everyone else is standing, is a reluctance to fully accept the testimony.”
“I see a young soul unaware of where he came from and feeling out of place, one who is desperate for the grace of God to take over and give him an identity. I see a future instrument for the spreading of His word, a word needed in the weary and downtrodden paths of children in similar situations; those with little to no identity, no past to speak of, finding the way of the Lord and themselves in the process.”
PW: “Guys, I know it’s all I talk about up there on Sunday morning, but have you all ever sat down and really discussed salvation with him? I mean, really talked with him about the saving grace of Jesus Christ?”
The bricks along the foundation of the Fabri house were held together by serrated lime mortar and if you ran a finger along the lime itself, it left white streaks on your fingertips.
Veda kept a revolving cast of rose/azalea beds growing below the kitchen windowsill. The smell of manure was relatively faint, unless the boys were close enough to the shit. At the back door of the house was a stoop no bigger than 36” X 24” in diameter. It was worn, breaking away from its bond with the rest of the house—definitive crevices turning to dark and dependent holes for spiders, ants, various classes of arthropods and lizards.
The boys never got along as well as they did when chasing critters around the yard. Often times, Veda would come out to gas the mower or water the plants, her Amish-woven sun hat and baby blue button up dirty from the subsequent messes of the day, and find them hovering over the cracks in the stoop or digging in the dead spots of her gardens.
“You boys ought not to be playing with that dirt. There’s cat shit in those plants.”
But the boys were just as stubborn as their father and as soon as Veda would turn her attention to other areas of the yard, there they were again, digging after grub worms and blue-tailed ground finks with a spade.
After their discussion with Brother Wayne, Veda & Michael decided to keep a closer eye on Arnie and really make an attempt to bring up the Lord’s majesty in idle conversation. Although he was hesitant at first, Arnie eventually complied with his parent’s suggestion to visit with Brother Wayne after Sunday services in the basement of the church. In the meeting, the boy divulged his reluctance to fully join the immediate congregation, on account of the difference in his skin color from that of every other person who attended.
Besides Arnie, there’d been only one other black person to visit the church since the late 60’s, and although his was not as anxiety ridden a presence, Arnie had issues with some of the kids in his Sunday school making off-color comments about the differences in his family.
When he expressed this to Brother Wayne, the young pastor reminded him that the word race does not appear in a preferred context within the bible, quoting passages from the book of Matthew as reference.
Arnie replied that near the monkey bars, when the grownups weren’t around, God may have been present, but he was tardy. The pastor laughed and assured the young boy that even in the most difficult times, God is there, on time, and will always pick up the fractured spirit.
After what seemed like a sincere moment with Brother Wayne, Arnie left the basement feeling somewhat reaffirmed that someone was indeed watching over; Brother Wayne assured him that through prayer and study, he could find a little voice hanging over his head. The boy had nothing to prove other than his utter dedication to the faith, simple as that.
“Be open to the will of the Lord and He will guide you.”
One afternoon after a long week of rain, the boys cornered a Lugelose Salamander in the rose bed near the cellar. Steven hunched closely over his shoulder as Arnie dug after it with the garden spade.
Arnie spotted the edge of its orange tail just before the white noise hit him and his vision blurred. He squatted out of position as Steven took up the spade and continued digging in his place. Suddenly Arnie could hear voices, a low guttural snarl that picked up volume with every scratch against the stone. Steven paid no mind to the off look in his brother’s eye.
The voice clarified above the cacophony, quoting a line from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, which Arnie and Steven had been watching all week while cooped up in the house after school.
“Malakai. Malakai. He wants you too, Mala-kai…”
When he recounted the experience to Veda later that night, it wasn’t taken lightly. She was absolutely convinced the voice was something more vile than overexposure to bad horror plots, nor was it something that required the help of a non-denominational therapist.
The pastor was not surprised considering the source of the hallucination, which he equated to being nothing short of the Devil’s work through American media.
It took a few more meetings in the basement to convince him, but Arnie needed the grace of God with no delay. Exorcisms weren’t an option, that’s just not the way their church operated. The Mt. Washington congregation believed in the power of laying hands.
When the baptism was scheduled, there was a prayer rally held the night before—an impromptu Saturday vigil by candlelight, to pray for young Arnie’s soul, that he may know the glory of God’s kingdom.
He was dunked and given a silver bible with velvet taper, two days after his 7th birthday.
No one spoke about the incident near the azalea bed again.
* * *
When the boys were fortunate enough to actually catch a salamander, possession became an over-exerted matter of adamancy and physical dominance. Steven would maintain that although his role in the chase was not as strenuous, there was no way Arnie could’ve caught it on his own.
“I was the one poking at it with the stick buttwipe!”
“But you’re too chicken-shit to grab ’em. Seeing as how I’m not afraid, I’ll hold it as long as I want.”
“That’s not fair! I’m not afraid to touch them either! Here, let me hold it and I’ll show you!”
“No! You’ll just drop it in the grass and then it’ll get away. If you’re really not scared of them, why don’t you try catching your own. I’ll even use the stick this time.”
The boys began to struggle, the slimy hostage between their fingers.
“Look!” Arnie held out his palm while Steven clutched at his wrist. “Look what you made me do! You idiot!”
Steven looked over Arnie’s shoulder, holding the pin he had on his brother’s arm for dear life. Arnie broke free with a quick turn, brought on by the shock of warm guts in his hand, and flung the remains in Steven’s face.
The youngest completely lost it, lunging at his brother’s waist as they fell to the ground rolling. Veda, fully aware of the scuffle at this point, began violently tapping at the weatherproofed glass pane.
“Stop it! Stop it right now boys!”
When she flew out the back door, she carried a Enoz flyswatter missing its plastic head, leaving only the wire fork—its chipped white paint emphasizing the sharpened prong in its place.
After breaking up the fight with 2 swift/equal strikes, the boys were sent to their designated points in the yard and told to wait for Michael to get home. Steven stood directly beneath the windowsill, while Arnie the far left end of the stoop.
Above the topsoil were tiny dolostones and other sedimentary rocks that had migrated from the driveway. Steven, still sore about everything, picked one up and threw it. The rock missed, but served to ignite what had begun as another one of their harmless rock fights
But with the mounting animosity and the impending punishment hanging over their heads, Arnie and Steven took the current engagement more seriously.
When Steven threw his 6th rock, it caught Arnie in the leg. Arnie returned the favor by landing a stone throw dead shot middle of his brother’s flabby chest.
It didn’t hurt as much as Steven put on, but it did enough to justify the next toss, which caught Arnie square in the forehead and left a noticeable whelp.
“Hahahaha! That’s what you get! Who’s chickenshit now?”
Arnie doubled over, his eyes watery and forehead throbbing. Without looking up he could hear the dolostones bouncing off the house and landing in the azaleas. When his eyes dried, at his foot lay an idle brick.
He didn’t hesitate. Not for a second.
 Grandpas, nephews, aunts, even their dad agreed the height/weight difference was simply a matter of Arnie’s weak appetite versus Steven’s better genes. Their mother held onto the belief that it was simply one of God’s mysteries and didn’t really question it further.
 Both the boys were adopted from different families.
 One in particular involving the neighbor kid as a stretcher sub for days when Steven was home alone, which was not very often, but often enough to get in a few extra stretches before anyone was the wiser.
 The house was surrounded by 8 inches of weeds and a 16 X 32 in. iron posted pen. It was held upright by tar slabs in the hot weeds, by long brass nails laid across the roof like the trunk segments of a millipede.
 Beau’s left eye twinkled unseen in the shade of a mimosa tree for several days after, until it was finally minced by the blades of the lawn mower.
 “Well, at least I don’t have a funnel dick like yours.”
 Who financed their Vacation Bible School with money from The Mannsville Mafia’s weed operations.
 GIVE ME YOUR PINK PIGGY BANK WITH ALL THE MONEY OR GIZMO GETS IT!
I KNOW YOU AND SEAN ARE CHEATING AT HANGMAN. YOU LIKE MY NEW PARTNER, FUNNEL DICK?
 If you really pressed down, it was sure to give you something akin to a deep paper cut.
 “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”
 It had slipped out of reach and burrowed into the topsoil near the edge of the cellar door.
 Of course anyone remotely familiar with paracusis and child psychology, could say that the voices are PTSD related, especially considering the current identity crisis Arnie’s experiencing. Granted the boy has all but exhausted himself digging for something that’s just going to slip out of his hands in the end. But, at least he grows up with an impeccable memory for all things pop culture related.
 After all, with their Nintendos and rock fights, there’s never been a time when Steven came to her and said, Oh guess what, I heard someone talking to me from a hole in the ground; someone that wasn’t Jesus. She’s also pretty upset about the boys watching an unapproved movie in the first place…
 Indeed, it was Steven’s persistent prodding that would usually force them out of the many shadows of the back stoop, where his brother was waiting and ready.
 After his brother’s death, Arnie placed the appropriate blame on himself. His father, although outwardly expressive about his oldest son’s innocence, became a shell of the image Arnie held in such high regard. Veda didn’t speak for an entire year afterwards, and when Arnie was finally released from the hospital (6 years later), whenever he’d enter the same room of the house, she would simply look up from her Sudoko puzzles and glare at him remaining stationed, until the stoicism subsided with tears and accusations. To this day, their relationship still suffers.
In place of a promising career at a fish packing facility in Nanek, AK, Frankie Met is the author of A.P.C., The Anarchist’s Blac Book of Poetry & forthcoming prose novella The Professional Donor. He is the co-founder of Kleft Jaw Press, a co-star w/ Bob Odenkirk on Better Call Saul (ok, slight exaggeration-featured extra/stand-in on the show,) & smokes hella weed. Frankie has been published in numerous online/print journals including: Kerouac’s Dog Magazine, Unlikely Stories, Carcinogenic Poetry/Virgogray Press, Alt Poetics, Underground Voices, & Drunk Monkeys among others.