The Heir | Andrew Coburn
Forced March | Robert Lietz
Dear Leader Dreamer | Gabriel Check
Antipastoral: Dairymen | Amy Groshek
Snapshots of the Epic | Gregory Lawless
Three Reliquaries | Laurence Davies
The Inexorable | Stefanie Freele
Travel Photography | Joshua Walker 
Post-Christmas Inventory | Laura Kolb
Cityscapes, Silos, Blue Nudes | Amber Krieger
Farming Silence | Lauren Ashleigh Kenny
Evan in the Tent | Walter Cummins
Three Poems | Grace Wells

On the Contrary
Archives | Search

Evan in the Tent | Walter Cummins

	 Sunrise dazzled through the double glass of the solarium, a great orange ball hovering above the bare oaks at the far edge of the property. Miranda had to shield her eyes, squint, to make out the shape of her brother’s brown tent pitched under the trees along the bank of the brook. Then a flap moved and Evan stepped out, bare-chested, stretching arms toward the sky, surrounded by a shimmering glow. She almost smiled, reliving an old memory, but he suddenly doubled over and dropped to his knees, head hanging over the water. Though Miranda couldn’t hear a sound, she knew he was retching, sick, in pain. In her thoughts she cursed her stepfather for refusing to let Evan inside the house, for screaming that he wanted her brother out of his life, and she cursed her mother for not fighting back.
	Miranda knew she could slide open the glass door and step on the soft grass, hurry out past flower beds now dry with winter, and embrace Evan, wrap arms around him to still his tremors. But she couldn’t make herself move, remembering how yesterday he had shaken her off, his voice a snarl: “It’s not your problem.” She had sat on the ground beside him and wept, Evan refusing to look at her, slapping the food she brought from her hands and throwing it into the brook. She had watched the soft current carry off slices of bread that vanished behind thick yews.
	A house of four-thousand square feet, twelve rooms, four bathrooms, and her stepfather wouldn’t even let Evan inside to use the toilet. “He married me, not an addict,” her mother had told Miranda, whispering the words. And Charles, the man who had replaced her father, shouted behind closed doors: “It’s bad enough we’ve got her and her kid. When are you going to get rid of him?”
	 Children of privilege, brother and sister, now adults in their thirties, were back to the home of their childhood, the one Charles took over after he married their mother, insisting on replacing the furniture, redecorating, removing all signs of their father, making it his.
	Evan hadn’t been invited to the yard, hadn’t asked permission. Two days ago, three weeks after she left Brad and brought Joseph with a box of his toys and a car full of suitcases, Miranda saw the tent, army surplus, sagging in the middle, ropes in a tangle of stakes. She knew at once it was her brother, though she hadn’t heard from him in months, had lost track since he stopped checking in and out of one rehab facility after another, disappearing in just a few nights, their desperate mother having no idea where he was until the next center called. 
	“Who’s that man?” Joseph had asked the day Evan appeared, pointing out at the shape by the tent, face scrunched in six-year-old puzzlement. Miranda’s mother just shook her head, but Miranda said, “That’s my brother. Your uncle.” The boy wanted to know why he was there, why he wasn’t inside with them. “Because he’s sick, very sick,” Miranda told him. And her mother had fled the room.


	 Evan got down on all fours, wriggling toward the brook, hanging his head over the bank until the chill current rushed over his face. He opened his mouth to gulp water, swish it about to clear the taste of vomit. The brook was so cold it stung, but he couldn’t make himself pull back, as if his existence were nothing but this sense of hurt. Then he had to breathe, sucked in a nose full of water and rolled to his back, gagging and sputtering. It must have looked funny, he told himself, when he was able to sit up, though he didn’t laugh. 
	Frost clung to the grass blades, a silvery coat that reflected the sun. Evan ran an open hand over the tips, clearing streaks of green, swooping in circles, slashing straight lines, fascinated by the patterns that appeared. He stopped abruptly, his stomach aching with great hunger. He ripped up fistfuls of grass and stuffed them into his mouth, chewing madly, smearing dirt across his lips, over his cheeks.
	Shivering, he crept back inside the tent, pulled a shirt over his shoulders, rolled over inside a blanket until he was wrapped in layers. A brown paper bag lay just beyond his fingertips, filled with vials of pills that he had taken from his father’s office. He barely remembered bursting into the office, insisting to the receptionist that he had to see his father, being told his father was with a patient, then pushing his way into an empty treatment room and smashing the lock of a cabinet with rows of medications lined behind glass doors. He had seized handfuls, stuffing them into his pockets, running when he heard his father cry his name, knocking the receptionist off her feet, tripping out the door onto the street.
	Now he reached into the bag to grab the first vial he touched. He popped off the plastic lid with his thumb and slid out two pills, swallowing them, not knowing which they were, not caring. He lay on his back and watched the pinpricks of sunlight at the stitching of the tent until his head spun.


	 Ellen would not look, kept the kitchen window blinds shut day and night, stayed away from the back of the house, trying to pretend her son was not living in a tent two hundred feet away. When his father called about the stolen pills, she pressed the mute button and hummed a tune to herself. She knew he wouldn’t turn their son in to the police, didn’t want their names in the newspapers, the bad publicity. 
	 His voice had been calm, had always been that way, his typical refusal to admit how upset he was. Now she lived with a man, Charles, who never held back, shouting his fury, shouting when she told him Miranda had left her husband, that she and Joseph would be living with them until she established a new life. He had pounded a tabletop, ranting what a mess her children had made of their lives. But she had stood her ground, reminded him she had left their father to be with him. Charles could have said, what about your son? Were you a drug addict too? But he never did, never went that far, rarely mentioning Evan’s name. She expected him to call the police when the tent appeared in the yard, yet all he said was, “Never let him inside this house.” And, though she would not admit it to him, she agreed, relieved that she would not have to be in the same room with her son, not have to relive the years of confrontations, the slammed doors that knocked china off the shelves, the objects that were missing every time he left a room.
	 When her first husband, the doctor, on the phone, started telling her again how Evan had never been on drugs during their marriage, how it all started when Charles came into her life, she had pressed the off button and stared at the silent phone.
	 Ellen would not say anything about the pills to Miranda. They were together all day, pretending to watch television, an excuse not to talk. When Miranda first told her about the tent in the yard, she shook her head and insisted that she didn’t want to know, that Miranda was to report nothing, that her grandson was to know nothing. “If you ever mention your brother, you’ll have to leave this house,” she had said, stunned by the words coming out of her mouth.


	 The doctor shut the door to his private office, tugging the knob to make certain it was closed, then lifted the telephone and poised a finger over the speed dial number. Miranda had left a message about Evan’s tent, crying, choking on her words, pleading. But what would he say to his daughter? Every time he tried to help his son, he ended up reeling, as if a fist had punched him in the stomach. But he knew once he heard Miranda’s voice, he would give in and agree to find a place for Evan. He turned to the framed print on his wall, a Monet that always soothed him with its shimmering greens. Reaching behind him, studying the painting, the doctor set down the phone and awaited the signal for his next patient.


	 When he stopped hugging his stuffed dog and stepped out of his bed, Joseph went directly to the window, as he did for hours since the man his mother called his uncle had appeared in the yard. He would stand and stare, his nose almost touching the glass pane, until his mother called his name. 
	 He had wanted a room next to hers, the way it had been in their house. But this house wasn’t like that. The rooms on both sides of his mother’s, the one that had been hers when she was his age, were used by other people, one to sleep in and one for the office of the man his mother told him to call Grandma’s husband. His mother had wanted him to sleep with her, but that man had said no, his face red and twisted. Joseph knew grownup’s anger, the way his mother and father had shouted at each other. This was louder and worse, frightening him, making him cry. The man said he had to sleep in the small room at the end of the hallway, the one no person had ever used before. His grandmother had told him that as if it surprised her to remember.
	 Other than a picture of a sailboat hung on one wall, the room was barren, no books on the shelves, just a narrow bed, a dresser now filled with his clothes, and a desk with empty drawers under the window. Joseph would lean over that desk while he watched, seeing lumps in the tent that told him someone was moving, then the front flaps part and an arm reach out and pull back quickly. At times, not very often, his uncle would slide out onto the grass and just sit there, his legs crossed in front of him, his face in his hands. Joseph would barely breathe when he was like that, barely move. Once his uncle had toppled forward, face flat on the ground for a very long time, until he rose to his knees and dragged himself back inside the tent.
	 This morning when he saw his uncle’s head in the water, he thought his uncle was going to drown, imagining a body being swept away around the bend of the narrow brook, even though he knew the water was only inches deep. He wanted to rush to his mother and warn her about what was happening. But he feared she would scold him because he had been warned to have nothing to do with his uncle, never to go out into the yard. His grandmother had nodded all the time his mother was telling him about that rule, then repeated it almost word for word when his mother finished. His grandmother would scold him too, the man who was her husband shout at him. But if his uncle drowned, he would blame himself, even if he never let anyone else know what he had seen.
	 When his uncle rolled over and sat up, when he spat mouthfuls of water, when he rubbed dirt on his face, Joseph cried out his relief – “Oh!” – then waited for footsteps in the hallway, certain he had done something wrong, waiting to be punished.

	 Miranda tried to read, sunk into a soft chair in the house’s great room, an open book face down in her lap, but she stared at the flames dancing about the false logs in the gas fireplace. The pictures were gone from the bookshelves. Her stepfather had seen to that, and she had no idea where to find the photographs of her family when they were all young and her mother was married to her father. Even though it was absent, she could clearly envision the largest of the pictures, she and Evan sitting cross-legged by the garden in summer, surrounded by rich blooms, the boy with his arms around his big sister’s neck, his mouth open with laughter, her face bright with smiling.  She knew she would never forget that photo, could barely believe it had ever been real.
	 Her marriage might have survived if not for her brother, the phone calls in the middle of the night, Jonathan handing her the receiver as if it were vermin, Evan incoherent, begging for money, threatening to kill  himself, Jonathan signaling her to hang up with angry hand gestures. And the last time Evan pounded on their door, crying that he craved sleep, that they had to let him in. Finally, Jonathan told her, “I can’t live this way.” Miranda had nodded, saying nothing, knowing that there was nothing she could say, nothing she could do, no way she could stay. Her brother would always be a force in her life.


	When Miranda heard the solarium door slide open and felt a chill breeze biting at her bare ankles, she called out, “Mother” and then “Joseph.” No one answered. She stood up, unwillingly, annoyed, moving into the hallway, thinking she had to close it tight. 
	As she stepped onto the cool tile floor, she saw her son running across the garden bed, trampling the dry brown stems, heading toward the tent. And behind the tent, Evan lying full length in the middle of the brook, the current splashing over his naked body. Even from a distance she could tell how emaciated he was, legs skeletal, his chest sunken, hair wild.
	Miranda heard Joseph crying out, “Don’t drown. Don’t drown.” She heard her mother’s gasps, then felt a presence in the solarium, heavy footsteps pounding behind her. Her stepfather. She turned just as her mother tried to block him with her arms around his waist. “Charles!” He pushed her off and strode into the yard.
	“He’ll freeze in that water,” Miranda said to her mother. “He’ll freeze to death.”
	But Evan was on his feet, stepping up onto the bank, reaching out when Joseph rushed past the tent, grabbing the boy’s forearms and swinging him back and forth. The moment Miranda thought he would tear her son’s shoulders, Joseph began crying out, her mother screaming, the two of them, her son and her mother, both hysterical.
	Her stepfather took a path through the tent, deliberately, stomping it flat, kicking at the cloth, all in seconds before he reached back and slapped Evan across the face again and again, until Evan dropped the boy. Joseph lay on the grass, shaking with sobs, his eyes terrified. Her stepfather was punching Evan, beating fists into his chest and stomach, lashing out in fury. 
	Evan made no effort to defend himself, just stood with limp arms, as if he had no idea what was happening. Her mother let out a breathless shriek. Miranda knew she should hurry to embrace her son, to stop her stepfather, to pull him off. But she did not move, rooted, frozen, shocked by her wish that a man she despised would kill her brother.

 read about the author Contributors.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2007   

© 2003-2007 | all rights reserved
Contrary ® is a registered trademark of Contrary Magazine