"My Brother Painted Eggs" by Judson Easton Packard
Twenty-five years old and my mother tells me I have to come home immediately, Roger’s in the hospital, an overdose. At this point I had been living out in San Francisco for almost three years, only making my way home for Christmas and weddings. I started to get some of my poems published when I was in high school, and I’d been working for the Chronicle, writing posts for their blog, and some of their online only content. I had a total of four editorials published in the paper in the year I’d been working there, which some coworkers told me is more than what most people ever get. Honestly, it was relieving to have most of my pieces get posted online. Neither of my parents go on the computer much, this was 2008, but just last Thanksgiving I heard my dad tell someone he didn’t “do the online.” It was kind of nice to have that kind of distance. My parents asked for clippings of everything I’ve ever had in print media, then do one of a few things. They told me they didn’t get it if it’s a poem, this is usually coupled with my mom crying and asking me why I’m so sad. Each of my editorials led directly to my parents telling me they didn’t agree with my views. My dad actually called me a “leftist puppet” after the last one. This is the life I stepped out of temporarily in June to come back to Coleville, Illinois.
My dad picked me up at the airport. I saw him as I come out of the terminal, broad shoulders and a John Deere hat, one all of the siblings chipped in and bought him, tired of him only wearing things he had gotten in giveaways, leaning against a beat up white Chevy. Everything about it screamed normalcy, but as he walked towards me there was a tremor to his movement, some kind of pull between his shoulders, and I knew there was something terribly wrong. His eyes never left the pavement. The man who once yelled at me in a Friendly’s parking lot for not making eye contact with our waitress walked to greet his son with green eyes tied to the sidewalk. It was not his regular handshake to meet me but a hug. Dad has given me three hugs in my adult life. One when I graduated from college, it came with a pat on the back and a grunt of “Make me proud.” One when I moved to the west coast, this one felt a little softer, but it was still accompanied with a “Never forget where you come from” that sounded more like a warning than a mantra. And this one outside the airport, when he managed to hold his tears back until he started to speak, choking through “Roger’s gone.” We stood there until a cop came up and told us we’d have to move the truck. My father clutched in my arms, some small, broken thing I did not recognize leaning against me for support I did not ever think I would be asked for.
Sometime after Midwestern pizza and memories I was left alone with my mother. She was never one to shy from the hard moments.
“You were his favorite sibling.”
“He told me that actually. Not like it would have been hard to guess.”
Him and Peter never got along, especially once Peter had kids, and Molly wouldn’t talk to him after he got out of prison. She said she couldn’t be a part of the “cycle of enablement” that was our family.
“You should write something, a poem for his funeral.” I hadn’t considered the possibility my mother might want me to do this. I’d thought I might speak, but only if I wanted to. “He loved your poems.”
“He said that?” He’d told me they were important to him while he was locked up, that it had been big to be in touch with me, but he’d never even used the word like.
My mother’s brown eyes rested on mine. Roger had the same eyes, brown but never-ending.
“Every poem you sent us, he’d take the signed copy home with him. He had them all hung up in his apartment.”
I can still picture my brother with a bottle of Bud Light pressed into one hand, his other pointed at a line in one of my poems.
“Fuck.” I didn’t know what else to say. A longing had stretched itself along the length of me, it came with the knowledge that I’d never get to talk my brother about any of them. But underneath it, growing from somewhere around my stomach, was a warmth in picturing him poring over my every last word, searching for the details of himself, our family. “Yeah, Okay. I’ll write something.”
My mother kisses my cheek. I had one week. Mom told me she still cries when she reads it. My father keeps a copy in his truck.
Twelve years old and I sat on the seat of my bicycle, parked on the crest of a hill near Mrs. Hogue’s house. An egg rested in the palm of my left hand, turned upwards, cupped between my fingers. The sides of the egg were mostly smooth, but it had those little bumps on it, just big enough to catch on the grooves of your fingers. Mrs. Hogue had lamps to either side of her doorway. Upturned, flower shaped, projecting that off yellow color that you get from thick old glass. I didn’t want to put my bike on the sidewalk, there was a streetlight and too many people to watch from windows, catch me in the act. I was certain that throwing an egg at a teacher’s house would be a felony. I mean, I wouldn’t understand the word felony for another four years when Roger got arrested for felony possession of a controlled substance, but I was sure that if I got caught for this I will be living behind bars. No sidewalk meant I had to choose between leaving it in the wood line or her driveway. The wood line seemed like the better option to me, I could see myself disappearing between paper birches and sugar maples. Dad taught us a bunch of trees when we were growing up. I retained enough to have very specific fantasies.
All of my scheming, the careful placement of the bike, the half-baked excuses I churned off on my ride over, and I was still standing at the end of the walkway up to Mrs. Hogue’s door in full view of the neighborhood. There were only streetlights on the corners, but everybody in town kept their outdoor lights on at night so you could see what was happening on the street. I had spent probably fifteen minutes debating on what the best technique to egg a house was. I settled on cocking my arm all the way behind my back, firing the egg overhand. The goal was to hit the center of the door, that way she’d see it right when she opened it, might even think someone was knocking. I guess a window would have been just as good to throw at, but I couldn’t get that picture of egg running down the front door, that ugly red door, out of my head. For an art teacher her whole house was a nightmare of a color palette, a paint splatter of yolk placed right below the knocker would fit right in.
There was no audience when I let the egg fly. It was on the darker side of what you get from eggs, that kind of tan, off pink color, speckles that made you think less of freckles and more of birthmarks. My arm swung hard around the corner of my shoulder, the egg made a perfect arc on its way up her path. It didn’t quite catch the knocker, instead hitting the top left corner of the door. I remember being so excited just to have been close. Maybe I was caught up in that or just marveling at the way the little tan grenade moved more into the light, how it was finally fully illuminated in the moment before it splattered against tacky red paint, but I was caught completely off guard when someone grabbed my arm.
“Danny? What the hell are you doing?” Roger’s hand clung firmly to the skin of my forearm.
“Riding my bike.” Brown eyes locked onto my green as I brought them up slowly, pupils meeting pupils. He must have already been staring at my eyes, waiting for them to connect with his. “I threw an egg.”
I never learned to be much of a liar, especially not when it came to my siblings.
“I saw. Did you think you were being sneaky?” He didn’t wait for a response. For all his dramatics he never learned to let a moment land. “Why?”
I started to answer but was cut off by a noise from Mrs. Hogue’s porch; the doorknob signaling her approach.
“Fuck. Let’s go.”
He tugged at my arm, and we took off down the street. I could hear her screaming about kids and calling the cops, but we were far enough away that even if she did they’d have never found us. For all my careful planning, I didn’t even consider the fact that I left my bike behind. It stayed there for two days before I was able to get away from home to get it. Roger’s car was parked around the corner. We settled on the Plaza Diner as our next stop before we returned to our conversation, not that there were many other late night options.
“Why the hell are you throwing eggs at Mrs. Hogue’s house? She give you a bad grade on a pot?”
“She told me I couldn’t draw, like I sucked at it.”
“She said you suck at drawing?”
“Not exactly? She looked at a picture I had drawn and said not everyone was creative.” Roger snorted, my cheeks burned, and I brought my pinky and the hard edge of my closed fist down against his leg. “It’s not funny. She’s a hag. Mrs. Hag.”
I did my best to say it as if I came up with it, as if it was proof that I was creative. Roger went to the same middle school, that nickname was already floating around then.
“Did you only bring the one egg?”
“I’m a good shot.”
It was more defiance than boasting. Sneaking one egg out of the house raised a big lump in my throat. I was scared my parents wouldn’t just know what I had done with it, but they would come down on me for wasting food, which was a big deal in the house. With four kids every last scrap got eaten. The idea that my parents would be able to tell that an egg was gone and that it had left by way of my jacket pocket was honestly laughable. Keeping track of food was never something that anyone was really capable of. If you wanted something you had three choices: put your name on it and pray like hell, hide it, or eat it right then.
“Daniel Connors, starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, actually got his start hurling eggs.” I crossed my arms, not willing to give in to Roger’s teasing. That was just his cue to keep going. “He had egged every teacher’s house in the neighborhood before he finally threw one against Coach Reid’s house, who immediately offered him a spot on the team.”
I laughed through gritted teeth, and Roger took the sharp left turn into the Plaza Diner’s parking lot. There was a mostly empty strip mall in the same lot, the surrounding area just not supplying the business to keep open any kind of department store. The plaza is still about the same today, only now the video store has closed. I knew Roger would never tell our parents, but I still made him swear over late night pancakes. In a family of food hoarders, nothing was more sacred.
Ten years old, and we all packed into a minivan, a green Astrovan with wood paneled doors. There was a farm expo that my dad decided it would be good for us to go to, educational. Mom rode in the front; that was non-negotiable. I was stuck in the middle row with Molly, Roger and Peter taking the way back for themselves. There was very little difference in the comfort of the seats but the further back you rode the less our parents would talk to you, the less our parents talked to you on car rides the less chores you would get assigned. Until I figured that out and started waiting outside or, when I was willing to take some bruises later, in the van, I was always in the middle row. We may as well have been sorted by age. Roger is six years older than me, five for Peter, and Molly, twins who were supposed to be the last addition to the family. My mom still calls me the best anniversary present she ever got. I was born in February. Their anniversary is in May.
The Farm Expo was up near Ridgeport. It seemed far at the time, and we had to drive all the way out into the country, but it was nice to get to see other parts of Illinois. The expos were half fair, farmers coming from all around to show the freakishly large products of this year’s growth, and half convention, manufacturers sending sales reps to show off their newest equipment. Any kid who went to it would be stuck wearing farm equipment shirts for months after. The John Deere ones weren’t that bad; you could pass that off with brand recognition. The ones for the new brands of seeders though, those just let everybody know that your parents would take you to anywhere but a store to get your clothes, if they could avoid it. I got a lot of hand-me-downs too, which meant generations of farm expo, church camp, and little league shirts. Dad’s family were farmers. He grew up on a farm, his brother still worked it, and his sister had married a farmer. Dad worked for a company called Securitas. They ran security for banks.
Roger and Peter disappeared as soon as we got to the expo. They said they were going off to look for jobs. That excuse worked on our parents, somehow. Molly’s eyes met mine, and I knew we were both sharing the same thought. Bullshit. Anytime we went to one of these things they’d run off looking for girls and excitement. Peter eventually found a recruiting booth at one of them. Dad always knew someone and dragged Mom along on those conversations. That left Molly and me. She always acted like she had something better to be doing, like I was ruining her day. Every time it was the same line.
“Guess I have to look after you then. Somebody has to make sure you don’t get lost.”
I always got the feeling she liked spending the time with me. We’d wander around the expo going in between the sales booths and the farm booths, always finding our family at the Farmer’s Olympics at the end, where she could publicly part ways with me. There was a tractor pull, some riding events, and a mix of lumberjack events. I wanted to learn to throw an ax, but Mom wouldn’t let me have my own, and Dad would never let anyone throw one of his tools. The two of us wound up at the games first this year. Two boys from school found Molly through the fog of the crowd.
“Don’t embarrass me during this conversation.”
She didn’t need to give me an or else. Once had been enough to never doubt that she would deliver again.
“You got a boyfriend?”
“Just keep your mouth shut.”
When I was eight I told a boy Molly liked that she wet the bed until she was ten. She made copies of pages of my journal and handed them out in school. I still had people calling me Danny Diary the year I graduated high school.
“Molly’s got a boyfriend.” I managed to get it out just before the boys walked up, late enough that there was nothing Molly could do but give me a hard look. It was enough. She knew I wouldn’t open my mouth again.
The two boys who Molly turned to smile at both tensed trying to control the conversation, both melting at every feint of my sister’s. It was less two bulls locking horns, than it was two bees bringing pollen to their queen. One of them had dimples and black hair, the other one a flat line for a mouth and sandy blonde hair. He looked nice standing next to my sister. That may be why I remember what they looked like. She has the same green eyes that I do, plus Mom’s curls, their color somewhere in between sunflowers and a dead maple leaf. She flirted so much when we were kids. Five different guys tried to ask her to prom. She never dated much though, for her it was always all talk. Molly stood to my left totally engaged, having fully abandoned me, I turned to take in the rest of the expo. I saw Roger slip into an equipment tent with somebody who looked like they worked there, some guy I’d never seen who’s got an old ratty jacket and a nice new backpack. Even then I didn’t think my brother should be alone with the kind of person who works at a fair.
I slipped away as Molly told the boy with dimples “Stop, you’re going to make me blush in front of my brother.” She didn’t turn to see me leaving.
The tent I followed Roger into was full of mostly rusted out shelving units with all kinds of supplies on them. Milk crates, the plastic kind that always announce exactly who the owner is as if possession of the crate itself was some kind of thievery, filled with batteries and lights and all the little extras you might need to put on this kind of expo. Somehow, even though the tent was only there for a week-long event, there was dust on everything. If I wasn’t following Roger I would have filled my pockets with AA batteries. They must not have heard me come in, unlikely that they could, the doorway was just triangles of canvas which you folded out of your way. Still I took the time to find a proper hiding spot, settling on one in between some shelves where I could see them. I knew Roger would kill me when he found out I’m spying on him in public, not that he was particularly nice about it when I did it at home, but it was all part of the fun. We all followed each other around. Anything you could find out about what your siblings did in secret might get you out of chores for a long time, depending on how bad the secret was. Roger was across the tent, there was a little table at the other side, probably for the counting and assembling of supplies. The guy I’d never seen before, greasy brown curls in his hair, had his backpack out, on the table, and open.
“It’s good shit. The best you’re going to find around here, that’s for god damn sure.” It was the stranger talking, his voice deeper than his body would suggest.
I was craning my neck trying to get a view around the shelves, around their bodies, to whatever it was that they’d taken out of his bag.
“You can get this whenever?” My brother’s always soft voice responded.
“Yeah, easy man. Whenever, wherever, whatever you need.”
“Easy, tiger.” The stranger didn’t laugh. I could picture my brother’s smile, even with his head turned away from me I was sure he was flashing his brace straightened teeth in all their pearlescent glory. “Let’s do it, man. I got people to meet.”
My brother’s hand slid into his back pocket and came out holding more cash than I had ever imagined at ten. My eyes widened, there was the slow intake of breath you get as you reach the final moment of a movie. He handed the money over to the guy he’d been talking to who fanned it out, counting each bill against sunlit sides of faded green tent. I shifted a little, trying to count along with him. He reached into his backpack and came out with a Ziploc bag of something and handed it to Roger before putting the pack squarely on both shoulders. I shifted a little more, trying to see around my brother to what was in the plastic bag he had been handed. It was the first time I ever saw cocaine, not that I recognized it. Some dust from the crate I was leaning on puffed up and across my columella, a word I wouldn’t learn until my sister told me it, home from medical school, telling us exactly what was hurt when Peter broke his nose in basic, and I sneezed.
My brother’s hand slid back into his pocket, depositing the bag there. I tried to get out of the tent before I was caught. I didn’t. The stranger grabbed me by the shoulder, getting more fabric than body, and he was stronger than he looked.
“What the hell are you doing, kid?”
Roger came around the corner and saw me immediately. His eyes do a weird thing that I didn’t recognize as shame until years later.
“Danny? Let him go, man.” The stranger looked at Roger. His face said that he was supposed to be the one in charge of the situation. His eyes were thankful that he wasn’t. “He’s my brother.”
The stranger’s hand came off my shoulder, flattening my shirt as it goes.
“Sorry, little man. See you round, Rog.” He ducked out of the tent flaps and out into the expo. I never saw him again.
“What are you doing, Danny? You following me?”
“I saw you come in here with that guy. Molly was talking to some boys and I just wanted to see what you were doing. I wasn’t following you around the expo, just came in here to see what you were doing I swear.”
Roger was nice to me most of the time, but he’d put a bruise or two on me when the situation called for it.
“What boys was Molly talking to?”
Whenever things got close to something risky to Roger, he’d always pivot.
“Some guys from school, I don’t know their names. Where’d you get all that money?”
“Don’t worry about it.” He winked. “Let’s go find Molly. Keep your mouth shut and I’ll make it worth your while.”
I was already used to the bribe system my older siblings had. When they did something they didn’t want our parents or anyone else to find out about they’d buy me something to keep me quiet. It worked out for me. With three older siblings I got a lot of bribes.
Twenty-one years old and I sat on the hood of a Buick outside of the Illinois River Correctional Center. Roger was finally getting out, the guards showed me where to wait. He asked for me to be the one to come pick him up. His lawyer, an old friend of our mom’s named Thomas Beckwith, went inside to fill out all of the paperwork. I was excited to see him out and in his own clothes again for the first time in five years. They found him with sixty grams of cocaine. He only did half the time he was sentenced for, out on his first chance at parole. Roger was always well liked, well behaved if you ignore the drugs, no one was surprised to hear he’d be out on good behavior. I wasn’t waiting long before Roger came out, shaking hands with a few of the guards on his way. Those kinds of theatrics were everywhere in Roger’s life. I still don’t know if that show was for me, the guards, or my brother. He looked so casual, wearing jeans and an old shirt from one of his high school bands. The band wasn’t even that good but Roger’s old girlfriend, the one he really loved, the one our parents really loved, had painted it, and it was honestly beautiful. There was a sheaf of butcher paper tucked under one of his arms.
“You going to let me drive?”
I punched him in the arm. It’s not just my dad who doesn’t do well with hugs.
“Welcome back to the world, dickhead.”
He laughed and threw his head back.
“Glad it’s you.” We just stood there for a minute, Roger not seeming to want to move. “Can we stop for a beer on the way home?”
“I’m not going to let you drink and drive on your first day out, man. Don’t think your P.O. would approve.” He started to groan; I knew the routine that is coming. “I had to sign so many forms to be allowed to pick you up, Rog, no way I’m about to be part of you going back.”
The whole conversation stretched out in front of me. He’d say okay, and then make a joke, then bring up some story from when we were kids, and finally say please in a real soft voice. I was going to lose, but I wasn’t really trying to stop him from getting a beer on his first day out.
His eyes lit up. As much as he enjoyed talking me into things, there was something special about just being handed this.
“You buying?” He was smiling as he asked it.
“Appetizers and a beer. Mom’s going to kill me.”
He rolled the window all the way down on the ride there, putting his hand and sometimes his whole head out into the wind.
In the parking lot he took the butcher paper out from the backseat of the car, and handed it to me.
“I made this for you, or, fuck, I don’t know. I painted it after reading one of your poems.”
It was a watercolor painting. He told me over lunch that he’d taken a bunch of art classes in his five years, that it helped pass the time. The poem that inspired it is one I wrote in college. It’s about when our grandfather taught me to slaughter a chicken, and how I cried the first time I had to do it. It wasn’t when I actually killed the chicken; it was plucking out the feathers. We always gathered the eggs when we stayed at our granddad’s house. I was so used to running my finger through those feathers, soft in a way hair can never be, brushing the back of each hen we would pass. I was shaking as I plucked each feather, trying hold in the noise of sobs. Our grandfather just stood and watched, I knew he’d just tell me I had to finish, that you couldn’t abandon your work. Roger’s painting was of eggs, uncooked, unbroken, laying in the center of the page with blood coated feathers haunting the edges. I have it hung up in my bedroom, next to a copy of the poem that inspired it. I feel weird having my own poem on my wall, but it just didn’t feel complete without it.
“Thanks.” My brother was not a masterful painter. He meant it when he said it was a way to pass the time. It was clear what everything on the page was though, and it really fit the poem. “It’s really-”
“Can we do this later? It’s been awhile since I had a good burger.”
I bit back a smile.
“Yeah, for sure.”
Lunch was cheeseburgers, fries, and more laughter than I have had since.
My Brother Painted Eggs
I wish you had sent me another painting,
maybe one I had not inspired.
I would gladly make my walls your canvas.
My words rimmed the edges of your bedroom,
a fact you failed to mention
maybe to avoid my questions, did you really
read them that often? You will never,
would never tell me even if
I had asked, which was your favorite?
Tomorrow I will wake missing a piece,
bits of my self ripped away
like a peach that has been nibbled, left to rot
my edges have grown soft, browning.
You live in the corners of
every diner, making your home underneath
beds of fries which taste as golden as they
appear. Each day I tuck you
into my pocket, carrying every bit of you
I can hold on to. Someday I will crack an egg
and you will pour from jagged
shells. Carelessly, I will burn your underside,
overcook your yolk, dribble bits down my chin.
I never learned to cook,
though I treasure afternoons you tried to teach me.