The good thing about my having a book blog and being interested in reading and reviewing different kinds of books is that I get to meet so many lovely authors and publishers, and people from the book world. One such author I recently had a chance to interact with is the ever gracious and charming gentleman (check out the pic below ladies.....you'll know what I mean), John Michael Cummings, whose book DON’T FORGET ME, BRO is out now.
For all of you who have not heard about the book yet, here is a brief synopsis of the same and an excerpt too.
DON’T FORGET ME, BRO deals with themes of childhood abuse, mental illness, and alienated families. The book opens with the main character, forty-two-year-old Mark Barr, who has returned home from New York to West Virginia after eleven years for his older brother Steve’s funeral. Steve, having died of a heart attack at forty-five, was mentally ill most of his adult life, though Mark has always questioned what was "mentally ill" and what was the result of their father’s verbal and physical abuse during their childhood.
The book unfolds into an odyssey for Mark to discover love for his brother posthumously in a loveless family.
DON’T FORGET ME, BRO is a portrait of an oldest brother’s supposed mental illness and unfulfilled life, as well as a redeeming tale of a youngest brother’s alienation from his family and his guilt for abandoning them.
About the author:
John Michael Cummings' short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.
He is the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY for Black History month.
He is also the author of the short story collection Ugly To Start With (West Virginia University Press, 2011), which The Philadelphia Inquirer calls a work of “sharp observation and surpassing grace.”
A very interesting Q&A will be coming up soon with this interesting author :)
For now, have a look at the excerpt....
DON’T FORGET ME, BRO
John Michael Cummings
'Crossing the field back to my mother’s house, I walked myself deeper into dread of having these photos. To my mother there was one person in the world more pathetic than herself, and she needed Steve, alive or dead, to be that person.
He was her dead baby in her arms. She should have protected him from the man she married, but she didn’t. So she lived with the nails and knots of self-persecution.
Steve smiling, having fun, enjoying himself? Steve getting out of his shoebox apartment and living a little? I did not come here to snap anyone’s twisted thinking. No to showing these photos to my family.
After stashing them in the backseat of my rental, I stepped inside my mother’s house to find a worse surprise: my father sitting in the center of the lemon-yellow sofa, Granddad’s deathbed. It was, I immediately thought, the one inevitable location for him.
When the sofa was moved into our house from Grandma’s, Mom immediately made it off-limits to us, including Dad. Dad never liked Granddaddy Roy. One time they actually had words in front of us. For most of my childhood, the sofa was invisibly roped off. It was also pulled out from the wall like a hideously colored, cotton upholstered sarcophagus. After all these years, my father, who hadn’t lived in this house since I was in high school, when he and Mom separated, was happily sitting on the sofa—no, triumphantly parked on it, one-upping both Mom and his long-dead father-in-law once and for all.
I closed the front door behind me, and my eleven years had never happened. No battered car or truck outside, nothing to warn me he was here.
He raised his head as if expecting me.
“Well, the prodigal son returns,” he said.
He was in front of my eyes before I had a chance to be startled. His voice was no different, still piping out the same sarcasm. In the primrose-yellow light of afternoon coming through the wavy old window panes, his complexion was a strange off-shade of creamed coffee. His short hair was this same muddy-ash.
“Hello,” I said.
Two syllables. With my father, every uttered sound was a tripwire.
“You wanna see something?” he asked.
He lifted from his lap and held out an exceptional vase—teal, metallic, finely grooved, as if turned on a lathe.
I stepped past so much in this living room that was still his—a brass powder horn lamp and, on an end table, a miniature Viking ship with a dragon’s head bow and a lashing tail stern, a dozen little oars on either side, which my father had put together from a kit.
When I extended my arm to take this curious-looking vase from him, he pulled it back.
“Know what it’s for?” he asked.
Flowers? That would be my guess.
“You don’t?” His voice rounded down in disappointment.
As soon as he turned a veiny temple toward me, I knew.
A glint in his eyes as he again raised the urn. Warily, I reached for it, eyeing his big-knuckled hand. At the last minute, he tomahawk-chopped the base of the urn down snugly into my palm—not hard, but hard enough.
He held tight to it. But so did I. Then he gave it a sharp pull, sending a snap through my arm and shoulder, and a tug-of-war over the urn was underway. I had no good hold on the wide end of the urn, and he had every advantage grasping the narrow neck. He grinned slightly, the faintest indication of affection. Then, as strangely as it had all started, our arms became relaxed, and the urn felt like a prosthetic handshake between us. He let go, and I stepped back with it.
Just like him to make a little game out of handing it to me. Everything on his terms.
The urn—not metal, ceramic, or painted glass—and lightweight. If dropped, it would bounce like a plastic water pitcher.
My redneck brother inside this thing? He’d drink beer out of it.
“Now I understand from your mother you gave her some words. Some nonsense about being buried?” He pointed across the living room at the big framed picture of my grandfather.
“Near old Roy the family man?”
Roy the family man, as my father liked to put it, had a halo around him for being everything my father was not—soft-spoken, devoted to his children, a good neighbor.
“It wasn’t nonsense,” I muttered. “Steve told me he did.”
My father leaned forward on the deathbed.
“He told you? Well, whoop–de–do! That damn boy told me a lot of things too. Never carried through with one of them. Told me he was going into the Air Force—but did he?”
I didn’t answer.
“But since he told you, well hell, I guess I should just run out and do whatever he says—is that what you drove all the way down here to say?”
There was but one move here. The nowhere move. Like in chess, when you just stare down at the board, pretending to think, knowing it’s hopeless.
“Laziness. That was Steve’s problem his whole life...quit that good job at Jacobs Concrete. Not a word to anyone, just walked off the site. Damn his foolish little heart.”
I actually understood my father’s ugliness. His sons hated him. Didn’t he realize why we did?
Even as a child I had known that his slapping me and kicking me made him a bad man. Five times my age of five and didn’t know or care? As an old man, he was still a bully.
I rolled Steve’s urn around in my hands.
“Now when you’re finished looking, you can set it down”—he pecked his finger down on the coffee table—“right beside his picture, just where the little devil can look at what he did to himself.”
I was finished. I put the urn beside Steve’s high school graduation picture, which I couldn’t look at, and turned toward the darkened kitchen doorway. I got the feeling my mother wasn’t in the house.
“And for your information, buster, before you run off, the church doesn’t want him buried.”
Caught in a pivot, I glared over my shoulder.
“You heard me. Not in St. Mary’s Cemetery anyway. Your brother—and careful how you look at me—had a reputation.”
“Yeah, well, he was still Catholic.”
“The hell he was—and don’t smart mouth me!” He leaned down with one forearm against his knee and sighted me as if I were a billiard ball at the end of a pool cue. “Another thing, old family sweetheart Roy over there wouldn’t want your damn brother buried near him.”
Clearly the old bastard didn’t want me here. I got that. But what could I do? Erase myself for another decade until someone else died?
On an end table across the room was a cluster of pictures in small silver frames—Grandma Jennings, Mom’s mom, standing thick-legged and moon-faced beside her ’52 Nash; Aunt Helen holding up one of us as a baby, and Granddad Roy himself in a larger brass frame, gazing straight at my father. God only knew what he was wondering.
Cremate Steve? We Barrs were a funeral family. Irish Catholics were a casket-in-the-ground people. Wakes, hearses, pallbearers. Tradition.
Half the town went to Granddad’s funeral. A career tax preparer for H&R Block, he was known and trusted by many. Under warm lights over his casket, he looked like he was lying on a beach all dressed up. His hair wasn’t combed over to one side, making him look nearly bald. Makeup covered his age spots. He wore a gold Lion’s Club ring with a big red stone.
Same with Grandma. Never pretty, but, lying in her casket, she almost was. She wore rouge, a fancy dress that came from another era, and was framed head to toe in lace and fine cherry. White lilies were all around, filling the air with a sweet yard smell that she would have liked.
Steve—bloated, grungy, and depressed in life—would look his best dead, too. “Besides, that boy never got his last rites,” my father said.
I could appreciate my father being a stickler for proper Christian burial. As a young man, he had dug graves for wages in St. Mary’s Cemetery. As an adult, he was a pallbearer for Eackles Funeral Home. I remembered him at our cousin Eddie’s funeral. As he held onto the long shiny arm of the casket, moving in a slow step-march with the other men, all dressed up in suits, his face bore a great solemn expression, like a captain before a burial at sea, the meaning of life and loss etched into his weather-beaten face.
My father could find no more meaning in Steve’s death than in his life: Steve had woken up one morning mentally ill, taken ill in the night like a demon’s cold. Screaming at us, beating us, not factors.
My father: damaged by being the last of the penny-pinchers from the Great Depression, damaged by coming back to jerkwater Alma after the Korean War and marrying our simple, unexciting mother and missing his life’s dream—whatever it was. Damaged by working at Johnson Vending in Clermont for twenty-two years as an assembler before he was forced into early retirement for always arguing with his supervisors.
“...that boy’s shit out of luck,” he went on. “He should have made allowances in life and planned for a burial if that’s what he wanted so damn much.”
“So let me pay for it.”
“The hell you will.”
Hell, damn. Hell, damn. Who was he to feign piety?
My brother was not a pharaoh to build a pyramid over, or Jesus to be resurrected. But he was more than a corpse to reduce to ashes crushed in a horrid little container. Where would Steve go? To the spirit world, like a skinny old Indian burnt up on a funeral pyre on a stick scaffold in the cold night?
No funeral home room filled with red and rust chrysanthemums for Steve. No frosted hunk of gray granite with my brother’s name etched into it.
“Not even a headstone?” I asked.
He pretended not to hear me.
Everybody got a headstone, didn’t they? Ordinary people, great people, evil people. Benedict Arnold, Richard Nixon, Stalin—even Billy the Kid got one. So too a nameless man got the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The worst of the worst got a pauper’s grave, possibly only a number on a paper grid in a file.
For as long as I could remember, I had counted on my family finally getting along for eternity on the St. Mary’s hillside cemetery overlooking the river. All our relative’s headstones were grouped there, like a lawn party of little stout stone people.
Now Steve would break tradition and not attend the reunion in the hereafter?
His body would decay in a casket, to be sure, but there would be his remains. Never entirely vanishing. He’d exist forever under his marker.
How could my father deny him forever?
When I took a step away from him, the smell of cat pee, rising up from the large oval rug that had covered this area of floor for so long, jackknifed in my nostrils. My mother’s white cat, Misty, had been dead for five years. What smell would Steve, once cremains, leave behind? For that matter, what could any of us leave behind as potent as the smell of cat pee?
I turned to my father. “Dad, don’t you see? Steve—”
“Don’t you ‘dad’ me!” He thrust his knotty head out at me, screwing it to one side. “You’re just like your mother. You cozy up when it’s damn convenient for you!”
He slapped his palm down on his armrest, sending a puff of dust into the air, and stood up in one easy motion, breaking away from the sofa. He was shorter than I remembered, but not stooped like Mom, or arthritic in the knees like Granddad. His green-checkered shirt was tucked inside dark slacks, and he wore a snake-like black belt around his trim waist. I took a step back as he wrung his hands together as if they hurt.
“Mark”—his voice climbed as if to make an announcement, “now listen. It’s too damn late. It’s been decided.”
Meaning he decided.
“Then how ’bout the Catholic cemetery over in Jeffersonville? They wouldn’t know about any ‘reputation.’”
I took another step back.
“More abuse for Steve, Dad? Just send him straight to hell in a blast of ashes?”
“Now watch your mouth.”
This had nothing to do with church or any cemetery. He was too ashamed to have Steve on display in a funeral home, the casket open, anyone could walk in and see in his bloated, blotchy, drunkard’s face—evidence of his wretched, short life, all pointing back to our father.
Or was he afraid of no one showing up? Total indifference. No one at the graveside service either, the grass at St. Mary’s sparkling blank with a son forgotten, a pile of earth shrouded with Astroturf.
“Cremating him’s wrong, Dad. And you know it.”
Steve always feared fire. Growing up, he was often feeling the wall over our woodstove to make sure it wasn’t hot. Pitch could flare up in the flue, he said, resulting in a chimney fire. This he had read in Foxfire, a guide to living. Whenever someone in a car ahead of us threw a cigarette butt out the window, Steve would reach over Dad and honk our horn over and over. Mom or Dad had to slap his hands away. In junior high, he was on the Fire Prevention Team for the Youth Conservation Corps. He and a dozen boys from Alma, along with a supervisor, broke ground on a fire lookout tower on Elk Ridge. Camping up there for three weeks in the summer, they worked all day chopping down trees, sawing them up, cutting weeds, and dragging out deadfall. They dug ditches for the foundation of a cabin. Then the Job Corps laid the concrete
base for the tower and the site’s flagpole, then erected both a steel windmill and watchtower.
According to Greg—I didn’t remember it at all—Steve and another boy, after the flagpole had been put in place, were chosen to raise the American flag during a small ceremony. Steve and this other kid ran the flag up the pole all dramatically, arching their backs as they made great pulls on the rope, like soldiers at Iwo Jima. Supposedly somebody from the newspaper took a picture of them.
Steve left his dreams in the chilly air on Elk Ridge. He wanted a Fender guitar, a jade chess set. He wanted to become rich and famous and discover something great. He wanted a girlfriend. He sure didn’t want to end up a handful of white ash.
My father, meanwhile, gave me another hateful look. “You coming down here and telling us all what the hell to do,” he said.
The lines in his face deepened as he grew more gloomy and threatening. When I was young, I imagined that God, angry with him, had tried to gouge out his eyes but only left deep thumb marks that were the heavy bags under his eyes. I still thought that, more than ever.
“You never offered to help before, never cared while Steve was alive. You just ran away from here.” He pointed a finger at me. “Where have you been the last ten, twenty years?”
“Staying away from you,” I muttered.
“What did you say?”
“Why do you think I ran away?”
“Oh, your old man was too damn hard on you, was he?”
“He was. He abused us.”
The words just came out. After all these years I’d said them. There was no thunder or lightning. But when he took a threatening step toward me, I wondered if the old bastard was about to take a swing at me.
I wished he would. He wasn’t the only one with a temper. Didn’t he remember I had been arrested years ago for fighting? Didn’t he wonder how I had gotten the long scar down my chin? Why I could never keep a girlfriend and had no children?
Shouting at coworkers, putting my fist into bathroom mirrors, buckling plasterboard walls in efficiency apartments from West Virginia to Minneapolis—I had his anger in my veins, seared into my psyche. I was him, and I forgot that.
My whole life had been decided not by my freewill, but by a much smaller, exact force—those slaps to my face by his hand. In those impacts, I was knocked into position, shaped, and put on course. Every thought and action from then on came from fear, shame, or desperation. Every limit I put upon myself was based on a self-image weakened and reduced by him.
Of course he cared nothing about my depression. How many times had I walked to the East River and stared into the shimmering, inky-black flow, wondering: how would it be drowning? Or the guesswork with Prozac and Ativan, the desperate talks with crisis hotline counselors in the middle of the night, and the panic attacks that had me swerving across lanes of traffic, yelling and screaming, hammering my fist against the horn, spit flying, the highway behind me under a caution flag as if following a hostage situation. He knew nothing of these episodes, like being on a tall, swaying ladder with no way down.
Wouldn’t he be amused to know that his son had been a patient in the legendary wacko ward of Bellevue Hospital? Most came to The Big Apple to see the Statue of Liberty and to ride in an open-air double-decker tour bus through the streets of Manhattan, fantasizing Wall Street tickertape falling on them. I came to the city with everything I owned in a bag slung over my shoulder, only to find myself soon out of money, no job, nobody but strangers around me, Manhattan underwater, me drifting in the cold depths.
But when I handed over my shoelaces to the guards in Bellevue, I had to admit a certain thrill at being a failed, sickly frustrated writer in the famous halls of madness. I had reached the apex of something, finally.
My father knew none of this. He had not one crazy son, but two.
I headed across the stinky oval rug for the front door. I would stop this cremation somehow, if only to spite the bastard.'
- Debolina Raja Gupta