by Jennifer Lynn Alessi
Last Thanksgiving my uncle helped his son, my thirty-year-old cousin Brian, up the path to my mother’s front door. It was a gray and misty noontime, half an hour before football. I’d already had two rum and Cokes but it didn’t matter; my mother wouldn’t need me. Even at thirty-six, I was useless in the kitchen. Two years before I’d been demoted from just-stir-the-gravy duty to just-hang-the-coats. Standing on the threshold, I watched my uncle and Brian approach while my aunt remained two paces behind. In her stiff arms, she held out a tray of cookies like an offering to a merciless god.
The previous Christmas, a surgeon had inserted a metal shunt at the base of Brian’s skull to keep a tumor from pressing against his brainstem. It had been knocking out functions—balance, movement, swallowing, speech—one by one. Then after six months, when nearly all had been restored, the tumor morphed around the shunt, fastening onto his brain once again. His treatment options were limited. As a toddler Brian had battled leukemia, and his body was too wasted from the years of radiation to endure any more of it, too fragile for chemotherapy. In a family where his two older brothers were tall, handsome, charismatic athletes who dated cheerleaders in high school, Brian barely reached five-one. His limbs stayed wasted, and his heart was too weak for him to lift weights. His hair never thickened; it remained a wispy blondish-brown. His eyes were an intelligent, sparkling blue, but how many girls would have the courage to look into them and embrace the rest?
Instead of chemotherapy, Brian had been given medication that helped relieve the pressure on his brain, pills that gave his diminutive frame a barrel chest and a bloated face. For someone who’d always abhorred his body for sprouting tumors while his brothers grew muscles, his new face with the puffed-out cheeks and red capillary bursts in his fair skin was the last insult he’d accept on this earth. Still, he took the pills because his mother held them out to him with a glass of water. He tolerated his father’s arm around his shoulder, while with a cane he tried to steady himself on my mother’s marble floor. I understood that he did these things for his family, not for himself. I knew he hated this life enough to want to die, but as I stood there awkwardly reaching for the coats they hadn’t even begun to remove, I hoped our love could one day convince Brian of his worth.
At holidays, our family appeared to be dwindling. During my childhood, the tables had stretched into the hallways—card tables, tables extended with leaves brought down from the attic—but last Thanksgiving my mother’s house seemed cavernous for the few of us who were there. In fact, our family had expanded. My sister was married with two kids. Brian’s brothers had married, had children, and were celebrating Thanksgiving with their wives’ families.
Among the cousins—there used to be a tight-knit nine of us on my mother’s side—we had placed bets on who would marry first, and last. Brian and I, the wildest girl, were last on everybody’s list. We pictured the remaining unwed ones sitting at Phillies restaurant counter in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting. There we were, a dame in the red dress gazing at her fingers and Brian in a black suit and gray fedora, alone with his coffee, isolated like me with his thoughts. There had been other cousins beside us in Phillies, but one by one they had all left the diner, and Brian and I were alone at the counter, and the image didn’t seem amusing anymore.
Doggedly, the few of us who remained at the holidays kept up traditions: Spanish olives in memory of Pa, Aunt Jean’s banana bread, icebox cookies in Nana’s name. We said grace, ate too much, cleaned up, and then dropped onto the couches with our drinks in time for the second half. I was sitting next to Brian on the loveseat. The afghan over his knees made him look even older and more frail. Still he fought through the nausea, the heavy sinking bloat of his body, to joke with me.
“I hear you’re dating a young’un, Cousin,” he said. “Where’d you find him, on the swing set at recess?”
I was working at a college and, as with almost every guy I’d dated, I’d met him in a bar.
“Of course not, Bri. He was on the see-saw.”
We were both born and raised in Massachusetts, but when we joked it was with a hillbilly twang.
“Ma says he’s twenty-four,” he continued. “I thought twenty-one was your limit.”
“It is. I must’ve miscounted! Soon he’ll be twenty-five, and I’ll have to cut him loose.”
Brian lifted his beer with a hand that shook, but he kept going: “If you can’t change their diapers, Cousin, where’s the fun?”
“I know.” I shook my head. “Soon I’ll have to break his little heart.”
“How will you go about it?”
I shrugged and the ice clinked in my glass. “I’ll just have to pick him up, set him on my knee and explain.”
He laughed, and the sound was a nasally, rising joy.
“Yep,” I said, needing to hear his laughter again. “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll set him on my knee and explain.”
Brian was the one I’d sit next to at holidays and milestone birthdays, weddings and coed showers. We’d crack crude jokes and sneak each other beer—the bottle hidden in his suit jacket or in my purse—when the others had cut us off. We’d puff on a cigar in the shadows of a building or in a darkened parking lot and swap breath mints to cover the smell. Each year when another cousin married and it wasn’t me (one of the oldest), I would always feel less awkward and alone by just sitting next to Brian.
I’d never told him that. But I’d often thought if the time seemed right and it could help him in some way, I’d muster the courage to do it. To tell him would be to admit that his blithe and animated cousin—thought to be living it up in New York City since age eighteen—had felt horribly derailed for years. When we had this talk, I’d ask Brian if he were terrified of death or if the fear were lessened by the thought of finally leaving his treacherous body. Though neither of us believed in heaven, I’d ask him to consider some form of the hereafter in which Nana and Pa could be waiting. But to ask these things, I’d have to consider the possibility that he could actually die this time, and I was nowhere close to doing that.
When Brian had fallen asleep—his head tilted back, his swollen chest rising and falling—his parents appeared at my side. I’d never seen two people look more exhausted and devastated. Oddly, it was my uncle who spoke, as if my aunt no longer trusted herself to speak without crying.
“Could we talk to you in private?” he asked.
They’d never asked to speak with me before, and despite the decades of Thanksgivings I couldn’t remember ever being alone with just the two of them. As I set my glass down on the table and stood, I felt a vague panic, as if I were nine years old and had done or said something terribly wrong?
I glanced back at my parents, who were divorced but best friends—their eyes focused on the game—as I followed my aunt and uncle to my mother’s “red room.” It was a bedroom decorated in shades of my favorite color. My mother called it my room, though I’d never lived in this house.
When they shut the door, the room felt hot and close around me.
“Please sit down,” my uncle said.
I sat on the bedspread. They stood near the door.
“We want to ask you something,” my uncle began.
My eyes began to tear at my anxiety and their grief. “Anything,” I said.
“A favor,” he continued.
“Anything at all.”
My aunt spoke then, her eyes blue like her son’s. “We’d like to give Brian a weekend trip to Vegas for Christmas so he’ll have something to look forward to. But in his condition—” She stopped, took a breath then started again. “He can’t go alone, and he’s lost touch with the one unmarried friend he had. We’d pay your way, honey; it wouldn’t cost you a cent. We know you’re so busy with your life in New York, but it would mean the world to us if you would go with him.”
“Of course,” I said instantly, and they smiled at me with love and relief. “Of course,” I repeated, but suddenly I was gripped with fear. What if something were to happen to Brian while we were away, something I wouldn’t know how to handle?
“My mom likes Vegas,” I added. “I’m sure she’d be happy to come along.”
“That’s just it,” my aunt said. “The only fun Brian’s had this past year has been with his family. He never gets to feel free—the way a young guy should feel with his friends. We think he’d feel that way with you.”
Over the next few months, I waited for word that Brian felt well enough to travel. I knew that one weekend in Vegas couldn’t make up for the nights spent watching TV from a hospital bed or the girls he’d passed in hallways who hadn’t returned his gaze, but I would pack in a taste of the adventures he’d missed. I’d be vigilant, making sure he took his pills and that we controlled our drinking. I wouldn’t forget the angry, bitter boy in him who, while drunk, had thrown himself into oncoming traffic and flung food at waiters in a Chinese restaurant. I wouldn’t forget the holidays where Brian and his brothers had arrived with their pants scuffed and ties askew, at least one of them with a fresh black eye. I’d protect the jagged, cutting part of him that only made me love him more, because it was more human to me than the heroic and joking one. On this trip, I’d be his big cousin for once—mature and capable, but still fun.
* * *
At last, in late March, when all of New England is still waiting for spring, Brian calls me and says, “Pack your bags, Cousin! We’re going to Vegas!”
At Logan Airport, we kiss our mothers goodbye, endure their final warnings, and then have a quick shot of whiskey at a sports bar before boarding the plane. Once buckled beside one another, we grin from ear to ear. I’m unnerved when Brian orders two straight whiskeys less than an hour into the flight, but he falls asleep with head against my shoulder before asking for a third. He sleeps, still smiling, the rest of the way there.
When we land, Brian is furious to find an attendant with a wheelchair waiting for him at the gate. “My mother arranged this,” he growls. “She still thinks I’m a cripple.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, then dismiss the attendant by telling him I am a nurse. Once out of view of the airline staff, I sit down in the cushioned seat, and Brian—who now walks without a cane—laughs as he pushes me along.
A short cab ride later, we are on the Vegas Strip. Brian stares out the window, taking in the sights: a hotel shaped like a pyramid, a fountain spraying neon-colored water, hot pink flamingoes flashing on a casino roof. Our room at Caesars Palace is spacious and lush. I’ve never stayed at an expensive hotel, let alone one with chandeliers in the lobby and Jacuzzi jets in the bathtub. Neither has Brian. But his parents insisted, why should we refuse? With the hundred dollars my parents gave me, I put down a deposit on the mini-bar. On our huge double beds, we lie back on the pillows and bite the necks off chocolate-candy liquor bottles Brian selects.
As we are getting ready for dinner, I stand outside the bathroom door while Brian showers. I am still afraid he might lose his balance, afraid too that he’ll suspect I’m listening, that I have become overprotective in a way a cousin shouldn’t be. He’s singing above the gushing water, a country song about a guy sitting on a porch swing, drunk and broken-hearted. Suddenly he blurts out, “Then I put that tramp on my knee and explained!” We both burst out laughing.
I put his pills on the nightstand beside his bed, along with a glass of water. My aunt begged me to make sure that Brian takes them. Since the tumor has shrunk, she’s been terrified he has become too optimistic and might stop taking the pills to avoid the hideous side effects. But when Brian comes out of the bathroom in a dress shirt and slacks, a towel wrapped like a genie’s turban around his head, he stops at the table, picks them up and pops them in his mouth.
For dinner we go to Caesar’s dining room, where we eat steaks so rare and huge he jokes afterwards that my stomach looks as bloated as his. After sampling desserts we plucked from the waiter’s cart, I pull the wrapped box from the bag I brought down from our room.
Brian leans forward in his chair, an unlit cigar dangling from one corner of his mouth. (We lit one before dinner and, when the maitre’d rushed over, pretended we only spoke French. It turned out that he spoke French too, and ordered us to extinguish it or we’d be kicked out.) He points to the box. “What’s that, Cousin?”
“It ain’t my birthday.”
He scowls but his eyes are sparkling. “You think I won’t live another year?” he asks.
“Hell, Bri, you’ll live to be a hundred.”
He shakes his head. “It was a Texas-sized tumor, Cousin.”
He loves his gift, a gray Stetson hat he wears to the blackjack table. There is a ten-dollar minimum per hand—more than I’d usually risk—but on this trip, I cash in two hundred-dollar bills for chips and then stack half of them in front of Brian. The dealer is brawny and bald with a thick blond mustache; he deals the cards in a whirl and prattles like an auctioneer. Before we know it, Brian has lost all but one of his chips while the middle-aged couples seated on either side of us are winning. I am breaking even.
He turns to me and huffs. “It’s rigged.”
“It’s just a bad run, Cousin,” I say and reach for my purse. “I’ll put in another hundred.”
“No!” he snaps, startling me.
The dealer shuffles, and the wife on my left cuts the deck. The chips for my hand are on the table, but the felt in front of Brian is empty.
“Are you in, Cowboy?” the dealer asks.
Brian pushes his final chip onto the marker, glowering at the dealer as he deals.
Anxiously, I watch the cards: Brian’s first one is a four; the second, a deuce. I would give a hundred dollars on the spot just to switch my nineteen-hand with his. Once again, the dealer turns up an ace for his face card. Brian stares at him with such malevolence, I fear he might spit across the table.
I put my hand on his knee and hold it there.
The dealer looks at Brian. “Well?”
Red-faced, he says nothing.
The dealer smiles, as if amused by the rage emanating from such a diminutive body. “You’re holding up the game, Cowboy.”
I glare at the dealer. “Just wait a second, all right?” Then I lean in close to Brian’s ear. “Please, Cousin. Don’t give up now.”
“All right,” he hisses, reluctantly rejoining the hand. “Hit me, hit me again.”
Brian wins that hand and by the time we leave the table, he is up by sixty dollars. Winning is a new sensation for him: he tucks the crisp bills into his wallet and then walks with an extra lilt to his gait. To celebrate, we go to a quiet bar in the casino, where we order pints of Guinness. The bar is brightly lit and strangely quiet. Sipping our heady brews, we hear distant chatter from the Craps tables and coins clanking from the slot machines.
“Brian?” I say. I’m not sure how to begin. “I think prostitution might be legal here. I don’t know how you feel about it. But if you want me to arrange something, I’d be glad to.”
He lowers his mug and turns to me. His eyes are tired, but his smile is bright. “Thanks,” he says. “Maybe tomorrow. I’ve had the best day, Cousin. But now I need to go to sleep.”
* * *
We never went on that trip to Vegas; I never got the chance to be the big cousin or to give Brian the whirlwind time he deserved. By Christmas, he was in Mass General Hospital, and the tumor had wiped out his swallowing and speech. By March, a month after his thirty-first birthday, he was dead.
I saw Brian only once after Thanksgiving, in his hospital room with my mother. We’d brought him scratch tickets, and though he could barely move, his eyes brightened at the sight.
His sister-in-law had constructed a cardboard tray with the letters of the alphabet pasted on top. With the tray, Brian could communicate; he pointed to the letters, spelled out THANKS, spelled out LOVE. Above the TV was a white board on which a patient introduces himself to the staff. On it were two things I’d never known about Brian: his favorite thing was being an uncle; his favorite color was black.
I’d steeled myself to tell Brian how much he’d always meant to me, but even then I chickened out. When the physical therapist came, I took it as a promising sign. She helped Brian sit up from the mound of pillows then moved him to the edge of the bed. With his feet hanging a foot above the floor, he covered his crotch with his hands when the therapist positioned herself between his knees. Palms hovering inches above his gown as if indicating the immense size of his penis, he turned to my mother and me and grinned. He was so himself. I couldn’t believe he’d ever be gone.
Thoughts of him always begin in anguish: his insistence that his body be cremated, not buried. Despite his mother’s wishes and his Catholic upbringing, he wanted his hated body turned to ash. I think of his siblings and parents nearly coming to blows over his urn: each of his brothers wanted some of the ashes, while his parents insisted they stay undivided. His mother yearned to keep them—never would she be able to let Brian go—but his wish prevailed, and one gloomy afternoon they sprinkled his ashes into Sunday River in Maine, then didn’t speak to each other on the long way home. I think of my uncle losing his son. I think of my aunt—fierce Irish like my mother—and know that if she could spend every last moment of her life clawing to the center of the earth to find him and then breathe the life back into him, she would.
I remember my phone ringing at seven in the morning, as I was dressing for work. From the first note of my mother’s voice, I knew someone had died. Immediately I thought of my great aunt who had been praying for years to meet her maker. I considered others our family knew who were old and infirm, but not for a second would I consider Brian.
When she said, “Honey, it’s Brian,” all I could say was, “Not him.”
Somehow, I left for work. At the office, I avoided my boss and co-workers. Though they knew about Brian—I’d talked for months about how he’d beaten death, and would again—the word, cousin, the phrase, I lost my cousin, seemed completely inadequate for the grief I felt. When students arrived with a complaint about a teacher or a grade on a paper, I was snippety and dismissive. At home that night, I bawled as I packed for the funeral where even his body wouldn’t be present. Then in my pajamas, on the edge of my bed, I cried until my throat was hoarse and my eyes were strained and raw. Finally, spent, I lay under the covers, and in the half-sleep when my lids began to fall, it was then that I found him. And the way he came to me that night is the same way he always comes once I’ve let the grief go.
As faithless as I am, I can see him at a Vegas bar like the one in Phillies—horseshoe-shaped, polished mahogany. He’s alone in his Stetson, drinking a pint of amber beer. There’s a bartender gazing into the casino as he washes some glasses; there are no other customers there besides Brian. His hat is angled over his face. From the side I can tell it’s no longer swollen, but I can’t see his expression or his eyes.
I’m in a red dress that’s tight and flashy. I feel foolish for wearing it as I’m approaching forty. Slowly, I walk toward Brian but he doesn’t turn my way. I begin to panic: is he angry with me—for never facing his death and my own childish ways, for never having the guts to tell him what comfort he’d always brought to me? I’m tempted to turn around and head back to the blackjack table or up to my room to drink myself into oblivion. But I miss him so badly, I’d rather endure his scorn than never speak to him again.
Quietly, I walk past the empty stools until I’m standing next to his.
“Brian?” I say. “It’s me, your cousin.”
He lowers his beer. And he turns to me with a smile so warm, I swear I can feel my soul glow. “Cousin!” he beams. “Great to see you. Have a drink with me. I’m buying.”
The bartender comes over with two frosty pints of Guinness. I sit down next to Brian and we clink our mugs in a toast.
I’m overjoyed but bewildered. “Why?” I ask him, and for me, the question holds all the pain he’d suffered and the words I’d failed to say.
Brian puts his hand over mine, turns to me with a peaceful gaze and explains.
Jennifer Lynn Alessi's work has appeared in Parnassus, Quarterly West, The Battered Suitcase, and is forthcoming in PANK. She recently completed a novel inspired by a year on the road with the Big Apple Circus.