All the Variables
by Adrian Stumpp

When my older brother, Brandon, told us he was getting married, he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. He looked at his feet, mumbled, and couldn’t sit still through it. I had recently discovered the power of brutal honesty and cut down everyone around me with it, the unnerving authority of it. Just the night before I had told my mother I was going to a party and she asked if there would be alcohol. The next morning I told her I smoked a couple bowls, drank til I puked, and got laid. All day she refused to speak to me, which was all I wanted in the first place. People talk to you less when they know you’ll tell the truth, I had decided, and then Brandon came home with a funeral on his face and said he had to tell us something; the unnerving authority of it. The unflinching helplessness, yes, that’s what I like.

I had never seen Brandon anything less than confident, or at least aggressive, and I gotta say, to hear his voice like that made my ears ache. He sat like he had no spine, just a pool of himself in an overstuffed recliner. He told us about an accident—too much air in the tip it must have been, and a break—and another time when Sheila in the hunger for him wouldn’t let him pull out. I seriously doubted both counts but wasn’t stupid enough to offer commentary. Mom gasped at the confessions. Dad said, “Go to your room,” and it didn’t seem to matter to him that Brandon was twenty-years-old. Brandon looked surprised. His brow furrowed like it used to when we were kids and Dad would threaten to take off his belt, and he left the room. Mom put her hand over her mouth and cried.

“What do you think of this?” Dad asked me; then he bellowed down the hall after Brandon, “Your whole goddamn life!”

I was overwhelmed. I only sat in the living room listening to Dad mumble for a quarter of an hour, until I noticed the time and jumped up to get my car keys. On my way out the door Dad said, “Where’re you going?”

“Michaela.”

Dad nodded. “Hey, Kyle, just be careful, huh?”

“Sure. I’ll wear my seatbelt.”

“Good man,” Dad said, but he didn’t seem to believe me.

*

It was Michaela I had been with the night before. I hadn’t intended to sleep with her so soon, I guess out of respect for Brandon, our being brothers and all, but it was just as well. It was going to happen sooner or later anyway, no use fooling myself about it.

The party hadn’t been nearly as crazy as I made it out to be. I wouldn’t have bothered getting drunk or stoned if I hadn’t already promised Mom. Afterward, Michaela had driven my car around town, parked in an abandoned lot, and went straight for the button of my pants.

“None of that tonight,” she said when she got in my car. “I’m at great risk of becoming one of those girls who doesn’t make you miserable before putting out.” We went to a billiards hall to shoot pool and drink Cherry Cokes, and I told her about how Brandon was getting married because his rebound girlfriend was Mormon and pregnant. “Of course she is,” Michaela sighed. “Brandon doesn’t want to get married. How’s your dad taking this?”

“Ornery, same as with everything else.”

I was graduating from high school soon and was looking forward to a lifetime of starving in the name of art, the only thing I’d ever cared about. Until now this had made me Dad’s biggest headache. Brandon had a rocket-launcher for a right arm and had been a three-time All-State third-baseman in high school. Now he played for Salt Lake Community College. He had a tryout in two months for a minor-league slot on the Kansas City Royals’ farm system, which was fine for him, but made me the problem case. Dad had a soft spot for baseball but not art. He wanted me to be a real man with a real job who made real money and lived in a real house, which meant he wanted me to be as miserable as he was.

“I envy you,” Michaela told me. “How self-absorbed you are. I wish I had the courage.”

I never understood what she wanted with Brandon. She was so individual and comfortable being herself, and he was so whatever-people-wanted-him-to-be.

Brandon had been a junior when we were freshmen, and he and Michaela dated for three years before Michaela broke up with him last summer. “I’m not in love with him,” she had told me when we started seeing each other. “He wants so badly to be in love, and I just don’t feel it. I love him, but I’m not in love with him. I don’t know. I don’t think everyone was meant to be in love. The whole idea doesn’t appeal to me.”

“That’s fine,” I had said. “I don’t care if you love me.”

My mother had warned me about girls like Michaela. So had my father, although he had been much more enthusiastic.

*

Brandon waited in the living-room for me to come home. “Where’s Dad?” I asked. I needed a bodyguard. The house was dark except for an end table lamp. I had no idea how long ago Mom and Dad had gone to bed, and I wondered how long Brandon had been waiting for me, how long he had brooded.

“How’s Michaela?” he asked, “Did you have sex with her?”

“Not tonight.”

Brandon blew air out his nose and said, “Kyle, why don’t you get down on your knees and beg me to kick your ass?” Dad banged on the wall and told us both to shut the hell up. We waited in silence until we were sure that was it from him, and Brandon pulled me up by the throat. Brandon and I are of similar build, except that I’m a little taller and he’s a little stronger. This always left my body exposed but gave me an excellent vantage point to witness the seconds before he let into me.

*

It’s a heartless thing to say but true enough: if Dad weren’t my father I really wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Randal Brackett, my dad, used to be a slight, well proportioned man, much like his sons. But somewhere between twenty-five years of fighting tyranny and twenty years of exemplifying tyranny, and twenty-two years of the industrial park, and twenty years of the same woman, all of his experience had welled up inside him and bloated fetus-like. Like a fetus, but it wasn’t; it was beer and meatloaf.

Dad came into the kitchen and sat at the table beside me. My lip was still split, and he was pissed at me cause I refused to turn Brandon in. The wedding was just a month away, and Dad had it out for Brandon. He usually looked the other way when Brandon beat on me—violence being the healthiest expression between brothers—but now Dad wanted anything he could hold against Brandon. “How’s school?” he grunted, and spread the morning paper on the table, “Bringing up your grades?”

“No.”

He looked at me for the first time since sitting down. “You piss me off sometimes, you know that? When is graduation?”

“Next month.”

“Are you going to graduate?”

“Barely,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because when I realized if I stopped doing anything I would still have enough credits to graduate, I stopped doing anything.”

He closed the newspaper and looked at me hard. I hated when people asked questions they didn’t want to know the answers to, started to say so, and thought better of it. He said, “So what do you plan on doing after graduation?”

“We’ve talked about this already.”

“Right,” he said, “the art thing. I meant, what are you going to do with your life?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll take it one day at a time. That’s all you really can do.”

“Today then, hot shot.”

I wrinkled my forehead and thought hard, out the window, far away. But nothing came to me. I got up, rinsed my coffee cup in the sink, and started to leave. Dad said my name, and it stopped me cold because his voice trembled.

“Am I a bad father?” he asked. He displayed his fingers on the table before him, all ten, straight as matches. He wouldn’t look up. “Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t done the worst job for you boys. But I tried hard.”

“I know,” I said.

“I want to tell you, Kyle, so you understand. I gave up every chance I had at happiness to give you boys a decent life. You make sacrifices thinking they have some meaning, that they serve a good purpose. So I worked for twenty years at a job I hated every day of to give you and your brother a chance at a decent future, and now I have to watch you both throw it away.”

Listen, everything made sense to me after Dad told me that, and how he said it, so scared and bitter, and truly asking if he was a bad father, like I could answer for him, like I was the one who would decide if his life had been worth it. I’m telling you the world aligned for me that day, through the opaque lens of my youth. I believed my relationship with my father had never really been troubled at all—it was only an equation with missing variables. That day, I filled in the variables: Dad never did a single thing he ever wanted. He didn’t want to be a father. He did it because he had to, and he wanted to save Brandon from that.

*

It would be a shotgun wedding of the first order. The pink lines on Sheila’s pregnancy test weren’t a week old when the invitations went out, mostly by telephone. The date was now three weeks away. “A May wedding,” Mom lilted. “How exciting for both of them.”

With graduation coming fast the only homework I bothered to do anymore was my art portfolio. I had two more canvases I wanted to add to it before school ended. They were gritty kitsch scenes of Brandon swinging a baseball bat. The angle of perspective in my favorite was so you couldn’t tell if he was swinging at a ball or the catcher’s head. Both paintings had slight problems of proportion I wanted to perfect on a sketch pad before messing with the canvases. I never really cared for baseball, but I understood Brandon better when I saw him absorbed in the game, playing or watching, the effect was the same. He loved a little boy’s game the way I loved painting. The smells of mulched grass and chalk dust were his turpentine and linseed oil. Joy made us comrades-in-arms in this one respect. I sat in the bleachers smearing charcoal on paper and watched the team practice until Brandon noticed me.

I tried to explain about Dad, but Brandon didn’t take it that well. I told him what Dad told me, how Dad didn’t want Brandon to end up like him, how Brandon could do what he wanted with a clear conscience because he could say it was what Dad wanted, but somehow I screwed up the delivery.

“Just because you’re screwing my girlfriend doesn’t mean you can tell me how to live my life,” Brandon said.

“She’s your ex-girlfriend,” I whimpered.

“How many times a day do I have to threaten your life?”

I told him I didn’t mean anything by it, that I was the last person to tell people how to live their lives.

“Good,” Brandon said. “You should be. You’re a loser, you’re so pathetic it’s shameful.”

I didn’t know what to say to something like that or why I deserved to hear it. Brandon asked what the hell I thought was going to become of me, did I really think I would be discovered by some bigwig pansy art dealer or something. He said I was so selfish it was really too disgusting for elaboration and my head was so far up my own ass I couldn’t even appreciate it. He called my paintings shit. “I want to play ball,” he said, “but I’m not counting on it. I’m going to school, and I’ll get a real job so I can afford a real life so Mom and Dad won’t have to worry about me all the time.”

“I never asked Mom and Dad to worry about me,” I said.

Brandon rolled his eyes. “You think Mom and Dad aren’t worried about you? Think they can just stop like that? Get out of here before I hit you.”

My hands shook and my face burned with shame. I cried, I admit it. Later I wanted to tell Michaela, but I couldn’t be sure my voice wouldn’t break, so I kept it to myself. It ate at me. I didn’t know how much of it was Brandon’s spite and how much was the unflinching truth.

I wanted to talk to Michaela about it but I was shaken the whole day. We could hear my parents arguing upstairs, and I couldn’t tell if it was me or Brandon they fought about. “He’s a loser, “I heard Dad say, “Still daydreaming … taking care of him his whole life … I can’t talk to him; I’ve tried … I don’t know, Carol!”

Michaela asked if I was okay. It didn’t matter. As soon as school was out I was getting the hell out of here. Mom caught me on the stairs after Michaela went home. “Your father,” she said, “I know he wouldn’t say this to you—but he just wants you boys to be happy. He’s worried.”

*

Mom once told me Dad stayed with her because of Brandon. Seriously. He was going to break up with her; then they found out she was pregnant with Brandon, so instead he married her. It had been enough to save their marriage for twenty years.

My grandparents divorced when Dad was six. His father was a truck-driver, and it was easy for him to relocate to the other side of the country. He never missed a child-support payment, and every year Dad and his sister received Christmas and birthday presents of the most generic variety—five and ten dollar bills—but Dad never saw his father again. It never occurred to Dad that he may have been better off without what he never had; Mom said my grandfather had been a raging bastard—an alcoholic, womanizer, and child-beater. She said Dad didn’t marry her so much because he thought he owed it to her as because he didn’t want his son to grow up without a father. Mom must’ve been doing something for him, though, because I would still catch Dad singing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and frying eggs in his boxer shorts on Sunday mornings.

As the wedding day neared it became increasingly clear what a travesty the whole thing would be, and not just the wedding, but every day for the rest of Brandon’s natural life, or at least until he couldn’t take it anymore and abandoned her. Clean through it was a bad situation.

Sheila’s family was one of the oldest in the Salt Lake Valley. Her great-great-grandfather had been the lucky shepherd of fourteen wives and nearly a hundred children. Sheila was a fallen girl, marrying a non-believer outside the Mormon Temple to compensate her shame, and that Brandon was willing to marry her was hardly a reason for celebration; it just kept a bad situation from being worse. No one in her family liked Brandon, and he came home dejected every time he went over there.

Every sidewise glance of Brandon haunted me, my boisterous older brother who never spoke anymore unless he was spoken to. When he would come home from Sheila’s there would be an unsettling quiet between the garage door humming and the click of the kitchen door marking his entrance. He would sit in the stale dark of the garage all that time thinking God knew what. It seemed everywhere I went I was confronted by rumors of girls I had heard of now getting pregnant on purpose to trap boyfriends I had once known.

“That’s ridiculous,” Michaela told me. “Brandon isn’t stupid. He knows he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to,” but I wasn’t so sure. Brandon didn’t want to have a kid, he didn’t love Sheila; looking at him, it was obvious. He aged with every passing day; for him the wedding march would be a funeral dirge, and his marriage was doomed already.

The resentment Sheila’s family felt for Brandon extended to Mom. She went over there one day to offer her services in planning the wedding. She came home almost immediately. I don’t know what they said but Mom had obviously been rebuffed. She whispered something pleasant about how they had everything under control and didn’t need any more help, but she was visibly upset—she’d wanted to be part of her son’s wedding, grave an occasion as it was.

Suddenly I was very scared for Brandon. I kept thinking about the rare times in our lives we had been buddies and a gorge rose in my throat. The finality of it seemed morbid to me. Sure he was a bully, but I couldn’t bear thinking of him suffering with no end.

I became certain it was I who would have to convince him. He just had to let it all go, that’s all there was to it. Once he knew all the variables he could plug them in and it would be easy. He didn’t love Sheila. If she wanted to have the kid on her own, it was her business. It would be better for him to pay child support than to marry her. He made a mistake and he would have to answer for it; but he didn’t owe her anything, let alone his whole life; he didn’t have to be a meal-ticket; making a mistake didn’t have to disqualify Brandon from chasing his dreams.

The next time I saw his car pull into the garage, I gave him a few minutes and went out there. He sat with his forehead on the steering wheel. I knocked on the passenger side window. The wheel left a deep groove tattooed on his forehead. When he recognized me he looked genuinely disgusted but unlocked the door anyway.

“I hate you,” he said calmly. Spooky calm, like he’d stopped struggling and accepted it.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” I said.

“It isn’t fair,” Brandon told me, “You don’t do anything right, and things always go your way. I do everything I’m supposed to, and nothing ever works out for me.”

“That’s not true.”

“Shut up. You want to be an artist, so you go against everything Mom and Dad and common sense say, and do it anyway. You ain’t got a job, you ain’t applied to any colleges. You got nothing but a pipedream and my girlfriend, but you ain’t even nervous cause things have a way of working for you.”

“That’s because I do what I want and don’t care what anyone else thinks of me.”

“We can’t all be as selfish as you, Kyle. Some of us have to do what’s right.”

“What about your tryout for the minors?” I said, “You got that.”

Brandon grimaced and looked out the driver’s side window, away from me. “I ain’t going,” he said. “Sheila wants me to finish up my Associates, ASAP. Get a job with insurance for the baby.”

“Don’t do it.” It’s all I could think to say. “If you do it, you’ll die of regret. You can’t.”

“Kyle, get out of my car or I’ll hit you.”

I started to argue with him and he popped me. I threw the door open and jumped out before I was sure he connected, but walking back to the house my vision blurred and my skull sang like grinding metal. My eye was puffy blue where the socket met my nose, but Michaela held ice on it for a while and it was fine. She shook her head, face pale with worry, “I told you to leave him alone.” It didn’t bother me that Brandon hit me, though—he’d been doing that my whole life. But he hadn’t said he hated me in years, and never with so much resolve.

*

Michaela and I arrived for the wedding at ten o’clock in the morning. I wore a suit because I refused to wear a tuxedo, and Michaela wore a sleeveless white summer dress I longed to peel off her. Dad had asked me not to bring Michaela in the interest of tact. I told him, tough, she was my girlfriend, maybe Brandon ought to concentrate more on his wife and less on Michaela.

The wedding was held at the bride’s house, a big tacky tiptoe affair on the hill with a backyard twice the size of ours. There were lilacs and forsythia in bloom all about, and a cobblestone path that followed a little stream along the back of the property. The path wandered under a wooden arch painted white which would be the sight of the happy union. The bride, forbidden the virgin’s white, wore a peach-colored gown and a sallow blush.

My cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents came from four states to see Randal Brackett’s oldest son get married. Most of them didn’t like Randal Brackett; they thought he was ornery, materialistic, fat, basically a bastard. They didn’t know his oldest son—the last time most of them saw Brandon he was twelve.

It would have been a silly occasion if not for the unspeakable. This was not a day to celebrate. It was tedious to my family; Sheila’s stood in mourning on the other side of the confetti-riddled No Man’s Land that would join my brother in legal matrimony. There were hordes of them, and they looked horrified in their Sunday best. Most of my family came in t-shirts and jeans. The plan was to end with a reception line of all four parents, me, the bride and groom, the bride’s five siblings, two sisters-in-law, and a brother-in-law. Sheila’s niece was the flower girl, her nephew the ring-bearer. There was no best man.

Mom had been the only one to honor the creed that the groom shouldn’t see the bride before the holy hour, but her illusions of a classical wedding quickly deflated in the somber atmosphere. She overheard Michaela ask me to get her a soda and told me to find Brandon while I was at it.

“Mom’s looking for you,” I told Brandon. I found him sitting on Sheila’s bed softly crying.

He wiped his nose with the cuff of his sleeve. “I can’t believe you brought her here.”

“Michaela cares about you and wanted to come,” I snapped. “You got some stuff to sort out and not much time. Because you can’t be married like this, hating me for Michaela.”

“I’m in love with her, and she doesn’t want me anymore! Why? Because she likes my fucking gets-everything-he-wants brother! There’s no baseball for Brandon Brackett, no, but my child will have a father. At least there’s that.”

I’m telling you in that moment I saw my brother for the first time. I saw an idiot boy with the entire world before him walking the plank because everyone around him said it was the right thing to do. I felt a pure, pounding, spiteful rage toward him.

I hit him.

He stumbled back, shocked, and I hit him again square in the chest with two fists. He toppled over and I was on him, pinning him square to his back on Sheila’s down comforter. My mind raced. I felt sick to my stomach. I said, “Don’t lay down and let them eat you and say you owe it to them. You don’t owe anyone. Don’t do this because you’ve been taught your whole life it’s the right thing to do.”

“It’s not right,” Brandon pled. He was crying hard now.

“It’s not right that you get a girl pregnant and then don’t marry her? Is it right you marry a girl you don’t love? Is it right to make you raise a kid you conceived by accident? Is it right to make you give up your dream, Brandon, is that right?” I could hear myself getting hysterical. My voice cracked and rose. I was scared for both of us, of a future in which every action was to be half-doubted, a time when nothing was certain and men like Dad were mortal. We stared at each other, both of us stunned. “If you’re still single tomorrow morning, you will have earned all my respect,” I said, “but I don’t think you have the balls to do what you want. If you want to play baseball, do it. If you want to marry her, marry her. Just don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

I told Brandon to collect himself and come see what Mom wanted. Then I got Michaela a can of root-beer and rejoined the jury. “He’s coming,” I told Mom, and positioned myself next to Dad against the back fence. Fifteen minutes passed and Mom asked me what Brandon was doing. I didn’t know how to explain so I just shrugged. A few minutes later she asked me again to go get him, but I told her he’d be out in a minute, cool your jets.

Half an hour after I’d come outside they were ready to start and Dad volunteered to get Brandon. He came out alone, shrugging as he crossed the lawn. “I can’t find him,” Dad said, “he ain’t in there.”

“Did you try Sheila’s room,” I offered. He nodded. Sheila’s brother asked who saw him last. Mom told him, and everyone looked at me. “What?” I said, “He was sitting on Sheila’s bed buttoning his cuff-links.” Sheila’s older sister yawned.

Half a dozen calls were made to his cell-phone but went directly to voicemail. Both immediate families were on the hunt, and soon everyone in attendance was looking for Brandon. Sheila noticed his car was gone. Mom called the house. No one answered. Dad drove home and came back alone. He didn’t bother to call ahead—by then it was apparent what had happened.

The children were restless and games of tag and kick the can broke out in the yard. Sheila and Mom cried together, Sheila’s mother cried apart. Sheila’s sisters in their matching peach bridesmaid’s dresses took turns squeezing the crying women. The men on Sheila’s side congregated together to pick lint from their suits, preening like birds in the pre-gloaming light. Sheila’s dad stood apart, arms folded, jaw set mercilessly to seethe. My dad paced, and from time to time wrinkled his brow like a bloodhound, huffed, ran his hands through his thinning hair, took a deep breath. He looked around like he didn’t know where he was and paced some more. I could tell he was trying not to feel sorry for himself.

At sunset my relations started filtering out and I felt less and less welcome in the yard. Dad apparently felt it too because he told me to get my mother, we’re going home.

Dad had stocked ice-chests of cold beer throughout the kitchen. The plan had been for our guests to leave around this time and come back to our house for snacks and beer and the unofficial family reunion. A handful of people showed up, but no one was really in the spirit. Nevertheless, they felt obligated to eat pepperoni and crackers and make awkward small-talk for an hour or so before departing. Dad cleaned out his ice chests and stacked untouched six-packs in the garage while Mom cleared the table of finger foods. Michaela, Mom, and I sat in the living room and didn’t say much of anything until ten o’clock when Michaela went home and Mom stopped crying to declare she was thoroughly exhausted and couldn’t stay up one more minute.

I found Dad sitting on the front porch with a six-pack of beer. The light above the door was on, and I thought this was as it should be. Dad and I would keep the home fire burning. I sat down beside him and he offered me a can. We sipped our beers and I said, “Do you think Brandon’s okay?”

He shrugged, “I’m sure he’s fine.”

I thought about what it must be like to have Dad’s life. I tried to imagine being married to Mom, having a job I hated, kids like me and Brandon. All at once I was Dad, and he was me. My wife was Carol Brackett, whom I had grown to love but was never in love with. My oldest boy, cruelly fated to follow me, had just left his pregnant fiancée standing at the altar, and I was sick with worry for him. My younger son was on the verge of graduating high school without a clue to bet on, and I was scared the coming world would leave him so quickly broken he might not survive. I knew I had fought the good fight and come up short, that I had failed these boys. I was sick with worry, scared in my heart and tired all over, because I couldn’t see a future for either of them. I knew it was on me to figure it out, to fix things, to keep it all going. I caught a glimpse of what it felt like to have life happen to you. I had been on a rebellious streak and was due to be humbled, and that did it well enough.

Sitting on the front porch drinking beer with the crumbling hulk of my father, I was overwhelmed with the desire to protect him. I understood it was Dad’s life, and he would have to live it. But I wanted to wrap him in my arms and take his burdens upon myself.