The Good Brother

On siblings

Mary Barnett
A photo of the author and her brother, with other children
Courtesy Mary Barnett

He was a good brother, not that he ever gave her any advice or protected her in a fight or introduced her to one of his friends or even talked to her in front of his friends or took her to a ball game or gave her a grownup present or helped her with her homework or drove her anywhere. No, not like that. He was jealous and mean and competitive, just like the rest of them. But sometimes at night, he told her stories and they went on and on and on and even her parents couldn’t make him stop. They could never make him stop. Sometimes he made her laugh so hard at supper that she spit her milk out all over the table. And sometimes when he was fed up with everybody, he’d take her to the beach in the early evening and let her watch him run.

He was smart. Not smart like their older brother who scored 100 out of 100 on every test he ever took and rubbed it in with mini-lectures and impromptu grammar tests; but smart in that he knew just how to push their mother’s buttons and make her say yes and make her laugh and make her scream no no no and then give in and once even make her cry. One summer when they were all living way out in the country with no hot water or refrigeration or running water or flush toilets or electricity or friends and they were supposed to be reading David fucking Copperfield by candlelight, he went off to the dump in a cloud of Plymouth dust and returned with an old beat up TV and rigged it up to run off the cigarette lighter in the station wagon. Then he convinced their mother to let her stay up long past her bedtime to watch Bonanza with him, lying on mildewed sleeping bags, in the way way back.

Never mind the times he left her tied to a tree in the woods for hours or threw ticks in her hair or made her eat dog shit once; that was just rough housing. Never mind the time years later when he called her to say her best friend, who was dead already then, was screaming at him from inside his TV.

He was a good brother because that summer after eighth grade when all she could stomach were meat scraps and frozen peas he said “Look, you are the tallest and the blondest and the prettiest girl in the whole damn class.” And … she believed him.

He was a good brother because he had come first and withstood all of that bad weather alone and shielded her like a porch roof from a rain that would certainly have washed her away. They were like two animals being hunted in the woods and he’d made the most noise.

He was a good brother not because he was here now to usher at her wedding but because he was gone and she could only remember the good parts and maybe he’d forgotten her like that time in the woods or maybe he’d just gone ahead and was saving her a place at the big table.

Mary Barnett is an essayist whose work has appeared in Tin House, Commonweal, Christian Century, and Letters. A former choreographer and dancer, she is the director of In Good Company, Inc. and the performance series Dancing Out Loud.
Originally published:
September 12, 2018


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