two good guys and a real woman

There’s apparently something about April that makes me want to write short stories.  (Check out last April’s creations, another brother story and a cousin story.)  This one is a best friend story, but it also has male protagonists.  For some reason I find it easier to write about men, but sometimes I need actual men to let me know if my characters are acting like men.  So feel free to critique.  I’m also aware that the non-male of my three main characters, Ramona, isn’t as compelling as the other two.  Since they clearly think she’s something special, I need to do a better job of showing why.  And I do know that the legal stuff the characters discuss about copyright and fan fiction is a bit murky.  I need to do more research on that, although this ultimately isn’t a very important part of the story. 

Please enjoy this as-yet untitled piece.  Warning: It is fairly long.

Back in college, they used to get pizza wasted.  This doesn’t mean that they ordered pizza while wasted.  This means that they ate so much pizza, they got stupid.  There was one three-week period when they watched Psycho every night, at least that’s how they remembered it later.  Every night they quoted the same lines.  “You’re going to put me in the fruit cellar.  Think I’m fruity, do you?”  After destroying three large stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizzas, they could barely breathe, far less think.  Adrian was skinny in college, even more than now.  Sam was, as now, bless-his-heart fat.  This made little difference.  They both demolished about a pizza and a half each.

Adrian was not exactly wishing, just now, that he was pizza wasted.  But he was thinking, with a twinge of nostalgia, about what a different setting he and Sam were in on this particular evening.  Instead of a B.O.-funky dorm room, they were in a vast hall with crystal chandeliers, which hurt Adrian’s eyes, and thick, somnolent carpets.  Sam was sitting at the front table, wearing a suit and looking flushed and sweaty but radiantly happy.  Adrian was sitting at one of the indistinguishable round tables with Ramona, who was falling asleep.  He saw that she had her phone in her lap and knew it was set to vibrate, so he texted her, “Wake up!”  Her eyes flew open, and she looked at Adrian sheepishly.  He texted again, “My little flower.  You wilt when there’s no natural light. :)”  She texted back, “Shut up and pay attention!,” but she was smiling.

Adrian looked up at the podium and tried to pay attention.  A middle-aged woman, who clearly didn’t read Sigyn: Intra-Yggdrasil Negotiator, was talking about Sam.  Sam wrote and illustrated comic books for a living.  He routinely referred to this as “the ultimate loser job,” but Adrian called it what it really was: living the dream.  Sam had pulled Sigyn out of a footnote in Norse mythology and turned her into the heroine of his hugely cult-popular series.  A national feminist organization had noticed that Sigyn was a “real” woman and now was honoring Sam for his work to advance realistic and positive portrayals of women in the comic book genre.  As far as Adrian, Sam, and Ramona had been able to tell, “real” meant that Sigyn didn’t take crap from people, and it also had something to do with the size of her hips.

Sam had been floored by this honor.  “I wasn’t trying to say anything,” he’d said last night while freaking out over his acceptance speech.  “I mean, she’s just a great character, and I think she’s hot.”  “I don’t think you should mention that last part,” Adrian had warned him.  “No, I don’t think the feminists would like that,” Ramona had agreed.  “Even if it is true.”  The laugh in her voice when she said this had made Adrian stare at her for a few moments, trying to see if he could find some hidden message.  Adrian had long suspected that Sam was modeling Sigyn’s appearance, and some of her mannerisms, after Ramona’s.  It was just little things, like her hair color and her fondness for wearing green.  Since Sam was clearly infatuated with his fictional creation, the possible connection between Sigyn and Ramona was one that Adrian was afraid to pursue.  He hoped he was just being paranoid.

Adrian snapped out of his reverie and realized that he was staring at Ramona, who was looking at Sam, who was now at the podium speaking.  Sam pushed a damp clump of hair off his forehead and took a sip of water.  “I’m so grateful for the love you’ve all shown Sigyn.  I was just trying to create a character who was smart and strong and happy and . . . you know . . . healthy, mentally and emotionally and . . . physically.”

Adrian and Ramona exchanged a glance.  So far Sam hadn’t said anything to get the feminists indignant.  Sam continued, “I think Sigyn’s greatest quality is that she brings peace with her wherever she goes.  She’s able to get these crazy, selfish, combative kings and demigods to stop fighting, and she can do that because she’s . . . like I said, smart, and emp–empathetic.”  He took a bigger swallow of water.  “So, I’m glad you love her too, and thanks for this . . . honor.”  Sam gave a tentative little wave and started to go back to his chair but stopped at a signal from the middle-aged woman who didn’t read Sigyn.  “Oh!” he exclaimed, sounding out of breath.  “Um, questions?”

A younger woman sitting in the press section raised her hand.  “There’s a lot of speculation on the message boards that Sigyn is having an affair with Balder.  What would you say in response?”

“STUPID QUESTION,” Ramona texted Adrian.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous,” Sam said, the hesitation gone from his voice.  “Balder’s not that kind of guy; he’s just a good guy, you know?”

Adrian texted back, “Seriously, what does she think this is, Inside Edition?”

“And besides,” Sam continued, “as weird as it sounds, the whole series is based on the premise that Sigyn actually loves Loki.  And in his limited, narcissistic way, he loves her too.”

The fact that Sigyn, true to the original mythology, was married to Loki was one of the reasons Adrian suspected that she was modeled from Ramona.  Unlike most normal women, Ramona wasn’t particularly attracted to Thor; it was the pale, dark troublemaker who caught her fancy, and for some reason this made Adrian extra jealous.  “Do you have to have a picture of Tom Hiddleston on your desktop?” he’d asked the other day, knowing he sounded petulant and ridiculous.  “Do you have to drool every time a preview with Jessica Chastain comes on TV?” she had rejoined, with a smile that said she didn’t take this nearly as seriously as he did.

Adrian wondered if he was becoming unreasonable, or worse, pathetic.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ramona.  It was just that he sometimes, increasingly often, had the self-esteem of a 14-year-old girl.  There was no other reason for him to feel threatened by mythical gods and unattainable British actors, and by–well, by Sam, who now, it seemed, was finished answering questions.  The middle-aged woman was now making closing-type remarks while Sam stood at a deferential distance from the podium, his cheeks bright pink and his blonde hair turning dark at the ends from perspiration.

“Sam looks miserable,” Ramona texted.

“He’s fine,” Adrian typed at first, but backspaced this and wrote instead, “Those lights up there look really bright.”  What he wanted to write was, “Hey, I’m feeling kind of miserable myself over here, you notice?”  But that would really be pathetic.


Later, in the cab, Sam was happy again now that he’d taken off his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his collar.  “Man, I haven’t worn a suit since you two got married.”

“Yeah, but that time it was a tuxedo.  So this isn’t that bad,” Adrian pointed out.  Sam had been a groomsman in their wedding–not the best man, a distinction that had belonged to Adrian’s brother.  Sam didn’t have any siblings, nor did he have any other close friends, and his parents didn’t like to travel, which was why Adrian and Ramona had been his guests for the banquet.  (Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that Ramona was the inspiration for the character whom all the fuss was about, but nobody talked about that.)  After a brief, awkward spat, Adrian and Ramona had agreed to let Sam pay for their plane tickets and hotel room.  “I’m still shocked that I’ve made any money from writing comics,” Sam had said.  “And what better way to spend my money than to spend it on my best friends?”  Sam had a way of saying embarrassingly sincere things like that.

Now, in the cab back to the hotel, Sam punched Adrian in the arm.  Adrian cringed, which he knew was stupid, because it didn’t hurt and he normally didn’t mind being punched in the arm.  “Hey,” said Sam.  “Have you thought about it?  Are you gonna be Percy?”  Sam wanted to start a new series called Percy Weasley and the Ministry Aides, and he’d asked for Adrian’s permission to let him model the title character’s appearance after his own, which corresponded superficially to J. K. Rowling’s description of Percy.  Adrian found this annoying.  There was nothing particularly special about having red hair and horn-rimmed glasses.  Besides, all this was clearly just a formality, since Sam hadn’t asked for permission to model his other title character after Ramona.  Unless he had, and nobody had ever told Adrian.  But this was too enormous to be considered.

“Can’t you rest on your laurels for a while before starting your next project?” Adrian asked.

“But this one is going to be awesome!” Sam said.  “I’ve got it all planned out.  I think Percy is going to be kind of a hipster.”

“Why?” Adrian asked with an edge to his voice.  He certainly wasn’t hip enough to be a hipster.

“I don’t know; that’s just how I picture him.  I think it’s the glasses.  I’m thinking Cornelius Fudge can send Percy down to the local pub to get him a beer, and Percy comes back with this obscure craft brew called, like, Goblin Hoard.”

Ramona laughed.  She was the biggest Harry Potter fan of them all.  “Is Percy going to get reconnected with Penelope Clearwater?”

“Of course!” Sam exclaimed.  “I haven’t quite figured out how, though.  I think she’s working for the Daily Prophet.  Oh!  And I’ve already got the Christmas issue planned out.  Percy is going to get a card from his mom that just says, ‘Come home.’  And he isn’t going to come home, because this is before all the Battle of Hogwarts stuff, but he’s going to have this whole Christmas meltdown thing.  Great stuff.  I can’t wait.”

“Percy has always broken my heart,” Ramona said.

“J. K. Rowling is probably going to sue you,” Adrian said, even though Ramona had sounded like she was going to say more.  He was looking straight out the windshield; Sam and Ramona were leaning across him to talk to each other.  He felt a little sick.

“No, she isn’t,” Sam said.  “Has Marvel ever tried to sue me for using Loki and Thor and Odin?  I’m not famous enough to be a threat.”

“Yeah, but you might have to be more careful now that you’re a noted feminist artist,” Ramona said in a wink-wink voice.

Sam chuckled, always a fan of Ramona’s humor.  “Naah, this is the 21st century.  The whole concept of copyright is changing.  And I’m basically just writing fan fiction.  I’ve done my research; I won’t get in trouble for the stuff I do.”

“Please don’t go to jail, Sam!” said Ramona in an exaggeratedly worried tone and a proper British accent.  Ramona enjoyed doing British accents, especially when the context didn’t call for it.

“We’re at the hotel,” Adrian said, before the cab had even reached the breezeway.  He was angry at everyone in the backseat, especially himself, and he wanted to go to bed.

After Sam paid the driver, he hustled to catch up with Adrian and Ramona, who were already in the lobby.  “Hey,” he said.  “It’s probably just me, but–are you guys still hungry?”

“Actually, yeah,” said Ramona.  “I thought it was just me.”

“Kind of,” Adrian conceded.  “The food at that banquet was . . .”

“Not great,” Sam said apologetically, as if he felt bad for taking his friends to a lousy banquet.  “And there wasn’t much of it.  And I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat.”  He paused for a beat.  “Just kidding!”

Adrian never knew how to respond when Sam made fat jokes about himself, which this seemed to be.  “Earlier I saw a pizza place at the end of this block,” Adrian said.  “I’ll go get some pizzas.”

“We could just get delivery,” Ramona suggested.

“No, I want to walk,” said Adrian.

“I’ll go with you.  You’ll have a lot to carry.  And I want to pay,” said Sam.

“But you have your jacket and tie . . .”

“I’ll take them upstairs,” said Ramona.  “I have some grading to do, so I’ll wait up there for you guys.”

Adrian sighed.  He wanted to be alone, but at least this way Sam and Ramona wouldn’t be alone in adjoining hotel rooms.  “Okay, come on, Sam.”

It was a balmy night.  In spite of himself, Adrian was starting to feel calmer.  Sam seemed a little high from the evening’s events.  “Adrian,” he said.  “I want to tell you something.  I think you already know, but I want to say it out loud.”

“Don’t say anything you’ll regret,” Adrian said dryly, looking down at a pebble he was kicking along the sidewalk.

“Well, like I said, I think you know, but . . . I really . . . I mean I’ve always . . . I love your wife.”

Adrian nearly tripped mid-kick.  “What?”  He stopped and turned to look at Sam, whose face was redder than it had been all evening.  “Why would you tell me that?”

Most people would’ve had the decency to look away, Adrian thought, but Sam just looked at him with those big blue eyes that made him seem desperate even at the best of times.  “Come on, Adrian, I’ve loved Ramona pretty much ever since you two started dating–”

“Stop saying love!” Adrian shouted.  He was shouting, on a street that wasn’t entirely deserted, but he didn’t care.  “You don’t even know what that is!”

Now Sam turned away.  Adrian immediately realized what he’d said.  “I’m sorry, that was . . .” It was cruel, but that word sounded overly dramatic.  “Does she know?  Have you said anything to Ramona?”

Sam shook his head emphatically, still not looking at Adrian.  “Of course not.  You know me.  I would never act on this.”

“Because you’re a good guy,” said Adrian, in a dull voice now.  “And you know that as weird as it sounds, Ramona loves me, and I love her, in my limited, narcissistic way.”

Sam looked at Adrian now.  “What?  Did you think I was saying that about you?  That was just some literary crap that sounded good when I was on the spot.  It was about Loki, and you’re definitely not him.”

“Believe me, I know that!” Adrian turned and started walking briskly toward the pizza parlor.  Sam was shorter and practically had to jog to keep up with Adrian’s stride.  Adrian turned to speak again, as if Sam had kept the conversation going.  “Listen, I know this makes me sound like a douche bag, but it’s true.  You don’t know what it’s like to be married to a woman who’s whole leagues better than you, and to always be baffled about what she sees in you, and to constantly be paranoid about pretty much all the other men in the world, even if they’re fictional characters or . . . or really good guys.”

Sam stopped walking, forcing Adrian to stop too, and indicated his whole person in a sweeping gesture.  “Have you seen me, Adrian?  I’m a fat nerd.”

Adrian flung his arms out too, which he normally only did when he was teaching and making a very important point.  “Sam, did you sleepwalk through that banquet tonight?  Did you hear what those people were saying about you?  You’re like the Stan Lee of our generation.”  Sam snorted.  “Okay, maybe not yet, but you will be!  You spend all day, every day writing incredible stories that people all over the world love.  So don’t tell me–”

“I’m lonely, Adrian,” Sam cut in, not loudly.  It took Adrian a moment to realize what he’d said.  “I’m so lonely.  It’s worse than ever.  If I’d had to go to this thing by myself, I don’t think I could’ve gone.”  He paused to take a breath.  “Do you forget what that’s like?”

Adrian ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his jacket and his glasses, as if he’d been physically hit.  “Geez, Sam.”

They were at the pizza place.  Sam held the door open.  “How much pizza do you think we should get?”

Adrian shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Whatever.  All of it.”  He felt sick again.  “You decide.  I need to sit down.”  He went over to a far corner booth, sat down, took off his Percy glasses, and sat there with his face in his hands, while Sam placed what sounded like a very long pizza order.

Sam came over and slid into the opposite seat.  He let out a long sigh.  “It’s supposed to be ready in 15 minutes.”

Adrian put his glasses back on.  “You know what I was thinking about tonight?  Remember in college, how we used to get pizza wasted?”

Sam briefly chuckled.  “Oh, man.  Remember when we watched Psycho like 21 nights in a row?”

Adrian nodded.  “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”  He paused, a moment of silence for their former selves.  “How did we pay for all that pizza?”

Sam shrugged.  “Student loans, I guess.”

“But . . . why did we do it?”

“I don’t know.” Sam shook his head.  “Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I know why did it.  I was especially miserable that year, and I was trying to numb it, I guess.  Kind of the story of my life.”

Adrian cringed again.  “Geez, Sam.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.”  There was a long, comfortable silence, the kind men can generally pull of much better than women.

Finally, Adrian said, “Look.  I know I suck as a friend.”

“No, you don’t,” Sam insisted, with an are-you-crazy face.

“Yes, I do.  I’ve said some awful things to you tonight.  And just so you know, I was totally zoned out during at least half of the speaking part of the banquet.”

“So was I,” Sam laughed.

“Dude, the whole banquet was for you.”  Now Adrian had the are-you-crazy face.

Sam shrugged.  “I know.”

“Well, then we both suck as human beings.  But listen.  I’ll be Percy if you answer me one question.”

“What’s that?” Sam asked slowly, probably thinking that he’d spilled enough guts for one evening.

Adrian took a deep breath.  He thought he already knew the answer, but he was scared to hear it aloud.  “Is Ramona–when you draw Sigyn, are you really drawing Ramona?”

“Yes.”

Adrian let out the breath.  “I knew it.”

“But not on purpose, at least not from the beginning.” Sam closed his eyes for a second, the way people do when they’re trying to look into the past.  “I was just drawing a woman who was all those things I said in the speech earlier, strong, and–you know . . .”

“Smart, and happy, and healthy, and all that.”

“Yeah.  And then one day I was like, ‘Sigyn looks really familiar,’ and it wasn’t just because I’d gotten to know my character, although that was true; it was because I was drawing Ramona.”

Adrian look at Sam and realized he didn’t feel angry.  He then looked down at the table and realized he’d been tearing a straw wrapper to bits.  He brushed the pieces into a little pile.  “Well.  I think you should tell Ramona that she’s Sigyn.”

“What, really?”  Sam had been looking out the window, but he snapped back to look at Adrian when he heard this.  “But if I tell her, won’t she know–”

“Ramona is smarter than the two of us put together,” Adrian interrupted.  “She’s probably known about all this stuff–I mean all of it–for, like, ever.  And besides,” he added, “people like to hear nice things about themselves.”  For once in his life, Adrian wasn’t fishing for a compliment when he said this.  Which was good, because Sam didn’t give him one.

Instead, Sam just said, “Wow, okay.”  And then, after a pause, “Oh, hey.  Do you still like pizza without any tomato sauce?  Because I got you a whole one like that.”

“Sam,” said Adrian.  “I should start calling you Samwise, because you are, without a doubt, the world’s greatest friend.”  After a second of introspection, Adrian was pleased to find that he was perfectly sincere.


a cousin story

On a roll, I wrote another scene for the piece I mentioned in my last post.  I’m calling the overall piece Cousin PercyAfter reading this scene, you will have met all the cousins except for Peter, the one who’s still in college.  I intend for quiet, self-effacing Peter to be the one who unexpectedly breaks through to the frustratingly uncommunicative Percy, but I haven’t quite developed that idea yet.  In this scene, you’ll see just how frustratingly uncommunicative Percy is.  You need to know that Percy doesn’t yet know that Harry was once married and has a rather sad back story.  He thinks he’s got Harry all figured out.  This scene is shorter and, I think, funnier than the last one I posted, but you should still be able to feel the underlying tension.  By the way, I promise that my next post will be on another topic.

Three nights before Christmas, Harry Sinclair sat in a dim, deeply-recessed booth in the corner of the pub nearest the door, nursing a bottle of cream soda and watching the acoustic band intently.  During a particularly loud moment in one of the American folk songs the band was valiantly plowing through, his cousin Percy, whom Harry had known for exactly four days, approached the booth, carrying a pint and wearing the leather jacket that, Harry had already decided, made him look like a Liverpool dockworker circa 1959.

“This is the only empty seat in the place,” said Percy by way of explanation.

“Well, sit down!” said Harry in an unnecessarily expansive voice that sounded, to both men, a bit false.  “What brings you here on this cold evening?”

“Why does anybody come to a pub?” Percy replied flatly as he sat.  “Having an ale.  What are you doing here?”

“Why does anybody come to a pub?”  Harry paused before continuing, “I’m spying on my employee.”

Percy grunted into his pint, possibly indicating interest.

Harry took the indication and ran with it.  “He’s the one on the stool at the front of the band, playing the guitar.”

“The fat kid?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “Totally unnecessary, but yes.  He’s the portly chap who’s singing right now.  That’s Sam.  He helps me out at the shop.”  Harry made a slight confidential lean toward his cousin; Percy made no response of any kind.  “So I’ll say to him at the end of the day, ‘What are you doing tonight, Sam?’  Just making conversation.  And he’ll always say something like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just go home and watch TV.'”  Harry said this in an exaggeratedly glum voice.  “Only he’s a Scotsman, but I can’t do his accent right.”

Percy cleared his throat, which Harry took as another sign of engagement.  “So the other night, I’m leaving the shop, and I see him sneaking in here with a guitar case like he’s about to do a drug deal.  So I said to myself, I can be sneaky too, and the past few nights I’ve been hiding in this booth, thinking, hey, this kid has got some talent.  But the next day, not a word about it from either of us.  So tell me, why do you think he’s trying to hide this from me?”

Percy took a swig of ale and said nothing.  Harry sighed.  “Did you hear anything I just said?”

The cousins stared at the band for a few minutes before Percy looked down and asked, incredulously, “What are you, having a cream soda?”

“Yes, I’m having a cream soda,” Harry replied, glad his cousin was making an effort at conversation.

“Don’t you drink, or what?”

“No, I don’t drink anymore.”

“What were you, a wino or something?”

“I wasn’t a wino,” Harry retorted, beginning to think the uncomfortable silence was preferable.  “I just don’t like myself when I drink.  I’m sarcastic–and obnoxious.”

Percy snorted.  “Only when you drink.”

Harry turned in his seat, trying to force his cousin to make eye contact.  “Well, I think that’s a pretty rude thing to say considering you hardly know me.”

“Oh, I know you,” Percy said into his glass, not looking at Harry.

Harry clenched his hands under the table, determined to remain civil.  “Well, I’m afraid I can’t say the same about you.  Why don’t you ever tell us anything about yourself?  We’re family and all.”

Percy shrugged.  “There’s nothing to tell.”

Harry gave a short, humorless laugh.  “I know you know that I know that that’s bullshit.”

Percy made no sign that this assessment fazed him.  The cousins lapsed back into silence.  The band was playing a twangy song about Raleigh, North Carolina.  Harry tried again.  “I don’t get the fascination these lads have with playing all this American local color stuff.  I mean, half the people in this town have never been more than two hours away.  What do they know about Raleigh?”

“How do you know where they’ve been?” Percy asked, still looking straight ahead.

Harry shrugged.  “I fix their cars; they talk to me.”

The band had moved on to a plaintive song about the Blue Ridge Mountains.  “Have you ever been to the States?” Harry asked.

“Yeah.  Lived there for a while.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Harry, pleasantly taken aback by this rush of self-disclosure.  “Where did you live, exactly?”

“New York City.”  Percy was not equally excited by the conversation.

“Ah, indeed,” said Harry, like someone who knew.  “Where else?”

Percy paused in lifting his pint and gave his cousin a sidelong glance.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Harry didn’t actually know what he had meant.  “I just thought…New York City was a sort of melting pot,” he replied lamely.

Percy sniffed–laughed, possibly–and finished taking that drink.

“So, was it a nice place to live?” Harry asked, determined to press on.

“No.”

Harry nodded, hoping for but not really expecting more.  “And…are you going to tell me about it?”

“No.”  Percy put his empty glass down hard on the table and slid out of the the booth.

“I didn’t think so,” said Harry to his cream soda.


 

another brother story

You guys know I like stories about brothers, right? Well, today I wrote down a story that’s been living in my head for a while, and the characters are two brothers. This is a portion of a much longer piece I’d like to write someday–I think it would be best as a screenplay–about a tough drifter type, with the unfortunate name Percy, who has to spend Christmas with his tight-knit family (aunts, uncles, and four male 20-to-30-something cousins) in a small town in England. The portion I’m sharing with you today is from early in the narrative, before anyone knows there’s a long-lost cousin. It introduces the characters and lets you know what Percy will be getting into when he comes on the scene. I apologize in advance–this post will be longer than my usual.

“Before you say anything, I’m not William Wallace; I’m a Pict,” announced John Sinclair as the kitchen screen door slammed behind him.

His brother Brian looked up from the fortress of bar exam prep guides that had once been their parents’ kitchen table.  Blue paint covered John’s freckles, and a kilt covered not very much of his legs, which were slightly purple from the cold outside.  “I didn’t think the Picts wore natty white button-ups,” Brian smirked.

“It would have been more accurate to go shirtless,” John conceded, plunking down a stack of essays onto the counter.  “But that would have been totally inappropriate.”

“I don’t think your 15-year-old girl fan club would agree,” Brian retorted, flashing a rare trickster smile before returning his gaze to a tightly-scrawled sheet of notes.

“You’re mental,” said John, getting a Coke out of the refrigerator.  “Say, that reminds me.  You were locked in your room–”

“–the spare room.”

“Well, yeah, same thing; it’s your old room, isn’t it?”  John looked at his brother quizzically, but Brian was fixed on his notes.  “Anyway, you were up there last night when I told Mum and Dad about my date.  I mean, there’s not much to tell, but you’re always interested in my romantic exploits.”  John concluded with a rueful laugh that clearly indicated that the last term was hyperbolic.

Brian looked up.  “I’m always interested in you acknowledging the existence of anyone who isn’t a blood relative or a student.  Tell me more.”

John pulled out a chair and sat down at the fortress.  “Well, we had a coffee, and she told me about working in London, and about this blog she just started, and I told her…” he paused, trying to remember the conversation, “…about how my students loved it when I came to class in a toga…”

“Bet she thought that was sexy.”

“Actually, I think it weirded her out a bit.”  Brian snorted; John didn’t seem to notice.  He was searching his memory.  “Then I told her about how you were home for the holidays, and how you’re almost a barrister…and I told her about how Peter’s coming home for the holidays, and how he’s writing his thesis on Dickens…and I told her about how Harry’s auto shop has a name from Shakespeare.  People find that interesting, don’t you think?”

Brian sighed.  “What I think is that this girl, woman, whatever she is–doesn’t give a flying fig about your brother and your cousins.  I think I know where this story is going.  Go on.”

John shrugged.  “That’s about all.  We finished our coffee, and she said I was really nice.  That’s it.”

“Yeah, that’s right, John.  You’re really, really nice.”  Brian shook his head and returned to his notes.

“But what does that mean?”  A twinge of desperation made John’s voice crack slightly, and he leaned across the table toward his brother, knocking a book off its stack.  “You say that word like she said it, like it’s some sort of code word.  What horrible thing does ‘nice’ mean?”

Brian rubbed his forehead like it hurt.  “You’re very intelligent, and you look like Eddie Redmayne.  That’s why women go out with you.  But you’re kind of like a child.  That’s why they only go out with you once.”

“You obviously know so much about this,” said John in a voice so toneless that Brian couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic.  John was rarely sarcastic.  So Brian asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

John looked at the ceiling.  “It means…remember when Aunt Susie said you looked like Andrew Garfield?”

“Yeah, so?  She’s weird.”

“She was right!  Any woman would go out with you.  And yet I don’t see you in any long-term relationship.”

Brian gestured at the stacks of books surrounding him.  “I’ve been a little busy, haven’t I?  Anyway, you don’t know what I do when I’m not here.”

“Probably the same thing you do when you’re here, huddle up with your books like some kind of Gothic mad scientist.”  John took a swig of his Coke, and Brian went back to his notes.  There was a long silence.

“Oh, speaking of Aunt Susie!” John said suddenly.  Brian jumped in his chair.  “You know we’re all going over there this evening, because Peter’s coming home?”  The desperation had gone as quickly as it had come; John looked like an unusually cheerful Pict.

“I don’t think I’m going; I need to study,” Brian said, not looking up.

“Oh, come on.  You’ve been studying all day.  Don’t you want to see Peter?”

“I’ll have plenty of chances to see him between now and the new year.  But listen,” Brian pointed his pencil at his brother and gave him a significant look, “lay off Peter about moving back here, will you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.  It’s not just you; it’s everybody.  Every time Peter’s here, you lot are on him about what he’s going to do after graduating.  If I remember correctly, last time you practically had him a job lined up at your school.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” John said.

Brian shook his head and looked back down at his notes.  “Well, I hope it’s nothing to Peter, too.  Just remember he’s a grown man and he can live wherever he bloody well wants to.”

John put his Coke can down slowly and looked at the top of Brian’s head for a few seconds before he said, “Oh, I see.  This isn’t about Peter; this is about you.”

Brian sighed and put his face in his hands.  “Okay, yeah.  This is about me too.  Every time I come here I feel like I’m being smothered.”

“Then why do you come here?” It was hard to tell whether this was a challenge or a sincere question.

“Because it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not some sort of monster with no familial affection.  I like you, and Mum and Dad, and…everybody, most of the time.  It’s just this town.  It feels like some sort of evil magnetic force sucking everybody back into its vortex of mediocrity.”

“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” John asked with a puzzled laugh.

“Well, look at Harry.  It sucked him in, didn’t it?  In London he was hanging out with real, live literary critics.  The man was brilliant.  I mean, he still is brilliant.  But here he is, fixing cars at Gad’s Hill Auto Repair.”

“Harry likes fixing cars,” John retorted.  His face was still blue, but his ears were turning red.  “And anyway, he wanted to come back here to be around people he knew.  He didn’t want to be alone in London after–”

“Oh, I know what everybody says,” Brian interrupted.  “Harry moved back here because he got divorced.  Well, you know what I think?  I think that’s part of the reason why he got divorced–because he wanted to move back here with his mum, and his wife had the good sense not to want to come to this depressing dump.”

John glared at his brother.  “Don’t you dare say that to Harry, ever.”

Brian threw up his hands.  “What do you think I am, some sort of prat?  Of course I wouldn’t say that to his face.  But it’s true, and I think you know it.”  Brian was quiet for a moment, writing on his notes.  “And you…well, we already talked about you.”  He relapsed into silence.

John finished his Coke.  Brian scanned his notes.  Neither brother spoke for a long time.  Then John said, “I have to go get this crap off my face.  But I want to say one more thing to you.  I know you think I’m some sort of developmentally arrested sad-sack.  But I like my life.  I’m happy, Brian.  And if you’re happy…well, you’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it.”  John got up and threw his Coke can in the recycling bin.

Brian didn’t look up until John was halfway up the stairs.  “All right, I’ll go to the thing for Peter tonight,” Brian yelled.  “Will that make you happy?”

John stopped on the top step.  “You never listen to anything I say,” he said.  “I told you, I am happy.”  He went into the bathroom and shut the door.