With Bats to Fly and Birds to Fall
Dean thought that everyone deserved a minute to just do nothing, so that was what he did. He rested his wrists on the steering wheel, and watched, almost as a second thought, as steady plumes of smoke rose from the hood of his car.
Then he got another thought—an important one—as he fumbled with his seatbelt and threw himself out of the car. Smoke usually came before flame. He should have known by then that there was no turning off his brain and for a good reason that time. He probably shouldn’t have been relaxing in a car that could erupt and massacre him and whatever empty fast-food bags he had lying in the backseat. It was thankful that his car slowed to a crawl after that first terrible sound and the subsequent smoke, so he was able to veer off to the side of the road in front of a bodega, colors faded from its many window signs, before the car shut down entirely. He swapped post-work, quiet decompression with a phone call to AAA.
He leaned against the bodega window, letting a heavy exhale leave his lungs because he knew it was going to be a while. He was stranded in a town he only half-knew, surrounded by battered storefronts he had no use for. People passed, unloading from buses and hurrying along with armfuls of plastic bags, but there was only one woman across the street who held his attention for one of two likely reasons. The first was that she wasn’t wearing shoes, and with her hair unsure if it wanted to be tied back or let down and her shirt misplaced from her shoulders, he was certain that she left the house in a hurry. Or a fury, was more like.
Because the second, more likely reason was that she was carrying a black garbage bag and was manually reaching inside, returning with an item of clothing, and throwing it onto the pavement at her feet so she could step on it. It wasn’t long before someone was running up behind her, snatching at the clothes as he jogged forward.
“What the fuck, Mom?” he screamed at her, bending for a pair of underwear, dropping it with another curse, and leaving it so he didn’t lose her in the steady pace of her littering.
She turned back, “I told you to be out by 7:01 or I’d do it for you. I even gave you the extra fucking minute. But you didn’t believe me, did you?”
“Come on,” her son yelled back and Dean watched the back and forth unabashedly. Expletives are lobbed between them both, concluding with the mother grasping the bottom of the garbage bag with her nails and unloading all of its contents into the middle of the street with a solid throw. Her son threw his arms out, swearing expertly at the sky, and trotted into the street to load what Dean assumed were his clothes back into his arms. Pieces slid from between his hold and he had to stoop down again and again to fetch them, like pouring lemonade into a pitcher that was already full and expecting it to accept more.
A car approached, stalling as the man juggled to fit his entire wardrobe into a cradle of two arms in the middle of the street. But the car was impatient, laying on the horn with its shrill, mechanical antagonism. The man, in turn, launched his clothes toward the sidewalk in a cascade of old t-shirts and mismatched socks. The car started and stalled several times, a game of chicken, but it didn’t scare the man. His shoulders grew, bunching up to his ears as he winded his way around to the driver’s side door. “Get out of the car,” he told the driver, going for the handle of the door himself. His mother, suddenly the picture of concern, was an unstoppable choral effect of, stop it, hey, stop it, hey!
The driver, he met the man halfway, pushing open the door with his foot. He hopped out and his hand was wrapped around the narrow end of a wooden bat. He arched and lowered the bat in a hurried motion. It happened so quickly that Dean regretted watching before he had even registered what happened.
And when he did, his stomach turned. He could still hear the crack in his ears, the sound of a body hitting the pavement flush. He could see, even from a distance, the way the man’s jaw moved in a way he never thought possible on a human. He wished he didn’t see how utterly red it was. He wished he couldn’t hear the sound of the man’s mother sobbing an endless stream of questions to his unconscious form over the squealing tires of his attacker taking off down the block. He knew he should go over, but he couldn’t look.
Dean could hardly speak when AAA finally arrived, almost perfectly in time with the stream of emergency vehicles. His car had to be towed. He was overloaded with a flurry of information from the AAA crew, and then the police officer come to make sure that he, a man with a fuming car on the scene of a violent encounter, had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t sure which words to say to whom, so the ones he considered shriveled and died in his throat. The AAA tech stepped away, his ear pressed to his phone, likely to get the tow truck there faster, while the officer’s face deepened in his brows and in the lines beside his mouth. He was speaking in calm, condescending officer speak, and Dean didn’t know what to say other than, I don’t know. I don’t know.
Another officer made his way over, but he knew this one. It had been awhile, he thought. He wasn’t certain which major life event he last saw him at. His brother’s wedding or his funeral. Definitely one, but probably both. “I got this,” he told the other officer, raising one of his hands. “I know him. That’s David Brennan’s brother.” The officer spared Dean another look, his eyes narrowing in inspection before he nodded, and he left to tend to the mother standing amongst scattered clothes.
Marco looked a bit different than Dean remembered. His hair was longer, maybe. Or maybe Dean’s eyes were simply calibrated to only picture him at Davey’s side. They were partners for a long while, practically since the day Davey graduated from police academy.
“Dean,” Marco said, lowering his eyes in a way to get Dean to look at him. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” he answered, gesturing widely to his Camry. “My car just broke down.”
Marco nodded, “So you’ve been here a while?”
“Yeah.” It was a loaded question and he knew it.
“Did you see what happened over there?” Marco jutted his thumb behind himself. The man, face all bashed in, was gone, tied up tight in an ambulance somewhere.
“I don’t know,” Dean said, the only response he had in stock in his mouth.
His stupidity was confirmed in the arch of Marco’s brow, “You don’t know?”
“Yeah, like,” Dean started, shifting from one foot to the next. “I saw some things. But not the things that I think you’d–need to know–I guess.”
Marco clicked a pen and the sound was odd in Dean’s ears. He hadn’t even noticed that he held a pad of paper. “Okay, well, that lady over there told us that you saw what happened, so I have to take your statement. Alright?”
“Yeah, okay,” Dean said, really because he had to. Because even he, a guy who sat behind a computer for well over three quarters of the day to the point where he was reduced to wearing a brace on his wrist to keep the carpal tunnel away, knew not to open his mouth in matters he didn’t belong in. There was no more Davey. No one to protect him.
“Just tell me anything you remember about what happened,” Marco said, readying his pen again. “Did you see the vehicle the attacker was driving? Did you see what he looked like?”
“No,” Dean shook his head. “I didn’t see it happen. I only saw–after the car was gone, I guess. And the guy was just laying there–in the street.”
“Dean,” Marco said, rolling through his name like it was a sore throat. “You’re telling me that you were standing here doing nothing, but you didn’t notice a fight that took place in the middle of the street.”
Dean’s head ran through his own alibi. He could say he was in the bodega behind them, but they were likely going to watch the security footage. Every storefront on that block was certain to advertise their 24-hour surveillance. With sudden, nauseating clarity, Dean realized that they would definitely see him standing around gawking at a home-run swing against some poor guy’s facw. “I wasn’t–I didn’t–”
“Look,” Marco said, flipping his pad closed and settling it back on his hip. “I get that seeing something like that can be pretty stressful.”
“But I didn’t see it.”
“You did,” Marco lowered his voice. “You’re really freaking out right now, you know.”
“Why don’t I drive you home?” Marco asked, glancing back to the other officers on the scene. “My boys will make sure your car gets towed.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. Because he would have to wait for an Uber home anyway, and he didn’t much feel like being on that cursed block anymore, especially if he was going to be interrogated the entire time. “Okay.”
Dean flanked Marco to his squad car, keeping his head down. It wasn’t a ride from a friend, it was in a cop car in all its glory—sirens and its other bells and whistles. When they reached the car, Marco crossing to the driver’s side, Dean asked, “Do you want me to like–get in the back?”
Marco watched him for a moment, laughing once. “You’re not under arrest.”
“I know,” he answered, reaching for the passenger’s side door. “I don’t know–I was just checking.”
Once Dean closed the car door, he was acutely aware of every single movement he made. He was especially certain to buckle up, checking the slack of his seatbelt for good measure.
Marco asked, “Where do you live these days? Still on that street around by your dad’s?”
“Yeah,” Dean said, “Meadow.”
“Alright,” Marco said, dropping them into a silence under the hum of the car.
“So,” Marco started again and Dean groaned inwardly. He was hoping for awkward silence, it was better than awkward conversation. “How’s everything? How’s Mom and Dad?”
“Dad’s good. Mom’s pretty much the same, I guess.”
“Is she still in that care center?”
Care center, Dean laughed to himself. That was one way to refer to a psychiatric hospital. Though it was far kinder than what his father had called the hospital those past few months, which included, but was not limited to: the loony bin, the funny farm, the whack shack, and space cadet camp.
“Yeah, she’s there indefinitely.”
“Oh, Marco replied, the word downturned. “It’s terrible what they’re doing there.”
The public outcry when a couple of important higher-ups decided to build the state’s largest mental health care facility right smack dab in the center of their town two years prior could still be heard to that day. Protestors were there from the moment the construction crew broke ground to the day the first patient was escorted through those shiny glass doors. While the crowd had thinned over the years, protestors remained planted outside the hospital grounds like permanent fixtures. They alternated between sitting in lawn chairs, holding Protect the Sanity of Our Town signs, and forming a human chain in front of the entrance. They couldn’t block it entirely, by law, but they made the walk into the hospital a little longer in order to get around them, and that made all the difference.
“Yeah, wish you guys could do something about it.”
“Me too, but our hands are tied,” Marco shrugged and Dean had heard that before, from the town when his family complained with what they found out later was just the hot air in their lungs. “They have permits. They’re close to the building, but far enough that we can’t move them. They don’t get crazy. Nothing we can do. I’m sorry.”
After a tense moment, Dean gave him a don’t worry about it so they could both breathe. He knew he should ask about the people in Marco’s life too, for the sake of politeness, but he couldn’t seem to recall knowing anything about him. Was he married? Parents alive? Better to be general, he decided and asked, “How have you been?”
“Getting by,” Marco said, “It’s been hard without Davey. None of my partners can match him.”
“Sure, I know,” Dean said, shifting in his seat. They were done talking about his sick mother, they could move on to his dead brother.
Not a day had gone by that Dean didn’t think about Davey, but it had been a while since he thought actively about him. It was easier to let the everyday take over and form a new routine. There was Davey, and then there was not, and there wasn’t much else to do but go along with that new procedure. But then, Dean lost himself in that police car. He thought about how he could be sitting in the very spot where his brother sat while on duty. He felt like he didn’t belong there, like he was sleeping in his brother’s bed or drinking from his faded, hand-painted ceramic mug he made in grade school that never, ever let anyone touch even when he delved well into adulthood. Dean couldn’t help but ask Marco, “Is this where my brother sat?”
Marco’s eyes moved toward him, his forehead creased. It took him a moment to understand, then he said, “Oh. No. We’ve gotten new cars since then. He drove most of the time too. Said my driving was like a grandmother with a heavy foot.”
Dean cackled, that was definitely something Davey would say. He could almost hear it in his voice. But all laughing stopped when Marco continued, “It’s a damn shame he drove how he did. Died for nothing. Didn’t even make it to 30. What a goddamn shame.”
And he was absolutely right. His brother’s death wasn’t heroic. It wasn’t anything. He died, off-duty, flipping his own car on a slippery, rain-stained road. The whole town made a big to-do for his funeral, but really it was a bunch of pomp and circumstance for an idiot who couldn’t abide by the laws that he was paid to enforce.
Dean didn’t realize that they were pulled in front of his house until Marco asked, “This one’s you, right?”
Dean nodded and thanked him for the ride, tacking on an obligatory good to see you.
“Good to see you too,” Marco said, “It was almost like being with Davey again.”
Dean didn’t like to hear that. He wasn’t his brother. No one would ever be his brother. The world had him for 29 years and that was all it was ever going to get.
“Hey wait,” Marco said, taking out his pad and scribbling something down. He handed it to Dean—10, crude numbers. “Call me if you need anything, alright?”
Dean took his number with no intention to ever call him. His body went through the motions it had to—shaking Marco’s hand, shoving the note in his pocket, opening the car door, slipping out, waving—but his mind was once again searching for his brother’s ghost.
When Dean was a child, his mother would watch him play in the front yard from the guard tower that was their porch. Her name was Dawn, which Dean thought was fitting even if he couldn’t dare ever utter her real name, because she hovered incessantly from dusk to dawn every day. Even in his youth, he always felt her gaze upon him and resented it. He was her favorite television show and he wanted her to change the channel. When his father called out to her for some, likely minuscule dilemma—be it the location of the remote or what they would have for dinner that night–and she turned her head, he took his chance at rebellion.
He wandered into the neighbor’s driveway and it was not as if he had run away to Tahiti. Their cracked driveway sat right against his own family’s lawn, but it did pose a few certain dangers and he knew it. A car could pull in and flatten him, for one. He could get a hollering or a police call for trespassing. Either way, it would get a rise out of his mother without venturing into timeout territory. Now if he wandered into the street instead, that would have gotten him in trouble for sure.
There was nothing particularly fun about walking around in circles in his neighbor’s driveway, so he inspected everything he could with tiny, yet alert eyes. He found a line of red ants pouring from a crack in the pavement. He found what appeared to be a garbage can lid with no accompanying can. And then he saw something he couldn’t identify. It looked like a white dandelion with two heads and a flesh-colored stem.
“Mom!” he shouted out to her, his coup all but forgotten.
Her head snapped toward him, then she clambered onto her feet with a groan. Getting up was always hard for her because she was by no means a small woman, always heavy in the arms, legs, and bust especially, but she could move when she wanted to. And move she did.
“Dean,” she said between heavy breaths. Though her legs were quick, her lungs could not keep up with lugging all of the excess weight around. “What do you think you’re doing?”
His tiny finger pointed down to the mutinous dandelion, “Mama, what’s that?”
She followed his finger and though her chest still heaved, her brow furrowed in thought. She stepped closer and leaned on her knees. Then her face widened, froze, and drooped. “Oh,” she said, with a whine in her voice, like the beginnings of a cry. “It’s a baby bird.”
Dean joined her and examined the baby bird, even when she told him, “No, honey, don’t look.”
He could make out the shape of its tiny body now, laid on its side, so unlike the typical perch of a bird, but so clearly one from its outline, all of the dots abruptly connected. He could spot its beak, how it was parted in the middle of a final squawk, and the fact that its dandelion wisps were actually premature feathers. Its eyes were closed and he asked, “Is he sleeping?”
“No,” his mom said, grabbing him by the wrist with a grasp that could rival a steely handcuff. She began to drag him back into the house. “He’s dead.”
“Dad!” he shouted, letting the cupboard swing closed. A cloud of tiny gray particles flew off of the wood just to spite him. He gave an unceremonious sneeze and wiped his nose on his sleeve before he called out again, “You have no food here!”
“What?” he called back, so Dean joined him in the living room and repeated himself. He noted that his father didn’t move an inch outside of a slight turn of his head. “What the hell do you mean no food? Kitchen’s full.”
“You’re just like your mother,” his father said, waving his hand in a dismissive arch. “Always wanting to throw away perfectly good food, like money grows on trees. You wouldn’t last a day in the army, you know that? You ate what they gave you.”
“Some of those cans could enroll in kindergarten.”
Dean’s father didn’t answer outside of raising the television a few volumes, which in itself was answer enough. He was wearing a faded t-shirt from their trip to Disney World they had taken 15 years prior. The last time Dean stopped by to bring over takeout, which was only a few days beforehand, he was wearing the same thing. Empty water bottles were littered on the end-table beside his couch, the side where his father sat in a sinking and sagging cushion. His hair was getting long, almost as long as his beard. He wasn’t taking care of himself.
“Dad,” Dean said, reaching over for the remote and turning the television off. His father gave him a blunt, rasped hey. “Come on. You gotta get off this couch. It’s not good for you. This place is a mess.”
“Eh,” his father waved him away. “Your mother will fix it all up when she gets home.”
Dean had humored him for the first few months, maybe because he was humoring himself with the belief that his mother would come home too. When it was clear she wasn’t, he stopped acknowledging his father’s comments altogether. But he could see, then, where it had gotten them.
“Mom isn’t coming home,” Dean told him, his voice unmoving around words he should have said sooner.
“That’s ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with her. I know Dawn better than anyone in the world. She’s healthy as a horse. We’re Irish for Christ’s sake.”
“She’s not,” Dean stood firm. “She doesn’t even know who we are anymore.”
“Well, maybe if you went to see her more. What are you, scared of those protesting yuppies?”
“You don’t go see her either!”
“I’m old. You’re young. You can walk a mile in that hospital. She’ll be home soon anyway so what’s the sense?”
“She’s sick and she’s not getting better. Can’t you see that?”
“She’s sad over your brother. Give her some goddamn time.”
“It was grief, dad. Then it brought the dementia and there’s no coming back from that.”
“You’ve always been the drama queen of the family, haven’t you?” his father said back, thrusting his pointed finger toward him. Spit flew from his mouth. “Your mother loved it. You were her favorite. It was like she finally had that daughter she wanted. Thank Christ it’d been David who died and not you. She would have pulled the trigger instead of just sticking the gun in her mouth.”
“Okay,” Dean said, heading toward the stairs to the second floor. “That’s enough.”
“There you go! Always so sensitive! Not like Davey. You could have said anything to that kid.”
Dean ignored that. As unrefined as the ferocity inside of him was at that moment, he knew his father needed him. He would clean and cook after he stewed for a while. What better way to spend a Saturday. “I’m staying in my old room. Someone has to babysit you now.”
He saw his father wave his hand again, “Do what you want.”
He tried to nap, but sleep would not come to him. The allergens and dust in his family home had him sneezing himself into consciousness every few minutes. It wasn’t far past morning either, so it was too early to sleep. Instead he sat on his phone to pass the time, until his timelines and feeds ran out of content, then all he had to do was think.
Dean’s childhood bed, almost stiflingly twin, sat in-line with the doorframe. He could see the door to Davey’s room. It was closed, all white paint with brass fixtures, but it hardly was when they were growing up. With Davey’s bed aligned with his own doorframe, only on the opposite side of the hall, they were always in view of one another. They created hand signs to speak outside of their parents’ knowledge, a bastardization of ASL. He knew he had truly peeved Davey when he would slam his door shut, cutting off their communication at the root.
He found more of Davey in his room. He could see him stacking baseball cards on the carpet and shuffling through drawers for a t-shirt he thought Dean stole. But it was hard to picture him as he would have been—a child, an adolescent, a teenager. It was his adult self, the last time Dean saw him, in all of those roles. Then, in a flash of depressive thoughts, he was a corpse. They had a closed-casket service so Dean could only fashion together what he thought his brother looked like in the end. It was for the better. There wasn’t enough left of his brother to fashion into something presentable for an open-casket service anyway.
The more he looked for his brother, the more the pieces just felt like pieces. They spent hours together in that room, but he recalled the times in passing seconds. He could play out scenes—birthday parties and Christmases—but he could not recall what they wore, or how tall they were, or the time of day. There was a passing ache in his chest. He longed for another moment with his brother, even just sitting in silence, where every second was present and not stitched together, plucked at the threads, and sewn back up.
Then, with a shift of his eyes, he found his mother too. She loved house plants. When they sprouted new plants in the same pots, she would scoop them out and put them into whatever vessels she could find—bowls, candle holders, mugs. When her plants made babies, she wanted to save them. She wanted them to grow. Dean could see the remnants of one planted in a Mickey Mouse mug on his desk. He didn’t know when she put it there, but it was definitely after he moved out. It wasn’t watered and shriveled up into dry, brown baby hairs of what should have been leaves.
But his mother was alive. She wasn’t his mother in the psychological sense anymore, but she was in the physical and that had to mean something. She would never be in his life like she used to, but had not crossed over like his brother did either. And he, in a sunlit, dust-covered room, was furious that there were people who wished to prevent even the barest of a connection between them. He wanted to give their ears every foul word the English language held and tear their signs apart with his teeth. He wanted to do worse than that.
He jumped from his bed and moved with sudden purpose across the hall. He was turning the knob to Davey’s room and entering with such haste that his brain and body were two steps apart. There was too much for him to unpack in Davey’s room and he knew that if he paused for even a moment, he would lose his resolve. He also knew that Davey never, ever failed to lean his baseball bat against the wall on the far righthand corner of the room. He found it there and took it into his hands.
He hurried down the stairs with his phone pressed to his ear. His father turned his head, only slightly, as he made for the front door. He either couldn’t see the bat or chose not to mention it. “What ya going? You said you were staying.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back later,” he told his dad, just as Marco picked up the phone. Turned out he did make that call he never thought he would. “Hey, it’s Dean. I need a favor.”
Dean sat in, thankfully, the front of a police cruiser with a bat in his lap. He eyed the row of protestors, hands held like a string of paper dolls. Others lounged in folding chairs, laughing with one another like they weren’t showing outward disgust to a mental health facility. Anger still sat deep within him, but mixed in with that feeling was something resembling pride. He didn’t lose his resolve, not during the ride to the hospital and not in the rise of Marco’s brows.
“You sure Davey would have done this?” Marco asked.
“I’m positive,” Dean replied, “In fact, he would have done it way sooner.”
“Alright, go. Get some good shots in before I have to come over there. And hey,” he said, grabbing Dean by the forearm. “Don’t do something I’ll have to arrest you for real over.”
“Don’t worry,” Dean said, hauling himself and the bat out of the car.
He didn’t run toward the protestors, but he wasn’t walking either. He could see the change in their expressions and it was in a positive direction, at least to him. There was confusion across their faces, and then smug, self-satisfied smiles when they saw they had riled someone up, and, finally, fear when they saw the bat in his hands. And Dean didn’t say a word. With his eyes on a protestor’s sign, he cocked the bat behind his shoulder and swung.
From a hospital window countless stories up, Dawn gazed down at the parking lot below and smiled as she watched her son, Davey, play baseball.</p
About the Author
Catherine Stansfield’s work is featured or is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Mount Hope Magazine, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, and The Virginia Normal. She has a BA in English from Caldwell University in New Jersey. Currently, she works as a publishing assistant and graphic designer. To view more of her work click below.