Not My Brother's Keeper
by Debra Phillips
“Cal, no visitors. Your brother needs all the rest he can get. Don’t want those hoodlum friends of his in my house. You hear me?”
I felt a shiver as deep as the ocean as I stood at the sweeping wide picture window with the evening November air reeking of burnt sandalwood and old dreams. “Don’t worry, Mom,” I heard myself say, but it didn’t feel like I meant it. “I’ll take good care of Penny. Promise.”
Mom’s face contorted briefly into a thoughtful frown as she picked up her purse and headed for the door. “Lord knows I hate to leave Penny so soon after his ordeal. But somebody’s gotta earn some money ‘round this place.”
Struggling with my own quiet panic, I nod in agreement. What good would it do to protest? Work, smirk, hell, I’m only fourteen. What do I know? Except I don’t want to be left alone with my own brother. I don’t want to be left alone with a murderer.
Dark gray powder puff clouds move lazily across a blue horizon as I watched my mother’s back in her well worn navy blue wool coat, her rotund frame cushioned in years of good eating. Will she think of my safety in her absence? She ambled with grace out the door to the yellow VW bug. Her waiting carriage. It never ceases to amaze me how easily she can maneuver her ample frame into such a small space. Folding in like sweet brown magic right before my eyes. I felt good inside watching her. Like a comical secret meant only for me. Standing at the open door, I heard the motor kick, hack and miss a few times before it turned over. I could always run out to the car and climb in and force her to take me with her. I could always undo fourteen years of trying to be the man to revert back to the scared baby I was inside. But no, I’m holding.
“Oh, and Cal,” she called out, almost loud enough to be heard all over the city of Long Beach, “It’s every four hours for check in. Your brother has to call and check in every four hours. Don’t forget.”
I nod for yes. My mind was thinking: ‘Yeah, Mom. Sure and whatever.’ My mother worries too much. She must feel that all is well as I walk back into the house and stand again at the picture window. The car lurch forward and cough gray-black smoke from tailpipes long overdue for changing, then rolled slowly away and out of sight. Not enough time has passed, but already I feel a sadness for her departure. I hate when her nursing job takes her away for long stretches of time. I need the sanctum of her presence here at this quaint little house on Peach street where I am afraid to be alone with my brother, Penny.
“You gonna stare out that window all day or what?”
Penny’s gruff voice pricks at my skin, brings me back to reality. I can feel his dark eyed stare at the back of my head like ice prods. ‘Show no fear’ I tell myself.
“I guess not.” My eyes avert to deny access to my feelings. I scan my watch mentally calculating that in twelve hours our mother would return home. Secure in our unity, our watch over Penny. I scan it again for a lack of anything better to do.
“Hope you learned how to cook, little brother, cause I’m hungry. Real hungry. Let’s take a look at what’s in the kitchen.”
“Nothing like some home cooking, ‘lil brother. You don’t know what you miss until you don’t have it anymore.”
Like a new puppy I followed him into the kitchen, careful not to bump into him, lest I might hurt his bad leg. Penny can’t stand for his bad leg to hurt. Says it may trigger one of his bionic headaches.
Like some paying customer Penny takes a seat at the small wooden kitchen table and watch me. Waiting. Must not look, I tell myself. Must not. Not at his head. Not at that place where the operation was done. If only I was brave enough to ask him if I can see it. But not see it through stolen glances when his attention is perched elsewhere. But really see it.
At the refrigerator I pulled out cold fried chicken from the day before. There’s some macaroni and cheese and fresh salad. I pull them out, too.
I could feel Penny’s cold brown eyes on me. Watching my every step as I placed the platter of chicken in the oven and turned it on. I shouldn’t say it but I do. “Mom wants me to remind you of check-in. You know, calling the databank.”
His reply was sharp. “You think I need to be reminded? You think that? Hell. I don’t need no little snot-nosed turd to remind me of nothing!” His eighteen year old face was in need of a shave, a hateful mask. I remember when time traded him youth. A kinder face. Now, before me, Penny looked all looked all of forty running close to the end.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it.” I swallowed hard and tried to think of what it would feel like to have to call a computer that kept track of my whereabouts around the clock. What it would be like to have tracking gear implanted inside the soft folds of your brain. What kind of life could I have? I try to imagine these things, but I can’t.
“I bet you didn’t,” Penny sneered.
The microwave sounded off, masking the sound of my heart beating too loud in my chest. “Forget I mentioned it.”
Penny slammed a fist on the formica table. “Hell! They think they can control me forever with this thing!” He pointed to his head. I knew he meant the operation. The cellutronic chip in his brain. Black hair was still noticeably missing from a square patch at the top of his head. I felt weak in the knees just thinking about it.
“...but it won’t work,” he remonstrated loudly, absolute. “You hear me, little brother? I’ma always be me! Mr. Penny. Always!”
‘God, I hope not’, I thought. Not after everything that’s happened. I keep trying to forget the pain he’d caused our mother. The shame he’d brought our family in a small community where people aren’t so forgiving.
Being a struggling single parent, Mom gave up on Penny when he was twelve years old and took to sneaking out at night to hang with his buddies that took pride in stealing cars, snatching purses and breaking in to people’s homes. Just budding rebellion some called it. First it was stealing and lying, then it was burglary. One police arrest after another. Penny took proudness in running with a few of the ‘fellas’. They all fessed up to being the bravest dudes on their turf, which covered quite a bit of territory.
The words “gang member” still ring a sour note on the tip of my tongue like grapes too green for eating. No one wanted their son or daughter to wear such a title. But the truth be told, my brother Penny was in a gang.
“A gang? Man, get real. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Words he used trying to deny it. Lies to my mother that had poured from his lips like the sorrow of the souls he sought to torture.
There must have been about ten, maybe twelve of them with funny names like: Lightbulb; Killjoy; Blowboy; Shitkick and a few others that escape my mind. Penny had gone by the name of “Copper”. I never asked him why. Sort of figured it out in my own head that it had to be something to do with the color of his skin, like an old copper penny gone dull.
There were a lot of things about my brother I couldn’t figure out. Like why he found robbing, hurting and terrorizing innocent people a pleasure. His own people. Some kind of sick contribution to life. Like why he needed to be in a gang to begin with, or why he never showed any remorse. None. For killing old lady McPearson back in two-thousand. It was the year his luck would change. It was the same year the law was passed to allow Repro-data to perform mind altering programming for convicted gang members committing serious crimes.
Penny might have been proud about it. But the bashing in the head of an old and defenseless woman had come with a price. Had he ever felt anything? It’s always hard to tell with him, seeing as how he can’t show his feelings. Not through a smile or a kind word. Too many times I’ve seen the flames of hated burning in his eyes, and heard the words from his mouth, like fuel that fed some fire. Mom was crushed. I guess it just didn’t seem possible that her son, flesh of her flesh, could be a sixteen year old murderer. It was either Suspended Sleep or Program-Tracking. For my brother Penny, a twelve panel jury decided on tracking.
“I can never get enough of mom’s chicken.” I wanted my voice to sound up-lifted and cheerful as I fixed Penny a plate. Hefty portions of macaroni and cheese. Penny likes the breast and thigh. I like the same pieces but dare not infringe. At the precise second I sat his plate on the table the front door bell rang. Before I can say a word Penny is up and going for it. Despite his bad leg and all, he is swift.
From my stance in the kitchen I resisted the urge to peek. Voices came to me like nomadic dreams in deep sleep. I recognized the voice of one of ‘them’. The very hoodlums I promised my mother that I wouldn’t allow into the house. But what did she really think I was to do? Lock Penny up in a closet? Yeah. Sure. Ninety-seven pound boy locks six feet, two hundred pound brother in a closet. Story at eleven.
“Man,” Lightbulb said as he followed Penny back into the kitchen, “things just ain’t the same since you been up river.” Lightbulb was followed by a new face. A fat and greasy looking guy with a diamond stud earring in his left ear and a eraser top haircut. I cut my eyes and bite my tongue. I never liked Lightbulb with his beady hazel eyes a bit too close in his odd shaped head. A head shape that did justice to his nickname. But the other guy, fat and looking around too hard, was just another one to add to my list.
Penny sat back down at the table and motioned to a chair. “Cop a squat.”
Lightbulb gave me a reluctant look then pulled a chair out while introducing his friend. “Hey man, you remember my partner here, Mojoe?”
Mojoe pulled out a chair. It squeaked for mercy under his weight.
Penny looked up unconcerned. Maybe he was thinking that he didn’t appreciate Lightbulb bringing strangers into my mother’s house. I caught something in his eyes, a flash anger, and then it was gone. “Not really, man. How you get the 411 ‘bout me being back in town?” He shoveled some macaroni into his mouth and watched his plate as if it might try to move away from him.
Lightbulb looked amused. “Man, who don’t know?”
“Don’t recall talking to nobody.”
Lightbulb smiled sheepishly, m. That’s all I need to say.”
What followed was a bunch of small talk about the turf and who was still holding down or put down. Who was walking tall or couldn’t walk no more. Who was dead or needed to be dead. ore like a sly dog easing in for the kill. “Man, you know me, I have my way with the info
Slowly I fixed my own plate of supper and tried not to listen. A hundred thought tried to jam into my head at one time: What if mama found out Penny had his friends over? What if Penny tries to leave the house. What if his friends try to stay over until the break of dawn? Penny offered some supper to the both. Lightbulb sniffed the air a few times and refused, offering that the “white angel” kept his appetite for food away. He was bone skinny and I believed him. But not Mojoe who held the look of a man who could never be full. I felt a stiffness come up into my back as my sphincter muscle tightened against my better judgment.
Then Penny said, “Little brother, fix another plate here.”
I hated when he called me that. Little brother. ‘I have a name just like you do’. Only I couldn’t bring myself to say the words out loud. “What about Mom?” I reminded him.
There was only so much food to be had, and already Penny himself was putting a big dent in it. “She’ll want to eat too.”
Penny stopped chewing and glared at me. The fine hairs on my back stood up straight like short needles. I was trying to get an attitude but it soon faded like a bad dream upon awakening.
“Don’t give me no lip, punk. Just fix the guy a plate.”
“Here,” I said with levity. I put my plate in front of Mojoe. “You can have mine. I’m not hungry.” I trudged from the room looking for a good place to sulk. But even in the living room in front of the television their voices found me.
Lightbulb: “Man, it’s going down tonight in fruit town. The Twenty-seven Street Lords and the Rockers. I got my piece right here. I can cop you one too.”
The Rockers? The name tried to elude me but I remembered Penny’s gang, or Penny’s used-to-be gang. That was the name they called themselves. As for the Lords, who with a working brain in South Central hadn’t heard of them. The Lords were touted as being the most dangerous gang in a Los Angeles County.Rumors had it that dominance over Long Beach turf kept the Lords and Rockers constantly in the battle light. Innocent people would lose their lives over a stretch of land that could never truly
And then Mojoe said: “Not as strong as we used to be. Fellas too scared of being caught dirty, try’n to punk out on their brothers. ‘Specially since they put Jackal and Cyclone to sleep. Man, you remember Cyclone, right?”
“Who?” Penny asked, feigning interest. He belched loud without shame. The sound traveled through the house like a small sonic boom. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Cyclone, man,” Mojoe continued. “Brother used to hang with Redboy. Cold bloodied the way they did ‘em, man. Cold bloodied. They put my ace partner to sleep. Been suspended for two years now. They claim they he’s up for wake-up in five more years. I don’t believe it though. They just gotta legal way of killing a brother, that’s all. Doing time in Sleep ain’t what’s happening.”
Lightbulb piped up with, “I got two young cousins myself doing that mess, what they call it...Suspended Sleep Jail Time. And call it SSJT. Man, that SSJT is for the birds. Who’s to say that after you’ve done your time in sleep that they really will wake you up when your time is over? What if they claim ‘somethin happened to you while your vitals were being monitored by a computer? Gives me the creeps just thinking about it.”
“Just another way to kill a brother, just like I said.” Mojoe was silent for maybe half a minute before he continued with his voice sounding different. Like he was talking through a mouth full of food. “They didn’t even have no hard evidence on Cyclone. Got the brother on some hyped up drive-by charge. You need to be with us tonight. Lotta things gone get sat straight tonight.”
I turned the television up a slight and tried engaging my attention to the screen. But I could still hear them just the same. Either they were the most loudest talking guys I’d ever met or my hearing ability was above normal.
I heard my brother say, “Man, I can’t leave this place. Got check in every hour on the hour from this phone and no other. It’s prison at home, that’s all it is.”
“That’s the whole idea my man,” Lightbulb offered. His voice almost held a tone of victory.
Penny cleared his throat. “Don’t call in every hour, computer signal starts the pain.”
In my mind I could actually see Penny shaking his head at his own words. I heard him tell the story too many times and each time I tried to feel sorry for him, tried to pull up the tiniest bit of sympathy for someone who had once held no mercy for the victims he helped to gun down.
Penny always shook his head when he told the story. Just like when he tried to explain the pain to Mom. I still remember his words as if it were born just the day before: “Worst pain I ever felt. Like your head is in a vise getting tighter and tighter ‘til it’s about to pop. That’s what it’s like.” My mother’s eyes had misted and looked pained, like she didn’t know what to say. What could she say?
“Man, that’s sick...the way they treat a human being.” It knew it was Mojoe again, the way he gave a little grunt behind his given revelations. “So what can you do?”
Penny was probably making faces and shaking his head again, judging from the sound of his voice. “Not much, man. Not much. All I know is I can’t miss check in. Can’t miss it.”
“Damn. Seems like everybody punking out,” lamented Lightbulb.
I couldn’t imagine what would make him say such a thing to Penny’s face. The words angered my brother.
“Damn you, man! I ain’t no punk! I just wanna live out the rest of my life without pain. That’s all! You don’t know what it’s about! You ain’t the one whose had his head opened up!”
“Man, I’m sorry. Sure you’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
And then total silence.
A lump had formed somewhere in my suddenly dry throat, but I was to afraid to go for a glass of water. Penny always says that nobody understands what it’s like for him anymore. Maybe he’s right I start to think. It’s true, it don’t know a whole lot of how the system works. Mostly what I know is that two men from Repro-databank came to our house and installed a black box the same day Penny came home.
The black box is the size of a radio receiver. Maybe even smaller. Anchored down to a metal table it gives a foreboding to Penny’s room. It was explained to my mother and me then that a sensor alerts the databank should the box be tampered with in any way to warrant malfunction or to remove it from anchor.
Lightbulb cleared his throat again. “Hey, man, like I said, I didn’t mean no harm. Just be cool.”
“Yeah, man,” Mojoe quipped, trying to come to his friend’s verbal defense. “My man here just try’n to say that things are different now. Three of my buddies from the old town have ‘trackers’. It’s a shame to do a man that way. A real shame. Even my cousin Clive got himself hooked up. And you know him. Head like a rock. The man wouldn’t follow what the ‘man’ wanted, you know. The program. Now he’s in what they call ‘total shut down’. It’s like the brother just don’t have a brain to think with no more. Spends his days sitting in front of a television slobbering. The law says his own mama gotta take care of him ‘tho.”
Mojoe was quiet for a few moments as if to collect his thoughts before continuing on. “But before he went to shut down, ‘cuzz used to get by check-in somehow. Maybe that’s what you need. A righteous squeeze for your check in.”
I could hear Penny sigh. Something he does loud and heavy, not to mention a lot. Mama used to tease that when Penny was born and the doctor slapped him on his behind, Penny sighed instead of cried.
Then Penny said, rather snappish. “Man, this is my mom’s house. I can’t have no woman living here. My mom wouldn’t go for no mess like that.”
Penny words held respect. Those same words touched a soft spot in my heart and reminded me of a time I felt that my brother loved me and my mother. Maybe I was being too hard on him. Maybe he really did care about his own family.
Feeling anxious for his company to leave, feeling trapped in my own home, I got up and moved from the worn brown sofa and stood at the picture window. Under a gray mist of sky a mild Santa Ana wind blew lavender snow flakes from our Jacaranda tree. Our once green lawn lay hidden beneath a blanket of lavender. Another cleaning job calling my name. Tension was in my back. I hate when I don’t feel comfortable in the same place that’s suppose to be my home. Somehow, I’m still not sure why, I had the feeling that I should call my mother at her job and let her know about the very hoodlums I’d promised not to allow in her house. But what would that solve? And wouldn’t it be obvious and a good excuse for Penny to inflict me with bodily harm? So I did the next best thing. I went to my room, closed the door and stayed there.
My eyes don’t want to open, but I felt myself being prodded. Shaken. A few light slaps to the face. I come fully awake. From the sparse street lamp light that filters through my bedroom window I can make out Penny’s silhouette. His face, like his intentions were pushed far back into the misty darkness.
“Penny?” I tried pulling myself up along my bed.
I could feel Penny’s body trembling, whether from fear, frustration, I had no clue. Perhaps a little bit of both. The acrid smell of burning restlessness is too strong in the room. I waited to hear his voice.
“Little brother...listen up. I’m sorry, but I gotta...I gotta get outta here. I can’t take it no more. I...I just can’t. Just for a few hours for some fresh air. Just for tonight. You understand, don’t you?”
His breath was hot in my face, burning at my eyes. And for some insane second I thought I caught a whiff of alcohol. My mind was still in delayed reaction. “...but what about check...”
He cut me off. “Check in? What about check-in?”
I was almost afraid to shake my own head. “Yeah.”
“Little brother, that’s where you come in. That’s where you’re gonna help your brother have some time out.”
“But it’s illegal to...”
“Tamper with?... Only if they find out, little brother. I don’t plan on telling nobody. You gonna tell ‘em?”
My mind was screaming “NO!”. My lips were silent as I struggled to find my voice again, tried to will the sound of bravado into it. I knew that if I didn’t say the right thing, or if Penny didn’t like what I was saying he would haul back and knock the holy crap right out of me. “You’re going out to hang with them, aren’t you?”
Strong hands seized me by the shoulders and pulled me up straighter. I could feel pain waving back and forth from one shoulder to the other. He drew his face in closer to mine, or mine closer to his. It was hard to tell.
“And who are you?!...my keeper?”
“Then don’t test me, little brother. Don’t test me.”
And then he remembered. Remembered that he needed me more than I needed him. He released his grip, smooth out the shoulders of my pajamas.
“Now come with me,” he said, a more calmer voice that was almost hypnotic. “I’ll show you what to do.”
By the hand, like a small child Penny pulled me, half stumbling, but not resisting, to his well lit bedroom, to the place where the black box stood out like new mod furniture in an antique shop. I stared down at it. My knees felt as if they wanted to quit. Could he actually hear the echo of my heart beating as I stared down at it? Penny stared down at it too, then looked at his watch.
“Now listen good. It’s seven o’clock straight up. At eight, you dial this number right here on the machine.” His stiff finger indicated the neat row of square gray push tone buttons with raised numbers. “You’ll see a bar code display in the small red window. That means that the computer wants my code numbers and two alphabet digits behind it.” He shoved a piece of paper with numbers on it to me.
A small piece of felony, I thought. But I took the paper from his hand.
“After you key in the code, you push this blue square button. That’s it. It’s that simple.”
“But, what if...” I stammered as I stood shivering, not sure if it was from the coldness of the room or the fear of breaking the law. “What if I don’t wanna do it?”
His eyes flashed pure hatred. “For once in your young punkish life do something to help somebody else beside your own selfish ass!”
I wasn't convinced. “But what if I fall asleep?” What if Mama comes home and discovers what I’ve done? What if the cops do a random home body check right after you leave? What if the machine is booby trapped and blows up in my face? What if!, my mind screamed.
Penny’s face mellowed into what could have almost been a smile and for the first time in so long I could see how much he resembled both my mother and my father, even me! I could see myself in him. I saw the desperation in his face, molded into the same likeness that was mine. I knew then that no matter how alike we really were, there would always be that thin bloodline difference between sane and insane. Between right and wrong. That thin line of compassion for another human life.
“The alarm will wake you. I programmed it to go off every hour to help remind you. I’ll be back before Mom get in.” He gave a little sarcastic grin. “Nobody will ever know ‘cept you and I, little brother.”
I hate when you call me that. I wanted to tell him so, but before I could protest he grabbed up a dark blue jacket and patted the top of my head and was gone. I heard the cough and roar of an engine start up out front, but by the time I got to the living room window the car had pulled away. Waiting friends I surmised.
Something was screaming inside of me to call my mother. Call her! But no. I knew that it would only worry her more and cause her to have to leave work, loose money. Money we desperately need to keep paying Penny’s lawyer. The same lawyer who had tried in vain to clear Penny’s name. I couldn’t add to her burden.
Second choice. Call Repro-databank. But ask to speak to whom? And tell them what? That I’m the fourteen year old brother of a convicted gang member who was an accomplice in the murder of an elderly woman all because he and his gun-toting members wanted the shiny new car she just happened to be driving, but right now he just needed some time out to hang out with his old friends. Just for old time sake. No big deal.
After fixing a snack I settled down in front of the television, careful of the time, which displayed by then, ten forty-five. Fifteen more minutes for check-in number two. I hate Penny’s room with its ornery blue walls, twin sized bed, a small color TV and of course, the ‘black box’. The room has a personality that matches Penny’s to the core; cold, heartless, with sparse traces of feelings.
I picked up my bologna sandwich and munched. And then the strange memory popped in my head, like something that was there all the time, but buried deep under some subliminal clutter. The sessions my mother and I had to attend a week before Penny was allowed to serve out the rest of his time at home. There was something about the sessions. We’d gone to four of them. Two hours long. It had been mandatory, something about therapeutic debriefing on Penny’s condition. But it seemed like it was more than that. Funny. I hadn’t thought of it before until Penny’s absence from the house.
The early-but -late movie was on. An old Alfred Hitchcock movie. One of my favorites. I settled back happily along the pillow, ready to be entertained, then the screen cleared and a special bulletin appeared at exactly eleven forty-nine. Gang violence on the south side of town. Two dead. Several injured. More details blared out to my suddenly deaf ears. I thought of my brother. I thought of his friends and their constant menace to the communities they were born and still lived in. Wasn’t it enough to worry over losing our lives to terrorist, the flesh-eating virus, Aids and Cancer? They themselves were the cancers of our society that kept spreading only to destroy and keep destroying. I thought of all the innocent lives that would fall and keep on falling if I chose to do nothing.
I rose and moved from the bed to the black box. I don’t know how or why, but somehow, I knew what had to be done.
Punching in three numbers the machine made a short winding sound before it released the secret side panel to the left of the box. The flashing red button beaconed as if to help me along. Again I thought of Penny, and all the future Pennys. I thought of a world without gang violence, a warm and radiating feeling running deep.
My right index finger found the redness up under it a welcoming escape. A Promise. I had no way to truly explain it. Only to say that I loved my brother, in every since of the word love. The red button. The red. I pushed it.
* * * *
“You want some more fried chicken?” Mama asked. No answer. She places two more pieces on his plate. Penny’s favorite pieces, a wing and a breast. But Penny can’t remember this. Just like he can’t remember how long he’s been in Total Shut Down.
I sit across the table watching my mother. Trying to feed her oldest son is her way of dealing, I guess. Only Penny can’t remember how to eat and has to be fed like a baby, at least for a while until all his hostile emotions are eradicated and cleared with Repro-databank. The rep that came to the house last week, a short and bald pink man with eyebrows too thick and serious, said that it could take weeks, maybe months. No two people were alike. But I’d heard it before.
It’s always the hardest on my mother. I know it’s hard on Penny, struggling so hard to remember again and not being able to. But then it all comes back with time. Only to begin again. I try to recall how many times now. Six, maybe seven. But I really can’t recall. I guess it’s hard on me, too.
Mama makes a sucking sound with her teeth and I catch the soft browness of her eyes. “I just wish that it didn’t make him so robot like...so helpless.” She removes some chewed chicken from her mouth and stuffs it gently into Penny’s mouth. My brother makes a grunting sound as if trying to say something. Gently, she wipes the drool from the sides of his mouth with a napkin. Sometimes it’s sickening.
“Maybe later, Penny,” I hear myself saying. Only it doesn’t feel like me saying it. “...we can play some ‘bones or maybe some checkers.” I try to read a reaction through his blank eyes, seeking to tell if he remembers his favorite game of dominoes. Just a small sign, a flicker. I catch a glint before another grunt. But I guess it’s too soon to tell. Just like before, it’s just too soon.