The air was cold and misty when Garrett completed his first lap around Olsen Pond. Yesterday he walked four laps around the 1.2 mile trail, and today his goal was six, in spite of the hangover.
Drew kept buying him beers last night, and Garrett hadn’t wanted to refuse. Drew rubbed his stubbly head as he updated his friend on the most recent signs that his marriage was trending downwards. Two months ago Drew’s wife had cut off all her hair, and then she started building sleeves of tattoos, a new nonsense image on an arm each week. Drew said the latest was a portrait of Robert Stack, the host of Unsolved Mysteries.
“So much money,” Drew said.
“For something so stupid.” Garrett completed the thought for his friend.
Drew was avoiding home, avoiding the reality of a wife who was actively growing apart from him. Garrett thought being single was okay if this was the alternative. He was sad for Drew, but he also felt a small comfort at being the one who had it “together” in their friendship. Garrett asked if Drew had confronted his wife about these changes in behavior. Drew said no, he had a feeling she wouldn’t tell him the truth anyway.
“Just try,” Garrett said. “Worst case scenario: she’ll brush it off, maybe lie. But at least you can read her body language when she reacts to you.”
Drew said he would do it, but at the end of the night, Garrett was pretty sure he wouldn’t.
It was mostly women walking their dogs in the mornings on the trail, a whole slew of them today because it was Saturday. He said hello and smiled at them. The older women generally made eye contact and responded in kind. The younger ones sort of grimaced, a look of tension about their faces when they saw this six foot five, three hundred pound guy barreling towards them. Or they kept their eyes down, pretending not to hear him over whatever murder podcast was playing from their earbuds.
Maybe they really didn’t hear him. He was trying to be less of the “Worst Case Scenario Guy,” as Drew called him. Garrett brushed off the nickname initially, thinking it solely in reference to his tendency to overuse the phrase. But, since he’d started walking, he had more time to be with his thoughts. He realized that what he’d thought of as optimism actually ran in shades of negativity.
No more of that. He was going to keep up his end of the bargain. He would start exercising, lose some weight, and mom would quit smoking to hold up her end. Garrett and his mom had begun texting each other daily check-ins. They were a small yet comforting addition to his day.
Do your laps?
Yeah, four. Buy your gum?
Yep, thirteen days without a smoke.
For once, there weren’t other, more desperate, questions lurking beneath her inquiries.
When he walked on weekdays, before his evening shifts at the nursing home, he usually stopped at the dock to sing. He’d listen to his voice skid off the algae-blooming water and feel a shiver of joy at the sound. Today, there was a man and his toddler son trying to fish. They pulled a minnow out of the water, and Garrett wondered if that was the bait or the catch.
Halfway through his second lap, Garrett noticed Slim Shady, which was what he called the heron that hung around the pond. He got out his phone to take a picture. As he lifted it, Slim pulled in his neck and lowered himself closer to the water, collapsing into a grey bulb. The photos he took of the bird came out fuzzy. He seemed close, but once Garrett zoomed adequately, the image was all ugly pixels. Against the shore, on a fallen sycamore, he saw a jacket. Then something brown and ratty. It was hair, with a whole person attached to it. A man was curled up, crouched by the water’s edge, with his head resting on the bark of the felled tree beside the stump.
He was over a yard away, but Garrett could smell the guy. He smelled like Wayne, old smoke and sour liquor emanating from his pores. Garret backed away, snapping a twig in the process. The man didn’t flinch or react to the noise.
As a kid, Garrett was certain he’d be a famous singer. He was obsessed with Boys II Men; his room surrounded in CD cover art unfolded and scotch taped to his walls. It was from Boys II Men that he’d learned how to sing, how to harmonize. And then came the boy band craze: N*Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees. He loved them all. By that time, though, he was in the sixth grade, and the other boys in class called these groups gay. “So gay!” he agreed, laughing along. But secretly, known only to his mother who would drive him to Sam Goody, he’d spend his allowance on all the boy band CDs.
He noticed how girls most adored the highest pitched singers, the Nick Carters and the Justin Timberlakes. Garrett’s voice changed early; he was one of the few baritones in the middle school choir. And while this led his music teacher, Ms. Heny, to dote on him, he wished he could be a tenor, an alto, even. He didn’t want to be a Lance Bass.
While Garrett was practicing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” in his bedroom, Wayne was getting drunk behind the 7 Eleven. By junior year, Wayne had taken to stealing vodka from the liquor store and putting it in water bottles to bring to school. Garrett only realized this later. When it was happening, he chalked the ever-present odor up to his big brother’s cologne. Wayne showered himself in Nautica Blue, which Garrett assumed was the reason for the sharp alcohol smell.
Garrett craved a closeness with Wayne that Wayne couldn’t offer. He’d sometimes listen in to his sister and her friends from their phone extension in the basement, awed by their vulnerability with each other. They shared their greatest insecurities and then assured the other how cute and smart they were. He thought that Wayne should be this to him, and he resented that he wasn’t.
Then, after Wayne’s third suspension and his sessions with Dr. Charles, who Garrett later learned was a psychologist, Wayne suddenly became interested in his little brother’s life. Garrett was thrilled when Wayne said, “Sure,” he would come to his brother’s choir concert.
Ms. Heny wouldn’t allow him to peek into the audience from backstage. She said it might psych him out. He listened to her. She seemed the only teacher worth listening to. It was December, and Ms. Heny disregarded the tradition of public school winter concerts including songs to represent holidays from a variety of cultures and instead filled the program with exclusively Christmas songs. He had a solo in “O Holy Night.”
As the students filed up to the risers, he looked out on the audience, but he couldn’t quite make out the faces with the house lights down, the stage lights up. They sang “Let it Snow,” and Garrett’s face turned red when he swayed the wrong way for the choreography. He was so distracted by the thought of Wayne there, watching him. He hoped his blushing wouldn’t show up from the audience.
Then, halfway through the song from Home Alone, the song he most enjoyed singing, he heard the door open, and a rectangle of light poured in from the hallway. He could hear the crinkling of winter coats as people turned around in their seats. The students were all looking at the interloper, which led even Ms. Heny to glance back as she conducted.
“Sorry, sorry!” Wayne’s voice cut through the music.
Once the song was over, the applause felt like a sigh of relief. An audio reset button.
Next, his solo. Garrett stepped down from the risers and met the microphone just steps from Ms. Heny.
“Yeeeah! That’s my baby brother!” Wayne’s voice ripped through the auditorium. Garrett began to sing, and Wayne stopped. Then “Gary!” Garrett’s nickname which was bequeathed to him after his first wedgie and would accompany future wedgies and noogies and every time Wayne would grab Garrett’s forearms and force Garrett to slap himself.
Wayne started chanting, “Ga-ry Ga-ry Ga-ry” like a Jerry Springer Show taunt. He turned around when he noticed no one was joining him. “What’s wrong with you?” Wayne asked no one in particular or everyone around him. Garrett saw vague movement in the audience, and he could only assume it was Wayne, getting up for god knows what reason. Soon, Wayne was in the aisles. He pulled a lighter from his pocket and held the flame up, as though at a rock concert. Garret continued singing, but his voice cracked. He was half a beat behind. He saw Mr. Sheffield rise from the first row to escort his brother out.
Garrett returned to the path and continued on. He’d be back soon, anyway, he thought. There was no rush. The man wasn’t going anywhere. He’d walk another lap while he decided what to do. The clouds were low and grey, pressing down on his brain. It might not be all hangover, this feeling. When the sky was filled with low clouds, he often had the sensation that a too-heavy wool blanket was draped over his grey matter. He tried not to let the weather affect his mood, but it did. As a child on rainy days, his father would scold him for his sullen mood. “Go play with your brother. Wayne doesn’t let the rain spoil his fun.”
He came upon a short couple, wearing jackets in nearly the same shade of teal. Garrett wondered if they recognized they were matching or if they were the kind of couple who’d grown so similar that they could no longer notice their sameness. The couple walked slowly. Garrett slowed himself down, staying a dozen paces behind. He hoped that the couple would notice the man and, in their superior twoness of logic, would know what to do. Perhaps they’d take care of the situation and Garrett could go on walking, get his six laps in and move on with his day.
Slim Shady stretched his neck up again, swiveled his head as he flicked his wings out, then pulled them back in, adjusting his position. His eyes were black and watchful. The woman pointed to the bird, and the man said “Yeah.” They were observant, at least.
Garrett’s pocket vibrated. Mom: I’m watching Mad Men and now I really want a smoke.
Don’t watch Mad Men, he replied. As though it were all so easy. As though he hadn’t nearly ordered a Denny’s omelet from Grub Hub instead of getting up to walk his laps this morning.
He added, TV is the worst. I can’t watch commercials anymore. Too many glistening hot wings and levitating burger patties. Used to be they mostly talked about Wayne. Was he in rehab again? Was he using? Did he get a new job? Was he still living with those deadbeat friends?
College was a chance for Garrett to disengage from the drama of his family and find drama of his own choosing. He auditioned for the acapella group after he’d seen them perform on the quad during orientation. He was intimidated. He’d been passed over for all the male leads in his high school musicals, and he’d lost confidence in his singing abilities. But he thought, Worst case scenario: he wouldn’t make the cut. At least he’d know whether to keep pursuing or give up on music for good. He made it in.
Garrett fell in love with singing again, and also with a woman. Alison wore only pastel colors with the exception of khaki and jean. At first Garrett found this adorable. He’d watch her during rehearsals from the opposite side of their semicircle, and her colors would set her apart, a daisy among the sea of navy blue university hoodies. Once they broke up and she started dating Griffin, her wardrobe choices became obnoxious to Garrett. The annoyance was made even greater on the days when she wore her hair in pigtails. Grow up already, he thought.
During an overnight trip for an out-of-state competition, he was stuck in the same hotel room as Griffin. He woke to Alison sneaking in. He listened to whispering from across the room but couldn’t decipher the words. Garrett switched on his bedside lamp and gathered his things into his duffel bag. On his way out, he saw that Alison had pulled the covers over her head — hiding or pretending to hide. He drove home himself that night, leaving Suneel to find another ride. That was the end of singing groups for him.
The couple passed the leaning boxelder, where Garrett sometimes saw turtles sunning themselves. The tree limb was bare today, and it marked the spot just before the man. Garrett kept looking between the couple and the shoreline, waiting for them to notice the man, waiting for their reaction. He saw the unnatural beige lump of cloth. He saw the couple reach around each others’ waists and veer closer to the outside edge of the trail.
Garrett’s tongue filled with the rusty taste that flushed his mouth when he got angry. Those people, unwilling to interrupt their nice little walk to help a man in need. Garrett stopped. He checked his phone out of habit, as he did in any moment of stillness. His fingers combed the curly strands of his beard. A grey whippet wearing little dog booties and a sweater trotted by, followed by a terribly thin woman. He scowled at them as they, too, passed without regard for the man huddled by the muck-rimmed shore.
Worst case scenario, he thought, the guy won’t want any help and I’ll just go on with my laps. Then, at least, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty. He wouldn’t have to think, What if.
Garrett approached the man with less caution this time. “Hey, man,” he announced his presence. The man didn’t turn, but he grunted a “Hey.” As Garrett came nearer, he saw that the man’s foot had sunk into the muck. His muddied tennis shoe must have been totally waterlogged. But the man hadn’t moved. In fact, as Garrett inspected it closer, he noticed the man’s bare ankle. Sitting atop it, a slick black leech. Garrett didn’t have any salt, but he thought if it had just crawled up, it might not have latched yet. He pinched the slimy digit and pulled. The leech came off, and blood rushed out with it.
“Ay!” the man’s voice sounded clearer now, and he pulled his foot from the water. Garrett flicked the leech back into the pond.
“Sorry. It was a leech.” Garrett looked at the man, whose eyes were open now, bloodshot, looking like Wayne’s, he thought. Wayne’s eyes were brown, though, and this man’s were green. When you had someone on your mind and you didn’t want them inside your brain, they had a way of taking shape in the physical world around you. “Let me help you,” Garrett said. He didn’t want the man to think he was just here to inflict pain. Garrett held out his forearm. The man looked up at him but didn’t move. “Let’s get you up, buddy. There’s a shelter just a ways up the road.” Garrett grabbed the man’s upper arm and tried to hoist him to his feet.
“Fucker!” the guy mumbled. Garrett was pretty sure it’s what the guy said. “Where do you think I came from?” the man said more clearly.
“Fine, asshole.” Garrett pushed his elbow away, and the man caught his fall in the sandy soil. He resumed the hunched position Garrett had found him in initially.
Garrett thought of his last conversation with Wayne. How he proposed all the ideas he had for his brother’s life: the places he could stay, the jobs he could pursue, the family members he could reconnect with. Wayne argued the drawbacks of each of these proposed plans, and Garrett left the conversation feeling rejected, almost scolded.
The man closed his eyes. At least his foot was now clear out of the scummy pond water. Garrett walked on. It was only lap three. His abdomen filled with minnows.