When I was in college one of my friends told me a story about her younger brother. He was a typical high school boy in many ways: excitable, impetuous, demanding, hungry, pungent, psyched, and yet strangely indolent and dim at times of rest; depending on dinner—whether he’d had it yet; whether it was what he’d wanted—he could be enormously proud, kingly even, towering and solid in his person, or else morose, Jobian, hyper-sensitive, and easily cut to the quick. But one of the most unique particulars to my friend’s brother was his logical-linguistic faculty, his individual reason in his individual language. His own personal left side of the brain. How he expressed his opinion on something often had the subtlety of an errant anvil. “Hammer and tongs” is supposed to imply rigorous, constructive, usually dialogical debate or conversation. His was the surprise singular dropping of cold hard dumbness on nothing. That was my impression at the time of my hearing this story, anyway.
It happened one Saturday afternoon that my friend and her family were out running errands. At one of their stops, my friend’s brother came across a bag of assorted candies. The candies reminded him of candy. Candy reminded him of other times he had had candy. Those remembered times reminded him that he liked candy. The memory of liking reminded him that he liked liking. It was only a short neurological distance before the connection was made: thought became want, want became desire, desire became need. He bought the bag of candies—that is, he put the bag in his parents’ basket.
But somewhere along the way home the assorted candies remained unopened, even in the brightness of their colorful wrappers. Maybe they drove through some place on the way home. Maybe his digestion caught up with him sitting in the van.
Whatever the reason, desire had subsided somehow. Driving back, my friend’s brother asked their dad if he wanted to have the candy instead. Their dad, busy doing the actual driving, muttered an affirmative commonplace: Sure, I’ll eat anything, you know.
When they got home, after the usual bland shuffling and settling, my friend’s mother began preparing that ever-promised meal, covenanted daily since childhood, dinner. My friend’s brother, seeing these preparations, asked what it was supposed to be—a question freighted with sphinxlike gravity. I do not remember what it was, or what he was expecting, but the brother did not like the answer. He bemoaned his mother’s choice. He decried the item’s very existence. He cried violence against his hankerings. In his lamentations he opened the bag of candies and began unwrapping and eating them, one solitary piece at a time.
Just then my friend’s dad, coming through the sliding glass door from the backyard, gave out a more neutral, dadly bark at the brother.
“Why didn’t you clean the backyard? You said you were going to. You didn’t do it.”
“What? I can do it later.”
“I told you to do it before we left. Actually I told you to do it last night.
“I wasn’t home last night.”
“You were before you left. You were home this morning. You didn’t do it either of those times.”
“I will in a minute, okay? God.”
“Don’t swear that at me. You said you were going to. It’s a mess out there.”
“It’s not God’s fault it looks like a goddamned warzone out there . . .”
“Well it’s not my fault that dinner’s gonna suck.”
“. . . piles of poop everywhere out there. What did you say?”
“That’s why I’m being a jerk.”
Tempers grew higher, and voices grew louder. Feelings were hurt, faces were fuming. At some point my friend joined the cause of her parents, and then the whole family was gathered in the dispute. Or rather, father, mother, and sister united against brother. They got to a point where they had each chimed in some death-knell against his callow moral rectitude. At first, he took these rebukes harder and harder, and grew more blockheaded against them. But soon their steady words had the effect of erosion. Looking around him, his conviction softening, he issued one last defense at the head of his accusers. He looked with dread seriousness at his dad and said:
“Well at least I got you candy!”
They all stared wide-eyed at him. They looked at each other, gasping for words, only to look back at him in utter dumbfoundedness.
They stood shocked as if a boulder had rolled through the living room.
Finally the dad’s stern, straight face cracked a slow grin, and he broke into a laugh. The sister and the mother soon followed, and even the brother began to smile uncertainly. It wasn’t long before the whole tense body of the family relaxed in laughter, the kind of just-pent-up, now-released laughter so much like hard-earned tears.
My friend shook with laughter as she recounted this story to me. Approaching the climactic words, she had to stop and catch her breath. She made many false starts, having to smooth the smile from her cheeks so that she could speak. But the smile stayed there because the surprise of her brother still stood in her mind.
I had seen her annoyed with him many times. I myself had been more than annoyed with him many times. I thought him the worst kind of fool: proud, with big shoulders. Certainly my friend had plenty of reason to complain about her baby brother. On the worst of days, his seat of reason was a highchair from which he tossed a mess of clanging slop around her, not even aware of her trying to pick it up. But at that moment, still reliving his utterly unique response, her face showed the exact opposite of annoyance. Even as she had cringed and frowned before when telling of his churlishness, my friend now smiled with lucid joy when clumsiness. But she wasn’t laughing at him, she was laughing because of him, and the smile lasted far longer than the laughter. It was the facial expression of that good old English word, so underused nowadays, mirth.