Ernest sat at the top of the steps of their new porch, thinking to go looking through unpacked boxes for a hose and sprinkler. He watched an ant struggle over a crack and onto his bare left foot. He was a kid used to bugs, but this place seemed to have what he would have called, if his brother wasn’t near, too damn many. He leaned over to flick the black ant away. A hard kick in the butt sent him into an awkward somersault down the six cement steps. He landed on his back on the coarse brick walkway. Spit, Ernest’s brother, laughed.
“You’re lucky I’m okay,” Ernest said, standing and checking his skinny self for damage. The ant had disappeared.
“How do you figure?” Spit scratched his tanned, bare chest. Ernest was glad for the distance between him and Spit, so the saliva projected with the f sound in “figure” wouldn’t mist him.
“Mom said she’d belt you next time you put a mean finger on me.” Ernest’s nostrils flared. His mom said it, but he never saw her do it. He was glad he had a mom that didn’t hit them, but he often wished for a mom that would hit his brother. Or hold Spit down, and let Ernest do whatever his small fists could, given the chance.
“She didn’t say nothing about putting a foot on you, did she, smartass?”
Ernest considered this. “Mom,” he’d say, “Spit kicked me down the stairs,” and Spit would stand there, put his hands in the air, say, “Mom, you told me not to lay a finger on him, and I didn’t.” And then their mom would make that face of pure exasperation, and lecture Spit about how brothers were supposed to take care of each other, and then she would realize that he wasn’t listening, and she would send him to their room, where Ernest’s toys and books and the old tapes that went with some of the books would be at risk if Spit got bored.
“Whatever,” Ernest conceded, climbing the steps and giving his brother a wide berth. “I’m getting a soda.”
“I drank the last one.” Spit grinned, lips glistening.
“Shit,” Ernest said softly. He clenched his teeth and held his lips still so they couldn’t be read.
“You say something?” Spit squinted at him.
“Naw.” Ernest felt the fear that his brother always triggered in him. It felt like when he was about to get goose bumps, except they never came.
“Good. I’d hate to tell Mom you were swearing again.”
“Naw, I said.” The bumps sat under the skin, waiting.
Spit shrugged and licked at his left nostril. He sniffed hard enough for Ernest to hear the snot pull back into his throat.
“You’d better not hawk that at me,” Ernest said, backing up to the porch railing. Shirtless, he was a prime target.
Spit horked harder and advanced. Ernest looked for somewhere to run, but unlike at their old house, the porch did not wrap around. He glanced over the railing; the dead grass below wouldn’t much cushion his fall, but he’d rather get hurt than feel that snotchunk hit his skin. He grabbed the porch railing and tensed to leap. Two feet away, Spit arched his neck forward and with a wet heave spat past Ernest’s right shoulder. Ernest let go of the railing, relief whistling through the gap between his front teeth.
They’d called his brother “Spit” his whole life. Their mom said a friend started calling him Spit because he slobbered so much as a baby. It was supposed to be cute, Ernest sometimes thought. But whether the name had made the attitude, or the slobber had just been an early sign of his brother’s rabid mouth, Ernest couldn’t muster a more fitting name for his older brother.
“Like you’d’ve jumped, you big tit. You won’t even jump off the diving board.” Ernest held the bad words back. Spit knew exactly the things to say to make him mad. It wasn’t that Ernest couldn’t go off a diving board; he’d done it at a friend’s house. And he really liked swimming. It was just going off the board in front of Spit. He almost said so, but he didn’t like giving Spit ammunition. At nine, Ernest was already tired of the battle between them. Plus, it was hot, and there wasn’t any soda.
“Well, there’s no more diving board, ‘cause there’s no more pool, so I don’t have to worry about that any more, do I?” he said, padding toward the front door. He thought that might be the only good thing about their most recent move. He was willing to sweat through the whole summer if it meant no more torment about the goddamn diving board.
He opened the screen door and Spit said, “’Bout that…”
“About what?” Ernest didn’t turn to face his brother. He stood still between the half-open screen and the pitted wood of the front door, head tilted slightly in Spit’s direction. Sometimes Ernest dreamed that if he waited long enough in front of a door, when he finally opened it, inside would be things he knew would make life easier: air conditioning, separate rooms for him and Spit, a cupboard full of money. He wondered how long they’d stay in this house, this town. Mom had said that there wasn’t a public pool in Oak Marble Gall, hadn’t she?
“Seeing how it’s so hot and all, and there isn’t any more soda, or popsicles—”
“You ate all the popsicles too?”
“Except the yellows, but you hate them anyways. I thought maybe you’d wanna go swimming.”
Ernest looked at Spit, who was chewing a thumbnail nonchalantly. He knew his brother, knew he didn’t offer to do things out of the kindness of his heart. There was always a catch. But it was hot, and Ernest thought a dip might make even Spit nicer, for a little while.
“There’s nowhere to swim,” Ernest said cautiously. “We don’t know if any of the neighbors got pools, ‘cause we don’t know none of the neighbors yet. Are you saying we should go and meet them? We don’t have anything to bring around.” In a new neighborhood, their mom always took around some cookies or something, when she had time.
Spit lowered his thumb and wiped it on his shorts. “I’m not talking about a pool. I’m talking about a creek. But if you don’t wanna go, I’ll go by myself. You’re probably too scared to go swimming in a little creek even, huh Wiener?”
“Don’t call me Wiener. I’m not scared of a creek,” Ernest said, coming out from behind the screen and letting it bang closed. He scratched at the back of his left calf with the big toe of his right foot. “How big a creek is it?”
“Not too big,” Spit said, putting on what Ernest thought of as his brother’s serious face, the one he wore when he really wanted someone to believe him. “Mr. Grayson told me about it. Said all the kids go swimming there. Said the current’s real easy, so parents don’t even got to watch their kids, not like the old river, where Feather almost drowned. The creek isn’t mean like that. Even tittybabies like you will be all right.”
“Really?” Ernest asked. He might have refused, especially because of the mention of Feather, but Spit’s inclusion of Mr. Grayson in the story made it seem believable. He had come by the house to help their mom with her sparkplugs last week. Maybe he had told Spit then. Plus, their mom had taught Spit mouth-to-mouth after Feather’s incident: when he got pulled under in the river, his dad fished him out, and then done CPR. Feather puked all over himself, and his dad had cried, and then said a weird prayer. They were hippies, his mom had said, smiling, a different time. Ernest hadn’t known what that meant, but they were really nice folks, so he figured hippies meant people whose kids got along and who ate a lot of vegetables and knew how to save lives.
“I promise that’s what I heard. I don’t know any reason for Mr. Grayson to lie to me. He seems to like Mom and me a lot.”
“Yeah,” Ernest admitted, ignoring that Spit hadn’t included him in the list of people Mr. Grayson liked. Ernest liked Mr. Grayson. Ernest’s mom said they shared a cousin that she had gone to high school with, but weren’t blood-related. Ernest’s mom remembered everyone she’d ever met or heard of, Ernest thought. Mr. Grayson ran the gas station by their house, and always wore a green shirt with the name “Teensy” stitched in yellow above the pocket. Ernest couldn’t get over a great tall man like Mr. Grayson letting other people call him Teensy. When they moved in, Mr. Grayson came over and helped them with the couch and the beds. Ernest’s mom said he was a real gentleman, but she also told her sons not to hang around the store and bother him. Or ask him for free stuff, in Spit’s case. Spit was not known for his manners.
“You don’t think Mom’ll mind if we go? As long as you’re looking after me?”
“Naw, Mom won’t mind. She’ll be busy for a while, out looking for jobs. And you know she’s always trying to get me to take you around with me, even though I tell her it isn’t cool for a guy my age to be hanging out with his little brother.”
“I’m not that little,” Ernest said. “I’m catching up to you.” Before they had moved, Ernest had checked the wall lines that measured their growth. Even though they’d been in the last house less than a year, Ernest had seen that he had grown more in that time than Spit had. This made him optimistic. Plus, Mr. Grayson had said that folks called him Teensy because once upon a time he had been a little guy. A runt, he’d said. Teensy Tate. But now he was huge, with a bushy beard, and could move a couch without much help, and nice, too.
“You can’t catch up to me. You’re nine, I’m 12. We’re always gonna be three years apart, stupid, and I’m always going to be bigger. Now go grab us towels and shoes and we’ll take off.”
Ernest didn’t like being called stupid, so he pretended he hadn’t heard that part, and ran inside to the laundry room. He climbed up onto the dryer to reach the shelf above it, grabbed two towels, and skidded down. His towel had Power Rangers on it; he shook it out to make sure no spiders were hiding in it. His mom had said to be careful of them. He was going to shake out Spit’s, a tie-dyed one with mostly black and green colors, but thought better of it. If Spit was so big, he could shake out his own damn spiders.
After grabbing shoes from their bedroom, Ernest slipped into the kitchen to double check the freezer. Sure enough, only yellow popsicles were left. He grabbed an ice cube instead, popped it into his mouth, and walked out of the house.
“Took you long enough,” Spit said, grabbing his shoes. “You ready?”
“Mmmph,” Ernest mumbled around his ice cube, nodding.
“Okay. Get your shoes on; we got a ways to walk.”
“Mmnmm?” This was meant to mean “How far a ways?” but Ernest guessed that Spit wasn’t going to take him too far from the house. Their mom had said no going past the train tracks. Ernest shoved the folded towel at his brother and then tied the faded Power Rangers one around his own neck, cape-style, before bending over to pull on his shoes. He fastened the Velcro straps quickly.
“I can’t believe you’re still wearing those,” Spit snorted. “Can’t you tie a shoe yet?”
“Yeah,” Ernest insisted, moving the ice cube to his left cheek, freezing his teeth and making him shiver. “I like these, is all. Velcro is cool. The guy who invented it got the idea from bur stickers.”
“Whatever. Let’s go, Wiener.”
Ernest knew Spit wouldn’t care about other ideas that came from nature, so he just followed Spit out the front gate, towel-cape waving limply behind him.
The walk to the creek was longer than Ernest thought it should have been. The sun made his head feel like a baked bean, and he kept touching his hair to see if it would burn his hand. The towel kept his shoulders cool, but his cheeks stung by the time they got to the bridge. He was tired and thirsty, but seeing the water run under the bridge made him risk a grin at his brother.
“How do we get down there?” he asked, leaning over the low bridge railing. It was a small, flat bridge with only four reflectors spaced along each side. The water was not far below.
“There’s a footpath on the other side,” Spit said. “Or we could jump.”
Ernest stared up at him in alarm.
“Just teasing, Wiener. Come on.”
They hurried toward the creek in a downhill trot. Spit navigated over some boulders and brought them out on a wide stretch of sandy gravel. He took his shoes off and laid them on a flat rock. Ernest did the same, hoping no bugs would crawl in. They laid their towels out in the sun so they’d be warm in case the water was cold. Spit stood still, surveying the stretch of water before them.
“You ready?” Spit asked.
“You sure this isn’t a mean creek?”
“Look at the water. Does it look mean? It’s hardly moving.”
“You going first?” Ernest tried not to sound hopeful.
“Sure Wiener, I’ll go first. Even though there’s no diving board, nothing scary whatsoever, I’ll go first. You don’t even have to get in at all, matter of fact. Why don’t you just stand there and pick your nose and cook in the sun like a big old raisin. You damn baby. I shouldn’t even have brought you.”
“I’m not a damn baby,” Ernest said. “I’m not a wiener. I’ll go first. I want to.” Sweat ran into his eyes. He blinked it away and sized up the water in front of him. The creek was wider where they were than it was directly under the bridge, and got even wider downstream. It was bigger than he’d expected.
Ernest took a breath and jerked his legs forward. He put his right foot in, then the left. The water hung around his ankles, hardly stirred by his hesitant movements. With the next step the gravel of the shore disappeared under a thick layer of silt. His toes squished through the black dirt, which was fine and soft. Little fleck of fool’s gold sparkled through the murk. Ernest smiled at them. He walked in a little farther, then turned and looked back at Spit. He was standing on the bank, arms crossed, smirking. Ernest turned back around and faced the water. He took a deep breath, squinched his eyes closed tight, ran forward and dove under.
Silence roared in his ears. He kept his eyes shut and swam hard, thinking he would make it to the other side, he would show Spit that he wasn’t a wiener, that he would take on the next diving board he came across, that—
Something brushed his ankle. His eyes slammed open and he pushed up for air, unable to keep from shouting while he was still underwater. His head broke the surface and he treaded water furiously, spinning in place and looking all around him. He was in the middle of the creek, farther from shore than he’d known he could swim in one breath. He could still see Spit clearly, and he was laughing fit to kill. Doubled over with it. Ernest could hear him across the water.
“What’s so funny?” Ernest tried to yell, but it came out a whimper. He was scared. He was a wiener, and he was scared. Of what? It could only have been a fish. A catfish, he thought. He had felt the slime of its skin, the bristle of its whiskers. He shook in disgust. All he wanted was to get out of the water, which was neither cool nor inviting. He noticed that it stank. His eyes burned. He scraped his tastebuds over his teeth, spat to get the taste out the water out of his mouth, and began swimming toward his brother, wondering why he hadn’t gotten in.
Ernest trudged out of the water and the gravelly sand crunched under his feet. He grabbed his towel, which was too hot, and tried to rub the smell off of him. He could still feel the catfish against his ankle, could see its face in his mind: his brother with a wide mouth and whiskers. He spat again. “Aren’t you gonna go in?”
“Naw,” Spit laughed. “I’m not.”
“Why not?” Ernest asked, hurt at this new betrayal. “You’re the one that wanted to come.”
“What for, if you aren’t gonna swim?”
“I got reasons.”
Ernest was ready to launch himself at Spit for dragging him clear out here just to get slimed by a fish and stinking and laughed at, but he heard a truck rumbling up the road. He pulled his shoes over his sandy feet and ran toward the bridge, hoping that whoever it was could give them a ride back. When he saw whose truck it was, he leapt.
“Mr. Grayson!” Ernest shouted, waving his arms around, hoping to get his attention.
The truck slowed to a stop right past the bridge and Mr. Grayson stepped out. He raised a hand to shield his eyes and squinted toward the hopping, waving boy not far below. “Ernest?” he yelled.
“Yessir!” Ernest yelled back, and started running toward the footpath and a ride home. Spit followed, whistling and laughing alternately.
The boys made it up the hill faster than they’d made it down. Ernest was panting when he got to Mr. Grayson, who wasn’t wearing his Teensy shirt.
“What are you boys doing down here?” he asked, looking back and forth at them. “For shit’s sake, were you swimming in there, Ernest?”
“Yeah, I went in first but then a fish swam by me and it was slimy and had whiskers and it was a catfish and so I got out and Spit wouldn’t get in and I’m happy you’re here could you give us a lift home I’m tired,” Ernest said, not bothering to pause for breath.
Mr. Grayson frowned and shook his head at Spit. “I told you to stay outta there, boy.”
“I did,” Spit said, wiping his mouth.
“Why’d you let your brother go in? And what’s this about a fish, Ernest?”
“A catfish swam by my leg,” Ernest said, confused. He didn’t know what he’d done to make Mr. Grayson upset. Maybe, he thought, the water belonged to someone; maybe they had trespassed. Ernest got scared. He remembered when he had picked an armful of poppies for his mom, and when she’d seen them, she’d shouted at him to go, put them back, and then changed her mind, told him to throw them away inside, told him to never pick them again or the police might come. He hadn’t known they were the state flower and that you weren’t allowed to pick them. Spit had been the one to suggest they surprise their mom with a big bouquet.
“Son,” Mr. Grayson said, getting down on one knee to be eye to eye with Ernest. “I told your brother to stay outta this creek. It’s full of pesticides from farm runoff, not fish. We gotta get you home and showered off.” He muttered to Spit, “They don’t call you that for nothing.”
In the truck, Ernest sat between Spit and Mr. Grayson. The air conditioning in Mr. Grayson’s truck worked, and Ernest’s goosebumps finally won. He wanted to lean his head against Mr. Grayson, but he wasn’t sure if that would be okay. Mr. Grayson was friendly and helpful and had brought them some homemade jerky one time, but he wasn’t an uncle or even mom’s boyfriend. Ernest said, “There’s fish in the creek, Mr. Grayson. One ran by my foot.”
Mr. Grayson just glared at Spit, who was chewing a thumb and looking out his window. Ernest couldn’t see all of his face.
“Why don’t you tell your brother what’s in that water, Junior?” Mr. Grayson asked. Ernest felt his eyes get big. No one called Spit Junior. He hated that name.
“Naw,” Spit said, looking out the window.
“Your mom will get you sorted after I get you home,” Mr. Grayson said. Ernest’s skin tightened around his hair follicles, and his stomach growled softly, like he’d heard Feather’s dog do at Spit once when Spit had been playing made-you-flinch and Feather didn’t want to play anymore. It was a warning sound, and Ernest wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was warning against. The rest of the way back to their house the sound of Mr. Grayson breathing out loudly through his nose was all Ernest noticed.
When they got to the house, Mr. Grayson told Spit to get out. Just those two words. Ernest saw his mom’s car in the driveway and perked up. “You go on inside and get cleaned up, Ernie,” Mr. Grayson said. Ernest just nodded. He knew he smelled bad; he kept catching whiffs of himself as cool air moved around the cab. His fear eased when Mr. Grayson called him Ernie. That wasn’t an in-trouble name.
Ernest ran up the steps and into the house. Spit was standing on the porch, and Mr. Grayson was walking slowly up the steps. Ernest saw his mom sit up from laying down on the sofa, in front of the fan. The pattern of the fabric had left an imprint against her left cheek, and her hair looked like she’d driven all day with the windows down. The job she thought she’d get right away didn’t happen, and Ernest knew she would be stressed out until she found one. He hoped it wouldn’t be too far from the house, or at night. He’d liked best when she worked at the party hall because they got so many leftovers, but he guessed it closed down like the department store.
“Hi Mom!” Ernest waved. “I went in the creek and now I gotta go take a shower. Mr. Grayson brought me and Spit home. They’re outside.” Ernest walked toward the bathroom and heard the couch whine as his mom stood.
The bathroom was against the front of the house. This had caused his mom some concern, he remembered, because she was afraid of people looking into the shower from the porch while she or the boys were bathing. “Who puts a window in the shower,” she had muttered, and tacked a hand towel over it as a temporary solution. Ernest turned on the water, stripped, and rushed to put his head under the stream. He could mostly hear them all talking on the porch.
“Your son here,” Mr. Grayson was saying, “went directly against what I told him about swimming around here and got poor Ernest into that creek up the road.”
“Jesus, Spit,” Ernest heard his mother say. “I can’t leave you alone for an afternoon without you trying to kill your brother?”
“He’s fine,” Spit said.
Ernest heard Mr. Grayson’s voice get mean. He’d never heard it sound like that before.
“Fine?” he said. “Fine. You call getting covered in pesticides fine? You call running into one of the calves I told you about ‘fine’?”
“What?” Ernest’s mom asked. Ernest remembered the fish against his foot. The whiskers. The slime. He rubbed the soaped washcloth harder against his cold body. He didn’t have a swear word bad enough.
“Was a fish,” Spit said, and Ernest heard the sound of the plastic chair on the porch slamming against the side of the house. Spit had broken the other ones by rocking them backward like that.
“Thank you, Tate, for bringing the boys home,” Ernest’s mom said, and Mr. Grayson mumbled something Ernest couldn’t hear. Then louder, “Tell Ernie to come along and get some ice cream from the Gas-N-Go next time you’re coming, alright Lou?”
Ernest missed some words while he rinsed shampoo out of his hair, but then he heard his mom say, “That’s it, Junior. You’re grounded. I try, and I try with you, and you apparently don’t have anything better to do than plot the worst imaginable things to do to Ernest.”
“Don’t call me Junior.”
“When you act like this, what the hell else am I going to call you? No, you stay right there,” their mom said, and the chair sounds stopped. “That’s it, that’s it right there, the look. Your dad’s look. I’ve done everything I can to make sure you didn’t turn out like him, and yet there it is. If anyone had told me in biology class that there was a mean gene, I’d’ve called them an idiot. But you’re the proof in the damned pudding today, aren’t you?”
Ernest heard something he hadn’t heard in a long time: Spit starting to cry. It was a signature sound: a grotesque gulp, a blubber, as if he wept saliva instead of tears. It made Ernest colder, and he turned up the hot water even though there was steam all around him.
“It’s not my fault,” Spit said. “You love him more than me because you think his dad was better than mine. His dad was my dad, too, you know. I got them both, just like you did.”
“Inside,” Ernest heard his mom say. “Now.”
Ernest turned off the shower and hurried to towel off. Spit never talked about his dad; Ernest just knew better than to call him Junior. Their mom had told Ernest that when school started, Spit would make friends and be too busy to pick on him, like before when Spit had been friends with Sol, a kid in their neighborhood who seemed to like being bossed around. But if Spit really didn’t like Ernest because of his dad, then Ernest would have to be worried for the rest of his life.
Ernest walked out, wrapped in a towel. His mom and Spit were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, not talking.
“Come sit,” his mom said, patting the space next to her.
“I gotta go put clothes on,” Ernest said.
“In a minute,” his mom said. “Your brother has something to say.”
Ernest sat down warily, holding his towel tight around him. Spit looked like he wanted to kill something.
“Spit?” his mom prompted.
Spit hissed through barely parted lips. “Sorry, Ernest.”
Ernest looked at his brother. He didn’t look sorry. He looked afraid.
“I’m sorry, too,” his mom said, squeezing Ernest, and reaching for Spit, but he leaned away. “I’m sorry I said that earlier, Spit. I know I’m your mom, but I mess up, too. And part of the reason you guys mess up is because I messed up and I’ll keep messing up, even though I try not to. That’s just how it goes.”
Ernest got that fear tickle in his throat as the fan blew warm air in arcs back and forth across the three of them. He wasn’t sure if he could remember a time that being scared wasn’t right behind his other feelings. He was scared when his dad left that he would never see him again. He was scared of the diving board; scared Spit would make fun of him. Spit was right, he thought: he was a wiener, a tit, a baby. But what worried him most was that he wasn’t the only one. It seemed like maybe they were all scared. His mom was scared of messing up, of them not turning out to be good boys, or of Spit turning out to be like his dad, who Ernest didn’t know, but knew that there were reasons they didn’t see him. And Spit, Ernest thought, looking out of the corner of his eye of his brother, was scared that their mom didn’t love him.
“Why did the wiener cross the creek?” Ernest asked.
“What?” his mom said. Spit looked over at him, mouth slightly open.
“To find the hidden fish,” Ernest said.
Spit smiled a little. “You tell the worst jokes, Ernest.” He looked at their mom. Something was in the air that the fan wasn’t moving. “And, Ernest, it wasn’t no—”
“It was a good joke,” their mom said, “although I don’t like you calling yourself a wiener.”
Spit looked kind of surprised, like when he’d broken the antennae on their mom’s car, and he’d told her it was an accident, and she said, well, accidents happen, and left it at that.
After that, their mom sent Spit to his room, saying that her apology didn’t mean that he wasn’t still grounded. She told Ernest she had brought home popsicles, and he could have any flavor he wanted. She hugged him, said she was glad he was okay, that she’d dropped off a lot of resumes and would have a new job real soon, and went to take a shower.
Ernest stood in front of the freezer door, saying: It was a fish. If it had been a dead cow, after all, he’d have more to be scared of. He wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. He might stop reading his books and think only about whiskers against his leg. He might stop trying to be friends with his brother. He could even think it was kind of Mr. Grayson’s fault, for telling Spit about the creek, or think his mom was right about that mean gene, and maybe they all had it. It was better, Ernest thought, cracking the freezer door open, if it was just a bad joke.
Inside was a new box of popsicles. He took one of the yellow ones still sitting on the shelf. Ernest didn’t notice the banana flavor; he just breathed and shivered until he’d frozen the damn fish in the water.
Header photo by EvgeniiAnd, courtesy Shutterstock.