Like an elephant, I cried.
It was the best simile I could invent at nine years old for Sam blowing his nose. But I was the youngest and the table conversation, a babel of NPR and academic reportage, took place in the air above my head. For those forty five minutes, I was just another plate. So I said it again. He blows his nose like a fucking elephant. My ear burned red but it was nice to be smacked into color when in that evening glow, in the din of my older siblings and parents and their rotund lives, I was opaque at best.
It went like this. I slept on the top bunk and Sam on the bottom. He was in junior high school and so his day began ripely at six thirty, mine an hour later. His alarm was the radio next to his head and when it went off it did little more than dance in my dreams. He used the bathroom, opened the closet, slid the drawers from the dresser and none of it moved me from the dead sleep of childhood. The coda to this routine was the issue. He blew his nose in a manner that was neither constructive nor subtle. He would gather a loose collection of toilet paper from the roll, come back into our room where I hovered a foot above his head, and blow trumpets. Blow the shofar. Blow shotgun shells from his nose. It was terribly loud if one was awake. To be awakened by it was criminal.
We fought as brothers might, especially ones enclosed in a room, engaged in our staggered hormonal expeditions. But Sam was, overall, kind and puffy. He had wanted the top bunk but relented quickly. He helped me fudge my math. So perhaps the blowing of the nose was the leaching of his disappointment, as I did little in return for the kindnesses that had never been showered upon him by our oldest brother, Eric. At the blast, I shot up from my pillow, incredulous, cartoon-like. His face was obscured by the toilet paper but you can tell, even at nine, even without your glasses, from twelve feet away and at a downward angle, when someone’s eyes narrow in glee.
We did not tell on our siblings in my home because my parents set a tone of personal sufficiency from the time we could step onto the stepstool, reach over the sink and do the dish upon which we had eaten. So when I cried out over dinner about Sam’s revenge blows, the conversation did not stop because a cry against a sibling was a cry like any other. As my mother said when we cried, whined, moped, whimpered, moaned: I’m sorry, my dear, my ears don’t hear that frequency. My parents had created a brilliant void, a large black circle visible only to the child who had beef with their sibling. Into it went all of the frustration and anger and perception of unfairness. It was an ingenious invention, as though they had provided us a literal sack, perhaps an old gym bag, and into it went our complaints and ire and it lived wherever bickering lived and was filled with voices that my parents need never hear so as to better concentrate on the pressing aspects of rearing three boys and a girl: school, respect, love.
A few nights later we were playing some form of football in our room, shaking our little cities of trophies, when I found myself running into our shared closet and removing a belt from its crowded hook. Panting and dewy, I leapt behind Sam while lassoing the belt around his neck. Small as I was, I tugged him to the ground at which a satisfying ekh sound accompanied his hands shooting upward. I looped the belt tighter and with a mind blanked by rage dragged him across the room by his neck shouting stop blowing your nose, stop blowing your nose, stop blowing your fucking nose.
Next I knew I was in the air hanging by my neck. It was God’s hand- my father’s hand- God’s hand. As he shouted at the back of my head I dangled, deaf to his reprimand while watching my brother’s face move down the scale of reds as he massaged the tender skin of his neck. The belt sat looped next to him. My feet really were dangling above the carpet. My face was at the height of the top bunk. I was once again looking down on Sam, only now he was crying silently and his eyes were wide not narrow, betrayed not pleased. My hearing returned as my father instructed me to retrieve my pillow and blanket from the top bunk. I climbed the ladder, grabbed my sleepware and was informed that I would be spending that night in our unfinished basement, our basement being the basement upon which all children’s nightmares are staged. Leaky, shadowy, webby, furnacey, deadly.
My father marched me down the stairs as Eric and Rebecca stuck their heads out of their rooms convict-like, thrilled at the break from their regular programming. The last time justice was meted out in such blunt form was two years before, when Eric told my mother to Relax.
The crime was grave but the punishment was too much. In fact, it was in exacting proportion, though at the moment I did not see it as such. As I stood at the top of the basement stairs, a downward slant of black hell, Sam ran down from our room. My father had his finger in the small of my back and I was starfished in the doorway like it was the gangplank. But here comes Sam. Pleasant, gentle Sam, an inch-wide ring around his neck, face faded to pink, eyes wide with concern. Here comes Sam’s hand on my father’s arm. Here comes Sam saying it’s okay, Pop. It’s okay.
Jacob Frommer is an MFA candidate and writing instructor at the University of New Hampshire. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in Litro, Broadkill Review, Volney Road Review and other fine literary destinations.