In lieu of this month’s column, here is the full text of Chiasmus, a short short published in Epoch’s December issue. Enjoy.
At first only Mrs. James noticed: Robbie’s style had changed. His shrug, or perhaps it was the way he used his hands—where before he had moved with the efficient swing and stride of an athlete, with nothing extraneous, he was slower now and newly expressive. Home after surgery and weeks of therapy, Robbie picked up the book that Ritchie had been reading—Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan—discussed Ricks’s gloss on Dylan’s lyrics, and added his own. When Robbie wasn’t reading, he worked out. He was determined to get back in the game the following season, and he started by putting himself through his rehabilitation exercises every day, sometimes twice a day, though it was painful.
Mrs. James encouraged him. She made energy shakes and purchased liquids infused with electrolytes. When he was well enough to make his way down to the basement to his bench, he wanted to start lifting weights again; he wanted, he said, to regain the upper body strength necessary for lacrosse, though his therapist warned him to go easy because his newly-transplanted organs were still settling in, ribs, muscles and ligaments still healing. You’re young, she said, and you were lucky, you couldn’t have had a closer match, but your connective tissues are new and still forming. If suddenly it feels like glass breaking, ease up right away.
One day, Mrs. James heard the rat-a-tat-tat of drums, and when she went downstairs, she found Robbie on Ritchie’s drums.
“Thought I’d give them a workout,” he explained, “so they don’t gather dust. Watch.” He struck the cymbals and a hundred dust motes floated white in the sunlit air.
Mrs. James watched the lonely motes settle, dust to dust, and listened to Robbie find his rhythm, fumbling at first, then confident enough to add a secondary off-beat thump. He kept this going a while, and soon he attempted a third track and kept it up, and soon drumming was part of his daily routine and he was going downstairs to give Ritchie’s drums a workout even on off days, when his muscles were repairing.
He’s coming through beautifully, the doctors said.
Traumatic experience can, in the best cases, set off a period of intellectual growth, the occupational therapist said when Mrs. James mentioned Robbie’s new interests.
She was anxious about Robbie’s state of mind, about the difficulty of finding himself alive while his brother was not. He didn’t talk about it and she didn’t want to press. Fortunately, he had not been driving. In this, at least, God had been merciful. Though it was an accident, it would have been hard for Robbie to live with the knowledge that he had killed Ritchie, and it would have been difficult knowing that the perpetrator had survived. Still this tragedy was impossible to understand, impossible to accept, and most days, halfway through the day, Mrs. James felt her head grow too warm and inside shells shattered, became shells again, which shattered, which became shells, which shattered which became which shattered which—
until she swallowed a sedative.
Ritchie wasn’t, had never been, a wild driver. He had never been a boy easily pushed toward daredevilry, had never performed stunts on demand, not even as a toddler. Though he had walked from bed to bed and wall to wall, arms akimbo for balance, though Mrs. James had seen him perform it in the morning and knew he could, he refused to show Poppa. Baby Ritchie walked only when and where he wanted to. And grown-up Ritchie impressed, when he wanted to impress, suddenly, so that they didn’t see it coming, so that by the time he let them in on a newly learned skill, he’d perfected the act. He’d surprised them all with his musical ability. They’d had no idea that he was practicing the drums at school until one day he invited them to a performance, and hearing him play, Mr. James, who years ago had played the banjo in a traveling bluegrass band, was moved to go online and bid on an awesome set of Double-Helix drums.
Now the band was looking for a drummer to take Ritchie’s place, they posted ads, and without saying anything to anyone, Robbie recorded and mailed a demo tape.
“The band will be rehearsing downstairs today,” Robbie announced one morning at breakfast, as if he were Ritchie informing his mother in advance, as they’d long ago agreed, so that Mrs. James could schedule errands or a movie or coffee with friends for that cacophonous afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. James exchanged glances and, then, seeing Robbie pour himself a bowl of Cheerios and top it off with raisins, as if he’d never disliked Cheerios with raisins, Mrs. James started out of her seat, propelled herself out of the room, out of her home—out of her mind, she felt—and Mr. James had to coax her inside and back to bed.
For his first public performance, Robbie needed black pants and a white shirt, the band’s uniform, and he borrowed Ritchie’s. After which, he started wearing Ritchie’s school hoodie, and Ritchie’s jacket, and Ritchie’s favorite flannel shirt, and soon Ritchie’s closet became Robbie’s second wardrobe, and Mrs. James understood that she wouldn’t have the dreaded task of clearing out Ritchie’s things, though she also wanted or needed it.
In September, when the lacrosse season started again, Robbie looked at the schedule and realized that he couldn’t participate in the band’s rehearsals and performances as well as in lacrosse practice and games. He didn’t debate long. After weeks of weight training and body conditioning, he gave up lacrosse for the drums. At first he continued showing interest in his former team’s scores and wins, and he high-fived his former teammates, but it was the band that came to the house for rehearsals, and it was with the band he spent his free time, so that Ritchie’s old best friends became Robbie’s new friends. But the way he was with these new friends, Mrs. James noted, was unnatural. Robbie had always been self-assured in his friendships, carefree and confident and largely unconcerned; now he showed a tentative, fragile quality. He’s trying too hard, she thought. She watched him and became convinced that he was trying to fill Ritchie’s shoes, he was trying to be Ritchie.
She worried that it was somehow her fault, that she had favored Ritchie over Robbie, rousing jealousy unthinkingly. She remembered that Ritchie had called Robbie an illiterate idiot at least once, and tone deaf too, but if they were sometimes jealous brothers, they were also often playful.
At the end of hard days came harder nights, when Mrs. James lay awake. One night, she asked herself if, given the option, she would have chosen Ritchie over Robbie. But no, it wasn’t true; she’d loved them equally, and for their very differences: Ritchie for his quiet subtlety and imaginative sensitivity, Robbie for his obtuse ease, taking life always easily. She’d loved well, loved equally, and yet. Between reality and perception floats the cloud of unknowing. She thought she heard Ritchie, or was it Robbie’s voice, reciting in her ear, a lyric without its music, with only the treble of voice, “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it/ You can hurt someone and not even know it.” The voice was Robbie’s, but the words belonged to Ritchie. She was blind and groping. She was blind biblical Isaac groping to identify which son. She no longer knew anything. She’d given life to two sons, twins. They’d arrived equally blessed, with enough in the world for both. And she had sent them into this world, to partake of it, and only one had returned, blessedness damaged.
For the anniversary of the accident, when Robbie was back in school and walking and eating and breathing as well as almost anyone, Mrs. James ordered Ritchie’s headstone etched with lines that Robbie had selected from Dylan’s Forever Young, and family and friends gathered for the long-delayed memorial. The band played Mr. Tambourine Man, and Robbie spoke eloquently, remembering characteristic moments with Ritchie, and seeing him up there, hearing him speak and read, Mrs. James understood that she had been mourning for Ritchie though it was Robbie they’d lost.