By Karen Brode
My brother, John, had moved back to our hometown in north Texas after ten years of living in Las Vegas. He was sixty-one years old, and his appearance had changed so much that it was hard for me to think it was really him. Corpulent was a word that described him when he fled our hometown. Now he was almost too thin. We had been estranged for such a long time that it was a challenge to know what to say to him. He came back with a new wife. I couldn’t help wondering if there had been other wives in those years.
In some dark corner of my mind, I knew he had come back to die. But when he called to ask me to visit him one sunny Saturday afternoon, I tried not to think about it.
“We’ll sit in the backyard and shoot the bull,” he said. He was much better at that than I, but I went because I thought the time we had left together would be short.
After I got there, we sat across from each other at a wooden table. The table was old enough to have been bleached by the sun, but the umbrella over our heads was festive and new.
The smell of chlorine from his pool brought back memories of summers when I was a child. I had never learned to swim exactly, but I prided myself on thinking that I could float. I probably couldn’t float if I was panicking, though. It would be important not to panic.
John tapped out another cigarette from the pack on the table and then lit it, blowing the smoke upwards. He squinted into the sun.
“Would you get me an ashtray?” he asked. “They’re inside the house.”
The house was dark after being in the bright sunshine, but then I spotted several to on a table in the living room. Some still had ash and butts in them. I wasn’t sure which one he’d want, so I took the closest one.
When I sat back down, I pulled my chair to the side in hopes of avoiding as much cigarette smoke as possible.
“Do you remember Uncle Charlie?” John asked, almost immediately.
My mind flipped through a rolodex of faces of people I had known as a child. Uncle Charlie’s swam up to my conscious mind. It occurred to me that he had had skin cancer all over his face, but back when I was a child, I wouldn’t have known that.
“I can’t believe I remember him, but I do,” I said. “Seems I only saw him a couple of times in my whole life. He was very thin and wore a cowboy hat.” I recalled how Uncle Charlie and Aunt Emma had had cattle, and how he always stayed out in the fields. “He may have been one of the last cowboys to walk the earth.”
John smiled, “Oh he was a cowboy alright. I always liked him.” He looked sideways at me and continued, “You know, he never went to church, but he was a good man.”
I had heard this song many times, and I stayed silent. Uncle Charlie was someone John identified with, except for the good part. My brother was not a particularly good person, but he probably thought he was. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get him started on an argument about the Bible.
Whenever we argued about these things, John’s favorite argument was “Who did Cain marry?” And every time, I told him that I didn’t care who Cain married. It wasn’t something I had to know. Still, whenever we talked about religion or faith, John steered it right back to Cain.
“Do you remember where Charlie and Emma’s house was?” he asked. His voice was conspiring.
“They’ve all been dead for years,” I said. “The last time I drove by there, the only thing left of the house was filled with bales of hay and there were cows on the front porch.”
John laughed. “Those cows may have been an improvement over Aunt Emma!” he said. “She used to sit out there, too!”
This got me to giggling. “Oh yeah, you know those cows were better looking than Aunt Emma!”
“Did you know,” I said, cracking up, “she won a beauty contest at the Fannin County state fair when she was young?”
John looked at me incredulously. “Nah. That’s impossible,” he said.
“Aunt Winnie told me. She had been a child hiding in the shadows as Emma looked at herself in the mirror,” I told him. “She watched Emma eating peanuts as she celebrated her newfound beauty.” The image of this in my mind got me to giggling again.
“I never heard anything like that,” said John, his grinchy grin curling up on his face. “If she did win a beauty contest, it’s because no one else entered! The only way she could’ve won is if she was the only contestant!”
I doubled over in my chair laughing at poor Aunt Emma. I could never have imagined her winning a beauty contest either.
Just as my side started hurting from laughing so hard, John got a serious look on his face.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
My laughter came to a complete halt. It was never good when John got to thinking. I felt my shoulders tighten as my guard went up. Whenever he got to thinking, it usually meant danger for my body or soul.
He leaned across the table and in a low voice said, “You know Charlie and Emma didn’t believe in banks.”
I nodded. “You couldn’t blame them. All those people who lived through the Depression and saw what happened to the stock market were wary of banks.”
In the back of my mind, I knew where this story was going. Both of us had heard many times how our uncle and aunt had buried their money in the field in mason jars with metal lids. I had always imaged Uncle Charlie had made some sort of map where the jars were buried. Then I remembered how he kept a wad of $100 bills in his shirt pocket. They were safety pinned to his pocket, probably because the money had fallen out several times. Even as a child I had wondered why he would carry that kind of money so visibly. It seemed like a robbery waiting to happen.
John leaned even further across the table. He looked both ways as if to make sure no one could overhear.
“How would you like to help me find that money?” he asked.
My stomach lurched. Just the thought of being an accessory to such a thing made me nauseous.
“John, someone owns that land now,” I said. “You can’t just go on someone’s property and start digging!”
“Gary has a pretty high tech metal detector, doesn’t he?”
I wanted to say that Gary had given it away because he didn’t find things with it like he thought he would, but the truth was that he still had it.
“I don’t…you can’t….” I tried to think quickly for protests to John’s plan, but my breath was failing me. Finally, I said in a flurry of words, “There’s a house across the road from there. They’re probably the owners and, if not, they probably know who the owners are. Don’t you think they’d call the police to tell them someone was in the field with a metal detector?”
“What if it was 2 in the morning when everyone was asleep?” asked John.
“I…I…” I stuttered. “I don’t know for certain that I would be able to find where the house was,” I said.
My ears were ringing and my neck felt suddenly hot. I shifted in my seat, knowing how close I was getting to telling a lie. The truth was, I had visited Aunt Emma enough as a child that I was fairly sure I could find my way back there if I had to, but with every word out of John’s mouth, I wanted less and less to do with it.
John leaned back in his chair. He took the cigarette from his mouth and held his arm away from his body like Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone. I half expected him to say, “Imagine if you will….an enormous field in the middle of the night.” But he didn’t. He just sat there, strategizing.
I knew my brother. He only wanted me there to help him locate the money. If he found anything in the field, he would’ve feigned defeat and pretended to give up. Then, after I had gone home, he would’ve gone back to get the money. He had no intention of sharing it with me. I was useless to him except to help him find what he was looking for.
It’s hard to know these things about a brother, but I knew that is exactly what he would do.
As we sat in silence, my thoughts went to Aunt Emma’s old place. Uncle Charlie died, then Emma, and finally Winnie, even though she never lived there. Still, generations passed and over the years, the house began to disappear with them. I was struck by the memory that the outhouse somehow outlived the house. It leaned way over before it met its demise, but it stood there for years. I remembered it had a sliver of wood cut out near the top of the door to resemble a sliver of moon. A lot of outhouses back then had that. I wondered if it was a utilitarian thing, or if it was merely a decorating touch.
John’s voice brought me out of my thoughts when he asked, “Do you remember that there was a cellar on one side of the house?” His eyebrows were knitted together, like he was trying to bring it all back to living memory.
“I wouldn’t have thought of that, but yes, there was a cellar.” I remembered running up and down the cellar door as a child. It wasn’t the kind of door that you could slide on, like my Aunt Winnie’s. Hers was angled, like a slide. If I gave myself a good push to get started, I could slide a few feet down it.
“Was it a concrete cellar?” asked John.
By now, I knew that he was putting his plan together in his mind as we talked. I could not remember. Winnie’s cellar had been concrete, and it was still there even now. It was the only reminder of the way things had been when I was a child. I knew if I could stand on that cellar, I would know where the house had been, where the shed was, where the garage had stood.
My Grandfather Morrison’s cellar had been a dirt one. I only looked in it once, and even if I had seen a tornado bearing down on me, I wouldn’t have gone in there.
“If it was a dirt one,” I said, hoping to sway John from his plan, “I’m sure it’s been plowed under by now.”
John narrowed his eyes and said, “I’ve thought of it all. Here’s what we’ll do.” I hated that he was still on this and that he was including me in on it.
“John, You can’t do this!” I said. “Even if you went in the night, someone would see the vehicle, the flashlight bobbing in the field.”
“We’ll rent a boat and go down the river until we are right behind Aunt Emma’s field. If we come from that direction, no one would know we were there.”
“How far is it to the river from Emma’s back field?” I asked, hoping he would see how foolish this was.
“Oh, I don’t know. A mile, maybe two.” He said this as if it was a block or two.
“And we’d have to tie the boat up somehow, climb up the slippery riverbank, and walk in the dark through unknown places,” I said, growing impatient.
“Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I think we should try to do a trial run during the day.
I stared at my brother. I wanted to shout at him how I didn’t handle the heat well, and how I certainly couldn’t climb up a slippery riverbank any time of the night or day, for that matter. But then he had this look on his face that reminded me of my dad and I stopped.
There were times, like then, when John’s face became my father’s. John was nothing like our father in so many ways, but he put me in mind of him when he was telling stories and cracking jokes. He didn’t look exactly like my dad, but enough to make me think of him. His eyes were like my dad’s, just like mine were. I had not seen him since I was seven years old, but looking at John made me remember the face I had loved so much as a child.
John put his head on his arms and looked up at me like a little boy, as if he were a supplicant. “Pretend you are Aunt Emma. Where would you bury jars of money?”
I looked into the distance. There was a park across from John’s house. Children were chasing each other while mothers sat on benches keeping a careful watch.
“Emma was cautious. She probably would’ve buried it near the house, maybe even under the house. She would’ve felt more secure to have it under the house.”
I remembered the dogs that lay in the cool dirt under her house. When Winnie and I walked toward the porch, the dogs growled low in their throats. Emma always appeared with her walker before anything happened.
“Don’t you worry about them dogs any,” she’d say. “They won’t hurt you none.”
I remember looking at her leaning on her walker. I couldn’t imagine what she could have done if the dogs had attacked me.
John had leaned back in his chair. The spark in his eyes had faded and he suddenly looked older than his years. His hair was gray, but for the parts of it that had become completely white. The young man he had been bore no resemblance to this man who seemed to be aging before my eyes.
“You’re not feeling good, are you John?” I asked with genuine concern.
“Karen, I don’t ever feel good anymore.” He stood up, but the look of him seemed saggy, tired. “I think I probably need to go take a nap.”
I stood up to leave and John put out his last cigarette in the ashtray. Something about him at that moment made me love him despite all the ways he had hurt me. I walked over to him and hugged him, and he hugged me back.
“I love you, John,” I said.
“I love you too, Karen.”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.