Plain China

The Bro

by R.P. Munda · Princeton University
Sitting in Sunshine, Bhavana Jonnalagadda · California Institute of Technology

Ican fit four other people in my car. Sometimes Jack fights Ellen for shotgun but Ellen usually wins. Steph and Louis always sit in the back because they’re juniors. The juniors have check-in at ten on weekends, because boarding school is stupid.

We’re at Five Guys tonight. Their burgers are awesome, but we don’t get to come here often because Ellen never wants to drive too far from school. She’s a prefect, and she’s on duty tonight, so we have to be back in time for her to check people in.

“We really should do a road trip,” Louis says. He keeps saying this. He hasn’t done jack to get this going, but me and Ellen have. Ellen has been working out stops along the way. I have the car. It’s going to happen after graduation.

“My mom says they can trade in my engine for a new one,” I say. “For when we do a road trip.”

“Can you all afford that?” Ellen asks me, raising her eyebrows. Ellen worries about money a lot. Even when it’s other people’s.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Really?” she says, lower.

“Well, it’ll make the car last longer,” I say.

Ellen scrunches up her face but I guess it passes. Some of the guys think Ellen’s crazy, but she’s all right. She has this thing where if she likes a boy she can’t imagine hooking up with him but if she doesn’t like him she can. It’s pretty messed up, but at least it’s a system. I’ve had like fifty classes with Ellen, so I know her pretty well. Freshman year we didn’t talk to each other and sophomore year we argued a lot. I guess by now she’s sort of my best friend. She’s kind of hot, but we tried that last year and it sucked so we stopped. We both take Latin and Greek. I just take them because our Spanish department sucks and the French are wusses.

“We should go,” Ellen says now, looking at her wrist beneath the table.

“I’ll drive fast,” I say.

“You will not,” she snaps back. Ellen hates it when I speed. “We should go.”

She gets shotgun on the way back. Jack and the juniors argue over the iPod in the back seat. “Can you get my homework from Smith on Monday?”

“Why?”

“I’m visiting Worcester Polytech with my parents. Remember?”

“Oh, right. Both?”

She means both my parents. Lifehouse starts playing and Steph giggles in the back seat while Louis and Jack groan. I say, “Yeah. Mom wants Dad to get out of the house.”

“Oh,” she says. She looks at me and then out the window.

“He’s been lazy as shit lately,” I explain.

Ellen laughs and doesn’t answer.

Ellen’s a hit with my mom. Whenever she takes an overnight at my house, my mom cleans parts of the house and makes a big breakfast. We even pull out the card table and put it in front of the couch so it’s like a dining room table. My mom doesn’t know about Ellen’s track record with dumping people, which is why she doesn’t think Ellen is crazy. I guess I don’t think Ellen is crazy because we talk a lot. Last month, when Steph and I went out and then broke up, Ellen snuck out with me after check-in and we sat on the steps of the science building for two hours. It was pretty dark but you could see the stars. We talked about freshman year mostly. Freshman year, we had the best Greek teacher ever but then he left, and now that we’re seniors we’re the only ones still here who were taught by him. He was pretty awesome. He read us some stuff from James Joyce once. Ellen saw some shooting stars that night, but by the time she pointed them out to me it was too late, I had already missed them.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” I say, as I pull into the driveway for the girls’ dorms.

“Whatever, Nick,” Ellen says. “You’ll miss it when we leave.”

Ellen’s pretty nostalgic. I’m not. I want to get out of here. Jack doesn’t seem to realize he’s graduating in three months, but if he did I bet he’d be nostalgic, too. I just want to go to college. The people here have started becoming annoying as fuck.

“See you Monday,” Ellen says, as she and Steph get out of the car.

“Comp lab party?” I say. “After check-in.”

“I have homework,” Ellen says.

“What is this homework of which you speak,” I say.

Ellen thinks about it and reluctantly agrees to come. She and Steph head into their dorm. I drop off Louis next, and then me and Jack head over to the computer lab, since he’s a senior too and doesn’t have Saturday check-in. Some of the other seniors are there, a few of the guys from Lowell. Lowell is the senior boys’ dorm. I belong to Lowell too, even though I’m a day student. I might as well be a boarder, I’m here all the time.

We wait around until Ellen shows up. Jack tries to show her a trailer for Halo. She refuses to watch. Joey Cohen walks in and me and the Lowell guys wolf, “Jewwww!”

Joey rolls his eyes and gives us the finger. He asks one of the kids in our physics class about the homework, punches another guy in the shoulder, and then heads out.

“Fucking Jews,” I say to Jack. “Steal your money.”

Ellen is frowning at the monitor where she’s checking her email. She says, “What the hell, Nick.”

“What? It’s funny,” I say.

“It’s not funny,” she says.

“It’s just a Lowell thing,” Jack says.

Ellen is getting pissed off. Sometimes she gets righteously angry. I can tell this is coming on. Jack has a hard time reading her so he can’t. He says, “Jimmy doesn’tmind.”

“He’s one of three Jewish kids in this entire school, you really think he doesn’t mind?”

“It’s not like we don’t like him. Some of his friends were the ones who started it,” Jack says. “It’s a joke.”

Ellen folds her arms. Ellen thinks women jokes are funny and sometimes she even tells them, but recently Jew jokes have gotten her kind of sore. She’s started reading the news in the morning, which, in my opinion, is making her a lot pricklier about things we all used to find pretty funny.

“It’s harmless,” Jack says.

This sets her off. She starts talking about how racism always starts out harmless enough and how this is what started the Holocaust and how we’re going to start the next Holocaust or something.

Jack doesn’t know when to stop, so he tries to prove to Ellen that we’re not Nazis, but now Ellen’s riled up. Ellen tells us that a coworker from her summer job lost like his entire family tree in the Holocaust. Jack points out that this is a non sequitur, which really pisses Ellen off. She can tell that she has the disadvantage in this conversation, since she’s the only one who actually cares. Some of the Lowell guys have started listening to us. None of them want to argue directly with Ellen though, because, like I said, she has a reputation for being crazy. I hear a couple of whispers and chuckles.

“It’s bro humor, all right?” I tell Ellen, hoping she’ll simmer down.

Ellen’s bright red, and suddenly all her anger is turned on me, and she’s staring at me in that way you can only stare at someone after you’ve taken fifteen classes with them in four years. “You should know better than this,” she says, quietly.

I get the feeling she’s trying to tell me something more than what she’s saying, but all I can really think is that the Lowell guys are grinning at me.

“Know better than what?” I say, loud enough for everyone to hear. “He’s a Jew.”

She gives me a look that I know so well, disgusted and superior, and spins her chair around to face her computer. She stares at her email for a second, then shakes her head.

“I’m going back to my dorm,” she says, turning away from her computer and launching to her feet.

“Bye, Ellen,” several of the Lowell boys call after her in mock-mournful voices.

I realize after she’s gone that she has forgotten to sign out of her email, so I do it for her. Then I figure I should probably go after her and calm her down. I start to get up when my phone rings. It’s my mom, with the usual problem. I’m actually kind of glad she called this time, so I’m off the hook with Ellen. I wasn’t really sure what to say to her anyway.

 

On the way home I blast Flogging Molly. I can’t stop thinking about how easy a target Ellen is for getting trolled. It’s not like we meant any of the Jew jokes. I nearly text her that, but it seems like a stupid thing to text and I’m annoyed with myself for still thinking about it. I hate how Ellen can make you feel guilty about things.

I’m pushing ninety, but that’s okay because my dad and me know where all the cops are in the area. My dad’s a great driver. He can drive for hours. He also knows all the road stops along I-95 from here to Florida.

My dad and me have gone on a lot of road trips. I used to navigate until Mom bought the GPS. Now I navigate the GPS. We’re probably going to drive to Florida Tech for a tour pretty soon, maybe during spring break.

When I get home, I let myself in through the back door. Cassie’s jumping on me in an instant, wagging her tail. I can hear my mom and dad in the living room. We sort of ran out of space a long time ago, so the rooms in my house are like big closets with pathways through the stuff. The stuff is about as tall as my waist in some places. My mom doesn’t like the stuff, but she doesn’t have time to go through it, and nobody else cares enough.

“Nick, that you?” my dad calls.

“Yeah,” I say. I start moving through the pathway that leads to the living room. Mom’s got some boxes, an old keyboard, and lots of board games and stuffed animals in this part of the house. Also a big African drum, even though I don’t think any of us have been to Africa.

My dad’s lying on the floor in front of his TV chair. He probably started on his stomach, but he must have rolled onto his back, since now he’s leaning against the TV stand. Mom’s sitting on the couch, keeping him company. His hands are shaking pretty bad and his legs jerk occasionally. Mom looks up at me, apologetic, and says, “Thanks for coming back, sweetheart.” Mom seems pretty tired, and I guess it’s after her usual bedtime. Mom works a lot of hours.

I shrug.

“Nick just can’t get away from his old man,” my dad tells my mom, grinning, but his face is really red and his hands start twitching worse than ever.

 

The problem with muscular dystrophy is that it only gets worse. When my parents met, my dad was fine. He knew he’d get like this, though. So he did a lot of things while he still could, like skydiving. He also quit his job as a pilot before they had to remove his license, so technically he’s only a pilot with an expired license at the moment. When I was younger it wasn’t as bad. He didn’t fall as much, and when he did fall, he could get up. He started needing the wheelchair when I was about eleven. It’s getting hard for him to use his hands now, because they’re all shrunken and twisted. He’s pretty fat because he doesn’t exercise, and he’s taller than me, so Mom really can’t look after him on her own. When I go to college she’s going to have to hire someone. He’s also sort of stopped leaving the house recently. This Monday, when we go see Worcester Polytech, will be the first time he’s gone out in a couple of months. It’s hard on Mom when he doesn’t leave the house. He was less depressed before he lost his programming job to some asshole in India.

“The fuck, Dad,” I say, in my best bro voice.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, bro as well. “I know. Don’t give me that shit.”

I tell Cassie to stay over by the doorway, then I bend over, hook my arms under Dad’s armpits, and heave him halfway up.

Dad’s foot spasms and knocks over the TV tray. Pasta goes everywhere, and the can of Coke sprays in several directions before hitting the floor and pouring out. Cassie forgets her command and makes for the food. Mom hops down from the sofa and rights the can of soda. I get Dad on his feet and put him back in his chair.

“Sorry about that,” Dad tells Mom.

“It’s perfectly all right,” Mom says.

“Not getting too fat for you, am I?” Dad asks me.

“Nah,” I say.

Mom says, “Thank you so much, Nicholas, dear.”

“No problem, Mom,” I say.

“If you want to go back to school for a bit, that’s all right,” she says. “I hate to call you away on a Saturday night.”

“Oh, okay,” I say. “Are you sure you don’t need me?”

“We’re great, thanks, honey,” Mom says firmly. She’s on her knees putting the spilled pasta in a pile on the carpet so she can pick it up more easily. She pushes Cassie away from her.

It’s kind of a relief any time Mom lets me go. I say, “See you tomorrow then, probably,” and head out, through the pathways of stuff, and out the back door. I feel kind of stupid. I don’t know why, because I mean, I took care of my dad the way I was supposed to.

Usually I go straight to the car without a thought, but this time I stop at the edge of the patio. This time, I’m not glad like I normally am to get out of the house after picking Dad up. I get this weird feeling like I’m forgetting something, or maybe just missing something, I don’t know which. I don’t usually feel that way.

I stop and look up without thinking. The sky kind of sucks tonight, not like the last time I looked at the stars. That was the night with Ellen, when we talked about freshman year and she kept seeing shooting stars. Now there are a lot more clouds.

I see one, of course, just then. It streaks past in the little bit of clear sky between two clouds. It’s not as awesome as when Ellen saw them, though. The weird feeling still won’t go away. And then I realize what it is: If Ellen were here, she would probably help my mom clean the pasta off the floor, because my mom has a bad back. But I’m already outside and it would be stupid to turn around and go back inside. My mom’s probably done cleaning it up anyway.

I reach for my keys, but my hand hits my phone first, so instead I text Ellen. “Saw a shooting star,” I tell her. It feels less lame than apologizing.

About the Author

R.P. Munda · Princeton University

R.P. Munda studies political theory at Princeton. She hails from a rural part of North Carolina that does not have stoplights or road signs. Her story first appeared in the Nassau Literary Review.

Fiction judge Lydia Davis admired “The Bro” she said, for “the convincing character Ellen, the compassion of the narrator’s relation to his father, the complicated life situation not over-explained, and the serious issues raised in a controlled and subtle manner.”

About the Artist

Bhavana Jonnalagadda · California Institute of Technology

Bhavana Jonnalagadda has sketched and painted for most of her life, and has come to focus on the use of light and shadows to emphasize emotion. Currently studying engineering, she has had her art displayed in several venues across California, including school art shows and museum galleries. Her painting first appeared in CalTech’s literary journal, Totem.