When he was in nursing school at the junior college, Raleigh Brisbane got a ventriloquist dummy. She wore a red sequin dress with a platinum blonde wig. Raleigh liked to tell people he adopted Miss Twinkles and gave her a loving home, and this was true since she had previously resided in a plastic storage trunk in the theater department prop room. Over the subsequent four years of her relationship with Raleigh, she had a paint makeover, some strategic sanding and reshaping, and donned a new wig and a tiny silver-gray tuxedo that Raleigh sewed by hand. Now Miss Twinkles was called Manfred DuBois, or “Manny” for short.
Every day, Manny waited in the window for Raleigh to return home from work, and every day, Raleigh would greet Manny with all the gossip and intrigue from the hospitals. “I wrenched my back turning that woman I told you about with all the genital warts. She can’t weigh an ounce under three hundred pounds, and naturally she had to get a spinal today twenty minutes before my shift was up,” said Raleigh. “But the man in 209, the one I told you about with the bone cancer, he said he was going to leave me a sweet little package in his will on account of how good I’ve been to him. When I’m on duty, he knows I’ll be there for him, just like that.” Raleigh snapped his fingers and reached into his shirt pocket. “I think it’s nice. It’s nice to be appreciated for the work you do. But it’s more than just work to me. You know that,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “I’m there more than anybody in his family. His son calls every other day to ask how he’s doing. I tell him the same thing every time he calls, that his father is still dying of cancer. Looks like if he really gave a damn he’d get himself down there and see for himself. Ungrateful bastard.” Raleigh blew smoke, careful to direct it away from Manny. “How much do you think it’ll be? I’m thinking maybe five-thousand. Or even ten.” He nodded, thinking of the sum. “Probably ten.”
Manny never realized that Raleigh made things up to impress him. There would be no ten-thousand dollars, or five, just like there was no free trip to Myrtle Beach that Raleigh claimed he’d won after picking up a winning lottery ticket on the floor of the fellowship hall at church, and he did not see Anderson Cooper in the Save ‘N Go buying toothpaste. He also did not get a call back from America’s Got Talent. Raleigh said the same things to his mother and she always believed them, too. On Sundays after the morning service, Raleigh and Manny took Mrs. Brisbane to the Athena House for lunch, and Raleigh would launch into a good story after they ordered.
“I knew Michelle was going to get herself fired if she kept on filching all the doughnuts out of the break room,” said Raleigh. “I mean if it had been just any old doughnuts then maybe nothing would have been said, but she was taking doughnuts that the new PR Director brought in every morning from the Krispy Kreme, and that woman counts how many doughnuts people take.”
“Land sakes, those cripsy crumbs do taste best,” said Manny, batting his eyelashes at Mrs. Brisbane.
She grinned and playfully slapped a hand on the table at Manny. “I do confess, they’re my favorite, too.”
Manny’s head jerked toward her in mock surprise. “Well, sister, your thighs already made that confession!”
“Now, Manny, you just watch that tongue of yours!” said Mrs. Brisbane, fake pouting.
“Manny, you promised,” said Raleigh, looking down at Manny.
Manny’s hands flew up on either side of his head. “Ahhmm not the one going to the doctor about complications with muh diabetes.”
“He does have a point about the doughnuts,” said Raleigh, taking a bite of his shrimp.
“So you think I’m fat, too,” said Mrs. Brisbane.
“Mama, you know you wouldn’t be sitting there in a wheelchair if you didn’t already have problems. You keep eating like you do and you’ll be laying up there at the hospital with tubes and needles in you and I’ll be taking care of you, too.”
Mrs. Brisbane picked up her fork and poked it into her pork chop. “Well if I can’t enjoy the little things that bring me pleasure, then life’s not worth living.”
“There you go again,” said Manny in his best Ronald Reagan voice.
“Don’t,” warned Raleigh, pointing a finger. Manny’s jaw dropped to say something else, but he thought better of it and shut it with a click. Raleigh turned back to his mother. “How are we supposed to go on that cruise after Christmas if you can’t get your diabetes under control?”
“I guess Dennis can take me if you don’t want to,” said Mrs. Brisbane. She tugged at her jacket front in an attempt to pull it together, but the sides no longer met. Raleigh raised his eyebrows in an I-told-you-so expression. “He’s coming to the doctor’s office with us tomorrow you know,” she said.
“You know how things are between us,” said Raleigh, slapping at his coat pocket for a cigarette before remembering he couldn’t smoke in the Athena House. “He’s so rude to Manny, and he’s always criticizing me.”
“I wish you two would patch things up. He’s driving all the way down from Bristol just to go to the doctor with us.”
“Have you ever heard of a phone, Mama? We could call him and tell him whatever the news is.”
“I want both of my sons there with me if it’s bad news,” said Mrs. Brisbane.
Raleigh rolled his eyes.
“Don’t you roll your eyes at your mama!” snapped Manny. “That woman gave birth to you.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Raleigh.
* * *
Dr. Ruske always had dandruff showing in the thin puffs of hair over his ears, a repugnant sight that distracted Manny each time he went to the doctor’s office with Raleigh. The two of them went when Raleigh had chronic nosebleeds, when he had an infected toe, when he had vertigo, and when he had an anal prolapse that Raleigh refused to talk about, ever.
That yellowish snow on the side of Dr. Ruske’s head was all Manny could think about after the four of them sat down in the office. They waited in tense silence for Dr. Ruske to finish talking to one of the nurses in the doorway.
Dennis had been staring past his mother at Raleigh and Manny since they sat down. Finally, he could take no more. “Did you have to bring that thing?” His lips curled in disgust at Manny, who sat on Raleigh’s knee.
“Don’t be rude,” said Mrs. Brisbane. “He’s your brother.”
“That’s not my brother,” Dennis argued, poking a thumb in Manny’s direction.
Manny sat erect with his chin raised, and he focused forward on the doctor’s empty chair. He spoke in a Southern plantation owner’s voice: “I refuse to dignify your ill-bred and uncouth remarks with even a semblance of indignance.”
Dennis bucked his chair so hard the front two legs came off the carpet. “See,” he hissed at his mother, “this is happens when you let Raleigh take theater classes.”
“So what?” said Raleigh, “You dropped out of college and you still turned out to be an ass.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Dr. Ruske, entering from behind and heading to his desk chair. Both Manny and Raleigh were giving Dennis the stink-eye as the doctor lowered himself into his seat. He sighed with something like satisfaction and exhaustion before taking up the file before him.
“I am so sorry, doctor. My boys get testy when they’re nervous.” Mrs. Brisbane reached out to either side and took hold of the closest arm of each son.
Dr. Ruske cleared his throat. “Well then,” he perused a few lines on the file quickly through his bifocals, and then placed the file down with deliberate care. To Manny it was just the way a doctor on TV does when he’s about to deliver bad news.
“The neuropathy in your right foot has continued to cause a lot of problems.”
“You mean her foot has irreversible deterioration,” said Raleigh.
Dennis rolled his eyes. “Everybody here knows you’re a nurse.”
“Like I was saying,” said the doctor, looking over his glasses at Raleigh. “The nerve damage is severe. The foot’s got to go.”
“Well, she’ll save on nail polish,” said Manny.
“That is beyond inappropriate,” said Raleigh, looking down straight into Manny’s face. “And it’s not even funny.”
“You’d better shut that dummy up,” snapped Dennis.
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” said Raleigh.
“I mean it. Keep him quiet or I will.” Dennis made a motion toward Manny, but Raleigh pulled the dummy to his side.
“Don’t you lay a hand on me, you vile brute!” Manny lifted a walnut-sized hand and began fanning his face melodramatically.
“Boys, that is enough,” said Mrs. Brisbane.
Dr. Ruske looked from one to the other, his mouth open, and for several seconds no one spoke. “You know I’m just a general practitioner, but I could recommend another doctor for you.”
“We were expecting an endocrinologist would be taking over at some point soon,” said Raleigh.
“No, I mean for the other problem. I mean a family counselor,” said Dr. Ruske. He waved a hand in a vague gesture toward Manny.
Raleigh’s face wrinkled in confusion. “Can we just deal with the issue here? My mother’s foot.”
“See what I mean? I’m not the only one who sees it,” said Dennis. “Mother, I’ve been trying to tell you, but you keep making excuses for him. And now it’s come to this.” Manny was shaking on Raleigh’s lap. “You know they had to ban him from the hospital or Raleigh would still be dragging him to work every day?” Dennis said to Dr. Ruske.
“The children in oncology loved him,” said Raleigh.
“You’re not a damn clown there to entertain kids! You’re a nurse who’s supposed to be giving shots and wiping asses!” Dennis stood and confronted his brother. “Somebody needs to get rid of that thing.”
“You make me sound like a tumor,” said Manny.
The doctor shut Mrs. Brisbane’s file abruptly and rose. “Mrs. Brisbane, be at Crestview Medical Wednesday morning at seven o’clock and we’ll deal with the foot. Cheryl will go over the details in her office. The rest of it,” he looked at Raleigh and Dennis but then shook his head and left the office.
* * *
The ride home was punctuated by Mrs. Brisbane’s running chatter about the new shopping center being built on Highway 59, the single woman who moved into the rental house across the street and did yoga on the porch, whether or not she had remembered to pick up an order of dry cleaning, how unflattering she thought Hillary Clinton’s hair was, the price of gasoline, and her frustration that the Big Chief Chicken Shack had discontinued her favorite dipping sauce. Anything but the medical procedure she faced. Manny, who was prone to motion sickness, asked Dennis stop the car because he insisted he was going to be sick. Dennis began slowing down and easing to the side of the road, but then suddenly he accelerated and ordered Manny to shut up.
At home, Raleigh put a cold cloth over Manny’s head and left him to rest on the bed. Outside, Dennis fired his pistol.
“You can’t shoot that thing out here,” said Raleigh, letting the back door slam shut behind him. Dennis turned and dropped his pistol to his side. He had lined up eight cans on a cement block at the rear of Mrs. Brisbane’s back yard and shot off one of them. The other seven awaited their turns. Beyond the Brisbane family home was a forest, a perfect backdrop for target practice.
“You can’t shoot guns in the city limits.”
“Call the cops, then.” Dennis refocused his aim and squeezed off another shot. It missed.
“I don’t want Mama to be stressed.”
“Then quit acting like a lunatic.”
Raleigh fumed a moment and then settled himself with a slow exhale. “The only time we have problems around here is when you come and upset everything. There’s no need for you to stay.”
“I’m taking a few days off to be with Mama.”
“There’s no need for you to miss work. We’ve got everything under control.”
“We? You and your little buddy?” Dennis took aim at another can. He nicked one and it dance for a few seconds, but then it settled back into place.
“He is a comfort to Mama and to me that you wouldn’t understand.”
Dennis fired again and took out another can. “Really? Why isn’t he out here with you now?”
“He hates guns.”
Dennis squeezed the trigger and missed. “Damn.”
“Mama’s acting like she’s not worried,” said Raleigh, lighting up a cigarette, “but she’s terrified. I just want to help her get through this and then start rehab without worrying about you doing something stupid.”
“The brother who poured nail glue in his eye and had to go to the emergency room to get it cut open is worried I’ll do something stupid,” Dennis muttered.
“I’ve told you a hundred times I thought it was eye drops. The bottles looked exactly alike. Somebody switched it out in my bag.”
“Yeah, you said that, too.”
“What in the hell would I be doing with nail glue in my man bag?” Raleigh shrieked.
“You’re the only one who can answer that,” said Dennis.
“What are you boys up to?” Mrs. Brisbane appeared at the back door in her wheelchair, the farthest she had been able to go in the direction of her yard for more than a year.
“Nothing.” Both sounded at once, a reply given since childhood.
“How’s Manny’s headache?”
“That thing doesn’t have a headache, Mama—because it doesn’t have a head!” shouted Dennis, holstering his pistol.
“He’s feeling better. Thank you for asking,” said Raleigh, giving Dennis the stink-eye.
“Raleigh, why don’t you order us dinner from that new Italian place?” said Mrs. Brisbane. “Get us a large sausage pizza. Oh, and some lasagna. Dennis, you’ll love their lasagna. And get us some of those cheese breadsticks. Get extra. I just love those breadsticks.”
“Yes, you sure do,” said Dennis, under his breath. “The other foot will be going if she keeps eating like that.”
“What’s that?” called Mrs. Brisbane.
“Nothing, Mama,” said Raleigh. “I’ll take care of it.”
* * *
Manny hated sausage pizza, and he spent the first five minutes of the meal complaining about it. “Would you rather have lasagna? There’s a gracious plenty,” said Raleigh, reaching for the spoon.
“No, I’ll just have a chicken salad sandwich later,” said Manny, sighing. “Luigi’s gives me heartburn, anyway.”
“Oh, it does me, too, but I love their pizza. Did you try these breadsticks?” asked Mrs. Brisbane.
Dennis thought for a second that she was offering them to Manny. “Who? Me?”
“Why, yes, you.” Mrs. Brisbane pushed the box toward her son and he took a breadstick. She smiled, put both of her hands on the table, and looked first at Raleigh and then at Dennis. “I am so happy to have my boys here. Your daddy always said there is nothing more important than family sharing meals together.” She sniffed back a sob. “It does me so much good to be sitting with the people I love the most and enjoying good food. I reckon that’s one of the things that still make life worth living for me. The only person who could make this moment even happier is your daddy. God bless him.” She grabbed her napkin and pressed it to her face.
“Amen, sister,” said Manny. “That man was a saint.”
Dennis threw the remainder of the breadstick on his plate and pushed back from the table. “You never even met him!”
“I trust your Mama’s opinion enough to think so,” said Manny.
“Please, boys, don’t fight,” said Mrs. Brisbane. “I just can’t bear it when you argue like that.”
“I haven’t said a word,” said Raleigh, putting up a mock hand of shock.
“It’s his anger issues,” Manny said, nodding toward Dennis. “Every time he comes home for a visit he’s so testy. We’re having a perfectly good time and there he goes snorting around like a bull who’s been prodded with a stick. It’s always been that way with him because he’s jealous. He’s always been jealous of me,” hissed Manny.
“You just—” Dennis slammed a meaty fist down on the table so hard it made his plate jump. “You want to know the reason I hardly ever come home, Mama? It’s because your other son’s a certified mental health case straight out of a textbook, and you coddle him and his little appendix like they’re twins.”
“Donchu be talkin’ ‘bout my little appendix,” said Manny.
“You know why it bothers you so much, Dennis?” said Raleigh. “I go to work every day taking care of sick people, and then I come home and take care of Mama. What I do matters! You manage a concrete company so some rich people can keep building patios and sidewalks and swimming pools around their McMansions. I have a meaningful life and a happy home with people who love me. Who do you go home to? Your TV set?”
“Oh, my, that was cold,” said Manny, putting a hand to his mouth.
“That’s it. That’s it. I’m putting an end to this right now.”
“Putting an end to what?” Raleigh said, alarmed.
“Now, Dennis, sit down and finish dinner,” said Mrs. Brisbane. “Wouldn’t you like some more breadsticks?”
“Yes, Mama, I would,” said Dennis, nodding. His voice was strangely calm. “I am going to have myself another breadstick, but first I have to do something I should have done years ago.”
“Lose thirty pounds?” said Manny. He shook with laughter.
Dennis circled the table, snatched Manny up by the throat, and headed for the back door with Raleigh scrambling behind him. “What are you doing? Don’t hold him like that!” Raleigh was screaming at his brother and trying to reach for Manny, but Dennis held the dummy up in the air, his body dangling helplessly. Raleigh fought at Dennis until Denis finally pushed him backward onto the floor. “Mama! My god, Mama! He’s lost his mind. He’s got Manny! Mama,” sobbed Raleigh.
Dennis continued outside and dropped Manny on the patio, Raleigh scrambling behind him once again. He took his pistol from the holster at his waist and pointed it at Manny, who for once was so afraid he said nothing. He lay there stricken and still, his eyes wide open in the fading light, staring up at Dennis. Raleigh collapsed as Dennis squeezed the trigger.
For several seconds, the only sound was Raleigh’s wolf-like scream. Raleigh grabbed his brother’s pant legs. “How could you? How could you do that?” He turned away from Dennis and fell atop Manny’s lifeless form, sobbing.
Mrs. Brisbane appeared in the doorway behind them. She had pulled herself up from her wheelchair and was clinging to the door frame. “Dennis,” she whispered.
“It had to be done, Mama. Somebody had to put a stop to this. He’s crazy. He even had you fooled with that thing.”
Mrs. Brisbane shook her head. “No, I was never fooled. I just loved my son.” She looked down at Raleigh, whose body shook in helpless sobs over Manny. “You may as well have shot your brother.”
Opening up the raw insides of what makes us who we are is the basis for most of Cathy Adams’s stories—when a plot or character makes her feel uncomfortable, she writes about it. A native of Alabama and a Pushcart Prize-nominated short story writer, Cathy currently resides in Liaoning, China. Her novel A Body’s Just as Dead is forthcoming with SFK Press on August 7.