Someday You’ll Understand
Someday You’ll Understand
My cousin, Brian, was almost seventeen and I was seven-and-a-half. It was a clear and sunny August day, three weeks before school started, and my grandmother gave Brian four dollars and me two dollars and fifty cents—all in quarters—to go see the noontime matinee at the State Theater. The movie was called “The Octagon” and I didn’t know anything about it except that it starred Chuck Norris, the toughest man in the world, except for that time Bruce Lee whooped him. I don’t know anything about the movie because we never got to the State that day, and this is how that happened, or rather didn’t happen.
We walked down Romaine Avenue. The city was big, very foreboding, but I was used to it and so was Brian. Brian was tall and goofy and he had long hair that came over his ears and covered his neck. He wore a bright green short sleeve shirt, a pair of worn out pants, and a pair of Pro-Keds that had two holes in them. I had a hard time keeping up with him
It was such a nice day, too—nothing but blue skies and clouds that looked like pillows for angels. The quarters jingle jangled in my pocket and that made me feel rich and good and happy. Brian was in a rush, though, despite the fact we had left early. . He was walking like the law was after him. I didn’t mind too much. Brian was my favorite cousin. I liked Artie a lot, too, but Brian was my favorite. It seemed very important in those days to have a favorite everything.
“What’s an octagon?” I asked.
Brian slowed, just a step or two, to think about it. “It could be anything. It could be a book, or a tree, or somebody’s dinner. It could be somebody’s nose. It could be a sword.”
I considered his answer and couldn’t decide if I liked it. In a way, I didn’t know anything I hadn’t known before. I thought about asking him again, but then thought better of it. Brian was almost a grown-up now and grown-ups didn’t like questions. Too many questions at home got me sent to my room. The wrong question got me smacked in the mouth. One time, my Dad said Brian’s long hair made him look like a punk. I asked my Dad what a punk was. That was one of the questions that got me smacked in the mouth. Maybe Brian saw me thinking about it, because he then said to me the same thing he had been saying to me all summer long. “Someday you’ll understand.”
I didn’t want to understand someday. I wanted to understand now. But Brian was moving even faster, each of his long strides equaling two of mine, and I had to struggle to keep up.
We came to a small corner store. Brian told me to wait by a tree next to the store, out of sight, and he would be out soon. I didn’t want to wait by the tree and I didn’t want to be out of sight. It was hard enough for a kid to be in sight. But I did as Brian told me. I stood by the tree and watched the people walk by, the cars drive along. There was one old lady who had a head full of curlers covered by a blue bandana. There was a black man, coming out of the store, whose Coke exploded white foam on his hands when he opened it. “Oh, Lord,” he said, and walked off. An Indian couple walked by, too. He wore a beige turban and she had on a very elaborate dress with blue and white cloth going this way and that all around her body. I looked at the people at fifteen minutes. Then I got bored and just looked at my sneakers.
Brian exited of the store holding a brown bag. He walked up to me, and said, “Come on,” like I was a stranger or something, and then he started walking faster than ever. I almost had to jog to keep up. We turned down a street that I had never been on before. We were half way down the block before Brian slowed even a little and I could pull alongside him. “Is this the way to State?” I asked, a little winded.
“It’s a short cut.”
We turned onto another road I had never been on before. These were more residential roads, so they were quieter and there were less people around. I wondered what was in the brown bag. Brian had it tucked under his arm, so I couldn’t see it clearly. It had the shape of a bottle, and I thought for a moment I saw a bottle cap, but I wasn’t sure. It bothered me because I didn’t think they would let anybody into the State Theater with their own drinks and candy. I almost said something about it, but I decided it really didn’t matter, and besides I was busy looking for the State.
We came to a large black gate and behind the gate I could see tombstones. Brian pushed the gate open and it creaked a little. He went inside, holding the gate for me, and I followed him in. For a short cut, it seemed like we should have been there already. I had walked to State Theater before and it never took more than ten minutes.
Brian shut the gate and made sure the metal latch was secure. He walked ahead of me now, casually, and I lagged behind not because I had to but because I wanted to think. Sometimes if a grown-up saw a kid brooding, they were the ones who started asking questions, and they were always questions you didn’t want to answer, questions you sometimes couldn’t answer, no matter how hard you tried. Of course, no kid got to send a grown-up to their room or smack a grown-up in the mouth, but I sometimes wondered if maybe the world might be a better place if a kid could.
I watched the brown bag as I walked, which Brian now carried at his side carelessly by the nozzle, and I knew for sure it was a bottle. It looked like a big one, too, and it was probably expensive. Brian walked in a straight line, not caring where he stepped, and several times he rambled over people’s graves. I avoided doing that. I kept to the back of the tombstones. My grandmother had said, “If you don’t respect the dead when you’re alive, the dead won’t respect you when you’re dead.” My grandmother talked about dead people a lot. All grown-ups did, especially at church. It seemed dumb to me to talk about respecting dead people when there was so many living people, especially kids, they didn’t respect at all. But better safe than sorry. That was another thing my grandmother said. Better safe than sorry.
Brian stopped by a large red marble tombstone, stretched out his arms, and sat against the stone like the back of a chair.
Not taking it from the bag, Brian opened the bottle and took a long sip. He pulled it down and wiped his wet mouth with the back of his hairless arm. I had caught up now and was just standing there. “Pop a squat,” he said.
“Are we going to be late?”
“No, we won’t be late.” He took another long sip from the bottle. It seemed to me he was drinking unreasonably fast. When I drank that fast, especially if it was pop, sometimes I’d get a tummy ache. Anyway, at least he was hurrying, and the sooner he got it down, the sooner we’d be on our way. I looked for the least offensive place to sit and I sat there. Brian sipped another sip, this one smaller. He smiled at me, then rested his head back and looked up at the sky. I thought this might be a good time to ask the octagon question again.
“If an octagon is a book or a tree,” I said, “why don’t they call it “The Book” or “The Tree?”
“Are you getting smart?”
“No,” I said. In my family, the worst thing a kid could do was to get smart. All the grown-ups had a problem with kids getting smart. Nobody ever cared if a kid was getting bad grades in school, but they would smack you in the mouth if you got smart.
“Good,” Brian said, and another sip.
We sat quietly for a time, and I looked at him while he drank. I looked at his hair, mostly, and thought about how it made my father think he was a punk, whatever that was. I had a crewcut, so I wasn’t a punk—at least right now. Sometimes in the winter, though, my hair would grow almost half way down my ears. Did that then make me half a punk?
Brian had a tattoo on his left arm, the arm facing me, the one holding the bottle in the now twisted brown bag. It was a purplish blue color and it spelled out, in large, thick, and wobbly letters, the word “MO.”
“Who’s Mo?” I asked.
Brian looked down at his arm and then at me. He shrugged. “It’s supposed to be ‘Mom.’ I was out with some guys and one of them had a tattoo needle. We were partying and then he didn’t finish. He said he was going to but the next day he got picked up for some warrants.” He looked at me cautiously. “Don’t tell Grandma about this.”
“I won’t.” I didn’t know what warrants were but I was fascinated anyway. This was why Brian was my favorite cousin. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—he explained things to me. One time he even told me where babies had come from. He said they were turds that wouldn’t go down in the bowl. I raised my right hand like Honest Abe.
“Anyway, it ain’t the end of the world,” he said. “I don’t even notice it anymore. It’s just something I carry around with me. People carry worse mistakes with them. Look at Uncle Richie. His arms are covered like a disease.”
“Can’t you erase it?” I said. “Won’t it come off?”
“I would try, at least,” I said. “One time a pen exploded in my shirt pocket and it took me almost a whole bar of soap but then it was gone.”
He looked at me very seriously, like my grandmother sometimes looked at me when she wanted to tell me something important, but then he shrugged again. “Someday you’ll understand,” he said.
He drank some more. I could smell it now. It was alcohol. Beer. I had smelt it before, on my Dad’s breath, and I knew Brian wasn’t grown-up enough for that. “My Dad says you’re a punk,” I said. I don’t know why I said it.
“He said that?”
I couldn’t back out of it now. “Yeah,” I said as dismissive as I could. “I don’t know what it means, but he says your hair makes you look like one.”
“That’s because I can drink more than him.”
“What’s so great about drinking a lot?”
“When I drink a lot,” I said, “it makes me pee all the time.”
“Shut up,” Brian said.
He swallowed another drink, and I could tell by how far he had to tilt it that the bottle was being finished off. When he pulled the bottle down, I saw his brown eyes were glassy, dull like overused sandpaper. I was beginning to worry now we would miss the noontime matinee. It seemed to me now that we had been there a long, long time, and that we had lost track of time. My butt was hurting, too, from sitting on the hard grass so long. I stood up, but Brian stayed put. He closed his eyes.
“Maybe,“ I said, but then I didn’t finish.
He opened his eyes. “Yeah, we better get going.” It was a relief to hear him say it. Brian pulled his feet in close and carelessly chucked the bottle over to one of the neighboring tombstones. “Have a drink on me,” he said. Then he looked at me and laughed. I didn’t laugh. Better safe than sorry.
Brian lost his sense of humor over me not laughing. “You better let me hold your money,” he said. There was some slur in his words. Not as bad as my Dad sometimes got, but it was noticeable. “So you don’t lose it.”
I didn’t want him holding my money, but I was willing to if it would get us back on track. It was clear by now that if I were ever to find out what an octagon was I’d have to see the movie. I went into my pocket, juggled the coins around until I got a good grip, then handed them over to him. He counted the money to make sure. When he was done counting, he stood up fast and almost fell forward. “Whoa, brain rush,” he said, steadying himself. “Couple more of those and I’ll be a genius.”
Brian started walking and I trailed after him. It wasn’t long before I realized we were going the wrong way, back the way we had come in. “I thought the State was that way,” I said.
“It’s blocked off,” he said. “We have to go back.”
We headed the way we came, past the black iron gate, down the residential roads, Brian leading, a little unsteady in his stride, and me continuing to play catch up. A couple of times Brian almost tripped over cracks in the sidewalk, and, when this happened, he stopped and stared down at the ground as if it was his worst enemy. Then he got moving again, walking as fast as ever. When we got to the store, he again told me to wait by the tree.
“We’re going to miss the movie.”
“Movie?” It seemed a genuine question.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “No, we’ll get there.”
Then he turned to go into the store. I leaned dejectedly against the tree. I knew now we weren’t going to see the movie. Already my shadow was creeping to the west. I looked up at the sun, cursed it, and stomped my foot. All summer long I had wanted to see a movie, and with three weeks left until school it now looked like I wasn’t going to. I decided Brian wasn’t my favorite cousin anymore. It was Artie. Even my Dad said Artie was no punk.
Brian came out carrying another brown bag, just like I knew he would, and he said the same, “Come on,” and lumbered forward. I stomped my foot again and then ran after him until I was dead even with him. “We’re not going to the movies,” I said. “Are we?”
“Who wants to go to a stupid movie?” he said. “It’s time you start doing grown-up things.”
“Sitting in cemeteries?”
“Are you getting smart?”
He wasn’t going to change his mind, so I just shut up after that. We didn’t go back to the cemetery. Instead we walked to a small park that was not too far from where my grandmother lived. Brian had to be more secretive about his drinking there, but it was closer. I was going to have to walk home by myself.
When he was half way through with the bottle, he turned to me, his head bobbing, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. “You know what I don’t like about your family? You think you’re better than the rest of us. Like your father. He thinks just because he has a job and a house and doesn’t have no roaches like us that he’s better. But he’s not. He’s a drunk, just like my mother. And you kids aren’t better neither. If I’m a punk, you’re a punk. I used to get good grades when I was your age—“ He looked like he was going to cry. “But then you grow up and you learn things. You learn the way things really are. You learn—“ I couldn’t make out the rest of it.
I waited for him to finish. Then I spoke up. “I’m no punk,” I said.
“You see,” he said. He was getting harder to understand, lifting the bottle between thoughts, sentences, even words. “You think you’re better. All of you. You think you’re better.”
“Not better,” I said. “Just maybe I could be. Maybe.”
He put his bottle down and looked at me hard. For a second I thought he was going to smack me in the mouth, but then he smiled and patted me on my crewcut. “Listen,” he said. “You better get home. Grandma will worry. Tell her we went to the movies. Tell her I walked you to the door, but then I went to see friends. You’re not a snitch, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not a snitch.”
He looked around, just briefly, then picked up the bottle again. He was drunk now and that made him look very old to me, but at the same time it made him look young, like a kid. He drank and his forehead was shiny, beaded with sweat. “All right,” he said. “Go home now.”
I turned to go, took a couple of steps, but then I thought of one more thing I wanted to say. I turned and waited until he looked at me and it seemed liked he was paying attention. “You could be better, too,” I said.
He put down the bottle, and for a moment he almost looked sober, like he had listened to me, but then he picked the bottle back up and put it on his lap. He shook his head. “Someday you’ll understand,” he said.
But by then I didn’t want to understand. Not someday. Not ever.
-refers to the artwork piece Moonlight by Beebe Barksdale-Bruner
-Editor Jim Harrington of “Apollo’s Lyre” challenges that Things I’ve Crossed by Jeanne Svensson could refer from this story. What do you think?