April 30, 2009KR OnlineFiction

weekend-readsThe Duct Tape Brother

When I’d finally saved up enough duct tape, I made myself a duct tape brother. I was an only child growing up, and my friends who had older brothers were always a lot tougher than I was. My duct tape brother made me tougher. He’d hold me down like other, non-duct tape older brothers, and dangle duct tape spit over my face, only to suck it back up at the last second. He’d punch my upper arm and give me purple bruises. He taught me how to take a jab to the nose, and after that my nose was the kind of little-bit-crooked you only notice when you see my reflection in the mirror, never when you look at me straight-on.

When I got old enough, I started fighting back when my duct tape brother came after me. Sometimes I’d find an end to his duct tape and pull it a little. The difference between my duct tape brother and other, non-duct tape brothers was the fact that my duct tape brother was always a little nervous about unraveling.

Once, when my duct tape brother was fifteen and I was fourteen and we were both old enough to know better, I pulled his duct tape a little too much. It left an end to tug on. Later that day, he was attacked by the neighbors’ beagle. He got all unraveled, and the EMT’s had to wrap him all up together again. They did the best job they could, and he was tight, but not as tight as he needed to be.

After that, my duct tape brother started acting different. A couple weeks after the procedure, I came into the living room and caught him reading Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death. He started reading all the time—The Brothers Karamozov, re-reading the Grand Inquisitor section over and over; Martin Buber’s I and Thou; Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. After a couple months, he started using words like ennui and Brobdingnagian at the dinner table. Even my parents didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t beat me up anymore, and when I tried to tug at his duct tape, he was a little too serious. I started wishing I had my old duct tape brother back.


Truth is, I had been kind of missing that old, pre-beagle duct tape brother pretty badly for years by the time we found out the transfusion wasn’t taking. My duct tape brother didn’t look so shiny one afternoon. The new Pressure Sensitive Adhesive the doctors had used wasn’t responding to pressure. My mother put her hand to my duct tape brother’s duct tape forehead and said he felt tacky. He started to have these palpitations, and when my parents drove him over to Mass General, the doctors took his pulse and said he had acute tachycardia. They kept him at MGH for observation. His tape got all loose. I was in my first year at college by then; my duct tape brother got into MIT, so he stayed home while I went away to Ohio. I said I’d come home to see my duct tape brother at the hospital, but for a couple days my mother said it would be fine, not worth the long drive, he’d be OK. Then, a week in, my duct tape brother’s tape got so loose my parents decided I needed to see him.

“Just as a precaution,” my mother said. “He’s gonna be fine.”

But you could hear it in her voice. My throat got that feeling like it’s closing up and you can’t control it. I got in the car and drove all night to find them in the ICU.

The doctors surmised my duct tape brother had sepsis, and that was what was causing him to be all loose. But sepsis is hard enough to diagnose in a regular brother, never mind the duct tape kind. When I got to the ICU, it was like my duct tape brother was just a pile of duct tape in a bed. There was barely even enough brother to hold up the bed sheet they had over him. I could see where a catheter hung over the side of the bed. An IV ran from where you could still kind of tell his wrist was, up to a machine to the left of his bed. He had a PICC line, too, so he could get some sustenance. When my duct tape brother spoke, his voice was all sticky, like pulling another kind of tape off a wall—that smooth scotch tape that you can’t get anymore because it would get all yellow-brittle too soon and break apart.

“Duck,” I said. “Jesus.”

There were some tears in my eyes.

“Hi,” my duct tape brother said. “Thanks for coming.”

He kind of smelled like urine, and like that kind of glue that when it gets wet smells like oatmeal. He was so loose it was hard to tell even where to kiss him on the forehead.

“I got you this,” I said. It was a copy of Anna Karenina. He’d always said he wanted to read it. Before I die, was the way he put it.

“It’s the new Oprah Book Club version,” I said. “The good translation.”

“Thanks,” my duct tape brother said. I looked at that huge book and thought about how hard it would be for him to lift all seven hundred pages with just his one-ply duct tape arm.

For days after I would just picture him there, my duct tape brother, fading into a flat pile on the bed, barely thicker than his bed sheet. My mind wanted me there, wanted me to know what it was like. I’d never really considered before what it was like to be my duct tape brother—to have to steer clear of beagles, to spend days at a time lying in a bed at Mass General, never to know if my tape was going to stick together anymore. I pictured myself growing thinner and thinner, greyer and greyer, more and more thready, until I was just a balled up ball of duct tape.


The night after I arrived in Boston my mother and I stood at the foot of my duct tape brother’s bed and talked in low voices. After an hour or so it was like my duct tape brother wasn’t even there.

“They don’t know what it is, hon,” my mother said. “Some kind of infection. Maybe sepsis. The tests haven’t come back.”

Every once in a while I saw some tape go up near my duct tape brother’s pillow. I realized my duct tape brother was picking his nose. It was as if he didn’t even know we were in the room. While we were talking, one of the machines by my duct tape brother’s bed started beeping. The tape up by his pillow was deathly wan.

The doctor came in. A resident took me by the arms and pulled me out of the room. The last thing I saw was them trying to get a central line into his duct tape near his clavicle so they could try to make him adhere again.

We went into the waiting room. There was another family there—they had a son in the pediatric oncology unit and had recently been moved to a pod next to my duct tape brother’s pod in the ICU. We didn’t look at them, really, and they didn’t look at us. It seemed they didn’t take my duct tape brother seriously, like they thought maybe he wasn’t as worthy as their son of the care he was getting—or maybe they just saw a pile of tape in a bed.

My mother and I stayed up all night while the doctors struggled to get that central line into his chest. My father, too—he worked over at Brigham and Women’s, so he got there quick. They looked so tired. The skin under my mother’s eyes was all saggy. I think it was entirely because of my duct tape brother. It started to make me angry at him, but I kept reminding myself he was in one of those ICU pods, doctors prodding at his tape, so I didn’t feel angry at him anymore, but angry at the doctors for putting all these little pin-prick punctures and snags in his tape, holes I knew would scar my duct tape brother’s duct tape when he came through. If the transfusion even worked.

Now whenever a doctor would walk by I’d sneer at him like he was killing my duct tape brother.


My duct tape brother got through that night, and the nights that followed. After three days I started going back to the house with my father, but my mother wouldn’t leave. She slept in the waiting room. She showered in my duct tape brother’s iodine-smelling bathroom, while I wouldn’t even use it—I went in a bathroom at the end of the hall that for some reason smelled like maple syrup. No matter how much the doctors implored, my mother wouldn’t leave my duct tape brother.

One night I came in and she was sitting by his bedside, whispering something over and over again in a hushed voice like it was an incantation. Only the light of the television bolted to the ceiling lit their figures. It was dark enough elsewhere I could walk into the room, and with doctors and nurses coming in and out all night my mother could concentrate through any distraction now.

“If I could take the pain away, if it could be mine, I would,” my mother kept saying. I remembered how she used to say this when I was a kid, and how it sounded so trite by the time I was a teenager I would roll my eyes at her.

Now it just made my throat all tight again.

But after that night something changed in my duct tape brother. I thought it was my mother’s commitment to him, and so did she. But also it was partially that they’d found a new kind of Pressure Sensitive Adhesive that worked. And my duct tape brother was started on a course of Prednisone, too, so maybe that had something to do with it. We took my duct tape brother home. He was cranky now, and he picked his nose even when you were looking. He didn’t seem to care.

He was reading again, at least. He even had strength enough that if he propped the Tolstoy up on his belly he could turn the pages with one hand. You could see that he looked like a duct tape brother again, not just a pile of silver, thready material. The new adhesive they used on him was more like the kind of icing you use to keep a gingerbread house together. It was gloppy and it made him walk all stiff. I went back to college in Ohio and a couple months later it was summer vacation.

I hardly recognized my duct tape brother when I got back to Boston that June. To get the new icing-adhesive to work, they had to find a bunch more duct tape for my duct tape brother. The new duct tape was camouflage instead of silver—traditional military green-and-brown camo, mostly, though down near his ankle there was a patch of that hipster orange-and-grey camo. Plus that steroid Prednisone makes your face fat and ruddy. When I wished for a duct tape brother I’d said I’d make him when I’d had enough duct tape, but now he needed a lot more duct tape, and I couldn’t help but feel his trouble was my fault. I kept picturing that little ball of tape whenever I thought of him, and it made it harder for me to be empathetic towards anything—even the kids in Darfur, who had always made me feel indignant toward the world and ready for action, any kind of action.

It was all a little much to handle.

But each day I saw that my duct tape brother wasn’t even close to being some little ball. In fact, he was huge now. You almost couldn’t make out the digits on his hands. They looked like duct tape mittens. It didn’t seem to bother him at all, though.

“You wanna play some Scrabble?” he said. This was on my second night home.

He couldn’t pick up the tiles all that well, but he beat me 415-122. He used all his letters three times. My parents seemed happy that my duct tape brother was better now, but you could tell they were still concerned about a relapse. How easy it would be for the new Pressure Sensitive Adhesive to stop adhering, for him to get all loose again. One night at dinner I said to my mother:

“Duck’s gonna be OK, Mom.” He really was looking so much better—he’d even lost a little girth—but I could tell my mother didn’t believe me. It had taken so much out of her, staying in MGH with my duct tape brother all that time. She didn’t like how tapey he’d gotten.

“He’s in good spirits,” I said.

“I miss seeing his face,” my mother said. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a mother,” she said.

I wanted to tell her she was right, but that I was the one who said when I had enough duct tape I’d make a duct tape brother.


One night toward the end of July my duct tape brother and I took a ride up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to go hiking. He’d always wanted to climb Mt. Washington—more than he’d wanted to read Tolstoy, even—and my parents had never let him. But no one could say no to him anymore.

Black fly season was over and you could hike without being bothered. Though my parents were obviously nervous, the doctors said it would be good for my duct tape brother to get some fresh mountain air. As stiff as his movements were, I worried maybe he’d snag on a tree and lose a little duct tape. It’s worth the possibility, the doctors said. He was so big he could even stand to lose a little tape, they said, so not to worry.

That day we woke before dawn. The sun cut through a thin scrim of morning fog. We started out just after sunrise and by noon we were a third of the way up the Ammonoosuc trail, a steep pathway that wound up the mountain’s west side. It was tougher than the other ways up—the Jewell Trail, or the way through Tuckerman’s Ravine—but far fewer people used it. I wouldn’t say my duct tape brother was going fast, but he was keeping up. When we stopped for water I could see the icing-like Pressure Sensitive Adhesive that kept his tape together oozing out between his tape.

“You OK, Duck?” I said.

“I feel great,” he said. But I could see down near his ankle a bit of orange-and-grey camo tape was flapping free.

“Let’s turn around,” I said.

“Another mile,” he said. “I feel like Emerson’s transparent eyeball,” he said. “I feel like a red-toothed beast. I want to be in the New England wilderness—the woods are weary, dark and deep! Let’s just go on. If it’s no good after a mile, we’ll go back.”

At the top of the next rise the way was thick with deciduous trees fallen across the path. When I turned after passing them, I could see that my duct tape brother had gotten his tape snagged. A length of maybe ten feet of tape trailed behind him.

“Duck!” I said.

I came back and tried to pick the tape up. It was still there, but as I pulled it up and tried to keep it apart so we could put it back on him I could feel that the new Pressure Sensitive Adhesive was just hot and slimy, not tacky at all anymore.

“You’re gonna have to tear it,” my duct tape brother said.

“I don’t want to,” I said.

I tore the tape. Duct tape tears so easy it felt like nothing. My duct tape brother didn’t seem to be in much pain. I rolled the tape into a neat ball and put it in my pack.

“It’s OK, man, it’s OK,” my duct tape brother said. “I feel OK.”

I wanted to hug him, to carry him, to do whatever he said.

He said he wanted to keep on.

The mountain rose and we rose with it. The trees got shorter and shorter until we were getting toward the tree line. Scrub pines lined the trail. My duct tape brother had lost so much tape it was almost like he was back to where he’d been when he was healthy.

Then my duct tape brother fell back a pace.

“I think I might puke,” he said. He wobbled and sat back on a rock. He heaved. A roll of duct tape came tumbling out of his mouth. I tore it off and put it in my pack. He heaved again. This time it was just some adhesive.

He’d lost too much tape. He was so thin now, maybe four measures of duct tape thick at most. His arms were just one thin line of his original silver duct tape.

He had an idea. He passed me his Nalgene bottle and sent me out into the woods. I came back with as much sap as I could find. It took me an hour to get even a Dixie-cup-full, and when I came back my duct tape brother was just lying there on a boulder. I could see the few wrappings of duct tape of his chest rising and falling.

I took up the length of tape that had fallen off last and slathered sap on it. The tape was so sticky I almost couldn’t get it off my hands and forearms, and each time I’d try to take one piece of tape off it would stick to me somewhere else—but I finally got it on him. A silver sheen came back to his face.

“I think I can make it down,” he said.

We didn’t get to the top of Mt. Washington, but with my duct tape brother on my back we got down. We drove fast to a hospital in Manchester and my parents rushed to meet us there.


In the ER all I could think of was that feeling of my duct tape brother sticking to my back on the way down the mountain. It didn’t get me any closer to knowing what it was like to be my duct tape brother, but it brought that feeling of empathy back, made me feel closer to him than I’d ever been.

He was my duct tape brother, you know?

The neon lights in the waiting room were glaring, and my parents looked pissed.

“Was he even talking?” my mother said. “On the way down?”

He seemed happy enough, I told her. After an hour of waiting, and then another and then another, the doctor finally came out. They were going to chopper my brother down to MGH for a complicated surgery. We could drive down and meet him there.

We reached Boston an hour later. My father drove like a madman and I did my best to keep up. I could only imagine what they talked about on the ride. I tried calling them but it just went through to voicemail. My mother didn’t even talk to me on the way into MGH. We went back to the 23rd floor. My duct tape brother’s doctor from before, the one who’d OK’d our hike, came to talk to us.

“He’s doing remarkably well,” he said. “The sap is holding him together.”

“He better be,” my mother said. She glared at him.

The doctor explained that the sap had a property much like an experimental new adhesive they were going to try soon anyway. The sap would dry out before long though and they needed to get some of that other Pressure Sensitive Adhesive back on him to get him tight again.

A couple of hours later the surgeon came out. My duct tape brother was stable. With any luck, he’d come home with us tomorrow or the next day.


We went in to talk to my duct tape brother late that night, but he was sleeping. The lights in the room were low like the time I’d gone to see my mother whispering to my duct tape brother, going on in her incantation to take his pain away. We all stood in the doorway, not wanting to wake him. There was no volume on the television. There was a feeling in the room like when the present has already passed into memory, like this was that moment we’d all always remember.

My mother had her arm around me. My father did, too. I looked at my duct tape brother, thin under his sheet now but not as thin as he’d been at his worst. And finally I could imagine it: to be lying in that bed, thin and wasted, as close to an inert ball of duct tape as not. There we were, the three of us, all stuck together, just standing there looking on at my duct tape brother.

Daniel Torday is the author of a short novel, The Sensualist, winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Glimmer Train, Harvard Review, the New York Times, and The Kenyon Review. He serves as Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.