March 5, 2019KR OnlineFiction


When my ex-wife called to ask for a favor, my first impulse was simply to hang up. We hadn’t spoken in almost a year, since the divorce was finalized, and during that time she’d remarried with a speed that suggested overlap between the two relationships. Though, of course, I had no proof of this—Hannah is a careful woman, an architect, whose entire life has always been planned three steps in advance. In chess terms, she’s a plodder, a middling opponent whose cautiousness often wins the day. When we used to play, we split about fifty-fifty, her wins usually aided by some ruinous gambit of mine—half-baked pincers and onslaughts born of inattention or boredom or spite. In this same style, I’d also brought on the financial disaster that ended our marriage: three bad real-estate speculations, two gambling jags, one embezzling manager.

But I didn’t hang up, suspecting she would take it as proof of my continued hurt and heartache—confirmation that out here in Alhambra, a fire still burned for her. Well, out here in Alhambra, a fire did still burn for her, and I suppose I thought, foolishly, that this favor might be a crack into which I could wedge my size twelve. I leaned against my kitchen counter and said coolly, “Well?”

“Steven, I hate to ask, but James is sick.”


“I mean, very sick.”

“OK, very good, then.”

“He may be dying.”

Outside my window, in the apartment complex courtyard, two little girls chased each other around the pool, in which dead leaves and other debris floated. A fat man—possibly their father, possibly not—was passed out in a deck chair with a beer beside him, his bulk straining the plastic webbing down to the concrete below. This was where I’d landed after bankruptcy, after Hannah. One of my former barrel-bottom rentals, now all I could afford. “OK,” I sighed. “What’s the matter?”

“He has a blood thing. Aggressive. And the doctors are looking for bone marrow donors.”

“You’re joking.”

“They think he contracted it on his last trip to Peru.” James worked for UCSB as an environmental botanist, or maybe a botanical environmentalist. Either way, he spent half his time in jungles studying the acidity of tree bark, and stuff like that.

“No,” I said.

“No, what?”

“No, I won’t donate.”

“You’d rather he died.”

“I really need to think about that.”

Now she sighed, and I could picture her in his home up in Ojai—I’d never been, but always imagined it as some kind of wind-powered yurt. I knew what she was going to say next, and I held the phone away from my already burning ear as she did. “Steven, come on. He’s your brother.”


James was my brother, that was undeniable. What was less undeniable was what it meant to be someone’s brother. Conventionally, I was aware, it meant you stuck with him through thick and thin, and did things like donate bone marrow to help save his life. But conventionally, it also meant not marrying your brother’s ex-wife. And well before that—for decades—being such an intolerable prick that your brother couldn’t stand to be around you. Which is to say, the coincidence of our exiting the same vagina during the 1970s did not have an automatic persuasive power.

Why, then, the next day, did I find myself packing a suitcase? Why did I find myself turning down the AC and locking up, find myself climbing into my old Mercedes convertible, find myself calling Hannah back to let her know I was en route, find myself baking on a gridlocked 101 and slathering sunscreen all over my dumb, wondering skull? It was a mystery, maybe something else in the blood.

Traffic thinned as the ugliness of the Valley graded into the inoffensiveness of Calabasas, then faded into the desert vistas of Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, and as I hit the serene stretch before Ventura, my mind, too, seemed to calm. Of course, I would donate. What would it cost me, a painful hour or two? He was a traitorous shit, yes, but there were worse people on Earth above whose necks I wouldn’t hoist the executioner’s axe. And it wasn’t as though I’d been without blame in this whole mess. My consideration, sex drive, and sense of humor had all vanished along with the money. For the last year of our marriage, I’d flailed wildly in all directions—think of a man falling on ice skates, in slow motion.

I stopped at an ersatz shack near the ocean for fish tacos and a beer. Past the break, a surfer bobbed patiently. The waves looked big enough to me, but he was waiting for the perfect one. That’s the way, boy, I thought. Take your time, be easy. Wait for the right one to come in and ride it. Still, he waited, and waited. But just as I got up to leave, he caught a monster. I bladed my eyes against the sun that lit his bleached hair, as he crouched, vanished for a moment inside the green tunnel of water, then shot the curl and relaxed standing into the ocean’s immensity. I applauded wildly, too far away for him to hear, and to some strange looks from the family eating beside me, but I didn’t care. It was the best I’d felt in two years.


Hannah sat waiting on a bench outside the hospital. She looked good as ever—better, in fact, which was disappointing. I’d hoped a year of vegan suppers and the woes of the world would have made her palely morose, but it wasn’t so. She was tan and trim, wearing a green sundress, and the taut muscles in her lower thighs were like inverted commas, legible from thirty yards. She waved a bangled wrist as I crossed the parking lot, but she crossed her arms as I neared. She smelled like cigarettes, the surest possible sign of her anxiety.

“Thank you again for coming,” she said.

“Was there really no one else?”

“Your mother drove up already. Your father and cousins got tested remotely out in Ohio. Believe me, we wouldn’t have asked if there was anyone else.”

“We. So James is asking?”

“He doesn’t know I called you.”

“Of course not. He would never stoop so low.”

“Go in, Steven. They’re waiting to see if you’re a match.”

I was a match. So said the doctor, an hour later, entering my exam room in a remote warren of the hematology wing. He was a large bald man like myself, but with a kind, open face. My blood, drawn and centrifuged, had apparently come back 99% similar in HLA tissue type, whatever that was. Congratulations, he said, this is a godsend for your brother. Glancing up from his tablet, he saw my expression and his smile faded. “You are going to donate, right?”

“Probably.” An unmistakable shadow of distaste crossed his face, like a cloud passing over a broad summer field. I said, “Is this really necessary? Why not antibiotics?”

“Your brother has a rare variant of Chagas disease. When it reaches its chronic phase it becomes untreatable by medicine. It spreads like wildfire, destroys vital organs. That’s what’s happening with James. We have to flush his blood and keep him on transfusion while transplanting fresh marrow, so his body can produce clean blood.”

“When would the procedure be done?”

“As soon as possible. Tomorrow would be best.”

“Where is he?”

A nurse led me up two floors to critical care, a spacious room with eight beds curtained off. A TV in the corner played some Food Network show in which a loud man overeats his way across America. James was in the far corner, and the nurse held the curtains open as I ducked in.

He looked about as horrible as I’d expected, though with the same avid defensiveness as ever. The weight loss had made him look feral, like a sewer-dwelling thing surviving on its wits, and when his yellow eyes flicked up at me, I blanched. “What are you doing here?” he whispered.

“Hannah called,” I whispered back to a wracked volley of coughing. “You should get that looked at.”

“Fuck you, Steve.”

“That’s nice talk for someone in your position.”

He propped himself up on his elbows. “It’s so like you to use this as a thing to hold over my head. You can’t just be decent.”

“Says the man who married his brother’s wife.”

“Ex-wife. And yes, we fell in love. It happens. Don’t pretend like it ruined a great relationship between you and me.”

“It ruined the chance of us ever having a relationship.”

“That chance was ruined long ago.”

I took a breath. “You might be interested to know that your wife got me out here exactly on the basis of you being my brother.”

“Well, that was her fucking mistake then. Basic human feeling should have been enough, however little of it you have.”

“That’s why I came, but you’re pressing your luck.”

He coughed more and turned onto his side, away from me. His bare arm, with a blue tube hanging out of it, looked like something dead and waterlogged, washed up on shore. On the TV, people yelled Eat! Eat! Eat! Speaking into his armpit, he said, “OK, Steven. Thank you for coming. I do appreciate it.” The slightest grin creased the edge of his wretched face as he added, “The donation process is not supposed to be pleasant.”

I didn’t rise to the bait. “Don’t mention it. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Hannah was waiting outside the room with an expectant air. I nodded and she embraced me. I’m sure a better person would have already been filled with joy at the prospect of saving a human life, but it was not until that moment, holding her in my arms, that I was truly happy I’d come.


That chance was ruined long ago, he’d said. But when? I’ve searched my memory trying to locate where the fissure began that led to the crack and eventual fracture. Once, flying to New York, I watched underneath us as the Colorado River Basin gradually narrowed to a thin line in the ground that eventually terminated into the solid sheet of the Great Plains, and I thought how that must have been James and me, once. An unbroken thing. But when?

In my earliest memories there was discord. Though only two years my junior, he was a small child, and easily enraged. I cannot imagine the perfect angel of an older brother who wouldn’t have found some small pleasure in watching that round face redden. His tantrums were spectacular, the stuff of family legend. They persisted well into his teens—once, a group of neighborhood boys were playing basketball, and an innocent elbow to the mouth saw James stalk into the nearby woods for a shrieking rage. We watched as he howled, pitching logs against trees, his bloodied mouth a perfect red O—O for outrage at the unjustness of it all.

Justice. This was the axis of our split. In James’s view, I was amoral and unprincipled, unconcerned with fairness or goodness or light. His moral worldview was of the strict variety that made no allowance for human frailty. You were either good or bad, and—since I made money charging the working class rent, and since I used that money on things that brought me pleasure—I was bad. When he announced, one contentious Christmas long ago, his plan to get a doctorate in environmental science, I told him he’d missed his true calling as a sixteenth-century Jesuit inquisitor.

Our final split came at a reunion of all the extended relatives back in Ohio that Hannah had dragged me to, citing specious stuff like togetherness and the importance of family. The scene was a cookout, twenty or so bewildered cousins looking on. I had said or done something to offend his sense of propriety—the actual event is lost to me and undoubtedly boring—and James, after one too many beers (one, probably), stood across the expanse of the wide yard, glaring like a madman. When I approached to make amends, I saw he had something in his hand. It was the pellet gun our uncle used to knock squirrels off his handmade birdhouses. He raised it and shot me in the chest, and when I yelped backwards, he advanced, firing over and over.

The only time I saw James after that was a tense dinner in LA, when he was in town for a conference. He hadn’t even told me about it—I’d seen posts on his Facebook and reached out, to his eventual, grudging acceptance. We went to a downtown sushi spot, and he ate with his head down, barely looking at me, though engaging Hannah with a series of polite questions about the latest eco-village her company was building.

Finally, I said, “Listen here, aren’t you going to apologize?”

He looked up from his tempeh maki roll. “For what?”

I unbuttoned my shirt and pulled it open to reveal where a pellet was still lodged above the collarbone. A small, blue bump—I sometimes worried it while looking at my spiraled, spiraling ledgers.

“You should get that looked at,” he said.

“Fuck you, James.”

“Steven,” said Hannah.

“Hannah,” said James. “Has Steven ever told you what he did to me when I was eight?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. She looked at me, then back at James. He set down his chopsticks and straightened in his chair. “Mom and Dad had left for an all-day trip, and they couldn’t find a babysitter. I guess they figured Steve was just old enough to look after the two of us. I still can’t believe they left us alone, but I think it was a wedding, something they couldn’t get out of, and they didn’t want to bring us since we fought all the time.

“I distinctly remember the door closing, and the terror that came over me. See, I’d always been a little frightened of Steve, though I couldn’t exactly say why. There was the usual tormenting, but it was more than that. Probably things from when I was younger and can’t remember now, things I’ve blocked out. So much of our childhood I can’t remember. But this I recall clear as anything.

“He asked if I wanted to play a game, and I said yes, though I really didn’t. He went in the garage and got a shovel, and led me into the backyard. It was a nice fall day, with that crisp air. I was a little cold and needed a jacket, but he said Don’t worry about that, you’ll warm right up, and he handed me the shovel. He walked me to a far spot past the edge of the lawn, under some trees, and he said Here, dig. Dig your own grave.

“I waited for him to laugh, but he wasn’t laughing. He said Go ahead and dig, or I’ll kill you now. I started crying, but he pushed me in the back and I started digging. I thought about running off into the woods, but I knew he’d catch me. He was a lot bigger and stronger than me at that point, almost a teenager, and I was still a little kid. I turned around, and he nodded at the ground. I tried to dig slow, but he caught on and slapped me in the back of the head. Faster, he said. So I dug faster.

“By early afternoon, my arms were Jell-O, and there was about a three-foot hole in the ground. That’s good, he said. Now, get in. I was crying so hard, shaking. I got in, and he started dumping the dirt on me. I remember thinking, my God, he’s really going to bury me alive.

“Right then, our neighbor, Mr. Krebill, walked into the yard and asked what we were up to. I’m sure Mom and Dad had asked him to check up on us, just in case, you know, Steve was killing his younger brother or something. Steven said we were just playing make-believe, and Mr. Krebill said, Well, you’d better get inside. He had this funny look on his face, like he knew something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what. We went in, and he went in with us and watched TV—The People’s Court, I remember vividly, because I imagined me and Steven on it. Your honor, my brother wants me dead. At a certain point he left, and Steven made us some turkey and mustard sandwiches, and we never talked about it again. Until now.”

Hannah was looking at me like I was a monster. I would have jumped over the table and broken James’s face, if it wouldn’t have confirmed everything he’d just said. Instead, I took a sip of beer, and said, “That’s total bullshit, of course. I was messing with him. The hole was about an inch deep—he couldn’t have dug a three-foot hole if his life depended on it. He still probably couldn’t. He never got in it, and I never dumped dirt on him. Fascinating, though, that you thought I’d actually kill you. Jesus. You still do think that, don’t you?”

“There were other similar moments.”

“Oh, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit. The only similarity in all of this is your persecution complex. Let’s go.”

I threw some money down, and we left in silence. Hannah didn’t say anything the rest of that night—not in anger, but as though she was working out a difficult design problem in her head. Was that when she decided she’d chosen the wrong brother? Shortly after that, she announced her intention to leave and only a year later, they were wed. I’d never expected to see him again, had thought my last memory of James would be his sitting at that table, green tea pot steaming beside his elbow, with the exact same expression he had when I pulled the curtains back around his hospital bed. It was a look of righteous satisfaction, of pleasure at the deep, clear lines drawn between us.


I asked Hannah about that night on the drive up to Ojai—she’d graciously offered to put me up, as we would both have to be back in the morning for my procedure. She said yes, she remembered James’s story. Was that why she’d left me, I asked, and she laughed. “Come on. Because of a dumb story from when you were kids?”

“I thought you believed him.”

“I never know what to believe with you and James. Anyway, no.”

We drove through downtown, picturesque in the evening, with its Spanish missions and fake Spanish mission storefronts, its orange groves and wineries, everything surrounded by smoky mountains in the faraway. Their house was a few blocks south of the main park, a small wooden bungalow set back from the road with a reticent look. Our house in LA had been a big beauty in Hancock Park, muscled up to the sidewalk like it wanted to shake hands with passersby. I used to sit on the front lawn drinking beer on my days off. I met some of my best clients that way.

Hannah showed me to the guest bedroom. Then she showed me the house—with its built-ins and hanging plants and undoubtedly perfect feng shui. She made a tofu salad Niçoise and opened a bottle of merlot. Her manner through it all was brittlely polite, and I disliked the feeling that my agreeing to help James had bought her niceness, though of course it had.

After eating, we sat on the back deck, which looked out over a sloping ravine choked with vegetation, thick blackness in the near dark. We sipped our wine and talked about her work, designing green apartments on the coast. They looked like a hive, she said, a hive for rich, responsible bees. She asked how I was, and I said things were looking up. And they were—after all, I was sitting beside her, wasn’t I?, hearing the old low tone of her voice, smelling her jasmine perfume, wasn’t I? The white curve of her leg seemed to shine in the night. I couldn’t help myself. I touched it.

I’d been aware she might not like it. But I hadn’t expected her to recoil like that—like, say, a tarantula had just danced its way out of the underbrush. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve missed you.”

“Are you insane?”

“I’ve been miserable without you, Han.”

“I was miserable with you.”

“Not always, you weren’t. We were happy for a long time.”

She went inside and I followed her, through the living room and into the kitchen, where she rinsed out her wineglass. She said, “I’m going to bed. Stay up as late as you want, but turn the lights out when you’re done.”

“Why did you leave me?”

She sighed. “You really don’t know?”

“I wouldn’t be asking if I did.”

“You were a horrible husband.”

“I loved you. I still do.”

“That may be, but Jesus. You mismanaged your business and blamed it on me and were insufferable for two whole years. You blew God knows how much money at the Commerce Casino. You drank too much and cheated on me with that thieving money manager, what’s her name. Probably more I don’t know about. You embarrassed me at family get-togethers. You wrecked the car, you beat up that repo man in one of your complexes. You’re a slumlord, let’s be clear on that.”

Was a slumlord.”

“Right, now you’re a failed slumlord.”

“I’m trying to change. I’m here now, aren’t I?”

She moved to the bedroom and stood in the doorway, and I could see her measuring her words. “See, I don’t think you really have changed, Steven. I think you have an ulterior motive. Maybe I’m wrong, and whatever the case may be, I’m glad you came. But I don’t believe you came out of the goodness of your heart. I think you’re a bad person.”

She shut the door and locked it with a decisive snick. I could see that she’d planned it that way—the stagey dressing-down, the slammed door as punctuation, and the lock to show she was afraid of me, a little. Though there was no reason to be. Whatever else I may or may not have been, I’d never touched her, even in my moments of wildest anger.

I grabbed a fresh bottle from the kitchen, returned to the deck and poured myself another glass of wine. Was I a bad person? Maybe. Was I worse than most? I didn’t think so, but maybe not knowing how bad you were was an essential feature of being a bad person. It did seem to me that if I was bad, I was bad in an average way—venal, greedy, lustful, and selfish: these were the average American’s flaws, and I had the average American’s virtues, as well. I was generous, I was a hopeful romantic, I loved animals and nature, I loved my wife.

Her list of my failings was not false (the affair with my manager had been particularly egregious), but it excluded the tenderness, the thousand moments of sweetness and light between us: the time we’d been driving back from a party on Mulholland and I’d pulled over, cranked the volume on the radio, and inexpertly foxtrotted her up and down the shoulder; the time I’d welcomed her home wearing nothing and carried her right up the stairs; the time I’d sailed her to Catalina for her birthday. Where was the list of those times? Had my goodnesses, for her, been so thoroughly expiated by the badnesses?

It seemed so. What James offered, I knew, was moral clarity. He was a man without vices, other than his vicelessness. He was also a man without virtues, but after me, I supposed, she wanted the easy thing—no worries, no volatility, no justifying his behavior.

In seeming agreement, the light went out in the bedroom beside the deck, and I slumped into an Adirondack chair. I thought of her in there, ten feet away, curled up like a cat. I thought of yellowy James in his bed. I thought of everyone out there asleep, blameless and yet full of blame, and how hard it was to be a decent, happy person in the world! I threw the empty glass over the railing and was unduly gratified by the small tinkling pop a second later. I drank from the bottle, and when I woke, it was the next day.


Hannah drove us to the hospital in silence. A nurse prepped me and administered a local anesthetic that numbed my body below the waist. The doctor came in, greeted me with a brusque hello, and got to work. He conveyed the no-nonsense vibe of a construction worker, an impression abetted by the jackhammer-sized needle he wielded.

When I say it was painful, I speak with some authority on the subject. As a teenager, I fractured my femur playing soccer; in my dissolute twenties, I fell hungover off a house I was roofing and broke three vertebrae in my upper back; in my somewhat less dissolute thirties, I chopped off the tip of a pinkie while making a sauce Bolognese. This pain was not in the same league as those excruciating screamers, yet it was somehow worse in its way. The dull throbbing ache emanating from my back was, in its unlocatable and haunted quality, close to emotional pain, and my sedated mind turned ineluctably toward my brother dying two floors above.

It was a memory earlier than most, one I hadn’t thought of in decades. Maybe because it didn’t support our relationship’s long-standing narrative: because we were happy. I must have been around five, James a toddler. Outside our Ohio house it was snowing. Our father towed us on a sled he pulled with a rope. James clung to my back, tighter and tighter as we crested the top of the street. There, the old man stopped and gave us a push.

There was no traffic, nothing to crash into, just the whiteness that magically made one unbroken, strange field out of the familiar vista: the road, the yards, the bushes, and houses. Down we went, gathering speed, James clutching my parka and shrieking, my own voice rising with his as we flew together down the hill. We were one. At the end of the cul-de-sac, we whumped into a snowdrift, and it collapsed on us, and there, mercifully, my memory ends. Surely, there were soon tears, a fight over who sat in front, some little unfairness battled over and collected for future resentment. But in that long moment, from the top of the hill to the bottom, I loved my brother as well as anyone ever has.


After the procedure, a nurse wheeled me up to the ICU to visit James. Unmanned in my floral paper gown, hips aching, I felt a little like I imagined a woman might feel postdelivery. He opened his eyes and groaned a little. I said, “It’s done.”

“Thank you.”

“James, I have to ask. When did you and Hannah start seeing each other?”

He sighed and rubbed a jaundiced eye with one of his claws. “Does it really matter?”

“Yes, it does.”

“You remember that family reunion?”

He told me the whole thing. Ten minutes worth, with gusto. How I’d belittled her in front of my father. How angry James had gotten, shooting me with the pellet gun. How she’d watched him, her hero. How they’d kissed that night in the game room while upstairs I slept—the unwitting matchmaker, having brought together this star-crossed couple with my rotten temper. New couples need a basis for their relationship, soil in which love’s flower can grow, and a shared hatred will do just as well as anything else, maybe better. In the retelling, he lingered on their lingering hands, fondly recalled the fondling, sighed remembering how they’d sighed into each other’s arms. There had always been something between them, but that night the birds had sung, the floodgates had opened, the rocket had blasted off—

Seeing the expression on my face as he wound down, he must have felt he’d overshot his mark. “I’m sorry, Steven, I really am. I’m not proud of it, but you wanted the truth, and that’s it.”

I wheeled out of the room, thinking about the truth, and how I hadn’t entirely told it to James. Yes, the operation was over, and a success. A pound of my pulpy essence awaited him in a transfusion bag. But there were still consent forms to sign after the fact, a final bureaucratic gauntlet to run. I told Hannah as much, meeting her in the hall as she returned from a smoke break.

“You can’t be serious,” she said. “He’ll die.”

“Maybe. Maybe they’ll find a miracle donor in the registry.”

“You’re a monster.”

“No, like John Lennon said, I’m just a jealous guy.” I wheeled outside, then sidled aching to my car like a saddle-stiff cowpoke. I pulled away with no intention to return. Maybe, I thought, the power of their love would see James through. The hospital, my faithless family within, receded quickly in the rear view and was gone.

But an hour later, I’d once more pulled off in Ventura. I parked along a beach access lane and limped down a long flight of wooden stairs built up against the rock retaining wall. The day had turned gloomy and the sky over the ocean was a solid sheet of gray slate. No surfers bobbed today. Just the churning water and overhead, a pair of cackling gulls.

Why was I so angry? What difference did it make if Hannah had cheated on me? I’d cheated on her, hadn’t I?—and without the excuse of being married to myself. I’d made our life unbearable and, seeking company, she’d instinctively gone to the one person who could truly understand her misery. And here I was, again, trying to ruin, to deprive and despoil. They were happy together, so what? But oh, God, how I hated him! The rank foam washing up at my feet was the bile in my own heart, and I knew that if it was just James, I would get back in my car and drive on home. I would hoist that axe, I would.

It wasn’t just James, though—it was Hannah, too, and Hannah had always made me a little better. I called her and said, “OK, listen, I’ll come back. But first, I have a favor to ask of you.”


Now, I wake in their guest bed, looking out the window of the Ojai bungalow. A little finch chirps amidst the outrageous plumage of a bird of paradise. Here is where I’ll convalesce, for now. Here is where I’ll stay, as long as I like. There is, according to the doctor, a thirty percent chance that James will need future transfusions. And there’s their guilt—hers, at least.

I didn’t really plan it this way, but it all worked out for the best. For one reason, because I’m out of money, flat broke. I couldn’t even afford the dump in Alhambra. I’ll recover, but when is unclear. Money crests on the horizon, a small tidal bulge that might swell into a monster. As always, you need patience. Wait for the right one to come in and ride it, the way I rode the last one back into this room, and Hannah’s life.

That’s the other way it worked out: I get to see her every day—her lovely upturned smile, the spun honey sway of her hair as she reads, the way her brow furrows as she plans a chess move when we play in the evening. That she doesn’t want me here is irrelevant. Life is full of unwanted things that we must bear, and that over time, in the bearing, become life itself.

Adam O'Fallon Price
Adam O’Fallon Price is a writer and writing teacher living in Carrboro, NC. His short fiction has appeared, or will soon, in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, VICE, and many other places. His essays and reviews frequently appear in venues such as Electric Literature, the Paris Review Daily, Ploughshares, and The Millions, where he is a staff writer. His first novel, The Grand Tour, was published by Doubleday in 2016, and his latest, The Hotel Neversink, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in August, 2019.