Len’s five-year-old brother Tommy sat at the table wearing Stephen’s beret. It looked ridiculous, covering his little scalp like a way too big shower cap falling over his eyes. Stephen had worn that cap on a first date. He’d been allowed to drive the seventy miles to Las Cruces to the theater with a girl, because he was the oldest, and because he was their mother’s favorite.
“It chaps my ass,” Len had told Stephen . “All the crap she let’s you get away with.” Stephen doubled over laughing so hard about Len’s chapped ass that Len couldn’t help but laugh too.
And then, Stephen, who read all the time and dreamed of acting, said, “Don’t speak in clichés.”
That was six months ago.
Now, Len pointed a fork at the ridiculous five-year-old in the beret and said, “Shut up, Tommy. I mean it.”
Mother said, “My brother Don threw a fork at me when we were kids. It got stuck right here.” She pointed to the crease below her brow bone. “When I blinked, it moved and cracked us up.”
“How did you get it out?” Tommy asked.
“Don jerked it free.”
“Lucky you’re not blind.”
“Lucky I’m not a lot of things.”
“What did your mother do?”
“Nothing that I remember. I think we carried on with dinner.”
“He does have too much syrup.”
“I told you to shut up about my food.”
“Syrup butt,” Tommy said.
Mother said, “Navajos don’t have such a word in their vocabulary, you know that? It’s like telling someone not to breathe, to die, because words are breath.”
“Like I said, ‘shut up!'” Len said, and then he felt sort of sick, but when Mother said, “Don’t do that, Len,” he said, “You couldn’t blame me if he died. That’s hocus-pocus.”
“Not saying ‘shut up’ is manners is what is it, and kindness. Just eat your pancakes and be quiet.”
“So what’s the difference?”
“In ‘be quiet’ and ‘shut up’?”
“You’re still telling me ‘don’t breathe’, right?”
He wanted her to get mad, but, calmly, she said, “Eat your pancakes. Have all the syrup you want.”
And then she was listening to Tommy who pushed the beret from his eyes and said: “Will you make me something like a crepe? With cheese inside?”
Mother carried batter to the stove, but forgot what she was doing. She went to the sink and started washing dishes. She stared through the window. Outside motorcycles roared through the desert. Len knew what she imagined—the ditch in the distance where the power line had dropped that broke Stephen’s neck and stopped his breath forever.