It was late and Aaron was drinking too much wine, and he was trying to remember what it was Keith had said about goodness that hot day decades ago when they were kids, the same day their father threatened to smack them both. It was something simple, teetering on cliché. In the moment, Aaron probably spit into his brother’s face. But silently, the way kids do, he vowed to remember what Keith said forever. The yard was slick with mud from the sprinkler they’d left running—they’d drowned the lawn that summer, and that day wasn’t the first their father emerged red-faced onto the back porch, glass brimming with gin and melted ice. After their father finished flexing and went inside, Aaron joked, We’d better be good, and it was then that Keith said, Being good’s not good enough for Dad. There it was—over the years, “for Dad” had fallen away, so the line became, Being good’s not good enough, which meant that in the garden of Aaron’s memory, his brother’s words had taken root and grown twisted into something else, something like an excuse.
Here’s something else Aaron remembered: the next summer, the hard, grassless yard cracking under the August sun, a game of baseball with neighbor kids. Keith was pitching, their sister Tara was catcher, and Aaron struck out. Keith grinned. That’s all—a mocking grin. Eager, Aaron figured, to make his older brother feel small. Aaron had meant only to intimidate with a near-miss swing of the bat, but instead Keith wound up in the hospital for two days—serious bone and nerve damage, the doctor told them in the waiting room. And how the doctor shot her eyes at Aaron when she said the word damage.
But now wasn’t the time for those thoughts because Aaron and Keith and Keith’s wife, Jeanie, were sitting around the dinner table. Keith was thirty-two now, with dark eyes and a patchy brown mustache, recently returned from the Peace Corps—a new adventure he’d called it, after his manuscript was never picked up and the college terminated his contract. They ate their salmon, and the orange sunset slipped through the blinds. As memories of childhood summers ran through Aaron on loop, he watched these two people he knew so well. No one made eye contact.
“In the village,” Keith said, squeezing a lemon wedge over his salmon and then, with his other hand, wafting the smell of the food into his nose, “we had no access to fish. I don’t think I saw a single fish, dead or alive, in two years.”
“Aaron,” Jeanie said. She glanced at the carrot-ginger soup at the end of the table, and Aaron passed her the bowl.
“We ate what’s called paloo,” Keith continued. “Do you know what that is? Paloo?”
“I don’t know,” Aaron said.
“Raisins, garlic, hot peppers, rice. Throw it in a pot. Simmer for a few hours over a fire.” Keith smiled dramatically, closed his eyes, nodded in approval at the imaginary flavors in his mouth, then sipped his chardonnay. “Really stellar. The Kyrgyz can cook.”
“But do you like your fish?” Jeanie asked.
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I feel odd eating it. Like an asshole, you know? But I’m adjusting. It’s like Christmas at our parents’, when I came back last year. I told you about this feeling, Aar.” The way he’d always abbreviated Aaron’s name sounded like Air. “I forget why you couldn’t make it up.”
“Holiday party in Los Angeles,” Aaron said. “Some old musician friends.”
“I do, I feel like an asshole, stuffing my face with this—how much was this?” He pointed to the slab of fish decorated with spices, citrus wheels, and cilantro in the center of the table. “Fifty, sixty dollars?”
Aaron pretended to cough. “We can’t all live in poverty.”
“There’s the cocky kid I know,” Keith said. He raised his glass and smiled, mock-cheerful, and Aaron thought of taking Keith’s glass and throwing it across the room.
“Don’t make me feel guilty for cooking you a nice dinner,” Aaron said.
“Us,” Jeanie said.
“What?” Aaron said.
“Don’t make us feel guilty,” Jeanie said. “We both cooked.”
“Don’t be silly.” Keith waved them off. “I’m appreciative. Of course I’m appreciative. I’m only adjusting.”
“He’s only adjusting,” Aaron said to Jeanie.
“Why do you have to be sarcastic all the time? You’re a grown man,” Keith said.
“Tell us about something else,” Aaron said. “Was it dangerous?”
Keith sighed. “Some other time I’ll talk about the political state of things. The upheaval.” Keith looked down at his food. “What I will say is that Kyrgyzstani PCVs have it especially tough.”
“I’m glad you’re back,” Jeanie said. She’d had four or five glasses of wine. Some pink showed in her cheeks. She reached across the table and covered one of Keith’s thick hands with hers.
“We were lucky to find bananas over there,” Keith said. “Lucky to find horse meat.”
“Okay,” Jeanie said, withdrawing her hands to her own lap. “You’ve seen the world. You’re better for it. We’ll have horse and cockroach for dinner tomorrow.”
“I’m only saying,” Keith said. He stared at the mangled fish on his plate, seeming to go elsewhere. A long moment passed. “Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying.” He blamed alcohol and jet lag and stuffed more salmon into his mouth.
At home alone that night, trying to fall asleep, memories that hadn’t come to Aaron in a long time resurfaced. Some he called up intentionally and fondly as a way to forget Jeanie and Keith were probably having sex just then (wouldn’t that be the thing to do, after all this time?). Aaron showing Keith how to climb the backyard crab apple tree. Playing hockey in roller blades in the kitchen at 3:00 a.m. while Tara refereed. The floor scarred with black slashes.
He reached through the darkness toward the night table on the other side of the bed, opened the drawer, felt around for Jeanie’s sleeping pills, and tossed one back with the glass of stale Chardonnay sitting there. Her lip balm still clinging to the rim, the old taste bursting new again.
He remembered the waves of learning her, of his defenses crumbling into the sea. She was a financial consultant not because she loved money, though she did, but because she loved numbers. More than occasionally, she reminded him of her perfect score on the math section of her SAT. And sometimes, falling asleep next to her, he would hear her whispering incomprehensible equations, which she explained was a childhood tactic to soothe her mind before bed. Soothe your mind? he’d said, incredulous.
Waiting for the sleeping pill to take effect, he tried his own version and counted the parts of his ranch-style house. Five bedrooms, three bathrooms, one fourteen-year-old Porsche 911 with one rusted-out exhaust pipe, one unused finished basement with infinite cobwebs and specks of dust, 2400 square feet of beige carpet, one grumpy divorcée who couldn’t sleep, and on the dresser, one empty glass fish tank wherein once swam a big-eyed black goldfish named Yorgos. Yorgos had been his ex-wife Angela’s fish. Angela had left Yorgos behind out of kindness, knowing Aaron would need a companion and knowing Aaron would be too embarrassed to ask. And he was thankful. In those first weeks in the house alone, years before Keith left for the Corps, he would talk to Yorgos about his ideas for jingles. About how much he missed Angela. About his regrets, his dreams, his plans. Put a finger to the glass, and Yorgos would swim to be near it. Bloop bloop, Aaron would say through the glass. Soon, green scum gathered in the corners of Yorgos’s tank, so Aaron looked up online how to replace the water, a chore Angela had always done. Per the instructions, he pulled out a large mixing bowl from the kitchen and ladled into it some of the dirty tank’s water. He scooped Yorgos and dropped him into the bowl, and he set the bowl onto a table by the window. And once he’d finished scrubbing the tank and pouring in fresh water and treating the water with chemicals he’d bought from the pet store and waiting for the water to be safe for Yorgos to swim in, he went over to the mixing bowl to get Yorgos, but he was upside-down, his little gills unmoving. Aaron looked out the window for an explanation and found nothing but a beautiful day.
He scooped Yorgos out of the bowl and flushed him down the toilet.
“So you have to understand,” he said into the pillow, maybe to himself, maybe to someone like God. But he couldn’t finish the thought.