Union Chapter 23
“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
This was his life.
A house—a rented one, but a house; a purpose—helping a friend, keeping a promise; a job … well, jobs—amateur computer programmer, handyman, driver, carpenter, plumber—almost anything that paid the bills.
He was Devin Wells here, taking care of his “brother,” being as friendly and as private as expected in a small town, living a quiet life smack in the middle of restless waiting and dreading. It chafed on Devin like new-bought shoes, alien and uncomfortable.
He was living his life in almost complete truth, and it felt like an bald-faced lie.
Devin stepped over the threshold of the narrow front door to the porch and let the screen go. It bounced twice off the frame, shutting the cooking and worried Charles in and him out. A peeling and warped board squeaked underfoot with a sound that forewarned weakness; maybe not dangerous now, but with Charles’ weight and ambling gait, it could easily go bad faster than Devin’s good intentions could keep up. It was his responsibility to take care of the house, to take care of Charles.
Praemonitus, praemunitus.—forewarned, forearmed—his tumbling thoughts offered. [i]
Devin surrendered to logic: better to fix it right after the mail. His recent after-work shower would be shot, and he would have to put off dinner until after dark, but better that than to add another future chore to the list, another responsibility on the heap.
I can’t go on like this.
That’s what you think.[ii]
Devin was irritable, worn down, and it was clear Charles knew it. The large man stayed inside, out of Devin’s way. Devin couldn’t help but be grateful that Charles understood when to leave a brother alone. Devin hated Eddie for teaching the lesson, but it didn’t stop a guilty Devin from taking advantage.
I could send that piece of shit a thank-you note. Eddie and me..
…not so different after all…
The beauty of the trees, their natural and man-made patterns on the horizon, the new, vibrant grass, the dusty rose-grey sky, could do nothing to change his mood. He couldn’t see any future, nor outrun his past, staying here in one place. It was the same today as yesterday, and it would be the same world he would wake up to tomorrow. He was stuck in the present.
Always before, when the novelty had worn off, when the responsibilities, (burdens, but he wouldn’t say burdens) began, Devin would pick another life to try on. He would gather the pieces—books and ephemera, accessories, accents, backstory—and fraud his way into a new world.
And then he had gone back home again.
He took on Devin Wells once more, a son, a brother, a man with family and friends—friends that needed daily help—and a family that could be in danger and could leave you wondering for weeks without a word whether they were dead or alive.
Attachment leads to suffering.[iii]
Devin scanned past the rock and dirt driveway, hoping to see the dust of the country road flying from the squat mail truck driving past, but his only companions were the sparrows and warblers congregating on the rock fence and Charles’ chickens roaming in their yard.
The mail wasn’t late, he hadn’t missed it, no reason to walk down to the box, but Devin needed to move. His tired feet shuffled off the sagging porch of the New House, as Chad, their elderly landlord, had named it. Chad’s own Old House was about a half a mile away, past a rolling field and an overgrown orchard. If you lived your whole life in a Colonial farm house that had sheltered eight generations, on land that had been in your family since before the Mason-Dixon line was mapped, Devin guessed, a house built in the mid-1800s might seem new by comparison.
There was comfort here, for Charles at least, in the paradoxical stillness and clamor of spring, close enough to the doctors and social workers at Johns Hopkins to make the drive once a week or so, but far enough into rural Maryland for Charles to live without the worry of unfriendly and judging eyes on him daily.
With your medical training, Mr. Wells, you can understand that most cases like your brother’s will require repeat surgery, as easy excision is generally not possible due to the nature of the tumors. Plexiform neurofibromas can infiltrate multiple tissue planes and are thus much more difficult or impossible to resect. We will do our best to provide Charles with the best pain management techniques available, and put you on a payment plan that fits your needs.
Despite his pain, Charles was thriving here. He was becoming more than he had ever been; out from under Eddie’s whip and cage, he was discovering his own tastes and strengths. He liked songs by Lionel Richie, and detective novels, and cooking. In that, and only in that, Devin felt right about his life. The winter of recovery after Charles’ harsh, but necessary, surgery had blossomed into a spring of growth.
Before the snow had left the ground, Charles, just recuperated from pneumonia, shyly but with growing confidence asked for chickens. At the time, Devin’s instinct, born of a life of movement and uncertainty, was to refuse. The time and money when they were barely making ends meet seemed foolish, but even as the words left his mouth, he knew he was wrong. Charles’ open disappointment, and hearing the sound of the Old Man’s defeated exasperation in his own voice, propelled Devin to town and back with enough lumber for a small chicken coop, and a promise of chicks in exchange for some odd jobs around the feed store. It was Charles who kept the bartered-for chicks alive, not losing even one to his and Devin’s inexperience. Charles learned to curb his strength holding the tiny chicks in his huge, warm hands. He took care of his charges, making a place for the fragile birds close to the warmth of the kitchen stove, feeding and cleaning up after them daily. They gave him nothing yet but joy. They wouldn’t lay anything until at least July, so the books said, but for Charles their companionship was more than enough.
After a life on the road, Charles loved the clock of farm, the routine of the sun, the meals, the garden and the animals. Devin read all the books the library had to offer, but it was Charles who was reaching out beyond the books, discovering daily the things that Devin had always treasured, the things the books forgot to say.
Devin knew early that a photographic memory was a rare thing, a double-edged sword, intruding and not perfect, but a gift good enough to be treasured. The Old Man may have treated his ability as a given, but Devin felt proud when easily answering questions on dates or data, or when asked to recite a soliloquy, or a special passage. Pages read could be read again with his mind’s eye, mined for knowledge and meaning. It wasn’t perfect, but it had served him well enough when a lack of a birth certificate had kept him from school and any meaningful work. A couple of good books and great smiles, and he could have almost any job he wanted, but there was no challenge in that.
Devin needed a life outside of books—motorcycles, acrobatics, marksmanship, knife throwing—he yearned for anything that could only be learned from experience. The written word wasn’t perfect. Meanings were clouded, their true depth hidden from the uninitiated. A page of words might recall, but not truly introduce, the feel of an almost-loving, almost-rebellious bike under you at ninety miles an hour, the smell of St. Louis barbeque, the sound of a thousand hooves bounding past on the Serengeti, the almost mystical orange-yellow glow of a sunset reflecting off mountain snow. Some things had never been, maybe could never be, written about in the detail needed to explain to someone who had never experienced them.
They were all the things Vincent could never have.
Vincent had been locked away from life by the Old Man against threats from the cruelest people of the world, and no matter how good it was to see Charles grow, and learn, and become, it could not fulfill Devin’s wish, never pay his debts.
Vincent had been his childhood. From Devin’s earliest memories until his choice to leave the Tunnels and that sheltered life behind, Vincent had been his constant—a sickly baby taking everyone’s attention, then a toddling shadow, to, finally, true companion. He was Athos to Devin’s Aramis, Mortimer to his Blake, Watson to his Holmes.
He was my childhood and I can’t do a thing for him.
Vincent had written somehow forgiving him, somehow picking up where they had left off, recalling mutual memories that Devin hadn’t forgotten. Vincent described the hardships of the Tunnels with a poetry and a thankfulness that Devin could only admire, but doubted he could ever share. Vincent wrote of the time they were apart, of growing up, and of more recent times—of ghosts that painted magical portraits, of the man/boy named Mouse, of greed, and goodness, and finally, after many letters, of Lisa’s departure and return, and the awful and, at least in Devin’s mind, justifiable things he had done to keep others safe.
And he wrote about her—
He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.[iv]
Vincent wrote of her, his words, his meaning almost as clear from the things he didn’t say as what he did. In Vincent’s letters she was never named as lover, girlfriend, or even friend. Just—
Vincent never said love, but every sentence, even if he meant to hide it, shouted for him.
She opened my eyes to a way of seeing the world I never would have known.
She awes me with her strength and her dedication to justice.
She trusts me, almost to a fault, while I doubt myself every moment. Am I cognizant enough of the risks we face each time we meet? Could I let her go if I must? I look into her eyes, Devin, and all other moments die. I can think of nothing but her.
It was easy to see how Vincent felt, but what Devin wanted to know—what did she feel?
What is he to her? Does she love him? Yes. No one could deny it—the way she tried to keep him safe, even from me, seeing their heads together laughing over my note at the carousel, her expression when Vincent told Charles about our misadventures moon-gazing—she has it as bad as Vincent, but how far is she willing to go?
Is she ready to give up everything for love?
…everything I couldn’t.
Devin had had women before, more than he would ever tell his brother, but they never looked at him the way Chandler looked at Vincent. But that didn’t mean she would keep on looking at him that way, and if she hurt him…
…and she already had.
Last summer Vincent’s letters had stopped. Only after the fact did Devin hear about the attacks from that monster John Pater, or Paracelsus, or whatever that egotistical psycho called himself, and then of Vincent’s … illness … his breakdown, and all the forces of the world battering against him. Vincent had hidden his downward path. Why?
Was Chandler a part of it? Was she to blame, at least partially?
Vincent had written again, after recovering, but his letters were disjointed, his voice weakened almost, like he was trying to grasp at ideas that couldn’t fully form.
And then Chandler had gone missing.
The whole world is divided for me into two parts; one is she, and there is happiness, hope, light; the other is where she is not, and there is dejection and darkness… [v]
And then Vincent didn’t write at all … hadn’t written since the fall. That, in itself, proclaimed the seriousness of their relationship.
Was it foul play, or had she just pulled a “Devin”? Would she do that?
The Old Man begged him to come home.
I fear Catherine’s absence is leading Vincent back to that dark place at the very edge of his sanity. I worry your brother is close to the madness that claimed him before. If there is any way you and Charles could come home, I know you could bring him some comfort.
But that was right after Charles’ surgery. Charles couldn’t travel; hell, he couldn’t even climb the damn stairs hopped up on enough pain pills to numb a killer whale. All his basic needs from companionship to crapping were Devin’s responsibility. And then, just as winter was setting in, when life for Charles should have gone back to normal, a stupid cold that should have been gone in a week, settled into a three-month stint of pneumonia.
At this time your protests mean little, and less in light of Vincent’s fragile body and heart. I am sorry you feel Winterfest beyond you. Clearly, your new life takes precedence over your old. You have always found a way to leave your past behind, son. It hurts me to remind you, but it seems I must. We did not stop existing when you departed. Vincent may have left you with scars, but when you disappeared you left many of your own.
When it came to Vincent, Devin was still to blame.
As if I needed reminding, that self-righteous bastard…
Jacob Wells either didn’t remember or didn’t care that nothing, not even fire and booze, could erase his words. That was the danger of an eidetic memory, the guilt that didn’t stop because forgetting was impossible.
Wasn’t I being the person he wants me to be, the dutiful man, if not the dutiful son?
Devin wanted to go back home. He nearly left a dozen times when he could kid himself that Charles was almost better, when he could ignore the wheezing and the weakness, but the truth always caught him before he could take two steps back to New York—Charles needed him to survive. Charles couldn’t leave then, and he was still too dependent to be left on his own. It was a maddening and completely binding responsibility. (He wouldn’t say burden … he wouldn’t.)
Devin had never cared this much for someone else. He had spent his entire life avoiding it, but that didn’t work out.
Think you’re escaping and you run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.[vi]
Did he have any idea the can of worms he was opening when he returned to New York to play lawyer? Could he have imagined that it would eventually lead him into caring so much for two people that he didn’t know where his loyalties lay? It was only Charles’ proximity and immediate need that won out. Vincent had an entire community; Charles only had Devin. He tried to explain that to the Old Man.
And then they all stopped writing.
For weeks now, not a word had come from anyone from that stupid hole in the ground, no matter how many letters Devin sent to find them; no matter how much he begged, it was like they had all disappeared off the face of the earth.
Turnabout is fair play, right?
He left them without a word, and now they left him, stuck in the life he had chosen—kicking stones in “Hicksville,” shuffling towards a roadside mailbox for bills, but probably nothing else.
So how can I be myself, Devin Wells, a man with a family, if my family gives up on me? Who is Devin Wells then?
You are a cold bitch, Karma, and your ironic lessons on what a tremendous prick I have been are monumentally unappreciated.
As he walked the last few yards he saw Mike Green’s postal truck finally pull up. Devin had helped Mike with some demolition and framing work on his house. They were friendly. This was Mike’s last delivery, and his boss didn’t mind if he caught a cold one on Devin’s and Charles’ porch before clocking out. Devin had learned there were times to keep your head down and there were times to make friends. Charles needed friends, and Devin, no matter how much he wanted to hole up, tried to oblige.
“Hey, Wells, how’s your brother doing?” Mike yelled from the small square window just as he cut the truck’s engine.
Devin walked into the gravel road, reached out and shook the mailman’s hand. It surprised Devin that Charles was accepted here for the most part, even liked in some quarters. If Charles’ appearance still brought some stares and comments, Devin’s responsibility for his “brother” was never questioned. People here understood about family taking care of family. It was expected, but uncommon enough now to be admired, supported.
“Just fine, Mike. He’s cooking us dinner.” Devin gestured back to the house.
“That’s great!” Mike said. “So, he’s really on the mend? Glad to hear it.” He handed Devin a rubber band-wrapped stack of mail. “A couple magazines, Trader Horne flyer, you know… Oh, you got a letter from the State. Looks like more paperwork for the health aid, good luck on that, and, oh, a letter postmarked from New York…”
Devin nearly tore through the bundle to find the thick envelope with Vincent’s handwriting on it.
“No return address though,” Mike commented, meaning strange.
“It’s from my-our brother, our other brother,” Devin corrected himself as he inserted his finger into the cream-colored envelope and ripped open the top. He wrenched out the letter but, as he did, a picture tucked safely in the papers escaped and drifted to the ground before Devin could catch it.
“That’s a cute little tyke,” Mike said, craning out his window as Devin snatched the photo from the gravel. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea…” Devin replied almost under his breath as he turned over the photograph and read the inscription.
“With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls…” Jacob, born March 28th, 1990
With more questions than ever, Devin unfolded the pages, holding the photograph to the side with the other mail.
My Dearest Devin,
I write you with the greatest joy and deepest contrition. I am sorry I could not get word to you until now. I know you have been worried and, for that, please accept my apology. I wished to write you sooner. My only defense has been nearly non-stop occupation, and confusion as to how to reach you safely.
Since you last heard from us, we have experienced a season of wonders, profound changes, great sorrow, pain and fear, but also unimagined happiness. There is so much to tell, and so much that I cannot put into words. I believe you will understand when I write that although we are exactly where you left us, I have journeyed to an entirely new continent, and am living a different life in a beautiful, but foreign land. It seems almost too strange and miraculous to write in words, but Catherine has become my wife and she has given me a son, Jacob, born just three days after all my prayers, uttered in hope and despair, were answered, and we were reunited.
So many walls that seemed impossibly tall have been scaled by love. Our tiny child, my wise little Jacob, looks into me with my own eyes perfected, and he sees no half-man, only his guide, his protector, his father.
Devin stopped reading and looked at the photo again.
Devin whooped, punching the air with the papers. The sound reverberated through the quiet hills and fields of his new home.
“Good news, I take it?” offered Mike.
“The best! My brother and his wife just had a kid. I didn’t even know he was married! I’m a goddamn uncle!” Devin shouted in amazement.
“Congratulations to ‘em!” Mike said with real affection, starting the truck again.
“Hey, thanks, Mike! ” Devin yelled over his shoulder, already running up the drive.
Vincent had named Catherine his wife. He had claimed her, and been claimed in return. Vincent had a son. The world was a different place, larger, fairer, and maybe, just maybe, Devin Wells had a place in it.
“Charles!” Devin screamed for his friend.
His memory could be a gift. He could pay some of his debts to Vincent after all. He could tell Catherine stories of the boy her husband was, the secrets their father knew nothing about—the mischievous boy, the trickster child, of the tears and laughter only two little boys could share. He would reminisce with a brother and speculate about a son.
There was a new person in the world, and because of this little boy, there were new possibilities, a new life to try on.
Vincent is a dad, and maybe I can be a better uncle than I’ve been a brother or a son.
Devin spied Charles standing tentatively between the house and porch, peering out of their darkening home to see what could cause his friend, recently so dour and quiet, to scream and laugh like a madman.
“Charles,” Devin began, running up the wooden stairs, wheezing out the words, “pack a bag. We’ve got to get ready.” He looked around at the birds starting to quiet in the cooling evening. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, slicking back his black hair. “Jeeze, we need to find somebody to take care of your chickens for a while,” he gulped out.
He turned back to his friend, who had followed him almost blindly into a new life. Devin hoped he would have the faith and good will to follow him again.
Devin needed to return to New York to see Vincent and his family. He needed to go back to go forward.
He showed Charles the photo.
“We’ve got family to see.”