I never thought to feel sorry for Marty; but when my father passed away, he was automatically in charge. My dad wasn’t really even Marty’s. Marty was six when my mom married my dad; which is about when they had me. There were more kids, after me; but I think Marty loved me most because I was his first sister.
When they were done, there were five of us kids, including Marty, and we lived in a tiny house in Bargersville, Indiana. Even before Dad died, we weren’t especially rich. Technically, Mom had a job as a seamstress in our local dry cleaning shop; but there isn’t a lot of need for that sort of thing, probably on account of most grandmothers knowing how to sew. Mom’s hours were always cut way back.
Marty took his role as big brother more seriously than any of his other responsibilities. He looked out for me when we were kids, even when he went on to middle school and then high school. When I was in sixth grade, he’d already graduated, but he still came down and gave Tommy Elkins the what-for after he made fun of me for being the first girl in our class to get a period. Marty showed up at my soccer games and carted me to birthday parties. When I was older, he taught me how to check oil and change a flat tire, count change, read a road map.
My best memories with Marty are from when he took me out in his truck. He didn’t have a lot of free time; but when he did, he’d say, “Let’s go, kid,” and we’d rattle down the country roads that only led to more country roads and we’d talk or listen to Nirvana. Once, when I was twelve, I asked him, “Don’t you ever wish you could go somewhere else, Marty?” And he just shrugged his shoulders, because what could he say? I didn’t understand then that it was an unfair question to ask in the first place. We seemed to do a lot of driving at sunset. I’d rest my chin on top of my hands on the open truck window, and I’d watch the orange fire sink behind the steady cornfield horizon.
It reminded me of a summer night when Marty was twelve instead, and I was only six, and we were waiting in the backyard for the fireflies to come out. Dad wasn’t gone, but he was sick, and it was better to stay out of the house for as much of the day as possible.
“I like watching the sun go down,” I said.
“It doesn’t go anywhere, Lil,” Marty said. “We do.”
I was astonished. “We go?”
“We move around the sun. It stays put. The earth turns away and back again. The sun doesn’t move in the sky.”
I don’t remember feeling patronized. Of course, now I can empathize with how Marty probably felt at that time — a dying step-father, who had taken the place of a father who didn’t want him, and all of us to look after. He was already looking out, giving me a simple space lesson while understanding, he was about to become our sun. We would need him for everything, and he was poised to give and give but never move. But at six, I barely understood what it meant for a dad to be sick, let alone the consequences. So I went to bed sad that night, not for Marty, but about the sun. My childlike optimism wanted to hold on to my idea — that when it was time to wake in the morning, the sun peeked over the ground to greet us, and at night, it said goodbye with a spectacular show.
Dad’s goodbye wasn’t intense or terrifying. It just was. It was like his person drained out of his body, more and more, until there was a dried-out shell and none of him left to be found. Marty was almost fourteen when it finally happened. I was about to turn eight. The trickling farewell nearly broke Mom, so Marty held her pieces together. By then I could see it that way, a little more clearly. I’d be awake in bed at night, hear mom crying into her ice cream bowl at the kitchen table. Marty would get home from his after school job at the gas station, clear away the dish, and give mom an apple or some toast instead. He’d sit there and listen to her wailing. “I know, Mom, I know,” he’d say. I’d imagine him sticking her broken parts in place like a jigsaw puzzle, Scotch tape over each one to try to hold it fast.
On my eighth birthday, Marty gave me a puzzle. All my friends were getting their ears pierced; but since it was a present from Marty, it was special. Besides a few scribbled coloring book pages from my little sisters and brother, it was the only gift I got.
“It’s a map of the world,” Marty said. “Because you should know about what’s out there.”
I think that’s what I was remembering, a few years later in his truck, when we were driving aimlessly and I asked him about leaving. I figured if he had wanted me to know what was out there, then he already knew and thought it was important. But that was the only time I ever asked him about leaving, that time in the fields, when I was twelve. By then he was assistant manager at the Columbia Outlet store down south, and he talked about that job like he’d made it.
As it turned out, I had a knack for school, which was something new for my family. Maybe it was because I still needed something to hold on to. I had a couple friends, but I never felt the need to be close to them because I had Marty. And also because I had Marty, I didn’t have many boyfriends. I’d blame it on Tommy Elkins and his big mouth, but I didn’t mind much anyhow. Marty was enough for me.
Every year on my birthday, he and I would stay up late and put together the atlas puzzle from when I’d turned eight. We’d sit in the dusty, mauve living room and clear the coffee table of TV Guides and pop cans. It was just big enough for the puzzle to fit. Once I turned fifteen or sixteen, he’d sneak me a birthday beer from the fridge, and we’d clink the tops of the bottles and take our time snapping the pieces in place. I probably could have done it with my eyes closed, but that wasn’t the point. We’d try to do the whole thing continent by continent, and Marty’d say, “My number one destination in Asia is — ” but he’d only ever randomly pick a place. He pretended to choose with intention, but I watched him swirl his finger and let it fall. The names he said didn’t mean anything to him. Every year they changed.
I knew though. I’d sip my beer, pretending to like it, and wait for the click of the last piece of South America. “Chile,” I’d say. In Asia, “Japan.” Africa, “Morocco.” Europe, “Italy. But that’s only because you force me to choose one place!” Marty would laugh, and we’d struggle through Antarctica, debating if it was really worth the trouble for anyone to go and see it. He’d argue with me about Australia being a continent and a country, one-in-the-same; and then we’d slowly but surely piece together all of the States and Canada.
“Realistically,” I said on my seventeenth birthday, “We should be able to see all of our own country in a lifetime. Maybe excluding Alaska and Hawaii.”
“You’re going to see all of your picks, damn it,” Marty said. “And more. I’m gonna make sure.” He twisted his mouth into a wry smile. “But tonight, you’ve still gotta follow the rules and pick just one place in North America.”
I laughed, “Okay. New York. Like always.” He nodded. “Your turn,” I said.
Marty dangled his finger over Indiana. “Always liked Bargersville,” he said. That was his one choice that stayed the same, birthday after birthday.
The day I turned eighteen, I said goodnight to the kids, pulled some beers from the fridge and cleared the coffee table. I collapsed into the couch and sat before the television with absent mind until Marty got home.
“You’re later than usual,” I said, nodding toward the ticking on the dining room wall.
“Had to take a long lunch,” Marty said. He wriggled out of his sneakers and pointed toward one of the sweaty bottles sitting in front of me. I handed him his beer. “So I stayed a little later to make sure everything was in order.”
“You’re very busy and important,” I mocked. I shimmied the lid off of the puzzle box and set it aside. Before I could dump the pieces, Marty slapped his hand over my wrist.
“Go get in the truck,” he said.
“You heard me.” He crashed the beers into the kitchen sink and opened the broom closet, retrieving a small duffle bag. I followed obediently from the living room to the kitchen, then from the kitchen to the garage. The interior lights in Marty’s truck blinked to life at the sound of the door opening. I hit the button to raise the garage door and climbed into the passenger side.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“You man the radio,” Marty said. “We’ve got a long drive. Happy birthday.”