Critical Thought: Loafer

The sentence has become the dominant unit of communication in our culture. We receive so much of our information now in condensed forms: tweets, status updates, news headlines, text messages, etc. Lately I find myself attracted to literary works that place a greater emphasis on the individual sentences. With information being exchanged so readily, and at such a breakneck speed, we need dynamic sentences that can rise above the noise.

Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, Annalemma, Gigantic, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He keeps a blog at ravimangla.com.

Loafer

The pathos is in the peanuts, my brother said. He was using my kitchen as workspace, a makeshift studio for his peanut butter sculptures. I referred him to a local gallery owner (your classic schmoozer, yea high and gilded in bronze toner), but my brother wasn’t interested. No worthwhile artist was ever truly appreciated in their lifetime, a line he recited with biblical certainty. One of the perks of an early passing. Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ritchie Valens. It didn’t matter that our last name began with an M.

Before I took him in, against my will, he lived in a kind of colony for the creatively inclined. Every couple of months he called to ask for money, a handout. Six months passed without a peep and I went looking for him, finally finding him an animal hospital in San Juan, bandages on his wrists.

It wasn’t such a surprise. Our father was a do-it-yourselfer too, only he was better with his hands. In fact, we descended from a long line of the self-sacrificing. Abandonment was the closest thing to a family tradition.

Together we flew back to the city and he moved into my apartment. The veterinarians provided detailed instructions for his care. I purged the house of sharp objects, drain cleaners and household detergents. He shaved each morning with the bathroom door open. The windows were never exposed more than a crack. Alcohol was kept in a locked cabinet, with the accompanying key concealed securely in my sock drawer. Most importantly, they warned, never leave him alone overnight.

The weeks were reluctant to pass and my brother picked up his paintbrush again. Unable to get it working, he switched to the peanut medium. During the day he shaped and reshaped his sculptures, kept them in the kitchen where they attracted cults of insects until all that was left was the plywood base. He told me he had been inspired by the hospital, the peanut butter he was fed each morning from sterilized palms, harboring his medications.

It’s the ephemeral nature of the form that makes it so provocative, he said, vacuuming the trampled ants from the creases in the floor.

How far could we have evolved beyond the noodlings of macaroni art?

I arranged a blind date for him with a woman at work. From what I later heard, before assuming the wrath of her purse, he forgot his charge card at the apartment, spilled duck sauce on her designer clogs, and spent the latter half of the dinner fashioning napkins into origami cranes.

Once upon a time solitude was something I held sacred. There was nowhere to go that was my own, no private corner of the world. Home, I felt claustrophobic. I began spending evenings at the bar, throwing darts or shooting pool. It was a game of endurance. As soon as the worry clubbed me I hopped the subway, aimed for home, playing out the different scenarios in my head, each more hideous than the one previous. Sometimes my mind had a mind of its own.

I was picked up by a woman one night, thrust into a dark cab, and taken to her place across town. Our clothes were off before the car reached the curb, loose buttons bouncing around the upholstery. The plan was to return home by midnight, but I slept late, over the mewlings of her many famished cats. In the morning I dressed and snagged a cab back to the apartment. I checked the rooms, one by one, relieved to find him asleep on the kitchen floor, snoring, his face slathered with extra nutty. I nudged him with my shoe. The snoring broke and his eyes opened. He lifted himself from the linoleum.

I was waiting up for you, he said. I wanted to show you something.

On the kitchen table was a cotton sheet, obscuring some jutting structure underneath. Slowly he reeled in the sheet, scrolling it around his forearms and then setting it on a chair. He waited for my moment of recognition. And when I failed to respond he helped me along.

It’s The General, he said, a name we had devised for our father when he was still around, an affable jab at his knack for draft dodging.

Don’t you see it?

But I didn’t see it. I never saw it. I saw a gawky hunk of peanut butter and I saw my brother, a brittle man pushed to his ends, standing there in boxers and an undershirt, his nervous fingers fidgeting with the tartan fabric.

I leaned closer to study the sculpture, circled around the table cupping my stubbled chin, pausing at intervals for effect.

Do you think it needs more butter around the ears? he asked.

No. I think you should keep it as it is.

He let the words settle in, nodded his head. I gestured toward the sculpture. He held one side of the base and I held the other. We toured around the apartment for someplace to display it, high enough that the ants wouldn’t have a chance.

by Ravi Mangla