When it’s time to paint, I paint. Flecks of the barn’s old red come off in chips on the roller and mingle with the new white until I get pink. I climb down the ladder, dip the thing in acetate, help Phil out with his nebulizer. His vapor mixes with the early morning fog till you can’t be sure it isn’t all coming from him. His machine pumps out medicine over hills, across lakes, past the stalks of corn in their ordered lines and rows. To heal him you’ll have to heal the whole world first.
So I paint, and Phil sits, in Grandpa’s old rocker, over the feed. The chickens one-eye him as they scuttle over–pecking once, twice, retreating. Some of them are afraid of the machine’s constant hum, the way it clicks and whirs. Phil says I missed a spot; Darth Vaders it between breaths. I’ve only laid a checkerboard square of white on the great expanse of red. I spin the roller to rain paint on my big brother. It lands in droplets like stars on the sky of his bald head. The cows come in to watch, or else get at the greener grass, depending on your perspective. Phil picks up a cow chip and frisbees it at me. It explodes on the rung under my feet. Tiny, oblong versions of me reflect in racing lines of white paint.
We break at noon, Phil with his arm around my neck. Like a chokehold. Like it’s not to keep him standing. Sandwiches in triangle halves on Mom’s doily plates, her not around to insist they’re for special occasions only. Us eating standing up, or at least Phil doing it till his lungs burn, then sitting. Dad’s voice used to collect gravel when he’d ask where my manners were, till “manners” came out as a growl. Phil would try not to laugh, always did anyway.
So we go to the barn. For old time’s sake. For forgetting tomorrow’s surgery. We find Dad’s chew in an old Altoids tin, the “oids” rusted out so it’s just “Alt.” As if there could be any alternative. The sickly smell of it as we pack boluses to the right cheek, then the left to get the taste away. Spitting it out and running to the pump, spit like mud, and washing our mouths out with water we once lit on fire.
We dig into cobwebbed boxes nailed shut, pull out the snowshoes we used to make the crop circles that summer, corn stalks crunching beneath our feet. Phil disappeared into our maize maze, left me to look over the map: crayon on construction paper. Dad came outside to two stalk clusters rustling on a windless day. Went in with his shotgun. Found me first. Kept it raised even after he knew it was only me. Wondered what in creation I was doing. Our crop circle stayed like that, half-completed, till harvest time. A botched landing we’d be reminded of for the next three months.
We stand in the barn, in isosceles light coming through the door. Phil’s wearing Grandpa’s uniform. The thing is ill-fitting now as then, now for a very different reason. Phil salutes with his bony arms, knocks out cannula from nostrils with a smile. Cough-laughs as I fix it for him. I take a pic and he warns me not to post it, insists he can still kick my ass, you know.
He wants something to break; something to shoot. We go out back with a box of pellets, the doily plates, Dad’s gun. The fresh paint’s at our backs. It leaches fumes into the air, even out here, with endless corn to soak it up. We’re losing daylight, so I paint between his shots. Spin plates into cloudless sky like UFO polaroids we used to fake and send to Dateline, Art Bell, anyone we thought might take them. Plate chips rain over dirt, and Phil’s laughing so hard it sounds like he’s surfacing after a deep dive. Risking the bends but not caring either way.
I finish painting at sundown; hurry back to the barn for what we need. Rip the “for sale” sign out of dirt Grandpa used to till, his grandpa before him. Lodge pellets into it, rapid fire, airborne, spinning fast: sign, post, sign, post.
We lay out the chairs. Set up the projector. Put on the old zombie trilogy, like we’re only kids on Halloween: Night, Dawn, Day.