WATCHING MY BROTHER RIDE

WATCHING MY BROTHER RIDE

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Watching My Brother Ride

Brothers don’t necessarily have to say anything to each other—they can sit in a room and be together and just be completely comfortable with each other.

Leonardo Di Caprio

In the year after my father died, there was nothing I wanted more than a trophy. I was twelve, and the hope of placing a trophy on my dresser woke me up in the middle of the night. All of my friends had trophies, from soccer and football, from raffle ticket sales and BMX races and chess tournaments; one friend even had a trophy in the shape of deer antlers because he’d shot a thirteen-point buck. Any of those would have elated me; I believed they would have given me back something my father’s absence had taken away. The problem was that I had no skills or talents that would yield a trophy.

My older brother, Alan, had shelves of trophies. He had some from Little League, but most came from horse shows. Before my father died, he had bought each of us a horse. Mine was a pinto pony that I named Colonel because of a white star on his shoulder; Alan’s was a quarter horse, fourteen-hands high, named Otis. He ran the barrels and did pole-racing, and when Alan kicked Otis’s sides and hollered for him to come on, they were nothing but run. Colonel always wanted to follow, and I could feel him gathering power and speed in his gallop, but I was afraid of falling, so I’d pull on the reins and we’d lag behind. Really, this is a story about my brother.

After my father died, my mother rarely went to the stables where we boarded the horses. In fact, she really didn’t go anywhere. She cut back on her hours at work and stopped going to play bridge. Mostly she stayed in her room. Alan ran a lot of errands for her and cooked our meals and paid our bills with money he made waiting tables.

This was also the year I started smoking. And I was spending time with the crowd at school who set fire to bathroom trash cans. I liked the feeling I got from being around everything I’d been told to stay away from; if I was scared to let Colonel burst into a run beneath me, I wasn’t afraid to cut class and play video games at the mall. I liked that after I back-talked a history teacher, girls suddenly knew who I was. I liked the new music I listened to, the way I’d learned to spit phlegm onto the ceiling. I appreciated the depths to which my grades dropped. I enjoyed hanging out with kids who, like me, had no trophies and couldn’t care less.

My brother didn’t like this behavior, and when the worst of my report cards arrived in the mail, he rode with me into the pasture and interrogated me. To all of his questions—What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you’re fooling? Why are you throwing everything Mom and Dad worked for down the toilet?—I answered, “I don’t know.” And the truth was, I didn’t know. I was adrift, floating away from everything I’d known.

He started picking me up from school, denying me the opportunity to carouse with the smokers and bullies, and we drove to the stables to ride until night fell. Through all of this, I still loved riding, still found comfort in being around Colonel, but I hated being made to ride. After a week of forcing me to spend my afternoons exclusively with him, I took a self-righteous stand and told Alan that I refused to be chaperoned like this. I listed all the ways I thought he was treating me unfairly, and he let me work myself into a fury. When I’d exhausted all of my angles, Alan said, “I entered you in the horse show. It’s in two weeks.”

I was stunned, appalled and incredulous. I was thrilled, but I didn’t let on. I huffed, “Why?”

He was cleaning Otis’s hooves. Without looking at me, he said, “You want a trophy, right?”

The next week is a blur in my memory. Although I hated to admit he had such sway with my emotions, Alan’s implied challenge completely refocused my attentions, my loyalties. Suddenly, I thought of nothing except strategies for running barrel events faster. I distanced myself from the smokers and bullies. When Alan picked me up after school, I asked him to drive faster to the stables. By week’s end, Colonel and I had lit upon a new rhythm and we rode hard and fast, the way I’d always watched Alan ride. The night before the junior rodeo, I could already feel the trophy in my hands, the promising weight of its dignity; I could see my reflection in that golden angel’s breasts.

Alan had entered me in four events, and in the first three, I floundered. My nerves sizzled in my knees, and I made mistake after mistake. I was on the verge of tears and in the full throes of anger, furious with Alan for subjecting me to my own shortcomings, with my mother for venturing back into the world to watch me fail, furious with my father for dying, furious with myself for being my pitiful self.

The last event was running poles, and to everyone’s surprise, I didn’t do half bad. My time was nowhere near the fastest, but seemed solid enough to secure me seventh place, the last place that would receive a trophy. Colonel and I watched the other riders. Before the last competitor, I was still in seventh. My mother smoked cigarette after cigarette, while Alan casually set out to find a Portapotty. I asked how he could leave at a time like this—I couldn’t stop smiling—but he just shrugged and said, “When you have to go, you have to go.”

The last rider started off badly, missing a pole that would have to be circled before the run was over. The trophy was as good as mine. Then the rider hit his stride, and the second half of his run was flawless and breathtakingly swift. My heart stalled.

He’d finished two-tenths of a second faster than I had. He’d knocked me out of seventh place; he’d taken away my trophy.

But this is, as I’ve said, a story about my brother.

When he found me after the last rider, he claimed not to have heard the judges announce the time that had beaten me out; he claimed that I’d heard incorrectly, that I was misremembering my own time. I thought he was making light of my situation, and I stormed off. How could I have not heard the right time, how could I have thought I’d ridden slower than I had?

When the announcement came during the awards ceremony, I was sitting under a mesquite tree, imagining ways to ingratiate myself back into the crowd of smokers and bullies, the kids who’d never wanted a trophy. I was only half-listening to the announcer, so when he called my name—and Colonel’s—his voice didn’t really register; it was a voice from a dream, the voice of a ghost. He said I was in seventh place, that I should come claim my trophy. He called my name again, like a question this time. “Donald Keyes, you out there?” None of this seemed real. For a split second, I thought the voice was my father’s.

I can still remember running toward the corral as if my life depended on it; I can hear and feel my boots hitting the hard dirt of the arena, can hear the crowd laughing gently as they applaud; I can see Alan and my mother clapping, my mother wiping her eyes, my brother giving me a smug thumbs-up. I can remember wondering how I could have made the mistakes Alan had cited—hearing the wrong time, underestimating my own score—and I can remember letting those mistakes go, releasing with them some of the pain that came from losing my father, some of the anger I had toward him for leaving us, some of the anger I had at myself for being so angry with him.

I’ve always known that I didn’t win that trophy, just as I’ve known that the reason the judge handed it to me had everything to do with Alan. I don’t know where he went during that last rider’s turn, but I suspect he ducked away to the judges’ booth and somehow convinced them that awarding his little brother a trophy was maybe one of the most important things they would do in their lifetimes. I imagine he did whatever he had to do, no matter what the cost.

My brother had faith in me. He knew what I needed when I didn’t. He reached out and cared for me when I was more trouble than I imagined. He taught me how to ride and how to live. And for that I say, thank you. Again and again, thank you.

Don Keyes

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