Dan floated off the stage of the Oprah Show with applause ringing in his ears. He was beyond exhilarated and wondered how life could get any better. After fifteen years of struggle, block, despair, and frustration he had birthed his baby, a novel about his tortured childhood. He had watched it climb to the top of sales charts after Oprah chose it for her book club, and he’d just finished an appearance on her show to discuss the book and its theme, childhood bullying, with a panel of experts.
His cell phone rang. Assuming it was a friend calling with congratulations, he answered.
“I am going to sue your ass, you shithead!” Ron, his older brother and childhood tormentor, screamed at him. “After I win the case and take your money, I’m going to beat the shit out of you!”
Dan looked around to see if anybody had heard this threat; he saw no one paying heed. His euphoria vanished, replaced by the clenched feeling in his gut he remembered so well.
“You saw the show,” Dan mumbled.
“You’re going to regret this day for the rest of your life,” Ron said and ended the call.
An Oprah staffer approached and asked Dan if he needed a chair. “You look a little green.”
Dan assured him he was all right and made his way to the green room. As soon as he entered, Sue, his wife, asked what was wrong. He told her about the call.
“What happened? Okay, we need to call our lawyer, right now.” She started mapping out their plan of attack. Then she asked, “How did Ron get your number?” The answer was obvious: Martha, Dan’s mother.
Ron was five years older. He was a sports nut with an athletic build that he proudly boasted about during the frequent bullying episodes of their childhood. The disparity in their ages and sizes made Dan feel powerless to protect himself, and his attempts to fight back were quickly overwhelmed, usually ending with Ron sitting on Dan’s stomach and holding his wrists. Ron would then force Dan’s hands to his face, all the while chortling, “Quit hitting yourself. Quit hitting yourself.”
A large part of Dan’s difficulty in writing the book was his parents. They’d done little to stop the abuse, and Dan knew they’d feel humiliated to have their household put on display. He was making no progress and finding it impossible to focus, even though he was sure in his soul that he had to get the book out of his system. Luckily, his sixty-year-old father dropped dead of a heart attack while on a boot-camp style vacation in Arizona in the sixth year of the birthing process. Dan felt a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, when he wasn’t torn up with regret over never having had a close relationship with his father and guilt over being relieved that he’d died.
His mother took the loss in her stride. “I told him he’d never make it through that camp,” Martha told Dan. “Stupid shit went anyway.”
He told her he was writing a book about his childhood. “I can’t wait to read it,” she said. “Don’t forget to put in the vacation we took to the Indiana Dunes State Park.”
“That was one of the worst experiences of my childhood. Ron kept throwing me into the freezing cold lake.”
“You were laughing your head off.”
“I was screaming in terror.”
“You played tag for hours on the beach.”
“I was running away from him! He kept catching me and dragging me into the water.”
“Oh, you and your imagination. It’s no wonder you want to be a writer. Hurry up and finish it. I want to read it before I die.”
Her rose-coloured glasses stayed in place. She thought the book was hysterically funny. “My son, the author! All my friends are jealous.”
Ron never followed through with the lawsuit. Dan was undone by the contact, however. He stopped working on his second novel. He suffered frequent panic attacks. He lost his position as records manager at a law firm. Fourteen months after his Oprah appearance he walked away from his wife and home and settled into a friend’s cabin in a remote corner of Wisconsin.
The first several weeks in the cabin were horrific as Dan adjusted to the creaks and groans of the old dwelling. He frequently found himself crouched at windows, squinting into the surrounding woods looking for bullies.
The nearest town was Down Falls, and Dan took small comfort in the name. The Down family still figured prominently in the town’s fabric, and the Down Home Restaurant served as the hub of activities. They served very good omelettes, and Dan became a regular, buying the newspaper and eating his main meal of the day. He was soon on a first name basis with the waitresses and other regulars, many of whom were familiar with his book and appearance on Oprah. Paula Down, owner and no-nonsense cashier, regularly asked him for particulars about his new writing project, which he dutifully invented, but mostly people quietly accepted the mysterious author hiding in their woods.
Diana Down ran a martial arts academy. Dan frequently saw her at the restaurant and noticed that she ate muesli, fruit and yogurt for breakfast. As he paid his bill one morning Paula handed him a coupon for a reduced price on martial arts training.
“You could use some exercise. You’re gaining weight.”
“Oh, thanks, Paula, I guess.”
“You should probably check your cholesterol, too. Eggs every morning could be trouble.”
“Right. Well, thanks, again.”
“Diana won the national title in her weight class a few years ago and is a very good instructor. It wouldn’t hurt to learn how to defend yourself.”
“No. Well, see you in the morning.”
Resenting Paula’s meddling, Dan drove an extra thirty miles to Drake Lake the next four days for breakfast and his newspaper. He noticed, however, that he also spent more time crouching at the cabin’s windows than he had of late, so on the fifth day he returned to the Down Home and asked Diana for details about her course offerings. He enrolled in the afternoon class. Two families were his classmates. Dan was the oldest student, and the youngest was an eight-year-old boy named Phillip; Dan immediately sympathised with the small, skinny kid. They were paired in Dan’s first bout, and Phillip flipped Dan over his back with astonishing ease. Dan was hooked on martial arts training from that moment and, in addition to the sparring with other students, spent many days working out on his own under Diana’s guidance.
Dan loved the philosophical disquisitions that Diana integrated into the training and found particular solace in her exploration of the quiet centre that the student must enter to effectively learn the art of self-defence. He also absorbed the lesson that the successful participant in any contest was the calmest and most focused. He learned to meditate and began to write about this quiet centre he’d discovered within himself.
As winter approached Dan reached a crossroads. The cabin was unheated except for the fireplace. The cabin’s owner assured Dan that he wouldn’t want to face the winter there. In addition to the cold temperatures the road to the cabin wouldn’t be snow ploughed; he’d be unable to reach town without a snow-mobile. The cabin was far beyond the range of the closest cell phone tower so his isolation would be complete and dangerous.
He called and asked Sue how she felt about his return to their home. She said she still resented his abandonment but over the course of several calls, all initiated from the Down Home’s parking lot, came to accept that a reconciliation would be a worthwhile undertaking. She was very pleased to hear he was writing again. He packed his belongings in early November, stopped into the Down Home for a final breakfast and farewell, and drove back to Milwaukee.
Sue immediately commented on the changes in him. He’d lost weight and was well-toned for the first time in his life. She also noted his restored confidence and eagerly listened to a sampling of new writing. He’d accepted that he would be sleeping in a separate bedroom as a precondition to his returning home, but this arrangement didn’t last a single night. He was surprised at how strongly he felt attracted after years of increasing distance from her.
Soon after returning to Milwaukee, Dan’s mother asked that the family Thanksgiving meal be reinstituted at her home. She said she wanted to celebrate her son and daughter-in-law reuniting and eagerly accepted Sue’s offer to cook the turkey.
“Cook a big one. Twenty-five pounds if you can find one,” Martha said.
“Why so big?” Sue protested. “We’ll be eating turkey sandwiches for two weeks.”
“I love the look of a huge bird on the table. Besides, I like leftovers. Do your best to find a big one, honey.”
Dan found himself unusually excited as the holiday approached. He arose with Sue at three in the morning and helped get the turkey into the oven. They went back to bed and took in the wonderful smell of the cooking bird as they returned to wakefulness hours later.
Their anticipation remained during the drive to Martha’s house, and they rehearsed what they would say when it came time to share what they were thankful for, their reconciliation at the top of their respective lists.
As they turned into Martha’s driveway they saw a strange car with Florida license plates. Dan and Sue immediately knew that Ron and his wife, Rachel, were here to share the Thanksgiving meal.
“She set us up!” Sue said.
“Looks like it,” said Dan.
“To hell with this. Turn around, and we’ll eat the bird at home.”
“No. Let’s stay. I want to see him. We haven’t since dad’s funeral.”
“You were a basket case for weeks after.”
“Dad’s death had something to do with that.”
“We don’t have to stay long. Eat and go, I say.”
They exchanged strained greetings at the door. Martha did her best to pretend that everything was normal, hugging each for too long and bestowing sloppy kisses. Ron clamped onto Dan’s hand as he always did, trying to break bones with his grip, but this time Dan equalled the force, mindfully staying in his quiet place and keeping a smile on his face. He saw concern creep into Ron’s expression.
“Well, the scribbler and company,” Rachel said and turned her back to both of them. She was Ron’s second wife and the youngest person in the room. She wore too much makeup and jewellery and too tight and short a dress, revealing all the weight she’d put on with childbearing. Their three kids weren’t in evidence.
“Where’s the brood?” Dan asked.
“With Rachel’s folks. We didn’t want them in the car. We drove straight through.”
“When’d you get here?” Dan threw an inquisitive glance at Martha, wondering how long she’d been sitting on this bombshell.
“Last night,” Ron said. “I only took one day off work.”
“Honey,” Martha said to Sue, “We’re a little behind with the side dishes. Can the turkey rest for a while in the pan, or does it need to go into the oven? There’s not much room in there, though.”
“It’s cooked,” Sue said. “It’ll be fine in the roaster. Can I help with anything?”
“Well, now, yes, you can.”
They went into the kitchen, Sue donned the offered apron, and the men sat out of the way. Rachel brought glasses of wine to them and said to Dan, “When can we expect that apology from you? Before dinner would be better if I’m to enjoy the meal. Right now would be best, in fact.”
Dan took the wine, placed the glass well out of the way and said, “When can I expect an apology from Ron?”
“What? Ron hasn’t made a fool of you in print or maligned your name to a national audience on Oprah. He has nothing to apologise for.”
“Neither do I.”
“You hear that Ron?” She faced her husband and put her hands on her hips.
“Oh, dear,” said Martha, “Rachel, what about the salad?”
Rachel never looked away from her husband. “Ron?”
“She’s got a point there, Squirt,” he said, using the childhood nickname Dan hated. “We just about boiled over when you were on Oprah.”
“You did boil over. You threatened to beat the shit out of me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s still in play here,” he said, leaning forward in his chair and putting his fists on his knees. “Part of the reason we accepted mom’s invitation was to get that apology. We ain’t leaving without it.”
Dan took a deep breath, mindfully calming himself to do battle.
“We should go,” said Sue, untying the apron strings she’d just secured.
“No,” said Dan, “I’d like to see this through. Ron and Rachel, I am telling you that I will not apologise. I wrote a novel, complete with the standard paragraph at the front about the characters not being real people. If you saw something that resonated in you in the novel’s bully, fair enough, but his name was Todd, and his prey wasn’t his brother.”
“Cousin!” shouted Rachel.
“You read the book. Good. I hope you bought it.”
“We got a refund!”
Dan shrugged. “Mom, did you make any promises you’re not telling me about?”
“Danny, dear, I’d never do that.”
“You did, too,” said Rachel. “More than one! We came all this way thinking this was all arranged.”
“Danny, they’re taking me to Florida. I’ve rented a condo and will miss the whole winter. Aren’t you happy for me?”
“You shouldn’t be making promises that you have no way to deliver, mom.”
“Well, all right, I’ll apologise for that. There. Is everybody happy now?”
Ron sat back in his chair and gave Rachel a crooked smile. She stormed to the kitchen sink. “It’s not all right,” she said as she took up the task of washing the lettuce. “All my friends were watching Oprah that day. I was mortified. I had to switch hair dressers because of it.”
An icy moment’s silence was broken by Rachel slamming the cutting board onto the kitchen counter. “No! I can’t eat at the same table. Let’s go, Ron.”
“Oh, please, Rachel,” said Martha. “Danny, apologise to your brother right now so we can all be friends again.”
“We have never been friends.”
“Hey, come on, Squirt. Now you’re really hurting my feelings.”
“Ron, I hate that name. I told you that thirty years ago. Now you have another thing to apologise to me for.”
Ron issued the same menacing laugh Dan remembered so well. “Why don’t you do something about it, then, Squirt?”
Dan stood and stepped away from his brother. Mindfully taking measured deep breaths he removed his shirt. Ron also stood and flexed his shoulders and arms, glaring at Dan.
“Now boys,” Martha said. “You’re going to break something if you don’t cut this out right now.”
Dan wondered whether he should take the time to remove his shoes and socks. It was too cold outside for that, and if he needed to employ a kick he might as well be shod to deliver more pain. He was mentally going through the defensive postures, the feint and strike techniques he’d spent the summer honing. He was looking forward to giving his brother a long overdue beating and had to remind himself to stay humble and focused.
Ron invited Dan to lead the way into the back yard. He accepted the invitation, knowing that Ron would launch his attack while Dan still had his back turned. It came sooner than he thought it would, and his avoidance options were limited by furniture on the patio. Still, he countered the assault, and Ron tumbled over him. Ron rolled to his feet and stepped away, circling, flexing, the smug confidence out of his face, replaced with a look of concern.
Dan moved into the lawn, bowed to his adversary and crouched.
“Stop this at once,” Martha ordered. “You’re going to hurt each other. This is all my fault. Hit me if you have to hit somebody!”
“Get him, Ron,” said Rachel.
Ron advanced, waving his fists. Dan remained crouched, plotting the rate of advance and his next move. He waited for Ron to swing, spun away from the blow, and elbowed Ron in the back as he moved past. Ron issued a pained grunt and fell to the ground. Dan leapt on his brother, wrapped his left arm around Ron’s neck, and pinned him to the ground.
“Give up,” Dan said. “Say Uncle. Say it now, or I’ll break your neck.”
“Fuck you, Squirt,” Ron croaked and struggled to dislodge Dan.
“Dan!” Martha screamed. “You’re hurting your brother.”
Dan increased the pressure on Ron’s neck, feeling his Adam’s apple squash. “Give up.”
Rachel sprang at Dan and kicked at his head. Sue ran at Rachel and knocked her to the ground before she could deliver another kick. Rachel started to stand up, and Sue shoved her down again. This time Rachel grabbed the apron, and Sue tumbled on top of Rachel. They started grappling with each other and pulling hair. Martha ran between pairs of combatants trying in vain to separate them.
“Stop this! Stop this now! This is crazy!”
“Say Uncle.” Dan saw that Ron’s face was turning from red to blue. He was no longer trying to buck Dan off of him. Dan noticed an awesome stillness inside him, a connection to the infinite, the life of another person in his hands. He took a deep breath and released his grip. He stood quickly and stepped away.
Martha sprang to Ron. “You’ve killed him. Oh, Ron, my poor baby.” She rolled Ron flat on his back. Ron gulped in air.
Dan pulled Sue away from Rachel, who started kicking him in the legs as she laid on the ground. He helped Sue stand up, and they stood out of reach of any attack.
Rachel crawled over to Ron, shrieking expletives at Dan.
Dan noticed that the Kelleher clan, including a couple of his school classmates, were watching from the neighbouring property. He waved, happy there were witnesses to his victory from outside the family. Ron was now on his hands and knees, gasping. Rachel stroked his back, and Martha stood beside them with a stricken expression on her face.
“Are you okay?” Dan asked Sue.
“Yeah. My hero. You were great. That training really paid dividends.”
“Thanks. And thanks for helping out.”
“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” Martha barked. “Because I’m not. You should be ashamed.”
“Where were you when Ron was tormenting me when we were kids?”
“Oh, Danny, haven’t you gotten over that by now?”
“I have now,” Dan said to her. “Let’s go,” he said to Sue.
Sue took off the apron and dropped it. They turned to enter the house.
“I didn’t say Uncle,” Ron croaked. “You’re the one that quit. Wimp. Squirt!”
Dan marvelled at the stupidity of his brother, to be on his knees, completely defenceless, yet still taunting, still the bully. He wrapped his arm around Sue’s waist and kissed the side of her head, a quick peck to communicate how victorious he felt. They entered the house. He picked up the turkey roaster, and Sue collected his shirt off a chair. She held open the front door.
“I’m thankful that this chapter of my life is finally concluded,” he said.
“I’m thankful you took that class in martial arts.”