Brother Rhino

by John Carr Walker

I knocked over the barbecue and ruined it, the party, and the summer. The propane tank rolled off its cradle and lay on its side, like the exposed belly of a rare rhino, hissing an ominous death note. Burger patties and hot dogs and the blackened grill lay scattered, smoking from the lawn. My father’s employees gathered around to look at what I’d done, and Father screwed down the propane valve so we didn’t all explode. He looked at me and didn’t say anything, as if there were no words to sum up my mistake.

“If we were a briquettes family,” my mother said, kneeling with a plastic sack to pick up the meat before the dog did, “you’d have burned down the house.”

She was trying to speak jovially.

“I was playing blind man’s bluff,” I explained.

“By yourself?” Father said. “Who plays that by themselves?”

Our backyard was crowded with a few grandparent-types, many more aunt- and uncle-types who brought their children, little cousin-types who looked up at me from the lip of our pool, waiting for an explanation. I’d been bumping into people. Twice I’d almost stepped off into the water. I didn’t understand it myself, why no one was joining in.

Father was wagging his gray head. Hands hipped, feet apart, his legs scissors. Once upon a time my big brother and I would try to race between his legs before they closed, trapping us. Now I thought that if I tried, and he trapped me, he’d want to slice me in two.

“I don’t know what we’ll do for food,” he said. His employees were looking to him for answers. He took questions seriously. He gritted his teeth and tried not to cry.

“I’ll whip something up,” said Mother, going inside with the heavy bag of ruined lunch. “Sandwiches, or I’ll call for pizza. Crisis averted,” she told my father.

She closed the door behind her, the sunlight silver on the glass. The old dog came over and sniffed her trail before dropping himself on the concrete stoop. I had to step over him to get inside. He’d been mostly my brother’s dog. He missed my brother more than he would have missed me, I think. I bet my father and his employees sighed with relief when I left.

My mother stood before the sink, tap running. The garbage was slumped like a dead thing on the linoleum. She didn’t turn around to see who had followed her in, she just kept holding onto the edge of the counter with both hands. I passed through the kitchen. I stopped in my father’s den.

The gun cabinet was empty now. The light inside was off. It used to hold a hunting rifle, spotlighted. He’d take it out and polish the stock, disassemble and clean the chamber even though he hadn’t fired it since the last cleaning, explaining muzzle velocity to my brother and me, kick, other terms we didn’t understand but loved. I used to dream of hunting the rare white rhino with it. My father didn’t think it could bring down something so huge as a rhinoceros, not of any color. I wasn’t so sure I trusted him anymore. I knew one shot from that rifle could knock me backwards into the wall. One bullet could tear through skin and bone, releasing a hiss of blood. My brother had proved him wrong.

My mother turned on the light. She crossed the room to me, drying her hands on an apron she’d just put on. “Why do you always want to come in here? Like you just can’t help it.”

“Sorry I messed up.”

“Only a barbecue,” she said, kneeling to my level. “It didn’t hurt you any? You’re not burned?”

I told her I was fine, but she was already pushing my face into the dense, sun-smelling darkness of her hair. In there I could forget about all the accidents I’d caused. I could pretend my father would plan another barbecue before summer was out. I could close my eyes and see my brother—he rode past on the back of a white rhino, looking down at me. The rhino’s steps shook the ground. A distance away he stopped and turned. He started to charge.

***

John Carr Walker grew up on a raisin farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and now lives in Saint Helens, Oregon, where there’s not a vineyard for miles. His writing has appeared in StringTown, Slow Trains, Prick of the Spindle, The Writer’s Dojo, Eclectica, and elsewhere. He’s the editor and founder of the literary magazine TRACHODON, which Newpages.com says “might help keep the institution of literary magazines alive.”

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