My brother Tommy and I had come into some surprise money when our father died. An autoworker and child of the Great Depression, he invested in the GM savings plan and forgot about it, letting it ride till he died. He should have been doing something with our mother besides crossword puzzles and bickering.
At some point—perhaps while caring for our dying mother—he wrote in his will that Tommy and I had to take a trip outside the U.S. with the proceeds. So, my wife Caroline and I were vacationing along the Rhone River with my brother Tommy and his husband, Vic. A part of France often ignored by tourists and thus affordable to us, grandchildren of the Great Depression afraid of not speaking English and getting ripped off on our one-time splurge.
Our chambre d’hôte was run by Didier and Justine Crosier, who had turned their children’s rooms into guest rooms after they grew up and moved to their own houses a short walk down the narrow lane next to the family vineyard. Their website claimed they spoke English, which turned out to be half-true. The four of us had taken a French class from the continuing education department at Macomb Community College, which we had disparagingly referred to as “Twelve Mile High” while growing up. Like the Crosiers, we hadn’t moved far down the road, so it was an easy weekly excursion of a class: no tests, no grades. Just fun with the retired high school French teacher with the horrible accent that even we cringed at. In other words, after we’d staggered out of the train station in Lyon and into the ceremonial three air kisses, we were at the mercy of Didier and Justine.
We were driving home from an unsuccessful mushroom-hunting trip up in the mountains. I’m sure they had a name, but the name may have been the French word for asshole. The roads angled sharply up and down hills. The flimsy guardrails looked almost theoretical. Hard to tell who was carsick and who was just sick. Didier, Caroline, and Justine rode in the car in front of us. I followed in our rental with Tommy and Vic, wishing like the Crosier children that we were at Disney instead. Even Paris Disney.
Didier’s car suddenly swerved to the shoulder, spraying gravel over the edge. I hit the brakes and swerved in behind it. Had he stopped to let someone puke in the picturesque countryside?
“Wild boar!” he shouted, running toward us, Caroline in close pursuit. She’d been sitting up front with Didier. Justine had not been feeling well and was sprawled across the back seat, asleep or feigning sleep.
“You want to see wild boar, okay?” he said. He blew cigarette smoke into my face. Had Caroline let him smoke in the car? Why did they continue to smoke when their cigarette packs were stamped SMOKING KILLS in giant letters?
“Dead,” he added, pointing behind us. Tommy and Vic climbed out reluctantly and in unison. This late in the day, with our meager basket of mushrooms—did anyone really need to see a dead boar?
Didier was off, heading back up the road as if it might come back to life if he didn’t hurry. I headed up behind him, Caroline, and “the boys”—though they’d been together twenty-three years and officially married for five. I envied their easy way with each other, their earned grace after years of secrets and silence. I’d been with Caroline for twenty, married for nineteen.
Didier had been flirting with Caroline, lingering over those three kisses of the traditional greeting. His unshaven face scraped against hers while everybody else just got air. Justine seemed unsurprised, perhaps even amused by the way he winked and gestured at Caroline, ignoring the boys and me—maybe it was part of their schtick for their guests?
We were going through the motions of marriage, mushroom hunting, and just about everything else. Without kids to distract us, the future looked fuzzy and ill-lit. After three miscarriages, Caroline and I had stopped. We didn’t want to adopt. The boys did, but the timing wasn’t right—we were all too old now. They would’ve made great parents, Tommy and Vic—a childish joy and innocence about them that even our father failed to put a dent in. We had become a unit, the four of us. At least we should’ve all been in the same car.
“A wild boar!” Tommy said, turning back to raise his eyebrows at me. “All the bores I’ve met, and not one of them has been wild.”
I was glad to have my brother as a buffer between me and Caroline. Our shadows rose long behind us, silently overlapping as the sun angled into our faces. I’d left my sunglasses in the rental—all I could do was squint in the brightness.
After hours of trudging through woods searching for imaginary mushrooms, walking up the road’s slight grade caused my hamstrings to ache. My pulse echoed in my skull. How far back up the road? Didier and Caroline had created separation on the rest of us. Didier was never subtle. Caroline liked that about him.
My job in sales forced me into casual evasion and careful deception. I had a product to sell (auto parts)—quotas to meet, numbers and people to manipulate—and I’d been pretty good at it. But there was a tipping point at Brill’s Automotive, and I had tipped. I’d never become a VP or executive officer. I’d be lucky to stick it out as district manager for a dozen more years until retirement.
Caroline was a schoolteacher at the top of the pay scale, emboldened by her years of seniority that gave her a reckless charm envied and admired by colleagues and students alike.
At a bend I’d had taken too sharply while driving past, Didier stopped roadside. Caroline stood behind him, both of them, hands on hips, looking down, studying the boar as if there might be an exam on it. Or a pop quiz. Wild boars had few predators besides humans and their automobiles.
The boar was the size of a football linebacker. Bloated with death. Its coarse hairs bristled in the wind. Not much to do besides take a picture of it, so we did, both Caroline with her phone and me with mine.
“I’ll send it to you, bro,” I said to Tommy.
“No thanks. It’s already seared into memory.”
Didier nudged it with his foot. “Fell off cliff.”
We all looked up at the steep rock face. I hadn’t even noticed it, given our zigging and sagging.
Didier put his booted foot onto the boar’s belly and pressed down, releasing gas. It made a startling grunt as a bubble of blood emerged from its nose.
“It’s alive,” Caroline shrieked, grabbing his shoulder. I jammed my hand inside my jacket pocket and choked the cold handle of my mushroom-cutting knife, clean, shiny, unused.
I wanted to pack up and go home, make a gracious retreat back to the boredom of our civilized lives. I was already waving the flag of surrender— “these prices,” I exclaimed to anyone who feigned listening.
Didier wielded mushroom power over us all. What was poisonous? Edible? His tenderness with Caroline, his gruffness with me. I swore I’d found a couple that were edible, but each time, Didier laughed, shook his head, and turned away.
The brightest mushrooms, the surreal red ones, were apparently the most poisonous. If you’re poisonous, shouldn’t you be harder to notice? You weren’t even supposed to touch them, but I felt a certain allure as I hovered over one large, beautiful one. I half understood Caroline’s attraction to Didier.
“There are many kinds of betrayal,” Tommy said. “And we’ve lived long enough to see them all…” He kept nodding into the silence that followed.
I had hesitated to tell them, but of course I did. They had this thing with Caroline—a gossipy, campy level of overly caffeinated exchanges that had become a tired routine over the years, but it seemed like no one could stop it.
“I can’t believe it myself,” I said, though of course I did. Caroline could treat Tommy and Vic like ornamental pet poodles. In fact, she petted them and sometimes talked baby talk to them. All nudge nudge, wink wink. A stale situation comedy on automatic pilot, and it was time for the shark to jump, and I was poking that shark with a cattle prod.
You can hunt mushrooms without stealth—you can’t startle a mushroom into fleeing. The knives cut them off at the stem. If you just yanked them, you’d destroy the spores, and they wouldn’t regenerate. I couldn’t even find any, though, much less damage them. I, who had failed to regenerate.
Didier wore an unlikely jeweled machete on a belt around his waist, which did not look as ridiculous as it sounds. Didier could pull it off with his barrel-bellied swagger. He was born to wear that machete. Caroline had taken numerous photos of him posing with it.
“Go over here,” Didier said to Caroline. “Spread out.” He pointed with his machete. It makes me laugh, that word: machete. It hurts too, but I invest a lot in that word now, telling the story, the long version of the longer version of the short version of what led us back to Detroit early. On the surface, I was taking a stand to support my brother. Who could argue with that? I mean, besides my brother.
“Let’s leave them over there, hunting fairies,” Didier snorted.
Behind a row of pines, walking carefully on sharp, brown needles, I couldn’t see Caroline’s reaction. It would have been easy to pretend I didn’t hear, and that was my habit. I wasn’t going to confront Didier. He’d treated the boys well enough, and you could take his remark with a certain ambiguity, given the language challenges.
But then Caroline’s open-mouthed laugh pierced like one of those dry needles. It needed no translation. I knew that laugh well enough to picture it. “Fairies hunting for fairies,” she said. It seemed so overtly cruel that I stopped, stunned with surprise. Was she riffing off Didier’s bluntness?
“Eddie’s the worst of them,” she added. Eddie, that’s me. I coughed loudly, then kicked a rock. I admit, it was childish, lame—I was out of my element. Unsure what my element was anymore.
Our father’s generosity was a burden, and Caroline and I had enough burdens. I was my father’s son—Caroline and I stopped taking vacations after my mother became too ill to sit in a beach chair for a week. She couldn’t read anymore, due to partial blindness. She said the sound of the ocean made her dizzy, so far from suburban Detroit, where we all still lived. Now that all of our parents were dead, we had no excuse for not taking vacations, but we seemed to have forgotten how.
I didn’t quite believe in wild boars either—at least, not the wild marauding hordes of them that Didier claimed surrounded us. We went for long walks on the well-marked French hiking trails through the woods and saw a few bored hunters smoking cigarettes, shotguns casually arranged in their arms while their agitated hounds chased phantom smells through the woods.
Tommy and I had both been given shotguns for our fourteenth birthday by our grandfather, along with enrollment in a gun safety class. I’d actually gone hunting a few times—it was clear to Tommy, and to me, pretty early on that he was gay, but for the rest of the family, it was tickets to football games and hunting classes. Though I resented carrying the manly burden, I was certainly no poster child for a sensitive soul who supported gay rights. But he was my brother, and when he found Vic, and they seemed so happy together, I got it—maybe I got it too much, comparing the energy and care they still gave to their relationship to what Caroline and I had settled into.
I felt a surge of something as we walked back to the car— adrenaline? Shame? It was almost as if seeing the boar, the boar blood, the husky putrid exhale of gas, had made my life tangible. Rustling through the scrubby brush of that rocky countryside, watching my wife flirt with Didier challenged my—yeah, okay, my manhood. We had stayed too long. Perhaps we should have split it into two trips. Maybe we should have warmed up with Canada first. We’d been across the border to gamble at the casino but had never ventured beyond Windsor, an industrial town not dissimilar to Detroit.
“Why’d you call me a fairy to Didier?” I hissed as soon as we were alone together at the rear of the roadside parade back to the cars. I pulled on her arm to slow her down. Tommy pulled Vic forward. Didier led the charge, his machete clanking against his side. He’d protect us in order to make fools of us. Maybe that’s why Justine stayed in the car—she didn’t want to see it. Maybe she was imagining it now with her eyes closed in the backseat of the car, and the door swung open.
“It was just a play on words. Loosen up, will you?” She pulled away. “You’re wasting your father’s money.”
“You were complicit,” I said, poking a finger at her, grinding my feet to a stop in the roadside gravel.
She laughed, a mocking sneer. “Complicit!” she shouted. “You’re too much.” She paused.
“Tommy and Vic. I don’t care about me,” I said, though of course I did.
“He didn’t mean anything. He doesn’t know—maybe calling them fairies is perfectly okay in French.”
“Yeah, let’s look that up when we get home,” I said.
A slow car chugged past, followed by a half-dozen serious tailgaters waiting for a clear stretch to pass, though that mountain road offered few opportunities.
“We’d better get moving,” she said.
“I told Tommy,” I said. “My fairy brother.”
For some reason, Didier had turned around at the car and was headed back toward us. “Let’s ask Didier if it’s perfectly okay,” I said. My hands trembled slightly.
“Now you’re a tattletale! As if you never made fun of them,” she said and began rushing forward again. For a moment, it looked like she was going to take his arm. When I returned to the car, Tommy and Vic sat hunched together, waiting for me in late afternoon shadow, the sun sinking behind the cliff face. Darkness was imminent.
For years, my biggest secret was that I’d shot my own brother—buckshot, in the ass, no harm done—by accident. Tommy knew what trouble I’d be in if our father found out. My biggest secret, a harmless one, had now turned into a family joke, not like the trajectory of his secret, which oozed out in slow motion and got replayed over and over again.
I picked out a couple pieces of shot with the needle-nose pliers on my Leatherman right in the woods and bandaged it up when we got home.
Justine sat up in the other car and rubbed her eyes. Were we a mirage? Had it all been just a dream? We’d paid in cash, in advance, as requested. Justine squinted and gave me a mysterious smile as if I was the one wearing the machete.
I stood roadside in the middle of that beautiful nowhere. Rushing wind surged past, rustling the roadside trees. I kept turning around, thinking a car was coming, but no car was coming. I looked at our meager basket of dirty mushrooms in the backseat next to Justine, which was intended to be a feature of our farewell meal. Someone had been over the same stretch of woods ahead of us and had gotten all the big mushrooms. Maybe a wild boar—they eat anything, apparently.
I put my hand on Didier’s shoulder. Knowing we were leaving soon, he allowed his smile to turn into a slight grimace outside the open car door.
“I shot my brother once,” I said. “I don’t know how that translates, but I just wanted you to know.” I should have rented a translator for my own idiocy.
Tommy poked his head out of the rental. “It’s true,” he said, leaning out. “But I forgave him!”
Didier unstrapped his machete without a word, and then we were off again, the road, all downhill. I flicked on my brights and followed them at an unsafe distance.
Back in our room across the hall from Tommy and Vic’s room, Caroline and I lay in bed together. She had apologized to them. I had apologized to them for trying to turn them against Caroline. I apologized to her for telling them. She apologized to me for embarrassing me. I apologized to my dead father for squandering his money and for finding no mushrooms. Apologies all the way around. Then we held each other in the eerie silence of that beautiful countryside. I will spare you those apologies, with all their sincere imperfections. I’ve learned that many famous painters came to the south of France for the quality of light, but it was the quality of the silence I appreciated then, the dark silence that pressed us together despite our meager selves.
The easiest thing in the world would have been to pack up and go home—retreat— a day early, and that’s what we did in the morning. I apologized to Didier as we departed. We gave each other three kisses. Despite knowing the appropriate distance, I leaned into the scratch of his unshaven face.
About the Author
Jim Daniels’ latest poetry collections include Gun/Shy (Wayne State University Press) and two chapbooks, The Human Engine at Dawn (Wolfson Press) and the forthcoming Comment Card (Carnegie Mellon University Press). His latest fiction collection, The Luck of the Fall (Michigan State University Press), will be published in the fall of 2023. A native of Detroit, he lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program.