Two brothers, and a lifetime's quarrel

In her series about having conversations with homeless and isolated individuals, the author tries to patch up a fraternal war between Alfred and Kenneth

In her series about having conversations with homeless and isolated individuals, the author tries to patch up a fraternal war between Alfred and Kenneth

One day over coffee Alfred said he'd been told by staff at his brother Kenneth's assisted living residence that as of yesterday he was forbidden to visit. "Every time I go there, he and I end up yelling at each other," Alfred said. "The other residents get upset, and it's hard to calm Ken down after. We've been fighting all my life. We'll never stop."

The idea of brothers quarreling with each other long into their old age was shocking. Conflict is so destructive! Why add personal hostilities to the constant warring of nations and factions?

As usual, the level of my indignation was nicely calibrated to cancel out thoughts of my own family history. Why had I moved across the country from all my relatives years ago? Because I couldn't stand them.

Alfred's little brother had always done things right. Kenneth excelled at school and made friends easily. He helped his father in the family's Chevrolet business and his mother around the house. After college he worked hard as a contractor and married well. He spent happy weekends with the family including the in-laws and everyone's scads of children.

But his earliest accomplishment in life was appointing himself his older brother's bad conscience. Forever afterward Kenneth would nag Alfred about his failures and neglected duties in periodic lectures as well as through his own shining nonverbal example. This was the sore spot in their relationship, said Alfred.

Indeed, Kenneth had enjoyed a childhood career of berating Alfred for the C's and D's on his report card, for his inability to make friends, and for his bad habit of regularly being attacked by bullies. Later it was wrong, intoned Kenneth, that when Mom or Dad needed help around the house or at the car lot, Alfred took a walk. It was wrong of Alfred to avoid marriage, work in menial jobs that he regularly quit, scorn family gatherings, and spend his leisure time in bars. Wrongest of all was that Alfred turned his back on his mother in her final illness and left his younger brother to do all the filial tending. This, according to Alfred, was Kenneth's sore spot.

I was curious to meet this paragon of virtue. To tell the truth, Kenneth sounded like my sister, the angel who bought a house near the family home so she could be there for Mom in her old age the way a good daughter should. (To tell the rest of the truth, Kenneth sounded like me, the angel who believes she can help people love each other and live in peace, who prides herself on her resume, and who once hid her black-sheep little brother's left shoe when he was late getting dressed for school.)

So I asked Alfred, "What if I came along on a visit to your brother? Do you think I might be able to keep a lid on things?"

Alfred was silent. I asked him why he wanted to visit a guy who used his achievements as a stick to beat his big brother over the head with. "Because," said Alfred, "I want to tell him how it felt to be me when I was growing up. And I wonder what it was really like for him." "Well," I said gently, "he might not hear your feelings. And he might not tell you how it was for him back then." Alfred pondered these things for a couple of weeks. Then he and I drove to his brother's residence for a visit.

On the way Alfred said, "Ken's out of cookies." So we made a quick detour to the fortune cookie factory to buy Ken his favorites. For $7 Alfred scored a garbage bag containing ten pounds of seconds, meaning that some of the cookies were flat disks and some with regulation curls were chipped. But most looked normal. For a minute it seemed unlikely that Alfred got into serious fights with a cookie-lover. Alfred was a cranky old character, true, but mild and undemonstrative, even withdrawn.

At the residence the director looked relieved that Alfred had an escort, but still she personally ushered us to Kenneth's room, glancing sidelong at pudgy Alfred as if he might have strapped cherry bombs to himself under his jacket. The brim of his Yankees cap was pulled way down to hide most of his face.

When Kenneth caught sight of me he frowned at his brother, hissing, What will we talk about? Then he spotted the giant bag of fortune cookies dangling from Alfred's fist, and his face brightened. He grabbed the bag and thrust it into his closet. He yanked open a large bureau drawer. It was bursting with fortune cookies parceled into baggies. Smiling at his guests, Kenneth dealt out two bags plus one for himself.

My first cookie said You are called to fill a position of great responsibility. Yes.

In his soft monotone Alfred began telling the story of his depressing childhood, his face hidden except you could see the chin moving. Kenneth ignored Alfred and laid on my lap two albums from his bookshelf so that I could view his diplomas, letters from people with important-looking signatures, and photos of elaborate bathroom remodels done with his own hands.

The three of us made a perfect circle of failures to communicate. Alfred spoke to his brother. His brother watched me pretend to read a book of his achievements. I covertly watched Alfred, who didn't seem to notice that his monologue went unheard.

Suddenly Kenneth reached across the space between him and Alfred and yanked off his brother's baseball cap. Alfred jumped up, clawing at his brother and shouting, "Nobody takes my hat off! Nobody takes my hat!"

As evenly as possible I said, "Alfred, Ken just wants to see your face when you're talking to him." This might even have been true. I reached around behind Kenneth to slip the cap out of his hands, and hid it under the scrapbooks in my lap.

After a second or two Alfred sat down again and resumed his sad story — he'd reached his teen years, when he was so lonely he lived in an imaginary world. I allowed my breathing to resume and opened Kenneth's second album, filled like the first one with tributes to his exemplary life as model son, loving father, and pillar of the community. And Kenneth, neatly folding his hands, sat back in his rocking chair and smiled.


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