by Jim Walke
The pants were the blue of a police strobe. They had cuffs large enough to smuggle an immigrant family into the country, and corduroy rows as deep and straight as Russian veldt farmland. Over their lifetime, they survived extremes of fire and cold, water, even immersion in concrete and Detroit steel without losing that damned perfect, permanent crease.
Gil’s older brother, Theo, unwrapped them in the same year in which Gil received his toy carpenter’s set (an odd gift for a boy who wanted to be an astronaut) with the hammer too light to pound anything significant and a handsaw too dull for wood but fine for sawing hands, thereby introducing both boys to the delicate art of lying to women — Mom first, then others as the years went by — about the origins of unique scars.
The origin of the pants, however, was lost to history. The brothers speculated about Great Aunt Felma, who would wrap any random object that caught the fancy of her lazy eye, things like red shoelaces and pimp jewelry bought on street corners. She didn’t take credit for the pants, though, and Mom shook her head.
“Maybe they’re from Dad,” Gil said.
“Maybe they’re from Santa,” Mom said.
“Santa’s not real,” Theo said.
“More real than your father, at this point,” Great Aunt Felma said. She took a deep, soulful drag on her Marlboro. On the exhale, her lazy eye seemed to trace the path of the smoke as it curled around the threadbare Christmas tree and up to the popcorn ceiling.
“Who wants cookies?” asked Mom.
So, the pants entered their lives as a mystery. Mom insisted that Theo try them on. When he emerged from the bathroom, Gil stared, but Aunt Felma snorted like the cat when it had a hairball.
“My word,” was the only comment she could get out after her hacking fit.
The pants had a rise of about a foot, which would have simply looked odd on a grown man, but on a thirteen year-old it meant that if Theo got the crotch close to where it belonged, the belt loops hit him around the ribcage. Other parts seemed fractionally out of place, as if the trousers had been assembled from a grab bag of fabric pieces rejected from different sizes and styles, even time periods. It was a golem of a garment. The blue reflected shockingly against human skin, the sort of color that governments might paint nuclear waste containers in a misguided effort to reduce panic. The unknown tailor had used thread of a lighter blue, which gave the unfortunate effect of drawing lines across Theo’s body. To Gil, his brother looked like an animal divided into steaks and chops. Theo stood wall-eyed with fear.
“Oh,” Mom said. She sighed. “More cookies?”
The pants retired to the bottom drawer until the Growth Spurt the following summer, when Theo’s hormones organized and added four inches to his frame in the same number of months, and tossed in a surly attitude for free. Gil heard the G.S. referenced in spitting discussions in the car that made him cover his ears with his Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. The Spurt appeared to strike indiscriminately. Gil examined himself in the mirror for signs of his own mutation.
The upshot of the Spurt wasn’t fully realized until the night of the Halloween dance. Gil watched from under his bedsheet/costume as Theo tried on last year’s ToughSkins. Even if he could have gotten the zipper closed, the cuffs, already let out to their limits, hit halfway up his shins. Gil learned three new swear words that night as Theo spat and struggled.
“You could wear the blue pants,” Gil offered.
Theo shot him a look so full of rage that Gil added a pillow from the bed to his costume, making his disguise closer to a linen closet than a ghost.
“Try them,” his mother urged from where she listened beyond the closed door.
“It’ll be dark in the gym, right?” Gil added from behind his pillow.
The possibilities of the dance would have died on the floor, smothered by trousers, if it hadn’t been for a blonde girl in the school’s flag corps, a Norse maiden with great soft breasts barely contained by her band uniform — shapes so impressive that even ten year-old Gil wondered what they looked like under the bulletproof green polyester. Her name was Wendy, and she’d promised to wait for Theo by the concession stand so they could walk over to the dance together. Wendy the flag-twirler, Wendy of the décolletage, managed what nothing had since last Christmas.
Theo strode off in the pants, the corduroy threshing as rhythmically as a bag of mating zippers. As Mom led Gil to the sidewalk to start the rounds for his last-ever trick-or-treating, he thought he saw tiny arcs of light sprint across the surface of the electric blue, but he forgot it in the excitement of the first Butterfinger of the evening at the Cratchett’s.
Later, Gil lay in bed watching the closet door for any sign of boogey-men when Theo slogged into their room.
“How did it go?” Gil asked. “Did you see them?” Wendy’s impressive chest floated into his mind at inopportune times, like zeppelins hovering overhead, equally capable of dropping bombs or toys.
Theo sank down onto his twin bed and turned to the wall, flinching when his face touched the pillowcase. He said nothing for a long stretch. Gil had already hefted a stuffed turtle to chuck at his head when Theo spoke.
“Well, these pants are not 100% cotton.” He’d always had a scientific bent. “They hold a pretty solid static charge,” Theo said. He sounded worn and small. “By the time I’d walked the six blocks to the football field to meet Wendy, and on to the gym, I think I could have jumpstarted Mr. Cratchett’s Buick.”
“He gave me a Butterfinger,” Gil said.
“Shut up, twerp,” Theo said, but his insult sounded tired. He rolled over onto his back.
“I would have been okay, probably, even during the slow dances.” Theo continued. “I couldn’t get that close to Wendy because of the — ”
“Boobs,” Gil said.
“Chaperones.” Theo shook his head, his hair zwish-zwishing against the pillowcase. “But she’d been to the orthodontist.”
That word gave Gil the image of a dinosaur in a white coat.
“I saw her new braces for a split second,” Theo said, “then everything went blank and my nose felt like it caught fire. I thought a meteorite had come through the roof. John and Mallory were dancing next to us, and they said the spark was six inches long.” He sighed. “It melted Wendy’s rubber bands.”
Gil lay still on his own twin bed, close by in the dark, and listened.
“I liked her,” Theo said. “I did.”
The pants went back into the drawer and Theo stayed home most Friday nights, and the tiny burn scar that looked like a parenthesis at the tip of his nose faded, but never disappeared entirely.
Gil grew and Theo simmered while the pants hibernated. Theo inflicted pain on his younger brother with a sense of determination and hard work only attainable with a sibling. Gil got in a few licks, usually while Theo slept, but there were times that he learned to be grateful for his brother’s diligence. In seventh grade, when Wes Schultz, who had been held back so many times that his voice had dropped twice, twisted Gil’s arm up between his shoulder blades, Gil discovered that it didn’t hurt as much as when Theo did it. Wes was a torture dilettante, a dabbler, while Theo verged on artistry. As Gil dangled, he took another lesson to heart and reached out his free hand to snag the flap of cartilage between Wes’s nostrils and pinch it between his thumb and index finger. The troll dropped him, and Gil proceeded to kick him carefully in the knee, the breadbasket and, finally, the family jewels before fleeing. Chalk one up for big brother.
Theo got a car to match the pants: a 1978 Plymouth Voláre, sporting a four-on-the-floor and carpeting the color of dried blood. Ugly car plus anger equaled tickets, which, in turn, provided the fuel for more anger, with a final sum of many small, varied collisions with other cars, street signs, two trees, an innocent pile of dirt, and one bovine which survived unharmed but cost the Voláre a fender. Gil rode with him, during the short periods between license suspensions, and learned to call the strap over the passenger seat “the Jesus handle.”
On Gil’s fifteenth birthday, Theo packed to leave for college. Gil found a way to be out of the house during Mom’s sure-to-be tearful goodbye. When he returned, a paper grocery sack hunkered dead-center on his bed. After poking it with the butt end of a hockey stick, he looked inside to find his brother’s parting shot. The blue had not faded over the years.
Gil’s own high schoolery pre-occupied him — girls, mostly, without great success but certainly more than his brother, as learning was also accomplished by absorbing what not to do — but by the time spring rolled around, he’d had an idea for Theo’s birthday. The pants, untouched since Gil had first removed them from the bag, went into the double-layered packing crate that he had lovingly built as his final project in wood shop class. Two hundred screws and a half-gallon of glue held the thing together, the screw heads spaced so closely in places that the metal obscured the pine. The final product weighed close to sixty pounds, and it made a significant dent in Theo’s old mattress.
“This is a birthday present?” Theo asked the next time he came home.
“You made this?”
“Yep,” Gil said.
“It wouldn’t, by any chance, have a pair of corduroy pants inside?”
“Hard to tell, isn’t it?”
Theo sighed, and went looking for a power drill and a crowbar to open his gift.
Gil should have expected what came next. On his sixteenth birthday, a roll-off truck dropped a three-foot cube of compacted metal in the driveway. The invoice came with a note written in Theo’s beetling script:
I’ve decided to give you my old car. It’s had a few accidents, but I think you can still get some good use out of it. Oh, by the way, the pants are on the backseat.
They shouldn’t have made it. The compression of a ton and a half of steel into something the size of a washing machine must warp and tear at its guts, but the pants had flowed with the process and found a tiny space in which to stay whole. Junior year meant metal shop, and Gil earned his A grade in acetylene torch work, peeling a Voláre like an onion.
The pants went back to Theo crammed into a hardened steel pipe, three feet long and an inch in diameter, with the endcaps welded in place.
Seventeen came and went with no pants in sight, as Theo was busy flunking out of college. He’d withdrawn to his dorm room and didn’t come out until the campus police evicted him a month into the next semester.
Gil opened a dresser drawer stuffed with the glossy college brochures that arrived daily. Theo’s college, or rather, his former college, lay on top. Gil put it straight into the trash.
They arrived in a five-gallon bucket filled with concrete, the pants ensconced in a coffee can in the center, and left buried in the gravel of a fish tank that was home to a pair of piranhas.
Inside a rubber ball in the monkey exhibit at the zoo.
Beneath the surface of the frozen duck pond on Great Aunt Felma’s farm.
Great Aunt Felma died shortly before Gil’s twenty-first birthday. She’d made it to ninety-seven, outliving all nine of her siblings.
The brothers stood side by side in front of the coffin where Felma lay looking better than she had in decades. The sarcastic tilt of her head lay set in place by rigor mortis and framed by the tender white satin of the pillow, but the wrinkles had smoothed from her forehead. She looked like a sleeping girl who’d heard her name called.
They were silent, each alone with his thoughts, or waiting for the other to start, or perhaps simply knowing what would be said, if it were said, and skipping over that to the companionable silence afterward.
“If you wanted to be a total bastard, you could bury the pants with her,” Gil finally said. “She always liked gallows humor.”
“Slide them down into the lower half of the casket,” Theo agreed.
“That would be a terrible thing to do.”
“It would put an end to this.”
Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” eased from the hidden speakers and crept among the flowers. Felma had carried a torch for the coiffed singer her entire life, and when given half a chance would spout her long list of plans if she’d ever caught him alone.
“Do you think it was she — ”
“Who gave us the pants?” Theo asked.
Gil nodded. His brother tucked his chin into his chest as he always did when considering a problem. Felma had never admitted to placing the gift under the tree those years ago, but she’d always wanted the details of the latest pants delivery.
Theo’s fiancée, Bridget, waited in the stifling, veloured reception room. It took him a moment to realize who she reminded Gil of: the flag-waver from junior high, Wendy. They shared a pair of notable characteristics, of course, but the resemblance was stronger than those. Bridget was attempting a career in dance, a prospect that gravity seemed disinclined to support. Gil feared for the safety of her eventual partners.
“I know we’ve just met,” he said, taking her hand between his two, “but I feel like I can say this to someone who is engaged to marry my beloved brother.”
Bridget tilted her head and looked up at him from beneath her lashes, a move that Gil found to be effective, despite the fact that it looked like it had been practiced in front of a mirror. He grinned.
“Yes?” she said.
“You can do better,” Gil said.
When Theo pushed him, a wrapped package slid out from under Theo’s jacket to land at their feet. He snatched it up and headed for the casket, but Gil put him in a headlock before he could disturb Felma one final time.
“Maybe she doesn’t want it to end,” Gil said.
He felt his brother relax under his grip, and let him go.
After the funeral, Gil didn’t hear from Theo for six months. Gil’s birthday passed with no pants in sight. They’d always talked to each other in fits and starts, calling three times in the same day or picking up the phone to dial each other at the same moment, but in between the weeks and months stretched out without worry. Each knew the other existed and would call if he needed anything. Gil had the feeling that he could close his eyes and point in Theo’s direction, no matter the time or distance between them, like a bird finding its way home.
When Theo did call, Bridget’s name came up four times in the first conversation. “We” had leaked in to nestle among the “I,” and a brightness suffused his tone as if his brain had been waxed and polished. On more than one occasion, phrases came out of Theo that sounded like they had originated in someone else, including the words: career, real estate and family. He’d taken a job as an IT director for a cement plant in a town four hours away, abandoning his plans for an internet start-up. Gil focused on the idea that his brother seemed happy and tried to forget the way Bridget had curled one of her fingers against the sensitive center of his palm when he’d taken her hand in his.
Theo asked Gil to be his best man. The slide toward the wedding accelerated for months. Gil did a lot of polite listening and suffered through a tux fitting, rehearsal dinner, golf outing. The ceremony and reception passed in a daze for Gil: propping up Theo as he wept at the altar, bribing the bartender to fill the flasks he and the other groomsmen had received as gifts, the slither of the married organist’s dress hitting the floor of his hotel room.
That autumn came and went without any pants, but the year after that they entered the home improvement phase. The pants arrived sealed inside a double-pane window, then were buried under a freshly sodded lawn. Theo’s buddies from college launched a start-up without him, ran it on venture capital for eighteen months, and sold the company for seventy million dollars. Theo forwarded to Gil the message from one buddy who planned to use his share to pay the Russians for a trip to the space station. Gil deleted it before he reached the end. The jobs that had once seemed temporary for them — stepping stones — became permanent, with Gil in his cubicle at an aerospace company, designing the smallest parts of the rockets he had hoped to one day ride, and Theo keeping the cement plant’s computers up and running.
Three days after Gil turned twenty-nine, another note arrived.
She has the pants. And the house. And half of everything else.
The return address was an apartment in a cheap complex at the edge of town. Gil called Theo’s cell phone. No answer. His second call was to Mom, who picked up on the first ring. Her answers were short and angry: Bridget had had other men, lots of them, since before the wedding.
He gripped the steering wheel hard on the drive to his brother’s old house, trying to keep his speed below double the limit. Bridget opened the door wearing only one of Theo’s old dress shirts.
“I thought you might come by,” she said. She raised one arm overhead and stretched against the doorframe like a cat. The hem of the shirt rode up her smooth thighs. “I assumed you might wait a little longer, though.”
Gil took a deep breath, and followed her into the house.
He walked stiffly up the steps of Theo’s apartment complex, which smelled vaguely of piss. His crotch was chafed and raw, and he swung his legs in wide, short steps like a gunslinger in a shootout.
No answer met his knock, so he opened the unlocked front door. The shades were drawn, the lights off, but the stains on the thin carpet still stood out in the gloom. The smell seemed worse inside.
Rustling in the bathroom. Gil knocked on the flimsy door.
Gil didn’t answer. He looked at the piles of boxes stacked in the tiny living area.
“Are you still there?” Theo asked through the door.
“No,” Gil said. “I left. Open the door.”
“We could argue about it,” Gil said. “Yell, bargain, scream, and then I’ll kick it in anyway. Let’s cut out the middle man, and you can keep the security deposit on your lovely new home. I need your help.”
After a moment of silence, Theo answered. “You need my help?”
“I can barely breathe,” Gil said, “and I can’t feel my feet.”
The door unlocked with a metallic ping and swung open to reveal Theo with matted hair and three-day beard.
“Jesus,” he said.
Gil looked down at his own lower torso, at the violently blue corduroy pants straining around his waist. They had seemed huge twenty years ago, but, like most of his memories of childhood, they’d shrunk. He could feel grains of concrete trapped in the material, the prod of what might be a tiny splinter of glass.
Theo contemplated his brother for a few seconds.
“You didn’t fuck her, did you?”
“She wanted me to.”
“I know,” Theo said. “She told me.”
“I tied her to the bed the way she wanted. Nice and tight,” Gil said.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Opened the windows. Took out the screens.”
Theo looked up, seeming smaller than ever, as if he, too, had diminished over the years.
“It’s a bad year for mosquitoes and black flies,” Gil continued.
Theo pondered that for a moment. He nodded. “It is worse than normal.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have poured all that honey on her.”
The weak fluorescent bulb lit the bathroom like a cheap horror movie. It limned the scar on Theo’s nose, and cast shadows at the twitching corners of his mouth.
“What’s all this?”
Gil gestured at the items lining the edge of the tub and standing on the toilet: packs of razor blades, booze, rope, pill bottles, a plastic bag. A stainless steel revolver lay in the sink.
“Taking a little survey,” Theo answered quietly.
Gil hefted the gun, wiping soap scum off the grip before fitting it to his hand and looking over the sights at a five dollar bottle of vodka.
“Nice collection. I know how hard it is to stop once you get started. Why’d you go with the six inch barrel?” he asked, his voice cracking. “You feeling like a cowboy, too?”
The weapon suddenly felt too heavy to hold, too solid and real and possible, and his hand trembled as he set it down again.
Theo didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes on the floor.
Gil picked up a prescription and read the label.
“A. Gerry, DVM?”
That got a response. Theo cleared his throat.
“It’s all we had in the house when I left,” he said.
Gil waited for him to finish.
“They’re, um, they’re for the cat. Antibiotics.”
Gil placed the bottle gently back on the counter.
“Well, at least you’ll clear up that nasty urinary tract infection before you go.”
He pawed through the mess until he found a pack of razor blades and tore the top off the package. He fished one out and handed it to his brother.
“I don’t want to.”
“Not that, asshole,” Gil said. “Get me out of these pants. The zipper is fused shut, and I think that if I don’t restore the circulation soon, my toes will begin to drop off.”
Theo leaned forward and reached out toward the blue pants with the razor blade. When he got within a few inches, an arc of intense white-blue light leapt from the pants to the steel, freezing the scene in an electrical snapshot.
Theo dropped the razor and shook his hand. The spark had burned a pinhole in his thumb. Gil snickered.
“You knew that was going to happen?” Theo asked.
“I thought it might. Come on, cut me out. These things are making me sterile.”
“What if they shock me again?” Theo asked.
“I think that was the last bit of juice they had,” Gil said. “Besides… aren’t I worth it?”
He watched as Theo picked up the blade and set to work. The pants were skintight, and he had to carefully slice through the tough material without cutting into the flesh beneath. He traced a line from hip to floor, the corduroy falling away to either side, then did the other leg without so much as scratching Gil. Well, maybe there were a few nicks along the way, but they didn’t hurt.
“Nice boxers,” Theo said.
“Thanks. You still wearing those cheap hotel briefs?”
That did it. Theo grinned. They both looked at the shapeless mass of fabric at their feet, all that remained of the once-proud pants.
“Now what do we do?” he asked.
Gil took the razor from him and dropped it in the trash.
“We’ll figure something out,” he said. “First, let’s get out of this shithole. You can stay with me. We’ll pick up your stuff later.”
The boys headed for the door.
Less than a year later, Gil came home late from work to find another suspicious envelope in his mail. Theo had moved out months before, but they still talked every week. The birthday card inside had a cartoon rocket ship on the front, and read, “Now you are SIX.” Theo had added the “times 5” in his own scrawl. His handwriting had gotten worse in his middle age.
My college buddy owed me a favor.
7:25 p.m. – 10 degrees above SSW
Gil checked the time. He held the card in his hand as he walked into the backyard. The glow of the city fell behind him, and the sky had begun to darken to the south. He stood motionless, watching. Right on time it appeared, tracking overhead. The space station hung in low earth orbit, circling the globe every ninety-six minutes in long arcs as if weaving a blanket from threads of night. Somewhere onboard a scrap of blue corduroy streaked through space.
JIM WALKE is a writer, actor and cubicle monkey in the mountains of Virginia, with a freshly-minted MFA that fully qualifies him to sit in his basement and stare at the wall until things start to happen. In his spare moments he wanders the Appalachian Trail, and spends time lying in his hammock and lying. His work has previously appeared in The Ampersand Review, Confluence and online in Toasted Cheese.