My sister was always stupid. But by the time she got to high school, we were getting along pretty well. I had quit tattling on her, and she had quit beating me up. Truth be told, I looked up to her. She was going to get out of Pisgah, the cow pasture turned suburb where we'd grown up. Big deal, you say. Every kid wants to run away from home by the end of high school. But not every kid is a Sobolewski.
My name is Matt Sobolewski, and I looked up to my sister. And not just because she was 6'1". When I was in eighth grade, she'd made All-State High School basketball as a sophomore. But that didn't impress me. What was cool was that she had college recruiters visiting twice a week. Someone was going to pay Ruth to leave. I would be damned if I couldn't get myself a ticket out of Pisgah too.
Given, I'd never earn an athletic scholarship like Ruth. At 5'10" and 130, I was as imposing as a coat rack, only not as coordinated. Plus, sports suck. But just because I was smarter than Ruth didn't mean I had a shot in hell on the SATs. What I needed was an opportunity for brown-nosing, or failing that, snitching. Not inspiring, but these are the defense mechanisms you develop when you spend childhood getting beat up by your sister. So I shoplifted The Guide to Scholarships at the mall. I also took a Playboy, because I didn't have a girlfriend or a life.
After I got through Playboy, I read the scholarship book and found I could get a free ride for doing well in only one subject. This info was what I needed. Now I could concentrate on one class, while slacking off in the others. I figured I ought to go with German. All that took was bullshitting in another language. I could bullshit.
The first thing my mom said when I got home from Germany was, "I need you to find out what's wrong with your sister. She's hiding something." It was like I was back in sixth grade, telling her where Ruth had stashed her report card.
"Mom, c'mon. Just freaking ask her what's the matter."
"She won't talk to me. You're the only one she ever talks to. But I didn't drive her to all those damn games to have her drop out." Mom started slamming things into her purse.
She pointed one finger at me. "Not now. I have to get back to work. This is what you're good at." She grabs her apron off the chair behind me, then stops to place a hand on my shoulder. "Please. Do it for me."
My shoulder slumped under her hand, and I heard myself say, "I'll talk to her, Mom."
"It's good to have you home," she said, before going out the door. I didn't want to tell her that I never wanted to be back home.
Back in high school, my freshman teacher had asked why I'd chosen German. I told her my family was German. That was a half-truth, but it's the half she wanted. My great-grandma was German. But in 1905, when Oma Ziegler married a Polish man, she was kicked out of her little town of Klopot. It was the beginning of a long-standing family tradition; Sobolewskis being pushed out the door, usually with a knife in their back.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Sobolewski came to Cincinnati, where the Zieglers had family. That was fine, until their son, and my future Grandpa, married an Irish Catholic from Kentucky. So the Cincinnati Zieglers disowned them as well. Once again, the Sobolewskis hit the road.
"You up for some sibling bonding, little brother?" Ruth had asked before she'd gone back to work.
"You buyin' the beer?" I shot back.
"Still the same damn mooch as ever. Meet me out at the plane when I'm off work."
"Hey!" I shouted at her out the door, "and make sure you buy German beer, and not some watered-down American crap!"
"You'll be lucky to get anything, Mr. Beer Snob."
As far as I know, there were no major problems with my folks' marriage, other than Mom being three months pregnant with Ruth on her wedding day. Grandpa said, that used to be the only reason people got married. It was Grandpa Sobolewski who filled me in on my family history. He'd upset Mom at the dinner table with his stories. How, back in 1925, his brother was shot in front of the jukebox at the old Union Township Tavern because of some girl. Or how my great-aunt Hanna passed out one night after drinking and smoking, only to wake up after she lit herself on fire with her cigarette.
Luckily, the shock of it all gave her a heart attack, which killed her quicker than third-degree burns would've. I guess that's making the best of a bad situation.
Grandpa Sobolewski was cool as hell. Back then, this was fourth grade or so, Ruth would just beat me up. Mom and Dad would just ignore me, whenever they happened to be home. But Grandpa talked to me. I guess that's why his stroke in ‘84 hurt me so much. After that, he'd lay night and day on our old brown couch. He stayed crumpled there, like hand-me-downs that were never tossed out, nor folded up and put away. With him trapped on the couch, Mom and Dad could pretty much ignore him too. Ruth stayed outside all day and shot baskets. Grandpa and I would sit together by ourselves. He was always asking me for a glass of water to down his pills, to change the tv channels, for a schnapps, or for more pills and forget the water.
It was his other son, Jack, who cheered him up after the stroke. Of course, Uncle Jack died too. It was drunk driving that got him in ‘86, coming back from the Van Halen concert. He wrapped his old Nova around a phone pole, with no one else around. Grandpa mumbled out of the good side of his mouth, that "Jack's a fool, but he never hurt no one." Mom just said we were lucky the dumb ass hadn't hit anybody who could sue us.
I made it out of town. Some college was crazy enough to give me a scholarship. I'd even made it as far as Germany. And now I was back in Pisgah for the first time in two years. I hadn't seen Ruth since I'd left for Germany, so it seemed I oughta stop by before school started back up.
I guess that proved Ruth wasn't the only dumb one in the family.
Mom's kitchen seemed smaller than ever. I was using the same checkered dish towel I'd held ten years ago to dry her chipped, faded dishes, whenever I hadn't been able to get out of doing dishes. The house hadn't changed much. Mom hadn't either. She was usually putting in two full time shifts at Perkin's or fast asleep.
After Grandpa died, it seemed like Dad automatically took Grandpa's spot on the couch. A Reds game played, oblivious to the dead bottle of Johnny Walker and the depleted orange cylinder of pain killers that some fool kept prescribing. Dad had fallen off a roof during a job a few years after Grandpa went. After his fall, the only things left that could stand straight were his empty bottles, and his back was about as crooked as the unemployment line.
The sun was setting quickly now, like it had somewhere better to be. One side of the house was already in darkness. Fall's chill was barging into the house past the slanted old storm door. I snuck past the couch into the hallway.
By now, Ruth would be waiting for me out in Grandpa's old twin engine. That way she wouldn't have to risk coming inside and seeing Mom or Dad. The old plane hulked out in the backyard, overlooking the phantom airstrip it had once inhabited. Everything had been paved over for strip malls and suburban neighborhoods when I was a kid. After Grandpa had lost his license along with his vision, his old charter had been towed up here. Dad talked about how he would fix it up, but Dad talked about a lot of things. Its parts had been stripped for sale at the airfield up in Hamilton, and the wings were ripped off for scrap metal.
The plane was aimed towards the setting sun. I hauled myself through the gaping hatch on the side. Rusted rivets seemed to march down the bleached side of the old battered twin engine, making me wonder if I'd had more than two beers in the kitchen. I felt my face split with a grin, a grin that I knew made me look more buzzed than I was.
My sister's voice floated back from the pilot's seat. "'Bout time you showed. Have a seat."
"Don't mind if I do." I plopped down into the decaying co-pilot's chair, then swung my legs over the cooler between our seats and under the tight dash in front of me. "Sorry it took so long to get out here, but Dad's in one of his moods again."
"So?" Ruth brought her bottle back for another sip. "Not like he's going to move or anything."
"Well, I just feel weird leaving him like that, you know?" I looked over at her.
"No, I don't," she said in a flat voice. "And I don't think you do either. All you ever wanted was to leave him. Did you think you'd just come home after a couple years and everything would be hunky-dory?" Ruth's voice was too monotone to be accusatory. I smirked; it sounded like a sermon pitched for the hundredth time.
"Maybe not hunky-dory, but a bit less dysfunctional than when I left. Mom's working another twenty hours a week. Not that I can blame her for skipping out on the Magic Kingdom here. Dad's mouth is getting bigger and his liver is getting smaller. Now you're putting beers away like you were the one who was in Germany for a year."
"You're just upset that I can still drink you under the table," Ruth muttered. She glared into the last fading orange rays coming over the wooded slope west of the old house. Her legs shifted uncomfortably.
"Yeah, you could still out drink me. But what're you doing home? You should be headed back to school." I eyed the cooler, finally grabbing another Beck's and opening it.
Ruth looked at me. "C'mon. I'm sure Mom told you I got kicked out."
My bottle stopped halfway to my mouth. "Classes couldn't have been that tough."
"I'm not stupid enough to let my grades drop and lose a scholarship."
"If it wasn't your grades, why'd they kick you out? Drugs?"
Ruth looked like she was going to hit me. "Shit, no. I took a swing at Josh, our assistant coach. Knocked out three of his teeth. Plus, he got a concussion when the back of his head hit the floor." But then she just stopped, like she realized that she might have said too much.
"Why'd you hit him?"
Ruth wouldn't say anything. She didn't even take another drink.
"Why'd you hit him?!" I don't know where the panic in my chest came from. I flew from buzzed to scared in ten seconds. My head felt like I was stuck in heavy cycle of the washer, and the whole load had spun off balance.
Ruth started talking quietly. Ruth never talked quietly. "He kept coming to see me during rehab. Talking to me, being nice. After a party one night, I hit a bar on the way home and bumped into him. Twelve hours later, we were still in bed, telling our lives' stories. I couldn't believe it; one of the nicest guys I'd ever met actually liked me! You know they wouldn't come near me in high school. Course we couldn't let the team in on anything, or it'd be his job. That sucked, because everyone wanted to know where I was sneaking off to. But it was actually good getting away from drinking every night. Everything was nice. And then I got pregnant."
I tried to say something, but all I could do was open my mouth.
"I didn't know what to do. He said I'd lose my scholarship if I had a baby."
"Ruth, he was just covering his ass. He'd be fired."
I threw back the rest of my beer. "So it was just another Sobolewski that no one wanted."
My right ear went dead when the back of Ruth's hand crossed my face. Everything was numb and fiery at the same time. She had her fist balled up and cocked, with her left forearm across my throat.
"Is hitting me gonna make it better?" Talking was all I could do.
Ruth punched the cushion next to my head. "Nothing makes it better!" She screamed close enough to leave spit across my face.
She slumped back into her seat, and I tried to take a deep breath. As corkscrewed as my heart was, I knew Ruth's must have been worse. She'd hung on Sister Mary Elizabeth's every word at St. Susanna's. All I ever did was sleep through Mass.
"I couldn't have it. I was too, too scared. My scholarship was gone one way or another. Punching out Josh just let me take him down with me. How could I raise a kid? Shit, look at us. Look at our family." She flung her hand out to Mom and Dad's house, then plunged it back into the icy water of the cooler. She must have hit the steel frame under the seat cushion.
There was silence for a little while. My eyes swept across the valley between our house and the next hill. Clusters of lights showed subdivisions where I was certain there had been none two years earlier. Spotlights illuminated gaudy yuppie churches, paid for with an army of yuppie donations to whichever branch of Christianity had taken root in Pisgah's emptied pastures and flood plains. Down the main drag, a strip of fast food restaurants threw up a neon glow against September's storm clouds.
"You know, one of my favorite writers in German, a guy named Heine, had to leave home after he pissed off too many people. He thought he'd never get to come back. He eventually got to, but while he was gone, he wrote this long poem, Wintermärchen, a ‘wintery fairy tale.' It talked about how much he loved the hills and woods of his land, about how much better everything would be, if only people weren't so hopelessly screwed up."
"Glad to see they taught you something at school."
I looked over to Ruth. My big sister's head was thrown back, her eyes fixed on the torn upholstery of the cab's ceiling.
"You're welcome to stay with me at school," I suggested carefully. "None of the other guys at the house will mind." That was a delicate understatement. Friends of friends had slept in our TV room for days. I had a bed, a door that locked, and nothing worth stealing, so I never minded.
"Thanks. That's cool, but I don't think a college campus is where I want to be right now. I got to get away from that for a awhile."
I nodded. "Yeah, well the offer still stands. I'm just saying that staying here might not be the most constructive thing to do."
Knuckles cracked and Ruth sighed. That meant she was nervous, so I tried to stay cool and let her talk.
"I've been waiting tables over at the new Cracker Barrel since I left school. I can get an apartment soon."
"Ruth, you don't have to..."
Straight, dishwater blonde hair spun sharply as Ruth turned to glare at me. So much for shutting up and staying cool.
"What the hell am I going to do? I can't get a student loan with my GPA. Even if I could get back in school, I don't know if I'd want to."
I stared silently at the bottle leaning up against my right thigh.
"I'm sorry I bit your head off, Matt. It's just that I've gone through this conversation a million times with Mom."
Another pause followed. I watched Ruth shift her legs. The scars of ACL surgeries were invisible in the blackness of the broken down plane's cabin, but that didn't mean she couldn't feel the advance of autumn in her beaten knees. I looked down to my Beck's and took a last gulp. "Don't worry about it, Ruth. If I'd had to stay at home for as long as you had, it would've driven me crazy too. It's just weird for me to come back, and like, ‘BAM!', your whole life is screwed."
"It's not like things weren't messed up before. I was just at school where you couldn't see it." If she felt my eyes on her, she didn't bother to look back.
"You never said shit to me. What got to you? Were you scared of Mom and Dad?"
"Yeah, maybe a bit. I don't know. It just seemed like when I got my basketball scholarship, everyone was so happy for me. College seemed like such a good idea. But when I blew my knee out, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?' I had friends, I always had a party to go to, but classes just seemed like such a nuisance. All I was doing was killing time."
"You know Mom told me to find out why you dropped out?" I asked, only it wasn't really a question.
Ruth sighed disgustedly. "I'm sure as hell not telling her about the abortion. As far as school goes, you know how she is. We're the first ones in her family to go to college. She couldn't understand how I couldn't be thrilled to study day and night. God, I sound like such a brat!" Across the darkness, Ruth seemed close to tears, but I couldn't tell. "I'll never get out of here."
"You will." Somewhere, Grandpa must've been laughing. When he settled in Pisgah, he'd found a town that no Sobolewski could get kicked out of.
"That's easy for you to say. You made it out of here. All the way to Germany."
"That was a study year," I said. "I still have to get through school if I want out for good."
"Ha." Ruth smiled. At least there was a little humor back in her voice. "You'll never to be completely out of here. It'll stick to your shoes."
"Ruth, you could go back to school if you wanted."
She just stared down at her feet and shook her head.
"No, I'm serious!" I continued quickly. "Apply at UC. We can get a loan set up for you. There's room at the house. I'll help you with classes. It 'd be a fresh start."
"Don't want another parent, Matt. Then I got you hanging over me, right next to Mom and Dad. The frickin' Trinity of Guilt. My head's messed up enough as it is right now."
"Well, you don't want to be like Mom either, but you're still waiting tables."
"Fuck you too."
Ruth and I finished off the last of the twelve-pack in silence.
"Okay, I'll think about it." There was a heavy pause before she asked, "What are you going to tell Mom?"
"I don't have to tell her anything. You got my help if you want it, okay? Everything'll be okay." Everything was fucked up. Maybe it would never be okay. But Ruth was still up and going, even if she seemed a little weaker. At least she wasn't inside a bottle, or living for a job that killed her.
I just hoped that when the shit hit me, whenever I had the worst day of my life, I would be able to get back up.
"Let's go inside, okay? I'm cold." Ruth took my hand and pulled herself out of the chair. Her legs didn't seem to work quite right, but we made our way through the tarry night back to the house.
My name is Matt Sobolewski, and I still look up to my sister.
Copyright © 2002 Joe Decker