Sidney's Song

April 9, 2011
When Sidney sang, people listened. He was an athlete first - a strapping, broad-shouldered, soccer-playing athlete. He would rise early in the morning, before the first birds had even broken the thick stillness of night, before the first sun’s rays of honey made their lazy trek from his bed on one side of the room, to mine on the other. He would trudge to our communal dresser in the dark, sliding out of his sweatpants, and yanking off his nightshirt so that when he opened the mahogany drawers, slowly, so as to keep the creaking to a minimum, he could pull on his running shorts and tank top without pause. Ever so silently, he’d creep to our door, throw it open - silently - and tread into the dark world beyond for his morning run. Most of the time, he made it, although once in a while, my eyes would flick open to see a dark shadow bobbing around against the lighter backdrop of the walls. Usually he was humming under his breath, the notes so spaced and gentle that they were only small pinpoints of sound, indistinguishable from the regular hums of the house unless you were aware of them.

Sidney would return beneath the warm, red glow of the rising sun. Glistening with the sweat of exertion, he’d make no point of attempting silence or invisibility. He’d come sweeping into the room to grab his regular high school attire - blue jeans, a plain t-shirt, a thick pair of socks, his scuffed-up tennis shoes - before retreating to the bathroom. Remaining in bed, I’d hear the familiar thumps of his shampoo bottle his the floor of the tub, his muffled curse, the rush of water (now, I remember feeling the warmth of the water as though I were there beside him; why this is, I don’t know because it would have been in his nature to bathe in ice, but it was hot, scalding water, and we both warmed ourselves with the sound of it), and then his song.

He was an athlete first. He figured that was how he was going to get into college; he was smart, he had decent grades, but the bait was in his athletics. We all knew that. But Sidney was a singer second, and the song was what really impressed me. My clean-shaven brother adorned in his silver and blue team jacket was beautiful, humorous, strong, formidable. But my brother the singer was other-worldly, divine.

The day he left for college, left me, left Mom, left Dad, was a hard day. He went out for that same old run that he’d always gone on and returned just as I, the younger brother, was stretching in my bed, immersing myself in the last melancholy strains of summer. I hadn’t noticed his absence until he returned, and then, when he did, the absence of him hit me with a hard pang in my chest.

Sidney showered, the same as always, but his song was less sure of itself. He was uneasy with his own transformation, but more than that, he was worried about leaving me behind.

Sidney and I both had an older sister but she’d been gone for a while. I was the baby, and it was not a good position to hold in our home. Not then. Mom and Dad had already planned their divorce. They’d already tagged the furniture - BILLY’S, or Ellen - and had divvied up the photographs and the school awards from three consecutive children. They had already rearranged their schedules to ensure that only one of them was preparing coffee at a time; they couldn’t risk trying to make coffee simultaneously because long ago it had become a point of argument that they preferred different flavors, incompatible flavors for one machine, and had fought heatedly for twelve minutes, while I sat beside them at Sidney’s championship soccer game, about the inequality of one of them always having to wait for coffee. Two days later, Mom had bought a new coffee maker and written her name on it. There’d been harmony for another week, as they stood side by side and prepared their coffee silently in separate machines, but then Dad’s had broke - he said it was because of Mom’s flavor choices, that they had destroyed the container - and they’d gone back to one machine.

It wasn’t the coffee. It was everything. That had been five years earlier. Ever since, Sidney and I had lived under the same roof as two ticking time bombs. The problem had been that although we both knew of their existence, and Sidney had a number for the bomb squad on his bulletin board, disabling them would still have destroyed any home we had ever had. We two reminiscent boys were too fond of the past to blow it up.

And so Sidney showered, and I roused myself to get dressed, and on our last day of two against two, we walked downstairs together, Sidney’s thick athlete hand on my shoulder.

Mom was in the kitchen, making pancakes and bacon and sausage and eggs and hash browns for the first time in years. She was already trying to contain her tears, but her red eyes clearly shown through her mascara. “Oh, Sidney,” she cried when she saw him, decked out in dress pants and a dark sweater today, polished, sophisticated. Ignoring me, she thrust the pan of bacon aside and went to wrap her arms around his neck. Sidney stood politely, looking almost comical in his regal bearing and aloof placement of his arms, while she hung on to him like the aging mother she was.

She stood like that for what felt like hours. I watched Sidney and he stared unabashedly back at me, emotionless. “Luke,” Mom finally said, harshly swatting at her eyes with the back of a hand, “Get the bacon will you? And the batter next to the stove there is ready for pancakes… scoop some on the pan, won’t you? Just a ladle or so?”

“I’ll get Dad,” Sidney muttered stiffly.

“Oh,” Mom sniffed. “Dad. That’s right.”

Our first family meal in months and already Mom was distraught and Dad conspicuously absent. I knew Sidney better than either of them did; Sidney didn’t want this. He would have preferred to take me out to breakfast, out anywhere, to McDonalds even, though Sidney hated McDonalds. He thought it made him soft and a soft soccer player was hardly acceptable.

Once upon a time, we’d had another family dinner. Sidney had sung at that one while Mom and Dad had looked on in pride, arms around each other. At that dinner, Sidney had been recruited for a couple of low-key concerts. Soccer hadn’t mattered yet. School hadn’t mattered. For our Sidney’s good looks and quiet charm now, he’d been boisterous and exhilarated then. His eyes had gleamed with wild glee. Now the look only fleetingly crossed his face when he bore down on a hapless opponent in one of his important games. He didn’t know he ever looked like that anymore but I watched him sometimes, waiting to see it, and then trying to forget the small glint of pain in the aftermath of his exhilaration.

That was the last time Sidney had ever sung for them on purpose. They heard him in the shower, too. When he sang for me in the dining room while I shoved my homework back into my backpack and grabbed a book, or went to fetch my laptop for some crucial internet surfing, Mom and Dad listened, one from the kitchen, one from the office. They still shared an office, for some reason, but Dad had an office at his work building as well, so he only used this one late at night when Mom had retired to her novels.

I wondered if they’d let him sing again today. I flipped the pancakes robotically and waited. Then there they were, Sidney striding sure-footed back into his home, Dad walking almost timidly behind him.

“So, Sid,” Dad said heartily. “I’d give you my car but I can’t bear to part, so you’ll just have to take Old Junkie.”

“That’s fine, Dad,” Sidney said calmly. He’d driven Old Junkie for months and though it rattled and scraped against the road, and smelled like wet dogs, it became Sidney somehow. It made him less perfect and more human.

“Billy,” Mom said at once. “Just give him your car. It’s a long drive up there, after all. What if he crashed or- or something. Then what would-”

Sidney pursed his lips. “Old Junkie is fine, Mom. I’ve driven it for years.”

“Well yes, but that’s just it. It can’t last much longer, can it Billy.”

“Mom, it’ll be fine.”

“No one asked you, Luke.”

Sidney coughed loudly. “Luke’s right, Mom. I’ll be fine. Old Junkie is my pal.”

“You should let me drive you,” she begged.

“Mom, I’ll be fine.”

“I know, Sidney. You always are.”

They didn’t let him sing. He probably didn’t want to. But he left earlier than I wanted, after a prolonged hug, and an affectionate, “I love you, Luke. Call me,” he straightened up and stared at me with unwavering seriousness. “Call me if you need anything. If you have to get away…” he stopped, gulped, his Adam’s apple moved hastily. Sidney blinked quickly, “If you have to get away from them,” he said finally, “I’ll pick you up. You can stay with me as long as you need. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, Sidney,” I told him quietly. “I know that.”

He hugged me again, pressing me tightly to him. “You’ll be okay,” he said, mostly for himself.

“Can you sing a song?” I whispered plaintively, the last request from the baby.

Instead, he ruffled my hair. “No. I have to go, Luke.”

“I love you, Sidney,” I said.

That was the last thing I ever told him. Mom and Dad, standing there beside me, waved until he rounded the corner, and then started to argue over his furniture. I remember that, as if I was in a dream. It seems surreal now, remembering that. Their constant bickering was like a blanket, it was something familiar.

The hugging that came next, that was the strange part.

Sidney didn’t make it. He didn’t become the college athlete, the star student. He didn’t date the cheerleader, like the athletes are supposed to. He didn’t even get to his dorm room. Something happened with Old Junkie. It broke down or maybe it was just Sidney. Maybe he was just too tired or scared or confused. But Old Junkie didn’t work right and Sidney didn’t work right, and then he was gone.

Later, after the funeral, the three of us sat around in my room, watching the sun. I thought for a minute that I saw him rolling out of bed and losing his sweatpants on the floor. I watched him tug on his running shorts and disappear out into the hallway. I heard the clamor of the door behind him. I almost thought that when I went to the window and looked out at the driveway, I’d see Old Junkie sitting there serenely.

The whole mourning thing seemed surreal until I saw Mom and Dad sitting together on his bed. And they weren’t fighting or arguing over who would get his pillow. They were hugging each other, crying on each other’s shoulders. That made it real. That made it frighteningly real.

I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to move again. I wasn’t sure there was anymore reason to move. Not with Sidney gone. There was so much noise. The street was full of noise, the school was, the house was shuddering and creaking and making noise, the birds outside were hollering. It was so loud, so deafening.

And then Sidney started singing. I knew it was Sidney, I knew without a doubt. His voice was deep and rich, but it wasn’t mournful anymore, it wasn’t even serene. It was boisterous and enthusiastic. He was singing as if he had the whole world ahead of him, as if he could do anything he wanted and it would turn out perfectly. He was loud, but his voice was smooth and unhurried. Sidney was happy. Finally, Sidney was happy.

Everything was quiet but his voice. Mom and Dad sat together, listening. The birds and the street were listening. The whole world waited. And then, as suddenly as it had come, Sidney’s voice disappeared. The world resumed its activity.

Mom and Dad looked at me, silently. And then Dad said, “It’ll be okay, Luke,” and Mom said “We’ll make it work.” I nodded.

They still fought all the time. But they’d given up on the divorce, at least for now. The tags had been retrieved and thrown out, the grumbling over the coffee was minimal, and we were finally living like a real family. It was still loud all the time. But not in the morning when the sun had not yet risen and the birds had not yet gathered. That was when Sidney came out to sing, and while he sang, we listened.

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