The Bad Brother

We were a committee of three brothers, but one of us was bad. Bad in the sense that one of us was selfish. Selfish in the sense that the bad brother among us cared only for money, and confused the money he had amassed for his superiority. The bad brother’s belief that he was superior was delusional in many ways, but perhaps most obviously because all the bad brother’s money had come from our father, and while me and my other good brother also had money from our father, me and the good brother could see that this father-money was a thing of luck, and not proof of anything except that we three brothers were all likely to drink fine local wine and eat expensive creamy cheese. 


The bad brother was, of course, most beloved by our mother. Our mother spoke longingly of the bad brother’s excellent fashion choices and keen business sense (which the bad brother did not, in fact, possess) and also how all of the girls that the bad brother had considered for wife-hood were not good enough for the bad brother, because, in our mother’s eyes, the bad brother was the best man that had ever lived. 


At times, when our bad brother was not present, our mother talked only of the bad brother, which annoyed my good brother and I, but we suspected that our mother knew, deep down, that our bad brother was a bad brother, but our mother could not bring herself to say it out loud in the air for fear that God, or someone else with mighty judgment, might hear. 


My good brother suspected that our bad brother was trying to kill our mother. Our bad brother had done very bad things before (like steal from our father and us, his other two brothers), so it did not seem out of the question that our bad selfish brother might also try and kill our mother. And, our bad brother knew that he was the most beloved by our mother, and so had the most powerful key, in our mother’s old age, to either keep her alive or, by way of a broken heart, condemn her to death.


Unfortunately, as my good brother suspected, our bad brother did begin to do terrible things to our mother. Our bad brother called our mother and said he was coming over, but then would never arrive. Our bad brother did not come to family events, or send birthday cards, or be nice to us, his other two brothers, which we told our mother. Every time we told our mother of a bad thing that our bad brother had done, she looked at us and winced as if she had done the bad thing to us, which my good brother was not very good at seeing, so my good brother would tell our mother all of the horrible, true things that her bad son had done until our mother looked shaken and frail and sick. 


I am, myself, a father, and so I have great empathy for how horrible it might be to have a son who you know, deep down, is a bad brother. But I only have one daughter, and my daughter is so young that she has not yet said an insult that has actually hurt me. By this I mean, that her mind is still young enough that it cannot yet accurately perceive what, if said, would most hurt me. I have imagined the day when my daughter will insult me, and it will hurt me, but I imagine that day will happen in five years into the future, or maybe even a little further, when my daughter is eleven or twelve or thirteen. 


But I can imagine my daughter doing bad things to me. I can imagine my daughter taking things from me, stealing things from me, manipulating her mother into doing things her mother does not want to do. My daughter is a small child, and still, I can see, that the way we turn into full grown good-or-bad humans in a matter of luck, mostly, and that my daughter may be even worse than my bad brother, if I let her, because I love her so much that I cannot see my daughter truthfully for what she is or what she might be. 


I think of the way I look at my daughter’s paintings. My daughter’s paintings are the most beautiful paintings. She makes them on large pieces of craft paper and, instead of using a brush, like the other children, paints directly with her hands. She uses large swatches of blue and orange, which are her favourite colours, which I know because she has asked to put plastic fire cones in her bedroom and once stole a small orange plastic fire cone from a children’s soccer match and then draped it in a blue sheet because she said she thought the cone looked cold and she liked the way the plastic orange felt against her hands.


When I look at my daughter I can see that she looks a little like my bad brother. Their eyebrows are not dissimilar. When my bad brother holds my daughter, he puts her on his knee. 


My bad brother keeps calling our mother. He asks our mother to stay up late for him. He says he’s coming over. But our bad brother never comes over. Our mother, who is truly old and frail, refuses to sleep and waits by the window and watches cars drive by her street. The car’s headlights shine in on her through the blinds. They stripe light on her. I went to feed her cats last week and opened the door to my poor striped mother. She was sitting in the dark, with a chair pulled close to the blinds. Every time a car drove by it striped light on her so that it looked like her body had been cut into slices and layered, with every other layer missing, up to her proper height. Sometimes, depending on the direction of the cars, and how slow they are driving, the striped lights stay longer. She looks halved and quartered. I know she is waiting for our bad brother. I know that she wants him to come, and shower love upon her. When I see her like this, I know I must bring my daughter to be with her. I want my mother to love my daughter more than she loves our bad brother. If I can make this happen I know she will live longer. My daughter, after all, is too young to truly hurt her. Loving my daughter will be, for my mother, like loving a nicely made spoon. My daughter is not enough of a human yet, child that she is, to really exert hurt on my mother, or to reflect anything bad about my mother back upon her. My daughter is only something delightful that my mother could show off to all the neighbours. Look, I want my mother to say to our neighbours, this is my granddaughter. My granddaughter is only a child, but she makes beautiful paintings that are better than all the others. Have you ever seen a painting as beautiful as this? Have you seen the way my granddaughter uses blue? And then I imagine that my mother will display my daughter’s paintings to our neighbours, as I have, myself, many times displayed my daughter’s paintings to our neighbours. Perhaps my mother will carry my daughter’s paintings around with her in a folder so that she can share them, at will, with her neighbours. I think that this will work, if my mother can manage to unlatch her heart enough to see that my daughter is better than our bad brother. And the thing about my daughter is that she truly is better than my bad brother. And her paintings really are better than all the others. It’s not a stretch to think that my daughter is better and smarter and more deserving than all the others because this is, in fact, true. 


’s debut collection BELLY UP won the 2018 Believer Book Award. In addition to editions of BELLY UP in Italy and in Greece, Rita’s writing has been published in Tin House, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON, and Guernica. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Francisco.



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