The Broken West
by Kirsty Logan
Daniel first kisses his brother in a town where no-one knows them, a no-account place that’s barely even a town, just some buildings clustered around the highway: a smoky bar, an empty motel, a convenience store that only sells candy and condoms and beer. The nearest gas station is ten miles away. The nearest bus station is fifty.
The trail had gone cold somewhere around Louisville, but now their father’s journal is back on track. They know for sure he was in this town, and only a year before he died. They can’t be sure whether he’s wanted here, but it’s possible. Thirty miles up the road there’s a bank and a school, and Dad could rarely pass those institutions without some inklings of a crime. If their father was here then, maybe their brother is here now.
Daniel can taste the place on the back of his tongue: beer and peanuts and stale sweat. Shreds of cheatgrass rustle in his boot-treads with every step. He’s spent a year checking the face of everyone he passes – does that guy have his eyes, Jack’s chin, Dad’s ears? The only thing he’s discovered is how similar everyone looks. He can’t even tell anymore which noses look like his, which foreheads, which hairlines. They’re all like his, and yet none are.
Jack climbs onto a barstool, orders a beer and a shot of bourbon. The barman looks at Daniel—the same?—and before Daniel nods he compares the barman’s face to Jack’s.
Five drinks later, Jack goes to the bathroom. As soon as the bathroom door shuts, Daniel orders three bourbons and necks them, one after the other, swallowing hard so he can’t cough them back up. Saliva fills his mouth, and he grips the bar until red train tracks appear on his palms.
The bourbon stays down, and Daniel is still pretending not to notice the guy who followed Jack into the bathroom—scrawny, red-eyed, his leather jacket hanging off his shoulders like he’s only bones. Tonight is Jack’s turn at the Investigation, though he takes more turns than Daniel because he enjoys it more. Daniel always worries that it’ll get too far before he finds out, that the other man will already be inside him before he recognizes the shape of his eyes or the angle of his nose. That doesn’t seem to bother Jack, and yet he still won’t kiss Daniel.
Daniel had tried in Topeka, to make Jack feel better after he’d puked up a bottle of whisky. He’d tried in Oklahoma City, to distract Jack after he’d been knocked back by every waitress in the diner. He’d tried in Little Rock, to console Jack after their truck’s tire blew again. Daniel had been shoved away, yelled at, puked on. For Jack, the lost brother is more valuable than the found. Daniel knows it, but it still feels like a sucker-punch.
Daniel’s halfway through his next beer when Jack slides back into his barstool, his eyes glazed and his cheeks scraped raw. Daniel can’t tell if he’s been fighting or fucking, and it doesn’t really matter. Faces look different close up, and the only way to get that close to a stranger is to kiss them or choke them. It’s just someone else to cross off the list. Someone else they didn’t recognize.
At midnight the bar closes, and Daniel steers Jack across the highway to the motel. The road is acned with yellow starthistle and the parking lot is empty except for their pickup, road-dusted and dipped in rust. The motel’s flickering floodlights pick out movement: shapes flashing white then grey. Daniel’s still squinting his smoke-reddened eyes, trying to combine the shapes into something he knows, when Jack shouts out a cuss and launches himself away from Daniel and into the side of the pickup, except that between Jack and the pickup there’s that moving shape, and Daniel sees now that it’s a person.
Jack’s shouting, pressing the person against the pickup, and he’s sliding down the door and trying to crawl under the truck, and Jack grabs his ankles and pulls him back out, skin on gravel. And Daniel sees his face and it’s just a kid, it’s a boy, scrambling and choking, trying to do anything, to be anywhere except here. That kid’s saying sorry sorry no please no.
Jack is not listening. He is kicking, punching, screaming. Daniel is grabbing at limbs: Jack’s, the kid’s, trying to get Jack to stop, but Jack isn’t stopping, even when Daniel’s sure he knows it’s just a kid. Daniel gets in between Jack and the kid, Jack’s kicks tangling in his legs but he stays standing, and he holds Jack’s jaw with both hands and he kisses him.
And the kid is crying behind them, gravel crunching as he tries to move away, but all Daniel knows is Jack, and it’s taking everything in him to hold Jack still and kiss him hard and not cry. Because this is it, it’s working, Jack’s kissing him back, even as his muscles are tight and his hands are twitching and Daniel can taste the anger in their mouths. This time, in this no-account barely-town, it’s happening just right. As right as it can be, at least.
And Jack pushes him away, but by that time the kid has already run across the empty highway, still crying but both legs working, pumping to get him away.
And Daniel can see, even in the flicker of the floodlights, that the kid doesn’t look like either of them.
The second time that Daniel kisses his brother is after Jack gets the shit kicked out of him for the third time in a week. Jack lies on his hard motel bed, boots dusting gravel on the blanket, and cries until he chokes. After an hour, he lets Daniel wipe off the blood and the dirt and the dried tears. After two hours, he lets Daniel hold him. After three, he sleeps.
Daniel lies rigid on the single bed, not daring to move in case Jack wakes and pushes him away. His arm is numb under Jack’s shoulder and he desperately has to piss, but he does not move. He breathes slowly, filling his lungs with his brother’s smell: sweat and whisky and something metallic. He focuses on the paintings of faded green trees hanging crooked on the wall and the dripping sound coming from the bathroom. He can feel the heat of Jack’s skin on his cheek.
Tonight’s fight had not been part of the Investigation. Someone had tried again to steal their truck, and this time it wasn’t some punk kid. The guy had left the truck, but not before ramming his extremities into Jack’s belly.
A beating was worth saving the truck. Without the truck, they’d never find their brother, and the Investigation would be a failure. All that sex, all that blood, would be for nothing. Daniel knows it was worth it, but he’d still give anything to make Jack stop hurting.
Daniel slides down on the bed, holding his breath until he’s dizzy, hardly daring to move in case he wakes Jack. Finally his face is level with Jack’s, though his feet are now hanging off the edge of the bed. Lying here, he’s reminded of how small Jack’s bones are.
Daniel inches his body sideways, trying to press as much of it as possible against Jack. They meet at the shins, arms, lips, forehead, and suddenly it’s a kiss, sweet and soft. Daniel stays that way for a long time, his body tight against Jack’s.
Three weeks later, two states over, another piece-of-shit town. The brothers have moved up in the world: this town has a gas station and a diner. Daniel, of course, wants to go to the diner; Jack, of course, stomps wordlessly to the bar. Daniel does not drive the pickup, Daniel does not get the bed by the window, and Daniel does not choose where they go. Daniel knows that this town must have a daytime, but they’ve been here for fourteen hours and the sky is still dark. The stench of flowering goldenrod is caught at the back of Daniel’s throat.
Their father’s journal is hard to follow: it seemed like he’d written a lot of it drunk, or in a moving car. Daniel and Jack don’t even know if he’s been through this town, but that doesn’t stop Daniel peering at each face as they walk through the bar.
The bar smells of farms: dirt and the flesh of animals. Jack points at the cheapest bottle and the barman empties it into two glasses. The faces in here are the same as the faces in every dirty bar in every shit town in the whole of this stinking country. The same and not the same.
Daniel hasn’t even touched his drink, but he can feel the fumes burning up his nose. Jack’s glass is half empty, and he keeps his fist clenched around it between gulps, as if afraid someone will snatch it away before he is done. Daniel tries to watch Jack out of the corner of his eye, wishing he had hair to hide behind. Jack shaves both their heads monthly—he says it helps to see their bone structure and features, helps to memorize them. It makes their faces easier to compare.
Jack seems intent on his drink, so Daniel slides an inch closer on his barstool. Jack drains his glass and slams it on the bar, the crack gunshot-loud over the droning jukebox. Daniel gets the message, slides two inches away on his stool.
There has been no kissing lately. Every morning, Jack undresses, showers, and redresses behind a locked bathroom door. If they could afford it, Daniel is sure that Jack would book separate rooms.
Tonight it is Daniel’s turn at the Investigation. He raises his glass, fumes clouding in his throat, then lowers it. Standing by the pool table, in mud-spattered boots and a wrinkled t-shirt, is a man. He pulls his hair back from his face to take a shot, and Daniel sees Jack’s nose. The ball thumps into the pocket, and the man smiles: Daniel sees Dad’s dimple.
Daniel finishes his drink in three burning gulps, swallowing hard to keep it from rising back up. He fixes his eyes on the man’s legs and walks towards him. He pulls a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his pocket, sticks it between his lips, and asks for a light.
Five minutes later they’re in the alley behind the bar, the man’s face lit by the sickly yellow moon. Daniel pushes him against the wall, stumbling on ground littered with broken planks, smashed bottles, shreds of plastic. The man licks Daniel’s neck and Daniel pulls away, holding the man’s hair back off his face with both hands, looking for Jack’s nose. The man shows his teeth and undoes Daniel’s belt. Daniel stares at the man’s face under the dull half-moon, and he knows. He sees himself, his brother, his father.
Daniel stumbles, gets his balance. The man has Daniel’s pants down on the uneven ground and Daniel doesn’t want it, can’t want it, but his body doesn’t listen; his body knows that the man smells like Jack, that the man has the shapes and angles of Jack, and his body knows that that is good enough. Daniel leans his head back against the wall and stares up at the moon and feels the spread of the man’s saliva across his skin.
Daniel leaves the man on his knees in the alley and goes back into the bar, back to his brother. Jack looks up and raises his eyebrows—is it?—but Daniel just shakes his head. He takes Jack’s unsteady arm, slides him off the bar stool, and leads him back to the motel.