"On the front steps of the courthouse," Rod says, "there's a pay phone here."
I know the spot he’s calling from. Flipping off authority is part of the fun for him. My brother is a scoundrel, a loose cannonball, a glorious belly flop.
"Jeez," I say. "Why don't you just paint a target on your forehead? Why don't you march down the street twirling a shiny baton with a brass band behind you playing 'Eight Miles High'?"
"I'm a law abiding citizen Jerry. I just happen to be nocturnal."
"Liar," I say. What my brother needs is a good whack upside the head. "You've been over to Pedro's again."
"One minute you're flying," says Rod, "and the next you drop like a donut."
I swore off Pedro's a long time ago. Rod is still swearing him off every time he goes. "Gravity's a bitch," I say. "It's the frailty of the body."
"It's not the flesh that's weak," says Rod, "it's the mind."
My brother, the philosopher. He set out to explore the inside of his head, and he brought me along to hold the flashlight. "You should go home Rod. You should get yourself off the streets."
"We should rehearse. We should get the band back together."
"Don't start. It isn't my fault the band fell apart."
"You lead a sheltered life," Rod says, "sleeping at home, in your own bed."
"I'm not sleeping now."
"How's that pretty little wife of yours?"
"She's asleep. It's 5 a.m."
"Sleep is overrated. Four out of five doctors say so."
This is not news, coming from Rod. We shared a bedroom growing up. He used to go out the bedroom window every night and roam the streets. He perfected the art of sleeping through high school. The Army took him, but then they had a mutually agreed upon parting of the ways.
"How come it's always me you call? How come you don't call Mom and Dad when you're like this?"
"They have caller ID," Rod says. "But they're good people, you know? They gave us plenty of room to fuck up."
"They taught us to sing," I say. "They taught us to make our beds in the morning. They taught us to be kind."
"We should stick to what we're good at," says Rod. "That's one of the habits of highly successful people."
What Rod is good at is this. I switch the phone to my other ear. Maybe he'll sound less crazy that way.
"It's starting to snow," Rod says.
"It's the middle of May, Rod."
"Maybe where you are it is. You remember the time the volcano went off, and ash fell out of the sky?"
"Goat Mountain, the two Natanyas, yeah, I remember."
"I wanted us to be buried together that night, all four of us, like Pompeii."
"I don't think the two Natanya's were up for that," I say. "Besides, there wasn't enough ash to bury a potato bug." It will take a long time for me to fall back asleep. My brother is broken, and will never be set back straight.
"The wound of love, Jerry boy, I was cut to the quick."
"That's your idea of love?" I say. The Russian girls, they hadn't exactly been easy, but they were a long ways from hard. The ash that night, drifting down in the dark, made them think of Chernobyl. They looked up into the sky and said something in Russian. And then Rod gave me a wink, and I took my Natanya by the hand and led her off to lie down in a bed of moss.
"Natanya's lips," Rod says, "were as tender as a toddler's laugh."
I never felt so alive as I did on stage, when Rod stepped to the mic and I was chunking out guitar chords beside him.
"Come and get me," Rod says, "spend the day with me."
"I can't. Michelle would kill me."
"Bring her along. We'll drive out to Goat Mountain. I've got a bag of cherry bombs. It'll be like old times."
Goat Mountain is the last place I want to take Michelle. The fridge hums the hum of electricity. It's nearly dawn, and I'm sitting in my kitchen with the lights off, talking to a lunatic.
"Remember," Rod says, "when we used to go mud-dogging down the hill behind the house?"
"I've got to start work," I say, "in like, three hours."
"I'll sing for Michelle, she always loves it when I sing."
"She loves it even more when you don't call in the middle of the frickin' night."
"I quit smoking. I sing like fucking Pavarotti when I quit smoking."
Pavarotti's a stretch, but Rod does have a great set of pipes. Freddie Mercury might be more like it.
"Winning a karaoke contest doesn't make you an opera singer."
"In Rome the karaoke machines have Puccini on them. Arias. Italians stand there and sing their fool heads off."
"Go home Rod. Sleep it off."
"I don't have a home," Rod says. "I have a room at a Motel 6. The TV remote is chained to the night stand."
"Twenty-four hour TV is your best friend right now."
"Hey, I saw this show where they gave you a million bucks to walk across Baghdad wrapped in an American flag. All these hotshot patriots tried it, buff guys with crew cuts. None of them made it."
"You're whacked, Rod."
"The snipers were fierce. And you could rig up these bombs you set off with a cell phone. Maybe it was a computer game. Maybe I was the sniper."
"Maybe that was CNN. Maybe you should get some sleep."
"Let's catch a plane to Italy. Right now, today. Bring Michelle along. We'll rent a villa in Tuscany, and we'll write songs together. I'll call a cab and pick you up. I can be there in twenty minutes."
Not just a lunatic, but a lunatic with delusions of grandeur.
"Not for all the coke in Colombia. I'll call the cops if you show up here."
My brother was singing now, with an exuberance not entirely his own, Of all the love I have won, or have lost, there is one love I should never have crossed. The song he won the karaoke contest with. His voice was rougher now, smokier than it was that night. A rock and roll voice, somewhere south of Boy George, a little ragged, but full of passion. My fingers made guitar chords against my palm. I got ready to sing the chorus with him, but then he stopped.
"Come on Jerry, come out and play. We could do anything, anything at all."
"Good night Rod. Get some sleep."
"So your mind is all made up?"
"Made up, and wrapped in plastic."
"Cherry bombs fresh from the rez, Jerry boy."
He's playing me like a toy piano. Except I'm too old for that now. Too married. Too sane.
"Jeez, Rod, get another band together. You're wasting your life."
"If only it were so easy."
"That's exactly what your problem is. You think it's supposed to be easy."
"It's supposed to be fun. That's why it has to be you and me."
I set the phone back in its cradle. The electric hum from the fridge stops. Dawn is a patch of overcast gray sky out the window. White blossoms drift down from the hawthorn tree like snow.
From far away comes the sound of garbage cans being picked up. They're getting closer. There's no way I can go back to sleep.
The phone hangs on the kitchen wall with its orderly keypad, its smooth white plastic surface, its cord all twisted around itself. There is a tiny switch on the side with a red arrow, and the word Loud. Push the switch down and the phone will ring louder. It could ring again at any moment.
He sounds just like Freddie Mercury when he quits smoking. He really does.