Small by Abi Grimminger

Thomas Fletcher could no longer remember when exactly it was that his light burned out. For now, he blamed God. Alright, no, it wasn’t exactly God that he blamed, though the guy wasn’t entirely innocent in this whole situation—that’s all Tom was saying. The blame, Tom reasoned as he unlocked the door to his small-town bar, should really be on himself, for not being strong enough to make it out of this town, for convincing himself to stay.

“Face it, Fletch,” his little sister, Megan, said after he found himself once again telling her about how great his music used to be, how it was such a shame he’d never gotten out of here. They were talking on the phone while she waited for her kids to get out of preschool and he readied his bar for customers. He could imagine the cluttered feeling of her car, the sticky sweet smell of the car seat in the back. “You’re small town. There’s no shame in it. The only reason you try to hide it is you keep waiting to make it big.”

“You don’t think I can make it?”

There was a short silence. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Tom bristled at the pause, the tired undertone in her voice.

“It’s not? Then what are you saying, exactly?”

“I’m saying you’re big here. u’re big to us. To Mom and me.”

One time, when Tom was a sophomore in high school—so Meg would’ve been in the eighth grade—he broke his big toe on his right foot. Stupid mistake, really. He’d tripped over a curb while walking barefoot through town. He’d had broken toes before, so he knew there was nothing he could really do but walk it off. If he told his folks, his mom would probably insist on getting an x-ray or something expensive and unnecessary like that. Since Meg had a big mouth, he didn’t tell her either.

The thing was, he couldn’t drive. The pain was pretty bad when he stepped on the pedals in the rusty hand-me-down pickup his dad gave him when he turned fourteen. Since being able to use the gas and brake were pretty central to safe driving practices, he kept asking Meg to get behind the wheel, even though she hadn’t passed her driving test yet. On the fifth day he handed her the keys, she flipped out, hurling them back in his face.

“Do you think I need practice driving or something? I don’t need your help, okay? I’m going to pass the test. Just drive.”

That day, sitting in the passenger seat of that old car, he’d laughed at her until his face was red. Meg was the type that always thought she knew everything. Often, though, she confused what he was feeling for what she was feeling. Instead of flying off the handle, she could’ve just asked why he kept handing her the keys.

Not that it was entirely her fault, of course, considering he could’ve told her about the toe.

Now, as he listened to her lecture him from the cushy front seat of her I’ve-Got-Everything-Figured-Out family-sized SUV, he didn’t tell her he was thinking about that day in high school. Instead, he managed, curtly, “I’ve got to go.”

As he hung up the phone, he could still catch a scrap of Meg’s voice coming through the receiver: “You don’t know the good you do.”

Yeah, right. He grabbed a washcloth and began wiping down the counter by his cash register, trying to decide if she’d meant to be supportive or if she was guilt-tripping him on purpose. Hard to tell with Meg sometimes.

When Tom was in high school, he was Meg’s hero. That was the kind of thing big brothers were to their little sisters in this town. Granted, it wasn’t that difficult to impress her. Their mom was a bank teller, and their dad ran the local bar. Tom was the only one who was going places, even though he wasn’t moving particularly fast. Although poor grades and a poor ACT score made college seem more and more out of the picture, Tom was going to make it out, because he could sing.

And he was good. The whole town thought so. He and his friends played weekends at his dad’s bar. His band was booked to play during local festivals, the county fair, even wedding parties. Although they didn’t charge much (since his dad always said you couldn’t ask for too much money from a neighbor), he figured he’d save up enough to move down to Tennessee and get into the country music scene. He didn’t have to be huge—he wasn’t trying to be nationally famous or anything, wasn’t looking to win any awards—he just had to be where things were happening. Back then, he’d thought staying in this town would mean he’d never done anything that really mattered. Getting out would mean he’d accomplished something.

When Meg got into high school, she started thinking that way too, but for her, things were a little different. She was an athlete with good grades, so everyone knew she’d get at least a decent scholarship to the state school an hour away. Maybe that’s why she was so patient. She never related well to Tom when he started complaining about this town—she’d roll her eyes and release heavy, cheek-puffing sighs. Unlike Tom, Meg had a restlessness she could swallow. And unlike Tom, she actually ended up going somewhere.

You’re doing it again, Meg would say.

Doing what?

You know. Moping.

Shut up, Meg.

Tom hadn’t meant to inherit the bar. He’d always figured the family would sell it someday after he and Meg left. But things changed, like they so often did. Meg got out, and their dad got sick.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. When Tom was a senior in high school, his dad started paying him to bartend on busier nights. He said it was because his old hands weren’t what they used to be, but Tom just figured his dad wanted to help him out financially without making it obvious he was helping him out. Everyone knew Tom wasn’t planning to stick around forever, and he didn’t have enough money to go anywhere else right away.

But then his dad started really making people worry. He’d be walking across the kitchen to turn on the stove and pitch sideways, landing hard on his hip. Unable to trust himself not to fall, he avoided walking near the stairs. And he wasn’t sleeping like he used to. One moment he’d be fast asleep, the next he’d be thrashing around, even smacking Tom’s mom in the face. Without mentioning it to Tom or Meg, he stopped going to bed and started sleeping on the couch, getting up before anyone else when the spasms shook him awake.

Once, Meg woke up groggy at four in the morning and walked downstairs to grab a glass of milk. She saw him sitting in front of the television, exactly where she’d left him at ten o’clock, sleeping through some commercial about knives so sharp they could cut through anything. All the lights were off, so it was just his bald head and pale face illuminated by the gray light of the TV. All of a sudden, he raised his arm to his face, and Meg shrieked, unjustifiably frightened, and woke the whole house.

“I jumped a foot in the air. I almost peed myself,” she told Tom later, laughing a little like she thought it was funny but also not laughing enough because she wanted Tom to say everything was going to be okay. Needless to say, Tom took up more and more shifts.

When his dad got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it wasn’t so bad in the beginning. It just cost money, the kind of money his mom couldn’t make on her own. So, when Tom graduated from high school, he took over the whole bar. That’s what he was supposed to do. And a few years later, when Meg got a scholarship to a college two states away and had just enough to make it out, Tom told her to go, not exactly because he meant it but because that was the kind of thing good older brothers did.

But two years after Meg started college, their dad started making little mistakes. A kid asked for a Coke and he served him a Coors. One night, he was smoking a cigarette and put the whole thing, still lit, in his pants pocket. “What’s that burning?” he’d asked, sniffing around. Leg hair, Dad. Your pants.

It was funny, sort of, until he started really forgetting things, getting confused, being embarrassing. He’d get up early in the morning and try to walk to the grocery store in his tattered slippers and boxer shorts, even though the store closed down two years before. Tom stopped taking him to church after a particularly bad day when he got up, mid-service, and slowly shuffle-walked down the aisle, trying to collect donations for the church in his worn, black ball cap. People exchanged guilty, sympathetic glances, murmuring under their breath. Some handed him a few dollars, placing them gently in his shaking hands before Tom could wrangle him and take him home.

That day, Tom was frightened and surprised to find himself ashamed of his father, who was becoming someone Tom didn’t recognize. Before the Parkinson’s, his dad had been a proud, strong man. He was the type of man that would’ve been devastated by charity, by his son’s arms wrapping around his shoulders to lead him out of church while the rest of the town watched. But even in his most lucid moments, they never talked about the church incident. Tom didn’t even know how to bring it up. How could he tell his dad he was embarrassed of him? There wasn’t anything left for them to say to each other, other than that he sure wished he’d start feeling better. So, the next Sunday when his dad asked for a ride, Tom looked up from his cup of coffee and said, “I can’t take you to church anymore, okay? I don’t like going.” And just like that, he stopped driving him.

Eventually, Tom’s mom quit working so she could keep a close eye on his dad, but they all knew that couldn’t last for long. Tom should’ve helped out more, probably, but the truth was he couldn’t take it. He started finding excuses to get out of the house, closing up the bar late, taking rambling walks around town, anything to get away from all that. He started hanging out more with his buddies from high school. After a few months, he moved in with one of them. He knew then that he was giving up on his dad, which meant he wasn’t the kind of son his dad had raised him to be—that was a hard thing to come to terms with.

It was his mother who told Meg. And it was Meg who moved back home and really started taking care of things in all of the ways Tom couldn’t. She’d spot their dad getting shaky on his feet, and she’d run up to catch him, supporting him with her should to keep him upright. She cooked him soft, easy to swallow foods. When he started talking slow or getting lost mid-conversation, she would wait patiently for whatever it was he was trying to say.

Sure, it was hard on her, of course. She had a year of college left, so when she wasn’t watching him, she was taking online courses or talking on the phone with her long-distance boyfriend. She stopped styling her hair, letting her blonde curls hang loose around her face. Dark circles appeared under her eyes. A couple of times, she tried to confide in Tom, since she couldn’t confide in their mother, who was just as overwhelmed as she was. But Tom wasn’t in any kind of mood to listen to her. He was too busy hating her for coming back.

“I could really use your help with Dad tonight. He’s not having such a bad day. He even asked me how you’re doing,” she told him one night when she caught him walking home with a six-pack of beer in his right hand.

He understood that she was trying to rely on him, the way he used to want her to. It wasn’t fair really, him asking her to take this all on by herself. But he didn’t get why she didn’t just say that or why she had to say it wasn’t a bad day, as if she knew Tom wouldn’t be there on a bad day, as if she thought Tom couldn’t handle this when she could.

“Sorry, I’ve got something going on tonight.”

“You know I can see you, right?” she demanded, and he saw that she was really angry. He must’ve looked pretty awful. All he’d done was hurry out of the house, so his hair wasn’t even combed, just sticking up at odd angles in the back like it usually did if he wasn’t careful.

“I’m playing with the band. Sorry I didn’t put on a nice shirt to grab some beers.”

He was saying all the wrong things and he knew it. He knew it and wasn’t doing anything about it, because being angry and tired was easier than being like Meg.

No one expected his dad to die as quickly as he did. He was supposed to have years and years of tremors and confusion ahead of him. But one night, he got up to grab some pills and didn’t grab his walker—stupid old man—and he slipped, like he always slipped, and he fell, like he always fell, but this time he fell all wrong and hit his head on the corner of the counter. He passed out like that, a big gash running from just above his ear to the top of his head. Hours later, his mom got out of bed and found him lying there, pale and bleeding on her kitchen floor, barely able to move and show her he was still alive.

Tom woke up to his mother screaming hysterically at him through the phone. When he got to their place, Meg was holding a towel to their dad’s head to stop the bleeding. His mom called 9-1-1 while Tom called the local fire department, anyone that could help them. They were in the middle of shouting for someone to get there faster when Meg said, quietly at first and then more loudly, “Stop. It’s over. He’s dead.”

The room fell silent. His mom threw her phone at the wall and sat down beside her daughter. Tom stayed standing, staring at his dad’s pale face. He thought about how he’d never seen this much blood in real life, except maybe when he was five years old and hit his own head after falling off the back of his dad’s four-wheeler. He wondered if he’d looked something like his old man looked now. He wondered if that was why his mom hadn’t let him get back on the four-wheeler for a full year, not until his dad finally convinced her she needed to teach their son to be brave, to face his fears. That was the only way to raise a man right.

By the time the firefighters arrived, Tom had been crying for ten minutes, his lips set in a hard, thin line.

Life went on after that. Meg got married and moved away to a different small town while Tom stayed on at the bar to help support their mom. It was the least he could do, considering, and it was a good distraction. After his dad died, Tom found that some things were just easier to think about, to get angry with, like the stuff he still had a little control over.

5 o’clock hit, and the regulars started trickling in—a few farmers, a history teacher from the local high school. They asked Tom for beers, ordered French fries for their kids. Tom filled their orders and tried not to wonder how his dad would’ve done it, what questions he would’ve asked or what jokes he would’ve cracked. Running that bar felt like the closest he’d been to his dad in a very long time, and that closeness felt wrong, somehow, like he was walking around in oversized shoes. He did his best to do the job anyway. Outside, leaves settled on the sleepy brick road.