The following is an excerpt from Joe Meno’s new novel Book of Extraordinary Tragedies.
Beginning at an early age, I came to recognize everything in life is a series of colorful disappointments. As the only Eastern Europeans on our block, I saw how hard it was for my family to live in a city like Chicago. But my brother Daniel is only thirteen. Even though he has grown up with cable TV and the internet announcing one catastrophe after the other, everything for him is always some new, unexpected tragedy.
When I come home from work, I find a green hummingbird covered in frost, lying dead by the back door. I don’t say anything. I just put it in the bathroom upstairs, in the bathtub behind the shower curtain. Later that night, when I hear the water running followed by the sound of my brother screaming, I am both pleased with and embarrassed by myself.
In bed at night, my little brother used to make shapes in the dark: animals mostly, a bird, an elephant, a ghost, or another shadow along the unmarked wall. There was also Robinson Crusoe, The Jockey, The Hunter. I was ten. Daniel was three. I would turn on my side, watching his hands make odd figures until I fell asleep, every night a parade of shadows. I never told him how much I came to rely on those shapes.
Now, when I look across the room, hearing his high-pitched snoring, I want to yell at him to please be quiet, but I don’t because I know some of what he’s been through.
When my brother was seven, he accidentally killed a peacock on a family trip to the zoo. We were in the children’s area when a long-haired animal trainer turned his back and a peacock charged my brother, who panicked and kicked at the animal, immediately killing it. I was fourteen. Oh, the ignominy. Oh, the look of defeat on both of our parents’ faces. Two days later, my father went out and bought David a canary to try to teach him empathy. The canary died three weeks later, but ever since then Daniel has been obsessed with birds--another curiously off-putting interest.
In the morning, I wake up. I turn off the alarm clock. I get out of bed. I shower. I shave. I look in the mirror and stare in disbelief. I am twenty, and I don’t know how I ended up looking exactly like my father. I don’t know why I am still living at home. I get dressed. I put two sandwiches in paper bags then say “good morning” to my mother. I help her into the chair in the front room with the most sun. I place the sketchpad before her. Ever since my father died, she spends entire mornings watching the shapes the trees make as their shadows climb across the lawn.
I go to get my brother up. I try and get him up again. On the third try, he finally falls out of bed onto a stack of his Fantastic Four comics. He is thirteen, but you would never know it. On the floor, he rubs at his eyes like a child. I go and make him some peanut butter and toast and watch him blink himself awake as he eats, every so often making another strange sound to himself.
I carry both our bicycles out of the garage while my brother goes to feed his birds. There are about fifteen, maybe twenty of them: some carrier pigeons, a few finches, a single cockatiel that looks like it is forever molting, all of which he keeps in a corner of the garage.
When he is done, I ride beside him on my bike to make sure he goes to school. The southside of Chicago, with its abandoned factories and storefronts, stares back at us with all of its frightening glory. As Daniel is locking up his bike behind the institutional-looking school, he says, “Did you know there are approximately thirty hawks that live downtown?”
“I didn’t,” I say and look at my watch.
“The city released three different kinds of hawks last winter to keep the pigeon population down. But none of them have made it to the southside yet.”
I look at him and then my watch again and say, “Sorry, Daniel. I’ve got to go. I’m going to be late for work.”
He nods and says, “I’m going to try to not do anything weird today. That’s my goal.”
“Good idea,” I say and then ride off.
Where I work, it’s nothing special. I am a janitor at a high school for gifted teenagers on the northside of the city. I graduated from the place only two years ago. Nobody knows this, but I do. On some days, I find it particularly painful or just plain hilarious, depending on my mood.
That afternoon, as I am scraping gum out from under a desk, my boss, Mr. Hoffman, comes in with some bad news. He says I am being laid off due to a budget shortfall caused by a number of lawsuits from former students who failed to matriculate at elite East Coast universities. “I’ve never been laid off before. Am I still getting paid?” I ask. Mr. Hoffman slowly shakes his head.
I go by the grocery store on my way home to make sure my brother has showed up for his afterschool job. There he stands, at the end of a checkout line, unenthusiastically bagging groceries, making strange shapes with his hands whenever he’s not busy. I stand in the parking lot and quietly shake my head to myself.
Ever since he was a kid, my brother has had every kind of diagnosis: OCD, ADD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder. I feel terrible that his brain works differently than other peoples,’ but at some point, it begins to wear you down.
My father died of colon cancer two years ago and left me to take care of Daniel and my mother. I loved my dad. He knew all about Greek and Roman history and math and liked listening to classical music. You’d never think someone as sophisticated as he was would have lived on 99th Street in our neighborhood on the southside.
When my dad got sick, I had a hard time paying attention in school. By the time he passed away, I had barely graduated. All my life I had been told how smart I was, my parents reading poetry to me when I was a kid, playing classical music whenever my brother and I went to bed. But when the moment came, I missed my chance, bombing the SATs, the ACTs. It turns out there are certain parts of your life for which you don’t get a do-over, and when that happens, whether you like it or not, your family becomes your fate.
I have been out of work for about two weeks when I get a call about an application I left at a Catholic school near 75th Street to be a part-time tennis coach. I comb my hair and put on a tie and zip-up pants and ride over to the school on my bike. It is three o’clock, and kids are all milling around the parking lot. I stand with my arms at my side in a very forceful pose, with the whistle in my mouth. I spit the whistle out because I think it might be a little too much. Finally, around 3:20 p.m., some out-of-shape-looking kids show up. I ask, “Are any of you guys here for tennis?”
Some of them make unsure noises as a response.
“Great,” I say. “I’m Coach Fa. I’m here to make your tennis dreams come true. We are going to bring back State.”
A pasty kid—the only skinny one in the bunch—raises his hand. “There’s no state finals for intramural tennis.”
“Then the championship, wherever it is. I want to turn you into tennis maniacs.”
All of them look at me cross-eyed. “Yo, dude,” one of them says to his friend. “Who is this guy?”
“I am the future. Your future. The future of tennis. It’s about to get real. Like, McEnroe real. Do you guys know who John McEnroe is?”
The boys all shake their heads.
“No problem. You can look him up on the internet when you get home. Now is the time when we bond as a team. Hands out, everyone.”
The boys shyly obey. I reach into my backpack and hand each of them an orange headband. One of them is pink. I hand the pink one to a kid with gigantic bifocals. “Sorry. Didn’t have any more orange ones. But this pink one, this is special. This makes you Team Captain. Put it on and assume the mantle of team leader.”
The kid pulls it on lopsided over his enormous head.
“Outstanding,” I say. “What’s your name, Team Captain?”
“Perry,” the kid shouts.
“Did you see that? Did you see Perry assume an air of victory? That’s what I want from each of you guys, on and off the field.”
A pasty kid raises his arm and says, “It’s called a court.”
“Right. Court. On and off the court,” I say, correcting myself. “Now’s the time when we will come up with our team names.” I point at the pasty kid. He looks stricken. “Blizzard of Oz.”
“What?” the kid asks, looking around.
“Blizzard for short. Go on and don the ornamental garb.”
He makes a sullen face and puts the orange headband on. I turn to a squat boy with braces on his teeth. “You will be Jaws. The Jaws of Death. You bring the hustle. Put on your headband and become one of us.”
He nods and puts on the headband. And on it goes. Roto-Rooter. Fancy-Pants. Shoo-Fly-Pie. Viking Hair. Nothing exactly inappropriate, but no nickname any kid would ever want. “Now. If you want a better team name, you need to perform on the court. You don’t show the right amount of hustle, I downgrade you.”
One of the kids—a boy with longer hair, named Brendan Wooly, whom I have named Snakeskin—laughs. “Snakeskin, you will now be known as Space Vomit. I’m not fooling around with this team-name business. I want you guys to refer to each other by these names on and off the field.”
Blizzard of Oz raises his hand.
“Court,” I say. “Ask your mom, your friends, your significant others to call you by these names. Any questions? No. Let’s go do some laps.”
The boys can handle maybe two laps, tops. They dog it the rest of the way. I blow my whistle hard--so hard it pops my eardrums. They don’t even seem to notice. Some of them hang onto the chain-link fence that surrounds the courts. All afternoon we work on our forehand, our backhand, our court positions. Two twins—Donald and Ronald, who I christened McNugget and Other McNugget—are quicker than I expected. They both return my volleys with graceful aplomb. “Okay,” I say. “I like what I see. You guys are going to be winners.” We all sit down when practice is over and share a gallon of ice water.
“Each of you guys has a spark of greatness,” I say. “But, right now, it is covered in garbage. I am here to help you find that spark and do something with it. I am ready to fully commit to each of you as your new tennis coach. I am ready to be here to help you grow into men. But, I need to know: Does anybody here feel like quitting right now?”
All of them raise their hands.
“If you quit now, you’ll be quitting the rest of your lives. All of you are good guys. You all have good hearts. We can work on the rest. Heart is what matters. Now, let’s put our hands in.”
After practice is over, I celebrate by going to Taco Bell. I lock my bike out front and go in and buy as much food as I can for twelve dollars. Then I go by the grocery store again and check on Daniel and see him talking to a cashier around his age—see him smiling, watch his dimples appear. I ride off before he can see me. I go to sleep that night, feeling something I don’t recognize at first and realize later is hope.
I go downtown to a bookstore near the University of Illinois later that week, looking for a book of poems, some poetry about tennis or sports I can use to inspire the boys. But, all the poetry books seem to be about grieving. I go up to the counter and a young woman—some college student is working there. I tell her what I am looking for. She says, “Let’s take a look.”
The girl is a year or two older than me, maybe twenty-one, twenty-two, part African American, possibly--I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. She has beautiful hair and freckles on her nose. I keep glancing at her as she searches through the bookshelves. “Doesn’t look like we have a lot. Were you looking for some author in particular?”
“I’m working with these kids. I’m like a coach, like a substitute tennis coach. I thought it would be cool, you know, to read them, like, a poem before each game.”
“I took this great poetry class last year. We read some great poets, but it doesn’t look like we have any of them here.” She kneels down and retrieves a thin book by Tracy K. Smith. “It’s about race and class. I’m sure your kids will like it.”
I flip through a few pages and nod. “I really appreciate it.”
I follow her up to the counter and begin to fool with my money.
“Here,” she says, staring at me. “Just take it. It’s poetry. It should be free.”
“Thanks. I … I really appreciate it. The kids will, too.” I pause near the counter and say, “You know a lot about poetry.”
“I’m an English major. What about you?”
I frown and look back down at the book of poems. “I’m not in school. I was. I had to take some time off. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go back.”
She nods then seems to remember something. “You know, they have poetry readings here. The first Saturday of the month. You should bring your team.”
I grab one of the purple flyers and hurry off, feeling embarrassed for some reason. I guess it was the first time in a long while I had admitted—out loud—that I am probably never going to finish school.
When I come home, I lie on the couch with my headphones turned low and do my best to enjoy it. I open my eyes a few hours later and find an origami bird sitting on my chest-- one of my brother’s creations.
I go to the poetry reading that same week, just to see if this person will show. There she is, sitting in the back of the room. When she sees me, she smiles, which is something almost no one does anymore. We wait through an hour and a half of freestyle poetry from two middle-aged professors before we can talk. “Hey,” she says. “I was hoping I might see you here.”
We drink clear plastic cups of fruit punch, which is apparently what they serve at poetry readings. I don’t know. I have never been to one of these things. A small crowd is gathered around the refreshment table, eating stale cookies.
“Did you like the reading?” she asks.
I try to arrange my face into a passable expression. “I like coming downtown. Looking at the people. I like all the adjectives those guys used.”
The young woman chokes a little on her punch, laughing.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“The southside,” I say, nonchalant. “Around 99th Street. Over by Evergreen Park.”
I can see from how she’s staring she has no idea where that is. “It’s not rough. I mean, I go to community college. I mean, I was. Trying to save money by getting all my Gen Eds out of the way.”
“That’s really smart. I wish I had done that. My parents are upset at how many courses I took that didn’t go towards my major.”
“Oh, yeah. I thought it all counted.”
“It does. But, usually just as electives.”
“Right. Electives,” I say, having no idea what I’m talking about. Then it gets awkward. She nods, sips her fruit punch demurely. “I should probably go,” I say.
I head outside and begin unlocking my bike. She comes out, holding open the door, and says, “Maybe next time you can tell me your name.”
I grin and say, “Why don’t I tell you now?”
There’s a pause. “I’m Aleks. What about yours?”
For a while I cannot read her expression. She squints as if deciding something and then says, “It’s Alex,” and like that, I know that I’m in trouble.
On the way to work the next morning, I stop by the convenience store to get a coffee, and I see some kids inside playing Street Fighter II. I slow up on my bike and see it is only one kid, my brother, with his hood pulled up. It’s almost 9:30, and he’s supposed to be in class. I get mad. I get really mad, but then I stop myself and watch him. After about ten minutes, he buys some comics then walks out of the store, glances around, does not see me, and walks on. I’m nobody’s father, I’m nobody’s mother, but this can’t be ignored. The boy is thirteen. When is he going to start acting like an actual person?
Alex calls that evening and asks if I want to come by her dorm room. She makes out like she means it. The sex is something, and that’s all I will say about that.
I visit her a few times over the next couple of weeks. Usually, we just sit in our underwear and listen to records. Alex has a Miss Saigon poster on her wall. She listens to musicals and has a wall of classic novels that she has read multiple times, all highlighted, with different notes in different colors in the margins from each time she has read them. She is smart and funny and nothing like the girls on the southside who fight each other in the parking lots on Western Avenue.
“So, when do you think you’ll go back to school?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I had to take a break for financial reasons. I’m taking care of my brother and mother right now.”
She sits up to listen as if genuinely concerned. She has a little black, sleeveless t-shirt on with nothing underneath. “But you’re, like, in your twenties. How are you taking care of anybody?”
“I’m twenty, actually,” I say, clearing my throat. “And I do okay, actually. I’m like an employee at this school for gifted children. I do things for the students there. Like a coordinator. I’m not like a janitor or anything. And, also, right now, I’m coaching intramural tennis.”
I get a blank stare, and she seems to be making her mind up about something. As I am getting dressed, I watch her in bed, reading a book of poems by W. H. Auden.
“Who’s this? A guy or a lady?”
“Who, Auden? He’s a guy. He was kind of one of the first out poets.”
“Cool. Maybe I can borrow it sometime?”
“All you have to do is ask.”
“Thanks,” I tell her. I stand there, not wanting to leave, looking at the books, the posters, and everything, and say, “Okay. See you in the funny pages,” then close the door to the world of higher education behind me.
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t have to be responsible for anybody else. How would it feel if I finally got free? Where would I go? What would it even look like? It turns out I don’t have the imagination to come up with a single image. All I can see is the color orange, a blurry field of it, and hear the sound of waves crashing somewhere nearby.
Two days later, Daniel gets in trouble at work. His manager at the grocery store leaves a message at our house, asking someone to come pick Daniel up. I’m supposed to be at tennis practice, but I tell the boys I have to cancel. I ride over to the supermarket on my bike and find Daniel waiting in the manager’s office. I make apologies and get him outside and ask, “What happened?”
“I … I snuck into a customer’s car and sat there until she came out.”
“Why would you do something like that?”
“I don’t know. It was unlocked, so I didn’t break in. No actual crime was committed.”
Both of us stop walking our bikes. Fumes from the nearby water reclamation make the air purple and sharp. “No actual crime was committed? What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know. I … I liked the way her hair looked.”
“You liked her hair? Are you ... are you fucking mental?”
“I don’t know. I’m becoming interested in mating.”
“You’re what? Are you serious?”
But he only shrugs.
“Well, you can’t go sneaking into people’s cars, man. They’re going to fucking lock you up. You’re going to call your boss when we get home and apologize. Because nobody else in their right mind is going to hire you. You need to keep that job because we need the money right now.”
“Okay, I will.”
“And no more being weird. You and your fucking symptoms.”
“Okay,” he says, wiping at his eyes. “I will.”
A few days later, Alex calls and says we need to talk. I ride over to the train on my bike, then take it to UIC—the whole way wondering what can be wrong. I knock on her dorm-room door and see she’s been crying. The mascara on her cheeks looks like it’s been there a while, possibly overnight. She doesn’t say anything, just goes and sits on her bed.
I take a seat beside her and ask, “Wait. What happened?”
“I’m pregnant,” she says with tears in her eyes. I try to look at her, but she refuses to look at me.
“Really? Are you sure? I mean, I don’t … I mean, I don’t know what to say.”
“I don’t, either,” she says. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I was so stupid. I don’t know why I did this.”
“Both of us were stupid.”
“No. I should have known better. I should have been focusing on school, and then none of this would have happened.”
“Do you know what you want to do?”
“I’m twenty-one. I’m definitely not having a baby.”
“Okay. I can get some money together, and, you know, we can go take care of it.”
She gives the slightest nod. I stand up and wonder if I should kiss her, but I don’t.
I go back home, begin going through my things—but, because it’s the middle of the month, I’ve got no money. I stand in the bedroom and feel the world spinning around me. Then I think of it. Under Daniel’s bed is a shoebox. In it is a tiny notebook with a list of all the rare comic books he’s working on acquiring through online auctions. The notepad is opened to a page that says Fantastic Four #48, first appearance of the Silver Surfer in his tight, neat handwriting. Beneath the notebook is an envelope with two hundred and forty dollars. I don’t know how much it will cost, exactly, but this has to come close. I take out the money and then put the shoebox back beneath the bed.
There are no words. No words describe the institutional setting, the cruel politeness of the nurse, the young women crying next to their mothers, the look on Alex’s face, so I won’t even try. You just need to know it’s a place I don’t want to return to. I am appalled by how quiet everything is as I drive her back to her dorm in her father’s car. Nothing. No one makes a sound. Everything is gone, all the lights on her block are off, everything’s over.
Back at home, I put my bicycle in the garage. I turn, and Daniel is already out of the house, yelling, swinging his arms at me. “What the fuck, Daniel? What the fuck is your problem?”
“You took my money! I know you did! You took it and didn’t even say anything, and I can’t get that comic! You,” he murmurs and then repeats, “You,” and then it gets bad. He screams and tries to tackle me, and I grab him by the shoulders and wrestle him to the ground. Both of us roll in the grass. He is howling and crying and spitting at me, and I’m afraid if I let him go, he will claw my eyes out.
“Calm down!” I say. “Calm the fuck down!”
He catches me under the eye with one of his fists and screams, “You calm down!”
I shove him off and shout, “Why do you have to be like this? Why do you have to make a nuisance of yourself?”
“Because!” he shouts. “Because!”
It is then my mother comes out on the porch. Barefoot, in her blue nightgown, she slowly walks over to the hose and begins to spray it in our faces. My brother and I are immediately soaked. I get up and stand on the sidewalk, holding my cheek where my brother has hit me.
“You people,” I say. “You people are all crazy.”
I grab my bike and ride around for the next few hours. When it is sufficiently late and sufficiently dark, I pull back into the driveway. The hose is still running. I go over and shut it off and look at the garage. The lights are on, and the door is halfway open. Even at this late hour, I can tell something is wrong. I put my bike up against the fence and see the shape of him, his shadow sitting cross-legged on the concrete, reading a children’s book he used to love, which came with a 45 rpm record to read along with. I watch him listening for a few moments, doing the thing with his hands, before heading inside the house.
The next day is a Friday. I pull into the parking lot at school on my bike. Tennis practice that afternoon is awful. The boys hit each other in sensitive places with their racquets. I sit on the sidelines, pretending to pay attention, when I suddenly hear a peel of laughter. The boys are standing in a corner of the court; some are gawking, some are pointing. There’s a large brown bird of some kind, a hawk, feeding on what looks to be an eviscerated squirrel. “Okay, guys,” I say and stand up. “Give it some space.” Before I turn away, though, this asshole kid, Brendan Wooly, picks up a small, triangular chip of concrete and throws it side-armed at the bird. There is a glorious, soft thump as the concrete traces through the air and then collides with the bird’s left wing. The hawk tries to flee but quickly tumbles from the air. The boys all cheer. I walk over and grab Brendan Wooly by the shoulder. “You … you little fascist,” I say and hurry off towards the hawk. Some of the boys begin taunting it with their racquets. I take off my hooded sweatshirt and try to throw it over the bird. Finally, I get the sweatshirt on top of it, get a hold of it, and somehow hold the bird under my arm as I pedal off. “Wait. What about practice?” a boy asks, but I only wave him off and angrily ride away.
Back at home, I find my brother in the garage. He is tending to his birds. I see him kneeling among these misfits of the animal kingdom, so strange, so defenseless, and feel a tenderness I haven’t felt towards him in a long time. I hold the hawk under my arms; it claws at my arm and shrieks a little, but finally I put it on the floor of the garage and lift my sweatshirt off. Daniel’s eyes go wide. For a moment, he is five years old. The world is new again. Nothing bad has happened to us or anyone we know. After a while, Daniel looks over and asks, “What do we do?” but neither one of us seems to have an answer.