My fellow Americans, these past few years have seen turmoil in our homes and strife in our streets and cities. Taking the oath of office this day signals a new, clear vision for our nation. It is a vision that is founded in the beneficent presence of our God in our lives and upon our Country. With God's help we will reclaim the glory and re-establish the standing of our nation upon the world's stage. With the inspiration of our received scriptures, we will establish a new, stronger foothold for our destiny. —excerpt from the inaugural address of Rev. Robert Patterson, 43th President of the United States of America
The street clothes felt strange on his body as Brendan slipped into his old suit, the one that he had worn at his trial. The pants were loose around his waist. The shirt gapped at the button holes and pulled tight over his shoulders. The ill-fitting clothes reminded Brendan of just how much his life had changed.
He handed the empty paper bag to the guard with barely a nod. The guard pointed to the hallway and Brendan stepped out into the harsh florescent light to walk to the last window where he would collect his valuables and sign out of the penitentiary. A hand came down on his shoulder and he froze.
"A word to the wise, Mr. Capelli." The gravelly voice of the guard filled his right ear. "Its only gotten worse out there since you came here. You will be better served if you keep your opinions to yourself, if you know what I mean."
Brendan pinched his eyes closed as the joy of leaving incarceration bled into fear of the world outside the walls.
"Thank you for your advice, Sergeant. I will be careful of what I say to anyone."
The hand relinquished its grip, and guided Brendan forward to the window. Mechanically he accepted the brown envelope with his watch, wallet and pen and signed his name on the line indicated. A brief walk through two sets of automated steel doors led to the grey floor and the white walls of the prisoner reception area which was eerily quiet. Escorted through a final walkway with two steel doors at either end, Brendan stepped into the Bradford, Pennsylvania penitentiary parking lot as a free man.
He wasn't sure if anyone was coming to pick him up. After two years, the telephone calls had become sporadic. Letters had dwindled, too. Fewer people bothered to write back as the months passed. His shoes scraped on the black asphalt as he started the long walk towards the bus stop.
The honk of a car horn had him leaping to the side.
"Hey, bro!" a familiar voice called from an open window.
"Paul! Are you a sight for sore eyes," Brendan admitted as he trotted up to the passenger door and slid inside the beat up sedan.
"Made you jump a mile, didn't I?"
"Yeah, Paulie," Brendan stared straight ahead. "You get me every time."
The parking lot could have been any asphalt parking area with the pine trees on three sides and the white stripes dividing up the black flattop. Only when he looked up and saw the double fences with pink buildings behind the thick metal did he see something more sinister. The air smelled cleaner though he was only steps away from the other side. Brendan was wondering if he was supposed to be surprised when his brother broke into his thoughts.
"I pulled the short straw and got stuck with the chore of picking you up. It's a long-ass drive out here, and a man has got to have some fun to make it worth it."
"I'm glad you are still having fun at my expense Paul; it warms my heart," Brendan replied mechanically fulfilling his part of an oft-repeated conversation.
"Man, you've changed," Paul said as he threw the car in gear.
Brendan pinched his eyes closed with his fingers again. "Two years in a federal penitentiary will do that to a man, Paul."
Questions and accusations of all sorts rolled through Brendan's thoughts as the car turned onto Route 17 for the long trip back to the Jersey suburbs. He was afraid to ask most of the questions because one doesn't ask questions in prison. Withholding any accusations out of concern that his perceptions were all askew, Brendan was at a loss for words.
"Let me bring you up to date," Paul said to fill in the silence. For an hour the older brother talked about the family: Who, what, where, and when. The recitation was dull, but comforting to Brendan. After all, most of these people Paul was discussing had turned their backs on him when the indictment was made public. His extended family had been the first to flee the impending debacle. Still, the tradition of keeping tabs on the family ran deep.
Finally Brendan croaked, "Maryanne. What happened to Maryanne?"
"Damn," Paul cursed. "I wish you hadn't asked that question, but I knew you would. Damn, why did I have to be the designated idiot?"
Brendan stared at his nails, ragged from nail-biting, a habit he had developed over the past two years. He knew the answer already, but not the gory details.
Paul said, "I'm sorry, man. She cut you out like a malignant cancer. Last I heard, which is a couple of months ago, she was engaged to a stockbroker, and driving around in one of those two-seater BMW's. Harsh stuff to hear, I bet. I guess that she didn't write you a 'Dear John' letter?"
Brendan gave his head a barely perceptible shake as tears filled his eyes. He hadn't cried in two years because it was just too dangerous. He let the waterworks flow.
"Fuckin' bitch," Paul added.
"Yep, fuckin' bitch," Brendan agreed as he wiped the tears from his face with the palms of his hands.
The car drove through Corning and then Elmira before they had to stop for gas on the other side of Binghamton. Paul made some obligatory noise about having to pay for lunch before they sat down at a roadside restaurant for greasy hamburgers with thick, hot fries that burned the tips of their fingers. Brendan marveled at how freedom made everything taste just a little bit better. Granted, the hamburgers were smaller than he expected and the prices steeper than he remembered. With a twinge of guilt, he sucked down a third soda, before releasing a good solid, though quiet, belch.
"Have you given any thought as to where you are going to stay," Paul said, broaching an apparently taboo subject.
"Paulie," Brendan began and then stopped. "No clue." Brendan ran a pressed finger through the condensation from his plastic glass on the tabletop. "Let's cut through the bullshit, please. What are my choices?"
Paul grunted, biting his lower lip with his teeth, "Times are tough; the economy sucks. Dad is out of work, and things don't look too good for him. There are a lot of fifty-somethings out there in the same boat: no job and outdated skills. Eddie moved back into the house after screwing up out west. He came running home with his tail tucked between his legs, but you know how he is. It wasn't his fault."
Brendan grimaced at the mention of their younger brother. Their mother had shielded and spoiled the kid from everything bad in the world every single day of his life. Brendan had no doubt that Eddie still believed that his shit didn't stink and that mommy would always be there to wipe his ass.
"Mom?" Brendan said her name with a certain dread.
Paul gave a rueful chuckle. "She won't mention your name. You publicly humiliated her with your conviction in front of the entire world. She hasn't forgiven you her embarrassment."
"Her embarrassment?" Brendan snorted. "I was the dupe that was bagged and shipped off to butt-fuck heaven. What in God's name does my incarceration have to do with her?"
"That's who she is, Brendan. Regardless of what happens to any of us, it's all about her."
Brendan pounded the table with a soft, controlled rhythm, "So, it's safe to say that there will be no welcome home dinner at mom and dad's house tonight."
"You wish there wasn't," Paul said, shaking his head. "The local rag printed your release from prison in the local section yesterday which means everyone knows you're coming home. Appearances must be kept and that means dinner with the family."
"Gee, maybe I'll get lucky, and the Bible-thumping freaks will crucify me on a flaming cross in the middle of the Jersey Turnpike first," Brendan lashed out with sarcasm. "It'll be less painful than dinner."
Paul's eyes bulged slightly as he looked around the room for signs that anyone had heard. "You need to watch what you say, Danny boy. Religion and shit have gotten really touchy in the past year. There have been a lot of arrests, a lot of disappearances, and a lot of purges at companies and in the government."
"Sorry," Brendan apologized even though underneath he was itching for a good, adrenaline-laced fight. He took a deep breath and returned to the topic of the moment. "Is mom a complete nut-job, now?"
"She believes the world revolves around her. It always has and it always will with her. You went and got yourself a college education and got far away from her. You forget what she's like. Maybe she got worse in the head and maybe she didn't, but things don't change. Our mother doesn't change." Paul shook his head as if to toss an ugly idea from his thoughts.
Brendan decided to return to the original question. "Can I stay at your house?"
"All of your stuff is stored there," Paul said. "But Sheila is acting a little funny about you sleeping on our couch."
"Yeah, Sheila always was a little funny about things like that. Maybe you're a little funny, too?"
Paul sought to reassure him. "Naw, you are and always will be the brother I could knock the snot out of with one hand tied behind my back."
They had been rough-and-tumble boys when they were growing up, and they had taught each other how to fight. They weren't the neighborhood toughs but folks didn't mess with the Capelli brothers. They were too much effort. Their brother Eddie was the oddball who wouldn't scrap with them, or any one else for that matter. Still the two older brothers didn't let anyone pick on him.
Brendan was tempted to show off his two years worth of hardened biceps. He had kept his nose clean, but had taken the time to learn how to fight dirty and mean from his new friends during the past two years. Before he had fought hard, now he could fight vicious.
"Thanks, Paulie," Brendan said, "I'll get out of your hair as fast as I can."
They climbed back into the car and headed down Interstate 81 into the mountains of Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania. For the first time, Brendan paid attention to the car.
"The car rides really well," Brendan said.
Paul shook his head with disagreement. "All this ethanol crap they're throwing in the gas leaves behind this syrupy residue in the engine. Whatever extra mileage and less pollution that we're supposed to get, gets sucked up in decreasing engine performance and gunk cleaning solvents. On the other hand, the Book gives me two hours service charge to clean the crap out of the engine."
Brendan looked perplexed. "I've never heard of ethanol buildup in cars."
"They don't have it in Brazil, where everything is sugar cane ethanol, but we've got it here," Paul said. "It makes you wonder what the gas companies are doing. Are they adding shit to clean the air or increase profits or just to screw us over? I personally opt for the last choice. Add that to your list of new developments since you've been gone."
Brendan pressed on. "So business is good at the garage?"
"Business is steady, but I see some bad signs. There are fewer cars on the road, a lot fewer. People are putting off everything but absolute repairs. All four bays are pretty much full all week long, but I'm not going to hire another mechanic. My gut tells me I'm just going to have to fire the guy in six months."
"That means more hours for you now," Brendan guessed.
"Yeah, I miss dinner a lot of nights, but the business is there, and the bills have got to be paid. Sheila bitches about all the hours I work."
"Sheila always bitches. She has bitched ever since I've known her," Brendan said.
"Yeah," Paul said, "But she loves me, and that is more than I can say about most women. You know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean," Brendan replied, suddenly moody. The afternoon wore on as they turned east on I-80 for the final stretch towards Secaucus.