top of page

Our Brother

CAS for Database

Elsa Lyons

North Salem, NY, USA

Fieldston High School

Creative Nonfiction

Our Brother

I remember that our brother wore the same shirt every day the July before I turned ten. An old t-shirt he had found spilling out of a cardboard box by the garbage dump down what we called the Big Road. Its front side displayed a painting of a man floating on his back in brightly blue water, eyes closed, lips stretched in song. The painting, contained in a little square printed onto the sun-yellow fabric, looked almost like a window. It must have been well into August by the time he finally and suddenly returned the shirt to its source, smelling like the sweet sweat of thirty or forty days. From then on, every time we passed the dump, I checked it for new treasures.

You remember that our brother wore the same shirt every day for a month the summer you turned twelve– a t-shirt with a painting of a drowning man on the front, sinking into the blue with his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth open like a dying animal. You told Mom that it scared me but a quick glance at him and me playing in the driveway, my two fists wrapped around the shirt as I wrestled him, laughing, assured her that I was fine. Most of the time Mom was too tired and Dad was too sick to wash the shirt for him, so at the end of every week he smelled like eggs left out too long. You dreaded the start of school for that reason until he came back home one day solemnly shirtless. Then you dreaded the start of school for a new reason until he dug into his long-unopened shirt drawer and put on an old polo.

I remember at our grandmother's service he snuck out of the dark suburban synagogue into the rain outside, the landscape blurred and the air rich-smelling. Through the window I watched him pick up a long thin stick and draw circle after circle in the fresh mud. So many circles that you couldn't tell where one ended and another began. He came back with mud on his shoes, the cuffs of his little-boy suit, his forehead. His cheeks were pink, and he was as wiry and vital as Grandma would never again be. I wished I had gone with him.

You remember that the night after Grandma's funeral he drew circles in blue marker on the wall behind his bed in the room you shared. They were small but there were many of them, drawn close together, and the next morning you told Mom that you dreamt they would open like tiny round doors and let in hordes of yellow ladybugs. You slept on the couch for a week because Grandma's garden was full of yellow ladybugs. They made the holes in her kale.

I remember he snuck into the high school the winter of my freshman year and unscrewed all the blue locker doors in the upper hallway with Dad's red-hilted screwdriver. He must have worked all night. The next day when we got to school there were piles of little doors leaning against the walls, and I knew he had done it because of the few forgotten screws I’d seen tumble out of his sweatshirt pocket at breakfast. It was quiet in the upper hallway that day. There was none of the usual creaking and slamming, no sad clang of Cecil Welkin's water bottle against the dented metal and no gloating from the boys who always threw it. Cecil’s water bottle was safe that day-- that week, in fact. De-doored, the cubby-lockers gaped at us, our books and runaway papers and lives peeking beautifully out of the blue grid.

You remember he snuck into the high school the winter of your junior year and unscrewed all the locker doors in the upper hallway. You heard his name over the P.A in second-period English; everybody looked at you, his brother, and you felt two inches shorter but still too tall. How could he have thought he would get away with it, you wondered. Mom drove us home early that day; the principal hadn't known exactly what to say in his email to her, so instead he had just sent her a copy of the school security tapes between two-thirty and two-thirty-five AM. You didn't ask him why he did it because you knew he wouldn't be able to answer. You didn't say a word until we were getting out of the car; Mom was already inside. “I don't get it. I don't get you,” was all you said, and then you went upstairs to do your homework.

I remember at Dad's funeral he interrupted the rabbi to sing "Free Fallin'" with a Tom Petty drawl. Finally, I found that I was able to cry.

You remember at Dad's funeral he interrupted the rabbi to sing "Free Fallin'" with a Tom Petty drawl. You were eighteen and angrier at him than ever.

I remember he played the drums with a Moroccan music troupe instead of going to college. I went to see him once, at a cool little dimly-lit bar on the Lower East Side. He looked like he belonged there, up on the stage-platform in the back; his long hair flapping around his face, hands beating the goatskin drum he had wedged between his knees like they had always been waiting to move like that. It was only a forty-five minute train ride from Sarah Lawrence– a school I chose because it was close enough to Scarsdale that I could be home with Mom on the weekends– but I never went to see him again. He didn't need to be reminded of a home that had never really been his.

You remember he smoked pot instead of going to college, and spent his share of Dad's money on Manhattan rent. He split the apartment with a whole troupe of starving artist types, but it was still much too expensive. You remember he wanted you to forgive him– for scaring you when you wanted to be fearless, for refusing to give up his childhood the way you did, for missing Dad like a son and not like a boy who was forever trying to compensate for his illness, his absence. He invited you to some bar that you left without entering, because you could see right away that it wasn't the kind of place you went to talk. Someone was playing some sort of Conga music inside– you could hear the thump of the drums even from the sidewalk. The rhythm wouldn't leave your head the whole subway ride back to Columbia. You fell asleep thinking it reminded you of the sound of the rain on Mom and Dad's porch.

He called me last week, for the first time since the day on the Lower East Side. I didn't even know that he still had my number. I had his, but hadn't used it in months.

With his name flashing on the phone screen, I thought of the empty seat at Mom's Thanksgiving table this year and every year, the one she always refuses to move or fill, just in case. I thought of you, of the way your brow would furrow if you knew I was thinking of talking to him. I thought of the t-shirt, the locker doors, the two funerals, of his hair like wings beating around his head in the reddish light of the bar. I picked up.

I think you would have done the same.


Nostalgic, bittersweet, and touching. Our Brother examines the extraordinary ability for siblings to forgive, understand, and embrace each other. Lyons examines the forces that drive us pushing away from those we love, simultaneously, the inexplicable reasons that pull us back to our blood line.


Elsa H. Lyons is a young writer, dancer, and student of the earth. Her favorite poets are Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Alice Walker, and Mary Oliver. She lives in the city and the country, in the world and in herself, and in the spaces in between.

bottom of page