Lamb Chops

“Is your brother taking drugs, Carl?” my mother asked. “You can tell us.”

We sat at the dinner table, my parents and me. Four place settings on the tabletop. My mother had made lamb chops, Richie’s favorite.

“Is he smoking marijuana?” she asked. I almost laughed. The word sounded funny coming from her.

“How should I know?” I said, trying to avoid both lying and telling the truth.

“He doesn’t tell you things?” she asked.

RichieTell me things?” Now I did laugh, and it came honestly. Anything I knew about my brother came from observation and hearsay. Richie didn’t speak to me unless he absolutely had to.

I looked down at the food on my plate. I loved lamb chops almost as much as Richie did, but I couldn’t eat while my parents grilled me like this.

My mother turned to my father, who hadn’t said a word. He stared at me, clearly gauging my responses. As a lawyer, he always claimed to have a good BS detector.

“Do you know where he is, Carl?” he asked.

That was an easy one. “No.”

This was the third time this week that Richie hadn’t shown up for supper. Last night he’d come home after midnight, and today he’d left the house mid-afternoon without saying where he was going. After several auto accidents in the past two years, he was forbidden to drive, but he always managed to hitch a ride, and, when that failed, he rode his old Schwinn.

“He doesn’t share anything with me,” I said. “I didn’t even see him today.”

They looked at one another.

After graduating the previous month, Richie had decided not to get a job over the summer. This was a controversial decision. His poor grades the past two years had pulled his GPA low enough that he couldn’t get into the colleges my parents had been hoping and saving for. After being the smart, charming boy for years—the teacher’s pet and my parents clear favorite—he’d become a disappointment and a constant source of concern and frustration.

“It’s the goddamn drugs,” my father said, and my mother’s eyes teared up.

I knew Richie smoked weed because he stashed it in the same toolbox in his closet where he kept his dirty magazines. Lately, though, he’d been padlocking the box, so I didn’t know what else he kept in there. I always thought pot made you mellow, but I would never describe my brother that way. He’d become edgy and irritable, sometimes even violent. A few weeks earlier, when I’d told him he was stupid—he’d been way off on an answer on the $20,000 Pyramid—he grabbed me around the neck with his forearm and squeezed until I almost passed out. I’d steered clear of him ever since.

“What’ll we do?” my mother asked.

My father thought a moment. “If he’s not home by nine,” he said, “I can call Chief Papadopoulis.” With that, he picked up his knife and fork.

“Oh, Morgan,” my mother said.

He started stabbing at his lamb chops. “Well, what else can I do?”

My appetite had disappeared. The empty chair to my left seemed to hum with Richie’s absence. All these years, my brother had sat there at supper time. I picked up my knife and fork and started carving up a chop, if only to give myself something to do while my mother softly wept.

As I forced a bite of lamb down my throat, I thought of the ways my brother had changed in the past couple of years. There had always been the usual brotherly friction—the competition, jealousy, and resentments—but lately he’d grown hostile, as if he truly wanted to hurt me, sometimes physically. There was the $20,000 Pyramid incident, of course, but that was just the most recent. Before his license was taken away again, he’d tried to run me over while I rode my bike home from the library. I could ride the entire four blocks with no hands, even on the turns, and had just made a right onto our street when he came tearing down the block in our mother’s station wagon. She’d sent him to the store to pick up some last-minute items for supper. About twenty yards off, he swerved left to cross into my lane. I ignored what I assumed was his stupid joke, but when he didn’t turn away—when the car continued coming directly toward me—I grabbed the handlebars and tried to ride up onto the sidewalk. But the curb was high there, and my front wheel didn’t quite make it, so I started to fall. Just as landed on the sidewalk, scraping my right hand in the process, Richie swerved back onto his side of the road. I could hear him cackling all the way down 21st Street.

I hadn’t told my parents about these incidents for fear that I’d be seen as a tattletale or a whiner. This happens when you become a teenager—you discover you must fight your own battles, or at least endure the torture on your own, stoically, without reporting it to adults. So, my parents knew nothing about Richie’s violent behavior toward me. But they had heard stories from others—teachers, parents of kids Richie had beaten up, the police—and had witnessed a few incidents with their own eyes.

Weeks earlier, after Richie had stayed out all night, they confronted him when he arrived home the next morning. At first, he claimed to have slept at home and gone out early for a bike ride, but he was wearing the same clothes as the day before, and my mother had seen him get dropped off by someone she didn’t recognize.

“All right, all right,” he said, laughing. “That was Laney. I was at her house, okay? Jesus.”

Laney was his girlfriend, but she’d broken up with Richie months before, and, besides, my mother said, “That was a boy who dropped you off.”

“Yeah,” Richie said, “that was Laney’s brother, Ian.”

My mother had never met Ian, but I could tell she was certain the guy in the car was not Laney’s brother. She turned to my father for help.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s call Laney up and see.”

Richie’s face, which till now had showed nothing but chirpy defiance, grew dark. “Aw, what do you wanna do that for, Dad? Her parents don’t know I was there.”

I was enjoying this, though I was baffled by my parents’ blasé attitude toward the idea that Richie had slept over at a girl’s house. They seemed much more determined to bust Richie for something else.

“That’s okay,” my mother said, heading toward the kitchen phone. “We’ll talk to Laney herself. What’s her number, Richie?”

She held the phone and stared at him. My father crossed his arms. He wore his usual Saturday outfit of short sleeve shirt and slacks. His hairy forearms seemed huge to me.

“Tell us where you were,” he said, “and what you were up to.”

My brother’s eyes darted around the room like he was looking for an escape hatch. I could sense him boiling inside, like something ugly and toxic was about to leak out. I’d seen it before, but I didn’t know if my parents had. He looked both frightened and cocky.

“Jesus Christ!” he blurted. “I’m eighteen fucking years old!”

My mother recoiled at the curse. My father uncrossed his arms and, I could tell, considered lunging at Richie, who continued:

“I know you’re spying on me. I know you’ve got him spying on me too.” He aimed his finger at me, and I worried a bullet might burst from it and hit me right between my eyes.

“What’re you talking about?” my father asked.

Richie laughed, a sharp “Hah!” that made my mother jump. “Like you don’t know,” he said. “You’re worse than Nixon.”

I would have laughed except he’d said it so harshly. My parents exchanged confused looks.

“You need to mind your own damn business,” Richie went on.

“Now look here,” my father said. “This is my house—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Richie said. “Your house, your rules. Well, fuck that,” and on the F word he swept a frying pan off the counter onto the floor with a shocking clatter. Knowing he was now in serious trouble, he headed toward the door. “Maybe I’ll move out. That way I won’t have to put up with your bullshit.” And he was out the door.

My father went to follow him, his fists clenched, his face red, but my mother stopped him. “Let him go,” she said. “He’ll calm down.”

I went on eating my cereal, thrilled and terrified by my brother’s behavior. It felt like he’d crossed a line from which he could never return, and I, as a witness, had crossed a line also. I’d seen how far you could go and still survive.

That same night, Richie returned home sometime after midnight. In the morning, we all woke up and went to mass at St. Luke’s as if nothing had happened. I kept waiting for someone to blow up—Richie, my dad—but it never happened.

But on this night—the night we had lamb chops without him—Richie didn’t return, and my father called the police sometime after nine o’clock. The word went out to look for Morgan Bailey’s kid, whom some of the cops knew from car accidents and other scrapes. I lay in bed listening to my mother chatter anxiously and my father trying to calm her, though something in his tone worried me. Once, when we were flying to Florida for a rare vacation, my mother grew frightened by some turbulence, and my father told her to keep her eyes on the flight attendants. “Don’t worry,” he said, “until theylook worried.” Well, now my father looked worried.

Late that night, I was awakened by a loud, sharp cry from Richie’s room next door.

“Stop!” he was saying over and over. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

In between, I heard my mother waking my father. “Morgan. It’s Richie. Something’s wrong.”

I climbed from bed but was afraid to go into the hall. My brother sounded like he was being attacked. “Stop!” he kept saying. “Stop it!”

My parents ran to his room, but the door was locked. My father pounded on the door and shouted for Richie to open up.

“Stop! Please, stop!” Richie yelled.

My mother was crying; my father kept knocking and calling out Richie’s name. I put my ear to the wall. Richie’s voice moved around his room. Feeling helpless, I put my hand on the wall, as if it were my brother’s shoulder.

Finally, my father busted down the heavy, wooden door. Richie screamed when they rushed in. There came a very long moment that I’ve tried to picture many times. I see my parents just inside the room trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. Richie, still in his clothes, the light on, moves around the room as if being chased by a hornet. At first my mother thinks it might be a bat—they occasionally got into the house at night—but it soon becomes clear that nothing is chasing Richie, he’s imagining it, swatting at the air, rolling on the rug, bouncing against the bed, all the time shouting, “Stop! Stop!”

After this endless moment, my mother takes the first step. She moves right up to Richie and grabs him, holds him. “It’s okay. You’re okay,” she says softly as my father watches, his eyes wide with cluelessness. A moment later, after struggling, Richie calms down.

That’s how I imagined it anyway.

“What the hell happened to you?” I heard my father ask, but my mother shushed him. Then I heard Richie crying, a sound I hadn’t heard in years, the reckless sobbing of a small child. My mother murmured something, and the quiet of the night seemed to fall back over the house, the only sound that of my own weeping, which I hadn’t even been aware of.


Chris BeldenChris Belden is the author of ShriverCarry-on, and The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba. The movie version of Shriver will be out in 2022.