After Jonas shot my brother in the head, I went to live with my grandfather. My brother was right there in the middle of Maple Street when he died, blood coming out of where his hair was. Jonas had been my brother’s best friend, and didn’t mean for anything bad to happen. He told me afterward that he found two pistols underneath his parents’ bed that day, when his father was away. Not even thinking to see if there were bullets in them, he had thought it would be fun to play out a duel, like the silly colonial men with the white wigs that he had read about in books. That is how my brother died, in a duel like the old days.
Jonas didn’t die, but my brother’s aim was good enough to put a bullet in his neck. People said that both of them had pulled the trigger at the exact same moment. It took Jonas a few weeks to get better and even afterwards he didn’t talk the same, his voice sounding like there was loose change in his throat. At first, losing a brother was not too difficult for me, and I don’t know why. But my parents stopped being parents after that, so I went to live with my grandfather on 9th and Hartford.
We would sit on the roof of his apartment building in the afternoons, but only after the sun had gone down below the top of the skyline. He had gotten the key to the roof from the doorman, who would sometimes fall asleep. One time, when the doorman was sleeping, his head propped against the back of his chair, my grandfather took the key from his desk over to the hardware store that was two blocks down and on the corner and made a copy. My grandpa said that he and the doorman were friends, and that he could have just asked the doorman for the key, but it was more fun to do it this way.
The roof was peaceful, and high enough to muffle the traffic below. We would bring up two lawn chairs with us, the ones that have the white and blue and green strips checkerboarding their way across the back. We would sit, sometimes counting the windows on the other buildings or playing cards.
He told me stories about his old mule back in Mississippi, and the war, and living in Peru. He told me how beautiful my grandmother had looked when they would eat orange peppers together and his eyes would get teary because he was not used to how hot they were, and she would just smile at him, as the small spicy drops dripped down his cheeks.
He was fascinated by animals. Once, my grandfather told me that every year, on an alligator’s birthday, that alligator swallows a stone. It never digests that stone for the rest of its life, so by the time it dies, its intestines are full of stones.
He said when he lived in Peru, there was a particular alligator that kept harassing the animals near the back of the property by the river. After it took a few chickens, his boss instructed him that he and the rest of the men needed to kill it.
“When we split her open, sure as day there were sixty one stones that fell out of her belly,” he said.
I wanted to know how alligator’s knew when their birthday was, how they knew when to eat a rock, but he never told me. If I brought it up, all he would say was that he felt awful for killing such an old alligator, not letting it die in the river like it was meant to.
I asked him if the alligators had an internal clock, and could feel it when a year had gone by, or if they were just smart, or if they scratched marks in the sand with their tails for every day that passed, but he didn’t answer, and said if I wanted to know about a smart animal, that carrier pigeons are really smart creatures. He said they use the magnetic fields of the earth to find their way around.
Whenever he talked about the homing pigeons, which was frequent, my mind wondered. I had thought how great it would be to have one of those pigeons, to fasten little messages to their leg and send them anywhere in the world. Maybe I would send one to my mother across town: “Everything’s alright.” To my uncle in Winnipeg: “Your hot sauce is the best, will you mail me some?” To my brother in heaven: “Jonas didn’t mean it.”