by Steven Deutsch
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
When I was five or six my brother told me
I was swapped at birth.
“Dad liked the idea of two boys,”
he said one night, in the tenement room we shared,
“so they traded my sister for you at the hospital.
Her name is Sheila and she lives in the Bronx—
up near Yankee Stadium,” he added for authenticity.
As I grew, I realized how much that helped explain.
Good grades, good manners, good behavior—
just as the lack of schoolyard fights with razor blades and broken bottles
signaled my specialness in a family where my brother’s “work release”
was treated with all the significance of a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
When I was ten he told me, “Sheila is way smarter than you are.
I think my parents are having second thoughts.” He was home
from the halfway house downtown to reclaim nine tenths of our room.
At fifteen, I thought I should ask his parents.
But that year I grew eight inches and gained
a nose and ears four times too large for my face.
With glasses, freckles, and red hair
I didn’t need Aunt Kate to tell me,
in her slurried alcoholic murmur,
that I looked like no one in the family.
My brother wrote a lot that year,
on prison-issue stationery,
to remind me “not to get too comfortable.”
At eighteen, I went away to school.
“To learn a trade,” parroted my fat-headed Uncle Arthur.
His forty-year-old son, he often told us, made real good money
at the craps game at the local schoolyard.
“He’s knows to bring an extra pair of dice,”
he’d say to anyone who’d listen.
My brother sent a photo of his first-born girl.
“I’ve named her Sheila,” he penciled on the back.
I found a hundred reasons to stay away from home.
My brother married and divorced on schedule.
The nieces and the nephews, whose names I barely know
are more numerous than the pebbles placed
upon the headstones set for mom and dad.
My brother took a third strike in 2006.
He writes to rant about the smallness of his cell.
We speak sometimes—rehash the better memories.
Each time I quiz him on my birth.
Each time he warns me “not to get too comfortable.”
Each time I get to hear my brother laugh.