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One Big Family

Brotherhood rules

By Alan GoldPublished 3 years ago 15 min read
Book by RODNAE Productions, Clouds by Paul Zoetemeijer,

My dad thinks he's God, and my brother is a pain in the ass.

He's my twin -- my brother, that is, not dad. I'm Jim. He's John. They say we're identical, but you couldn't prove it by me.

I guess we're lucky to have an older set of twins in the family, Joe and Judy, to guide us through this twin business. But of course they're not identical. So big help that is.

We were a big family. We've got mom and dad, and I think seventeen of us kids. It's a religious deal, but not like we're Catholics or anything like that. Like I say, dad thinks he's God.

Of course, mom didn't pop us all out herself. Some of these younger kids are adopted, to make up for a couple of years when mom's uterus was taking a breather.

To tell the truth, it's hard to keep track of everyone, especially when all the names start with "J." But if we ever needed monogrammed bath towels, we would have claimed a deep discount.

We were the Janley family.

In the early days, they'd dress John and me up in look-alike clothes, which just begged women to come over and coo at us.

"How sweet," Mrs. Simmons, the church lady, said on her annual visit when we were five years old. "Are you boys identical?"

"No, ma'am," John said. "I'm happy."

I should have killed the little bastard right then and there and been done with him.

I'm not saying it was all bad. If I got into a situation with another kid during recess, it didn't take much to confuse the first teacher on the scene about the identity of the guilty party.

"John's my evil twin," I'd say with a shrug and a sigh. "I've tried everything."

By the time we got home, dad would be all wrapped up in his theocratic mission of the day, and mom had her hands full trying to keep a whole platoon of brats in line. Mom was low-energy on her best of days.

We were the Janleys.

But I wanted to be me, and my brother could just deal with that however he liked. So when we were in seventh grade, I got an idea.

"Hey, Johnny, why don't you bleach your hair blond?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Like in those commercials, the way the women get good boyfriends when they change the color of their hair."

"You're gross."

"I know you are!" Ha! I had him now. "But what am I?"

First year of high school, we were thrown in with hundreds of new kids who hadn't grown up watching on the sidelines of our lives -- how our damn twininess played out. I didn't want to be mistaken for him, and look -- I'm being totally honest -- he sure as hell didn't want to be mistaken for me.

The hair we shared found a natural part on the left. So one evening I came out of the bathroom with my hair parted on the right.

"Whaddya think, Johnny? I'm gonna catch some babes like this!" I ran my thumb down the comb to make it buzz. "I bet it would be even better on you. You've got that thing going on that the chicks dig."

Johnny glanced up from his Spiderman comic with the closest he could come to a sneer. "You're full of it."

"No lie! I heard those two girls you like -- you know, what are their names?"

"Debbie and Marion?"

"Yeah. Them. They were saying you're the one. Or you would be. except that business with your hair.

"You're full of it."

But I trotted out variations of this spiel over a few weeks, and one morning before the homeroom bell, I saw Johnny tucking his comb in his pocket as he came out of the can. He was looking around to see who was in the hallway, but I ducked behind a bank of lockers.

It cost me ten bucks each, but Debbie and Marion cooed about his hair, and that was all it took.

After that, when subs came in, the teachers would take them aside and say, "Jim is the one who parts his hair on the left. John parts his on the right."

Hey, it wasn't as bad as making him get a dye job, and it seemed like a good compromise. That's what life is all about, right?

The trouble was when we posted bathroom mirror selfies on social media, the part-lines flipped, just like the text on our tee shirts. People -- that is our peer group -- were having more trouble than ever telling us apart.

Who would have thought that the general population could be dumber than my brother?

"Did you see this?" I shouted over the hum of his toothbrush. "The cool guys are getting buzz cuts. You can get in on the ground floor!"

"I hate you," he said.

"No, I hate you."

"No, I mean I really hate you."

Like I say, we were identical twins, even if he really did think he was happy.

I kicked our relationship up a notch when Kurt Slobosky, a train-wreck of a classmate who'd been held back so many times that he didn't need parental approval for his tattoos, started shaking me down for lunch money. If I fasted for a week, he could make a down payment on some fresh ink.

I laid out the situation to John, who hadn't been hit up himself yet.

"So what?" Johnny asked. "He's bigger than us."

"Not both of us. You just sit on him while I punch his face."

Johnny resisted, until the day he got the shake down. Then we worked out the logistics. But I never told Johnny that I knew a kid who could get me a blackjack. They're a lot cooler when you have one in your hand than when you see one in a movie.

Johnny brought Slobosky down with a baseball bat behind his knees between classes, then did a dead drop on his belly to wind him. I came in over the top with the blackjack while a crowd of kids gathered round. Fifteen seconds and we were out of there before the teachers sorted things out.

Funny thing is, none of those kids saw anything. Slobosky had bought a lot of ink over the years.

So brother John was a useful pain in the ass, and Jules and Jody and Justin and Jennifer and Jeremy and Jessica and Juanita and the rest of them were like a swarm of gnats descending on the picnic of my childhood.

Sure, kids, fine. Whatever. I'm not a complainer. But the real problem in the Janley family was the one who gave us our name.

Dad really did think he was God. Literally.

I know people think I'm a screw-up, but I went to school, and I got good grades, and I know that lots of people say "literally" when they mean "figuratively." But I really do mean "literally."

A little creek ran by our ramshackle rented farmhouse. If it got exercised by a high storm, I could still jump across it if you gave me a running start. But dad talked about it as "the river." My older brother Joe -- Judy's fraternal twin -- filled me in bit by bit about things that happened before I was even born.

Joe was pretty young then, but he could remember dad pushing his chair back from the dinner table and announcing he was going down to the river to see what it said.

"Wouldn't he go down to hear what it said?" I asked Joe once.

"I'm just telling you what happened." He rolled his eyes. "Sometimes I wonder why I bother."

Being a kid at the time, Joe used to play up and down the creek, looking for frogs, collecting rocks and unusual branches. As time went on he retrieved hundreds of tiny bottles, and it would be much later that he realized they were the kind that an airline will sell you to keep you from screaming about the plane going down.

One night after a heavy afternoon rain, mom was concerned that dad had not come back from his conversation with the river.

She poked her head out the back door and called, "Dad?" I totally believe this part of Joe's story because that's what she called him. "Dad" was his only name in the Janley family.

Long story short, Joe followed as mom took a flashlight to search along the creek. They found dad out cold, muddy with a head bleed, next to a blood-stained rock anchored in the creek bank. If he'd rolled one more time, his head would have gone under and he would have drowned.

"He was never like the other kids' dads," Joe admitted. "But they kept him in the hospital for three days. I kinda hoped he would come home normal, like this was all part of a plan. But no way, Jose. That's when the craziness really started."

"I'm Jim," I protested and pointed to one of my younger brothers on the easy chair by the window. "He's Jose."

"Jesus Christ, Jimmy. It's just an expression."

"Well, you should just remember my name."

I had a little tantrum, and that's probably why I never got the whole story all at once. It came out in dribs and drabs over the years. So I interrupted people? I still do. Strike me with lightning if I'm not being honest and fully transparent.

But, come on, we were just kids without any frame of reference, so we had to make whatever sense of it we could.

Mom spent a lot of our childhood with her head buried in a pillow.

"Mom, I'm hungry."


"I'm hungry!"

She lifted her head enough to say, "Ask Judy to fix you something," before diving back in.

I can see now that it couldn't have been easy for her dealing with dad plus our runty hordes, but one thing about mom: she always remembered our names. Every single one of us. She was ahead of me on that count.

I don't know how many times I faked it by calling out, "Yo, J-Boy" or "Hey, J-Girl" to get the attention of whichever kid it was who needed to do something for me.

With dad drawing up the plans for his pineapple kingdom and mom in pillow custody, it fell to us to raise our brethren. Joe and Judy had the biggest responsibility, while Johnny and I eventually became their chief lieutenants. The chain of command went down from there, based on a kid's date of arrival in the family. So Janese, the fruit of mom and dad's loins was younger than Julio, but she could boss him around because he was adopted later, during one of mom's recuperation years.

This system was actually one of the few good things that came out of our family. Being near the top tier, Johnny and I had a great deal of power. We could run the good twin, bad twin routine on any of the kids, and they'd always cave. It was even better because Johnny didn't realize that was what we were doing. He just played himself, and I played myself.

"J-Girl!" I snapped my fingers and pointed. "I need a ham and cheese on rye, go easy on the mustard."

Johnny crouched over Jennifer, put a hand on her shoulder and whispered something in her ear.

I never once had to make a sandwich or do a load of laundry for most of my years in Janley House.

I'm a curious guy, so once I asked Juan what it was that Johnny whispered in their ears.

"Uncle Johnny said, 'Picking your battle is like picking your nose. It better be worth it when someone calls you on it.'"

They called me Uncle Jimmy, so the 'Uncle Johnny' thing sounded right. And if I got my ham and cheese, I was good with whatever Johnny wanted to tell them.

Dad's den was a little room, not much more than a closet, built out in the corner of the garage. A bare bulb dangled over a desk-and-chair unit that looked like it had been taken from an old-time school house. The top of the desk lifted up on a compartment big enough for a few books, pens and paper, maybe a sack lunch for when you got hungry.

Dad spent a lot of time in there. Fact is, he spent all his time in there, scrawling things out on notepads so he could get his thoughts in order before he committed them to the leather-bound journal that he called "The Book of Life."

We were strictly forbidden from looking at the Book of Life.

So when dad took mom into town to see the egg doctor, I slipped the latch on his den with my school ID card. It was a cheap door, and you could have used a credit card, a driver's license, just about any piece of flat plastic to beat that lock. I was a kid and all I had was a school ID.

The Book of Life began with a list of our names, birthdates, plus adoption dates for the conscripts. It was a large book, and this took up a good deal of the first page. But it seemed ominous that there were nine more blank pages before a title page with carefully blocked letters: "My Plan for the Universe".

"We will smite the spoilers of our fruit," it started out. "Let it be written. Let it be done."

A lot of incoherent garbage followed that in a crabbed hand that quickly made me lose interest. The scary part -- at least it seemed the scariest at that time -- was all those blank pages following the names of us kids. Was filling up those pages part of his plan for the universe?


I remember the day distinctly, because it was my first day of driver's ed, when I got home and saw Judy crying her guts out through the open door to her bedroom.

"What's going on? Are you okay?" I thought I'd get credit for being sensitive. She chucked a shoe at me and slammed the door.

I found Joe slumped on the sofa in the living room, staring at an endless string of commercials on the television.

"Hey, what's the deal with your sister?"

"She's your sister, too, asshole."

"Sure. But what's up with her?"

"Shut up." I was still growing into myself in those days, but Joe was well past that. He put me in a headlock so solid I couldn't do anything but smell his armpit. He dragged me into the back yard and threw me down on the grass. "Just shut up," he said again, for good measure.

He hoisted me up by the front of my shirt and dragged me across the yard before throwing me down again, out of earshot of the house.

"Dad's not a good person."

I propped myself up on my elbows and tested to feel if my neck was broken. "No shit? You're acting a little like him yourself."

"It's not always about you, Jimmy." Joe -- who wasn't usually much more excitable than mom -- looked mad for the first time in his life. First time in my life, anyway.

"It's the girls. It's way worse for them than you and I will ever understand."

I started to say something, but he gave me the zip-your-lips sign. "Just shut up, Jimmy."

My neck probably wasn't broken, but it hurt like hell when I finally dragged myself back into the house. I tapped on Judy's door and heard a piece of heavy furniture scraping over the floor. I stage-whispered, "Judy."

"Go away." She sounded like she was talking through the keyhole.

I tracked down Joe the next day. "How long has this been going on?"


"Why are you just telling me now?"

"All of us know. I've been trying to tell you for years. Why are you just listening now?"

Man, I could never catch a break in that house. Later, I saw that Judy's door was open a crack. I rapped a knuckle. "Can I come in, sis?"

She threw her music box at me and to this day I have a little bald spot where it scalped me above my left ear.

Two days later, I finally found Judy on one of the benches we had down along the creek.

"Look, Judy, don't hit me." I was a little bigger than she was by then, but I was getting tired of all this physical pain that seemed to be part of our family chemistry. "I want to help."

"With what?"

"Joe said dad has been doing . . . bad things to you."

"To me? Did he tell you what the old bastard has been doing to him?"

Joe shoved me down on the sofa once and told me my problem was that I always thought I was the smartest Janley in the room. Well, from all the evidence I could see, I was. So crucify me. But this info drip was planting the seeds of doubt.

"And what about you?" Judy asked. "Hasn't he gotten around to you yet?"

"Me? No. Why would anything happen to me?"

"Lucky you. Lucky, lucky you."

I tried to bring this up with Johnny but he just glared at me.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he said. "Never have. Never will."

And all of a sudden, none of the kids would make me a sandwich. I had to do my own laundry. How did I get to be the bad guy?

The next time dad went into town, I broke into the den again and pulled out his Book of Life. This time I figured out there were not two, but three sections. The first ten pages listed the family members, with plenty of room left for additions. The second section, "My Plan for the Universe," droned on incoherently and endlessly about his visions, with hundreds of blank pages yet to be filled. But after that came another title page that read, "Glorifications."

This took a diary format, with a date, followed by the name of one or another of the J-Girls or J-Boys. The early entries were most often Judy or Joe. Then Johnny started showing up. Eventually all of the kids got a call-out in seemingly random patterns.

A little splash of vomit scalded the back of my throat when I saw my name, but I held it down. I'd always thought that dad's attentions came in fits without warning. And I'd always thought that I bore them alone. I could get away with being the black sheep, because I was taking one for the team.

The acid threatened to leave my stomach again as I saw how many blank pages remained in this section of the book.

But the scariest part was that there were names filled in for almost every day over the next two months. I could expect a call a week from Wednesday.


"Johnny, I know what's been going on with you and dad," I started to say.

"What? So now you're jealous? Or what?" I'd never known my brother, my grinnin' twin, had so much anger bottled up.

Sometimes it took awhile -- sometimes weeks and months -- but I could always bring Johnny around to my way of thinking if it was important enough.

I'd worked this all through, and so now I could lay out the whole package for him. Johnny's next glorification was scheduled for a week from Tuesday and I knew a kid who could get us a taser.

So Johnny zaps the old bastard in self-defense on Glorification Day. Then we pour water down his windpipe, supposedly trying to revive him. But he's got no gag reflex working, so he drowns ounce by ounce on the floor.

Hey, we were only trying to help. And anyway, you're a juvie with a documented history of child abuse. Johnny skates and becomes the family hero.

This actually turned out to be an easier sell than trying to get him to dye his hair a few years earlier.

Damn, I'm good.

And, amazingly, I guess, everything went down according to plan. There were police and lawyers and social workers scurrying around for what seemed like forever. But it wasn't forever.

And now everybody -- except dad, of course -- is older. Mom has more energy and she still remembers everybody's name. I still stumble on the name thing now and then.

Joe and Judy have moved on with their separate lives, and are trying to set up a non-profit foundation that would make the world less screwed up.

Johnny and I still hate each other, but we get along okay.

And all of us try to help the younger Janleys do better than the older Janleys did.


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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