Sakae Manning
Sammy's Shitkickers

I began to beat Sammy with his own leg braces, polished by our mother to a new money shine, around the time people stopped looking at me, their eyes resting on Sammy, listening to his hospital stories, admiring his scars, a mountain range, crawling, stitch by stitch calf to heel. I would knock him in the head with his own hard, thick-soled boots. "Siblings do that sort of thing," I once heard our father say as he puffed on a well-chewed pipe, smoke connecting each word, slowing their delivery for our mother to translate his English to Japanese. The burnished brown, hand-sewn boots had holes on the sides to allow gleaming silver bars to couple and make rigid walking sticks for Sammy to maneuver throughout our childhood: home, school, and Saturdays at Sears. These "prisons," as Sammy called them, helped him walk in a halting, clipped step punctuated by trips and falls over weed-filled sidewalk cracks or invisible things hidden in the air. I knew then, for Sammy, the language of walking was as foreign as America to our mother's tongue, and it was around that time, I began to know we were different.

It may have been watching our mother cut Sammy's zucchini and hamburger steak into bite size morsels, or lifting long railroad tracks of bones from his steamed fish, or giving Sammy the biggest piece of my birthday cake. It could have been her lectures, made louder by slamming drawers, disrupting what was inside, shaking my mind awake. Her need to teach me to fold undershirts into thirds, the way she had shown me since I first understood the meaning of being first, second, or third, the meaning of being last. All I remember now is "try harder" became part of me, kept my back tight, and the desire to smear Sammy with blood, our mother's rouge, his own scrapes, was part of that.

Sammy was my little brother, a punk by any other name, a twerp, a brat, a turd, full of cooties and snot and other disgusting things that made him more valuable to my parents than their older, more capable, and cleaner daughter. On New Year's over miso soup and sashimi and on Sammy's birthday, when he always got exactly what he asked for and more, our mother would reflect, her eyes shut as if a movie were running beneath her lids, that my brother, her only son, was her future. Later, after the house went quiet, there would be the one-on-one with my father. He would remind me it would be my turn to take care of Sammy when my parents were gone. "You mean dead, right?" I would confirm in a deep voice, hushed by his hand going up as if in protest, and he would just nod slowly and bite down on his pipe, the meeting of teeth against hard, hand tooled wood, clenching in my ears for years after he did go.

But until my turn came, Sammy was going to care for my mother, she was sure of it, when she became old and alone in this golden land that treated her as a foreigner or a tourist, defining her as an alien on government forms. Even her mother-in-law, our grandmother, spurred her daughter-in-law's hostility on when she sideways suggested my brother's "condition" resulted from our mother being exposed to the Hiroshima atomic bomb. America never felt right to our mother's tongue, and behind each perfect Maybelline lined smile, our mother silently stored my Southern born father's stories of lynchings and cross burnings. She knew the whispered stories of the Nisei, who stayed in straw-dust filled horse stalls awaiting internment assignments, some birthing their own babies only to have them die. Her Issei women friends would talk about these things in Japanese amongst the imported foods, bent-over bags of Botan Rose rice, pots boiling, windows dripping, fogged in, huddled in one of their kitchens, distracted by whatever they were cooking, being loyal to their husbands, confused by their half-American children who argued and talked back.

As much as we were at war when our parents were around, Sammy and I had times of Hot Wheels and ant camps in wooden match boxes and Lincoln log cities where Barbie and GI Joe got it on. Such was the time when Sammy decided he would wear our father's new snakeskin trimmed cowboy boots. "Shitkickers" that's what our father called them as he would strut and slap on Old Spice after shoving his feet into his new dress boots. My brother, would sit at my father's feet, smile up, blushing "see me" with every blink of his round eyes, encouraging my father to do the twist or the cha-cha-cha. Toffee colored, they smelled of their previous owners. The ones who had their bodies stripped of the very skin their mamas had given them, and only our father knew why they should be his, and only our father, and perhaps our mother, knew why leisure suits and cowboy boots were supposed to be worn together. So our father, all 300 pounds of him, would hustle into this get up for funerals and other special occasions like Cioppino night at the American Legion Hall where framed World War II newspaper clippings bragged of killing the "Japs" over our mother's head while she sucked up seafood in bowls deep enough to mix 7-layer cakes.

It was during one of these Friday for grown-ups only evenings that it happened. I remember, because our father had come home from work and bathed, leaving the bathroom floor wet when it was still bright outside, and our mother complained the entire time to the towels as she dried the floor wearing only her bra and a half-slip. The pink rollers bouncing in her hair, sweat rising up on her back as she moved around on her hands and knees. My brother and I played in his freshly painted bedroom, a wall of brand new Sears boy's plaid curtains, starched and draped by our mother, stretching across the wall of three windows. The last light of a long August day sat on the wide window ledge that served as a headboard for Sammy's bed. The curtains barely touched the ledge, leaving enough room for Sammy's green, gun-toting army men and tank collection to stand guard against any window attack from below. Sammy's 8-year-old radar had narrowed in on our father's shitkickers. There they sat, toes pointed out and up, heels high and angled thick, as if they were stuffed with something, spit-shined and ready, waiting to party on yesterday's newspaper folded out to show proper respect to their tall-as-they-were-long size. Our mother had just polished them with the waxy paste from the Kiwi tin, and they were waiting for our father to take them out on the town, but it didn't matter right now, because they were calling Sammy's name. Tonight, my brother was going to be daddy, so he asked me to drop him into them. "Come on," he begged, and I, never being one to avoid trouble, especially when it meant Sammy was the one who was going to get it good, plopped him into one boot and then, the other. The boots went up to the top of his thighs, keeping his legs straight as a new wooden school ruler, pushing his seersucker shorts into a bunch around the boot tops. He clowned in the way Sammy did to keep people laughing and away from noticing his legs; now swallowed whole by the boots. He would fall and get up and fall and get up, laughing and sweating, and making those faces our father made when his pants were too tight after dinner. Sammy smiled, tongue wagging, stretching his arm out, and twisting his wrist as our father would before flourishing his fingers with a sweep of the air, and put on his Hop-Along-Cassidy watch, hoisting himself up onto his bed, slipping on the birthday quilt our grandmother had just given him, and fell again and again, both of us laughing the kind of laugh that makes for a headache or a belly cramp.

Then, it was as if we had walked onto the edge of a large, slippery cliff, the grass falling away and taking the dirt and black beetles and rocks and everything else along with it. Sammy very slowly, while the final spurts of laughter still jiggled out of and between his narrow shoulders, fell sideways, crashing through the bedroom window. I grabbed for Sammy, but just got a Kiwi slicked boot, the rest of him still going out the window, a Fourth of July fireworks show of glass dancing and shooting in different directions, and my brother continuing to fall out on top of the plaid curtain that was now pulled down and me grabbing for his foot, a pale soft fishhook, and holding on, finally, to his thin leg, wondering where his muscles were hiding. I hung on suddenly aware of the overwhelming new paint smell sitting hard on my chest, shortening my breath. I wondered if I could talk our father into painting my room purple. "Sammy," I yelled, still holding the leg of the one who had the biggest room, the one who was always first. Then, it happened, as the glass landed around me and the curtain rod shook against the bottom of the window frame, and I could hear my parents shouting, their feet pounding up the stairs, the door jumping on its hinges as they got closer, I realized Sammy was more than my little brother. I stuffed the boots down between the wall and his bed, knowing we would always be fair, 50/50 down the middle, no matter what. I started pulling Sammy in by his calf, then his thigh. "Don't tell," the part of him hanging outside the window begged in muffled panic and in pain, and I did not.