The phone call came around 7 p.m. He almost didn’t answer because the caller ID said unknown, and it was from Connecticut. He didn’t know anyone in Connecticut. But with cell phones nowadays it could be from anywhere. So, uncharacteristically, he picked up.
“Hi, J. This is Gilbert, your brother, R’s stepson.”
“Hi, Gilbert,” J answered with a catch of premonition in his throat.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I guess I just have to say it. R passed away. He died in his sleep.”
J’s initial response was, “I didn’t see this coming.”
“None of us saw it coming.”
“But I should have. I… ”
And that was when the tears came. He choked up and could not speak for a moment. Of course, he should have known. He always knew when something big happened with R.
Randel and Jason Goodman were known to all as R&J, individually and collectively. Each answered to R&J as if that were his name and not a designation for the two of them. They were identical twins. Even their parents had looked for certain scars to know which son was which. The boys shared a womb, they shared a crib and later, a bedroom. They spoke with the same voice and walked the same walk. Their every gesture and every thought were the same. Or had been. Until they were grown they each did everything the other did. They even dated the same girls in high school, and as adults they married women who looked like one another. After they were grown and had moved to different parts of the country—J to Seattle and R to a little town south of Dallas—they began to develop different likes and different ways of being. They grew apart in many ways and talked to each other only at Christmas and on their shared birthday, but each still sensed when something happened to the other. J got a severe stomachache hours before R called to say he had passed a kidney stone; they each got fired in the same week for similar reasons, and each found a new job in the same week. They took such things for granted.
J flew to Dallas and rented a car to drive the hundred miles to the little town of Groesbeck, where R had lived since his recent retirement. R’s stepchildren and their spouses and children came as well, driving in from San Antonio and flying in from California and Florida. J had never met any of them. He hadn’t even seen pictures of them. In fact, up until Gilbert called with the death notice, he didn’t even know R had stepchildren.
The drive was on two-lane roads through what looked to him like miles and miles of small cattle ranches. Arriving at last in Groesbeck, he stopped to eat dinner at Billy B’s Sale Barn Cafe in the Groesbeck Auction & Livestock Company. The place was dark, lively and noisy with cowboys and their families, not an empty table to be seen. Despite the lack of light, J noticed a few people staring at him as he looked for a table. He knew why and had expected it.
A cowboy at a table with his family said, “Hey, R. We got an extra seat. Why’oncha join us?”
Before J could respond, the woman seated with the cowboy whispered something to him, and he said, “Oh my god, I didn’t know. You must be the twin brother we heard about. I’m so sorry for your loss, man.”
And then the cowboy stood up and announced to the crowd, “Hey, everybody, this is R Goodman’s twin brother.”
People pushed up from their seats and came over and shook his hand, telling him how sorry they were. Some of the women hugged him and cried, and somebody said, “I knew old R had himself an identical twin brother, but I never expected y’all to look so much alike.”
Somebody poured him a drink. Somebody else paid for his dinner.
J couldn’t sleep well in the hotel that night. He woke up at 5:00 in the morning and was the first person to show up for the complimentary breakfast. He had two cups of coffee and scrambled eggs and waffles, and checked his phone for emails before anyone else showed up. The first person to arrive was a woman alone, an attractive middle age woman. She stepped into the breakfast room, and when she saw J she stared at him for no longer than two seconds, gasped loudly, and spun about and rushed out of the room. A few moments later she came back, hands visibly shaking.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re R’s brother. I’m so glad you came. I’m his daughter, Sheila. I thought I had seen a ghost.”
Sheila hugged J long and tight.
The scene repeated itself with slight variations as each of R’s stepchildren and their spouses and children came in and introduced themselves. They told the tales they knew of all the twins’ exploits when they were growing up. They were the same stories J had been telling all his life, except he discovered that in R’s versions of the tales R was always the hero or the one who did the funny thing.
Sheila told a story J had never heard, but all the others knew.
“Daddy said that ’til he was about twelve years old he thought the two of you were really one person who had somehow separated into two bodies. I guess that was literally true if you think of it in terms of a single egg separatin’ in the womb. But anyway, he said y’all was running around a lake. You was about five. You was wearing life jackets, both a y’all, and you took yours off and dove in and started swimmin’, and Daddy thought to himself, ‘I didn’t know I could swim.’ So he took his life jacket off and dove in and started swimmin’ too.”
J told them another story.
“Long before that, your daddy saved my life. We were about two, sleeping in the same crib. He woke up during the night screaming. When our folks came in and picked him up, they couldn’t find anything wrong, but he kept crying and would not stop. Finally, our mom saw that I was curled up and turning blue. I couldn’t make a sound. As soon as they picked me up and rushed me to the hospital, R quit crying and went back to sleep. My large intestine was blocked. They had to take part of it out. But after the operation I didn’t improve the way I should have. When they fed me, I’d eat only half my food. I set the other half aside for R. Back at home, he did the same thing. Our doctor was convinced I wouldn’t get better until I could see my brother, but children visiting the hospital was strictly against the rules. So Dr. P wrapped R in a blanket so the nurses wouldn’t recognize him—’cause they all knew him, either that or he figured they’d think he was me—and he snuck him into my room. Immediately after that I got much better.”
At the funeral home J visited with R’s family until it was time to get ready for the service. The last person to join them was R’s wife, Pamela. J knew her, but barely. Over the years they had talked on the phone half a dozen times and had exchanged a few emails. They had seen each other only once. It was when R and Pam vacationed in Seattle two years earlier.
Everyone hugged Pamela or sat by her and held her hand. They asked how she was holding up and if there was anything they could do for her.
J was the last to greet her. They hugged each other and she choked out, “I’m so glad you came.” And then, after what appeared to be an embarrassed pause, she said, “Seeing you is kind of upsetting. It’s like seeing him, and I know he’s dead.”
Then she broke down and said, “Goddammit! Why did it have to be him? Why aren’t you dead, too? Didn’t y’all always do the same thing?”
J told her he understood, and he thought to himself how glad he was that for once he and R hadn’t done the same thing.
When the funeral got underway the preacher said, “We’re here to bury R&J Goodman,” and from his seat in the front row J screamed in his mind, “No we’re not, goddammit. We’re here to bury Randel Goodman. R&J is right here! Very much alive, you sanctimonious asshole. You’re so proud of yourself for using the nickname, like you’re his best buddy. I hate that nickname. Always hated it! R hated it too. Whoever started it, why couldn’t they have learned to tell us apart? It shouldn’t have been that hard.”
But, of course, it was that hard.
It was an open casket. J looked at his brother. He didn’t think he looked very much like R at all. Partly because, well, R was dead, and partly because J was seeing him in profile, with his nose like a knife blade in the air. J had never seen his own profile in a mirror.
Years ago, J had grown a beard so R&J wouldn’t be identical anymore, even though they lived two thousand miles apart. Later he found out that R had grown a beard around the same time. Now, R in the casket and J in the front pew had identical beards, both turning white.
At the end of the service those who wanted to were invited to approach the casket for one last look at the body. J looked at the high school class ring R was wearing (he had long since lost his own class ring). He looked at the cowboy belt buckle, something he would never wear, and he wondered if R’s receding hairline was any more severe than his own. When he turned away, he bumped into R’s wife, who was standing close by. She grabbed him in a strong embrace and did something totally unexpected and shocking to everyone at the funeral. She kissed him. Long and hard. On the lips. Not in any way a platonic kiss, but an erotically charged kiss.
When she let go, she blurted, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was doing. I was, I mean…I must have thought I was kissing my husband as a last goodbye.”
“It’s all right. I understand,” J said.
She told J she had clothes of R’s she would send him.
“They should fit you perfectly, and they’ll look good on you.”
They promised to keep in touch, to call often. But they never got the chance.
It was a massive heart attack over Denver. The flight attendant tried to revive him, but was unsuccessful.
If there is a heaven, R&J joined together again that night. Just as it was meant to be.
Alec Clayton writes theater reviews for the Weekly Volcano and The News Tribune with art reviews and other arts writing for the Volcano and Oly Arts. He has published nine novels and will have a tenth coming out soon, and has published a book about art. Alec has been a regular contributor to Creative Colloquy since its inception.