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Blood relatives or not, brothers will stick together. In the Gutter, that isn't always enough.
Eulogy by James Hartman

Let me tell you about my goofy brother.  That night, Carl and I never laughed harder.  He was wearing different colored socks—one yellow, one red—and I was giving him shit for it.  “I’ve seen three-year-olds better color-coordinate,” I said.
We were walking back from the arena after watching

Louisville beat Kentucky, and he was giving me shit for that.  “Now we dominate you in football and basketball,” he said.
By the time we crossed Third Street the four of them had emerged from beneath the overhang of a boarded liquor store.  The tallest one had a thin bald head.  His three friends were also white, their heads shaved, and though they were all shorter, they all sprouted with muscle.  We tried to walk around them, but they encircled us.  The guy with the thin bald head eyed Carl, me, then jabbed one accusatory finger at Carl.  “That motherfucker is black.”
Carl looked at me, and I looked at Carl.  We stopped laughing.  He carefully raised his hand and squinted at it.  I squinted at it, too.  Then my mouth opened and, with great exaggeration, I cried, “Holy shit, he’s right!”
Carl stared at me with eyes stunned wide.  Squinting again at his hand, he turned it over and over.  He rolled up his sleeve and straightened out his whole arm.  He did the same to his other arm.  He waved them both from side to side as if shaking something off.  He took slow, very hesitating looks up and down the length of his arms.  “Oh my God,” he said.  “I’m fuckin’ black!”
I gestured at his head, his face, his neck.  I hiked up both his pant legs and pointed at his shins, his ankles, his kneecaps.  “It’s all over you, man!”
Carl began spinning.  He flapped around in order to achieve a better angle at every part of his exposed skin.  He repeatedly rubbed his hands all over himself until, exasperated, he thrust one of them into my face.  “It won’t come off, man!”
Feverishly I, too, smacked at all the exposed parts of his skin.  “I can’t get it off, either!” I screamed, extra hysterically, really selling it.
When it became apparent that none of it was coming off, Carl and I hunched over, gasping hard.  “Oh my God!” Carl wailed.  “What are we going to do!?”
I shook my head, vigorously.  “In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
But what are we going to do, man!?”
I sighed, extra loud, and shook my head at him.  “I just can’t believe this.”
Stop!” Carl yelled, and draped an arm over his face.  “Don’t look at me.  I can’t bear it!”
So I looked at the stupid guy with the thin bald head and casually plopped a hand on his shoulder even though what I really wanted to do was punch his fucking nose in.  “I don’t know how to thank you,” I said.  “If it wasn’t for your acute observation, I don’t know what we would have done.”
Carl clapped another hand over his face.  Squealing howls of despair muffled through his fingers.  His shoulders dramatically bunched up and down.  The stupid guy with the thin bald head narrowed his small eyes at us, his thick dumb lips parted.  Then his lips suddenly squished and all four of them smothered us.  Carl never saw them because his hands still covered his face, his noises muffled through his fingers, his shoulders bouncing.  They beat the shit out of us, and that would have been the end of it.  Carl would be here telling you this story himself, filling in the parts I missed as he laughed himself goofy.  If only he would have let it go.  If only he’d have simply allowed them to believe they had taught us something.  If only Carl had maybe raised the arm oozing blood down its elbow and said, “Look, it’s still not coming off,” instead of lunging to his feet and slamming a fist into the back of one of the smaller, muscular one’s heads.  I got to my feet as the rest of them, one by one, turned.  There was just time to notice the way the moonlight glimmered off each of their blades.  Carl never screamed, and if he moaned I didn’t hear.  I faded out and don’t remember being stabbed.  My doctors theorized I was still on such a high from laughing that the endorphins blocked the pain.  I asked if Carl would have felt pain, but the doctors couldn’t be sure one way or another.
The guy with the thin bald head was arrested the day after I was released from the hospital.  I identified him in a line-up, but couldn’t identify the others.  They all looked the same: shaved heads, tattoos, very short and very muscular.  The guy with the thin bald head never prattled.  He was convicted of first degree murder as well as attempted murder, largely on my testimony, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
My doctors told me that I survived because of how hard I clutched Carl’s body to mine.  They claimed Carl’s body “stemmed the bleeding” from my three shredded chest wounds. 
When Carl and I were nine, we sliced the centers of our palms, an inch-long cut, and gripped each other’s hands.  The day before, right down the street from where Carl and I lived, a white man walked into a Baptist church and killed eight African-American worshipers during communion.  Several of the worshipers were alleged members of a gang that had robbed and murdered the white man’s little brother. 
As Carl’s blood and my blood mingled between our entwined fingers, he said, “Now we will be the same.  One blood, one color.  Brothers.”
In my dreams, when I am awake, I can’t ever stop hearing how loud I shouted the word “Yeah!” again and again and again, as if our pact would prevent something.

James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Per Contra, Blue Fifth Review, Gravel Literary Journal, The Airgonaut, and Jellyfish Review, among others. His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review. He has several degrees, and lives in Michigan with his wife. He writes for SB Nation and The Runner Sports.