The Gallows Fifty Cubits High

The Gallows Fifty Cubits High

My little brother Morty knots my hands behind my back with his unspooled bow tie and asks his buddy King Benayoun how many bottles of wine I’ve drunk. Before I can answer for myself, Morty claps his clammy palm over my mouth. “Speak no evil, Hammy,” he says, one finger held up in front of his lips.

“If we’re rounding down, Mort,” King answers, hollering over the bass line, “zero!” Then King puts his mitts on my shoulders and gives me a good shake, which sets the whole party in this country club ballroom spinning before my eyes.

It’s not true, of course. I almost put one bottle away, but I set it down on one of the tables across the room to dance with Marie, and when I went back for it, it was gone.

Another thing that isn’t true is that my name isn’t “Ham.” Morty and his friends started calling me that one fall a couple of decades ago when we entered the fifth grade and my uniform khakis didn’t button anymore. (Yeah, yeah, I was real fat, once upon a time. I hauled around a spare tire up through my seventeenth year. But between the ensuing testosterone and the top surgery and work on the golf course grounds crew, I shucked all the weight off, and as far as I’m concerned, I shucked it for good.)

Morty takes out his Swiss army knife and cuts open a box of red—Malbec, I think—to get the bag out. King bear-hugs me and tips my chin up, and then Morty crams the spout into my mouth and lets her rip.

The wine doesn’t dispense half as fast as they think it does, but my eyes still start to water straight away. Morty and King have me sandwiched, so all I can do is search the room for someone who can help me. But Marie went home a half hour ago, Saul’s sitting with his head buried in an ice chest, and all the cousins are dancing, bunched up in front of the DJ, wasted. I’ve seen worse—it’s Purim—but it might be time to panic.

The only thing looking back at me is my own birth name, which is engraved on various plaques hung around the room. I was a big kid growing up but also an accomplished Pima County junior golfer, to which these plaques can attest. Morty knows it too, but he’ll never tell you he knows.

One time I knocked a hole-in-one on number twelve, all the way across the dried-up creek and the thick ribbons of Arizona fescue and the nastiest pot bunker on the course. Morty and I were a twosome—he would mostly pout and drag his bag along the fairway, leaving ripples and tears in the fine green grass—but the little asshole wouldn’t vouch for me when we got back up to the clubhouse. I remember losing my shit, threatening to punch his lights out. I chased him outside to the deck of the vacant pool, and as he scurried away from me I thumped him in the back with an open fist. Morty pitched forward, smacked his head on the concrete on the way down, and tumbled into the water with a splash.

I fished him out of there right away, hooked my arms around his middle and brought him up for air. A little plume of blood spread across the surface of the water, which felt hand hot from the afternoon sunshine. His brow had split—four or five stitches, I think—and he bawled the whole bike ride home.

Anyway, an old codger was playing a few holes behind us that morning, and he saw my hole-in-one, so I got my name on the plaque.

My cheeks are puffing up, their capacity nearly full trying to keep all the wine from pouring down my throat. Sweat drips down the back of my neck, under my starchy collar. The rivulets barely wet me, though, because I’ve already soaked my shirt from all my dancing and drinking. My whole torso is slick, and this is perhaps the biggest reason why I manage suddenly to escape their grasp. I wrench and I wriggle and the spout of the wine bag pops out of my mouth, spraying every inch of the chest of Morty’s white shirt.

I bolt for the door, moving straight and fast as the black-tailed jackrabbits that rove the course. My arms are still trapped behind me, but luckily I don’t walk on those. I can hear Morty cussing after me, crashing into folding chairs in pursuit, but by the time he’s across the room I’m already gone.

You only ever go slow in golf, but I can really run, too. Somewhere along the way, hustling through patchy yards and a strip mall parking lot, I get my hands free of Morty’s bow tie. It’s cold and bone dry out here, and the air whistles in my ears. At last I round the corner of a gas station into an alley. Hunched there next to a dumpster is an old couch, its cushions missing, probably scattered among multiple landfills. I sit on it anyway.

Lately I’ve been eating cornflakes for three meals a day, and at least one of these rushes up from my belly and onto the pavement between my feet. I am unharmed by this puddle of cereal and wine, like Acme Earthquake Pills. I loosen the knot of my tie and roll it up and stuff it, with Morty’s bow tie, into my pocket. Then I unbutton my soaking shirt and peel it off, and the scars on my chest dry in the breeze.

Wiping my mouth and leaning my head back on the couch, I feel a little better. I think about when Morty was a kid, when he would get these migraine headaches in the summertime. He’d take off all his clothes and draw the shades in our room and slither under the covers of the top bunk to ride them out. Sometimes I tried to bring him things—ice water, aspirin, our cat Peggy—but he took to locking the door, so I quit.

A couple hours later, he would get dressed and emerge. When he was older, sometimes he would come out wearing my new clothes—sport coats and slacks and loafers that I bought with my grounds crew wages at the department store. He was funny like that. He’d catcall my girlfriend in high school (who was named—no kidding—Esther) and then snap open a newspaper to conceal his face, like in the cartoons. At seventeen, he got really into guns after Dad signed him up for lessons at the shooting range in the national park. Morty somehow managed to make very funny jokes about guns, though I can’t remember how or why.

A couple of years ago—I think it was Purim, actually—we were arguing in the driveway, probably about work. (I was his boss for a few months at the county clerk’s office, which went about how you would expect.) I gave him a shove, knocked him up against the mailbox and into the cacti around its post, and Morty pulled out his revolver and nestled the muzzle up against my ribs. An old-fashioned six-shooter. His other hand squeezed my chin, his calluses pulling at the fine hairs of my scruff in their follicles. As we froze there, locked in a strange motionless dance, I wondered—for the first time, maybe—just what sort of image he had for himself. Just what sort of man, if any, Morty figured he should be.

After a minute he stepped back, spun the cylinder with his thumb to show me it was empty, and then we chuckled heartily about it because we were, of course, drunk as skunks.

I didn’t worry about the incident until a few days later. Now, as I sit on this couch, I think I can hear Morty bellowing for me in the distance, his yells carried high and far on the thin desert air, but it’s so faint and soft it feels like it could be my own voice, in my own head. I shuffle my shoes off my feet and lie down. I can’t promise that Morty will never try something again, that he won’t ever mean it, but it’s not gonna be tonight.


About the Author

Katie Armstrong is a lifelong Westerner (Denver to Los Angeles to Boulder to—someday—San Junipero). Her work has appeared at Hobart and Heavy Feather Review, and she is on Twitter at @ArmstrongKatie.