He stood at the condiment bar and shouted into his phone.
What the fuck are you talking about? He screeched. Who the fuck told you you were smart? I’m the smart one in the family. I’m the fucking smart one. You’re not fucking smart. I’m the fucking smart one.
Caramelized honey latte, sir? I asked. I slid the cup toward him.
He looked up and gave me the friendliest smile I’d seen all day.
His voice was so jolly it made my teeth hurt. He took the drink from me and then turned back into his phone.
I’m the fucking smart one. Not you. Not the FUCK you.
I stared at him. He put some sugar in his already sweet drink.
No, he said. No, no, no. Fucking NO! FUCKING NO.
He walked away.
I kept staring.
And I wondered…
What could the other person have possibly said?
I’m assuming it was his brother that he was talking to. Did he call up and say hey brother, guess what? The IQ test came in and… well,, it’s 215. I’m a genius.
The man on the phone, the smart one in the family, probably took this really hard.
When he and all of his siblings came out of Mom, she had labeled them all. She had lined them up in a row and pointed to them, one at a time, and said to anyone around exactly what she thought they would be when they got older.
That’s the smart one, Mom said when the smart one came out.
This one’s the pretty one.
This one’s the dumb one.
This one’s the athletic one.
But this one? The first one? That’s right. He’s my special boy. He’s the smart one.
His whole life the smart one lived in the shadow of his mothers fateful pronouncement. He learned to talk first and it made him seem smarter than his babbling siblings. He walked while his kindred were still crawling around on the floor like slugs. He pooped in the toilet while brothers and sisters pooped their diapers and cried about it.
He was the smart one.
He wasn’t good at sports but that was okay because he was the smart one. He let go of the bat when he swung it, his footballs flopped out of his arms like drunk bananas when he threw them, and he considered it in the hoop if he hit the backboard with his basketball but all of this was fine because he wasn’t the athletic one, he was the smart one.
He wasn’t good at school but that was okay because he was just too advanced for his classes. The other dumb-dumbs held him back. Especially his brother the dumb one. Mom got him in the advanced program later that year, where he barely managed to advance to each grade.
He was an alternate on the scholar bowl team. Mom couldn’t explain away that one. She didn’t try to. She just told everyone he was on the team and left it at that, and when they won the county championship she told anyone who would listen that it was the smart one’s doing.
It wasn’t, though.
But they probably didn’t know that.
The smart one didn’t get into the Ivy league. He went to State and eventually failed out. Mom didn’t say anything this time.
She didn’t say anything because she was in the hospital. Again.
Cancer’s a bitch.
The smart one took care of her as his siblings graduated college one by one, especially the dumb one. They all silently enjoyed the schadenfreude of the smart one’s fall from grace. They pursued careers while the smart one held his mothers hand as she lay in the hospital bed and told her it’s okay, mama. The smart one’s here. The smart one’s here for you. Tell me what you need.
She couldn’t articulate it half the time. She couldn’t remember him half the time. In the back of her eyes, though, in the back of her eyes the smart one saw the old fire of the woman who named all of her kids smart, dumb athletic and pretty when they were born, and goddamn it, she was right.
She had to have been right.
The dumb one got his novel published a week before Mom died. He called to tell her, but she was asleep and the smart one didn’t relay the message when she woke up.
The smart one was there with her the whole time. He had taken a part time job as the guy who takes parking tickets at the hospital so he could always be close.
He was with her at 2:38 AM when it happened. He felt the strength drain form her hands, and he saw that old fire go out.
No one else was there. It was horrible.
The smart one didn’t know what to do.
So he left the hospital and went to a Starbucks to get some caramelized honey latte and his brother called him.
The dumb one.
Hey brother, the test came back and my IQ is 215. I’m a genius.
The smart one’s stomach clenched up like rigor mortis.
He hand’t told anyone yet. He hand’t told any of them. They hardly ever visited. Would they even care.
He was the smart one.
And then he was gone.
I watched him as he walked away. He didn’t have the gait of someone who’s mom just died.
He walked like an asshole who would yell at his brother over the phone that he wasn’t allowed to be smart because he was the fucking smart one in the family, not him.
He walked like a jerk.
I don’t know how I would walk if my Mom just died. Probably normally.
So I just watched him.
And I picked up a rag.
And I wiped down the bar.
And I put the rag away.
And I went back to making drinks.
And I thought:
No one would call somebody and say the test just came back! My IQ is 215! I’m a genius. It sounds like something from a bad movie.
Nobody would say that.
So I wonder…
I just wonder.
And make the next drink.