Tom Howard


There was a time in my mid-twenties when I came to believe that everyone in our family, including my brother Eliot, would be better off if Eliot were dead. I loved him dearly. That was not the point. Dark-haired and dark-eyed in a family of fair-haired people predisposed to good cheer, Eliot was a perfect character to me, and I loved him exactly as one loves a book character whose days are so obviously numbered.

Once—this is just a single example—Eliot interrupted our dinner chatter to say, “I have discovered my nature, and it is the saturnine nature of the melancholic.” He was six years old. We cheered and laughed, because we had no idea what he was talking about. Philip, the oldest and most beloved within our family, liked to say that Eliot was possessed by the spirit of an eighteenth century consumptive. Eliot’s announcement did nothing to dispel his belief. I myself was four years older than Eliot and kept a reasonable emotional distance, thinking of him less as a family member than as a sort of deranged but entertaining pet, one that for example chases imaginary flies to exhaustion, or howls beneath a streetlamp she imagines to be the moon—amusing, but best to avoid getting too attached.

The summer after Eliot ran off with Greenpeace or maybe the Peace Corps, I found myself quite unconscionably thinking about things, for no good reason. This included Eliot and his melancholic disposition. It puzzled me and I wanted to solve the puzzle. I began to wonder—on sleepless nights as I lay beside some nameless whore; in a stoned haze as I stared up at the sky from my city balcony; in the bleary tender moments upon waking up beside Philip’s wife—if there wasn’t a solution after all. And so I imagined one. The news of the illness borne through the phone line. The sense of rupture within the family, the depth of which surely no one would find more surprising than Eliot himself. The late-night confessional phone calls, begging for a catharsis denied. The absolutely epic bedside vigil. The family’s great coming-together in the ancestral home, and the beginnings of a gorgeous reimagining of Eliot’s history. And Eliot himself, finding validation and the love and attention he must always have craved. And then death! to carry him above it all. Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, etc. Or at least not to be, which was also to be above it all at last: triumphant.

Oh, how I wanted to call him at that moment!


The years passed. We were all scattered by the time I heard the news. “We are not all scattered,” said Philip, but I was already hanging up the phone. Because he couldn’t understand. He’d never understood. I rested my face against the cool stone tile of the veranda, and I thought about my brother, my brother, who was gone.


Tom Howard’s fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, the Masters Review Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction.  He’s in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.