Listening Carefully


fiction by Sean Hammer


Thirteen years ago in 1999 when my brother was ten, he heard “Tombstone Blues” for the first time and got this ridiculous idea that the sun was made of chicken. That’s not what the line means, Tommy, I told him. “The sun is not yellow, it’s chicken.” Get it? He didn’t get it, which I guess is how it all started. I’d told my dad Tommy wouldn’t get it, but I’d only said that because Bob Dylan was our thing, just me and my dad, and I didn’t see why my little brother had to share it with us. He could have his own things and I could have mine, and it didn’t seem like there was any need to mix them. Tommy went to his school, I went to mine.

But Dad was like that – he wanted us to be perfectly equal, he would have us order the same pizza toppings if he could. I loved my brother but he had a few habits that were unbearable. He never cleaned up his toe clippings, for one – I was always stepping on pointy little nail bits in the carpet. He was a devoted copycat, too. He never even remembered exactly what I’d said, repeating only the gist of it in a mocking tone that both my parents and most of my friends found hilarious, and encouraged. Mom always went easier on him because he had what they’d probably call a learning disability now, though it seemed to me he simply didn’t catch on to things as quickly as the rest of his class did. Usually he just needed a little more time, but you know how school is, they do one thing and when most of the kids get it, they move on to the next thing. If you haven’t gotten it yet, you’re left behind.


The first day of school that year the Maryland summer humidity was still fogging the windows in the car. Dad was sweating even in the air conditioning, unusually quiet. We’d decided to start the year’s rides to school listening to Blood On the Tracks, but it didn’t seem to make Dad happy like I thought it would, he just stared out at the road. It made me uncomfortable knowing he was upset so I asked him what was wrong.

“Do you think Tommy likes his school?” he asked in return.

“I guess so. Does anyone really like school though, Dad? I hate it.”

“Right, but,” he started, shifting into the right-hand turn lane, “the school itself, I mean. Do you think it’s a good place for him?”

I didn’t know how to answer. I’d never considered the possibility that my parents could be sending my brother to a school that wasn’t good for him, that there even was such a thing. They were my parents, they knew everything. In the morning they dropped Tommy off at Black Birch Elementary and they dropped me off at the little middle-school carpool at Friedrich Academy. The possibility that it could be another way seemed foreign.

“I don’t know Dad, he seems fine to me. He never complains about school, really.”

We pulled up to the paved semicircle drop-off, and I hopped out.

“Yeah,” Dad said. “I suppose that’s true.”

As he drove away I sensed he wasn’t satisfied with my answer, and the troubled look I’d seen on his face seemed out of place with the upbeat, opening harmonica riff of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” drifting back toward me from his cracked driver’s side window.


Our house had a curiously wide landing at the top of the stairs, almost as though the architect intended for kids to eavesdrop on their parents. In those days I’d begun making it a weekly (sometimes nightly) habit to sneak out of my room after bedtime and listen to my parents talk in the living room. Sometimes they talked about Dad’s work, sometimes they talked about money or other things I couldn’t really understand, and sometimes they talked about nothing and I would just listen to the TV while they watched, letting my imagination fill in the blanks I couldn’t see on the screen. When they fought they never yelled; the closest my mother ever came to yelling was a harsh whisper, at which point the TV would usually shut off, my cue to hightail it – quietly – back to my bedroom.

That night they were watching the news, the low drone of the anchor like the boring Gregorian chant Mrs. Owens-Pendegrass forced us to listen to in music class earlier that afternoon. Dad cleared his throat. My ears perked.

“You know,” he began, clearly struggling. I could imagine him pulling at his earlobe like he did whenever he tried to talk to me about something that made us both cringe. (Most recently he’d asked me if there were any girls in my class I thought were cute, and I answered that I guessed there were, sure – though I certainly wasn’t going to tell – while he rubbed his ear raw.) “I’ve been thinking about the school thing with Tommy…”

“George, we’ve talked about this,” Mom said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

“But why?” my father asked. I heard the couch squeak as he stood, his long shadow on the wall playing in the ice blue glow of the television. “Why does it make you uncomfortable? He just needs to be challenged, Jess.”

Hearing him call her “Jess” was usually a secret thrill. He only ever shortened Mom’s name when he didn’t think anyone else was around.

“No he doesn’t, George. He’s fine where he is. If we send him to Friedrich – and that’s, of course, if we could even get him in, which I don’t think we could, now the year’s started – he’s just going to fail. It’s setting him up to fail. I’m not doing that to my own child. I don’t understand why you’re so hell-bent on it.”

“Because he’ll be fine, I know he’ll be fine. He’s not stupid—”

“I never said he was, you know I don’t think that.”

“I know, I know, but what I’m saying is I think he’d actually do better at a tougher school, because even if maybe they expect more out of the students, they spend more time with them. There’s fewer kids and just as many teachers and the teachers are better.”

Their argument stalled while the Fox 5 News Team insisted their loyal viewers begin stockpiling bottled water for Y2K.

“So what, you just want to send him to Friedrich with Robert?” she asked. ‘Robert,’ not ‘Robbie.’ Official confirmation of a serious conversation.

“I don’t see why not. They’re brothers, they should go to school together.”

“Just because they’re brothers doesn’t mean Robert should go to the same school as Thomas. They’re different.”

Dad didn’t respond and I heard his knees crack and the couch groan under his reapplied weight. The seeming death knells of defeat.

“Listen, honey,” Mom started in a much calmer voice. It sounded almost the same as when she talked to me when I was upset. “I know you want Tommy and Robbie to go to school together. I know. But let’s just think about it, okay?”

The TV clicked off and I scurried back to bed.


They didn’t think about it for very long. I don’t know what Dad said, but convincing my mother was no small miracle. We used to joke that Mom always got her way because Dad already had all he wanted: two boys. Nevertheless, two days later I was fighting with my brother about which one of us got to sit in the front seat on the way to school. I didn’t even mind the backseat so much, but it seemed a personal affront that I was moved. This had always been my time with Dad. Friedrich was on his way to work, Black Birch wasn’t, so he took me to school and not Tommy. I knew it was just because it was convenient, but I liked to think Dad had chosen me over my brother.

“But Dad,” Tommy pleaded. He didn’t even have to finish the sentence, he just looked up at Dad like he was on the verge of crying.

“Robbie, just sit in the back,” Dad said. “Tommy’s sitting in the front today, I don’t want to hear any more about it.” He was smart though, my dad. He managed to sneak just a bit of desperation into his voice, enough so that Tommy wouldn’t catch it but I would, enough to make me think he and I were allies against this intruder, this immature baby in our midst, and it was easier to give him his way than listen to him whine. He needed my help to get through it.

Giving up the front seat would have been bad enough, but Dad let Tommy into all of the things we did together, immediately. Tommy didn’t even have to earn it. When Dad and I first started driving in the mornings it was all talk radio and silence between us. We’d built up to Bob Dylan and baseball box scores over time, and Tommy just got to waltz right into the routine on the first day.

When we arrived at Friedrich I resented the thirty-second detour to the lower school; an ugly, babyish building. A few years back, one of the science teachers got the idea it would be a fun project for the lower schoolers to create a 3-D model of the solar system. They made nine giant, papier-mâché planets (ten with the sun) and spread them out across campus and through the woods that led to town, their distances measured to scale by the fifth graders working in teams with rulers and clipboards. The sun’s crest was a good six feet off the ground in front of the lower school and the other planets shot out in a straight line, as though they’d all stopped in the same place mid-orbit. You could walk from Mercury to Venus in just a minute or two, but after that the distances between the planets got pretty long. At the end of the project the whole school took a field trip to the CitiBank a few miles down the road to see Pluto, a silver spray-painted golf ball that hung from the ceiling on gossamer fishing line. Customers in line for the ATM had to bat a planet out of the way to the see the screen. When the teacher moved on, Friedrich let the whole project decay and the sun became this lumpy gray orb, like a mini Epcott Center, balanced on a termite-eaten wood post in front of the lower school. Bleached gray by its skyward counterpart.

“Someone should take that thing down,” Dad always said. “It’s going to fall, sooner or later.”


Friedrich was small and it didn’t take long for everyone to find out my little brother was the lower school’s newest student. Whispers strung from classroom to classroom that Friday and by eleven a.m. social studies Jennie Benchwood spun around in her seat and asked why I’d never told anyone I had a little brother. I didn’t know how to answer. It just hadn’t come up.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well how come he wasn’t in Friedrich before?” she asked.

“Because, he… he just wasn’t, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know much of anything, do you Robbie?” she said, and turned around to giggle with Alexis Wainwright. Alexis was the cutest girl in my class – the one I hadn’t wanted to tell my dad about – and I was furious with Jennie Benchwood for embarrassing me in front of her and mad at Tommy for being the reason I was put in that position. We had chicken patties for lunch, my favorite, but I just plowed through without tasting them, too upset.

Driving home Friday afternoon was usually my favorite time of the week but Dad arrived with a sour look on his face and no music when I got into the front seat, greeted only by a blast of air conditioning and the smell of leather.

“Hi, Dad.”

He grunted. We swung over to the lower school to pick up Tommy, who climbed into the back seat with a red face and tear-stained cheeks. I turned around to look at him because I wasn’t tall enough yet to see people in the rearview mirror like Dad could.

“Tommy, what’s wrong?” I asked, though I’m sure I sounded more annoyed than worried.

“I got in trouble,” he said, choking back more tears.

“That’s enough, Tommy,” Dad said. I knew better than to press when he had that kind of edge in his voice, so I changed the subject.

“Dad can we listen to some Dylan?” I asked.


“Why not?”

“Because I said so, Robbie. I’m not in the mood.” He turned on talk radio and the three of us drove the rest of the way home without saying a word to each other. I turned around to glare at Tommy so that he knew I knew it was his fault Dad was mad.


I asked Dad later that night if I could have a friend sleep over and he said no, that he and Mom were too tired, so instead I entertained myself by eavesdropping. It seemed especially just since I was refused a sleepover. My head between the banisters, I listened intently to find out what my brother was in trouble for. It didn’t take long.

“Well they say he walked right in on her,” Mom said.

“She should’ve locked the door. If all these kids at Friedrich are so smart, they ought to know enough to lock a bathroom door. Tommy knows to lock a door, I’ll tell you that much.”

“But George, think of that poor little girl, sitting there on the toilet with her tiny pants around her ankles, and some little boy she’s never seen before bursts in on her when she’s vulnerable. She’ll probably need therapy.”

“For God’s sake, Jess, the girl won’t even remember it a month from now.”

“Maybe not,” Mom said. “But the school will.”

Dad was silent.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said finally. “The school said they’ll give him a second chance. I bet if it hadn’t been his first day they wouldn’t even have made a big deal about it, calling the girl’s mother and everything. I mean I guess they think he lingered there, but he was probably just embarrassed or confused, he won’t do it again. This will work, Jess. I promise. Tommy will be much better off.”

“I hope so,” Mom said. I heard her get off the couch and walk toward the stairs.

I shuffled back to my room and got in bed, wondering what Alexis Wainwright would look like if I ran into her with her pants around her ankles.


Thankfully, Tommy went the entire next week without getting in trouble at school. We breezed through Blood On the Tracks and Tommy looked like he’d never been happier. We were always desperate for as much of my father’s attention as we could get and Tommy, for reasons I doubt he even understood at the time, was suddenly handed a major chunk of it he’d never had before, a giant slice of pie I’d had to myself for two years already – which, at ten and twelve, seemed an overwhelming percentage of our lives to Tommy and me. I think it wasn’t just my dad but me, too. Tommy was excited to be going to school with his dad and his big brother. The three amigos.

Dad was equally excited, reveling in sharing his morning commute and his taste in music with us, being the giver of Bob Dylan’s genius to his own two sons. Did you hear that, Robbie? he’d ask. What about you, Tommy? Do you see what Dylan is doing there? I’d say I got it but Tommy was more honest and asked Dad to explain everything to him, which was good because in truth I didn’t quite “get” it most of the time, either. After a particularly passionate lesson about the “seamless ease” (Dad) of Dylan’s rhymes in “Tangled Up in Blue,” Tommy nodded and said, “Oh, now I get it,” even though I knew he didn’t.

“Yeah right, Tommy,” I said. “You don’t get much of anything. You’re such a baby.” I was still smarting from Jennie Benchwood and I’m ashamed to admit it felt good to turn the insult onto someone else, even if it was my own brother. He didn’t say anything but I could tell he was hurt.

Dad glanced at me and his eyes were angry and pointed, but I thought his stern look was the end of it. We pulled into Friedrich a minute later and dropped Tommy off with the other kids in front of the lower school, waiting under the graying sun to be led single-file into classrooms by their teachers. When we got to the middle school carpool, Dad drove right around the circle and back toward the exit without dropping me off. Normally I would’ve been excited at the prospect of being late for school, but as we pulled out onto the main road a thick sense of dread sloshed around in my stomach.

“Listen, Robert,” he said. “You need to understand something. You’re getting older now, and it’s time you realized that there are times when you just need to keep your mouth shut.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about but tried to sound innocent.

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean God dammit, don’t play stupid.” Dad only cursed when he was really excited or really angry, and my whole body tensed. “It would be one thing if your brother did actually get things as easily as other kids his age. It would be another thing if you were like him, and things like school or Bob Dylan lyrics or friends were hard for you, but they’re not. Things come much more easily to you.”

But they don’t, I wanted to say. Sometimes I don’t understand what’s going on either. Jennie Benchwood and Alexis Wainwright laughed right in my face last week. But I didn’t. I just nodded.

“Going to Friedrich is going to be hard for Tommy. You have to be there for him and be his big brother,” he said. He must’ve seen the tears welling in my eyes, because he softened his tone considerably and put a hand on my shoulder. “I know it’s hard sometimes. It was hard for me when I was your age, too. But you just have to do it. For Tommy and for me.”

I said okay, embarrassed by the crack in my voice. I tried to imagine what Dad was like when he was my age.

“Don’t tell your mother I said any of that, by the way.”


The next week whenever I saw Tommy in the hallways I gave him a high five and elbowed friends I was walking with, telling them my brother went here, with us, now. At first I was doing it for Dad, but when I saw how happy it made Tommy, I actually started to enjoy it.

Another week went by and, satisfied that we’d grasped all the major concepts of Blood On the Tracks, the three of us moved on to Highway 61 Revisited. As Dad slipped the CD into the slot he said it was his favorite of all Dylan albums.

“Me too,” Tommy said, even though he’d never heard it. I opened my mouth to make fun of him but, remembering what Dad said, stopped. He winked at me and I ballooned with pride.

“The thing you have to understand about Dylan, Tommy, is that he always speaks the Truth. Always.” He’d said this to me before, too.

“About everything?” Tommy asked.

“About everything,” Dad said. “Truth with a capital ‘T’.”

Tommy’s face looked serious.

Of course we loved “Like A Rolling Stone,” and there were lines in particular we attached ourselves to – I was partial to Dylan lingering on that “ow” sound in “scrounging your next meal,” while Tommy loved the “wheeling whip” (Dad again) of Dylan’s tongue when he rattled off “You-gone-to-the-finest-school-alright-Miss-Lonely-but-you-know-you-only-used-to-get-juiced-in-it” – Tommy spent hours one afternoon trying to recite that line as fast as he could.

“Ballad of a Thin Man” was a favorite for me, and Tommy cracked up watching my impersonation of Dylan playing the piano. But for Tommy it was really all about “Tombstone Blues.” I think now it’s because all the characters were people he could recognize, if only in vague iterations of themselves – Mama, Papa, and of course that elusive “I,” and I often wonder if at that age, he imagined himself as that “I” and that “I” alone, without a sibling, as I always did whenever I listened to it back in those days.

I didn’t want Tommy to listen to Dylan with Dad and me in the beginning, but I admit seeing him dancing in the backseat to that jangly “Tombstone Blues” guitar riff was a perfect picture of joy, jutting his head forward with each note, his elbows thrown out like wings so he looked like an over-caffeinated chicken. Whenever Dylan got to the sixth verse and said of the Commander-in-Chief that “dropping a barbell he points to the sky saying, ‘the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!’” Tommy would squint into the sunrise, looking for confirmation.


It happened right before lunch the following Tuesday, when the middle schoolers were walking to the cafeteria and the lower school was at recess. I’d positioned myself at the back of the pack because I was entranced by Alexis Wainwright’s ponytail and wanted to watch it bob on the way to the cafeteria. Filtering out of the middle school, I heard a flock of frantic voices from around the lower school parking lot. I prayed it didn’t have anything to do with Tommy, but I think I knew.

When I got closer to the lower school I saw Tommy flying. He was soaring in place above the taller heads of the crowd, arms and legs outstretched, the gray sun cracked and smudged under him, like a puzzle piece forced into place in the overcast sky.


He looked up, saw me, and smiled; teeth filled with chunks of soggy sun. He started to wave as the wood post under him cracked with a raspy groan. Tommy toppled a second later, clinging to the sun’s gray flames with terror in his eyes. Watching him go down, the crowd’s voices crested as laughter and broke as screams when the sun cracked in half and Tommy rolled off, a few kids crying and covered in plaster where the universe exploded.

Two furious, red-faced teachers arrived finally, dragging my brother away from the crowd.

“The sun is not yellow, it’s chicken!” he yelled, struggling in their grasp. “It’s chicken!


When I got in Dad’s car at the end of the day he drove right past the lower school. I think each of us was trying to figure out what the other knew before speaking.

“The principal tells me you were there, when Tommy fell.”

“I heard the other kids on the way to lunch,” I said. Alexis’ ponytail bobbed into and out of my vision again, uninvited. Dad nodded and we fell silent for a few minutes.

“Did they send Tommy home?” I asked. I was surprised how empty the car felt with only the two of us.

“To the doctor,” Dad said. “He’s fine. He should be home now.”

“Did they have to pump his stomach?”


“But he was trying to eat it,” I said. “The sun.”

“The principal told me.”

“I feel like it was my fault, Dad.”

He told me of course it wasn’t, but I could tell he was disappointed.


Mom didn’t make Tommy come downstairs for dinner that night. We pushed food around our plates, the ringing of silverware on china dinner’s only conversation. After dinner I went to knock on Tommy’s door but Mom told me to leave him alone, he was sleeping. Hours later when I, too, was supposed to be sleeping, I crept to the landing to eavesdrop. They must have been at it before I got there.

“…and a broken wrist, for the girl,” Dad said.

“Her poor parents. We should send a card.”

“The school should’ve been maintaining the post that held up the sun,” he said. “They’re mostly to blame, if you think about it.”

A newscaster’s baritone filled the room with next week’s stormy weather until someone clicked channels, the play-by-play of an Orioles game bouncing off the walls.

“He should never have been there, George. It wasn’t the right place for him.”

Two batters came and went before Dad responded.

“I just wanted the boys to be together,” he said.

The O’s at-bat ended and the TV shut off, but I stayed where I was. I could run back to bed. I could pretend to be asleep, wake up tomorrow and pretend it was a normal school day. Or I could take the punishment for eavesdropping and tell the truth. I wanted to go back to bed so badly my knees trembled, and when I took that first shaky step down the stairs it felt like stepping off a boat and plunging into icy water. I made it all the way to the living room before I was noticed.

“Robbie! Sweetheart,” Mom said. “What are you doing up?”

I didn’t answer her at first because I was so amazed by how different the living room looked past bedtime. The furniture was all the same, the glass coffee table still streaked where Tommy spilled ketchup, but somehow it looked different and bare. With no TV and no noise it was quiet, adult. Everything in the world seemed so adult to me all of the sudden.

“Robbie?” she asked again.

“It wasn’t Dad’s fault, Mom,” I said, surprised to hear my own voice waver.


“It’s true, Mom, it wasn’t Dad’s fault. It was me. I was the one who told Tommy he didn’t get anything,” I said. Tears cut warms tracks down my cheeks. I wasn’t supposed to cry anymore, I wasn’t a baby. Everyone at school would laugh if they saw. “I made him feel stupid and he was just trying to show me he did get it, he knew what Dylan was talking about even though I didn’t and he just wanted to show me. And he was right, too, he repeated exactly what I said, Mom.”


Tommy didn’t come back to Friedrich with me the next day, or any day ever again. He went back to Birchwood, his absence nothing more than a long sickness between two first days of school. We hung onto the last few weeks of summer weather. If we could reset before fall settled in, things would go back to normal. Dad gave the lawn a mandatory final trim and I sat outside with a Coke, a mixture of diesel mower fumes and turning leaves in my nostrils. (“Next year this is your job,” Dad had said, and I was to learn from watching.) Quarter-inch high stripes of grass disappeared beneath the mower as I came to two thoughts and a question: It was the first time I noticed there was less hair on Dad’s head than there used to be. When I went to college in a few years mowing the lawn would become Tommy’s job. Would he learn by watching me?

I put down the Coke and went inside to the kitchen, where Mom was bent over a bowl of halved strawberries; an upturned, hissing can of Reddi-Wip curling cream over top. She plopped a spoon into the bowl, its silver handle rising out of the cream like an airplane breaking through the clouds.

“Would you take this out to Tommy, sweetheart? He’s watching TV.” She handed me the bowl before I responded and, licking wayward whipped cream from her thumb, dug into the dishes. Seeing her pump soap onto a waiting sponge, I realized it didn’t matter what school Tommy went to. He would still be Tommy, nothing would change either way. Mom would always be Mom, there wouldn’t suddenly be fewer errands to run, fewer taxes to pay, fewer dishes to clean. Dad wouldn’t go to work fewer days a week. The grass would still grow and we’d still cut it.

In the living room, Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Starfish stumbled across the sea floor and Tommy followed. I stood in front of the TV and swiped a strawberry from the bowl while Tommy protested.

“Just kidding,” I mumbled, the red flesh of the strawberry giving way to my teeth under a halo of cream. I handed Tommy the bowl and sat next to him on the couch.

“Hey Tommy,” I said, not looking away from the TV. “I was thinking. Maybe Dad would take us on a ride next weekend and we could listen to Dylan?”

Tommy munched a few strawberries. Spongebob fed his pet snail, Gary.

“Okay,” Tommy said finally. “But I don’t think I get what Dylan is talking about all the time,” he said, his face downturned like he was confessing to bad behavior.

“Me neither,” I said. We laughed as Spongebob, heavy with the weight of Patrick on his shoulders, fled from a giant, shimmering jellyfish.