Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including Project X,

Shepard, X
© Vintage

and two story collections, including Love and Hydrogen.

Shepard, Love
© Vintage

He teaches at Williams College and in the Warren Wilson MFA program, and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, two sons, tiny daughter, and harried and unreliable dog.

Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian

posted Jun 2, 2005

It's a crappy rainy morning in Bridgeport, Connecticut and I'm home from seventh grade with a sore throat and my parents and brother are fighting and I'm trying every so often to stay out of it. Jonathan Winters is on Merv Griffin, doing his improv thing with a stick.

My father's beside himself because he thinks my mother threw out the Newsweek he's been saving to show my brother. It had some war casualties on the cover. "You couldn't find your ass with both hands and a banjo," he tells her, though she's not looking.

"Go take a shit for yourself," she tells him on her way through to the living room. He slams drawers in the kitchen. When he gets like this he stops seeing what's in them. We have to double-check everywhere he's looked to find anything. All of this is probably going to make my brother go off and we all know it, but none of us can stop.

He was institutionalized at sixteen and released eight months later. It was at Yale-New Haven, a teaching hospital, and they either didn't have much of an idea of what to do with him, or they were totally at a loss, depending on who you talked to.

"God forbid we should go somewhere," my mother says from the living room. She's smoking and keeping to herself. "What we need to do instead is show each other magazines."

"Maybe you should go somewhere," my father tells her.

My brother and I are playing 500 rummy. He's kicking my ass. For a while I was kicking his. He's quiet like he's trying to concentrate. He hates when my father goes out of his way to do something for him. His eyes are getting more worrisome in that distracted, unfocused kind of way.

He takes a break to make a tuna sandwich. White bread, no mayonnaise: he forks it out of the can and tries to spread it around. The tuna doesn't cooperate. He clears his throat a lot.

My mother's still talking to herself. I try a joke. My brother gets that look you get when bile backs up. He's at this point eighteen or nineteen and has, as he puts it, his whole fucking life ahead of him.

Across the driveway we can hear our neighbor watering the lawn. I ask my father why everybody's home from work today. "What're you, a cop?" he goes.

My brother tamps down the sandwich but tuna falls out when he picks it up anyway. He tamps it down again. I'm rearranging my cards and debating whether to look at his and poking through a book I took out from the library. It has a giant scorpion on the cover, and you have to take something out and do a report, every week.

I get good grades, which is what I do instead of talking to people. My parents think I'm going to college. My father says when people ask that it's the one thing this family hasn't fucked up.

Prearcturas gigas, it says, was over a meter long. I try pronouncing the name under my breath.

"You're all right," my brother says, eyeing me.

That's a scorpion three feet long. There's a picture of the pedipalps, the moveable things near the mouth that help shovel the prey in, a fossil, next to ones from the largest scorpion today. It's like hunting knives next to fingernail parings.

My father starts rooting through the garbage, swearing. My mother calls it Saying the rosary. "Don't go through the garbage," she calls. "It's not in the garbage." Our neighbor's still watering. Nobody's watching the TV in the den.
Scorpions apparently went nuts during the Carboniferous period, which was way before the dinosaurs. According to what the book calls the fossil record. But our science teacher says that that's like saying we can figure out who lived in the US by going through twelve garbage cans. I come across these things before then that weren't even scorpions. Proto-scorpions. They have like no eyes, no claws. They may just be lousy fossils.

My father starts shaking the plastic garbage can upside down into the sink. "I have no idea what you're doing," my brother tells him. My mother says he better not be making a mess.

"There, you son of a bitch," he goes, pulling out the magazine.

"What do you want from me?" my brother says when he holds it up. "A medal?"

After a minute my father starts cleaning up, dropping stuff back into the can. I start winning at rummy.

"The fucking Cincinnati Kid," my brother goes, watching me tote up.

"The PS Kid," I tell him. You can see him figuring it's not worth pursuing.

"Here's that article I was talking about," my father tells him. There's a muffin wrapper stuck to it.

"Very nice, very nice," my brother goes. He's starting to look worse.

"I'm out," I tell him again. I catch him with another big hand.

On another page whatever it is looks like a shingle with some antenna. It looks like I'm showing off, beating him while reading a book. But it's somewhere for my eyes to go, so I don't get rid of it.

"You playing cards or reading?" my father wants to know. He can see my brother's face.

"The library," my mother says from the other room. "That's the only place anybody in this family goes."

"Where're we gonna go? It's a fucking downpour," my brother shouts.

Everybody's quiet.

"I'm out again," I go, almost as soon as I'm dealt the cards.

He sits there for a minute. Then he turns the whole table over.

Later when everything's quiet I'm still in the kitchen. You can see a divot in the linoleum where the table edge hit. I'm rubbing my leg. My brother's in his room. My mother's in hers. There's tuna in my sock. My throat's still killing me. There's not enough self-pity to go around. "He your brother or not?" my father's asking me.

"Yeah," I tell him.

"So you wanna help him?" he wants to know.

Well, there's what we want, and what we do, I've figured out, even then. "Not really," I tell him, sitting there. Not really, I tell myself now.