“The Koorstad Twins”
Bob and Bill Koorstad were fraternal twins, not identical, blond boys with dark brown eyes and athletic manner. Bob was bigger and more muscular, and Bill quieter and more reserved. They were well known in Sunny Hills and played all the sports from the beginning. Bob was a fireball pitcher and Bill a third baseman no ball could get past.
Bob was outgoing and seemed to succeed at whatever he did, while Bill was studious. They had different sets of friends with some overlap, and different interests, but usually managed to talk together an hour or more a day.
By the time they were in college, the two often went with their separate friends to Tommy’s Chili-Cheeseburgers at Ramparts & Beverly in Los Angeles, and at 2 or 3 AM. They arrived and stood at the outdoor counters where they ate as many as three chili-cheeseburgers each with potato chips and bottles of pop. Bob brought his fraternity brothers, a dozen or so, and when they finished eating, they walked out to the intersection of Ramparts & Beverly to play baseball, barehanded and with bottles of beer in their hands. They pitched underhand to batters who more often than drilled the ball south down Ramparts to roll all the way down to 6th Street and MacArthur Park. They came together to celebrate at will, cheered and meanwhile Bill’s friends had gone home to Pasadena.
But Bill always stayed to watch his brother Bob play, and stood on the curb with an expression of exasperation and hopelessness on his face. In his pocket he kept a list of phone numbers for nearby ambulance companies and receiving hospitals against the night when his twin brother might be struck by a passing truck and thrown headlong to the pavement. Although it never happened, Bill fixed Bob with a poisonous look whenever he glanced over during these games. There is no evidence Bob ever thanked his brother for his attendance, either. That was taken for granted. The nights grew chill, tough Mexican kids ate burgers and jeered at the college boys, but Bob was untouched. Bill could have kicked him.
In fact, Bob implored Bill to play in these games, but he declined with a frown, and never revealed to anyone he hated chili, either.
The twins always seemed to know where the other was and what he was doing. Their sisters loved to watch them play sports, Bob especially, because of the joy he took in competition. They howled at his jokes, listened rapt to his tall tales, but it was Bill they confided in. They liked Bill’s girlfriends better, too, because Bob liked to go out with fast girls, even wild ones.
From earliest childhood, Bob teased Bill and called him a sissy, a pantywaist, and Bill called Bob “Lil Abner” after the hillbilly cartoon character. When it came to blows, though, Bill always prevailed with quicker fists. That didn’t stop Bob from tripping his brother, stepping on the heels of his tennis shoes, or heckling him, and Bill did not hesitate to fix his eyes on his brother with curdled disdain.
By high school they had less in common, because Bob liked to hang out with his football buddies and Bill preferred to study at night. They still spoke at length daily and surfed together two or three times a week. When Bill was too shy to meet a girl he liked, Bob went to work and dragged her over smiling to meet his egghead brother. Neither would admit the ways they admired the other.
“You two need to get along,” their mother told them admiringly, and in private she’d comb Bill’s hair with her fingers and order him watch out for “Bobby”.
Bob even introduced Bill to the girl he’d marry. On the night Bob lost the election for student boy president at his university, he treated his own girlfriend and Bill to a big steak dinner at a place on La Cienega. On his third Old Fashioned, Bob noticed Bill was impressed with a slender girl at another table with her parents. The older twin happened to know her father was a prominent judge from San Marino, a Class of 1937 alumnus, and he bounded over to chat with him. In less than a minute he asked if he and his girlfriend and brother could join them at His Honor’s table.
Bill felt embarrassed at his brother’s effrontery, but saw the patrician daughter had gray eyes and a soft contralto voice. Something electric passed between them, and they went outside for a smoke. Six weeks later they were engaged to be married. Amanda was her name. When Bob later graduated from law school, her father the judge helped him get a position at a good downtown firm.
But for now the brothers parted, as Bill and Amanda would study at Stanford. Bill lost sleep at being away from his brother.
And when Amanda was pregnant, Bob insisted she be treated by a fraternity brother obstetrician in Palo Alto. She adored the man.
Bill did the rest and soon he and Amanda were man and wife. Bob was getting an MBA first, and Bill ghost-wrote his thesis. When Bill and Amanda went to Brazil on his botany fellowship, Bob arranged for them to stay at a hotel owned by a fraternity brother’s parents. When Bob was awarded his degree, Bill arranged for all his Sunny Hills football teammates to be at the ceremony. When Bill and Amanda applied to buy a home near the university in Davis, Bob made the down payment and sent monthly checks their bank account. He was already the leading salesman for a West Coast residential construction company, and lived in Sunny Hills. He’d married a pretty redhead named Betty Lou and they were expecting.
At every meeting, however, the two brothers quarreled. Bob called Bill “Lefty” and Bill called him “The Grand Duke”. They’d walk outside at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to stand by the trees and insult each other, out of earshot.
“Your trouble is you want the tsar back, Bob!”
“You see everything through a pinko lens, Bill!”
“Your idea of helping the poor is donating a worn out pair of tennis shoes to the Salvation Army!” Bill said.
“At least I can provide for my family, Mr. Brain Trust!”
“You build homes for the rich and charge a fortune, Mr. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower!”
“You don’t even know enough about it to comment, Billy!”
“Yeah, it’s just too complex for me! Why don’t you just stand on your head so some money will trickle down?”
“You’re very sarcastic, Bill. You always have been, People don’t like that quality in you.”
“You are so wise!”
They stood nose to nose now, spitting a fine mist of saliva. Eventually they’d both poke a finger hard into the other’s chests, and with luck a silent alarm would go off inside them. They’d stop, go silent, breathe deeply, look around, and the tension would subside.
“Bill,” Bob began softly, taking a deep breath, “you know everything there is to know about plants, bushes, shrubs and flowers. But nothing about the real world of reality!”
“My insightful brother!”
“Well, you condone the mass murder of little unborn babies!” Bob charged.
“Bob, if there was a death penalty TV show on prime time, you’d be on your couch with popcorn and chocolate milk!”
“Bill! How rude!” Amanda purred, as she walked up to link arms with Bob. “He doesn’t mean it, Bob! He’s out of sorts!” she added satirically.
Both brothers had to laugh at her. Their faces were red and they’d been shouting. She struck a pose and began singing “Mashed Potato” in the manner of Dee Dee Sharp, 1964. She held their hands and insisted they dance.
You'll find this dance is so cool to do
Come on baby, gonna teach it to you
“You have Mom’s eyes exactly! They flash when you’re mad!” Bob told Bill and chuckled.
“I’m going to miss you, Squirt,” Bob continued. “You and Amanda will come to your senses after you get your cockamamy degrees, and move back down here.”
Bill had to turn away to conceal the tears in his eyes.
“You’re more like Dad every day, You have his body language, and the way he held his head. His hands. You even sound like him now,” Bill said.
Amanda kept dancing and looked from brother to brother.
“That’s the most gay thing I’ve ever hear you said,” Bob shouted and spluttered with laughter.
Bill always loved his brother’s smile, and the safe, secure way it made him feel, as if they were still little boys, living with Mom and Dad and the girls.
Over the years, the two got so they could discern the nuances of the other’s thinking. When Bob felt guilty about cheating on Betty Lou, Bill saw it immediately.
“Break it off, Bob. You’ll feel better,” he said.
“Break off what?”
Bill stared at him and that night Bob told the woman it was off.
When Bill worked in obscurity in a small state college, and Amanda supported them with her paintings, Bob made phone calls. That very month the university in Santa Barbara made bill an offer.
By now Bob had his own construction company that operated in six western states, along with high blood pressure, and a daily consumption of a fifth of gin. He’d flown for years, and asked Bill to come with him to buy a helicopter. They flew to a helicopter dealer in Escondido and talked on the way.
“President Reagan is a genius!” Bob said.
“Not to the poor, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded or California college students,” Bill replied.
“Why are you always such a Sad Sack, Bill? You borrow trouble.”
“Because I see what’s going on. Your guy’s doing his best to wreck the University of California system.”
Bob laughed out loud and asked, “So what?”
“That’s the way you are,” Bill said with pain in his voice. “Always have been. You never see anything except what’s right in front of your nose this minute.”
“What am I supposed to be? ‘In The Year 2525’?”
“Your context is too narrow, man.”
“We’re over San Juan Capistrano. Our E.T.A. is sixteen minutes,” Bob answered.
Bill felt the same old taste of exasperation, because his brother was smart like a fox.
“Lighten up, Buckwheat!” Bob said, and elbowed Bill in the ribs.
Bill became aware of himself staring at the dashboard controls, at the various levers and buttons, and what he could yank and twist to wipe the smile off his brother’s face.
Bob noticed him and said, “Get out! Right now! The door is open! Goodbye!”
They heard something inside Bill’s door click and Bob stared at him.
Bill clinched his teeth so hard they pained him.
“Wait until we’re on the ground,” he warned his brother.
Bob waited a beat and then reached to tickle Bill hard in the ribs.
“I said lighten up!” he roared, and Bill went cold.
At the helicopter dealership, Bob greeted two sons of a fraternity brother, and Bill wondered how many he had, anyway. His brother and the man carried on an exuberant conversation of recollections, friends in common noted, and exaggerated camaraderie. To Bill it seemed false, obviously so. Before long, Bob signed a contract, and he’d apparently taken a year of helicopter lessons. Supposedly he would use the helicopter to fly to building sites and meetings, and to look at prospective sites. It seemed like a waste of time and money to Bill, who felt peevish again in Bon’s company. Was he too judgmental? Was it unfair to object to Bob’s nature? Was he, Bill, prone to make too much of things? He wondered in vain.
On their return, Bill felt himself elevated to a thousand feet above the green coastline, next to his jubilant brother who was in his element. Bill envied him.
“I’m gonna surprise Betty Lou!” Bob announced, when they drew near Sunny Hills.
“No!” Bill cried.
“I’ve got fifty feet of clearance in every direction! No power lines, one hundred twenty feet from the patio window! Sure!” Bob insisted, with a look in his eye Bill had seen one thousand times.
“You’ll lose your license!”
Panic stole Bill’s breath. Terror rose from his toenails and testicles to his teeth and eyeballs. They’d be in Sunny Hills soon, on Terraza where Bob and Betty Lou lived. The crash would set the trees on fire.
“Bob, I don’t feel well,” Bill improvised. “My chest — it feels like an elephant is stepping on my chest! Put the craft down!”
“Deep breaths, Billy! Here — aspirin! Take some! We’ll be at St. Jude in no time! Hang in there!”
Bill slumped in his seat because it was no use. He cried with sheer frustration, not for the first time.
Bob pretended to hurry and now chewed a cigar. His sweat soaked the ultra-suede jacket he wore.
“Billy?” he called.
“As if you could fool me! ‘An elephant stepping on my chest!’ What a feeb!” Bob chortled.
Adrenaline went cold in Billy. He’d try to enjoy the trip, and maybe they wouldn’t crash.
Bob started to descend around State College & Bastanchury, approached Terraza from the northeast, and missed the bullseye of his new helipad by inches.
Bill felt sick to his stomach until his brother’s Labrador Retrievers bounded up to lick his face and jump against his chest, and Betty Lou came to open his door. She wore deep décolletage for the afternoon, an orange jumpsuit because she’d been told once she looked like Ann-Margret. While the dogs slobbered on Bill’s shirt and legs, she handed him a gin and tonic. He used his left arm to throw a vicious hook at Bob’s shoulder, but he’d already moved out of range.
He wanted to walk on the trail alone, and lie down on the Senior Center bench at the high school if it were still there. He wanted to sit on the feed bags in front of Model Market, and listen to the splashing and yelling from Jimmy Smith’s. He might feel safe again if he could.
Inside the house, Bob’s big blond water polo-playing sons loitered like athletes on the sideline. They worshipped their Uncle Bill and followed him around.
“Your Uncle Bill could have done anything,” their father boasted. “He could have found the cure for cancer, or composed beautiful symphonies. All the girls were wild about him! What a stud! He could have been a Major League shortstop and batted .350 on the season! Listen when he talks, boys! My brother is a genius!”
Bill was dazed, and then Betty Lou served dinner, a steak and baked potato with wines from vineyards owned by their high school classmates. Gradually he felt himself being charmed by the others and the girlfriends of his nephews. It was a slippery, loosey-goosey feeling. The kids watched him in awe.
So the years lengthened into decades in the lives of the brothers. Bob and Betty Lou bought houses in Kauai, and in Vail. Bill retired as an emeritus professor and Amanda sold her gallery but continued to paint.
There was an offer for Bill to become a consultant arborist and he took it gladly. Betty Lou had a breast reduction and felt great afterwards. Bill and Amanda’s daughters Daphne and Lois went to live in Paris for a year and write, with their mother’s full endorsement.
Bill was in a camellia grove in Montecito when he heard about the Twin Towers were on fire. He hurried home to see Amanda on the phone, trying to reach Paris. When they sat on the couch to watch the tragedy, Bob called and said, “We should bomb them back to the Stone Age!”
Their daughter Lois had a girlfriend who worked on the eighty-second floor of Twin Tower One. It took a week before she was confirmed dead. Both Lois and Daphne made reservations to come home for good. The stress aggravated Bill’s arthritis and he needed to use a cane.
Sons and daughters of the Mexican men Bill worked with enlisted in the military to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and destroy the weapons of mass destruction.
After six months, after a year, Bill and Amanda realized the attack had changed the way they lived, and the way they perceived their lives. They’d never been especially active socially, and now they seldom went out. They ate less and even went to bed earlier.
The year before Donald Trump was elected, Bob suffered a heart attack, and decided afterwards it was a blessing. He began to exercise and eventually lost forty pounds. Betty Lou tried to persuade him to retire, or at least work much less. He spent more time flying his helicopter for the feeling it gave him. He supported Trump for president and campaigned with friends and business associates.
The night Trump won the election, Bob called Billy and crowed over the news. Amanda came on the line right away as if to disarm her husband. When she spoke to Betty Lou, the two of them started planning a seventieth birthday party for their husbands. Until that time came, Bill and Bob never once spoke.
On their way down to Sunny Hills, Bill remembered being three years old when Bobby threw a baseball that broke the living room window on Valencia Mesa. He hid behind a tree, and Bill told their mother he did it himself. Later he heard her tell his father, “That didn’t sound like my Billy.” Their father laughed and said, “That’s my Bobby!”
The trip took three times as long as it should have because of traffic, and at the front door, Bob told them he could have flown then down. There were already a dozen people there with as many more expected. Bill accepted an offer to go out back and ride with two of Bob’s sons and girlfriends. The terrain had changed too much.
That afternoon Bill had avoided his brother until they sat down for dinner, when Bob was in high spirits, cheeks flushed with whiskey. His hair was white now, and he was florid, with pink jowls and twinkling blue eyes. He spoke in a booming voice, and would soon sop up his own au jus with a dinner roll. He stood to slice the roast beef and spoke:
“Finally we’re getting the border wall we’ve always needed!” he began with a victorious smile.
His brother Bill knew fully what the expression “My skin crawls” means. His brother had always been impulsive, reckless, and he’d rushed into things without thinking. Everybody liked him, though, and generally believed what he said, and even when Bob got in trouble, nothing much ever seemed to happen to him. After a setback, he jumped to his feet, brushed off his clothes and went about his business, cheerful as ever. Bill sat at the other end of the table in a corner, as far from Bob as he could be, and wished he’d never come here.
For years, Amanda had advised Bill not to let Bob’s “excesses” bother him. “He’s a completely different personality, and he sees the world differently,” she said. “He’s just not a questioning or reflective person. He just wants to stay active, get on with business. He’s so naturally optimistic, he sees the best in everyone. Criticism just rolls off his back.”
Bill had heard all that before, of course, by the time he was two years old. He wondered if twins had some kind of physical or spiritual connection, because Bob drove him crazy, always had. It was as if Bob had a special exemption from reason, an indulgence, maybe. He’d always been intelligent enough, more intelligent than average. He just didn’t seem to embrace concepts like justice, fairness or restraint, although he was never cruel or actually callous.
“What would you do to Mexicans trying to cross the border? “Give them all homes in Bel Air? Give them a million dollars each?” Bob asked Bill there at the dinner table.
“I’d rather not discuss it now,” Bill murmured. Most of the others looked down at their plates.
“Why not? You’re a fountain of wisdom!” Bob persisted. “Enlighten us!”
“Honey?” Betty Lou started to say.
“No, I want to hear his opinion! It’s our birthday!” Bob insisted.
Bill’s face formed an expression Bob knew, with eyebrows arched, lips pursed, eyes wide, a sad look. Bob hated to see his brother sad and immediately regretted his challenge. The question in Bill’s expression had to do with blood and bone. Bob had never understood him. Who are you to talk this way? Bill seemed to be thinking.
Bob’s face met his brother’s response first with amusement, with contempt, with a superior censure, and then his own face grew weak, flaccid and tired. He tried a weak smile, with the corners of his mouth only, and his eyes darted from side to side. He was trapped with no answer, his skin took on a gray tinge, and his wrists shook. He licked his lips once, twice. Still his twin brother’s face asked him the question and waited, the question Bob could not answer.
“Hey, everybody! This is a birthday party,” Betty Lou said, and attacked the silence with her laughter.
“Yeah!” Amanda chimed in, and began singing “Happy Birthday To You” as a Motown singer might, swaying her hips, snapping her fingers.
Bill excused himself to go outside, where he walked to the back and hiked up a small hill to sit on a cluster of rocks beside a cactus patch. He could look down on Bob’s property and see inside the dining room window.
He knew his brother was a powerful man, a highly successful man, a multimillionaire of great influence, even a philanthropist now. He was a man with extensive connections. He could do almost anything to Bill he wanted to, if he were angry enough. Bill shivered as wind swept over his hill. In the distance a coyote howled.
There was no one in the world he knew better than Bob, with whim he’d shared their mother’s womb. Their hearts had beat as one. They were never out of each other’s sight for many years. They’d seldom even needed to speak then to share and exchange meaning.
He felt their common tissue rending, and the membrane that enclosed them tearing apart and shredded.
The night turned pitch black, with no moon. Bill waited, and after a while his brother Bob came outside with a heavy flashlight that shined an intense bright beam.
“Bill? Billy?” he called. He raked his light over the yard and hillside. He didn’t wear his bifocals.
“I know you’re here, Billy. Stop pouting! Come down! It’s cold!”
Another coyote howl came, and closer, a yip. Bob was scared now.
“Billy? Are you all right? Where are you? Come down!”
Bill watched his brother and didn’t want him to be afraid. He knew Bob would get frantic and do something rash.
“Wait,” Bill called, conversational now, and Bob spotted him.
“There’s rattlers up there, man!” Bob yelled, and now his eyes danced with relief. He wiped his mouth with his hand and relaxed his shoulders. Bill was alive!
Bill scrambled down, nimble as when they were boys. Bob turned on the floodlights and jackrabbits skittered away from the ends of the property. Bill approached him, and Bob slugged him joyously on the upper arm. Then he turned to a wooden tool chest and retrieved ancient baseball mitts they’d once owned, and a scuffed baseball turned greenish brown by damp grass and local mud.
“I knew you were up there,” he said. “Here!”
With that he threw Bill’s old mitt at his chest, where his brother caught it neatly. They stood one hundred feet below the patio in the brilliant glare of the floodlights.
They knew the routine. Bill stepped back ninety feet and retreated to one hundred. They began with easy throws in loping arcs back and forth. Neither brother had to move up or back, or sideways even a step.
They felt their muscles loosen, and threw with lazy, smooth motions, digging in with their back foot, pivoting on the front, swinging their bodies around to follow through as they’d learned sixty-some years ago. The light in the property was strong and harsh. Their gloves were comfortable and snug, neither too tight nor too loose, the pockets stained black with linseed oil, sweat, dirt and their own spit. Their fingers gripped the ball with firm purchase, and it rolled off their fingertips with a satisfactory snap.
With the brothers one hundred feet apart, the thrown balls landed in their mitts with a flat cough of certainty. They could reach each other accurately, and unseen, a pendulum stroke timed them. They knew when it was time, time to move forward.
Almost imperceptibly, the two threw a little harder. Back and forth the ball sailed, still high aloft but closer to the ground by an inch. The brothers did not exert themselves when they threw, nor did their faces show more than determination. Their timing had been calibrated long ago.
Eventually they saw shadows on each others’ faces, and glistening perspiration on each others’ foreheads. Neither spoke, and the silence affected them. Back and forth they gazed and threw, into the light and the black sky. They reached ninety feet.
When mist appeared in the air, the metronome of their exchange quickened. There were no errant throws, or wild or passed balls. Streams of sweat appeared on their faces now, and coursed down their spines.
At sixty feet, the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, the brothers saw each others’ eyes with a start. For an instant they looked like strangers. They bore down, and their throws landed with a sharp report in their gloves, and their own arms and hands knocked backward from impact.
At forty-five feet, Bob and Bill caught the balls protectively, hopping and moving their gloved hands to one side of their faces and throat to catch. They spent a split second longer winding up, aiming and releasing the ball, and hurried back to their receiving stance.
At thirty feet, they threw and caught as fast as they could. Their motions were grooved and brittle now in quickness. Their gloves could not cushion all the pain of catching the others’ throws landing on the heels of their hands. They both breathed fast now and snorted.
Bob threw harder and Bill had a quicker release. There was no time now to catch a ball safely, or in any way except with desperation, come what may.
They stepped one more yard in and their eyes widened. They threw as hard as they possibly could, burning throws, damp and hot in the night. They jumped sideways to catch and hurled back.
At twenty feet, they threw to each other point blank. The ball had the weight of a bullet, and the danger.
Now their arms and shoulders ached, and their fingers pulsed with blisters.
The balls they threw became blurs in the night, and their eyes were tired and exhausted.
Neither one intended to stop throwing.
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