The Theory

Creative Writing | Short Story

The Theory

ONE DOLLAR. Ballard looked at his brother across the booth. Willis sat, arms pressed against his sides like always, staring at the lone dollar bill between them.

“Go on, take it, Willis,” Ballard said, gently pushing the dollar toward his little brother. “It’s your turn, bro, to give Miz Eileen the tip,” he said, his voice soft the way their mother’s had been. “It’s Tuesday, remember? Tuesday’s your day, buddy. Share a dollar on Tuesday, and nothing bad can happen. That’s our theory, remember? The theory’s everything, buddy.”

“Has the theory ever been wrong, Ballard?” Willis asked, not lifting his eyes and looking at his brother like a brother would.

“Nope, the theory’s never been wrong, Willis,” Ballard answered, and in that moment he believed it, this crazy theory he’d suddenly invented, there at the diner that first Tuesday morning after the funeral when he and Willis, each in the grip of a grief that had no words, had tried to have breakfast without her. Their waitress Eileen, her aging eyes even softer and kinder than they usually were, had come over to their regular booth, order pad in hand when Willis, poor Willis, had swept the condiments and salt shakers and tip money off the countertop and crawled under the booth, beneath the underside rippled with gum wads and dried ketchup and who knows what other kinds of diner crud. Eileen had held the cook and other waitresses at bay while Ballard crawled under there with Willis, sat down on crunched sugar packets and scooped up a lost dollar bill and that’s when it had come to him, the Tuesday Theory. He’d held the dollar bill out to his brother like it was a dog biscuit and Willis was the golden retriever they used to have, before it died too. “Share a dollar on Tuesday and nothing bad can happen,” he’d sworn to his little brother. Over and over and over again until Willis and Ballard and even Eileen, God Bless her, who’d crouched down under the tabletop with them on her arthritic knees and they’d nodded their heads as solemnly as the undertaken and sworn an oath that nothing bad would ever happen on Tuesday so long as they followed the Tuesday Theory.

And now six years later, sitting there in the same booth in the same diner, the same grandmotherly waitress Eileen bringing them their food, Ballard, for a second, believed again as he wanted Willis to believe with his whole heart, in the theory, the scientific maxim that their lives were moving with the invisible force their mother had believed in, moving inextricably forward toward the light, as she called it, toward the center of the universe that was the three of them when she was alive and they were a family united, together forever. Like she used to say when Ballard would wake in the dark, frightened, and there she would be, her soft hand on his young boy’s forehead hushing him with certainties lest he wake his little brother sleeping there across the room.

Ballard cleared his throat and looked at his brother, who’d grown taller than him over time, taller and thinner. Ballard watched Willis peer at the dollar bill lying Washington-side up on the top of the diner’s table. A few stray grains of salt radiated out around it like distant moons. The thick white dishes that had held their over-easy eggs and hash browns and toast and Ballard’s coffee sat neatly in the stack Willis had made, breakfast plates on the bottom, then the saucer and the jelly bowl nestling the lone coffee cup like a fat hen on top. Willis had stacked the silverware together—two forks, two spoons, two knives—and tucked them into the space between the dinner plate and saucer so they wouldn’t jiggle.

Ballard had placed the dollar bill in the middle of the table the way he always did on Tuesday mornings.

“Has the theory ever been wrong, Ballard?” Willis asked again, still with his arms tight against his sides.

Ballard brushed the salt off the table into his palm and sprinkled it into the coffee cup. “No, Willis,” he answered. “The theory’s never been wrong, OK?”

Willis leaned and placed his palm above the dollar bill, letting it hover an inch away. He made a slow circle clockwise over it, clicking his tongue in rhythms like radar.

Ballard watched this rotating ritual of his brother’s. Willis’ way of working the theory, this ritual inside a ritual. It used to bother him, this clicking-tongue, hand-revolving habit of his Willis’, especially when he’d done it at school in the lunch room or the library or anywhere where the regular kids were. The other kids, of course, especially Dennis O’Malley, had been merciless and cackled and pointed and called Willis weird and retarded and a dumb, crazy idiot, and Ballard had punched O’Malley in the mouth and gotten them both expelled from school for a week.

“Yeah, crazy like a fox,” their mother had whispered to Ballard and hugged him as they’d sat in the principal’s office defending his defense of his brother.

“Crazy like a fox,” Ballard said suddenly aloud. “Eh bro?” he muttered and glanced across the diner, looking for Eileen.

Willis didn’t answer. He still hunched over the dollar bill, his ear nearly touching the table, his hand still moving clockwise, his tongue still clicking.

Ballard sighed and the green Formica of the tabletop suddenly felt cold under his elbows.

Maybe their mother had been wrong, he thought and then shook his head and cleared his throat as he tried again to push that thought away though back it came. They hadn’t been united forever, hurling ever forward toward some beautiful reward. She had died, damn it, and maybe that was her reward, maybe that’s all there was anyway, just one day after another of making the best of a bad lot. Then everlasting darkness and cold and painless sleep. Maybe that’s all there was, he thought. Maybe nothing else would ever change. At least not for Willis, no matter how hard Ballard tried. So then what?

Ballard watched his brother clicking his hand over the dollar bill in the same ritual, unchanged as it was for the past many years, since Willis had been eight years old and Ballard was in middle school. Their mother was still alive then, and Ballard, well, he was still just a happy kid slurping perfect pancakes on a Sunday morning.

“Find any defects yet, Willis?” their mother would ask her youngest child as he hovered his hand over her perfect flapjacks, clicking away like a Geiger counter. “No defects yet, huh, buddy?” she’d asked again and Willis would shake his head and keep revolving his hand over and over his pancakes until at last their mother would bring the syrup over.

Sputtering like a Red Barron bomber plane from the First World War, she’d shout “Duck and cover, Willis. Here comes the syrup bomb!” And Willis would grab his head with both hands and duck under the table, howling like a siren. Their mother would rain Vermont’s finest over Willis’ ten perfect pancakes and Willis would screech that rare screech of delight he has.

Ballard misses those screeches of delight. Oh god, how he misses them.

Ballard looked around the diner again. It was early still and most of the regulars had yet to arrive. At the window a couple of cops sat drinking coffee. Ballard recognized the older officer from when he used to patrol the high school, what five, six years ago? Officer Palacios, or something like that. His hair was still combed back in a fierce shock of salt and pepper, more salt now than pepper but formidable all the same.

The younger cop stared at them. Ballard sighed and gave the cop a tiny smile, nothing sinister, just friendly and harmless like he had shown Willis how to do. The young cop, though, nudged Palacios and pointed to Willis hunched over the dollar bill, rotating his hand and clicking.

Ballard tensed, his tiny smile vanished, but Palacios shook his head and waved his hand in the air, dismissing his partner’s concern. He glanced at Ballard and his head nodded ever so slightly. The barest of greetings.

Ballard relaxed and leaned down to catch Willis’ eye the way their mom used to, the way Ballard had come to do never knowing though if it would work for him the way it had for her.

“Hey buddy,” he said. “Remember the theory. Share a dollar on Tuesday and nothing bad can happen. It’s time to share that dollar.”

“Has the theory ever been wrong, Ballard?” Willis asked.

“No, buddy, the theory’s never been wrong,” Ballard answered. “You ready to share that dollar now, Willis?”

“But Ballard, has the theory ever been wrong?” Willis asked again, raising his eyes for one quick glance at his brother.

“No Willis, I promise,” Ballard said quickly, startled by his brother’s glance. “The theory’s never been wrong. You ready now, bro?” his voice rising with excitement. “I know that Miz Eileen’s gonna be real happy when you give her that dollar tip.”

“Has the theory ever been wrong, Ballard?” Willis repeated, his eyes diverted again.

“Never wrong, Willis. Never wrong,” Ballard whispered, and he caught Eileen’s eye and she winked at him, tucking a strand of white hair behind her ear and pulling her order pad out of her pocket.

“Hey Willis,” she said as she got to their booth. “My Lord, is it Tuesday already, hon?”

Willis stared at the dollar bill. “Share a dollar on Tuesday, and nothing bad can happen,” he said.

Willis turned his head toward Eileen, his eyes still fixed on the dollar. “Has the theory ever been wrong?” he asked.

“Not once, buddy,” she said, her eyes crinkled and patient like their mother’s had been as she waited for Willis’ eyes to meet hers. “Not once in the past six years you’ve been coming here on Tuesdays, Willis,” she said, tilting her head down slightly as she always did. She glanced at Ballard and smiled a small hopeful smile that seemed to say “Maybe the theory will work this time, son. Maybe Willis will look me in the eye at last. Maybe Willis will be okay after all.”

“The theory’s never been wrong,” Willis said, clutching the dollar bill. “The theory’s never been wrong. The theory’s never been wrong,” he repeated and raising his eyes high enough to see the waistband of Eileen’s apron, Willis held the dollar bill out, his arm straight, his elbow rigid.

And Eileen, grasping the dollar bill between her thumb and forefinger, gently pulled the bill from between Willis’ grasp.

“Thanks Willis,” she said softly. “You have made my Tuesday again, buddy. The theory’s going strong.”

“The theory never been wrong,” Willis whispered, and slowly, as Ballard and Eileen watched barely breathing, Willis raised his eyes and met Eileen’s and gave her that tiny, harmless little smile his brother Ballard had taught him to.


Photograph by Elise Matich