Incognito

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the attendant says, averting his eyes. He reaches awkwardly for my mother’s elbow, then points down the hall. “This way.”

Mother looks dimly perplexed, as if trying to remember what she’s forgotten. Perhaps where she misplaced her purse or some other item indispensable to functioning outside the house? She does not notice that everything about her person is, as always, intact: muted paisley suit with matching hat and bag, sensible but stylish heels — no sling-backs for Mrs. Anderson — and short, fixed coiffure. She turns slowly in the attendant’s direction, an index finger lingering on her coral lips as if deep in thought and about to point out the result of her deliberation.

 

Mother did that normally. Point. Making identifications with a simple gesture to indicate a mistake or triumph, to block a path or indicate a new direction. So sharp was her arrow, it was unto itself an explicit language full of meaning and nuance — and a source of much amusement to the rest of the family.

“And Carl,” she would commence, her son’s name sounding more like “Kahl,” betraying her Natick inflections. The remarkably precise digit had become a sort of time-honored incantation that triangulated on some now transcendent object or other. “Please put that back when you’re finished, Carl. A place for everything —”

“And everything in its place!” My younger brother would complete the expression with a wink, perhaps even a facetiously civilized bow. “But of course, Mother.”

Everything in our family’s lexicon was complete, tested and authorized by tradition. An entire history of ideas, of human consciousness, was born into us. The direction of my mother’s aim simply awakened it.

 

 

The attendant leads the three of us — my mother, father, and me — down a hall. Mother grips her purse, holding it in front of her chest with white-knuckled hands. The click-click of her heels echoes off the cement floor and tiled walls.

The jangle of keys hanging from the belt loop hidden underneath the attendant’s starched white uniform pierces my ears.

Bulbs encased in wire mesh are suspended at intervals from the ceiling, leaving shadowy gaps, and I find the intermittent glare harsh.

I look down and notice my father’s hands are in his pockets. He hadn’t removed his hat when we arrived, which is of course unusual, and its brow is set low over his long, angular face. Father’s shoulders are hunched, but still he is tall and lanky. Just to look at him walk, his stride seemingly so nonchalant because of those spindly legs, convinces me that he is never in a hurry, that he is never perturbed.

I don’t know why they put morgues in the bowels of buildings, as if the dead must be swiftly ushered underground as soon as possible lest they escape and return to tell us what lies ahead.

The attendant turns left down another hall that looks identical to this one, with my father and me in his wake. But Mother, unconcerned about keeping pace, has fallen behind. She walks straight on until the familiar sound of her footsteps begins to fade.

Father pauses. “Excuse me,” he says, inclining his head. His voice is low, hoarse. “My wife.”

The attendant turns. “Oh,” He looks around, realizes one’s missing. “Wait here, sir,” he says, honing in on his quarry. “I’ll get ‘er.” He hurries off, keys jangling at his wide hips, then reappears shortly with her in tow, carefully guiding her once again by the elbow. He hands her over to my father, who takes up the steering.

When we reach the double doors that mark the entrance to the viewing room, the attendant stops and turns. He holds up his hands like he is about to push us back.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” he asks. “Because —” he pauses, casting his eyes about for the right words, eyes that do not meet ours but instead slide away. “Because no matter who it is, it’s not going to look right — not normal, I mean.” He shakes his head apologetically, wiping a hand across the back of his neck. “I do apologize. This is my first day on this and, well, I’m a fit of nerves myself.”

My father just gazes unblinkingly at him until the attendant regains his composure.

“We don’t have to do it just now, if you need a minute,” the attendant continues, a suggestion made perhaps more for himself than for us.

“No. We’ll go,” my father says. He is a mixture of hope and resignation. “It might not be him.”

My mother jerks her head out of its haze and looks at him sharply, alarmed, as if he were a stranger.

“Well, he’s somebody’s, anyhow,” Father continues, reconsidering. He does not seem to notice his wife’s stare.

After a pause, the attendant says, “Okay, then. Follow me.”

 

 

“Oh, gee gawsh!” Mother would laugh self-consciously when she was especially pleased about something but didn’t want to show it.

I recall the first time we left Wellesley for Miami. Two whole weeks right smack in the middle of winter. It was our first trip, all of us together, because Carl was just born and Father’s business had finally got some legs.

My father made signs. The diverse, hand made emblems hung over or in front of most shops in town, calligraphy carved into wood, the grooves painted just so. Each one seemed to me a brilliant invitation to enter the premises and behold the treasures within. He was not just a craftsman, he was an artist with a craftsman’s heart.

The Packard Eight full up, we drove straight through to Miami, stopping only for picnics, rest room breaks, and to hydrate the car. Father drove in his shirtsleeves, Mother in a pristine new pantsuit and pair of slipper shoes, freshly pressed hair protected from the wind by a kerchief. The whole way she held Carl against her, even as she slept, even as she prepared the food or put it away until our next stop or pointed out to us noteworthy scenery. As we found our way to north Florida and the weather warmed up, Father put the top down. At night the moon watched over us, leading or following, but never losing pace.

Once we reached the ocean everything opened up. I cavorted in the waves, finding endless pleasure in their ebb and flow. The foam, salt, the infinitesimal orchestrating of creatures at work in their own universe was more real to me than anything in my own world, more real to me than myself.

While mother sunned herself and kept an eye on Carl, who napped in his shaded bassinet, Father took me on long walks to search for shells. There was a particularly beautiful one, rich mother of pearl following the curls inward, and its condition was almost pristine. When I gave it to Mother she handled it as if she had just been graced with the most valuable jewel. But she laughed self-consciously. “Oh! Gee, gosh!”

“I can get you more,” I said deferentially. At seven years of age, I was puzzled that she should think herself undeserving of such riches. But then she touched my face, looking as if she was seeing me for the first time.

 

 

The attendant opens the door and ushers us through. The room, covered entirely in stainless steel and tile, is cold and sparsely furnished. A metal table stands in the center, the adjustable overhanging light casting a harsh glare on its surface, next to the table is a trolley with instruments on it, and finally a curtain that could be pulled across the center of the room to act as a divider. There is a built-in sink in a corner, dripping slowly, methodically. This sound, too, pierces my ears, bouncing as it does off the walls like refracting light.

There are noises from another room; low murmurs, metal cabinet drawers opening, slow and deliberate footsteps that could belong only to one experienced with death.

“Now, if you will stay right here.” The attendant pauses by an open curtain and holds his hands up. It’s a command to stand still, but his voice is thin and tinny in this bleak and sterile room. Then he turns and pulls it in front of us with a single, sweeping gesture that reminds me of a magician completing a moderately technical trick with excessive flair.

Facing us once again, he says, his voice still cracking here and there with uncertainty, “What’s going to happen is I will be gone for just a moment. Then, when I come back, I’m going to open the curtain. You will see a gurney and a sheet covering the, ah — excuse me. I will pull back the sheet so you can make the identification.”

 

 

“I don’t want to stay here any longer, Dad. I’ve just got to go to New York, I’ve just got to!”

I’d been imploring over and over again since I was sixteen. By nineteen, my pleadings had turned to demands, replete with fists thrust resolutely on hips covered by high-waisted pants that were all the rage at the time. For his part, my father had folded his long frame in his usual armchair, trying to read the paper after dinner. That had been our routine for several years, and there were no outward signs on his part that anything would change. Invariably, he would give me an unblinking stare, then flick the paper and lean back once again, reading dispassionately.

He did not have to tell me anything. It was simple a matter of fact that young ladies just did not pick up and run off to New York City without a chaperone, let alone go there to do something frivolous like playing in pictures or that new television — theater, perhaps, if absolutely necessary, but nothing so one-dimensional as those moving pictures. What kind of life is that? No, no respectable daughter of his was going to do that. No sir! It just wasn’t done.

“Daaaaaaaddy,” I continued undeterred, drawing out his name into as many syllables as I could muster with one breath. “Don’t you understand? This town’s so small, so narrow-minded.” I spread my arms, looking around. “I’m bigger than all this.”

“Big enough,” he responded, smiling mischievously, “For a twelve-by-twelve inch can?” That’s what he called the television. “Or a dark room full of strangers staring at a screen?” At least radio, he thought, involved imagination.

Finally, however, a miracle occurred — it had to have been, such a violation of nature as it was. It appeared for all the world that he finally caved in to my incessant tantrums. Though of course, he would prefer to say he changed his mind. It happened like this. One evening, several months after I had begun my campaign, instead of staring at me blandly while I ranted, he asked me when I intended to go. For a moment I was stunned. I couldn’t speak.

Mother, on the other hand, upon overhearing this new tack was moved to step in and take up arms.

“What about that nice boy who likes you?” she called nonchalantly from the kitchen as she cleaned the dinner dishes. “What’s his name? Such a nice young man.”

I wheeled around to face this unanticipated distraction from my even more unexpected victory. After all, it was really only Father’s approval I required.

Standing with her back to me, she thrust a soapy finger in the air triumphantly, and exclaimed, “Johnson! Yes, that’s the boy. Johnson. Ivar and Lilly’s boy.”

She looked over her shoulder at me. “Don’t you like him, dear?”

I exhaled loudly through my nose and said, “I’m sure he is a very nice boy, Mother. But that’s not the point. I don’t need a boy right now. I’ve got more important things to do.”

She stopped washing and, turning to face me, slowly wiped her hands on a dishcloth. “One day you’ll realize, dear,” she pointed her famous index finger in the air, of course. “There is nothing more important than having a family.” Then she carefully folded the towel, set it on the counter, and walked decisively over to me. As she held my face between hands still warm from the dishwater, she shook her head and smiled. “What am I going to do with you?” Then she laughed and kissed my forehead before heading back to the sink. That was the extent of her objection to my plans.

Before her lips left my skin, I was turning to dash upstairs two at a time to my room to pack, stopping just long enough to plant a kiss on the top of Father’s head.

Carl was in his room poring over his rock collection when I went to tell him my good news. I stopped before entering, and watched him through the open door.

There must have been at least a hundred rocks of varying sizes scattered across the scuffed wood floor. Carl sat cross-legged in the midst of them with a heavy book in his lap. He’d take up a stone, flip through some pages of the book until he found what he was looking for, and then set the stone in one of several boxes next to him.

His room was typical for a boy his age, despite Mother’s best efforts. Clothing strewn everywhere. (“Not strewn,” Carl would object, thoroughly underwhelmed by order. “I know exactly where everything is; it’s where it needs to be.”) Various toy soldiers and cars scattered about. There was even detritus from candy he’d managed to sneak past the Mother Guard. Astronomy pictures were posted on the wall, books on Egyptian archaeology were stacked on the little desk he was quickly outgrowing. By the time he was eight he had already announced he was to become an archaeologist. Or maybe an anthropologist. At age twelve, however, he changed his mind to biology. “The mystery of life is solved in biology and poetry,” he would later write.

Playful and charming, intense and serious, Carl seemed determined from birth to commune with the immediate. What he lacked in ability to filter the world he compensated for with an uncanny knack for penetrating analysis. The result, of course, was a dizzying scurry to and ‘fro between the two, doomed never to alight — an almost Romantic hovering which personified his entire existence.

I knocked on the doorframe. Carl looked up, initially annoyed at being interrupted from something as engrossing as classifying rocks, but quickly smiled at me.

“How’s it coming?” I asked.

“Fair to the middle,” he said.

“Mmm,” I pushed away some clothes on his bed, noticing a black and white Composition Book underneath, and sat on the edge. It was labeled “Journal: 01/01/46-??” Until that moment I had no idea Carl kept a diary or journal, though it wasn’t surprising. I wanted to look, but thought he’d have asked me to if he wanted to share it.

He put down his rock and looked at me completely. He had the steadiest gaze of anyone I’d ever met. Next to our father, only Carl’s eyes were deep oceans of blue. The rest of us were also blue, but lighter and flecked with auburn.

Carl blinked. “Dad finally did it, didn’t he.”

“Uh-huh. He did. Sort of surprising, really.”

The light from the desk lamp cast deep shadows under his eyes. The corners of his mouth turned up briefly, imagining the beginnings of a smile. “Inevitable.”

“I’m going to write you all the time,” I offered. “And when I get settled you can visit. We’ll go to the Met and the Natural History museum. There’re loads of things to do — ”

Carl looked back at the rock in the binding crevice of his book. He gazed at it, or maybe past it, for a while. Then he said softly, “It is not this, but as if.”

I left the bed and knelt next to my brother and put my arms around him. I said nothing. I did not want to know what he meant. “You’ll be fine,” I faltered lamely.

“I know. You’re all grown up. It’d be the same thing if you were leaving to get married. It’s just,” he looked up at me defeated, resigned. “Who’s going to help me look for rocks? Who’s going to take me for ice cream? Who’s going to take me skating when the pond freezes over?”

“Carl!” I tried to laugh, “I’m coming back. I mean, you’ll have to keep my room ready and all. Besides, you’ve still got your friends. What about them? What about Paulie and Chris and those other hooligans, huh?” I winked at him.

“Yeah, I guess.” He looked away again. “But it’s not the same.”

Within days, after I’d made all my arrangements, after I’d quit the five and dime where I’d been working since graduation, the four of us stood on the platform waiting for the 7:19. Father stood off to the side with his hands deep in his pockets and shook his head, smiling. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Call if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Daddy.” I gave him a shy hug.

Carl’s smile was so big it would’ve taken over his whole face were it not for his eyes, two deep blue beacons shining through. I kissed the top of his head and ran a finger lightly over the brown cowlick inherited from Father, and then stepped onto the train.

I looked back briefly to see Mother, who stood behind Carl. The handles of her purse were slipped neatly over a raised wrist. A gloved finger pointed at me. “Now don’t you forget to call us when you get there,” she said. “Aunt Mary will be at the station to collect you. Look out for her,” she added. “You’ve grown up so since she last saw you.”

 

The last time she saw me. That was back when Carl was just weaning off training wheels. The first time he rode without them, lifetimes ago, he fell. Invariably, everyone does, but the universality of this experience did not matter. The fact that the beginning, middle, and end were the same for him as they were for every other boy before him held no significance in the least.

First, Father crouched down to hold the bike steady while Carl climbed on board and adjusted his hands on the bars and feet on the pedals. Then, as he gained momentum, Father slowly let go of the handlebars. Gradually, he straightened up, put his hands in his pockets, and quietly watched his son pedal raggedly down the walk. After about a hundred yards Carl lost the coordination required to pedal and steer at the same time. The bike began to lurch and wobble until finally it toppled over.

The fall scared Carl more than it hurt him, but still, he cried. Father ambled over to the heap on the ground. “Well,” he said, leaning over to pull the bike off Carl. “You’ll get it. Go on, try it again.”

Suddenly Carl’s expression changed and he smiled, smearing dirt across flushed cheeks as he wiped away the tears, and reached eagerly to climb back on.

Once he mastered the machine he was, like all young boys, unstoppable. He’d round up his friends and tear off down the street, weaving in and out of passersby. More often though, he’d ride off by himself into the woods behind our house, maybe down to the pond to catch minnows, frogs, or light bugs. Often during the summer, when he couldn’t be found at dinnertime, I’d spy him at the end of a path in the woods worn, likely, only by him. He’d be sitting under the Hawthorne tree, quiet and alone.

 

After assuring my mother I would call when I reached the city, I found my seat and thought about Carl under that tree.

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Manhattan that I became ensconced in my new life. Still, every Sunday after church I phoned home to gush about my latest adventures.

“…and I stay at the Rehearsal Club with a bunch of other girls. We’re always off on auditions, and we work temporary jobs in between — I even did a stint at the perfume counter in Bergdorf’s, can you believe it? And that’s not the half of it. I’ve been the Color Girl at NBC and one day none other than Mr. Richard Burton himself came in to the studio after he saw me on a monitor, and guess what he said? He said I’m a beautiful young woman! Isn’t that just the end? It’s a blast, Mother, you just wouldn’t believe it!”

I was so excited to be in New York that I didn’t hear her silence. A professional actress was, after all, what I planned to be, and New York was the only place in which to do it. No, I was already an actress. I would soon enough be a star. I was already beautiful, so it wouldn’t take much more to go all the way to the top.

“Put Daddy on, won’t you?” I gushed.

Father mentioned something about returning home to go to college, even Emerson if I was so set on acting. “A fine college,” he said. “Newer than others, but it’s going to be first-rate for the things you want to do.” Originally, he had his heart set on my attending Wellesley or Boston College. He’d fantasized about Harvard, but realized early on I hadn’t the disposition for it. He was, unlike most fathers of our day, disappointed in his daughter’s lack of enthusiasm for anything intellectual. But he was also the man who built that same daughter a stage from scratch so she could perform for the family.

“Oh, Dad,” I rolled my eyes in exasperation, huffing into the receiver. “I don’t need college, I’m getting a swell education right here. Where’s Carl? Put him on, will you? Not there? Oh. Discovered girls yet? Hmmm. Yes, that bike. Always in the woods. His Walden. Yes, well, tell him I love him, and I’ll be coming home soon for a visit.”

Just about five years went by before I actually returned home again. Really came home. There were the standard holidays and some birthdays, of course, but I had become a New York Girl, much too sophisticated for extended stays in that soporific New England town.

The first time I came home to visit for more than a week was when Carl went to the institution. He’d only been there for a few days when I arrived.

The building was a simple square brick block about five stories high. Though its exterior was unimpressive, there was a nice courtyard tucked away in the back where Carl and I would meet. We stood in the morning sun, he with his brown hair askew and blue eyes almost vacant — or at least staring from a gaunt face into some realm beyond my vision. His frame was long and thin like our father’s, but unlike Dad, everything about Carl seemed to be falling in on itself. Even his black and white marbled Composition Book was overwhelmed by his bony hand. I suddenly felt as fluffy as a ball of cotton with my upswept blonde hair carved into a glossy helmet, and my tailored forest green skirt suite fitting my newly matured form. Fortunately, Carl didn’t seem to notice.

I pointed to a corner. “There’s a nice quiet spot,” I said brightly, leading the way. We sat in uncomfortable metal chairs, and I pulled a pack of Kent’s from my purse.

“I can’t light mine,” Carl said.

“Oh?”

He shook his head. “We’re not allowed. Arsonists, you know.”

“Okay.” I smiled in an effort to hide my surprise, and embarrassed by my fear. “No problem. I’ve got a light.”

For the rest of my visit, we just sat on those terrible chairs, smoking.

Every morning thereafter, I took the bus over from my parents’ house, and would typically stay as long as visiting hours allowed — even longer if I flirted with the staff. Sometimes, while Carl finished one of his sessions, I would wait in the common room where all the fellows hung out. There was always someone, or a group around, and they liked to talk to me. Once a young man came over while I was sitting on the couch — so close our legs touched. He didn’t seem to notice, and I thought it prudent not to move away.

His name was Billy, and he had various scars on his arm, some fresh cuts, and some that were still healing.

“Did you do that?” I asked him, almost grazing a finger across a wound.

“Yeah,” he answered, brushing my hand away as he ran his palm absentmindedly over the wounds.

“Can I ask you why?”

“Okay.”

We sat there for a minute, me waiting for an answer, but nothing happened.

“Oh,” I suddenly realized. “Okay. So, why?”

He looked at me squarely and said, “Because when I get upset, I can’t hurt anybody, so I’ve got to hurt myself.” He held my gaze until I had to look away.

Some of the other guys, the ones who were most cognizant of their surroundings, asked me if I wanted to play checkers. I said sure. They cheated, and when I tried to cheat in return, they called me on it. It was peculiar fun. It was so much fun that no one noticed one of the other patients was growling and cursing and then started coming at me. Just before he reached me some of the others jumped up and yelled at him until he went away, insolent and seething.

“Don’t worry,” one said, reaching out to put a hand tenderly, reassuringly on my rigid shoulder. “We’ll protect you.”

Just before he touched me, though, he stopped, his hand frozen in mid-air. The men were told not to touch a person without permission. Still, sometimes they forgot that you were not them.

Every time I visited, Carl always had one of his journals with him. On one occasion, as we sat together on a stone bench, he placed it in between us. After a few minutes, he seemed to forget I was there, got up and wandered over to the lone tree in the enclosure. I couldn’t tell if he was lost in thought or looking at something rather intensely, but my attention was drawn away from him and to the battered notebook beside me.

I began to trace the cover with my finger, noticing that its edges were worn to reveal the gray cardboard underneath. I looked up to see if Carl was looking my way, but he was too far elsewhere, so I opened it. Inside, the page corners were curled up, the pen having been pressed with such force that it had dappled the paper and even punched through to the other side here and there. I picked a small piece of tobacco off my tongue and stole another glance over at Carl on the other side of the yard, but he merely pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and continued in contemplation. Taking another drag off my cigarette, I ran my fingertips over the worn and worried pages.

Despite the aggression with which he wrote, the handwriting itself was quite lovely, almost feminine. I leafed through until something familiar caught my eye.

It is one giant, as if the wind in the wake of a bird’s flapping wings is a tool of an ornery tornado. It lacks vertical hold, as if the eye is just about to catch a frame before the next appears, over and over, without ever grasping its entirety. It has no attachments, as if the hand were attempting to seize a fish that slides through hoop over hoop of fist until it reunites with water. It is not this, but as if.

It was like a name poised on the tip of my tongue, like the piece of tobacco I’d just plucked, like the words I’d just read. I couldn’t quite catch it.

In that moment, I wanted to go over to Carl, to reach out and pull him to me and plead with him to return. Instead, I could only whisper desperately, “I have these memories and cannot rid myself of them. They are the sum and substance of what I call “me.” Some day my mind might forget some or all of them, and with them I will go. Why, then, try to cobble together, to construct new ones that might only trouble me later? Don’t you see? Don’t you see?”

In my dreams I am squinting over my shoulder at this memory or that one, and I am trying to turn around to look at it straight on, but am blinded by darkness. All I feel are my arms waving out in front of me, fingers splayed like spider legs as they search for the light switch.

 

I returned to New York briefly to settle my accounts, so to speak. It was time for me to leave. One night the week before I returned home, I was walking down 57th Street, as I often did in the temperance of May, when I saw a kitten in the gutter. It was just a little slip of a thing, orange and white. A car must have only recently hit it because its maw opened and closed mechanically, like a miniature truck trowel. Its eyes saw nothing, but still there was this movement. A hind leg lifted slightly and then went back down. An automaton. I stopped to watch it, unsure what to do. I looked around for a box in which I could place it and take it somewhere, but when I looked again, I could tell it was dead, so I simply walked away.

Continuing on, I passed by apartments and brownstones with which I had become intimately familiar over the years. Each light in the window, each curtain’s color and pattern were mine. The pictures on the wall were of my relatives and friends. Dining habits were observed fastidiously. The lives were contained for me, pristinely ordered by walls, by windows, by time.

Later, I broke up with my boyfriend — not my acting coach, with whom I’d had a brief affair, but a poor substitute. I told him, “I’m not the same person I was when we met. I suppose that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I can’t still be in love with you, but the fact is, I’m not.”

We were sitting in the lobby at the Argyle. He sat stunned. “But…But, I’m in love with you,” he stammered, as if that should be enough.

“Sorry.” I shrugged a bit for emphasis, tried screwing up my mouth just a bit to appear pained by what I was doing to him.

“Christ, Irene, if a person keeps changing like that, what’re you supposed to count on?”

“That’s a good question. Damned good, I should say. But honestly, I don’t know.” He continued to sit there, waiting for me to say something else, something different. So I tried. “Believe me, George, Georgie-boy, I’m just as shocked as you are. I wasn’t expecting it. But what else can I do?”

“Well let’s not just call it all off. I mean, we can see if you change your mind. Maybe get back to the old you?”

That did not happen. Affairs in order, I returned to Wellesley for good, got married like you’re supposed to — Ivar and Lilly’s boy, in fact, much to my mother’s relief.

The day of the wedding, though, I almost backed out. As I stood at the chapel doors, heels dug in, Father pressed his hand firmly against the small of my back and said, “It’s a little late for that now, isn’t it?”

“But Dad,” I sucked in air, gasping for breath, “I haven’t said ‘yes’ yet. It won’t count, right?”

He just smiled at me and said, “It’s a bigger box than the television,” and propelled us down the aisle as the march music began.

Carl turned toward me as we approached, and his face went ashen when our eyes met — more so than the pallor to which I’d become accustomed in those last months at the institution. He caught my arm as I passed, wrapping a weakened hand around my wrist to stop me, but I held tight to my bouquet and kept moving, eyes fixed ahead. Wordlessly, his hand fell away, and I did not — I could not — look back to him.

“It’s tradition,” I whispered to myself. “It’s what we do.”

 

When he was about four or maybe five Carl loved to jump down a short flight of stairs that led to the basement. He told me at the time that he could fly.

“It’s more than that, Carl, you’re a hero,” I told him, and promised not to tell Mother that he was flinging himself down ten feet onto concrete. Though I knew better, and generally protected my little brother, it just seemed like a good idea. It was a good idea.

Years later, when we brought him home from the institution for the last time, he brought me to his room. He’d been unusually focused that day, or at least present in a way he’d not been for some time.

From the back of his closet he hurriedly moved across the floor, his arms loaded up with dozens of his journals. “There are more,” he told me matter-of-factly. “You’ll burn them for me, won’t you?”

“But Carl, why? All that work — “

“Please,” he interrupted, teeth clenched, “you’ll do this for me sometime?”

I held his gaze as he stood across from me in the middle of his room, his thin frame trembling from the weight, every muscle constricted.

“Carl, no, it would be such a waste.”

“Just — please!” He was exasperated. “I am asking this one thing. Just one.”

“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.” He began piling them on the bed, and turning back again toward the closet.

I sat down next to them and opened one. There were no dates on the pages themselves, just the covers, and the writing looked the same as what I saw when I sneaked a look at the institution.

Carl continued shuttling back and forth from his closet. I began to read.

He is a hero, about to steer into the air to rescue our earth and other planets in far off galaxies. Towering at the peak of the stairs, the steps number five, solid and older than he’ll ever be alive. The bottom is not far, but it would not matter if it were, for he will soar far beyond where he now stands; a hero always saves the day.

A final glance to judge the take-off distance, then a resolute turn away and three-stride march. Quiet at the runway’s end, jaw squared by clenched teeth, eyes complete from beneath a lowered forehead. A final deep breath, the hero heaves his tiny chest, and left leg first, then right, left pushes hard, take flight!

Dwarfed by lofty height, without cape or magic wings, just flimsy arms flapping wildly. Oh, hero, this uselessness is what hell must be.

 

 

The attendant goes behind the curtain — and rather quickly, I think, because no matter how many times he will have done this in the years to come, he will not know what else to say.

I do not blame him. What do you say? ‘Yes, this is my brother.’ ‘No, this is not my brother.’ ‘Yes and no, he is and is not my bother.’ What do you say?

There are more noises now. Doors opening. The sound of wheels on tile. A lever pulled to lock the gurney in place. The attendant clears his throat and appears once again. Then he stands before us, hands folded in front of him like a priest. Somehow, he is transformed. Solid, steady, somber. He looks from me to my father to my mother. Especially my mother. “I’m going to draw back the curtain, now. Then, like I said — ” He doesn’t finish the sentence, but instead turns away from us to remove the divider.

Father’s hand releases Mother’s elbow and slips around her shoulder, drawing her close.

“Oh,” she says.

Have you ever dropped something that’s got itself into a place where you can’t stretch far enough to pick it up? Suppose a coin falls between a crack in the floor, and you can get your hand through, and maybe even a part of your arm, but you can’t reach the money. You know you can’t make your fingers longer, or your arm, and you know the coin’s not going to move, but still you keep trying, as if somehow physics will suddenly change, the world will tilt on its axis just enough for you to reach. That’s all you want, just enough. Nothing more. That is how I feel about God. That is how I feel about us.

The attendant asks my father to step forward. We are so near. We could reach out to touch if we wanted, but our hands are occupied, so desperately occupied. To approximate the distance would be awful.

Gently, the assistant pulls back the sheet, folding it at the sternum. He asks, “Is this your son?”

There is a young man’s face, no more than eighteen years old. Black lashes thick and glistening, brown hair interrupted by a single cowlick just to the left side of the center part, a face as smooth and pale as fresh snowfall. Lids as thin as butterfly wings cover eyes I know should be the color of a turbulent ocean.

Mother drops her purse. With something that seems like leaden, agonizing deliberateness, Father draws a hand from his pocket and removes his hat. It dangles at his side from long, bony fingertips. His face is drawn, his expression haggard.

Gravity has won everywhere.

Imperceptibly, Mother turns away and begins walking toward the door. I move after her, scooping up her purse. “Isn’t that something,” she murmurs, lifting a finger to her lips. What was she remembering? Where is our direction? “Isn’t that something.”

Author: girlzillawrites

I am a philosophy professor and writer with a diverse set of research interests. My favorite courses to conduct are all introductory: critical thinking, symbolic logic, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ethics. My philosophical loves are Kant and Kierkegaard, but I happen to be smitten pretty much with whoever I'm reading at the moment.

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