Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.
That was all she said. She didn’t elaborate. She said it only once. And she wasn’t doing very well. Morphine had already applied its endgame heart squeeze. Her skin was in that cusp between jaundice and fading summer tan. Her eyes had sunken deep into her skull. She slept most of the time. She would, in fact, have only one more lucid moment—if indeed this had been a lucid moment, which I very much doubted—and that would be a chance for me to tell her that she had been a wonderful mother, that I loved her very much, and good-bye. We never said anything about my brother. That didn’t mean we weren’t thinking about him as though he were sitting bedside too.
Those were her exact words. And if they were true, I didn’t know if it would be a good thing or bad.
We buried my mother four days later.
When we returned to the house to sit shivah, my father stormed through the semi-shag in the living room. His face was red with rage. I was there, of course. My sister, Melissa, had flown in from Seattle with her husband, Ralph. Aunt Selma and Uncle Murray paced. Sheila, my soul mate, sat next to me and held my hand.
That was pretty much the sum total.
There was only one flower arrangement, a wonderful monster of a thing. Sheila smiled and squeezed my hand when she saw the card. No words, no message, just the drawing
Dad kept glancing out the bay windows—the same windows that had been shot out with a BB gun twice in the past eleven years—and muttered under his breath, “Sons of bitches.” He’d turn around and think of someone else who hadn’t shown. “For God’s sake, you’d think the Bergmans would have at least made a goddamn appearance.” Then he’d close his eyes and look away. The anger would consume him anew, blending with the grief into something I didn’t have the strength to face.
One more betrayal in a decade filled with them.
I needed air.
I got to my feet. Sheila looked up at me with concern. “I’m going to take a walk,” I said softly.
“You want company?”
“I don’t think so.”
Sheila nodded. We had been together nearly a year. I’ve never had a partner so in sync with my rather odd vibes. She gave my hand another I-love-you squeeze, and the warmth spread through me.
Our front-door welcome mat was harsh faux grass, like something stolen from a driving range, with a plastic daisy in the upper left-hand corner. I stepped over it and strolled up Downing Place. The street was lined with numbingly ordinary aluminum-sided split-levels, circa 1962. I still wore my dark gray suit. It itched in the heat. The savage sun beat down like a drum, and a perverse part of me thought that it was a wonderful day to decay. An image of my mother’s light-the-world smile—the one before it all happened—flashed in front of my eyes. I shoved it away.
I knew where I was headed, though I doubt if I would have admitted it to myself. I was drawn there, pulled by some unseen force. Some would call it masochistic. Others would note that maybe it had something to do with closure. I thought it was probably neither.
I just wanted to look at the spot where it all ended.
The sights and sounds of summer suburbia assaulted me. Kids squealed by on their bicycles. Mr. Cirino, who owned the Ford/Mercury dealership on Route 10, mowed his lawn. The Steins—they’d built up a chain of appliance stores that were swallowed up by a bigger chain—were taking a stroll hand in hand. There was a touch football game going on at the Levines’ house, though I didn’t know any of the participants. Barbecue smoke took flight from the Kaufmans’ backyard.
I passed by the Glassmans’ old place. Mark “the Doof” Glassman had jumped through the sliding glass doors when he was six. He was playing Superman. I remembered the scream and the blood. He needed over forty stitches. The Doof grew up and became some kind of IPO-start-up zillionaire. I don’t think they call him the Doof anymore, but you never know.
The Marianos’ house, still that horrid shade of phlegm yellow with a plastic deer guarding the front walk, was on the bend. Angela Mariano, our local bad girl, was two years older than us and like some superior, awe-inducing species. Watching Angela sunning in her backyard in a gravity-defying ribbed halter top, I had felt the first painful thrusts of deep hormonal longing. My mouth would actually water. Angela used to fight with her parents and sneak smokes in the toolshed behind her house. Her boyfriend drove a motorcycle. I ran into her last year on Madison Avenue in midtown. I expected her to look awful—that was what you always hear happens to that first lust-crush—but Angela looked great and seemed happy.
A lawn sprinkler did the slow wave in front of Eric Frankel’s house at 23 Downing Place. Eric had a space-travel-themed bar mitzvah at the Chanticleer in Short Hills when we were both in seventh grade. The ceiling was done up planetarium style—a black sky with star constellations. My seating card told me that I was sitting at “Table Apollo 14.” The centerpiece was an ornate model rocket on a green fauna launching pad. The waiters, adorned in realistic space suits, were each supposed to be one of the Mercury 7. “John Glenn” served us. Cindi Shapiro and I had sneaked into the chapel room and made out for over an hour. It was my first time. I didn’t know what I was doing. Cindi did. I remember it was glorious, the way her tongue caressed and jolted me in unexpected ways. But I also remember my initial wonderment evolving after twenty minutes or so into, well, boredom—a confused “what next?” along with a naïve “is that all there is?”
When Cindi and I stealthily returned to Cape Kennedy’s Table Apollo 14, ruffled and in fine post-smooch form (the Herbie Zane Band serenading the crowd with “Fly Me to the Moon”), my brother, Ken, pulled me to the side and demanded details. I, of course, too gladly gave them. He awarded me with that smile and slapped me five. That night, as we lay on the bunk beds, Ken on the top, me on the bottom, the stereo playing Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Ken’s favorite), my older brother explained to me the facts of life as seen by a ninth-grader. I’d later learn he was mostly wrong (a little too much emphasis on the breast), but when I think back to that night, I always smile.
“He’s alive. . . .”
I shook my head and turned right at Coddington Terrace by the Holders’ old house. This was the same route Ken and I had taken to get to Burnet Hill Elementary School. There used to be a paved path between two houses to make the trip shorter. I wondered if it was still there. My mother—everyone, even kids, had called her Sunny—used to follow us to school quasi-surreptitiously. Ken and I would roll our eyes as she ducked behind trees. I smiled, thinking about her overprotectiveness now. It used to embarrass me, but Ken would simply shrug. My brother was securely cool enough to let it slide. I wasn’t.