“It’s maybe not the best place for me to meet. I used to hang out there a lot,” he’d said, voice a little edgy, “but it’s easy to find and not so far from your hotel.”
Trace wondered what that meant. Maybe it was a bad idea altogether. Did the idea of dinner suit him better? His brother probably wanted a great meal more than a visit but there was a limit to what Trace could do. His hotel was on the other side of town, he had a business meeting early tomorrow morning. He was flattened by the flight from Washington, DC. He got tired of worrying about him.
“Okay, bro’ Hadley, whatever you think.”
“It’s not Hadley, anymore, right? Just Morrie. You forgetting things?”
“Right, I know. Morrie, short for Morrison. Grandpa’s name, your middle name. I don’t forget it, I ‘m just used to Hadley, and–well, it’s been a long while.”
He could hear his brother breathing, a faint whistle as he exhaled when his mouth was shut. It used to drive him crazy when they shared a room. Sometimes he’d outright snore. Trace would cover his brother’s face with a handkerchief to try to muffle it all. He’d lean on his elbow on the other twin bed and watch the blue paisley square rise and fall a little until Hadley would push it off in his sleep. Then Trace would try sleeping with his head under the covers but that often led to morning headaches.
“A CO2 slammer”, his father said. “You’re not getting fresh air, enough oxygen.”
“I can’t stand to hear him whistle and snort every night,” Trace complained.
“Aw, be a baby,” his brother sneered. “I bet a feather dropping would wake you up.”
Trace stood up in the breakfast nook. “I bet you would look good with a clothes pin on your nose to quiet things down.”
“Sit down and eat the breakfast your mother made, Trace.” Their father gulped the last of his coffee, kissed his wife and left.
“I’ll get you better ear plugs–mine work for me,” Mother said.
“Hadley got that from his father.” She smiled as if it was something to snicker over together.
“Yeah, it’s just in the family, like your fat toes,” Hadley said, his mouth full of oatmeal.
“Not for long,” Trace muttered. He kicked his brother for good measure and Hadley flipped a spoonful from his bowl at him when their mother wasn’t looking.
But the earplugs bothered him. He slept on the couch in the TV room more often than not the last couple years in school. He had to get more rest. He wanted to ace his classes so he’d snag a couple scholarships. And he did. Then on to University of Michigan and a couple advanced degrees in international economics and public policy.
He built a life in Alexandria, Virginia; he had friends and a potential fiancée and a job he hadn’t even dreamed of getting by thirty-five. If he wasn’t actually happy, that was irrelevant. Life wasn’t much about creating happiness; it was about making a living, a contribution to society, and making a refuge, a home. That’s what he told himself and it worked, usually. Everybody he knew was too busy to think about feelings.
But once here in Portland he felt like himself, okay, if also a little like he had back home in Michigan. Waiting for his little brother to show up. Waiting to see how much of the truth he might see. Waiting to take in Hadley’s–Morrie’s–face, if it was gaunt and slack and grey or fuller, a little color lighting it up, his eyes clearer.
It had been four years since they had seen each other. There had been phone calls, sure, mostly from his brother to him because Morrie didn’t always have a phone or there was another new number. Or he was travelling again, on a tour with another band.
“What does travelling have to do with it? Give me your number so I can reach you for a change.”
Morrie never had given him a number that didn’t get disconnected. Then, the last year, the calls trickled down to two. The third one Trace made, using the last known number and his brother had answered right away. Trace was coming into town for a presentation he was making at a conference. He’d hoped they could meet up.
It was a half hour past the agreed upon time. It was so damp here, the air thick with wet and coldness gusting around aged, thick-bodied trees. Morrie had said on the south side of the pond, middle bench. His stomach was jumpy; he should have eaten at the hotel first. He paced the earth in front of the duck pond when his vision caught a blue heron that had just taken off for a treetop. It perched on the top of a tall stumpy branch and surveyed its kingdom. The grey-blue feathers were almost cheerful against the mass of green foliage and grey sky. He felt his shoulders loosen and let down, his chest expand.
A branch stirred behind him and he swung around.
Morrie moved off the pathway and down the hill toward him with a quick flash of teeth that served as a smile, his walk a rhythmic shuffle, hands plunged in his jeans pockets. He wore a dark hoodie and he pushed the hood back so his bright blonde hair–had he lightened it or added something?– fell out and around his shoulders. Trace waited, checked his brother for signs of anything alarming–he looked pale but it was winter, after all–then met him halfway. They embraced, gave a firm squeeze, released each other.
“Whoa, Trace, here you are and here I am–isn’t it surprising? How long has it been since we could hang out, face to face?”
“I was thinking it was that four years ago at the parents’, right? ”
“And that wasn’t an easy visit.”
Trace watched the heron’s wings lift and resettle. “No, dad was pretty sick from chemo. But he’s good now. I was there last summer for a couple days on my way to somewhere else.”
“That’s the way we tend to do it, bro, here one day, somewhere else the next.”
They stood there looking at the water, the green reflections, the ripples the ducks startled in the water, the sounds of runners going by above them. Trace sat down on the bench and Morrie followed.
“I used to come here all the time. Before I got clean.”
“You’re telling me you’re clean and sober?” Something in him fought to believe despite not wanting to get his hopes up.
Morrie put his arm around the back of the bench and looked at him. “Well, no more Oxy or heroin, if that’s what you mean. I feel like drinking at times, not often, though.”
“I see, well, that’s something. ” He took the news in and it tried to find a firm spot to settle. “That’s incredibly good news. Wow.” He took another moist cool breath. “I guess alcohol should be off limits.”
“Yeah, true. Thought I’d get that all out of the way, though. I don’t want you to make up things about me based on how I look or what I don’t say or who I’m hanging with. I’m still in a band but it’s different now.”
“How so? Last I knew it was indie rock or was it punk? Well, good, you still playing guitar?”
“Sure. But I’m playing acoustic sometimes. With a couple other guys and a girl.” He laughed softly. “Woman, I should say.”
Two ducks squabbled, then separated and circled back, warily, then seemed better at ease. It wasn’t lost on trace, their activity. He followed the group as they swan this way and that, then disappeared behind a branch that dipped close to the water.
“What about you, Trace? Still slogging away at that public policy think tank? Overseeing meetings with some movers and shakers in DC?”
The way he said it held that old ring of derision but Trace ignored it. “Yep, and more into it each year. It’s a good place for me to be. I’ll likely settle in there. I mean, I bought the house, so you could say I finally set down roots.”
“Right, I liked the picture you showed me awhile back. Me, too, brother.” He picked up a twig and wove it in his fingers.”I got a place with someone. It’s really nice. Now I come back from touring and know I have spot to call my own, well, a shared spot with a roommate, but still. Not like how it was last winter…”
Morrie snapped the twig in his fingers. Trace knew better than to recount the history of the last place, that house with at least ten people in it. That ended being the scene of too many illegal activities and Morrie getting out just in time, only to live on the street for three weeks until Trace sent him money and he found a small room in a boarding house week-to-week. Lasted awhile.
“You saved my ass so often, Trace, can’t thank you enough.”
“I suspect you saved your own this time, finally getting off the dope…it’s all good…”
“That was after the streets, that rat-shared room and being thrown out of the band. That was before meeting some new people and trying it clean. Damn, that was some scary crap, I have to tell you, not at all what I thought, far worse in some ways. Never been so sick in my life. But I don’t even mean the hellish withdrawal, that does have an end. I mean just trying to live without that maintenance dose to feel normal. For awhile I thought I was going to have to kill myself just to get through it all.”
He turned to Trace, saw his sallow, angular face stricken, the too-long suffering darkening his wide eyes. For a second Trace couldn’t make out anyone different than the addict he had known the last ten years. Then Morrie blinked a couple times and the irises brightened to a spring morning blue. A little bloodshot but focused. His gaze almost foreign, it was so unguarded.
“What do you mean by that awful statement? Is that why you didn’t call me all those months?” He tried to take everything in but he felt a little off balance sitting next to his altered brother by a cold duck pond in the Northwest. Disoriented by all the new information. Or jet lag or both. What did his brother intend by sharing all this, anyway?
“Hey, you just wouldn’t get it. I mean, the worst you’ve known has been a morning hangover that kept you in bed an extra hour! No reason to try to explain it, no point in it, it was being crazed and at loose ends, and stumbling around an abandoned brain all day and night. I was lucky to have my music, you know that’s true, it’s music that gets me through when all else fails. No, man, no point in all the gory details then or now. I figured I just had to see how things went before I talked to you.”
Anger started to drown the relief Trace had first felt wash over him. He sat forward, hands gripping his knees as he looked back at Morrie.
“Wait, you just told me you almost killed yourself, is that right? And you didn’t bother to call me to let me know you were that bad? What if you had gone through with that and I never knew? Didn’t we make an agreement, that you would get in touch with me if you ever–”
Morrie stood and ran his hands over his face, then looked out at the pond where three ducks were flying in for a smooth landing and the heron now stood motionless.
“You mean I’m to call you every time I have a bad time of it? Even when I feel like curling up in a dark corner, the end. That’s not how it works. If I had told you even a tenth of the times I felt like checking out, if you really knew how bad it was to wake up with my guts heaving, feeling desperate, so lost…If you knew how it was to need something so bad even when you know, too, it will mangle and spit you out one day, that very need– that the monster desire has taken all that mattered and twisted it into something grotesque! No, Trace, I didn’t call you all the times I needed money for another fix, a handful of pills, another night in a motel, food after days with nothing. I didn’t call because I was ashamed, Trace, I’m still ashamed, I have been so sick of myself. The wreck of my life, it’s accumulated so long and deep!” He squeezed back tears. “Because I knew I had to make another decision. No one else can change my life, man. Not even my saner, smarter big brother who always tries to save me from myself…no, Trace, no more of that. I’ve had to get through it a minute at a time, and finally face my sorry soul alone.” Morrie’s face crumpled and he turned away. He shook his fine, blonde head. “Well, there’s time for more true confessions later. Much later…I’m okay, just trying to fit the pieces together.”
Trace felt helplessness gang up on him, that familiar burden so reminiscent of fear, like he was gulping for air and there wasn’t enough of it or maybe he was getting too much oxygen this time. He focused on the pond. The heron grooming its wing from a spot on a log, a turtle sunning beside it. Sunlight had warmed the damp air enough that Trace no longer felt shivery. Morrie was standing so winter’s thin light shone through his blonde hair, giving him a faint aura. He seemed so frail at first, but then Trace found strength in how his brother squared his shoulders, the way his feet were set apart, his head held up rather than dropping down. Not the crazy rebel he had always been but a man who knew what he wanted and needed to do. And then he looked at Trace. His eyes were quiet and almost soft. Vulnerable. How could he bear to let his brother try to get by all alone? Trace got up and stood alongside him.
“I’m sorry for what I know and I don’t know. I felt I had to step in all the time; I have been afraid for you, all of us have been. But now you say you can figure it out. I want to believe this.”
“I know it’s been hard on you. I’m so more than sorry…But I’ll get it a little at a time.”
The heron waded into the pond on its long stick legs and poked its bill in the brackish water. It was so easy, how it moved, and patient as it stood erect and observed. It’s elegance was marked by the assuredness of instinct.
“I’m just so relieved you’re done with it.”
“At least for today. You know, being here is good after all, just seeing my old friend. The heron. He used to keep me company all the times I got loaded in the restroom over there and sat here nodding out. I always felt is the beautiful ole heron was still here, I’d make it another day.”
“Huh…” He nearly shuddered–imagining his brother sitting here, eyelids half-closed, chin to chest, the indifferent–or was he? Did it matter to nature what we did?–heron wading, watching, continuing on its way.
A swooping whistle pierced the air and set the ducks to gabbling. The heron lifted its small head. Morrie whistled back and down the hill flew a woman in a bright purple long coat, a yellow and white scarf flying behind her as she ran, her short black hair a bouncing mass of curls.
She nearly crashed into them, full of laughter, threw back her head so her long white neck was exposed to Morrie’s quick kiss, then caught her breath. She thrust her hand out to Trace who took it, stunned.
“I’m Natalie–I just got off work at the bookstore–and you must be Trace’s big brother!”
“That I am.” Her hand was small, firm and toasty in his dry, cold one. Everything about her threw off sparks of warmth, her eyes dancing as she turned back to Morrie.
“This is the woman I mentioned earlier, from our new band. Natalie sings like a mad dream and plays mandolin like a beautiful pro.”
“And your brother has some skills of his own, but you knew that, right?” She patted his arm, then put hers through it. “So where are we headed now? Want to go back to our apartment?”
“I think he wants to head back to his hotel soon, Nat.” He nodded at Trace. “But our place is about five blocks over.”
“We could get Thai take-out, I’m so hungry!”
“What do you say, Trace?” He studied him as if he’d just realized he was really there with him, not two feet away, and they still had so much to catch up about. Time was slipping away as they stood there.
There was a sudden flapping of wings, a long, slow beating against the air, and the heron lifted up, up into the sodden sky, the last of blue feathers enveloped by layers of clouds. Trace wondered where he had gone, if he would return soon. For Morrie. For all seeking solace.
And Morrie swung his arm around his brother but Natalie squeezed in between them, putting her hands about their waists. It surprised him, how well they fit together, how easy it felt.
Trace savored the warmth they shared. “I have to tell you, I’m so glad to be here. Let’s go eat good food. You can play me your music and I’d be grateful for every moment.”
“Amen, brother,” Morrie said.
“Amen,” Trace echoed more to himself than to anyone else. And the sound of it shook him up and turned him over.
Natalie ran up the hill, her scarf a bright streak threading about the shady trees, and they followed her. Trace could almost taste his brother’s happiness, the sweetness of it like a chemical thing, a molecule of joy added to the air and he wanted some of that, he needed to know so much more about just that, alone.