He recalls his brother used to walk the rocks
in bare feet, leg muscles bunched and
hair long and loose, head tilted up to sky.
Heavens were unbearably far, earth a burden.
They made a fifteen year journey from
childhood to adult but it seemed beyond time,
was their time, separate from the slow footed pack.
No one dared deny the larger stories,
how his brother could fish with his hands,
call fox from its den and elk from the
shadows, conjured from perfection into fields,
alert yet perplexed. And girls in his dreams
whispered apologies for not finding him sooner.
Many people followed him into morning, past dusk.
Or this is what was believed and some say
imagined, but they didn’t know all. How he
investigated variables, lived outer limits,
puzzled out planetary maps and knew the arc
of a symphony of stars. It was trying to
be the younger, to desire a man’s wisdom,
be radiant as moonlight and tough as hide.
Stop desiring, big brother showed and said, just live it, meaning do a thing, don’t pine
for it so now this is what second brother does.
Those days are half-erased when they both
would sling rocks and drop secrets
into undertow of the aged, roiling river.
He, the one left, walks rocks, runs fishing boats.
But his brother went up mountain to build a
hideaway between salmon bones and bear claws,
has turned contemptuous of gravity’s ties.
But he is no longer innocent of loss, for
he has abandoned his only brother, left the scene,
gone so far that smoke signals no longer rise and speak.
More than anything–despite the security of his high paid job, despite many rewards he had labored long and hard to gain–Ward secretly wanted to be a poet. Or, if he was honest with himself, still wanted to be, as it was not a new inclination, nor a whimsy that came and went. The dream had remained like a watchful dog sitting in a corner of the attic. That’s how he thought of it, of that life: the slanted walls, a view of the river Harlequin, the old desk made by his grandfather snug against the slant of the southwest wall. It wasn’t all fully his. If it was, he’d be there now, or at the least whenever he could take off a few days now and then. But it was the family place, owned by his two brothers, Randy and Owen, and himself. But when you got down to it, they were the ones the place belonged to as they were the overseers and regular week-end inhabitants. He got there once a year at best, so far from his life was every bit of that. In miles and in culture for twenty-five years.
Ward was the oldest so he might have been the one to get all one hundred fifty acres and the cabin. Their grandfather had passed on the horse farm, all that verdant rolling land, to their father where he still lorded over the successful stables and breeding business.
Grandpa Greer had informed them of some of the will’s contents the night before he slipped away.
“You now.” His thin, deeply veined hand rose a half-inch off the ancient quilt. A finger beckoned toward Ward. “You’ll share the cabin with your brothers. But you’ll get your own Harlequin acreage. Where we liked to fish…you’ll know what to do with it, son.”
The wrinkled, age-spotted old man had tried a smile, chin quivering, eyes lit up for an instant before shuttering. Ward took his weightless hand though it made him anxious, the terrible frailty of aging and impending death.
He later wondered what Grandpa Greer meant but for a long while it felt enough to enjoy reminiscing about the place. The fishing they’d all done. How they might stand at the Harlequin’s banks on a clear blue and yellow day, raising and spreading their arms to open sky like wings. Freedom, Grandpa often told Ward, is what you find when you stop all the ruses and the running. You’ll get there.
He’d frankly acknowledged that Ward was the one who had to strive harder, keep the family name flying high.
“You have to jump on that treadmill of life, spit blood and sweat until you make a big splash, Ward. You got born first with more sense and brain power so you have to do more. It’s the way of things. But you can’t take one thing for granted in this life and you have to give back. Those are two rules. We’ll talk about the others later, alright? Get to it, boy.”
So he’d become a corporate attorney as planned from days of middle school. Like his father, only his father was a divorce attorney who had married three times. Now on his fourth. At least the latest stepmother knew about horses and made his father laugh. Unlike his father, Ward became high-profile and also had had only one wife. Now an ex-wife. His father called up when he heard of the proceedings.
“Well, I’m sorry, but Merrill was not much good at the game. Now you’re let loose, I guess. Need any legal advice?”
Ward considered his response. He knew Merrill never took to the lifestyle or that endless entertaining. She had chafed until she pulled away from him. He hadn’t been watchful enough; he’d found her reprimands too sharp. But he didn’t see a divorce as the grand open gate that guaranteed freedom. He still reeled from it after a year. “I’ll have more time and space. Yes, for more work, I’m sure. No, I don’t need your counsel, thanks.”
“Time to loosen up, son. We should get together at the cabin soon, relax as so damned well deserved.”
And then he’d laughed with anticipatory pleasure, like it was a great victory for Ward, as if the men in the family would get together and engage in a manly celebration dance around an open fire, spears in hands, puncturing the skies with guttural roars. He could imagine his father, Randy and Owen having at it while he slunk back into the darkness, headed toward the river. It hadn’t happened, not then. Randy, his youngest brother, was busy with his fledgling dentistry practice, Owen with his cheese/wine/chocolate stores. They managed to go there every couple of months, but Ward was in Seattle. A long way from southeastern Pennsylvania.
And now he found himself at a city park’s pond more often than not on a week-end, book in hand. It was a four block walk from his place. It did him good to be a bit reckless with time even as the tug of work was always nattering at his shoulders.
He brushed something with wings off his shoulder and watched the ducks paddling on the water in easy unity. He could count on those ducks being there and doing that. It was the first warmish day in over two months; the air was a caress on skin rather than a slap. He put his book aside, pulled from his jacket pocket a small black notebook along, a mechanical pencil snug in its small loop. His hand, pencil held aloft, hovered above white blankness, then fell upon it with trembling.
If power of dreaming wins, I’ll take to that intimate river and let the water roil, carry me gasping to distant rims of earth, submerge me in heart-deep currents until I rise, float, grow sharp fins of light.
He read them, erased a few words, realigned things, uncrossed his legs. Leaned forward to write more. Put a big space between last line and the next. But it felt a new poem and a much harder thing.
Can you ever love me this way, as much falls away? Can you even find me in iridescent undercurrents, amid sly, dangerous waters that return me a different man to banks of a forgotten ravine?
A dog barked, then two more got into it and Ward set down the notebook with pencil. His eyes stung in richly exposing sunlight. What did he really mean by giving voice to such strange feelings? He didn’t know but kept at it, the last few months measured by work hours but, increasingly, also poetry time. He told no one, shared nothing. All Ward knew was he wanted to do this, had to write these things and he didn’t know if they made sense, if they were worth the time, if he should feel embarrassed anxiety more than the happiness. He just set each word down like a marker along a precipice he traversed alone. He was trying to make his way without falling prey to disparate elements, to superfluous demands, to the enveloping disappointment and hurt. And so he accepted any help his beleaguered mind and soul could bring him.
A few months ago he’d stayed awake until the frail light of day seeped into night’s hollows. Not so unusual, anymore. But it wasn’t work nagging at him. His now ex-wife and forever daughter–Merrill and Kelsey–haunted him most empty minutes. Yet not that night. He’d heard rumbling traffic beyond the partly cracked window; heard a homeless woman muttering to herself while she searched through trash; heard peevish cats yowl below his new city condo. He had once looked out and caught a glimpse of a coyote in an alert pause and this had frozen him in a thrill of discovery for one long second.
But that night Ward just lay with eyes half-closed, then began to hear words. They rose up like musical notes, lithe and bright, as if a windfall of rain had blown across the parched expanse of his brain and left lush vegetation. Things began inhabiting the wild trees and secretive undergrowth and they crept out and spoke to him as if he was the one they were waiting for, so he listened. The more interested he was, the faster they arrived, those creeping and leaping words, and he rummaged for an old law magazine in his night stand and wrote them down along the curled edges of pages, feverish.
When the alarm went off, after a fast shower, he studied them as he sipped coffee and was horrified. It barely made any sense and he attributed it all to crazy effects of sleeplessness, the roaming magnet of his mind picking up useless syllables and depositing them into a half-consciousness. But this didn’t stop him from being open to more of the same. In time things straightened themselves out a bit. The phrases were better held together by greater connectivity of poetic thought.
In the daytime, smooth tailor-made suits carried his body and his will carried his active mind; he allowed himself to be overtaken by rigors of his profession as required. He excelled as usual, pushed through it all. And then at end of day he looked for more words to harvest that didn’t buy or sell, divest or ruin or reconfigure lives and lesser assets, although this was what he did and it was nothing more or less than that. Still, he waited for poetry as if for a shy lover, his very being leaning into the ether that might hold a phrase that could make a bridge over the grit and sweat and tarnish of the world and into a soon familiar other land, that place of wonders.
“Ward, are you doing alright?” his assistant Sandy asked once a week at least. “You seem tired out. Distracted.”
“Divorce has a way of draining the energy from you but yes, I’m okay, thanks.”
“How about a few drinks after the meeting? You need to get out there again, get to it, man, come on!” Terrance from across the hall demanded this for weeks.
Ward noticed people were trying to engage him more personally, as if he was a bit feeble and in the throes of mourning and in need of dauntless encouragement. They wanted to share sly asides about liberation from the heavy yoke of marriage. It got on his nerves. He refilled his coffee cup as everyone else was otherwise engaged and just smiled wanly at the few co-workers who actually meant something to him.
“What’s going on?” His brother, Owen, asked when he called out of the blue. “You haven’t said a thing since…since you two broke up. How’s Kelsey doing?”
“Well, you know, she’s really busy with soccer and friends and school. Okay, I think.”
“You had better take some time off, huh? Come out to the cabin. Really relax. We can have a family reunion of sorts, what do you say? How about soon?”
Ward looked out at the dregs of slush from a freak early March snowfall. Puget Sound looked icy-grey, mostly empty of activity. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
He kept writing on Saturday or Sunday mornings, sometimes off and on all week-end and except for house chores and a movie here and there with friends plus a couple of drinks, did little else. Ward bought ordinary notebooks on sale and kept pencils handy, ink pens freshly filled and at the ready. And when he walked around his neighborhood or elsewhere he let his barriers down so in flowed that new friendliness of language, its fast or slow meandering a balm, its unadorned frankness a relief. How had he forgotten what he had wanted all those years ago? To be a poet. To let magic flow with its wealth of stimuli, and generous evocations come forward so his world changed on the turn of a simple word, and then a tide of truth and fiction that no one else might decipher opened in him such locked places he was overcome at times by tears. Yes, tears. His ex-wife, his daughter, would not believe such things.
He felt humbled.
The nights, too, continued to shine darkly and sweetly with poetry that sang to him, angels and sirens. They were generous, faithful, without judgment. Full of transformative possibilities.
“I can’t believe you came,” his brother, Randy, said as he parked the car by the cabin. “It seems ages since the brothers have gotten together. And maybe Dad will get away. It’s been three years now, right?”
“It has.” Ward hoisted his bag out of the back seat. He turned in a slow semi-circle to take in the green, familiar scene. Spring time in Pennsylvania.
Randy unlocked the cabin and they entered. Ward pulled open curtains on two sets of windows as Randy took a small bag to his own room. The spacious, open, pine dominated space was musty but neat, the kitchen at back was cramped and out of style. He smiled, ran upstairs to the attic space. To the left were two bedrooms. Straight ahead was the attic room he had tried to reconfigure in his memory for so long. He pushed ajar the door. Pale light thick with agitated dust motes met his entry. There were no curtains on the square windows, only dirty wood blinds half-raised. He wrenched them open to let in a waft of cool air. The built-in desk and bookshelves were homely, mostly devoid of magazines and sturdy volumes.
Ward sat down at the desk. Below, through a thicket of budding bushes and trees, he could see the Harlequin River and hear its voice in its rush of lightness and unruliness. It calmed him now as he heard Randy talk on his phone to Owen or their father. A wave of unease intruded as his brother’s voice rose in an attack of laughter, a blade through the air. Randy, the hunter, the warrior. The youngest who fought for everything. Owen had a different sensibility, finer-tuned, quieter. Owen had convinced him to come. But Owen–no one–knew that Ward already had a plan, that he had looked already at plane fares, that he knew what he wanted to happen.
And here they all soon would meet. Gathering into a circle around that primordial fire, sharing beers, swapping stories and entering strongholds of memories.
It had gone well. Everyone was relaxed after two days, felt more reconnected to the land they loved and were more pleased with each other and themselves than expected. They had taken the rowboat and then canoes onto Weller’s Pond and they’d fished for catfish and bass with some small success. Their father had arrived for the last day–he had had an emergency with a prized horse and missed most of the fun–and now they were walking along the Harlequin, talking from time to time.
“It’s so good to have my boys together again!” He was chewing on a drooping piece of wild grass and it bobbed up and down beneath his spare white mustache as he spoke. “We’re coming up to it now, Ward, remember?”
He naturally remembered. This was the swath he had inherited and it was the same one he’d many times enjoyed with Grandpa Greer and others. There were groupings of old silver maple, sycamore and river birches he’d long admired. The river ran slower up here north of the cabin; it was wider and deeper, curved a bit. Behind them was a graceful open meadow, then a good-sized hill which offered higher ground, safe from water breaching the riverbanks as it was likely to do now and again.
“Any reflections to offer?” Owen asked. “I know you and Grandpa Greer loved this area. Me, too. After you took off for college five years ahead of me, I found myself traipsing about with him and Dad more.”
“I’m happy, relieved to be back, for sure.”
He walked to river’s edge and squatted, looked more closely at rocks and sodden earth, swirling patterns of greenish brown water. He stood again and strecthed and was suddenly aware of his six foot two inches which originated from their deceased mother’s side of family. His brothers looked healthy, ruddy cheeked with thickly auburn haired but they were weedy, he thought with a chuckle, slighter of build. Ward felt like he towered over them and wondered if it had always been so. Even his father looked smaller than he recalled a few short years ago. They looked at him in expectation, as if he was about to say something about the past that would draw them together even more, bridge their various ages, gaps in connection, and old pesky slights. But he didn’t want to just pull out stories as they had at a bonfire the night before. So he said nothing for a bit.
The brothers and their father murmured among themselves, recollecting good times, glancing over their shoulders at Ward as they jostled each other, and wondered if he was just depressed about the divorce or if there was something else. He had always been a little apart somehow, less free with thoughts yet forceful when ready to talk.
And he studied again the ebb and flow of the river, felt how it was ever made new with rain water and snow melt, how it brought along creatures small and larger, how it eroded and rebuilt common domains of dirt. Ward breathed deeply of it, the potent fertility of plant, air, water, mineral, animal.
“I’m coming back,” he said as he turned to face them. “I’m giving notice when I get back and moving here. I’m going to build a house on the hill”-he pointed at the mound of earth beyond-“and I’m going to do something different with my life.”
The brother stepped closer to one another, as if seeking refuge from such odd words. Their father stepped forward, hands opening wide.
“You mean here, you’re building here? We have a great family cabin already. You can use it any time, you know that. And what do you mean by ‘giving notice’?”
“I’m quitting the firm. I have other ideas to implement. Building my own house is one of them.”
Owen stirred, eyes lively. “Okay, then what’s next?”
“I’m going to write.”
Randy gave a low nervous twitter.
“Alright, tell us more,” Owen said cautiously.
“Write? You are a lawyer, not a writer…” Their father stood with feet apart, arms crossed before his chest. “I’m sure you’re good with language–but write what? A memoir or something? Oh, wait, a legal thriller, maybe? That makes sense, I guess. And it’s your land, this piece, anyway… But what about Kelsey?”
Ward took his place in a reformed circle. “She’s off to college in the fall, remember? I’ll see her, you can count on that.” He put one arm around Owen’s shoulders, the other about Randy’s. “I feel like a change is necessary. Look, I’m fifty-four. I can leave the field and be okay. I can return if needed, if it doesn’t work out. But I already have contacted a builder and an architect. I have ideas for the design. It won’t mess with our…my… land. Don’t worry. And I want to be closer to family. And I really love to write.”
They exchanged exclamations and ideas as they started back to the cabin. For the most part, the mood was buoyant. Ward believed it could really happen, at last.
Owen pulled him aside as Randy and their father kept on.
“Okay, Ward, what’s up? I agree a woman right now is not the answer. And I love the idea of you being near us, I look forward to hanging out more. But what’s really going on?”
Ward gazed at his middle brother long and hard. “I. Am. Going. To write. In fact, already am.”
Owen seemed to weave a little as he squinted in the sunshine and then Ward’s hand shot out to grasp his shoulder.
“Poetry, ” his brother repeated, stood up taller and gave a moment of consideration to the possibility his brother had not lost his mind, after all. “Like you talked of doing as a kid, if I recall.”
“Yes.” His hand slipped off Owen’s shoulder as they began to walk again.
Owen took a chest expanding breath and let it out in a soft whistle. “Wow. Alright then. Write your poems. I’ll stand by that. And they will, too, I think.”
They caught up with Randy and their father. Ward thought the afternoon exceptional, the river music perfectly pitched, trees casting just the right gradations of shade along the path they made. He barely restrained himself from running up to the attic room desk, from diving into a poem that was coming forward with easy urgency, a fine new gift from that ancient, fecund land and from his reawakening mind and soul. And when all was said and done, in no small measure, from family.
“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.
There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.
The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.
“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”
“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”
“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.
“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”
“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”
“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”
She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.
This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.
He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”
Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.
He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.
“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”
She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.
“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.
She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.
He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.
Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”
“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”
She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.
With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.
Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.
“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.
“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”
“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”
Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”
“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”
Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.
“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”
She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.
He should have never come here, not yet, but his brother’s last words were “Meet Allen Z. at Tip’s.” And he didn’t want to dishonor Len, two years younger. Now gone. But it gave him the creeps. This was the epitome of the sort of place Len frequented, smart in a moderately chic way, crowded with bodies and words, chairs surrounding each table so people kept attaching themselves to conversations. Too many suits for Rudy. It had been hard to find a spot where he could wait undisturbed. He’d had to put his backpack on a chair across from him and his foot on another. Still, a man built like a cement block had put his hand on a chair back, eyebrows raised, as if he was sure of this seat with or without permission. He backed away after a pronounced glare.
He’d arrived before the lunch crowd poured in so he’d ordered and consumed a BLT sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. Len and he had met here once every couple of months when Len was about started college and Rudy had been moved to full-time at the Rialto Theater. Still, it was Len who could afford the salmon salad. He had money coming in from their great-uncle, whose vote of confidence was so great he’d long ago set aside money for his charming, studious great-nephew’s education.
Everyone knew that was right. Rudy didn’t think much about it until he couldn’t get a job following high school. He sweated it out in the basement rec rom at the parents’ and Len sympathized as he scored the honors’ list again. Rudy wished he’d had both the flair and committment to academics his brother did. But it was a short-lived sulk. The job at the New Rialto Theatre was one he’d coveted since he was a kid. It was perfect hours (late afternoon til one a.m.); it showed independent and old movies and hosted other kinds of performances; and it afforded him a good look at Lucy now and then. He had yet to find the temerity to speak to her. It was just as well. She looked the other way when she saw him. If only Len could tell him what to do about that.
“I’d say wait for her after her shift and offer to view an ole Lauren and Humphrey, then have a chat over a microbeer. Or exotic coffee. Dazzle her with film trivia. She’ll love it.”
“Good idea. I think. She’s so smart, I’ll probably put her to sleep with my little movie anecdotes.”
Rudy put his hand to his mouth. Had he been speaking aloud? That was happening lately. He mostly knew Len was gone, but he found himself talking with him, both in his head and as if he was there. How long would it take for that to stop? Six more months? Or maybe this would all be straightened out and Len would be back.
A sputtering laugh startled him. He looked around. A businessman was blowing smoke rings and his table mate was jowl-deep in the roast beef special. Rudy studied the front door as it opened and closed, finishing the dregs of cold coffee. He shivered. The air conditioner was blasting despite the forecast of cooler days. Len wore a sweater; he chilled easily. Or, as Len said, he didn’t thaw after March like others, but he did shed the ratty goose down jacket.
Where was this mysterious Allen Z.? The tasteful wall clock indicated he was fifteen minutes late. Allen Z. would be wearing a red shirt and black pants so Rudy wouldn’t miss him. But who would notice if he slipped in and out with all those people blocking the light from windows and doorway? The loudest people attracted attention but only momentarily. It was the ordinary, silent ones who needed watching. Rudy knew that from years of being one. No one was so observant as he because no one paid much attention to him. He could absorb a lot in a short time just by being still. And he knew much about fascinating things, including people, he liked to think.
Len told Rudy he had to have been a cat in his last life, quick and good at sneaking around. Len put him up to things even though he was the younger one, like getting him to bring up the carton of ice cream to their room when his mother was finishing laundry right by the kitchen. Or stealing the bourbon bottle from the cabinet behind his father as he read the newspaper in his easy chair. There was the one double date they had that ended up with Rudy being nearly charged with trespassing. He’d been sent ahead to scout out the lay of the land behind a mansion on Lake Road. Len had planned a take-out picnic at midnight by the big pond behind the estate. Instead, they were sighted anyway, the cops were called and Rudy was the last to roll down the hill, smack into a flashlight’s glare. After that, Rudy taught Len how to do the slinking around, passing for a shadow. It was a relief to be done with such games.
Rudy absolutely wanted to leave now. The call had been made to Allen Z. after everything happened, then quieted down. Rudy had not been in a hurry. It was so overwhelming when Len vanished after his car accident that Rudy half-forgot about the name and number jammed in his jeans pocket. Detectives had found no decent leads and time dragged on. After Rudy woke up from the shock of it all, it finally occurred to him that the stranger might know something useful.
The voice that answered was refined and smooth as fine leather, as if he was expecting a pricey client on the other end.
“Allen Z. here. And to whom am I speaking?”
“Well, Mr. Janus, good of you to finally call. I’ll meet you at Tip’s tomorrow at one o’clock.”
“It’ll be lunch rush. Couldn’t we meet somewhere else?”
“Not at all, it’s perfect, busy is good, they have excellent espresso if in fact I’ve slid right into an early slump. Which happens more often than not after noon.”
“But it was one of Len’s favorites and…”
“Yes.” Allen Z. paused a split second. “See you at one unless I’m delayed for some reason or another. Then I’ll get back to you eventually. I’ll be in a good red shirt, black slacks.”
It seemed impossible that Rudy didn’t know the person he was to meet any minute. He knew most of Len’s friends. Well, until the past year when his little brother made himself scarce. Their mother had often tried to send him to Len’s place to check on things, see if he was okay. Which he was, or appeared to be, when he was around. He was just immersed in another paper or the latest girlfriend. And why did everyone keep track of him when he had been on his own awhile now– just like Rudy? When Rudy said he only wanted a good dinner out of him, he chuckled. They ate well that night and talked just like old times. But that was rare.
Then Len was in a three car accident, was in the hospital with a bad concussion, deep lacerations, bruised ribs. They were observing him. And one night he disappeared.
Rudy rubbed his eyes.
“Mr. Janus, I suspect?”
The speaker held out a long-fingered hand. His back was to the streaming light so it was hard to see his face. Rudy stood and took the man’s palm hesitantly. The so-called red shirt was a muted wine color, the pants charcoal and expensively-tailored. They sat.
Allen Z. had the clearest, lightest blue eyes Rudy had ever seen, and the effect of looking at them too long was that of staring at a bright twilight sky or pristine pond: mesmerizing. He didn’t like them, or his silky shirt and beautiful slacks. Something was off. The man wasn’t Len’s type of friend, was at least ten years older. Something else bothered him that he couldn’t name. He looked down to break the spell, then up again.
“Allen–what’s up with the Z.?–whoever you are, we’re meeting because Len told me to call you. I’d like to know why. Skip the bull.”
“Neither are you who I was expecting–a surprise.” He waved the waiter over, told him to bring espresso. “It’s simple. I’m giving you money for him and clearing up a few things. He asked for this and because he’s a good one, rising fast when he isn’t put on hold, I’m sharing minor information. I always have discretionary powers.”
“‘Oh hold’? What does that mean…Are you some lawyer?”
He laughed from belly-up. “That’s rich!” He smoothed his pale mustache which Rudy found to be a poor excuse for hair growth. “Hardly. I’m his boss, but we are better described as associates.”
“I didn’t know he was in business.”
“What sort of business?”
“Objects d’art, truth be told.”
“Like paintings and such? Fine art?”
Allen Z. gazed at him, then nodded at the waiter who put down the white espresso cup and saucer.
“How? Tell me. And where he is!”
“He has a talent for finding art, shall we say. He finds it for me. Rather, for my clients.”
Rudy sat back. “He has gone to auctions, prowled antiques shops or what? How did he get this odd, unknown talent you speak about? He likes art but he doesn’t make it a priority. I’d be surprised if he could tell the difference between a Van Gogh and a Picasso. That’s more up my alley. I love the stuff, the older the better, the rarer the better.”
“You’re a wonder to behold. Len informed me of your interest before he left.”
Rudy sat forward and grabbed the man’s sleeve, hissed into his face.
“Left for where? Is he in trouble? And are we talking black market here, illegal activities, is that it, Z.?”
Allen Z. pulled his arm back slowly, beamed those eyes on him, then placed folded hands on the table between them. He leaned into Rudy’s space.
“Quiet now. You need to listen well. Your brother is quick of mind and hand, can access places no one else has, can perform a risk assessment before cameras know he’s there and then he brings back treasures. But he made a grave error. Now he has to do business elsewhere a few months, perhaps longer. He’s on a private research trip, let’s say. Just keep you mouth shut as Len said you would or there will be other matters for you to deal with. In the meantime, he wanted me to give you this.”
A medium sized, brown leather, zippered pouch was slid across the table. Rudy felt fear like a knife blade sliding down his back. He should get up and leave now. His brother couldn’t know this man. But there were the worn, gold stamped initials of “LJ” on the bag he had gotten for graduation from high school. “For incidentals” his mother had said and Len had used it ever since for one thing or another. Rudy fingered it, took a good breath and opened it.
Inside was something wrapped in paper, he thought, then, no, he pulled it out just enough to get a look. Crisp bills. Lots of them. He put them back in, zippered it shut, sent it back over to Allen Z.
“It is now. I don’t mix with small interests like this. It’s what is left of his trust fund and more. He wants you to have it. He said you ought to finally take Lucy to a good restaurant and if that goes well, to the mountains for a week-end.” He tossed back the espresso and licked his lips clean.
A heaviness came over Rudy. His head buzzed with the crook’s energy or it was fear or the noise of all those people eating and talking, making things complicated for each other. Why didn’t Len just call him from wherever he was? How could he know for sure this was the truth, at all? Or if it was money that belonged in the family?
“And he said to give you the temporary cell number, so here it is.” A blank card with two numbers was handed over. The first one was the Allen Z.’s, the crook’s. “I’m off. I have classier conversation to pursue.”
He rose and blocked out the light once more. Then he bent down to Rudy’s ear.
“If you’re ever interested in a job we might be able to use your burgeoning passion for the arts. Time will tell.” He stood tall and placed his hand on Rudy’s shoulder, gave it a rough squeeze, then walked away, leaving behind the scent of expensive cologne that made Rudy cough.
The pouch sat there, waiting. Looking too obvious. He picked it up. Paid his bill. Made his way through the line of customers at the door and into the blinding sunshine. At the corner Rudy held Len’s number up close and dialed it. It rang and rang. No voice mail. And then it was picked up.
“Rudy? That you, bro?” His voice was tinged with the usual huskiness.
“Len! What’s going on? We thought you were dead, maybe! Where are you? This is some insane joke!”
“No joke. Take the money, have fun, put it in savings. I’m okay, just away from the contiguous states. Tell mom I’m okay if you need to. Later, Rudy. We’ll talk again. And be smart.”
And that was it. “Be smart,” as if he meant something more. Rudy was taken over by a swift surge of adrenalin and he walked the streets of the city for a long while, thinking of everything, wondering why, wishing they were kids again, filled with an odd excitement. A twinge of guilt hung on–both of them playing cat in the dark all those years, snatching things. Then dread pounded his chest. Intense curiosity. Sadness. He thought he’d have to scream a little over the freeway, then just sat down, drained.
But he also thought about the room full of old films, some rare, and how he loved them and how others did, too. He would always protect them, that was what mattered to him, right? Then it was back to Len, his gifted brother, an art thief! Ridiculous, yet it made a strange sort of sense, too.
All of it worried him.
He locked away the pouch in a metal box in his apartment. Then he got ready for work, washed his face and changed shirt and tie, took the bus to New Rialto. When he passed her, he didn’t greet Lucy, not yet.
At break time she sauntered over to him, long hair swept up in a topknot this time. He liked seeing more of her.
“You have anything special going on tonight, after work?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Rudy said, leaning back against a wall. “Not one single thing.”