[NOTEBOOK, UNDATED, "THE MATTER OF THE DRUGS"]:
–ANY substance cannot be taken two days concurrently. I will keep it to twice per week, at least to start.
– NONE will be taken during my work (except under certain conditions).
–None before noon or after 9:00 p.m.
– None at the MET . . . don't change that experience.
–Remember, high or not high, there is a time and/or place for everything. It's not an all or nothing thing.
* REMINDER: I know I will look back on this writing with nostalgia and longing and ache. For once, I should enjoy myself while I'm still here.
I begin this story in a funeral home because I once read a Philip Roth novel that begins over a grave. Roth writes of a clenched pack of modern, white-collar American Jews shuffling their feet and talking about a man who died unfinished, and if I had to boil my brother's service down to a sentence, or an image, or just a feeling, that wouldn't be a bad way to describe it. I cannot set my story at a grave, overlooking a body, like Roth did. My brother was put into a temporary plywood box and covered in a blanket, and soon after the service he would be cremated and poured into a plastic bag. He didn't believe in God, had no interest in the traditions of a dignified burial, and, more practically, could not have been buried in a Jewish cemetery with his body intact and a large Iron Cross tattoo still visible on his right shoulder.
The tattoo was an obvious yet somehow vague act of rebellion against all the people who would soon shuffle their feet at his funeral. It came right after the eight-foot boa constrictor that he adopted and named Percy, each an ominous presence, hard to explain, better not to discuss.
Arias that I don't know and Beatles songs that I do know are playing softly because my brother liked these songs. A squat woman with bluish hair and a face like frozen dirt grabs me by the cheeks. She speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent, lots of thudding vowels and no r's.
"You don't remember me, but my name's Shirley Duke and I always told your dad if you were my kid, you'd be Luke Duke," she says.
I nod and she heaves a cackle out, moves along into the crowd.
Shirley Duke will make no more appearances in this story, but she is what I remember best. I remember every word she says, and I am sure of it. The rest I try to recall, but mostly I can't. I fabricate thoughts and actions with images and insights that I wish I had. I build the moment. I assign meaning. Always, through the effort, there is Shirley's face, unimportant yet tauntingly certain.
I move past her to the very back of the room. I lean against the wall behind the folding chairs where people are sitting and talking. I have no interest in talking to anyone. I am thirteen, a good age to feel insignificant. A few feet away from me, also with her back against the wall, is Lena Milam, a newly minted thirtysomething, and between jobs. She is thin and pale. I see her and I think she is pretty in that hidden way, like in a movie before the girl gets a makeover but you can still tell. She's wearing a black silk dress that she overpaid for years ago but, until now, has never had a formal enough occasion to wear.
Lena is weeping, not loudly, thank God. Still, she feels people staring. She doesn't believe that she has earned this amount of emotion. She and my brother had been close for three years, nearly two decades ago. She is crying because someone her age is dead. She is thinking inexact thoughts about how something could have been done to avoid this day, a something that seems to be discussed just as flimsily by the people around her. Like we'll all soon figure out exactly what he needed and then we'll all slap hands to foreheads, saying, How did we miss it?
Lena is standing with Tommy Parker, my brother's best friend when he was alive. Lena and Tommy dated a long time ago. He was the first boy ever to see her naked. She remembers that she was cold that day, and tried to press her arms down on all the parts that should be covered. Neither of them looks very different now. Both are still thin and liquidy pale; both have eyes that make you worry for them. Tommy has a goatee now; he didn't then. He is enjoying the distraction of comforting this woman who he used to inexpertly kiss when she was a girl and he was a boy, an intimacy that, briefly, makes it feel as though no time has passed. Tommy hasn't yet given his condolences to my father, mostly because he's in his debt. A few months ago he asked for a loan to get him on his feet. He's an alcoholic with no job and an ex-wife who won't let him see his daughter if he can't scrounge up alimony. My father always found it easier to pity Tommy than his son. Tommy knows that and wishes he wasn't so aware of his own knowing. In a little over a year from today, he will get drunk and drive into a concrete wall off a highway in Staten Island, with a note of apology in his jacket pocket that mentions my brother's name.
Tommy walks up to me. We've met, but I don't remember it.
"Wow," he says. "You look a lot like your brother now that you're shaving."
This is embarrassing. I haven't yet started to shave, a lateness that is very troubling. Still, the comparison makes my body tense in celebration. Josh, my brother, is the most beautiful person I've ever seen, or he was. I am far too much a middle school boy to admit to myself that men can be beautiful, but, at least subconsciously, that's what I'm thinking about as Tommy speaks: my brother's beauty and what it felt like to look at him.
Behind a fake mahogany lectern at the front of the room stands a man, named Philip Goodman, who will play the emcee for the day. He begins to speak, and the rest of us fall silent. He introduces himself as a close friend of the family, meaning my father's first family, the one he had and lost before I existed. I've never seen Philip before in my life. He looks and sounds like the comedian Ray Romano, who I have an irrational distaste for, but I curb that emotion now. Philip is a good host. He's funny and conversational. He wears black jeans and a black turtleneck, which lets us all know that this is not some stuffy geriatric service, not your father's funeral, man.
Philip is thinking about how he used to babysit the dead guy. He is honing that phrase in his mind, whittling it down. It could make a really good first line of an audition monologue.So, I used to babysit this guy who's dead. Said offhand. Ambiguous, dark, kind of funny. He looks out at all the faces. He's a pro, an actor. More of an acting teacher now. He was onLaw and Order once.
"Josh was a character, man," Philip hears himself saying. The audience nods at him with awed appreciation for taking on this responsibility. He likes it up at the lectern, not just because a seasoned performer knows that any accolades are good accolades, but also because he's the kind of guy who likes to help out. That's the way he always was. He used to sit with Josh on the couch until his parents got home from the movies, a small kindness but still a kindness.
My surviving brother, Dave, watches Philip, a man he loves very much. Dave lives alone and is often lonely; Philip invites him around for dinner once a week, lets him eat and talk until the loneliness doesn't feel so complete, another small kindness. Dave has sleepy eyes and full lips and a nose with a Semitic bulge that used to give him anxiety when he, too, wanted to be an actor. Now he teaches six-year-olds at a public school in Harlem and returns home to GiGi, his cat. It's a routine he likes well enough. Today is the first weekday in a long time that the routine has been broken. He will sleep in my room tonight, with me, the way he used to with Josh. I will ask him questions that he won't answer.
Dave is trying to think of something to say. He looks down at his belly, the belly of a once-skinny man whose metabolism slowed before he had time to notice. Josh got fat, too. Fatter than Dave. All Dave can focus on is how fat his brother got and how, under different circumstances, like both of them being alive, Dave would have teased him for it, and it would have been funny. He wonders how such a huge man in such a huge box will get burned down to fit into a little bag, a light load of laundry. It's like a reverse clown car, a potential joke to open with but probably not the right one. Dave decides to stay silent.
Philip continues his monologue and draws a knowing chuckle from the room. Daniel Chang is impressed by this. Daniel Chang has never performed. He's a perpetual audience member, and he sees no reason to change his role today. Daniel stands in the back, near me. He knew me when I was a baby, and once he took a picture that came out nice of me and Josh sitting on a motorcycle. His red tie is making his neck itch, and, looking at Philip's turtleneck, Daniel is a bit angry that he got dressed up for this. Few things are more annoying than dressing formal and then finding out that formality wasn't even required. He stands with Lena and Tommy. They all know one another pretty well, but Daniel is beginning to seethe at the spectacle of Lena's grief. He glances at her, then away. He keeps his arms crossed and tries to focus on Philip's stories.
Josh was a good guy. That's what Daniel would say if he got up in front of all these people.Hey, I'm Daniel. Me and Josh were pretty close. He was a good guy.
My mother taps me gently on the head as she walks past. She takes long strides on thin legs. I flinch and shrink from her fingers. She's bringing tissues to a woman she's never seen before, standing next to Tommy.
"Here you go," she says, holding the tissues at arm's length.
Lena looks up at her, the other light-eyed, Anglo-Saxon woman in the room, and thanks her.
My mother smiles and feels useful. She casts a glance at me, her only son, and I refuse to meet her eyes. My mother shared no blood with my brother. They had no common interests. Often he found her cold. Often, despite herself, she found him frightening. Their only connection was a man, my father, who loved them both but had loved Josh first. And me. I was a connection, a boy who could easily have been an only child and was instead obsessed with his big brother, begged for him in the moments that he was not there, said the word again and again until it was no longer a novelty—brother, brother, brother, brother.She remembers me running to him on wobbly legs, then feels a stab of guilt for daydreaming of my infancy on this occasion, in this place.
Once, Josh was an infant. A lovely one. Everybody who saw him swore he was so lovely that they couldn't stop looking. They kept returning to look. That's a nice memory that my father and Beth, his ex-wife, share. It is theirs. They've been divorced for a long time and nothing much is theirs anymore, but they are sitting together now, in the very center of the first row, as though every guest has internalized a subconscious, grief-based seating chart and pushed the two parents into the best spots in the house. People keep touching my father's arm and apologizing. His lips are moving because he's imagining what he wants to say the next time someone tells him they're sorry.What exactly are you sorry for? People shouldn't say things if they don't know that they mean them.
Next to my father, Beth shrinks down into the padding of her seat. She's a small woman and has always found it easy to melt into furniture and look out upon a room, undisturbed, just a pair of eyes in the upholstery. She wants to say something but is certain that it will sound stupid. She can picture Josh in the audience at his own funeral, laughing at his mother stumbling over her words. The many men that Beth has taken care of in her life are all perversely verbal, caricatures of the New York Jew who talks and talks and eats and talks. Smart men, all of them, and funny. Josh was the smartest one, she thinks, and the funniest.
If she had to sum up her son's existence in a sound, it would be a burst of laughter. Even in his death, there has been laughter. Beth has already gotten a call today from Caleb, her youngest nephew, who idolized Josh and should have been catatonic. Instead, he made her chuckle, yelling into a pay phone at a Spanish hostel on a post–law school trip—some story about Josh and an elevator and duct tape. How did Caleb do that? And how, for that matter, can Philip have such a way about him to make people grin in this room, over the body? Beth feels expectant eyes on the back of her head. What can she say about her son? He slowed his heartbeat down until it stopped? That isn't funny at all.