With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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A friend sends me a newspaper clipping from the town I once shared with him, a place way back up in the Sierras, hidden from all but the hardiest tourists. The clipping is an obituary: the man who took away my younger brother’s good looks has died of cancer. For fifteen years, I had meant to track this man down and hurt him, but I never did, and now to read of his death makes me unaccountably sad. I know without thinking that my sadness has nothing to do with any kind of regret about failed retribution.
His name was Tom Howard, and he hit my brother so hard that he broke both his cheekbones and shattered his nose, all with one punch. My brother was not yet thirty, but he was already on a decline that Tom Howard’s blow surely hastened.
Had you seen my brother then, before Howard cold-cocked him off his barstool at the Roundup Club, you would have thought him out of place among the loggers and cowboys. There was a refinement to his features, a delicacy that made him almost pretty, though he was in no way effeminate. But if you looked closer, you would have seen that he was genetically wired to be in a place where liquor was being served, and if you looked even closer, in the hour before that blow was struck, you would have seen trouble in this young man’s future. You might have seen the hint of weakness in the way he held his head, or the faintness in the blue of his eyes that bespoke, perhaps, a wateriness of the spirit. Whatever it was, there was something in my brother that was not strong, and, probably as much as anything, that was why Tom Howard hit him. People are always hitting people who look like that.
Since I quit drinking, I see the stamp of alcoholism everywhere I go: on the fat lady talking about her cats to the checker in the supermarket, hoping to distract him from the cheap blush wine she’s buying in shameful volume; on the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles whose hands seem just slightly out of his control and whose breath echoes a long night of breathing through his mouth in a slumber deeper than normal sleep; on the minister whose Sunday sermons too frequently address the temptations of the flesh, with booze as his primary example.
But, then again, you might not have seen the disease on my brother. His handsomeness might have fooled you. I heard it said once that, when it comes to alcoholism, youth and health do battle with recovery. My brother lost both youth and health, as we all do, though in his case, it was sooner rather than later. But when health and youth were gone, he still did not recover. Many don’t. For a long time, I wanted to blame Tom Howard. Part of me still does, even though the man is now two inches of copy in a week-old newspaper from a town few people even know is there.
The Roundup’s gritty walls are adorned with mounted deer heads, maybe a dozen of them, looking more like they’d been sculpted out of dust than crafted by taxidermists. In my daydreams, I can see the blow that struck my brother reflected in the glass eyes of those dead deer: Tom Howard, lurching out of the men’s room in his plaid wool shirt, looking for someone to hit; my brother at the end of the bar with a whiskey and a beer in front of him, contemplating his face in the mirror, staring past Gott, the old bartender; then Tom Howard swinging with everything he had, and my brother slammed off the stool and down onto that uneven old hardwood floor like a sack of wheat, all of it faster than thought, faster than the telling.
It happened after I’d moved away, and that was a kindness of fate, for if I’d still been living there, I would have gone after Tom Howard immediately, and my life would have been changed forever. Either Tom Howard would have killed me, or I would have killed him — most likely the former, because when it comes to the willingness to do intentional harm, I am deficient. However it would have played out, it surely would have done nothing to help my brother.
They flew him by helicopter out of the mountains to an intensive-care unit in Reno, and for a time it looked as though he might die. The concussion was massive, and a shard of bone was lodged dangerously close to his brain. He didn’t regain consciousness for nearly a week, and when he did, someone had to tell him what had happened. That duty fell to me, though I had to piece together a story as fragmented as the bones of my brother’s face.
I drove up from the valley, where I was living at the time and where I am living still. I had to fight to hide the shock I felt when I saw his head swathed in plaster, his eyes peering out from dark holes, just plain scared, but working hard to assume his usual doper’s attitude, which was to shrug at almost everything.
“What’s the deal?” he asked me, his voice encased in phlegm and painkillers, echoey in the plaster mask. “Car wreck?”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t quite look at him. I fussed with the flowers I’d brought, Shasta daisies picked from the side of the road. “You got sucker punched.”
The information hit home almost like a blow itself. He was my much-protected baby brother, the youngest, and it surprised him that anyone would hurt him this bad — surprised and frightened him. I saw all of that in the way his eyes darted back and forth in the cave of that cast.
And I told him what I knew, hoping he could help me learn more.
That hope collapsed when he said, “Why?”
“Gott says you might have ripped him off on some coke.”
“Never,” he said. He sounded as if he were six again, standing on the cracked linoleum of our mother’s kitchen floor, protesting his innocence.
My brother is buried on Cemetery Hill, among people who died as long ago as the Gold Rush, men and women who lived out their little portion of time here on this mountain. There are others like him, no doubt, taken down by drink, and still others who also had things broken that never quite healed — bones, hearts, dreams. I stand before his headstone, a simple one, and look downhill into town. I can see the sign for the Roundup blinking on and off across from the courthouse, the word Roundup encircled in a neon lariat. A big logging truck gears down to make the hill, and I can feel its vibration in my hand as it rests on my brother’s tombstone: a stone pulse that dies away as the truck crests the hill and disappears toward Nevada.
I can easily imagine what the dead saw from this hill the night my brother was carted, unconscious, out of the Roundup: I supply the memory with a full moon, though I don’t know that for sure. There is snow on the ground, more up here in the cemetery than down on Main Street. A light snow continues to fall. I can see the ambulance’s emergency light flashing down below, at the exact center of the scene, a bull’s-eye of red in that wintry blue. I can see the tiny figures in white wheeling him out to the ambulance, which looks toy-sized from up here, as do the two squad cars that have been summoned to take Tom Howard to jail. From here it is quiet; there is only the shoosh of winter wind through the tops of the fir trees. If the ambulance attendants are whispering words of comfort in my brother’s ear, these silent watchers are too far away to hear it, and so is he.
Tom Howard’s grave isn’t more than twenty yards from my brother’s. The dirt is still freshly mounded there, and some spiteful part of me takes satisfaction in seeing that there are no flowers, no sign that anyone has visited at all. Idly, I go over and stand there, nudging clods of dirt with my foot. “You asshole,” I say aloud, but it is the most listless insult I’ve ever uttered. Still, I have to urinate, and this seems as good a time and place as any, and so I do, making a steaming arc of piss in the cold of late afternoon, softening the hard dirt just about where I imagine Tom Howard’s chest might be, six feet down in the nearly frozen earth. Oddly, I feel ashamed even before I’m finished, and I redirect the stream to a little bank of dirty snow off to the side of the mound. It’s funny how some things matter very much, until they cease to matter, and then they don’t matter at all. My heart is the only place left where any of this matters now, and pissing on a dead man’s grave doesn’t change anything there, not one damn bit.
Near the cemetery gate, I see a headstone for Gott, the Roundup bartender. I hadn’t heard of his passing. The stone says he was ninety-six years old when he died, which means he was already a very old man when he witnessed the blow that gave my brother an excuse to drink himself to death, an excuse he would surely have found regardless. But Gott certainly saw many blows struck in all those years. The marker notes that he served in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, something Gott never mentioned. The stone yields more information about Gott than he himself ever did.
I’m growing cold; the heater in the car calls to me, as does the valley below, where spring has already arrived. It is coming on dusk, and the canyon road will start to ice up soon. That road is twisty and steep, treacherous any time of year. Rockslides are common, and people are always taking the turns too fast and plunging over the edge and down into the river, their bodies sometimes found weeks or months later, washed up against the dams by the high waters of the spring thaw.
The canyon is not conducive to radio signals, so I put an old Bob Dylan album in the CD player, songs I once listened to on an eight-track tape with my brother when we were driving down some logging road looking for firewood. When the music leaps from the speakers, I am carried back to a ridge I could probably never find again, with the sun shining hot and sharp, the sky as blue as if it were enameled, the jays in the pines loud enough to be heard over the truck’s engine. We find a stand of oaks that someone has girdled. They are dying, but not yet dead, and they are ours, all that dense hardwood protection against the far-off winter.
I start the chain saw, and we commence to cutting. Within fifteen minutes, we are naked to the waist, finding a rhythm in the work, each piece of oak dropping off white and spiraled, as pretty a thing as I know. I cut, and my brother splits and stacks the wood tight in the back of the truck, like a jigsaw puzzle. When the saw binds, he is always there, as if by instinct, to put leverage under the cut and loosen the bind.
After an hour, we stop to drink beer, the cans sweaty in the palms of our hands. My brother’s hair is long and blond, and the sun plays on it as he goes to get another beer from the cooler. I am young, and he is younger. The air is clean up here. We hear the sound of water over rocks and follow it through the woods to a creek that pools out deep enough for us to stand in it up to our necks. The water is so cold it seems to burn and so clear we can see the glint of fool’s gold amid the rocks at our feet. Then we are back to the cutting, the cold of the water stored hard in our bones, though we sweat from the work and the high, dry sun, until the truck sits low on its rear axle and the tires are no longer quite round under the weight of all that oak.
“We got us a load of stored sunshine,” I say as we creep down the rutted road. It is something I would say to no one but him, not even to my beautiful young wife, who waits at home with dinner; I can imagine a dozen different meals she might be making, all of them good.
“Stored sunshine,” my brother says. “I’ll drink to that,” and he fishes two beers out of the ice chest.
But that was a summer long ago, and this is winter here and now. As I start for home, I can see smoke curling up out of chimneys in the woods. The sun chases me all the way down the canyon, sixty-five miles, setting as I go, dancing on the river that follows the road. A thousand mountain streams feed this river, and one of them, no doubt, is that nameless stream my brother and I cooled ourselves in when he was still handsome, still whole, still here. Not far to the west, the river is split by dams and diversion canals. Most of it goes to Los Angeles to water lawns, but some of it goes to the delta and then to the sea.
Bob Dylan sings “Forever Young” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And about the time I am back on flat land, I allow myself a tear or two before I switch to the news and try to imagine the dinner my wife, no longer young, will have for me when I get home.