My brother Mark is:
The same summer that Mark introduced me to The World of music, we spent one night in the garage with our brother Jason. They worked on a truck; I sat on the steps that led up to the garage attic. Up in the attic there was one small room that Mark had used as his bedroom during high school. When he went into the Air Force, he left behind a dresser stuffed with sci-fi paperbacks. The covers of these books had illustrations that depicted prehistoric women wearing impractical bikinis. Sometimes I’d look through those books, but on this particular night, I was content to sit on the stairs and watch my brothers laboring under the hood, happy and joking, content in their knowledge of how this one thing fit together. The truck’s radio played a secular station; Mark said that Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” would make a good gospel song.
I know nothing of cars, and never cared to, but Mark and Jason both had something of a mechanical genius. To amuse themselves growing up, they would disassemble vehicles piece by piece and then put them back together. After tinkering with a certain part, they’d run diagnostics by taking the car out onto Long Run Road, sliding it around the turns and opening the throttle on straight stretches. Then they’d come back to the garage and the driver would say, “Well, it felt like thus and such” and the rest of the boys would say, “Well as you went by, it sounded like this or that.” And they’d figure it out that way, playing by ear.
Jason kept at it. Today he works as a supervisor at a mechanic’s shop for big rigs. These days, software takes care of the diagnostics, but he’s still inclined to tinker. The way I fuss over em dashes and parentheses, Jason always wonders what happens if you take this part from this car and put it on that one over there. He comes home from his job and goes to work in the garage to escape boredom. He frequently visits the junkyard where Mark lives. I was there last summer and tagged along as Jason and Mark walked between the rows of totalled automobiles, looking for spare parts, gauging what could be salvaged. Mark turned his mechanical genius toward computers. Back in California, after his wife left with the kids, one day he decided to take apart the family PC and put it back together. When he came home to Ohio for good—no more visits, but a permanent move—he worked at a computer shop. He would tell me stories about little old ladies and their shocking browser histories. He got a vintage red Mustang convertible from the junkyard where he now lives, and restored it. I’m not sure how it fell apart for Mark. I just watched the leaves fall from the tree. Friendship. Romance. Marriage. New home. Unemployment. Mustang sold. Infidelity. Divorce. Old trailer. Arthritis in the spine. Bad prescriptions. Intolerable pain. Another job. Fracking site. West Virginia. Two days on. One day off. Gas money. I don’t know what all.
Then, at some point, it was all just gone.
I’m embarrassed by some of the photos of Mark and me in the junkyard. There’s one in particular, where we’re walking up a path together, and I’m striding bolt upright, my fists thrust into my jacket pockets, cocksure. Next to me, Mark walks hunched, the sleeves of his jacket swallowing his hands. That photo reminds me of the documentary film “Crumb,” when Robert Crumb goes back to Philadelphia and sees his mentally ill brother, Charles, who still lives at home with their mother. Charles is obviously direly unhappy, and Robert seems pretty glib about his brother’s situation. The apparent lack of concern bothered me enough to mention it to my therapist, saying, “There had to be something he could’ve done for his brother.”
My shrink said, “You think you can just help someone like that? When they don’t want you to?”
On our way out of the junkyard, I ask Mark how much money hangs over his head, going back 16 years. He estimates an amount.
I ask, “If you were out from under that debt, if it was gone, what would you do?” I’m thinking that he’ll say “I’d work on computers” or “I’d work on cars,” and then I’ll say, “Well, why don’t you do that now? It will probably help you get out of debt, but if not, it will still make you feel better.” His eyes will light up with sudden understanding. I’ll have saved the day and repaid the debt to my brother that I don’t know how to repay. Instead, Mark thinks for a second and tells me he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what he would do if he was out from under it all.
I hope that my brother finds that elusive thing and enjoys practicing it for many decades. But I’m aware that, at this point, things might not get better. To tell the truth, I’m prepared for Mom’s phone call. Her name will show on caller ID. I’ll say, “Hi Mom” into the receiver. She won’t say anything for about two seconds. That’s the cue, the tragedy buffer, enough time to brace myself. I heard it when she told me that Grandma had died. I heard it when she told me that my brother Dick had died. When Mom finally tells me why she called, I’ll be shocked, but I won’t be surprised.
There will be a memorial service. I’ll write something, something less honest than this story, and I’ll read it aloud. I will tell everyone that I loved my brother for those flares he sent up in the darkness, signs of wonder that I followed as best I could until I found my way. I’ll say that yes, it’s true that Mark died in his 50s or 60s, or—God willing—in his 70s or 80s, but it’s also true that he’s still 19, down in Grenada making the world safe for democracy. Yes, today his body lies still in Ohio, but tomorrow he’ll bicycle through Amsterdam with a diplomat’s daughter. I’ll explain my pet philosophy that everything that ever happens keeps on happening forever, and how I got this idea from a short story called “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges. I’ll stress that I think this theory is absolutely true. Afterwards we’ll get together at Mom’s house: Jason and his wife, Mom and her husband, my wife and me. We’ll sit around, eat some homemade food, drink sweet tea, and tell stories about Mark.
I’ll have plenty.
My brother Mark is: