My brother’s map
The dissemination of my brother’s will had largely been a bust. Other than bequeathing his record collection to ‘all dudes globally’ and a light-up sign above his bed that said ‘no fat chicks!’ to our mother, the only unambiguous thing was that the job of cleaning out his apartment fell to me. I was bent over a final ‘file box’, which was turning out to be a set of cardboard beer coasters he’d leavened from bars, when my wife eased up from my brother’s floor and slapped me on the back.
‘I’d stay longer,’ my wife said, ‘but the thing seems to need some cookie dough.’
‘Don’t call your mouth “the thing”,’ I said. ‘It’s a lot more than that to me.’
Now we knew it was a boy inside her, my wife’s job had been to sit there and call out stupid baby names while I dumped my brother’s life into garbage bags and tied them off. ‘Rover’ was her top pick: like a trusty, sturdy dog. And now that she had gone I really wished that she had not. With my novel going under, and my brother having gone, my wife was the only thing that made me feel like me at all.
Near the bottom of this box, there was a worn-looking paper which turned out to be nothing but a tourist map of our city, one of those too-glossy, unwieldy-looking things they give out at the information centre for free. And the only thing that made me look at it as long as I did was that my brother had lived here in this city all his life. It was not that he had settled, but more that I couldn’t even imagine him organising an itinerary into his hand. There was my street, I saw, and the ten blocks between us, and I thought of how often he had ordered my wife and I unasked-for pizzas right on closing time. I was lucky I had found a wife who had a stupid sense of humour. Just weeks ago, we’d come home one night to ten plastic lawn chairs stacked against our door, which I had made my wife step away from and allow me to unstack. But it had been her, six months pregnant, who’d carried our broom all the way to his door; rung the doorbell; then witnessed the half-awake bleached-blond girl open the door instead of my brother. The broom had fallen violently and quickly against her brow. My wife filled a tea towel up with ice cubes and held it on the girl’s broomed dome. Then she’d giggled from my brother’s house, all the way to ours, where she’d woken me and given me a detailed run-down.
I moved my finger along the tacky map, tracing the ten blocks from his apartment home to mine. I pictured my brother sneaking, then my wife sneaking, down that line: purposeful paths, carved by prankster people, alive.
That was how I noticed my brother had dashed a rhomboid of highlighter ink just off the road, in a little cul-de-sac between our two apartments. I could not picture my brother holding a pen of any kind; he’d thought my own aspirations were somewhere between fanciful and fancy; he had perhaps expressed bemused admiration, once or twice.
I felt a little sick when I was looking at the dashes. Not because they were weird, exactly, but because I was being weird. Most of my brother’s things had seemed to be things, unimbued, but everyone has their special somethings that they do choose to keep private, and I had feared – I will admit – that eventually I would see one.
I had felt ashamed of my own special somethings before I wound up, finally, in a good relationship, which is when I learned, pretty late in the game for pretty much a happy person, that winding up with somebody isn’t about eliminating your special somethings, and leaving a kind of spotless Siamese union in their place. It’s about allowing for the spaces between you to live and lie. Sometimes I like to make animal noises when I’m writing, which is why I always put on music and lock the study door. My wife must have a different special something, because there is no room in our house she seems to ever lock at all. But somewhere, I know, she has a keep, a sealed-off space – somewhere to which no map will ever lead me.
I poured a glass of water, and went to rinse the glass. Then, of course, I realised the uselessness of the behaviour, threw this last glass into a garbage bag and tied it off.
Walking home, I was intending to spend my time formulating stories for my novel; I tried to make myself receptive to sights and sounds and bugs. Each morning, my wife left for work and wished me luck with the novel, with the same kind of formality I’d used for my brother’s landlord; she was unprepared for the possibility that I might fail. But the truth was, more and more often, I was thinking less and less about the crystalline vision of what my novel might become. I was churning out text, but it wasn’t purposeful. Sights and sounds and bugs and things was more or less what it was. On a good day. More often, the text was nothing more than an expulsion, a way to cycle through the sentences; people performed inscrutable actions for no cause. My days, to my horror, were starting to mirror the sentences. I was moving through line after line while the planet rotated, and bedtime, like a full stop, was the natural result.
I knew there was an outcome, and that it would be a child; and that this child, this Rover, would define my life forever on. But I was living in a prior life, circulating and recirculating; a kind of backwards movement that felt much like going forwards. My wife and I had met when she’d taken me home from a nightclub, and for various reasons, I had never really left. And the rest is a long story devoted equally to things like mortgage applications and also semi-seriously trying to pee on each other while we were walking home from somewhere drunk. In fact, she had initially had trouble disguising her pregnancy because people noticed how she wasn’t drinking, and we would shiningly say that she was detoxing ‘for her health’. Sometimes I can’t even wait to see my wife when I get home, and I have to text her not very long before I walk in the door. And then the thought that my poor brother is dead in heaven, never had a wife and doesn’t have a baby to be born.
I said before that I’d been worried, when searching my brother’s apartment, that I’d find something secret, something that belonged just to him. But really, I was worried about the opposite idea: that there would be nothing of my brother in the living space at all, nothing beyond my idea of who he was, and how he’d lived. It was one thing to have found myself in a newly purposeless life, running through page after page in my calendar like a guilty secretary with a document shredder. It was another to imagine my brother having done the same thing – he was a purposeful prankster. He had to have a secret thing.
So in the last light of a cross-street, I unfolded his strange map, and followed the rhomboid of highlighter ink down the little cul-de-sac, an unremarkable byway in the ten blocks that ran between my brother’s apartment and home to mine.
There’s no easy way to say this about the recently deceased, but my brother had not been an enterprising man. Many things happen when you grow up side-by-side, and the hardest to account for is also the largest of them – the gradual definition of your two differing roles, perhaps established in opposition to each other, perhaps as an accompaniment, or a counterpoint. Or perhaps they just look that way, because of proximity bias – are we different from each other thanks to a dialogue of call and response, or are we simply different people who happen to live nearby?
Either way, it was established, incrementally, piece by piece, that I would spend my life pursuing goals, moving towards the future, and my brother would be comfortable letting life happen to him. In some ways, you could say that he didn’t have a wife or child because he had died a couple weeks ago, so his options were now closed. In other ways, these facts were established even in our childhood: his journey was, in certain fashions, over long ago.
All of which is to say that I was feeling lots of trepidation. The house that corresponded to the mark on my brother’s map was an unremarkable terrace, with empty lots on either side. There was a big soily pot parked in ceramic out the front, and the porch light lit the wan rope of a dead basil plant. None of this was surprising; all of it disturbed. Anyone who floats through life, however good-naturedly, finds themselves arriving at this kind of unremarkable house; some of the places my brother landed were squalid, or just odd. Finding my brother’s map was not like finding a map to a treasure island. It was more likely to be a map that would lead you to accidental places, places whose use-value would be dubious, or worse.
The woman who responded to my knocking – three times, fast – took me in with one frank gaze. ‘I know who you look like,’ she said.
And I knew who she looked like, too. She looked like the blonde girl who had caught my brother’s broom; she looked like the girl my brother had dragged to our grandma’s funeral, who wore sunglasses on a grey day and whom we’d never seen again. She was just his type, in other words: a perfectly nice girl, who seemed nice and well and generous as anyone else in the world. Any one of these people would’ve been good in the long term, but my wife and I had long since stopped letting our hopes fly. My brother wasn’t exactly a gross promiscuous guy. He was just unable, or uninterested, to pick a goal and see it through.
‘There’s no easy way to say this,’ I began.
The woman frowned. ‘It was probably a lot harder for you to hear,’ she said.
‘Now, here, how are you doing?’ she said.
I didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m excited for the future,’ I blurted. But this was not the case, and I came up quickly with a considered-seeming phrase: ‘I’m not sure what the world will be without my brother in it.’ This was a good, ambiguous answer for a person whose position, re: my brother, was mysterious to me.
‘Well,’ she said, and took a deep breath, and blew. ‘Speaking as a person whose world has almost never had your brother in it, it’s really just a nice slice of fine life either way. I’m glad he had a brother. I have a really crappy brother.’
And so she started telling me about her brother, too. It was a long, boring story, full of minor details that mainly seemed to turn on matters of comportment and long-term familial debt. I realised, as she told me this, that she was being kind; she was pouring events onto me, people, places, and things, which was soothing – in fact, it almost convinced me that nothing in the world needed to be meaningful – it just had to occur. It made me worry less about my novel, which did not have to be good; and it made me worry less about my parenting abilities, which would only be discovered when they were put to the test.
And it made me worry less about my brother’s tax receipts, and about another thing that didn’t matter anymore: I hadn’t known, I had admitted to my wife late one evening, what my brother’s relationship to our baby would be. I had hoped he would become a cool, good-vibey uncle – who blew in on the breeze and dispensed groovy wisdom, the last among us to be young. But I’d feared he would remain young in the ways that keep an uncle distant, and by extension, keep their brothers moving down diverging paths. I knew we couldn’t live ten blocks away from each other forever, and that there is more than one way to live ten blocks apart.
I wanted to throw myself forward into the future, and discover what I would tell my son about this guy. Then I realised – to my own surprise – I could say anything I wanted. The nature of my brother’s story was unambiguously mine.
But I hadn’t been listening. ‘And that is why my family still has a Christmas, but doesn’t call it Christmas,’ she said.
‘That’s amazing,’ I said.
She looked up sharply.
‘Terrible,’ I said, and put my hands down on the table. My thick wedding ring clicked on it, and she noticed.
‘I should pour us some tea,’ she said.
‘I’m okay, actually.’ She looked briefly perturbed, but was trying to repress it; she was a sympathetic person who didn’t like to waste tea. ‘You can just have some yourself later,’ I offered. She gave me a withering smile.
‘Now look,’ I said. ‘I don’t know if you’re wondering how I found your house.’ I searched her eyes carefully, to see if this question was hurtful; perhaps she was a person whom I was meant to know. But she regarded the map with interest as I tugged it out of my pocket. She was more perturbed by my refusal of the tea. ‘I found this at my brother’s,’ I said. I unfolded it on the table. ‘And here is his apartment…’
She moved close. ‘… And here is me,’ she said.
‘Yes, sure, hi,’ my wife said, then fell back on the pillow. I dropped my house keys and the map and ripped off all my clothes, scrunching in under the covers like a scared, excited child. ‘Hello,’ I repeated. But she only snored. So I lay my arm on her belly. And who knows what bellies hold? In these places elephants are born, in these places scorpions are born, here dog-headed beings are born.
Dr Ronnie Scott is the author of Salad Days (Penguin 2014), an essay on food and money, and founder of The Lifted Brow, a literary magazine. His essays and journalism have appeared in The Monthly, The Believer, the Saturday Paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Weekend Australian Magazine, SBS and ABC Radio National. He is the recipient of Fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Wheeler Centre. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne and RMIT. His website is www.ronalddavidscott.com
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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence