I didn’t even know my brother existed until I was ten years old. His was a name I’d heard floating around, but I never actually attached it to a human being. Like how I know Napoleon was real, but when I imagine him I’m really only conjuring his portraits. My mother asked me if I’d like to spend Christmas with my dad that year, 1982. This was meant as a kind of present, I guess, but felt more like a punch in the beans. I’d never met my father. He and my mom divorced before my first birthday. And now, ten years later, we were suddenly going to spend Christmas with him?
No, I had it wrong.
A real nut punch.
But I said OK, of course. I felt curious. I just wanted to see the man, you know? I’d peeked at pictures, but what do pictures ever really say?
So my mother bought me a Greyhound ticket and packed my Snoopy suitcase with comics, snacks, and a few clothes. As I got on the bus at the Port Authority I felt scared and bold. Me, all alone, on the five-hour trip to the city of S——, in upstate New York. (I’m obscuring some details here and there, changing names too.)
As the door closed my mother gaped up at me, so nervous she clasped her hands frantically. She didn’t even seem to realize she’d made the gesture. Like her body was saying a prayer her mind refused to entertain. I smiled down at her, waving, amazed to discover my tough mother could ever feel such fear.
And then the bus pulled out. I read a bunch of comics, ate my snacks.
My mother worked as a legal secretary and we lived just fine in Flushing, Queens. My dad apparently sent a little money each month (and I do mean a little). But my mom never talked bad about him and that saved me from having to carry her resentments with me up to his home.
If you’ve never been to the Greyhound bus station in downtown S——, let me invite you to keep it that way. But if you really want to approximate the experience maybe there’s an open sewer line close to your home that you could visit. Stand outside the pipe and inhale. Pretty much the same thing. It’s not that the station literally stinks, but there’s a whiff of deep rot all the same.
My bus arrived in the evening, exactly on time. But not my dad.
I climbed off the bus, Snoopy suitcase weighing me down enough to give me a limp, and this guy was nowhere. But I felt no panic yet. I had a bunch of coins in my pocket and this station had those plastic chairs with televisions attached, a whole row of them in the waiting room. I can’t remember if the screens showed black-and-white or color. Who cared? As long as I had quarters I had a babysitter. But all I could find were commercials! I’d flip to one channel, get impatient and turn the dial, and find another ad for some crap. Switch from that and get another. That lasted about twenty minutes and then all my quarters were gone.
I figured I’d call his home number. My mother had written it, and my father’s address, on a white sheet of paper that she’d taped to the inside of my suitcase. I still had plenty of dimes and nickels. I wandered to a bank of pay phones. My father’s new wife picked up the line.
I said, “This is Victor.”
“That’s Victor there?!” she shouted. “Well, Victor, how are you?!”
The lady bellowed every word even though the line was static free. Her English pronunciation wasn’t the best, so she shouted to compensate. Louder being the equivalent of clearer, I guess. I told her that my dad hadn’t shown up.
“He is not there? My Lord and my God! How did this happen to him?”
To him? I thought.
“You will talk to me,” she said. “Until your father shows up. My Lord and my God, I will be too scared to let you hang up!”
So that’s what I did, using up all my coins. Then I read her the number on the phone and she called me back. She and I probably gabbed for another twenty minutes. I answered all my stepmother’s questions and she answered mine, no matter how dumb. (For instance, “What kind of name is H——?” “It’s mine!”)
And sometimes she pulled away from the phone, speaking with someone else. I heard a high-pitched voice behind hers, like a yipping dog. But dogs don’t generally ask questions like “Who’s that?” and “Where’s the Pepsi?”
When I asked who it was, hesitating longer than I would’ve expected, my stepmother answered quietly. “That is your brother, yes? That is my little P——.”
She wasn’t whispering; she cooed each word.
But this didn’t bother me. A loving mother? I had one of those.
Then I saw my father shuffle into the bus station and without explanation, or hesitation, I hung up on her.
My dad. He wore glasses that made his eyes look tiny and flat. His hair was cut short, quasi–military style, and he had a round, soft face. He looked kind of like an owl wearing glasses, though in cartoons such creatures are made to seem haughty and professorial. My dad didn’t come off that way. He just looked kind of surprised. As impossible as a real owl wearing human glasses. I wore glasses too. Mine were in those giant plastic Medicare frames, his were thin wire.
After I hung up the phone I stumbled over to him and said hello. He huffed a greeting and shook my hand. His hand probably could’ve wrapped around my bicep as easily as it did my fingers. That’s how it seemed to me. Then he took my suitcase.
“Too much traffic,” my father said. I took this as explanation and apology though it really wasn’t either.
Who gave a shit? Here stood my father! Walking me back to his car in the largely empty parking lot. He swung my Snoopy suitcase faintly as he walked. Its weight didn’t affect his stride. I did some speed walking to keep up. He owned a nice new car, though I don’t remember the model or make at all, just that it was the newest latest. He told me this with pride.
“Every year I trade in and get that year’s model.”
I could see this made him giddy and I didn’t begrudge him.
He and I must’ve spoken in the car, though I don’t remember most of the early stuff. Instead I remember his tone of voice. He spoke with a curled lip, half sneer and half smile. He kept his teeth gritted even as he completed whole sentences. The words strained from between his lips like a child rejecting soft food. He seemed kind of frightening and remote.
“How’s your mother?” he asked at one point. “She still like to eat whole loaves of white bread with butter and marmalade?”
What the hell was this guy talking about?
“It’s true,” he said. “She used to eat a whole loaf in one sitting and if I brought home a pie or something she’d go crazy.”
He sneered so hard I saw his gums. Now I felt like choking this dude.
“Said I was trying to make her fat. Well, I think a whole jar of marmalade will do that for you, sweetie.”
He would return to this loaf of bread/butter/marmalade story about ten times in my three-day visit. And pretty soon one thing became clear: he still loved my mother. I mean, I’d been living with her for ten years and I couldn’t remember what she’d eaten last night, forget about a decade back. Hard to fathom that he might’ve been there in upstate New York all these years, cradling his wounded heart, while down in Queens my mother—I don’t want to be cruel—down in Queens my mother wasn’t.
But before I might’ve asked more we arrived at his house. A fine three-bedroom home in a tarnished neighborhood. The kind of place where front lawns suffer from extreme baldness. I never knew white people could go broke like this. My own neighborhood in Queens was largely colored. We were the children of recent immigrants from the brown and black and yellow parts of the world. Most of our families were just as insolvent as the people in my father’s neighborhood, probably even more so, but it was taken for granted that many of us in Flushing were on the way up. Here you could see they were falling. The white men and white women, and even the white children, walked in their yards or down the sidewalks, all moving with shoulders hunched, heads down, as if preparing for the final crash.
Seven or eight inches of snow had fallen in the past few days, a hardened layer that looked like icing on the roofs of most homes.
My father pulled into his short driveway and I watched the door of his garage rise with a button touched inside his car. Color me impressed! But before he could pull inside, this little figure in a blue ski mask shot out of the garage and ran right up to the headlights, waving. My father braked and rolled down the window with another button.
“P——!” he shouted. “I could’ve killed you!”
The figure came to the lowered window. The tiniest bandit in town. Only his eyes showed: large and black and glassy, like a doll’s. His lips moved under the mask.
“Don’t kill me, Dad!”
My father shook his head. “Well, I don’t want to kill you, but running in front of a moving car can have that effect.”
“Not if I’m fast,” the little bandit said.
My father (ours?) pointed at the dashboard. “This is an au-to-mobile, P——. You can’t go faster than that.”
Now the bandit was silent; his large eyes just blinked and blinked.
My dad sighed and pointed to me. “This is your brother.”
Now the bandit looked at me. “I know.”
Then our father said, “See you inside,” and rolled up the power window as he took his foot off the gas pedal and coasted into the garage, until the nose pressed against the back wall.
The garage door rolled down, clanking like the Tin Man falling down the stairs. But P—— didn’t step under in time. He stayed outside. My father opened his door, grabbed my suitcase from the backseat, and said, “Well, come on then.”
But I didn’t go inside with him. Instead I joined P—— outside. It had started snowing. It was as if the weather was on a switch and somebody, maybe my new brother, had just flicked it. The flakes fell heavily now, landing on my glasses and clogging up my portholes. I had to pull them off and blow on them until the flakes melted. I tried wiping them dry but that didn’t work, so when I put my glasses back on the whole world seemed to be melting.