As I drove home last night, I could not keep thoughts of my little brother Stephen from drifting into the dark interior of the car. I parked and left everything in the footwell -- the bottle of wine from my process server Scott McKenna, the box of chocolate from Lori Hooten Roller, a small bag from Aquarius with a couple of little trinkets to augment a gift for my son's girlfriend. I pulled my coat tighter around me, called softly to the dog, and climbed the driveway.
Nothing had changed in the house. Its stillness hung over me. The piles of abandoned coats had not been straightened, nor the shoes carried upstairs. I thought about the last trial of the year, scheduled for Tuesday, and wished I could figure a way to ditch my duties and stay home all week to clean. But that won't happen. As I let the dog into the house, I could hear my brother's deep laugh. The ringing of my cell phone startled me and when I saw my sister Joyce's number, I felt relieved.
But only for a second: Dismay flowed into my heart as she spoke in low tones, the tones one uses from a hospital bed when one's iron has plummeted and no one knows why. Did Ann call you? she asked and I shook my head. Who knows? I never stop for a moment at work, except to refill or reheat my coffee or stand over my secretary reconnoitering. Santa Claus or his elves could have called a dozen times with urgent questions and I would have not known.
Joyce explains her situation. She refuses my offer to come for the weekend and take care of her dog. I watch the rice boil, turn it down, secure its lid. I shake the gawdawful expensive food into the dog's dish and watch her gobble its morsels faster than I've ever seen any one or anything eat. In the dining room, I clear a place for a small bowl and my tablet, mentally scolding myself for letting my obligations overwhelm me to the point that if I had a child and a social worker paid me a surprise call, I'd be hauled to jail or at the very least, offered in-home services. The thought prompts a short burst of laughter and the dog glances at me, curious, before she pads into the front sitting room to curl in her bed and sleep.
As for myself, I finish my rice without really tasting it. I stand in the center of the cheerless living room with its weary winter plants and mismatched pillows. Dust covers the surface of Joanna's piano. My eyes close. My brother's face rises before me: the small smile, the strong chin.
I am sixty-one. In eight days, on Christmas, my brother would be fifty-seven. But he dances forever in my heart, young, younger even than his last age, as young as he was when I took myself from St. Louis to live in this town on the western edge of the state. In my mind he will forever be twenty-one and have no cares. Or at least none that have yet risen to claim him.
Before I slept last night, I rummaged in the boxes cluttering the built-in shelves in my bedroom. Somewhere, I must have something that my brother gave me. A piece of jewelry, a picture, a note. I come away with nothing other than a smear of grey grime on the edge of my palm. I fall back on my knees, ignoring the pain in my artificial knee. Surely there's something left. I used to have his coffee mugs, two of them, but I gave them to his daughters. Small compensation for his absence from their lives but all that I could offer. I cannot pay his debts. I cannot resurrect him. But neither can I let him go.