A home-grown Memphis boy, I escaped my redneck past via a one-way ticket to Arizona in July 1981. My oldest brother, John D., had taken the same route but a different flight twenty years earlier, hiding our mother's crossword puzzle book and two six-packs of Bud to get her attention. "Mama," my brother had said, "tell Daddy to buy a new mattress and an air-conditioner and give Poboy my room. I won't be coming back." My mother cuffed John D. across the face with the back of her hand. He was twenty-one years old then, wiry, sixteen years my senior, marked by a gang rape charge reduced to aggravated assault that cost him his high school diploma, a two-year stint for Uncle Sam, and sinewy calves.
With the reflexes of an ex-Humes High boxing champ, John D. caught Mama's hand between his teeth and I waited for him to sink his new dentures into her mottled flesh. Instead, he stared into my mother's surprised purple irises, let go of the bone like a bored dog, and ruffled my home-permed hair. "You got two homo sons already, Mama. If you don't watch out, this little man will be number three." Then John D. lifted me into the air by the fairy loop Mama had sewn inside my purple hand-knitted sweater with pink hearts. Dangling three feet above the floor, I dipped my hand into my pocket. "Look, John D.," I piped in my earnest five-year-old voice, "I pulled the wings off this fly. Do you think I'll be a man like you some day?" John D. popped the fly in his mouth, swallowed, then wrapped his arms around me. He whispered into my ear, "Little Man, you get laid as soon as you can. Then get the hell out of here. D'you understand?"
Mama and Daddy never spoke of John D. again. I fished his inscribed Christmas cards from the kitchen trash, removing the fragile eggshells, gravy dripping and soggy cornflakes with the tenderness of a change-of-life sibling. As soon as I was old enough and smart enough, I began writing to John D. on a regular basis. I was eleven years old then, and I knew two things for sure: 1) I was a faggot and 2) I wanted to be a writer. By the time I graduated from high school, my brother had moved from Chicago to New York City, was drinking heavily, but continued our correspondence.
I received my brother's wedding invitation in Arizona where, by day, I was employed as a food columnist and obituary writer at a local newspaper. By night, I was ghost writing gothic romances for a small reputable press and sharing a king-sized waterbed with my editor-in-chief, Nathan Silverman, on the outskirts of Phoenix. When my future sister-in-law called to urge me to attend their marriage ceremony, I declined in the macho voice I usually reserved for grieving widows and widowers. In fact, that was no small feat in itself, considering I was dressed in a blue gingham Dorothy dress and whipping Nathan aka Glinda with her magic wand while my mini-sheltie, Liza aka Toto, watched and, upon my invitation, participated.
A few months after my brother married, my mother called me. I hadn't heard from her in five or six years, since her detailed account of Daddy's gall bladder operation. That she never asked "How are you?" is my mother personified -- bitter, self-centered and afraid of her progeny. Still, I was more than apprehensive when I heard Mama's raspy voice. "John D. is dying," she said. "You need to go to New York and find out what's going on with your big brother and that young Jewess of a wife of his."
I dyed my yellow hair a mousy brown, traded in my snake skin pants for a pair of olive green trousers and hopped the next plane to Kennedy Airport. During take-off, I opened the shopping bag that Nathan had thrust at me before boarding. I ate the jar of pistachio nuts while I skimmed the first six chapters of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Nathan's instincts were good; his literary prowess was lacking. On my first trip to the bathroom, I squeezed out a small bowel movement. On my next I re-wrote Jong's Zipless Fuck with an S&M slant on a disposable toilet seat shield. My third trip was devoted to revision, revision, revision. When the plane finally touched down, I was ready to take on the world. I bargained with the God I didn't believe in. If John D. lived, I would read War and Peace.
I arrived at the hospital in a slightly intoxicated state, accelerated by apprehension to a false drunken stupor. I wove into the elevator, sharing the silver cab with a diminutive nun blessed with Sally Field's toothy smile and pert breasts. On the tenth floor I exited and followed a Richard Chamberlain look-alike down a short corridor to the Coronary Care Unit. The harsh light penetrated my eyelids, singeing my corneas like a hot ash. My only recourse was to open them again. Beyond the first glass partition, I saw John D.
My hell-raising brother lay in bed, stiff as the board that secured his left arm to his side. His free hand was buried to the wrist in his wife's hair. I stepped closer. The young woman moved a sponge down my brother's chest, delivering a milk-warm bath to her dying husband. She murmured in a throaty voice, a sound as fresh and promising as a loaf of bread rising in the oven. Her small circles deepened into wider arcs. She was serene, intoxicating. As my sister-in-law pressed her lips to the inside of John D.'s arm, an alarm shrieked overhead. In a parallel moment, my brother thrust his fingers deeper into his wife's massive tangles. An announcement blared, "Code Blue, 1064 West. Code Blue, 1064 West." The thunder of heavy footsteps pounded in my ears. Like the U.S. cavalry in a spaghetti western, the green and white scrubs charged into his room sans horses. I swayed. Three cowboys with stethoscopes tried to extract my brother's hand. A masked man began chest compressions. A nurse shouted, "Scissors! We need scissors!" A saw, I thought. My kingdom for a saw! The image that still plays in my mind was my last of a real man in the throes of love and death. It was a picture of my brother lying naked in bed, his wife curled up at his side. The saw I invented as the only recourse to separate husband and wife materialized in Dr. Kildare's hand. He took aim and cracked open my brother's chest. Blood spurted across the soulmates. The Jewess never flinched. I knew everything I needed to know. I went home.
Eleven years later, I was measuring the hem of my Marilyn Monroe eveningwear look, when the telephone rang. Nathan was vacuuming our hallway in the buff, a habit that was as annoying as his insistence that we begin all of our bedroom scenes with testimonials of our love. I laid the size 16 dress on our futon and headed to the kitchen. "Hello, Sweetheart," I said, in my faggiest voice. I was greeted by a sharp inhalation. From the bowels of the next exhale, a husky voice emerged. "He's dead," she said. There was no mistaking the caller. "OH, MY POOR BABY!" my mother wailed. "OH, LORD, MY SWEET CHILD! JOHN D. IS DEAD! THE JEWESS MURDERED YOUR BROTHER!"
The next morning, I packed my suitcase while Nathan tried to seduce me with a rather good Liza Minelli imitation. He was still crooning "New York, New York" when the airport service arrived. I looked at the man I had pretended to love for umpteen years and I felt cheated. As a farewell gesture, Nathan slipped a joint into my pocket. I threw it out the window as the car picked up speed. Nathan did not know that I would never see him again. Neither did I. I directed the driver to downtown Phoenix, cleaned out my savings account, and walked to the bus terminal. I paid cash for my ticket to Chicago. There I would begin my new life.
Over the years, my brother's murder played over and over in my head like a low-budget porno. Other than the act of dying, I could not find motivation. Why did the Jewess do it? How did she do it? On the five-year anniversary of John D.'s death, I hit rock bottom. I was watching the remake of The Fly one night when I was gripped by the need to know what happened on my brother's final day. The next morning, armed with a yellow legal pad and three ballpoint pens, I marched to the library.
My first search revealed a New York Times obituary dated June 11, 1995. Other than that, John D.'s murder was an enigma. I needed to speak to my incarcerated sister-in-law. In fact, I found her via a thirteen-year-old niece whose existence was unknown to me until that morning. She answered the telephone on the third ring. The shock of her subtle twang in the single voiced word gave me goose bumps. "Hullo?" she said. Without thinking, I asked to speak to her father. "My dad is dead," said the orphan, rolling her consonants, "but my mom is here. Do you want to speak to her?" I heard the child shout, "MOM! IT'S SOMEONE WHO SOUNDS JUST LIKE DADDY!"
Rather than attempting to give an accurate account of my brother's murder, I'll leave the task of telling the story from a letter I received from his widow.
When I finished reading the letter, I chopped and diced six celery stalks, five carrots, half an onion and a five-pound bag of Idaho potatoes before the full loss of my brother overwhelmed me through infinity.