The light is dark and somehow blurry but that doesn’t make any sense because that’s not how you describe light. Light is photons and photons are not dark and blurry or fuzzy, they’re just little particles that move at, well, the speed of light. I learned all of that as a young man in the Navy when I was on a nuclear submarine, the USS Henry Clay. And that was at least twenty-five summers back.
Still, the light is dark but the haziness is lifting and it feels as though I’m awakening from a dream and the first thing I feel is a… weightlessness.
Now the light becomes bright sunshine and everything snaps into focus and I see the shape before me and there he is, my brother.
I stare at Billy and feel a slight sense of awe the way I always have, ever since we were small boys. But now I’m seventeen and he’s nineteen and we both sit on the red sundeck of our mother’s home in rural Atlanta. I look down and laugh out loud to see a hard, flat stomach, dark from a summer of landscaping. It’s impossible to comprehend how over time that flat rock will morph and droop over my belt buckle. In my dream, I remember how I felt at that young age when I was so lean and strong and absolutely bullet proof and that persona comes back to me easily like slipping on an old, favorite shirt that has been lost for a while. Decades.
I look out, up and see Bob with a beer in one hand, throwing the Frisbee effortlessly perfect one hundred feet across the yard to Jimmy. Jimmy doesn’t have to move, he catches the disc and in the same motion turns and bombs a high glide toward Bobby who forms the third leg of their triangle. Jimmy’s throw is high, way high. Bobby stares with dark serious eyes, runs, and times a perfect jump to catch the Frisbee just before it sails over the fence into the neighbor’s yard.
I smile and look around to see if anyone else appreciates that little feat of athleticism. Amazingly to me, no one else seems impressed. Easy for Bobby, so natural. He had so many talents, it seemed to my young mind, yet no one seemed to notice. Not even himself.
I sip my beer, ice cold and strong and wickedly delicious and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Give Me Three Steps blares from the speakers in Bob’s truck, doors opened wide, the opening riff simultaneously strident and smooth demands your attention. Jimmy suddenly holds his beer high, head down, long hair waving wildly, feet moving in a way that only he can do, just as impressive as Bobby’s catch. This does get everyone’s attention because we all love Jimmy’s extremely rare dances affectionately known as possum trots.
Bobby, Jimmy, and Bob are my brother’s age. Cindy, Patti my age and so beautiful I can only look at them briefly because their boyfriends (my brother and Bob, respectively) would surely see my thoughts and a fight would ensue. Not that I couldn’t hold my own against anyone (and I mean anyone because I am indestructible as a Doberman) but there is a social status to our circle and I am perfectly content because I have so damn much respect.
Bob is in the yard and Billy is looking in that direction so I steal a glance at Cindy and Patti and watch as they roll a joint. Their hair is longer than the boys, halfway down their backs. The bloom is one hundred percent on the rose and I wonder if they could ever possibly look more beautiful in their lives. Surely they are at their physical peak and it is glorious. They wear bikini tops and cut off jeans might as well be bikini bottoms. Complexions clear and golden from the sun. Arms and legs long and beautiful but oh-my-god smiles make me lose my train of thought and any small shred of self-confidence I might have at that age.
Cindy looks at me and runs her tongue across the joint for seal and gives me an exaggerated wink and then laughs and I turn away in a blush because that’s the way Cindy was. An incredible flirt and my heart aches and I wonder if I will ever find a woman like her as I grow into a man.
That possibility seems impossibly far off.
She lights the joint, takes a deep drag, hands it to Billy. He smiles at her, takes a hit, hands it to me with a look of dead seriousness.
I take the joint and a drag and look across the deck at my brother.
His dark blond hair hangs to his shoulders. He wears a tank top and it looks good on his lean, muscular body. Cut off shorts and his thin legs are tan and I wish my white legs would darken like his. Barefoot like the rest of us but his look is different because he wears a belt and has a wallet attached to a long chain and he also wears an Old Timer pocketknife in a dark leather case on his belt. The belt with all the gear makes him look almost official, though he’s the farthest thing from a cop you’ll ever meet in your life.
Then he catches me gazing at him and registers a stern look and I turn away. The smoke starts to kick in and I feel time stretch and turn and am suddenly only aware of the exact moment and every nerve in my body is buzzing pleasantly and my mind begins to flow. Not drift exactly. Moving with purpose. The way you hop from one smooth round stone to the next while traveling across a creek at a pleasant pace. No sooner do you land on one rock then you immediately scan ahead for the next, and the next, then the next, your body in constant forward motion.
I am here in the company of the people I most love and trust in this world and I feel a feeling of total relaxation and peace.
Patti starts to tell a funny story from her job. She worked as a receptionist at a real estate firm. The company had thrown an after hours party for the employees, about twenty people. Everyone had been loaded and clearly people had a good time but the point was really brought home a week later when they found a pair of red-laced panties stuffed behind the cushions in the sofa in the reception area.
“Uh-oh. Were they yours?” Cindy asks with her beautiful contagious laugh.
“No, they most certainly were not,” Patti responds, eyes wide, smiling incredulously as though she could not believe Cindy’s suggestion. I had been thinking the same thing, of course, and still was not so sure.
“Who found them?” Cindy asks.
“The cleaning lady.”
“Oh no! Who was there when she found them?”
“A bunch of us. John and Kirk, me, Suzanne, Linda. I think Patrick was there.”
“Oh my God. What did y’all say?”
“That’s what’s so funny. Nothing at first. Then, after a minute, Kirk said we should follow Cinderella’s lead and try them on each girl one at a time.”
We all laugh but of course no one laughs louder or more wonderfully than Billy.
Patti goes on to another story but I have something I want to say because I’m feeling no pain and just have to discuss something related to an idea. So I wait for the right opening and finally I see that Patti is just talking, not really saying anything new so slowly I begin to speak.
I’m easing in into her lane with a turn signal and hoping she’ll let me in.
But Patti, not being a considerate driver, refuses.
I hesitate, then sense an opening when Patti sips her wine and try to ease in with a bit more force but Patti blocks my entry by setting down her wine and talking right over me. But I have already started so by God I’m coming into the goddamn lane and she’s going to have to actually hit me so for the next ten seconds we both talk and finally, way past rude but short of offensive, I go silent. Cindy looks at me and smiles and rolls her eyes at Patti’s boorishness and that makes me feel a little better. Of course, part of me resents that Patti did not show enough respect to let me speak. Then I smile and think perhaps I’m the selfish one to think that every time I start to speak everyone else should stop and listen. I do have certain friends who always defer to me and I get used to it and my ego thinks that everyone should show me that courtesy. Welcome to the real world.
Strangely, Billy always showed that courtesy.
At seventeen, two years makes a big difference. Bobby and Billy and Bob and Jimmy are two years older and I’m still in high school. Hanging out with them makes me feel older, mature. Somehow all the things we do are serious, they matter. Things I do with other friends are meaningless.
I came around from a urinal in my high school to wash my hands and two older boys stood talking at the sink and when they saw me one of them turned to his friend and spoke.
“Look, it’s a Kiser. His older brother is one of the ‘Animals’.”
I knew he referred to Billy, Bobby, Bob and Jimmy. They had all dropped out of Henderson High but not before earning reputations as young outlaws, anti-establishment hippies. And the wonderful nick name, “The Animals”.
He may have meant it as an insult to my family but I felt pride. I was associated indirectly with the older boys who were taken very seriously and it was an association of dignity as far as I was concerned. I held my head a little higher as I washed my hands.
When I told my brother and his friends of this encounter they laughed and repeated it among themselves and again I felt satisfied because I was mostly a listener and a watcher in our circle and most of what I said did not seem to impress or warrant additional comment. I thought a lot about ideas, abstracts that when raised to the group were generally met with derision. I never felt like I was smarter, in fact quite the opposite. I felt awkward in some ways because it just seemed like I thought about things that didn’t apply directly to life. And it seemed the things that did apply directly to life I somehow missed. But I’m a quick study so I stopped bringing up ideas unless, of course, we all had a good, strong buzz, which I definitely have going on now.
I look up again at my brother and the light goes slightly dark and I suddenly know what I knew which is to say what I know at the age of forty-seven, an age when lines form on your face and hands but only if you turn your hand or twist your arm a certain way so you avoid those maneuvers and learn to ignore the strange loose waves that appear on your skin. But I didn’t want to think about that because I’m relishing this moment from the past and I want, desperately, for this to be my real world at least for a little while longer and not the real world thirty summers in the future because no matter how confusing and intimidating and uncertain life is at seventeen it is still a time, particularly when high, of absolutely no pressure and these young friendships will never be repeated in life but you don’t know that yet and I wanted back in if only for a day.
“Did they tell you that you died?”, I ask Billy.
When I was seventeen and he was nineteen I don’t know why but Billy was very angry with me and there was nothing but contempt in his voice whenever he spoke to me. Naturally, the result was that he and I rarely spoke. I loved and respected him, though I could, of course, never tell him that. I seriously doubted he loved me as a brother.
These feelings would persist as I grew into a man and sailed the world in the Navy and went to college and went to work in corporate America and married and had children and became an executive and traveled and met more people than my brother could ever dream of, people of all walks of life and all personalities. At seventeen, I had never met a person as strong as my brother and I didn’t know it then but I never would in my entire life and to this day I don’t understand what made him so strong.
One day we were at the Chattahoochee River drinking beer and a cop came by to hassle us and he was big and pulled out his baton. I did my best to stand up straight but I was certain anyone who looked at me could see the fear in my eyes. Billy stared with utter defiance and it seemed to me he actually wouldn’t mind if the cop knocked him out with that club. The cop seemed to sense the same thing.
“Do you think you’re tough, boy?” the cop asked. He was at least a foot taller than all of us and ten years older. He wore reflective sunglasses and his hair was short and he was dark and he looked like the kind of no nonsense killer who would crack your skull without hesitation.
Billy stared at him, looking relaxed and unaware of the menace the man projected. somehow completely immune. I did not know how that could be. I did not know how Billy would answer. I had no idea what I would say. It was clearly a lose-lose question. If Billy said no then he was subservient and I knew that was not an option. If he said yes then the cop would have to prove he was tougher and with a big dark cop like that you just did not want to encourage him to prove such a thing.
“Tougher than some,” was Billy’s cool reply and we would talk about that day and his reply in the decades ahead.
The cop stared hard at Billy for a moment, then two. And then an incredible thing happened. The cop smiled and the tension was broken and he told us to be on our way as we were scaring the “regular” folk. We said that’s cool and we left and we laughed all the way home. Billy had a great laugh and a big smile and just a wonderful personality when he chose to use it.
In our thirties things changed and Billy’s contempt faded and, hey, give me some credit where I deserve it. I worked really hard and made something of myself and became a man. I went further in life, I’m sure, than Billy ever thought I would.
In our forties he actually apologized for being such a prick when we were younger. Not to me, of course, but to my Mom and she told me and that was good enough.
As Billy looks at me across the sundeck on this summer day in the late nineteen seventies there is a little of what we would develop in our forties in his gaze and the contempt is gone and even though we look the way we look in our young bodies we both have our older perspectives.
I can see in his face that Billy takes me seriously. He would make a terrible poker player because as tough as he was his face gave everything away. Perhaps that’s what made him so tough.
Still, he is struggling to humor me because clearly he thinks it is a ridiculous question. His look says it all and as he struggles to find the words I realize I don’t need to hear them, I can see his look of dismissal, indifference to the question. See, we were partly older but still here we are on our mother’s sundeck so the question really is stupid.
“Hey, I know it’s only talk,” I said. I have to get this point across somehow because it’s important and I will learn in my twenties and thirties that no matter the social status in the crowd you have to make the important points. That was, in fact, how you climbed the ladder of social status, by recognizing the important points and making them where others could not.
“But let me tell you what I know. Let me tell you the warning signs so just in case you see them coming, if you see any of these patterns, you’ll know.”
Now I’m framing my argument with a logic he can’t debate.
“Just in case, Billy.”
He looks away and I think about the despair he must have felt at the end, the utter lack of hope and the eventual decision that the pain had to end no matter what. Fuck it. And I realize I can’t tell him of those warning signs because that discussion would somehow have me lecturing to him and that should never happen and the moment is lost. Forever.
The last words he will ever say to me are also the first time he ever says those words to me and I was shocked and amazed and nearly cried because to hear it from him was surreal and there was nothing about his words to be taken lightly.
“I love you,” he will say thirty years from this moment and he will give me a hug and I will leave his dirty little studio apartment, where he’s living alone with two days to live.