It is Dump Day in my building. We can throw out anything we want, from washers and dryers to old laptops and the million tangled cords they attract as long as we can drag it to the curb. In short order I have amassed a pile of old sheets and towels, books I’ve carted from state-to-state since graduating college more than thirty years ago, a failed toaster, and odd pieces of cracked china. In the swing of it, I happily dig through every drawer, eager to be rid of the dead weight of things I’ve kept far beyond reasonable use. My rule is: If I haven’t looked at it or touched it in the past 12 months, it is gone, baby. And that is how I find way in the back of a drawer, waiting for me like a witch’s curse (You will prick your finger and die!), a spiral-bound wallet of black and white photographs dated in my mother’s faded handwriting: July 11, 1954. A shadow passes through me, sudden and menacing, like a door that slams when there is no wind. I lift the cover and my mouth falls into a round, silent, Oh. Everything I’m about to tell you is true.
The picture is of my brother and me. Five- and three-years old, we stand in the scraped-out backyard of a post-war housing development that’s too new to have trees that are anything more than leafy sticks poking up from the bulldozed ground. In the palpable heat of summer we bookend younger cousins who squint into the camera, all of us shirtless and boney. My brother stands slightly apart, just enough to be noticeable. I remember the shorts he is wearing, brown with the jagged outline of a Scottish terrier stitched in coarse, yellow rickrack on each pant leg and last seen in a wicker laundry basket when Eisenhower was President. His one skinny arm is bent out like a wing, the other drawn up so that his cheek rests in his hand. His curly-lipped smile and clear eyes are utterly guileless and natural. He has our mother’s face.
When he is six, I will find my brother late one night in our dimly lit kitchen, standing on tiptoe in front of the white enamel stove to reach the gas hob that hisses but doesn’t flame. He will look at me with eyes that droop and slide down his face. “Try this,” he says, turning back to the gas. “It will make you feel so good.” And from that moment, I am afraid of him. From that moment I lose a little more of him each day. I was a child. He was my big brother. I didn’t know what it meant. We’d kept secrets before. I never told anyone.
July 11, 2002. I am at home in El Cerrito, California. I’m sitting at my desk. It is morning and I am still in pajamas. Soft, threadbare pajamas I have worn for years, that I have slept in and cleaned house in and watered the garden in and I rise to get more coffee and somehow my legs become entangled in these familiar-as-my-hand pajamas and I fall to the floor almost laughing at the absurdity of it I fall to the floor and as I am going down in slo-mo I catch sight of the clock on the nightstand before I hit the carpet and then I rise, shower and dress and the phone rings and it is my sister in Wisconsin who tells me our brother has settled his tab with a single self-inflicted gunshot to the head and I say, “What time? What time did he die?” and she answers it was the hour I fell.
July 11, 2013. I am sitting at that same desk in my Oakland loft. It is morning and I am still in pajamas. Something is wrong. I live in a working seaport of freight haulers and huge white boom cranes offloading cargo ships from China and Japan. Freeways, airplanes, and rail crisscross in front of, over, and behind my building but all sound has stopped. I look up, wondering why. The shattering of glass when it comes is so terrible I bite the inside of my cheek. Though I’m barefoot, I race to the kitchen. There is one cupboard door, under the bar, that is slightly ajar. I tug it open ever so gently and jump back. Shards of every wine glass I own, every old fashioned glass, every tumbler and beer mug and shot glass and high ball and martini glass spill to the floor in a crystal waterfall. I stand there, stunned by the wreckage of a collapsed shelf until I realize every other shelf held. Nothing else is broken. No plate or cup or saucer. No picture has realigned at a dizzy angle on the wall. The California earthquake website shows no seismic activity for the morning, only a clean, flat line. It is the anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Be silent in your grave of ash, clever boy. I back away from the wreckage to retrieve the snapshots from July 11, 1954. I still have them.
Hello, says my brother from the watery world of memory and death. He sits in our father’s plaid hammock, his hair falling away evenly from the part in the middle of his forehead. Or here, in this photo, his shy grin, hand demurely at his cheek, embarrassed that his brain spatter will one day ruin the wall.
Do you remember me? he asks looking right at me. From before I was a drunk? From before our brother was born the following year, before our sister still so far in the future? When it was just us? he pleads. Just us in our Rootie Kazootie tee shirts, our Red Ball Jet ‘run faster, jump higher’ shoes, our rooster slippers, our terrycloth bathrobes with Champ lettered across our tiny, rabbit shoulders? When we rolled around in the back of that mint green Buick station wagon big as a hearse, before child seats, before seat belts, before there was duck and cover and bomb shelters and cigarettes and liquor stores and bars, and me drinking, drinking, drinking while you slogged away at university for ten years getting degree after degree trying to unlearn what you already knew?
Yes, brother, I do. But addiction is a progressive, degenerative disease and my enduring memories of him are of what a mean motherfucker he became. In July, on the anniversary of his suicide, I honor his struggle as an addict. I don’t consciously do anything that could be interpreted as using. No alcohol or weed. No sugar. I won’t even take an aspirin for my ancient, aching bones.
On his birthday in March, I put a candle in the window at dusk and eat a dinner of fried Spam with yellow mustard on toast, a ration he and I ate every day those early summers when we took to the field behind our house as dead-tired, unshaven and starving privates-first-class lost behind enemy lines, Japanese zeroes buzzing the tall grass in search of us acting out our father’s war stories. He was my first friend, he of the blue sky, drifting cloud summers only we knew.
Rebecca Chekouras is published on the Tin House blog, in Narrative Magazine, East Bay Review, Pithead Chapel, the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve, 9394 Magazine, and the zine Pure Slush. She received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train New Writer Short Story competition. A Fellow of the 2015 Tin House Winter Writer’s Workshop and the 2013 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat, Chekouras helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Follow her on Twitter at @Rchekouras.