His Lover, My Brother, and Me
By Alexander Evans
We woke up in a hotel room on the edge of the highway somewhere in Iowa. The sheets smelled like stale Ritz crackers. I showered and dressed, and together we crossed the cracked parking lot to the Denny’s next door. Our server had a level of charm and sincerity that seemed almost to be a protest against her drab, off-white surroundings. Mark told me that we ought to eat fast, that getting on the road before eight would mean we could make it out of Iowa by the time rush hour began. I wondered out loud whether rush hour was really much of an issue in an area this remote, and he grunted in response, eyes suddenly focused on the gelatinous eggs before him. Having grown up in Wisconsin, he had a greater appreciation for the agrarian Midwest than my East Coast mindset could ever muster. Earlier in the drive, I’d made a joke about hicks and we’d spent the next hour in silence, his fragile sensibilities jarred by my offhand comment. I tried to change the subject, asking whether we’d be passing by any landmarks on the day’s drive. After a few seconds of deliberation, he brightened up and said that we might be able to see Fort Dodge from the highway before we hit Nebraska.
When Mark showed up on the doorstep, I was surprised to see that my father was not with him. My husband sat on the couch, t-shirt soaked through after his post-work basketball game. I’d just come in with four bags of groceries in one arm, the dog in the other, and Matthew, our six year old, trailing behind. Mark’s hair had more white flecks than the last time I’d seen him. His body seemed somehow smaller, as if he’d sprung a leak on the bottom of one foot and the stuffing of his body was pushed out with each step. After a moment’s pause, I pulled open the door and allowed him to step across the threshold. He held under his arm a lidded ceramic vase.
My brother Jeff was three years older than me, and I hated him for it. His was a life of firsts. First one in the family to be on the Honor Roll. First to attend college. First to play a varsity sport. The seconds that I provided my parents with were expected; where one child bravely goes, others will surely follow. When our parents split, Jeff was settled in Seattle, working at the regional hub of the National Savings Bank. I was the one who came home to my mother, who was alone for the first time since she was sixteen. I was the one there to attempt in some way to reconcile the father I knew growing up, Frank Osgood: neighborhood dad, soccer coach, Chili Cook Off Three Year Champ, with the stranger I met in a moodily lit café in Manhattan, Mark’s hand in his. For all of this, my brother was on the other side of the world, occasionally offering platitudes in Christmas cards, but otherwise carving his own existence away in the wildness of the Pacific Northwest.
Wyoming passed by like one would expect any large, flat rectangle to: slowly. We’d exhausted Mark’s supply of serialized mystery stories on tapes, so I was forced to scan in vain for an outpost of NPR every twenty miles or so. Mostly, all we found was conservative talk radio, interspersed with the odd Christian rock station. My father travelled in the back seat, his resolute silence providing no respite from his deafening presence.
The taco truck was a terrible decision, but the route between where we were and where we were going didn’t contain much in the way of fine dining. Jeff retched out the back window again, and Mark groaned as he saw the projectile liquid splatter against the back door of the old Jeep. “Can you at least try and aim towards the road?”
Jeff wiped his mouth and grimaced, pulling his torso back through the open window. “Hey man, none of this was my idea. Not the tacos, not the Jeep, not any of it.”
I tried my best to stay silent, eyes set on the map before me. My father mirrored my inscrutability, strapped in next to Jeff. We were nearly there.
When I was fifteen, my parents took a trip to California, their first excursion to the West Coast since their honeymoon. They’d treated it almost as a reunion tour, “Frankie and Jenny: Thirty Years and Going Strong.” They rented a condo right on La Jolla Cove. My mother sent me pictures of the seals whose barking on the beaches woke them each morning. When they returned, my parents were a picture of marital bliss: tan with bright white teeth, my father’s hand seemingly always making contact with my mother’s shoulder, back, arm, or leg, as if she may float away without him there as an anchor.
Jeff didn’t want to come at first. We pulled up outside his apartment building and hesitated. It was one of those sleek-cum-rustic structures of stark white, rusted steel, and reclaimed driftwood, every piece of it jutting out at angles aimlessly. Mark looked so meek behind the wheel that I knew it had to be me to make the first move, otherwise we’d be left stalling here in in the bus lane for forever.
If you could play it back in slow motion, Jeff’s face when he opened the door would have nimbly leapt from everyday complacency into surprise at seeing my face, sudden anger at seeing Mark, and finally, a sadness and confusion when he saw the urn Mark held nestled against his down vest.
Mark explained the illness, the death, and, finally, the letter asking the three of us to deliver the ashes to their final resting place. When Mark finished, he looked expectantly at me, as if I had something to add. I tried and failed to meet Jeff’s eyes.
“Why didn’t he tell us?” Jeff’s words seemed to resonate in the doorway.
Mark looked acutely uncomfortable. He cleared his throat. “Frank wanted to—"
I cut him off. “It’s not like you kept in touch with any of us, Jeff. You’ve never even met your nephew. Even if he’d told you he was sick, would you have done anything? Would you have come home?” My face felt hot.
Jeff looked pained for a moment. “He tore this family apart. That wasn’t my fault.” Here, Mark flinched, tacitly assuming the blame. “I came out here to find something better. I don’t want to be dragged back into it.”
Without warning, I began to spill. “Well pardon us for dragging you back to your family, Jeff! Sorry to remind you that we’re still here! You’re as much a part of this fucked up family as any of us. Get the fuck over it and go pack.”
It seemed as though I’d kicked him in the chest. His mouth fell open, gulping for air.
“I—,” his voice trailed off, mind clearly still reeling. As if a switch was flicked somewhere deep inside his torso, he turned and walked to his bedroom. In the silence of the street, Mark and I listened to the series of drawers opening and closing and, finally, the swift pull of a zipper. Minutes later, we were on the road, Jeff strapped in the back next to our father’s remains. It was the first time they’d been near each other in years.
As we crossed the California border, Mark asked whether we’d like to, in his words, “make a trip of it” and see the Golden Gate Bridge before continuing down the coast. I glanced back at my father’s now-familiar ceramic form, tucked under the lap belt next to Jeff’s dozing form. I returned his earnest glance incredulously.
“You know this isn’t a sightseeing trip, right?”
He looked wounded. “All I meant was that, well,” he paused, weighing the words against his teeth before continuing. “It’s what he would have wanted. He always said he wanted to move out west, but then he started to get sick...” His voice faded. Each time he tried to talk about my dad, his engines sputtered out.
I turned to the window, hoping to buy myself some time by staring blankly at the unfamiliar landscape. Finally, I turned around in the seat and shook my brother’s lightly snoring form. “Hey, wake up. We’re going to San Francisco.”
Mark’s small talk had lasted for less than twenty minutes from when we pulled away from the house, my little family waving from the doorstep. he asked about work, the family, the house. My answered were aggressively short, each one causing him to falter and regroup before pushing forth another earnest boat woven from olive branches and bearing a white flag sail.
“How’s Matt liking his new school?”
“He doesn’t like to be called Matt. It’s fine.”
“Oh— Um. Sorry, Cat. Matthew, then.”
He trailed off. The sound of his voice so easily rolling off the syllables of my father’s nickname for me made my stomach lurch. What had I agreed to? Two weeks in this old Jeep with nothing to keep me company but Mark, the urn, and America’s sprawling heartland? Had Dad really been so delusional as to think that this would be a good bonding experience?
I sighed and punched on the stereo. The cassette desk jumped to attention, a warm hiss soaking the speakers before a Southern voice announced the beginning of “another exciting adventure with Detective Howard Langston.”
La Jolla Cove was nothing out of the ordinary for beaches in Southern California. That is to say, it is strikingly gorgeous, forever temperate, and inexplicably populated with sparkling demi-gods. In his letter, dutifully delivered by Mark, our father had been explicit in his wish to stay here, but he gave no indication of how our motley crew was supposed to discretely distribute him in the midst of the sunbathers, lifeguards, surfers, and supermodels. Even pulling the urn from the back seat, Jeff received a strange look from a passing set of washboard abs.
We decided the afternoon was too conspicuous; we’d be better to wait till nightfall. We paid a visit to the beachside bar, too burned out by the journey to even marvel at the cost of a Corona, thankful just to be out of the car and at the final resting place.
As Mark surveyed the assembled crowd of bronzed surfers and beach babes, he sighed and turned to me.
“Your father would have loved this.”
I recalled the faded pictures of my mother and father on this very beach during their first trip as a married couple. In my mind, I carved out the space where my mother had stood and replaced her with a younger version of Mark, less frail, thick, black mustache on his upper lip. With some difficulty, I dragged myself back from the desecration of my childhood memories and back to the beachside patio.
“Did you and my dad travel together?”
“Never too far afield, unfortunately. When he was diagnosed, it seemed to risky to take a beach vacation. He always said he wanted to move out here one day, though. He said we could shack up like a couple of beach bums and live out our days filling our wrinkles with sand.”
I coughed out a laugh. “He came here with my mom on their honeymoon, you know.”
“Yes, he always said it was the happiest he’d been in his life.”
I could feel moisture collecting in the corners of my eyes and took a swing of my beer to cover the lapse in composure. It had been easier, somewhat, to imagine my father as a lifelong liar, rather than a human being who’d been just as surprised by his discovery as the rest of us.
“I—I think the two of you would have been very happy here.”
Mark’s eyes met mine, and I saw that he, too, had tears in his eyes. I reached out and placed my hand atop his. We sat in silence for some time, each lost in thought, contemplating the task before us.
When my father moved out, it was a strange ritual. My mother, frail with the stress, couldn’t carry much of anything, and what small trinkets she did move brought her fits of tears. As I piled fifty percent of a thirty year marriage into the trunk of Mark’s Jeep, I scanned my father’s possessions, attempting to find the signs that my mother had missed, the chink in the armor that could give some pinhole view into the man who’d laid latent inside my father’s skin all these years. Old basketball shoes, a stack of faded posters, a childhood collection of die-cast airplanes. Golf clubs used exactly once at a company outing and retired to the crawl space. When at last the cupboards were laid bare, I had no satisfaction. There were no secret magazines stashed away in his sock drawer, no hidden compartment in his bedside table containing a journal which, when opened with the right key, would spill all he had hidden across the pages. He was just my dad. The drawers of his nightstand were filled with old letters and pictures Jeff and I had made for him, loose change, a blunt pocket knife. There was no new story to be constructed from these items, only the one I already knew, just with an unexpected ending, a cruel twist by a creator with a sense of humor.
I’d like to say that, when the beach finally cleared some time after three in the morning, we prepared a ceremony, made speeches, lit a fire to dance around, and at the height of the fervor, cast my father from the urn into the California wind. It would be nice, I think, to show us in some way transformed by all this, made whole again, brought together in a moment of transcendent glory.
We gingerly pulled the lid from the vase and divided it up, each of filling a makeshift container. For me, a travel mug from Rita’s Pet Care. For Jeff, an empty tupperware scrounged from under a backseat. Mark, having known the plan from the onset, brought our father’s favorite mug, commemorating the citywide Chili Cookoff a few years prior. We cut separate lines across the beach, heads down, dusting the luminescent surface and blending the black with the sand as we walked, hiding him in plain sight. When our containers were bare and the beach full, we returned to the car in silence. It was done.
Standing on the shoreline, someone might have mistaken our silhouettes on the bridge to be a family. The two adult children and the graying man. What’s that bundle he’s carrying? A baby?
Mark had been too anxious to leave the urn in the car when we’d reached Golden Gate Pakr. When I pulled out my phone to capture the beauty of the city from across the Bay, an eager German tourist appeared and, through stilted syllables and hand motions, indicated that he could take our photo for us. Too tired to argue or try and explain, we huddled together on the bridge, his lover, my brother, and me, cradling my father between us, the connective tissue of the entire expedition.
The picture would never be on a Christmas card or a mantel shelf. Jeff and I l departed LAX at different times, leaving Mark to pilot the Jeep home alone. Our farewells in the airport were short and awkward. My brother wouldn’t call for months, and when Mark’s voice rang out from the answering machine inviting me to dinner in the city, I deleted the message.