In 1967 a weird, rich freedom was in the air, attended by the lulls that follow good sex, rain or a successful electrocution. The suburbs were constellated voids and the minds and laps of young children were occupied with the virile new technology of their toys: electrical buzzing skeletal overlays, mechanized whirligigs, plasticine injectibles, and the glamorous fact of television, which proposed that dots, projected fine enough on a piece of glass, could constitute a reality fully the equal of Life.
In 1967, I stood naked in the bathroom amidst the greeny light imported by the windows from the back lawn, and put a question to the upper corner of the room where the ceiling met the wall. Paint had bubbled there; spiders flung the intricate grots of their webs. I requested from this dirty bit of House the following information. Was there a realer, deeper, truer space than this one tumbled down so woefully all about me? One whose wardrobe was not of such a sustained pitch of braying loudness? One whose faces and overall appearance seemed to have bathed awhile in the ethers of a whiter world, such as was epitomized (I was ten) by the perfect hair of Perry Como, or the faultless high-kicking girls with feathered headdresses on the Jackie Gleason show whom my father, lighting the fragrant shank of a cigar, called “chlorines,” and my mother whores, but pronounced in a way that rhymed with sewers? Was there a reason my brother would never talk unless spoken to and passed his days hunkered down within the dark bell of his illness? Was there nowhere a span of grandness that my family owned, commensurate with all the showy folds of drama I felt enveloped me?
I touched the pulse in my neck, and stared at the upper corner of the room. For a while now I had been convinced that this bit of webby umbrage concealed a microscopic apparatus of great subtlety and unknown provenance whose purpose was to subvert my gift for life. Someone, I was convinced, was jealous of my rare elixir, my sparkling scarlet formula; someone wanted to crush and drain and break me down until I marched in the wan servitude of the rest of the dull shufflers of the planet. It listened to me, I was certain. This corner of the house wanted my mind.
I stood on the edge of the tub, all convinced of my uniqueness, and stretched my hands toward the paint of the upper wall. Touched, it came away as a whitish grime bespattered with the tiny netting of spiderweb. I was disappointed, obscurely. I wanted evidence of small machines for espionage there, infinitely miniaturized galleries for listening hard. Deeply discouraged, I dressed, went downstairs and ate my dinner like everyone else in the world.
Light broke early the next morning, widening through the window to cross the room with a chute the color of lymphatic fluid. Breakfast was cold cereal, and the car, a Corvair in the shape of a bulbous superinsect, was soon idling hard in the driveway. We were going to a doctor again. A fang of smoke stabbed the air from the exhaust pipe. We were going for the second time this week. It was about my brother Fad, who had something quick, deep and absolute wrong with him, though no one knew what. I made a muscle as the car moved off smartly, threaded the coiling secondary roads for five minutes and debouched with a whoosh onto the interstate.
“When will the road end?” asked Fad, straining forward against the acceleration.
“What, dear?” asked Mother. Her hair had been freshly sprayed with Aqua Net and sat scrolled on either side of her head like the capitals of Ionic columns. She rummaged in her purse for change with long fingers, getting ready for the tollbooth. I had been pleading with her to get a toll gun, which fired the chiming silver bullets of quarters into the exact change scoops—which, after a fashion, fed the highway.
“The road, where does it go when it stops?’ he asked.
“Well,” she pursed her lips. “I think it goes to Canada, actually.” She laughed, “If you were crazy enough to want to go to Canada!”
“Why? I asked.
“Brrrr!” she said. “It’s too cold for most people.”
“But many people live there,” I said sensibly.
“And then where?” asked Fad.
“Then where does it go, in Canada.”
“I—I don’t actually know, to tell you the truth.”
“But Mommy,” his voice was beginning to rise and tighten. “The road just can’t stop. It has to get somewhere, Mommy. Mommy!”
“Mommy, find out where the road goes, make it that it goes someplace I know. Where does it go? Where?”
“The sea,” I said calmly.
“What?” he turned, wild-eyed.
“Your brother’s right,” said Mother. “It goes where all roads go. To the ocean.”
“The sea?” Fad asked, visibly relaxing.
“Yeah,” I said, “they’re the same thing.”
In the gray marine light of his examining room, Dr. Minkoff bent forward and flexed his fingers with a brisk, serially cracking sound, like the tappets of an old engine firing up after lengthy disuse.
“And this,” he said in a loud voice, “must be the specimen!”
Mother bellied out the front of her body to urge him ahead, while I walked behind, turning my face to either side, slowly and methodically.
“This is the one, doctor!” she cried.
My vision drew to the center. Fad was holding soiled hands to his face, had made a square hole of his fingers and was peering through it at the doctor like a movie director framing a shot.
“Go away,” he said, with great seriousness.
The doctor’s smile shriveled fractionally.
“We’re here today to do a physical,” he said, clearing his throat. “We’re going to examine your systems of hearing and sight, check your circulatory system, and give your nerves a quick once-over. Okey doke?”
No one said a word.
“Right,” said the doctor, walking to a wall cabinet and removing a small glittering tube. “This,” he said, “is called an eyescope. It checks the function of the most precious part of your body.”
The doctor bent forward at the waist, lowering himself until his face was in front of Fad’s, and then slowly raising the eyescope up into position.
“Mom,” said Fad in a chill, flat voice.
“Can I spit on him now?”
“No, sweetie, he’d be very upset.”
The doctor squinted into his instrument, plying a needle of light around the reddish inner perimeter of Fad’s eye.
“Well,” he said with a chuckle, “I’ve been peed on enough times, and worse, too. But spit on? Not yet anyway.”
Dr. Minkoff stood up, sighing, and steepled his hands over his breastbone.
“Your mother,” said the doctor delicately, “explained to me that you’re the type of young man who likes to know what’s being done to you, so I’m going to tell you that the blood test gives a tiny pain, like a flybite, but it’s very important. You with me?”
“No!” cried Fad.
Mother seemed to awaken then, tilting her head gravely to the side while her long, lariat-like arms flowed around Fad’s body and drew him close. Tenderly she whispered into the horn of his ear in a burring soft voice that he was a Best Boy, one of the very best boys in all the world; that few boys had ever been as handsome, noble, or As Well Behaved In Doctor’s Offices, and fewer still as surpassingly smart and quick and important. Everything about him was like a kind of gold, ablaze with precious forces. Rest assured, she whispered, a Mom like her was very lucky to have him.
Just then the door opened and the nurse came in—a large, square, red-faced person atop whose head, like a wave breaking, was set a fluted cap. She aimed the cap at Fad.
“This the little blood giver?” she asked.
“Say hi,” said Mother.
“Hi.” His voice fell down as he said it.
The nurse opened her bag, exposing odd bights of rubber tubing, glass pipettes and gauges. She took out a small white cotton swab, wiped Fad’s index finger, and then stared at him a second.
“Aren’t you a handsome young man!” she said loudly, smiling as she stabbed a bright piece of metal fast into the pad of his finger. From a great, bored distance I observed the widening hoop of bewilderment passing over my brother’s face as the pain rang in from the remote station of his hand, grew up fast into a genuine sting.
He screamed. A good, solid, meat-eating burst of sound. But the nurse, though he began to struggle, hung on gamely, and sucked the blood in a thin red line up the pipette. She bound his finger with a piece of gauze and a band-aid, while Mother tenderly stroked his brow and winked in my direction.
I put my finger to my neck, felt the pulse there beating rapidly. One day this persistent knocking of blood below my chin would slow, then stop entirely, and I would begin my voyage back to that braided scatter of dark minerals from which I’d taken form. This was Death, an event to which I’d recently begun giving long and considered thought. Death, I’d decided, was like reading a book that erased itself as you went along, and left you with a lapful of soot and shattered grammar where before there had been sentences slung like bright webbing above the world and the story of a life filled with beautiful, slow-moving men and women. Or perhaps it came as a pair of gleaming black bookends, fashioned of the pure cold of outer space, that squeezed your head from either side until you exploded in a single breath-shaped burst, and went away. Or, more likely, it was a rent in the remotest, most gossamer of veils, through which you passed hissing like a gas, and from which you never, absolutely ever, came back.
I looked up. Mother, Dr. Minkoff and the nurse were gathered in a tight knot around Fad, who was sobbing hysterically and thrashing his head from side to side. I glanced at my calendar watch and made a lightning calculation. Twenty thousand more days of this to go. Shutting my eyes, I took a deep breath and held it until the taste of a river rose into my mouth and everything swam bluish black.