HE’S NOT HERE
“They knew they were going up to the country whence the shadows fall.”
–George MacDonald, “The Golden Key”
I open the envelope containing my new driver’s license. “Good grief!” I say, stunned by the headshot photo. “Am I really that old? Is this how I look?”
“Let me see,” my wife says.
“Get ready to laugh.”
My wife examines the photo. “It’s not that bad,” she says, laughing.
“I look like one of the Bog People.”
“Why weren’t you wearing your glasses?”
“The guy at the DMV told me to take them off. Something about the glare.”
“It’s not that bad.”
An eeriness accompanies this jolt. It’s like being my own memento mori: I am no longer as I once was; I am a short distance from what I will be.
My wife and I are both aware of the fact that we have reached the stretch of road where the horizon begins to show: the beginning of phase three of our stint in time. As a result, we see things in a different light. Such as when a roofing contractor included in his written estimate the option of a Lifetime Warranty. “How long does a ‘Lifetime Warranty’ last?” my wife asked. The dazed contractor responded with a sputtering explanation about dry rot, roof rats, extreme attic temperatures, and the dismal lifespan of inferior roofing materials.
Lately topics such as “Living Trust” and “final arrangements” have entered into our conversations. Today we begin the arduous task of organizing and identifying old photographs and memorabilia of all branches of our respective family trees. We want to leave things organized for our children and grandchildren (although we suspect most of our worldly goods will end up in thrift shops and yard sales).
My ancestry is first to get the treatment. My wife devises a clever method in which I place numbered stickers on the backs of photographs while she records on a yellow writing pad the names, dates, and locations I struggle to recall. I draw a blank on three out of five faces, and find it impossible to identify a majority of dates and locations, but when I come to photographs of my childhood family, I halt the cataloging process to reminisce. My wife concentrates on the abundance of photographs of my older brother, who had died from complications of alcoholism at age thirty-three (a year before my wife and I had met). She has of course listened patiently to my repetitive stories about my brother and me, but she now recognizes something in the photos that I had been blind to.
“Your brother looks sad in every photograph I’ve seen of him,” she says.
I feel challenged to find an exception. I pull out a 1955 photograph of my brother and me with a department store Santa Claus. I was five-years-old, my brother was eight. We were both still pretending to believe in Santa Claus—smiling and playing along with the gag. I present the photo to my wife. “He’s smiling in this one,” I say.
“Yes, but it’s a sad smile.”
We continue sifting through dozens of childhood photographs. The main recurring theme is my brother’s sad smile (or sometimes nonsmile). We also notice how his deep-set eyes always seem to be searching for something beyond the borders of the photograph.
I pause to study a photo of my brother and me posing with musical instruments. I remember the situation. We had been raised in a house of music and were often summoned to entertain our parents’ party guests. We’d be in our pajamas and slippers, armed with stringed instruments—me with a Silvertone mandolin; my brother with a Silvertone guitar. Our concert repertoire never varied. We’d begin by singing, in two-part harmony, “Mini the Mermaid.” Then I’d get the big laughs singing solo: “I’m a Ding-dong Daddy from Dumas.” My brother would keep the laughs going with “Come to Me my Melancholy Baby.” Our trademark grand finale was me playing in tremolo the theme from “The Third Man” with my brother strumming guitar chords (zither-like) in accompaniment. No encores.
“Say goodnight, Gracie,” was our father’s cue to let us know our time in the limelight was over. Time to go to bed.
“How about this picture?” I say to my wife.
“What was it that made your brother so sad?”
I look at the picture as if expecting my brother to answer. “He was always somewhere else in his head,” I say for him. The words ring true.
“Where was that ‘somewhere else’?”
I have no answer.
I continue the elegiac trek and discover a photograph stuck to the adhesive flap of a blue envelope. I carefully peel off the photograph and notice that the envelope is addressed to my old bachelorhood apartment. My brother’s name and former return address is in the upper left corner. The date on the cancellation stamp is unreadable. I run my fingers inside the envelope and find nothing.
“It’s empty,” I say. I look inside. “There’s nothing in here.”
During the mid-1970s my brother was on the road with his folk-rock band. He lived for a while in Colorado, which was when we started corresponding with letters and postcards (neither of us could afford long distance phone calls). I have no idea what became of his letters—or why I would have saved an empty envelope. When my brother returned home to California, he was emaciated, moody, and often tipsy. He employed all the standard tricks to mask his alcoholism—wearing sunglasses indoors, speaking slowly and with elevated diction, drinking vodka and cranberry juice from a Thermos. The last time I saw him alive he was lying in a hospital bed, covered with a single sheet, his face twisted in agony and fear. He had taken the courageous first step to quit drinking—cold turkey—and his body had responded with a seizure.
“Why is this happening to me?’ he asked. “I’m trying so hard. Why is this happening to me?”
At the time I knew nothing about alcoholic seizures. “I don’t know,” I said. I took hold of his right ankle and squeezed gently. My brother’s face transformed. He smiled and thanked me for visiting him.
We purchase flowers and set out to visit a cemetery we had not been to in over twenty years. I trust my memory and drive directly to its gates.
“It looks different,” I say. “It’s changed. I don’t remember where his grave is.”
“We can check in at the office,” my wife says. “They’ll have his records.”
A young man with a haircut like one of the Katzenjammer Kids stands to greet us
from his desk. We tell him our situation and he sits to type my brother’s name into a computer system.
“He’s not here,” he says. “Are you sure about the spelling?”
“He’s my brother,” I say. “I think I know how his name is spelled.”
The man spells the name aloud.
“That’s it,” I say.
He again types the name into the computer. “He’s not here.”
“What do you mean he’s not here? This is the cemetery where he was buried. I was at his funeral.”
“I’m sorry, sir. He’s not in our files.”
“Is there another cemetery down the road?”
“Then this is where he’s buried.”
“Let’s just walk around,” my wife says. “Maybe we’ll find him ourselves.”
I shake my index finger at the Katzenjammer Kid. “This isn’t the end of it,” I say, as my wife guides me out the door.
We get the flowers from our car and begin our walk through the Land of the Dead. We try not to step on the graves but the effort is useless—the graves are packed shoulder-to-shoulder. As we walk, we scan the names and dates on headstones. Some of the headstones record long lives; others, not so long. I realize the odds are stacked against us: there is no alphabetical or chronological order to these grave markers. But the walk has a calming effect. And the autumnal light transforms the Land of the Dead into the Land of Faerie. My wife links her arm with my arm and cradles the flowers like a bride. We are drawn to an older section of the cemetery: to the standing headstones. A Western Meadowlark lands on one of the headstones. The mostly yellow bird tilts back its head, opens wide its long beak, pipes—three times—an otherworldly leitmotif and then flies off.
He’s not here.