How would you feel if you found yourself dead?
How would you feel, seeing yourself hanging naked from an oak ceiling beam, held there by a length of blue nylon rigging rope looped around your neck? How would you feel, seeing the same brown eyes, the same thinning hair, the same hairless pale legs with the same knobby knees, the same size ten-and-a-half feet with the same splayed toes featuring the same ingrown toenails, the same long arms and bony wrists, the same small hands with identical stubby fingers and twin pasty palms held out at the hips as if answering the question (“Why???”) with a shrug?
I might have been looking in a mirror save for:
1. that blue rope around my neck
2. the red-purple blotches at the body’s lower extremities
3. and the fact that, unlike me, my doppelganger was thoroughly, utterly, categorically dead.
That’s the vision that greeted me on my arrival here seven or eight weeks ago, on a day as windswept and stormy as this one, writing these words for you in a black marble composition notebook, Dear Reader, whoever you are.
That’s one beginning. Beginning A, let’s call it. As beginnings go you can do worse than start with a dead body, in medias res — as I teach, or taught, my students at the Metropolitan Writing Institute.
At their extremes all opposites meet. Travel far enough East and you end up in the West. Love and hate are inseparable. In their absolutely pure states back and white are both impossible and therefore identical. Being born is the first step toward dying. Beginnings and endings depend on each other.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This one has two beginnings. It has two endings, too. Like Noah’s Ark, it has two of everything. It is, after all, a tale in twos.
A Tale of Two Twins.
It was our mother who launched me on my journey, who phoned me at one a.m. (normally she’s asleep by eight-thirty) to say she was worried about my brother. Correction: she wasn’t worried, she was hysterical, beside herself. Her voice quivered with consternation. She could hardly get the words out, she was shaking so badly.
“Mother, what is it?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
I’d answered the phone in the hallway next to my kitchen. My Bronx apartment was the kind called a “railroad flat,” a series of rooms arranged in a straight line running the length of my building, a tenement. In the kitchen, at the center of its brown linoleum floor, a lion-clawed bathtub squatted. As my mother quivered and gasped, I sat in the gloomy kitchen on the lip of that tub, trying to unravel the phone cord (I still had a landline; I owned no cellphone), which, as always, had become hopelessly tangled. It soon became clear to me, through the twisted phone line and my mother’s quivering voice, that my brother Greg — or “Brock Jones, PhD,” as he was known then — hadn’t been in any kind of accident, not as far as anyone, including my mother, knew. As far as my mother knew nothing had happened to him.
Her hysteria was the result of dream.
She dreamed that my brother was a child again, five or six or seven years old, that he was swimming somewhere, and that something — a rope, some weed, a fishing line (a tangled phone cord?) had snagged his foot and was holding him under. She saw it all clearly — as clearly, she said, as though she were watching a movie. There was Greg under water, struggling, cheeks puffed, eyes bulging, face contorted and turning blue. In the film’s final frames he opened his mouth to gaping and gasped. That’s when my mother woke up.
And that’s when she phoned me.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.
Mother is eighty-four years old. Despite being diabetic, nearly blind, and confined to an assisted living facility in North Carolina, she is in full command of her senses. She’s also an inveterate worrier. Not that our mother doesn’t have things to worry about; she does. Her kidneys are failing, for one thing. Her ankles are swollen. Her blood pressure is high. She’s anemic. She’s lost — or is losing — her appetite. She is legally blind. Does she worry about these things? No. She finds other things to worry about, things far less pressing, things that aren’t even real. Most of her worries are pure products of her fancy, to where I have to wonder if worrying isn’t a passion with her, if she doesn’t thrive on the possibility of things going wrong, if anticipating negative outcomes doesn’t in some way fulfill her spiritually and possibly even erotically. Not just knowing that things may go wrong, but imagining the very worst possible ways in which they might do so. When it comes to worrying, my mother is possessed of an Olympian resourcefulness.
And though it may seem to upset her terribly, apart from the fact that it distracts her from what should be her real concerns, her worrying does my mother no real harm. On the contrary, it invigorates her. It keeps her circulation, her digestive, her respiratory, her nervous, endocrine, and other systems operating at an enterprise scale. Worrying brightens Mother’s legally blind eyes; it gives her something to chew on — the way Taiwanese people chew on betel nuts and Bolivians chew on coca leaves. She tends to her worries like a master gardener tending her tea roses and gardenias, giving rise to splendiferous, fulsomely-scented blooms.
I shrugged Mother’s nightmare off. True, neither of us had heard from Greg / Brock for some time. Except for one very brief encounter, five years had passed since I had last spoken with him, but then I hadn’t wanted to speak with him. Our last talk ended with me telling Greg (or Brock, though I refused to use that other name) I’d see him in hell before I engaged him further on the mortal sphere. That’s just what I said to him. I’ll even put quotation marks around it: “…” With that self-consciously literary utterance I’d sent my twin brother packing. Since then I’d had no communication with him.
That was five years ago.
Back to my mother and our conversation. Despite repeated phone messages left by her on my brother’s cellphone and with his assistant and other people in his circle, she hadn’t heard back from him, not a word in more than three weeks. Suddenly her worries had this enormous new object at their center, this boulder to build a monstrous pearl of anxiety around. Did I share her concerns? Not a bit. My twin had doubtlessly gone off somewhere to “reinvent” himself again, as he was wont to do, as he was famous for doing; he’d made a career out of it, not to mention a fortune. It was probably some sort of publicity stunt. Whatever my brother was up to, for sure he wasn’t thinking about me or of our mother. I knew all too well from firsthand experience his capacity to completely forget his family — to forget that he had a family, a twin brother, especially. As far as my brother was concerned, if he considered it at all, to him my existence was at best an inconvenience, at worst an embarrassment.
Anyway that’s how I suspected he felt. And who knew him better? We are — or were, after all — twins.
“Will you please go?” my mother said.
“To find Greg. To see if he’s all right.”
“Where am I supposed to find him? He could be anywhere.”
“I know where he is,” Mother said cryptically.
“Your father’s house.”
“What makes you think he’s there?”
“The lake — the one in my dream? It was your father’s lake. He’s there — at your father’s house. I’m sure of it.”
“You’ve never even been to that house!”
“It doesn’t matter. I know.”
“Mother — ”
“Please: go there for me. Won’t you please?”
Was she kidding? Drive sixteen hours to Georgia on the remote possibility that my brother was staying at our dead father’s former lake house — a house that, as far as any of us knew, hadn’t been occupied in years, one that should have been sold ages ago, that was no doubt besieged with mice, spiders, ants, termites, mildew, mold, and whatever else flourishes in houses neglected too long? For all we knew the place had burned to the ground or been leveled by a tornado. Besides, my mother knew my feelings toward my brother, they weren’t exactly a secret. She also knew I wasn’t inclined to take her lurid worries that seriously.
“Mother, it’s a sixteen-hour drive!”
“Take a plane.”
“I hate flying. Besides, by the time I get to LaGuardia, fly to Atlanta, rent a car, drive two hours to the lake, it’ll take as long. Even assuming he’s there, which you have to admit is a huge assumption, and assuming that something bad has happened to him (which I doubt), there’s no chance I’d get there in time to prevent — ”
“But at least then I’ll know.”
“Look, I’ll call the County Sheriff for you, if you like,” I offered. “If you’re really that worried — ”
“I don’t want you to call the sheriff!”
“Why not? At least then you won’t have to worry.”
“I already called them.”
“You did? When?”
“So — what did they say?”
“They went there.”
“They said the house is completely abandoned. The lawn is overgrown and the mailbox is falling down, they said. There were no cars in the driveway.”
“Did they go in?”
“They didn’t need to, they said. No one could possibly have been living there.”
“There,” I said. “See?”
“I still think he’s there.”
“Why would you — ?”
“It’s the third time I’ve had the dream. I had it last night, and the night before that. Please, Stewart — ”
“Mother, if you could just — ”
“ — calm down and be reasonable. Asking me to drive all that — ”
“All right! Fine! Forget it. Never mind.” — said in that tone blending disgust and resignation that never failed to inject its subject with the maximum dosage of venomous guilt.
“Fine,” I said, trying to match my mother’s martyrdom with my own, failing. “I’ll leave first thing in the morning. After all,” I couldn’t help adding, “it’s not like I have anything better to do.”
“What? Mother, it’s one-thirty in the morning!”
“I’ll pay for the gas,” my mother said.
The fact is I had nothing better to do. For the past few months, when not at work at a meaningless menial job, I had spent most of my time either in my tenement apartment or aimlessly walking the streets, but always alone. I’d grown disgusted with life — not just my life, but life in general. My state of disgust was categorical and comprehensive. The rich disgusted me. The poor disgusted me. The middle class, what little was left of it, disgusted me. Cities disgusted me. Small towns disgusted me (and forget the country; the mere thought of a barn induced in me a state of nausea). People who took advantage of other people disgusted me, but then so did those who let themselves be taken advantage of. Meat eaters disgusted me. So did vegetarians. Vegans were ridiculous and disgusting. Music disgusted me. Books disgusted me. Newspapers disgusted me. Magazines were especially disgusting. Most art was bad. Those who appreciated it had little if any taste, ergo they disgusted me, too. Cats were less disgusting than dogs but disgusting all the same. All modes of transportation disgusted me. Young people were an endless source of revulsion, ditto the old, the ugly, and the infirm. Liberals and conservatives alike made me want to throw up. Religions of all sorts were a source of contempt. The concept of heaven I found abhorrent, though less so than the concept of hell. Computers, cellphones, the Internet, TV, movies, sports, weddings, funerals, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, parties, misogynists, misandrists, fascists, fundamentalists, postmodernists, Communists, Marxists, straights, gays, transsexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, sapiosexuals, sex in general, chewing, digesting, pissing, shitting, farting, shaving, flossing … all, to various degrees, disgusted me. But none of those things disgusted me as much as I disgusted myself.
I was, in a word, depressed.
I drove all night and all day and all night, mostly through freezing rain, in a twenty-four-year-old Mazda RX-7 convertible with a blown-out muffler, a faulty defroster, a permanently retracted left pop-up headlight, and a cracked windshield. I could afford no motels, so I drove and drove, the windshield wipers (which needed new blades) slapping relentlessly, the faulty defroster blowing useless air, the constellations of headlights and taillights blurring in front of me, the pale/ruddy orbs contorted into diamonds and lozenges by a blend of gelid rain, nearsightedness (I was due for a new prescription), exhaustion, and preoccupation.
I was preoccupied — by the journey and what instigated it, but by other things, too, chief among them the fact that my life had fallen apart. My life! As I write those two little words a smile creeps over my face — or I feel it creeping over my face, since without looking in a mirror I can’t very well see it. It’s an ironic smile, though eight weeks ago I wouldn’t have seen the irony; eight weeks ago there wouldn’t have been any irony. Eight weeks ago it would never have occurred to me that this thing known as “my life” was negotiable, that it could be traded in for another, like a lousy poker hand or a used Mazda RX-7.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to slow down. The point of this confession, if it has one, is to put matters into perspective, not to excuse my actions, but to explain them, to make you understand that what I did wasn’t the ghoulish, greedy, selfish act it may look like superficially, to the uninitiated. On the contrary, it was a selfless, noble act, an act of redemption, an act of love.
Ergo I need to ease off the gas. That’s right: I’m in a car. We’re in a car, Dear Reader: a twenty-four-year-old Mazda RX-7, headed south on Interstate 95 toward a lakeside dwelling that for twenty-eight years belonged to my Comparative Religion and Philosophy professor father, but that has since — along with a half-dozen other dwellings here and abroad — become the property of Brock Jones, PhD, née Gregory Detweiler, my rich and famous bestselling twin.
I say we’re in this car, though I’m the only corporeal entity. You are here with m e in spirit only — just as well, for your sake, with the heater not working. That sensational opening you read a few pages back? It has yet to happen. We’re in the past perfect of that event, that inciting incident, headed toward it.
As I’ve said, the weather was terrible. It started out that way, with the first drops of frozen rain striking the cracked windshield halfway across the George Washington Bridge, and persisting thereafter, coming down so hard at times I had to pull over, I couldn’t see a thing, not with a bad defroster and worn wiper blades, me leaning forward, peering through the napkin-sized patch of windshield that the wipers had some effect on, wiping the condensate away with a wad of paper towel.
I was no fan of driving in any kind of weather, let alone at night in the frozen rain. I had been a New Yorker for thirty-four years, most of my adult life. It was only five years ago that I “bought” the Mazda from a friend of mine whose job had posted her overseas and who offered it to me for $500 dollars. I demurred. What do I, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, need a car for? “I’ll have to move it twice a week,” I protested. “That or pay through the nose to garage it. I rarely leave the city, and when I do there’s always Hertz or Avis.”
My friend — Julie’s her name — was having none of it. “Why rent a car for $45 [then] dollars a day,” she argued, “when you can own one for a few hundred? Besides,” Julie added, “once you own a car, you’ll leave the city more often.”
“And go where?” I was curious to know.
“You’ll visit your mother in North Carolina.”
“I do that once a year — which, trust me, is more than enough.”
“You’ll drive to the beach,” Julie informed me.
“No I won’t,” I told her.
“You’ll drive to Vermont in October,” Julie maintained.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“To watch the leaves turn.”
“They can turn without me.”
“Well, they can.”
“Don’t you ever want to get out of this place?”
“Not especially,” I lied.
“Who knows,” Julie said, “you may decide to leave the city altogether, once you discover that it’s not actually surrounded by a dragon-filled mote.”
Julie smiled; I smirked. We were seated at one of the few remaining authentic New York cafes that have all since been displaced by Starbucks. Like most New Yorkers I was defensive of my cosmopolitan provincialism. Julie was all too eager to point this out to me — she who, having recently won both a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize (“The gift that keeps on giving” — Julie) for her journalism had been offered a job with the Paris bureau of the New York Times, and would soon be relocating to a city twice as cosmopolitan as New York, with more parks, better food, and sexier people. She no longer needed her car.
In the end, Julie didn’t want the 500 dollars. When she handed me its keys, the Mazda was in decent condition, the paint job faded, but no dents or scratches. Within three months all four fenders bore the fruits of my inability to parallel-park. A Pepsi bottle fell from the back of a sanitation truck, cracking the windshield. I’d put less than two hundred miles on it when the clutch went; three months later the muffler followed suit. The driver’s seat upholstery tore, the dashboard split, the rocker panels rusted, the crack in the windshield grew from a little white worm into a jagged parabola leaping across my view. The retractable right headlight wouldn’t retract; the left one wouldn’t pop out. The once sexy vehicle’s dissolute past had finally caught up with it. It looked like a drunk in the late stages of syphilis following a series of encounters with lampposts. Still, it ran. It delivered me here, to my fate.
That has yet to happen. We’re still in the Mazda, still on the road, still heading toward that gruesome opening scene.
If one is inclined to brood, the driver’s seat of a freezing, passengerless car on the interstate is a perfect place to do so. Mixed with the rain, memories splattered the cracked windshield: of me and Greg when we still got along, of us riding our bicycles, playing catch, digging a snow fort, hiking in the woods behind our Connecticut home. The memories coalesced into one of those corny seventies montages set to music by Burt Bacharach. There was that rock we used to climb, the one the neighbors found us crouched behind, holding each other and crying when we were three years old. When our mother wasn’t looking, we’d wandered into the woods. After searching for over an hour our mother called the police. Soon the whole town was out searching for us, combing the forest. Come dusk they were still at it, flashlights and lanterns lighting up the woods. All the while we crouched there behind that rock, huddled together, shivering and crying a few hundred yards from the house. Much time we spent in those woods, Greg and I. We’d hike to the crest of the hill, to a copse of pine trees there. We would sweep the pine needles into an enormous mound and take turns jumping into it, until our hands and clothes stank of pine resin. We played war games up there. The pinecones made good hand-grenades. One of us would throw a grenade and the other would die in a flurry of pine needles. Then we’d race down the hill together, side-by-side, holding hands, leaping gazelle-like over fallen tree trunks and rocks.
These and other memories the wiper blades beat back and forth like a team of inquisitors beating a confession out of a subject. Confess! (slap); Confess! (slap). Admit that you once loved each other, you and Gregory, your twin brother. Admit that you loved each other more than you loved anyone else in the world. Admit it! Admit that in becoming estranged from your twin you suffered a terrible, an irrevocable loss. Though you can’t be blamed for that, on the whole you’ve made a botch of things, Stewart Detweiler. You had it all — looks (slap!), youth (slap!), talent (slap!), charm (slap!), health (slap!), a good start to a promising career (slap, slap!). And you blew it. Admit it! Confess! Slap! Slap! Slap!
I’m getting ahead of myself again. Or behind, I’m not sure. My present state negates perspective. There is no longer the sense of life as a journey toward that elusive dot on the horizon known as the future. You’re probably too young to remember Jon Gnagy, the goateed, flannel-shirted host of the Saturday morning TV show called “Learn to Draw.” It was Gnagy who taught me and a million other baby boomers perspective with his charcoal rendering of train tracks diminishing into the distance, the telegraph poles knitting closer together in their march toward infinity. Those railroad tracks were life. That vanishing point: it held all the hopes and possibilities of the future.
Now here I am at the vanishing point, that tantalizing dot on the horizon.
The rain falls harder, striking the overhead skylight. I’m sitting here with my back to the balcony railing, the one overlooking the main room, with its fieldstone fireplace, its cathedral ceiling, its pair of enormous triangular windows that by day expose a panoramic view of the lake but at this moment frame only watery gloom.
Behind me a rope dangles, the same blue rope that my brother used. One end is tied around the oak beam, the other is braided into a loop just large enough to fit over my head. I’ve followed a “recipe” I found online. The Internet: so informative. How to make devilled eggs; how to get rid of sugar ants; how to hang yourself.
It was still raining when I got here. And foggy. And dark. I’d travelled a series of increasingly narrow winding roads, each smaller than the last. There was a full moon, or I wouldn’t have been able to see at all. The radio was on. NPR reporting the latest calamities. Russian troops in Crimea. Eventually the signal faded. By then I was on an unpaved, one-lane road. No lights, no signs of dwellings. I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. Then again it had been at least thirty years since I’d last been to what I still thought of as my father’s house.
67 Turtle Cove Drive.
I was about to give up when a strange thing happened. Out of the fog that had settled in three pairs of red rubies hung suspended in the middle of the road, one pair lower and centered between the two other pairs. I stopped the car. The rubies remained, scintillating, motionless, hovering there in the dark foggy air. They weren’t rubies. They were eyes. The two higher pairs belonged to a deer (to the left) and a doe (to the right); the lower pair to a fox. They stood there staring at me, or at my car, a tableau out of an Edward Hicks painting. The Peaceable Kingdom.
I sat there with the Mazda’s Wankel engine idling.
Then the deer walked off. The doe soon followed. Only the fox remained. It stood there for another minute or so. Then the fox walked away.
More fog rolled in.
Soon there was nothing but fog. Fog and wind and more rain.
Tentatively, I rolled the car forward. I’d rolled a dozen feet when the Mazda’s one working headlight struck a rusted falling-down mailbox with the number 67 on it.
67 Turtle Cove Drive.
We — you and I, Dear Reader — have arrived.