“Kill me,” he pleaded, not exactly in those words, but clothed rather in the language of assisted suicide. He had no right to ask that of me. I would not risk one day, not even an hour in jail for my brother Mark.
The fifteen years we’d shared a bedroom as kids were memorable. He was a fratricidal serpent whose hiss warned that he was not to be disturbed. Don’t see me, touch me, or pretend to understand what I suffer, or you will taste my venom.
His depression was so severe that he could not finish college or keep a job that made use of his intellect or hold any job for that matter. Instead, he spent his life writing poetry. When he was able, he washed dishes to get by, his skin raw from the harsh soap and hot water. Occasionally he would proofread—freelance—obdurate when it came to commas. But for the most part, he got to dream while I suffered as a mid-level administrator in the New York City Department of Finance.
When he showed up at my door just a few days ago, he no longer had the thick salt-and-pepper hair that had reminded me of an Australian cattle dog. Lost, too, was his distinctive style, for he’d been a fancier of secondhand clothes, mixing decades with the flare of a fashion designer on a limited budget that was funded, more often than not, by an allowance from me.
Over the five decades since we’d grown up together and left our family home, he would occasionally call. Painful silences until I would ask if there were something I could do for him, freeing him to give an account of his dreadful circumstances. I gave him whatever he requested—he wasn’t greedy. And only rarely, when he was in the worst of ways, would he ever thank me, although that effort cost him, I know. Yet we almost always ended these conversations with: “I love you,” “I love you, too.”
Though we lived not an hour apart by Long Island Railroad, I seldom saw him outside of obligatory family functions, which were sometimes held at my house. In the interim, besides those weighty phone calls and sporadic humdrum ones that were usually initiated by me, he would send me his poems, a half dozen or so at a time, about twice a year.
Once, well into our fifties, at his invitation, we met for coffee, which we hadn’t done in years. He treated, in celebration of two poems having been published in literary journals, a world that existed outside my consciousness. For the first time I felt I could be myself with him, as opposed to the cautious egg-walker I’d always been. I expressed my admiration for his poetry. He said he wished he were fit for something more mundane, though I could not imagine him being anything else. A poet’s poet, his verse was distilled and spare. I confessed to suffering in my marriage to Linda, but sensed he had a hint of this already.
“We are difficult,” he said.
In the context of our newfound camaraderie, I chose not to challenge him. It is true that I am not an easy person, but I didn’t like him lumping us together.
A month or two later, at my invitation, we had dinner in Manhattan. Just the two of us, in an elegant setting full of whisperers. Served by a waitress to die for, an actress or a dancer, for sure, I wryly suggested to Mark that she might be on the make for an aging poet. His port lapped over the glass’s rim, his hands shook so from his medications. Perhaps I’d had too much to drink, because when the waitress next passed by I asked her name.
“Simone Bella Carlotta,” she replied, as if she were reading her credit off the screen.
“My brother Mark’s a writer,” I said. “Screenplays.” I now had her full attention. “Carnal Knowledge,” I added, sure that she was no more than semi-literate when it came to screenwriters.
“That was Jules Feiffer,” she said and walked away.
Mark turned crimson with rage. He set his glass down hard, his lips tight, clamping his anger, trying not to explode. And he didn’t. He let his anger pass. He’d come a long way. I was proud of him and ashamed of myself.
When we ordered coffee and dessert, I apologized to them both. He smiled at her, and she at him, almost tenderly. On Mark’s first bite of apple tart, some crust got painfully caught under his false teeth. I rested my hand on his, which turned him into a sneering stone. “Don’t you ever touch me in that way of yours,” he hissed, snapping his hand back.
“Fuck you,” I whispered.
“I hate you!” he said loud enough to turn heads, to stop waiters in mid-stride, to stop my heart.
He grabbed his canvas shoulder bag, which likely contained binoculars (for birds, not people), lithium and anti-depressants, a book of poetry, a notebook and some pens, and tore out of the restaurant, taking the air with him.
We hadn’t spoken or shared anything for these eight years after that aborted dinner, not even our grief when our mother died, so soon after our father. We eyed each other wrily at her small funeral but exchanged not a word. While I missed having a brother, I can’t say I missed him. I couldn’t imagine that he felt any differently.
So what a surprise, then, to find him knocking on the door of my newly emptied house—empty of wife who’d divorced me acrimoniously, and of children, lost to out-of-town jobs and alienation of kinds expected and not. The sight of him rasping, gasping for air, gripping the rubber handle of an oxygen-tank cart, was like being punched in the stomach, blindsided. To see him like this, so pathetic, so bald and bedraggled, frailer than our father just before he died made me tear up. I reached to lift the tank over the threshold, but he slapped my hand away and lifted the apparatus himself.
“…’ired,” he said, the ‘T’ not able to find its way through the mucus.
Before I could ask him to stay the weekend, he dragged the tank over the wall-to-wall Berber carpet until he got to the guestroom, which I have always kept spare and unattractive to discourage overnight guests. Once inside, he tossed his shoulder bag on the bed, then shut the door in my face.
“‘Night,” I said under my breath, already sick of his presence.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, not to my credit, I had the same thought I had gone to sleep with. Why couldn’t he have a brain tumor or liver disease instead of emphysema? The best thing about Linda’s leaving—although there were many—was that I could smoke again in my own home. And now here was Mark with his fucking oxygen tank and clear-plastic death mask.
I made breakfast for us, bacon and eggs. I heard him clanking down the hall as if he were double-ironed, like the ghost of Christmas past.
“Morning,” he managed, clearer than last night, but still enclosed in a wheeze.
“You look better.”
He coughed, then gasped, his right hand beating air in desperation as he tried to catch his breath. With his left, he grabbed the oxygen mask and held it over his mouth. Sssssss…. Four short breaths before he could catch a deep one.
He began to eat his eggs, slowly, deliberately. He fragmented the bacon, tore away the crust from the bread and ate the center in tiny pieces. He did not look up again until he had wiped up the last of the congealed yolk with the tip of his index finger, yanking me back to our childhood table. Both he and our father could always find another chew, or another meat remnant to be mined from a bone. They held me hostage, as I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until they were finished.
While he read Gurdjieff in the living room, I spent the morning puttering about the house listening to his incessant wheezing. Mark was always trying to learn something about himself. He would look anywhere, except in the mirror. Unfortunately, nothing he gleaned from his eclectic library ever changed the way he treated me. I took my cigarettes outside and chain-smoked.
By noon he was flagging. He’d coughed through a box of tissues. Should I offer him lunch or did I want to make him ask, to acknowledge me? The afternoon wore on. Neither of us spoke. When would his oxygen tank need to be refilled? Beads of condensation formed at the edges of his mask. Sssssss….
“Would you like some dinner?” I finally asked at six.
He hobbled off to his room.
“I’m sorry, you must be starving,” I called after him.
After he fell asleep, I stole his clothes and laundered them. Then I escaped to the supermarket, its fluorescence somehow soothing, the clatter of the carts reminiscent of when my mother pushed one while holding my little hand.
In the morning, I made a huge breakfast. Granola with fresh blueberries. Pancakes with real maple syrup. And this egg thing my father would make sometimes—a slice of buttered rye bread, the center removed, egg broken in the hole, fried. Mark smiled when he saw the bird-nest egg, at it, though, not at me. He ignored the granola and blueberries, gasping while cutting the fried bread into the tiniest of pieces.
I asked if he might not be better off in a hospital.
“No,” he said and coughed up enough phlegm to put out a trashcan fire.
“Can’t they drain some of that crap out?”
“Came here to die,” he said matter-of-factly, dipping his finger into the egg yolk, then licking it.
“And I’m supposed to help you?” I asked begrudgingly, though I tried to keep it light.
“Yes,” he said decisively, eyes wide, clenching his lips until he choked and coughed bits of egg on me.
I stared at him, taken aback by his presumptuousness, recalling just then, as if it were hot and fresh, that he’d once watched as three boys beat me up.
He looked away, down at his food, at his oxygen tank, anywhere but back at me. He’d always been in my face. In everyone’s face. He skipped school, smoked dope, fucked his high-school English teacher’s daughter. There was the time I gaped at my father pouring a bottle of wine down his throat, because Mark, then fourteen, had come home drunk. The next day they brawled in the living room. Two of a kind, they were locked in a pas-de-deux that had no pretty turns. I never had a place to hide, no sanctuary. Why should I offer him one now? He didn’t love me; he never did.
“I can’t do that,” I said with finality.
“Help me,” he said, embarrassedly, in a whisper—he could hardly breathe. He put on the mask. Sssssss….
There was never enough I could do for him, and now this. Risk arrest, my livelihood? Just so he wouldn’t have to suffer a little while longer?
I took my uneaten food to the sink. “You have no right to ask that of me,” I said with my back to him.
“Please,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask.
This newfound vulnerability of his made me uneasy. I couldn’t recall his ever having said “please.” It was confusing…and discomfitingly effective. I turned back toward him, prepared to ask that he at least allow me to sleep on his request, but I couldn’t get the words out.
“Your children call me often,” he said. “So…does…Linda,” he added, ripping off his mask, coughing hard between words.
“I know,” I said dispassionately.
“She…send… check ev…month. Bet…n’t know that,” he said, exploding between syllables in such fits of raling and guttural sounds that his words were barely intelligible, though their meaning came through all too clearly.
“Impossible. I balanced the checkbook,” I said when he quieted down, while wondering how he would next sink his fangs into me.
“From her account,” he said mockingly. The mask went back on. Sssssss….
“We didn’t have separate accounts,” I said, angry now.
“I guess you did,” he said, laughing and coughing into the mask.
“You trying to make me angry enough to kill you? Is that the game?”
He didn’t answer.
“I can maybe get you pills,” I said, throwing up my hands in exasperation. Anything to be rid of him.
“Could wake up worse,” he wheezed. “A vegetable you’re stuck with.” Sssssss….
“Have you considered a roof, like Uncle Henry?”
“Tried. Can’t do it.” He wasn’t laughing anymore. He moved the mask aside to cough another gob into a tissue. “Need you to do this for me.”
“What do you expect me to do, shoot you?” I said flippantly.
“Just tell me…” he paused to gulp more oxygen, his voice suddenly hard-edged, as if he were a cop and I the suspect, “…where you keep your gun.”
“The one Linda said…” he took a breath, “…you keep in the kitchen drawer…Not there, I looked.”
“Why did you come here?” I demanded. “I have a right to know.”
“You’re my brother,” he said, laughing and rasping. “You’ve always wanted your life to have more meaning.” He picked up a book of poems and wheezed through another day. Sssssss….
For dinner, I heated up some soup I found in the freezer, so old I worried it would kill us both. We ate in silence, then he went off to bed.
Why not give him the gun? I wondered as I washed the dishes. Put him out of his misery. Put me out of the misery of seeing him like this. I cleaned up his tissue mess, then used a hand cleanser. Did Linda really send him money? Did I care?
Give him the gun, my inner voice insisted, whether born of frustration or compassion I didn’t know.
I made another food-shopping run, and then returned home with a plan. From between two neatly folded cashmere sweaters on a bedroom closet shelf, I slid out my pearl-handled .380. The pistol was loaded with armor-piercing bullets. “There is no such thing as overkill,” the salesman had said when he sold me the ammunition.
I brought the gun into the kitchen and began to prepare the final course of his last supper, which I’d serve for breakfast when he’d have the energy to enjoy the food. A thick steak, rare and bloody, the way he always liked it, but chopped into tiny pieces; garlic mashed potatoes; steamed fresh peas blended with butter; a rustic apple pie; and the gun. The vintage bottle of Bordeaux would likely breathe better than either of us.
Suddenly, sweat began to pour off me. My breath bunched up as a sense of doom crashed over me. My pulse barreled into a full-blown panic attack. Damn him—not another one! First time it happened I thought I was dying and called 911.
I shoved the gun in a drawer while I tried to catch my breath. Gulping air, I made my way to the living room intending to lay down on the couch but crashed into the coffee table and ended up flat out on the floor. I’m going to die, I thought. Minutes passed, maybe longer. My hands went numb. “Help,” I cried out.
“Are you all right?” Mark asked breathlessly.
“I didn’t hear you coming,” I whispered.
He looked at me curiously, sweetly, maybe benevolently. I wanted to trust him, but I knew he might strike at any time. And then he left, fighting for air, palming the walls to steady himself.
“Please don’t go,” I called out plaintively, but his labored retreat continued. I lay there twisted in fear. How could he leave me like this? How like him.
And then he returned with his oxygen mask on, tank at his side, and I realized that when he’d rushed to me just before, he’d come without his contraption.
“Let’s get you on the couch,” he said, awkwardly helping me shift and lift my body, his face red from the effort, his rasps from deep inside. He placed a throw pillow under my head, sat beside me and, like a magician, pulled a wet washcloth from thin air and laid the cold white cotton on my forehead, just the way my mother did when I ran a fever. The gesture was soothing. It seemed almost loving. Was he about to stab me?
“I get them too,” he said knowingly. “I wonder now if Dad did, too.”
He removed his oxygen mask and placed it over my nose and mouth, holding it in place.
“Mark…” I started to say.
“Shhhh,” he said. “Let it pass.” He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned down toward my ear. “Alas my love, you…” He barely sang those four words before he erupted in a coughing fit, ripping the mask from my face and putting it on his. Even with him in such distress, I couldn’t help but smile inwardly at his attempt to sing a song he sang to me one night fifty years ago as we lay on our twin beds, the only other time I’d ever heard the song outside a Renaissance fair.
“I love you,” he said through his mask. “I’ve never hated you.”
I started to bawl.
“Shhhh, shush,” he said, then took off the mask and leaned over to kiss my cheek before shuffling off. I heard the door of his room close.
When I was able to stand, I first retrieved the gun to make sure he hadn’t found it when he wet the washcloth. Then, still shaky, I started rolling out the pie crust and slicing the apples. Weaving strips of crust over the top of the pastry centered me.
Pie in oven, I headed down to my basement workshop. I extracted the bullets from the gun and added them to an old pickle jar partly filled with wood-screws and plastic wire nuts. I removed the firing pin, tightened the gun in a vise and then attacked the pistol with a propane torch. But the barrel refused to melt.
Banging on the gun with a four-pound drilling hammer destroyed the pearl but did nothing to alter the look of its lethality. Unable to find a better solution I squirted the inside of the barrel with Super Glue and shoved a wooden dowel up its gullet. I snapped off the end, leaving a prickly piece protruding.
The next day, he clanked and gasped his way to the kitchen, while I awaited him at the table, ready for work in Monday-morning jacket and tie. Settling into his chair and parking the tank next to his leg, he eyed the feast I’d laid out for him and stroked the bottle of wine.
“The pie is cruel,” he said.
“You’re afraid of crust but not dying?” I said playfully. “Remember when you were attacked by a goose at Dad’s funeral?”
“They shouldn’t put ponds in cemeteries,” he said with a cough-laden laugh.
“Ignominy for a bird-watcher, I would think.” I poured him a glass of wine, feeling the weight of the gun in my side jacket pocket as I leaned in.
“I once stepped in quicksand,” he said, trying to clear his throat as he spoke. “Bird watching is a dangerous game. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.” He pressed the mask to his face. Sssssss….
I picked off the checkerboard crust and piled the pieces neatly on a napkin, aware of how much I was enjoying our banter, but also of how much more I wanted from him. When should I present him with the gun? I wondered.
“I was always jealous of your Beat life and your intellect,” I finally said.
“When I couldn’t take…the lithium…any longer, electroshock halv—halved the distance between my highs and lows.” He intermittently pressed mask to face, stopping between words for deep rattling breaths. “I’m less depressed, but more disappointed. My poems turned to shit. I never fancied I’d surrender.”
“I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry.”
The whole room seemed to shake from his coughing—I’d clearly exhausted him. There didn’t seem to be enough air on earth for him. I laid the refashioned gun on the table, the splintered dowel facing toward him. He gave me a quizzical look that quickly flashed to anger as the permanence of the gun’s uselessness sank in.
He pressed the mask to his face, laboring for every breath. With his other hand he traced along the edges of the gun and the dowel. I tentatively put my hand over his. He let my palm rest there. Sssssss….