The last we heard from my brother Dan was a postcard he sent from Puerto Vallarta. He’d been traveling for three years without coming home, and a card in the mail was the most we’d ever get from him. Every now and then he’d drop a line or two, enough to let us know where he was---and that he wasn’t dead. My mother always had that worry in the back of her mind. She thought he’d get killed out there, looking for whatever it was he was looking for.
He had trekked through South America, nearly every country on the continent, mailing local postcards from cities we’d never heard of: Guayaquil, Nazca, Porto Alegre, Belém. We’d check the stamp and postmark, then find it on a map. A year after he left he crossed the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego and sent a postcard depicting the town of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. He spent one Christmas in the Amazon jungle with a tribe of Kayapo Indians. We only found out about it with a card from Barranquilla that arrived in early spring. For a time he worked with an “exporter” in Caracas, bombing around town on a Moto Guzzi and dining like a king at the Restaurant Lasserre. When the military clamped down on the Venezuelan drug trade, he moved into the mountains of Colombia to grow cocaine with a peasant rebel named Carlos Marx. My mother was uneasy, kept waiting for “the call.” It never came, though she found out later he’d been jailed in Bogotá; they sent her a belated notice through the U.S. consulate.
After that he kicked around Central America, then worked his way up slowly through Mexico, starting with the Mayan pyramids in the Yucatán, up along the western spine of the Sierra Madres, and over to the resort towns strung along the coast. It was easy to pick up a temporary job: translator, tour guide, tennis pro, scuba instructor. He was just what the hotel managers wanted, a bright, friendly, athletic American, fluent in Spanish, and willing to work for Mexican wages---but Dan would get bored, wouldn’t last long. He’d screw the help, sell some dope, collect his “tips” and skip out of town.
Postcards were sent home to my mother in Hinsdale, or occasionally to me at Grinnell. My brother had a talent for finding odd little photo-cards illustrating his eclectic array of stone-brained enthusiasms: bizarre insects and animals, ancient nature gods, local aphrodisiacs, and the favorite obsession---legendary lost treasures. My brother was a sucker for the dream of buried fortune. He imagined himself a latter-day Lumholtz, leading mule caravans through the Sonoran desert, sipping corn beer with the Tarahumara, hacking up the jungle in search of lost tribes and ancient artifacts. For a while he fancied Mayan relics and actually did join an archaeological dig, but shoveling shit out of pack-horse stalls and grinding coffee for grad students failed to fulfill his Victorian vision of the Grand Expedition. He eventually got himself arrested for trying to unload thousand-year-old Casas Grandes pots to a German collector in Mexico City. He had forged the certificates of provenance; the pots turned out to be terra-cotta knockoffs from Tijuana, aged in an acid bath. He mentioned this in a postcard he sent from Guadalajara. It pictured a dazzling glass-bead jaguar, a god of the Huichol Indians---the ones that do the peyote. No doubt Dan had spent a lot of time with them.
The card from Puerto Vallarta was addressed to my mother. She kept it in a drawer in my father’s rolltop desk, the storage place for everything of importance to her life: mortgage papers, old photographs, stock and bond certificates, long-forgotten love letters, a brass monkey paperweight that had belonged to my grandfather, and all the postcards ever sent by her errant eldest son. Her bony fingers tiptoed through the dog-eared stack of cards, picked out the one from Puerto Vallarta, and offered it up like an article of evidence. I glanced at the picture, a reproduced daguerreotype of a two-masted clipper ship, then flipped it over and checked the printed logo: Captain Salty’s Pretzel Sticks. How this little promo card from a snack company in Terre Haute, Indiana, ended up in Mexico, I had no idea. Dan had scribbled a typical line, one that prompted more questions than answers: “I’ve found the mother lode---we’re going to be rich!” He signed it as he always did, D.J., for Daniel James. Dan Duran, the vagabond man.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I told her. I could see she wasn’t sleeping well and feared it was her dreams, the “messages” she said were delivered in her sleep. These were invariably dark and disturbing, full of things you didn’t want to hear at five in the morning as you were heading off to work. My mother was a sweetheart, sensitive and kind, but her psychic intuitions I often found unnerving. She could see shadowy things in me I didn’t know were there. “You’re always running off, John. What are you running from?”
This morning I felt her very presence was invasive. She was wearing the same frilly-necked robe she had worn for as long as I could remember. It gave off the scent of a stale perfume that reminded me of something I couldn’t quite recall---or didn’t want to. Why was she always floating in a cloud of that perfume, an aging widow alone in her house?
She pointed to the date on the postmark. “That’s nearly four months now, and not a single word.”
“It’s happened before,” I told her, though it wasn’t really true. The longest we had ever gone without a postcard was the three months he was locked up in the Bogotá jail.
“Something’s wrong, John. I can feel it.”
My mother always had feelings about things. Unfortunately the feelings were usually right. “Don’t worry,” I said. “He’s probably up in the mountains with the Indians again. They don’t sell postcards.”
She took back the card, stared at the ship. “He’s not in the mountains.”
I didn’t think so either, but I didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong, not even to myself. I was always favoring the brighter side of things. “We’ll find out soon enough,” I said. “What do you bet we get a card within a week?”
My mother didn’t answer. She wouldn’t bet on anything, especially on Dan. “When are you leaving?” she asked. One vagabond son seemed torture enough.
“End of the month. When we finish Mr. Madigan’s.” My friends and I had at least ten days’ work left, painting the humongous house of my ex-girlfriend’s just-divorced uncle. We’d been painting houses in the western suburbs of Chicago every summer during the last three years of college. Now we had graduated and were at it again, rising every morning at the crack of dawn with dried paint under our fingernails and dull headaches from polyurethane fumes. Faced with an eighty-foot-long, three-story wall of cracked and curling paint, we’d guzzle the Starbucks, suck on a joint, crank up the Goo Goo Dolls, grab our razor scrapers, and go to work. If we had learned anything at school during the course of the year, it was undone by the stupor of those mind-numbing days. I could feel my feeble brain cells slowly burning off.
The monotony of mindless work fed a growing wanderlust. We envied my brother’s nomadic freedom and his talent for avoiding manual labor. We began to talk about traveling ourselves, saving up our hard-earned cash and taking off for a month or two. Hawaii, maybe. Or Tahiti. Or Thailand. Or Tibet. None of us were ready to get on with our lives. Duff was putting off law school. Rock had broken up with his girlfriend at Brown and was fully occupied licking his wounds. I was debating graduate school and didn’t want to commit, not yet. What was the hurry? What was the point? The world was hardly clamoring for another grad in English lit.
In the dog days of August, dripping with paint-flecked sweat on the second-floor scaffolding of that blazing south wall, an idea swept over us like a blast of arctic air. Why not go all the way? A big trip, the biggest---all the way around the world. Southeast Asia, India, Istanbul, Prague. Start with a month in Hawaii and end with a week in Spain. Four months total, maybe six. What the hell, maybe a year---who could say how long we’d last? We’d trek the globe until we ran out of money or ran out of luck. This could be our great adventure, a swan song to swift-passing youth, a final stab at freedom, a last hurrah before the curtain fell and the church bells rang and the baby and the bills and the mortgage came due.
We began at once to plan and prepare. We bought hiking boots and backpacks, studied maps and guidebooks, scoured airfares on the Web. I sold my trashed-out VW van and traded the cash for traveler’s checks. Rock borrowed his hang-gliding brother’s GPS handset, bought a shortwave radio aptly named the Global Explorer, and ordered a used videocam for a hundred bucks on eBay. With his mind as usual on food and fornication, Duff limited his purchases to a Zebco collapsible fishing rod and a carton of lambskin rubbers. By the time we had finished off the Madigan job, we were ready to pick up the old man’s check, buy our tickets to Honolulu, and kiss the suburbs good-bye.
But another two weeks had passed without a word from Dan. My mother awaited the mail in vain. Troubling nightmares ruined her sleep and left her pale and anxious. I found her at dawn on my last day of work, fallen asleep at the rolltop desk. The look in her eyes when I woke her up stuck in my head like a voodoo curse.
I had seen that look three years before, on a snowy night in December. My mother had been frightened out of her sleep by a terrible premonition. A few hours later we learned that my father had been killed in an auto crash. An SUV with a drunk at the wheel had slid through an icy intersection and slammed into his passenger door. My dad was riding shotgun and never saw it coming. He was busy talking to the guy at the wheel. The guy at the wheel was my brother Dan.
Dan was in his final year at the University of Chicago, an honors student in anthropology, minoring in Spanish. My father had picked him up from campus to bring him home for Christmas. Miraculously, Dan emerged from the mangled Ford without so much as a scratch. A week after the funeral he went back to school. I thought he was doing all right, but halfway through the semester he quit and moved back in with my mom. He let his hair grow, stopped shaving, and ended up wandering the house in his pajamas.
The arrangement didn’t last long. Seeing the look in my mother’s eyes made me understand why. My mother had powerful feelings, and if you were her son, the feelings eventually migrated to you. Her love for my father had gone that way, into us and through us, wrapping itself around us like a flowering vine. When he died, the vine died, leaving around our broken hearts a brittle bark of grief. It hung in the air like the wilted scent of her perfume, reminding you that when someone was lost he was lost forever, that nothing you could say or do could ever bring him back, no matter how hard you tried or how far you went looking.
Of course, that didn’t stop you---the feelings were too strong. They grew and festered and overwhelmed. They haunted you and sent you to the corners of the earth.
That’s what had happened to my brother Dan. Now I could see it was happening to me.
I made my mother a promise that we’d find her other son.
Copyright © 2006 by David Angsten