The Looking Glass Brother

The Preposterous, Moving, Hilarious, and Frequently Terrifying Story of My Gilded Age Long Island Family, My Philandering Father, and the Homeless Stepbrother Who Shares My Name

Peter von Ziegesar

Picador

Chapter One

 

March 12, 1995
New York City

The phone at my desk rang and a crusty, vaguely familiar, tobacco-hoarse voice crackled in my ear.

“Peter, it’s Peter. Your stepbrother,” said the voice. “Your stepbrother, Peter, who you haven’t seen in many years. Little Peter, meet Big Peter. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, it’s me.”

I looked out my window. It was a gray winter’s afternoon in Greenwich Village. I felt like I was listening to a lost recording of the Beat poets.

“Peter?” I said, helplessly. “Peter?” If this really was my stepbrother, it was the first time I’d heard his voice since the early eighties. Obviously terrible things had happened to him in the meantime. Things that had turned him from the alert, blue-eyed violin prodigy, the apple of his mother’s eye, who attended one elite school after another—Dalton; Saint Ann’s, in New York City; and then my father’s alma mater, the Choate school, in Wallingford, Connecticut—into a drooling specimen of New York City’s homeless. Something out of Bob Dylan: “Bent out of shape from society’s pliers…”

*   *   *

There was nothing on the line now but the distant honking of cars.

And then the crackly voice started again. “My mother gave me your number, because she said you were a good person. How my mother would know anything about that I don’t understand. She never liked you and always said you were spoiled rotten and no damn good, especially when you had long hair. But she’s changed her tune now, if you want to see me, and I hope you do. If you care about me at all.”

“Peter, where are you?” I asked, fearing the line would cut off.

“It doesn’t matter where I am,” he said. “And it’s probably better if you don’t know.”

“Can you get to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street in half an hour?”

“Sure.”

“Do you have a watch?” I asked.

“I don’t need a watch. Give me forty-five minutes. I’ll see you there.”

“Who was that?” asked Hali, coming into my office, drying her hair in a towel.

“That was Peter.”

“Your stepbrother Peter?” she asked, with disbelief.

“I’m going out to meet him right now.”

“Oh. Be careful,” she said, placing a pair of black cat’s-eye glasses embedded with tiny diamonds on her nose. The glasses made her look like the excuses secretary at a suburban high school. She wore flowered long johns and a loose, ripped Princeton T-shirt. “Be sure to call me if it gets too late.”

*   *   *

It was almost dark by the time I reached Fourteenth Street, and the broad strip of cheap clothing outlets and check-cashing stores looked grim and windswept. Still, I wasn’t far from my apartment. If Peter clubbed me over the head unexpectedly with a piece of scrap wood, I could probably make my way back by crawling.

Various rumors had come to me over the years of Little Peter’s fantastical exploits—we called him “Little” Peter, since I was “Big” Peter—how he’d run screaming down East Ninety-sixth Street in a bathrobe after escaping from the Mount Sinai Hospital psychiatric ward, only to be knocked down by a careening taxi and dragged back to the hospital by two cops. How he’d spent six months in a lockup in Blaine County, Idaho, after trying to break open his mother’s head with a piece of firewood. How one night in Indianapolis he was clocked in a new car going 110 miles an hour past the governor’s mansion. Convinced that pursuing cops were in league with a ring of automobile thieves, he crashed into a massive police roadblock at the town center, totaling his car—but walking away unharmed. How he’d fallen asleep drunk one afternoon in a Montana wheat field, and had woken to the gentle, but mysterious, susurration of the blades of a harvest combine, which a moment later came thundering down over his head. How he’d lifted his hands instinctively to protect himself, only to see them severed at the wrists. How he’d scrambled to a lake by the field and lain down in ice-cold water, seeking only peace and death, while his hands flapped back and forth on bits of skin from their bloody stumps. How a helicopter had flown him to Salt Lake City, where a team of surgeons had meticulously reattached his hands. And how one of his first uses of his hands had been to push a nurse down a flight of stairs. He’d only recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, though there was still some dispute as to whether he’d ever been diagnosed at all.

Schizophrenics live in a world of external violence commensurate with their internal chaos. They assault, are assaulted, and commit suicide with greater frequency than the rest of the population. Little Peter’s increasingly troubled street career hadn’t contradicted this.

I peered ahead down the gray sidewalk, thinking I saw a figure coming toward me. Its shaggy shape reminded me of the terrifying gremlin on the wing of a jet plane in a particular episode of The Twilight Zone. The gremlin could only be seen by one man, a broken-down loser played by William Shatner. Each time that man, who’d apparently had a recent mental breakdown, called the other passengers over to look, the gremlin leaped in the night air and was blown backward off the wing. The figure I saw seemed to appear and disappear as it came closer. A shabby white plastic bag bobbled from each of its hands, which curled under like claws.

His walk was one that stray cats and homeless men develop unconsciously, an ambulatory cringe that says to the world, “Don’t beat me, I’m moving on. I’m just taking this piece of sandwich, this container of moo shu pork, this spit-soaked cigarette butt. You don’t want it. Now I’ve got it. I’ll stop defiling your view in a minute.”

The way I knew it was Little Peter, finally, was his eyes, his astonishing eyes, still as blue and clear as Paul Newman’s. His nose had flattened and grown red and pulpy, and there was a crude long scar over his right eye that gave him a permanently worried look. His torn jeans and stained corduroy jacket had become too small for his thick and doughy body. The sleeves of his flannel shirt stuck out beyond his jacket sleeves, and over the flannel shirt was a long, untucked T-shirt. He was growing a beard, and his hair, once blond, was now orange, mixed with toffee brown, and was molded over his head like a bowl.

Before he reached me, he picked a white paper bag from a trash can, pried it open, and rattled the interior. The sound and motion were automatic and mechanical; they reminded me of the movements of a caged fox, returning again and again to its pan to check whether any specks of food remained.

“Peter?” I called out, through the darkness and the blowing snow.

He swung his two white plastic bags uncertainly this way and that, as if about to turn and run. With a furtive expression, he walked up to me.

“Big Peter?”

“Yes, it’s me,” I said. Carefully, I put my arms around my stepbrother’s shoulders and gave him a hug. The hair on his face had bleached in tufts, over the rough, red skin of his cheeks. He’s gone feral, I thought.

“It didn’t look like you at all,” he said, blinking. “I saw you standing there, and I thought you must have changed.”

“Bullshit. I haven’t changed a bit,” I said. I turned and started to walk down Eighth Avenue. Little Peter began to scurry at my side, crablike, eagerly looking into my face.

“The last time I saw you, I was driving you to Choate. You must have been about seventeen.”

“No,” he said, “you’re wrong—the last time you saw me was when I forgot to deliver the negatives of Tommy Tune.”

How could I forget that? That was long after Little Peter left Choate in disgrace, in the mid-eighties. By then he’d also dropped out of the University of New Hampshire. Nothing was working for him then, and someone had thought to find him a job as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan. This turned out to be an extraordinarily fortunate choice—Little Peter loved to spin through the stone alleys of Wall Street with a bag slung over his shoulder, to wait breathlessly in a lobby for an important envelope to be brought down to him. He’d ride up the West Side Highway, smoking a cigarette, delirious with the hot sun beating down on the back of his neck and the fluffy clouds changing shape across the river in New Jersey. He always carried a bottle of Kahlua in his messenger bag and he’d reach for it now and then. Sometimes he forgot to deliver the envelope.

My father never formally adopted Little Peter, but at some point my stepbrother had taken our last name. That made two of us with the same name in the same family, both eldest sons. And since there are only twenty or so von Ziegesars left on the planet, it sometimes happened that our wires got crossed. It was always a case of mistaken identity. The postman delivered Little Peter’s jury summonses and alumni notices to my door. This time it was an irate call. An enraged art director had rung me up, thinking I was my stepbrother, having somehow obtained my number.

“I’d like to wrap my hands around his throat, I swear I would,” the guy from the ad agency said when I explained who I wasn’t.

I could almost smell his cigar smoke coming in over the wire.

“Please don’t kill my stepbrother,” I said. “He’s got a little thinking to do, maybe. But he’ll figure things out.” I asked the guy to give me his address and phone number and promised I’d call him right back.

Then I called Norwalk and got Erik on the phone, told him to get Little Peter up off the sofa and on the next train to New York City. “Stay with him,” I said. “Call me from Grand Central when you get there. Bring the negatives. Got that? Don’t let him out of your sight.”

But that was years ago. Little Peter and I were still playing out our lives in opposition to each other. It always seemed that when he was on top, I was down, and the other way around. We were both a long way from where we started. Given the world of privilege in which Little Peter had been raised—the private schools, the music lessons, the European vacations—a lot of us who knew him had considered his fall from grace to have been caused by little less than a spectacular case of bad attitude. This is the boy whose Dalton music teacher once called “the next Paganini,” the same angel-faced five-year-old I’d carried on my back on the green hills of Connecticut. Even just a few years ago in Idaho, a psychiatrist assigned by the state to assess his chances for involuntary commitment concluded that my stepbrother was just a “spoiled kid” who needed a swift kick in the pants.

“Peter, are you hungry?” I asked. “Come on, let’s go home.”

 

Copyright © 2013 by Peter von Ziegesar