MY BROTHERS Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher, Frank, Simon, Saul, Jim, Henry, Seamus, Richard, Jeremy, Walter, Jonathan, James, Arthur, Rex, Bertram, Vaughan, Daniel, Russel, and Angus; and the triplets Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey; identical twins Michael and Abraham, Lawrence and Peter, Winston and Charles, Scott and Samuel; and Eric, Donovan, Roger, Lester, Larry, Clinton, Drake, Gregory, Leon, Kevin, and Jack—all born on the same day, the twenty-third of May, though at different hours in separate years—and the caustic graphomaniac, Sergio, whose scathing opinions appear with regularity in the front-of-book pages of the more conservative monthlies, not to mention on the liquid crystal screens that glow at night atop the radiant work stations of countless bleary-eyed computer bulletin-board subscribers (among whom our brother is known, affectionately, electronically, as Surge); and Albert, who is blind; and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; and clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton; and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest, has seemed a little screwed up somehow; and Jason, Joshua, and Jeremiah, each vaguely gloomy in his own “lost boy” way; and Eli, who spends solitary wakeful evenings in the tower, filling notebooks with drawings—the artist’s multiple renderings for a larger work?—portraying the faces of his brothers, including Chuck, the prosecutor; Porter, the diarist; Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings; Barry, the good doctor of medicine; Fielding, the documentary-film maker; Spencer, the spook with known ties to the State Department; Foster, the “new millennium” psychotherapist; Aaron, the horologist; Raymond, who flies his own plane; and George, the urban planner who, if you read the papers, you’ll recall, distinguished himself, not so long ago, with that innovative program for revitalizing the decaying downtown area (as “an animate interactive diorama illustrating contemporary cultural and economic folkways”), only to shock and amaze everyone, absolutely everyone, by vanishing with a girl named Jane and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds; and all the young fathers: Seth, Rod, Vidal, Bennet, Dutch, Brice, Allan, Clay, Vincent, Gustavus, and Joe; and Hiram, the eldest; Zachary, the Giant; Jacob, the polymath; Virgil, the compulsive whisperer; Milton, the channeler of spirits who speak across time; and the really bad womanizers: Stephen, Denzil, Forrest, Topper, Temple, Lewis, Mongo, Spooner, and Fish; and, of course, our celebrated “perfect” brother, Benedict, recipient of a medal of honor from the Academy of Sciences for work over twenty years in chemical transmission of “sexual language” in eleven types of social insects—all of us (except George, about whom there have been many rumors, rumors upon rumors: he’s fled the vicinity, he’s right here under our noses, he’s using an alias or maybe several, he has a new face, that sort of thing)—all my ninety-eight, not counting George, brothers and I recently came together in the red library and resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old fucker’s ashes.
It was a wretched, pewter-colored day. The red library walls were haunted by shadows and light cast from a multitude of low-wattage reading lamps that haloed the tables on which they sat illuminating our laps as we flopped down on sofas and chairs overhung by English hunt prints and the heads of game animals, mounted, desolate, African, gazing out from rectangles of wall framed in wood shelves crowded with Victorian matched sets and works by obscure poets.
“I hate this room. It stinks of death,” whispered Virgil, wedged beside me on a love seat. Virgil often felt, or he seemed to feel, to have felt, since his childhood, frightened and oppressed. It was impossible to say or do anything to make life less unpleasant for him. Nevertheless, we tried. “Lighten up,” I told him. A line of our brothers scuffed past us in search of places to sit. The library was filling with male energy and low sounds of voices saying, “Hey, man, scoot over and make space.” Soon it would be standing room only. The musty air would grow lush with our smells of sweat, shaving lotions, exhaled humid breaths. God help us. Already Virgil was hunched over on our shared cushiony seat, looking moist and claustrophobic with his head hovering between his knees, watery eyes scrutinizing the carpet. “Try reading a magazine,” I suggested. Then, from a distant corner of the room—a crash, the jolting shatter of glass exploding, a lamp going down. This always happens when we crowd together in the red library: someone trips on a cord or backs into a three-legged table flaunting a bud vase, or hurls his body too heavily onto a chair, with the result that some objet or piece of heirloom furniture winds up noisily destroyed; it’s alarming and inevitable and laughable. Today’s mishap appeared to be the work of Max, who, clearly startled by the overturned light’s impact, the noisy report of breaking china, stopped a moment to stare down at the lamp cord snarled around his ankle, the black electrical line snaking across the floor through porcelain strewn in brilliant white ruin near his shoes (the tiny conical lampshade having sprung free and gone flying, nearly knocking another lamp from another table), before looking up to gaze slowly here and there around the hushed room, then ask no one in particular, “Did I do that?”
Poor Maxwell. Ever since his return, last month, from a pharmacological botanical specimen–gathering expedition, he’s been noticeably agitated, clumsy and distracted in the manner of one plagued by either fever or crisis. Apparently, something strange had happened in Costa Rica, and now Max was walking into things and breaking them, at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.
“What’s wrong with him, do you think?” Virgil whispered barely audibly in my ear.
Together we watched Max kneel unsteadily down among the lamp shards. Siegfried and Stephen, both standing in Max’s vicinity when the accident happened, came over and crouched beside their brother, helped him collect fragments, which they all painstakingly swept—their six outstretched, middle-aged hands raking and pawing the carpet for nuggets of porcelain and indiscernible, translucent bulb splinters—into a tidy pile. I was astounded by how fat Stephen had become. Just looking at him made me want a whiskey and soda. He scooped a quantity of particles into his soft hands and trotted off toward the fireplace, where, despite the fact that it was sufficiently warm in the room—and would become, what with the steady infiltration of more and more of our bodies, suffocatingly so—old Hiram was leaning on his walker, performing his customary patriarchal act of rudely supervising construction of yet another of his stupendous, raging fires.
“Ball those tight!” Hiram screeched at Donovan crumpling Sunday newspaper sections, lobbing these into the grate.
Hiram is ninety-three and universally despised for his many humiliating cruelties.
“Examine the flue!” he commanded Donovan, loudly enough for everyone in the family to overhear. And now Stephen quickly approached, head lowered and arms fully extended before him with hands cupped as if bearing something disagreeable, which, on arriving at the red-brick fireside, he flung away—a scatter of powder and detritus that clouded the hearth and the air around it with granular smog.
Immediately Hiram seized his walker by the handles and clattered backward, fleeing grime.
“Oh, my shoes, look at my shoes,” he cried as a second cargo of glass and dust and, also, several large, knife-edged porcelain fragments, carried by Maxwell, made uneasy passage toward that end of the room. We all watched in horror as Max tacked around furniture and the extended legs of semireclining men. Everything was an obstacle, and Max seemed, with each wavering, anxious footfall, on the verge of keeling over. He vaulted an ottoman that appeared suddenly in his path. He kicked up rug corners. The rugs were ancient and valuable, tattered to a point near disintegration—but never mind, the real worry was that Max would do something grievous with that serrated porcelain he was brandishing in every direction. “Oh! Oh!” Hiram hollered as Max cleared the big Persian carpet, hit the hardwood, lost his balance completely, and flew into a run/slide/stagger across the floorboards toward him, toward Hiram clutching the walker with fists speckled brown by age. Max’s arms thrashed, and it appeared he would crash into our eldest brother and cut off his head. But Hiram cowered down and used the waist-high, wraparound frame of the walker as a protective metal barricade. He lowered his head between bent elbows, thrust the walker before him, braced for collision—he’d once played sports! Now he showed admirable form, letting the walker absorb the initial impact, before recoiling from the main force of Max’s oncoming midsection with a sideways feint-and-parry maneuver that would’ve been nice to watch on instant replay, it looked so effortless.
Max veered away. Hiram shook his fist—in anger it seemed, actually pain. He’d suffered an injury to the wrist, so easy to do at his advanced age. Now he clasped this brittle hand and crumpled over—automatically, self-protectively, in the manner of a man who’s hammered his thumb. He shook out the hand and he made a face. Of course Barry came from wherever he was sitting to have a look. Barry’s a caring physician and a loyal brother. He gives us all plenty of complimentary medical counseling, as well as phoned-in prescriptions for tetracycline or a refill of antidepressants. If the complaint requires a specialist’s care, he’ll offer a referral.
Barry flexed Hiram’s wrist, massaged, tenderly, the hand and bony forearm. He swiveled the joint. “How’s this? This? How about here? Okay? No? Hurt? Sorry.” And so forth, as the old man grimaced.
Max in the meantime continued to weave. He still held that porcelain. What was he doing? Warding off an invisible enemy? No one dared approach him. It looked as if he might do serious damage after all.
“I wouldn’t mind a hit of whatever he’s on,” whispered Virgil as the whirling botanist sheered back onto the Persian rug and into a crowd of twins. I couldn’t help feeling, at that moment, a modest thrill. The twins invariably bunch together in a pack during social functions, refusing to mix with the rest of us, preferring to assert their own little club; and it’s obnoxious. Suddenly, in rushed Max, a berserker in their midst, scattering three out of four identical twosomes. It was like something choreographed, Max dervishing armed and dangerous between Lawrence and Peter, on his left, and Scott and Samuel, to his right; and these two pairs at once deftly sidestepping—a shuffle of debonair panic followed by Max pirouetting to make straight for Winston and Charles tumbling backward onto chairs, raising hands to shield their matching terrorized faces crying, “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!”
That was when I noticed Max was wearing one of my favorite Italian ties. Isn’t that the way in families. Someone’s always rifling your closet.
“My tie!” I called across the room. The tie whipped and fluttered, as if blown in a wind.
But there was no actual breeze in here, only fear and turmoil, as guys of all ages got hastily up from their seats and retreated to form disorderly ranks before bookshelves and the recessed window casements between the shelves—a ring of brothers gazing in at Max with the same pitying, blankly frightened expressions worn by the taxidermized wildebeests and elk that loomed so dolefully overhead.
The library was about filled at this point. Only the last stragglers ranged up or down the lengthy hallways and stairwells that led to and from this or that distant household wing. One by one we arrived. We were all present except George. Near the end of the line was Milton. I saw him coming through the library’s main doorway.
Or not coming through. This entrance was clogged deep with Clinton, Rod, Bennet, Christopher, Leon, and many, many others, all intent on the spectacle at room’s center: our brother stalking aimlessly, dangerously after nothing, pottery in his trembling hands.
Whispering Virgil told me, “I don’t think he heard you. Look at him. This is very distressing. He needs help.”
Maybe the thing to do would be for someone young and agile to storm out there and risk his body and just be a gladiator and tackle Max. Rush high, spear low, drive him hard to the carpet. Wham.
Quietly I said to Virgil, “Where’s Zachary when you need him?”
“Yeah, no shit. Fuck that guy.”
“You know what I mean?”
What did Virgil mean, exactly? And why was I agreeing with him? And what, by the way, was that low, whirring, humming sound coming from over by the fireplace?
The truth is, I like Zack a lot. Of course there were those times when we were kids, when he used stature and strength to gain advantage over smaller brothers. I’m thinking of the famous sickening instance when Zachary—who reached an imposing six feet seven and weighed in at two hundred and sixty virtually fat-free poundsbefore his seventeenth birthday, and who continued to grow, vertically and in girth, even after that—decided it’d be a gas to kneel on Virgil’s chest, vigorously scour Virgil’s naked stomach with a hairbrush, and yell out, in his ecstatic, hormone-enriched voice, “Red belly! Red belly!”
There were other, similar incidents, too, now that I come to dwell on it.
“Speak of the devil,” growled Virgil.
Sure enough, it was the black-haired tormentor himself. Here he came plowing through a crowd at the opposite end of the room. Shorter men’s heads bobbed around him. These heads got out of the way. Zachary’s brothers let him pass. God, what hands that man had.
Would Zack notice Virgil and me snug on our tiny love seat? Or might he—and let’s only hope!—overlook us and go after Max, whom he truly hated?
No such luck either way. Boys will be boys, even when they’re men with heart conditions. This party, Zachary included, was decidedly into the show at center stage. Catcalls could be heard. “Go nuts, Maxwell!” someone shouted—prophetically?—as Max bumped a chair and almost fell.
“We’re related to pigs,” decreed Virgil.
Yes and no. Pigs is harsh. Virgil was evidently slipping into one of his moods. It is hardly my intention to take issue with another person’s misery; nevertheless, I should say right now—at the outset of our evening together—that in this or any family certain moods and states of mind will be dominant and chronic to the extent that they are no longer perceivable as moods, but as routine personality traits, shared attributes—those supervening aspects of character that, because supervening, come to signify membership in the family circle. The collective persona of this family could reasonably be described as frantic, romantic, lethargic, sarcastic, fearful, frustrated, tipsy, pugnacious, unchaste, heartless, dog-eat-dog, borderline narcissistic, nervously narrow-minded, and more or less resigned to despair although occasionally festive when inebriated. This can be problematic. The fact that we all abide depression does not lessen the pain of the lonely sufferer lost among raucous celebrants. When dealing with Virgil, I always assume the worst. “Don’t make me ask Barry to give you a shot,” I told him, and he lowered his head in his hands and groaned. As usual, I had taken the wrong course.
“I’m sorry, Virgil. I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, you did. You pretend you’re my ally, but you’re the same as all the rest.”
“No one is going to give you a shot.”
“Why do you have to say something like that? You know how that makes me feel.”
“I said I was sorry. I’ll say it again. I’m sorry. It was a stupid and insensitive thing to say. I shouldn’t’ve. Here”—putting my arm gently around his shoulders, giving a supportive, brotherly squeeze—“it’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down. Everything will be all right.”
“I don’t want to be that way anymore, Doug. I don’t want to be the way I was.”
He hunched over, head in hands. Virgil’s body shivered, and he sounded as if he might be crying. “I want to die,” he said.
“We’re all going to die soon enough, Virgil. There’s no reason to wish for death.”
At which point, and, as if on cue, Max did tumble to the floor. It was beautiful and balletic: Maxwell’s body arcing downward in face-forward descent with arms extended overhead, hands outstretched and still holding the pieces of the heirloom lamp he’d smashed at the outset of our gathering in this big red room—holding these pieces aloft and ablaze in the reflective incandescence of reading lamps constellated on tables everywhere: our homey little indoor Milky Way of 40-watt bulbs lighting up the library’s run-down leather furniture and desiccated animal heads and innumerable, dusty, unread books; and our faces, all our faces lit amber and watching Maxwell’s long body plunge belly flopping toward moth-eaten carpet bunched in folds set to snare and entangle the botanist’s drunken feet.
“The God is among us!” the falling man shouted out on his way down.
Copyright © 1997 by Donald Antrim.
Introduction copyright © 2011 by Jonathan Franzen