“Are you listening to me?” Chris said.
The blanket slid off his back as he sat up in the loft bed and reached for a cigarette, his blond hair jutting haphazardly from his head. He placed an ashtray between us, careful not to scatter any ashes on the sheets. Outside, the sun sliced though a sliver of clouds, illuminating the thin layer of cigarette smoke that curled toward the ceiling like a question mark. A single defiant oak tree stood in the courtyard, displaying shades of green despite the approach of fall.
“Yes,” I replied, shifting on the bed to face him. “Toby, mute servant boy behind the curtain. Madame Flora warns, ‘Speak or I’ll shoot.’
“She thinks it’s a ghost,” Chris continued, his voice intense, “come to punish her for faking the séance the night before. She goes crazy, and fires the gun at the curtain.”
“Why would you shoot at a ghost?”
Chris’s eyes narrowed. “Do you want me to finish?”
“Toby emerges all bloody, and Madame Flora whispers, ‘Was it you?’ But he can’t answer because he’s mute. Pretty powerful, huh?”
“So the message is, don’t fuck with the spirit world?” I asked.
“It’s bigger than that. There are themes of loss and reconciliation. Don’t you agree?”
He could have been talking about the molecular makeup of Saturn’s rings and I wouldn’t have cared. I was enthralled by Chris’s enthusiasm. It was incidental that the project he was so hopped up about was The Medium, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera about a fake psychic that he wanted to direct. The sight of Chris stretched out beside me with a cigarette in his shoebox apartment in Hell’s Kitchen filled me with self-assurance and a feeling of possibility. His lack of personal vanity and enthusiasm reminded me of stories I’d read about young artists struggling on the brink of genius, or a Dennis Stock black-and-white photograph of James Dean in a rundown 1950s New York apartment looking like a beatnik poet surrounded by worn-out shelves overflowing with plays and books: a portrait of intimate rebellion, the sensitive artist searching for identity.
After graduating from Ithaca College in 1996 I’d arrived in New York with two suitcases and a hundred fifty bucks, planning to try acting for three years and move on to something else if things didn’t work out. Within a year I’d booked a gig with the first national tour of Chicago, then worked solid for two years in different jobs until Paul Simon's The Capeman closed on Broadway on March 28, 1998.
I’d recently been hired as a temporary “swing” for the Broadway production of Chicago, which involved covering for cast members when they took off work. The show had two permanent swings but if someone had an injury or took a leave of absence or vacation, it would cause a domino effect resulting in the company being short a swing. I didn’t mind the unsteadiness of the paychecks or the down time in between as long as I could pay my rent on time. Until a permanent spot opened up in the company, I was happy to work part time at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, singing and dancing about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, and adultery eight times a week.
Best of all, it meant more afternoons I could spend with Chris, a directing student in the three-year MFA program at the New School. We’d met at a birthday party for a mutual friend and quickly bonded over the impossible search for good Tex-Mex food and Southern hospitality in the city; kinship between Texan transplants.
I watched Chris shuffle to the bathroom to shower. Propelling myself down from the loft bed, I sat on the warped hardwood floor and dialed my answering machine.
“Mark, it’s me. Call me immediately. I’m at Dad’s.”
Lisa’s voice sounded hoarse. My eyes blurred as I stared at a pile of CDs and a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights. Since I’d moved to New York, my sister had assumed the task of keeping me updated on the family. Over the years, the initial shock from hearing about our mother and brother’s drinking, job losses and run-ins with the law had lessened since college. But this time, Lisa’s voice held a hushed desperation I’d never heard before. I ran through a mental checklist of possible scenarios for her message, trying to remain calm as I dialed her number.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
“It’s about Andy . . .” Her voice trailed off.
She was quiet and resolved, even though her voice quivered as she relayed the details. My insides rearranged with the weight of her narrative. I suddenly felt translucent. I tried to repeat the facts in my mind as she relayed them to me: Andy, Connie, drunk, fight, but I was unable to process the last part.
I heard the shower turn off behind me, but remained frozen.
“Mark? Are you still there?” My sister’s voice snapped me back to my surroundings. Andy’s smirk flashed into my mind.
“I can’t talk about this now, Lisa. Can I call you back in five minutes?”
Hand shaking, I hung up the phone. I stared at the dirt collected between the boards in the floor. The bathroom door opened, releasing steam from the shower. I heard the faucet running. Chris hummed softly as he shaved, periodically tapping the razor against the sink basin. The water swished as he rinsed the razor clean.
Suddenly I was ashamed to be there. I should have been at home when Lisa called. Frantic, I dialed my friend Kim who lived nearby.
“Something really bad just happened. Can I come over?” I pleaded, speaking softly so Chris wouldn’t hear. We’d only been dating for a few months; I didn’t feel comfortable sharing this news with him yet. I dressed as quickly as possible, fumbling with my belt and shoelaces. I couldn’t stop shaking. Chris stood in the bathroom doorway, looking puzzled.
“Are you leaving?”
“I need to go home and call my family. Something’s happened to my brother.”
I grabbed my keys and wallet, avoiding eye contact. Then I was out the door, passing through the small courtyard with fire escapes and pigeon shit that connected to the main hallway of the building. On Forty-fifth Street, people strolled lazily, as if the world hadn’t just changed forever. It was September 3rd. The air was crisp, the last traces of summer being replaced by something cooler, signaling change.
I focused on the pavement, mechanically crossing Ninth Avenue and heading north then turning east on Forty-sixth Street, the details from my sister’s call replaying like a loop in my head until I found myself in front of Kim’s building. As I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, like Alice underground the closer I got the farther ahead each step stretched. I heard Kim’s door unlatch and crack open one flight above me.
“Mark, what happened?”
“My brother shot himself.”
I told her again, only half believing the words. I was sweating. My body shook, and then my knees buckled. Kim pulled me inside and guided me to the couch. I heard my wails splinter the air, but it felt like they were coming from someone else’s body. I was registering emotions but couldn’t feel them, as if their sheer volume had overloaded my circuits. The words I’m sorry, Andy kept repeating in my head. For what, I couldn’t answer.
Kim offered me Kleenex and a glass of water, but I wanted a cigarette. I chain-smoked one after another, ignoring my asthma, as if the smoke in my lungs were proof that I was still breathing, and tried to regain my composure as I dialed my father’s house and waited for him to answer.
Lisa put Dad on the phone. He could barely speak, and when he did, he swallowed his words. “He didn’t know what he was doing. He was drunk. But he’s not in pain anymore, Mark,” Dad said weakly.
“Please promise me this won’t tear the family apart, that we will get through this, Dad,” I said.
“It’s not going to tear us apart, it’s going to make us stronger. That’s what happens in time of crisis. I love you, son.”
I wanted desperately to believe him, but there was emptiness in Dad’s voice, as though part of him had died along with Andy.
I hung up the phone to make travel arrangements. Kim told me to ask about the bereavement rate. The word bereavement prompted me to reach for more cigarettes; the sensation of the smoke in my lungs seemed comforting.
The person I spoke to said I needed proof of the deceased in order to get a discounted rate. “How about I bring my brother’s headless corpse?” I offered. She didn’t laugh, but I found it satisfying.
She finally gave me confirmation and the flight number—1969—which happened to be the year Andy was born.
Kim asked if she should call in sick to be with me. In addition to giving private voice lessons, she worked for a company that provided assisted listening devices for Broadway shows. She could pretty much set her own schedule, but she had booked a job for that day.
I told her not to worry, and attempted to reassure her I’d be fine. We talked until the light began to fade outside and she had to dress for work.
I left Kim’s apartment with her and wandered the streets aimlessly, waiting for the reality of Andy’s death to catch up to me. Until that happened, I’d practice what seemed normal. I was too overwhelmed to think about mourning the brother I was never really close to. I wanted to be around others but needed solitude, to process what had happened. Eventually I found myself in front of the Sony theater on Broadway at Sixty-eighth Street—the perfect compromise. I could be alone in a dark movie house, in the presence of strangers.
The blast of air-conditioning in the lobby brought me out of my stupor. I realized I was drenched; the weather had turned scorching since I’d left Chris’s apartment. I scanned the glowing red titles on the electronic board then purchased a ticket for the 5:20 showing of Grand Canyon Adventure that, appropriately, was being screened in the IMAX auditorium at the top of the immense multiplex. I pictured Andy hiking along the Navidad River in Weimar, and remembered how Lisa would say, “Andy’s not really a city boy. He comes alive outdoors.” It made sense somehow to see a film about the Grand Canyon, the first thing that made sense that afternoon. As the lights dimmed and the credits rolled, I felt safe.
“Man clings to the edge of eternity,” Robert Redford’s familiar, comforting voice narrated over lush orchestrations as images of sun-peaked clouds panned by. “Our passion to know propels us to the stars. Is this canyon the work of God?”
As the camera dove in swooping shots inside the canyon through deep ravines of massive rock and raging water, my mind played out its own scenario.
It was Christmas 1997, my annual trip home for the holidays. Lisa and I were pounding on the door of Andy’s one-bedroom house off the back roads of West Houston, a fragile wooden structure that looked like it might collapse if you exhaled too strongly. Andy’s black Labrador barked in the backyard. We kept calling Andy’s name. Getting no response, we made our way around the side of the house, to peer through the bedroom window. No sign of our brother.
A month ago Andy had failed to show up for Thanksgiving dinner, his favorite meal. He’d never missed it before. When Lisa finally reached him, he’d told her it was because he’d been too tired from the overtime he put in at the auto shop. Now he’d failed to show up for Christmas dinner.
“I talked to him this morning,” Lisa said.
That was when we spotted him—passed out on the living room floor. No blanket, just a small, embroidered pillow under his head, beneath a loudly blowing box fan. No wonder he couldn’t hear us.
We resumed yelling his name.
Finally he roused. We returned to the front door.
“How’ve you been, Mark?” he said as he hunched over in the open doorway.
“It’s good to see you, Andy.”
I hated how formal I sounded, but I meant what I said. Even though I was concerned about the state Andy was in, I’d still managed to see him before another year passed. I wanted to know he’d be okay before getting on a plane to New York. I believed that growing older meant there was more opportunity for change, a chance for Andy and me to become closer. Or so I hoped.
“You look good,” he said.
I wanted to repay the compliment but didn’t want to lie. He was gaunt, his face puffy. Standing there in a rumpled blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt and faded blue jeans on his tiny front porch with a steer skull tucked into the corner, he looked like something out of a Sam Shepard play. The strong, athletic boy who’d been able to nimbly carry our drunken mother at age eleven was a memory.
I hugged him, for lack of words to say how much I cared for him. We exchanged small talk before promising to become better at keeping in touch.
On the car ride to the airport, Lisa confessed how worried she was. I asked her to keep me updated and she agreed before hugging me goodbye.
She called Andy as soon as she got home.
“Tell me what to do, Andy, I want to help.”
“I just want to get better,” he said.
The next day, a police officer found Andy passed out in a ditch near his house. Instead of booking him, the officer told Andy to get clean. Lisa convinced him to check into the Spring Shadows Glen rehab center on Gessner Road in Houston. When Mom found out, she arrived in a full-length mink coat with an armful of books from Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Let me handle this, I know how to do it,” she told Lisa.
“You’re a little late, Mother,” Lisa replied.
Mom was fresh out of Spring Shadows herself. I’d been guilty of not being in Texas when she entered treatment. It was the last place I wanted to be. I'd always felt responsible for her emotional state, and tried to make her feel loved. I knew that entering rehab was a big step and that she probably wanted me there for support, but I was having the time of my life in college and glad for the 1,400 miles that separated us—which only made me feel more guilty. Besides, she called me daily to report on her progress, usually with histrionics. I was happy that Mom and Andy both were sober now, but I was more concerned about my brother. The situation seemed fragile, like Andy’s house. It felt like it could crumble at any moment.
The nurse told Dad that Andy had the worst case of DTs she’d ever seen; he’d shaken for three days. But he was better now. When Andy returned home and got the bill, he ripped it up in front of Dad. “Fuck ’em, I’m not paying that,” he said. All of this was manageable because Andy was sober and we were hopeful. I couldn’t have been prouder of his progress, and looked forward to Lisa’s updates.
The last time I’d seen him was Christmas 1998. Although we didn’t exchange much conversation, Andy appeared much healthier. Standing in Dad’s living room, he inquired about what it was like living in New York. I told him he should come visit. He said he’d like to.
One of the last things I told him was how good he looked. I didn’t have to worry about lying. I meant it and was happy to be able to repay the compliment he’d given me the year before.
He thanked me and we hugged.
“We’re getting older, Andy. Isn’t that crazy?” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “We’ve been through a lot of shit. I’ll visit soon.”
“The sun is going down. The vermillion gleams and rosette hues blend with the green and gray and slowly change to a sort of brown above, and black shadows creep over them below,” Robert Redford’s onscreen voice narrated.
I watched actors playing early Native American settlers, Spanish explorers, and Civil War veteran John Powell and his crew, as they charted the 217 miles of unexplored canyon. The music swelled. I was flying over the rushing water at the base of the canyon; colors swirled together.
“It took the expedition seventy-nine days to reach the unexplored inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. One man and one boat were gone. Their strength, food, and courage were nearly gone and they had only just begun.”
My inner movie continued. The last time I was home, Lisa told me that Andy had been accepted into flight school. I felt so proud of my brother. I recalled the car rides with our grandfather Cliff, and Andy’s fascination with Cliff’s stories of his World War II flight missions. I thought of the fields of bluebonnets in Weimar, that feeling of being connected to something greater than one’s self.
When Cliff died, he left the farm to Mom. She and Dad had already divorced. It remained a place of refuge for us until she sold it years later, for which Andy never forgave her. The rolling hills of Weimar were now gone, but the desire for flight still remained.
“Only the endless cycles of life chronicle the passing millennia. Man passes in a whisper, a mere breath at the edge of eternity. Some live, some die, some just disappear.”
The music swelled with the rushing water, and the sky turned a deep blue, almost cloudless. I pictured Andy flying high above the Earth’s biggest scar, his blue eyes fixed on the open sky.
I felt wetness on my face. Onscreen, the sun disappeared behind a patch of clouds. The blue sky turned orange then burnt gold. Finally the screen faded to black and the credits rolled. As the auditorium lights came up, people began to exit.
The popcorn in my lap remained untouched. I sat still, unable to move, staring at the blank screen.
We agreed to steer clear of formal funeral services. “Too fucking depressing,” Lisa said. Instead, Dad offered to host a celebration of Andy’s life. At the time, it made perfect sense. We kept it casual, inviting people to drop by Dad and Melanie’s house throughout the day. In lieu of a casket there was a brisket and instead of weepy memorial speeches we had barbecue. A steady stream of Andy’s favorite ZZ Top and Sheryl Crow tunes played in the background, just in case things got too somber. Dad stayed up half the night slow cooking the brisket. Melanie prepared potato salad, corn on the cob, blackberry cobbler, and baked beans. There was enough food to feed half our block.
My sister and I had the task of organizing and helping out when needed. Lisa scurried between the kitchen and dining room all morning, organizing plates of food with the dexterity of a caterer. My father looked numb, yet greeted people as they arrived to pay their respects and directed them to the refreshments. I did laps around the house, looking for something to keep myself occupied. Anything to avoid the condolences handed out on such occasions. Andy had killed himself, and as a result a simple “I’m so sorry” felt contaminated, as though the speaker were begging an explanation for why he’d done it. We had none, and I wanted to be as far away from hearing those words as possible.
I’d spent the previous night slumped over the kitchen sink crying, halfway through the simple task of assembling a turkey sandwich, after realizing I never really got to know my brother. I couldn’t remember if I’d told him I loved him in our last conversation. Scenarios of what I should have done, said, or how often I should have said it, kept running through my head, implying that we’d had the kind of relationship that warranted such recriminations. But we didn’t. In addition to mourning the death of my only brother, I was mourning the illusion of us ever actually being close. I’d felt the future contained the possibility of making it real, but that hope was gone forever. And it infuriated me.
If I felt Andy’s death was debilitating, it paled in comparison with the depression he must have struggled with—something else we never talked about. I knew he’d been diagnosed with manic depression in rehab, and that he’d taken medication afterward but soon quit because the pills made him feel worse than the depression.
“Andy was pretty much banned from every bar in the town of Katy,” Lisa told me. “Maybe we should just spread his ashes in the ashtrays of all those joints.”
“Do you know when he started drinking again?” I asked her.
“He hid it from everyone.”
I watched Mom make her way politely through Dad and Melanie’s living room with trays of sweet pickles, cheese, and crackers. My father often checked in with her to make sure she was eating or to see if she needed anything. There was tenderness between them I hadn’t seen since before the divorce.
“Mom, you look good,” I told her.
“No I don’t,” she said. “My lashes keep falling out and my face is puffy.”
No one was quite sure what to say, but ZZ Top helped mask any discomfort. I was so grateful that she’d been sober for about a year now. I couldn’t imagine what she would have done if she’d been drinking. I escaped to my father’s bedroom, which overlooked the back deck and garden. Somehow, watching other people outside as they smoked cigarettes and shared stories about my brother helped create distance from the event.
After a while, Lisa found me. “This is surreal,” she said, “I feel like I’m out of my body, watching all of this.”
“One of our relatives just asked how old Andy was. I almost forgot he was only thirty.”
“Have you seen Connie? She’s a fucking mess.”
“I would be too if I’d found Andy.”
“Apparently this isn't the first time. Her brother and father killed themselves.”
I couldn’t imagine surviving multiple suicides. I watched my brother’s girlfriend from the window. She seemed the most apprehensive of everyone, her thin body rigid in an oversized cable-knit sweater. Andy met Connie when she was waiting for a divorce to be finalized, and they’d been together ever since. She’d brought her two kids with her. George was four and Amber was eight.
“I can’t look at those kids without thinking how much Andy loved them,” Lisa said. “George even looks like Andy.”
I’d noticed that George’s eyes were the same color as Andy’s, like cloudless blue skies, and his hair was a similar shade of brown.
Lisa told me how much Andy loved playing King of the Mountain with George. Dad had a picture of them—Andy in a yellow crown made from construction paper with a huge grin across his face, crouching on the floor with George on top of him, hands around his neck like a wild monkey. Andy looked like a kid himself.
Halfway through Sheryl Crow singing “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the power went out.
“Don’t worry,” Dad yelled from another room. “We just blew a fuse.”
Lisa and I watched from the window as he went to the fuse box to fix it.
“The other night when Dad woke me up to tell me about Andy, I ran outside to get into my car, not realizing I was naked,” Lisa said into space. “It was three in the morning. Gary came running after me. I put on some clothes and came over and found Dad locked in his bedroom. He wouldn’t come out. Melanie and I listened outside as he cried. I’ve never heard cries like that.”
Anxious to change the subject, I looked around our parents’ bedroom, studying the wooden armoire, the iron four-poster bed with rumpled sheets and quilt on top . . . underneath the bed . . .
“Is that a bowl of eggs?”
Lisa’s eyes followed my gaze.
“Some Santeria shit. Mrs. Davis called Dad when she found out and told him to place three raw eggs under the bed for forty-eight hours, then get rid of them. Apparently when Mrs. Davis asks you to do something, you do it.”
Mrs. Davis was an elderly Dominican woman who worked with Dad at an indoor flea market where he’d been employed since leaving the car business in 1997. He helped out with the main market on Thursdays, doing odd jobs, and on weekends managed the second-floor entertainment venue, a cavernous space where bands appeared—mainly local tejano acts that hadn't quite made it yet or techno raves with DJs, with occasional established stars like Jose Feliciano. Mrs. Davis worked full-time as a custodian, cook for the food stations, and all-around go-to person. My father was convinced she could outwork any man. She didn’t drive, so Dad would pick her up on his way to work, and since she didn’t read well he had taken it as his mission to teach her. What struck me most was his willingness to heed Mrs. Davis’s advice about the eggs, which I considered a superstitious ritual.
“Did I tell you about the butterflies?” I asked Lisa.
“The day before I left New York, I was walking on Ninth Avenue thinking about Andy. Three yellow butterflies flew past me, one right after the other. I’ve never seen butterflies in midtown Manhattan.”
“We should get back to the others,” Lisa said. “I don’t know how much more I can talk about this without completely losing my shit.”
At which point “Sweet Child O’ Mine” came back on in the other room.
“You know,” Lisa said, “I was watching the video for this song and there’s a shot of a bus with ‘Andy’ written in dust on the front. I think it was a sign from him, telling me he’s okay.” Her eyes welled up as she turned and walked away.
I did not dispute her claim. It wasn’t my place to question it. All of us were desperate for signs, whether it was butterflies, a bowl of eggs, or a music video.
I talked to Connie on the roofed deck that we called the patio. The sun was so bright that we retreated there to escape the heat.
“How are your kids holding up?” I said as we shared a cigarette.
“Georgie keeps asking when Andy’s coming home so they can play King of the Mountain. Andy bought these plastic swords and a harmonica for them to call out the dragons. Sometimes I’d come home and he would ignore me for hours while he played with the kids.”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m just trying to get through the day, you know?” She sucked on a Marlboro. “I brought you a gift,” she said, extracting a small gray pouch from her sweater and handing it to me. “Andy would have wanted you to have this. You don’t have to open it now. It’s the gold chain he wore all the time. He was wearing it the night he shot himself. He was drunk and wanted to pick a fight. I threatened to call the police. ‘I’m not going back there for another DWI,’ he said. I left the house, and then I heard a gunshot. He always kept one red shotgun shell on the top shelf in our closet.”
She flicked the remnants of her cigarette to the ground and lit another, then lit one for me.
“I know it’s disgusting, but when I walked into the bedroom, it looked like worms were coming through the ceiling. He was so proud of you, you know?”
The transition stunned me. “Really?” I said weakly, trying to reorient myself. “We never had conversations like that.”
“When you went away to college, he told me you’d be back. He never expected you to finish. But you did. He said you were the only one in the family to do it. You got out. When you were on that TV show Law & Order, he taped it and watched it over and over. ‘That’s my brother,’ he’d say.”
I turned my head to take a drag and exhale, heartsick at hearing Connie repeat words my brother had never spoken to me. My eye caught a blue jay as it jumped from branch to branch in the pine tree that stretched over the roof of the house. Connie took another drag from her cigarette and folded her arms tightly around herself. She was trembling.
“I don’t know how the kids are going to deal with this. One day at a time, right?”
She squeezed my arm and headed inside the house. I looked at the pine tree. The blue jay had vanished; the branches were still.
The thing about parties for the deceased is that they can be funerals in sheep’s clothing, sort of like diet grief or low calorie mourning, a way to avoid dealing with painful loss. What would have happened if we’d had a real service instead of this “celebration”? Would we have fallen apart? Or would we have been forced to really talk about what Andy’s suicide meant instead of skirting around the subject? I felt the silence that afternoon. It worked its way through the living room, the dining room, the hallway, and spilled into the bedrooms, filling every crack and crevice of the house.
That night I lay in my old bed afraid to fall asleep, listening to squirrels scurrying among the branches of the pine tree. The poster of James Dean walking in the rain in Times Square I’d hung when I was in high school peered at me from its frame across the room. I hoped for some sign from Andy, something to let me know he was okay. As soon as I’d begin to drift, I’d jolt awake, terrified I’d see Andy’s headless body standing in the doorway.
I flew back to New York a few days later exhausted. The day after I returned, my father and Connie took Andy’s ashes to one of his favorite places, a pond where he’d liked to go alone to fish. It was far away, in a desolate country area much like Weimar. They waded into the water carrying the mahogany box and scattered the ashes. My father said it was one of the most peaceful moments he’d ever experienced.
Excerpt from a soon to be published memoir titled, "Ten Zillion, Billion World's Full."
By Mark Price