Monday Sep 25

Saltmarsh Hannah Baker Saltmarsh earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Univ. of Maryland, College Park, and a PhD in Literature from the Univ. of York (UK). She has published in The Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, The New Republic, Feminist Studies, and others.

Brother is to Home as Uncle is to Grave; Brother is To Love as Uncle is To ______

1. My Three Brothers

I had three brothers who guzzled and downed Dr. Pepper and Bart’s Root beer from soggy paper cups, and these boys ballooned out of my mother’s garden like vegetables that all along hoped to grow anywhere but there: maybe in outer space, unleashed by gravity’s reins. Like levitating vegetables, free trying to see how fast they could swim in swaths of light to make their own syrupy hyperactivity. Now, they are busy being a financial advisor, a lawyer on 4 Times Square, a philosopher of medical ethics. They are not for me any more than I am for them. They are my children’s uncles. The way an uncle bobs up and down walking inexorably, because attached to no one but the logo on his hat; the way an uncle scowls at a college game, This isn’t high school: C’mon guys!; the way uncles, kin not kind, extend estrangement while currying affection. One of my uncles, my father’s only brother, died before I was born but in my childhood prayers I gave him permission to live at our house indefinitely if he told me what he liked best in the line in a book he highlighted last, when, at the time, my life was being defined by my favorite lines, and I would have so much as married the man who could tell me why and when he liked what he read. My crazy uncle, with the dump truck and the Ferrari, has recently withdrawn into a major binger, a year-long one, like descending to Hades disguised as a 7-11 parking-lot drug deal and my mother sends cards, imagines him sighing through a pipe, I’m just not ready to see you yet. Do uncles resemble my brothers who barely reached the first drawer of their own dressers and sprang up anyway to clang the gold clasps like castanets?

My children are terrified or infatuated with their young uncles because of a strawberry beard or a string of pugs or an electric cigarette or high-tops long as the space between facing couches. As brothers, they are lost on us. Uncle as lamppost bishop, a ghosted light of vague relevance, giver of frivolous presents, but the brother an uncle is birthed as is the backwards seven of the horse’s jauntiness across pilgrimages. Horse of contemplation, adventure, laughter with a chortle in it, of the ironic, mouthy voice that challenges the rider, or tosses him into the woods, but somehow a horse you trust more than your own two legs. In lieu of the three brothers I adored, suddenly I got sometime-uncles quoting to me my estrangement, piled above a lost and a missing uncle, the dead or as-dead brothers of my mother and father.

2. My Uncle’s Cars

My uncle just grated a leased purple Ferrari against the guardrail into purple and silver confetti. Totaling a car is reckoning with immeasurable worthlessness. Did a hawk fall into the windshield, blanketed in wingspan and chaos? Or, can you blame a death wish on imaginary deer? Finally, my uncle ditched his scapegoats of moonlit driving and shrieking nature, red of tooth and claw to utter, cuffed to a hospital bed, I wanted to see if I was dead.

Before that, he drove a dump truck. I remember thinking it was his own because he dropped by in it sometimes after work. As a child, I scaled up a ladder into the driver’s seat beside the window wide as the kitchen table. Where was the switch not to fill but to wreck the world from? Sometimes the truck used three curse words in the same sentence. Or it grew a city out of rocks and earth. Trucks on site, a festival of temporary shelters, pull up to share or wipe out an idea.

First, he drove the bank truck with the millions his buddy, that guy he still can’t talk to, stole. Someone who loved him unconditionally—my mother—corrected me: all he did was drive their truck to the airport instead of the vaults, because he didn’t rob the bank, armed himself, because he was the wheels, the get-away. Then he and this other guy went to Maui and golfed until the cops found he’d won a prize golfing, his picture in the newspaper. Being caught meant he didn’t have to worry about being caught: in Hawaii, of all places, he couldn’t sleep even an hour straight, for fear of cops. All he wanted to do was call his father, his mother, and say where he was, what he did: somehow, his mother just knew, well before their home phone was bugged. In prison a steady supply of cigarettes could go a long way bartering, but not enough to bewilder paranoia decades later. He still talks like the millionaire dumping everything, saying, I’m not even going to be here.

Recently, he hasn’t returned my mother’s calls. She drives by his place, looks for his car in his lot, sees the black glass twinkling in the moonlight. No way to know, no way to know if he’s dead. He was her favorite brother. She was the only one who visited him in two prisons, kept care packages of cigarettes and cash coming to help him barter with the devil.

3. The Basement Steps on Adrian Street Where My Uncle, before He was My Uncle, Was Found by My Father

My father told me that once he knew the first audience believed in ghosts, it changed Shakespeare: everything made sense. In my father’s heyday, college with its full cast of ghosts, the buildings named for the dead, the ancient dead studied and addressed, the pyramids a taunt, my father’s only brother, Greg, was ghosted out of basement-cold nothingness on Adrian Street to be resurrected from the steps that seized then ejected him. The boys were in their twenties, jocular as pineapples with a mess of laughing eyelashes. Everything was a joke. Like kids smearing their shit on the walls. They ate whole forbidden pies. Brought a monkey home, taught him to peel purple grapes. One day, there was no band of brothers in the family, just a brother bereft of his brother, now playing brother alone to two sisters.

My father still has the same hands that cradled his brother he found on cold wine steps. Do the hands that held his pulsing brother together, momentarily, in the ambulance, after his last seizure, do they come back, come back wildly, to coax a thought open, to snap the cranium cracking open like cauliflower florets: do his hands ever start to look like his brother’s hands?

A friend once told me that looking at her uncle in the casket, she swore it was her father, wept as if he was the dead. The first death comes reeling out of drawers in gothic mansions, a first folio not aired in centuries, a loss, a new space where it left you so bright it hurts to look anyone in the eye after. Trembling wind that opens your eyes wider.

My father thought looking at his brother there in the casket, He’d lost his boyish look, as my father, about to graduate, had lost his—how he would fly eighteen miles each way to class on his yellow bike with the ram’s horn handlebars, the plastic bag tied over the seat in weather, and the bungee-cord secured stack of Shakespeare plays on the back ledge—or else he hitchhiked to a college degree over highways, with his uncut hair, a cotton-candy bouffant-globe, no deodorant, and his hippy style of wearing Army jackets ironically. I have all his plays, each drama of pages stiffened to one yellow curled wave. I couldn’t read them without hurting them: they sit beside their doubles for a younger face in a mirror, impossible. My father’s Shakespeares like time-machines to my set.

My uncle’s expression, though I never saw it, was the frozen boyhood of Epilepsy he would never live to outlive, the eyes that say Look after me, look after me. Who else will? My father said it was the first time, and so he almost didn’t recognize his brother: the man looking at him from the casket. His brother had always been a boy, but died a man. I saw the last page of a book my uncle highlighted, opened like a secret between us. I slept in his mahogany bed, dreaming of neon rain that bleeds two gilded pages together back-to-back. My grandmother left his last loved line open a whole decade before I came across it, wresting from it some familiar spirit possessing the bedroom.

4. The Home We Grow Up Laughing In

There is one space where I still have brothers and we share a home. As a pastime, over the last fifteen years, my brothers and I occasionally dictate out loud a play we are supposedly writing—though no one has written a word—about a religious cult. In this play, there is a family with endless rose fabric that appears as tablecloths and as the girls’ dresses and as the window treatments throughout the house. There are acid users kicked out of public speaking class, college dropouts who founded movements, revivals, anti-sex retreats for singles, church-and-school under one steeple. Sex scandals involving puppeteers, gang rape involving a chicken costume. A summer revival of speaking in tongues through breath mints called Testa-mints, white sheets over women’s legs, a mother laughing hysterically an hour after a laying-on-of-hands. Some teens faking being slain in the spirit, synesthesia visions and all: others, arms folded, watching, waiting for lunch after three-hour services and no breakfast. In the fall, a fund-raising carpool driver at the prep school who takes half the money from clinical studies for her riders if they are willing to hawk their blood; urine; wisdom teeth; self-portraits if they’re anorexic; grammatically-flexible lexicon if they’re depressed; and their personalized pain scales to the National Institutes of Health. She drives, you donate your natural resources: the money is halved. There is more, there is always more, too many characters, too families with too many boys all starting with the letter “R” or sisters starting with “K” or twins with rhyming names, a couplet brash like a ringtone when someone hangs up on you.

The idea of co-writing this play would lose all appeal if any one of us dared to write a single word. It is completely oral, the quintessential insider language. Our place in the world is to be beyond it, too good for it, but also a fool in it, smitten and disgusted by the beautiful grotesque. Anytime we hear material fit for the drama, we call each other and say, Did you hear the one about the prosperity-cult preacher who wouldn’t let hurricane victims into the church? It only held pocket books! We remember the time a preacher asked every parishioner to write down the number he could pledge annually. After a few moments, the convulsing preacher asked, Do you have the faith to double that number? A few more minutes, to triple? Our father, a mechanical engineer who answers to numbers, said, No. And do you have the faith this check won’t bounce? We fell further into the ribcage of the bleachers of a mega-church laughing. Two decades later, my father doesn’t remember this at all: my brothers and I preserved it.

One of my abstract homes is my acerbic siblings of adolescence, and, with it, the view we shared of all adults and their institutions. This home is a storybook window with three brothers in it and the one girl, me, and the same light rain scribbling purple like Harold’s wondrous crayon, beyond the pane to a ridge to a mountain, on a kite out of the wallpaper. You turn the page and the purple keeps heralding insane adventure. Without this language, shifting between the hysterical laughter of make-believe and memory, show me a brother and sister close after high school.