(another excerpt from what will be my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why”)
I found him tucked away on the top shelf of my Mom and Dad’s closet, in an old shoebox, with, among other things, a tiny pair of socks and a little pair of one-piece pajamas, a rattle, and a yellowed newspaper clipping affixed to a fading sheet of green construction paper. It was from the Racine Journal Times. The date was April 17th, 1954.
“Gerald Anderson” was the simple headline. It was an obituary. I instantly recognized the name of my paternal grandfather, but then I remembered, he died in 1966, when I was seven years old. This was twelve years earlier, four years before I was born.
The text beneath the headline began with “Gerald Thomas Anderson was born sleeping on April 14th. He will be forever loved by his parents, William Anderson and Laura Jordan Anderson, of Orchard Depot.” Then there was a quote from something: “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”*
At that precise moment I heard car doors slam in the driveway, and I knew mom and dad were home. I quickly put the shoebox back where I found it, and made it to the hallway just as I heard the front door opening. Dad’s arms were full of brown paper bags filled with groceries. I met him in the living room and took them from him, placing them on the counter in the kitchen. Mom trailed behind with a single bag in her arms.
“What I could never figure out,” dad started, “is why the hell do they have eggnog only at Christmas time?”
“You bought eggnog?” I asked. My dad and I both loved eggnog.
“Yeah, but why only at Christmas time? What if I had a hankering for eggnog in July?”
“And who could blame you?” I added. “It’d be refreshing any time of year.”
“That’s right,” he responded. “It’s so damn refreshing.”
“You guys with your eggnog,” mom chimed in as she started unpacking the bags. “Every year I have to listen to this.”
“I’ll tell you who’s behind it,” dad added. “It’s that god damned pope. It’s all part of this whole Christmas racket he’s got going. And believe me, he’s making millions off of it.
Dad didn’t affiliate himself with any religion, he just hated the pope. While his conspiracy theory about the pope controlling and manipulating global eggnog supplies may have been distracting, my mind was still trying to process what I’d just stumbled upon in their closet while looking for wrapping paper to wrap the University of Wisconsin Whitewater sweatshirts and coffee mugs I’d bought home the day before in my duffle bag.
I’d never been told about Gerald, never been told that I was supposed to have an older brother. “For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?” For some reason, these words from the obituary stuck with me, I couldn’t get them out of my head, even as a thousand questions entered my mind. Did they bury Gerald somewhere? Why and how did he die? Why didn’t they ever tell me about him? Why did he die, and I lived? So many questions that I’d decided I wouldn’t ask. There had to be a reason they hadn’t told me.
“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”
I tried to imagine, tried to conceive the pain and anguish my mom and dad must have felt. They both seemed inadequate for such a tumultuous event.
And then I came along. Was I strictly a replacement for my older brother? Was his death the only reason I was conceived?
I’d been an only child my entire life, and all the time it was just me and my mom and dad. But now there was another, and, as we sat that night and ate dinner, Gerald was there, in the empty chair next to me, and I wondered if mom and dad could see him. Of course they could, they’d been seeing him for the past 24 years. The question was what else had been unseen?
I thought stupid, trivial things. Things like, would we call him Gerald or Jerry, and if Jerry, should it be Gerry, with a G, because that’s how they spelled Gerald. I thought about what it’d be like to have a big brother, and it occurred to me he’d be twenty four years old by now. He’d probably be finished with college and married to a beautiful young wife. In all my visions he was movie star handsome and endlessly successful. In short, he was everything I wasn’t, but that didn’t bother him, because he looked out for me.
I was home, even if it was just for Christmas break, in the house I grew up in, in my room, laying in its familiar darkness, sleeping in my bed again. But I wasn’t alone. Gerald shared my room with me (it was actually our room now), and as I laid awake in the darkness, my eyes could trace the shape of Gerald’s bed, across the room from me, and I could make out the shape of Gerald under his covers. One night, I said softly, just above a whisper, “Good night, Gerald.”
“Good night, Jack,” he replied. “See you in the morning.”
Soon I began thinking about the dead boy in the woods in the cornfield again. He was the first dead boy I’d found. Gerald was the second. I’d learned my lesson from the first boy, to keep my mouth shut and not tell anybody about it. The thought of asking my parents about Gerald never crossed my mind.
It didn’t take long for Gerald to become real to me. I felt his presence, just like I still felt the presence of the kid with no eyes and the hole in his chest I saw that afternoon eight years earlier. Soon I couldn’t think of one without being reminded of the other. The dead guy in the corn became Gerald, and Gerald’s obituary became the dead guy in the corn’s obituary.
In the day, when I was alone, the house would press in on me, just like it had before I started college, when I was still in high school. I felt the same claustrophobia that I’d felt before. I was alone, and in the day, with Mom and Dad away at work, it became suffocating. Every day I’d get bored and I’d go into Mom and Dad’s room and pull the shoe box down, examining each item. One day I walked to the library and looked up “stillborn babies” in the World Book encyclopedia.
I didn’t know where Gerald was during the day, he was off doing whatever he did, but at night, before falling asleep, he’d be there, in his bed in our room, and we’d talk, whispering. We talked about everything a big and little brother would talk about.
One night we were talking about Julie McMillan’s breasts, when Gerald said something about them being “breakfast, lunch and dinner” and I started laughing, under my sheets, when I heard a knock on my door.
“Jack?” It was my mom. I pretended I was asleep. She knocked some more. “Jack?”
When I still didn’t answer, she slowly opened the door, flooding my room with light from the hall. She stood in the doorway, wrapped in her bathrobe, and she seemed a little apprehensive, like she was afraid to get too close to me. “Jack?”
I rolled over and pretended I was just waking up. “Yeah, Mom?”
“Who were you talking to?” She was wearing her yellow bathrobe, and her hair was up in curlers. She had that concerned look on her face, a half frown that wrinkled her face into a road map of lines that all ended at the pensive ocean of her deep blue eyes
“Talking to?” I looked over at Gerald; he was quiet and motionless under his covers.
“I heard your voice. You were talking to someone.”
“Yes, you were.”
“I must have been talking in my sleep. I’ve been having some weird dreams lately. Oh, well.” I rolled over and pretended to go back to sleep, but she didn’t leave. I could feel her sit at the end of my bed, by my feet.
“Jack”, she said. “Who is Gerald?” There was soft fear in her voice.
“Who is who?”
“Gerald.” There was a heavy pause. “You were talking to someone named Gerald.”
“I was? But I don’t know anyone named Gerald.”
‘”Are you sure?” Her voice was trembling. “Are you sure you don’t know a Gerald?”
“No. Wait, I’ll bet I was saying ‘Harold.’ There’s a guy in my dorm named Harold. Real piece of work. I must have been dreaming about Harold.”
“Okay,” she said, and she got up, but it wasn’t clear whether she was buying it or not. As she got to the door, before she shut it, she said, “Jack, are you okay?”
“I worry about you, Jack. Promise me you’ll tell me if anything is wrong.”
“I’m fine, mom. Don’t worry about me. And I’d tell you. Honest, I would.”
“Okay, good night, Jack.”
“Night, mom.” She shut the door and it was dark again. Gerald and I lay still for the longest time and didn’t say anything, as we both knew how mom was, and that she’d be up all night worrying about us, waiting for the slightest sound to come from our room. Neither one of us wanted to disturb her.
I laid there in the dark, on my back, staring at the darkness that filled the space between my bed and the ceiling, my dead big brother in the bed across from me, and the words came back to me, and I repeated them, softly, lower than a whisper, to myself, over and over again:
“For what is to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?”
* – taken from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran