Sorry About Jamie
I broke my fingers the day we buried my brother. And not just one. All of them. I broke all eight fingers and my left thumb, mangled them. Shattered them, left them twisted and distorted, the way you think of metal posts losing their shape in a fire. It's so bad that the doctor took almost two hours to straighten them out, to set them back into place, pulling them hard and fast, yanking them back into proper position, setting them into joint with a crunch that could fill the room. My fingers are broken so horribly that I'll have to wear matching casts for the better part of the next couple months. Bulky black casts that start at the middle of my forearms then move down and don't stop until my arms, my hands and every last finger are entombed in fiberglass, cold and hard. My fingers were so mangled that my fingernails turned black and fell off. Even the ones I didn't crack or tear away turned black and from loss of circulation and fell off my fingers like stars from the sky. So bad, I broke my fingers so bad, the doctor isn't sure I'll be able to hold a pen correctly. I'll probably have to go through surgery just top be able to write my name. I'll never play piano again. So bad, I broke my god damn fingers so bad that my parents looked at me, and my dad was crying, and they asked me, why?
The church was airless that June Monday. I sat in the front pew, my back stiff against the wood. I was sweating underneath all my clothes. Underneath the black suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes, my sin was clammy, sticking to my undershirt, my socks clinging to my legs. The stained-glass windows were shut tight, so no air breathed in and out, only sunlight could come in, carrying with it unbearable heat to boil the air, transforming the stuffy sanctuary into an oven. Beads of sweat formed and rolled down my forehead, wicking into the strands of brown hair that hung into my eyes. My cheeks glistened with moisture, like dew. Behind me I could hear old people, their breathing slow, heavy, burdened by years. In front of me, five steps forward and two steps left, was the casket. The casket was a little over six feet long and just under three feet wide, long and wide enough to fit an 18 year-old boy of average height and weight inside. The lid was split into two parts, Dutch door action, with the bottom part covering the body and the top part covering the head and shoulders. Except, the top was open, flung open brazenly to reveal a boy with short brown hair, his pallid face smeared with make-up and paint. His cheeks had been made-up to mimic skin tone, his cheeks flushed with an airbrushed spray of pink. His eyes were closed, to give the illusion of sleep, but they were not in sleep, they had been pushed shut and held, and he looked forward unabashedly with eyes glued shut, oblivious to all. His lips, where they should be thin and colorless, were tinted with red, unnatural, and dexterously drawn up at the edges, indisputably held in place with wires. The wry little smile seemed to say, "It's alright. I'm alright." The illusion was as polished and skillfully crafted as a Hollywood effect, and it achieved the same end, to great effect. His clothes were simple, dark. His suit was navy blue, faltering on the border of black, with a white shirt, black tie, black shoes. The suit was brand new, just like the one I wore, bought at the same time for the same occasion. Same style, same size. But I would take mine off at the end of this day. He would not. His suit was one time-use, to be thrown away at the end of the day, closed up and tossed away, covered with dirt. All around the casket there were flowers, and other mourning plants. An explosion of green, white and yellow and other pale, austere colors of bereavement surrounded the coffin, the box black and shiny, burnished and glimmering in the rays of summer sun that cut through the stained-glass windows. Long, polished, and dark, the coffin stood out of place like a Cadillac in a lush jungle, a forest of lamenting in the front of the church. The priest was talking, kept talking, his voice grave and low, promising my brother's soul eternal salvation, eternal love and mercy in the name of god, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen. All the while, as the pastor talked about the tragedy of the taking away in the prime of life, I thought about how hot he must be up there. I was burning alive in the pew, plus he had on that stupid black robe. The priest was old, but not wrinkled and withered and wilted, bent and lame and so close to death that you can swear you can see it in him, a shadow hanging in his every move. The priest wasn't that old. He was simply past his prime, living in the twilight of his middle-age. His white hair ringed a bald spot, adorning him with a halo of cotton. His beard was trimmed neatly, close to his face, white and downy. The priest continued talking, but I couldn't bring myself to listen, wouldn't hear him invoking almighty god to redeem my brother's soul, to lift his soul to heaven to live in him forever, amen. Then, my name, the priest moved aside and the church was restless, looking at me, waiting for me to stand, and deliver.
I rose to my feet and my head hummed. One foot in front of the other, across the crushed carpet, dark red and worn smooth by decades of foot traffic, one foot in front of the other, breathe in-breathe out, I moved, I felt like I was being pulled along by some unseen hand, pulling me until I reached the steps to the pulpit. I tottered up the two steps, unsound but keeping from falling, somehow. In the top of the pulpit, my mind suddenly snapped back to my body, and the world suddenly took on shape, color, and purpose. Looking over to the saintly old man, the priest who had stepped down from his stage and allowed me to take his spot, he was waiting for the speech. Out in front of me there were hundreds of people crammed tightly together into the small space, the way I thought of a slave ship as cramped or a Roman legion as a mass of humanity. Looking down onto the rows of pews, staring down into the sea of darkly clad mourners, I knew they were trapped captivated, awaiting the eulogy. My clothes and hair were still soaked with perspiration, but the intolerable heat that had spawned it was gone, and now chills wracked my body. I reached my hand into the inner pocket of my jacket, unsure why, even though I knew what was there. Pinched between two fingers, I pulled out a folded square of yellow legal paper, unfolded it, and lay it over the open pages of the massive leather-bound Bible that sat in front of me.
"My only regret is that I never told--." My voice cracked, the way you think of an ocean liner breaking open at sea. I coughed, closed fist over mouth, cleared my throat, and continued. "My only regret is that I never told my brother that I loved him. And I really did love him; I'm not just saying that now. I loved my brother Jamie like…like a brother." Tremors of uneasy laughter rippled through the congregation. "I pinched my eyes shut hard, and opened them again. My mom and dad were down there. My dad looked up at me; his eyes glistening with tears that he would deny were there. My mom looked away, her face buried in her hands, sobbing lightly. My sister Dana sat away from my parents, sad, small, and porcelain in her blond, everything perfect way. Her face was hard, tears cried and now she simply keeping it all inside.
The paper rattled as my hands shook, uncontrollably at first, then slowed, and finally calmed. "Jamie and I really didn't have all that much in common. We were born only two years apart, and for some people that's an unbridgeable age gap. We both had brown hair and we had the same color eyes. The information and pictures on our driver's licenses were near identical." I could feel something from the inside burning out from within, consuming the chills that clenched my body. "We were alike on the outside, but on the inside there were never two different people on the inside." My mother looked up at these words and shot a silencing glare at me. "We were two completely different kids. The Beatles, Rolling Stones. And like The Beatles, his life ended all too soon."
The crowd smiled at my silly line, as I stepped down from the rostrum, the icy chills that gripped my body and mind were slowly replaced by febrile warmth, a creeping heat that felt like my heart was rotting from inside out. I sat back down in the pew, and let my head drift away for the rest of the service.
The afternoon sun beat down angry and searing, and dragonflies drifted through the tall grass. We walked from the funeral home limo to the grave, and the grass, desiccated in the summer heat, rattled and scraped, rasping along my suit pants. A blue plastic awning had been set up over the open grave to protect it from rain, as if the drought would suddenly break today of all days. I slump into a silver folding chair by the hole in the earth, which was less like a wound and more like a scrape. Cars continued to wind up the road to the cemetery, in the mile-long procession that had begun at the church, led by the hearse, followed by the limo, a hundred other cars tagging along behind. The cars were so numerous that the people were parking at the bottom of the hill and trouping up it in packs like platoons of Marines advancing on Iwo Jima. From here you could see sweat pouring off of everyone, and I was glad that I had been driven to the graveside. I guess that's the benefit of having your brother die. The casket, which had seemed gorgeously polished and shined, immaculate with its luster indoors seemed dusty and muted out here. The host of mourners began to reach the top of the hill, and settled into the folding chairs. Others stood. A few were old, but most of the grievers were high school kids. They stood huddled together, leaving the chairs open for the elderly, talking amongst one another, undoubtedly telling tales of Jaime, trading his legacy, reveling in his tragedy. I could just hear them; I knew what they were saying.
"I was the last person he talked to before he died." or "Jamie was such a nice guy."
"I wish I could see him one more time."
"I just want to tell him good-bye."
"I miss Jamie so much."
"I feel so sorry for his brother."
I only have one thing to say to all of them.
To hell with you.
These kids, they didn't mean any of this. There's no way they would have said this stuff a week ago. It reminds me of Van Gogh. When Van Gogh was alive, he couldn't sell his paintings to keep clothes on his back. Now that he's dead, a normal person could hardly dream of ever seeing a Van Gogh, let alone buy one. After you can't have something anymore, you want it more. These kids couldn't have Jamie anymore, and they scrabbling to grab onto any piece of him, any part they could dig their claws into and tear away. It was terrible and the most terrifying thing about it was that it was simply human nature. I was ashamed to be part of a race whose nature was to take away and use for their own the things what were not theirs. As they put the casket in the ground and shoveled the dirt back over the top of it, the kids started crying more. Like pilgrims at the Western Wall, a wail came up from these kids, sobbing and bawling uncontrollably, clinging to each other, their heads buried in their hands. I shook my head and glared at them with a disdain, scorn that was undeniably mistaken for shared distress.
Later. At my house, I slumped down on my bed. My suit still hung with sweat, but I still had it on. With vacuous eyes I stared to the ceiling, the ceiling fan spinning, a black X, spinning, cutting the cool air and sending it falling back to the floor. I lifted my arm, strained my eyes to see my watch. After seven. It had been a long day. Nearly ten hours of relatives, mourners, well-wishers, people left and right trying to comfort me, trying to set me at ease.
"It's okay," they told me.
"Everything will be alright.
"If you need to talk, I'll be here for you."
"Your brother was a great kid."
"I bet you miss him a lot."
I hate those people. They are the scavengers. To them, their mercy and sympathy to me is a thing that makes them saint-like, divine. They think I need them. I don't. Another thing, every time someone tells me how great a guy my brother was, I want to kill them. If he was so great, go ahead and join him.
I lifted my upper body up, and the springs in the mattress squeaked. My dress shoes were pinching in on my heels, but I didn't mind. I walked down the hall to the living room. I didn't want to see my family, but I didn't want to see myself. My parents were sitting on the couch stiff backed, like they had at the church, at the cemetery, and at the reception. My sister was nowhere to be seen. I sat down at the piano. On top of it was a makeshift altar to Jamie. A candle burned in vigil. Pictures of his smiling face were lined up in ranks, pictures of him at the beach, playing basketball. My mom walked up behind me, put a hand on my shoulder. "He was such a great kid."
"Yeah…" I said, my fingers moving absently across the keys, the piano responding quietly. But then, wait. No. He wasn't such a great kid. Don't you remember? I shrugged my mom's hand off my shoulder and slumped over.
No. Not a great kid. He was mean, and condescending. Better than everyone, he would say. Cocky, full of himself, arrogant. Not such a great kid. And there he was, smiling down at me, his smiling face, framed pictures, glass protecting him from dust and smudgy fingerprints. I picked one of the pictures up, held the cold wood of its frame in my hand. He gazed up at me, big brown eyes full of life. Clean-cut, All-American kid, his whole life ahead of him. A silent chuckle escaped my lips. Well, not anymore. I looked at the picture, and that mean bastard gazed up at me. I could almost hear his voice, taunting me, calling me out. I threw the picture down. The glass shattered in the frame when it hit the tile floor, and the shards flew up like puzzle pieces before settling back onto the floor. My mom and dad jumped, scared to death by the sound. I looked at the shattered frame, and a wave of satisfaction swept through me. I grabbed another picture and slammed it down on to the top of the piano. A piece of glass bit into my palm. The blood didn't bother me, and as it flowed red and terrible I smashed another picture and another. I heard my mother yell in surprise, stop it. A busted frame fell onto the piano keys, playing a muted chord, and my smashed my fist down onto it. The piano barked in protest. I hit the keyboard again, opening my fingers as if to play a concerto. I slammed the keys again, and again. The piano howled in pain as I banged the keys until my fingers no longer stayed straight but curled underneath in feeble fists, and I pounded down on the piano keys with these abominations of hands, weak and exhausted. Tears flowed from eyes, torrents, raging flood waters of saline tears, and I wept as I looked at the carnage I had created. Pictures lay scattered around, tossed about in broken frames. Jagged bits of glass, glittering and sharp, were strewn across the carpet like atolls. The single candle that had been burning was snuffed, and smoke still hung thinly in the air. A few of the piano keys were broken, crooked in their place on the keyboard, and you could tell that the strings on the inside of the piano had been snapped. Blood smeared across the white keys, stark and unpleasant, and the blood still ran, oozing from under my broken finger nails, which had been cracked like china plates on a tile floor. My fingers were bent and mangled. Broken.
My parents stood over me and I lay on my back on the carpet my broken fingers a pain that seemed a million miles away, and my mom and dad were crying and my dad was asking me why. And I wheezed, and the pain of my fingers was getting closer to me. I was sorry for the pictures, and I was sorry for the piano, and I was sorry for my shattered finger. But I wasn't sorry about Jamie.