on the page magazine

issue no. 2, spring 2001


Le Roi Inconnu

by Michael Allen Potter

I have one photograph of my brother. It's a Polaroid of him driving his old Cherokee with one hand on the wheel. His clear, bright smile is amplified by the blurry sunshine of the California landscape speeding outside of his open window. The silver Timex our sister gave him for his twenty-first birthday hangs from his wrist. He's lost weight since then and looks good. Happy even. You can almost feel the vibrations from the crappy speakers in the dashboard when you hold the corner of the picture between your thumb and forefinger. His hair is blond and his eyes are blue, like mine, but his coloring is altogether different. For every day that I've spent inside with my face in a book, he's been at the beach, on a soccer field, or out throwing a ball against the garage. There is a reason why I sometimes refer to myself as Casper the Friendly Caucasian. He's wearing a tank top, but the day is so brilliant through the windshield that his chest is whiter than the fabric. I have no idea who took the picture.

The day after Valentine's Day, I am in my mother's kitchen arranging flowers in an old juice container. Water is heating in a small pot on the stove, just like the last time I was here, and she is asking me about Montreal. I tell her that my sunburn is killing me and she chokes back laughter in a haze of cigarette smoke. I was on the patch when I was here at Thanksgiving.

"There is an entire city underground. You can get almost anywhere and do almost anything you want. Go to the movies, have some coffee, go ice skating."

"Is that right, Mighty Michael?" she asks. She has never been, but tells me that she always wanted to go to Canada. She's almost sixty now and grew up near the border. "Water's ready."

Adam and I spent Christmas in London this year and I bought her some tea at Harrods in one of those fake, old-fashioned green tins. We got back to San Francisco a week before I was fired from another dot com. I sit across the table from her and put stamps that I have brought onto envelopes addressed to Niagara Mohawk and Oral Roberts. She is writing a letter to me as we sit and listen to religious talk radio. Some preacher is thumping an unseen Bible and telling all of those who will listen that "misery is a choice." His thesis, essentially, being that you can either accept the Lord as your personal savior and bask in the joy of His light or you can just be in a crappy mood for the rest of your life. I decide to check on the typewriter that I've brought from California. I borrowed it from the first dot com and simply forgot to bring it back before they went under.

In her office, I move my mother's old typewriter ("ten dollars from the City Mission") to the edge of the desk. I type her name and address on a scrap of paper just to make sure that everything works after crossing the country in my luggage. Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is seated behind the table at the Last Supper. His image is framed in so many places and graces so many surfaces in this house that I think we might be related. If He were my brother, I wonder, would He get pissed if I didn't send Him a birthday and a Christmas card every December 25th? And would He ever turn anything other than thirty-three years old? No black balloons for Him at His office party on His unfortunate fortieth.

"It's electric?"

My mother stands suddenly in the doorway. I nod and stand. Her machine is so antiquated that I couldn't replace the ribbon. She sits and pulls an envelope from a drawer. I have to explain the difference between SHIFT and CAPS LOCK as she tentatively hunts and pecks her way through my name. The return address on the envelope is from the psychiatric hospital. She is absolutely thrilled.

My brother's birthday was about three weeks ago, but none of us have called or sent him a card. He just turned twenty-eight and I have never met him. My mother asks me again if I have found him or my sister. I tell her no, that things are more complicated than I had originally thought.

I found that Polaroid years ago under the freeway on Market Street in a pile of homeless refuse. Someone had obviously blown a fuse and decided to unburden themselves of their trash and other worldly possessions in a wide arc across the street from my apartment.

It is possible that the man in the picture is my younger brother. I think I've seen him a thousand times before. Once on the subway in New York, once at a gas station in Omaha, and another time in a check out line at Safeway in Vancouver. Sometimes I wonder if we went to school together or if I ever stumbled home with him through pre-dawn snow after another forgotten last call.

I stare at people more than I should on the subway. I know that my expression when I do this unnerves and angers some passengers, but there is no way to explain this behavior to a stranger on a train without making the situation infinitely worse. "Well you see, mister, my mother is a paranoid schizophrenic and me and my brother and my sister were all taken by the county when we were all very young and you just look like, well, do you think we might be related?" One of my greatest fears is to be two seats behind my brother or my sister and not realize it until they've stepped onto the platform and the doors are closing behind them. Whenever I leave the house, I have it in the back of my mind that today might be the day that one of them grabs my sleeve on the street.

Back at the kitchen table, my mother lights another GPC and starts talking about her brother and sister and her aunts and uncles and other members of my extended family whom, more than likely, I will never meet. Apparently I come from a long line of suicidal drunks. She tells stories in an excited monotone, if that is at all possible. Every other person she mentions has a gun to his head, a highball glass in his hand at breakfast, or is forever falling to his death from windows in myriad post-industrial cities all over the Northeastern United States.

"Look what I got," I say, pulling my wallet from my back pocket. Sometimes I find it necessary to break up her streams of consciousness.

"Oh, okay Mighty Michael. What is it?"

I hand her a silver coin that was given to me in change one night at the liquor store on Valencia by the guy who once wrote my name in Arabic on the back of my receipt. I explain to her that it's a Norwegian krone, dated 1968, and that the man in profile on the front is King Olav. It is easily mistaken for an American quarter. She runs her fingers over the front and back of the coin and exclaims that she is Norwegian.

"Me too," I say and she laughs. "You can have it if you want."

She hands it back to me, says "Okay," but asks me to write down everything printed on both sides first, along with my name and the date that I've given it to her. Her eyes are that bad. She slips the coin into her floral cigarette case after I finish.

Now she is talking about giving birth to my sister. She says that the delivery went well and went quickly and I feel relieved for some reason. As if I were glad that none of us had caused her any more pain then we did in our subsequent absence. Then she tells me things about when we all lived together: my mother and father and my sister and myself, and then I start to feel the loss and the grief again. It starts to override the sheer amazement of sitting with my mother at her kitchen table and looking into her somehow familiar blue eyes and laughing to myself about her curly (read: unruly) hair.

Then the anger starts to creep back into my consciousness at all of the lost days and irrevocable nights that could have been spent with my siblings. Fuck the person who made these decisions thirty years ago (while eating lunch one day at their desk?) and sealed the records and court papers that would make us strangers for the rest of our lives. And fuck the file cabinet that holds the notarized documents, coffee stained and yellow with age, that state explicitly that I must never call my sister or send my brother a birthday present.

The tea is much better than I expected. We sit for a moment and she tells me that she's got lung cancer, but she says it in such a way that it sounds like something she picked up at the store the other day. Or was it emphysema? She can never remember. She does insist, however, on being buried in her favorite blue butterfly dress.

I ask my mother where she wants the flowers and she directs me to her room. I follow her down the hall, past a room devoid of anything save the cat food scattered on the floor, and on through the living room. Madonna gyrates on TV in an ad for the Grammy Awards. My mother has two parakeets on either side of the doorway just inside her room. The birds get excited when we walk in and she introduces me to them one at a time. Then she asks me if I like to fly and what it's like. I tell her that I'm becoming more and more skeptical of the whole operation the older I get. She smiles again and I tell her that I've got to go.

She seals my letter meticulously and hands it to me with the others that she wants mailed. Included in my envelope is a Xeroxed list of miracles that she has experienced since 1966. I hug her and she kisses the side of my neck like she did the last time. She thanks me again for finding her. And for the tea. In college, almost ten years ago, I lived around the corner from where we now stand.

Walking down the wooden steps of my mother's house for the second time in my life, smelling of cigarettes that I did not smoke, all that I can think about is the three of us standing side by side along the edge of her grave. My sister's face is indistinct, but my brother looks just like his picture.

Michael Allen Potter holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from Union College and San Francisco State University.

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