on the page magazine

issue no. 2, spring 2001



by Colin Berry

In my first memory of him, my big brother is nine and very much alive. It is summer, and he is wearing cut-offs, Sears tennis shoes, a plaid shirt with pearl snaps. We are standing by the closet at the top of the stairs. As I watch, he grabs his shirttails and yanks them apart, unsnapping his shirt from navel to neck in a single, ripping motion. His stomach and chest are suddenly exposed, the shirt hanging open like a torn flag. I laugh aloud, my two-year-old's sense of absurdity tickled, perhaps for the first time.

The details play before me now with perfect clarity. I remember the time of day (late afternoon, the Colorado sun through a dusty west window); what he smelled like (warm cotton, model glue, fruit gum, farts, Ivory soap); the br-r-r-r-rt of his snaps as they popped open. I also remember what I did next: took hold of my own shirttails, and pulled. The difference, of course, was that my shirt was fastened with big buttons that ripped, one at a time, from their holes, gracefully arcing though the sunlit air. It all happened in a flash. My own shirt was ruined, and then it was he who laughed, a taunting cackle that echoed down the stairs.

Thirty-three years later, Kevin is dead. He is lying in the small, neat bedroom of his trailer on the edge of Boulder, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his heart. Earlier that day, the last Friday in January, he had eaten a can of soup, washed his dishes, written a letter to our mother, smoked a few Marlboros. He fed his cat, Lily, and stuck a Post-It to his front door, warning whoever arrived first not to let her escape. Around 1:20 P.M., he called a friend's voicemail, explaining what he was about to do and how to contact Mom.

Later, in a room without pictures on the walls, he lay on his bed, placed the muzzle of a handgun against his chest, and pulled the trigger. The light from the window was cold and gray.

My parents' third child and first son, my brother was born in Boulder on the shortest day of the year. Like me, he had brown hair, blue eyes, a strong brow, and was slightly taller than Dad. He loved animals—he harbored a dozen reptiles and a four-foot-long iguana once in a No Pets apartment—and the Rolling Stones.

When I was fifteen, he took me to see the Stones. It was my first concert, an outdoor event inside the university football stadium. We arrived early, winding through ramps and tunnels to emerge, finally, on the field. Swirling around me were bikinis, bright T-shirts, dogs, pot smoke, and thousands of laughing, dancing kids. A blonde woman in mirrored sunglasses offered me a joint; I stared at a boy with a tiny earring. Kids were playing Frisbee. Far above us, a pair of hang-gliders floated in the summer sky.

Kansas was onstage. They seemed miles away, yet deafening: the organ like a jet engine; the snare drum like a pistol shot.

"This is great!" I shouted.

"This is nothing," he grinned. "Just wait."

An hour later, the Stones opened with "It's Only Rock 'n Roll." In my memory, we stand fifteen rows back, cheering as Jagger prances down the gangplanks and scales the scaffolding, throwing roses into the crowd. The show is louder and brighter than anything I could have imagined. The back of my neck is sunburned; my cheeks hurt from smiling.

Halfway into the set, it begins to rain, sending the crowd under tarps and temporarily clearing the stage. Kevin motions me over to some people nearby. He holds a small pipe filled with dark, pitchy stuff.

"D'you want some?" His pupils are deep pools of black.

"What is it?" I recognize pot, but not this, which looks like tar and smells like paint.

"Opium," he says. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

But I do. He steadies the pipe for me, aiming a flame at the bowl as I inhale. The edges bubble, and instantly my head fills with sweet smoke. I cough most of it out. Kevin holds the pipe, waits. I try another hit, drawing it deep into my lungs. This time the drug sits, and for a moment I'm floating. I glance up at him. and he smiles, and I remember that the space between his two front teeth looks just like Dad's.

From Kevin, I learned how to shift gears on a 1950 Chevy, to roll a cigarette, light firecrackers, feed a snake. I learned how to belch, whistle four ways, eat crabapples, tie a water balloon, play "Smoke on the Water" on a guitar. I learned how to lure bats, ride wheelies, change a Sting-Ray tire, build a Soap Box Derby. I learned how to swear, clean a carburetor, laugh at myself. I learned how to summon a deaf cat (knock on the floor) and crack a concrete washtub (explode an M-80 in it). I learned how to skip stones across the surface of a lake. I learned how to log annoyance calls and institute restraining orders. I learned about airline bereavement policies and toxicology reports.

One day, when he was eleven, we were sitting on the driveway. A line of dog footprints, frozen in concrete, next to us. "Okay, listen," he said, putting his hand to the ground. "I'm going to let you hit me as hard as you want to—" he spread his fingers—"but I'm only going to do it once, so you'd better make it a real good hit." As hard as I wanted! "Ready? You ready? Now hit my hand—hard!" He grimaced, anticipating, his hand splayed before me like a crab. Blind with joy, I gathered my four-year-old strength and brought my fist, knuckles first, onto the cement, where, at the last second, he had pulled his hand away. "Nice going, dummy," he said, as my tears began to boil. "That'll teach you to trust me."

A few years ago, he telephoned my mother around dinnertime.

"Oh, hi, Kev. What'cha doing?" She was drying her hands on a dishtowel.

"Shooting heroin, Mom," came the reply, "I'm shooting fuckin' heroin."

Yet in the coroner's report, I uncover no mention of illicit substances, nothing to raise an eyebrow. "A urine screen was negative for alcohol and drugs of abuse." Kevin had been sober for months.

Toward the end of his life, he erected borders around mine. Over dinner at my parents' a few years ago, he barely spoke as I talked about grad school, publishing stories, editing a section of a magazine, dating a woman I would likely marry. Silence fell. The clock chimed. We stirred coffee in ivy-painted cups.

Kevin leaned back his chair, shot me a glance. "So, little brother," he said, his voice thick with disgust. "How much did that watch cost you?"

The last time I saw him was at Mom's, one Sunday after a picnic lunch up the canyon in the foothills above Boulder. I sat across from him, studying the lines on his face, the hollowness in his eyes. He seemed smaller, like he was shrinking into himself. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt. His skin looked dark and slippery. We said nearly nothing to each other.

Back at home that evening, he bid everyone goodbye, then walked down the driveway toward his truck, only glancing back after he reached it. A quick lift of his head, and he opened the door and disappeared behind the glare of the windshield. I waved, turned from the window. I never saw him alive again.

My oldest sister, Mom, and I are driving to sign papers at the mortuary. Things are tense; Kevin's body lies awaiting cremation. At a stoplight, a young woman crosses in front of the car.

"I hate those big chunky heels everybody wears these days," Mom says, suddenly. "I think they look stupid."

No one says anything.

"I don't know, I sort of like them," I say, finally. My mouth is dry. "Kind of retro."

Mom glares out the window at the girl, now walking down the sidewalk. "I think they look stupid," she says again, her voice choked with anger. The window is foggy next to her mouth.

No one speaks until we get to the funeral home. My sister and I wait in the parking lot while Mom goes in.

"He used to play his guitar and sing to me over the phone," she says, lighting a cigarette. "He'd leave me these long messages. Sometimes he was really drunk, other times just tipsy. He'd say, 'Listen t' this, Les,' and start singing."

"What did he sing?"

"Country stuff, mostly. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard—he loved all those old songs."

She takes a long drag.

"Are you going inside?"

She shakes her head. "I don't want that to be my last memory of him."

"What is it now?"

"It's a song he used to sing sometimes," she says, looking away. "'The Girl with the Far Away Eyes.'"

I scramble to sculpt some solid form of him on which to attach bones, skin, hair. But I have only his voice on the telephone. When he was sober enough to speak, we talked about old things: pets, neighbors, books, moments as insignificant to me now as a flower on a papered wall. He could recall a T-shirt worn decades ago, a nickname long forgotten. I could remember little of the past: a truck he drove, the name of his cat. Sometimes we would laugh—low, dry chuckles that started in our throats and faded quickly, until the line static reminded us to think of something else to say.

During his last two days, Kevin composed a long suicide note. He admits to feeling selfish, he writes, but "can't think of a peaceful way." He outlines financial arrangements, invites us to take what we want from the trailer and to watch after Lily, whom he feels he's abandoning. He is kind to our mother: "I just ate some of the stew you made Mom and it's really good." He levels no blame. On the second page, he writes:

8:00 A.M.

I stayed awake last night thinking. I think what has been bothering me most is this trade. I can't get out of it. For the last few years I've tried to think of a way. As I got older there were more & more comments from younger guys. I'm only 42, I can't stand a full day in the cold anymore—what's going to happen as I get older? Now I have to argue to try to get a workers comp. claim—which I end up paying anyway—(Last fall knee) Health & med. insurance isn't very good. I've known a few older guys in their sixties that were still doing this kind of work because they had to -- had never been able to do anything better. They were real hard to be around & kind of mean and hateful. I can't do that Mom.

I imagine the younger guys' comments directed at my brother, a man who plays his guitar at night and likes his mother's cooking. I imagine him behind his dashboard, shivering in the steely winter dawn, lighting a cigarette and hatching a plan to end his life.

A year before his suicide, Kevin telephoned my answering machine a dozen times over a weekend. He had lent me Edward Abbey's Hayduke Lives! which I hadn't returned. Each message grew more agitated. Near the end of one, he called me a "yuppie fuck"; later, he roared "fuuuuuck yooooou!" At one point, he ran out of insults: "You know, you never were a very good drummer," he grumbled, before hanging up.

He belittled my career, my books, the texture of my hands. He called me "pigeon shit" and a "fuckin' toad." It was almost comical.

It had also happened before. On Monday, I called him, asking him not to call me again. Two days later he left more messages in the same hostile tone. The next day, I contacted the phone company to initiate Call Rejection and the police to investigate a restraining order. I was sick of it. Later that week, I returned the book with a letter instructing him not to telephone me under any circumstances. This time, he respected my wish: I never got another call.

Late in the year, Kevin had begun, for all the world, to improve. He was taking Prozac, starting to talk regularly—reluctantly—to a counselor. He hadn't drunk since October, hadn't dabbled in drugs. His friends said he'd sounded better, stronger than he had in a long time. Something was shifting. And yet at that moment, we lost him. It was as if the antidepressants—or his brain, free for the first time to consider it clearly—afforded him the strength to do, finally, what he had always wanted.

I can picture him in the trailer that morning, stacking papers, rinsing dishes, reviewing his life that is about to end. He writes a little, then smokes. Lily senses something is terribly wrong. Does he cry? Does he talk to himself? (I do, as our father does when he thinks he is alone.) Kevin sees his reflection in the mirror: Does he recognize himself? I imagine his haunted eyes, creased forehead; he has not bothered to shave—bigger things are bearing down, crashing over him. "I cannot think very straight," he writes at one point. "I know I make this sound easy and I know it isn't."

Do I miss his drunken calls, his uneven temper, my constant worry that my brother is dying? No. I miss our future, the potential for a time after he had come clean and we had reconnected. I missed him at the wedding, when I joined a family stronger than ours; I will miss him when I return, soon, to visit my aging parents. I miss him when I open to his page in my address book, or see brothers together, or hear someone whistling "Beast of Burden" from another room. I am like a table that once supported itself on four legs and now does so on three. I am precarious; I wobble.

From his trailer that day, I took fifteen scratched Stones LPs, from which, over the months, I make a mix tape. Each selection—"Angie," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Sympathy for the Devil"—takes me someplace in our past together. When I'm done, I tell myself, I will dub copies for my sisters and parents.

With just a few minutes of tape left, I choose (from Sticky Fingers) his favorite song of all: "Dead Flowers." I can picture him slouched on a couch, beer in hand, the air thick with smoke. The brash lyrics make him chuckle as he listens to the chorus for the thousandth time.

I have two pictures of him. In one (Mom's writing: "Age 3") he is dressed as a cowboy, with a black hat over his crewcut, yoke shirt, red kerchief, and beaded belt. His cuffed jeans reveal little boots. Around his hips, a holster holds a white-handled gun, which he grips tightly. His eyes sparkle; he is smiling.

The other, taken several years ago, captures him in aviator sunglasses, outlaw mustache, and long hair. He is shirtless, his shoulders square, his biceps and deltoids thick. In this photo, he is also holding a gun, but this one is real: a .357, with hammer back and muzzle forward. It is a hoax, of course, a bad-ass snapshot taken for laughs, yet to see it now brings a shiver of irony.

Tragedies don't tie families together. Half of Kevin's cremains are buried in a family plot in western Colorado; the rest lie scattered in the foothills above Boulder, not far from where we'd picnicked that day. I think he would have liked both spots.

The memorial I attended comprised a small gathering of family and friends. The morning was hazy and cool; the mountains smelled of butterscotch and sage. I read a poem; my sister played "Amazing Grace" on her fiddle. Standing in a circle on the shadowed side of the rise, we tried to recognize in each others' eyes the singular pain we felt, to give each other strength in this, our weakest hour.

Then, before the September sun grew too bright, we scooped handfuls of his heavy white ashes and scattered them over the hillside. As a light autumn breeze blew down the canyon, Kevin got in our eyes and under our fingernails. He dusted our clothes; turned to grit in our teeth. He hung in the air like a song.

Colin Berry lives in Northern California, where he writes for art, music, and design publications. He received an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. "Shattered" is his first published memoir.

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