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As I sit at my desk eating a ham sandwich (with mayo, no mustard), head bent over the sports section of the Chronicle (Dodgers 3, Giants 0), the phone rings. It's my wife: "Guess who just showed up?"
We haven't seen my brother Josh in over a year. "I'm really sorry," I say.
"Are you coming home early?"
"I ... I will."
The last time he came, Josh stayed with us for over two weeks and didn't leave until I had given him a thousand dollars. "Good luck, Josh" I said as I left him at the Greyhound station.
Josh has called me "Boffo," short for "Boffo Mofo," since we were teenagers. He has always fancied himself to be some kind of a wordsmith. He also likes to draw pictures, blow into a saxophone.
Josh lives on the beach in Santa Monica. About six months ago I received a letter from him: "Dear Boffo, How are you? I was squatting in this warehouse with a bunch of people, very nice folks, mostly artists and musicians. We called it the Fake House (because it looked fake on the outside). It had running water but no shower and no electricity. To take a shower, you stood in a large trash can and scooped water from the sink and poured it on yourself. Everything was fine until three days ago. Mustapha—he's a painter—always left turpentine-soaked rags on the floor, and somebody must have dropped a cigarette on one of these rags because the place went up in flames! Poof! Just like that! Nomore Fake House! Now I sleep on the beach. I am ashamed to ask you this, but, Boffo, could you please send me two hundred dollars by Western Union? I'll pay you back when I can. Your brother, Josh. P.S. Please send my regards to Sheila." (My wife's name is "Sheilah," but Josh has always deleted the h from her name—yet another symptom of his overall slovenliness.) I thought, There's no Fake House, no Mustapha, no fire, but I sent him two hundred dollars anyway.
Aside from these begging letters, he also sends me postcards from places you and I would never visit. One postmarked Salt Lake City said simply, "Ate flapjacks, saw pronghorns." One postmarked Belize City said, "Soggy Chinese food."
Why should I care that he are flapjacks and saw pronghorns in Utah? That he had soggy Chinese food in Belize? But I suspect that for a man like Josh, who has accomplished nothing in this life, these trivial correspondences serve as confirmations that he exists, that he is doing something.
One year a flyer arrived around Christmas with a meticulously drawn image of Joseph Stalin in an awkward dancing pose, with this caption: "No Party Like a Party Congress! Everybody Dances the Studder Steps!"
"Tracy, I ... I ... I ... I ..." I am unable to finish my sentence. My secretary smiles, "You're stepping out, sir?"
"You'll be back, sir?" I shake my head.
"You're going home, sir?"
I nod again, smile, and walk out of the office. There was an extra sparkle in Tracy's eyes. Perhaps she finds my stuttering, an absurd yet harmless defect, endearing. I've noticed that she has done something strange to her hair lately and that, since the weather has gotten warmer, she shows up most days for work in a curt, clingy dress and a clingy blouse made from a sheer fabric.
Aside from this small, perhaps endearing defect, I am a man in control of my own faculties and life. I manage two dozen residential units and four commercial buildings. Last year I cleared $135,000 after taxes. My wife does not have to do anything. She sits home and watches Oprah, takes tai chi lessons. A month ago she went to Hawaii alone.
I grip the steering wheel with my left hand and massage my left forearm with my right hand. Muscle tone is important. Time also. I do not like to waste time, even when driving. Then I switch hands, gripping the steering wheel with my right hand and massaging my right forearm with my left hand. Then I massage my right biceps while rotating my neck. "A clear road ahead!" I shout. As I drive, I like to reinforce my constitution with uplifting slogans. I never stutter when alone. "Firm but fair!" "Money is time!" Positive thoughts are an important component of my success. It is what separates me from those of my brother's ilk.
Occasionally, while driving, I'd surprise myself with an exuberant act of violence. Without premeditation my right hand would fly off the steering wheel and land flush on my right cheek. Whack! Afterward I'd feel a strange mixture of pride and humility, not because of the pain but because I had felt no pain.
I am in excellent shape for a man of forty-two. I have very little fat and no beer gut. With dinner I allow myself a single glass of chardonnay. Each morning before work I go to the spa and swim a dozen precise laps. Never thirteen. Never eleven. Then I stand still for about two minutes at the shallow end of the pool, with my eyes closed and my hands bobbing in the water, thinking about nothing. Mr. Chow, who is also at the pool early in the morning, has taught me this exercise. After watching me swim, he said: "You have too much yang. You must learn how to cultivate your ying." Or maybe it was the other way around: "You have too much ying. You must learn how to cultivate your yang." In any case he suggested that I stand still at the shallow end of the pool for a couple of minutes each day, breathe in deeply, exhale slowly, and think about nothing.
It is very relaxing, this exercise, but of course, no one can ever think about nothing. As I stand still at the shallow end of the pool, what I must do for the test of the day comes sharply into focus: Send eviction notice to 2B, 245 Montgomery. Jack up rent from 600 to 625 on new lease for 2450 Anna Drive. The idiot on the third floor at 844 Taylor bas dumped paper towel into the toilet again, flooding the basement. Call plumber. Send bill to idiot....
Josh is my only sibling. He is a year older than me. He is my older brother. When we were kids, Josh was considered by our parents to be by far the smarter one, someone who would surely leave his mark on the world, a prediction he took quite seriously. But the facts have proven otherwise. I have often thought the reason I tolerate these visits by my loser brother, during which he never behaves graciously but often vulgarly, atrociously, and at the end of which I will have to part with a thousand dollars, or at least five hundred bucks, is because he is tangible proof that I have not failed in this life. I'm not a loser. I am not Josh. We have the same background, grew up in the same idiotic city, San Mateo, raised by the same quarrelsome parents, a garrulous, megalomaniacal father and a childish, know-nothing mother. Josh was considered by all to be the smarter one, even the better-looking one. Although we started out with roughly the same handicaps, I was never afflicted by his hubris, never thought I had to leave a so-called mark on this world. I never wanted to be better than people, although, such is life, I am now doing better than just about anyone I know (and certainly better than everyone I grew up with), whereas Josh, who was so convinced of his superiority, has degenerated into a pathetic loser, taking showers in crash cans and living under the same roof with people with names like Mustapha.
It is true that my brother is better-looking than me. Girls were enthralled by him. He lost his virginity at fifteen. I at twenty-three. But as he grew older, this superficial asset became increasingly worthless. Mature women do not tare for good looks and a glib conversation. What they want is a roof over their head, a breadwinner, and a father for their children. They like to be warm and clean. What woman will put up with standing in a trash can and having water poured over herself? Although Sheilah and I do not have children, we will when the time is right. There is no hurry.
It is a shame you cannot see my wife because any man who has will concede chat she is a strikingly, almost disturbingly, beautiful woman. She has eyes that beg a little but lips that are determined, fierce, without being vulgar or cruel. They are well drawn and not too fleshy. Her smiles are discreet. She is not one of those women who, out of fear and dishonesty, are constantly showing their teeth. She is tall, two, maybe three inches taller than me.
Sheilah is Tracy's predecessor. She worked for me for two years before we started dating. It was she who asked me out the first time. The pretext was her twenty-fourth birthday. She said, "Me and a bunch of friends are going to this French bistro on Ghirardelli Square for my birthday. Would you like to come as my date?"
I noticed she had said "date," not "friend." She did not say, "Would you like to come as my friend?" but "Would you like to come as my date?" Here's that crack in the line, I thought, run for it.
I must admit that although I was attracted to Sheilah from the moment she walked into my office for the job interview, I did not dare to betray my interest. She was out of my league. Even now, five years into our marriage, I still catch myself in moments of self-congratulation. Once I even laughed out loud, shaking my head and exclaiming, "You didn't do too bad, you ugly son of a bitch!"
Josh, on the other hand, has never been married, has never even had a relationship with a woman lasting more than a few months. Three times he had to borrow money from me to pay for his girlfriends' abortions. It is a good thing, these abortions, considering the kind of father he would have made.
I haven't told you about the incident that prompted me to get rid of him the last time he came to stay with us.
He had been brooding in front of the TV all week, drunk on my wine. When he wanted to borrow my car one night to go into town, I was more than happy to oblige. I even gave him twenty dollars for beer. He left at eight o'clock and came back at around one in the morning. I could tell immediately that he had a girl with him. My wife was asleep but as usual I was up reading. Each night before bed I try to take in at least twelve pages of a good novel. Although a businessman, I do not neglect to develop the left side of my brain. On that night, if I remember correctly, I was reading The Joy Luck Club by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Since the guest room is adjacent to the master bedroom, I could hear their voices fairly distinctly. Josh was talking in a near whisper, but the girl was loud. She was black. I could never recall him dating an African-American girl or showing any interest in black women, and was a little surprised by this fact. Of course playing the saxophone, he was always listening to the great black musicians. They were haggling.
"You don't got forty bucks?"
"I only have ten."
"I'll give you my jacket." It was actually a ski jacket I had lent him.
"I won't even suck your motherfuckin' white-trash dick for that motherfuckin' boo sheeiiit jacket!"
"Get me the fuck out of here!"
It was over in less than a minute. I was so startled by such an unusual incident occurring in my own home that I had no time to react. Maybe I was a little disappointed that something even more bizarre did not happen. My wife had slept through the entire episode. She could sleep through anything: car alarms, sirens, earthquakes. I looked down at her serene, distant face and felt an overwhelming urge to penetrate.
A week, maximum, I decide, massaging my right thigh as I turn into the driveway. We live in a split-level three-bedroom house with a two-car garage, in an upscale, multi-ethnic neighborhood. My brother is standing inside the plate glass window of the living room, waiting for me. He has on a dirty-looking baseball cap and a black T-shirt. When he comes out of the house, I notice that he has put on weight just in the past year. He has never taken care of his body, never eaten right, never exercised. He trots down the sloping brick path leading to my car, smiling shamelessly. My brother is always most obsequious during the first few days. Sheilah is nowhere to be seen, I step out of the car. "Good to see you, Boffo!" he practically screams. We hug.
"How ... how ... how are you?"
"Howsa, howsa ... Mustapha?"
Josh looks confused. Then he says, "Mustapha died in the fire."
A professional con man, my brother. I place a hand on the back of his neck and start to massage it without thinking. I lead him into my house.
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