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Three days before her death, my mother told me–these weren't her last words, but they were pretty close–that my brother was still alive.
That was all she said. She didn't elaborate. She said it only once. And she wasn't doing very well. Morphine had already applied its endgame heart squeeze. Her skin was in that cusp between jaundice and fading summer tan. Her eyes had sunken deep into her skull. She slept most of the time. She would, in fact, have only one more lucid moment–if indeed this had been a lucid moment, which I very much doubted–and that would be a chance for me to tell her that she had been a wonderful mother, that I loved her very much, and good-bye. We never said anything about my brother. That didn't mean we weren't thinking about him as though he were sitting bedside too.
Those were her exact words. And if they were true, I didn't know if it would be a good thing or bad.
We buried my mother four days later.
When we returned to the house to sit shivah, my father stormed through the semi-shag in the living room. His face was red with rage. I was there, of course. My sister, Melisa, had flown in from Seattle with her husband, Ralph. Aunt Selma and Uncle Murray paced. Sheila, my soul mate, sat next to me and held my hand.
That was pretty much the sum total.
There was only one flower arrangement, a wonderful monster of a thing. Sheila smiled and squeezed my hand when she saw the card. No words, no message, just the drawing on it.
Dad kept glancing out the bay windows–the same windows that had been shot out with a BB gun twice in the past eleven years–and muttered under his breath, "Sons of bitches." He'd turn around and think of someone else who hadn't shown. "For God's sake, you'd think the Bergmans would have at least made a goddamn appearance." Then he'd close his eyes and look away. The anger would consume him anew, blending with the grief into something I didn't have the strength to face.
One more betrayal in a decade filled with them.
I needed air.
I got to my feet. Sheila looked up at me with concern. "I'm going to take a walk," I said softly.
"You want company?"
"I don't think so."
Sheila nodded. We had been together nearly a year. I've never had a partner so in sync with my rather odd vibes. She gave my hand another I-love-you squeeze, and the warmth spread through me.
Our front-door welcome mat was harsh faux grass, like something stolen from a driving range, with a plastic daisy in the upper left-hand cover. I stepped over it and strolled up Downing Place. The street was lined with numbingly ordinary aluminum-sided split-levels, circa 1962. I still wore my dark gray suit. It itched in the heat. The savage sun beat down like a drum, and a perverse part of me thought that it was a wonderful day to decay. An image of my mother's light-the-world smile–the one before it all happened–flashed in front of my eyes. I shoved it away.
I knew where I was headed, though I doubt if I would have admitted it to myself. I was drawn there, pulled by some unseen force. Some would call it masochistic. Others would note that maybe it had something to do with closure. I thought it was probably neither.
I just wanted to look at the spot where it all ended.
The sights and sounds of summer suburbia assaulted me. Kids squealed by on their bicycles. Mr. Cirino, who owned the Ford/
Mercury dealership on Route 10, mowed his lawn. The Steins–they'd built up a chain of appliance stores that were swallowed up by a bigger chain–were taking a stroll hand in hand. There was a touch football game going on at the Levines' house, though I didn't know any of the participants. Barbecue smoke took flight from the Kaufmans' backyard.
I passed by the Glassmans' old place. Mark "the Doof" Glassman had jumped through the sliding glass doors when he was six. He was playing Superman. I remembered the scream and the blood. He needed over forty stitches. The Doof grew up and became some kind of IPO-start-up zillionaire. I don't think they call him the Doof anymore, but you never know.
The Marianos' house, still that horrid shade of phlegm yellow with a plastic deer guarding the front walk, was on the bend. Angela Mariano, our local bad girl, was two years older than us and like some superior, awe-inducing species. Watching Angela sunning in her backyard in a gravity-defying ribbed halter top, I had felt the first painful thrusts of deep hormonal longing. My mouth would actually water. Angela used to fight with her parents and sneak smokes in the toolshed behind her house. Her boyfriend drove a motorcycle. I ran into her last year on Madison Avenue in midtown. I expected her to look awful–that was what you always hear happens to that first lust-crush–but Angela looked great and seemed happy.
A lawn sprinkler did the slow wave in front of Eric Frankel's house at 23 Downing Place. Eric had a space-travel-themed bar mitzvah at the Chanticleer in Short Hills when we were both in seventh grade. The ceiling was done up planetarium style–a black sky with star constellations. My seating card told me that I was sitting at "Table Apollo 14." The centerpiece was an ornate model rocket on a green fauna launching pad. The waiters adorned in realistic space suits, were each supposed to be one of the Mercury 7. "John Glenn" served us. Cindi Shapiro and I had sneaked into the chapel room and made out for over an hour. It was my first time. I didn't know what I was doing. Cindi did. I remember it was glorious, the way her tongue caressed and jolted me in unexpected ways. But I also remember my initial wonderment evolving after twenty minutes or so into, well, boredom–a confused "what next?" along with a naive "is that all there is?"
When Cindi and I stealthily returned to Cape Kennedy's Table Apollo 14, ruffled and in fine post-smooch form (the Herbie Zane Band serenading the crowd with "Fly Me to the Moon"), my brother, Ken, pulled me to the side and demanded details. I, of course, too gladly gave them. He awarded me with that smile and slapped me five. That night, as we lay on the bunk beds, Ken on the top, me on the bottom, the stereo playing Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (Ken's favorite), my older brother explained to me the facts of life as seen by a ninth-grader. I'd later learn he was mostly wrong (a little too much emphasis on the breast), but when I think back to that night, I always smile.
"He's alive . . ."
I shook my head and turned right at Coddington Terrace by the Holders' old house. This was the same route Ken and I had taken to get to Burnet Hill Elementary School. There used to be a paved path between two houses to make the trip shorter. I wondered if it was still there. My mother–everyone, even kids, had called her Sunny–used to follow us to school quasi-surreptitiously. Ken and I would roll our eyes as she ducked behind trees. I smiled, thinking about her overprotectiveness now. It used to embarrass me, but Ken would simply shrug. My brother was securely cool enough to let it slide. I wasn't.
I felt a pang and moved on.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but people began to stare. The bicycles, the dribbling basketballs, the sprinklers and lawn mowers, the cries of touch footballers–they all seemed to hush as I passed. Some stared out of curiosity because a strange man strolling in a dark gray suit on a summer evening was something of an oddity. But most, or again so it seemed, looked on in horror because they recognized me and couldn't believe that I would dare tread upon this sacred soil.
I approached the house at 47 Coddington Terrace without hesitation. My tie was loosened. I jammed my hands in my pockets. I toed the spot where curb met pavement. Why was I here? I saw a curtain move in the den. Mrs. Miller's face appeared at the window, gaunt and ghostlike. She glared at me. I didn't move or look away. She glared some more–and then to my surprise, her face softened. It was as though our mutual agony had made some sort of connection. Mrs. Miller nodded at me. I nodded back and felt the tears begin to well up.
You may have seen the story on 20/20 or PrimeTime Live or some other television equivalent of fish wrap. For those who haven't, here's the official account: On October 17 eleven years ago, in the township of Livingston, New Jersey, my brother, Ken Klein, then twenty-four, brutally raped and strangled our neighbor Julie Miller.
In her basement. At 47 Coddington Terrace.
That was where her body was found. The evidence wasn't conclusive as to if she'd actually been murdered in that poorly finished subdwelling or if she'd been dumped postmortem behind the water-stained zebra-striped couch. Most assume the former. My brother escaped capture and ran off to parts unknown–at least, again, according to the official account.
Over the past eleven years, Ken has eluded an international dragnet. There have however been "sightings."
The first came about a year after the murder from a small fishing village in northern Sweden. Interpol swooped in, but somehow my brother evaded their grasp. Supposedly he was tipped off. I can't imagine how or by whom.
The next sighting occurred four years later in Barcelona. Ken had rented–to quote the newspaper accounts–"an oceanview hacienda" (Barcelona is not on an ocean) with–again I will quote–"a lithe, dark-haired woman, perhaps a flamenco dancer." A vacationing Livingston resident reported no less than seeing Ken and his Castilian paramour dining beachside. My brother was described as tan and fit and wore a white shirt opened at the collar and loafers without socks. The Livingstonite, one Rick Horowitz, had been a classmate of mine in Mr. Hunt's fourth-grade class. During a three-month period, Rick entertained us by eating caterpillars during recess.
Barcelona Ken yet again slipped through the law's fingers.
The last time my brother was purportedly spotted he was skiing down the expert hills in the French Alps (interestingly enough, Ken never skied before the murder). Nothing came of it, except a story on 48 Hours. Over the years, my brother's fugitive status had become the criminal version of a VH1 Where Are They Now, popping up whenever any sort of rumor skimmed the surface or, more likely, when one of the network's fish wraps was low on material.
I naturally hated television's "team coverage" of "suburbia gone wrong" or whatever similar cute moniker they came up with. Their "special reports" (just once, I'd like to see them call it a "normal report, everyone has done this story") always featured the same photographs of Ken in his tennis whites–he was a nationally ranked player at one time–looking his most pompous. I can't imagine where they got them. In them Ken looked handsome in that way people hate right away. Haughty, Kennedy hair, suntan bold against the whites, toothy grin, Photograph Ken looked like one of those people of privilege (he was not) who coasted through life on his charm (a little) and trust account (he had none).
I had appeared on one of those magazine shows. A producer reached me–this was pretty early on in the coverage–and claimed that he wanted to present "both sides fairly." They had plenty of people ready to lynch my brother, he noted. What they truly needed for the sake of "balance" was someone who could describe the "real Ken" to the folks back home.
I fell for it.
A frosted-blond anchorwoman with a sympathetic manner interviewed me for over an hour. I enjoyed the process actually. It was therapeutic. She thanked me and ushered me out and when the episode aired, they used only one snippet, removing her question ("But surely, you're not going to tell us that your brother was perfect, are you? You're not trying to tell us he was a saint, right?") and editing my line so that I appeared in nose-pore-enhancing extreme close-up with dramatic music as my cue, saying, "Ken was no saint, Diane."
Anyway, that was the official account of what happened.
I've never believed it. I'm not saying it's not possible. But I believe a much more likely scenario is that my brother is dead–that he has been dead for the past eleven years.
More to the point, my mother always believed that Ken was dead. She believed it firmly. Without reservation. Her son was not a murderer. Her son was a victim.
"He's alive. . . . He didn't do it."
The front door of the Miller house opened. Mr. Miller stepped through it. He pushed his glasses up his nose. His fists rested on his hips in a pitiful Superman stance.
"Get the hell out of here, Will," Mr. Miller said to me.
And I did.
The next big shock occurred an hour later.
Sheila and I were up in my parents' bedroom. The same furniture, a sturdy, faded swirling gray with blue trim, had adorned this room for as long as I could remember. We sat on the king-size bed with the weak-springed mattress. My mother's most personal items–the stuff she kept in her bloated nightstand drawers–were scattered over the duvet. My father was still downstairs by the bay windows, staring out defiantly.
I don't know why I wanted to sift through the things my mother found valuable enough to preserve and keep near her. It would hurt. I knew that. There is an interesting correlation between intentional pain infliction and comfort, a sort of playing-with-fire approach to grieving. I needed to do that, I guess.
I looked at Sheila's lovely face–tilted to the left, eyes down and focused–and I felt my heart soar. This is going to sound a little weird, but I could stare at Sheila for hours. It was not just her beauty–hers was not one would call classical anyway, her features a bit off center from either genetics or, more likely, her murky past–but there was an animation there, an inquisitiveness, a delicacy too, as if one more blow would shatter her irreparably. Sheila made me want to–bear with me here–be brave for her.
Without looking up, Sheila gave a half-smile and said, "Cut it out."
"I'm not doing anything."