With a New Introduction by Jonathan Franzen
There's Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, and Noah; Nick, Dennis, Bertram, Russell, and Virgil. The doctor, the documentary filmmaker, and the sculptor in burning steal; the eldest, the youngest, and the celebrated "perfect" brother, Benedict. In Donald Antrim's mordantly funny novel The Hundred Brothers, our narrator and his colossal fraternity of ninety-eight brothers (one couldn't make it) have assembled in the crumbling library of their family's estate for a little sinister fun. Executed with the invention and intelligence of Barthelme and Pynchon, Antrim's taxonomy of male specimens is in equal proportions disturbing and absurdly hilarious.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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About the Author
Donald Antrim is the critically acclaimed author of Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, as well The Afterlife, a memoir about his mother. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, he has also been the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Public Library. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Hundred Brothers
By Donald Antrim
Vintage Books USACopyright © 1998 Donald Antrim
All right reserved.
My brothers Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher, Frank, Simon, Saul, Jim, Henry, Seamus, Richard, Jeremy, Walter, Jonathan, James, Arthur, Rex, Bertram, Vaughan, Daniel, Russel, and Angus; and the triplets Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey; identical twins Michael and Abraham, Lawrence and Peter, Winston and Charles, Scott and Samuel; and Eric, Donovan, Roger, Lester, Larry, Clinton, Drake, Gregory, Leon, Kevin, and Jack--all born on the same day, the twenty-third of May, though at different hours in separate years--and the caustic graphomaniac, Sergio, whose scathing opinions appear with regularity in the front-of-book pages of the more conservative monthlies, not to mention on the liquid crystal screens that glow at night atop the radiant work stations of countless bleary-eyed computer bulletinboard subscribers (among whom our brother is known, affectionately, electronically, as Surge); and Albert, who is blind; and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; and clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton; and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest, has seemed a little screwed up somehow; and Jason, Joshua, and Jeremiah, each vaguely gloomy in his own "lost boy" way; and Eli, who spends solitary wakeful evenings in the tower, filling notebooks with drawings--the artist's multiple renderings for a larger work?--portraying the faces of his brothers, including Chuck, the prosecutor; Porter, the diarist; Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings; Barry, the good doctor of medicine; Fielding, the documentary-film maker; Spencer, the spook with known ties to the State Department; Foster, the "new millennium" psychotherapist; Aaron, the horologist; Raymond, who flies his own plane; and George, the urban planner who, if you read the papers, you'll recall, distinguished himself, not so long ago, with that innovative program for revitalizing the decaying downtown area (as "an animate interactive diorama illustrating contemporary cultural and economic folkways"), only to shock and amaze everyone, absolutely everyone, by vanishing with a girl named Jane and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds; and all the young fathers: Seth, Rod, Vidal, Bennet, Dutch, Brice, Allan, Clay, Vincent, Gustavus, and Joe; and Hiram, the eldest; Zachary, the Giant; Jacob, the polymath; Virgil, the compulsive whisperer; Milton, the channeler of spirits who speak across time; and the really bad womanizers: Stephen, Denzil, Forrest, Topper, Temple, Lewis, Mongo, Spooner, and Fish; and, of course, our celebrated "perfect" brother, Benedict, recipient of a medal of honor from the Academy of Sciences for work over twenty years in chemical transmission of "sexual language" in eleven types of social insects--all of us (except George, about whom there have been many rumors, rumors upon rumors: he's fled the vicinity, he's right here under our noses, he's using an alias or maybe several, he has a new face, that sort of thing)--all my ninety-eight, not counting George, brothers and I recently came together in the red library and resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old fucker's ashes.
It was a wretched, pewter-colored day. The red library walls were haunted by shadows and light cast from a multitude of low-wattage reading lamps that haloed the tables on which they sat illuminating our laps as we flopped down on sofas and chairs overhung by English hunt prints and the heads of game animals, mounted, desolate, African, gazing out from rectangles of wall framed in wood shelves crowded with Victorian matched sets and works by obscure poets.
"I hate this room. It stinks of death," whispered Virgil, wedged beside me on a love seat. Virgil often felt, or he seemed to feel, to have felt, since his childhood, frightened and oppressed. It was impossible to say or do anything to make life less unpleasant for him. Nevertheless, we tried. "Lighten up," I told him. A line of our brothers scuffed past us in search of places to sit. The library was filling with male energy and low sounds of voices saying, "Hey, man, scoot over and make space." Soon it would be standing room only. The musty air would grow lush with our smells of sweat, shaving lotions, exhaled humid breaths. God help us. Already Virgil was hunched over on our shared cushiony seat, looking moist and claustrophobic with his head hovering between his knees, watery eyes scrutinizing the carpet. "Try reading a magazine," I suggested. Then, from a distant corner of the room--a crash, the jolting shatter of glass exploding, a lamp going down. This always happens when we crowd together in the red library: someone trips on a cord or backs into a three-legged table flaunting a bud vase, or hurls his body too heavily onto a chair, with the result that some objet or piece of heirloom furniture winds up noisily destroyed; it's alarming and inevitable and laughable. Today's mishap appeared to be the work of Max, who, clearly startled by the overturned light's impact, the noisy report of breaking china, stopped a moment to stare down at the lamp cord snarled around his ankle, the black electrical line snaking across the floor through porcelain strewn in brilliant white ruin near his shoes (the tiny conical lampshade having sprung free and gone flying, nearly knocking another lamp from another table), before looking up to gaze slowly here and there around the hushed room, then ask no one in particular, "Did I do that?"
Poor Maxwell. Ever since his return, last month, from a pharmacological botanical specimen-gathering expedition, he's been noticeably agitated, clumsy and distracted in the manner of one plagued by either fever or crisis. Apparently, something strange had happened in Costa Rica, and now Max was walking into things and breaking them, at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.
"What's wrong with him, do you think?" Virgil whispered barely audibly in my ear.
Together we watched Max kneel unsteadily down among the lamp shards. Siegfried and Stephen, both standing in Max's vicinity when the accident happened, came over and crouched beside their brother, helped him collect fragments, which they all painstakingly swept--their six outstretched, middle-aged hands raking and pawing the carpet for nuggets of porcelain and indiscernible, translucent bulb splinters--into a tidy pile. I was astounded by how fat Stephen had become. Just looking at him made me want a whiskey and soda. He scooped a quantity of particles into his soft hands and trotted off toward the fireplace, where, despite the fact that it was sufficiently warm in the room--and would become, what with the steady infiltration of more and more of our bodies, suffocatingly so--old Hiram was leaning on his walker, performing his customary patriarchal act of rudely supervising construction of yet another of his stupendous, raging fires.
"Ball those tight!" Hiram screeched at Donovan crumpling Sunday newspaper sections, lobbing these into the grate.
Hiram is ninety-three and universally despised for his many humiliating cruelties.
"Examine the flue!" he commanded Donovan, loudly enough for everyone in the family to overhear. And now Stephen quickly approached, head lowered and arms fully extended before him with hands cupped as if bearing something disagreeable, which, on arriving at the red-brick fireside, he flung away--a scatter of powder and detritus that clouded the hearth and the air around it with granular smog.
Immediately Hiram seized his walker by the handles and clattered backward, fleeing grime. "Oh, my shoes, look at my shoes," he cried as a second cargo of glass and dust and, also, several large, knife-edged porcelain fragments, carried by Maxwell, made uneasy passage toward that end of the room. We all watched in horror as Max tacked around furniture and the extended legs of semireclining men. Everything was an obstacle, and Max seemed, with each wavering, anxious footfall, on the verge of keeling over. He vaulted an ottoman that appeared suddenly in his path. He kicked up rug corners. The rugs were ancient and valuable, tattered to a point near disintegration--but never mind, the real worry was that Max would do something grievous with that serrated porcelain he was brandishing in every direction. "Oh! Oh!" Hiram hollered as Max cleared the big Persian carpet, hit the hardwood, lost his balance completely, and flew into a run/slide/stagger across the floorboards toward him, toward Hiram clutching the walker with fists speckled brown by age. Max's arms thrashed, and it appeared he would crash into our eldest brother and cut off his head. But Hiram cowered down and used the waist-high, wraparound frame of the walker as a protective metal barricade. He lowered his head between bent elbows, thrust the walker before him, braced for collision--he'd once played sports! Now he showed admirable form, letting the walker absorb the initial impact, before recoiling from the main force of Max's oncoming midsection with a sideways feint-and-parry maneuver that would've been nice to watch on instant replay, it looked so effortless.
Max veered away. Hiram shook his fist--in anger it seemed, actually pain. He'd suffered an injury to the wrist, so easy to do at his advanced age. Now he clasped this brittle hand and crumpled over--automatically, self-protectively, in the manner of a man who's hammered his thumb. He shook out the hand and he made a face. Of course Barry came from wherever he was sitting to have a look. Barry's a caring physician and a loyal brother. He gives us all plenty of complimentary medical counseling, as well as phoned-in prescriptions for tetracycline or a refill of antidepressants. If the complaint requires a specialist's care, he'll offer a referral.
Barry flexed Hiram's wrist, massaged, tenderly, the hand and bony forearm. He swiveled the joint. "How's this? This? How about here? Okay? No? Hurt? Sorry." And so forth, as the old man grimaced.
Max in the meantime continued to weave. He still held that porcelain. What was he doing? Warding off an invisible enemy? No one dared approach him. It looked as if he might do serious damage after all.
"I wouldn't mind a hit of whatever he's on," whispered Virgil as the whirling botanist sheered back onto the Persian rug and into a crowd of twins. I couldn't help feeling, at that moment, a modest thrill. The twins invariably bunch together in a pack during social functions, refusing to mix with the rest of us, preferring to assert their own little club; and it's obnoxious. Suddenly, in rushed Max, a berserker in their midst, scattering three out of four identical twosomes. It was like something choreographed, Max dervishing armed and dangerous between Lawrence and Peter, on his left, and Scott and Samuel, to his right; and these two pairs at once deftly sidestepping--a shuffle of debonair panic followed by Max pirouetting to make straight for Winston and Charles tumbling backward onto chairs, raising hands to shield their matching terrorized faces crying,"Leave us alone! Leave us alone!"
That was when I noticed Max was wearing one of my favorite Italian ties. Isn't that the way in families. Someone's always rifling your closet.
"My tie!" I called across the room. The tie whipped and fluttered, as if blown in a wind.
But there was no actual breeze in here, only fear and turmoil, as guys of all ages got hastily up from their seats and retreated to form disorderly ranks before bookshelves and the recessed window casements between the shelves--a ring of brothers gazing in at Max with the same pitying, blankly frightened expressions worn by the taxidermized wildebeests and elk that loomed so dolefully overhead.
The library was about filled at this point. Only the last stragglers ranged up or down the lengthy hallways and stairwells that led to and from this or that distant household wing. One by one we arrived. We were all present except George. Near the end of the line was Milton. I saw him coming through the library's main doorway.
Or not coming through. This entrance was clogged deep with Clinton, Rod, Bennet, Christopher, Leon, and many, many others, all intent on the spectacle at room's center: our brother stalking aimlessly, dangerously after nothing, pottery in his trembling hands.
Whispering Virgil told me, "I don't think he heard you. Look at him. This is very distressing. He needs help."
Maybe the thing to do would be for someone young and agile to storm out there and risk his body and just be a gladiator and tackle Max. Rush high, spear low, drive him hard to the carpet. Wham.
Quietly I said to Virgil, "Where's Zachary when you need him?"
"Yeah, no shit. Fuck that guy." "You know what I mean?"
What did Virgil mean, exactly? And why was I agreeing with him? And what, by the way, was that low, whirring, humming sound coming from over by the fireplace?
The truth is, I like Zack a lot. Of course there were those times when we were kids, when he used stature and strength to gain advantage over smaller brothers. I'm thinking of the famous sickening instance when Zachary--who reached an imposing six feet seven and weighed in at two hundred and sixty virtually fat-free pounds before his seventeenth birthday, and who continued to grow, vertically and in girth, even after that--decided it'd be a gas to kneel on Virgil's chest, vigorously scour Virgil's naked stomach with a hairbrush, and yell out, in his ecstatic, hormone-enriched voice, "Red belly! Red belly!"
There were other, similar incidents, too, now that I come to dwell on it.
"Speak of the devil," growled Virgil.
Sure enough, it was the black-haired tormentor himself. Here he came plowing through a crowd at the opposite end of the room. Shorter men's heads bobbed around him. These heads got out of the way. Zachary's brothers let him pass. God, what hands that man had.
Would Zack notice Virgil and me snug on our tiny love seat? Or might he--and let's only hope!--overlook us and go after Max, whom he truly hated?
No such luck either way. Boys will be boys, even when they're men with heart conditions. This party, Zachary included, was decidedly into the show at center stage. Catcalls could be heard. "Go nuts, Maxwell!" someone shouted--prophetically?--as Max bumped a chair and almost fell.
"We're related to pigs," decreed Virgil.
Yes and no. Pigs is harsh. Virgil was evidently slipping into one of his moods. It is hardly my intention to take issue with another person's misery; nevertheless, I should say right now--at the outset of our evening together--that in this or any family certain moods and states of mind will be dominant and chronic to the extent that they are no longer perceivable as moods, but as routine personality traits, shared attributes--those supervening aspects of character that, because supervening, come to signify membership in the family circle. The collective persona of this family could reasonably be described as frantic, romantic, lethargic, sarcastic, fearful, frustrated, tipsy, pugnacious, unchaste, heartless, dog-eat-dog, borderline narcissistic, nervously narrow-minded, and more or less resigned to despair although occasionally festive when inebriated. This can be problematic. The fact that we all abide depression does not lessen the pain of the lonely sufferer lost among raucous celebrants. When dealing with Virgil, I always assume the worst. "Don't make me ask Barry to give you a shot," I told him, and he lowered his head in his hands and groaned. As usual, I had taken the wrong course.
"I'm sorry, Virgil. I didn't mean that."
"Yes, you did. You pretend you're my ally, but you're the same as all the rest."
"No one is going to give you a shot."
"Why do you have to say something like that? You know how that makes me feel."
"I said I was sorry. I'll say it again. I'm sorry. It was a stupid and insensitive thing to say. I shouldn't've. Here"--putting my arm gently around his shoulders, giving a supportive, brotherly squeeze--"it's okay, it's okay. Calm down. Everything will be all right."
"I don't want to be that way anymore, Doug. I don't want to be the way I was."
He hunched over, head in hands. Virgil's body shivered, and he sounded as if he might be crying. "I want to die," he said.
"We're all going to die soon enough, Virgil. There's no reason to wish for death."
At which point, and, as if on cue, Max did tumble to the floor. It was beautiful and balletic: Maxwell's body arcing downward in face-forward descent with arms extended overhead, hands outstretched and still holding the pieces of the heirloom lamp he'd smashed at the outset of our gathering in this big red room--holding these pieces aloft and ablaze in the reflective incandescence of reading lamps constellated on tables everywhere: our homey little indoor Milky Way of 40-watt bulbs lighting up the library's run-down leather furniture and desiccated animal heads and innumerable, dusty, unread books; and our faces, all our faces lit amber and watching Maxwell's long body plunge belly flopping toward moth-eaten carpet bunched in folds set to snare and entangle the botanist's drunken feet.
"The God is among us!" the falling man shouted out on his way down.
"Ouch!" someone nearby exclaimed, reflexively, as Max made contact. His thud accompanied by porcelain launched clattering across the floor. Porcelain bursting into smaller fragments. Skidding under chairs.
"Good Lord," said a voice.
"Doctor!" called another.
And from far away in the rear of the mob blocking the door, the high voice of dear, sweet Milton, the channeler, asking anyone and everyone, "What happened?"
The bottleneck in the doorway broke up. A half dozen fellows cleared into the room. Curious others followed. More filed in to sit or stand gawking at Max.
"He freaked out," Siegfried told Milton. In Siegfried's callused hands were further remains of the busted lamp. Now the sculptor peered warily down at this glass he carried--as if it might somehow be hazardous, might hold the power to bring him harm. He explained to Milton, "Max tripped on a light cord and broke this light, no big deal, right, and Stephen and I were helping clear the mess. All of a sudden Max takes off chasing after people."
"He tried to assassinate me!" wailed Hiram from over by the fireplace. Hiram heaved up an arm. He displayed his swollen hand. His face showed pain.
"Us, too!" chorused twins Winston and Charles in unison from their sanctuary behind a leather sofa.
By this time Barry'd made it to Max's side and was kneeling in doctorly fashion, attending to the toppled man. Max lay flat on his stomach, not moving at all. Barry reached out to examine him; he pressed for heart's cadence above Max's collar. There was a hush. Shuffling of feet. A cough. A chair cushion sighed beneath somebody's shifting. Silence, and in the silence that vaguely familiar, low whirring sound that had seemed to come, moments earlier, from the vicinity of the fireplace. What could it be. Oh, of course. It was Fielding with his eight-millimeter homemovie camera. He was zooming in, adjusting the focus, finding the light, getting everything on film.
"Give me a hand here, someone," Barry said without looking up at anyone in particular.
Nobody moved. Eyes met eyes as the camera's motor softly, metallically purred. The camera panned across floor and Max's still back; its bluish lens pulled in tight over pair after pair of shoes nestled beneath cuffed and uncuffed trousers worn by men standing close. Fielding's camera's gaze passed right up those trouser fronts, up over the pleats and the plackets covering zippered or buttoned closures, up to check out the pockets stuffed with hands rammed down into them, playing absently with gum wrappers and balled-up money and keys and lint and change and receipts from purchases.
Playing, as well, with genitals. Our ninety-nine, not counting George's, sets of underwear-enshrouded nuts.
"Put that goddamned thing down," some brother or other told Fielding, who was at that instant raising his camera to take in, in steady lateral progression, our faces in sequence.
It was one of our everyday eternal moments of collective, mute indecision--in this instance over who would do what, if anything, to help Barry help Max.
A little clique in front seemed to wake up. Three came forward and positioned themselves around Maxwell. Following the doctor's instructions--"It doesn't appear that anything is broken. I want to try to get him turned over. Milton, put your hand under Max's knees. Siegfried, watch his arms. Christopher, you hold his feet. I've got the head. Okay, we're going to lift and roll, gently, on three. To the right. Careful. One, two, three"--they grunted and shifted the prone man from his stomach to his back.
In other parts of the library, other things were taking place. It is easily possible, in a room such as this, for many activities to take place simultaneously, without significant disturbance to the informal reader or browser paging through baroque musical scores or the occasional dated literary, scientific, or heraldic tract pried from the heart of an uncataloged loose stack. I mention our vast heraldic holdings because they are of special interest, lately, to me. Genealogy--and by genealogy I mean more than mere sketching and labeling of "family tree" diagrams; rather, the deep investigation into bloodline and blood's congenital inheritances, particularly in connection with insane monarchs--has become a primary avocation of mine. I'm not crazy. But I do have the blood of an insane monarch running through my veins. We all do. I wanted to know what, if anything, this might portend. So I've been spending nights doing layman research into intrafamilial sociobiological matters, spreading decomposing documents on the oak table beneath the rose window that would look down--if you could only see through those darkly stained indigo panes--onto cobbled footpaths and stone bridges here and there traversing grassy plots, onto the several interconnected, smelly, evaporating ponds encircled with old trees that were lush once though never tall, bowed lower still by their years and all but leafless on their way to dying, our former topiary garden. So much here suffers decline. The red library everywhere shows the years since anybody bothered picking up a putty knife. Browning paint and yellow plaster molts like a skin from the cross-vaulted ceiling. Of twenty chandeliers pendent from twenty golden ropes, only a few manage any real light. The effect, when looking up, late on a winter day as evening wanes to black, is unsettling: a Piranesian study of listless candelabra tethered beneath obscurely lit, cracked domes that, depending on illumination's intensity and the various reaches of shadows flung every direction by the intersecting lattices of the vaults, appear alternately higher or lower, more ruinously beautiful or hideously spectral than they actually, probably, are--an entire grim structure in want of some kind of repair before it simply breaks apart and descends, faulty light fixtures and all raining down on our heads. Or so it would seem to the anxious reader obsessed with death. And on the subject of heads! From where I sat, squeezed into the love seat beside disconsolate Virgil, I was able to gaze more or less eye to eye at no fewer than one dozen lifeless mammals, wall-mounted, across the way, on plaques (the lone exception in this grouping, a reindeer that has had eyes gouged out, leaving wounds)--each among them wearing humiliation in one guise or another: lacerated ears poking through matted gray mane, chipped antlers or horns and the teeth either missing by the mouthful or cracked off blackly at their roots, general depilation under coatings of dust. Poor squandered animals. My heart goes out to them. Their faces seem to scream out final terror. What a crummy way to spend the afterlife, tacked up in a room full of men falling down or shouting obscenities at each other while getting their rocks off to eighteenth-century French and English pornographic works on paper--a main particular of interest among our special collections here, especially (Predictably? Understandably?) to the younger married fellows, who act as if the stuff doesn't affect them in the least, yet who are invariably, whenever we gather socially, the first to make tracks to the mahogany and glass cabinet where it is stored. Whom did they think they were fooling anyway? There they were, those horny bastards over in their corner, Seth and Vidal and Gustavus and Clay, all the usual snickering crowd passing pages and quietly boasting,"I'd do her"--even while their brother the rainforest plant scientist lay semicataleptic, drooling, incontinent, out of his mind not more than twenty feet away. Don't get me wrong. I do not intend prudery. I like a good erotic illustration, and these are very artfully made pictures, beautiful in the way Hogarth's Gin Lane engravings are beautiful, which is to say flamboyantly grotesque and therefore fantastically curious to the furtive voyeur well, I enjoy a good erotic image as much as the next person. But these dressing-room scenes of rickety-legged libertines putting lean penises into corpulent mistresses doubled over atop banister railings or the gilt backs of chairs (the women's skirts parted behind to reveal poorly delineated genitals, a fleeting glimpse of thigh)--these dressing-room and scullery and opera-box tableaux are far more disturbing (in what they have to say about private life, public health, and the history of European sexual fashion and taste) than erotic. The Age of Enlightenment's inattention to hygiene is well documented. A certain syphilitic degeneracy lurks in these bookplate etchings of rheumy aristocrats making doggy love with their hats on. Even the paper on which they are reproduced abides in a condition of yellowing decrepitude that only worsens the seeming pallor, the intrinsic sickliness of the figures. Seth, Vidal, Gustavus, and Clay do not appear to be bothered by this death imagery, maybe because they're married and feel they'll live forever through progeny. It's that old bloodline problem. There's no getting away from the drive to procreation. Celibacy would lead straight to boredom and the aimless waiting that is a precondition of renewed passion for life. What is this red library if not an oppressively furnished waiting room where grown men shift uneasily from foot to foot while launching small harangues about work or sex or their archaic interpersonal grievances, still viable, from our hundred overlapping childhoods? Indeed. Some manner of clamorousness was in progress over by the towering shelves where the National Geographics are stacked--it was Foster getting heated up about his favorite topic, the imperiled cosmos. We've all had to sit through Foster's impromptu rants about mankind's fate. Andrew was his unlucky prey this evening.
"I'm very serious about these evolving dangers, little brother," Foster cautioned Andrew. He had Andrew pushed against a magazine rack. Insistence is crucial to Foster's conversational style. Tonight he was worked up. He leaned forward, glared directly into Andrew's face, and proclaimed, "The earth changes are coming. Everything points toward massive geophysiological change. I've been saying this for years and I'll say it again. Oceans rising! Plants and mammals becoming extinct! Inner cities dying and genetic calamities of every order sauntering around like it's Sunday in the park!"
"What are you talking about, Foster?"
"I'm talking about the coming wave of brand-new cancers spreading everywhere like the common cold during the global red tide of the immediate futures."
"Sure. The future is the aggregate of all tenable futures of individual selves," exclaimed Foster, as if to a child. Then he declared,"You know, Andrew, I really admire the work you do with the homeless." "What do you mean?"
Now in the red library the light was diminishing; evening was falling and the winter sky outside looked ashen against the clear windowpanes overlooking the east. What time was it anyway? That glum hour before moonlit night. The cocktail hour. Why wasn't there a fire in the hearth? Where was Spooner? Spooner always carried hooch.
"After all, aren't we all indigent, in a metaphysical way?" Foster was saying to Andrew, intensely. Foster's face was red and his eyes burned with belief in something larger than himself. Our Foster has at one time or another shrilly publicized the most amazing things: synchronicity, interspecial telepathy (animals read our minds), seraphic intervention (angels help us succeed in life), morphic resonance (every member of a genetically interrelated family group, no matter how widely dispersed or apparently dissimilar, will immediately comprehend or embody the changed attributes and learned abilities of one individual), Possible World Theory, Chinese astrology, and assorted ancient divinations of planetary transformation in the years after the millennium. If Foster has his way, we'll all be abandoning our depressions in favor of united, heartfelt crusading for wide-scale spiritual reform. In this respect--this grave interest in working for causes--grandiose Foster is not unlike his more pragmatic brother Andrew, who often takes time out during family functions to pass the hat for donations to aid the residents of the flourishing tent city that has sprung up, virtually overnight it seems, in the untilled meadow beyond the garden gate, just outside our walls.
I always give Andrew whatever silver comes from my pockets. You can see their fires out there, late at night.
"Is it cold in here or is it me?" whispered Virgil.
"There is definitely a draft," I told him. His body, squeezed close beside mine on our tasseled and embroidered love seat, felt damply warm; his cheeks and white forehead wore that pasty sheen that accompanies Virgil's recurrent nighttime fevers. "Do you want my sweater?"
"Are you feeling all right?"
"Once Hiram gets the fire going I'll be fine."
"Positive." "Let me know."
"Kind of you. Thanks."
We turned our gazes then to take in the scene around Maxwell. The fallen man was laid out on his back and surrounded by feet. Maxwell wasn't moving. His clothes were a mess. At his head knelt Barry. Other men peered from behind Barry, and behind these were more looking down with eyes fixed on Max's face and the doctor's hands. Barry seemed to be reaching inside Maxwell's mouth. Yes, Barry did have a hand in Maxwell's mouth, fishing around there. Then he removed the hand. He took a vast inspiration of breath. Barry pinched Maxwell's nose shut between fingers and thumb, lowered his own mouth to Maxwell's, and blew a series of puffs.
"This is serious," someone said. And it was as if the saying of this made everything true--our dear brother's life in danger and all of us lollygagging ineptly on the furniture (all except Barry hunkered low over Maxwell's head, blowing, blowing). It was like that time when Vincent was five and fell off the roof and only Raymond and Nick were around playing in the yard, and they were too young to grasp the severity, so Vince dragged himself bleeding across the gravel and up the steps into the front hall where he passed out in a lagoon of his little boy's blood. No one particularly knew what to do then, either. Thank God for Barry. Fortunately, Maxwell was not bleeding. There did appear to be a twig of something green and leafy sticking out from the breast pocket of Maxwell's blazer.
And quietly came the sound of Virgil's voice, the humid feeling of his breath tickling my ear, as he brought his face close to mine and complained vehemently, "Fuck. It's Chuck's dogs."
It was the truth. Here dogs came, whipping through the library's tall eastern doorway, claws viciously scraping hardwood, one fleet Doberman and one shedding English sheepdog, Gunner and Rolfe, off the leash as usual and tearing obnoxiously for Maxwell's body as if it were a toy for them to pounce on and lick.
"Whoa!" cried Henry.
"Careful!" hollered Arthur.
"Dogs!" yelled James.
"Look out!" warned Simon.
Then both dogs were atop him. Paws flailing Max. Walking on Max's stomach. Tongues out.
"Grab its leg!" "Get your hand around the mouth!"
"The other way!"
"Pull them off his head!"
Then the sound of Foster, piercing and distinct: "Leave them alone! They know! They're trying to help! They want to revive him! It's what dogs do!" shouted the animal telepathist.
"Screw that," someone said as, from the direction of the door, the voice of the dogs' owner, Chuck, a prosecutor for the county and just now following the dogs into the room, commanded, with authority:
Obediently dogs climbed down from man and came to rest on either side of inert Max. There they stood, two intent and furry guardians watching over his form. Discreetly the dogs peered up at faces glaring down at them and at Maxwell's face and hair lacquered in dog spit. The botanist's shirt and my Italian silk tie were gummy with wetness from these dogs' panting and drooling. Barry'd been knocked back by their lunges and now grumbled a complaint while righting himself. Gunner in his studded collar bared teeth and growled.
Luckily, this animal's master approached bearing leashes and a pocket stuffed with treats. In that imperturbable, crooning voice dog owners adopt when addressing misbehaving pets, Chuck called, "Easy there, Gunner boy, easy. Gunner, good boy, good dog, easy Gunner-gun, good dog."
The Doberman became sullen. Chuck produced the snacks. He tossed these through the air toward his dogs' mouths. Sheepdog and Doberman swung heads to make ace catches without any movement away from Max's side.
That sheepdog is a sweetheart, but everyone fears the other, thanks to its breed.
Of course all this incited reproaches from Barry, who declared, "I'm trying to revive your brother. Why don't you control these animals. Especially that one," glowering at the Doberman.
Chuck rose to the dog's defense."Gunner never hurt anyone. These are the sweetest creatures on God's earth. Leave Gunner alone."
"Here, boy," Chuck said to his Gunner, dispensing another treat into the mouth of the black-and-cinnamon purebred. Gunner's eyes shone maniacally. He was all pent up. As were we all in that long moment while the sun went down outside and lamp-thrown shadows lengthened across the darkening walls of the enormous red room.
Dogs chewed. Barry felt around for intimations of Maxwell's vital signs. Siegfried, Christopher, and Milton stood awaiting doctor's orders to assist if need be. Rolfe, the woolly sheepdog, sniffed, affably, Maxwell's clothing. No one seemed to notice Rolfe sniffing the mysterious green branch coming out of Max's breast pocket. A stick! Rolfe gathered leafy stick into sopping mouth and off he trotted with it. Gunner eyed this. Nearby, someone sneezed. A reaction to dogs? It is impossible to keep track of who is allergic to what around here. All of us get skin rashes, and someone is always sneezing, and someone else always has a cough or the flu, and someone else is forever about to throw up. How much can you truly know about other people's afflictions?
"Would someone please bring me my bag?" Barry asked in his usual authoritarian manner--as if speaking to an orderly.
The bag was over by the fireplace. Hiram was closest to it. Christopher fetched it.
"Oh, God, please don't let him give Max a shot," whispered overwrought Virgil, who buried his head in his hands and absolutely would not look when Christopher brought the bag to Barry, who opened it up and extracted latex surgical gloves, cotton, various utensils. Gunner, being a dog, could not resist investigating with his nose. "Get the dog away," said Barry, hoisting a small vial containing what turned out to be an opiate antagonist administered to counteract respiratory depression induced by narcotic overdose. How did a general practitioner happen to stock a bottle of something like this in his doctor's kit? The answer is simple and pitiful. Over the years, Barry has had to bring many of us--including Virgil here--down from bad trips.
Max's face was ashen. His brothers in a ring peered down at his staring eyes. "Why's his tongue green?" asked Siegfried, still clutching porcelain fragments. Fielding with his eight-millimeter circled the scene, trying different angles. Finally Chuck dragged Gunner away by the collar and leashed him to an art nouveau armchair; this space vacated by the dog allowed Fielding a clear alley to shoot through. "Uh, can someone move that coffee table a tad to the left? My left. Back a little. Watch the edge of the carpet. Perfect. Don't anybody move, okay?" Fielding cautioned his brothers. Meanwhile Chuck humored his animal. "Sorry, buddy, I have to tie you up," Chuck said. The Doberman, restrained, started barking. The dog's loud noise caused Virgil to look up surprised. At that moment Barry did the things doctors do with vial and syringe, the flourish of bottle and needle as the liquid is drawn into the hypodermic payload.
"Oh, no," whispered Virgil.
"Try not to let it bother you," I said to him.
"I can't help it, Doug. I see one of those things and everything starts turning black and I feel like I'm being strangled."
I put my arm around him, and he tried to move away, to rise from the love seat, but he couldn't because we were pressed together too tightly on it. So I held him closer, and after a restless moment he ceased moving and sat quietly beside me, though his eyes worked left then right, left then right, looking anywhere but directly ahead and never settling on Barry and Maxwell. I recognized this state as a paranoid regression of sorts: Virgil's bodily quiescence, the rigid and insistent placidity mediated by acute cerebral hypervigilance. It was as if forbidding thoughts lay perilously in wait, unwelcome feelings that even simple physical movements might shake free and liberate. As I have already pointed out, Virgil's childhood years were not cheery. He suffered ailments, and several times came close to death. He was picked on mercilessly.
I grabbed Virgil's arm and pulled him close to me as, from room's center, the voice of Barry commanded, "Push Max's sleeve up, someone."
Christopher did this, and Barry plunged the needle in Maxwell's arm.
"There," Barry said when the job was done. Fielding behind his camera added, "That's a wrap."
Excerpted from The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim Copyright © 1998 by Donald Antrim. Excerpted by permission.
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