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Long Way Back
By Brendan Halpin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Brendan Halpin
All rights reserved.
His life is in pieces.
He is sitting on the couch in the basement, with Motörhead's No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith on repeat in the changer. I have just finished washing the last of the dishes and doing the last of the clean-up.
Francis is just staring at nothing when I come into the room.
"Do you want me to stay?" I yell.
"Naaah. Listen to this"—he lifts the remote and pauses the CD at the point where Lemmy, the gravel-voiced lead singer and bass player, introduces the song "Motörhead" to the screaming crowd—"Now what the hell is Lemmy saying here? Is it 'just in case'?"
"Yeah, Francis, that's the way I've always heard it."
"What the hell is he talking about? Just in case you wanted to hear this, here it is? Just in case you were wondering the name of this band, here's our theme song?"
"I dunno, Francis."
"He ought to be more clear, is all I'm saying."
"I'll let Lemmy know the next time I talk to him."
Francis manages a wan smile. "Thanks."
"Are you gonna be okay with just Mom and Dad here?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
"I don't know," he says. "I think so. Maybe." He sounds kind of small as he says this, and I feel like he's not my younger brother who's actually six inches taller than me and lives across town, but my little brother who is actually little and lives across the hall from me.
I can see that little kid in his face, and I sit back down on the couch and hug him while Motörhead pummels us. I can't tell if that sick throbbing in my gut is concern for Francis or just Lemmy's light-speed bass playing. I suppose it's actually both.
As I reach the top of the stairs, I stop, heave a deep sigh, and pray. "Holy Mother, please watch over my little brother and comfort him. Dear God, please help him, please reach out to him again." It's not much, but it's all I can do.
It is 1980. I'm fourteen, and, physically, I'm peaking—thinner and more beautiful than I will ever be again. But this isn't really about me. Spring has sprung in the Greater Cincinnati Area, or as Ira Joe Fisher calls it on Eyewitness News, "the Tristate."
So it's a really beautiful spring day in the Tristate. The sun is shining, and we walk into St. Bridget's in Mount Lookout. The church is a squat circle built in the 1960s, and as we walk in, Mom tells us once again how she saved spare change all through her twelve years at St. Bridget's School so they could build a new church, and this piece of crap is what they built.
Sometimes when I stay over at Stacey's house we go to St. Monica's on Sunday morning, which is this beautiful old stone church with a ceiling that seems about a hundred feet tall, with Christ seated at the right hand of the father painted on the ceiling and beautiful stained glass. St. Bridget's, though, has sort of abstract, garish stained glass around the round outer wall and a plain wooden ceiling. I can see why Mom is bitter, but I do wish she'd stop saying it over and over.
There I am, in the pew next to Mom, who looks shockingly like I will look in 2003—brown hair in no discernible style turning mostly to gray; shapeless, comfortable clothes, including jeans that scandalize some of our fellow parishioners. Woe to anyone who mentions this to Mom—they are in for a lecture about the parish she worked in in Guatemala, and how the parishioners there were lucky to have shoes to wear to church, and how God loves what's on the inside, blah blah blah. She embarrasses me—I'm dressed like every other fourteen-year-old girl I know—Izod sweater plastered to my chest (which, I do hate to go on and on, but look at the rack on me! What happened?), matching headband, tartan skirt. Next to Mom is Dad, who also wears jeans and a corduroy shirt. I'm seething. This is Easter, for God's sake! Dress up! I know I'm going to hear about my hippie parents from all my preppy classmates at school tomorrow.
Next to me is my little brother, Francis. Francis is just starting to get that awkward, head-doesn't-quite-fit-his-body look of the early adolescent boy. Because I am a sensitive, kind, protective sister, I call him Pumpkinhead. Francis and I get along okay, I suppose. My friends are always telling me about their pesty little brothers making bra slingshots, or putting a tampon in a glass of tomato juice (I actually saw Stacey's brother, Newt, do that. Unbelievable.), and Francis never does anything like that to me. In fact, he seems to really like and respect me. So I pay him back by teasing him mercilessly until I can get him to hit me. Which always gets me in trouble, because I Don't Care What He Did, You're the Oldest and You Should Set an Example.
So here we have another really boring Easter service. It's nothing special. Later, when Francis is a religious studies major, he'll call this the "capes drapes bells and smells" kind of service. So there's incense, and there's Father Mike's Easter Homily: "Today, as Christ is reborn, may He be reborn in our hearts." Blah blah blah. It's a perfectly okay sentiment, I guess, but I swear, Father Mike says the same thing every year.
We go up to receive the host, and, as I always do, I will try to whisper something in Francis's ear to make him choke when we're walking back to the pew. So we're walking back, heads down, chewing thoughtfully, and I whisper, "Hey, does this taste like feet to you?"
I usually get something out of him with a line like this, but Francis doesn't even acknowledge me. We get back to our pew and kneel down, and I steal a glance at him. His eyes are wide open, he's looking heavenward, and he has this big smile on his face. He's male, he's in color, and there's no spotlight on his face, but otherwise he looks just like the girl in Song of Bernadette, which the nuns show the girls every year in an effort to encourage us to be virginal visionaries instead of the decidedly nonvirginal partiers the other schools in town know us as.
"Hey! What's going on?" I ask.
He doesn't answer. He's just staring up, and I watch as tears form in his eyes and begin to spill out, rolling slowly down his cheeks, even though he's still smiling. I stare at him for what seems like hours. The tears continue to trickle out, the smile remains, and I swear he never blinks. I feel like I should say something else to him, but I have no idea what to say.
Everybody else is kneeling, heads bowed, munching the body of Christ. Only Francis and I are not looking down. He's still looking up, and I'm looking at him. He's starting to freak me out.
Some more stuff happens in the mass—more blah blah from Father Mike, and then he tells us it's time for the kiss of peace. I'm starting to get really worried—should I whisper something to Mom? Where has my little brother gone? And, though I don't like this about myself, I am fourteen, so I am wondering if any of my classmates are staring at him, if I'm going to suffer socially because my brother's a freak, or if I'm going to become famous in school as The Girl Whose Brother Went Catatonic at Easter Mass.
I really need him to snap out of it now before anybody else notices. Francis and I haven't hugged at the kiss of peace since I was eight and he was six, so we usually have a quick handshake and a quick, embarrassed "peebwiyou." I'm going to enforce this ritual whether Francis wants to or not, so I reach over kind of roughly and grab his hand, which is still clasping his other hand in prayer. And when my hand touches his hand, I feel a physical jolt.
I don't mean that he jumps, and I don't mean that I get a static shock. I mean that I feel something when I touch him that I have never felt from touching another human being, something I will never feel again. Years later when I live in Boston and see those "Danger Third Rail" signs all over the subway that warn you not to be a moron and touch the rail that supplies the electricity that makes the trains run, I will always remember this day. Francis is plugged into the third rail of the world, he's a conduit for the energy that causes the world to exist, and, for just a second, I can feel it too. It's enough to make me jump back in my seat and bump into Mom, who hisses, "Clare, if you can't behave in Easter mass, you are losing your phone privileges for a month!"
Normally I would respond to this with protestations of how this isn't fair, I didn't do anything, or, if I was feeling especially cranky, with a long retort about how if she was worried about somebody embarrassing this family in church, maybe she should look in the mirror before she leaves the house, but today, I don't even say anything.
I turn back to Francis, and he's finally blinking, and he looks at me like he's confused, like he just woke up from a nap. "Peace be with you?" I say.
He looks at me like I've just spoken Chinese, like he understands that I've made words, but he can't quite wrap his brain around what they are supposed to mean. He cocks his head to one side and looks at me for about five seconds, and then he gets that lightbulbover-the-head look and says, "Peace be with you."
Finally the mass is ended, and we go in peace. As we leave, Mom and Dad have to stop to talk to Father Mike about social justice, about Christ's call to his people to serve the poor, and about what the parish is doing about it, and I am of course mortified that they still don't get that this isn't that kind of parish, go over to the Newman Center and the Franciscans if you want that kind of thing. Francis still looks kind of blissed out—he's not shambling like he usually does. He's walking, don't get me wrong, it's not like he's floating above it all or anything; except that he kind of is.
Finally Mom and Dad respond to my dirty looks and Father Mike's obvious social cues and give up on their conversation. We all pile into the Rabbit, I slump down in the back seat in an effort not to be seen by anybody who knows me, and we drive home.
By the time we get home, Francis has gotten sullen and sulky, and he becomes this big dark cloud over the house all afternoon, and eventually it just gets on my nerves, because I'm the sulky one, dammit, so I wander into his room while Mom and Dad work on some kind of Latin American Easter dinner downstairs.
"Hey," I say. Francis gives me that dazed, just-woke-up look again.
"What the hell's wrong with you today? What happened to you?" He looks at me like he's about to say something, but then he just says, "Nothing. I'm just thinking about stuff."
"Come on. You were crying in church."
"Yes, okay? So what happened?"
"Promise you won't make fun of me."
"I won't." I am, of course, mentally crossing my fingers at this one.
"And promise you won't tell Mom and Dad."
"I promise." No need to cross my fingers—it's all I can do to exchange pleasantries with them these days, because I am just way too cool for them.
"I ... I ... I don't know what happened. It's just ... all the sudden ... I ... I don't know, and I think I might be crazy, Clare, I don't understand what happened to me, I think maybe something's wrong with my brain!"
"Something's definitely wrong with your brain." He gives me this look he has—a look that says, instantly, you betrayed me after promising not to mock me, I trusted you and you threw my trust away, you are the worst person on earth—and tears are starting again, and I immediately jump back in with "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just a reflex. I swear to God it won't happen again." I mean it. I can't stand getting that look.
He gives me a long look, testing my sincerity. Apparently I pass the test, because he continues. "I ... I don't know. It's like I left. Like I wasn't there at all, like I was surrounded by—I don't know, Clare, it wasn't like anything else ever. It's not like I could see anything, but it was—promise not to laugh—it was so beautiful. It was like the best, most wonderful thing I could ever imagine, except it was real. And you know when you have a really good dream, and then you wake up? That's how I feel. Like I'm already losing that feeling that was so great ..."
I just look at him. I don't know what to say. We've been faithful mass attendees all our lives, and of course Mom and Dad talk frequently about God and how we can serve Him and see His face in the stranger, blah blah, but Francis is twelve—he mostly talks about the Reds and Star Wars. What do I say to this?
"Oh," is the best I can come up with.
"And ... and ..."—and now he's crying, and I can't stand to see him crying, which he's always been able to use against me, but I don't think he's using it against me now—"the only thing I can imagine is that I saw ... or touched ... or anyway ..."—his voice drops down to a whisper—"I think maybe it was God, Clare, I don't know what else it could have been, and I know that makes me crazy, only crazy people see God, Clare, I don't want to be crazy, and I'm really really scared."
Without thinking about being fourteen, without thinking about him being icky and having a huge head, without thinking at all, I go to him and hug him, which I won't do again until I get weepy and sentimental when I leave for college, and I whisper this to him: "You're not crazy, Francis. I felt it when I grabbed your hand. I didn't see anything, and I don't know what you were looking at or anything, but I felt it. It knocked me back into Mom."
Francis breaks the hug, and I awkwardly get to my feet as I remember that I'm a teenager and that hugging your brother is embarrassing and disgusting. "Really?" he asks. He's giving me a look that is the complete opposite of the one he gave me before. It's a look that says I am the most wonderful person ever to grace the earth with my presence.
"Really. It was like you were a live wire." There's a long pause, and I'm starting to get freaked out and embarrassed by this whole thing. "You know? Like the AC/DC song?" Francis looks at me. I rev up my best Bon Scott impersonation, which is not very good, and let loose with "I'm a live wiiiiire ..."
Francis chimes in with his Angus imitation: "Daaaaa-naaaaa!" and smiles. I feel good about reassuring him, but I'm not sure it completely takes. He mopes around the house for a week or so afterward, and we don't talk about it again for years.
Four years later:
Here we are again on the inside of our house in ... well, we like to say Hyde Park, but really we exist in a kind of nebulous non-neighborhood. Up the hill from us is Ault Park, which everyone acknowledges is in Hyde Park, which is a rich neighborhood where everybody calls themselves "middle class," but down the hill from us is Eastern Avenue, where the people of limited means of Appalachian descent live, which is what we call them because once after I heard Stacey say "white trash" I used the term at home and got a lecture from Dad that I do actually believe peeled the paint on the banister.
Our house is a hundred-year-old wood-frame house decorated like the inside of somebody's hut in Guatemala. This causes me no end of embarrassment, especially because Mom and Dad will start prattling on at the drop of a hat about the beautiful, moving, and occasionally tragic story behind every artifact, every weaving, every little statue that clutters up our house.
But let's head upstairs to find me sitting in my room. I am eighteen. In an attempt to rebel, I became a punk. This will earn me the "Most Changed" title from my classmates on the Senior Superlatives page of my yearbook. I hadn't realized as a hot, Izod-clad fourteen-year-old that my preppiness was the most effective rebellion against my hippie do-gooder parents, though by now the producers of Family Ties have clued into this. So—well, again, this isn't about me, but briefly, I'm wearing my Dead Kennedys T-shirt, which did suitably appall Mom and led to a lecture about JFK and the creation of the Peace Corps and how RFK inspired a generation, blah blah. So far so good. But then they had to go and look at the lyrics and find that they pretty much agreed with Jello Biafra's politics. Dad, being a researcher, did some research and actually came home with Minor Threat's Out of Step for me. "It's really all about the problem of being an individual in a conformist society!" he said proudly.
So this is me, attempted nasty punk rock kid, and my dad introduced me to Minor Threat. But I'm sitting in my room—I don't know what I'm listening to, but let's say it's the Ramones, who actually do appall Mom and Dad, simply because they perceive them as dumb. "And it's not dumb in a dumb fun way," Mom says, "it's just dumb! Who writes a song about sniffing glue? That's something that slow normals do!" Apparently one of the perks of being married to Dad instead of being his kid is that you can get away with saying things like "slow normals" without getting a paint-peeling lecture.
So I'm sitting in my room, and just for the sake of symmetry, let's say I'm listening to the Ramones' "Sitting in My Room." Did I mention that I dyed my hair jet-black?
Excerpted from Long Way Back by Brendan Halpin. Copyright © 2006 Brendan Halpin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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