by Martha G. Wiseman
Following is the second edition of our new feature here at Bloom—“Second Shoot.” You can read the inaugural edition here. The feature’s name is a triple play on “second shot,” as in second chance; “shoot” as in a film shoot, the director’s “Take two!”; and the botanical term “shoot”—a second bud that has a new opportunity to blossom. “Second Shoot” features stories and essays by authors whose first short works were published when they were 40 or older. Often those early publications, while thrilling and validating, reach smaller audiences. Bloom will be republishing these pieces to give them another potential life and readership.
“My Versions of You” first appeared, in a slightly longer form, in The Truth About the Fact 2.1 (Spring 2007).
Small-town newspaper headline: “Boy, 17, Shoots Self. Living Alone in Boarding House.” Salient note in the single paragraph: “He was believed to be estranged from his family.”
A scrap, found one late afternoon, in an unlocked narrow metal file box belonging to our mother.
First, you were a ghost.
No. First, you must have existed, though this has often struck me as a myth.
Your existence has been defined, like that of certain species, by extinction.
I have wanted to tell a straightforward story about you, my brother, my almost imaginary brother.
You were once a star, a planet, a constellation, something to guide me, tell me where I was, or at least where I wasn’t. Since you could not tell me how to live, I looked to you to tell me how to die. You had achieved a true—an artistic—fixing of the moment. Surely this was a worthy pursuit? It had a very definitive goal.
I’m skipping ahead.
It is deep winter. Afternoon. Through the frame of a high window, the tips of a tree’s thin, bare, brown-black branches are visible against a sky drained of color. The branches look like dendrites reaching across, pulsing toward one another.
In your brain, there were firings upon firings, probably in some disorder, until the cataclysm, the ignition that erupted from forged metal.
I have pictures. Photos of you. I have collected them as the years went on and almost everyone who knew you has died. My mother kept no pictures. She never displayed framed family photos, never scattered them artfully on tables, pianos, mantels as so many people, especially as they age, tend to do. Not our mother. My father kept photo albums, took pictures, though I think I saw the early albums only when I was grown. Our grandmother may have kept photos, and these were passed on to others, especially our uncle, our mother’s brother. After he died, his widow gave me dozens of manila envelopes and files stuffed with pictures and letters. He apparently kept everything.
So I know you existed.
Most of the pictures were taken when you were a young child, from toddler stage to about ten. You tend to be with one of our mother’s parents. Someone, though now I do not know who, told me that when you were very small, you were sent to live with her parents.
One snapshot shows you lying on top of a low stone wall, stomach down. You have raised yourself up on one elbow and one hand to lean your cheek against the soft side of a gray cat, whose back is to the camera.
Our mother mentioned that cat to me. Told me that you loved him. That his name was Grigio. That on some trip to her parents’—was she dropping you off again?—the cat went with you but had to travel in the train’s baggage car, and you kept going back to check on him. Or maybe I made that part up. Why did our mother tell me this particular tidbit? She knew I loved animals. I worried about that cat.
In these pictures of you as a child, I see nothing that threatens your future, or that is your future, the closing of your future. Your dark eyes—our mother’s eyes—betray no pain, no haunting.
Very belatedly—how well that word fits you—I tried to locate a newspaper notice of your death. That clipping, that scrap I seem to remember, no longer exists. I did not find it among our mother’s things, or our uncle’s. In the back issues of the town newspaper, there is nothing. In the copy of the Bible my father left me, there are pages for family records. Your date of death is recorded there. But there is apparently no news report to confirm it.
Here’s one idea: You are a family delusion. Or they conspired to make you one.
From the date in the Bible, which only recently came into my possession, from that scrap of newspaper I remember finding, I realize I must have been only two years old when you died. When you went, as I used to believe, quite literally underground.
There’s an official portrait, maybe from school: you must be 11, 12, 13—hard to say exactly. You retain some baby fat; your face is a nearly perfect oval. Your eyes are fairly wide apart, and the left eye seems higher and more open than the other; its brow is lifted slightly. Your thick dark hair, brushed from left to right, is sleek but not slicked. Your half-smile seems unforced.
You look strikingly like our mother.
I trace the history of our family’s cover-up operation, an operation gradually derailed but never formally terminated.
Phase One. You do not exist, have never existed—the official position. I am, presumably, an only child. Only—what is it I see from time to time, drifting around corners, shadowing my mother?
Phase Two. A leak exposes the possibility of you. At first, I attempt to deny it. To plug the leak.
Our great-aunt Sarah is the source of the leak. I, perhaps ten years old, am bored in the summer’s heat, the stillness and slightly fetid, sweetish smell of a house inhabited by old women. I idly run my fingers and my eyes over the spines of the books in the great-aunts’ bookcase. Alongside biographies, histories of England and America, poems by Amy Lowell and Edna St. Vincent Millay—I pause over that name—and the book bindings of richly colored Horizon magazines, most of which I’ve looked through hundreds of times, a title stops me: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. Pulling the red-bound book out of the case, I show it to Aunt Sarah.
What’s this one? I ask. Is it good? I like dogs. I like all animals. I want to have lots and lots of them, just as I want lots of brothers and sisters. Lots! I make do with books.
I don’t have a brother, Aunt Sarah.
Well, you do.
No, I don’t.
Well, you did.
I never had any brother.
Yes, you did. Aunt Sarah sighs, shakes her head. You’d better ask your mother.
I rush to my mother, our mother: Did I ever have a brother?
She begins to sob and wail. She shuts herself up in a bedroom. Aunt Carla takes me aside: You did have a brother, he got sick and died when you were very little, too young to remember. Now never ask your mother about this again.
They don’t even tell me your name.
Phase Three. I am 11. I pull a book off a shelf in the house I live in with our mother. The book is Peter and the Wolf, an old children’s book wider than it is tall. I have heard the music version. I check to see if the story in the book is any different. No: it even has musical notation for each character’s theme. And things die. I don’t like that, never have.
Then I notice on the fly-leaf (a word I don’t know): your name, and “His Book.” Only I don’t recognize the name, either the first or the last. I show my mother.
Do I understand, dimly, what I am asking?
Ah, that was your brother’s book, my mother says. That was your brother’s name. He liked that book.
No hysteria. This is more than she has ever said.
Poor boy, she says. She glances at me. He had a different father. Now put the book away.
Phase Four. I am 14. I find the newspaper clipping.
No surprise. You have already given yourself away by the very fact and quality of your absence.
I ask no questions, I say nothing, though silence tells its lies. Our mother understands without any words passing between us that I have infiltrated the files. That I know. She never asks how I know. Ever.
Phase Five. Every several years, I ask a question of my father.
Who was my brother’s father? I mean, my half-brother’s?
(My father: Your mother’s first husband. I never knew him. The man disappeared. She never let your brother see his father.)
(My father: I don’t know. She held grudges. I thought it was wrong of her.)
Where is the grave?
(My father: I don’t know. You’ll have to ask your mother.) (I would not dare ask her, and he probably knows that.)
Was there a note?
(My father: Yes. But I never saw it. Your mother destroyed it, I think.)
What was wrong with my brother?
(My father: He was a paranoid schizophrenic.)
Who diagnosed him?
(My father: A psychiatrist.)
(My father: I think after your brother died.)
Still, the questions I do not ask overtip the scale. In many ways, I abet the cover-up.
The year before my mother died, we went through the somewhat painful ritual of her “wishes.” I suppose we could call them death wishes, though not in the Freudian sense. “After-death wishes” is more accurate.
She wanted to be cremated, and she wanted me to call a particular crematorium in the Yellow Pages and let the people there know to expect her. To make an appointment, more or less. I explained that this was impossible. Her intention soon became clear; she for perhaps the only time that I can remember was prompting me to ask a question. She named a crematorium and said, That’s where we took your brother.
Now I could ask: What happened with the ashes?
What could you do with a poor boy’s ashes? she replied.
That was the end of the conversation.
In several photographs, you and I are together: I am an infant, and you are an adolescent.
Exhibit. You hold me on your lap. Both of us wear a devilish expression.
Exhibit. You hold me in your arms in front of someone’s front door. I don’t recognize the place.
Exhibit. My father holds me, pointing at the camera, I suppose so the distractible infant will know where to look. You stand at our side, rather stiffly, but you are smiling. You wear what looks like an army surplus jacket. We are in front of the same front door as in the previous photo.
Exhibit. I am propped up in an upholstered armchair. I hold a sheet of paper or a magazine or a small newspaper in my little fists, studying the page with a deep frown of concentration. You are on one knee beside me, your right arm around me, your left resting on the wooden chair arm. Your left index finger points something out to me, rather desultorily, on the page. Your head is angled down toward me and the page, so your facial expression is hard to read. You are wearing some sort of cap, a navy cap perhaps, pushed back from your wide brow, and there is a tenderness in your stance, in that hand lightly offering me pictures or words.
This is my favorite of us together. The photo may of course have been posed.
I trace the uncovering, or partial exhumation, the knowing through not knowing.
Phase One. I am closing in on your age when you died (if, that is, I’ve got that right). The darkness is closing in on me.
You give me a name for the darkness. You keep me company in it.
Phase Two. I am free to hate our mother. You have given me permission. After all, if you could hate her so much, then I can hate at least a little. It helps to have a preceder. You, my ally in unforgiveness. Electra and Orestes. Siegmund and Sieglinde. I will learn these names, these stories, later. But even now, I understand this: we partake, you and I, of the mythic. And relish it.
Phase Three. Falling into self-loathing, I know you cannot catch me, but I understand that you can greet me. When I repeat to myself, I want to die, I want to be dead, I keep your image—my image of you— before me, like the icon of a saint. I may as well pray to you.
I learn that I haven’t your courage (for I have named it that). I will probably never summon your courage. I speak but do not act. I imagine others accomplishing the action for me: At age 17, as I walk down an avenue to a class, where I will not remain for long, I picture people rounding a corner and letting bullets fly at me. I tell no one this fantasy. No doctors, no helpers. Only you.
Phase Four. I believe that I have no story of my own. I inhabit yours, for a while.
Phase Five. I rehearse our story, over and over. It is told—it nearly tells itself, a separate being able to speak—to a series of therapists. The story lives. I’m not sure I do.
Phases Six, Seven . . . Somehow, I knew that for a time you lived with my older cousin Pauline and her husband; must have been sometime in your last year or so. Perhaps she told me. Did she tell me before or after our mother’s death?
Information remains hazy.
Over the years, Pauline has filled in a few gaps. Just a few, even when I’ve attempted to press her.
She told me that when you were with her, you scared her, threatened her and her husband and their infant child. She said something about your attacking her with a tree branch. Was that what she said?
And then, I suppose, you retreated, were exiled, to the boarding house.
A few years before she became ill, our mother said, “I think he has forgiven me,” as if she’d just had a conversation with you. Maybe she did. I’d like to think so.
In another of her attempts at offhandedness—the remark dropped out of nowhere, disappearing into the void—our mother told me that you had wanted to kill her, so you killed yourself instead. This was the fruit of her short-lived psychoanalysis.
A therapist once said to me, You have to learn to forgive your mother. For your brother’s death.
OK, OK, I said.
When I was first involved with a man, our mother attempted parental advice. The hit-and-run variety, her specialty.
She said, I hope you are careful.
Of course, I knew what she was talking about. I was deeply embarrassed. Don’t worry, I said. I am.
She pushed ahead: Because you don’t want to get pregnant.
I didn’t want to get pregnant with your brother. I was too afraid to have an abortion. I would have if—
I wanted to hear no more. Fortunately, she wanted to say no more.
In our uncle’s files and envelopes, I found letters—letters from our grandmother, mostly to her son, our uncle; notes and postcards to him from our mother; and a handful of letters from you—to our grandmother, to our grandfather, and to our mother.
One of your letters is written in black crayon on lined papers; the writing pays no heed to the lines. You might have been as young as five.
IS A RACCOO
I LOVE YOU
Another, dated, March 2, 1946:
thank you very much for the letter,
and dollar. please call us our tellephone is
Ki 6 3777. This is the thing I forgot to
say on the phone. MaMa got her pot
that granma gave her for Christmas.,and
its Beautiful, no kiding. We think we”v had
our last snow said old sloddy. It was
nice to hear your voice.
You progressed during 1946, for by Christmastime of that year—December 23—you were writing to our grandmother in careful script, having drawn pencil lines on unlined paper—a thank-you for “the greenery and Xmas cheer,” a weather report, and either a show of thoughtfulness or a mild attempt to induce guilt: “You dont have to worry about getting me a Christmas present.”
Another letter, undated, is typed on lined looseleaf paper, addressed to our mother, and contains only pleasantries, except for the word “Gloom!” after a statement about having four days for Easter—I presume, four days alone. This could be anyone’s dramatizing. On a diagonal across the bottom half of the page is a pencil sketch of a car, seen head on; on the back of the page is a more carefully executed drawing of a 50s-style car, seen from the side. In the upper left-hand corner you have carefully created a logo with your initials.
You must have liked cars. I have a few snapshots of you as a teenager posed next to a car, and one of you at the wheel of a convertible, glancing back toward the camera, on the way out of the frame.
Rummaging again through the photographs—they are in no order—I find two that I don’t remember looking closely at before. Perhaps it is because now I am looking harder for clues, because now I am reading from future to past, projecting your story backwards. These two pictures seem potentially disturbing.
Both photos are tiny three-by-two snapshots. In the first, you and our mother stand on either side of a slim tree trunk. As usual, I have no idea where you are. Each of you must have one arm around the trunk, and our mother seems to have just peeked out from behind it; she looks at the camera, from beneath the brim of a broad felt hat, and smiles rather vaguely, or perfunctorily, but this may have been one of her camera faces. You, about a head shorter than she, bend your neck forward to stare glumly at the ground; your left hand rests in your pocket. Perhaps you are embarrassed? The tree divides the two of you. Your unseen hands could be touching.
The second photo might have been someone’s effort at creative use of light and shadow. The effect strikes me today as chilling. The only real concentration of light is the bright half-square of window in the upper-right corner of the picture. You sit below the window, with one knee up, one foot on the crossbar of a chair. The right side of your face is in almost utter shadow; the left side is lit, with a bar of shadow between eye and ear, your eye a deep pocket of shadow. A little bit of your neck and the left sides of your legs are lit; you seem to be crossing your left arm across your body. I don’t suspect the creative photographer knew that you would be looking at your sister from the world of the dead.
A letter from you to our grandmother is undated, mostly typewritten, on onionskin paper that looks as if it has been chewed by mice or insects. The typewritten part reads:
Relations here are growing steadily worse, and this time Pauline has gone too far. She attacked me with intent to injure and disable me. This time I am going to retaliate in minor forms but so help me the next time shes’ going to be sorry she laid eyes on me. I have virtually stopped eating in order to buy a war-surplus pistol and I will use it no matter what the after effects. I am fed up with them, the bastards. This time, however, I am just going to try to slander them, call at opportune moments to wake up the baby, and do minor sabotage to the car and the house. She made one helluva mistake fooling with me, I don’t take it, off nobody. I feel lousy and hate Kernersville. But if it will bother and make them uncomfortable I will stay and there is nobody who can make me leave. I have but 10 rounds for my pistol but thats enough for the three of us.
Between the body of the letter and your signature is scrawled in pencil: “Send me some Cash.”
At the bottom, our grandmother has written in pencil to our mother: “I just received this. I have been very stupid. I have written to Pauline and sent her a copy of this. I hope you are not too burdened right now, because this will be a blow. Love, Mother.”
The thing is, I was surprised by the pistol. Isn’t that odd? I had always imagined that you used a rifle or a sawed-off shotgun.
Our uncle kept what must be our grandmother’s response to your threat, your plea. I wonder how he got hold of it. From Pauline, I expect.
Dear M, (and you are dear to me)
I have thought hard about your letter. It was a shock. Why must you hate? It eats your insides out.
I have decided that I need you to live with me, if you think you can stand it, come. I am tired of living alone and really need you. I seem to be leading a very useless life.
Of course there is the foreign travel but I would rather do this, not for you but for myself.
Foreign travel. She did not know how far you’d go, how foreign you’d already become.
There is a postmark on the envelope: October 2, 1954. That’s about four months before you are supposed to have died. Our grandfather had been dead for several years.
The note seems an oddly sedate response to the extremity of your letter. Maybe our grandmother was trying to show you she wasn’t completely frightened, was trying to lower the temperature. Maybe she thought if she sounded relatively calm and reasonable—remember what a premium she placed on reason—she could prevent you from doing anything rash. In her way, she must have been trying to save you.
How did you react?
Maybe you already knew, had already made your decision.
Did our mother try to find you? Did Pauline know where you were? Did you think of them as hunting you down? Or of yourself as hunter?
It’s true that I came after you, but I made only a very slight effort to hunt you down. I hunted in my mind, where I was sure to find the you I wanted.
Haunted: that’s more like it.
Inquest. Conclusion: suicide. What could be more conclusive? What could be less?
Bequest: Horror, guilt.
Your quest: Peace.
My questions: Contained. Endless.
The End means the story continues, forever and ever.
It’s nearly Christmas. Christmas makes it more—
I was going to say, dramatic.
You stopped going to school, just before Christmas vacation. You don’t think anything much can really happen. The psychiatrist you’ve been seeing—the one who told someone that you were improving—may contact our mother.
Again? she’ll say.
But by that time, you’ll have made sure there will be no more again. No more need for repetition. Except in my mind.
It is my mind that makes this picture: On Christmas morning, you lie on your bed. In the afternoon, you walk downtown, but the coffee shop you’ve spent time in, drinking sludgish coffee or Coca-Colas with crushed ice, smiling at the waitress who asks no questions, is closed like everything else. You return to the boarding house and your room and lie back down. Underwater, you feel, in an ocean of cement.
That is Christmas.
Two weeks later. My version, of course.
You feel you should write to someone. (My father said there was a note.)
Here’s what I have you write: Why did you put up with me for so long? I am taking care of what should have already been taken care of. Of what’s necessary.
You fold the sheet of paper, once, twice, and place it on your pillow. You reach under the bed, unwrap the pistol, check that it is loaded, slide the safety lock back and forth. Open, closed, open.
You sit on the edge of the bed. The light is gray, the walls are gray.
You don’t want to take any chances. You open your mouth, feed yourself the gun. Your final nourishment: warmish, greasy metal.
And I can almost hear you say it:
Don’t be sorry.
Martha G. Wiseman has studied theater, been a dancer and choreographer, and worked as an editor. She now teaches English at Skidmore College. Three of her essays have appeared in The Georgia Review. Other publications include a long story, “Double Vision,” issued by White Eagle Coffee House Press, poetry in Poetry East, Clackamas, and Many Mountains Moving, and an essay in Marcel Proust Aujourd’hui.
Homepage photo credit: via photopin (license)
Stone wall photo courtesy Wikipedia
Lights photo credit: Specular Quays via photopin (license)
Street photograph photo credit: Urban encounter – Dublin, Ireland – Black and white street photography via photopin (license)
Notepad photo credit: yellow via photopin (license)