All I remember from childhood are the colors. Colors so vivid they appeared to be artificially induced, colors unimpeded by any intermediaries, pure color without form, pure sensation divorced from memory. A world saturated by colors, colors carried on the winds of autumn and spring, colors bleeding out of the trees and into the greenish summer air, colors blending all together on winter nights and shining forth in a single white radiance. No words, no shapes, no faces, only a blur of blind experience: grass smells, pencil smells, soap smells, sunset smells when the red orb of the sky sank into the horizon and set free the redolence buried deep within the dirt of our shrinking suburban woodlands. Life happened all at once, everything simultaneously beginning and ending, time both passing away forever and leaving an indelible residue upon the immaterial stuff of life. I wonder now, as I did not then, what this stuff of life might be. Back then it still seemed like a porous and living thing, a body pushing itself through the winds of time, one that bore, however faintly, the scent breathed upon it by the changing of the seasons from one to the next and the next.
I remember the first words that ever found me: body and blood. Yes, because I had both. We scraped our knees and examined them carefully afterward: the pink and white tissues textured silkily beneath the skin, the drops of dark blood that knew how to form themselves into perfect spheres as they crept slowly out. But there was something else that the words signified. Even now it is difficult to say exactly what. The awareness that others, too, had bodies. And animals far distant, across oceans and continents; they had existed long before I had, and would exist long after. They had an existence that I did not have, and the infinite gulf between these two existences was enough to open up an abyss of childish fear within me.
Incense smoke and shadow, wine red and corpse color. The saints in the stained glass stood unconsumed in pyres of flame. Statues in glass cases with doll’s clothing sewn by old women. Mrs. Delaney held up for the class the unconsecrated bread and unconsecrated wine.
Body and blood, she said, body and blood, body and blood.
My father pounded his fist against the steering wheel so hard I was sure he was going to break it. His hand turned red and swollen, almost doubling in size. I could feel the deadly weight of the station wagon as it hurled itself over the country roads, engine guttering like a boat at full throttle.
Where is he, he said. If he’s not at school then where is he.
The school stopped sending letters and started calling the house: my brother hadn’t been to class for ten straight days. My father banged on the bedroom door, but it was always locked. If Ryan was home he’d bang back without saying anything. My father once tried to break down the door with his shoulder, but he couldn’t get it off the hinges. Undone by the work of his own hands: he had installed the door himself, and though the whole house shook from the effort the thing would not yield.
Sometimes I would follow my brother at a distance. Too young to chase after girls, it was him I chased instead. Breath held, heart pumping, always making sure that I wouldn’t lose track of him, making sure I wasn’t seen. I envied him: envied the cigarettes he smoked and the girls he teased and the pack of friends he wandered around town with. I envied him because he was a few years ahead of me in Mrs. Delaney’s class.
Though still a child, I had already begun to miss childhood. I could feel it running out beneath me: a physical thing tearing itself away. There were too many thoughts in my head now, and the world no longer corresponded with the images I had of it. The world was a mirror, not quite itself. The colors were still there, but not as bright anymore.
I ran across Ryan in the woods when I was walking back from school one day. We used to call them Indian trails, the dirt paths meandering through the trees, as if they had been carved out of the ground by the moccasins of trackers rather than the Converse of truants, petty larcenists, and underage drinkers. Ryan and I lingered in the clearings cluttered with castaway furniture and faded beer cans, craning our necks upward to look for the sun through the canopy of bare branches. That was when he told me we would be changing schools in a few months. I asked him why and he said I would see for myself.
On the way home, picking our way through woods thickening with approaching night, groping towards the orange glow of sundown beyond the branches, I asked him if I was still going to be in Mrs. Delaney’s class.
Of course not, he said. She’s not going to be at the new school.
Or maybe someone like her?
I wouldn’t count on it.
He kicked a loose rock further down the dirt path. I remember he was growing faster than we could buy clothes for him, and the cuffs of his jeans no longer covered the sharp bones of his ankles.
My father moved out a few months later. Ryan graduated high school and stayed at home. I went away for college and never came back, even for weekends or holidays. That afternoon in the woods with my brother was the last I thought about Mrs. Delaney for a long time.
I was sitting at my desk when the call came in. I wasn’t usually at my desk at this hour, but this time I was. I didn’t usually take calls myself, but my secretary had gone home early. We were having an affair, though maybe affair was too strong a word. She was the married one, not me. We went for long walks on the waterfront, we hung out in dive bars far out in the boroughs so no one we knew would see us together. We never talked about what it meant or what it was. But even without our input it was still becoming itself, and there was nothing we could do to halt the process except by breaking it off completely. That was why she had grown prone to locking herself in the bathroom for thirty minutes at a time, that was why she often left for the day without telling me, that was why she was not there to take this call. I almost let it go to voice mail when I saw that it was coming from my old area code. But I picked up on the last or second-to-last ring. There was a man on the other end of the line who wanted to speak to me. He was from the police. He said that they had found my brother.
I beat the worst of the tunnel traffic and accelerated up the on-ramps spiraling through the rock cliffs of New Jersey. I didn’t bother setting my GPS; I was in too much of a rush. Following the parkway south, I was able to recognize my exit only by reflex, memory, homing pigeon instinct. I hadn’t seen the place in twelve years, maybe more.
Everything was different about the town. Even if nothing had changed in a physical sense – if nothing had been rearranged, if nothing had aged – it still would have been different. All the colors had faded, from both the new buildings and the old. Either that or my sight had dimmed with time, and the emotions stirred by the senses had dulled as well, worn out like cogs from overuse. There was nothing in the environment to trigger the desired nostalgia. Everything old had been plastered over with newness, and I could no longer remember which buildings had been in place when I had lived there and which had not, or which of my memories corresponded to which location. Maybe the police station was new, maybe it wasn’t – everything built within the last twenty or thirty years looked pretty much the same. People no longer believed that they were ever going to die, and yet everything they built had assumed the character of the temporary.
My mother and father were already there, waiting for me. They looked tired. Their houses had been searched, they had been questioned and cross-questioned. They had spent whole days doing nothing but waiting. Now they just wanted it to be over.
Ryan had disappeared. He still lived at my mother’s, but he was home less and less. He seemed to have more and more money. They had pulled a body from the meadowlands outside Newark a few hours ago, but it had been stripped of all jewelry and identifying documents. They needed someone to identify it before they could proceed with the case. The man on the phone had told me that my parents didn’t want to do it.
I drove with my parents to the medical examiner’s. I don’t know why I didn’t take my own car. Maybe I was afraid my legs weren’t going to work right. They twitched and shook as I sat in the back seat. Just like youth: dentist appointments, school recitals. Staring out the window, unsure of what I was afraid of, wanting to be anywhere other than where I was.
The morgue technician warned me that the body was already in a state of advanced decomposition. Water does that to a person. So how was I supposed to identify him, I asked. The technician said that people just have a way of knowing. It was something that didn’t come through in pictures. You could tell one body from another.
There wasn’t much to say when he slid the drawer out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It felt almost like a counterfeit body substituted for the real one. I took a walk around him to make sure. The technician was right: there was something about the curve of the nose, the line of the jaw. I hadn’t seen my brother in twelve years. But I knew it was him.
It’s strange the way that houses can change without really changing. Everything stays the same, but the context has shifted: appliances and furniture, décor and household goods come unmoored from the time which once held them and assume a museum-like quality: nothing is for use anymore, everything is for show, and you find yourself lowering your voice in the presence of these objects as if afraid of disturbing fellow observers, fellow rememberers, fellow ghosts who can only look, can never again touch. My parents and I sat in the living room, which they had not changed at all since my childhood. These were the rugs upon which we had crawled and vomited, the coffee tables we used to split our heads against, the wood paneled walls pockmarked by thumbtacks and bearing smears of indelible marker unsuccessfully rubbed away, red and blue and yellow.
We sat in silence, watching our reflections in the dark screen of the old solid state TV. I wondered if a life could become divorced from the time that held it, washed upon the shore as the powerful current of existence swept past it. I wondered if the world could grow old and lose hold of us, slackening like a muscle and spilling forth the lives it once held in its grasp. Everyone carried on as before, but the act only fooled those who wanted to be fooled. And when my mother and other good and humble people gathered in their exile perhaps this was not the better life but only nostalgia for what they had known before.
My mother made up the bed in my old room and I lay awake thinking about the woman back in the city. Just the thought of her was real enough. And after the affair had ended, the way all the others had ended, how real that would be too. Phantom presences you could feel on your skin for decades to come; love affairs that mean more after they’re over than they do when they’re happening, the body itself only a placeholder for something far more permanent.
After my father had left I sat in silence with my mother for a little while longer. I asked her if she knew what had become of Mrs. Delaney. Nothing had prompted the question, but my mother didn’t seem too surprised that I had asked.
I don’t know, she said. She moved away. I suppose she’s dead by now.
I never got to finish her class, I said. Do you remember?
She nodded. I remember.
You should’ve let me finish.
I didn’t think you wanted to.
I didn’t. You should’ve forced me.
You could do it now.
I can’t do it now. It’s too late to do it now.
If it really means that much to you–
My mother didn’t say anything. We didn’t speak often enough, I had grown up too fast, and she was a little hesitant around me.
I just wish that I had done it once, I said. Just to know that I had done it once.
The silence returned. As if the silence, too, was a body, something with real presence and weight. We sat in the room with this great silence on our shoulders, so immense that it lingered throughout the rest of the conversation. We spent a while discussing trivial things with great solemnity as the night rushed onward into the past, running by like unseen water beneath the floorboards.