The dead, of course, are with us forever. They are immortal. We are all immortal after we die. There is a kind of endless lingering. I first encountered this as a child. We drove from southern California to North Dakota, and then Canada, in our 1948 Dodge. I sat in the back with my two brothers. We were small and the car was vast, though not as vast as our old Model-A 4-door sedan had been, before it was consigned to our orchard. That car had its top cut off and its rear turned into the flatbed of a pick-up. We used it to haul our gunny sacks of walnuts. I learned to drive in that car, bouncing over the rutted ground of our orchard. The orchard was vast too. The trees were giant creatures, breathing and stirring like animals.
The Dodge took us safely through various national parks: Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, Glacier. In North Dakota we stayed with members of my father’s family. Then we drove into Canada to see his mother’s grave.
Her name was Karen, sometimes spelled Karin. I knew nothing about her. My father never spoke of her. He was a silent man—not dour or morose, or thoughtful either. Just silent. At her grave I vaguely understood who she was. People stood around the grave, silently. I remember their shadows. Someone—probably my father—took a picture. Much later, as a grown man, I found other photos of her, all taken late in her life. She seemed a shrunken woman. Her gray hair was drawn tightly back into a bun. She looked—like her grave, like my father—utterly still. This tiny, sunken woman had borne ten children: five boys and five girls. Perhaps this grandiose act had sucked all sound from her, all animation. In the pictures she only stands or sits. There is no suggestion of movement.
We drove south in the rain on a muddy road with a high crown. At some point our car slipped off the crown and toppled onto its side. We bounced a bit in the roomy interior, and then crawled out, shivering in the cold rain. A pick-up stopped and using a rope our Dodge was pulled back upright, onto the road. My father straightened a crumpled fender. The journey home was otherwise unremarkable. No one said a word about my dead grandmother or her grave, or the shadows of the men and women who stood there.
My father died while I was in Australia. The news came in a letter from my brother. I was working with a seismic crew in the northwest, mapping the subterranean terrain, searching for signs of oil. I was the shooter, or dynamiter. With the help of Heinz, the crazy German, I loaded drilled holes in the earth with explosives, wiring it all together. The juggers would come around afterwards, planting a line of jugs--the receptacles--in the ground. The recording truck would then set off the explosives and record the seismic echoes which bounced off underground contours. By then Heinz and I would be a mile or more away, setting up the next shot.
Occasionally, however, we did surface shots. We would pile hundreds of pounds of explosives in a kind of depression. These explosives, if I remember correctly, were tubes of Geophex. Each tube was about six inches wide and a couple of feet long. In general these tubes were quite safe to handle. We tossed them around with little concern. Heinz particularly liked doing this. He’d get on the back of our truck and throw them at me, whooping and hollering. “Heinz, you crazy bastard,” I’d yell, “slow down!” He’d heave them underhanded and I’d catch them like footballs. Once armed, however, we were more respectful. To arm them I would stab a hole, using a bronze dagger, into one end, and push in a blasting cap. There would be several of these armed tubes for each surface shot. We then ran the wires from the blasting caps to our blaster. This was a square metal device with a kind of wheel on one side and a plunger on top. Spinning the wheel created electricity. The plunger, pushed down, completed the circuit. We had a radio to coordinate with the recording team, who might be a few miles away. Are you ready? they would ask. Yes! yes!
Heinz would scream. We are ready!
He would dance around while I hovered over the plunger. Five—four—three—at zero I would detonate.
Heinz and I liked to be as near as we dared to the pile of explosives. They would detonate with a deafening roar, and sand, pebbles, and sometimes large rocks would rain down around us. I’d be on my feet by then, dancing with Heinz. You crazy German!
I’d shout as we dodged the bigger rocks. You crazy filthy American!
he’d shout back. Then we’d move on to the next site.
The letter wandered around Australia for a couple of months before it found me. I remember the envelope had several forwarding addresses on it, all written in different hands. It was from my brother, Marvin.
, it said. Father died last week.
I remember a great silence. We were back in camp—pitched tents and a few trailers. I became as silent as my father. One of my co-workers asked what happened. My father died, I told him. That was all I ever said.
My father's death was not unexpected. When I left for Australia, he was 74 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's. I had, in fact, been watching him die, slowly, in the sense that his mind deserted him. By the time I left he seldom recognized me as his son. When he finally died, died entirely, I mean, physically, I had already mourned his passing.
Marvin was 29, my older brother by two years. He worked in Orange County as a fire truck driver for the State Forestry. He had just passed his foreman's exam. He was little shorter than me, and a little heavier. He had a rather triangular face and thick, red lips. In my pictures of him he is almost always standing, legs spread, arms akimbo, trying to look fierce. While we were growing up he could be something of a bully. Once, while being aggressive towards me, our father admonished him: Be careful, he said, Donald is smaller than you but he is wiry. Marvin stepped back, suddenly uncertain. As we grew into adulthood, we became closer. He had something of the travel bug also. While I was wandering around Australia and Asia, he was taking his vacations in Mexico. He liked going to Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast, for the sport fishing. He liked drinking beer in the Mexican bars. He liked the sultry Mexican chicas. It became his dream to open his own bar there with a Mexican wife.
I had returned from Central America. I'd been working as an English teacher in Costa Rica. One day a friend and I drove to Marvin's fire station. He suggested we return in a couple days, when he was off duty. We could hit the beach, and have a few drinks in the evening. He offered to lend me his car. He had recently bought a Sunbeam Tiger, a small English sports car with a big Ford V8 engine. He'd aways liked sports cars--they were a part of his arms-akimbo, legs-spread persona. I declined; my friend wanted to come also, and we would use his car. Besides, I pointed out, I'd had bad luck with his cars: twice I had borrowed one, and each time had an accident. I knew he loved his Tiger and I felt nervous about driving it.
A couple days later we returned. It was morning. We walked into the station. I saw the foreman and the other workers sitting at a table. They seemed very quiet. I asked where Marvin was. The foreman got up and took us back outside.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm his brother."
He stared at me a moment.
"Marvin was in a accident last night.".
Once again I felt a great silence. Nothing moved anywhere. I recognized immediately that Marvin was dead. If he had survived the accident, the foreman would have told me. I also recognized that there was a scenario that I had to follow. The foreman was just standing there, waiting for the inevitable question.
So I asked: "Is he all right?"
Our mother was in central California, visiting relatives. My friend drove me there. In those days telephones were not so common. We had no phone at our home, and neither did the relative. We all communicated by mail. There was a different sense of time, then. You would wait days for the answer to a query. There is a kind of odd gentleness to this concept of time. It was not possible to be in a hurry. Hours could be counted as they passed. There was no expectation of immediacy. Our drive, therefore, up along the coast and then into the central part of the state, seemed to take forever. It passed in silence. I remember watching the other cars driving by. The sun moved across the sky.
My mother was startled to see me.
"Donnie!" she said. "What happened? Did the house burn down?"
Marvin was buried in a closed casket.
He had been let off early that evening, and decided to go out in his Sunbeam Tiger to have a few beers. This was not unusual. The workers lived at the fire station four days and nights, and took three days off. If the station was fully staffed, however, you might be given the night off. Marvin liked the bars in the City of Orange. They were more sophisticated than the bars in our small town. It was always possible to meet a woman, perhaps dance a little. I dont know which bar he went to, but I have always visualized polished dark wood and a glass of golden beer bubbling a little on the counter in front of him. Perhaps he talked to a woman, or even danced with one. Bars in those days often had small dance areas. Sometime around midnight he left. He started driving his Tiger down the streets of Orange. At the same time a man was with a woman in her big Cadillac. For some unknown reason he kicked her out, and drove away. She called the police from a gas station. An officer saw the car, and gave chase. Their speed supposedly reached a hundred miles an hour. This was reported later in the local newspaper, which someone gave me. Marvin in his Sunbeam Tiger and the man in the woman's Cadillac reached the same intersection at the same time. Marvin had the green light. The other driver, coming from one side at his hundred miles an hour, ignored his red light. He smashed into Marvin and scattered Marvin and the Sunbeam for almost a full block down the street.
The pieces of Marvin were collected and sent to our local mortuary. The mortician refused to open the casket. It was too terrible to see, he told us. He finally opened the casket a bit, and took my mother's hand and placed it on Marvin's head, so she could be sure he was there. None of us actually saw his body, however.
At his funeral many of his fellow workers came, in uniform. There was even a big red firetruck.
Because no one had identified Marvin's body, I found myself inventing an alternative scenario. Marvin, perhaps, was not dead at all. When he left the bar, someone attacked him, intending to steal his car. The attacker grabbed Marvin's wallet, jumped into the Tiger and drove away, leaving Marvin unconscious on the street. When he woke up, in a hospital, his memory was gone. He no longer knew who he was, or what he had been doing there. Eventually he was given a new name and turned loose. No one searched for Marvin because we all believed the dead man in the wreck was he. For years afterwards I would occasionally catch sight of someone who had a passing resemblance to Marvin. I would gasp, for a moment thrilled that my scenario was true. Sometimes I hurried to the person, only to see as I came closer that I was wrong. It wasnt Marvin at all. When I started traveling into Mexico, I stopped at Mazatlan. Perhaps, I imagined, he had somehow found his way here, married a Mexican girl, and opened a bar: His dream had stayed alive, in spite of his losing his identity. I visited several bars in Mazatlan, enjoying the good Mexican beer. I never saw him. But there are many bars in that town. I can still dream that he is there, an old man now with many grandchildren.
His death also raised questions of Fate--the kind of "fate" that is capitalized. There was only a half second, say, during which the accident was possible. If starting his car had required an extra turning of the key, Marvin would still be alive. If a girl, in the bar, had smiled at him, he would still be alive. Perhaps, before his astonished gaze, he'd have seen the giant Cadillac flash through the intersection just before he reached it. My God, he would tell me later, that was a close call! We'd hoist our glasses of beer and salute his good fortune. And of course if I had borrowed his car, he wouldnt have gone out that night at all, and would still be alive. Which raised, for me, another question. Perhaps the accident--some
to happen that night. The other two times I borrowed one of his cars, after all, I'd been in an accident. Perhaps the accident simply had to happen, for reasons too arcane to understand. If I had taken his car, then I would be dead, although in an entirely different incident: a truck, say, crossing lanes on the highway. I would be ripped apart, Marvin's car scattered across the road. And today, indeed, Marvinr would be happily in his bar in Mazatlan, toasting the arrival of a new grandson and perhaps occasioinally thinking of me, his dead brother.
I once wrote a story about this. It is called "Api Api," and takes place in Borneo, half a world away. Marvin is only mentioned in passing. But it is his story.
In the normal order of things, our parents die before we do. There is a kind of shift when this happens. As long as my mother was alive the future lay before me like an endless road. Her death marked the termination of that road.
This is how she died. She got up one morning, sat in her favorite chair, and had a heart attack.
Her church had a policy of calling the elderly who lived alone. They called her that morning, and got no answer. Eventually they called the police, who found her body. Certain protocols were then followed. They found my phone number, talked to my girlfriend who lived with me; she called me at work, I called my boss to arrange a replacement; other calls organized the mortuary—the same one we had used for my father and my older brother—and there was a funeral. It was attended by myself and my girlfriend, my younger brother, the pastor of my mother's church. The usual things were said. She was lowered into her grave, next to her husband. It was a clear winter day, cold but sunny. Afterwards there were practical matters to take care of. All this was done in a rather robotic fashion by my brother and myself. There is no reason to go into details. My mother was dead and there was a strange shift in my life that had to be examined.