I was driving to a Wal-Mart in southern New Hampshire to buy a thermometer the day the world grew unfamiliar. My mind unclogged, it seemed-as though whatever I'd previously known turned out to be some sort of a blockage in a drain. It started slowly, even coyly, with vague irritations: heavy traffic on Route 28, the bum air conditioning in the van my brother'd left me, the resulting open windows, the heat and humidity, the fumes from idling cars. I passed May's, where we'd ordered the flowers for his funeral, passed the mini-malls, Granite State Potato Chips, the rows of yellow construction equipment lined up like Tonka toys behind a chain-link fence.
The worst was over, I'd been thinking. I could indulge in a little complacency for a change. I'd be driving home soon, back to upstate New York. And I was heading toward a Wal-Mart, the ultimate sanctuary of choice in Emporium America.
A car behind me honked, but it barely registered. Stupid chatter began running through my head about the value of my brother Paul's house and his adopted state's 18 percent inheritance tax, which applied horizontally to siblings but not vertically to parents or children. How strange, I thought. A child has only half your genes, after all. This tax clearly favored hierarchies dimly remembered from English common law. I was explaining this to someone in my head, and explaining the fact that Paul had never married, when, of its own weight, a picture slid from a brain cell-jogged by these thoughts-of Paul as a boy holding in his hand the branch of an apple tree, half hung with apples. The rest, miraculously, had broken into blossom. Memory works in the brain like brachiated lightning unloading its contents in faded afterimages. The picture weakened but still, in a sense, I remembered the memory, then something else happened. A line shooting up through walls of tissue guttered and caught, bisecting me vertically. It pulled on my heart like a cord on a tent: the first ache of sadness for my poor brother. And just an hour ago I'd been stupid with joy!
He held out the branch with fading reluctance like a boy who'd been bad. Was he returning it to someone? Other images drifted in, visual analogs of overlapping whispers-the double and triple exposures of memory. It felt like spilling water on a newspaper and reading tomorrow's weather through yesterday's scandal. Through Paul and his branch I saw my grandmother's house, smelled wet ashes in her driveway, felt the warmth of the rose quartz sitting in the recesses, tall and narrow, beside her front door. Ghosts more solid than the honking world around me. Where had that picture of my brother come from? He'd lived with my grandmother in central Massachusetts when I was growing up, and my parents and I had visited every weekend. By the time I was a child Paul was past his teens, and I thought of him more as an uncle than a brother. An uncle with a hobby-through the walls of Grandma's house I saw Paul's room hung with model airplanes, each suspended on a wire from the ceiling, each pieced together from balsa wood and cardboard with X-Acto knives and small, precise fingers.
Then I remembered. The picture of my brother was literally that-a newspaper clipping I'd found in his house three months ago, after his death. For twenty years he'd lived alone in New Hampshire, and his sudden death left me in charge of his affairs, including the obligatory sorting of remains. Most of it was junk, overwhelming trash, but I thought my mother would want this clipping, and she did in fact gaze at it wistfully before putting it in a drawer to be forgotten. Now it came back with urgent clarity: nine-year-old Paul offering to the viewer his amazing branch, half blossoms, half apples. So he'd been a child too, though beyond my witness-this was six years before my birth. And he hadn't been bad, hadn't stolen or broken anything, he was just camera shy: head tilted forward, dark gash of hair slung across his brow, black reluctant eyes not unlike a cautious dog's. He held the branch up like Liberty's torch, though faced with a camera Liberty looked slumped, and the torch was no higher than Paul's sunken chest.
The car honked again. I must have been Sunday driving. Past all the malls, I was still creeping along at 20 miles per hour on the two-lane highway. The car pulled out to pass me on a curve-a lipstick- red Grand Am-and a teenage male on the passenger side flipped me the bird, in our zoological slang.
Fuck you too, I mumbled-my atavistic twinge. I couldn't really get angry, though. I felt dazed, numb, saddened by the loss of an older brother whose life had barely left an imprint on the world. He'd been a recluse and a loner in a throwaway society, and here I was bent on the same course, driving to a store to buy something I didn't need, a cheap thermommmmmeter. I maintained my granny pace. Like a needle reading normal, I sat with one hand on the wheel, poised between distractedly complacent and obscurely annoyed. The Grand Am had thumped past like a war machine, with those booming woofers heard first in the bowels, and even now the sound lingered. I felt miles and months behind everyone else. Spring had arrived-summer was imminent-but me, I was still adjusting to winter, still wondering whether I needed a jacket. Once again, the revolutions were outpacing me, the wheels forever spinning, the days and weeks scrolling, but flapping like shades glued to the slower roll of the seasons-the earth itself cartwheeling on its axis at a speed of 22,000 miles a day, and revolving around the sun at 18.46 miles a second . . . statistical Drano for sluggish minds. I smiled to myself. The cosmos is a giant flywheel, said H. L. Mencken-but at least we flies are permitted to think that the wheel was constructed to give us a ride.
What happened to that boy with the branch? Where do youth and potential go when a life unravels?
I tried conjuring more memories of Grandma's house. Wasn't there a Victrola in, of all places, the bathroom, and hadn't my brother taken it after her death? Possibly, but I hadn't seen it in his house, though it could have been buried under piles of debris. His remains were of the sort one might find in a cave. He must have had that Victrola - Paul, I knew, was especially attached to my father's mother. My parents were living with Grandma when he was born, having moved in with her after their marriage. But when Dad found a new job and he and my mother moved to South Boston, where I grew up, they left their seven-year-old fifty miles away in Wire Valley with Grandma. I'd heard various reasons. The prospect of moving frightened young Paul. Besides, he was cute, and Grandma loved him so much that she might as well keep him to relieve her solitude. Also, the new apartment was small, and my parents would visit every weekend, a practice that continued after my birth and throughout my childhood. Finally, this was 1937-the Great Depression-and many families split up to go where the work was. Or so I'd been told when I asked about those years. I realize now that no greater mystery exists than the time before our birth, always darkened by the shadow that we ourselves cast.
Later, when I was a zit-faced adolescent, Grandma died and Paul joined the army, then lived with us in Boston, sharing my room. He stayed there after I left home, never dating or marrying, until he purchased the house in New Hampshire for which I was now buying a thermometer.
In the Wal-Mart parking lot I found a slot, rolled up the windows, locked the doors. Outside, the knots of people drifting toward the entrance possessed the glow of families converging on a church. We searched each other's faces for signs of recognition, exchanging looks that said, I'm just buying an apron (or a thermometer),