Straws Will Be Horses
by Elizabeth Kelly
He wore the recidivism of his life carelessly, like the bandana across his forehead. The last thing I did was write his salvation in the air with my index finger, conscious that his fingers were melting to the bone, dripping water and blood. Credo in Deum.
My youngest and more famous brother was conceived on April thirtieth. A moonless night, a starless night, but a brilliant, bloody, crooked descent of claws and flying feathers if you happen to be a witch. Which my mother most assuredly was. On Walpurgisnacht, witches uncurl their feet and come together for a few hours of steamy somersaulting with the Devilor so goes my old lady's romanticized account of a low-rent bacchanalia that, no doubt, began with a sausage-fingered come-on in the dark and ended in an oily fuck with a red-headed stranger somewhere near Detroit.
By the time he was twenty-one, Pagan, spirited byproduct of that untidy trapeze act, was a rock god, a ffffffffffffucking, ffffffantastic fffffffrontman if ever there was one, according to my landlord, who stuttered whenever he got excited. My other brother, Skip, named for someone's beaglewon the Iditarod before his twenty-fifth birthday and was something altogether different; a solitary schooner, he sailed on air. An artlessly impersonal pronoun, he climbed rocks, hung from trees, swam for miles. He was this guy I kind of knew and then he was gone.
They're both dead, by the way. They were on a late-night walk at our grandfather's summer house when Pagan stepped off the side of a cliff and broke his neck.
Skip, reduced to wayward silhouette by Pagan's deaththere's no protocol in place governing this next announcementdied going over Niagara Falls in a jet ski when his parachute failed to deploy. One brother barely knew what hit him, the other was raring to go. They left behind no written language, no monuments, no civilization.
I'm a born tailgater, a writer with a certain proficiency and inauspicious technique, but no depth of feel. I don't know what the hell I'm feelingobscure angers, maybeand retaliatory instincts. Pagan's manic dance around the bonfire bugged me no end. My fate, it would seem, was to watch from hidden places and try to guess his name.
I was revising another unpublishable manuscript when Skip's huskies crossed the finish line at the Iditarod. Are you getting the picture? My failures escalated in direct proportion to my brothers' spectacular successes. And they weren't picking up graduate certificates from the Devry Institute, or polishing industrial softball league trophies. Skip and Pagan were the first brothers to crack People Magazine's Fifty Most Beautiful list. Meanwhile, I looked in the mirror and saw Gary Crosby staring back at me, Bing's son from his first marriage, the one he referred to as satchel-ass or bucket-butt, the jug-eared, flat-faced sack of misery who spent his life whining about living in the shadow of a celebrated relative.
My dead brothers never could get a straight answer about where they came from.
"Your father was a satyr," the old lady said, petting Pagan's orange head. I was eight when he was born. She told six-year-old Skip, black-haired and fair-skinned with navy blue eyes that his dad "was a great Northern nighthawk who swooped down at midnight and sucked milk from goats in their pasture" Her vivid way of saying his old man was a Canadian.
"And your father, Harrison, was an orthodontist." My mother, Annabella Guerin, estranged pox-ridden daughter of a renowned musicologist, disdained her old-money background. Pagan was a baby when she hooked up with yellow-eyed Mario, the so-called political exile, a troglodyte from Guatemala.
Our leering tormentor never washed his hair, picked his teeth with a Swiss Army knife and spoke ulcerated English in fierce venomous manifestos. She claimed he was a shiggoleth, a thought entity formed from piss and blood and dung.
"Shiggoleths, like children, can be a damned nuisance," she said.
Poor little Pagan bought into all her crap.
"Mom says she could make Mario disappear with a single word," he lisped.
I swear you couldn't see my mother's reflection in the mirror. Unnaturally youthful in appearance, well educated, dauntingly tall -- with her manifestly even teeth and perilously symmetrical features, dramatically bobbed ebony hair and black eyes with their vaguely Oriental cast, polished eyes that she wore like sunglassesshe embodied the notion, "...a woman absent is a woman dead." She was a walled asylum, all the more impenetrable for its barren interior landscape. The way to my mother was strewn with rock and stone and steel and metal, a cold road whose climate was mitigated by her wretched love of mischief.
She had a blue tattoo, an ancient Druid symbol on the middle finger of her left hand and prepared for witches' holidays by mixing flying unguents she applied to her feet and hands. Her other concoctions weren't so benignsweet odor coming from the kitchen, the air crackling with laughter like static, sloe-eyed hags hunched round the stove brewing bathtub speed.
Mix in battery acid, Drano, ephedrine, acetone, and cat comes faster than just about anything. Your mind races; you can't hang on to a thought. A Neanderthal rush, it's custom-made for Mississippi mud hounds looking for a way to stay up all night to work on their cars.
I was home when she gave Pagan his first taste. Dissolving oil in Freshie, she held his hand and up he went, his heart pounding, his self-assurance soaring, his whole body trembling. Three hours later he was back for more. The next day, she gave him his first jolt, injecting it down into his vein as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a mother to fire up her kid with liquid Drano.
"What are you trying to do?" I asked.
She kept a large flowering cactus in a tin on the floor. It was in bloom; its arid beauty enervating, freeze-dried and ghastly, suspended in that awful dry air like an unspoken four letter word. She laughed her musical laugh. Witches can't conceal their delight.
Her hair was smooth and tight against her head. She reached for Pagan with fragrant and fleshless fingers; he was beside her, trembling, exhausted, soaked in sweat, all the while her sleek black eyes were locked on me, as she kissed him tenderly; his hair where it fell onto his forehead, his eyes, his chin, the line of his jaw just beneath his ear.
She often disappeared for days at a time, leaving us with Mario. Pagan, with his lightweight love of wrongdoing, his soft looks and satiny finish, was a favorite target.
"Bastinado!" The son of a bitch beat him on the soles of his bare feet with a wooden slat. Pagan was seven, his feet were so swollen he couldn't walk, and yet he never shed a tear. Until nighttime, when his invisible older brother, Harry, the guy with dilute dishwater in his veins, listened as Skip read to him from Beautiful Joe until the sorry little shit, his hair matted and his feet raw, cried himself to sleep.
Pagan loved the mice that infested our tiny, garbage-filled apartment -- the old lady grandly citing Iris Murdoch's housekeeping as precedent. He kept them under his bed in jars in futile effort to save them from Mario, who crushed them under his cowboy boots, or if he was feeling especially playful, would pop them, alive, into the toaster.
Every weekend, in a sequence of events predictable as the guy above us pounding on the floor with his shoe, screaming, "Shut the fuck up down there!" Mario would have it out with the old lady; she'd split and he'd come, predator's burden in hand, looking for Pagan. He put a lit cigarette in his ear when he was eleven. By the time he was twelve, Pagan, unaccountably sweet, played out like a randomly fired shotgun blast.
Go figure, the skinny son of a bitch liked Skip. Skip instinctively knew the power and the mystery of a guy who sinks every shot. Quiet, disciplined, athletic and smart, his recklessness was an aberration. I never knew what Skipper was thinking -- the only thing I knew for certain was that he was crazy about Pagan.
I started my first fire when I was twelve. My grandfather's boathouse. I used lighter fluid and a match. I threw in some Raid just to see what would happen. Bam! Pagan in a can. Soon, I was setting blazes all over the place.
I don't want to overstate my career as an arsonist. I made the local paper when I burned down an empty barn on a derelict property. I even perfected this party-stopping trick of pouring brandy on my shirt, igniting it and putting it out just in time. It didn't impress many girls, but, oh, the guys!
Pagan was the eternal flame. The little twerp was always in some kind of a jam. He and an older boy stuck a garden hose in the window of a home whose owners were away. Somebody remembered seeing Pagan. Somebody always remembered seeing Pagan. He wouldn't rat out the other kid. Off he went to lock up for three months. I had to deliver him. Skip couldn't face it. The old lady never even showed up for the hearing.
I borrowed a buddy's car. Kneeling next to me, Pagan, fidgeted with my shirt collar. It's funny what you remember. I wouldn't mind having that moment back again. The fiddly feel of his little kid's hands against the back of my neck.
For someone who was always in trouble, especially someone who always got caught, Pagan never developed much of an appetite for doing the time. He wasn't exactly a marine. Patting his chest in send-off, I could feel his heart beating like something caught in mid-flight. I pried away my hand. That was fun. Scraping him off me.
"Please Harry, don't leave me."
The caseworker, poked him in the arm with his finger.
"Cut the crap."
"He's a little kid," I said. "He's scared."
"Yeah, well he should have thought about that, shouldn't he?"
The room was empty except for a print hung too high on the wall featuring a strained yellow-haired Jesus, with a couple of kids in His lap. The boy looked as if he just turned in his old man for sneaking Communion wine. The true test of divinity : Suffer the little pricks to come unto Me.
I felt a surge of panic. I wanted to snatch Pagan and vanish, set up somewhere, send for Skip, get a couple of rooms and keep them clean. A modest dream, but as someone who grew up in a home where cat urine was prized for its ability to camouflage the smell of dead mice in the walls and the combination reek of beer and cologne was common as a torn housecoat, I possessed unique appreciation for the phenomenon of matching towels that weren't used to mop up blood or sub for a sling.
Arson is a sneaky business for which I make no apology. Mario pitched nine-year-old Pagan down the stairs and the old lady in the next apartment opened her door a crack, called him over and gave him a brownie. When he was in seventh grade, the phys ed instructor asked him about the burn on his back. Pagan concocted some lame explanation. The teacher offered him a couple of Fig Newtons.
He was expelled when he broke a chair over some kid's head during assembly. The next year he was out on his ass for taking a swing at the principal. So Pagan Guerin got what was coming to him. It was evident in the hapless gestures made by well-meaning people who dealt in the counterfeit currency of cookies, in the prescription platitudes from counselors, in the awkward politesse emanating from hospital corridors and in the disapproval padding the walls of the church confessional like layers of ticking .
We were a broken window in a derelict building. So what. Skip and I never told. Skip was terrified of losing Pagan. We became highly skilled at suturing fresh wounds and camouflaging old ones. Who needed yet another righteous round of indignation thrown into the mix? Solitude and cookies and ribs that healed on their own were preferable to the imposed panacea of the professional busybody. What I'm trying to say is this: After all the studied demonstrations of parenthetical compassion I've witnessed, do you really think I gave a rat's ass about the ethical implications of setting fires under cover of darkness?
And I handed out the odd Oreo myself.
When Pagan was fifteen, Mario hit him so hard he finally finished off our brutal family experiment. The bastard had begun to go away occasionally for short periods of time. Fishing trips, he told my mother. He was gone a week and came home with a string of Arctic Char, not exactly indigenous to Indiana. She hit the roof, accused him of screwing around and stomped out with a hypocrite's protracted flourish. A few minutes later, Mario kicked open my bedroom door. Pagan used to take terrified refuge in my room; the door knob was always sticky. He liked to lick grape Kool-Aid powder from his fingers, his tongue and his lips and his fingers were always purple and left behind telltale evidence, the sweetish residue of his fear.
"Who the hell got into my goddamn money? There's ten bucks missing."
He was holding an empty peanut butter jar filled with change. I could have said I didn't know. I could have said I did it. It did occur to me, if only briefly.
"Pagan," I said. And not for the first time either.
He grinned. Mario held my sedition in high regard. Pagan was barely inside the apartment when Mario, ominously sequestered behind the door like a basking shark, clocked him, full-fisted, right in the face, sending him reeling backwards. I can still hear the crack of his head against the window sill. He slid soundlessly around the curve of the radiator and rolled onto his stomach, the palms of his hands pressed flat on the floor.
A noxious plume of yellow smoke rose from the industrial chimney of the plastics recycling plant across the street. The windows of the apartment were sealed shut and still I could smell the night shift. It formed toxic clusters of dust in the stale air of our apartment where everything seemed suspended, and where a primordial cessationof breathing, of kinship, of domestic protocol, of civilizing hierarchiesexerted stultifying preeminence. Sudden violence, like a yellow flame shooting suddenly upward from a factory chimney, was the only resolution to anticipation you could smell in the air like a stealthy pollutant.
"You steal from me? From me?" Dry white flecks formed at the corners of Mario's mouth.
"Leave him alone. He's hurt." Skip was on his knees beside Pagan, white and motionless on the stained linoleum. A pile of newspapers stacked against the wall spilled onto the floor.
"Give me a hand, Harry," Skip said.
We covered him up with an old army blanket, the only thing we could think to do.
Pagan struggled to sit. Mario grabbed him, made a noose with his T-shirt, and wrenched him upward; it didn't require much effort. I'm well over six feet. Skip was a couple of inches shorter. Fine-boned as a bird, Pagan was an inconsequential little squirt.
"Where the hell is my goddamn money?"
Pagan covered his face, palms spread outward like a fan, a kid's gesture of defense.
It was too much for Skip. He put his hand on Mario's forearm. Mario took his practiced weasel's inventory of Skip's broad shoulders and lean young manhood. The tyranny was over and he knew it. But it was going to be a meaningful goodbye. He drew Pagan closer to him and in a gesture of pure menace, whispered something in his ear and kissed him on the foreheadfor the first time in my life I knew what people meant when they described a feeling of sudden terror.
"Skip," Pagan pleaded, tears running down his cheeks. "Get me out of here."
It was two in the morning when we carried him the six blocks to emergency. We told an unimpressed doctor we were horsing around. Pagan, torn jeans, hair in his eyes and wearing a T-shirt with Too Drunk To Fuck emblazoned across the chest, wasn't the kind of a kid professionals go to the mat for. You could plunge your hand up to the wrist in the hollow of his spine. His arms dangled; the veins in his right forearm were black and blue, red and swollen and flecked with dry blood, in violent contrast to the spectral whiteness of his skin. I could see his rowdy child's heart beating, rising and falling, keeping wounded time. With his opalescent orange and red hair, fecund and feline green eyes, his ungovernable prowling, flamboyant plumage and tactile temperament, Pagan, at close range, was like an exotic member of a rain-forest ecospecies.
"He's sustained a concussion. I think we should admit him overnight," the doctor said. "A skeet-shooting accident, I presume?" He couldn't resist. I thought Skip was going to kill him.
Skip and I stayed with him. His eyes were a black mask. He slept that night and through most of the next day. Barely breathing, he was still as a rock from one season to the next. I sat in the chair watching as he slept. Skip sat across from me. We talked a little, our voices low. It was a redemptive idleness. I figured that waiting it out was the least I could do; after all, it was my fault he was there. I lit the fuse. Try to understand. I loved my brother, but I loved starting fires more.
He hated the name Pagan. Our mother perversely sent us to parochial schools and one of the nuns told him you couldn't get into heaven unless you were named after a saint. He came home all upset and announced he wanted to be called Scott.
"There is no St. Scott, squirt." Skip said.
Pagan thought it over. "I'll make my second name Ignatius. Scott Ignatius."
"I'd pick another saint. St. Ignatius was torn apart by lions in the Coliseum while everyone watched," Skip said.
"I bet he went straight to heaven," Pagan said.
Skip was determined they would get a place together, but Pagan wasn't buying. "Skip's too... maternal," he complained. In memorable contrast, his "manager," someone he'd met bussing tables, a brunette who favored short skirts and tall boots, arrived in a cloud of competing scents to take him home with her. She was twenty-five. She's the one who introduced him to cocaine. Disheartened, Skip took out for the south seas.
"How do you feel about moving in with her, Scottie?" I asked. He stared at me. There was no mistaking his unspoken plea. I was twenty-three years old. I had just finished college, courtesy my grandfather's sporadic handouts and despite my mother's opposition. I didn't need Pagan, the professional pain-in-the-ass, cramping my style. He wanted me to save him, but I was in the kitchen doing something important like making Ovaltine.
"What the hell?" He smiled. "It's not so bad."
"It's not exactly a wholesome set-up, Scottie," I said after silently squirming through one graphic good-bye session.
"You're only fifteen," I said.
When he laughed he didn't sound like a fifteen-year- old. "My life is not some fucking sacrament, Harry."
Skip called home regularly from exotic locations around the world.
"How is he?"
"Let's see, it's five degrees and the super called me at four A.M. to tell me young Scott Ignatius was passed out in the elevator."
"Harry, what's going on? Is he there? Let me talk to him."
"For crying out loud, Skip, he's fine."
Meanwhile, all the time I'm reassuring Skip, I'm looking at a consumptive eighteen-year-old solipsist in leather pants and bright orange ponytail rooting through my cupboards, his hands shaking like a middle-aged wino's, as he blows exquisitely formed smoke rings into the air before vanishing with a handful of Oreos tucked like ammunition into his pocket.
So Pagan's premature demise was no surprise. Christ, most of the time, I wanted to kill him. His celebrity, how the hell did that happen?
On Pagan's thirteenth birthday, Mario held out his left hand as the old lady sliced open the palm and made him write his name in blood on the door to the apartment.
"There won't be a woman alive who will be able to resist you now."
There was a barley cake on the kitchen counter. Bannock. Uh-oh. Skip rolled his eyes. You just knew it wouldn't be Betty Crocker. No, she had to pull some scary Druid concoction out of a bloody cauldron, weighted down with history and inference and bat's wings and Aleister Crowley's balls, for Christ's sake.
"Happy birthday, squirt," Skip said as he bandaged Pagan's hand. With regard to Pagan's effect on women, the old lady proved to be a first-rate wizard; as to the rest, well, he didn't lack talent -- he had a natural musical ability, a gift from our grandfather, maybe. Although, for all we knew his dad was Roy Orbison.
We knew he was performing in small clubs around LA. Skip mailed me a copy of a demo tape he made with the guys in his band. My first thought on hearing it was that he should concentrate on perfecting his promising future as a drug addict. But what do I know? He signed a major record deal when he was twenty-one.
"Man, who's he sleeping with?" I asked Skip. "He must be patronizing a better class of public washroom."
"You say the goddamnest things, Harry,"
Pagan lapped up fame as if he were drinking champagne from a satin slipper. He galloped in festive tail-chasing circles like a buoyant and unfettered circus pony.
Not to worry. Pagan had a way of sucking the life out of every opportunity that came his way. I'm here to tell you it's not a good thing for a boy to spend the first sixteen-years of his life getting the shit kicked out of him and the next ten stoned out of his mind fucking disproportionate strangers with loveless agendas.
Having a brother who's a rock star didn't do much for me either, other than put me into a better quality chino and occasionally elevate me to the status of glorified roadie.
"You're kidding. You're Pagan Guerin's brother?" Women gasped hearing the big news. "Gee, you two don't look much alike." That wasn't a good thing, by the way.
Throw Skipper, the glorious Alaskan Malamute into the equation, and I was on the receiving end of more conspicuously exchanged incredulous glances than a short-fingered guy with kielbasa on his breath wandering around Ascot with a plumber's snake.
Cathy was a sales rep for the marketing firm where I worked. She pretended not to have heard of Pagan Guerin. Nice try. We went out to dinner a few times, saw a couple of movies. It wasn't a great love affair; but it was okay.
One day at lunch I introduced her to this guy named Bill. A month later Cathy showed me a manila envelope filled with love letters. They were a little intense. The police advised a restraining order. I enjoyed the hell out of the situation. I was disappointed there would be no more letters from Bill. "...Are you really gone? Are flowers gone? Is faith gone? Waterfalls, little children, strawberries, all gone? Champagne gone, snowflakes gone, cats and dogs...?"
I pretended to be Cathy and wrote back, kind of implying she was interested in him too. He sent a Polaroid of himself naked. Not something you'd want to see, incidentally. He was arrested and charged. I figured that was the end of it. Then Bill showed up at the office in fatigues with a bow and arrow hunting for Cathy. A couple of guys from the cleaning staff overpowered him. That was one blaze that almost went out of control.
Cathy turned to me for emotional support. I don't think I took sexual advantage of her, although I might have. I did use our brief sexual liaison as an opportunity to experiment in wish fulfillment. My mother's early childhood lessons in magic -- my psyche was founded entirely on an altar of bullshit -- lingered as an unexpressed, but elemental, aspect of my life. I carried sorcery around with me the way lapsed Catholics reflexively wear holy medals or tuck rosaries into hidden places. I didn't believe her crap, but, unlike Skip, who was openly hostile, I occasionally relaxed my critical faculties long enough to give it a shot.
She told us if we wanted something, to postpone our longing and wait until the moment of orgasm, then visualize our heart's desire. Why not? Cathy wasn't exactly a compelling lay. I thought I wanted to be published. Then a darker thought took hold, one distinctly unplanned. Crude, cruel and fervent, it came, like an unwelcome visit, from somewhere outside of me. So strong, it shocked me.
Fuck Pagan. The intensity of my wish haunted me. It still does.
On the other hand, it was the best sex I ever had.
I was at loose ends when Pagan called and asked if I would handle publicity for the European tour. A moonless planet, I decided to play the faithful Lab with a Gnostic bent. It was the worst fucking job I ever had. I felt like one of those guys in the old westerns driving a wagon loaded with nitroglycerin through Apache country.
The trouble is, that kind of experience spoils you for normalcy. You can't go back to making regular deliveries among peaceful folk. I got hooked on the kinetics of Pagan's temperament.
Here's one example: after protracted negotiations I arranged for him to speak to a celebrated magazine writer and he showed up two hours late, wearing a T-shirt inscribed If You Don't Like Oral Sex Then Shut Your Mouth, kicked open the door to the hotel suite and threw a toile-covered reproduction Louis Quinze side chair through a pair of French doors.
"Don't worry," I consoled the terrified woman. "We keep rabies vaccine on the premises."
His public and private appearances inevitably featured ample representation from the ubiquitous blonde battalion of dolls with no faces who surrounded him like flying insects at twilight, gracelessly insinuating themselves into his line of vision. I was left to deflect the second stringers. Don't get me wrong, I rode my share of public buses, but the novelty of having sex with women so jaded they organized their underwear drawer at the same time quickly wore off. Even for Pagan.
"I've gotta start seeing someone smart," he'd say. "I think it would be good for me. What do you think, Harry?"
"Women aren't mueslix, Scottie."
He'd scramble around to find a librarian who appealed to him. They'd go out a few times. Then I'd be on the phone trying to explain how things are to a girl with a degree from Yale and no understanding of a guy who insisted his back hurt if he didn't bang a stranger once a day. And he'd be in the next room hanging upside down with some stripper named for a mid-western town.
Pagan enjoyed slumming, flaunting its grubby excesses like a dirty hypodermic. He cherished its power to shock and frequently fucked its brains out but he never did admire a girl who said youse.
We tried to make it work. We made promises to one another. But you know, promises aren't worth shit. I found him passed out on the floor of his hotel suite. I hoisted him onto my back and he pissed all over me. I took a deep breath. Piss on him.
I decided to leave. He was sitting alone in the lobby of the hotel at three in the morning. His orange hair was as shiny as the inlaid copper threads running through the sofa fabric. His presence amidst the palms and pillows looked art-directed.
He begged me to stay. He was so pale I almost gave in. For weeks afterward he bombarded me with phone calls while refusing to accept any of mine. One thing I couldn't get out of my mind. Pagan never learned to tie a tie. I always did it for him. I left a bunch of ties, loosely knotted so they would be there if he needed them.
Three months later he drank antifreeze. He was twenty-four years old. Psychiatrists bandied about rival diagnoses as if they were competing with one another on a badminton court. It wasn't a chemistry lesson. It was geography and Pagan was Cambodia.
I wasn't too worried about his attempts at felo de se. Until they made a hazardous substance that tasted like Yoo Hoo, I figured Pagan was destined to survive his annual suicide attempts. It doesn't take a whole hell of a lot of antifreeze to kill you. About 100 ml. should do the trick. Pagan was not exactly a monument to maturity. He once told me he would rather starve to death than eat peas. The corollary of which is, I suppose, that he would rather live than drink a lethal quantity of antifreeze. Fortunately, he was in a line of work where his cachet increased incrementally with every botched attempt. The one year he chose life he managed to accidentally kill himself by walking off a cliff. You know what's funny? Pagan was really excited about getting together at the summer house. Burst into tears and kissed Skip on the lips when he saw him. Hugged me so hard I found myself hugging him back.
He always wanted a dog. He used to take a skipping rope and lasso strays, hoping he'd be allowed to keep one.
"Not gonna happen," Skip said. "Sorry, squirt."
Once I knew he was coming I got him a puppy. I was going to get him a little mutt, something scrappy, but I settled on a Tibetan Mastiff, same color as his hair. They're good guardians. They bark at the moon, they'll bark all night long if you let them. I gave him his puppy the day he died. He shook with gratitude. Christ, with all his money. Didn't he once think to buy himself a dog?
The only thing missing from Pagan's wake were the mice. Think of this. My mother and her ceaseless chanting and her stinking potions and her coterie of titillated Goth hags. Mario sporting a full Cleveland and a mouthful of transparent inquiries as to the disposition of the estate. Hawkers with T-shirts and indistinguishable girls crying and passing out.
The old lady walked into the funeral home soaking in bathmologie; it gathered on the surface of her white skin like drops of precious oil. Wearing a form-fitting indigo gown that fell to her calves, she was a secular presence in the chapel, austere and unsentimental, but sensuous, she wore a gold ring set with topaz and a white bracelet with Maltese cross theme. She was carrying a cigarette holder and lit cigarette. People watched through the slits of their eyes. She was strictly a peripheral wonder. The press was paralyzed by her. "Close your mouth," I whispered to one stunned journalist. "You're catching flies."
I was tempted to tell him. See what drug money can buy.
I could hardly look at Skip. His grief was so profound it occupied its own space in the room. My mother couldn't take her eyes off him. Her eyes danced. Witches, as I say, are unable to conceal their delight.
Skip wouldn't leave Pagan's side and he wouldn't let anyone else near him. The funeral director asked me to intercede.
"I don't want anyone trying to get a photo."
I hesitated and tried again.
"Forget it, Harry."
"Come on, Skip. You're making things worse."
"Scottie's dead. What could be worse?"
Grief. Grief. Grief. Say it three times. Knock against its locked door three times. Skip's grief was impenetrable, a shroud of enamel. Pagan's distinctive tenor, on loudspeaker outside, sounded a wan grace note in concert with all that interminable, monotonous, bloody chanting. The amused look on my mother's face. Witches cannot cry.
"We're allotted three tears in our lifetime," she said. "One for each of you."
How can a mother not give a damn that her son is dead?
As for Skip, I never did know how to handle Skip.
"You're acting crazy, Skip. He's gone."
"We threw him to the lions, Harry."
"What could we do? We were kids. My God, think of his success."
I don't want to see anyone look at me that way again.
"Are you out of your fucking mind? He stepped off a goddamn cliff. We'd walked that path a million times. He ran back to the house to get his jacket. I told him to be careful. He laughed like always. He'd only been gone a minute when I heard him shout my name...
"The ground was wet. I couldn't see him. It took me three hours to get to the water and pull him out. He disappeared into the night. Where is he, Harry?"
It was the only time I ever saw my brother cry.
"Remember how scared he was of the dark? Tell me something, Harry, how am I supposed to bury him? I don't know where he is."
"Why are you always breaking your heart over him? Pagan was his own worst enemy. He had a rough time as a kid, I know that. You're not the only one who cared about Pagan."
Skip spun around, blue eyes blazing. "You bastard. He knew about you. Mario told him that last day in the apartment and he forgave you. But I never have."
And then he let me have it. He was a tough guy. He damn near broke my jaw.
I never saw Skip again. He was gone before I picked myself up off the floor. It was almost funny the way Mario scrambled out of there. That night, I went back to the funeral home and watched unnoticed as the scrawny creep smuggled in a photographer from one of the tabloids. I saw him count his little mountain of dough while the guy clicked away.
I figured this thing with Pagan had gone on long enough. I rolled the coffin into the alley behind the deserted funeral home. I opened the lid, remembering the words my mother spoke from the confession of a Scottish witch put to death in the 1600s:
"And then we would fly away, where we would fly even as straws fly upon a highway. We would fly like straws when we please. Straws will be horses to us. And if anyone sees these straws in a whirlwind and does not bless themselves we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us, their souls will go to heaven, but their bodies remain with us and will fly as our horses, as small as straws."
I removed her silver necklace from his hand. According to my mother, the devil was consumed by fire the night Pagan was conceived, his ashes gathered by witches for use in their charms. Pagan was terrified of that charm and the futility it implied. His childhood was a torment of abuse and storytelling, of tales of witches conveyed to Sabbat by broomstick, by goat, by sheep, by blast of wind, by sudden storm. Of stories of orgies where the noonday devil appears and witches feast unsatisfied, drink wine thick as clotted blood, dance back to back, and conjure up fierce weather. She showed him the image of a mouse on her breast when he was small, knowing his terror of witches, knowing how he loved mice.
"Sigillum Diaboli." She made him touch it. "Even if you prick it, it will not bleed."
We saw her with so many men. He was the chosen son. She made him watch.
Unbeknownst to her, he used to cling to Catholic rituals as a way of saving himself. He never stepped on stage without saying Hail, Mary.
Credo in Deum. I believe in God. Even I kept that secret for him.
The guys in the neighborhood used to call him Peggy because he looked like a girlhe'd been kicked out of every boys' washroom in town. I was eighteen and goofing around with the usual crew when Pagan, sporting a fresh shiner, showed up flushed and panting. His temper, a legend in the neighborhood, was good for putting in idle time.
"Hey, Peggy, what's up your ass?" somebody asked.
"You assholes leave him alone." Skip said. "What's wrong, squirt?
"I'm sick of everybody calling me stupid Peggy. I don't look like a creepy girl."
"Yeah, you do, you little shit." I picked him up by the front of his shirt, his bony arms flailing, and set his squirmy ass onto the nearest window ledge.
"Get me down, Harry, you son of a bitch."
"Just for that, how about I leave you there for the rest of your life?"
"Hey, Peggy, I can see up your skirt," someone said.
"Get him down, Harry, for Christ's sake." Skip wasn't amused.
"Yeah, yeah. Come on, tough guy." I was reaching up when he hauled off and punched me right in the nose. I stepped back in astonishment as a thin trickle of blood ran down my upper lip.
"You had it coming, Harry. " Skip laughed.
I did too. Laughed, that is. Pagan always did have balls.
His green eyes were shut, concealing the shimmer of his improbable sweetness. He was wearing a suit. Whose idea was that? He resembled my mother. Their lips were wide and full and indolent. Did I mention how good looking Pagan was? He had somehow escaped the junkie's telling signature, the featureless mask, that irrefutable tattoo most dopers wind up with. Despite the huffing and the hustling, the hedonism and the indiscriminant whoring around, despite the oddly sophisticated transit-system underworldliness, his face still conveyed a certain naivete. It was probably only a matter of time.
I pressed my forehead against his. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. Breathing in the end of him as if he were a last cigarette. At first, my grief was desperate and gnawing as a trapped animal; now, it felt calm and tranquil, almost demure, like a paper white blooming in winter, and distant and distilled, as far removed from me as a dark spot on the horizon.
His face was young and thin. It was no longer round as I vaguely remembered. Wide across the cheekbones. He had prominent cheekbones. My face is long and narrow. We never fit.
I used gasoline and a Bic lighter. What the hell. It does the job.
Pagan didn't cause as big an eruption as you might imagine. He tapered off into a luminous, white phosphorescent light, a sugary mirage. Ignis fatuus, foolish fire. Afterward, nobody knew quite what to do with me. My mother was thrilled. She had her harridan's witchy breach of the peace. She had her blood-red sky.
The cops agreed not to press charges if I would seek counseling.
Skip goes over Niagara Falls on a jet ski and I'm the one who needs a shrink.
Whenever he could, whenever Mario wasn't looking, Skip would lift himself up into the attic to wait out Pagan's punishment with him. It was so narrow you had to lie flat with your legs stretched out straight. Sometimes I stood inside the closet below. I can hear them still. The floor boards sighing beneath them. Pagan's breath coming in short gasps. He's afraid.
"Skip, will you take me swimming tomorrow?"
"Sure I will, squirt." Skip never said no to Pagan in his life.
It's an evening in July. And I'm embarrassed by their quiet summer affection. The softly lyrical, Sunday-night sentimentality of their bond just plain bugs me. And yet, I want to be a part of their nice little mythology. I admired Skip more than anyone I ever knew. All the while I'm listening, the cold unfeeling part of me, the winter-kill flames cannot revive, wants Skip to lash out like an unexpected hand in the night and slap that little bastard silly.
I hear something else. A rustle behind me. I turn around quickly. Mom. She is laughing but not making any sound. She dresses in black, but she sways like a white calla lily amidst the squalor of our home. I don't dare look away. She can make people disappear with a single word.
I hate her. I could kill that fucking Mario.
I believe in freeing yourself from mothers and the men they conjure up to do their bidding, from younger brothers that would break your heart. I was there when Skip first saw Pagan. I watched as he held him and sealed his devotion with a little boy's first meaningful kiss. The spell flawlessly executed and forever fixed. Skip was fearless, but he couldn't free himself from Pagan.
I knew Skip would follow him. I didn't anticipate the dramatic choice of venue. But I have no imagination. I am, after all, the son of a dentist. Yet I wonder who will be beside me in the dark? Who will I remember? Who will remember me? Skip. And Pagan.
They recovered his body a few miles down river. I talked to the doctor who performed the autopsy. He told me there wasn't a mark on him. Not a cut. Not a bruise. Not a hair out of place. The mighty Skip Guerin may as well have drowned in the bathtub.