When my partner Caroline takes pictures of my brother Craig holding our newborn baby, I cannot help but remember the first photograph of me holding my baby brother. Light smuggled from the hospital room into the black box of the camera. I had just turned three. He was swaddled into immobility by kneading nurses who make bread loaves of newborns. Baked in my mother’s belly, placed in my toddling lap, I kissed his baby-doll face asleep. And someone snapped us into eternity. An image—upon looking back—that provides a tautological architecture to my conception of our relationship.
I take it for granted that I loved him from the beginning. The saccharine proofs arranged geometrically in my mother’s photo albums. I take it for granted that he loved me in turn.
In the fifty-ninth chapter of How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that he can surmise the difficulty of the creation of character by “the number of apprentice novels . . . that begin with descriptions of photographs.” “The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static,” he writes, “because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard.”
Does this photograph show that I believed from an early age that I was my brother’s keeper? Do I hold him in some static time and refuse him his mobility? Does it show that I believed, even then, that it was my job to protect the world? The weight of privilege, I tell myself, is the inheritance of paternalism. I cannot think of the word burden without the antecedent white man. A Kipling retrospective in the empire’s bloody wake. But what about the weight of a baby brother in a three-year-old lap? Or being taught one’s blessed station? Being thankful goes hand-in-hand with the propaganda of pluck. The middle class do-gooder knows what’s best for everyone. It was my job, I thought from the beginning, to hoist the arc of the moral universe upon my back and try to bend it, like Dr. King said, toward justice. The myth of capital-“P”-Progress bred into my first-born bones. When I look at that photograph, I wonder whether I was too young to pose.
Out behind the coffee shop, beneath the corrugated awning baking in the sun, Landon the Buvez barista emerges with espresso treats. My parents have been here for a month, helping to watch the baby. Craig and Mel arrived last week. Finally, we have all been vaccinated. Landon takes a family photo of us and comments on how Craig and I sound the same. “Your delivery,” he says, “is spot on.” As if one of us is imitating the other—we never know which one—the lilt of our voices masking some other self, more unique. When the train screams past, Landon takes his leave, and Craig and I shout about hopping aboard.
Whenever we meet strangers, they guess that he is older. Perhaps it is his beard. Perhaps his glasses. Perhaps the way he ignores the rules rather than battering himself against them.
He used to come home from high school in the afternoons, slip into a bathrobe and slippers, and smoke bowls on the back deck with his friends before our parents got home from work. These were the years when we were furthest apart, I tell myself. When I was lost in a cloud of underclassman unbelonging, and Craig was overweight, and popular, and always full of smoke. Facebook was brand new then, and I was drunk in all the photos. When I made the short trip home from Chapel Hill to Cary to hang out with my dropout friends, I marveled at Craig parading Lebowski-like before a pandemonium of suburbia’s disaffected youth.
Today—half portions on his supper plate—he talks about losing weight before his wedding this fall. Counting calories through Georgia. Always planning workouts. The price of becoming skinny-once-upon-a-time, as he was after that first long year in Denver. As I was upon my return from South America. We have shackled ourselves with regressive sentences toward the stasis of photographic make-believe. A yearning toward plastered smiles in foreign places. Wearing foreign bodies. The nostalgic dis-ease.
While we’re drinking one night, someone inevitably mentions the professional family portrait where uncles, aunts, grandparents, parents, and cousins in dark duds ring around portly Craig in a periwinkle polo. A cruel joke by the Olan Mills photographer? Everyone in cahoots? His face is pale and fat. His smile is not a smile. And although he will laugh at the photo’s mention, he has been fleeing from that middle school grimace ever since the portrait was framed and hung upon the wall. I was fat once too. But not in this photograph. He will laugh with everyone else. Then pour himself more alcohol.
On his protracted health kick, it is odd how he never once mentions—except in the context of our sometimes-tippling father—his daily imbibing of spirits.
We each have strings of alcoholic embarrassments wagging behind us like tails. Snapshots of lost memories. Arrests and ruined holidays. Our teenage years spent relying on our mom’s connections at the courthouse. Him passing out drunk on the short walk home from Tim McCool’s shed. Broken spectacles in the neighbor’s lawn, the cop and my parents huddled above him as he blinked into fuzzy morning. My parents bailing me out of jail after I mistook a stranger’s townhouse door for Drew Junkin’s. The policemen approaching with guns drawn as I lay siege to the brass kickplate. Friends of friends fingering him at a Dave Matthews concert for the backpack full of cocaine. My expulsion from Yellowstone. My expulsion from Yosemite. Him ticketed at the App State game under my parent’s waning supervision. My public urination, my resisting arrest. Handcuffed and fleeing midnight down the Orange County railroad tracks.
What then of our opening a bar together? Delirious visions of fraternity and alcohol. We daydreamed out-loud in Durham’s late nights after we finished our taproom shifts. Scribbling names and ideas outside by the shuffleboard courts. Comparing photos we had taken of dive bars abroad. We were nostalgic, then, for something that had not yet come to pass. The future unfolding in hot beer breath beneath the burning neon signs.
Now he and Mel talk about hustling their lives away. They have new tattoos and attend weddings galore. Their Denver friends have baller jobs, they say. By which they mean, they work in tech. Writing algorithms for mad men. New houses, new babies, new trips to foreign places. Fear flashes electric behind their teeth when they talk. They cannot keep up with the Instagram accounts. They measure themselves against impossible photographs, and—through their own photographs—move with the rest of us toward a reality manufactured by machines.
When he was a freshman and I was a senior in high school, we drank rum punch on my birthday. It was his first time, and I remember him on the back deck laughing at the clouds. In the early afternoon, I jogged up the street to the swimming pool with my sometimes-friends, the ones who never met my parents, and left him alone to go wandering into the sweating summer. I didn’t want him using me as a crutch. “Nothing wrong with smoking and drinking,” I said. Big brotherly advice. “But no one wants to be a tag-along.” He might have said the same to me half a decade later when I moved into his basement in Boone. But he didn’t. And I knew even on my rum punch birthday that leaving him drunk and alone at almost-fifteen was wrong. Yet what if he had tagged along? He would have been forced to flee over chain link fences from the cops, and I don’t know—even now—if he would have been able to keep up.
Does the second child always move faster than the first? He saw me work my way into time-out by refusing the yams upon my plate. “Eat your peas, Craig,” my parents said. “I am,” he replied, stuffing fistfuls into his pockets. “I really like the way they taste.”
I took pains to sneak from the window of my bedroom downstairs. Took pains to put the Suzuki Sidekick in neutral and push it down the street before I started the engine. And when I was caught, I argued endlessly about the concepts of Fairness and Freedom. To the contrary, Craig agreed not to go out. He nodded his head at instructions, injunctions. Waited until my parents fell asleep, walked casually from the front door, and let his Honda Civic rip. The only commemorative photographs are mug shots in rubbermaid bins shuffled-in among the old schoolwork.
The raccoons come dripping down the trees this morning like candlewax against the wall of green. April is the cruelest month. Backlit by the sun, these bandits descend into the ravine where—before the baby was born—I crept through toilet water streams below bamboo and kudzu, looking for a neighborhood shortcut. Now, I wait on Craig to call.
He is drinking coffee in the courtyard of my parent’s Airbnb, reading books, scrolling endlessly, sprawled in vagabond ambivalence to the hours ticking by. When we lived together in Durham, he used to rise midmorning and carry a folding chair, a book, and a pot of coffee to the single patch of backyard sunlight. Once situated between the black walnut trees, he might bask—immobile but for the turning of a page, the sipping of a cup—for several hours on end. Oblivious. And completely present.
Craig all alone in the grass this morning conjures not a memory but another picture. It is my birthday. My dad makes a camcorder movie. My friends are on the playground at Cary Elementary. Ben Keely plays ham for the parents. Amanda Fralix falls from the monkey bars and cries. The camera pans away to the sprawling ball field where Craig—half as old as everyone else—runs on bouncing brand new legs into the emptiness. Naked from the waist up, beyond all calls for his return, he swings a plastic sword against voices in the wind.
When he was a freshman and I was a senior in college, I happened to be in Boone, where he lived, for Halloween. When he called me in the late night, having flipped a friend’s minivan on a mountain’s hairpin turn, I was too drunk to rescue him from the descending law. My own face was broken and sheared away from a drunken bicycle crash a few weeks before. I was dressed in red, white, and blue: a two-faced Uncle Sam. There are dancing pictures that document the night. I advised him to sleep it off and return in the morning with a fabricated story about deer sailing through the fog. “Call Triple A,” I said. “Have them tow the van from the ditch. Avoid the cops at all costs.”
By the time I showed up at 9:00 AM, however, the police officer was putting him in cuffs. Our parents always said that we grew up too fast. Which meant—paradoxically—we acted like children. I yelled and carried-on and attempted to arrest the arresting officer, imitating the way my father acted on my behalf after I mowed down the telephone pole with the Suzuki Sidekick. No dice. I was still too drunk. When the cop threatened to arrest me as well, I looked to Craig for guidance. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, said it didn’t matter.
Later, when I was living out west, I sketched a story of him. An orange and yellow story in which he died hallucinating in Utah’s desert. What started as a joking dare—a month-long substitution of beer for water—turned to horror as his insides shriveled and he lost his way amid Jurassic visions. Ecstatic. The dinosaurs called each to each as he turned mummy beneath the yawning sandstone arches.
Was I trying, then, to clap a hand over his mouth as Delbert did to William Ward in Brother’s Keeper? Or was it my own pain projected onto him? On the stand, Delbert said he didn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. Although William “complained of severe headaches” and “felt like someone was putting a knife through his stomach and head,” Delbert couldn’t provide the sword of mercy his brother craved. The Ward brothers didn’t like needles, and neither does my brother Craig. Every time I watch the documentary, I wonder what it means to keep one’s brother. In the sun-bleached story I wrote—as in reality—our mother was the one who suffered quietly through our rollicking stunts. But that story is as static as James Wood’s parody photograph at the beginning of his hypothetical apprentice novel—Craig’s character immobile because his writer-brother “is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.” The real question for the writer, Wood insists, is “how to push out? How to animate the static portrait?” “The delivery is spot on,” Landon the barista said. I feel the weight of age and authority. The belief that I know what’s best. Have I been trying all these years to make him just like me?
In my master’s program, I wrote a poem about the only time I ever hit him. I was in middle school, and he was reclining in the crook of the green laminate kitchen countertop, the gallon jug of milk lifted to his lips. We had just come inside from jumping on the trampoline. I asked for the milk once. He pretended to give it to me, then pulled it away, and took another gulp. I asked for it twice. He pretended again. This was the type of joke that I had taught him to tell. Instead of asking a third time, I punched him in the stomach. The jug exploded on the terracotta tile. And I have never forgotten the confused mask on his face just before he doubled over toward the puddle.
I saw that look again as we trundled from Munich toward Rome—the case of beer on the floor of the train car between us. We were drunk and arguing about the fate of the world. He was fresh from college, history degree in hand, and cynical already about the future. He was trying to reason through the idiocy of my back-talking the hostel management the night before. “A waste of time,” he said. “Words.” I cracked another beer and talked about fetters on our feet. Our ceaseless need to fly. He has never been fond of arguing, but he played along. Until I finally insisted that if he didn’t think we could change the world by talking about it endlessly, then he might as well kill himself. His face cracked like an egg, and—crying—he asked why I would say that.
My journal entries from the trip—awash in florid booziness—are almost unreadable. Fecund of word. Bereft of substance. And all the photos that I took are still lifes of museum objects caged in glass display cases. As if prior to our arrival, Europe had been emptied of human beings.
Today we walked down Willow Street to Weaver D’s where the famous sign reads “Automatic For the People.” Through Dudley Park, beneath the Murmur Trestle to the Firefly Trail where Craig filmed a machine churn a tree into mulch. I drew a perfect circle with sidewalk chalk on the side of a Waffle House, and we smoked weed along the footpath to the Oconee Hill Cemetery. Then down around the earthwork of the stadium and up through the blooming quads of the university to downtown Athens for pints of beer. Later, at the Botanic Gardens, we tossed the Frisbee across the terraced green, remembering all those parks we visited in Europe more than a decade ago. We played hide-n-seek among the architecture of the landscape, lounged in the lizard shade along the garden walls, spied on wedding parties and teenage lovers with hand-me-down binoculars. We trekked down to the river and asked a stranger to take our picture upon the roots of a sycamore tree. Then we watched the degradation of the jungle South swirl by in eddies of agricultural runoff.
Two red-tailed hawks—talons locked—plunged from an oak tree above our heads. We could not catch them on our cameras, though we tried. They tumbled over the water, executing barrel rolls and somersaults until a third joined and they shrieked acrobatics upriver through the canopy.
Back by the lily pond abutting the conservatory, we watched the teenagers stream by in tuxedos and ball gowns to have their prom pictures taken on the moon bridge beneath the ginkgoes and the Japanese maples. Then we followed a strange sound through the parking lot to find a summer tanager flaming in a dogwood tree. We didn’t even try to take a photo. Might we migrate North with him over the warming continent to find those men we thought we’d be?
In the weeks before Craig and Mel arrive, my mother flips endlessly through family photo albums she brought along, picking pictures of Craig for the scheduled slideshow at the eventual rehearsal dinner. The years retreat backwards. “I can’t use the ones I’m looking through now,” she says, standing in the living room, watching my father make faces at the baby. “His hair wasn’t curly yet. He had braces and wouldn’t show his teeth.” She does a deadpan imitation—tight-lipped, stooping. “I had years like that,” I say. “Yes,” she agrees, “but you were out of them by now”—“now” referring to the dates written on the album’s binding. “Hold still,” she tells my father, trying to snap a photo of the laughing baby. “Hold still,” she told those awkward boys perched before the camera’s eye.
“Have we outlived our outlaw days?” we wonder aloud at the brewery. “I certainly hope so!” our mother says. Have we begun to “settle” proverbially into the static of adulthood? “No!” we exclaim in unison, while little fingers of obligation coil about our ankles.
Still: that first photograph remains. And tells a story, despite James Wood’s assertion that a photograph cannot do so. There is movement in my lips upon that baby boy. Movement in that baby’s breath upon my cheeks.
I have been conspiring ever since Craig first flew to Colorado half a decade ago to find a shortcut toward living together again. Waiting for the day when we pawn off our belongings and finally open that bar. Or else become nomads, move into our cars, call home anywhere we wish. Begin again.
Perhaps we have always had our talons locked. Craig and I, eye-to-eye in our grappling. In our spot-on displays of imitation. In our back-and-forth improvisation. As if each faces himself in a mirror. Chucked over the river and cartwheeling lightning through the arcs of our lives.
What then of that third hawk shrieking from the jungle? And once the hawks untangle, who can tell each from each? What then of that summer tanager, spangling the concrete with spring? There was blood in the leaves that day.
I miss him is what I mean to say. Sprung from fire, phoenix instant, uncatchable, I wish upon you, tanager, a sibling for my baby boy. Beyond all the photographs and the scribbling. The thing itself. And more. Light and story. A patch of sun, a chair, a pot of coffee, a book. A best friend to remember you there. On the train with a box of beer between your feet, talking about saving the world.