After the Passing

In the early morning, I look out my window and see only whiteness—a cloud over the valley. In the fog, everything is a ghost of itself. The buildings (a garage, another hotel next door) are faint replicas of structures. The fast-food place is a vague box with a yellow “M” floating over it.

On the road, the vehicles are ghost conveyances, piloted by phantom drivers. The logos on the sides of trucks aren’t clear. Could that rig really be an ice cream truck? I see two huge ice cream cones painted on the side of the trailer. But maybe the images aren’t ice cream cones. My eyes could be playing tricks on me.

The traffic lights are glowing disks over the road. The vehicles around me appear as headlights and taillights, with no shapes between.

After I’ve covered a couple of miles in my rented car, I see more light in the sky. Suddenly, the fog lifts and the highway becomes clear. The sun shines from a blue sky onto lush green trees. To the sides of the road, orange clouds of vapor cling to the hills.

*

I’ve been called home because my brother has died. I’m apprehensive about what I’ll find, not because I expect to find anything in particular, but because the situation is strange. My brother used to live here; now he doesn’t. Maybe his spirit will occupy the empty space. Maybe the spirits of other departed relatives will be there with him. I might find a convention of souls.

*

When I get to my mother’s house, she tells me the story of the passing. I watch and listen as she describes his last attack. She acts out her part, using as props medical paraphernalia—an intravenous drip stand, rubber tubes, a vacuum machine.

“You did all you could,” I say. “No one could do more.”

“If I’d learned better, I could have saved him,” she says.

“No one could have,” I say. “That’s what the EMTs said. That’s what you told me they said.”

She hears me, but she doesn’t respond.

*

I go to a hardware store to borrow a bolt cutter. The first person I ask doesn’t want to lend me the tool. But the manager seems to know me. “How do we know each other?” I ask.

“We went to high school together,” he says.

I don’t remember him.

“Your brother would come in here to make copies,” he continues.

“Oh, you knew him.”

“I knew he was sick. What was it?” he asks. “Cancer?”

“Yes.”

“You know what I like to do?” he says. “Sail on the lake—you know the place. I have a small boat. You should try it. If you go out at night, you’ll be the only one there.”

*

I bring the bolt cutter to my mother’s house and snap a chain locked around two bicycles. A hand-lettered sign on the bikes says they belong to my brother.

“You can ride when you visit,” he had said to me, but he never unlocked the bikes.

My mother saves the chain and padlock from the bikes. “I don’t want to do anything he wouldn’t want me to do,” she says. “These are his; they’re part of him.”

*

I remember my brother had odd jobs. He’d told me he sold his blood, washed cars, and worked as a doorman at a strip club. But he also had a license to practice law. He didn’t make much money from that, he’d said.

“My clients are in prison,” he’d explained.

“What about the ones who aren’t locked up?” I’d asked.

“They pay me with bags of potatoes.”

My mother and I look around my brother’s bedroom and find many thousands of dollars in cash. The twenties are on his dresser, and the hundreds are in bank envelopes on his desk. He was getting paid, and his expenses were nonexistent because he was living with my mother.

“I gave him a twenty every morning,” my mother says. “I told him to buy something for himself.”

“You should put the cash in a bank,” I say. “You shouldn’t leave it lying around.”

*

My brother didn’t write a will.

As I sit at his desk and look around, I see piles of unworn clothes, many opened and unopened personal-care items, several dark computers, a couple of dead television sets. There is a cleared area between clothes and papers on his bed where he could sleep.

I find that he had large accounts at various banks. Apparently, he was making lots of money.

I gather up cans of hairspray, bottles of deodorant, and bars of soap and put them into a plastic garbage bag. I carry the heavy sack to a spot outside the house, where it can be picked up and carted away.

Later, I see that my mother has retrieved the bag.

“Some of this is still good,” she says.

I look to see if any of the items are unopened. All have been used. I put the garbage bag in its pickup place again.

*

My mother lights an incense stick and sets it on the floor under a framed photo. The photo shows the grave markers of her parents, whose ashes are stored in a cemetery plot in China. “Thank you, Mama,” she says as she makes a praying shape with her hands. “Thank you, Papa.”

She thanks my brother, too.

“What kind of incense is that?” I ask.

She looks at the package and says, “It’s called Silver Moon.”

*

I drive to the nearby lake in the evening and park in an empty asphalt area. The night is warm—it’s pleasant to be outside.

At the waterline, I find a small boat pulled up onto the sand. It looks like a rowboat, and it contains one paddle. It is not secured to the land.

I push the boat out and jump in as it slides away.

Away from shore, I can’t see trees or other surroundings. The sky provides no light. There are no other boats on the water, and there is no sound.

I stay out for a long while, drifting around. To change direction, I lean forward and dig with the paddle.

Later, the sky brightens and a half-moon rises.

I stare at the half-moon for a few seconds—not too long, because I’ve seen it before. If this were the first time I’d ever seen it, I don’t know what I’d think. I wouldn’t understand why this object was in the sky. I wouldn’t understand why it has dark and light patches, how its phases work, or how it moves around its axis and around the earth. I would be like a primitive man or a lesser primate, staring at a new celestial body. I might think this object would appear only once. I wouldn’t believe that it would reappear at regular intervals until the end of time, as I understood time.

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