Lucas Mann reads from his memoir, Lord Fear, forthcoming in May from Pantheon Books.
[NOTEBOOK, UNDATED, “THE MATTER OF THE DRUGS”]:
– ANY substance cannot be taken two days concurrently. I will keep it to twice per week, at least to start.
– NONE will be taken during my work (except under certain conditions).
– None before noon or after 9:00 p.m.
– None at the MET . . . don’t change that experience.
– Remember, high or not high, there is a time and/or place for everything. It’s not an all or nothing thing.
* REMINDER: I know I will look back on this writing with nostalgia and longing and ache. For once, I should enjoy myself while I’m still here.
I begin this story in a funeral home because I once read a Philip Roth novel that begins over a grave. Roth writes of a clenched pack of modern, white-collar American Jews shuffling their feet and talking about a man who died unfinished, and if I had to boil my brother’s service down to a sentence, or an image, or just a feeling, that wouldn’t be a bad way to describe it. I cannot set my story at a grave, overlooking a body, like Roth did. My brother was put into a temporary plywood box and covered in a blanket, and soon after the service he would be cremated and poured into a plastic bag. He didn’t believe in God, had no interest in the traditions of a dignified burial, and, more practically, could not have been buried in a Jewish cemetery with his body intact and a large Iron Cross tattoo still visible on his right shoulder.
The tattoo was an obvious yet somehow vague act of rebellion against all the people who would soon shuffle their feet at his funeral. It came right after the eight-foot boa constrictor that he adopted and named Percy, each an ominous presence, hard to explain, better not to discuss.
Arias that I don’t know and Beatles songs that I do know are playing softly because my brother liked these songs. A squat woman with bluish hair and a face like frozen dirt grabs me by the cheeks. She speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent, lots of thudding vowels and no r’s.
“You don’t remember me, but my name’s Shirley Duke and I always told your dad if you were my kid, you’d be Luke Duke,” she says.
I nod and she heaves a cackle out, moves along into the crowd.
Shirley Duke will make no more appearances in this story, but she is what I remember best. I remember every word she says, and I am sure of it. The rest I try to recall, but mostly I can’t. I fabricate thoughts and actions with images and insights that I wish I had. I build the moment. I assign meaning. Always, through the effort, there is Shirley’s face, unimportant yet tauntingly certain.
I move past her to the very back of the room. I lean against the wall behind the folding chairs where people are sitting and talking. I have no interest in talking to anyone. I am thirteen, a good age to feel insignificant. A few feet away from me, also with her back against the wall, is Lena Milam, a newly minted thirtysomething, and between jobs. She is thin and pale. I see her and I think she is pretty in that hidden way, like in a movie before the girl gets a makeover but you can still tell. She’s wearing a black silk dress that she overpaid for years ago but, until now, has never had a formal enough occasion to wear.
Lena is weeping, not loudly, thank God. Still, she feels people staring. She doesn’t believe that she has earned this amount of emotion. She and my brother had been close for three years, nearly two decades ago. She is crying because someone her age is dead. She is thinking inexact thoughts about how something could have been done to avoid this day, a something that seems to be discussed just as flimsily by the people around her. Like we’ll all soon figure out exactly what he needed and then we’ll all slap hands to foreheads, saying, How did we miss it?
Lena is standing with Tommy Parker, my brother’s best friend when he was alive. Lena and Tommy dated a long time ago. He was the first boy ever to see her naked. She remembers that she was cold that day, and tried to press her arms down on all the parts that should be covered. Neither of them looks very different now. Both are still thin and liquidy pale; both have eyes that make you worry for them. Tommy has a goatee now; he didn’t then. He is enjoying the distraction of comforting this woman who he used to inexpertly kiss when she was a girl and he was a boy, an intimacy that, briefly, makes it feel as though no time has passed. Tommy hasn’t yet given his condolences to my father, mostly because he’s in his debt. A few months ago he asked for a loan to get him on his feet. He’s an alcoholic with no job and an ex-wife who won’t let him see his daughter if he can’t scrounge up alimony. My father always found it easier to pity Tommy than his son. Tommy knows that and wishes he wasn’t so aware of his own knowing. In a little over a year from today, he will get drunk and drive into a concrete wall off a highway in Staten Island, with a note of apology in his jacket pocket that mentions my brother’s name.
Tommy walks up to me. We’ve met, but I don’t remember it.
“Wow,” he says. “You look a lot like your brother now that you’re shaving.”
This is embarrassing. I haven’t yet started to shave, a lateness that is very troubling. Still, the comparison makes my body tense in celebration. Josh, my brother, is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen, or he was. I am far too much a middle school boy to admit to myself that men can be beautiful, but, at least subconsciously, that’s what I’m thinking about as Tommy speaks: my brother’s beauty and what it felt like to look at him.
Excerpted with permission of Pantheon Books. Copyright (c) 2015 by Lucas Mann.