My Brother’s Keeper
My Brother’s Keeper is a 14 minute segment of a longer piece, of 45 minutes, condensed for performance at the Marsh Theatre in June of 2004. This version was completed the evening of the performance, June 14. The complete monologue was written over the spring of 04. The work is a chronicle of an era of conflicting values in America: the buttoned down convention bound repressions and constraints of provincial America in the Fifties which continue in the more traditional parts of the country today and the reassertion of free expression and a wilder more spontaneous way of living of the Sixties and Seventies, embraced by artists, free thinkers and counter-culture kids.
During this era, it was hard to get a grasp of commonplace reality because things were not as they seemed. Beneath the calm and tepid waters of daily routine, life was fraught with every possibility , every passionate impulse and unreasonable demand. “The Zeitgeist ? an ethos of obedience and compliance, gender roles and double standards. This was an era of mixed messages: a time of unbridled restraint, extravagant repression, a wide application of the straight and narrow. Everyone lived by a script.”
In the longer work, there are other collisions of values and views occasioned by gender privilege and sibling rivalry. Through working through the contretemps to find common ground, the speaker makes a container for both sides, a model of egalitarian kinship for a divided nation.
This piece is also an homage to a rugged individualist, an authentic being, one who left the beaten path for the road not taken, the unmarked path.
My Brother’s Keeper
In the late 40s and the 1950s when we were kids,
Europe is recovering from the cataclysm of Nazis and Fascists. In. America we held on to our own brand of control: authoritarianism: Obedience &compliance were required of us in the Eisenhower years. In Buffalo, NY,they made us practice duck and cover drills in the long corridors of P.S. 64 as if this would save us from the fallout of an atomic blast. We did what we were told. We didn’t know that thousands of kids like us were done to a turn in the ovens of Auschwitz and we were being protected by a cotton candy confection of half truths and white lies they spun to spare us from suffering.. Trouble is once you start erasing, bleeping out, you censor truths we need to avoid the potholes, manholes, loopholes, the pits. Thin ice over muddy water.
We yearned to know the truth. But it was The age of unconsciousness. Motive and intent were swept under the Persian carpet.
An era of mixed messages: unbridled restraint, extravagant repression, a wide application of the straight and narrow. Everyone lived by a script. On this occasion we do this ,we wear, say, think that. Simon says do this. Do that. Some things could never be said. Under our outer garments we wore our unmentionables, and under them? Don’t ask. At school we sat at our desks with hands folded lest they be tempted to stray….which would make us go blind or our fingers wither. Hmm. Teeming beneath the routine and tepid conventions of propriety were passionate impulse, unreasonable demand, intense longing, We knew this. Didn’t they know we could think outside the box? Apparently not. They spoon fed us white lies like chicken soup. When I was six, I found a real living pooping fuzzy yellow ducky in my Easter basket. Which disappeared about 3 days after. About a year later, when we went to the zoo, my Dad pointed to a duckling. There’s your baby duck, he says. It was then I learned about death. The duck died. My dad lied.
When Danny was eight and I, twelve our mother died.
Our dad tried to keep his good ship, Cheerfulness, on an even keel.
There were only two subjects forbidden at our table: Life and death.
Reality ? a guessing game, an elusive je ne sais quois. At the dinner table, we sang ersatz opera: Pass the spaghetti, signora, please pass the peas. We cracked jokes as if our lives depended on it.
Why do flies buzz?
Because they can’t bark.
Sorry to hear you buried your wife last week.
Had to. Dead, you know.
Everything I eat turns to shit…..
Though we must have said: number two. We were mired in euphemism. Bodily functions are embarrassing.. Our dad leaves the water running when he pees so we don’t hear him. There were 4 letter words I never heard until comic genius, our first amendment martyr, Lenny Bruce, uttered them , the shock and fear of which liberated some and closed down the rest, the poor amnesiacs we now call middle America whose very decency is used against them by the
friendly fascists, the oil barons, who have usurped our country, desecrating our noble vision and real strength: liberty and justice for all. We have now, not a president , but a would be emperor only Moliere could have written.
Our grandmother got her son the doctah & her son the lawyer. When he came of age, Danny cashed in whatever the family endowed the boys with and bought some raw acreage in Big Sur, high on a mountain overlooking the Pacific. A Counter -Culture kid, he marched for civil rights, protested Viet Nam, and finally turned his back on all that was rotten in Denmark , and took up homesteading. He raised Old Glory artfully over the outdoor crapper and declared here a man can be himself, self-sufficient, free. And he was. He was a tall well built and very strong guy ever followed by a pooch: Winston, then Rufus. He hauled in every bag of manure, every bag of cement, on his back, taught himself carpentry, electricity and plumbing. If his systems were original, eccentric, non-conforming, they worked! He used solar energy, generators and propane , independent of PG&E. His vast curiosity about life and intense interest in human history he transferred to the way things and systems worked. He became a master builder and prolific organic gardener. Grew and raised just about everything you’d want to cook or gaze upon. He had a cash crop, too, that paid for all the Monterey pines he planted, paid for all the pipes, fittings, and paraphernalia of the… building trade. He played a mean blues guitar and while under the influence of… the full moon, played the what’s really happenin inside yer head, baby, blues and blew our minds with the truth of his oracular picking. He might have spared us years of analysis if we only we remembered what he said. His last crop could have been a calamity, was a close call. Helicopters hovered. He harvested and while he drove his laden, tarp-covered pick -up down the windy, rutty, hairpin turns of the 4 mile dirt road that separates his place, Onward, from the ribbon of highway, he met and waved most amiably to the sheriff who was on his way up to inspect the premises, if not bust the suspected grower of illegal contraband, good old fashioned 100% red blooded American, mind -altering spirit -liberating joy and munchy -inducing marijuana! great big buds of resinous hash dripping dope…which we inhaled.
I, a girl person wasn’t expected to establish a home. I received the accouter-ments to adorn one: china,crystal ,silver…I didn’t marry. I’m a maverick: poet, dreamer, grasshopper, living here and now, neither spinning nor toiling. I didn’t have a lot of dough re me…so I sequester in the upstairs drying salon of a Palo Alto friend’s well appointed home to manicure the stash for a little pin money, the contact high, and because he wasn’t heavy, my brother. The little upstart usurper of our mother’s lap, our father’s time, the family funds, and all the world. The twerp. ¶The pesky kid lived in cowboy clothes, wore a patch over one eye to strengthen the lazy one. We bickered and quibbled…It’s not fair. You hit me first. I’m going to pulverize you. We fought over the steak bone, the last of Granny’s schnecken. Sat mornings an amiable truce in front of the TV. On our bellies in the den, we fixed on the 12 inch black and white screen, imagining ourselves riding the rolling hills, riding along with the cowboys, California dreaming. We watched Howdy Doody,too .Buffalo Bob Smith was a kind of hero to us. He taught us to stand up for what is right, and we did. And we will. We must.¶ The man wore Buddy Halley glasses, flannel shirts and Levis. His appearance gave credence to Heraclitus’ maxim: you can’t step in the same river twice. You never knew what he was going to look like. He was an experimenter in cranial and facial hair. Short hair long beard, no beard, side burns, mutton chops, long hair, pony tail, short beard no mustache, poncho villa mustachios, the stunning cleft chin revealed, all versions of a man who pinned Shelley’s poem, Ozymandius ,to his shop wall, who loved Shakespeare and Beethoven. One year I bought him a bas -relief bust of Beethoven at the Goodwill and pinned it on my wall to await our holiday visit. When the day arrived, I packed my darling daughter, the turkey and Santa’s sack in the car. Back in the house, I scan for whatever else needs to be done: cat bowls full, lights off , and CRRAASH: the Beethoven plaque which I had nearly forgotten, falls to the floor. hmmm. The corner chips, a token, an object lesson of a gift nearly renigged. I bring the plaque and the story along for Christmas.
In the spring of ’73.we traveled together in Mexico. He books the cheapest hotel room in Merida . He doesn’t waste money on inconsequential trifles like accommodations. I’m game…sort of, but the one ragged towel is the size of a wash cloth,,the one bed is a twin, and the gulp bagno is ankle deep in missed aims and dashed expectations. We tear the bed apart. I claim the mattress because he’s sprung for the spring…..We spend six weeks on Isla Mujeres in a spontaneous hippie commune .Mayan country. White sand Caribbean blue water, coconut palms, an open thatched- roof hut, a palapa, where we hang our hammocks. We swim.We snorkel… barracuda tacos :- Fantastico! The hippies and Mayans play basketball. The gringos have a secret weapon: Relentless Becky Cooper, the pride of American Girl athleticism. Slam Dunk. At camp, she steps on a scorpion, freaks out, jumps about,screams… the red line runs up her leg .She’s one sick cookie. Next day, reaching into my pack, I’m stung …on the Index finger. I tell Danny who calmly asks me to sit down next to him. We speak quietly. My breathing is slow. The red line travels maybe a quarter of an inch . I don’t get sick. Later on, I lose my contact lens in the dirt road. Someone shouts Lentes Contactos. Traffic stops. 45 minutes. Everyone mills around looking. Someone finds it. Broken. I catch a plane to Miami where our Dad lives, to get another made. When I ‘m leaving, Dad hands me some running shoes Danny left there. Back in Isla Mujeres, island of women, I hand him his shoes. He explodes. There’s no extra room in his pack, doesn’t want to throw them away. Disgruntled, we go our separate ways, but next day meet up again in Palenque. His anger unleashed, old resentments surface and he shouts at me across the Zoccalo: You got all the family silver! The silver? It’s all in an unlocked box next to my trailer on the shores of Tomales Bay. I tell him he’s more important to me than the silver, but I’m mortified he’s yelling at me in front of the Mayans, people I identify with, shorties like me. We make big cheesy grins, flash each other the peace sign, say Buena Suerte and he splits.
I stay in Palenque to sample the local fungi.Liberating to bathe in a stream with the curious horses and cows, the caballeros genially waving: hola muchacha. I get tick fever, take the train back to Guadalajara where my friends live. I dose myself with penicillin, take a lot of showers, play pingpong in a tornament,and return to California. There’s a five hour delay at the border. Guards confiscate my film canister which contains a white GRANULAR,not powdery substance, the idiots! which they dispatch to a lab for analysis. I told them it was salt. What the hey. I consult my dog-eared copy of the I Ching, La Biblia di China … en Espanol , my vehicle for learning Spanish. I throw the coins with oracle and dictionary at hand. I so did not understand the torrential undercurrents of my life and did so want to know. When the guards, grudgingly return the salt, I hitchhike up the coast, get a ride to San Francisco and then to Point Reyes. A pal drives me to my trailer where, when I open the door, I find my brother in the act of pulling candlesticks from a laundry bag filled with the family silver. It takes us a moment to register what is happening. We fall apart laughing. All is forgiven. Some years later, too few, Danny died and I still miss my kid brother, the twerp, my tormenter, my mentor, my friend.