I told you how diner slang worked—how cooks shortchanged words barking orders back and forth in Spanglish, cursing and carrying on all the while. “Cobb—no turk, sub ham, x-egg, scrap mix, spin, toss ranch,” I said by way of example, adding the obligatory no mames to the end.
“That's hardly a cobb salad anymore,” you said. Then you asked how I kept it all straight—the cavalcade of orders, the mishmash of language.
I had the day off and we ended up talking about my job cooking at the breakfast café back in Dayton. You had asked how things were going, if I was making it all right, if my classes at the local college were okay. Visiting you at the university where Dad paid for your every whim felt like a vacation. You'd buy me lunch on his credit card and gas up the station wagon before I schlepped back down the state routes to my dive apartment.
“Really,” you asked, “you doing alright?”
I looked around the diner you picked out. This was the sort of place where you couldn't order a black coffee. Every drink had a special name—portmanteaus translated into Italian. Sandwiches were made with herbed bread and they sold the artwork adorning the walls. I pointed to a photo hanging opposite of the booth where you and I sat. “That's yours.”
You half turned in the booth and shrugged. “Yeah.”
The photo was some time lapse thing you took on a trip down to Florida. You told me the story about it—how you had been drunk and stumbling around after hitting a few bars. You had your camera because you took it everywhere, thinking it attracted women. You'd come to a crosswalk and saw the streetlamps, the people crossing and recrossing, and decided you needed to capture it like you saw it—a blur of light and movement.
I leaned halfway out of the booth to look at the tag posted on the frame. “Thirty bucks,” I said. “Not bad. You might actually be able to make a living out of this photography thing.”
You smirked and asked me again what I was doing these days.
And I told you I would probably drop out. The restaurant gig was working pretty well and I felt like an imposter on campus, at the school where I ended up—the local college where most of the students held down jobs and took night classes, where we didn't eat lunch on our parents' credit cards and talk about photography.
“You should stay in school,” you said. “Try to transfer out here.”
I laughed and said Dad wouldn't go for that. I hadn't spoken to him in years, since he moved out. You, on the other hand, never quit talking to him and it paid off in the most literal of ways.
“I don't know,” I said—a phrase I often used, still use, to stall. “Maybe I'll just be a cook for the rest of my life.”
“Life's a long time,” you said and you flagged down the waitress, asked for beer and smiled at her with your big, goofy teeth.
After the doctors killed you and revived you, stitched you back together, you lay in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit—the ICU. Everything at the hospital was an acronym. Immediate family was allowed to see you, entering through a set of mechanized doors, two at a time. Because of the way things worked out—marriages and divorces—Dad and I ended up as the loners of the group and we entered to see you together. I hadn't spoken to him since he left right after my thirteenth birthday.
Dad had aged in a way I wasn't sure how to take. Maybe the last seven years had been hard on him; maybe he'd aged in the last twenty-four hours from watching his favorite child die and come back to life as a ghost. You could've told me once. You could have told me how his new wife was a cancer survivor and his business luck had finally run out. But you never talked about your visits with Dad and I never asked. For years he had been no more than a memory, a phantom figure on the periphery of my life.
You were in a coma, refusing to respond to any treatments and the nurses gave us sad smiles and encouraged us to speak to you like everything was normal. At first Dad and I heeded their advice and spoke directly to you, the machines beeping back responses, your scarred chest heaving up and down rhythmically.
“Hey, Bren,” Dad said and he held your hand, taking care not to move the IV lines.
I couldn't do anything. I stood and stared, watching the lines on your heart monitor jump up and down, beating away like a metronome.
Dad kept it up. “It's Ryan and me. We're both here.”
When I opened my mouth to say yeah, I croaked an inaudible sound. I was there, sure, but I had no idea where you were. Back then I still believed in souls and I didn't know where yours had gone, if it returned along with your heartbeat or if it had become stranded somewhere beyond this world. I could place myself in the world at that moment—six hundred miles from home, at the ICU of The Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia, where you elected to have surgery. But without you there, really there with me, I felt lost.
Dad gazed out the window and sighed. “It's a beautiful day.” He sighed the way he does—overly emotive, exaggerated. “It's gorgeous. You'd love it. The sun is perfect. Sky's clear. It'd make a good photo.”
Then Dad looked at me. I had to fill the silence now, pretend like you were still here, like you could hear us prattling about the weather. Instead I spoke to Dad. I said the most hurtful thing I could muster.
“He's not saying anything to you.”
I don't know if the years when Dad and I didn't speak ever bothered him. If it did, he never let on; I was the son he could lose. You were his favorite and now you were silent and our dad had lost both of his sons. His eyes glassed over like a drunkard's—only our father rarely, if ever, drank. His father had been an alcoholic. These were tears.
“I know,” he said and his voice quivered.
The beeping of the machines seemed to crescendo when neither of us spoke. I watched your chest undulate, the tubes like marionette strings limply tugging at you. A pimple festered right where the tufts of suture sprouted from where they spread your ribs.
“You grew a beard,” Dad said.
I thought he still spoke to you, commenting on your five o'clock shadow. Then I realized it was me—he was talking to me.
I've gone back and forth on why I would come visit you at the university on my days off. I worried about your drinking, how it steadily escalated and you remembered less and less of your weekends. I was afraid something would happen to you. In turn, I worried what would happen to me—what would life be like without my older brother? Being around you—even when you were drunk—was comforting, like we were still kids sharing a bedroom or riding in the back seat of the van, playing make-believe or racing our bicycles.
When I visited, you took me out to the bars along High Street—two-story places with party decks, terrible music, and cheap beer. The girls you introduced me to said I didn't look like the rest of the students at the university and they pointed at the beard I had recently begun to cultivate. Guys at your school were clean shaven, sporting backwards baseball caps and rugby shirts. I told girls I was a visiting art student and you played along. Nothing ever happened though. I didn't have your confidence and even if something happened—if some girl showed interest—it would only be a matter of time before the farce fell apart and she would see me for who I really was: a short order cook who felt lost everywhere he went, except when he was with his older brother.
Most of the time when I came to visit, you were like I am now—working alone in the darkness, developing a vision of the world. The darkroom was your universe—a clothesline strung up across the room, curled sheets of photo paper drip-drying, bottles of lager glowing ruby in the red lights. You narrated.
“After the bath we have to dip it in the reagent.”
“Like you agent and then you agent again?” I asked.
You stared at me, unamused.
I began to explain. “Because if you agented and then you agented again—”
“I know,” you said. “You're just not that funny.” Sometimes, after a few drinks, you could be a real asshole.
I shrugged. “So what happens if you don't double agent?”
“The picture fades.”
“Like it'll look all antiquish.”
“Yeah,” you said, “right before it goes altogether.”
“Like it'll disappear?”
“Yeah.” You sang a couple bars from a 90s song about fading away and sipped from one of the bottles. “Sometimes I forget if I dipped the paper in the reagent and I don't think about it until I get back to the dorm and then I spend the next day wondering if the picture will come out okay.”
Now I know what you meant. I've spent years thinking about our life before your brain injury, before your surgery went awful wrong and you lay dead on the operating table for thirty-four minutes, the doctors cleaving your chest open, abandoning the original intent of the surgery in an effort to save your life—what would be left of it anyway.
You recently turned thirty-five. You died and came back to life when you were twenty-one, the summer before what would have been your senior year at the university. I do the math and it's simple enough: Seven years from now your life will be evenly split—pre and post-brain injury. And from that moment onward, the majority of your life will have been spent living with like you are now. Our childhood—racing our bicycles around the cul-de-sac, me on your old fixed gear and you on a ten-speed with hand brakes; our shared bedroom with Peter Rabbit curtains; playing ninjas and pirates with PJ from across the street, who had a collection of cap guns and plastic swords; times when we were older and we had paper routes and explored the partially-built houses cropping up in the recently-sold lots of our neighborhood; how you went away to the university in southern Ohio all paid for by our phantom Dad; how I would drive the station wagon down to the university on break to help haul back fourteen weeks' worth of dirty thrift store garb—all this will become the lesser half of our lives. Those memories will diminish and fade and become forgotten, threatening to fade into white.
Here's how you died: In order to expand your chest cavity you elected to have the Nuss procedure—a surgery designed to correct your concave sternum, a condition called pectus excavatum. The degree of your pectus was especially bad. The dent in your chest pushed your heart into your lung, giving you forty percent lung capacity. A series of botched surgeries from when you were a child already left your torso with long, pink scars like dried worms and you weren't sure if you should go through with the Nuss Procedure.
You explained the mechanics of the operation to me, asking what I thought. First, you said, a small incision is cut in the patient's side and a long tube called an introducer slides along the inside of the chest cavity, beneath the rib cage. Along the way the introducer shoots puffs of air to keep the pathway open. After a tunnel has been cleared out, a boomerang-shaped metal bar follows into place and is subsequently turned. In theory, the bar pops the dented chest cavity outward and all the internal organs fall into place. When you were done explaining you snapped your fingers and grinned.
That is not what happened to you. About forty-five minutes into the the procedure, the surgeon lanced the metal bar through the aorta of your heart. You lost all blood pressure and flatlined. The medical team spread your ribs and sewed a patch on the aorta. As your heart repressurized, it swelled to a size it never could in the cramped confines of your chest and the sack around it—the pericardium—split. The doctors fashioned a Gortex sleeve for your heart and then stitched you up. All told, you had been dead for thirty-four minutes.
The type of trauma you endured is called an anoxic brain injury. The longer your brain went without oxygen-rich blood, the more parts of it shut down—a sort of order of operations. Amongst the areas to go dark and never fully recover were your right frontal lobe—where personality is developed—and the hippocampus—where memory is stored. When you came back, I hardly recognized you and you, in turn, have trouble remembering me. I don't know how many times I have told you in the last eight years that yes, I am married now and I have three children and nope, I am no longer a cook and I've had a beard for a long time now, but thanks for noticing.
I spent my mornings cooking and my evenings visiting you. Still blinking the sleep from my eyes, I stood in the galley kitchen frantically repeating orders to myself over and over again as new orders came flying down the line. Our Catholic school educations told us repetition was key to remembering. Saying the Rosary will teach you that. But Rafa, the Puerto Rican egg cook, shook his head when I told him this and he showed me how to mark plates.
“Set a piece of cheese on the plate like this for combos,” he said and slapped a slice so the corner stuck out over the edge. “If it's special, put the extra on top. A doble and you turn it.” He canted the slice to the side and asked, “¿Comprendes, wey?” I nodded, committing a mental image of the cheese slice to memory. I thanked him by saying gracias and he shrugged while flipping a set of over easys—OEs. “You repeat to remember,” he said. “But put the cheese on plates to remind you. Different thing, wey.”
I moved up the line, all the way into middle griddle where sandwiches, pancakes, french toast, and the like were made. I took the same system and territorialized the griddle, dividing it up into sections for the cakes and sandwiches, the breads. Orders came flying in, barked down the line by the helmsman and I plopped pancakes on the griddle and flipped slices of French toast onto plates.
“Four blue and a turk no tom,” the helmsman said and I threw blueberries into the four discs of batter before they set. Then I greased up two slices of sourdough and melted some jack cheese on the back and threw a bag of turkey on lower right corner of the griddle. I turned one slice of bread sideways to remind myself it was no tomato.
When I was off work I came to see you at Mom's house. The doctors began to work on redeveloping your brain, running whole series of tests with names that sounded like alphabet soup. At that point in time we were still hopeful for a full recovery. For months, you had aphasia—a condition where a seemingly nonsense vocabulary replaces normal speech.
“Spaghetti fuck all the downhill,” you said and I agreed. The words made sense to you and I played along, just glad you were here, back in Ohio, back in Mom's house where we grew up together. Mom told me how your therapies were going—OT and PT and what your latest EKGs, CTs and MRIs looked like. I knew when you began talking about ladle suicide or yogurt suicide, you had to pee and I helped you walk unsteadily to the toilet, since your cerebellum—the part of your brain that helps with balance—was also affected.
You peed and when you were done you made the sign of the cross and said amen. Under my breath, I cursed. “Yeah, spaghetti fuck,” I said by way of agreement and I blotted your dribbles from the toilet seat with a wad of TP. Short order slang in the morning, aphasia and acronyms in the evening. This, I figured, was life in post-Babel.
My beard-growing is one of your favorite subjects now. No one's sure exactly where your memories end and begin again. But if I had to guess, I would say the blank spot in your memory coincides with the growing of my beard. Like most boys who attend Catholic high school, I grew facial hair immediately after graduating—the usual progression from goatee to full beard.
For a while—but not as much anymore—you were surprised to see me with a beard. I'd walk into Mom's house, hang my corduroy coat on the banister, say hello to Mom. Immediately she began telling me everything you did that day, how hard it was to keep track of you—a full grown man with no sense. You sat at the kitchen table, staring at the post-it notes, coupons, and scraps of paper Mom uses to organize her life.
You'd stare. I raised my eyebrows.
“It's so weird,” you said. Some months had passed since your surgery and you'd learned to speak in coherent English again, though it came out as stilted and formal, overwrought.
Mom kept talking, saying she couldn't trust you alone. She'd taken you to the library earlier that day and left you alone for just a minute— “just one minute and he looks up the word nudity on the public computer,” she said. “Right there in the middle of the library! We're going to be lucky if we don't get banned.”
Mom's story didn't faze you. Instead you smiled and shook your head. “Cool beard.”
“I've had it since I graduated,” I said. Then I remembered to attach a timeline to my statement, something the doctors told us to do. “It's been over a year now.”
“Yeah, I know,” you said even though you had lost all track of time. “But it's so weird to see my little brother with a beard.”
You had these emphases when you spoke now—another thing the doctors forewarned us about. They told us you were trying to emulate our speech, trying to find a way to project emotion. Oftentimes the exaggerated speech bordered on the ridiculous, like you were a stage actor and we all sat in the front row.
“I just wish your father would take him more often,” Mom said. “I mean, he made all these promises about taking care of him and I haven't heard from him in three days now. He's supposed to have Brendan for the weekend.” I hugged her. She needed it and I needed her to stop talking. Signs of physical affection have a startling effect within our family and it worked. As I looked over the top of Mom's head, you sat in the chair smiling, admiring my beard like it sprouted from my face moments ago.
Anymore, you're my greatest work of fiction. I hear other writers explain how their characters come to life, how they talk to them. They hear a character's voice and it haunts the author's dreams. I've had no such thing with fiction, the characters of my own invention. But you, you're different. I'm not sure what's true and what I've manufactured, what I've forgotten or chosen to forget, what time and memory have edited away from us. I can scarcely remember you as you really were and I'm scared what the coming years will take from me, if I will even realize the loss. All I have is mythos—my own faulty memory and your photos. Everything else is fiction brewed from dreams and delusions, old memories and confabulations of hand-me-down stories. But you, you won't mind. You'll shrug and say, you know me like you always do now.
And the thing is, I don't know you—not anymore. Perhaps I never did. I write to preserve what I know of you in case, at some point, my memory fails and the idea of you ends up lost. Now I realize how little I knew of you, how little anyone knew of you, your life, your thoughts, all the things that washed away when your blood sat purple and stagnant in your veins while the doctors frantically worked, spreading your ribs and massaging your heart. I never knew what kept you in the darkroom night after night and what made you drink so much. I look at those moments, the snapshots stashed under your bed, and I can only see them through the person I was back then. And even then, the distortions of time and memory creep in until I feel like I am telling a story—not yours or mine, but something altogether outside of us.
I'm as estranged from my past self as I was from Dad once upon a time. You will always be the brother I had from before the brain injury. But me—the dropout cook who used to drive down to visit you on my days off work and talk about someday becoming a writer—that person died with you. I've become disconnected from the time in my life, our lives, when the world appeared as some meticulous composition for us to capture, whether by word or by image. I'm not even sure it ever existed or if I imagined it just now as I leafed through your old photos. I've lapsed out of faith from the greater things meant to save us, credited with creating us, and ultimately destroying us. The world I see is manufactured by artists, maintained by engineers, recorded by writers, deconstructed by time.
Let me tell you what life is like for me now. You'll forget, I know, but let me say it all the same: Most Saturdays my wife and I go the farmers' market and buy fresh produce and eggs with feathers still stuck to them. A Mennonite man sells us our meat. Our youngest daughter comes along and babbles nonstop. If she ever stopped speaking to me, I don't know if I could take it. My heart would break. During the week I bicycle to work, sometimes stopping to take pictures of dead trees or abandoned buildings with my iPhone. Dad and I talk on a regular basis and you stay over at his house nearly every weekend. He has stage IV lymphoma and you remain at the center of his world.
I went back to school—finishing up one degree and beginning the next. Eventually, years later, I started in the doctoral program at your old university, commuting the state routes I used to take to visit you—eighty minutes each way. I wonder whose life I am living. I wonder if you're living life at all. I wonder how many of us, all the ones who loved you—still love you for what you were then and are now—I wonder if we are all living a part of your life.
My memory now is not as sharp as when I was a cook. I doubt I will ever be able to recall strings of words, orders, like I could back then. Your aphasia gave way to recognizable speech and short order slang exited my lexicon, replaced by the academic nomenclature, crowded out by words like problematic and salient, words adopted from the ancient Greeks where you have suss out the meaning by breaking it into its parts—Cacozelia. Caco like cacophony and zelia from zelos, which forms the basis for the words zeal and jealousy. Put it all together and we get a word that means poorly using foreign languages to appear educated.
I walk back through the university—the red brick buildings strewn with ivy and I turn on to High Street. You're with me. We stroll the sidewalks and for a little bit it's like it used to be. I've bought us some coffees with a portmanteau cacozelia name. There's a term for this sort of remembering, going back to familiar places—it's called circumambulatory knowing. I tell you this. You stare at me blankly and say, “I like the beard.” Then you ask if I am still a cook and I tell you, no, I haven't been a cook for many years now. I work at a public library and I go to school here, now, as a PhD student. I'll be graduating soon. I've told you this a hundred times, but you're surprised anyway.
“Congratulations,” you say and the affect in your voice is flat since your right frontal lobe has never fully recovered.
I nod and say thanks and you ask what I study here.
Memory, I want to say—the rhetoric of how we memorize things, how the world is organized into systems of memory—places like archives and libraries, boxes of photos stashed under a bed. I'm reading Aristotle and Cicero and Quintilian, some modern scholars too, a case study about a Russian man with hypermnesia who's unable to forget. I'm hounded by the mystery of remembering and the curse of forgetting. I know all about the Greek canon of memoria—the art of memorizing absurdly long speeches and the methods, the mnemonics they used. I could tell you how inventions like writing and paper and photography all affected the larger idea of cultural memory and how that, in turn, changed the way people remember things.
I want to tell you, I'm here because of you, because you died and left most of your life unfinished. I got my PhD in Brendanology and now that it's over I know all about how memory works and I don't know any more about you or me or the life we once had. I feel like I wasted my time because you'll always have died and I will always be wondering what would have happened otherwise. But you're marveling at my beard and instead I say, “I don't know, Bren. I study the way we put cheese on plates.”