A Measure of Togetherness


The year my brother didn’t send out Valentine’s Day cards, he saw God. He dialed Beth to tell her that the Holy Ghost had invited him to heaven. Not the ghost he saw in his dreams, the real deal.

Beth said “Wait, we should go together.” But instead of preparing for a lifetime in eternity, she phoned a few of his army buddies. She sped to the house where they had wrestled a knife from Tom’s hand, tears streaming, arms shaking. Then they drove to the hospital.

After the ER doctor shot him up with Thorazine, my brother hoped that I would come and set him free. I did not book a ticket on a plane. I did not transfer in Chicago and land in the flat fields of flyover country. I did not rescue my brother. And when he finally returned my calls, I could feel a distance in his voice that had never been there.

When I arrived a month later, I discovered a chasm that could not be bridged by a four hour plane flight or four days by car or a fortnight on foot. A gap of time that exceeded the hours, minutes and seconds it took to travel to his front porch.

On my way to the guest room upstairs, I passed Tom sitting in a wicker chair, a dark two days worth of stubble on his chin. He rubbed his face in quick stabs and short strokes as he listened to an interplay of ‘ahas’ and shards of feeling, measures that never catch up, even to conclude. Beth and I drank bitter coffee in the kitchen while Tom, obsessed with Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” since he’d served in Iraq, listened to an endless loop. Beth told me he wouldn’t be back for a while.

Messiaen’s forbearance inspired Tom. The composer, imprisoned at a POW camp in 1940, wrote the quartet for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, scribbling a score on scarce paper under the protection of a sympathetic German guard. The piece debuted in a hall so winter cold that only the clapping prisoners warmed the musician’s hands. The composer freed himself from the drums of war, finding icy notes colored blue and fiery chords in different hues of red. There was a metallic iridescence to the score, like the sunlight flash of carrion crows, their random voices reverberating against snow banks into the empty barracks where Messiaen worked. The spittle from the composer’s coughs clung to the paper and smeared the penciled sheets where the music conspired to draw out the insanity of conflict, leaching the poison, neutralizing it as notes on a page.

Beth and I carried cups to the porch, where the air smelled of sour hay and cow manure. The view to the road and beyond was patchy green and vacant. Beth wore jeans and a parka, I wore the tweed skirt I had traveled in and Tom was in boxer shorts, his skin blotchy red from Thorazine. Even though the medicine label told him to stay out of the sun, he said he wouldn’t be a prisoner in a crypt. He refused to follow the rules. No time signature, no tempo, he wrote no score to cordon off the flow of notes. There was no audience to see his bare chest, his sunburned face. The road in front of the house was empty of everything but stones and dirt.

Ten years on, my brother has learned to stay inside the lines. We sit watching the neighbor’s cows chew their cud, framed by red and yellow maples. My brother inhales. He takes another fag and lights it from the glowing butt recently dangling in his mouth and then stubs out the used up end on a plank of wood underfoot.

I glance at his face while we watch Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on YouTube. Sometimes he clenches his jaw and sometimes his eye twitches. Sometimes he just looks into the distance as if he’s hearing something from another world. He fingers an imaginary keyboard like the real one he plays with the guys who saved his life. There are four of them in the group, the same as Messiaen’s quartet. Their closeness conspires to draw them together. They coalesce when Messiaen’s measures draw apart.

Tom is holding a Halloween card that opens into a haunted house. We watch the sunset coloring the blue sky pink. He tells me he doesn’t believe in Valentine’s Day.