My brother is dying. I heard of it thirdhand, from a friend who heard it from my brother's neighbor. This is how distant our mother's two sons have become.
We have not been friends for thirty years. My wife Lucy thinks this is terrible, a sin against the essence of family. I tell her she should be grateful she has never had Joe around our lives. If she had known him longer, the two of us may never have stayed married, we would have been squabbling so much about the latest thing he'd done or said. But he's dying, Lucy says. If you don't go to see him now, you will worry all the rest of your life that you didn't make up with him before he died.
To this I reply, How would you know how I will feel? But as I speak in a voice of reason I can already feel Joe at work on the both of us. Lucy will never mention Joe to me afterward; but she will never mention it to me in so many ways that I will wish she had right away, from the beginning. I love my wife; I loved her at my first sight of her wonderful black hair. That crest of hair sprang from the roots like a lion's mane, as if a clean, sharp wind were blowing it back from her oval chin and long neck and sleek ears. I always thought Joe wanted her, but I have come to think he did only because I loved her.
And so I do the immediate right thing, which is to pack a bag as if I am actually going to visit Joe. I might very well drive in the opposite direction, to Nevada, and bide for a week in a cabin that we own on Mt. Rose. That is a thought I keep to myself. I don't lie to Lucy, but this matter of dropping in on Joe after thirty years has unnerved me to a serious degree. I need to organize my feelings by myself.
I kiss Lucy goodbye before settling into our old pickup. Her anxious expression endears her to me like a warm hand around my heart. The snow is down to the 500-foot level, she reminds me. Don't forget your tires are nearly as bald as your own head, put on the chains before you think you need to, stay awake and watch out for icy patches, and get new wiper blades at the filling stations. Her hair bobs emphatically with each warning. Twenty-nine years of a hard life have streaked that lion mane with more white than I care to mention to her. The end of her workday doesn't leave much energy for doing anything about her hair.
The distance from Barton to San Francisco is nothing; I have more, a lifetime, to cross than two hundred miles. At the entrance to Highway 80 I hesitate; east, to Nevada, or west, to where Lucy believes I am going? I navigate the circular ramp that takes me onto 80 heading west. A little driving, in either direction, will do no harm while I think on it.
It has begun snowing. Soon it is coming down in a thick, soundless mantle and sticking to my windshield. For all I know I am meandering toward the left and in a second will spin off into space, 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon. I can feel my tires slipping every other turn, and no wonder; they have gone 20,000 miles over their limit. This would never happen to my brother Joe. He always had the newest, biggest, best, most expensive anything. At the time we stopped speaking, he was managing properties all over the state of California and living in a showy house at Sea Cliff in San Francisco. I couldn't ever step into that house without feeling like a sorry deadbeat. The last and possibly only time I beat him at anything was when I made solid A's in the tenth grade while he was barely getting C's in the eleventh. Sibling rivalry, our Dad said when he signed my report card; whatever works to get you ahead. Keep it up.
I must have been steering the pickup toward the shoulder of the road because, presently, with a gentle crunch, it comes to a stop. I have met up with the rear end of a big yellow Caltrans snow dozer. The driver climbs down from his cab and plods over to me. His orange vest makes a brave smudge in the whiteness engulfing us; he's wearing a fur-lined hat down to his neck. When I crank down my window the Caltrans driver asks if it wouldn't be a good time to put on my chains now, assuming I have some, and I say yes, it's just what I was going to do.
This Caltrans man, a stranger, then does a tremendous thing; he helps me put on the chains. This may or may not have been an ordinary act for him; what it does to me is bring tears to my eyes. I feel an overwhelming desire to hug him and call him Brother. Why can't people feel an emotion so simple with their own, real, brothers? In thanking him I tell him he's a good joe. No problem, he answers. Before he turns to climb back into his cab he suggests that I avoid driving on west to Donner Summit because it will be impassable even with chains on my tires.
Having been given leave to give up and go home to Lucy, I make a cautious U-turn and head back. The canyon with its 6,000-foot drop is now on my side of the road. I try not to think about it, but I am sure Lucy will be worrying about me; she is probably furious with herself for forcing me out into this weather. When I get home, I promise myself, I will telephone the hospital and leave a message for Joe, something with a friendly sound to it. I've really done everything I could to get to him; nobody can blame me for that.
I am composing my message when I pass the sign that reads "89 Lake Tahoe." As if my hands belong to someone else, they steer the pickup onto the cut leading to 89. Soon I am on Highway 89 itself. It's more like a fire lane in a forest than a highway. The timber on both sides is reassuring, though; at least there is no empty space I can't see to my right. This is one way to bypass Donner Summit; I could be in San Francisco by late afternoon if I get through to the second main highway heading west.
Ahead of me, a low, stylish car with skis belted on top is speeding a little too much for weather and road conditions. All of a sudden it veers, loops a long, dark curve on the snow, just misses a tree, and rocks to a stop three feet from me. My foot has been tapping the brake several times, tenderly, the way stopping should be done on a surface like this. The other driver and I stare face to face. He is young, outfitted in a white turtleneck sweater and anorak blocked in squares of Granny Smith-apple green and flamingo pink. I imagine he is somewhat surprised to find himself facing back the way he was coming. Shaking his head, he shouts, "There's a tree down. I almost ran into it."
No, really? I think, looking at this forty-thousand-dollar ensemble of man and machine. That must have been darned inconvenient for you. My nod tells him I understand, and then I proceed forward. His Hey... trails after me. I mutter, Just like you, Brother Joe, forty miles an hour in a school zone, and slippery as buttered skates but always ending right side up. As a favor to me, according to Joe, he had handled the selling of our parents' house. I didn't find out for a couple of years that he had given me quite a bit less than my one-half share of the sale money. He said, when I put it to him, the real estate agent gets a commission. But you did the selling, I said. That's right, Joe answered. The agent is entitled to a commission.
That was one of the ways he had his fun. I always wondered if it was just with me or if there were hundreds of people who by now weren't speaking to him.
My windshield wipers are not clearing the glass too well, but I manage to make out the fallen tree that spooked the young ski fellow. It isn't much more than a speed bump, though that is just the visible part. I park well to the side and reconnoiter on foot. The world has narrowed down to big white snowflakes an inch from my eyes. I should feel alone, lost in the wilderness of white smothering silence but I'm not, oh no. Joe is like a hot thumping in my chest; he's had a grip on my brain since I set out this morning. I am ready to walk to San Francisco if I must. Actually, he has been overdue for a visit from me. It is a pity he is dying; I should have gone when he was well enough to take a punch in the nose.
Kicking snow, following the slant of the tree across the road, I find the crown. It is a mash of branches, nicely cushioned with pine needles, nothing my pickup can't get over with the help of some boards I keep in the back.
In ten minutes I am proceeding along Highway 89 again. Thirty-five miles south I emerge onto Highway 50, the main route west. At a ranger station I stop to tell them about the fallen tree, then drive on. Lucy has packed hot chocolate and sandwiches, which help pass the time. The chocolate is still so hot that it scalds my hand when I spill some. "Did you enjoy that, Joe?" I say aloud. Joe had a habit, when we were kids, of coming up behind me and placing a cup of very hot liquid on the top of my head. That so terrified me I became rigid; I was afraid to breathe, turn around all in one piece, or even move my mouth to speak. Joe would be laughing, and then he'd tell me to give him the money out of my pocket and I would whisper, I can't move, get it yourself, take the cup away. But he'd insist that I dig in and hand my money to him, while I sweated about that cup tipping over. There is some justice, though. He never had children; whether he couldn't or his wife Lillie couldn't was never clear. But Lucy would say, Neither can we. So much for justice.
On this route, the snow and ice die out at the 2,000-foot level. After I remove the chains my speed improves and by nightfall I reach the Bay Bridge. I slap my money into the palm of the toll-booth collector and drive in the fast lane into San Francisco. In another twenty-five minutes I am parked at Franklin Hospital. When I stride out of the elevator, the nurse behind the counter looks at me as though I have come to do violence. I fit the part: a bearded, red-eyed man in an old army parka, red flannel shirt, denim pants, and construction boots with soles an inch thick.
Visiting hours are over, she says, before I can speak. I've come a long way to see Joseph Coolidge, I tell her. Just let me look in on my brother and I'll go. Reluctantly she leads me to his room and stands on guard, in the doorway.
His bed is cranked up at the head; his lips have a terrible color. I have been talking at him most of the eight hours on the road, and now, face to face with my brother, I can't think of a decent word to say. I don't know this man. He is shorter in bed than he used to be, and his face sags with a lot of loose skin. The only familiar thing is his head, which has the same bald shape as mine. No, there is one other thing. His eyes are Joe's, watchful and becoming amused.
"You must think I'm dying," he says. "Why else would you come, wild mountain man? Are you still running that fleabag motel in Barton?"
"They never developed that ski run behind us," I reply, and wonder why I am even bothering to excuse myself. I tell him we are doing all right with the place. This is barely true .
Joe smiles. "I could have told you the developers were going to change their minds. I knew those people, you didn't. It's the kind of mistake only you would make, not making sure before you bought the motel. I suppose you've still got the parcel on Mt. Rose? I'll make you an offer for it, if you can't do anything with that fantastic investment." He snickers when he says "fantastic investment."
I glance at the nurse, who gives nothing away in her return glance. Joe obviously believes he is going to recover, or doesn't want to know he isn't. Maybe my information was wrong.
I answer the only way I can, at this point. "I'll think about it and let you know. You call me if you like. And I'll drop in again sometime. Give my regards to Lillie."
Joe gives me a little wave. "Say hello to--" he starts to chuckle. The sound of it is pure Joe, malicious and not caring who knew it. "Say hello to Lassie, I mean Lucy. Has she still got all that hair?"
I answer a sick man, maybe a dying man, the only way I can, by gently saying goodbye, and take care.
I am forty miles along the road, on Highway 50, before I stop telling Joe what I wish I might have said to him back at the hospital. I knew I shouldn't have let him make me mad, as if the old things mattered anymore. I'm a grown man who's lived for thirty years on his own, not a kid Joe could twitch around as he pleased. We've always had that effect on each other; maybe each of us made the other become what he was. We'd competed ever since we could walk, with our dad every now and then noticing the blood and debris our fights left lying around. Mom was always horrified; dad would just say boys are like that, and leave it alone. Families grow up and people say, looking back with one-hundred-percent wisdom, this should have been done or that shouldn't have happened. I sometimes wonder how our own kids would have turned out, if we'd had any.
I am high in the Sierra, ready to turn onto Highway 89, when I begin to laugh. It isn't because it's stopped snowing, though I'm pleased I can see my way at night between the trees hemming me in. I'm laughing because of a letter Lucy and I received last week. Joe would have offered us a thousand or two, nothing like the three hundred thousand the ski developer offered in the letter. We had no idea that parcel of land on Mt. Rose in Nevada was going to be worth so much. Joe would have had a fit and died on the spot if I had told him.
As I ease along the snow-topped road on my slick old tires I start feeling glad I didn't tell Joe about it at the hospital. I guess that was the way a grown-up, independent mountain man would have acted.