We tell stories about the dead in order that they may live, if not in body then at least in mind—the minds of those left behind. Although the dead couldn’t care less about these stories—all available evidence suggests the dead don’t care about much—it seems that if we tell them often enough, and listen carefully to the stories of others, our knowledge of the dead can deepen and grow. If we persist in this process, digging and sifting, we had better be prepared for hard truths; like rocks beneath the surface of a plowed field, they show themselves eventually.
The story of my brother’s life is complicated by the fact that in my earliest memories there is no such thing as him or me. My brother was born one year and nine days after me, and although I was older, I have no recollection of life before he arrived. Growing up on a small family farm, we were alone in our play, and before the age of five it was always Dan and me together, sneaking strawberries from the garden, building snowmen in the yard until the darkness fell and our cheeks stung from the cold, whispering in our bunk beds at night. We were more than accomplices, much more even than friends; we were all the other had.
My going to school a year before him loosened that bond, as did overheard jokes about our paternity, for though we were close in age we soon became very different people, to the point where that was our most notable characteristic, the one other people fixated on—our difference. The contrast began but did not end with our physical appearance: his hair was red and his skin pale, while I had our mother’s olive complexion and black hair. Our personalities and interests formed as distinctly as our features. As a teenager my major obsession was sports. I trained for basketball and track in the humid clamor of the school weight room; I pored over copies of the Sporting News after I finished my homework at night. Dan focused his efforts on the wood shop, becoming skilled enough to hire on during summers with his shop teacher, with whom he built furniture and cabinets. As a wrestler, he viewed my passion for basketball as something of a retreat from manlier pursuits. Insofar as my teenage mind believed anything with bedrock conviction, it was that the fast-break style of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Showtime years was the pinnacle of team-sport artistry, and Dan responded by claiming that the Detroit Pistons—known as the Bad Boys, for their intimidating physicality and brutish antics—were his favorite team. Sports fandom, I see now, was an incidental part of his life, a wholly reactionary stance. He spent the weekends tinkering with cars, an investment of time and energy that confounded me, since he would smash them during races at the county fair each August, undoing all his hard work in a few loops around the track.
Our divergent life choices after graduation surprised no one, each of us serving as a foil for the other. He entered the blue-collar workforce, installing fiber-optic cable, while I, sensitive and brooding, went to college thinking I’d become a writer. People no longer joked about how different we were. After a certain point, it was too obvious to be funny.
During winter break my junior year at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, I took a week and drove to Albuquerque, to look in on his life in New Mexico. Dan had lived there for two years, and although we’d seen each other a couple of times around the holidays, I’d yet to pay him a visit in his new home. He was to be married that June, and I figured I ought to meet his fiancée before the week of their wedding. When I arrived, it seemed we were the same oddball brothers, only more so. We eyed each other warily, him in pointy-toed cowboy boots and a big white ten-gallon hat, me decked out in the uniform of the aspiring campus radical: East German army pants and calf-high combat boots, aggressive sideburns sculpted on my cheeks.
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