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My future sister-in-law was a severely pale kid with dark hair, dark eyes, and nail polish of such a deep purple it was almost black. The key word here is kid. She was only seventeen and hadn’t yet graduated from high school. She’d be legal to buy a pack of cigarettes just weeks before the wedding. She showed an adoring deference toward Dan—a kind of puppyish infatuation in her eyes and in the tilt of her head—that I knew would one day fade, and I hoped it wouldn’t curdle when it did. She was inordinately curious about me, as if every word out of my mouth might contain a clue to certain aspects of Dan’s past and personality about which she knew little, or at least not enough.

Dan wanted to introduce me to his newfound passion, hot-air ballooning, so we woke early one morning and drove toward the mesas north of the city. The dawn sky was turning pink. The air was crisp and cool. We drank coffee from a thermos and rubbed our hands to warm them. With the woven-cane basket out of the truck bed, Dan unrolled the balloon on the mesa and pointed a big fan at the balloon’s mouth. He turned on the propane burner, the balloon began to inflate, and as it did Dan tugged the cloth here and there to keep it from snagging. He walked around with rapt attention, like a sculptor teasing life from stone. Bit by bit the balloon swelled.

Just then a breeze came up. Dan jumped in the basket. I got one leg in while the bottom of the basket scraped and bounced along the ground. He pulled me in just as we lifted off. We rose a thousand feet in the air, then a thousand more. The city spread beneath us like a twinkling arrangement of jewels in the rising light of dawn, the dun-colored earth inscribed by the green valley of the Rio Grande, the city crowned on the east by the rugged bulk of the Sandias. We drifted north and east with the wind. Somewhere off in the distance I heard the bark of a dog.

Dan manned the propane burner with unshowy confidence, his masculine grace accentuated by his first real stab at a mustache—not bad for twenty-one. He pointed out the city’s major landmarks: the university, the airport, the Old Town. I nodded and looked where he told me to, but it was him I watched most intently. I felt as if I were seeing him clearly for the first time in my life—no longer the eternal kid brother but a man in his own right, possessed of talents I was finally able to acknowledge and respect.

Among some hot-air balloonists there was a baptismal tradition that my brother honored: when someone made his virgin flight, the occasion was marked with champagne. Once we were back on solid ground I was instructed to kneel, hands behind my back, and bend toward a small paper cup of champagne nestled in the grass. The idea was to grip the lip of the cup in my teeth and drink the champagne by tilting my head, or so I was told. In reality the whole thing was a setup, meant to place me in a defenseless pose. Standing above me, ostensibly to make sure I didn’t use my hands, Dan waited until I leaned forward and then poured the rest of the bottle over my head. I roared up shaking like a muskrat, wiping the bubbly from my eyes.

Welcome to the club, kiddo, he said.

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  • Not to deflate this writer's balloon, but why did he think his work was done? The perp admitted his guilt -- no guiltless person would stop at lack of memory; he had said that because he didn't know what proof the writer had and feared violence or public exposure too much to deny it outright. So why did the writer not look into what access the perp had to any small children at this point? Even if the perp were childless and worked in a corporation, was he a youth pastor, a scout master, a peewee ball coach? The writer has no reason to blame himself for his brother's death, but if what he wanted was justice, there is plenty left to be wrung out.

    Posted by Mike on Sat 24 Dec 2011

  • Agree with Mike's comment.

    The writer's brother would have truly died in vain if the pedophile is not brought to justice. The same "reliable sources" proves that pedophiles have a pattern of doing this not on just one but many children. For the writer to protect the identity of the abuser and bring a touch of bad taste to his brother for being an unwilling victim shows everything that is wrong with our society today.

    It just so seems, after reading this article, that perhaps it is better for our male (the females have far much more help: a mere accusation instantly brings legal circus around the male abusers) victims simply turn over and die than be empowered against their abusers.

    Posted by Ben on Sun 25 Dec 2011

  • Reminds me of Anne Enricht's "Gathering", except for the ending that takes the story in a different direction.

    Posted by Michal on Mon 26 Dec 2011

  • Mike and Ben: to report what else he did with the information he had is another essay, another purpose than this essay serves. The author is not writing a 'coming to justice' nor an education piece for victims of abusers. What you both say, that abusers should be reported, even decades after the fact, is all true. What the author did or didn't do in those terms are not part of this narrative.

    Posted by Grant on Mon 16 Jan 2012

  • Of course what the author did/didn't do is part of this narrative. Did you not read to the end? He spends the ultimate paragraph discussing his feeling of release after looking at the perpetrator; clearly the author's impression that "[his] work was done" is meant to operate as the cathartic moment of the essay.

    Posted by Mike on Thu 2 Feb 2012

  • There is room for compassion here, there is room to embrace this grieving man and point him toward groups waiting to give him solace and power to handle this unspeakable thing left only to him. As a group we are charged to want justice and I am convinced it will come more quickly when we lend the man a hand rather than piling on with recriminations. He did not owe us a Chapter Two. I am certain we all encourage him to find the group that will take him through the next steps because he is not alone. I leave it to readers to do their own web search, it will not take long to find the appropriate and welcoming sites. RSD

    Posted by Roberta on Fri 10 Feb 2012

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About the Author

Philip Connors is currently at work on a memoir about his brother, to be published by W. W. Norton. His book Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout will appear in paperback from Ecco Press in February 2012. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Spring 2011 issue, Lines of Work.

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.
Robert Frost, 1960
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