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Jesse Murphree

Brother

Isaacís sister smokes dope and watches Laurence Olivier pretending to be Heathcliff pretending to be humble; folding his hands into a cradle for his masterís muddy boot, boosting him onto his horse, his face is blank as a bedsheet, showing nothing.

Isaac does not like Laurence Olivier. He looks to him like a man that is made out of plastic; he does all kinds of things with his hair and his clothes and he wears makeup, but his face is always the same, molded, like a mask that has begun to move.

The only movie Isaac has ever seen where he likes Laurence Olivier is Marathon Man, where his coldness is finally exposed, that cold still face, still even when it is moving, leaning over Dustin Hoffman with the metal instruments, saying over and over, Is it safe? And never getting upset, no emotion, only saying it in that exact same way, and his body and his shoulders absolutely still, until you knew that there was nothing anywhere that could ever mean anything to him.

But Isaacís sister does not watch Marathon Man, she watches movies she has borrowed from the public library; and what is there, what is usually not checked out, are classics, the ones that everyone has already seen and seen again and does not want to see again, ever.

They watch the movies because his sister is in college and majoring in film theory. Isaac is in college, too, in the computer science division, but he does not want to be in college, he would rather be almost anywhere. Traveling in some place he doesnít know, in his car by the side of the road sleeping, even.

Isaac and his sister live together because they have just broken up with the people who were supposed to be their significant others, Isaac with a fundamentalist Christian girl who had to become the black sheep of her family in order to live with him, and his sister with a tattooed housepainter who was older than she was by ten years and whose favorite thing to do was to go into bars and get drunk and flick the shot glasses at the bartender.

At night while watching the movies and smoking their joints, Isaac and his sister drink. Isaac drinks tequila. It is so pretty, he thinks, cold and clear, but different in his glass, thicker than water. Isaacís sister drinks wine out of dark red bottles. The tattooed housepainter had French blood, and she claims this had made his taste more sensitive, but Isaac doesnít believe it. His sister had told him once that the housepainter didnít like to close his eyes at night, because he was afraid of all that darkness.

 

 

The next night it is James Dean. Isaac and his sister have watched Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and now Giant.

James Dean was gay, Isaacís sister tells him. She is full of these kinds of facts, bursting. Isaac agrees with her. To him, James Dean looks like a man who is too pretty, but already old, and he would have looked older still, used up even, if he had lived, Isaac thinks, and not have been twisted into useless scrap, a part of his own carís lifeless metal.

And the women! There are no women anywhere anymore who look like these do. Elizabeth Taylorís glossy, spherical perfection. Isaac thinks it must have been awe-inspiring, even to the stars themselves, to occupy such shells of beauty. They must have felt their loveliness like suits of armor from God, like shields standing between them and the whole rest of the world.

 

 

The tattooed housepainter is at the apartment. Isaacís sister says that they are still friends. Or maybe it is just that the housepainter has brought with him a plastic Baggie filled with crystal meth, all the way from California.

The three of them snort the powder through a drinking straw. His sister holds a cup of water to wet the insides of her nostrils. And suddenly it is as if the air has substance, Isaacís breath is cold and solid in his lungs, as if he is swallowing cubes of ice.

Isaac lies down on the carpet and looks through an old family photo album. His sister has all the photo albums because their mother had thrown them at her one day when she told her to get out of her house. Even though his sister no longer lived there, their mother had screamed at her, as if she still had this power to banish.

Lined up in rows, the photographs are slick squares, each one a world, an opening into what has happened before, and what should be dead, but is happening, still. It gives him a queer feeling, the pictures are pieces of time, living, waiting for him to fall back into them, back to the places that he came from.

The housepainter is restless, walking back and forth. Isaac can tell by the way he is moving that he hears it. The world is a shell, held to his ear, frightening, full of noise. Maybe he doesnít understand, or remember, that when you are speeding sometimes you just have to hear it, because it is inside you, a roaring. Isaac guesses that he has forgotten that it will pass, that it is just pressure, the sound of your self, your own life.

The housepainter doesnít stop, he moves, and when he moves, things happen. But he is harmless, really. That is one thing about his sister, she would never allow herself to be in danger, her life is precious to her. Isaac understands this.

The housepainter talks and talks. He has black hair and black eyes and is wearing a black shirt and black jeans and black boots. He tells Isaac and his sister about a large gun he has that he says he will someday use to shoot himself, when he gets old and feeble, before anyone can put him in a nursing home.

Isaac wonders how his sister can listen to this. He supposes the housepainter thinks of himself as some kind of dark angel. Isaac stops listening and goes back to looking at photographs. The carpet he is lying on is the exact kind of carpeting he had sworn he would never live on, shag, a deep olive green, like animal feces. In fact, the whole apartment complex is the tacky kind of place that he would never have thought he would end up, but would have believed was glamorous as a boy. A white stucco structure with turrets, like a castle; inside, scarlet runners lining the hallways.

In one photograph, Isaacís mother holds his two-year-old sister upside down, by her feet. The two of them are outside and laughing. His sisterís hair is white blond, and they are both wearing green dresses which match the green trees, the green ground, and the green roof of the house they are standing in front of.

His motherís body is still plump from carrying his sisterís body inside of her. It is because they are both so young that everything in the picture is so beautiful, even the grass, each blade pumped full of living, the shadows on the ground like soft, dark cloth. His sisterís face is split open with happiness, the features contorted in such a way that on any person other than a baby, it would be ugly. The skin on his motherís face is brown and taut and vibrating, as if she is an object that would sound if touched. Isaac wonders if he were to put his hand through the photograph and touch her flesh, would he feel something there that he has never felt when touching his own.

 

 

Isaac and his sister are watching Hud, beautiful Paul Newman swaggering through the town, drunk and sweating. They have watched Shane and The Member of the Wedding. His sister says she has a crush on Brandon de Wilde; that is the kind of man I would like to marry, she tells him. But Isaac canít agree. De Wilde is sluggish, frozen in black and white, all round moon face, even in color there is something thick and slow about his features, as if he has been stunned, as if he is not quite living.

His sister had cried at the end of Shane, though, at little Brandon calling out for Shane, for the big man, at the end. It all reminded Isaac of Lassie, all the heavy fake emotion; his sister used to cry at Lassie, too, worried that the dog might never get home again. And Isaac understands that, being lost, and the terrible feeling of longing for the one who is leaving you.

Now his sister is telling him about the first boy she had ever wanted to kiss; he had red hair and freckles. She says she ate a piece of candy and chanted his name three times under her breath, a charm that was supposed to make him fall in love with her, only it didnít work, maybe because it was not a real piece of candy, but a cherry throat lozenge stolen from their motherís purse.

Isaac thinks this is funny, because later, when he remembers her, when she was in high school, there was no need for charms, and there were boys everywhere. One boy in particular who had once gotten his car stuck in the mud of their yard, his wheels spinning helplessly. He had dyed his hair red and scratched words into his chest with a safety pin, like someone in the Sex Pistols. Isaacís room had been right underneath his sisterís, her floor was his ceiling, and he would sometimes sit in his room and listen to the two of them, watching the boards over his head move and bend, like a body dancing.

 

 

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunawayís face back and forth. Each time his hand strikes her cheek, she says, Sheís my daughter, sheís my sister, sheís my daughter. In the movie the womanís father has made love to her and she has had a baby by him. Earlier, a short man who his sister said was the man directing the movie, and also the man whose pregnant wife was slaughtered by Charles Manson, had slipped a knife blade inside Jack Nicholsonís nose and flicked it, thin and quick, unbelievable, blood real and not real coming out, all the while talking about a nosy kitty.

The only part of the movie that Isaac likes, that makes sense to him, is when John Huston says that most people never have to face the fact that under the right circumstances they are capable of anything. But then he thinks that he is growing morbid and pretentious, nothing holding him to what people are supposed to think about and believe.

Isaacís sister tries to explain the plot of the movie to him, but he is lost, all the metaphysical significance of water. He stops listening and watches what he is watching. He tries to imagine what the two of them, he and sister, would look like on the screen, expanded, immortal. The thing is, heís not sure if there is anything in his sister that would stop her from touching him if that was what she wanted. The way she is, she always has a space around her, and the world is just pieces of itself to her, that anyone can pick up and make anything out of. But she does not want him in this way, he can feel that she does not want him.

Isaac remembers his Christian girlfriend, how when he had first met her she was a virgin. They had read a sex book together, full of color photographs of couples, and of girls alone lying on their backs with their eyes closed and their hands between their legs, learning to pleasure themselves. Isaac wonders how long his sister will let him stay here with her. It seems as if at any time she could just be gone.

His sister is trying to explain to him what it is she thinks about while they watch movies. She tells him how important it is to notice everything, to know all of the theories behind what the director is doing. It is as if the movie is just a trick that can be explained. She takes scenes apart and puts them back together in a way that is different; this is what she is learning to do in college. Isaac thinks it is a strange talent, showy but useless, like swallowing fire in a carnival.

When his sister gets up out of her chair, she is very drunk, they have been drinking all day, and when she is drunk she bumps into things, although she never seems to really hurt herself.

Isaac does not know if his sister loves him, as a brother or anything else. Or if it matters. What he knows is this: the next day there will be a bruise on his sisterís body, a dark place on her thigh, like a shadow, but so light that when he touches her, he will think he should be able to just brush it away.

 

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