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Post Road Magazine #31

Elegy for a Cousin

Brad Geer

We shot sparks from our fingertips. I had to fall down. His were stronger, he said. Yeahbut, what about my sparks? Doesn't matter. Mine are stronger, he said. You have to die.

So I did. I died. I closed my eyes. I stuck out my tongue.

We amassed armies of mismatched action figures and mired them in savage combat. In the game of "Men," warriors attained glory in living room armageddons, coffee table campaigns, in sofa-back and sill-dust theaters. His were stronger, he said. Mine had to fall down. Yeahbut, this guy has a magic sword that shoots flames. Nobut, my guy has flameproof armor. Yeahbut, my guy has armor piercing lasers. Doesn't matter. Mine are stronger, he said. Yours have to die.

So they did. They died. They bounced and rolled and found rest on the green carpet battlefield, stiff limbs of rubber and plastic protruding from the ensnaring forest of shag.

Remember them?

We lay on tables and suffered from unnamed maladies, plagues so evil we could be saved by only the greatest doctors. Cures discovered at the eleventh hour, vaccinations rushed to bedside even as we winced and wheezed. You didn't make it, he said. You have to die. Yeahbut, my body held the cure. I came back, miraculously. Look, this stethoscope is on my heart, the shot's in my arm, the fists are pounding on my chest while the doctor-cousins, our sisters, cry, "Don't you die on us! Not now! Stay with us!" Nobut, doesn't matter. My body is stronger, he said. You have to die.

So I did. I died. I writhed and then lay lifeless on the operating table while the girls lowered their face masks and shook their heads sorrowfully.

We shared a bed during sleepovers. From older boys we heard dirty jokes. From older boys we heard dirty words. We tried to live the jokes, the words. We tried to understand what we could not understand, find meaning where there was no meaning. No punchline, no significance, no advancement in age. So we lay quietly in our sleepover bed and wondered what we'd done, wondered if it meant anything. We can't tell anyone, I said. This is a secret, he said. No yeahbuts, I said. The memory of this night has to die.

So it did. It died. Time and shame tamped it down, molded it into a shadow, a penumbral image of childhood innocence that neither of us spoke of to anyone, ever again.

Do you remember that? Did that even happen?

We grew up, slowly, in different places. We became conscious of our differences, and then suspicious of them. Of my education, of his dropping out, of my arrogance, of his arrogance over being able to identify my arrogance. I graduated from college, wore glasses with my button-down shirts, taught school somewhere, and bought a home in a town he'd never visit. He got fired from fast food joints, grew fat, became addicted to drugs on the far side of the gateway, and lived at home with his parents I never cared to see. Insurmountable differences like mountains at convergent plates. But what about our shared childhood, our memories, our secrets? They have to die, no one said. Childhood has to die. Yeahbut, we were going to marry a set of sisters we had crushes on so we'd be cousins but also kind of like brothers-in-law. Nobut, that was never going to happen. Those girls didn't like you. And you two have nothing in common. Not anymore. Yeahbut, we'd been co-buckled in the backseat of an Oldsmobile staring at the same interminable green landscape for immeasurable eternities during eons of youth. Doesn't matter. Childhood has to die.

So it did. It died. It now decays somewhere in a heap of junkyard scrap like the Oldsmobile, like the toy men, like the cheap syringe and stethoscope, like the plastic plates we ate our macaroni-and-hotdog lunches from, knife-scoured, edge-frayed, lying askance in the acres we hide outside of cities and dedicate to our castaways.

We spoke for the last time when our grandmother died. We shared memories (but not the dead one, not that memory). We recalled playing the roles of Disney characters, building castles in the yellow and orange cabinets of the spare room in her dingy second-floor apartment. Maybe we remembered our sisters as princesses and us as villains, or maybe we were heroes, or princes, or both. We were sad about Grandma. Yeahbut, we were happy playing pinochle. We followed suit, counted trump, laid cards on the table, and talked about her. She was timeless. And this was her game, her favorite. Nobut, doesn't matter. She had to die.

So she did. She died. Her weak body finally tired of fighting for air. They closed around her a simple casket and our mothers wept and held one another.

You remember her?

And maybe you cried, or not, and maybe I cried, or not, but there was no more "we," not after that.

Years passed, then, remember? Can you? Your mom, my aunt, our...(there are no more "ours") was dying of cancer on her own bed. You came home from rehab that day and my mom was visiting. You ODed in the bathroom, remember? Yeahbut, you can't, can you. Can't remember lying there encased in your heavy body and forcing my mom, your aunt, our...(there are no more "ours") to play real doctor, to put her face on your face to give you air, to push her weight against your huge chest to jump start your heart with her hands. You can't remember how she stared at your blue face with tired eyes while her dying sister yelled her name and yours from a bed in the other room. You can't even remember why you did that, why you died there, on that tile, between rehab visits, between jobs, between lunch and dinner, between 30 and 31, between weekends, between the twin glories of toilet and tub so that your own dying mother's final effort would be the arrangement of your funeral. Nobut, you can't remember that. It doesn't work that way. You had to die.

So you did. You died. And I didn't go to your funeral. And I didn't ask about it. And I didn't cry, either. I was too far away for that. Just too far away.

Now you can't remember the sparks from fingertips, the men in bellicose pose, the operating table. I had to fall down, you always said. I had to die, you always said. You were stronger. Yeahbut, doesn't matter. You had to die. Nobut, not me. Yeahbut, you.

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