I flew back into town when Kerouac’s father died. We all did.
None of us knew him well. Only the little things: He smoked American Spirits, worked for a cable company, threw extravagant Halloween parties, and drank with our parents. We always assumed he went through a serious On the Road phase when he was younger, but even that was just conjecture.
We never really knew him; we never knew the story.
We knew Kerouac, though. Of the four of us, he was the only one who never left town after graduation. None of us saw him much, what with me living in New York, Jerry Newman in LA, and Patrick in the swampy heat of southern Florida. We still put forth an effort, though, or at least the show of one. I always wished him happy birthday over Facebook, we all came out for his wedding a few years back, and—to the best of my knowledge—we all called to say congratulations when the twins were born, told him to buy a pack of cigars, smoke one for each of us. All told, it had been a while. But even still, without pause or question, we each bought a plane ticket home after Kerouac called us up one-by-one to tell us about the accident, his tone indistinguishable over crummy reception.
When my plane landed, I rented a car, drove to Wausau, and checked into my hotel. I have grown to hate visiting—there’s nothing quite as alienating as sleeping in a nondescript hotel room when you grew up not two streets over. I changed, showered, and stared up at the ceiling for a while from atop the too-tight bedding, knowing I should have been thinking about Kerouac.
I wasn’t, though. I was thinking about me. Me and my dying brother.
He had told me a week earlier, over the telephone, the first I’d heard from him in a little over a year. To start with, he asked how I was, if I was seeing anyone. I told him that no, I wasn’t, but that things were going well enough at the magazine. They weren’t, really, but I left that out, along with the chain-smoking and the rough breakup and the hole I punched in the drywall at my absolute lowest. I ran out of conversation and asked, “What’s new with you?”
He paused and said, “Listen.”
The situation was explained to me real quick and off-the-cuff. Reminded me of how he used to discuss his plans for after graduation—full of vague language, nothing in the way of concrete details until he tossed the word “terminal” into the middle of a sentence. He mentioned he’d been hooking up with a local girl, but that he planned on keeping the whole cancer thing under wraps for as long as possible. “Nice not being alone, though,” he said. “Oh and hey—don’t say anything to Mom and Dad quite yet.”
“Are you scared?”
“No,” he said, “but I don’t know how I feel about The Simpsons outliving me.” He laughed and said, “Good talking to you, baby brother,” which struck me because he had not called me that since we last lived under the same roof a little over twelve years ago.
After his call, I hung up, powered through some edits, and caught up on a television show. I didn’t cry, didn’t drink, didn’t break out an old photo album, not that I have one to begin with. None of that. “Huh,” I think, was the only thing I said, my only noticeable reaction.
Ten days later and still it was my only noticeable reaction.
Still lying on the bed in the Wausau hotel room, I started counting ceiling tiles. From above the covers. Not under. Never under. I always feel constricted, under.
We had arranged that night, on the eve of the funeral, to meet at this bar called Circles a little ways into town. Circles was this old bar we used to frequent, this old scene we used to haunt.
Senior year of high school, we had gotten in with a set of fake IDs my brother did up for us with the help of some guy he knew. They each looked valid—not too flashy, our faces all appropriately miserable looking. “Don’t smile,” my brother had said as the camera flashed. “It’ll make it look more legitimate.” One by one he handed them off, winking as he told us to stay out of trouble. We did, mostly. Just a beer or two at Circles, pretending to be drunk.
It was cleaner than we remembered.
“It’s like a damn Applebee’s,” said Jerry Newman, looking around as we took our seats at what was once our usual table. When we were younger, the place had looked trashy and dangerous. Authentic. Now though, it just looked ordinary. Generic. Common. Trite. We had all gone off after graduation— to college, to careers, to thunderstruck romances, fleeting fraternal bonds, and short-lived freelancing stints. We had been to real bars. To New York. To Boston. We’d been in bar fights and shit shows and hooked up with affable but iffy-looking strangers in backroom bathrooms. We had all been around, so to speak. We had all seen better.
All of us, anyway, but Kerouac.
“Maybe there’s a new manager or something,” Patrick offered. “Came in with a fleet of brooms like in that Mickey Mouse movie.” Patrick was a sweet guy, but we never could tell when he was trying to be funny. He kept biscuits in his pockets so that dogs would say hello to him and he played the triangle in high school.
“Nah,” said Kerouac, returning from the bar. “Derek still runs the place.” He lined four shots of tequila in front of us. “Come on,” he said, locking eyes. “Are we drinking or are we drinking?” I nodded and we threw back our shot glasses. Kerouac smacked the table, laughed, and called for the waitress. “Another,” he said. “Shit.”
This was my bad, but I couldn’t help staring. Just a second or two, surprised on account of Kerouac only used to drink for the sake of having a beer in his hands. Who could tell if he’d developed a drinking problem or if this was just his way of grieving? We hadn’t talked about it yet. When we met in the parking lot, there was no, “I’m sorry for your loss,” no, “Shit man, how are you?” I had hoped he would bring it up himself. That he might show me how to act, how to handle this. But he didn’t. Twenty minutes in and we had not yet addressed the circumstances that brought us together.
“Listen,” I said, and Kerouac’s face tightened. “If you want to talk about it or about anything, I mean, we’re all here for you.” Jerry Newman and Patrick looked serious, nodded.
Kerouac’s voice was sure but not hostile, confident without being angry. “There is nothing,” he said, “to talk about.”
I nodded, changed the subject, and we drank like teenagers.
An hour later, our table was three different kinds of drunk—Patrick talkative, Kerouac focused, and me sloppy—and Jerry Newman had disappeared to make shy talk with some bruiser playing pool in the back of the bar. He was always disappearing. Two weeks after graduation he was gone to Los Angeles, trying his hand at whatever he could reach: stand-up comedy, television writing, performing with some underground improv troupe. We never knew. Every other month he abandoned ship on whatever dream he’d been pursing, only to get back up the next morning, inspired by the promise of some new aspiration. Things always seemed to even out for him. If a vending machine ate his dollar bill, he’d find another on the ground a minute later.
For his part, Kerouac just drank. He was quieter than normal—or at least quieter than I remembered him—but he still spoke with the same brooding voice, still rubbed his fingers compulsively against whatever was in his hands, still had the same low-key air about him. He didn’t say much about anything, other than that he worked a job he hated for a family he loved. “Charter Communications,” he told us. “Cable company.”
For the longest time we barely spoke, Kerouac and I. Instead we half-listened to Patrick ramble on, recounting this shaggy-dog ghost story he’d heard in Tampa, where day-to-day he worked as a real estate agent. Poor guy had no solid reason for living there, having followed some girl there on a half-hearted whim. She left him as soon as they unloaded the U-Haul, said it wasn’t the right time for this, whatever it was. “I don’t mind so much,” he told us, losing track of his poltergeist narrative. He liked his neighbors and he appreciated his close proximity to a handful of alligator farms. “I haven’t gone yet,” he said, “but it’s nice to know they’re there.”
Silence again. Still, Kerouac hadn’t said anything about his father. Not a word. All I wanted from him was some small indication that he missed the guy, that he was feeling something. Say something, dammit, I wanted to demand of him.
A few days earlier, my mother had said something similar to me over the phone. Her oldest son had just called her. “God damn it,” she said. “Say something. Talk to me. Please.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I told her.
It’s funny, too. I still don’t.
The night would have been fine like that, but an hour before last call, our conversation circled the drain onto the subject of adulthood: How had it happened? When? Why and under what circumstances? Those sorts of questions, the kind you can only answer drunk. It was a little past midnight and Kerouac kept saying “Jesus Christ” to no one in particular and laughing too loud at everything. Jerry Newman had returned by then, pissed as all hell. “Dude keeps up a conversation for forty minutes, then drops a reference to a boyfriend.” He shook his head, disgusted. “Asshole.”
Patrick was the first to bring it up. Something about how he couldn’t believe how young we had been, how old we now looked. “Let’s go around the circle,” he said. “When did you know?” He loved games like this.
“Easy,” said Jerry Newman. “First time I got laid. Jerry Connelly. Junior year. You know when you’re a kid and sex is like, this crazy goal that you’d have to be so full of yourself to even aspire to? And then when it finally happens it feels monumental, like, ‘This is it, I’m all grown up now.’ So you sneak off to be alone and you’re just lying there on the bed you’ve had since you were a kid, trying to process that such a crazy thing could happen. You think at first that you’re gonna remember each time you do it for the rest of your life, but then a month goes by and it’s just a thing you do. Ten years later and it’s breakfast,” he said. “Maybe lunch.”
Patrick volunteered an answer next, his voice fraught with troubled melancholy. “The first time I paid taxes,” he said. “What about you, Tom?”
I didn’t have much in the way of an answer. Kerouac, maybe, but Jerry Newman, Patrick, and I weren’t adults. Nothing more than boys dressing up in the oversized clothing of our fathers. I started to say something—likely derisive of the whole conversation—but Kerouac interrupted before I could get a word out.
“Hold up, hold up,” he said. “I got one.”
I yielded. Any one of us would have let him say anything that night. I was anticipating something predictable: when he got married, when the twins were born, when financial reality struck and put to rest any lingering notions of being an artist. One of those big days of which he’d had so many and I’d had so few.
“I was twelve,” Kerouac said. He sipped his PBR. “Remember those Halloween parties my parents used to throw, at the old house?”
We remembered. They had been extravagant—elaborately decorated and densely attended—all the more so for taking place in a Midwestern suburb. Always, always, always, Kerouac’s father dressed up.
“Old man loved Halloween,” Kerouac said. “Never for the right reasons.” According to Kerouac, the only things to like about Halloween were the candy and the haunted houses. His father, though, liked dressing up. Kept a whole closet full of costumes in the spare bedroom. “He had everything,” Kerouac said. “Astronaut suit, banana costume, pirate get-up—”
“Okay, okay,” Jerry Newman said. “We get it.”
“Point is, he was weird about it,” Kerouac said. “So anyway, Halloween rolls around, and Dad decides we’re going trick-or-treating.” He explained to us that none of his friends were going trick-or-treating that year—said they were too old—and they made fun of him when he shared his plans for the evening. Patrick looked ashamed upon hearing this on account of they’d be tight since grade school, but Kerouac kept plowing through his story.
They set out after dinner, Kerouac dressed as a prepubescent Austin Powers, his father as an overweight Batman. “Dad was excited about the whole thing,” he told us. “But it’s one of the first times I can remember feeling self-conscious. The whole time I was real quiet.” They made it to five houses before Kerouac asked to turn in for the night. An older boy had answered the first door of a nearby cul-de-sac and said, “Hey, aren’t you a little old for this?” and that was all it took.
“Dad wasn’t mad,” he told us, in the bar. “Just seemed disappointed. We didn’t even watch Great Pumpkin.”
Through stops and starts, Kerouac explained that he could hardly sleep that night, up late contemplating the latest threshold he’d crossed into maturity. “Skipping Halloween,” he said. “It just felt so big.” He lay awake in bed until finally he felt his conflict urgent enough to go downstairs and consult his father. “Dad was up, of course. He was always up, always watching infomercial repeats or I Love Lucys.” Twelve-year-old Kerouac approached his father, asked, “Am I grown up now?” and as he told us in the bar, he couldn’t help smirking just a little.
Flipping channels, barely looking at him, his father said, “You’re not an adult.”
“How do you know?” Kerouac had asked. “What does it feel like?” He found new variations on the question until finally his dad stood up and left the room.
As Kerouac spoke to us, he rattled his fingers against his glass. “And then,” he said, voice shaky, words slurred, “He came back, dressed in this gorilla suit. Sat down, picked up the remote.”
“Dad?” Kerouac had asked. “Dad? What are you doing?” His volume rose in the bar as he mimicked his own voice from so many years ago.
His father lifted a paw and pushed him. “Not hard,” Kerouac said. “Just forceful. And then I started asking, you know, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ laughing because I thought he was being funny. But then he stood up, curled his fists and pounded his chest, howling like a monkey.”
To illustrate his point, Kerouac beat his chest. “Ooo,” he said, imitating the screech of his father. “Ooo-Aaah. Ooo-Aaah.” Eyes fell on him from all across the barroom.
Kerouac’s father lumbered towards him, shoved him once, then twice, further and further, through the hallway, towards the kitchen. He knocked Kerouac to the tile, screeching, pounding his chest and then Kerouac.
“He beat the shit out of me,” Kerouac said. “It was crazy.”
None of us knew what to say. Just total silence.
Kerouac’s poor mother had been asleep through the start of this, came tumbling down the stairs when she heard shouting to discover Kerouac on the floor, coughing, crying, and her husband in the gorilla suit he’d worn the previous year. She screamed, “What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” and Kerouac’s father perked his head, rushed towards her. “Ooh-Aah. Ooah-Aah.” He knocked his wife to the ground and danced around her, back and forth, from one foot to the other like Kerouac had seen on National Geographic specials.
“For a while she stayed down,” Kerouac told us. “He just kept circling her, howling. Ooh-Aah. Ooh-Aaah.” Kerouac screamed it; he shouted it. “Ooh-Aah. Ooh-Aaah. Ooh-Aaah.” He was louder than the jukebox and the bartenders and the chatter of the patrons all around him.
Finally, he told us, his mother pulled herself up, tackled him and wrestled the mask from his head. “And it was like flipping a switch,” Kerouac told us. “He stopped everything. Just stood there, hair slicked back, breathing real heavy, like after an orgasm.”
She smacked him. Shouted something that Kerouac could barely make out through his pounding headache. She tried to embrace her son, rubbed his back, kissed his forehead. “Come on,” she said, trying to pull him up, “come on, let’s go to bed,” but Kerouac refused her. She shouted at her husband some more, climbed the stairs and slammed her door.
“And then Dad just sat back down on the sofa,” Kerouac told us.
His father looked over to his son, sitting, then, on the carpet, crying with a bloody nose. “Scary,” his old man said, voice hoarse, eyes red, finally answering the question. “It’s scary.”
“And that was it,” Kerouac told us. “That was the moment.”
We didn’t say anything.
Silent now, Kerouac examined our faces. For the first time, he seemed to notice all the attention he had drawn, half the bar mad-dogging him. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out here. Bunch of squares, anyways.”
We all nodded and took to our feet. Kerouac led us to the exit, and on the way out, some guy gave Jerry Newman his phone number.
The next day, Jerry Newman complained about the sunshine. “It just doesn’t seem right,” he said, “for a funeral.” I stood alongside him and Patrick, tombstones sticking out of the ground all around us. We were all done up in our best black suits, although only Patrick’s fit him right.
There had been a wake earlier that afternoon, at the church. The three of us sat together, Kerouac a few rows in front with his wife, Morgan, and his kids. As the priest spoke, a photograph of the deceased was passed around the congregation. It was this real candid shot from Kerouac’s wedding. The old man was grinning, holding an erect middle finger to the camera.
“It’s a good picture,” Patrick said. “He had a nice smile.”
At the funeral itself, Kerouac stood next to his mother. The casket descended into the ground and she gripped his arm and cried. He didn’t react, really. Just stood there, blank, his expression unknowable as his father sank. None of us said anything about the night prior but Kerouac, who had smiled and said, “I have the worst fucking hangover,” as he greeted us.
The whole thing made me uncomfortable. Always does. There’s no right way to behave or compose yourself. I don’t know if you could call it selfish, but it was all I could do not to think about my own brother’s funeral—three or four months away, five tops—and for whatever reason, I couldn’t shake this awful feeling like I wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t even tear up.
All through my adolescence, I’d seen at my brother as a not-altogether-human figure. Alien. Uncanny. Like how I look now at celebrities. Dude seemed bigger the way sex seemed bigger, the way cigarettes seemed bigger, and the way a twenty-dollar bill and a few grams of weed felt like nothing short of a retirement fund. Back then he drank all day. Got high off poorly rolled joints. Held down a dozen part-time jobs and knew a hundred different guys who could pay him a full week’s cash for a day’s manual labor. Some nights he lived in the garage, others he just lived around town, staying with any one of the friends he had from all over—tattoo artists and burger flippers and drug dealers and full-time academic types. All guys he knew better than he knew me. We talked—really talked—rarely, but always at his prompting. “Talk to me, baby brother,” he would say, and mostly we just bullshitted, exchanging exaggerated tales of sexual conquest. He told me about these girls he met fishing underneath bridges late at night and I lied about how far Katie Hamilton and I had gone. Our meetings always felt life-changing, the kind of little talks that might have been the inciting incidents to far more exciting lives than the ones either of us ended up living. What had felt like a series of profound conversations between two kindred, run-away spirits were instead—I realize now—just the both of us playing parts. Talking like men, as if we were men. He was just as full of shit as I was, as full of shit as anybody.
And now here he was, dying. This weird, fraternal, empty vessel of a person. There would be nothing to cry about, really. He would be dead, but whatever; maybe he had sort of always been dead.
Right away I regretted thinking it, needed a cigarette like I have never needed anything.
After the burial, Kerouac approached us, slouching as he walked, shirt half sticking out of his pants. “Thank you,” he said, “for coming.”
“Of course,” Jerry Newman said.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Patrick said.
Hands in our pockets, we stood underneath the warm sun, atop the cemetery hill, against a backdrop of gravestones. If only we could have seen ourselves like this in high school, so somber and melodramatic looking. We would have had so many questions.
“Well,” Kerouac said, and the wind tossed his hair.
An hour or so later, Patrick left for the airport. He hugged Kerouac goodbye, told him to keep his head up. “Come visit sometime,” he said. “We’ll check out an alligator farm.”
Jerry Newman thought for a while that his flight had been canceled. “Shit,” he said. “Storms back home. Shit.” Five minutes later the airline called offering him a seat on another flight. “Hang in there,” he told Kerouac, turning to wave goodbye as he approached the taxi.
My flight was cancelled, too. Nothing back home until the next morning.
“Screw the hotel,” Kerouac said. “Stay with us tonight.”
His home was lovely.
Kerouac set me up on the couch in the living room, folded it into a bed and offered a heap of spare blankets. He introduced me to his kids, Sammy and Taylor. Twins. Both in grade school. He and Morgan put them to bed around eight. They lived in a one-story home, and so the twins’ bedroom was just down the hall from the living room, where I eavesdropped on their nightly ritual from atop my couch-bed.
We talked in the kitchen once the kids were asleep.
“So what do you do?” Morgan asked, attentive, and I could see why he married her.
“Copy editor,” I said. “For this UFO magazine. Bright Lights. We’re based out of New York.” I didn’t mention how much I hated the whole thing—the never-ending workload, the vapid copy, the oppressive reality that no one but me would ever notice a misplaced comma.
“Huh,” Kerouac said, and he leaned back. “What’s the deal with Roswell, anyways?”
For the longest time that night, I didn’t sleep. It wasn’t the couch. The couch was fine. More comfortable at least than the bed in the hotel room. It felt cozy. Felt like the product of a home, even if it wasn’t mine.
All night my mind raced, more than once prompting me to step out for a smoke. I could not stop picturing Kerouac’s empty expression as he stood above his father’s grave, arm around his grieving mother. I must have looked at him funny, and I knew they’d all give me the same look when my brother passed. I had no clue what I might say to the old friends and family who would offer well-meaning condolences. I did not want to seem cold to it, did not want to become the subject of hushed speculation.
I couldn’t believe I would have to deal with the whole thing.
A little past 3 a.m., the sound of footsteps took me out of myself. I lifted my head from the soda-stained pillow and stared down the hallway. For a moment, silence. Everything quiet save for my own heavy breathing. Thirty seconds went by, and then, gradually, I became aware of a muted whisper coming from the twins’ bedroom. Hushed but urgent. Constant.
I watched, waited. After one minute, two minutes, three, the whisper stopped and a figure emerged from the twins’ doorframe, walking like a person but dressed like something else entirely. It was covered in black, shaggy and tall, and I could just barely make out its shape across the dark expanse of the unassuming hallway.
I stood and faced him, the monkey man.
He stopped, stared at me, his head cocked and his hands limp at his side. I said his name like a question and Kerouac raised one paw, as if to say hello.
Kerouac flew out to Texas when my brother died. We all did.
He’d been staying in Austin, wound up there in the first place following a sketchy-sounding lead for some construction job. There was talk of bringing him back to Wisconsin, burying him where he was raised, but my parents and I decided against it. He was nomadic; he would have wanted to be buried wherever it was he ended up.
I met Sadie, the girl he’d been seeing. She was sweet, and she greeted my parents and me like family. She said that he had talked about me all the time, in those last few months, about how proud he was of his baby brother. She was a bad liar, but I appreciated the gesture.
They had been engaged to be married. Of course he hadn’t mentioned that.
Kerouac, Jerry Newman, and Patrick all sat next to me at the wake, stood beside me at the funeral. “This is the weather you want for this kind of thing,” Jerry Newman said of the pounding rain that forced us all under black umbrellas.
We all went to Sadie’s for the reception. Her apartment was dirty and messy and wonderfully lived in, the kind of place he must have loved living. She had pictures of him everywhere, some hanging on walls, others just lying around on end tables printed off on cheap-looking photo paper. Sadie was in most of the pictures too, always smiling, arms wrapped around him. She served everybody gingerbread men, even though it wasn’t even winter.
Afterwards we went to this bar she recommended. I forget what it was called—something funny, but not ha-ha funny. I was pretty quiet the whole time. A little drunk. This time I didn’t pay a cent for drinks; this time I was the one not talking about it.
“Let’s do this again next funeral,” Kerouac said towards the end of the night. He laughed.
At the funeral itself, underneath the pouring rain, I put almost no thought at all into my expression. Probably, I just looked confused, my mouth hanging open slightly like it always seems to. As my brother’s coffin was eased into the wet ground, I surprised myself with the germ of a desire that the funeral would go on just a little longer, that he might stay above ground just a few seconds more.
Once he was under, Kerouac put his hand on my shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Come on, let’s go.” I nodded and followed him out of the cemetery, already frisking my raincoat for a cigarette as we stepped through mud and over puddles. “Shit, man,” Kerouac said, hands in his pockets, eyes forward. “At least you don’t have kids to fuck up in the middle of the night.”
I should call him more. I should really call him more.
Rumpus original art by Jonathan Michael.