my brother Robert came home for the next to the last time,
I was ready for him.
I was out back shooting baskets—or
rather I was aiming the ball at the spot on the backboard
where the hoop had been till it wobbled and fell after
a hard rim shot. Still, I was making a fair percentage
of shots just above a rusty square with nail holes, the
goal or the shadow of the goal, I guess, when I heard
Robert was a quiet guy but you could
hear his car coming a mile off. He was driving a beat-up
Volkswagen Beetle that whined over the mudholes in our
mother's long driveway as if something hurt, as if each
bump was a mountain. I came around front and found my
three sisters there to greet him, looking nervous, the
ninnies. Of course it was up to me, the task of cheering
him up. I was his brother, and it was up to me.
When Robert got out of the car it was
a bit of a letdown, really, after what Mother said about
what happened to him. He smiled shyly, like always, and
shook my hand, and he even let Cynthia, our eldest sister,
give him a hug. He looked the same, thin as a blade, just
my size, though I was a skinny seventeen and he was twenty-six.
He looked a bit tired with those shadows around his eyes,
but hey, you'd look beat too after a six-hour drive from
Roanoke. I couldn't believe the way the girls acted. They
huddled around him as if he were about to break and they
were going to have to pick up the pieces right there on
the driveway. But he was all right. It was going to be
"Tyler," he said to me.
"Robert," I returned the greeting.
"You couldn't have picked a better day to come back."
"No," he said and blinked
like someone who has come from a cellar. We had the best
yard in town, no doubt about it. Tulip poplars and sugar
maples and dogwoods abounded in no particular arrangement,
each anchored by a tangle of honeysuckle. Those trees
had been around for a hundred years but when it was breezy,
like today, and their their leaves filled with wind they
looked insubstantial, apt to sail away, past our Mother's
frame house and into the woods beyond. Robert was home,
We managed to get him from the driveway
and into the parlor without breaking him. Mother greeted
him fondly and formally. They talked about how his trip
had been, and the weather, and she told him she had his
room ready upstairs, still full of the radios and stereo
equipment he'd built in high school. Then Mother said
that awful word.
"How are you feeling, Robert. Is
your depression better?"
We froze, Robert, my sisters and I.
Mother had said something bad, uniting us in shock. A
week before, Mother announced that Robert was depressed.
Robert worked as an engineer at a TV station on top of
a mountainside. His boss called Mother and said that Robert
had gone in for treatment for a while, and then he was
coming home for a nice vacation.
Mother thanked the boss and immediately
sent her son a check for $25. "Nothing makes you
feel better like a little money," she reasoned. It
made sense to us.
But on this day, we didn't expect her
actually to use the word. It was like one of those frozen
schoolday mornings when our schoolteacher mother said
"damn" while grinding the starter of our cold
Corvair. It caught us so off guard.
"I'm fine," Robert said at
last. "I got something for it."
That was all right then. Could be he
had something you could treat with a pill, like blood
pressure. But he spoke as if he were under fathoms of
"I'm glad, Robert," Mother
said. "I'm sorry you've been ill. I want you to tell
me if there's anything I can do."
"I will," he said. He was
still standing, his hands in his pockets. We were all
standing; none of us had thought to sit down.
This was getting silly. I spoke up.
"Robert," I said, "Let's go to the state
park and look at the river."
"I don't think so," Robert
"Come on, Robert," I said.
"It's a great day for it. We can go to the cliffs
and look for sharks' teeth."
He was facing the window, but he half-turned
and considered me. Surely he wasn't about to let me lose
face in front of our mother and sisters.
"Okay, let's go," he said.
Everybody relaxed; Mother and the girls
looked at me with approval. No one else knew what to do
with him. I had come up with something.
We climbed into his Volkswagen and drove
to the park, my brother and I. The girls stayed behind.
I suppose they thought we had something to discuss man
to man. Our father had been dead ten years and there seemed
to be a general feeling that at last I had a role to play.
I did not know anything about a role but I did have a
Our father once joked that if World
War III ever came and the Russians invaded, he was going
to take us to the beach under thes horsehead cliffs at
Westmoreland State Park and we would take our stand. Those
chalky sandstone cliffs above the Potomac River looked
like the beginning of time, or the end of it. They slumped
like somebody's tired shoulders but wore a coat of summer
greenery, oaks and poplars leafing out with all the energy
of youth. Fossils of whalebones and sharks' teeth lodged
in the cliffs like heirlooms in the attic of your great-grandmother,
but at their feet the river sparkled, fresh as green leaves.
He parked in the lot next to the beach
and we got out and walked. It was high season but there
weren't many people around. Some were lying on the sand
while others were having cookouts, crouching under awnings
and swatting flies.
"Isn't this great?" I said
as we walked on the sand. I took my shoes off; he kept
"Sure," Robert said.
"No," he said.
"I find a good day always cheers
me up," I babbled. "I mean, no matter what you're
worried about, if it's nice out, and you're by the water,
it seems like no matter how bad a mood you're in, you
feel better. Don't you?"
"No," he said.
I must have looked taken aback, because
he conceded, "It might work for some people. But
sometimes it doesn't work."
"But it's all in your head, isn't
it, how you feel? It's how you look at things, don't you
He didn't answer. My plan, which was
to show him that sadness was all in his head and life
was pretty good if you just stayed focused on things like
a river and sunlight and horsehead cliffs, was falling
apart. It was another case of me trying to be an adult
and blowing it.
We moved to the edge of the water and
started looking for sharks' teeth, something we had done
since I was a small child. Robert usually found something.
I rarely did.
Robert stopped walking. "Let me
ask you something," he said, looking at his feet.
"Hypothetical case, okay? Say someone is very, very
depressed, and he, or she, shoots himself, or herself.
Hypothetical case. If unhappiness is just something in
your head, can you be killed by an imaginary bullet?"
Then I saw what he saw. It was a fossilized
tooth, as shiny and smooth as if the shark had just lost
"Funny question," I said.
Neither of us moved to pick up the shark's
"Are you joking?" I said.
"Sure. It's a joke. Forget it."
We walked some more and then got back
in the car. The Beetle labored up the cliffside road.
When we got home Robert collapsed on
the couch and lay with his hands over his eyes. I went
out back and threw a basketball at my imaginary goal until
dinner, not wanting to talk to Mother or the girls. They
could see I'd failed. I went back to being a kid brother.
Robert stayed on the couch for most
of the next two weeks, until his vacation was over. The
Beetle whined as it bumped down the driveway and out of
We heard nothing about him till a couple
of weeks later, when the state police called Mother to
say that Robert's boss had reported him missing. A search
was under way. A few hours later a state trooper came
to the house, took off his hat when he saw Mother, and
gave us the rest of the news.
I talked to the police later but forgot
most of what they said about the circumstances. One of
the details that stayed with me was that the bullet Robert
had used was a .38.
Three days later, after my brother came
home for the last time, we watched as the Reverend Hoke,
never a polished speaker, stammered worse than usual and
mopped his face more than the heat seemed to require.
Still, we agreed, it was a fine eulogy. It was really
a beautiful day and the oaks in the churchyard, very old
and very green, made good shade for the burial. It was
the sort of day that ought to have lifted anyone's spirits.
One thing I wish I'd asked Robert, though,
back on the beach. If you could be killed by an imaginary
bullet, then why couldn't you be saved by a day on the
river with no clouds at all, and old oaks making green
the horsehead cliffs?