One evening in 1990 between the shrimp bisque and country-fried steak, my mother decided it was time to leave my father. It was four years after my brother's death at age twenty-five; the decision was sudden, but not rash. Something about Dad's necktie, the pattern? Or maybe the meal itself: the washed-out color of the bisque, the steak pounded thin. She saw herself reflected on the plate.
When my brother died Mom emptied the cardboard boxes from his closet, items she'd meant to give away since his childhood. She spent hours on his bedroom floor arranging and rearranging old toys: separating his Legos by color, stacking his wooden blocks. She even tried to remember in what specific order he'd line up his Matchbox cars—some without tires, some with doors that swung open. Once I found her with his fire truck in her lap, stroking the small strobes above the ladder. The red lights blinked on and off, and her look was sad, but intense. I didn't interrupt—why would I? It was as if she and Mark had worked out their own Morse code. [End Page 99]
Things were strained with my parents then, and neither relied on the other for consolation. Still, they loved each other—the rest of us believed it. (Dalliances—such a pretty word; it sounds harmless, like a type of wildflower, or a cadence in a country dance. My father denied his dalliances for years.) Two months after Mark's death, my mother told me that while she was buying groceries, Dad loaded up Mark's belongings and gave them to the Salvation Army. It was time, he told her, brushing a wispy hair from her cheek. I did it for you. And really, this was no small thing. Dad was a doctor whose kingdom was the surgical ward—domestic acts like this were foreign to him. Mom said nothing, but polished Mark's wooden night chest with a rag dipped in Duke's mayonnaise. She rubbed and rubbed. A southern remedy passed down through her mother and grandmother, the condiment lessened scratches and restored old wood to its original sheen.
To cheer her Dad hired a painter. Everything, everything would change. The house was a 1926 Mediterranean surrounded by palm trees and live oaks laden with Spanish moss. Though my remaining siblings and I had married and moved out, my parents weren't ready to downsize, and the house needed constant repair: leaks around the windows, rot warping the door jambs . . . To cheer my mother, the bedrooms, baths, family room, even the screen porch would be repainted.
Without enthusiasm, Mom studied the color fan deck Dad brought from the hardware store. Cork, Indian Bronze, Mountain Mist. Finally she flipped to Burnt Ore, a color "close to Mark's koi" still swimming in their backyard pond. As a child he rolled breadcrumbs into balls, and we laughed at how his squeals when fish swarmed the food, their bright backs surfacing, rolling. He loved the water, but in truth as a young man he was even more drawn to open air. A lawyer by trade, his passion was skydiving, and he died when the plane went down in a corn field just outside of Atlanta. Sixteen fellow jumpers died with him.
Mark was a kid who spent most of his life jumping out of things. Our mother, who loved to compare us, always said I "took my sweet [End Page 100] time" being born, whereas Mark, who arrived two years later, "popped right out, peein' all over the doctor." It set an early precedent for his life. From then on, if there was something to jump out of, Mark found it. At six months he vaulted over his crib rail, accruing an eye the color of bruised fruit. Later there were school lockers, cedar trunks, Halloween coffins, and our sister's closet, often with a pet snake around his neck, or Chiquita, his albino ferret, in his pocket. As he got older, he switched to moving cars, a bachelorette cake, and eventually, airplanes.
Once I asked him why he liked tossing himself around like...