The following story was written by Lucy Rose Fischer, an artist and author of “The Journalist” due to be released in book stores in August of this year. It was sent to the Western Review by former contributor Derrick Sanders
READING AT HOME
The year I turn seven, Jerry, my brother, leaves for college. From this time on, he is a visitor — almost never home for more than a few weeks at a time. But these weeks are the luminous islands of my life.
The room at the head of the stairway is Jerry’s room, with his oil paintings from his Paris student days and his brick-pile bookcase. Sitting on his bed, he reads poetry to me from a small light blue volume — his voice resonating in the quiet of the room:
…In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee…
It’s a winter evening and all of us are sitting around the living room (he has come home with a friend from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Jerry organizes a play-reading — “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” We all take parts — Jerry, his friend, my sister Nancy, Mother, Dad, and me. My father’s English is choppy — an immigrant from Poland, he trips over even the simplest words, never mind Shakespearean English. Mother is somewhat better although her English is freckled with certain distinctive mispronunciation — like she calls “scissors” “stizzers” or “salad” is “sawood”. A stranger once asked her if she was from Boston and ever since she is convinced her accent is genuine American. On this evening, while we pass parts back and forth, I think their Polish-accented English isn’t quite befitting the solemnity of the reading.
I’m in sixth grade — it’s about a week or so after our evening of play reading. My class is taking a trip down the hall to the school library. It is a bright room, lots of windows, blonde furniture, and a good supply of books. This is a required activity, and each of us is expected to check out a book. I glance down at the offerings — there is nothing I want. The librarian approaches: “Where is your book?” “I don’t want any of these books,” I say. “Pick a book,” she insists. “No thank you,” I say, “I have my own books at home to read.” “What do you read?” she demands to know. “Shakespeare,” I say.
ACROSS LONG LENGTHS OF OCEAN AND LAND
I’m almost fifteen and Jerry is about to leave for Vietnam. Now long lengths of land and ocean separate us. He is a writer — so he writes letters, long descriptive letters, about life along the Perfume River, about making Thanksgiving turkey for his students, about his best friend Huan. He writes to the family. And he writes to me — he writes to me more than I deserve because there are long gaps before I write back. A letter to Jerry has to be a really good letter, with well-chosen words. When I finish Crime and Punishment, I write and tell him what I think. But I don’t want to confess that I haven’t yet read the other 20 books on the reading list he gave me. I send him my poems — which he critiques… “This one is too abstract, dear sister, it doesn’t move me. Read Archibald MacLeash, ‘Ars Poetica.’ You can do better — I like some of the imagery in your poem on dancing by the sea—try to do more of that.”
Later — when he becomes a journalist — we have his published writings and his photographs. We have a special place in the living room to show off his achievements — his front-page story in the Saturday Evening Post, with his own full-colour photos. He’s following American soldiers in the early days of the American war in Vietnam. He writes articles about war and about people living in villages — we read his stories in the Reporter and Time and the New York Times Magazine… I keep copies of all his stories in my drawer.
I have nightmares sometimes about war. My mother, my sister, my aunt — we all have the same nightmares.
On rare occasions, Jerry telephones us. Our exchanges are raspy and punctuated by pauses, conveyed indirectly through two-way radio wires. It is early in the morning, our time. We each scramble to get our chance to speak. Then, each in our turn, says: How are you? I’m fine. I learn nothing; I share nothing of import. But, for a brief moment, I embrace the mellow tones of his voice.
At age nineteen, I spend a summer with my brother in Asia. “I want you to see the world and learn,” he says. He hires a tutor for me and arranges volunteer work. I visit families living on rooftops and in hallways. This trip is a dividing line in my life — I’m never the same.
A LONG LETTER
I’m about to get married when I receive a five-page letter from Jerry. He challenges me — you need to develop yourself independently of your husband. Continue your education — have a professional career — use your talents. His letter is full of big-brotherly advice, enough to last me a lifetime.
AN ORDINARY MORNING
It’s an ordinary morning — a sun-filled September morning — gray patterns of leaves dapple the cement walk in front of the house. I am pulling my suitcases and stuff down the walk.
I’m leaving home — going to college, the last semester of my last year. Hank is driving. Hank is lank and muscular — I’m getting a ride with him but I know him only a little.
My bags are in the red car with Hank, who stands by the curb.
I’m in the house. Coming from the outdoors, I’m adjusting to the darker interior. The phone rings — my mother is onto it. It’s a man’s voice that I barely discern through her cheek pressed against the phone. I hear him say something about calling from the radio station. I catch only the edges of his voice. But I know. I know from her face, from her blue-green eyes full of horror. I hear myself saying: “oh no oh no…” I have no tears yet but my heart cries out in bursts like bullets.
Later, the women from our neighbourhood come — one by one, in their housedresses — they heard on the radio. They gather in the shadows of our living room.
And then, around noon, a package arrives in the post — it’s a box full of books from Simon and Schuster, complimentary copies of Jerry’s first book. He is a ghostwriter, you see — his book is the story of an NBC cameraman imprisoned by the Pathet Lao. Its title — Reported to Be Alive. My mother opens the box, picks up the top copy and says: “Reported to be dead.”
I’m the ghostwriter now — I’m writing my brother’s memoir, telling his story, in his voice. I use his words and my own. I take scenes from his letters and journals. I invent the missing pieces.
Jerry was my mentor, my teacher, in writing and art. It was as if he trained me for a task that neither of us would have anticipated, charged with drafting a book that he might have written. As I write, he sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear.
Because I had a big brother who was a writer and an artist, a brother who went to Paris and lived in Asia, a brother who published stories and who read poetry to me when I was a small girl, a brother who came home from college wearing a beard and smoking a pipe and who brought home artist and writer friends, I always knew I was different.
A calendar and clock are deceptive. Time is not something to be counted and measured. My brother lived for a little more than three decades. More than five decades have come and gone since he died. But what does that mean to me? Space and time have always interceded between us. The gaps between his visits were variegated — sometimes a few months, sometimes years. But when I was with him, his voice and his presence illumined my days.
Lucy Rose Fischer is an artist and author of THE JOURNALIST: Life and Loss in America’s Secret War which will be released in August 2020.