San Francisco, Mission District, late 2011
"I like animals more than people," Neptune, Fred's younger brother and new roommate, confessed. "They're not corrupted by language." Fred was on his knees, scrubbing the uneven pink tiles of the bathroom floor in their basement flat.
"Not at all," Neptune said, appearing mildly wounded. The N-Judah streetcar passed nearby, shaking the floor. Fred dumped his pail of dirty water and flushed. Neptune fingered the zircon stud in his right ear and tossed back his ponytail. He explained, he preferred the simplicity of creatures who did not speak: deer and raccoons, owls. "Animals have sense people lost long ago," he said. "First off, they don't drink," he said, tipping a beer bottle to his lips. "And they don't gossip."
Fred laughed. "Maybe we should stop talking ourselves," he suggested. At a "silence camp," in the hills near Yosemite, ordinary people could live in countryside splendor for a week at a time and avoid speech-a kind of self-purification, like a fast. One sure way to keep from talking nonsense (an ideal Fred had adopted but failed to live up to during his nineteen iffy months of grad school).
"When I was young, I didn't want to face up to the pain we inflict on animals," Neptune said.
"I know what you mean," Fred chimed, but he recalled the stink of Neptune's dead hamster back when they were boys (questions remained unanswered about the early demise of the rodent).
"The planet would be better off without us," Neptune said. He twisted his studded earlobe.
"Okay," Fred said. A bit too gloomy, Fred thought, but he was enjoying rediscovering his brother's wacky outlook. "Let's wipe ourselves out."
"Nature will take care of that," Neptune said. "When she's ready."
Fred grinned. Thus Neptune and Fred launched their juggernaut of doomster banter.
They watched the Occupy movement on TV and Webcam. Saturday afternoon they rode downtown together on the streetcar to explore firsthand. Chatting with the thin-skinned people among the tents on Justin Herman Plaza prompted Neptune and Fred to examine their true priorities more vigorously. The new world was upon us, they agreed, but we were not equal to it, at least not yet. We were ready to advance human goodness, for sure. Justice and environmental purity were key. Our new world would be inclusive-we'd all share in the earthy, new well-being. Late that night, to the roar of neighborhood parties and the rattle of the streetcar, Neptune and Fred spoke reverently of the pristine beauty of the ancient earth, before we humans had ruined it. In their shared dream, they rearranged the planet like a bowl of cut flowers, carefully presenting Nature at her most appealing.
Humans had lost the true way. Yes, we had. Some millennia ago. In the desert or the plains. Maybe in the pine forest. We had become too clever, outsmarted ourselves, and parted tragically from the natural order. Sometime between the invention of the locomotive and the automobile, the pace had grown dizzying. The true, pure stillness of the human spirit had been lost as our civilization relied more and more on mechanized violence. The atom bomb and the electron microscope had eliminated the last of our ignorant bliss. Humankind's innocence was.well, where was it?
That fall, while Neptune supervised production at the plastics plant in South San Francisco, Fred enjoyed walks on breezy, misty Ocean Beach, indulging in self-pity concerning his recent near-miss with matrimony and his grad school disgrace. As far as the comp lit doctorate, that quest was over. He'd been caught faking footnotes (a learning experience-he now knew he was better off outside an arena where honesty was highly prized.)
Neptune's life had also taken a sudden left turn, estranging him from wife and children. He had moved purposefully up from Redwood City to Fred's place in San Francisco, where he believed his life could become more finely etched. That's when he'd changed his name (from Wendell) and expanded his yoga practice to include nude headstands lasting up to twenty minutes, which he often performed atop the holey Persian rug on Fred's living room floor. (Balding early, Neptune was skinny, gray-fleshed; his shiny natural tonsure formed an excellent base. In headstand, he looked like an architecturally innovative miniature skyscraper.)
On the beach Fred would grip his hands behind his back, gaze down at the abundant plastic litter, and, to the music of the sea, take himself seriously: mourn his grad school illusions and relationships, watch the vigorous surf slap and caress the sand beneath the fog, and feel the limitlessness of the Pacific. He believed himself to be handsome, and he imagined the women on the beach (usually in pairs or threesomes, often walking dogs) aching and sneaking glances as he passed. There was some truth to this.
Despite his mild sympathy with the dreamy yearnings of the Occupy protesters, Fred was secretly happy. This unstructured and uncharted phase of his life pleased him. Of the privileged gender, native-born, Protestant, attractive enough, he enjoyed a screw-and-its-nut compatibility with the dominant class. He was destined for (though not yet established in) a comfortable place in the economy of exploitation. He could afford to fool around for a while yet. Sure, he would eventually have to work out life details, like mate and long-term dwelling place. And career. He definitely needed a better plan for income than the occasional temp office work he was doing now. This would come together in due time.
Neptune, though from the same home and parentage, lacked Fred's convenient mental calluses and self-serving intellectual abridgements. A high school dropout, he considered himself lucky to be working at all, an attitude Fred found tiresome in the extreme. Neptune had either forgotten or never embraced what Fred considered life's biggest unwritten rule: Don't let mental complications mess up the fun and easy possibilities. One day Neptune suggested they jump off the Golden Gate bridge together as an easy escape from their dilemma. This tasteless suggestion offended Fred and forced into relief a fact he tended to overlook: His brother was deeply and thrillingly-and possibly dangerously-weird.
In December, three months into Fred and Neptune's roommate-dom, a tart-smelling, seaweed-draped mound of Ocean Beach flotsam appeared on the thrift store end table in the living room. Neptune told Fred this was an art object (it bore some resemblance to an assembly Fred had seen at the MOMA). Later Neptune insisted his "altar" was a portal to the better world and he forbade comments. Though he commuted to his job by car daily, he considered trips to Ocean Beach on the streetcar purer; he came back with armfuls of salty strands and lengths of sun-bleached driftwood. Over following weeks, the altar grew to dominate the apartment-its great arms spread like those of a starfish over the carpet and the furniture; its salty must touched every corner.
Spring rain washed away what little remained of the brothers' old sense of the world. Occupy protesters had more run-ins with police, but they had lost their novel charm and their strident tweets became tedious. The apartment window frames leaked. A Valentine's Day production error at the plastics plant had created a hideous fist-sized blob of blue polystyrene, which Neptune installed like a Christmas tree star near the top of the seaweed sculpture. Fred dreamed more stubbornly of the lovely, untouchable girl who had dumped him and now taught English in Osaka. She had blocked him on Facebook, and he no longer had the heart to use his secret online alias for Web lurking.
For day after chilly day, the boundary between air and water blurred in the downfall. Water seeped in through the walls of the underground apartment and oozed behind the drapes. Unfamiliar molds and fungi thrived in the extreme moistness, lending the air previously unknown odors. The building's gutters were clogged with leaves, causing the rain to spill in vast sheets over the back of the house and carve brown gashes across miniature flood plains to muddy river deltas in their yard. Fred still felt his boyhood desire to block such outpourings: to crouch in the mud in his rain suit and build dams of scrap wood, rocks, and mud, collect the deepest pool he could and then release the water all at once, sweeping away the villages of downstream-dwelling insects in a fearsome flash, the goal being not flood control but flood enhancement.
* * *
Rain thumped like hose water played on the windows. Fred worried the glass might implode. At the kitchenette table, Neptune fiddled with his spoon in his cereal bowl, poked his remaining Wheat Chex into a fleet of tiny freighters. On the fridge he'd posted a quote from the Tao Te Ching, "I alone am expressionless, like an infant before it can smile." Neptune nudged one of the Chex across its sea of milk.
"Aren't you late?" Fred asked. Most mornings by this time, Neptune would be halfway down the peninsula, hunched at the wheel of his beat-up, red Datsun on his way to the plastics factory, doing his best to simulate willful participation in the industrial state.
Neptune looked stricken, droopy as a cocker spaniel. "I can't stand all the doubletalk and fakery anymore," he told Fred.
"I want to be simple and honest and true," he said. He pulled open the silverware drawer and devoted himself to aligning the forks with perfect symmetry.
"You want to be Jesus?" Fred suggested.
"Give me a break, Fred. I'm serious. Can't you see I'm in trouble?"
Yes, Fred could see he was in trouble.
"We don't know who we are anymore," Neptune complained.
"A nation of petulant adolescents?" Fred suggested. He had adopted the phrase from a Washington Post editorial he'd read online.
"The sumbitches have written me up," Neptune said. "I have to plan my own self-correction."
"Yick," Fred said. "Yick and double yick."
"They accuse me of backbiting and sullenness. My boss said I'm too old to sulk."
"Nobody's too old to sulk," Fred volunteered.
"Thank you," Neptune said.
"Since when is backbiting not a normal part of work?"
"Too-fucking-shay," Neptune said and he fell silent.
Then they dreamed the rain would intensify. A new flood would carry us out to sea. God would have a clean canvas on which to create a new world-beautiful and true. And they would both be happy, except, of course, they would be dead.
* * *
In August 2012, Neptune lurched around a dangerous corner. While brooding over an embossed block of tropical hardwood celebrating his five years of service to Sprague Plastics and Chemicals, Incorporated, he insisted Fred join him in the living room where he had thrown the below-grade windows wide, allowing the sickly sweet smell of the building's shroud of trumpet vine to pour in along with some attenuated essence of car exhaust and dog poo. The neighborhood had finally dried. Neptune's tangy seaweed altar now occupied a third of the living room; smelly fronds and fibers and tendrils spread over the floor and the end of the sofa like a living plant's.
"I dropped acid," Neptune said. "An hour ago. On the drive home from work."
"You're kidding. Why?" Fred asked. Once he would have asked Neptune to share a dose of the potent mind-expander. Now, at age twenty-seven, Fred was wisely wary of over-torquing his cerebral mechanism, which had proved far more fragile than he had once believed.
"To shake up the unbearable status quo," Neptune said. He rapped his temple with his knuckles. "I had to use a bigger hammer." He wrung his hands and paced before the cable spool table and the directory of local worker collectives. He understood now he had constructed his life upon a jerry-rigged system of disgraceful lies, he told Fred. For too many years he had pretended he cared about the plastic widgets and gewgaws and "beauty aides" the company produced and pressed upon the hapless manipulees of powerful advertising: tiny, high-priced bits of worthless junk that would titillate the purchaser briefly, then go on to outlive human civilization in landfills and stand as permanent testaments to our collective inanity. Now he was twenty-five, thoroughly corrupted, a money robot, a mindless devotee to a system whose principles he despised. He no longer knew what a "good person" would be, he told Fred.
Whatever might constitute a "good person" was open to debate, Fred easily granted. However this was not the best topic for a depressed man on a poorly timed acid trip to embroil himself in. "But Neptune," Fred said. You can't insist on that kind of satisfaction, Fred was going to tell him. You can't demand the world accommodate your yearnings as a nature mystic. The world won't do that for you. She's too stubborn.
The N-Judah streetcar rattled near their window well. "We must be bold," Neptune said. "We must be free." Fred was pretending not to understand, Neptune believed.
Neptune saw the great truth, delivered to him as a cosmic iceberg, its white tip gleaming in light too bright to gaze upon. "I am becoming sane," Neptune said. "You don't recognize sanity because sanity has become so rare. You never encounter it."
We needed to erase completely the travesty of the industrial age, he told Fred. The times demanded a radical shift toward the serene, a "return to the land," not only for ourselves but for every human being. We were at point A, industrialized soullessness. We could envision point B, sylvan paradise of communal bliss. However, how to journey from A to B? Even eco-terrorism was too modest. What good would it do to destroy a single animal lab or sabotage a few bulldozers? Even the anti-consumerist radicals who had burned up a showroom full of new Chevys down on the peninsula were accomodationists, collaborators with a civilization quite obviously run amok.
Fred counseled caution-he couldn't help himself. A timid spiritual sidekick, he might dream of greatness; still, he planned to survive to a comfy old age. "Let's not behave rashly," Fred said, quoting his grandmother. Let's not get carried away, Grandma Mitzi had advised. (Carried away by pallbearers was how Fred took it.)
"Thanks, doc," Neptune said. "But I can't wait anymore. It's time we get up off our hypocritical bums and make some changes!"
"Should we blow something up?" Fred asked. He knew stapling flyers with earnest proclamations to phone poles or growing carrots in the parking strip would not be enough.
"Go on a hunger strike?"
Neptune whinnied like a horse. He frowned like he'd eaten a lemon whole. Soon he was squirming intensely on the sofa, like the legendary elephant attempting to shuck off his itchy, crumb-lined skin. Fred squirmed in sympathy.
At quarter to twelve, the neighborhood was noisy with traffic and stereos and the thump and bump of unknown machinery. They heard occasional shouts from the gay bar a block away. After one deep mechanical shudder, Neptune said, "Everybody's ripping and tearing and hammering and blasting, using overpowered tools to put things where they don't belong. That's mainly what's wrong in the world. The Industrial Revolution has overshot its mark."
Fred made a polite listening grunt. "Free Tibet?" he proposed. "Ban mountaintop removal."
Neptune scowled. "People should leave things the way they are," he said.
"But isn't that insane and impossible?" Fred asked. Of course he knew it was part of the U. N. Charter to leave traditional boundaries undisturbed-he chose to ignore the clash of concepts.
"That's what they said about Copernicus," Neptune countered.
They talked till two. Fred kept a friendly eye on Neptune, who, inspired by Muslim design principles he'd read about in National Geographic, was drawing a repeating pattern on the living room wall with colored pencils, imitating the Alhambra. During a calm period Fred dozed in the armchair.
"Fred!" Neptune called. Fred lurched into wakefulness. Neptune had torn off his shirt and was wearing a white bicycle helmet and a necklace of crystals. He told Fred he'd been born by mistake into the wrong world, shunted erroneously to Earth, and missed the sublime rightness and trueness of his proper amphibious life in the cool, green seas of his namesake planet.
"Are you sure?" Fred asked. Neptune laughed gently at the challenge, then showed Fred a letter from the Internal Revenue Service-agents had scheduled a meeting next week to discuss his delinquent taxes. He welcomed their warty hand of evil, he told Fred. He said the cold grip of the worldly prepares us to savor the sublime.
"How about savoring a full lime?" Fred proposed. In the kitchen he cranked up the blender for a mad batch of margaritas and brought them each a salt-lipped glassful.
"Now listen, Fred, listen," he said as he sipped. He looked toward the seaweed. He spoke about inaudible "music" from his oceanic altar and reconciliation with the salty divine. Fred heard the sigh of plumbing, perhaps some freeway roar. But Neptune was hearing with finer ears-Fred tried to do the same.
In the small hours great forces increasingly worked their will on the shards of Neptune's fractured personality. He squeaked. He shuddered. He walked on all fours and followed balls of dust around on the floor. He ate seven lollipops (various colors) and played hall hockey with the wrappers. From 3:00 a.m. until almost 4:00, he drew on butcher paper a frieze of himself as a giant atop a fog bank, using the orange and white shaft of Sutro Tower as a pogo stick and seeking wisdom on his smart phone.
Close to dawn, foam gathered at Neptune's lips. When Fred asked how he was doing, he gasped silently, like a hooked fish. He pressed a hand to the center of his chest. He rose partway. His cheeks puffed, then feebly deflated. He dropped back, defeated, into his chair.
Fred anxiously observed the slow rise and fall of Neptune's chest. Neptune's head fell forward; his eyes closed. Fred dozed in the armchair. When the rumble of the N-Judah woke Fred, only a depression in the upholstery and the rumpling of a cream-colored throw remained where his kid brother had sat.
* * *
Hundreds of feet below the orange ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge, the mighty outflow of the San Francisco Bay drives the roiling water into huge purple and yellow ropes, like the hair of an immense mermaid. I lay my palms on the cold, orange rail. I savor the sweet, dark sheet of San Francisco Bay.
For an hour there I thought I was God and the world was a vast puzzle I had designed to fascinate myself, but which had run out of control and become terrifying. My advice to all other people in the world: Do not allow yourself to think along these lines. But I'm thinking more clearly now than I have ever thought before. I banish the world's illusions like soap bubbles.
I see myself as having been an unfeeling child. But I know any unfeeling person is, in reality, a person who has felt too much. The truth is, I love my father and my mother and my brother, Fred. I love the Little League-how terrible to recall now, how rare my good plays, how frequent my dropped balls. But one time the ball hit the leather of my glove with sweet perfection and an eternal moment was created.
I love children's board books. I especially love to chew on the cardboard. I love beads, especially red, especially the beads with a particular sweet-tasting paint.
And I love my own body.
I love my skin, the taut pattern around my cheeks and nose. I love drawing a full breath. I love my internal sensations, water gurgling in my throat, then stomach, as I swallow.
I love the little wounds. Itches. Sores. Bumps and irritations.
I love the sound of leaves rustling, even the tap, tap of typing. Coughs. Laughter. The smell of snot, baby poop, freshly turned earth. I love a sweet spring breeze.
I love fruit: pears, apples, cherries, melons of all kinds.
I even love the guys from work. I'm going to miss them. (I don't dare think about my wife and children.)
I yearn for a new technology of mood. (It will have to be more powerful than photography, moving or still, better than song, more potent than any known religion.) I will use this brilliant tool to share my good feeling. I will embrace the people I love and help them know the glory possible for humans as they pass the threshold of divinity. Then I remember I don't share thoughts or moods anymore. I will make this journey alone. I cannot send back word from the other side.
My brother Fred is a good guy. A better person than I can ever be, that is for sure. He's your clichéd self-sacrificer. He must think I'm a rat. Here he is doing the Boy Scout stuff, sitting up talking with his suicidal bro all night. I wonder if he knows, he's my last person. It's almost corny.
Fred is steady. That's a big one. You can count on Fred. That is not true of myself. I forget things. I lose track of what a person's supposed to do and be.
Our mother used to call me handsome, which was fair enough, I guess; but my big brother Fred was more than that. His lips and his nose were made very carefully. The divine sculptor had given him extra.
When Fred got all As in fifth grade and I failed third, he told me I must be acting stupid on purpose. I was not robotic enough for him. I hated that. What was I supposed to do? Kill off my soul to satisfy my big brother? The fact is, a lot of my brain was already gone from my accident.
Me and my friend Teddy were doing competitive bike jumps in a wooded lot in Redwood City, where we lived, when my accident happened. I was three feet up in the air, and my front wheel fell off. I kissed the dirt, lost two teeth, and got knocked out. Teddy went home and told his mother, and she called my mom who brought the car down to get me. I was out for two days.
The first hospital visiting hours after I woke up, I was thinking finally Mom and Dad and Fred would come, and I could prove to myself I was back among the living. My face was one giant sore; swelled up so bad, I could see my own cheek. And Fred came and Mom came and Dad never showed up. He didn't come to see me for almost a week. And when he did come, he chewed me out for not taking better care of my bicycle. He lectured me on how to use a wrench to tighten the front wheel.
I was a bad student before but after getting whacked in the face like that forget it. I flunked everything. They made me do third grade twice. Man, they never let you forget that one. You might as well have it tattooed on your face: "HELD BACK." This kid is scum. And Dad made sure I knew I was subhuman and didn't have any rights. Nothing I said or did counted for anything, so I stopped trying at most things.
My second time through third grade, by some miracle, I passed. Maybe the teacher took pity on me. At least I had good marks. I was going on to fourth grade! I was planning to see what kind of mood Dad was in and maybe show him the report card.
Our father was there in the armchair when Fred and I came in, just like he'd been every afternoon for a couple of months, ever since the gloom had hit him. He didn't work anymore. He didn't talk often.
That day our father wasn't drinking beer and he wasn't watching TV. He was glaring at the wall, sending rage waves toward the plaster. Usually Fred and me were just glad to get by him with no problems, and we didn't look back. This time I looked back, but he made no sign of noticing me.
He lurched toward the bathroom. It wasn't unusual for him to spend a lot of time in there. Fred and I were halfway up the stairs when we heard him laughing in a weird way. We couldn't make out for sure if the sound was a laugh or a kind of crying. It wasn't a sound our father usually made. "What do we do?" I asked Fred. He didn't know. The sound rose and fell and became more hysterical and scary. "Where's Mom?" I asked.
"Church," Fred said.
The laughter became louder and stranger. We went back down and Fred stood outside the door of the bathroom and asked our father if he was all right. Fred spoke several times but our father didn't say anything back.
The next day our father disappeared forever. Our mother thought he might have gone to Canada. Or Mexico. Or he might have dematerialized. That's what Fred said.
The Golden Gate Bridge offers me everything my life lacks. A gust at my back feels like God's hand coaxing me forward. Cold air races up my pants shins and tickles me intimately. The wind lifts my heels from the walkway. An updraft of energy through my nerves connects me with the bright, sunshiny sky. I want to marry this whole, blue, active sky, take its sinewy beauty to my bed, make the cloudy expanse my pillows and the blue my new and permanent lover. I am happy. I am sure of my direction. I am grinning; my face grows sore. I am awash, drenched in hope. I hold onto the sunshine. I want to declare a bolder, truer self-a brave, free, exulting self with a sure passage to the far shore of my pain. I reach in all directions, grabbing from wind and clouds and sunlight the love a man cannot live without.
I am free! Among the clouds, set apart from all corruption and human failing, I am pure and whole, honest, uncompromised, and true.
* * *
Neptune wasn't answering his phone. Fred ran onto the bridge. He had recklessly encouraged his brother's dangerous goofiness. He was terrified Neptune would jump and die.
Morning rush hour traffic was dense and slow in the southbound lanes, but there were open spaces between the cars on the inland side. Neptune was dancing on the rail past the first orange stanchion. A man-size fist of fog grabbed him, obscured him, then released him into clear air again. "Neptune," Fred called. He didn't turn. Had he forgotten his name? Could he not hear Fred over the traffic and the wind? "Neptune!"
Neptune was backlit like a shadow puppet. Fog puffs flew past. Fred imagined him walking off the edge of the rail and upward into the clouds, where his mind might spread like melting butter among the sunbeams. "Neptune!" Fred called. And then Fred was on him, just a few feet away. He could have grabbed Neptune's ankles, but he was afraid of making him stumble. "Neptune," Fred said, adopting a stern parental tone. "Come down from there." Neptune looked at him impassively. He seemed double height, as though he had already begun to extend himself toward the heavens.
Fred reached a hand toward him. "Please come down from there. Let's talk."
"The police are coming," Neptune said. He glared at the toll booths. "Are they going to shoot me for trying to kill myself?"
"No. Come down. You're shivering. I have a blanket in the car."
Neptune played with his footing, pretending to stumble. "The lobes of my brain are as big as all outdoors," he said. "Wind blows right through my face. If it rains, my soul would get wet."
"Yeah. Well, you'll get over all that. Hop down here before you fall by accident."
Neptune frowned. Then he took Fred's hand and jumped down from the rail. He turned toward the grand view of the bay and Alcatraz Island.
"It's a shame to turn away from so much beauty," he said.
"Yeah. Well, sometimes we have to take care of business. What were you doing up there? You weren't really going to."
Neptune looked into Fred's eyes for a long, mesmerizing moment. "Let's get lattes," he said. "I've got sweet new ideas for the revolution."