My brother wrenched his tiny pick-up from street to street, from hospital to home, while his wife labored on a white-sheeted bed, in a cocoon of medical personnel. The spaces between contractions were tightening, but on his mind’s wall he’d written that the first thing his daughter heard would be Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” a song born for a second time into a wider world as the soundtrack to a car commercial. I knew it from the commercial. CD and player both sat like bored orphans somewhere in his apartment, illegitimate members of the birth kit. I had offered to go for them.
“You won’t get back in time,” he said. “You look for things the way an aging trombonist reads sheet music.”
I found this convoluted, but a recognizable description of myself. I offered to download the song on my phone instead.
“That would work fine,” he said, “if the song were by Ke$ha, with a dynamic range designed for low fidelity MP3s to make you shake your ass and do vaporized alcohol shots while you swim in a sea of potential STDs. This is a song designed to make you shake your heart.”
As the car flung us around, I talked (an attempt at distraction) about how “Pink Moon” was an interesting choice, remarked on the intersection between art and commerce, between obscure poetic expression and commercials, and how it was an appropriate initiation into our shared American identity, and was going to go on and ask questions like “What is a ‘Pink Moon’? and “Why should we concern ourselves with whether or not it’s “on its way”? but he turned from his driving, mid-turn, to show me eyes like two half-empty espresso cups, and say, “I wish you believed in beauty.”
I do believe in beauty, but I didn’t think I should say so right then.
Years before that, before either of us were married or be-childed, we were driving to see a band play in the western part of our state, and stayed in the Generic Motor Inn. “Generic” isn’t a substitution for something else. The brand name was “Generic.” We checked in, looked around our room, and then decided we would need to drink ourselves to sleep. The carpet crunched in the places where it didn’t squish. Some tragedy had left the sink and shower out-of-order. We went out to grab beers, driving, hopefully, in the direction of convenience stores.
The motel hunched at the beginning of an extreme curve. We followed the curve around and found ourselves in the middle of a neighborhood. My brother, testosteroned and linear, does not believe in “turning around.” If you can continue on the road and right yourself by turns, everything is progress. He drove us through the neighborhood, which abruptly became a complex of one-way streets, which twisted us through the neighborhood and baffled our sense of direction.
The trees surrounding the houses crowded together and stretched high, making worthy attempts at blocking out the moonlight.
“Take the next cross street left, if you can,” I said.
“So I should have taken the one we just passed?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
And then I had the idea that I would distract us. For the following, it will be helpful to know that the soon-to-be-mentioned “Jacob” is our younger brother who, at the time, I worked with.
“The other day Jacob made himself coffee, and when he brought it back to the cubier, he . . .”
“Wait, what’s a cubier?”
“It’s my term of aggrandizement for our cubicle. He has his coffee and I asked him why he didn’t make me coffee, and he said, ‘I’ll never make you coffee again. Also, I changed the way I drink coffee.’ And then he stuck his tongue down into the coffee, and lapped at it. And I said, ‘Oh, you drink coffee like a dog. You drink coffee the way a dog drinks coffee.’ And that filled us with mirth.”
Something small whisked in front of the car and stopped there, taking care to align itself with the passenger’s-side tire, ensuring that we hit it.
The car lurched to a stop with such force that I felt the frame bend into a forward-leaning posture. If you picture the front of your typical sedan as a dog’s face, the brow of the dog now protruded forward.
“We hit something,” my brother said.
“It’s just a small animal.”
“Then we need to take care of it.”
It will be helpful to know that our father is a veterinarian.
“It was tiny. There’s no way it’s alive.”
“It might be. What if it’s suffering? Remember? ‘Do no harm.’”
“I don’t think veterinarians take the Hippocratic Oath. Also, we’re not veterinarians. That would be like the son of a boy-scout having to be honest and loyal or whatever.”
He jumped out of the car.
When I got to him, he was kneeling down beside something in the basic shape of a squirrel.
“He’s alive,” my brother said.
I saw why. The tire had caught the squirrel’s back-end and pressed it into a pelt. But the immediately important vitals were still in full operation.
We took the squirrel back to the motel, without beer.
At first the squirrel seemed unaware of the damage. He drug himself around on his front legs in the bathtub, and chattered at us. He seemed fixated on some perceived slight, like this was our fault. My brother took his chiding harder than I did.
It was obvious to me that the squirrel wouldn’t make it, and this become more obvious as the animal started to chatter less and began to be still for longer periods of time. I didn’t want to sit there and watch the thing die, so I went out and watched a show about a demon-possessed guy who kills people. It ended up with his wife having a baby, an event which taught him the meaning of life and love of something outside of himself, which I think is true, even though this show was not the fullest expression of that idea.
I went back into the bathroom.
“We need to put the squirrel out of his misery,” I said.
“I agree with what you’re saying, but I really wish we didn’t have to.”
The squirrel was shaking its head from side to side and looking into the distance, as though he was having a conversation with someone in the room we couldn’t see. I will admit that I had the notion that this unseen presence might either have been an angel, or his ancestors. Either would have been beckoning him to a land flowing with nuts and hollow trees, where you can gnaw electrical lines without fear of reprisal. Or maybe it’s a more “gettin’ tail” focused afterlife, like a 100 virgin squirrels or something. I’m not clear on the small print of squirrel metaphysics.
“Just rap its head. That’s what dad would do. If you want, I can do it,” I said.
“No,” my brother said. “This is part of being a man.”
“Not really,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s about facing death. When you encounter something like this, and we only really encounter it in the animal world now, since we’ve moved death so far out of our normal human experience, in order to sanitize life and whatever they say about it, but when you encounter this it’s a way of admitting the reality of death, and I need to do that. Because death really bugs me.”
“I don’t think you’re going to deal with your fear of death by mercy-killing a squirrel.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“Just rap its head. I can do it.”
“I can handle this.”
I went back to the TV. And then I heard an impressive “crack” with overtones of “splat.” A red mist, followed by my brother, wafted out of the bathroom. He held the squirrel by the tail, and the squirrel was now headless.
“You must have really wound up.”
“I think holding it by the tail gave me too much leverage.”
He lifted the squirrel’s body up to his face, both bloody, and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t think they’ll notice here at the Generic Motor Inn.”
“I wasn’t talking to you. It’s a disgrace.”
When we got back to the hospital, everything was fine. The labor had slowed. My brother put the CD on repeat for a single track, and for the next hour we listened to “Pink Moon” on repeat. The baby was born, underwent the usual traumas of joining the living, and at some point my brother held his daughter for the first time.
As he did, I had an image of him, daughter cradled in one arm, headless squirrel dangling by the tail in his other hand, his face a bit bloodied, his eyes a bit tired, but everything about him kind and open to the world. I had to remind myself, looking at him, that I’m the older brother.