My Brother’s Green Grass
My older brother’s son had been missing six years when he decided to move to Los Angeles in a U-Haul with its roll-up door tied down to the bumper with wire. The whole process happened very abruptly; from conception to reality, it took less than a month. I wasn’t sure why six was the number, but that’s how it seemed to me. Six years until a person was allowed to stop looking, to give up some visible portion of hope. My brother traded the atmospheric eyes of his neighbors for a little bit of sunshine and dry heat, and traveled just where he knew he could find them. I didn’t blame him.
But not long after he had gone there, my mother called and told me he wasn’t speaking and wouldn’t take his meals, pleaded with me to go over and be there with him, for as long as was needed. I had always quietly dreamed of living in a place like LA, and there wasn’t much keeping me where I was. Not everything has to be hard. I was sleeping on a brand new air mattress right next to his bed in a little more than a week, no longer surprised when California greeted me as I awakened.
My brother lived in a cul de sac that was crowned by a thick, vibrant lawn. The lawn was one of the first things I noticed there because it was so deep and elegant in its greenness. A few days after my arrival in Los Angeles, we stood at the center of the cul de sac following a long walk up from the bus station, our arms carrying microwaveable pot pies and bags of pork rinds and other barren, give-up kinds of groceries.
“What a nice patch of grass,” I remember saying, feeling like I could stare at it forever. It always caught the sun in just the right way. It reminded me of kiddish races, of breathless gasping in unison, and of our father. My brother nodded, almost smiling a little, and this made me smile, too. “I wonder why someone doesn’t build on it,” I said.
His house itself wasn’t much. There was our bedroom, adjoined by a toilet and a small shower, with a bony kitchen and a living space that identified itself using only a blank, soot-outlined shadow of a sofa that must have been there before my brother moved in. The sofa looked like it might have exploded right in that spot, plastered like a blackened sneeze of its old self against the rotten-eggshell walls. It occurred to me that I no longer knew what my brother did for money; we had not really known each other for a long time by then, time enough for his boy to be born and live a little before he was an absence to the eye. And I learned nothing, even as we bunked together again. My brother made a sound only when absolutely necessary, and then just in toneless grunts. The best you could hope for was a lone, skinny word. I wanted to ask him where his wife was now–I had met her once–but I never found the gumption. My mother had been right: I had to beg him to eat, too, feeling gratified when he peeled the buns off my In-N-Out burgers. It was frustrating.
In the fall, after I’d been in California two months, we returned home from another bus ride to find that whole lawn on fire. Smoke billowed above the cul de sac, as though the neighborhood was performing some kind of community ritual, but my brother and I were the only ones outside. In fact, other than the sound of crackling blades, the area was totally silent. What I found so odd, what I remember most about the fire, was that it went right up to the border of the lawn but no further, containing itself neatly within the grass, its flush, living color replaced with sputtering black and orange.
I don’t know how long I went on studying those flames, but when I looked over to see my brother’s face, I found him far away from me and knocking on the door of a house that wasn’t ours. He knocked on it vigorously with the meaty end of his fist. A short man in square glasses opened the door.
“What?” he said.
“That fire!” cried my brother. Already, he’d strung along a record number of words for the time we’d been together. The short man and I were both taken aback by the volume of his voice. “What’s going on? All that grass is on fire! Shouldn’t we evacuate?”
“Oh, you must be new,” said the man. He chuckled a little. I remained standing a few yards away from them, looking at the back of my brother’s head. “The grass burns every year, just around this time. It’s no big deal. No one’s in danger.”
“But it’s burning,” said my brother, his voice splintering and growing fainter. “It’s burning.”
“Yes,” said the man. “It is.” He looked off-put, and closed the door and went back inside his house.
“It’s okay,” I called to my brother. Slowly, he returned to my side in weird even steps, like some vaguely remembered imitation of walking. “I guess it’s natural.” Closer now, I noticed the red rims of his eyes.
“It’s burning,” he said again, and I didn’t answer him.
We stared at the fire for a while longer, and it glowed and moved in its self-enclosed manner. No one else in the cul de sac came out of their houses. Eventually, we even began to hear the laughter of children, the sound of dinners being prepared as the lawn smoked into nothing.
And my brother hasn’t made a sound since, except once, when he really had to use the bathroom but I refused to move out of his way.