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My brother, Levi Aaron Dodd has been dead for twenty-four years, and I’m still not sure how it happened. I mean, he shot himself in the head—that much is certain. What I cannot understand is how it came to that, how I didn’t see it. I am Matt Dodd, his older brother, and I’m telling this story to you in the third person because a counselor told me to write it that way in order to get some distance. In a way it does feel like the Matt back then is not the same person. And Levi. I don’t know.
It was December 4, 1988, almost Christmas Break, and Matt had no plans beyond getting to Levi’s and getting shit-faced drunk. He’d thought he would stop by and say hello to his parents and sisters, let them know he was back, but at the last minute he let the Milton exit slide by the passenger window as he held a smooth eighty mph. To his left, if those trees were gone, he could have seen his parents’ neighborhood, the one he grew up in. And his childhood church, Beulah Free Methodist.
In the four years that Matt had been in the Corps, Levi had been in some scrapes. He’d been kicked off Marshall’s football team. He’d stayed overnight in the drunk tank twice after bar fights—the resulting legal issues and expenses were taken care of by their dad, Joe Dodd. Other fights that didn’t end up in jail. The hospital twice. Some guy had broken his collarbone with a ball bat, in the alley beside the Double Dribble. Once he’d monkey rolled under a slow-moving train crossing 1st Avenue and 22nd Street, just to see if he could do it. He got out with just a broken elbow.
Matt turned off Hal Greer Boulevard onto 7th Avenue. After four blocks of tiny, two-bedroom WWII era houses, he found the three-story building with Levi’s white Bronco parked outside. Mud was dried around the wheel wells of the Bronco like chocolate around a boy’s mouth. Matt bumpered his Fiesta against the Bronco to keep from in front of the fire hydrant. The hydrant was painted Marshall green-and-white.
Levi’s building was a yellow brick box that at three stories high towered over the little houses surrounding it, six apartments with a stairwell on either side. Levi’s apartment was on the third story on the right as Matt faced the building. The stoop on that side had a blue kiddy pool leaning upside-down against it. A rockslide of empty and crushed beer cans spilled from under it, mostly Olympia and Milwaukee’s Best, but some Bud and Bud Light. The door to the stairwell was locked, but the bottom left pane was broken out of its window.
As Matt climbed toward the third floor, he saw that Levi’s door was open about a foot. The smell of pot smoke was heavy. Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” poured out, the woman’s barely sung wails mixed and clashed with the dance music thumping below on the second floor. Warped with age and use, the stairs had a thick coat of brown paint covering many other chipped and cracking layers. The top step had a crushed beer can and an oily looking clump of dust.
The apartment was thick with cigarette smoke. He stepped into blue flickering darkness pierced by the heavy music and despairing wails of the song. The hallway had empty beer cans crushed and uncrushed, and dust clumps along its edges so long neglected that they were thickening into fist-sized rolls against the baseboard.
The hall opened onto a huge living room, with high ceilings and five windows across the wall that overlooked 7th Avenue. Strands of smoke hovered and slinked along the high ceiling, was being slowly pulled down and sipped out the barely-open windows. Through tree leaves, the top of one of the houses across the street was visible. The chimney at the front of the house had heavy gobs of tar smeared on where chimney met gray roof shingles.
Inside the room, The Wizard of Oz was on TV, to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. One wall of the big living room was painted like the fold out inside of The Wall—the entire cartoon scene breaking through bricks, presided over by the angry, scrotum-chinned judge. It was exact. It covered the entire wall.
No one was in the room. Matt turned down the stereo and the music sucked out of the room, leaving a strange vacuum in which the smoke hung along the ceiling, reflecting the flickering lights from the movie—Dorothy’s face, talking, nodding, wide earnest eyes; the scarecrow and lion nodding with her, leaning toward her as if hanging on her every word.
“Levi,” Matt yelled down the hallway. He was getting nervous that he was in the wrong apartment. No one was there. The room was full of fresh smoke. Someone was here very recently.
He turned the music back up—the almost-Reggae rhythms of the song “Money,” with Roger Waters’ British voice singing, “I’m alright Jack, keep your hands off of my stack…”—and walked down the hallway.
The kitchen reeked of rancid meat. Dirty pans and dishes were piled with empty beer cans on the table and in the sink. No chairs. They were all in the living room. The greasy wallpaper was once probably eggshell white but was now an uneven yellow, and had vertical blue lines; at a seam, from floor to ceiling, it was curling away at one side to reveal a brown plaster wall beneath. A tangle of spaghetti in the perfect shape of a pot hung on a nail, the way their mom might hang a decorative basket above the sink.
Someone lumbered in through the hallway door. One of the bedroom doors opened and closed, a light came on at a door along the living room wall behind Matt, opposite the windows. It was another door to the bedroom. Levi appeared at it for an instant—he was heavier; his curls were wild and long. He shut the door without looking out.
Matt walked to the door and opened it.
Levi was at the closet, shoving a black overnight bag inside under hanging clothes. He’d gained at least twenty pounds. His jaws were flushed and puffy. When Matt had left for the Marines, Levi was in his last year of high school ball. At 6’2”, he’d been three inches taller than Matt, and at 220 lbs., he was thirty pounds heavier. He could bench pressed 375 pounds back then.
When it registered with him that someone had opened the door, he reached behind his back, and with a quick sweeping motion was aiming a black pistol—a nine mm.—at Matt.
“Jesus,” Matt said. “Chill out. It’s me.”
Levi shoved the pistol into the back of his jeans and flapped his t-shirt over it. He closed the closet door and locked it with a combination lock. Then he stepped over piles of dirty clothes and hugged Matt. He’d grown a gut. He reeked of weed.
“Matt,” he said. “It’s good to see you.” He stepped back. “Look at you. You look great—lean and mean.”
On Christmas Eve Matt and Levi drank with a cluster of students, didn’t fall into bed until 5:30 in the morning. Levi’s alarm went off at seven and they got up, showered, and set off in Levi’s Bronco, still drunk, toward Milton for Christmas at the parents’.
When they lumbered in the front door, their dad Joe was sitting at his gas logs like he’d jumped down in a pose when he heard them coming: he wore a red and green flannel shirt and black corduroys, something he’d never wear in public, and sipped from one of the Christmas bear mugs June got out every year. The smell of spiced cider in the hot house made Matt so sleepy he had to fight the urge to go collapse on the couch right then. The little tree on the table with the nativity scene, the one behind Joe’s recliner, had alternating green and red blinking lights, the only light in the living room other than the blue glow of the gas logs.
JOY 101 played low, nothing but Christmas hymns until New Year’s Day they kept announcing. JOY 101 was a Christian station out of South Charleston. Matt remembered when he was a boy, June called in and won a free haircut, but sent it back when the guy who’d donated the gift certificate got caught propositioning male undercover cops in a restroom at Riverside Park.
“Hey boys,” their dad said, “come sit down.” He clutched the mug in front of his chest like a flagon of beer.
Their black-and-white English Springer Spaniel Yerk ran out of the kitchen and jumped at them dutifully a couple of times, then scurried back to the kitchen. Matt and Levi followed him. June was sliding handfuls of a sage-heavy spice mixture between the body and skin of an uncooked turkey. Yerk watched her intently. A piece of pumpkin muffin hung in the tangles of his left ear.
Hannah and Sarah were sitting at the kitchen table drinking cider out of the bear mugs, picking at pumpkin muffins. They had on their big multi-colored sweaters and black stirrup pants, and had their hair teased up into wispy halos that looked like cornstarched string shapes with the balloons popped out from the inside. Looking out from under heavy blue eye shadow, they stood and hugged Matt and Levi.
June turned and gave them wrist hugs, holding her spice-covered hands out like a yoga pose. She gave them each a quick kiss on the cheek. “Get some mulled cider,” she said. “Or there’s coffee in the Mr. Coffee.”
Matt grabbed what he thought was a blueberry muffin, which turned out to be raspberry with all the tiny seeds that stuck between his teeth. Levi wolfed down cheese cubes and crackers like a starving man. His face glowed red and they both were emitting booze fumes. They stood and ate and talked to the twins and June, then refilled their coffees and stepped through the dining room, past the table with the tree and nativity scene. Levi sat on the couch across from their dad on the recliner. Matt sat in the padded rocking chair, and gave it a couple scoots away from the wall so he could actually rock in it.
He sat staring at the gas logs, as if entranced by the blue flickering flames. Without looking away he said, “You see your mother’s new dishwasher?”
Matt said no. Levi shook his head when Joe looked up from the flames.
“You didn’t notice?” He rubbed his face. “It’s her present. And let me tell you, I had a heck of a time getting it in.”
“Merry Christmas, honey,” Levi said. “Now wash my dishes.”
“This young guy shows up,” their dad said. He slammed his recliner footrest down with two heavy whumps and leaned in to tell his story like a coach with his team huddled around him. “This young guy shows up,” he said, “Tuesday, with the machine, and brings it in. I told him to just leave it and I’d hook it up later. ‘No,’ he tells me, ‘If I don’t hook it up, and something goes wrong, it won’t be covered.’ So I say, ‘Okay, get to it,’ and I stand there to watch him.”
Levi’s eyes closed and his head dipped. He jerked it up, opened his eyes wide, and nodded. The green and red lights on the little tree blinked. On JOY 101, a man with a deep bass voice sang, even more ponderously than usual, Oh come, oh come Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here…
After the meal, and gifts, and a long nap on the floor in front of the gas logs, Matt wandered back to his old bedroom to look around. The closet was full of June’s hanging clothes—her summer clothes it looked like. His Little League football trophies and some shoeboxes of his stuff lined the top shelf. Matt pulled them down and sat on the bed to look through them. Cassette tapes: Pink Floyd The Wall, Rolling Stones Hot Rocks. Human League—this one was not Matt’s; his mom had found it somewhere though.
From the living room, Levi’s fighting voice thundered down the hallway, “I’m done with your shit.”
Matt stood. Yerk gazed up at him, tail shifting back and forth, shaking his whole butt.
Joe Dodd’s voice said something.
“Like hell you will,” Levi’s voice boomed out.
Matt ran from the room and down the hallway to the living room. He pushed by the twins, who were staring with their arms hanging at their sides.
Joe and Levi were squared off, chest out, in the living room among the stacks of gifts and bags of wrapping paper. The tree lights and gas logs still flickered festively. The smell of pumpkin pie filled the room. Out the picture window, the day was gray like snow, but no snow was falling.
Joe said between clinched teeth, “You’re not too old for a good old fashioned whipping, boy.”
“You see a boy?” Levi said. “You kick his ass.”
Neither one of them moved.
June came from the kitchen and pushed between them. She was crying, but managed to choke out, “Not on Christmas, you two. Please, not on Christmas.”
Their dad went to the basement and watched TV while they gathered up their presents and their mother packed up leftovers for them to take back to the apartment.
“Matt,” she whispered as she hugged him. “He’s in trouble. Help him.”
“He’s a big boy,” Matt said. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Just try,” she said. She hugged him again and said she loved him.
Matt spent a couple more months at Levi’s apartment, going out to bars and laying around the apartment all day. He spent a lot of time with Rosemary—it even began to feel like they were almost dating. She had some serious issues though: she had panic attacks, and sometimes locked herself in her apartment for three days at a time.
When Matt had had enough, he moved to Charleston and found a job working in the basement of the One Valley Bank, cutting, padding, and shrink-wrapping checks and brochures and business cards. He didn’t see much of Levi anymore, and didn’t see Rosemary at all.
Almost two years later, their dad showed up at his apartment in the evening, instead of calling, which set off the alarm in Matt’s head, just showed up in his new silver Cadillac.
His dad followed him up the steps of his building. A child’s toy was beside his door, a red rectangular base on four black wheels with blue bumpers but no car body on top. Matt put his foot on it and pushed it clicking down the hallway. It crashed into then ran along the wall until it came to the next doorframe, where it veered across the hallway and followed the opposite wall until it wound down near the end.
Inside his little efficiency, with his dad, neither of them small men, Matt felt cramped, like the two of them were in a tree house. He said, “Okay. What’s up?”
“Son, there’s been an accident.”
Matt turned around and waited.
His dad looked away. His jaw tightened.
His dad nodded, still looking away.
Matt nodded and they sat silently for a few minutes.
“How’d it happen?” Matt asked.
They all agreed that it would be proper to let Levi’s Huntington friends take part in the funeral. They were a motley gaggle of bikers, but they were serious about honoring their friend. They played two songs over the church speakers. When the first one started, a man’s raspy voice sang, “What in the world’s come over me,” in a gravelly whisper. It was ZZ Top, the song “Rough Boy,” playing in the Hughes Wedding Chapel at Beulah Free Methodist Church.
The song ended. There was a long pause. The preacher did not stand. Levi’s girlfriend filled the silence with muffled sobs. Another song came on. It was a simple chord progression picked on an acoustic guitar. Levi’s Huntington friends one by one started crying along with his girlfriend.
Eric Clapton sang, “Would you know my name, if you saw me in heaven/ Would you feel the same, if you saw me in heaven.” Matt looked over at all his brother’s friends, people he himself didn’t know. He didn’t bother to focus on anyone, just watched movement bubble randomly over the crowd, hands going to faces, hands going down, heads moving.
“Beyond the door,” Clapton went on, “there’s peace I’m sure/ ‘cause I know, there can be no, tears in heaven.”
After that, a girl Matt didn’t recognize stood up and read something April had written: Levi was kind and generous, always ready to help a friend in need; he was a man of his word, and never broke a promise; he was fiercely loyal, even if it landed him in jail—Levi’s Huntington friends broke into laughter at this. Then the sermon. A black shiny spot was on the red carpet by Matt’s ratty sneaker. A dropped piece of gum, smooth and dark as a drop of tar after years of being polished by church shoes.
At the graveside service, their mother collapsed into the long grass with her face to the ground and cried out, “My baby boy. My little baby boy.”
Matt and his dad lifted her by her armpits. Her body collapsed in repeated, heaving waves as they carried her to the car.
Today is April 3, 2015, the year I turn fifty—a fact so natural that it should not be astonishing, but I am astonished nonetheless. Rosemary and I have been married since 1992, together all that time, with the exception of one year, almost two actually, when we both made bad decisions—it no longer even matters which of us cheated first. I’ve had drinking problems, and she’s had depression, and OCD problems, but here we are together.
Today we are driving from Charleston to Milton for Dad’s funeral. Joe Dodd, our dad, had a massive heart attack five days ago. It was his second heart attack, he’s been in poor health for several years, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise.
The sun is bright, the sky clear but it is still getting down to freezing at night—might even be snow flurries tonight; it was a brutal winter. I have on a new brown suit. I have the down vest that Rosemary got me last Christmas in the back floorboard, and a flask-shaped bottle of Wild Turkey tucked away in my inside breast pocket.
From the interstate, Milton is no longer trees at all. It is a buzzing clump of restaurants and gas stations, like every other cluttered stop along every other gray interstate highway. Rosemary sits beside me, dressed in a heavy black sweater, long black wool skirt and boots. My sister Sarah’s boy Theo is in the back seat, listening to his headphones. We’ve been raising him for the past two years.
The funeral is in the old Hughes Wedding Chapel. I haven’t been in this room since Levi’s funeral. There are no pews anymore, and the red carpet has been pulled up and replaced with a bright checkerboard of white and brown tiles. The chairs are in rows, linked together at the sides. The ceiling is the same, grainy wood with the arched supports. It is a funeral for an old man. Sad but expected.
Back at mom’s house, after everyone is stuffed with gift food, sitting around waiting for the polite moment to stand and go home, I lean over and tell Rosemary, “I’m going to run back out to the graveside.”
“You want me to come along?” Rosemary has permanent crow’s feet now, and frown lines that make the number 11 on her forehead between her eyebrows.
I shake my head.
“Do what you need to do,” she says, and she pats my leg. “We’re good here.”
I ease myself out of the house without saying anything to anyone. I walk down the driveway. The woods behind the house where Levi and I played as boys have all been stripped away, this entire neighborhood is dwarfed by wide concrete streets of gigantic vinyl-sided houses separated by twenty feet of yard, and fences so brutally white they have to be made of PVC, or vinyl too? Not wood. The neighborhood is exposed on all sides. When I stand still, I can hear truck motors out on the interstate, and grinding truck brakes like monster cicadas. Tires slapping the seams of the overpass bridge.
The sun has warmed the inside of the car. Still, I reach in the back floorboard and pull up the down vest. I put it on over the suit coat. With the extra layer of clothing, the vest cuts into my armpits and binds across my chest. I take the Wild Turkey out of my chest pocket and slide it into the side vest pocket, which helps, and I drive back toward downtown Milton. Four miles down the road, I turn into Milton Memorial Park, where the men might still be filling Joe’s grave. During the graveside service, I saw the Case 580 backhoe over the hillside, half-hidden behind the brick caretaker’s shed.
Levi’s grave is not near dad’s. In our shock back then we didn’t think to plan for this. It doesn’t make any difference. The Case 580 works slowly at Joe’s grave, the backhoe ape-grabbing dirt, swinging around and dropping it. They’re almost finished. Joe is under there. My dad, a stiff, lifeless carcass. Levi too. All those years I’ve lived without my little brother. I haven’t come to visit his grave in years. I walk the rows until I find him.
I sit down beside the grave. The cold moves straight up from the ground through my thin suit pants into my ass and legs. I lean back against the stone, pull out the Wild Turkey, and have a swig. The bourbon is hot in my throat, smooth and sweet. I slosh a swig onto the ground for Levi.
The backhoe bounces down the hillside, leaving dad’s grave. Two men in coveralls are finishing up with smoothing shovels and a rake. I can only see them from their shoulders up; when they lean over to their work, they disappear entirely. The hum of the backhoe’s engine recedes. I catch a whiff of its diesel exhaust. On one side of me, cars and trucks pass on 64. On the other side is old Route 60, the road Levi and I cruised up and down endlessly as teenagers.
A memory comes to me, one night when I was just back from the Marines, the first time Rosemary and I dated, when I was hanging out in Huntington with Levi. This was before the first Gulf War for sure. We were at Yancey’s, a bunch of us upstairs at the shuffleboard table. Over the rail, the dance floor was empty. It was dollar-bloody-Mary night, Sunday night, and the place had the relaxed feel of the pool on a cloudy day when the life guards let you have free run of the place, swim around in the diving well if you want.
This song “You Spin Me Right Round” came on. Since I was in the middle of a shuffleboard game, Rosemary grabbed Levi’s hand and said, “Dance with me.”
Surprising us all, he took a bite of celery, set down his bloody Mary, and followed her down the steps. They danced so hard that I stopped my game and stood watching over the rail. Somehow, they were synched up, with the music and each other, a strange kind of stomp dancing.
I said to one of Levi’s friends, “Did you know Levi could dance like that?”
“He didn’t spend four years at Marshall for nothing,” he said.
God, we were so young. There was just as much to be worried about then as there is now, just as much to be afraid of, to be sad about, it was Russia instead of Iraq, or Iran—and look how now Russia is back.
At Levi’s grave after dad’s funeral, I take another drink. I slosh another drink into the grassy earth where my brother has been for twenty-four years. My old hands right here in front of me already starting to grow small liver spots. I still don’t know what any of it means.
On the dance floor that night at Yancey’s, I watched my brother and my girlfriend dance. Levi flung Rosemary out and she twirled till both their arms were stretched out, then he pulled her back, and they were stomping to the music the whole time, and she had her back to him and they were stomping, their legs moving together stomp, stomp, stomp to the beat. She twirled back out again and turned to him and his knees bent and hers bent too and they leaned toward one another and danced, and he took her hand again and they did the twirl again. Levi turned his back to Rosemary and she danced up behind him and they stomped and stomped and their legs moved together, and they moved all over the empty dance floor.
When the music stopped, the few people sitting at the downstairs bar clapped and hollered for them. Levi and Rosemary looked up at me as this song called “Right on Track,” that was popular then came on. Another hopping dance song. I stared down at them. Their chests were heaving from the hard dancing. I loved them both so hard in that moment that it hurt inside my chest. Levi grinned up at me, and Rosemary waved, and I gave them a hearty thumbs-up.
I still have no idea what any of it means, but I have that memory and it seems to mean something: There was music, and Rosemary wasn’t sad, and my brother Levi was alive, and for one brief dance, the whole world was perfect.