My father keeps beer in the fridge for me. He doesn’t drink, really, and I don’t live with him anymore, but I think he likes that I come over and, when I do, he can say, “There’s beer.”
I live in Brooklyn with Sofia now. There is no reason for me to have post-work beers with my father, but I do, three, four days a week, settling into that familiar hollow space on the couch next to him. I text Sofia that I’m working late, cold-calling for the nonprofit that I cold-call for, or chasing an interview for a story. Usually, I stay until right before the B train stops running. I hurry to catch it and feel guilt, though I’m not sure what for.
Dave has been living here, mid-divorce, and the three of us sit in a triangle. He wears a moth-holed red sweater that used to be my father’s. He’s reading an old paperback copy of Herzog.
“Read something else,” my father says.
“Why?” Dave says. “I like classics.”
“It’s a cliché.”
“Just because I’m divorced?” Dave says. “Or narcissistic? Or Jewish? Is this a self-hating thing?”
“Have you even read it?” Dave snaps.
“Of course,” I lie. “It’s about an unhappy, divorced Jewish guy. It’s a classic.”
“You want to watch a movie?” my father says.
This is a common progression. We are readers and watchers. We compete with knowledge of the art we consume. We quote lines and challenge one another to identify the source. We play that game where one person names a movie, then the next an actor from that movie, then the next another movie that actor has been in. We play in endless circles. We speak of the world in archetypes. In the movie of our family, we have decided, Albert Finney will play my father because of the eyebrows. And Paul Giamatti will play Dave—he doesn’t like that. And Seth Rogen will play me.
My father bought himself a John Ford/John Wayne DVD box set, and we’ve been sporadically making our way through each of the Westerns. He loves John Wayne movies, that whole parched-earth, stoic morality thing. I like them, too. Dave, not as much. He finds them all surface, resents that we’re supposed to assume that there’s depth under monosyllabic restraint.
Last week we watched Stagecoach, laughed when Wayne faced Claire Trevor, told her, “I know all I want to know.”
Josh used to write movie scripts. I don’t know if he ever finished one, but he left behind ideas, story lines, short scenes, title pages with huge, bolded type. When I slept over at his apartment, I would fall asleep on the couch to the sound of his typing. In the morning, he printed what he wrote on long, perforated sheets. He let me rip the pages apart, and then sometimes he let me read aloud the side characters, usually women, while he voiced the protagonist. He wrote about the city at night. He had consistent themes and types. There was a drug lord named Alonso, a tortured DEA agent named Lance. Men with clenched jaws and burdens unspoken. I pictured them all with his face.
I have my brother’s old scripts now, at least the ones he saved. They’re mostly just first scenes. They open in the early morning hours, predawn, and make some reference to most of the city that never sleeps being asleep. He favored searching cameras, lots of sweeping across the Manhattan skyline, spotting one light on in a building, zooming in fast to find a young man, handsome, well-dressed, once described as “conservative” in look and behavior, about to get caught up.
Ah, says the voice-over in the last script he ever began. This is just who I was looking for.
It’s an appealing place to start, a nice trope to think about: the heartthrob facing dangers long after everyone else has gone to bed. Never mind the cheesy titles—The Loophole. Executive Justice. Heaven, Hell and the Witness Protection Program. Focus on the ideal.
Tonight, I’m expecting a later John Wayne effort, The Searchers maybe, but my father says he has a surprise and pulls out an unmarked DVD of never-watched home movies that he got converted. They are predictably benign. There’s a scene of my second birthday, and we laugh at the way I shovel cake into my mouth. There are shots of my father trying to film a boat in the distance, his voice from behind the camera saying, “I can’t figure the thing out.”
Then static, then a new scene.
The new scene is grainier; I’m not sure why. It’s set in a rented summerhouse on Long Island, walls the color of moldy bread and an oblong living room with a piano in the corner. The camera is positioned on a counter, pulled back from the action. From the moment the camera turns on, there is music. Josh sits at the piano and plays, arms dangling out of a red tank top.
“He taught himself how to play the piano,” my father says, sitting next to me. “Nobody taught him that. He taught himself.”
It’s just after sunset in the video. The shot looks candlelit but there are no candles. Josh begins to play “Let It Be,” even slower than the original, not plodding, though, sensuous. I hear voices from behind the camera begin to sing. A back swoops in, arms holding me, and then I’m placed on his lap as he plays. He looks over me at the camera. I look where he looks, and for a second both of our eyes are facing out, glowing. Josh begins to sing softly. I can’t hear him over the voices closer to the camera, but in the video I hear him and my body sways with what the sound must be. I collapse into him, and I put my head on his chest like I can feel the music vibrate out of his skin.
The clip is only a few minutes long. There’s no progression, just a steady camera fixed on one point where Josh happens to be sitting, like a Warhol movie, but nostalgic. Then, static.
My father has begun to cry. He cries only at films, sometimes books.
“Movie star, right?” he says.
“Totally,” I say.
It feels important for him to say and for me to agree with. We are, after all, cultural consumers in this family. We put stock in our taste. We find beauty there, in the proof of knowing what we saw and whether it was good.
There’s a particular moment halfway through Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary that I often return to. Ten months after his mother’s death, he watches an old movie. It’s a Hitchcock mystery from the forties. As he watches, he feels no escapist joy; but what he records instead is the soothing sensation of finding his dead mother in Ingrid Bergman, who doesn’t look anything like her. On-screen, captured, he sees: her lovely, simple hands, an impression of freshness, a non-narcissistic femininity—his mother in words that he hadn’t yet thought to use, in a place he hadn’t been trying to look for her. That rings true for me. Not the exact connection that he made but the fact that he made it, those general qualities that an icon can be a vessel for, so much brighter and easier to see in moving strips of light.
I have found my brother in Patrick Swayze, Brando, John Travolta (in that movie where he drives a taxi and raises Kirstie Alley’s child), Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Lee, Heath Ledger (before the obvious association), Elliott Gould, Tupac, Spencer Tracy, Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Warren Beatty, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Leonardo from the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. He’s in their lips or their shoulders or their eyes; their confidence, their contradictions, their promise.
Now, in this little room, in the dark that is so familiar, as my father weeps like that time he took me to see Streetcar as a kid, I’m seeing my brother as himself, or it seems like it, at least. I think he would have liked that, the meeting of fantasy and reality, captured, vivid, in moving strips of light. It’s flickering, fast, but I see him.
Lucas Mann is the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere and the forthcoming Lord Fear: A Memoir, from which this essay is excerpted. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]