I was sunburned the day my brother shot himself. The beach where we had been playing football and smear the queer was relatively free of debris: seaweed, jellyfish, and vagrants. I remember every aspect of the day with Waterford clarity. The images remain vivid because it was this morning.

He didn’t do it like in the movies.

The troubled character sweats profusely and weeps. His hands shake as he raises the firearm (generally a revolver) and struggles over potential target area—trying the temple, the jaw, and usually settling on the barrel upturned in the open mouth. Finally, with his friends shouting that he is indeed loved and that this is not, is never, the answer, he gags out some heap of indecipherable gibberish pertaining to his reasons for the dramatic and awe-inspiring exit—his job, girlfriend, or guilt over some perceived wrong.

This is not how my brother did it. Not at all. He sat in the dark and shot himself in the stomach. They told us he bled for hours. He spread his journals around him in concentric spirals and covered the pages in bloody hieroglyphs. The symbols were written neatly, and with great care. Some of the pages had been enumerated specifically for order. Assorted pieces had been given new titles. The title page, with associated table of contents, identified as such by the carefully scripted “Title Page, with Associated Table of Contents” was found later, by an emt, folded precisely inside the gunshot wound. According to the examiners, that page was only one of many. My brother had literally filled himself with papers.

I can feel my skin tightening. Aloe hasn’t really affected the skin since I am so recently burned. If I arch my back too far, I am sure I’ll split. Molting is not a great concern of mine, but perhaps it should be. Maybe I’ll try some of that cooling gel. The commercials assure me that it’s 120% more effective than aloe-vera for the relief of sunburn pain and the dryness that accompanies careless overexposure to the “sun’s harmful rays.” First I have to shower. The water hurts, regardless of the pressure or temperature.

I had to the pay the Medical Examiner $100 to let me have the papers from my brother’s belly. I snapped up the journals right after I called the ambulance. No need to give the emts anything to worry about while they tried to loosen his limbs and get him onto the stretcher. The notes from the stomach made little sense, however, to the examiner. I don’t know why I expected them to, but those guys are trained, so connections should have been made. No trained professional should fail to connect fairly prominent dots and conclude something. For example, if I had found the notes, my conclusion would have been:

Excerpt from autopsy report (audio):

The victim’s life’s work, 30 odd years of epistolary detritus reaching outward in two Archimedean spirals from the breach in the abdominal wall. The entry wound is obscured by what appears to be paper. A slight peeling away of the wound surface reveals a series of wadded papers…wait, folded papers. The first is a tightly wound cylinder with a swelling towards the outer end. It is a plug, in both form and function. Gunshot may then be work of origamist of league quality or better with penchant for .38’s and a Dutch-boy fixation. My best guess is the victim, in his dying hours (of which there were several), attempted to reconstruct the circumstances of his attack using the items within easy reach—notebooks, paper swans, assorted visceral elements and virtually all of his blood.

Reconsidered: It may be unfair to expect this level of deduction from the post-mortem investigators since they did not have access to the notebooks. When I found my brother, I bundled up all the papers and bits of wood, metal and paint that comprised his journals and hid them. When the cops and emergency folk got there, all they saw was a dead guy with two holes in him (one in, one out) and enough blood to satiate any manner of large animal with a desire to consume blood, provided the animal’s size didn’t necessitate an unreasonable amount. The papers from the wound itself are in my room, and I am almost ready to move the furniture back in. The cleaning crew left about an hour ago and forgot to do it. They were thorough in every regard, save one. The room is spotless but bare. Ammonia and bleach (dangerous together) may be used in small quantities to remove dark stains of almost any description, even those left by standing blood. The smell is making me dizzy.

This isn’t the first time I have felt like this. I got badly sunburned once before, and my father told me a story to make me feel better, or at least put my pain in perspective. I couldn’t go back to the beach until I was healed, so I sat by myself in the rented house and varied my schedule by alternating my shifts of moaning, reapplying lotion, watching TV, and staring plaintively at my family as they pranced about on the beach, unconcerned and forgetful of their son who lay, alternately moaning, reapplying lotion and watching TV.

I discovered the sunburn in the shower. When the water struck my back, the objections and exhortations of my overly cautious mother came back to me. The words, to this day, are perfectly associated with three visual images of that day—seagulls picking apart an inflatable Disney character stuffed with fish heads (the work of a fraternity), a teenager pissing on a sleeping dog, and a pair of harlequin pants in the hotel swimming pool.

“You are turning bright red. Let me spray you with this lithium based sedative sunscreen gel. It ‘lowers the body temperature while raising fun parameters in the youngster to near lethal values.’ It’s got Blockinol™ and UValene™.”

"Mom, I’m not burning!"

Despite years of outdoor surveillance, my mom always misinterpreted whatever symptoms I happened to exhibit. 1

“My skin is red because my inhibitions are leaving me at a rate incommensurate with my mass and body fat percentage. The anxieties are passing through the skin as the normal means of escape are blocked! It’s metastasizing into a condition not unlike Rosacea but comprised wholly of formerly sublimated desires now grown manifest!”

“How can your coping mechanisms be blocked already? We just had you tuned. What do you think all that classic rock hypnosis therapy was for? Do you think we listened to all that Peter Frampton for our health? Dr. Watts assured us that the sheer power of arena rock riffmasters like Boston, Queen, and in some regards, the underappreciated tonic infections of Edgar Winter, would prevent the social unease that so hindered your earlier efforts concerning transition between interactive spheres. Are you in a peer group that provokes you or provides you with an uncomfortable environment in which to overcome your crippling neuroses?”

“Mom! The guys are right here! It’s just that…It’s just...” This sort of dialogue was not appropriate for the beach, so I stood faltering.

“Spit it out, boy.” My father bellowed, growing impatient and a little pink himself. Every second my mother drew attention to her son’s various distresses, both dermatological and social, was a second she wasn’t mixing him an ovaltine belvedere. (The OB is the drink of choice for all aging men of leisure whose families no longer appreciate the need for hard work, a group with which my father desperately wished to associate himself. What if some aging man of leisure were to stroll past, grumbling about his children and their respective lacks of concern about the future and find my father with an old-fashioned, or worse, a midori sour, or some such communist beverage? My older brother had reminded my father once that a more likely communist beverage would be a vodka and borscht toddy, but the old man hadn’t heard. He was too busy practicing his knowing glances and exasperated sighs in the hall mirror for future use at the clubs where aging men of leisure gathered.)

“It’s just that all my normal coping mechanisms seem a bit contrived out here on the beach.”

I was losing momentum.

One of the boys nearby chimed in, giggling, “Look, I’m coping with the possibility of future trauma by visualizing positive outcomes for the situations that bring me the greatest stress!” He began to tear up from suppressed laughter, and this effort inspired the rest of my friends to join in.

“Hey, check this out!” The smallest of the boys, a blond kid wearing cutoffs and one flipper, put on his most mechanical frown and dropped his voice and his brow, intoning, “Let’s role play. I am an authority figure with whom you’ve taken issue. How do you feeeeel (he stretched it out for over a minute by utilizing circular breathing techniques) about my continued perceived interference?” They all cracked up and fell on the sand, holding their sides, eventually taking turns holding each other’s sides as the effort became too great.

My mother just rolled her eyes and slid her sunglasses back up the slope of that cartilaginous beak of hers. The glasses immediately slipped down a little, as the ascent was well lubricated by mom sweat. I began to count the number of drops that fell into her Tilapia Daiquiri. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. She dismissed me.

“Go on then, burn. Don’t come crying to me about lotions, salves, and military grade neurotoxins which can be used, in dire circumstances, to damage neural tissue sufficiently to suppress all but the most subconscious distresses .”

Despite her instructions to handle my burns myself, should they occur, I requested her assistance after the second flush-induced ice-water/boiling-water combo sent my way by my brother. She carried me to the nearest bed with only minimal complaint (although I think I might have heard the words “disown” and “grounded” in passing). In retrospect, these whispers may have been a verbal smokescreen, a momentary diversion, to draw my attention away from the phrase “…sold into slavery via the academic black market. Those guys at Cornell are always in the market for a crybaby with a predilection for UV absorption. They’re weird that way. Call Señor Palo Alto and have him set it up.” I recall the sound of a ham radio being tuned and retuned. Whistlers.

My father comforted me in the only way he knew how (or at least was willing to attempt), he told me a story from his youth, presumably to instill in me the sort of grit and guts he felt I was lacking.


1 I spent several of my young summers at various child depositories masquerading as wilderness retreats. During all my years of summer camp, I only wrote my parents once. I had developed a couple of blisters during a forced march from the mess hall to the state-sponsored rifle range/planetarium. The terrain was pockmarked from the periodic landfall of mortar shells and a tunnel complex being daily expanded by the resident population of moles and gophers (also state-sponsored, genetically altered, and prone to hyperbole—liars every one). This rough and ready landscape was difficult to navigate and many campers slipped, fell or were otherwise laid low. We finished the march muddy, upset, and in my case, blistered.

I mentioned the blisters in passing, focusing instead on the porridge-heavy menu and my partial exclusion from the mile swim. My mother decided that the letter was an encoded plea for intervention on behalf of my ravaged feet. Although I had clearly explained the origin of the blisters, she sent a series of telegrams to the camp, demanding the release of her son (who she failed to name) and declaring in each that the methods of interrogation employed by the counselors were not only barbaric, but needlessly expensive.