A Perfect Life
by Moshe Dann (November 2013)
Holding Mac's unopened letter, I wondered why my brother had written now, after so many months and why he had disappeared.
A grey winter sky drooled over lines of cars that wound along the icy Boston streets around the park. I imagined him hiding among the dark trees that hovered above the snow. Mac, I thought, where the hell are you?
He was the oldest in our family and I was the youngest; my sister Reny, several years younger than Mac, separated us and although we grew up together, we were in different worlds. I admired his independence, the casual way he wore his clothes, his days-old beard that scratched when he hugged me and stories of his adventures when he returned from his wanderings. Wrapped in fierce defiance, he would stand alone in front of our house looking off into the distance, planning his next escape.
I wondered why he needed to run away and why he and Papa fought as they grew older. Stubborn, driven to achieve and always struggling with someone, or something, they seemed so much alike. And where did I fit in? Mac needed to find something new and different, even if it meant conflict; I wanted to stay out of the way. He needed to go beyond boundaries; I wanted to stay within them
Maybe that's why nothing seemed to work for him; he couldn’t live up to his expectations. Not in my eyes, however. I revered him for his passions, the way he fought his battles, especially those inside. “You don’t always get what you want,” he said, “but you always get what you need to grow.”
Mac wasn't really close to anyone and, although he had girlfriends, it took him a long time to make a commitment, and when he finally did get married everyone said it was a miracle, and maybe a mistake. Perhaps he thought so too, but he was determined, or tired of looking, or didn't know what else to do with his life. It was just time.
Things were never very good between him and his wife. They fought about everything and didn't seem much in love. "What's love?" he confided. "I just don't know what she wants," as if that was enough to absolve him. After a dozen years of trying to make it work and a couple of kids, they decided it was over.
A few weeks before the divorce, he called to tell me of his decision. I'd finished an MA in literature at Boston University and was working as an assistant editor at an architecture and home furnishings magazine in the city. I was afraid for him and for myself as well. Seeing difficulties in my parents' marriage, I assumed that I too would likely fail.
The year before Mac had been fired from the junior high school where he'd been teaching for "not sticking to the curriculum." Perhaps that was only an excuse for getting rid of someone who was too restless and creative for the administration and didn't "kiss ass." I wasn't sure if he was being courageous, or stubborn, but it was his life, not mine. I didn't want to take chances.
One day on the way back to my apartment after work I saw him trimming bushes. He'd moved into a tiny apartment and found a job with a friend in the landscaping business; we arranged to meet after work at a coffee shop. When he told me about a novel he was writing and the breakup of his marriage and family I felt more than just his little brother. His pain unfolded in the lines of his gaunt, unshaven face, long fingernails and rumpled, frayed blue work shirt, his dark eyes like a fugitive, searching for a way out.
"I don't know what I'll do," he said slowly, carefully, as if picking his way through a minefield that had already claimed one leg, measuring his napkin with a finger, plotting a dead-end. "Damned headaches” he rubbed his forehead, hunching his shoulders like a boxer about to get hit, and then looked at his watch. “Doctor’s appointment,” he got up abruptly and rushed out with my heart in his hands.
A few months later, his ex-wife called to ask if she could send boxes of his things to me. I agreed, but asked why she didn't send them directly to him. "I don't know where he is," she answered crisply, "I just want to get rid of his stuff."
Mac's letter postmarked upstate Maine had no return address. He'd rented a cabin in the woods. "Need to think things through," he wrote. "No roads--need to trek in. Love you, always," the scrawl of his name evoked my curiosity and the mystery of his disappearance.
Well, I thought, that makes life difficult; but it wasn't my life. I wanted to succeed, make compromises and get the things that come with it: stability, a predictable life, a regular job, Amy, my practical reliable girlfriend, and a circle of friends with whom I could party, or hang out. I was not an adventurer. Trying to connect to Mac wasn’t worth the risk.
Tucking his letter in a book, I awaited more specific news; it never came. Several weeks later, I searched for clues to an address. Detailed maps for the area listed it as "wilderness -- no access." It was spring when I decided to take some vacation time and drive up to the green blob on the map where the post office mark indicated he might be found.
The trip took most of the day. I checked into a small motel stuck between a diner and a hardware store that also served as a Post Office. No one knew anything about my brother, so the next day I began my search. Dirt roads ended in abandoned quarries, or garbage pits and dumping grounds for abandoned cars, like dinosaurs mired in tar pits, stuck, corroding there forever. Standing alone, surrounded by tall dark trees swaying in the wind, every sound like a sharp bell against the silence, I was drawn into the solitude and enigma, unsure of my mission and curious what I might find.
Returning to town, I drove to its tiny gas station. A wizened face peered through the window, tufts of white hair flowing out of his faded baseball cap, denim overalls marked with grease. When he finished stacking a pyramid of oil cans inside his office, he emerged slowly, as if I had intruded.
“Fillerup,” I said, and told him about my search for Mac. He stared at the spinning numbers on the gas pump as if he hadn't heard me, or was concentrating on something else. Perhaps he didn't care, I thought, as he shoved the nozzle back into its holder.
“Why don’t ya ask Dutch to help ya? He’s got a plane. Maybe he can spot it for ya. Straight down the road,” he pointed. “All the way, on the left.” Wiping his hands on a rag that hung from his back pocket, he spit a gob of tobacco juice into the bushes and went back inside his office to stack more cans of oil.
Dutch's "airport" was an open field next to his home on the edge of town. Pulling into the gravel driveway, I parked near someone crammed under the hood of a car.
“Hi, are you Dutch?"
Standing up, he wiped his hands on his overalls and nodded.
“Watcha need?” Born and raised on the nearby Indian Reservation, Dutch knew the country like no one else. After I explained about my search for Mac, he stuck his head back under the hood. I wasn’t sure he'd understood me.
“Can you help?” I asked. Wind rushed through the trees like a distant waterfall.
“Maybe,” he said. “Gotta finish this first.” He told me that he flew for hunters, sometimes crop dusted for nearby farms and when he wasn't doing either, fixed engines. The shed was scattered with parts of small planes and several black hulks, like animal skeletons waiting for a body. He looked at his watch, then at the sky. “Tomorrow morning. Come early."
He was waiting for me when I arrived, my stomach full of pancakes, locally produced maple syrup and strong coffee from the diner. "You're late," he said, heavy clouds still clinging to the trees like cobwebs. It was 7 o'clock. We walked through the damp grass to a small single engine plane that seemed too fragile to carry both of us. It had a woman’s name on it: “Clara,” in fancy red letters.
"Who's that?" I pointed to the name.
“My wife,” he said. “She got me into this -- and she’ll get me out.” He laughed.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Dead,” he slapped the side. “Hop in,” he said, pulling himself into the pilot’s seat as I slid in next to him.
The engine seemed reluctant to start. I was having second thoughts, but finally, with a sudden roar and belch of black smoke, the propeller began to spin smoothly. We taxied through the field and rose slowly over scattered houses that clung like steaming fingernails to the hills, widening out in circles, like a hawk looking for prey.
Mac probably didn't want me to find him, I thought; maybe I'd made a mistake. What if we crashed? I wanted to tell Dutch to go back, but was embarrassed. Feeling utterly dependent on him and vulnerable, I also felt a sense of empowerment that comes with taking risks. As we rose above the heavy mist, I began to relax, thrilled with the immensity of land and mountains, as if a secret had begun to reveal itself.
I pointed excitedly to a cabin near a small clearing. Dutch shook his head. “Gunney’s,” he explained, used occasionally by hunters. Swinging back and forth across the forest, thin streams glistened in the bright morning sunlight. I thought about traffic-clogged streets, office buildings, stores, banks and coffee shops – civilization -- and Amy who loved me in her simple way. I had a decent job and a good life, but I was restless. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what.
Dark greens and browns swirled below, a tapestry of questions. Where am I going? What am I doing? I wanted to be back in my world with its routines and comforts, and yet I needed to find Mac, part of him stuck inside me that I needed to know.
Dutch pointed to a small shack hidden among the trees. "Could be," he muttered. "I can drop you off there," he pointed to a clearing near an abandoned logging site. “You’ll have to walk in." He swooped down, barely clearing the trees and landed. "Want me to wait for you?" He stuck a toothpick in his mouth.
I didn’t know what to do. "Give me an hour. If I'm not back, take off." I paid him, glanced at my watch, slipped into my backpack, and headed off towards the cabin. It was much farther than I'd calculated and the terrain was difficult and covered with heavy underbrush and snow. After nearly a half hour I finally arrived. The shutters were closed. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Birds chirped in the trees around me. Pine smells filled the air as I walked around the cabin. I was about to leave when the door scraped open.
"Who is it?" a thin voice, and then Mac’s worn familiar face. At first his thick beard startled me.
"It's me," I smiled. “Hey, bro, I missed you!”
He seemed uneasy at first, but when I stepped toward him, he embraced me. “Good to see you too. I thought you might try to find me.”
Glancing at my watch, I figured that I could still make it back to the plane in time.
"Do you have somewhere to go?" he asked, almost politely
If I didn't make a decision quickly, I thought, I might be stranded. "As a matter of fact, someone is waiting for me..." I wanted him to convince me to stay.
"Then go," he said. “It’s better.”
I turned to leave. "Wait a minute, I came a damn long way to see you."
"And you're disappointed?"
"No. Yes, in a way. How will I get back to town?" I needed his reassurance.
"There's a short cut. I'll show you when you want to leave.”
The cabin consisted of one large room: a pot-bellied stove fashioned out of an oil drum in the center, a bed and dresser against one wall, and a thick wooden table covered with papers. Cardboard boxes were stacked in a corner. I compared it with my apartment, with its color TV and modern appliances.
"Electricity?" I asked
"Wood and kerosene." Oil lamps on the table made it seem like a movie set about the Old West. "Put your stuff on the bed. If you want something to drink, spring water’s in the bucket near the sink. Pump more, if you want. I cooked a vegetable stew this morning."
"Toilet? Bath?" I asked, feeling sticky.
"Outside" he answered.
"And the bath?" I asked again.
"A stream nearby."
"It'll be cold."
He nodded unsympathetically.
I looked at my watch. Dutch would be taking off in a few minutes. There was no time to get there. I was stuck.
"You'll never get back to the plane in time, if that's what you’re thinking."
"Exactly what I was thinking. How did you know?"
"I heard the plane. Figured you told him to wait since you didn't bring the pilot with you. Simple."
"And you knew it was me?"
"No, but I thought you'd try to find me." He smiled."I came here to be alone, but now that you're here, I'm glad you came."
"Why? What happened?"
"I had to find out something about myself."
"But why did you have to come here?"
“I didn't feel connected to anything anymore. I keep asking myself what I was doing, where I was going, like a cartoon character: ‘Does life have meaning?’ When Pa died, I was stroking his head. You were away at school then. He was scared of dying and worried about us; he felt that he had failed. I let him down, you too, and my family.” He looked like a child that had done something wrong and was about to be punished. I didn’t understand.
"Come back with me. You can stay with me, and you can always return …”
“No. Not now. It’s complicated." He stopped suddenly. “Let’s eat and get some sleep,” he said. “But first, come outside.” Drawing into itself the colors it had given to the world, the sky darkened into blackness, night awakened to the flood of stars illuminating the heavens.
Back inside he lit a fire and we ate his rice and vegetable stew, our weariness overwhelming us. The smell of burning wood and the heat curled around us as we sat around the stove watching red embers dance with flames.
"I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time an old man lived alone in the middle of a forest. He was called “The Master, The One Who Rules Himself,” and although people heard about him, no one could find him. One day a young man from the village, upon hearing the story of the legendary wise man, was curious and decided to look for him. He wandered through the forest, but returned to the village without success. His friends mocked him and he began to doubt whether the stories about the old man were true.
"One night, 'The Master' came to him in a dream and told him that he too would become wise. When he woke up the young man began his search again. By the time he reached the edge of the forest it was late. Yet, he decided to continue, relying on his instincts to guide him back if he should get lost. Lights of the village glistened in the distance as night fell in the forest, but when he tried to retrace his steps he couldn't find the way back. At first, he was not afraid, since he'd been in the forest before and thought that at any moment he would see familiar signs and home. The hope of finding the old man comforted him, as he walked deeper into the forest.
"The longer he walked, the more anxious he became, aware that he was lost and that he would have to stay alone in the forest at night. A small cave sheltered by trees was large enough for him to crawl inside, and pulling his jacket around him, he went to sleep.
"Days passed. He learned to survive. And after a while, he found paths that led towards his village. Standing at the edge of the forest, trees singing above him, lights in the distance, he knew that he was not ready to return. Occasionally, he ventured to farms. The peasants didn't recognize him and, thinking that he was a poor beggar from another village, gave him food and clothing.
"One morning, hearing voices nearby, he looked out into the bright sunshine and saw a group of children. Emerging from his resting-place, he saw that they were frightened.
"'The Old Man,’ they shouted, pointing at him, ‘The One Who Lives Alone.’
“’There must be some mistake,' he thought ’I'm still a child, like them. It's time to go home too.' But as he began to walk in the direction that the children had fled, he realized that he could not follow them.
"Stopping near leaves covered with dew, he looked into beads of water and he saw his reflection, the one for whom he had been searching."
By the end of the story I was almost asleep. Mac covered me with a rough wool blanket. "Good night,” he threw another log into the stove. The old ones, almost finished, spit and cursed, not knowing that the newcomer would keep them alive a little longer.
When I awoke, Mac was cooking cereal in a heavy black pot covered with layers of previous fires. I stretched and yawned, wincing as I pushed myself up.
"You’ll feel better once you've eaten," he said.
"Grains?" I asked. "That's all you eat?"
"Mostly veggies, plants, whatever's around. I stock up in town when I need to and carry it in my backpack. I'm not starving and you won't either."
My stomach rumbled. Even cooked cereal, which I never eat, smelled good. I washed my hands and face in a bucket of cold water outside as dense mists lifted into the clear blue sky.
"I forgot to ask," Mac asked, "about Sis."
"Reny? She and the kids live in northern California. She sends a note once a year to let me know she's still alive and 'what's new.' She’s in her own world.”
Mac coughed heavily. “Doesn't sound good," I said. "You should see a doctor..."
"It's nothing; just a cold. Well, time to go. I'll walk with you to town; I need to pick up some things there anyway. We should start soon; it's a long hike.""
Putting on our coats and backpacks, we began walking towards town. We hardly spoke along the way; Mac seemed exhausted and out of breath.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
He nodded, "Yeah, I guess I'm just not used to it." He tried to take a deep breath, coughed again and stopped. "This road will take you into town. I’m going back. I don't need anything right now and I need to rest, so let’s say goodbye."
"Please," I pleaded with him. "Come back with me. Or at least let me help you bring stuff back. I can stay longer, if you like."
He shook his head. "No thanks." I knew he'd made up his mind
He hugged me. “It meant a lot to me that you came.” There were tears in his eyes and in mine too. "Find a good woman and marry her, have lots of kids and be very happy." He stepped back and then, as if an afterthought, kissed me on both cheeks. "And be in love as much as you can. It's the most wonderful thing about life." Waving, he disappeared in the brush. I took a few steps and then caught up with him.
“Mac, I can’t leave you, not now, not yet. Remember once you told me you’d do anything for me. Well, now I’m asking. Come back with me, just for a while…”
He leaned on a tree. I put an arm around him, feeling his weakness, our worlds and fragility now intertwined.
By the time we got to the end of the trail, I was almost carrying him and when we made it to the paved road, he collapsed. I flagged down a car and asked the driver to help us get into town.
“Do you know Dutch’s place? Can you get us there?” Mac was struggling to breathe. We stopped next to my car and I thought I'd drive Mac to the nearest doctor when Dutch came out of his house.
“Hey,” he said, "what’s goin' on? He don’t look so good,” and came closer. “We’d best get him to a hospital, but it’ll take an hour to drive there. Put him in my little baby and we’ll fly down there in no time. Let’s go.”
We strapped Mac and were soon soaring over trees and roads that crisscrossed below us. Dutch radioed ahead to the police that we were going to land next to the hospital; lights flashing, they closed off traffic.
I was afraid Mac had lost consciousness. He was hardly breathing as we rushed him into the emergency room where a young doctor examined him.
“He's in bad shape; could be critical,” the doctor said. “We’ll get in touch with his doctor and keep him overnight. Let's see what happens.”
I slept in the waiting room. The next morning I sat in the doctor’s office with a cup of instant coffee and no pancakes.
“He has advanced stomach cancer,” the doctor told me, "and pneumonia. You can leave him here, or drive back to the city. Nothing much we can do for him except to make him comfortable.”
I returned with my car from Dutch’s place, bundled Mac inside and headed home. Home, wherever that was.
His ex-wife brought the kids to the hospital. Mac was happy to see them. Reny arrived later. It was like a party. No balloons; only a morphine drip. He died the next day.
We buried him on a hill overlooking the city and, despite what one thinks of after-life experiences, I could feel his presence gently scolding, "You know I won’t like this place you've picked out!"
"It was convenient," I muttered, standing over the newly filled grave, "and cheaper," wondering if he would forgive this last compromise. I wanted to begin training for the Boston marathon.
It was spring when I remembered the books and papers that he'd left behind and decided to find that cabin again. I drove up to the town, filled my gas tank at the same place where I'd been before, got my pancakes and looked for the path that led to the cabin where Mac had lived. Surprisingly, I found it rather easily. Leaving my car at Dutch’s place, I trekked towards the cabin, marking the way with cut branches and stones. The air was sharp and fresh, the ground still covered with patches of snow.
Standing in front of the cabin, I remembered how I had surprised Mac and had a fantasy that he would surprise me now, his eyes peering from the shuttered windows, his absent voice caught in the creaking stairs, in the groan of the old wooden porch.
The key to the cabin still worked. I knocked, waited for a response and then, pushing the door open, I stepped inside. This time I was alone. My brother’s things were packed in cardboard boxes at one side of the room. Taking one of his rumpled blue work shirts from a box, I held it to my face and tried it on. The door swayed open, sliding a shadow along the floor, nothing in its wake.
Sitting at the table, I began to write. “This is where I must begin…” Windows rattled in the wind. Where are you going? Where do you belong? Mac’s questions filled this solitude, his and now mine.
For the next two weeks I read what Mac had written, trying to make sense out of his life, and mine, as if he'd left a hidden message for me. My questions imploded in silence, black holes of doubts and confusion.
I wanted to connect to him through the things he'd left behind, perhaps to finish what he'd begun. But his search wasn't mine. He'd come here to ask his questions and find his answers. I wanted to confront life in my own way. Was Amy right for me? Was I ready to settle down and raise a family? Was my comfortable, boring job enough? I did what was easier, convenient, but what I admired most in Mac was his passion and his ability to be different. But there were risks and the possibility of failure.
I wanted to be independent and still committed to a relationship, part of a community, doing something that fulfilled me, even though I wasn't sure how to get there. Wearing Mac’s shirt, my furtive reflection in the window seemed oddly similar. The buzz of a plane; I missed Amy.
Stuffing my brother's backpack with his papers and a few books, I stepped outside. Suddenly, I heard my name.
“Amy!” I shouted as she ran towards me and we embraced. “And Dutch!” who followed her. “What are you doing here?”
“I missed you and I decided to find you. Your stories about Dutch made it easy. “She winked at Dutch. Perfect timing, I thought, immersed in her smell.
“We brought food … and maple syrup,” Dutch said, putting a heavy knapsack on the porch. “I’ve got to get back now.” He looked up into the trees. “If you listen you can hear them singing," he said and walked back to his plane.
“And one more surprise,” Amy said, patting her belly.
No! I thought. “You’re hungry?” I tried to sound nonchalant.
“That too,” she smiled and put an arm around my waist.
“Are you sure?” I had tried to hit the ‘serious’ button, but hit ‘stupid’ instead.
“Sure?” Eyebrows raised, she smiled sardonically. “How do you feel?”
This is a life-changing moment, I thought, but one I had not intended. I took a deep breath, and sighed. “Perfect.”
“Good. You’re a fine writer. Get to work. Ten pages a day. I’ll make pancakes. And, by-the-way, my due date is around the time that Mac died last year.” She went inside and unpacked.
A place for his soul, I thought, and time enough to heal. It was, after all, where I wanted to be, eventually, but was I ready to take on this commitment now – and did I have much choice?
Sitting on the cabin’s steps, I listened to Amy humming my favorite song. When she stopped, enveloped in silence, she came out and sat beside me.
“Overwhelmed?” she asked gently, an arm over my shoulder. “Well, you should be, but we’re in this together. I chose you long before this, and you chose me too. I don’t want you to go into this unwillingly. I believe in you. You have the guts and smarts to do it, but becoming a family with me, and ‘us’ is not assumed. You’re free to go; I won’t hold you – or obligate you. I’ll become a mother with or without you. And no matter what you decide, I’ll always love you. Just like the song. I know that sounds silly, but that’s the way I am.”
Silly? I thought. Who’s silly? I imagined my child in her belly. The wind whispered in the trees, sighing, singing. “What’s the deal?” I ask, digging my heel into the earth.
“For today, for tomorrow – or longer?"
“For-ever,” I said, my heart pounding
“I guess we’ll find out.”
“What about the marathon?”
“Not this year, I guess.”
A spider crawled near my feet. I was about to smash it when Maggie stopped me. “It’s going to lay eggs,” she said. “Don’t kill it.”
“And if I would?” I dared her.
“No pancakes,” she got up and rumpled my hair. “Hungry?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I am hungry. Can you handle that?”
She took my hand. “What do you think?”
The sky darkened. A soft rain splattered the ground, drumming on the roof with bursts of thunder. Closing the door, I held her tightly, life beginning there.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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