A MESSAGE OF COMFORT IN YOUR TIME OF GRIEF
Elizabeth Tippens

My brother is still in demand on the memorial service circuit.

This is what I’ve heard.

I live uptown and he lives downtown, but my brother has a way of casting a long shadow. For one thing, he’s tall.

We haven’t spoken in almost two years, but I have this weird, acute hearing, and anyway, if you’re me, you hear things.

You read things, too. An item here or there, an interview. He’s a wit. Funny quotables. Page Six. A Vanity Fair puff piece. My brother always loved a good puff piece. He thought it was a special little art all its own. And that gossip columnist from The Village Voice, the one who hasn’t updated his huge eyewear since 1983, he loves my brother. He’s written about my brother’s comings and goings for years now, before my brother was on the map or the radar, or anywhere else besides simply on the town. He wrote about my brother long before the major screenwriting awards, and I mean major. I mean Oscar. A word so potent, I’ve seen people hesitate to speak it aloud. I’ve found it sticks in my own throat. Tony Award is relatively easy to say. Golden Globe a snap. My brother has those too. But the Oscars are my brother’s one-two punch back at the world. They have names. One is called FUCK. And one is called YOU.

Writers aren’t supposed to become famous. Writers are supposed to be like me, a poet with a solid reputation in the insular, if not incestuous, poetry community, who publishes in prestigious journals, of which the general public is completely unaware. I also have a little book, with a title and everything, which can be found in some Barnes & Noble stores, but not all.

Screenwriters don’t generally register a high Q rating either, but my brother is known. Not famous. He won’t let you say famous, even though that’s what he is. He prefers known, always vigilant in correcting the tendency of show business itself toward inflation at best, delusion at worst. My brother never over-inflates himself or his accomplishments. Somehow, and I really don’t know how he does it, he gets others to do this for him, while he sits back looking modest, slightly embarrassed even. That’s a special little art all its own.

I find this particular posture diabolical, because I know, as no one else knows, that my brother had always planned on becoming famous, and had always envisioned the exact kind of famous person he would be--nice. A hard-working kind of nice. Like Joan Crawford was nice. I mean, publicly, of course. Joan was from "the fans made me" school of fame, keeping up her looks and wearing the ankle-strap pumps, autographing endless photos, personally attending to the fan mail, all to thank the original little people. Ever gracious to them all. The kind of famous person who fosters mutually beneficial relationships with the press. Like Joan herself, this code of famous-person conduct recalls another era. Something like L.A. Confidential.

When my brother was a too-tall and skinny fourteen, the year of the braces, the year the station showed mercy on us, two aging child actors, and finally cancelled our TV show, we saved books and books of green stamps, with which Gary bought himself a white, fake satin chaise lounge and a white princess telephone for his bedroom. He wanted to "relax" on a "luxurious" chaise, like a movie star from the 1940s, like an actress from an old movie magazine. He wanted to sit or lie there, sipping something, smoking something, thumbing through something vogue. Actually he liked Ladies Home Journal. He loved, "Can This Marriage Be Saved," and in one of his shows of pure obstinance, brought the magazine to school, where it was promptly grabbed, ripped apart, and thrown out the math room window. Worse things happened, too. Much worse. But back at home, Gary wanted to make a picture of himself there, in the corner of his bedroom, even if no one was watching. It was immensely satisfying, holding the white princess telephone, talking to no one. He had no friends. Sometimes I lay on his bed while he conducted an at-home interview with the imaginary press, who simply hounded him. I lay very carefully though, as he hated when I messed up his Beatles bedspread.

There he was. He’d brought his vision to life and set himself up in his Hollywood corner, despite our Auntie Betty, whom we lived with, telling him repeatedly that both white furniture and white princess phones were vulgar. "Low class," she’d whisper, it was that awful, and didn’t he know that movie stars were usually uneducated hicks from a trailer park in Texas who headed west because they had nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose. This lecture only inspired Gary. Nothing to lose, he thought. He made crank calls. Dialed random numbers. Sometimes, there would be someone who would have a conversation.

Now he is hard to reach by phone. He has several specific lines, at least three separate cell numbers. The demand is great. Though the heyday of death has passed, people who know they are dying, and have a desire to plan their own funerals (it’s surprising how many of these self-funeral planners there still are) will say, "Oh, and let’s get Gary McKibby to speak. He’s fabulous."

And he is. There is no doubt about this. Not only can my brother be relied on to speak well of the dead, he can do it carrying no notes whatsoever. He is a brilliant extemporaneous speaker, always coming around from behind the podium, if there is a podium, and opening with a few amusing remarks about the deceased, providing the mourners with the release of laughter, and creating a unity among the assembled. Now they are a group. His group. And they follow him like bewildered children, as he escorts them on a journey through grief. And when they come out the other end, exiting the church or the synagogue, or somebody’s living room, or even a bar, and when they stand, blinking their way back into the noonday sun, they have laughed and cried, and laughed again, and thought about the individual and his life, and about life and death itself for as long as they can stand it, and they are squeezed of emotion, spent. They are released. My brother has released them all. Something inside them, confusing and unbearable, is gone for now, dispelled. And once again, they are ready for life.

 

You can read A Message of Comfort in Your Time of Grief in its entirety in the premiere issue of Swink.

Elizabeth Tippens is the author of Winging It (Putnam/Riverhead). Her short stories have been published in Harpers, Ploughshares, and Mademoiselle, among other publications, and in anthologies like New Stories from the South, The Year’s Best, and On the Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology. Her non-fiction has appeared in Rolling Stone and Playboy. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a novel about twins.

 

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