A MESSAGE OF COMFORT IN YOUR TIME
My brother is still in demand on the memorial service circuit.
This is what Ive heard.
I live uptown and he lives downtown, but my brother has a way of casting
a long shadow. For one thing, hes tall.
We havent spoken in almost two years, but I have this weird, acute
hearing, and anyway, if youre me, you hear things.
You read things, too. An item here or there, an interview. Hes
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 hasnt updated his huge eyewear since 1983, he loves my brother.
Hes written about my brothers 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, Ive seen people hesitate to speak it aloud. Ive
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
brothers one-two punch back at the world. They have names. One
is called FUCK. And one is called YOU.
Writers arent 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 dont generally register a high Q rating either,
but my brother is known. Not famous. He wont let you say famous,
even though thats 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 dont know how he does
it, he gets others to do this for him, while he sits back looking modest,
slightly embarrassed even. Thats a special little art all its
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
There he was. Hed 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," shed whisper, it was
that awful, and didnt 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 (its surprising how many of these self-funeral
planners there still are) will say, "Oh, and lets get Gary
McKibby to speak. Hes 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 somebodys
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 Years 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.