The moments that matter last a lifetime—but whose?
A mother spends her oldest boy’s twenties wanting him to come home, and when he does he brings a limp from shooting up with a dirty needle. Heroin, between the toes. He hasn’t seen a doctor. He hangs up his coat in a closet packed, we imagine, with other jackets that look like his. His brother’s and his father’s. He doesn’t want to be alone.
“He wants to feel better,” Lucas Mann writes in Lord Fear, a new memoir from Pantheon,“and she will help him feel better, watch the relief, impermanent but still sweet, move across his face.” “He” is Mann’s half-brother, Josh; “she” is Beth, Josh's mother, who keeps him vivid after he is gone.
Lord Fear is a strange kind of memoir because it’s actually a portrait of Josh, built from a funeral party that can’t help but recall him. Mann brings his brother back to life, gluing him together with shards of interviews, diary entries, and memory’s own strangely-tinted glass. The effect is astonishing, a book as unapologetically violent as it is tender, from an essayist who knows our inability to forget is only cruel until it isn’t.
The moment captured in this excerpt is both welcome and unwanted, lovely and heartbreaking. Which is to say:
—Gemma de Choisy
They've Never Ridden This Bus Together
an excerpt from Lucas Mann's Lord Fear
There is a last moment. It’s not really the last one, but it’s one that stands out, a break from their routine, almost nice, so it will live over and over again in Beth’s mind. She doesn’t know that yet. She just knows that he has returned for another detox and she can no longer remember how many times it’s been. She spent years, his whole twenties, wanting him to come home. Now, too late, he seems nearly always present.
He enters with a cane and a shuffling limp.
“I’m like Richard the Third,” he says, and Beth forces herself to smile.
It’s the first time she’s ever felt conscious of not just her son’s impending death but how it might come, how he might look when it happens. As she watches him struggle to hang his coat in the hall closet, she feels liberated. There is nothing to worry about anymore because there is nothing that she can do. Maybe it was always that way. What a thing to think.
He offers information without her asking. The limp is from an infection. He put a dirty needle into the narrow band of skin between his big toe and the next one. It hurt like hell, he says, but his arm veins, those once-raised cables that Beth watched snake along his skin as he pounded his drums, are depleted.
“There’s nothing left to shoot,” he tells her, and he holds a wilted appendage up for her to see. She looks away.
Before she can ask, he says, “I haven’t gone to the doctor. I know, I know, I’m sorry. I haven’t been home for a while to call him.”
She doesn’t ask where he’s been.
“I need to go home now, though,” he says. “There are pills at home for the pain.”
He pauses because the next bit is hard to say.
“I don’t want to go alone. I don’t think anything good will happen if I go alone.”
She will take him. He wants to feel better, and she will help him feel better, watch the relief, impermanent but still sweet, move across his face. On any day before this one, she would have cycled through the logical questions that get a meat loaf thrown. What pills? Are they safe? How did you get them? Don’t you think that maybe this could be an opportunity to get clean for real, cold turkey, to decide that this pain will be the end of it?
No more questions.
The subway has been running to Roosevelt Island for years, but they ride the tram because he wants to. He wants to fly over New York like a pigeon, too small and high up to be noticed, seeing everything. They sit side by side. Beth’s shoulders, beginning now to slope and round, press against the skin just above her son’s elbow. They get on the bus going downtown. They’ve never ridden this bus together. They are never in Manhattan together. They are hardly outdoors together. Beth goes to work, then back to her apartment. Josh moves around the city in dark places that she used to imagine and now is content to never see, returns home to her when he needs something.
It’s rush hour for other people, and on the crowded bus they are beautifully anonymous, a mother and a son like any other, which, Beth thinks, is the full expression of all she has ever wanted for them. People jostle and mutter. People live lives and Beth watches. Then she has a funny thought. It’s really funny, not just funny in her head but something to make him laugh, too.
“This is like Midnight Cowboy,” she says. “I’m Jon Voigt and you’re Al Pacino. With the limp.”
She feels Josh shake as he laughs.
“It’s Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy,” he says. “But, yeah.”
They’re on a bus, like in the movie. They’re heading south, not all the way to Florida but, still, south. And nobody else around them knows about his limp, about what they’ve seen, about what they’re going to do.
Josh laughs again and says, “That’s pretty funny, Ma.”
She feels his warmth on her. They don’t speak for the rest of the ride. They let their bodies lurch together in silence as the driver stops short and starts again. There are other things that she would like to say. There has to be something more than Midnight Cowboy, Josh as damaged hustler, Beth as loyal Texan gigolo.
They get off the bus, and he’s all focus, walking ahead of her as fast as he can in his condition. She listens to his cane on the sidewalk and thinks of a scary story she was told as a girl, something she can’t quite remember about an escaped psychopath and a knock knock knock sound. He fumbles with his keys in the door, rushes in, and starts digging through papers and old tissues, unopened mail in ominous, official envelopes. She sees him find the pills by the kitchen sink. Sees him sigh and try to turn away from her. Sees him pour them into his palm, sees him swallow, sees relief, will remember that look of relief.
Jamaica Kincaid wrote a memoir about her enigmatic younger brother who died of AIDS. It’s a detailed portrayal, but her brother remains, appropriately, a hard character to see. He is most vivid when she describes her mother with him. When she describes the two of them together in the ocean near the end of his sickness, their images melding into a womb, into a horizon.
She writes: He was swimming with my mother and they looked so beautiful, the water parted for them in ripplets, forming fat diagonal lines on either side of them, the two of them, one black, one gold, glistening, buoyant, happy just then, within speaking distance of each other but not speaking to each other at all.
In the ocean, on a bus, mother next to broken son, like if she’s peaceful and present all his fragments won’t crumble apart. There’s no closeness like that one.
from Lord Fear, p. 149–152
by Lucas Mann
Pantheon, May 12, 2015
$24.95 hardcover, ISBN: 9781101870242