by Katie Daley
It’s been ten days since my brother Walter killed himself, and my brother Tom is whooping with laughter. He’s laughing so hard, he’s almost choking as he steps over to the fridge, opens the door, grabs two eggs out of the egg tray, and turns to face the far wall. As he hurls them, he lets out a long, guttural howl. It starts as a “Nooooo!” but gets much deeper and more complex. He’s not sobbing or screaming. He’s pissed.
As soon as the eggs crack and splat against the wall, just under the kitchen clock, he turns back to the fridge and grabs two more, bellowing again as he hurls them. He turns and does it one more time.
Now there are six eggs splattered across the kitchen wall. Six whole shells crackled into bits and shards, six splats of yolk and albumen beginning their trek down the wall. Like the trek I’ve just begun to make. Stalling in pockmarks of plaster like I’m stalled in Tom’s apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I never meant to stay longer than a day or two. Meandering off to the right, then veering downward the same way I veered down the globe to get from my hometown of Cleveland to here, the first stop of my journey. The big, wild, maybe never-ending road adventure I’ve been dreaming of taking since I was a little kid. Eighty-one days after I turned eighteen and twenty-one hours after I finally set out on that adventure, we got word that our brother Walter had finally done it, finally left this globe entirely, as far as I can tell.
He chose to die on the eve of my father’s fifty-second birthday: March 28, 1975. While Walter was contemplating running off the rooftop of a ten-story apartment building in Boston, my father, divorced mattress salesman-gone-travel agent, was in San Francisco, booking flights. As Walter walked along the edge of the rooftop and measured the distance to earth in his mind, my divorced writer mother was at her day job in Cleveland, answering phones, typing letters, setting the margins on her page. When Walter backed up to the middle of the roof so he could get a running start, my oldest brother Bill was two stories below, sitting on a couch and reading a book before he left for his graveyard shift at the Boston dump. And as Walter lit up his last Camel straight, put it in his mouth, and ran off the edge, Tom and I were in this same kitchen in Chapel Hill, fixing breakfast and trying to make each other laugh.
Among other things, we were trying to laugh about Walter’s latest botched suicide attempt. The week before, he’d waded into the Atlantic Ocean, intending to drown himself, but, he told us, the water was too cold, and he turned back to shore. See, we were trying to say to each other, he doesn’t really want to die. Yeah, he’s schizophrenic and tortured and the disease has his mind by the throat, but he’s also our brother—our brilliantly funny, love-hungry, sometimes goofy brother. He wants to be warm and dry—not dead.
While Tom and I traveled to Massachusetts for Walter’s funeral, my traveling partner Tina, whom I haven’t known for long, stayed in Chapel Hill. Somehow, in the time it took us to bury our brother, she decided she didn’t want to travel after all and headed back to Cleveland. As for me, about the only thing I know for sure these days is that I do want to travel after all. But here I am, motionless, watching broken eggs slide down a kitchen wall in some corny apartment complex in North Carolina. I’m a grieving zombie who longs to become human again but has no idea how.
When Tom first started laughing so wildly, he was reading a condolence card from our father’s first cousin Nancy, and I was reading somebody else’s I’m-so-sorry-about-Walter letter. Out of the blue, he erupted in big whoops.
“Oh, my God,” he gasped. “This is classic Aunt Nancy.” He looked down at the card, trying to catch his breath. “But even for her, it’s a little over the top.”
He read from the beginning. About how sorry she was to hear the news, how awful it must be for our family, the kinds of things pretty much everybody says to us these days. Then she writes about Walter’s schizophrenia, what a tragedy that was. What a sweet, funny, clever kid Walter was, even after he got sick.
Tom’s voice mounted, started to break up a little as he read. Not from tears, but from the pressure of holding back laughter. “Wasn’t it a shame,” he read, then stopped, trying to calm his voice so he could keep going. “Wasn’t it a shame that Walter couldn’t have taken things a little less seriously instead of letting them worry him to death?” He barely finished the question before he dissolved into big yelps and guffaws. I saw the humor in it, but I wasn’t laughing like him.
He read the question again, but this time in Aunt Nancy’s Worcester, Massachusetts, accent. This is something Walter would have done, and Tom and I have taken to doing it too, even before Walter died. Walter was a master impressionist, and he mimicked people all the time, not only when he was telling a story that involved a particular character in our lives—our grandmother, our old grammar school principal, Richard Nixon—but also whenever that character’s take on life fit into a conversation or argument we were having. Walter’s not here anymore, and Tom’s impression of Aunt Nancy needs some work, but he got the general gist of her accent down: melodious, a little crackly, full of soft a’s and dropped r’s.
Isn’t it a shame Wahltah couldn’t hahve taken things a little less sehriously instead of letting them worray him to death?
Tom handed me the card and leaned back against the wall, his eyes wide as he gasped for air between squalls of laughter.
I silently read Aunt Nancy’s words from start to finish. Seeing the question in her handwriting helped me hear the absurdity of it better. How could she write that and not scratch it out? Her own son is schizophrenic too. She must have been bucked around by a few of his psychotic breakdowns by now. She must have been shattered and re-shattered, watching him try to get through the world all wild-eyed and lost from himself. She’s got to know Walter was in a whole different solar system than worried. Worried would have been a day at the beach for him. Still, she put it this way: He let things “worry him to death.” It’s so harmless and quaint, as quaint as her accent.
I started to laugh too. I still wasn’t blown away by it like Tom was, but his reaction was contagious. His raucous laughter was like a room packed with New Year’s revelers. I wanted to slip into the room and be loud and wild like them. I was aching to make some noise. So I laughed.
Tom’’s not laughing now—just gasping for breath—and me, I’m quiet as we watch the broken eggs stumble and slide down the wall. But the shouts of laughter and caterwauls of rage are still very much with us, the way somebody with a lot of charisma leaves a zing behind whenever they walk out of a room. The kitchen feels cleaned out now, like a greasy film has been peeled off its surface and now everything’s gleaming. It’s like diving into water that’s almost too cold to bear. Once your head goes under and you’re entirely wet, you feel brave again. Like you can start over now, no matter what time of day it is or what kind of nothingness you’ve been lying around in lately. Your skin is almost burning with the cold, and your neurons are in too much shock to remember the foggy, hollow feeling they were in the process of delivering to your mind, just a few seconds ago, before you dove all the way in.
Not that I’m shocked by what Tom’s just done. Even though it comes clear out of the blue and I’ve never seen him—or anyone—do anything like this. Even though it’s never occurred to me to be angry about what happened to Walter and what happened to the rest of us because of our close proximity to him. But it feels like Tom has just filled in a big blank in my life with his wail.
There’s a difference between us, though. Tom’s the one who’s thrown the eggs. The howl came from his throat, not mine. He’s wrapped himself up in that howl and hurled himself out of this swamp of numbness we’ve been wandering around in for days, ever since the glamour of shock wore off. But I’m still here, up to my neck in it.
We stay there for what feels like a long, long time, his gasps subsiding, me silent, both of us watching the eggs until they’ve stopped meandering and begun to dry on the wall. Tom finally steps over and begins picking out the smashed bits of shell that cling to the wall or have ricocheted to the floor. I get up and grab a sponge from the sink, but he stops me.
“I don’t want to clean it up,” he says. “I’m just picking out the shells so it won’t be quite so lurid.” He stands back, cupping the broken shells in his hand as he gazes at the rivulets of broken yolks. “Let’s leave this up here for a while. As a testament to how our brother Walter let life worry him to death.”
As it dries, it starts to look like a map. A map of rivers and paths, some yellow, some clear and shiny, some a little of both. Some joining up, some splitting off. A few starting in the middle of nowhere and stopping just as suddenly. Every time I go into the kitchen, it calls out to me. But instead of hearing Tom’s bellows when I face it, I hear the silence in it, the way a map can be silent even though it’s so full of promises. It’s still there a week later when I finally start out for Key West on the second leg of my journey.
In her time, Katie Daley has scrubbed the toilets of poets and mowed the fairways of gangsters. In between stints as a paper girl, fruit picker, sidewalk busker, hotel maid, performer, teaching artist, and editor, she’s written poems and essays that have appeared in publications such as Seneca Review, Art Crimes, Slipstream, Hippocampus, and Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s and ’70s (She Writes Press). She has performed her work across North America in theaters, ballrooms, nightclubs, and music festivals as well as TV and radio broadcasts. She is a seasoned semifinalist of four National Poetry Slams and won third place in the Individual World Championship at the inaugural Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. Katie recently completed a memoir about the eighteen-month journey she took hitchhiking and migrant-working her way across the USA in 1975. “Scatter” is an excerpt from the memoir.