My brother, Greg Justis, loved to torment me when we were little guys, but he never tormented me beyond the emotional limits of our Mom's ability to subjugate my brother's evil designs.
In the longs days of the late 50's, before I was entering grade school, we spent summers roaming the old neighborhoods of our little Kansas town. We were lucky we had parents who had formed a network of tall informers, all seeing, all knowing, versed on all pieces of information about our antics and trouble making, hours before we returned home for dinner.
We had a dual feeling about this strange talent of our parents. In a way, we felt relief at the vigilance, knowing they could undo the reality of injustice we felt being barred from other people's yards and areas where we continually felt compelled to tread, yet we resented the breadth of our parent's control. Those grownup rules dismantled the best of our malevolent inventions and secret adventures.
In our town, people would burn their yards in the Autumn, on the theory it would produce next year's perfect yard. We came upon a burnt yard one bright morning.
My brother said,
"If you touch that black stuff, you will die!"
He pulled me away from the curb at the yard's edge.
I remember looking at him and crossing my eyes, "Nu-uhu!"
"It happened over in Colwich Township dip-shit. A kid dried up and broke in half. It took five minutes!"
I looked at the yard with extreme fear. He was my brother, and he knew a lot of stuff. A moment later I felt a sudden shove and I slammed face-first onto the charred lawn. I remember the cool feeling of the blood leaving my face, with the burnt grass blades poking rancid mini-craters in my face and gaping nostril walls.
"I'm gonna DIE!........... I'm gonna DIE!"
The neighbors across the street reported later how my feet were a blur as I streaked home, doomed to a shriveled up, vivisectioned oblivion. Mom smiled with a firm tenderness and calmed me down as I lay wrapped in her long arms.
My brother told that story up until 2006. He drew a laugh from so deep inside his soul; I thought the joy of those moments would carry us past any heartache, through infinite sorrows, and back out again to share some more ancient adventures.
In 1958 my dad took me to see "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." I was electrified at the effects (antiquated by today's standards, but still charming), and the chilling presence of "The Genie" who lived in a strange metallic lamp. I remember the Genie looked a little like Mr. Clean and I wondered if they were brothers. My dad cut out a facsimile of a magic lamp from plywood and we painted it together.
I would rub this lamp for minutes, then hours, hoping for the miracle of the Genie with his three wishes.
I had a lot of kid issues, so I figured I could fit all my wishes into three main categories.
1 Make my brother leave me alone
2 Give me my brother's cool toys
3 Make Superman live in my room
When my brother saw me rubbing the lamp, he snickered,
"Hey dip-shit. You're not rubbing hard enough. Anyway, that's not how you get the Genie to come out. Don't you know what ectoplasm is?"
I rubbed more ferociously than I had, asking the question with a vibratone kid voice, "How do I get him out?"
"I'm not givin' that secret up, but you may as well give it up!"
"No, you give it up!"
"Give it up turd-brain." He said, imitating my frantic rubbing gestures as he turned to go out our back door into the yard.
"No, no, you give it up!!"
By now I was crying inconsolably, screaming after him, wanting to knock his head off.
The damn Genie never came out, and eventually the lamp passed into the darkness of the basement storage room.
My brother came to be a very successful North Michigan Lawyer. The years of our young and middle adulthood were sublime in friendship and constant contact. He raised a family, defended folks who were poor, and did community work, always putting family first. I can never remember a time that my brother was afraid of anything. He was threatened constantly by unenlightened folks, usually angry spouses from divorce cases, or wealthy self-important litigants, who looked at my brother as a crusader. Regardless of the dangers, I saw him stand like a rock. Years later I realized the Superman of my childish wish list already lived in our house years ago.
In our beloved Bloomington, I found a great life with L.J., my dear wife, and a parade of Dobermans passing in and out of our long days. My brother continued a brilliant career in the North, visiting us a few times a year, and always sending deep, soulful emails and letters.
Life can be so right sometimes,.......so perfect it seems like it could fill the whole of one's existence.
I was in my yard on a mild June day in 2006 when I received a call from my brother's second son.
"Uncle Gary." I heard him say on my cell phone.
"Dad had a heart attack............................He's gone...............................
The ground jumped, I bent down to brush away the freshly cut grass from my shoes, and the world went away......
I was grateful to have that same old lamp Dad and I made in the 50's. When I found it several years ago, it was in a box of things in Mom's basement. Every other object in the box was crapped out beyond belief, but the lamp lay there... immaculate. It's a work of art now, almost fifty years old. I guess that makes it an antique, or at least a piece of Folk Art.
The lamp is a great artifact for the wall in our kitchen. We have it hanging with some other treasures. One cool, sunny morning I decided to photograph it. The lamp made me think of my brother and all the torment of our youth that eventually turned to adult understanding and admiration between us. I placed the lamp on a metal stool adjacent to our kitchen window.
ECTOPLASM!!!!......It, it was my brother, my hero "GIVING IT UP!"
I stumbled, caught myself, then settled back to watch the miracle of the day.....................................
Gary Justis 2008 © republished courtesy of Open Salon