The phone at my desk rang and a crusty, vaguely familiar, tobacco-hoarse voice crackled in my ear.
“Peter, it’s Peter. Your stepbrother,” said the voice. “Your stepbrother, Peter, who you haven’t seen in many years. Little Peter, meet Big Peter. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, it’s me.”
I looked out my window. It was a gray winter’s afternoon in Greenwich Village. I felt like I was listening to a lost recording of the Beat poets.
“Peter?” I said, helplessly. “Peter?” If this really was my stepbrother, it was the first time I’d heard his voice since the early eighties. Obviously terrible things had happened to him in the meantime. Things that had turned him from the alert, blue-eyed violin prodigy, the apple of his mother’s eye, who attended one elite school after another—Dalton; Saint Ann’s, in New York City; and then my father’s alma mater, the Choate school, in Wallingford, Connecticut—into a drooling specimen of New York City’s homeless. Something out of Bob Dylan: “Bent out of shape from society’s pliers…”
* * *
There was nothing on the line now but the distant honking of cars.
And then the crackly voice started again. “My mother gave me your number, because she said you were a good person. How my mother would know anything about that I don’t understand. She never liked you and always said you were spoiled rotten and no damn good, especially when you had long hair. But she’s changed her tune now, if you want to see me, and I hope you do. If you care about me at all.”
“Peter, where are you?” I asked, fearing the line would cut off.
“It doesn’t matter where I am,” he said. “And it’s probably better if you don’t know.”
“Can you get to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street in half an hour?”
“Do you have a watch?” I asked.
“I don’t need a watch. Give me forty-five minutes. I’ll see you there.”
“Who was that?” asked Hali, coming into my office, drying her hair in a towel.
“That was Peter.”
“Your stepbrother Peter?” she asked, with disbelief.
“I’m going out to meet him right now.”
“Oh. Be careful,” she said, placing a pair of black cat’s-eye glasses embedded with tiny diamonds on her nose. The glasses made her look like the excuses secretary at a suburban high school. She wore flowered long johns and a loose, ripped Princeton T-shirt. “Be sure to call me if it gets too late.”
* * *
It was almost dark by the time I reached Fourteenth Street, and the broad strip of cheap clothing outlets and check-cashing stores looked grim and windswept. Still, I wasn’t far from my apartment. If Peter clubbed me over the head unexpectedly with a piece of scrap wood, I could probably make my way back by crawling.
Various rumors had come to me over the years of Little Peter’s fantastical exploits—we called him “Little” Peter, since I was “Big” Peter—how he’d run screaming down East Ninety-sixth Street in a bathrobe after escaping from the Mount Sinai Hospital psychiatric ward, only to be knocked down by a careening taxi and dragged back to the hospital by two cops. How he’d spent six months in a lockup in Blaine County, Idaho, after trying to break open his mother’s head with a piece of firewood. How one night in Indianapolis he was clocked in a new car going 110 miles an hour past the governor’s mansion. Convinced that pursuing cops were in league with a ring of automobile thieves, he crashed into a massive police roadblock at the town center, totaling his car—but walking away unharmed. How he’d fallen asleep drunk one afternoon in a Montana wheat field, and had woken to the gentle, but mysterious, susurration of the blades of a harvest combine, which a moment later came thundering down over his head. How he’d lifted his hands instinctively to protect himself, only to see them severed at the wrists. How he’d scrambled to a lake by the field and lain down in ice-cold water, seeking only peace and death, while his hands flapped back and forth on bits of skin from their bloody stumps. How a helicopter had flown him to Salt Lake City, where a team of surgeons had meticulously reattached his hands. And how one of his first uses of his hands had been to push a nurse down a flight of stairs. He’d only recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, though there was still some dispute as to whether he’d ever been diagnosed at all.
Schizophrenics live in a world of external violence commensurate with their internal chaos. They assault, are assaulted, and commit suicide with greater frequency than the rest of the population. Little Peter’s increasingly troubled street career hadn’t contradicted this.
I peered ahead down the gray sidewalk, thinking I saw a figure coming toward me. Its shaggy shape reminded me of the terrifying gremlin on the wing of a jet plane in a particular episode of The Twilight Zone. The gremlin could only be seen by one man, a broken-down loser played by William Shatner. Each time that man, who’d apparently had a recent mental breakdown, called the other passengers over to look, the gremlin leaped in the night air and was blown backward off the wing. The figure I saw seemed to appear and disappear as it came closer. A shabby white plastic bag bobbled from each of its hands, which curled under like claws.
His walk was one that stray cats and homeless men develop unconsciously, an ambulatory cringe that says to the world, “Don’t beat me, I’m moving on. I’m just taking this piece of sandwich, this container of moo shu pork, this spit-soaked cigarette butt. You don’t want it. Now I’ve got it. I’ll stop defiling your view in a minute.”
The way I knew it was Little Peter, finally, was his eyes, his astonishing . . .
Copyright © 2013 by Peter von Ziegesar
Excerpted and adapted from the book The Looking Glass Brother. Copyright © 2013 by Peter von Ziegesar. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador.
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