I never thought to feel sorry for Marty; but when my father passed away, he was automatically in charge. My dad wasn’t really even Marty’s. Marty was six when my mom married my dad; which is about when they had me. There were more kids, after me; but I think Marty loved me most because I was his first sister.
When they were done, there were five of us kids, including Marty, and we lived in a tiny house in Bargersville, Indiana. Even before Dad died, we weren’t especially rich. Technically, Mom had a job as a seamstress in our local dry cleaning shop; but there isn’t a lot of need for that sort of thing, probably on account of most grandmothers knowing how to sew. Mom’s hours were always cut way back.
Marty took his role as big brother more seriously than any of his other responsibilities. He looked out for me when we were kids, even when he went on to middle school and then high school. When I was in sixth grade, he’d already graduated, but he still came down and gave Tommy Elkins the what-for after he made fun of me for being the first girl in our class to get a period. Marty showed up at my soccer games and carted me to birthday parties. When I was older, he taught me how to check oil and change a flat tire, count change, read a road map.
My best memories with Marty are from when he took me out in his truck. He didn’t have a lot of free time; but when he did, he’d say, “Let’s go, kid,” and we’d rattle down the country roads that only led to more country roads and we’d talk or listen to Nirvana. Once, when I was 12, I asked him, “Don’t you ever wish you could go somewhere else, Marty?” And he just shrugged his shoulders, because what could he say? I didn’t understand then that it was an unfair question to ask in the first place. We seemed to do a lot of driving at sunset. I’d rest my chin on top of my hands on the open truck window, and I’d watch the orange fire sink behind the steady cornfield horizon.
It reminded me of a summer night when Marty was 12 instead, and I was only six, and we were waiting in the backyard for the fireflies to come out. Dad wasn’t gone, but he was sick, and it was better to stay out of the house for as much of the day as possible.
“I like watching the sun go down,” I said.
“It doesn’t go anywhere, Lil,” Marty said. “We do.”
I was astonished. “We go?”
“We move around the sun. It stays put. The earth turns away and back again. The sun doesn’t move in the sky.”
I don’t remember feeling patronized. Of course, now I can empathize with how Marty probably felt at that time — a dying step-father, who had taken the place of a father who didn’t want him, and all of us to look after. He was already looking out, giving me a simple space lesson while understanding, he was about to become our sun. We would need him for everything, and he was poised to give and give but never move. But at six, I barely understood what it meant for dad to be sick, let alone the consequences. So I went to bed sad that night, not for Marty, but about the sun. My childlike optimism wanted to hold on to my idea — that when it was time to wake in the morning, the sun peeked over the ground to greet us, and at night, it said goodbye with a spectacular show.
Dad’s goodbye wasn’t intense or terrifying. It just was. It was like his person drained out of his body, more and more, until there was a dried-out shell and none of him left to be found. Marty was almost 14 when it finally happened. I was about to turn eight. The trickling farewell nearly broke Mom, so Marty held her pieces together. By then I could see it that way, a little more clearly. I’d be awake in bed at night, hear mom crying into her ice cream bowl at the kitchen table. Marty would get home from his after school job at the gas station, clear away the dish, and give mom an apple or some toast instead. He’d sit there and listen to her wailing. “I know, Mom, I know,” he’d say. I’d imagine him sticking her broken parts in place like a jigsaw puzzle, Scotch tape over each one to try to hold it fast.
On my eighth birthday, Marty gave me a puzzle. All my friends were getting their ears pierced; but since it was a present from Marty, it was special. Besides a few scribbled coloring book pages from my little sisters and brother, it was the only gift I got.
“It’s a map of the world,” Marty said. “Because you should know about what’s out there.”
I think that’s what I was remembering, a few years later in his truck, when we were driving aimlessly and I asked him about leaving. I figured if he had wanted me to know what was out there, then he already knew and thought it was important. But that was the only time I ever asked him about leaving, that time in the fields, when I was 12. By then he was assistant manager at the Columbia Outlet store down south, and he talked about that job like he’d made it.
As it turned out, I had a knack for school, which was something new for my family. Maybe it was because I still needed something to hold on to. I had a couple friends, but I never felt the need to be close to them because I had Marty. And also because I had Marty, I didn’t have many boyfriends. I’d blame it on Tommy Elkins and his big mouth, but I didn’t mind much anyhow. Marty was enough for me.
Every year on my birthday, he and I would stay up late and put together the atlas puzzle from when I’d turned eight. We’d sit in the dusty, mauve living room and clear the coffee table of TV Guides and pop cans. It was just big enough for the puzzle to fit. Once I turned 15 or 16, he’d sneak me a birthday beer from the fridge, and we’d clink the tops of the bottles and take our time snapping the pieces in place. I probably could have done it with my eyes closed, but that wasn’t the point. We’d try to do the whole thing continent by continent, and Marty’d say, “My number one destination in Asia is — “ but he’d only ever randomly pick a place. He pretended to choose with intention, but I watched him swirl his finger and let it fall. The names he said didn’t mean anything to him. Every year they changed.
I knew though. I’d sip my beer, pretending to like it, and wait for the click of the last piece of South America. “Chile,” I’d say. In Asia, “Japan.” Africa, “Morocco.” Europe, “Italy. But that’s only because you force me to choose one place!” Marty would laugh, and we’d struggle through Antarctica, debating if it was really worth the trouble for anyone to go and see it. He’d argue with me about Australia being a continent and a country, one-in-the-same; and then we’d slowly but surely piece together all of the States and Canada.
“Realistically,” I said on my seventeenth birthday, “We should be able to see all of our own country in a lifetime. Maybe excluding Alaska and Hawaii.”
“You’re going to see all of your picks, damn it,” Marty said. “And more. I’m gonna make sure.” He twisted his mouth into a wry smile. “But tonight, you’ve still gotta follow the rules and pick just one place in North America.”
I laughed, “Okay. New York. Like always.” He nodded. “Your turn,” I said.
Marty dangled his finger over Indiana. “Always liked Bargersville,” he said. That was his one choice that stayed the same, birthday after birthday.
The day I turned 18, I said goodnight to the kids, pulled some beers from the fridge and cleared the coffee table. I collapsed into the couch and sat before the television with absent mind until Marty got home.
“You’re later than usual,” I said, nodding toward the ticking on the dining room wall.
“Had to take a long lunch,” Marty said. He wriggled out of his sneakers and pointed toward one of the sweaty bottles sitting in front of me. I handed him his beer. “So I stayed a little later to make sure everything was in order.”
“You’re very busy and important,” I mocked. I shimmied the lid off of the puzzle box and set it aside. Before I could dump the pieces, Marty slapped his hand over my wrist.
“Go get in the truck,” he said.
“You heard me.” He crashed the beers into the kitchen sink and opened the broom closet, retrieving a small duffle bag. I followed obediently from the living room to the kitchen, then from the kitchen to the garage. The interior lights in Marty’s truck blinked to life at the sound of the door opening. I hit the button to raise the garage door and climbed into the passenger side.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“You man the radio,” Marty said. “We’ve got a long drive. Happy birthday.”
We took I-70 to I-76, even though it added two hours to the trip, to avoid tolls. By lunch that next day, I could see the Manhattan skyline glittering in the distance. Something in my insides lurched, like to see a place I’d never been was actually to come home.
Marty and I spent 48 hours walking the city streets. We couldn’t afford a hotel, so we stayed up through the nights and tried to catch a nap each time we had to move the truck to a new parking spot. We walked through Times Square and down to Little Italy. I bought keychains for the kids in Chinatown, and we ate pizza at a hole in the wall by the New York Public Library. On our second day, we drove around for an hour, looking for parking and finally found a meter on the Lower East Side. We spent our two hours walking the Brooklyn Bridge — a quick hamburger and a ride on the carousel on the other side, like we were small and cared about such things. (I cared.)
When Marty moved the car again, I got brave and wanted to ride the train. Something about being there made me a different person. We picked a meeting point. He’d meet me at the top of the park, he said, right at the entrance on Central Park West. I rode past my stop, from Lower Manhattan to Harlem, transported from one world into another. In two days, I felt like I had walked the whole world on a single island — like how the world fit on my coffee table from one end of the puzzle to the other. When I finally got off the train, I marched through the dusk; but instead of darkness falling, the city got brighter. I found Marty at the gate, just like he said, looking totally out of place and completely at ease. He was my sun. He had sent me in orbit around him and he was still planted, his gravity keeping me safe but in motion.
That whirlwind trip seemed to satisfy a lifetime’s worth of travel for Marty, and I wondered if he really had “always liked Bargersville,” or if he’d just resolved himself to it. For me, New York was the first taste of heroine, and now I’d never have enough. I think Marty knew that. The day after my high school graduation, he helped me shove my clothes and books into three bags and tossed them in the back of the truck. Then he flung me the keys.
“Let’s go, kid,” he said. But this time he meant just me.
I spent that whole summer on the road. I might have felt guilty, leaving it all behind; but Marty made it seem it was what I’d been made for, to revolve around and around him. Is that why he taught me how to check the oil in the car? Is that why he’d given me the puzzle? I drove from one end of the country to the other, willing the truck to hold together, taping its pieces in place where I must. Each time I rolled into a new destination, it was like coming home all over again. The landscape flashed and morphed around me. The population a slight modification from the inhabitants of where I’d been before. The country wore out from green to brown, while the sky grew and grew; and then it all reset itself again, in brilliant color and the land bumping into where the clouds ought to have been. I reached the edge on both ends, found one hundred different homes.
“Realistically,” I recalled to myself, “I should be able to see all of my own country in a lifetime.” And I almost did — except for Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington — before I got the call. It should have been one of my siblings to tell me, instead of my mom. I can’t believe the news didn’t kill her, too. No one should lose a spouse and a child in one existence.
“Marty’s dead,” she told me. Just like that. Her words hung in the air like stars, the only light that existed in the black. At first, I didn’t think to ask why or how. I’d been slingshot into space, let go from his gravitational pull, now without direction or meaning or purpose. My sun had set and it would never rise again. Knowing how he’d gone couldn’t change that, but it was moving to learn he’d fallen a hero. The outlet store was robbed at gunpoint one night after closing. Marty had tried to grab the gun from the attacker after he pointed it at Stacy, the cute cashier I had always thought he should date. I consoled myself with jokes about the strides Marty could take to impress a girl. I drove home and I dressed in black for the funeral, but only for that. Marty wouldn’t have liked any extra fuss. He was so busy thinking of everyone else, it would have embarrassed him to see us all carrying on about him for once. As the next oldest, I started to sweat that it would be my job now, to care for everybody as Marty had. I was torn between being like my role model or being like the person he’d taught me to be.
“I don’t think I can stay, Mama.” I tested the waters while we packed up Marty’s things.
“I figured,” she said to me. I couldn’t tell if she expected it or if she was mad or if she was numb to my coming and going either way. She tightly folded Marty’s t-shirts, the same ones he’d had since high school. She color-ordered them and stacked them in boxes for the Salvation Army pick-up. I guess she couldn’t bear the thought of my little brother in Marty’s clothes. He would have drowned in them anyway. Who could wear Marty’s clothes? Who could stand in the place he’d left empty? I couldn’t step in as the sun any more than our younger brother could fit into Marty’s old shoes.
I sifted through his CD collection, piling the scratched and cracked cases into a wine crate. When I pulled all the Nirvana from the shelf, I set it aside. I’d drive his truck around and I’d listen to our songs. I needed something else to hold on to. The last two discs wouldn’t lie flat on top of the stack, and I realized there was a paper taped to the back of “Bleach.” It was folded up like a note to pass in class and it had my name scribbled on the back: “Silly Lily.” I pried the notebook paper from the CD case with my finger and nearly tore it in half trying to unfold its creases. “Just in case,” it read, “The cigar box under my bed.”
“What are you doing?” Mom asked me as I wormed my way under the navy blue dust ruffle. I didn’t answer, but emerged triumphantly with a small cardboard box, yellowing and held together with duct tape, the way Marty never let anything fall apart. The box said “Silly Lily” again, all for me, like he’d known one day he’d burn out. Inside, another note: “It’s a start. For nothing other than Japan, Morocco, Italy, Chile, and even Antarctica, if you like. Or anywhere else it’ll get you. Lil, do not stay here.” I gingerly closed the lid to the box. I couldn’t let Mom see what he’d squirreled away and kept from her, even if he had the right. Maybe, in a way, I played the sun sometimes. We all do. We decide where to shed light and what to leave untouched. Being the sun, being Marty, made his departure too real though, and now I was sure I could never come back. I curled up in a ball, and I wept until my mother left the room.
The world is more fantastic than a flat map on my coffee table. What I like about the word fantastic is that it doesn’t alway mean “good,” but we are always impressed by whatever is attached to it anyway. Fantastic: Conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque. I have been to Japan and Morocco and Italy and Chile, and now I’m saving for Antarctica. For a sad, poor girl from Bargersville, Indiana, it has been a lot to take in. It is more than I could have dreamed up. It has been odd and remarkable. Sometimes it has left me weary or sadder still. Parts of this life are strange and grotesque. But isn’t that fantastic? In all the places I have been, I have found my brother. Maybe it’s that each new place still feels like a welcome home mat. Home always was a fluid term for me, except for Marty. He was constant, he was the sun. Something is still keeping me grounded enough to zip around and around and never stop. Something holds me in its force field.
No matter where I am, I greet the sun in the morning and I send it to bed at night. I remember how I was disappointed to learn that it didn’t rise and fall to mark our days, that it remained and we left it behind before coming back to it again. But then I grew up in Marty’s protective gravity, and he sent me out into the world. I have turned away and back again. I have watched other people, other cities, other continents do the same. And I think I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found the beauty in us circling the sun: Every day, without fail, the whole earth turns to face the light.