MY OLDER SISTER calls to tell me about him. She is upset. Not upset, but worried. She said she saw him—a guy she went to high school with, in line at the grocery store. This was in the town in which we grew up; she moved back and I moved far away, didn’t have any intention of going back.
She’s standing in line at the organic grocery store, getting soy milk and peanut butter and green apples for her two twin girls (my nieces, three years old and terribly cute), and she’s thinking about what she has to do that evening: feed the little girls, pay some bills, work out, begin to organize a trip she is going to take with her husband to Costa Rica. All of this is on her mind. Her life is a good one; she knows this. She even feels it, standing there, has the sense of mind to feel it. Lucky. Everyone healthy, a good family, our folks always available to baby-sit and her husband’s too; the only one missing is me, but they are all holding out for me to come back to the Midwest someday even though I won’t.
But then this guy behind her.
At first she doesn’t notice him. I mean, she explains, she senses that someone is behind her, but she is caught up in her own thoughts. It isn’t until he says something to her that she takes full notice of him.
I ask what he said to her.
She says that he said: You went to school with me.
“Yes?” she says. “Do I know you?”
He says his name. Brian Ringell. His voice sounds as if he has not spoken in weeks, as if he suffered inner ear damage.
She recognizes the name, of course, but she doesn’t recognize the man. He is the same age as her—thirty-five, but he looks five years younger, or maybe ten, and not in a good way.
He’s skinny, she says, so skinny that his belt, which is one of those braided numbers that was popular fifteen years ago, is cinched so tight around the waist of his drab, khaki pants, that the end of it hangs like a dead salamander. Under his T-shirt, which has the Bulls logo on it and is the source of a very bad smell—starch and hair and sweat—there is only his shoulders.
Aside from that, she says, he is so caved-in looking that there might as well not be anything to him, no torso, she says. His skin is very bad; he has not shaved, but his beard is not at all full, just black and spotty, and he has sores over his face as if someone had taken a thin cigarette and burned him here and there. A big nose. Hair which might have been dark brown but is black from not being washed. A jacket too big for him. Black shoes which look like he got them at the Salvation Army.
She tells me over the phone that for a second she wasn’t able to say anything to him. She thought at first that this man was playing a trick on her. He was not the boy she had once known—this boy Brian Ringell. Not at all. Though, she admits that she didn’t remember him that well. Someone she had known a long time ago and never very well.
Because she is at a total loss, she asks him if he remembers her husband. They went to high school together, too. My brother-in-law was a once-famous jock, went on to play football for a Big Ten team when that Big Ten team happened to be rather good, good enough to win the Rose Bowl, and then he returned home, the kind of local celebrity every town has. He’s a patent lawyer now.
Brian Ringell doesn’t remember my brother-in-law.
“It was terrible, though,” my sister says. “He looked terrible. Like something bad had happened to him.”
“What happened?” I ask her.
“I don’t know. It wasn’t obvious. But something. Something bad, I think.”
“Huh,” I say.
“It was creepy, you know?”
“I know,” I say.
“Just thinking about it—it bothers me.”
“If it bothers you,” I say, “then don’t think about it.”
We are quiet. I am in a city across the country, one no one in my family, or perhaps anywhere, has a great deal of respect for. The where and the why are irrelevant.
“You’re okay?” she asks me.
“I wish you would come home. Everyone would love it.”
“That’s okay,” I say.
“But you’re safe?”
“Be careful, will you?”
Of my sister you should know that she is a decent, sweet woman. You should know that she was never a scholar but she was smart, and that it was not until her late twenties, about the time when she was marrying my brother-in-law, that she began to live her life fully, this after law school and an attempt at healthcare law. After she quit law she went to work in admissions at a small arts school whereby she began to earn a good deal of money. Six figures and rising by the time she got married. Then she tried to get pregnant. Then she had a miscarriage while on vacation in the Virgin Islands with my brother-in-law.
The next time I saw them in person, my brother-in-law said very casually, “Yeah, old Junior’s probably swimming off the coast of St. John right about now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He put his big hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay, buddy,” he said (he is just the type of guy to say “buddy”).
“Anyhow, the water there is great. I fell asleep all day on the lounge chair. You should go sometime,” he said.
Of the place she lives and of her life I should say it is enviable. For starters, it’s in the Midwest, which is decent and wholesome and devoid of the grittiness of New York and the senselessness of Los Angeles. Midwesterners, while not taken seriously by the rest of the country, particularly those in the east, believe they represent the very best of what America has to offer. They may be right in this regard.
The town where she lives and in which we grew up is a wealthy one: property taxes are high; the price these days for a half-acre lot is seven hundred thousand dollars. The schools are very good. All the kids go to college. There are no gangs. This is her life now. Her children will go to the same grade school, the same middle school, the same high school that we did. They might return as adults, and so on. There is no reason to leave this place; it is an insulated, peaceful, rich life. Growing up there, one has every advantage.
She tells me that she went home after seeing him. She fed the girls and put them to bed. She cooked dinner for her husband. Quick kisses on the cheek for they are both tired; children and work take it out of you. She goes down to the basement and finds her yearbook. There is the picture of her as a freshman. She is on several pages—field hockey and gymnastics and tennis: she herself was an athlete. Pretty, too. Had fun with boys; it was never a secret. Her husband the football player is on a bunch of pages too, was also the president of the business club.
She looks for Brian Ringell. The photographs are very small. In hers you can see that this is a pretty girl, hair up the way they wore it in the 1980s. In Brian Ringell’s she can see a picture of a boy, that is for sure—a nice-looking young boy, dark hair, but the picture is really too small to see well, about the size of a thumbprint, and it’s heavily pixilated, so that it seems to her, in her furnished basement with her husband’s sixty-inch television and her daughters’ playthings, that the picture is not a picture but simply a collection of white and black dots that have failed to coalesce properly.
She doesn’t tell me this, but I know because I grew up there that outside crickets are going. There are bats in the Midwest; they go through the dry air like water-snakes. Deer cross between subdivisions like ghosts. Everyone sleeps and while this life is not without pain, the pain is dampened greatly. One is rested and fulfilled in the Midwest. She doesn’t need to tell me any of this.
She asks about him. She calls up an old friend. I knew this girl, this friend my sister calls. She used to come over and get high with my sister. I was eleven (my sister is five years older than I am) and I knew at the time that she was beautiful, that I wanted to have sex with her, though I didn’t know what that might entail.
These days, my sister tells me, the friend is married to a guy who works at Morningstar and has a boy and a girl. My sister asks this friend if she knew what happened to a guy named Brian Ringell? Does she even remember him? She explains to the friend that she bumped into him at the grocery store and how something seemed very wrong about him—just off, as if something terrible had happened to him, what precisely she is not able to say, but she wanted to find out.
The friend says that nothing happened to him. As it turns out, the friend’s husband’s family knows the Ringells (my sister doesn’t explain how), and the friend says that if something happened to the guy, they would have heard about it.
Nothing happened to him.
“I told her again how he looked. How unkempt he was. Like he was homeless. But still, she said nothing had happened.”
The friend reminds my sister of her son’s birthday party that weekend and how she didn’t need to bring anything, just my nieces and my brother-in-law, if he is not working that weekend and can come.
It’s nighttime and my sister is tired.
“It’s just so odd,” my sister says.
“I don’t get why this bothers you,” I say.
She breathes into the phone.
“I don’t know. It just does.”
“It’s just sad. It made me sad to see him.”
“Maybe it’s not something so bad that happened to this guy.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“We’ll talk later. I got to go, though,” I said, because it was true; I did have to leave.
For two weeks my sister thinks about him. She takes her daughters to and from daycare, which is held, coincidentally, in the very high school she and I both attended, I later than her, of course. There is a play the children put on. One of the daughters tries to sing along with the rest of the children. The other daughter just puts her head down.
They practice their counting. One of the girls gets a cold and then the other gets a cold and there are subsequent trips to the doctor. Driving, my sister thinks about him, Brian Ringell. He seemed like he was mad, or as if he had gone mad and was now medicated, and all sense of social rules and norms had evaporated from him. As if the sanity and normalcy we all wear around us had somehow been torn off him. He gave off the frequency of a madman, the kind you find on the street in any large city.
There are two cars, my sister’s Volvo SUV and my brother-in-law’s Audi A8. There is the house, which is a five-thousand-square-foot Cape Cod with a three-car garage and a massive backyard (they bought up the lot behind them, rounding things out to a full acre). There are all the things in their home: white-veined Italian marble, oak banisters, crown molding, Roche Bobois sofa and dining set, Wedgwood china, Baccarat crystal, a piano, though no one plays piano. Oh, of course there are my brother-in-law’s collectibles, which are a bit silly: a basketball signed by the entire 1991 Chicago Bulls, a baseball signed by the ’84 Chicago Cubs, a football signed by the ’85 Bears, and Walter Payton’s jersey signed by Sweetness himself. My brother-in-law’s old football helmet from his college days. A picture of him touching a trophy after his Rose Bowl victory. There is his law degree and there is my sister’s, too, though hers is not hanging; she has no desk over which to hang it.
I mention this because what they have acquired seemed to all of us a foregone conclusion. They were earned, yes, but no one was surprised that they earned them. You could look to any of their friends and find similarities. It was fortunate but it was not a surprise.
She sees him again at the park. On a warm spring day, the kind of day one dreams about, when milkweed pods have blown open and the seeds are floating through the air like snowflakes. She has forgotten about him at this point. Today she is with my nieces. She has walked to the park from her home.
The park, she has been here many times. There is an old creek where the students would go when studying biology in seventh grade to collect samples. In the fall, oak leaves as big as shingles would rest on the ground. Nearby, when we were little kids, our father used to take us swimming at the public pool. Later, she would go with friends and sometimes boys. I would go to this park with my friends, and because we had nothing to do but wanted to do something interesting, the best thing we could think of was to light things on fire: matchbooks, twigs, magazine paper, though even then, I know this now, I was already on the outside, already beginning to move away.
My sister sets the girls loose on the new yellow plastic jungle gym and she will read a book (she does a book club; they are reading Sense and Sensibility). She has brought a lunch for herself: a salmon salad with a lemon vinaigrette dressing, and for the girls she has brought organic peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and baby carrot sticks. She will watch them.
She sees him, Brian Ringell, eating lunch on a bench, alone, perhaps thirty yards from her and her children. He is not looking at her, though, not looking in the direction where the children are playing—there is nothing untoward about what he is doing. Still, it alarms her a great deal. He is eating a Subway sandwich. The plastic bag it came in is wrapped around his ankle like a manacle. He is hunched over. He appears, she explains later, to be wearing the same thing he wore when she first saw him: the soiled khaki pants, the out-of-style belt around his waist. The same over-stuffed black shoes.
He sits there, and before each bite he looks at his sandwich, seems to evaluate it, and then takes what seems to her like an exceedingly big bite, swallowing it too quickly. Each time his face contorts so it looks as if he might vomit. He has a soda near his foot and he reaches for it and takes what also seems like an exceedingly big sip.
For some reason, she says, she becomes very worried that he is going to knock over the soda with his foot. As she watches him, believing that he cannot see her (the sun, it’s too bright; she is wearing sunglasses), she feels her stomach begin to ache. He looks like hell. He is going to knock over his soda and something very bad will happen. He will have a breakdown—his spilling his soda will result in a breakdown for him and she will be forced, out of duty, to go over and help him, the way you stand around someone who is having an epileptic fit but can’t remember if you’re supposed to hold open their jaw or not. She forgets about her daughters until the extroverted one falls off the jungle gym and begins to cry.
The child has cracked a tooth. My sister checks to see if she is choking; she even sweeps the child’s throat. Her tooth, an incisor, looks now like a fang.
“Oh my baby,” she says. “I’m so sorry baby. It’s okay now.”
She looks over to Brian Ringell. She is worried he is going to look over at them, identify her and approach them. What is he doing here, she wonders?
“Maybe he started a job in the area.”
“All of a sudden? Out of nowhere?”
“Well, you have to start a job sometime. There is always a beginning. Maybe he just got a job in town?”
“Maybe,” my sister says.
“Well, what happened?”
“It was terrible. As we were going to the car, I saw him standing there. He had finished his lunch. He was standing up against a drainage wall. Only, he was facing it. He was standing facing the wall. Can you believe that? Who does that?”
“No,” I say. “With the tooth. What about the tooth?”
“Oh. They fixed it.”
She is pretty sure that it is some kind of schizophrenia combined with something else. Schizoaffective disorder or something like that. That sort of thing happens to boys at a certain age. Or maybe he is bipolar and has something superimposed over it. Or maybe he got into an accident—a car accident is most likely—which caused some kind of brain damage, but not enough that he wasn’t able to hold a job, but enough to cause a certain measure of social degeneration. She had wanted to ask her friend more about him, but she would have to explain why and the explanation would not have made sense. Nothing to explain, really. Maybe, she thinks, he went away and got into some trouble, like drugs. That seems plausible.
In the evening, she thinks of him at the park, all alone, no children, no girlfriend or wife, nothing in evidence of a formed-up life. Just him eating a sandwich in a manner she found grotesque. That awful beard. Maybe what had happened was that he had gone to school out west, maybe at UCLA or something, hoping to go to film school and work in the movie industry, but instead, when he was out there, he had fallen in with a group of people who did drugs, not that it was such a bad thing, but a lot of coke, coke and other things, and he dropped out of college. Or he finished school there at UCLA or USC and he had the habit, which was fine—everyone out there did it, no big deal—but he started to really like it, and while he might have started out as a production assistant and eventually someplace far down the line on a few movies, third director or something like that, he had started slipping. He stopped coming home; he lost all touch with his parents who were, she is sure, very nice people and who he killed with worry. Perhaps they would have intervened, which would have been very difficult, him across the country, probably with few friends, or friends who were also users and not the right people to have an intervention with. So they would have taken him to an inpatient facility, but he would have washed out of that, gone on a bad bender, and then several more cycles like that, hospitalizations, maybe some elevated crime in between, whereby a beating might have occurred, a blunt object over his once normal, sweet face—clean-shaven and sharp black hair, nice skin, smiling kid.
Then there was this product, him, the result. Brian Ringell.
She wants to blame it on someone, but there is no one. She wants to blame it on something, but what could it be? The location, the geography? Maybe. Yes, maybe.
My sister has a surprise birthday party. My brother-in-law called and said I should come home for it. I told him that I would send her something. I did. A card and flowers. It was a card that had the number forty in flames and read: Who Knew Forty Could Be Smoking Hot? She was not forty but thirty-six, and I hand-wrote, Soon, Soon.
All her friends are there. They’ve gotten babysitters for the evening. The party is held at a bar called Saxony on the Gold Coast, which is on the roof of a hotel overlooking the lake. Summer. Boats on the water. My sister’s friends have become very pretty. Oh, there are the children, but they have help, don’t they? They look well; they look well rested even. Hard to believe but true. They greet her and do kisses on the cheeks and they have hors d’oeuvres and many drinks. They all seem happy. The lake is black and the sky is the color of a plum. There is dancing to the music they listened to in high school. Many of the women take the opportunity to smoke. They never do it around the kids, but someone runs to the lobby to get a pack and they walk out onto the rooftop deck.
The girls have known each other a long time. They discuss their children, naturally. They discuss their husbands. One of the women is having an affair with a man who is in a rock band in the city. One of the women says she and her husband have not made love in four months and really, she says, she could go longer. They realize the talk has become sad and they don’t want my sister’s birthday to be sad, and so the conversation turns to high school, a spirited time for them all. These girls had fun in high school, experimented with boys and alcohol and drugs so that by the time they made it to college they were well acquainted with all they would encounter, yet they still made foolish, foolish mistakes. For example, two of them had gotten pregnant, but then they got it fixed.
Who was your first, is what they want to know? The first kiss, the first real make-out, the first time you had sex?
“My first lover was my husband,” my sister says. This is true. It was her junior year in high school. “Oh, there were guys before and in between. In college. Other things, of course, but he was the first. The last, too, I suppose.”
“Don’t say that,” one of her friends teases, the one having the affair. They are having a good time; they are none of them there to pass judgment.
All of a sudden she feels very hot and begins to feel ill. What is Brian Ringell doing now, she thinks? It is a beautiful summer night.
The same grade school, the same middle school, the same high school, the same town—all the same opportunities—and yet he looked so awful. Something had happened to him. His life did not unfurl the way theirs had. Theirs turned out properly.
She calls me and I am out. She leaves a message to call her back. Before I receive that message she calls me again. She sounds upset and calls for me through the answering machine, as if I am there but am not answering the phone, and she says finally, “I guess you’re not there. Please call me. Okay.” And then again.
I call her back. It is late at night; everyone is asleep in her home. I have been drinking and I was with a woman—a waitress at a restaurant in a rough neighborhood near Little Italy. What’s wrong, I ask? What happened? I ask after our parents. I ask after her children. They are all fine.
“Then what?” I say.
“I saw him.”
At first I don’t know who she is referring to.
“You mean the guy from high school?”
“Yes,” she says, and as she tells it there is no masking that she is crying; her voice is spoiled and red. She says she had gone to the gym to work out. Her usual thing. It was just a usual night.
She is on the second floor overlooking the first floor, where there are weight machines and free weights. She is reading a magazine. And then she sees him come in.
Only, she explains, he isn’t wearing workout clothes. He’s wearing those khaki pants. And the same shoes. And a shitty Polo shirt, something that looks as if it has an insignia on it, something perhaps from a place he works—an auto-body shop or a cell-phone retailer or a Best Buy, something like that.
He just walks in and goes over to a machine. She’s worried that he will see her, see her and walk upstairs and— What would have been so bad about that, I ask?
“I don’t know.”
“Just tell me. It’s okay.”
“Well, he starts to do weights. It’s a chest press. He just sits down and it’s strange, because he doesn’t stretch out or even put the pin in to change the weight. The pin isn’t even in. There’s no weight on the thing. He just sits down and is staring out at all the rest of the people. But it’s blank, the way he’s looking. He does ten or so. Then he stops and gets up and—”
“He just turns around and faces the wall.”
It was terrible, she says. He does this twice. He won’t look in the mirror, like everyone else. He can’t bear to look at himself, my sister reasons. And he doesn’t look out the window, for he might do that—look at the parking lot or something. He’s looking at the wall. He goes back and sits down in the chair and starts doing presses again, but again, there’s no weight on the machine.
“That’s strange,” I say.
She says that the third time he gets up to stare at the wall, a man comes up to him. It’s a man a little younger than she, perhaps in his twenties. He’s wearing a tank top. Even from the elliptical machine she’s on, she can see the stretch marks in this guy’s shoulders, purple and bloated. It was one of those guys, she says, and of course I know the type of guy she is describing, all arms and chest.
The muscle guy says something to Brian Ringell. He is trying to walk by him, but Brian Ringell won’t move. My sister imagines that the muscle guy begins to bully Brian Ringell—she has no reason to think this, but she is quite sure. She is alarmed. Brian Ringell won’t move. He doesn’t understand—the thing that’s wrong with him, whatever it is, prevents him from understanding.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I went down to him.”
She gets off the machine. The towel on the machine falls; the magazine from which she’s reading falls. She runs down the steps; she is going to save him. She’s covered in sweat, like she’s been greased—she feels it, greasy, and runs over to Brian.
She says to the both of them, Brian and the muscle guy, that she is so sorry, she was running late, as if to make evident to the muscle guy that the reason Brian Ringell had been staring at the wall and would not move was that he was waiting for her—for what reason, she doesn’t explain either to Brian nor the muscle guy nor me. Brian looks at her, and it takes him a minute but then he says her name, and the muscle guy, who may or may not have been arguing or bullying or picking on Brian Ringell, lets them be and walks around the machine, past the treadmills and into the men’s locker room.
“Hi,” she says to him.
“Hi,” he says to her. His hair looks as if a giant tarantula has nested on the surface of his head, embedded in his scalp—there are bald patches.
“I just wanted to say hi. I was leaving. But I figured that I would say hi.”
“Hi,” he says again.
“Okay,” she says, out of breath.
“Okay,” he says.
“Listen. Brian. I remember. I just wanted you to know it. I do. I didn’t forget. I had, I guess, but then I remembered.”
There is no change in expression on his pallid face, no recognition or absolution.
“Okay,” he says.
“I’ve got to go now,” she says.
And then she does this: she leaves. She goes into the locker room, leaves her magazine and water and towel upstairs, gathers her purse from the locker room, doesn’t change, and drives home.
“I don’t get it,” I say.
She is breathing into the phone and it sounds as if her throat is going to split open.
“I just— I felt so bad for him. Oh God. I don’t know. It’s just— I don’t know— He looked so different. So bad.”
“What had he looked like before?”
“When we were young—he looked just like a regular guy. I remember him. Like any kid. A nice guy. Like you or like anyone, really. Like any guy you might have known in high school.”
“Huh,” I say.
“You know, like a guy who you might have hung out with for a time. A guy you might have even fooled around with. Like maybe not your first, but someone you might have, you know, thought it was safe to be with.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says.
“It could be in my head,” she admits.
“No, I’m sure not,” I say.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Me?” I ask. “Of course. I’m fine.”
“You would tell me if you weren’t?”
“Yes. You know that.”
She doesn’t see him again; she sees him never again in her life.
There was one evening, perhaps the summer going into high school or maybe before, when she might have been at the park with her friends, before the leaves; the stream was running and the milkweed pods had blossomed, and Brian Ringell had been there with his friends and maybe they had been smoking cigarettes and doing tricks with them, like smoke rings or burning the tips of grass or bugs as they flew, and maybe someone’s older brother had gotten them beer or they had stolen Schnapps from someone’s parents and they were drinking and having a good time. High school would start and more of the same, but these fucking kids had not a care in the world.
So the drinking and the smoking and then a moment where she was talking to him and he took her hand or she his, both swollen from the heat, and they had gone off to a corner of the field or behind a tree or even amidst bushes—the place didn’t matter; they were dumb, eager, stupid kids—and she would have permitted him certain things, awkwardly, and he would have done them.
It’s not so unusual. He was a regular kid, did all the regular things.
There was all the rest of her summer. And of course, what would happen to Brian Ringell is that he would fall in line with the rest of the boys she would know—not that there were so many for her; he was just one in the beginning of a normal sequence. High school, which went accordingly; she was pretty but she got prettier. They all knew how it would go. College at the best school you could get into. After college a brief, wild time at an apartment in the city, and softball games for work and then the bachelorette parties and bridal showers and weddings and wedding gifts of apple-green hand towels and honeymoons in the Caribbean or China or the Black Sea, a return to a big home in the suburbs and then a life, yours. Children, naturally.
It didn’t go that way for Brian Ringell. What happened to him she will never know, of course, nor will I, nor does it matter. It is good and right for her to have the life she has. What she deserves has nothing to do with it. We are siblings, dear ones at that: same parents, same background, same values, and yet that life wasn’t for me. I understand wanting it. In a while she’ll forget about him, for the third time, forget this episode. These disturbances occur so infrequently, at least where we are from. But the world outside is scary, you have to know that. St. John—oh please, that’s just one example. There are many others. I have to be careful, she tells me, and she is right.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.