Finally, five months after his January birthday, I got my brother to pick a time to go out to dinner for his favorite, which is prime rib. Each of us had to get over various geezer ailments—bad shoulder, bad legs, bad feet, mysterious other infirmities that needed a doctor or two to say they weren’t terminal after all and to go out and carry on.
We had to be in the right mood and also the weather had to be more of one way than another. More coolish than hottish. It took a lot of negotiation between the two of us.
But today we pulled it off. We drove a mammoth four miles to the Black Angus where he had once enjoyed a nice piece of prime rib. I would have that doofus wedge salad, even though I am not fond of plain iceberg lettuce, but the wedge is decorated with some kind of bleu-cheesy dressing with bacon bits and needs to be cut with a knife because it’s so tall.
I added a little steak and mushrooms, as long as we were in a meat-y restaurant. The booth we sat in, across from each, put enough distance between us so we had to lean in to be able to hear each other above the air conditioning and cutlery rattle.
Or maybe it was our old ears?
He looked natty in his pale blue button down shirt, still my baby brother somehow, despite how the sun has leathered his face. I am hardly recognizable myself, far from that brown-haired little girl who used to tattle on him for getting into my things, disturbing them from the impeccable order I’d worked so hard to achieve.
My brother and I, six and a half years apart, he being the kid in kid brother, have a limited range of conversations that we can enjoy. I am the big sister so I think I know more and he is male so he thinks he knows more. We tend, on a daily basis, to disagree about things: vegetables, except for corn and potatoes (which hardly count in my mind) and also, how long to keep leftovers, plus the reason for the existence of Spam and its pinky, pretend-ham essence. Politics, Walmart, the minimum wage. Scads more.
But the thing we usually can count on to get us through an hour or two in close proximity is movie stars and their movies, mostly of a time long past. And so I knew that when he mentioned The Big Sky today right after we clinked glasses—him with a beer, me with a margarita that was a bit shy of its potential, that we would be okay. We are also old enough to have forgotten fifty percent of who we need to name and have to use hand gestures, hair peculiarities and also-starred-in information to get to the names of the star.
“Oh, you know, he was in The Rifleman. Big jaw.”“Chuck Connor!”
“And the other one, in Ben Hur---uh, Charleton Heston. He was the head rancher. There was all this to-do about the Big Muddy.”“What was James Dean’s name in Giant?”
“I know the answer, but what’s that got to do with The Big Sky? That Tim Sultan book, Sunny’s Nights, just mentioned it—it was Jett Rink!”“Nuts, that’s too much of a made up name.”“Caroll Baker. Did she spell it with two l’s? Was in Baby Doll. She was in Big Sky, too. And then, there was Burl Ives! Mendacity!”
“Right! Mendacity, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! Paul Newman.”“But he wasn’t in The Big Sky”.
“I know. Paul Newman was in Hud.”“But in The Big Sky, Jean Simmons was the Woman. And Gregory Peck! He was the main guy, the one who’d been at sea and they were all worried because they thought he was a greenhorn and when he went riding off, they were worried about him, but he was just fine.”“Burl Ives. Always liked him. Mendacity! The way he said that!”
It goes on. We think our sister would know all the answers that we are struggling with, as she is the youngest and can Google faster than either of us. But our sister is in Connecticut, where she lives. We can’t have everything.
The last bites get savored. The birthday surprise is delivered by the cutiepie waitress, Kim; it’s a giant chocolate chip cookie with a dollop of not-too-hard vanilla ice cream. There’s a little white candle that she lights with a lighter, which doesn’t have quite the right sound, that of a big match being struck on the side of a matchbox. But it was fine, the teeny wavery light and the silent whatever my brother may have wished for at that moment. Kim asked the usual questions about our state of enjoyment. Fine, very fine, delicious. Does Kim put a star on our bill for niceness?
I remembered that time I’d had my hip replaced and was in bed three of a three-bed room, awakened at five each morning for something or other by a person with a clipboard and big earrings. Whatever she needed, she somehow got, wrote it down, left my bedside, and turned out the bright, overhead light she’d needed to turn on in order to wake me. I hated her a lot. It is hard to sleep in a three-bed room with strangers who also snore. I was used to my own snoring, but theirs was harder to take. Being awakened at five meant a real effort towards getting back to sleep before the nurses aides came in clattering the breakfast trays with the little doodads of prunes and applesauce and oatmeal and pale eggs that may or may not have come from a chicken.
But during that time in rehab, my brother used to call me and we discussed old black and white movies we remembered from our time as kids, when tv was new. He’d gotten home from work—he was a cook—and he couldn’t sleep, so he watched the same movie channel they had running in our rehab facility. A state away from each other we got to talk about Barbara Stanwyck or Jimmy Stewart or Stewart Granger. Hardly anyone knows those names any more, just wrinklies like us. Funny little bond, but good enough.
Happy birthday, my brother.