I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting.
I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.
No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.
I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.
I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.
All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.
I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”
In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.
Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.
I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.