The Last Hand-Me-Down: Retracing My Brother's Life Through His Clothes

Tom MolanphyLoud Memories of a Quiet Life (OutPost 19) | May 2012 | 18 minutes (4,652 words)

Tom Molanphy earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. He freelances for 10Best/Travel Media Group at USA Today and teaches creative writing, composition and journalism at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. This essay previously appeared in “Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life,” published by OutPost19, and our thanks to Molanphy for allowing us to reprint it here.

Many things conspired
To tell the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
Or my hand touched them:
They were
So close
That they were a part
Of my being,
They were so alive with me
That they lived half my life
And will die half my death

- from “Ode to Things” by Pablo Neruda

***

 for Paul

It’s dark and quiet in my brother’s closet. Brian, my other brother, rummages through bathroom drawers, rattling painkillers in their bottles. He’s checking for used razors, combs, brushes — anything with hair or skin or “part of Paul.” My Dad, on his knees in the living room, jimmies the lock on a long, black trunk, a keepsake of Paul’s from our Uncle Jack. He clears his throat in the deep, rumbling way he does before diving into a tough job. We’re each looking for what to take and what to leave.

A row of shoes line up one side of Paul’s closet. I lean down and slip my hand into the nearest loafer, and I’m reminded our bodies were different, head-to-toe. If I was female, people would say I’m “big-boned,” a sad attempt to make me feel better about my frame. Paul had three inches on me, easy, and where my hands and feet end in sausages, his fingers and toes were knuckley but thin, dexterous things that made children walk during his physical therapy career. We shared big eyes, a small gap in our front teeth, and scars from teenage battles with acne. His battles were longer and his scars were deeper, and I picture the sharp grooves on his cheeks that would disappear with a smile or deepen with a glare.

I push my lumpy fingers deep into his shoes, but I can’t reach the tips.  The shoes are old, the leather cracked, and I remember the first hand-me-downs from Paul, the pair of loafers that almost got me beat-up in 2nd grade at Holy Trinity Catholic School. I’m surrounded by his things, things that only tell part of his story. But they are the parts I can literally hold onto.

I start to feel selfish focusing on free stuff I will no longer get from my big brother. But in five years, I’ll be forty-four, as old as my oldest brother. My niece and nephew, Paul’s seven and ten-year old children, are fatherless. There are all kinds of awful things I could consider. Hand-me-downs don’t seem like the worst option.

***

It’s the late seventies and 7:30 in the morning in the parking lot of Holy Trinity Catholic School in Dallas. I try to lose myself in the crowd, a tough trick for a pale-skinned, sandy-haired, gringo 2nd grader surrounded by Mexican Americans. Stubbornly quiet, I smile when talked to but generally keep my head in whatever book is nearby. I wear a long-sleeved blue sweater to hide my increasingly hairy arms, even though 45-minutes of kick ball leaves me sopping with sauna-level sweat. What I want most of all is to blend in, to be forgotten. But the soles of my favorite shoes wore out yesterday, and I am wearing Paul’s old loafers. I will be noticed.

We had exactly twenty minutes in the morning to run wildly around the sloping asphalt parking lot before Sr. Louisa rang her bell once (which made us freeze), twice (which made us line up in order of grades), and a final time (which made us file into the school). I run three steps before Paul’s slim, unforgiving shoes squeeze my thick toes like a vice, even though my Mom had spent half her morning working in oil to soften the leather. The oil made the leather more orange than soft, though, and as the sun rose and crept across the parking lot, my shoes take on the glow of traffic safety cones. I back into a corner fence and pull out my geometry book, pretending to study and covering one blinding foot with the other. I recite Hail Mary’s for those three sweet clangs of the bell. But being quiet and separated is the best way to be noticed, and a small cluster forms around me. I keep my head in my book and consider triangles.

“What’s with the shoes, Molanphy?”

Emilio, no surprise, throws the first stone. Most of my fear, like all really effective fear, is self-imposed. The majority of Mexican-American kids invite me to their birthday parties where I get to thrash piñatas, or ask me to play soccer where I discovered large feet had a gift for clobbering the ball. My fear was based on looking different and that someone, somewhere, might not like that. And Emilio, hunchbacked and glowering, the taint of a dark moustache already creeping across the top of his 2nd grade lip, became that someone.

“Hey Daniel, come check out Molanphy’s shoes!”

Emilio opens with a big move. If he can get Daniel against me — popular, cool, Sister Mary-fountain-defeating Daniel Esteves — I might not just lose the battle but the whole war. I peek over my book. My shoes have grown three sizes and suck up so much Texas sun my only reasonable hope is their explosion. Settling around my planetary loafers are a growing ring of normal shoes, sucked into the terrible orbit of my odd feet.

“What’s with the shoes, Molanphy?”

Like any mortal, I have to look up at the sound of Daniel’s voice. Other than Paul’s, there is no charm for me like Daniel’s. He’s the fifth-grader who the seventh grade girls adore, and the eighth grade boys don’t even mind him for it. He isn’t embarrassed to have lunch with second-graders, even gringo second graders. He’s good with teachers, but that doesn’t stop him from starting trouble, which even the teachers enjoy when it comes from Daniel. Maybe his kindness and confidence came from his lean but strong body, a body you could tell he would fill out just right for the rest of his life.

“Well, Molanphy?”

I savor the end of Daniel’s approach, the gliding way he walks, just slightly up on the balls of his feet, something between masculine and feminine but all grace. Dozens of us try to mimic this effortless walk on the school playground and end up looking like newborn storks on stilts.  Daniel smiles at me, his dark, stringy hair coolly flopped over his right eye, as always. His grey eyes are neutral with a slight sparkle of generosity, but I hear in his voice that he needs a response. Quite a crowd had gathered, and even the coolest of the cool can lose face.

I close my book and regard Paul’s shoes nonchalantly, like someone else tied them to me. They are clownish in color and size, but my feet feel pinched and sweat so badly they itch. I spot Paul at the far end of the parking lot, telling a story excitedly with his arms to a small group of rapt students.  He’s the ace-up-my-sleeve; I could panic and bolt across the schoolyard, screaming and sobbing, and Paul would protect me, no matter what. Paul had fought longer and harder at Holy Trinity to sculpt out a place for himself, but he’d throw it all away for family without thinking twice. That was Paul.

But I love Paul back, and I won’t bother him. I decide to take whatever abuse is necessary, hoping above all I don’t earn the fearful, legendary “toilet chocolate swirly” in the boy’s restroom that’s whispered about (but never actually witnessed).

I look up to face the inevitable and find Gina Sanchez’s braces, glinting like the Holy Grail. The braces come fitted with a monstrous head-set that pins her side ponytails back, highlighting her long angular nose and popping her sleepy brown eyes into wide-eyed bulbs. She’s so equine she might whinny. But no one makes fun of her because Sr. Mary Angela, the head nun who limps with a cane, has one cardinal rule: never bully the sick or impaired.

Gina, gawking at me with the rest of the crowd and about to paw a hoof impatiently, inspires me.

“They’re medicinal,” I offer. I use a big word half-correctly, a dumb habit that would enable me to skip third grade and land in fourth, where I flounder because I barely know my multiplication tables and haven’t even heard of “cursive” writing.

“What?” Daniel asks, for the crowd.

I continue in some detail about how my feet are slowly turning in on one another, mainly because of their “grotesque” size. The shoes would “streamline my bones” and keep them pointed forward instead of inward. I demonstrate how my feet might end up without my special shoes by slipping them off and walking in my socks, my feet wrenched awkwardly towards each other. A few kids laugh, but most are silent, because we all see that Daniel is buying it. I get more and more enthused about the disease (“footacitis,” from the root, “foot”), and about how my brothers are also afflicted (but didn’t like talking about it), as well as my deepest fear of footacitis’s affect on my soccer game (everyone knew I could play defense, so there’s an audible gasp from the crowd).

Sister has to ring the bell twice our way to shut me up and freeze us before line-up. Paul’s shoes become my first chance at storytelling, and I love it. Even though my Mom offers me a new pair of shoes at the end of the month, I wear Paul’s shoes, pinching and painful but with pleasure, for the rest of the year.

***

I pull my clammy, compressed hands from Paul’s shoes, look up, and spot the treasure chest. I wipe my hands anxiously across my T-shirt and gingerly lift the small box from the corner of the closet. I can’t believe Paul kept this. I lift the metal latch and raise the lid, and there they are, safe and secure in blue-protective foam: the warrior Valar with his two-handed sword; the Half-Drow wizard Viscilia with her preposterous bosoms; the assassin Erestor with his sly dagger; the monk Hodar with his battle staff; the hooded thief Mirkah with his torch; and the crafty cleric Talon in his green robes. All Paul’s hand-painted Dungeons and Dragons figures are there, as well as the bulk of my memories of Paul from age 13 to 17. For teenage boys in the early eighties, D&D was the X-Box before X-Box.

It’s the tiny Valar figurine with his enormous sword that I can’t keep my eyes off. I regret that I never told Paul that I modeled my character Valar after him. Valar was a fourteenth level warrior whose “hit points” were the most in the party, and his magic, two-handed sword could hew orcs, goblins and trolls in half with one swipe. He was the first to break down dungeon doors when we didn’t know what lay on the other side, and his epic defense of his castle (which Paul drew in chalk to scale on our Texas patio) against an army of lizard men (185 slips of paper, Pente pieces, chess pieces and assorted pebbles, twigs and bark) took two full days (my Mom watching us through the screen door, shaking her head). Like Valar, Paul was first in everything in our family.

I squeeze the lead between my fingertips, remembering the “sixth dimension” Paul created for Valar. I still wondered what it all meant.

***

It’s a brutally hot summer day in Dallas in the early eighties, and Paul, Dougie and I sit around a long table in the family hobby room, surrounded by shelves of Shaklee vitamin products, a side-venture my parents started in order to keep three kids in Catholic school. We are enrolled in Cistercian Preparatory, an all-boys private school run by Hungarian monks who fled their country in the early sixties when the Russians invaded. We traded hand-slappings by nuns for hair-pullings by priests, Spanish lessons for Latin lessons, and kickball on asphalt for tag among the scrub oaks lining the Trinity River.

Twenty-sided, eight-sided, six-sided and four-sided dice are bouncing all over the table, and Dougie and I lean on our twelve-year old knees on the edge of our seats. Paul is composed behind his dungeon master’s cardboard shield, hiding his secrets. He’s ambushed our party with a squadron of sub-demons, mindless slaves of the spider-queen Lolth. Valar’s magic sword, the “Sword of Kas,” glows bright-green with devil’s blood, my warrior-character worked up into a bezerker-frenzy and killing four demons for every other character’s two. Paul, deep in his own battle with acne, his eyes red and lips chapped from heavy Acutane doses, looks older than seventeen. The scars have begun high on his cheekbones and will rut their way down for nearly thirty years.

Dougie, freckles dancing over his ecstatic face, is the exact opposite of Paul’s cool. His right arm is in a cast, not unusual for the summer when he splits his time between the fantasy world of our hobby room and falling out of neighbor’s trees. He’s rolling dice with his good arm and banging the table with his cast, interspersing that noise with yelps of joy every time Mirkah’s dagger finds a chink between magic armor or Hodar’s staff crushes a demon skull. Dougie senses victory; his cleric Talon even has time to stop fighting and “heal” Valar, boosting his hit points. Erestor assassinates a sub-demon with a flaming arrow through the jugular, and Viscilia whips off bolts of lightning from her fingertips, frying enemies left and right. Things are looking good, which is exactly why Dougie is getting nervous. He knows Paul is about to pull the “Sword of Kas” disappearance trick into the “sixth dimension.” I’m a bit anxious about it, too.

Paul closes the chasm into Lolth’s lair where she had summoned the stream of demons, and we now have a finite number to kill, represented by small strips of paper surrounding our tiny, lead figurines. My Mom peeks around the corner from time to time, especially when Dougie gets too “riled up,” which is about every forty seconds at this point. But we’re closer than ever to finishing a major battle without Valar disappearing and leaving the rest of the company in the lurch, so I’m excited, too, feeling we might finish a campaign without a trip to another dimension.

That doesn’t happen.

“The Sword of Kas starts to shake and glow in Valar’s hands…” Paul announces, quietly.

“Aw, come on!” Dougie screams, physically pained. My Mom turns off the kitchen faucet.

But Paul addresses only me. This is between me, him and Valar.

“Valar’s left forearm disappears….”

“Talon grabs his right arm! Talon grabs his right arm!” Dougie screams while frantically scanning through his “character sheet” for a healing spell we all know Paul won’t allow to work. Paul keeps his eyes on me and doesn’t respond to Dougie’s thrashing. He was always a cool showman when he had a plan.

Dougie bounces in anguish, a flush of red eating up the freckles on his face. Paul calmly dictates the scene, Valar disappearing bit by bit while Paul unlocks the outside door to the patio with one flick. Then he slowly turns his senior high school ring, gem to palm, in his hand.

“Do something, Tommy!” Dougie implores, grinding his cast on the edge of the table. The fantasy aspect of our fantasy game always abandoned Dougie in these moments.

I try the usual tricks, like dropping my glowing sword or having Viscilia grab Valar, but nothing works.

“Valar disappears,” Paul announces.

Dougie flops back into his seat, a crumpled character sheet in his good hand. He’s physically defeated because he knows there’s a physical outcome to all this: he has to walk outside onto the flaming patio to increase the authenticity of my character’s isolation. He used to fight it, but he’s learned any hesitation will bring Paul’s now gem-armored palm smack-upside his head. Even worse, extended hesitation will bring my Mom into the hobby room asking why in the world the door to an air-conditioned Texas house is open on a summer day, a real wrath that renders the danger of imaginary sub-demons, well, imaginary.  Dougie slinks outside, and Paul and I are left alone.

I’m twelve, Paul seventeen, a half-generation between us. We’re worlds apart in real life, but our lives intersect in this fantasy world he’s created. Paul would describe the “gray, misty place” Valar found himself in, where the ground was “spongy” and there was no sound, “not even the sound of your own breathing.”  It mainly seemed like a great way to torture Dougie, who would desperately press his face against the back window, his pug nose fantastically more pug.

But Paul always became intense during these periods, and he kept asking the same question over and over.

“What do you do?”

Sometimes I felt that Paul, not Valar, was relegated to this strange, quiet dimension, and I desperately wanted to get him out. I’d tell him that Valar would walk around, but Paul said it all looked the same. I’d say he’d call out “hello,” but Paul would say there was no answer. I’d try to light a torch for better visibility, but that didn’t seem to work, either. Once I had Valar walk, dropping seeds behind him to follow back, which I thought was clever until Paul asked where I thought Valar was going. I said I didn’t know. We would get to a place where neither of us knew what to do, and Paul would hold us both there, for some reason. He would remove his dungeon master’s shield, close his weary eyes and rest his head on his crossed forearms, and just wait for me. The air-conditioning would click on and warble, and I would listen to my Mom washing dishes over the constant traffic of Preston Road.

I didn’t know what to do. Paul would eventually sense my frustration (“It’s OK, Tommy”), rub his red, tired eyes, and unlock the back door. Spastic Dougie and the loud realness of a Texas summer day would flood back into our lives. Our party would suffer losses in Valar’s absence in direct proportion to how annoying Dougie had been outside. We’d roll dice, kill the rest of the demons, and finish the campaign.

***

I slip Valar, Viscilia and Erestor into my shirt pocket and push through Paul’s shirts. We differed not just in body frame but in style; where Paul went bright, bold and striped, I went solid and subdued. Even Paul’s physical therapy scrubs were more like paintings than clothing.  My own favorite outfit, on the other hand, is a navy blue work suit, a zip-up that covers me from head-to-toe that I use when crawling around the sub-area of my house or scampering over beams in my attic. It’s durable, comfy, covered in cobwebs and, if my wife allowed me, I’d eat, sleep and work in it everyday. I’ve never been very imaginative when it comes to clothing.

In Paul’s closet, though, I’m desperate to find a specific shirt. I frantically push through shirt after shirt, wire hangers scraping wood and reminding me of bone. I’m looking for the black-and-white diamond shirt Paul wore on the night of the St. Francis/All-Night-Rave fiasco, one of our last nights together.

***

It’s Friday night in downtown San Francisco, and I’m helping Paul flip a folding table on its side in the third-floor ballroom of the St. Francis Hotel. He’s an invited speaker at a physical therapy convention, his morning slot tomorrow at 8 am sharp. But he wants to attend a rave from 11-4 a.m., then “find a place to crash” at the St. Francis until 7, wash-up, shave and change in the public restrooms in time for his presentation on muscular dysfunctions in children ages 8-12. It’s a classic Paul and Tom caper, like stealing a case of beer from a bar on Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday in ‘91 and creating an impromptu conga parade, slinging Bud Light cans left and right to happy carnivalers. Except this time I’m older and grumpier and don’t want to run into any of my college students at a rave, so I’m simply enabling. It’s not nearly as much fun.

Paul, however, is all in. He had his chakras checked earlier on Nob Hill, he’s just off an all-protein diet, and a recent surgery discovered his appendix had been slightly ruptured for years and slowly leaking toxins into his system. His bad organ is out, his wild smile is affixed, and the room glows with his lubed-up chakras. He’s part Daniel Esteves, part Valar the warrior, all unstoppable Paul Molanphy. The more preposterous the plan becomes, the more emboldened and optimistic he grows. The security guard who passes by every few minutes, staring at us? Paul waves to him happily. The guard smiles back and waves. When he’s in this state, Paul’s pure joy convinces all he can do no wrong.

After Paul crams his clothes into a corner, he pulls a shirt out of a bag with a flourish, a puffy, black-and-white-diamond ensemble that’s gaudy even by Paul standards. He waves it at me like I’m a bull that would charge and shred it. He knows me well.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It’s my party shirt – cannot have a bad time in it!”

I shrug, feeling more miserable by the minute. I’ve added twenty pounds to my already girthy frame by taking up online teaching, where I lose the twenty-five minutes of lecture-pacing that constituted my only exercise. My fingers are even more sausagey, despite the six hours of key-thunking I do everyday. The folding table is awkward and wrenches my back and I want to just take the BART home to Berkeley. But I agree to walk Paul to the bar once we hide his clothes.

The walk to the bar is about a mile, a straight shot down Post Street across Market where it turns into New Montgomery and t-bones Sansome Street. It’s a classic San Francisco summer night, the fog blowing off the cold bathtub of the Pacific, shrouding everything in grey mist. San Francisco often feels more like a town than a city, and we have the brightly lit but quiet street to ourselves.

Paul can tell I’m grumpy, but he does his best to cheer me up. He’s bounding on the balls of his feet, uber-Esteves, talking with his hands, asking about my teaching, my writing, my social life. I’m unresponsive, and I turn my coat collar up against the fog and shove my hands into my pockets. I walk faster than Paul for maybe the sixth time in my life, my stubby legs pumping to outgain his long strides. He gets the message and clams up, and we reach the bar before I’m forced to disclose much of anything.

“Have fun,” I say. I turn and leave for the BART.

“I will!” Paul responds cheerily, a packet of glowsticks in one hand and his ten-dollar cover in the other. My sarcasm doesn’t register one iota, another Paulism I grudgingly love.

The BART gets me home before midnight, where I lie on my futon mattress and stare at the ceiling. My upstairs neighbor, an insomniac, starts her weekend tradition of dragging and dropping her own futon mattress around her apartment, searching for the “most harmonious spot for sleep.” Very Berkeley. Meanwhile, I soak every possible moment out of my stubborn, useless, and foul mood. I successfully stoke this mood by kicking myself for not hanging out with my big brother on his last night in town. So what if an LA 108 Composition for the Artist student saw his instructor dancing badly with an older, skinnier and gaudily clothed version of himself? Why couldn’t I have done that for Paul?

What’s wrong with me?

Spare keys suddenly jangle at my door, and there’s Paul, eight hours early.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Oh, it wasn’t what I expected.”

He’s holding a brown paper bag.

“Get in the bathroom. I have a surprise.”

Even though I’m tired and clutching the tail end of a nasty mood, I know it’s no use arguing with a Paul plan. When I return, he’s strung Walgreen’s $3.99 Christmas lights across my room, the icicle kind that sparkle. He hands me a glowstick with austerity, which I snap ceremoniously. We sit on the edge of my futon and watch the flickering white lights that shimmer on cobwebs in the corners. We wiggle the glowsticks in each other’s face. The lights play on Paul’s black and white shirt, the white diamonds becoming stars. And the drag and drop of the futon above isn’t so different from a hip-hop baseline of club music.

Paul smiles at me, and I have to smile back. We don’t play our own music or take roofies, but I loosen up, miraculously. I tell him about my teaching, my writing, my social life. We talk for an hour, maybe more, and then we blow up an inflatable mattress for Paul. He lays down, but we keep the Christmas lights flickering. He leaves his party shirt on. I fall asleep slowly, the room becoming more hazy as the glowsticks fade and the stars disappear on Paul, one by one.

***

After checking all of his shoes for anything close to a fit, I leave Paul’s closet with some glowsticks, his shirt, and the D&D figurines. I’ll hand-off Mirkah, Talon and Hodar to Dougie in six months at our 20th high school reunion at Cistercian. Any doubt about the power of things will disappear when a southern Conservative holding three lead figurines tearfully hugs a Liberal just off a plane from San Francisco for nearly thirty awkward seconds in full-blown Texas sunshine. Memories are where our hearts remain.

Brian has completed his sweep of the bathroom. My Dad is still on his knees, wrestling with the lock on the black trunk. Our search will not end with Paul’s apartment. We’ll hunt down every last detail of Paul’s last day, investigating the accident site on County road 310 off Hwy 71. We’ll learn that Paul’s green Cherokee Jeep sped over a slight rise past a pasture road, left the earth completely, landed, and crashed through a live oak thicket. Paul will be cremated, and Brian will add some of Paul’s ashes to clay and fire an urn for my parent’s garden in Santa Fe. We will miss Paul, every day but in our own way, the loss pulling us together but the volatile nature of mourning keeping us a safe distance apart.

***

My Dad finally pops the lock on Uncle Jack’s trunk, and we’re flooded by photo albums, cards and letters. Many photos are loose, and they slip through my fingers and pile up in my lap. Here’s Paul, the tallest of three little boys somewhere in the early seventies, all lined up in corduroy pants with rungs as thick as harbor rope and mad, striped turtle-necks that make my eyes ache. Here’s Paul in his Def Leppard t-shirt, charging from his high school yearbook at a cross-country meet. Here’s Paul, gleeful father, tickling his son into a mad frenzy. Here’s Paul, Best Man at my wedding.  Here’s Paul, here’s Paul, here’s Paul.

I push the photos aside and pull Paul’s shirt into my lap. I breathe the fibers and feel the make. I’m only a steward of this shirt, though, holding it for someone more important. When he’s old enough, I’ll pass it on to Paul’s son. I’ll try to explain about things, how you can hold a thing close to you in silence and it will speak louder than words. It’s something in the fibers.

“It’s something in the fibers,” I’ll say.

Originally published in Loud Memories of a Quiet Life (OutPost 19)

***

Photo courtesy of the author: “That’s a shot of Paul as Dungeon Master, circa 1982, in Dallas, TX. He’s closest in the photo, behind the screen. I’m at the end of the table. It’s my 11th birthday, and Paul is entertaining me and all my friends.”

Julia Wick is a contributing editor for Longreads.
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