"Get Away From Me"
Illustration: David Cowles
Barricaded in his room, listening to the Fab Four—over and over and over— Jim Shepard's brother was an enigma, a challenge, an occasional terror. How do you come to terms with someone like that? With tenderness, clarity, and a little help from a distant volcano.The British wave hit America in late December 1963 and funneled ashore, at least on the East Coast, principally through two New York AM radio stations: WMCA, the Good Guys—Joe O'Brien, Harry Harrison, Jack Spector, Gary Stevens, and Dandy Dan Daniel—and WABC, with Bruce Morrow, or as he called himself, Cousin Brucie. My brother listened to every one of them. The Beatles' first American single—"I Want to Hold Your Hand," with "I Saw Her Standing There" on the B side—traveled from outside our consciousness to number one in the country in about 30 minutes, and my brother had the 45 and was playing it in his room 35 minutes after that. At that point he was 12 and I was 7. He was not yet entirely withdrawn from socializing—he had one or two good friends who occasionally came over and listened to music or, much more rarely, tossed around a baseball or football in the yard—but for the most part I experienced him as a shut door from behind which issued all sorts of excited radio chatter, and music. The most common conversation I had with my parents in those years involved one of them asking, with an understated and anticipatory dismay, "Where's your brother?" and my having to answer, "In his room."
My brother as a mystery; my brother as a shut door: Those are some of the first and primary ways I experienced him, and it always seemed, in that sibling way, that he had a right to erect barriers, and that it was my job to get over them. Whenever I opened his door and wandered in—something I'd do periodically, intrigued by the music or just wanting more access to him—he'd go on with what he was doing for a few minutes as a way of suffering my presence and allowing me what I wanted, before finally asking, "Can I help you?"
Sometimes I'd say no and head back out. At other times I'd sit on his bed and he'd say, "Don't you have something you're supposed to be doing?"
To extend the conversation I'd usually ask a question to which I knew he knew the answer. We'd have exchanges like this:
"What time's Daddy going out?"
"I don't know."
"I thought you said he was going out at 10."
"If you knew that, why're you bothering me?"
That February he turned 13. He'd prohibited birthday parties in his honor since he'd been a toddler, but he took his birthday money—maybe $20 from our parents, and another $10 from our grandparents—and converted it into English rock 'n' roll: at 79 cents a pop, probably some forty 45s. That summer I remember he went through a dark period in which he was pretty much only in his room listening to music, and I'd come back from the beach or wherever and peer at his door. I made top-ten lists at my desk of my favorites of his new records and changed them daily. Sometimes I poked his door open because I had to identify a new song, or to ask him how to spell a band like Manfred Mann, but mostly I left him alone. I had my own things going on.
But one day I didn't. I missed him. I went up to his door and between songs asked if he wanted something to eat. He said he didn't. I asked if he wanted something to drink. He said no again.
I listened to a few more songs and then opened his door and wandered in. In the best of times, these weren't visits he welcomed, and these weren't the best of times, though I wasn't sure why. I stood there, concerned and committed to trying to brazen it out, and he sat with his back to me for as long as he could stand it and then finally turned around. He looked unhappier than even I would have expected a 13-year-old could look.
And while he watched, I started bouncing on one leg and drawing the other knee up to my chest, and then bouncing on the other.
"What're you doing?" he asked.
"Is this how you do the Pony?" I asked back.
He kept looking at me until I stopped. "Get away from me," he said.