I want to point out right off the bat that the following is a work of fiction, so no one gets the wrong idea.
Spoken In Blue
I first met my brother when he was five years old. I’d seen him before. I saw him every day since the day our father brought back the strange little bundle wrapped in cloth. He brought the baby back alone. He told me his name was Jeremy. That was the last time, I think, I ever heard him speak his youngest son’s name. He wasn’t a person to me. I was only six, and here this wailing little lump of flesh came into my life, without the one who was supposed to bring him back. I wasn’t mad at him. I didn’t hate him. I wasn’t old or mature enough to blame him; that was for dad. I figured maybe he would turn into a person some day. Once he started to talk.
But he never did. And so I never met him, until he was five. Five years old and he’d never spoken a single word. He made noises, but you couldn’t call them communication, let alone language. But it was deeper than that. He didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t make hand gestures or point to things or do anything that made any of us thing he had anything to say. Severely autistic, they would probably say now. He was never diagnosed. We didn’t even have that word back then. Not really. But we had a lot of other words.
“The lighthouse is on, but the lighthouse keeper fell asleep in the shithouse,” dad said with his characteristic poetry.
We all looked at Jeremy like he wasn’t really a human being. Just a body, doing all of the things a body could do, but without anyone steering. Even I looked at him like that. Until that day.
We were sitting in the living room watching Hanna Barbara cartoons. Huckleberry Hound was my favorite, and that’s why I had a bowl of blue sherbet sitting in front of me even though it tasted like blueberry bubble gum that had already been chewed and spit out. But it was Huckleberry Hound flavored, and I was at that age when the chance that my frozen dessert would spontaneously get up and start singing “My Darling Clementine” was more important to me than the fact that I could barely choke it down. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention to the bowl on my lap, and that’s why I didn’t notice when my brother stole it away right from under my eyes.
“Oh Jesus Christ!” my father bellowed as he walked into the room. “What’s that little idiot doing? Why did you give him your damn ice cream?”
I looked over and saw Jeremy smearing the dark blue non-dairy treat all over the piece of paper he was supposed to be drawing on. And all over himself. And the carpet underneath it.
“Aw jeez, dad,” I said. “I didn’t notice.”
“I know you didn’t notice,” said dad, and he smacked me on the back of the head. “I’ve got two idiots for sons. What the hell did I do to deserve this?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, feebly.
“Well, clean the damn thing up then,” said dad, and he stormed out of the room.
I went into the kitchen to get a sponge, a bucket, and some towels and then back to clean up Jeremy’s mess. Again. For about the thousandth time.
As I approached, Jeremy jerked his head to look at me. Well, not at me, exactly. Past me, which was the closest he ever got. For a second I ignored him, but then he lifted up his hand and held it in front of my eyes. It had the piece of paper in it.
“Yes, that’s nice,” I said, and tried to move past him to get to the carpet. But he persisted. He thrust the paper in my face. I paused.
“Is that for me?” I asked. He didn’t say anything, or do anything. He just held out the paper. I grasped it with my fingers, even though every inch of the paper was covered in a thick layer of sticky sherbet. As soon as I was holding onto the paper he let it go. I stared. It seems like such a small thing, but it wasn’t. There was no doubt in my mind that Jeremy had just handed me something. He had never done that before in his entire life.
“Let me see,” I said. I took a look at it. It was a finger painting. But more than that, it was a painting. At that time in my life I couldn’t have told you anything about composition or contrast or line quality, but I was the second best drawer in my class after Lindsay Banes, and that was only because her parents paid the art teacher to give her drawing lessons on weekends. I had seen Jeremy’s crayon scribbles before and they had no direction. They were just a kid scraping a colored stick at a white surface. No more an attempt at artwork than throwing acorns at a junkyard fence.
This was different. The page was covered in swirls of different shapes and sizes. Jeremy had dipped his fingers into the sherbet and applied his paint to the paper with care and deliberation. It wasn’t some great work of art or anything, but it was…directed. I spent a lot of time caring for my baby brother, and he needed a lot of care. I’d never seen him do anything like this. For a moment I considered showing dad. A brief moment.
“Thank you, Jeremy,” I said. He didn’t respond. But then again, I didn’t expect him to.
I would love to say that the moment changed me instantly, and that I immediately started trying to help Jeremy express himself. But I didn’t. The fact is that by the time I fell asleep that night I’d pretty much forgotten about it. I mean, it was just sherbet splatters on a piece of construction paper. It wasn’t that big a deal. Except it was. Some part of me remembered that, but it was a good four months before I did anything about it.
“The winner is…Adam Derwin!”
The whole class clapped. Lindsay Banes shot me a dirty look as I walked up to the front of the room. I couldn’t help but look terribly smug as Mrs. Limon shook my hand and gave me my 1st place certificate. I wanted to say “take that, Lindsay!” but obviously I didn’t. That would be being a poor winner, which wasn’t okay even when it would feel really good .
But I was highly proud that my diorama about dinosaurs beat her diorama, which was about different and much lamer dinosaurs. Everyone in class knew that Lindsay’s mom helped her, just like they all knew that my dad definitely did not help me. I’d had to go to the library and get a book on paper mâché and learn how to do it all myself. It was a lot of work, but I knew that it was a skill that would help me in my future, so I muscled through it.
“As the first place winner, Adam,” Mrs. Limon continued, “you get your first pick of the prizes.”
I marched confidently towards the table under the blackboard. There it was. The Hot Wheels set. It was all the boys in the class had been talking about the last week. How amazing was it that a school diorama contest had a prize as cool as a Hot Wheels set? It was the entire reason that I’d actually bothered to put serious work into a school project for once. I looked back and caught my friend Bobby’s eye. He gave me a thumbs up and a huge grin. He knew he’d get to come over and race with me. He had an eye on a Plymouth Barracuda.
I reached over to get them, but then I hesitated. Something caught my eye. It was two prizes over from the Hot Wheels, right next to the pack of dinosaur stencils. It was a paint set, with some brushes, an easel, and several tubes of paint. What grabbed my attention was the color on the front of the box. It had dots to show all of the different colors of paint, and one of them was blue. The same exact shade of blue as those finger-swirls of Huckleberry Hound-flavored sherbet. Before I knew what I was doing I felt my fingers close around the paint set.
“I’ll take this one,” I said. Everyone in the class gasped in shock and horror. Okay, probably they didn’t really do that. But that’s how I remember it.
It took me a couple of weeks to set it up. I only got through it because I never thought about what I was doing. I never considered that there were cartoons to watch and street hockey to play and that this was taking time away from them. If my dad had wandered into the garage and told me I was being a jackass and wasting my time, I probably would have stopped. If any of my friends had found out and made fun of me, I probably would have made up some excuse and never gone back to it. I didn’t understand why I was doing it. If I had I would have realized it was a stupid idea that almost certainly would amount to nothing. All I knew was that I wanted to do this. That there was something tight in my chest that hadn’t been there before. This was the only thing I could think of that might make it go away.
“Come on, Jeremy,” I said as I guided my brother by the hand. He could get around okay but he often bumped into things. That was okay in the house, where we’d spend years gradually removing anything breakable or dangerous. But this was the garage, and it was full of nails and power tools and broken lamps that dad swore he was going to get around to fixing one of these days. I’d done my best to clear a path—that’s most of what took so long—but some of the stuff was heavy. I was on the football team, but muscular eleven year old arms are still only eleven years old.
I walked him over to the desk I set up. There was a chair there, but I didn’t have much illusion that he was going to sit in it and stay still. Instead I’d cut the legs off the desk so that it was low enough for him to get to standing up.
On the desk was a sheet of paper, an easel full of paint splotches, and a couple of brushes with cups of water set into notches in the desk so that it would be difficult for him to knock them over. He could pick them up and throw them, just like he could throw the paint or the brushes or the easel. But I was prepared. A tarp covered the whole area around the desk, and another one covered the junk between the desk and the wall. I didn’t think Jeremy was strong enough to hurl anything past the protective perimeter I’d set up, but if he did I would just clean it up. Dad would never have let him paint in the house. He wouldn’t be too happy that he was painting out here, either, but he wouldn’t fight too hard about it after everything I had done. At least, I hoped not.
“Here you go,” I said. I placed the brush in his hand.
He closed his fist around it. Like it was a knife he was going to stab something with.
“There you are. That goes in the paint. Like this.” I gently guided his arm so that the tip of the brush dipped into the nearest gob of paint, which was yellow. Then I moved his hand towards the paper to make a mark. Jeremy’s expression was calm. Almost serene. For one beautiful moment as the brush moved towards the canvas I thought this was going to work.
Then he screamed, and hurled the brush away. It landed with a splat on the tarp. Jeremy just kept screaming. A high pitched wail that pierced right through my ears and into my brain. It kept going and going.
“Shut that retard up!” my father’s voice echoed from in the house. “I’m watching Carol!”
“Shh, shh,” I said to Jeremy, and I was surprised at the calm in my voice. Apparently I wasn’t going to give up so easily. Where did that come from?
“Look,” I said. I picked up one of the other brushes and dipped it in the red splotch of paint on the easel. Then I stroked the paper with the brush and watched the streak of crimson as it formed. “Look, it’s painting. It’s fun.”
Jeremy continued to scream. I made a swirl with the red paint, just like the one he had made with my sherbet. The wail went on.
“It’s painting,” I said, gritting my teeth. “You like painting. I know you do. Come on, Jeremy. I know you’re in there.”
I dipped the brush in the water to clear it off, then back into the paint. This time I chose the blue. I brought it over to the paper and made another swirl. Jeremy’s mouth closed in an instant. Silence filled the room, and if silence had a color it was that same dark, beautiful shade of blue. I made another swirl. Jeremy’s eyes darted to the paper, transfixed.
“Here,” I said, and I tried to push the brush into his hand. He didn’t take it. Instead he dipped his fingers into the paint. He gushed them around for a second, gathering up a good amount of pigment, and then pressed them to the paper. He swirled it around, and his eyes widened as the white transformed into blue. He put his fingers back in for more.
For the next fifteen minutes all he did was paint. He swirled his fingers around and around, in loops and swirls and curly cues. He stabbed his fingers into the red, and the yellow, and the green, but they never touched the paper until they were mixed with the blue. He blended hues until the easel was a big splotch of different shades of azure, and rubbed each one against the paper. I stood back and watched. I wanted to give him his distance. I only approached once his blue ran out, which didn’t take long. I squeezed more of it out of the tube and stepped back again.
Finally it was done. Every inch of the paper, and much of the desk, was covered with blue curvey shapes. Jeremy pressed his face so close to the paper that I thought he was going to get paint on his nose, and stared. For a long moment he just stared. Minutes went by, and Jeremy stared. This was the longest I had ever seen him do anything. The painting, and then the staring. It was the first time he ever seemed interested. Engaged. Then he turned to look at me, to the extent that he could. His hand darted out to the side and grabbed the paper, delicately, by a corner that was almost dry. Here, he seemed to be saying. This is for you.
I walked up to him and threw my arms around him. I felt wetness against my chest but I didn’t care. He let me hug him for almost five seconds. An eternity. And when he pushed me away it wasn’t aggressive. Just insistent.
He held the picture up between us and grunted. I took it.
“Thank you, Jeremy. It’s beautiful.”
And it kind of was. It wasn’t a work of staggering mastery, or anything. I’m not going to tell you that this is how I discovered my brother was a painting prodigy or anything. In movies, mentally challenged people always turn out to be secret geniuses, but I’ve never seen that in real life. The picture looked like exactly what it was: a chaotic fingerpainting by a five year with a struggling brain.
But it was real. It had meaning. There was no denying that. And it was different than the sherbet painting, even though the shapes used were similar. That one had been tranquil, like blue clouds in twilight. This one was violent. Tumultuous. Pounding ocean waves at the height of a storm. If Jeremy’s wail from a few minutes ago could be captured in blue, this is what it would look like.
I walked over to the cork board set against the south wall. It had been full of fast food flyers, but we hadn’t used them in years. So I had torn everything off the board except the push pins and dumped it in the trash. I took one of the pins, now, and pushed it through the top-center of Jeremy’s painting. I took a step back and looked at it again. I glanced over at Jeremy. He wasn’t looking at the painting. He was looking at me. Not my eyes, of course, but my chest. I looked down, and burst out laughing. I was covered in blue paint from where I’d hugged my brother. My brother.
I had a brother. How had I not seen that before? I looked over at him. There was paint all over his clothes, on his hands, of course, and even a little in his hair. He had the same not-quite-present expression he usually had on his face, but it was different. He always looked like he wasn’t seeing the world around him, but now he seemed to be looking at something. Something distant, perhaps. Something alien, that none of the rest of us could see. But he was looking. There was a mind in there.
That’s what the tight thing in my chest had been. It struck me all at once, in that moment. For five years I thought of my brother as some kind of animal. Like a chimp, that could walk and eat and smear his bodily wastes all over the walls of the bathroom, but who couldn’t think. Who couldn’t feel. But I had been wrong. I walked up again to hug him. He went limp, like a ragdoll, and let me.
“Come on,” I said once I let him go. “Let’s go get you cleaned up.”
And that was the day I met my little brother. The first conversation we ever had. The first of many, since that day so very long ago. But he’s never said a word. He never had to. Everything Jeremy has ever said, ever really said, has been spoken in blue.