Leaf and Blade
Leaf and Blade were brothers who also happened to be successful authors. Their books commanded large advances, flew from the shelves of bookstores to the happy chirp of the barcode scanner, and were snapped up by Hollywood producers like chickens at the alligator farm. The brothers' work also spanned the chasm between art and commerce. A considerable number of literary critics and many of the brothers' writing peers took note of these books, analyzed, and mostly lauded them, arguing in academic journals and in private company for page on page, hour on hour, about which brother was the more accomplished literary artist and in what sense.
The brothers' fans lined up outside bookstores, rowdy with anticipation for the pleasure of a good read, on the eve before the brothers' books were released. Work on and publication of these books were expected to follow a certain pattern. The older brother, Leaf, always came up with the idea for his next book first. Then, the younger brother, Blade, through myriad clever subterfuges, and avoiding Leaf's dodges, feints, and false trails, discovered Leaf's subject matter and threw himself into furious work on a book exploring a variation on the same general idea, bringing this variation to life with great speed and zeal in order to meet the same general deadline as his older brother. In every case this expected preamble resulted in two books on similar subjects published at roughly the same time.
The brothers were long estranged. Years ago (so long ago neither brother remembered exactly how their estrangement had begun) they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, Leaf made no secret of the hatred he held for Blade. In every forum at his disposal, over a space of several years—in literary magazine interviews, seated in studios beside famous television personalities—Leaf called Blade a leach, an ape, a derivative fool.
Blade answered these charges by asking whether Leaf would say the same of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Near the beginning of this public game, Blade was sly, smug, gleefully acerbic in his shadowing of Leaf. He seemed to view his brother's books as so much meat and his own books as the exuberant devouring and digestion of that meat.
Over the course of three books and five years, though, Blade gradually came to resent the necessity of following Leaf into whatever subject the older brother had chosen. Some in Blade's camp tell of tirades, Blade throwing whatever breakable thing was within reach after discovering the idea to which he would be confined for the next year or so. Despite these outbursts, even during this period of growing resentment, Blade followed his brother into a variety of subjects ranging from long, closely-observed character-based novels simmering over hundreds of pages to the quiet boil of a Midwestern midwinter epiphany, to raucous espionage thrillers set amidst the dusty international turmoil of the Paris to Drakar rally.
After indulging in an angry funk for a space of time, cursing the latest subject to which his older brother had condemned him, Blade's initial fury would give way to a period of quiet meditation, a channeling of energy for whatever subject it happened to be, a gathering of narrative strands followed by a whirlwind of research and binge writing. After a good day or night's work, Blade would emerge from the writing garret he'd built into a limestone outcropping above an old spring on a ridge overlooking the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky with a cryptic smile behind which he seemed to be hiding a manic joy. Seeing this, those in his circle would know he was once again in brilliant pursuit.
When he'd finished the first draft of his latest project, Blade would summon old friends to the bluff overlooking a slow wide turn of the old muddy river. They would build a great bonfire out of trees Blade had spent all day felling and dance around the flames while Blade read passages of the new book in a voice that sounded feverishly hungry. Many of these friends were from the hard-drinking days of Blade's teens and early twenties. This was how they liked their literature, and some of them, stumbling drunk on bourbon, danced around the fire singing and shouting well into the earliest morning like fans at a pep rally about the many ways in which Blade's novel would buzz-saw Leaf's.
Blade knew his success required, and his millions of fans expected, his book to cagily shadow and, in many ways, depending on who you talked to, surpass (if not buzz-saw) his brother's book. When the writing was going well, (in addition to the predator/meat metaphor), Blade imagined a quieter metaphor—that he and Leaf were seated in separate canoes on the glassy surface of the old, muddy river. Each well-placed sentence he wrote was a fresh, full stroke propelling him alongside Leaf, beyond him.
On Leaf's good writing days, he gave no thought to Blade at all. He was a solitary worker and, for the most part, a solitary, private sort of person, even though he had a theatrical streak and loved to play the public role he got to play once a book came out, as long as he had complete control over how he would be seen. On Leaf's good days, it was as if his younger brother had never existed, let alone decided he thought he could become a serious writer. On these sacred days there was nothing but the writing and the subject—nothing in front of or behind him. Nothing mattered when he was in this state but the words and the living breathing life that arose, as if by alchemy, from their careful arrangement. When Leaf finished a draft, he would print it out, straightening the pages one after the next as they emerged from his printer, and place them on his desk in his wilderness home in Colorado or his city home in Park Slope. Once the pages were arranged, he would take a quiet stroll through the woods along the Delores River or around his quiet parkside city block. On his bad days, Leaf felt the pressure of Blade's pursuit like the hot breath of a predator (they shared this metaphor and even their roles in it), and it seemed inevitable he would be overtaken, devoured, if he slipped up in even the slightest sentence.
Leaf's fans dismissed Blade's work as rushed and hopelessly inferior. It wasn't writing, they were fond of sneering, echoing Capote on Karouac—it was merely typing.
Blade's fans greeted Leaf's latest effort as a shallow shade of Blade's and were quick to point out that their literary hero's more complicated, nuanced book, one that often implicitly criticized Leaf's choice of subject matter or angle of approach, had been completed in so much less time.
Many fans of both camps flocked to buy both brothers' books for comparison the day they came out, fans of each brothers' work shouting taunts and chanting cheers in lines outside bookstores and across the aisles. Book clubs discussed the books back to back, adherents of each brother's work cheering on their champion. Sometimes rival book clubs, each comprised exclusively of fans of one brother's work, met together to engage in fierce debates about the books, talking deep into the night, all present provided with years of conversation fodder. At the end of the night, invariably, neither brother would be crowned the victor, quite, so both camps could disperse declaring victory.
The media fueled the rivalry. Not long before their respective books came out, photos of both brothers would begin to appear on the covers of glossy magazines. Leaf left behind his solitary worker persona, which came more naturally to him, to play a more robust and interesting version of himself, seeming to bask in the media attention; Blade, whose personality would have leant itself to putting on a show, shunned the attention to cultivate a reclusive mystery in the underground, throwing his royalty checks into the back of his pickup on his way to Churchill Downs, or at least letting people think he did. Sometimes the brothers were featured beside one another in these photos (though they refused to ever occupy the same studio at the same time), their looks changing through the years with whichever national trend held sway—long-haired and counterculturally shaggy in the sixties, tight clipped and crisp during the nineties, later on, both slightly pudgy, grizzled survivors, always with a fierce sort of challenge in their eyes.
After the first few books, Leaf took to sending out decoy information to try to fool Blade into writing something completely different from the subject he was actually pursuing. Leaf relished the thought of his younger brother publishing a book on the completely "wrong" topic. Had this ever happened, even if Blade had published a superior book, Leaf would have viewed the publication of a book on a different topic as a victory. For example, before he set out to write In the Tall Trees, his Western about a newcomer to a mining town who bucks up against the existing power structure, finally getting the best of the ruthless men in charge before riding off to an unexplored mountain range, Leaf fed Blade's camp false information about a novel he was purportedly writing about a Foucault scholar at NYU in the throes of a mid-life crisis and undergoing intense Jungian therapy. Following this false trail, Blade worked for a few months on a novel about a Derrida scholar at Columbia who had left his family to take a string of lovers, one of whom was a devotee of Jacques Lacan, before Blade learned the truth about Leaf's book in progress based on information his hired spy, Turner, a former CIA operative, had been able to wheedle out of an informant in Leaf's camp. Blade abandoned the project midway through and followed his brother west to complete How Wide the Meadow, How Deep, his National Book Award-winning novella (Leaf's was the runner-up that year) about the intimate, private life and dreams of a Screwknife, New Mexico prostitute in the 1870s. It's rumored there are trunks full of false-start manuscripts—each one the result of Leaf's false trails—in a vault at Blade's estate overlooking the Ohio—enough pages of brilliant beginnings to make critics' minds reel at what might have been had Blade followed these abandoned trails to their conclusions.
Both brothers claimed not to have read their sibling's books at all, ever, and answered questions about their knowledge of the other brother's oeuvre in a tone that said why would we ever read that? The fact that both brothers protest too much in answering this question, has lead some to speculate that the whole arrangement has always been a ruse, a publicity stunt drummed up by some mad genius book publisher, and that both brothers knew good and well what the other was up to. Both camps also put forth theories that the other brothers' books are obviously the result of an overabundance of talent and a rare, charitable largesse on the part of the one true writer, the brother who wrote both books and credited one of the books, perhaps even the better one, to his less blessed brother. Some of Blade's fans claim that Leaf's books are better because Blade wrote two books and, out of a deep generosity and kindness, gave Leaf credit for the stronger one.
After a substantial trail of books, written and published in this manner, Leaf began to lose interest in the strange public game he and his younger brother had played for so many years. A certain wistfulness, some say a memory of a moment of boyhood tranquility and good will, a fishing trip to a quiet stream or a bike ride down a shadowed lane, a nostalgia for old times, or a regret at lost time coinciding with an odd string of obituaries about men in their mid to late fifties, the age he had reached, or perhaps a wish to see his brother and talk about their crazy careers, to compare notes before the time of note-comparing was lost forever—thoughts of this sort began to occupy Leaf's daydreams. He would sit at his writing desk in the Park Slope apartment or in his cabin high in the Colorado San Juans for hours without writing a word, staring down at the fall foliage behind the wrought iron fence-lined park or across the ripples of the Delores River, recovering a moment of brotherly camaraderie from their pseudo-southern youth.
As a result of this wistfulness, it came to pass that when Leaf was in his early sixties, with a string of ten strong books behind him—all of which Blade had mimicked with equal or greater success, often mining nuances Leaf hadn't treated—something in Leaf softened. Even on the days when he wrote nothing, he found in place of his wish to avoid the snarling predator at his heels, a strengthening impulse to stop running and turn and face whatever was behind him. To kneel, speak softly, put out a comforting hand.
This was a time when Blade, in his late fifties, was living in a well-publicized outdoor adventuring phase. Leaf suspected (though, given their distance, he couldn't know) this phase had come about as a result of the real sting accompanying the first serious fading of Blade's youth. How much longer would he have the physical ability to do what he wanted to do, how long would he be able to live his life without limits his body would impose, before he had to give some things up? Confronted with losing the ability to do things he had always been able to do so easily (something Leaf had already confronted to a greater degree in his own life) Blade was gathering experiences with a last-chance gusto. Leaf read the occasional "Fishing and Hunting with the Big Tough Author" article in Esquire or Outdoor about Blade on Safari in Africa; Blade fishing for bluefin tuna off the coast of Cuba in a facsimile of the boat and with equipment Hemingway had used; Blade holding up a brilliant peacock bass for the camera on a tributary of the Amazon; Blade among the grizzlies of the British Columbian rain forest. In photos accompanying these articles, there's a knowing glint in his eyes that seems to Leaf to say, "I know this is bullshit, the construction of this persona, but I'm having this adventure on the magazine's dime."
If he had been cruel, had the burning compulsion to compete and get the better of his brother still sizzled in his veins, Leaf, who was more and more an indoor sort, could, for his eleventh book, have easily turned his eye to a dainty (though perhaps no less ferocious) project as a Victorian novel full of crustless cucumber sandwiches, tea parties, and marriage hunts for per annums among the landed gentry.
Instead, Leaf decided to toss Blade what he thought would be a soft pitch and asked his agent to shop around an idea for a nonfiction book about a man in his early-sixties climbing the major peaks of the Smoky Mountains—America's oldest, most worn down range. Leaf thought this would be a gift to Blade, who could then announce plans to write a nonfiction book about climbing the "fourteeners" in Colorado, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, summiting the tallest peak on each continent, traveling to Europe to summit some Alps, or perhaps even tackling a Himalaya or two. This project was meant to be a gift, a gesture toward reconciliation in the last third of their lives. Leaf thought his brother would see it for the gesture to rapprochement it was, and he hoped that when they were finished with these books, they might stir up some press by reading their mountain-climbing books together at a number of venues. Leaf imagined them drinking good bourbon or wine on the rooftop deck of his apartment, or at his cabin—looking out over the park or over the Delores, maybe back in Blade's home near their old Louisville homeplace. Perhaps they would read together in the firelight of the raucous bonfires he'd heard about. He saw them comparing notes, having a laugh at the odd race they had run so well. With the gloaming of his career in sight, Leaf had found room for this reconciliation, and he hoped Blade would see things the same way.
What Blade actually decided to do in response to Leaf's mountain-climbing concept took Leaf completely by surprise. Some speculate that Blade's resentment at having to follow his brother into so many subjects over the preceding years (a resentment somewhat, if not entirely, difficult to understand since no one made him echo his brother's subjects) cannot be understated. Many debate the necessity of Blade following Leaf. Was it the publishers who kept him in line? Was it his choice? Once he started following Leaf, which, one could argue, began the day he was born, did he have any choice? Others speculate that Blade interpreted Leaf's gesture as a parody of the choice he'd made to become an outdoor adventurer so late in life and that Blade wished to savagely address the perceived slight by turning it on its head. Another theory, perhaps the best one, points to a shift in Blade's outdoor phase, a gradual turn from self-indulgent, high adventure jaunts (fishing, hunting, climbing vacations) to socially-conscious, charitably-minded visits to the world's most troubled areas. Blade was inching into a more explicit activism. This theory locates Leaf's blunder in the fact that he didn't know about this shift because he was following Blade's life through glimpses provided by the glossy magazine media, which was usually a month or more behind.
Regardless of the cause, upon hearing Leaf's plan to summit all the major peaks of the Smokies, Blade landed a book contract to write a gonzo journalist's account of paying a visit to, and spending at least a dollar in, every gas station, Cracker Barrel, Sonic, Wall-Mart, Holiday Inn, tourist trap, batting cage, putt-putt golf course, arcade, water slide, and honky tonk—on the long strip of chains between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg at the foot of the Smokies. The working title of this manuscript was Living off the New Land.
Both brothers set out on the same day, a windy Saturday in the middle of March. Leaf, dressed in brand new, state-of-the-art garb supplied to him by a variety of outdoor stores and punctuating his steps with a silver eagle-headed walking cane given to him by a prominent nature writer, started up the trail toward the summit of Mt. LeConte. Every mile or so, he stopped to rest, consult a guidebook, run a hand through his gray beard, scribble observations in a leatherbound journal. He had decided to begin the trip alone. Later, on the publishing house's recommendation—against his better judgment—he would meet with a variety of celebrities and current and ex-dignitaries for chats atop each peak. These chats would be with fellow baby boomers, people in a similar, later, but still very active, phase of their lives. His pack felt heavy and chafed his hips, despite the adjustments the Outdoor World salesperson had recommended, and he felt he needed the rest stops he was taking. On this first day he wrote in his journal at each stop about his misgivings, wondering if his body was up for the challenge, expecting that this concern over his physical preparedness might provide the beginning of a good arc for the book, that readers would appreciate the gradual improvement as his body adjusted. That kind of thing could inspire people his age. On a few stops, he looked down over the vista below and wondered about Blade.
After leaving his car behind a chain link fence topped with concertina wire in back of the first of many gas stations he would visit for Living Off the New Land (this gas station just off the interstate) Blade stepped through the glass door to the jingling of the bell, an ironic smile on his lips, a biting gleam in his eyes that made him look as if he was about to ravish someone or devour a pound of chocolate. He took sidelong glances at the half empty water bottle, the stale magazines on the coffee table, the greasy pinups on the walls, stepped up to the counter, and quietly purchased a pack of pine-scented air fresheners from Carl (the stitching on the jumpsuit informed him). He searched Carl's eyes to see if Carl might have read the profile in the paper about him. There was no knowing gleam, no mirroring sparks of irony for Blade from Carl, and this was exactly how Blade had imagined it would be and how he wanted it.
Blade thanked Carl, wished him well, hung one of the fresheners from a nylon loop extending from a zipper, and placed the remainder of the fresheners into a pocket of the otherwise empty pack he planned to fill over the course of the rest of his journey. He knew the new land would provide. All he needed was the wad of cash he could feel in his hip pocket and the clothes on his back.
Blade had come up with a set of rules to govern his trek down the strip toward the Smokies: 1) he must spend at least a dollar in every open place of business he encountered; 2) he would alternate sides of the strip in a ceremonial crossing of the road to take place each day precisely at noon; 3) he would stay in whichever motel he encountered as close to five o'clock as he could manage and, after checking in, would eat at the closest restaurant to the east; 4) he would go until the stores gave out and the mountains began and 5) at each non-retail or food vending operation he encountered along the path, he would engage the highest official he could possibly make arrangements to meet with on such short notice in conversation for at least ten minutes; 6) he would start walking at nine each morning, except on weekends when he would begin whenever he damn well pleased, perhaps after a swim if there was a pool.
With the ironic gleam in his eye, an explorer's zeal in his heart, the empty pack on his right shoulder, Blade left the gas station and headed toward the first McDonald's to the sound of six lanes of traffic.
Two weeks later, Leaf was descending the last major peak in his plans, less than a mile short of trail's end. He had climbed all the major peaks in the range and was finding the hiking, especially the descending, conducive to the quiet, internal part of writing that looked like doing nothing—the arranging of a viable shape in one's mind that came before any contemplation of the more concrete content, which shape he would fill slowly and carefully with words.
He had summitted one of the peaks with an ex-president, another with an abstract expressionist whose paintings sold for millions and who had already participated in four retrospectives, yet another with a great chef. Now, he was descending the final peak with an aging rockstar, who was far behind him on the trail, probably stopping to smoke another cigarette.
Leaf had never felt better. He was impressed by what the daily exertion had done for his body. He had decided that a major strand in the book to come would be one of renewal and rebirth (tempered by a frank discussion of the soreness and pain he'd had to endure to arrive at it) through steady exertion on the trail. He would detail the gradual but certain thinning of his gut, the re-definition of the musculature of his legs, what felt like nothing less than the re-sharpening of his mind. He wouldn't lay it on too thick; he would include the pain and the grit, but he hoped the whole would amount to an offering of wisdom from a certain vantage. He imagined for the cover a photograph of the Smokies, looking mist-enshrouded and mysterious.
From time to time, as he'd undertaken his own journey, he'd wondered how Blade's adventure was proceeding down in the valley, far from the quiet of the mountains. He wondered how, when all was said and done, they might best coordinate their book tours to ensure maximum exposure and sales. He hoped Blade would relent at last. At night, looking up at the stars as the brothers had on adventures they'd taken up a tributary of the Ohio River called Harrods Creek almost fifty years ago, he imagined Blade as a solitary walker against a long stream of cars.
Leaf rounded a bend and carefully descended a set of natural steps in the rock down which a stream trickled. When he was safely down the steps, he saw a man coming up the trail who was strangely dressed for a hiker in a gray business suit and drab blue tie, and who, even for all his strangeness, looked immediately familiar.
When the man got closer, Leaf recognized him as Turner, the ex-CIA operative who Leaf had long known was someone Blade hired to discover the subject of his next project. Part of the game he'd been playing for the last twenty years had been to feed Turner false information, a move which had caused Turner to work out a variety of counter-subterfuge methods in order to arrive at the true subject of Leaf's next book. Some of the plays in their strange game had included wearing a series of costumes. Leaf respected Turner's resourcefulness; he always got Blade the right information soon enough so that it wasn't too late for Blade to alter his course. Perhaps one day soon, Leaf had thought recently as part of his campaign to make peace, he would have a laugh with Turner as well. "It's Blade," Turner said, with no preamble, as Leaf approached him on the trail, apparently assuming correctly that Leaf knew who he was. "He's in bad shape," Turner continued. "Refuses to be taken to a hospital."
Leaf nodded. "Did he ask to see me?"
Turner shook his head, no. "Someone at the scene had the idea you could talk some sense into him. We knew you were close by. Someone also thought it might be a good ending for both of your books if you met where the strip meets the mountains. He has a gun."
The scene? A gun? thought Blade as he walked in silence behind Turner the rest of the way to the trailhead, not speaking but wondering furiously toward the scene.
Given the quiet way in which his journey had begun, what Leaf saw near the place where the mountains began and the long commercial strip ended seemed even more noisy and brilliant because of the contrast with the woods in which he had spent most of the last two months. A banner reading Welcome Blade! You Did It! stretched taut across the street on the Eastern outskirts of town. The mayor of Gatlinburg, who had tried to arrange for the comp-ing of many of Blade's stops (Blade had politely refused), stood under the banner, flanked by the Gatlinburg High School Marching Band, on a small stage to the side of a podium, his face drawn in consternation when Leaf glanced up at him. He was speaking to the president of the Chamber of Commerce. They were set to surprise the famous, one-word-named author as he completed his task at the final establishment he would visit—the Tasty Freeze Yogurt Shop.
An ambulance stood in the parking lot, its lights spinning redundantly in the March sun. The scrappy band members, for the moment, talked to one another in low tones. None of them had ever read any of Blade's books because they preferred television and video games, though they knew he was famous and had seen his face on magazines in convenience stores. "What if he comes out shooting?" mused a chubby drummer. "They'll mow him down if he even twitches wrong," answered the drum major. Some other band members held their tongues but appeared to be amused by these speculations.
To Blade's disgust, the publishing house's publicist and Blade's agent had arranged interviews and media occasions as he'd made his slow way from chain to chain trying to spend at least a dollar at each establishment, forging a new sort of contemporary American trail. Blade's camp had also decided to incorporate celebrity visits into his slow journey down the strip to better mirror his brother's interviews on the mountain tops. He had played putt-putt golf with a retired network news anchor, dunked donuts with a big-busted country music star with ties to the region, swung at balls in a batting cage with an emissary from a late night television personality, gone down a waterslide with a super model, refused to speak to a famous heiress/socialite at a bowling alley. Local newsfolk in bright suits had followed him with their cameras, proffering mikes, as he walked doggedly beside the zooming six lanes of traffic. "As you can see, he's a very determined man," one of them had said as if to explain the laconic author's terse responses to her chirpy questions. They'd sign off and throw it back to the anchors, who made a joke or two before throwing it over to sports. Sometimes, the stories included footage of Blade talking to a celebrity in a Taco Bell or the lobby of a motel, purchasing a knick-knack or a t-shirt from a tourist store, alone in front of an omelet and a mug of coffee at The Farmer's Daughter Restaurant.
Halfway down the strip, he'd bought a computer at a Wal-Mart and had started posting a blog on his web-site with terse apercu about the day's activities. Many of his fans were reading the blog and some of them had come to watch him make his way down the strip. Most of them were too cool to draw attention to themselves, in part because he'd explicitly asked them to help him keep the experience pristine, but after a while Blade began to suspect that he was being watched by some of his fans trying their best to act clandestine: the man steeling glances over an upside down magazine in the 7-11, the woman who lingered over her long-gone frosty, darting glances and whispering to her male companion who looked dragged into it.
As Leaf entered, Blade was seated in the red booth of the Tasty Freeze Yogurt Shop, the last stop he would make to prepare to write Living Off the New Land. He was slumped over the table, his eyes half-shut. He wore an airbrushed t-shirt on which was written I heart Tennessee and on which he'd scrawled in indelible Sharpee below it, "where I found a jar." The shirt was covered with pins, about half of which he'd donned in ironic support of the current Republican Administration and others on which read slogans such as I'm not a stable boy but every day I wake up a horse's ass. He wore a black straw cowboy hat fronted by the head and bared fangs of a timber rattlesnake. His eyes were hidden by sequined Vegas-era Elvis glasses. Strewn across the table top were an assortment of shot glasses, lanyards, key chains, ash trays, Big Gulp cups, greeting and post cards—all of these a small portion of the former contents of his backpack, which rested on the floor beside him, stuffed to bursting with more of the same: salty snacks, soft drinks, old timey photographs, putt putt golf scores and little pencils, movie promotion Happy Meal toys.
Milling in front of the Tasty Freeze, closer than the mayor and the band, were a sheriff with a bullhorn, some paramedics, a young news reporter with a camera crew who'd come, initially, to cover the mayor's surprise welcome of the author, and a doctor who'd shown up on the scene who claimed to be a fan of both brothers' work. Blade's publicist was also on hand, trying to salvage his reputation and determine if all of this would be good or bad for sales and deciding, finally, that it could not be going better as far as sales were concerned, so long as they got the books out before the buzz from this event, which was getting national attention and blazing through the blogosphere, cooled off. She hoped Blade already had a draft, or something that could be assembled into a draft within the week. "He doesn't mean anyone any harm," she was saying into the mike and camera in front of her. The story was already being picked up on the ravenous cable networks. "He's a Humanist with a capital H, a poet, an artist, a literary man for our time. I'm sure he knows what he's doing," she said, secretly wondering how to keep the controversy alive till the books were ready for distribution. "I doubt that's a real gun he has in there. But it could be," she added. She kept using the phrase, "gonzo scene-making," and telling some members of the press, in a way that suggested she knew just what he was up to, that she was "pretty sure he was creating a fiction in real life to serve his non-fiction."
After Leaf had found his way among murmurs to the center of the melee, the doctor on hand explained to Leaf that he suspected Blade had had a minor heart-attack and was now in a state of shock in its aftermath. They wanted Leaf to speak to him, soothe him, talk him down the way only a brother could. They didn't know what he might do to someone who wasn't a family member with that gun he was waving around.
"We haven't spoken in twenty years," said Leaf, staring across the parking lot at the form of his brother slouching in the plastic booth. "I may be the person he's most likely to shoot."
Apparently, they guessed, at one of the gun or outdoor stores selling such things along the course of his journey, Blade had purchased a pistol. At each of the other stores selling bullets, he'd bought a single bullet. Fifteen in all. He held the gun loosely in his right hand, which rested on the table among the knick knacks. Every previous time someone had entered the store to try to talk to him, they told Leaf, Blade had raised the gun in his hand with no real sense of menace, but in a casual, reckless sort of way that made it seem as if he might be threatening to shoot whoever it was, or himself, or someone in the assembled crowd, or the frozen yogurt machines. They couldn't be sure.
"Okay," Leaf said and took a deep breath, "I'll try it," thinking Turner had been right when he suggested this could make a great ending for both of their books. Before he approached the store, he tried to cram a hazy concept of brotherly love (that didn't want to fit) into his head to see if that might help him get closer. He made himself recall some of the moments that had led him to wish for a reconciliation—fishing in the lazy brown water of Harrods Creek, riding bikes down a shadowy lane in their Kentucky boyhood.
The sheriff nodded, advising caution, and Leaf stepped forward, still wrestling his conception of their arc through brotherhood. The way they'd known each other back then, the way they knew each other now. He was afraid he was too far out of touch with the earlier pre-self-conscious moments, the time before the writer's curse of watching oneself watch one's life, before they were fierce competitors on a big stage, to get it back as fully as he felt he would need to in order to help him help Blade now. Nevertheless, his heart in his throat and the feeling of just barely grasping something solid way back there in that watery sheaf of boyhood memories, he moved away from the crowd, its murmur disappearing behind him, and walked across the parking lot, up the sidewalk, and opened the door of the Tasty Freeze to a jingling bell.
Blade stared straight ahead as if into a great distance, as if right through his older brother, dark circles under his eyes, his neck seeming to have puffed out an inch or two from living off the new land.
Leaf stood in front of the booth, noting the items strewn there. A purple rabbit's foot keychain, a shot glass with a skunk and a little boy pissing, a pair of dice showing snake eyes, a pink drink cozy featuring the silhouette of a top-heavy topless woman.
"Well, brother," he said and ventured a smile, "Looks like we're both at journey's end. Some of us more than others. What say, we walk out of here to thunderous applause?" His words seemed small and faded fast in the silence.
Blade swung his eyes, slow and sad, older-looking than Leaf had expected, up to regard his older brother, and Leaf wondered exactly how long it had been since he'd last seen his brother in person and how strange this was since they lived together almost every waking moment in their work and in the consciousnesses of their adoring (and warring) public.
Blade said, in a voice raspy and sharp, "I could say, 'oh, the horror' and I wouldn't be lying, though that wouldn't be very original, which would bother you, I suspect. Or I could say 'rosebud, rosebud' or whatever the nostalgic equivalent might be for us with the same result. Or I could say, 'how public, like a frog.' Or I could say, 'how delightful, how lucky, to have so much,' and seal it with a big smile. Or I could say, 'Shanti, Shanti, Shanti' to call forth the restorative rains." He seemed about to speak again when a tremor appeared to seize him, and he grabbed his chest. His eyes, which were closed at first, stared wide-open, at Leaf. In the first movement of the seizure, it seemed to Leaf as if Blade were going to go on to say something profoundly enlightening, some bit of wisdom or terror gleaned from his journey down the strip, some longed-for words of welcome that would push them toward reconciliation.
"Come on, Blade . . ." Leaf began.
"Listen, Leaf . . ." his brother echoed.
" . . . hand me the gun and let's walk out . . ."
" . . . I will fire this gun . . ."
" . . . into this fete they've planned."
" . . . who knows where the bullet'll land."
"Come on, Blade." He moved to embrace his younger brother.
Blade lunged, and Leaf heard a click beside his ear, leapt back, and winced. When he turned he saw projecting from the barrel of the pistol a banner on which was printed the word BANG!
Blade was regarding him calmly, as if he hadn't derived any pleasure from the firing of the banner, with a kind of sympathetic mischief and sadness. The expression made it impossible for Leaf to be angry with him.
About half the crowd (many of them faithful readers of Blade's blog) erupted outside in a muffled roar—laughter and cheers. The other half looked as puzzled and relieved (perhaps as disappointed) as Leaf.
Blade stood. Gew gaws clattered to the floor—"C'mon, brother," he said. He grabbed Leaf's arm, threw it around his own shoulder, and ushered Leaf out into the scene. "It has been a long time."
As they emerged from the Tasty Freeze, the crowd cheered and the band struck up "We Are the Champions." As they approached the stage, the mayor of Gatlinburg and the president of the Chamber of Commerce beamed down at both of them. Someone had added another banner saying "And Leaf" to the banner welcoming Blade. Blade said, "I wrote this ending. Now it's your turn to make the best of it you can." He couldn't help himself.
Leaf stopped and shook off Blade's arm. Some say his eyes were filled with terror because he wasn't in control of the reconciliation as he'd imagined he would be. He wasn't ready. Others describe the look as one of wise and sober resolution and complete control in making his decision. The situation at hand—this public reconciliation—was exactly what he'd wanted and exactly what he found he couldn't bring himself to carry out—at least not under these circumstances, which were circumstances Blade had taken over. He shook Blades arm from his shoulder and pushed through the looming faces of the crowd, listening to Blade's laughter fading behind him followed by loud applause, some introductions (Blade had mounted the stage); what sounded like a salute to "my brother Leaf, right there, lighting out for the territories—everyone!" met with scattered applause. See! It was Blade's people! As he continued his get-away, Leaf thought he heard Blade say something about never following him (Leaf) again into a manuscript, which announcement was met with a roar of applause, then Blade reading a portion of the manuscript for Living Off the New Land. The words rang out at first as if they were emanating from speakers in Leaf's skull, crowding out his own words, erasing him from the world. This crowding-out hurt. Blade's words faded gradually into silence as Leaf kept walking. He took tight breaths till he'd passed even the last of the latecomers moving to join the event in progress. Each step brought back a few more of his own words, till he saw the mountains rising up before him, smelled the pine, and, with no cessation of shame at his own limits, felt like he was himself again.
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