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Excerpt from This Man Is My Brother

Myron Brinig
June 03, 2008

Michael went up to his brother Harry’s office. Harry had surrounded himself with objects that pleased his senses, his love of color and his delight in contrasts. It was difficult to believe that outside the windows a copper camp lay harsh and bitter under a sternly blue sky. “I work better with these things around me,” said Harry, offering Michael a high-backed chair that was an exact replica of one he had seen in Venice, an object of lovely lines and patterns out of the Renaissance. The beauty of this chair must have been wasted on nine out of ten visitors who entered Harry’s office. “I don’t let just anybody sit in it,” smiled Harry. His voice was rather high-pitched, without chest-tones and aggressiveness. And he had a habit of lifting his eyeballs to the ceiling, looking up, and then lowering them, coyly. He was dressed neatly in a blue serge suit, his shirt was blue and his necktie of gray silk. His polished gray-black hair was brushed back from his forehead without a hair untoward, the part as straight and undeviating as the flight of an arrow. His mouth was somewhat too small, the corners resembling two minute cavities.

On the walls of Harry’s office there were two hotly colored paintings by Diego Rivera, an artist in whose work Harry had become deeply interested. A few months before, when the artist had been in this country, Harry had gone to San Francisco to see him and had brought home these two pictures: somnolent Mexicans wearing scarlet and peach shawls and leaning back against a white wall salient with sunshine. Yet Harry appeared quite oblivious of his art. There were two telephones on his desk that rang constantly, steep stalks of abrupt, glimmering sound. Michael could see that Harry was the apex of the Singermann company. The other brothers were necessary, but less important to the organization. Michael noticed, too, that Harry was quiet and reserved, in contrast to Joseph’s perambulating explorativeness. Yet nothing skipped Harry by; all the details of the store were in his mind. At present, Harry’s chief problem was the chain-store menace. Chain stores were discovering that Silver Bow was a rich field and they were arriving in twos and threes. One of the largest had just opened a few doors away from the Singermann Company and was enticing customers away from the Singermann counters. Harry was now engaged in cutting prices in all departments, fighting the chain-stores with their own weapons.

“It’s a changing world,” said Harry, speaking in a detached way, thinking out each word carefully, pronouncing it as a separate and speculative sound. “The old independent stores are disappearing and the chains are coming in everywhere. There was a time when every small and medium-sized town had its big store and everyone in town shopped there. The department store business was a noble tradition in itself. Father to son, son to grandson, grandson to great-grandson. Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers. Yet the men he had derided, the drapers and greengrocers were the very ones to bring about Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo.” Harry’s hands waved above the desk, fluttering, weaving designs and patterns over the sombre wine of smooth mahogany.

“And particularly in America, men like Altman, Hearn, Wanamaker, Marshall Field and the Strausses helped to build a nation. Even our own father, small, and unknown, was a part of the tradition. They were fine, solid men, all of them, regardless of what shallow, selfish minds may think of shopkeepers. These men, even while they were engaged in business, had time to accumulate a world of precious art. They supported and stimulated young artists. But now they are all dead or dying, and shops are organized wholesale and managed from one single large-city center. Stores are scattered over the country with a poorly-paid manager for each unit. It’s a hard fight trying to beat them. . . .” Harry’s words were imbedded in separate nuggets of gray matter. “If we’re to survive . . .” He lifted his dark eyes to the ceiling. He lowered them.

“You talk like a cosmopolite who’s been adopted by the local Chamber of Commerce,” said Michael. He accepted gratefully one of Harry’s cigarettes, a very mild brand out of an Italian leather case, a pattern in colors of gold and wine-red.

“Oh, I can talk about other things,” apologized Harry. “Aren’t you interested in department stores? Do you want me to discuss writing? Do you know that our bookshop downstairs is the only one in Montana that carries copies of Marcel Proust in the original French? Not that we’ve succeeded in selling any. But every time I pass the book-counter, I get a thrill out of looking at the French covers. To my mind, Proust stands alone. How marvellous!”

Harry has developed since the last time I saw him, thought Michael. Even then, twenty years ago, he was by far the most intelligent member of the family. He has that most interesting faculty of projecting ideas on a blank screen, giving them color, shading them, reassembling them into various figures and designs. Michael observed further that Harry had little delicate mannerisms about himself, effeminate, and yet beyond the reach of a woman, because, too often, she is all surfaces. Every other minute or so, Harry would seem to flinch at the sight of cigarette stubs in the bronze ash tray, and would empty the tray, the sight of tobacco leavings evidently very distasteful to him. There was much talk that Michael had heard in his wanderings, of delicate, neurotic men lacking depth and being incapable of thinking ideas and speaking them. There was the case of a certain novelist, a young man who had started his career by writing two brilliant books. Since then, he had been unable to produce anything of value and inversion was blamed for his downfall. Michael could not help thinking, Harry has all the aspects, the mannerisms of a “queer,” yet he seems quite alive in his ideas, his brain is working all the time. And he does not just talk. He thinks talk. Again, Harry was in his forties, the time of life when most inverts are supposed to go to pieces mentally, yet there seemed nothing cracked or illogical in his thinking.

“Why haven’t you married?” asked Harry suddenly, directing his words in a quick line across the desk. His eyes, afraid to follow the words, looked up in the air.

“I’m looking for a woman to take care of me,” laughed Michael. “Every writer needs a buffer, and buffers are becoming rare.”

“Do you like women?”

“Of course,” said Michael. “Is there a Singermann who doesn’t?” Michael was faintly aware of sounding Harry out. He was also rather uncomfortable.

“I think Louis and Sol overdo it,” said Harry, apparently insistent upon keeping the conversation far enough away from himself. “Sol’s keeping a grotesque blonde in hotel rooms and Louis wants to have an affair with every pretty woman he meets.”

There was a small photograph in a mahogany frame on the desk near Harry’s elbow. Michael picked it up and saw that the likeness was of young Richard, the Goy. He remembered how, at the dinner table, the evening before, Harry had seemed closer to Richard than any other member of the family. Even the way he ate had seemed somehow involved with Richard’s presence at the table. The food would have been less appetizing, perhaps, if Richard had not been there.

“Richard is a splendid fellow, isn’t he?” said Michael, replacing the photograph on the desk. (Wonder what David thought of the picture of his adopted son on Harry’s desk)? “David would adopt a Gentile boy. He always had a fondness for Gentile faces and responses.” Michael wondered why he had spoken in this manner. It was so perfectly obvious that both David and Harry were much fonder of Gentiles than they were of Jews.

“Well, who could dislike Richard?” asked Harry.

“You prefer him to Ralph, don’t you?” asked Michael growing bold.

“It isn’t so much a question of preferring,” replied Harry, rounding each word off carefully, hiding each word behind a smoke of evasion. “Richard’s much more lovable, if that’s what you mean. Ralph is devilishly interesting and complex. But he’s wearisome. He’s so emphatically the Jewish intellectual type, and you know how they depress me. They’re so insistent on shouting down all ideas but their own.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Michael. The two brothers took to studying one another from oblique angles, carelessly, yet intently. They were similar in many respects. That might have been because they were the two youngest of Rebecca’s children. Both were fond of sequestered, isolated refinements outside of rigmaroles and routines. Each had penetrated outside the world of Singermann, each was more completely educated than any of the other brothers. This education had little to do with schools. Harry had not attended a university. He had a perceptive mind uncontaminated by professorial platitudes and campus fraternity gestures. Academic dictation would have left both Harry and Michael untouched by anything that did not stem spontaneously from within themselves.

Their temperaments, indeed, were so similar that each was more than a little embarrassed for the other. This is an awkwardness that frequently crops up in families where there is an overlapping of one personality into another. Michael was certain that he knew quite a good deal about Harry. He knew that there were peculiarities in Harry that no other person in the family but himself would ever fully understand. The knowledge perturbed Michael; he was worried by his own sharpness of observation; knowing less, he would have been happier and more congenial while in his brother’s presence.

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