Marie Brenner's extraordinary memoir, "Apples & Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found," tells the story of her troubled relationship with her eccentric and often difficult older brother, Carl, who gave up his career as a trial lawyer to become an apple farmer.
The siblings were often at odds, but when Carl learned he had cancer, Brenner took a break from her life as a Vanity Fair reporter to help care for him.
Terrified of becoming an invalid and hoping to disappear, Carl committed suicide. Brenner used her her skills as an investigative journalist to uncover information about Carl and other members of her family, and to construct a record of her brother's life. Read an excerpt from the book below.
We fight at the dinner table.
Stay away from my apple farms, my brother Carl says. And stay away from the Cascades. You don't know anything about apples.
It is a tone that I know well. The mixture of hate and love, rage and need, all scrambled together.
It is not easy for him to breathe. His girlfriend, Frika, is by his side, acting as if everything is as it always has been, as if nothing in the world is the matter. She is oh-so-British, drops her voice at the end of questions, takes on like the queen. She pulls me aside in the kitchen and says, "He is the love of my life and always has been. We have never been happier." Her cheeks flush like a debutante's.
Her black lace nightgown hangs on a hook in his bathroom. At night, they stay up late and listen to Parsifal, Wagner's dark score of the holy fool. Her eyes gleam with pools of longing. She looks at him as if he is Devonshire cream. At the dinner table, she hums a few stanzas from Das Rheingold. "Fricka's theme!" she says. Her expression says it: Top that.
He eats two helpings of filet, then asks for a second dessert. Tarte tatin. Made by the other girlfriend, who was at his house for lunch.
"Heather sure knows how to cook," he says.
A shadow passes over Frika's face.
At lunch, Heather demonstrated her pastry-cutting technique. "I always put a crimped leaf on the top for Carl," she said.
"He is the love of my life," she said.
There are always apples around him. Women, too. Apple pie. Big, chic antique bowls of wooden apples in all colors: red and gold and striped. Apple ceramics, apple pencils, apple photos. Produce labels framed on the library wall: Gulf Brand Texas Vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley, Empire Builder, Wenatchee District Red Seal Brand. I am an American first, then a Texan, he would say, not understanding he sounded like Augie March. The clues are there, in the grad school classic Augie March, I later realize. "A man's character is his fate," Saul Bellow wrote, quoting Heraclitus.
You always have to show off and tell us what you know, Carl said.
"I'll be in Washington next week," I say. "I have an interview. I have to close a piece."
"You promised me," he says. "You said you would stay away from Washington State. You sat right here and said that you would not go to the Cascades."
He yells as loudly as I have ever heard him.
"Washington, D.C.," I shout back.
I have the trait as well.
He glares. I glare. In that glare is the jolt of our connection, the fierceness of our attachment. We stare at each other hard.
"I don't know what you are so angry about," he says.
The next morning, he is at his desk when I say good-bye. It's a bright Texas morning. March 29, 2003. The San Antonio Express-News had a headline the day before: "Deployment. Fort Hood's 4th Infantry Division Moves Out." The country is now at war and we are in San Antonio, a city of military bases. Starbucks on Broadway is filled with young army officers from Fort Sam Houston. They wear camouflage clothes and are on their way to Baghdad. "Macchiato skim," one says.
Fort Sam Houston, the country club of the army, borders the lush suburb of Alamo Heights. It's an oasis of privilege with a Texas zip code that is used conversationally—"09," for 78209, the demographic of debutantes and ranch kings, fiesta princesses, new-money Latinos and WASP bankers with Roman numerals after their names, some of which date back to the Battle of the Alamo.
"What do you think of the war?" I ask a woman I went to high school with. "I don't watch anything depressing," she says. "I know y'all are concerned about 9/11, but we feel so safe down here."
Starbucks had a swarm of kids leaving for Iraq, I say when I walk up the stairs of Carl's house. He has a shredder next to him, and at the moment I arrive, he is filling it with orchard reports, glossy brochures for Procure Fertilizers, invitations for dinners at the McNay Art Museum. I think nothing of this. He is a neat freak who shreds everything that crosses his desk. He has always lined up his pencils and sharpened them just so.
On the wall where he works is a large map of South Africa in the Boer years, framed in antique gold, and several pictures of our grandfather, Isidor, a man of committees and awards, donating his specimen camellia bushes to a worthy cause. It is a mystery to me why Carl has kept a shrine to a relative he did not know. He looks out of large windows with window seats to neat stone houses of 78209 and bright lawns with a sea of bluebonnets in the grass. You know it's March in Texas when you take to the hill country and see an unending blue mist covering the fields.
Carl's bloodwork is coming through the fax. He stares at the numbers. He is now a student of the CRP test, which measures inflammation and must read 3 or less; the CEA; the glutathione test, which is a barometer of the liver; a new one, the CA 19-9, with its Geiger counter to monitor the pancreas; the prothrombin, which tells you about clotting; the remnant lipo test, IDL plus VLDL3.
My CEA is going nuts, he says.
It is just a number, I reply too quickly. These numbers go up and down. You know that.
He's working with an assistant, a woman I have met through someone at the gym. I pretend, just like Frika, that everything is as it always has been. That I can escape. That my brother is normal. That this time in his life is just a challenge, a euphemism I use all the time. That his condition is "chronic." Something to be handled. Another euphemism. I am going back to my home in New York City. Just six hours away, I tell myself. We have blown past whatever went on the night before. We always do. Anger is our Prozac. I am trying to train myself to say: I love it when you're angry! You sound like you did when you were fourteen! Or: Here you go again! That wonderful juicy aliveness! Rage! Instead, I yell back and get stuck in a whirl of fury—what the Buddhists call samsara—the endless repetition of a treadmill, the prison I am in.
You have the best doctors in the country.
I know, he says.
This is manageable, I say.
I love you more than anyone, I say. You are my brother. We are Brenners. Team Carl.
There is no epiphany. There are no final words.
"Don't leave me," he says. Tears run down his cheeks. "I am sorry for everything."
"I will be back in four days," I say. "Nothing bad is going to happen. There is nothing to worry about."
"No one ever tells you the truth," Carl says.
He fills jumbo lawn-and-leaf Hefty bags with files. "House-cleaning," he says. A copy of the New Testament is on his desk. I see a box marked "Orchard."
"Father Jesus," he now says before every meal, "we pray for our troops in Iraq."
I have a list in the car. Last-minute sources to double-check: Queries from Mary Flynn, the chief of research for the magazine at which I work. Phone calls I must make to Paris in the next twenty-four hours. Phrases to double-check and translate for the text: My notes on a legal pad—"On piege les mecs: Is this the idiom for 'one sets a trap'?" A review of a Leonardo da Vinci show of drawings at the Met, from The New York Review of Books. I have circled the word "sfumato." Later, I search it on Wikipedia.
"Sfumato is the Italian term for a painting technique which overlays translucent layers of colour to create perceptions of depth, volume and form. In particular, it refers to the blending of colours or tones so subtly that there is no perceptible transition."
In Italian, sfumato means "vanished," with connotations of "smoky," and is derived from the Italian word fumo, meaning "smoke." Leonardo described "sfumato" as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane."
I always tell everything I know.
Why are you always interrupting? Carl always says.
I regret everything.
If Carl could speak, what would he say?
Excerpted from Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner. Copyright © 2008 by Marie Brenner. Published in May 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.