Everything is set for our final improvement. The double-wrapped nylon rope arrived this morning with the mail. I’ve checked the incidence/reflection angles and tested the branches for both swinging and dead weight. The mirror shines, a labor of love. The tree we picked out is a beauty—a twisted lodgepole pine that leans slightly towards Malibu. The canyon hasn’t burned since ’98, so the conifers droop heavy with seeds. The years of waiting have infused the lodgepole’s bark with a pale luminosity, not quite the glow of an expectant mother, but something related. Our tree is the most pregnant on the property. Its low branches touch the chaparral, making it climbable and manageable.
Sunny teeters one-footed on a rusted paint can and stares absently up the canyon at the acres of combustible overgrowth. He is having his doubts. “Hey Sam Kim,” he says without turning around. And then again, “Hey Sam Kim.” When I don’t answer, he touches his crotch and frowns. “Hey Sam KimI got an uh-oh feeling.”
No need to respond. Sunny always has an uh-oh feeling or an eye of newt or a mothball in his melon or any one of dozens of butchered aphorisms that always translate the same way. He fears the worst. I remind him that unproductive thoughts are not allowed on Development Project Days. We still have quite a bit of work to do and things are not going so well.
The mirror needs to be hung up at a height of 18 feet. The four-foot stepladder we borrowed from the Weisses comes up nine feet short, and climbing the low-hanging branches has not been as easy as I first imagined. The bark leaves a slippery residue on my palms and the needles tear away as easily as leper hair. For the time being, we are grounded.
“What we need,” I say, carefully managing the confidence in my voice, “is a fire truck.”
Sunny mutters, “Tire fuck.” We’ve played this word game for fifteen years now.
“No, it would be tire fruck. Or try-er fuck.”
“Hey, hey. HeyWho is Fruck?”
“I don’t know. A pastry?”
Sunny gives this some thought. He holds out a sweaty palm. I hand over his half-smoked cigarette ration. He’s not allowed to light them outside during the fall because of the fire risk, so he chews on the stained yellow filters instead. Inevitably, the soggy filter will tear away and dump singed shake down his collar and I will have to go inside to get the dust-buster. If I don’t suck up the shake, his sweat leaches out the nicotine, leaving piss-yellow dots all over his chest and belly.
How should an older brother react to such habits? Sunny has alternated between two pairs of sweatpants for the past three years: the purple pair with the pangeic stain spreading across both upper thighs and the unspeakable white pair. He insists on buying small t-shirts because he likes how the “S” matches the first letter of his name. In the past year, his gut has spilled loose, a hairless cruller of dimpled fat hanging over the drawstring of his sweatpants. The cigarettes have browned his tiny teeth and left a black crust around the rim of his thick lips. There’s no hair left to get dirty, but his scalp bears dozens of rust-tinged scabs, crimson-capped mushrooms that rise up every time he shaves his head.
Today, I’d like to kick his chubby carcass off the paint can, stomp on his neck and scrub him with steel wool. Vigorously. And yesterday, after watching him toss a handful of scalp-scabs into his mouth, I drove to the country store and bought him a six-pack of his favorite Hard Lemonade. To help wash it down, I guess. I’ve never been able to figure out why my concern flips, only that it might have something to do with the weather. Because I only feel indifferent towards my brother’s hygienic and chromosomal defects when low-flying clouds get caught up in Topanga Pass, or when a storm over the Pacific blocks out the sun. Under those crowded skies, there’s no guilt, no disgust. Maybe the cloud cover helps to soften things up or maybe the oddity of rain in Southern California simply makes condemnation impossible. I have no idea, honestly.
After a couple more failed shimmies up the trunk, my forearms surrender. I can give up for a couple of hours now. Maybe some solution will present itself in the meantime. Sunny steps off the paint can and wanders down the canyon towards the road. The mirror leans purposelessly against the tree, reflecting the brown, lopsided face of the Second House: the stainless steel gutter, shiny and out-of-place, the salvaged Spanish roof tiles, the rotten cedar siding speckled with white patches of fungus and the overgrown window boxes, collapsed and useless—the entire house a distorted, anachronistic joke leaning slightly forward, propped up, it seems, only by the Jurassic rhododendrons that grow out front. Our greenbelt grass has yellowed and I decide to run the sprinklers to pass the time. Sunny has disappeared around the corner now. He’s probably walking down to the Country Store or maybe up the street to play with the Weiss’ pig. Or maybe he went all the way up to the abandoned First House—one mile up the driveway—to root around in the detritus of the owners’ abandoned art studio.
We live in the Second House. The First House sits at the canyon’s crotch—a dried-out two story covered in bird shit and chaparral. No one visits, save the fire inspector who comes by every six months to shake his head at the invasive growth. He knows nothing can be done. The owners want the First House to burn down and know it’s just a matter of time. I know this because last October, Sunny and I came home from a shoot in Canada to find a perimeter of well-irrigated turf laid down around the Second House. There was a note left on the kitchen counter: “A greenbelt is the best insurance against the Santa Anas. Hope you enjoy the ultra-ultra-quiet sprinklers. They cost a fortune.” What a nice thought: when the canyon howls with fire, when the news copters teeter overhead, when the families up the hill caravan their SUVs to the middle school gym, when the hippies talk very seriously about nature’s hunger, Sunny and I will play Go Fish on our skirted oasis, unconcerned, our trust in grass and man-made waterways.
Despite my better instincts, I felt greatly indebted to the owners of the property for their show of concern. I know it’s bad math, but guilt has always been my go-to response to kindness. So, for the past six months, Sunny and I have been working off my appreciation for the greenbelt. This past November, we built a compost bin behind the Second House and filled it with rotting jack-o-lanterns. In December, we installed hooks for Christmas lights. In January, we tried building a gate to keep out the teenagers who screw on the lawn of the First House. We never could find a long enough bar, so we put up a NO TRESPASSING sign instead. This past March, we scattered morning glory seeds at the edge of the greenbelt. Within two months, they outgrew the trellis and now grow back down towards the ground.
Today, we will try to add an ocean view to the Second House. Our canyon narrows as it descends, but if you sidle up against the lodgepole and press your right ear up against the corrugated bark, you can see a stretch of ocean beyond the congestion of the Pacific Coast Highway. If we hang a mirror on the chosen branch and affix it at the proper angle, the reflected image should beam directly into our living room windows. During the summer, when the sun sets at eight, the mirror should allow us to watch two sunsets a night: the first disappearing over the canyon’s crotch and then the second, setting moments later, as the reflected sun falls into the Pacific.
I thought up the Mirror Project last October when I read an article on the internet about a boy in Nepal who had been in a meditative trance for over six months. His mother said he first lost consciousness during a trip to the Indian coast to visit a relative. After a week of medical tests, the family returned to Nepal with their completely healthy, but still catatonic son. Not knowing what to do, the mother did what most people would have done: she completed a ritual, propped her son up against a Bodhi Tree and called him Buddha. The story itself was not all that alarming. If you pay attention to these things, you’ll know these sorts of Bodhisattvas show up every few years—some levitate, others stop bullets with their faces, others can scale Himalayan mountains in under four hours. All of them go for months without food or water. What struck me about this particular article was the mother’s explanation for her son’s spiritual swoon. “My son was never whole because he only saw the mountains and not the ocean. He is so sensitive to nature that he never felt complete just living with one and not the other. When he finally saw the ocean, everything made sense. He became fully realized.”
I agree with you. Nothing about the story makes any sense. But what distinguishes this Bodhisattva’s story from the others is the presence of an external trigger. Most of the men who live in caves without water, the levitators and the other tree-slumpers can only point within. They insist anyone can do what they do. But if anyone can fall into a trance and shut out the world, why does it only happen in Nepal, China or India? Unfortunately, I have no explanation, but I can say I prefer the idea of a boy who collapses at the sight of the ocean over the discipline of an unhygienic yogi who practices himself into nirvana. I blame my American upbringing for this sort of impatience.
Sunny duck-walks up the driveway. A red, pot-bellied pig squirms under his arm. The Weisses sometimes let Grendel stay over, especially when they have clients in town. His upkeep will occupy Sunny for the rest of the night, meaning the project will have to be delayed. Before resigning myself to an evening spent feeding trash to a pig, I make one last charge at the tree. Finally! My hand grips a rubbed-off, raw part of the bark and sticks. Blessed now with leverage, I swing my legs up around the branch and after an excruciating, violent twist of the abdomen, I’m sitting up there. Sunny drops Grendel and claps slowly. I sometimes love my brother very much. Without any prompting, they both shuffle up under the tree. Squatting in the proper ergonomic position, Sunny hoists up the mirror. I coil the rope around the branch, lining up the marks to ensure the proper height. All of it done as efficiently as we planned. After tying the final boy scout knot, I swing down and wrap him up, inhaling too much of his scent—sour milk, cigarette smoke and steamed vegetables. Sunny chuckles. He has clearly developed from this project. I yell, “Hard Lemonades all around!” and push his fat bulk back towards the house.
* * *
It turns out the mirror is too high. Or too low. All that’s visible is a stretch of blue something, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s sky or sea. For some indeterminable amount of time, I’ve been trying to spot a plane or a flock of birds or a fishing boat or even maybe a doomed surfer, but the mirror won’t comply. There’s still no context. Sunny drained his two Hard Lemonades quickly and then keeled over onto the carpet. Grendel dozes nearby, his snout buried in Sunny’s sweat-panted crotch. The glint from the mirror casts a shaky illuminated rectangle onto the top of Sunny’s scalp, right where his bald spot would be. The glare creeps over his forehead and then sets into his cavernous eye sockets. Sunny snorts and jolts upright. He furiously rubs his nose and peers in at the reflected image. He says, “Not OK yet.”
“It’s a plane.” He points. And there it is, the shaky image of a propeller plane flying through our reflected space, towing an advertisement for a local seaside crab shack.
“Good spot, Sunny.”
“It’s a bird. Plane.”
“Yes. Now we know it’s too high.”
“Hey Sam Kim. It’s too high.”
I reassure him that we can fix it tomorrow and retrieve a bag of chips and another round of lemonades from the kitchen, so the two of us can share our first viewing of the non-contextual, truncated sunsets.
Jay Kang grew up in North Carolina and now lives in San Francisco. Please befriend him on facebook.com.