Ten years old when our father died, my brother Russ retreated into the backyard tree house my father built behind the house my father built. Uncle Paul tried to get him down, entreating Russ to be a good little soldier. Never one to be patronized, Russ angrily yelled back from above: “You be a good little soldier!”
Years later, well into adulthood, I was at my office about 4:45 on a Monday afternoon. My sister Kathleen phoned and told me Russell had died of a heart attack the night before. I made it outsidee without breaking down. I cried on the 6 train downtown, conscious that across the subway car a woman watched. I stepped out of myself and observed my red-faced pathos; tried not to. I couldn't believe Russ had weaseled out at this stage of the game. He was only forty-five and had appeared to be in great shape. His depression had been lifting. With the undertaking of a large mural project at Fort Atkinson’s Fireside Theatre and (at last!) the properly fine-tuned prescription of anti-depressants, the previous months had been some of Russ' best.
I had told him during my Christmas visit that seeing his progress was the highlight of that trip. Together we had visited my Uncle Merle, slowly dying of a bad heart. Merle had been one of my father’s amiable brothers; he was a farmer, a musician and an artist with stained glass. Previously, Merle had told me that when he was gone he wanted Russell to have his stained glass and cutting equipment. In the last three months, Uncle Merle had died, as had my Uncle Fritz, the husband of my mother’s lovely sister Ruth. Now, as I walked down my Manhattan block, I wondered where Uncle Merle’s glass would go.
Russell had felt strange the night before, had spoken on the telephone to our mother about going to the hospital. He thought he might have overdone it at the pool, having swum something like two miles that day. Generally underemployed and uninsured, he was leery of spending money. Later in the evening, he felt better. Roommate Andy gave Russell's aching back a rub, told him "I love you." I hope he didn't wake when his heart gave out.
I flew to Milwaukee the next day. My mother wanted to see Russell's body before the cremation, so I drove her to the funeral home. The funeral director with (apparently) overly tight underwear and a scratchy collar led my mother and me to a showroom, where Russ lay in front. His body looked cold and hard. With his gray goatee, photographs of a dead Lenin sprang to mind. His body there, he was gone. Andy’s back massage and the “I love you” right before dying seemed a decent farewell, but there’s pain left for us. I was glad to see his body a last time, disliking the idea of his slipping away in an existential void. Too much of life disappears this way, gone in an ephemeral haze. We hadn't wanted him embalmed. Because of the autopsy, he lay covered to the neck by a blanket. My mother now whispered a sad "Why?" We cried and held each other, then left the body behind with Mr. Creepy.
I wanted the pianist to play "My Funny Valentine" at the service. Planning it with my mother and sisters, Barb thought it was weird, but was willing to go along. Laine thought it too sad. A moot point anyway since the organist/pianist was of a more traditional bent and didn't know the song. Instead, we chose hymns we remembered Russell playing on the piano. Kathi found a drawing of a leaf he'd made that would make for a swell program cover.
I contacted friends who had pieces of his artwork, asked them to bring them to the service for an exhibition. Our family had plenty as well. Tuesday I went to his studio where, in the last few years, we had spent most of our time together when I visited Wisconsin. I confiscated his marijuana. I tossed the pornography, though I kept a sketchbook of gay erotica he had drawn. I gathered artwork for the exhibition, and also took the gold cock ring from his shelves. I played his Sinead O'Connor CD: "I do not want what I do not have." Huh? Pacing his studio, laughing, crying and shaking my fist, I wrote the following, to be delivered at the service.
We were in the elevator of the Empire State Building climbing up 102 floors when the elevator operator looked over at us. "Brothers, huh?" There was no denying it. Those Isaacson genes were frozen solid long ago when Grandpa Isaacson was born above the Arctic Circle in Norway. We look alike. But there's more to it than that.
Russell felt disappointment keenly. He experienced pain deeply. He was angry more often than many of us. Sometimes it seemed as if Russ just felt too much. He felt cheated by our father's death. He felt let down by people. Humanity was frequently not up to his rigorous standards.
But if Russ experienced keener pain, he also felt beauty more deeply. Driving through Kettle Moraine, spotting a lovely hillside stand of trees, no one could feel more joy at the perfection of nature's design. For some time he’d wanted to be an architect. He admired Frank Lloyd Wright's melding of nature with human nature. He was animated when speaking of well-executed design. His meticulous artwork reflects this discerning and awed vision. His sensitivity may have sometimes left him alienated, but it was also a gift that made him an artist who could create his own perhaps more perfect world.
Visitors to my apartment often admire a triptych hanging above my couch. It depicts a foggy hillside above the Mississippi River. An arc of light cuts through the clouds. It's mysterious, somewhat haunting and sad. I'm proud when I tell people my brother is the artist.
Waking, the day raged with a wonderfully ferocious storm. Then it turned muggy. Later, wearing a suit was stifling. Before the service, I sat behind the church on my grandfather's headstone, thinking how great sunglasses are. They cover just a small surface area of your body yet offer immense protection from the outside world. Two hundred people were inside. Lush orchids, wildflowers and other floral arrangements decorated the altar. Barb's minister, Maryann, gave a talk about the artist in society. I made it through my talk without crying. (The last line was the challenge.) Russ's friend, artist Bill Hughes, was moving and somber, remembering their first encounter in the fourth grade when little Rusty told him, "You look like you need a friend." Bill did me in when he ended with "Russ, I need a friend right now."
I held my mother's arm as we walked downstairs to the food and our art expo. She told me her shoes hurt. "Take 'em off!" I told her. "Who the hell would criticize you today?"
"They wouldn't dare." She laughed but kept them on.
Downstairs, more than thirty pieces of Russell's work were displayed. There was much talk about it, pleasing me that everyone wasn't just moaning about another heart attack hitting someone so young. (See my half-brother's and father's history.) Friends Chuck and Mike brought Russ' glorious drawing of the Milwaukee Gas Building. Also on display was a photograph of the star-filled sky he had painted on their dining room ceiling. There were his distinctive haunting lead etchings of the Isaacson farm, of a South Milwaukee Polish neighborhood, male and female nudes, trees and landscapes.
Both widowed in the last three months, my Aunt Hillery and Aunt Ruth held me close. More tears. On my rounds, I stopped in the gay ghetto section of those gathered in the church basement. Mike (of Chuck and Mike) looked to me with wet, soulful eyes. Egomaniacally, it took me some time to realize he wasn't making a pass at me but staring because I so resembled Russell.
I look like my grandfather and my father. At the funeral, his three surviving brothers made a point of touching me. I think they were seeing their brother Adrion, my father, long dead. Uncle Milt, normally friendly if a bit distant, told me he loved me. Uncle Paul quizzed me why I never stopped at his house. "Just walk in. The back door's unlocked!" Uncle Rich told me he had self-published a book about life at war and on the farm.
Afterwards, my friend Nancy helped our family clean up, no simple task. She laughed at my big white boxers as I changed into jeans in the church parking lot. And again it stormed--with great big drops of rain and lightning--as the two of us drove back to Eagle for the night. The sky cleared as we reached Laine's house.
The next morning we put his ashes near my father’s grave. The following days involved packing, organizing, writing thank you notes and making business arrangements with the Fireside Theatre. Tears ebbed and flowed. At Barb's we watched videos of Russ playing with pint-sized nieces Hanna and Kate and nephew Aaron. Cleaning out his studio, dividing up artwork and figuring out who else might like what, I found a drawing Russ made years ago, after having been hit by a rusted Cadillac while riding his bicycle. In the drawing, Russ flails across the hood of the beat-up car while the bereted black man driving glowers from behind the steering wheel. A meek little girl in pigtails peeks over the dashboard. Seeing this whimsy made me cry all over again.
I had one night in New York to get my suits ready and packed before a business trip to Las Vegas. After dinner with Linda and visiting L.A. friends, I occupied myself being tormented by my newfound adulterous relationship. I shared Russell's erotic drawings with D.D., showed him the newly acquired gold cock ring, spent a few hours wrestling with him on my couch, apologized for being such a tease, then kicked him out. No doubt he'd be back; I wouldn't hold out much longer. However, the car to the airport was picking me up at seven-thirty the next morning.
Years ago a friend, recovering from something like a nervous breakdown and visiting boiling hot summertime Manhattan (bad plan), yelled at me at a traffic island in the middle of Broadway that I was a “Pollyanna with a pat answer for everything.” She had a point, I guess, though I feel like I have the answers to few questions. Still, the funeral, art show, et cetera, went about as well as it could have, given circumstances.
My friend Nancy works at a public library, and sometimes shares stories of her colleagues, including a woman who wears a “W.W.J.D” bracelet that asks “What would Jesus do?” Nancy had called me the day a man came to the front desk and asked WWJD-Lady whether she wanted to see his huge cock. We had made jokes about what Jesus might do. Now, in the week that followed I kept saying to myself, “What would Russell do?” His disappearance left a hole. I read things, noted things I’d seen and prepared stories for his benefit, knowing I could make him laugh or delight him in some way. A negative space existed; a missing limb.
Vegas would not disappoint, as it had no expectations to live up to. Visiting this slow-motion train wreck was a welcome distraction after funerals, cleaning, packing boxes and giving away artwork. All that awaited me back in New York was a tortured, adulterous relationship. For perhaps only this moment, Goo-goo Las Vegas seemed appropriate. An enthusiastic and harsh critic of bad architecture, Russell would have enjoyed this glaring horror show.
I stayed at the Rio, the Brazilian-themed hotel complex off the Strip. Wherever you needed to go in this hotel, the directions involved going through the casino, a blaring, plinking, blinking, garish “classy” extravaganza, designed to dull minds into yielding money without too much of a fight. The carpeting was Escher-like; above, feathered women sailed by on trapezes. Day and night no longer existed. From a faux hot-air balloon railroaded to the ceiling, sequined beauties tossed plastic beaded necklaces. (Happily) my room in the Masquerade Tower had the less desirable view away from the Strip: towards the desert and mountains. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined an entire wall, a spectacular view disturbed only by the large-screen television strategically placed in its middle. To the left, in the distance, was the skyline of New York, New York, the Manhattan-themed hotel with a rollercoaster that ran through a miniaturized Gotham. Next to it was the giant Luxor pyramid. Nearer, burdened trains rolled past day and night, long freights pulling across the desert. Las Vegas existed because of trains, a meeting point on the route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake. Now the fastest-growing community in the United States, the entire history of our world collides here: from ancient Egypt to Tom Jones. Noam Chomsky says “We can’t get enough of what we don’t need.” Nevada has the country's highest suicide rate, the highest adult smoking rate and the highest rate of firearm deaths. The explosive growth of Las Vegas indicates a collective dash towards oblivion. Forget “Duck and cover;” go towards the light, baby.
In my room, I undressed and flipped on the television. I watched a live broadcast of a North Korean government official reviewing military planes, then caught some of “The Deer Hunter” before making my way down to the four pools. At the “tropical” Rio, there were beaches, waterfalls and Jacuzzis. The pools were only open limited hours (not being revenue generators), but throughout the conference, I got in as much pool time as possible. My hardworking colleagues kindly gave me a tragedy pass, so I disappeared more than I might have, had the world been different. Throughout the week, I took off after lunch, hurried to my room, stripped off my suit and tie, carefully hung them up, then donned my swimsuit, sun screen and sunglasses, relishing two hours or so in the pool before I’d have to tie myself back up. Perhaps reading Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” wasn’t contributing to a cheerful mood.
Sunday night a few colleagues and I watched the sunset from the rooftop Voo Doo Lounge. The jagged mountains were misty and dark, fading from sight as the city lights grew dominant. I was told the column of light shooting from atop the pyramid of Luxor could be viewed from outer space, but by whom, I wonder.
At eight o’clock, Michele and Dan picked me up in front. A corporate consultant, he works from anywhere. She wanted to live in Vegas for a year for a suspense book she’s writing. Next year they’re moving to Venice (the real one, in Europe). However, for now we settled for the Venetian, where we ate Mexican food. Michelle, a Las Vegas enthusiast, was impressed that my Aunt Ruth went to high school with Liberace. A false blue sky dazzled above as gondoliers made their way past us on the canals, bellowing in “Italian.” Was it strange or unhealthy that I didn’t tell Dan and Michele of my brother’s death? When telephoning friends to tell them what had happened, if I got their answering machine, I couldn’t leave a message. I didn’t want to trivialize his death then, and now I didn’t want to make conversation about it. I looked above. I had read that one of the Las Vegas hotel “skies” –I don’t recall which–had been modeled after an Afghani sky, which had somehow been determined to be the ultimate blue-sky blue. I thought of the Taliban blowing up that huge cliffside Buddha. I imagined the phrase “the death of art” being subliminally broadcast behind the clamor.
Kindly Dan, bubbly Michele and I walked the two-third-scaled charming streets, a Venetian-themed mall with upscale clients like Burberry’s, as well as stores happily hawking Mickey Mouse statues. Michele excitedly pointed out a piece of glazed rock she called “Poo Dog” being sold for $40,000. A large natural piece of igneous that indeed appeared fecal, to which an artist had attached a sculpted dog head to make it art. Across the way, a displayed painting was described as “Authentic Italian Art.” A wax stamp proved it. The works on the Sistine Chapel-like ceiling were actually impressive, even if in Italy the originals were in various rooms. I thought of Chuck and Michael’s dining room ceiling, painted by Russell. Outside, a columned balcony overlooked the brash night. On our right was Treasure Island, where hourly pirate battles were fought and ships sunk. To the left, a volcano erupted, shooting angry flames into the night sky. I looked for a virgin to sacrifice. None in sight.
The town’s headline act is Danny Gans, unknown outside city limits. He’s just one of many impersonator stars here. This city is a celebration of artifice in the neighborhood of cultural or environmental abuse. Umberto Eco wrote of American artifice being sold as better than the real thing: bigger, shinier. People love Las Vegas. Currently being constructed in this town is a new Guggenheim Museum and Hermitage Museum, as well as the Grand Canyon Hotel. Though the original’s close by, the air conditioning should make the hotel more comfortable.
The 95-plus degree weather might explain the many times I witnessed people being hauled off on gurneys to ambulances outside the casinos, though most of these unfortunates had been inside the (cold) air conditioning. The third time I saw this I wondered if I had a death obsession and was hallucinating, since these regular departures had afforded not a single comment from anyone else. Was it the food? An over-stimulating faux laissez-faire? Perhaps the sight of a seven-month pregnant cocktail waitress wearing little more than a thong had done in these fellahs. Hard to say.
With the arrogance of a high roller, I informed people that so far I had only lost “fifty,” but it had been just two quarters that I had tossed into a slot machine. No return. There were two more quarters on the carpet so I plugged them in. Nada. On the phone my mother told me to spend a dollar on her behalf, so I did. Zilch. This was boring. An ongoing problem with me was a lack of ambition. Besides, I played other (funner) losers’ games with greater panache.
One thing I enjoy about traveling is the Dana-sized bathtub often found in hotel rooms. With a bad case of sensory overload, I retreated to my Rio tub. I have always been a person who enjoyed long soaks, usually with book in hand. In college, an exhibitionist, I typed and played viola in the tub. Now I limited my soaking activities to reading and telephoning. I had frequently called Russ from my cramped East Village tub, so of course I now regretted I couldn't phone him. (There was a phone in the bathroom.) We were both swimmers. When in high school, becoming a better swimmer and a lifeguard had boosted my post-adolescent ego. These last few years, Russ too had taken pleasure in a swimming routine. He'd been worried the night he died that he'd pushed himself too much, but the doctor later said it wasn't so.
Swimming provides an instant altered state of consciousness. Going distances, it becomes meditative. Last year Russ did a lovely, tres-homo series on swimmers bathed in a green light, emerging from the water, diving in, lounging poolside. I slipped under the water and thought of Russ, imagining him somewhere in a heavenly state.
On the Web I got a listing for Gay Las Vegas. The bar closest to me was “Backstreet.” Monday night, I took a cab to this deserted country western venue. At the long bar sat the young bartender, the sole person in the room. Feeling awkward calling another cab and fleeing immediately, instead I ordered a Bud. Lanky bartender Wes informed me that on Monday nights the real action was at Goodtimes, Tuesday nights belonged to the Buffalo. “Do you like sleaze?” he asked. “Wednesday is Underwear Night at the Eagle,” free drinks for those briefly clad. I had another beer as Wes told me about growing up in Oklahoma. The setting in my dark brain became a porn scenario. I imagined this jean-clad cowboy and me tossing the salad right then and there. It was almost not a surprise when, after my third beer, Wes came onto me at a barstool. Less to say afterwards, feeling empty and nihilistic, I called a cab.
Tuesday night, I considered attending a potentially interesting conference event: a tour through the University of Las Vegas Gaming Institute. However, in that crowd, keeping up appearances was key, as well as taxing. I took off for sociological fieldwork of my own. Leaving the hotel, I ran into one of our speakers, Richard Olivier, son of Sir Lawrence and Joan Plowright, and director of the Globe Theatre. Earlier in the day I had attended Richard’s “Management Lessons from Shakespeare.” I invited him along on my trek to the Unknown.
We started at Caesar’s Palace, visiting a somber, marble-like vestibule with a four-foot bust of the Emperor. It was surprisingly lightweight—Richard nearly knocked it over. Having heard him speak on Julius Caesar earlier that day, I urged Richard to steal the faux-marble statuary for his act; no one seemed to be around. Unburdened, however, we journeyed next to Paris, having a few drinks in a jazz bar. We decided to make our way down “the Strip” to New York, New York
It’s impossible to walk down Vegas sidewalks without being funneled back into another casino lobby. Against our will, we were channeled into Armani shops and casinos, as if outside were an impossible destination. On the sidewalk, Mexican dudes handed out flyers for strip joints and whorehouses. My favorite promised “Former Clinton girlfriends.”
In front of the Bellagio is a manmade lake. With fortunate timing, Richard and I managed to catch one of its hourly fountain shows. To Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” four-story water walls shot artfully into the night sky, waves and rivulets dancing to the music’s rhythm. Truly spectacular, entirely beautiful, refreshing, brain stimulating and, of course, on a certain level, offensive. We were in the middle of the desert. Somewhere, on a Nevada ranch, a cow was thirsty. This was garish arrogance perfectly designed, like a Nazi uniform.
At New York, New York, we ate oysters and drank bourbon. Richard told me that if his father had two “Hamlet” performances in a single day, between them he would consume bourbon, steak tartare and oysters. Earlier in the evening I hadn’t been sure if Richard was putting the moves of me. He did have a wife and kids, not that that disqualifies some from trying, of course, and I did remember something about his father and Danny Kaye… Later, when he spoke of his house on Spain’s southern coast, I wished he were making the moves. Since it was too late to ride the roller coaster, we caught a cab back to the Rio and ascended separate elevator banks. Back to the Masquerade Tower.
Frank Lloyd Wright, allow me to introduce the Las Vegas Guggenheim. Gambling man, get in the ambulance. Golden cock ring, meet a faithless lover. Las Vegas represents a sociological clash of plastic titans, no one triumphant.
Accompanying my seduction by D.D. in New York comes the familiar sadness. He seems 7/8's ideal for me. All would be well if only (x) were (blank)! One thing I know: Russell will remain Russell, his (x) will never be (blank). That if exists no more.
Oysters and bourbon don’t fill the void.