Progress on a Genetic Level

Summer, 2015 / No. 35
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

My brother and I tried to divvy up the depressing tasks ahead of us. He told me I should fetch our mother, who had all but given up the English language for Ukrainian. My brother thought that because I worked with more Ukrainians at the security agency than he did at his bank, I spoke it more frequently and could better articulate the reasons why she should come to our father’s funeral. In exchange, he would tell our uncle he wasn’t allowed to attend the service.

“He mostly speaks Ukrainian, too,” I said, balancing the phone between my chin and shoulder. In the mirror, my reflection tried to figure out the best way to tie a Windsor knot.

“He’ll be angry, and I’m bigger than you. He’ll break your skull.”

Our uncle Joseph had been a boxer once. My brother wrestled in college, at his peak placing third in the Pac-10 conference’s one-hundred-and-seventy-four-pound category. The idea was that they could cancel each other out.

Joseph wasn’t welcome because our mother claimed he’d done terrible things to her when she was little, before they emigrated from Ukraine. Nobody in the family knew what to think, whether he did or didn’t. Our mother’s mental illness made it difficult to judge. For our father, there was no ambiguity. A year before he died, he drove me to a steak house, and after we ate, showed me a gun he bought, and which he intended to use on Joseph.

“I’m going to go to his house and blow his fucking brains out.”

One can see why my father’s heart exploded. Though technically the product of calcium and protein and fat forming a brick of plaque in his aorta, his end represented the metastasizing of years of suffering, the day his body could no longer host his sadness.

In addition to not speaking English, our mother hardly ever left the house. Her apartment was in a dreary part of Toronto, in the neighborhood we all used to live in. Her entire floor was filled with Ukrainians. One storey down, mostly Sudanese. Upstairs, Mexicans. The property managers liked to rent whole floors to families who knew each other, so that if one tenant couldn’t pay rent, the others would chip in. It was communism on a microscopic scale.

I knew she wouldn’t let anyone in, so I used the key I found on Dad’s keychain. I had the black mourning dress my brother bought for her draped over my shoulder, encased in a skin of crinkly plastic.

“Hello?” I said, opening the door just wide enough to slip in.

The apartment smelled the way my mother smelled: like smoke, and some sort of vinegar. Eucalyptus plants, steroid creams for an imagined skin condition, the bleach she used on the linoleum of the kitchen to keep it chemical-white.

“I’m not leaving,” my mother said in Ukrainian. I traced her voice to the dining room, where she was drinking coffee and having a cigarette, crocheting a complicated pattern into a doily.

“You need to get ready.”

“Are you deaf?”

Instead of answering, I took the dress and set it on the chair next to her.

“Nicholas bought this for you. I think it’s your size. Try it on.”

She shook her head.

“Your father and I hadn’t spoken in months. The last thing he said to me was that he was selling our Encyclopædia Britannica.” The doily had the look of a jellyfish in her hands. “There’s coffee over there. Some left for you.”

Pouring myself a cup, I marvelled at the artifacts of my childhood that still hung on the walls. It was like being in a museum with a wing dedicated to myself. Pictures of my brother in his wrestling singlet, performing an arm-drag takedown on a weaker opponent. Peacock feathers we collected during a family trip to the zoo, arranged in a petrified fan shape. And there we were in a sepia-toned photo, a family. My brother, me, our parents, circa mid-eighties; tan lines, Dad’s glacially receding hairline, surrounded by a frame made of cherry-coloured mahogany, the gilding a brassy yellow.

“You need to go,” I told her. “He was your husband. You never got a divorce.”

“A technicality.”

“Your wedding ring is still on.”

She looked down. “I’ve gotten too fat to take it off.”

Sighing, I went to the bathroom and called my brother. Without much thought, I rifled through the medications behind the mirror, silently noting unfamiliar names. My brother answered.

“How are things on your end?”

“She’s not coming.”

“Why not? Did you show her the dress?”

I asked if he wanted to talk to her. “You can try to convince her.”

For the next ten minutes, I listened to her switch from English to Ukrainian, shouting sometimes, turning away from me so I couldn’t hear what she was saying to my brother. I went to the living room, turned on the television, and watched some soap opera without the sound on. The plastic cover of the dress I’d brought crinkled, and I turned to see she was holding it up.

“It’s dowdy,” she said.

She sighed, pulling the zipper of the dress down. She held it to her chest, the bottom half falling past her kneecaps.

In the car, she asked me if I was still dating Maria Teodorowycz, the daughter of someone on Mom’s floor in the apartment building. Maria was a geologist who measured the levels of chemicals in soil that corporations sent her. She and I had gone on three dates, had sex on the last one, and then . . . I don’t know.

“Doesn’t Tina have a friend you can see?” Mom said.

Tina, Nicholas’s wife, wanted nothing to do with me.

We drove in silence for a bit. She put her hand to her face and blew on the window until a patch of condensation formed on the glass.

“Did he feel pain?” she asked, turning down the radio. “Do you know?”

I repeated what Nicholas had told me.

“The doctors said it was slower than most people imagine. That he probably felt everything breaking down.” Some urge to punish her made me pause before adding, “Like he was having a stick of dynamite going off inside of him.”

She looked at me, her makeup starting to smear.

“Why would you say something like that?”

Nicholas was the first person the hospital called, Dad’s primary contact. I remember what I was doing when he called me in the same way I remember what I was doing when the first airplane crashed into the twin towers.

I was making rounds as security for a computer-parts warehouse. Normally I didn’t answer my phone, since it could get me fired. All it would take would be one blink on the security cameras. But my brother rarely called me.

“Dad’s had it,” he’d said, just like that. Not, Are you sitting down? Not, Are you ready for catastrophe? “Arterial thrombosis. Think of taking a baseball bat to the heart.”

I stopped walking around the warehouse and turned off my flashlight, which left me alone in a blurry half black. My father had a very gentle appearance, the sort of soft, smudgy face that had the peach hint of a child’s pastels. He never drank and never smoked. How does a heart go like that? These are things you think about.

He had been driving a truck of antifreeze and felt his heart tighten, and when he felt the life of him being squeezed like a balloon in a fist, he pulled over.

“They said if he hadn’t pulled over,” Nicholas told me, “he could’ve killed a lot of people.”

That night I had a dream where Dad was an infant and I was holding him, in the apartment from our childhood years. That he melted to death right in my arms, and that I tried to contain him as he became liquid, slipping out of my grasp but leaving no wetness behind.

In the car, Mom popped in the electric cigarette lighter, wiping her eyes on her arms and on the nice new dress Nicholas bought her.

“You know, he had one testicle,” she said, snorting the pain back through her nose and into herself. “Did you know that?”

“Can we not talk for a while?”

“No, no, listen. In a way, you and Nicholas being born was a miracle. The doctors said he had a better chance of being eaten by a shark after getting struck by lightning. You know, when I got pregnant, I thought I had cancer of the ovaries or something. Even when they did the . . . what is it . . . the ultrasound, I didn’t believe it.” She lit a cigarette. “They had to cut you two out of me, since my uterus had a funny shape. So it’s two strikes against you, and here you are anyway.”

The funeral home was also run by Ukrainians. Everyone we knew who died ended up having their viewing there. My best friend got a brain tumor after high school and ballooned up with water from the drugs. He’d been put to rest in this funeral home. And then the old woman who’d lived at the end of the hall, who nobody was related to, who blessed pregnancies and told everyone she had been the first woman bicycle champion in Europe.

We pulled up and Nicholas was standing in the front with Tina, who hung on him, dripping with beauty and perfection. She waved when she saw us.

Mom and I stared at her through the car window, through the caked blots of velocity-crushed insects. I looked over and saw that Mom’s hand was white, gripping the door handle the way she did whenever she was in a turning vehicle. We were combatting the same gravity, the same physics.

“I don’t think I should be here,” she said, adjusting her seat belt so it held tight against the throat.

“Me neither,” I said. “But here we are.”

Once we got out, Nicholas shook my hand and Tina hugged me, and then they did the same thing with Mom. Tina smelled gorgeous and rekindled that hole of loneliness my therapist said might always be inside me, no matter how I tried to fill it.

“How are you holding up?” Nicholas said in Ukrainian.

“I’m sorry for everything,” Tina added, in a broken parody of the language that made me sick to hear. She sounded like Dad did whenever he tried to speak Ukrainian, his accent, as Mom described it, a stone bouncing around in a washing machine.

We all went as a unit into the funeral home. Even though Dad hadn’t been Ukrainian, the priest we got was. He shook our hands and I thought he held onto mine a bit longer than was necessary. He saw Mom and they spoke quickly, in a dialect I couldn’t follow.

They stopped and the priest took a deep breath. “It’s good to see you, Lena.”

She took a deep breath too. “Let’s get this over with.”

Dad told me he wanted to be cremated, and apparently told Nicholas something different. He was dressed in his wedding suit—Nicholas’s idea. A lot of the people in the viewing room were new to me, truck drivers and mechanics Dad worked with. Rough-looking people in suits that didn’t fit them properly. I felt their discomfort. Also people I passed in the apartment building whenever I visited Mom. Dad had been an only child and our grandparents on both sides were dead, so the only family there was were me, Nicholas, and Mom.

People ambled around. Nicholas gave a speech in English, I gave one in Ukrainian. Mine was short: this was my father, he was a good man, he died something like a hero. Mom wept and at some time during the speech I gave, I wept too. Tina wept, and in a shameful way her sadness warmed that hole my therapist told me I had, filled it with heat. I was in love with her, or wanted her. Something. It wasn’t very important.

We went one by one to see Dad’s made-up face, his fantastically gelled hair. He had been carefully shaved and smelled like plastic.

“Is it like a painting?” Mom asked. “Can I touch it?”

“You can touch him,” Nicholas said, putting his arm around her shoulder.

She started touching him as if she were blind and judging the shape of his face, slowly, then spreading her entire hand over his mouth until it was a flattened spider. Someone from the funeral home came over and asked kindly if she could not do that.

“Now you,” I said, patting him gently on the shoulder first, getting harder until I was almost slapping, “you can fuck off and let my mother touch her dead husband.”

Before things escalated, Nicholas stepped in and pulled me outside.

“Can you relax?” he said. “I can’t hold it together for everyone. You need to do your part.”

There was a generosity of spirit in the way he said such things, and that generosity extinguished the warmth Tina had kindled in me. I thought: Who was this person, instructing me on being a proper human? Once, our mother had tried to kill herself by taking too much of her medication. Nicholas did nothing. He just started crying. I had to call the hospital and sit on her chest and slap her face so she wouldn’t go into a coma.

I related this piece of family history to him. “Do you remember that?”

Nicholas grimaced. “I was seven.”

“I was seven too,” I said. “Now, if situations had been reversed, and you’d been the one trying to keep her alive, would you have had the emotional wherewithal to go to college, get a good job, fight off the world and your personal demons? Would you have your beautiful life, or would you be working in a warehouse and hating yourself?”

He stared at me for a while. Finally he said, “How long have you been waiting to say that?”

“Forever, fuck face.”

“Aren’t you just a sad, lonely narcissist.”

Comments like that can only be made by people you love. Only someone you love knows how to make you hurt like that. It’s natural to want to hurt them back, and that’s what I tried to do, in a physical way. He put me in one of his wrestling holds and kept me in a sort of homoerotic body lock that made me feel naked and defeated.

“Are you done?” he asked.

“No,” I said, and he squeezed my ribs until a wisp of air forced itself out of my nostrils. “Yes. Please. Put me down.”

It took me a while to regain my composure. The lack of oxygen had made my brain constrict in an unnatural way. I eased myself back into the wall and slid down it like a gob of spit until I reached the ground.

“Two things,” I said.

Nicholas sat down next to me.


“Do you think mental illness is hereditary? And does Tina have a secret twin somewhere who could love me?”

Getting on in years as we were, we sometimes talked about genetics and D.N.A., what sort of fuckedness we’d inherited. The first psychiatrist our mother had seen diagnosed her as manic-depressive, the next called it narcissistic personality disorder. That same year, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed narcissistic personality disorder from its pages. It just ceased to exist. So she went back to schizophrenic.

Sitting against the funeral home, Nicholas and I discussed whether one or both of us would, or already did, suffer from a genetically inherited form of mental illness.

“People whose parents are depressed are something like twice as likely to be depressed,” I said.

“True. But this is circumstantial.” He meant that the trauma Mom probably had experienced as a little girl had been the cause of her instability.

Over the course of our shared childhood, our mother had attempted suicide, stolen cat food from stores, had sex with someone who wasn’t our father. Some days she was beautiful, just a gorgeous person, a gorgeous presence in our life. Ukrainian isn’t a particularly melodic language, but you would weep to hear her read poems from her homeland.

But there was also the ugliness, the cracks in the fresco that was her also. One time we were even taken out of school by social workers because Mom had crushed up some of her anti-psychotic medication and put it in our orange juice.

Nicholas reached over and put his hand on mine.

“She has a friend,” he said, and at first I mistook his meaning. I thought he meant Mom had a friend. He clarified that Tina had a friend who might be predisposed to liking emotionally damaged adult-children.

“You’d hit it off,” Nicholas said.

“What kind of rear end are we talking about?” I asked. “I’m in the market for asses shaped like globes.”

“The kind that belongs to a woman. That’s all you need to know.”

While we were outside, Mom had one of those moments where she left the world of human beings and entered the world of animals. She fell down in the middle of talking to a truck driver who worked with Dad.

The driver said, “He had a picture of you, from when you first met,” and then he showed it to her.

Mom was in a bikini, Dad was without a shirt. Luminescence bounced off them three feet in every direction. Mom’s fall was like a crumbling Doric column, just crippled her from the toes to the shins, up the legs, knees, pelvis, spine, until she was a collection of pieces on the floor, wrapped in that black dress with the makeup smears.

“Can you take her home?” Nicholas asked, and I nodded, buoyed by the moment we’d recently shared outside. I felt my perception change. Instead of being angry that I’d swallowed all of his trauma along with mine, that his life had eclipsed mine in all-important categories, I suddenly saw him as an example for me to follow. I was like a tram that just needed to align myself on the same rails he rode on.

Mom got into the car and I buckled her seat belt.

“I almost married a gay Jew,” she said. “But your father fixed my car and took me away from my world.”

I drove her back to her apartment, the place she hadn’t left for weeks before her estranged husband had died, driving a truck.

“Come up,” she said, pressing the elevator button.

She told me she had been seeing the ghost of one of her dead neighbours, that she sometimes thought there was a worm in her ear, inserted via a bloodless surgery by someone malevolent, and which she tried to soak out with Epsom salt baths. By the time we got to her door, I had a glimpse of what it was like to be her, living alone in the apartment.

To even the confessions out, I told her I hadn’t been with a woman for three years, and that for a while I had developed a substance-abuse problem.

“Cocaine, mostly,” I said, mentioning that I’d checked myself into a detox facility, where I dreamed I was my brother. “Sometimes I think he dreams he’s me. That’s for a good laugh.”

We got to her door. I had the sense the words she had spoken to me, and those I had spoken to her, had pressed together like palms.

“I’ll visit more,” I said.

She shrugged. “If you think I’m going to commit suicide over this, you’re kidding yourself.”

It was shortly after this that I decided to visit my uncle Joseph, probably to kill him, or at least do something irreversibly damaging to his face with my fists.

I tried to enlist my brother, since two nephews are mightier than one.

Nicholas nixed the visit.

“He’ll cripple you,” my brother said.

“Not if I cripple him first.”

Joe had spent part of his youth in the Soviet Union, back when the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union. He had been hardened under extreme, politically dangerous circumstances. I was under the impression he’d once killed a man with his bare hands. My brother and I were only the sons of immigrants; the hardness had been lost between generations. Some residual hardness perhaps existed in my brother, which accounted for why people respected him more than they respected me.

Tina also vetoed the decision. I’d wanted to go do this thing together as brothers, in a Shakespearean way.

“Think of it as destiny,” I said.

She shook her head at me.

“Don’t ruin things,” she said. “You just want to destroy him the way you destroy yourself.”

Walking me back to the car, Nicholas told me not to take what she said to heart.

“Her hormones are all janky. We’re trying to have a baby.”

I stopped.

“You didn’t tell me.”

My brother looked at his hands, fiddled with his wedding ring. It shone in a way that was somehow light and sound, a shockingly bright “ting” that made me blink. He seemed to be beaming the reflection from the gold band directly into my retina.

“I didn’t want to depress you,” my brother said.

“Depress me? I’m going to be an uncle. How is that depressing?”

I smiled and waited for Nicholas to smile.

“She told me she saw you take the knife.”

I had taken one of their knives, intending to carve a new hole in our uncle.

“Your wife is a liar.”

Nicholas sighed. He could see the outline of the knife against the inside of my pocket. Without looking him in the eye, I handed it to him, pinching the blade and giving up the handle.

I hadn’t seen my uncle for years, not since the psychiatrist unearthed the sordid details about him from the Pandora’s box of Mom’s subconscious. He was, to use a very Nicholas term, a persona non grata.

It took a while for me to drive to the apartment complex where he lived. On the way, I wondered to myself whether I would, in the end, be capable of killing someone else. I waffled. At a stoplight, I conceded that breaking my uncle’s ribs might suffice, maybe break a few things of his. “You will vacate your place in my dreams,” I told my dead father, who always appeared to me in my sleep, asking me to avenge all the wrongs committed against my mother.

A tired-looking teenager let me into Joseph’s building. Walking down the hall, I noted a piece of the paisley wallpaper curling and, with impotent anger, pulled as much of it off the wall as I could.

I knocked and a woman came to the door.

“Is Joseph here?” I said in English. She looked at me blankly, so I repeated the question in Ukrainian. “I’m his nephew.”

“He’s out,” she said. “He should be back soon. How do I know who you are?”

I showed her my licence. She nodded and moved aside. I followed her to the living room, to the television set.

“Are you his girlfriend?” I asked.

Instead of answering, she said, “No smoking in here. We’re trying to quit.”

She sat on the couch and turned on the television. I walked to the kitchen and poured some water into a Mason jar I found on the counter. Particles in the water swirled like the flakes in a snow globe.

“That’s a very nice suit,” she said when I rejoined her in the living room. I was still wearing my suit from the funeral. “What kind of work do you do?”

I told her I worked in finance, with money.

“It’s very lucrative.”

The best revenge I could think of, to enact both on Joseph and a universe that could allow him to exist and do the things my mother said he did, would be to make love to this woman. The thought was ugly and, for that reason, compelling. I waited for an hour, with her, this woman who had some kind of relationship with a monster.

She switched the channel to something about nature and plants. The odour in the room developed pungency, a mix of both our scents. The program was describing a fungus that took over the brains of ants and brewed an insanity of such magnitude that the ants kill themselves. Excusing myself to go to the bathroom, I took the long way, through the kitchen, even though she’d instructed me on how to get there. I passed by several serious-looking knives, attached to the side of a cupboard by two powerful magnetic strips.

Any one of these would do Joseph in, particularly if he never saw it coming. I decided to wait until after I had pissed to select my weapon. Relieving myself, I thought of the ants, of the fungus, of my brother’s unborn baby, with whom I could fashion a version of myself that was utterly unlike my current sense of identity.

I could be funny, make jokes, bring him gifts to win his affection. I could also try to develop a closer relationship to my mother. I finished pissing and made all of these resolutions with an optimism I had no right to have. The woman in the living room didn’t get up when I left the apartment. I’m pretty positive I passed Joseph in the hallway. The parking lot had expanded to the extent that it took me a long time to find my car.

My brother’s light was on when I drove back. Through the window, I could see dinner in progress. He waved at me. He took the napkin from his collar, all spread out to catch any food that spilled, and folded it with alarming delicacy. Before he opened the door, I willed myself, on the level of my D.N.A., to mutate. When the door opened, I believe I became, at least for the moment our lungs swallowed the same square foot of air, a very good thing.