My brother Sasha is back in Russia now, accelerating particles in a physics lab outside Moscow, and I’ve written him some letters but all he sends back are plaintive, cryptic notes. “Send PEANUT BUTTER,” he writes, “Send colored pencils.” “Send mousetraps.” In another, “Machines are the saddest songs of the human throat-makers.” The last one he sent: “Wizard of Oz: what a farce.” He writes the notes on the backs of Polaroid photos of himself at work in the acceleration lab. If he were not a genius, I would worry about him.
In the lab, they call him “Critter”: it is his job to crawl into the particle accelerator and clean it from the inside; he wears a large and heavy fur coat that buttons up his neck and covers his feet and he puts on this coat and a pair of fur mittens and crawls through the accelerator slowly, dragging himself and wedging himself through until the inside is swept clean of debris and dust and dissimulation. When he comes out the other side, he holds his arms out like a Roman, crucified, and the other scientists beat him with paper folders. The dirt comes off him in clouds.
When we were still living in Russia and hadn’t yet been taught to wear clothes during the daytime, or to eat with forks and knives, my brother Sasha pushed me down a flight of concrete stairs. I don’t remember it—it seems unlikely that it happened at all—but my father has a photo in which I, naked and dirty, stand in the snowy parking lot of our apartment building, where I had gone intending to tell him what Sasha had done, how badly I had been injured, but had succeeded only in standing frozen on the asphalt and weeping at him, so sorry for myself and sad and unsure. In the upper right hand corner you can see Sasha leaning out the window of our rooms. He is fully dressed, and his hair falls over his eyes so it seems that he peers at us through a villain’s mask. He leans out into the cold and his hands are small and grasp the sill of the window, and he watches me to see what I will say.
Two days before Thanksgiving, my brother called me from the airport.
“I’m here,” he said into the phone, and when I asked him what he meant by “here,” he replied that he meant he was standing on the second level of Dulles International Airport.
“You’re not in Russia?” I said.
“Come get me,” he said, and hung up.
He hadn’t shaved in the fourteen months he’d spent in the motherland, and in my car his body smelled like winter and root tea. He sat in the backseat and kept his knapsack on his lap.
“How long are you here for?” I asked him. I looked in the rearview mirror to see his face. He had fallen asleep.
On Thanksgiving, we ate turkey jerky at a lookout above National Falls. He had so much beard that I could not see his jaws move as he chewed. My own jaws hurt, and the next day I drove him to the airport, and then he was gone, again, for years.
My brother stood over the stove. He wore only boxer shorts, plaid ones he had borrowed from my suitcase because he had forgotten his own.
“Wait for it to be ready,” I told him, but using his index finger and thumb as pincers he reached into the pan and pulled from it a chunk of half-pink hamburger meat, gray where it had only just touched the hot oil at the bottom, pink and frost-covered at the top. He popped it into his mouth and chewed it, and the ice made soft crunching sounds between his teeth. His feet were bare and his chest was bare and he shifted from foot to foot.
“Sasha,” I said, and I sighed. “Wait for it to be done.”
He chewed it and swallowed it but didn’t look at me; he kept his face over the pan.
“Meat ice cream,” he said. “It’s like meat ice cream.”
He reached in, again, for another bite, but it had cooked more thoroughly, and each bite he pulled from the pan was less and less like the first.
Our favorite game as children was Soviet Missile.
Sasha was always blindfolded first. I would leave him while I gathered an armload of things and then I would come back to the hallway where Sasha stood rod-like, his arms rigid and his chin down, and I would stand at my end of the hallway, my toes behind the line that we had agreed on. I would throw the first thing at my brother and then, based on the force of it and the feel of it and the gust of wind it took from him or did not take from him, he would say what he thought I had thrown. If he guessed wrong, I hurled my second thing at him, and if he guessed right, he pulled off his blindfold and I tied it around my own eyes and he would leave me to gather his own missiles. His missiles were impossible to guess, he threw the softest things at me, so that they touched my skin for a kiss, a breath, and were gone.
There is one Polaroid I have kept in my wallet. In his handwriting, on the back: “My blood type, I cannot remember.” In the photo, there is an ocean of white coats and serious, thin men; my brother stands in the middle of them all, dark and fur-coated and tall and bearded. He holds out his hands as if to be shackled, one man is holding out a pair of large fur mittens, and there is a space between them, between where he will be mitted and where he will not be mitted, behind them all looms the particle accelerator, it is massive and clear and glassy, and this is where he is, where he will go, my Sasha, my brother, my baby brother, Братишка.