The river rarely froze over, but in 1938 it did. The frigid air from the north covered the land until the mercury dropped to minus nine. They warned us not to cross the ice on foot. Little did we listen. Immigrant kids, we boxed our ears with homemade earmuffs and slipped away into the night, bent on discovering new lands. At the time, we were hardly old enough to blow our noses, and pneumonia we caught as the wind plunged into our lungs nearly killed us.
In the summertime the heat was unbearable. Nights I spent looking out the window across the silhouetted landscape. To pass the time, or just to test me, my brother would ask me to count the lights on the horizon. They were in groups of twos and threes, belonging to short homes or farmhouses, none clustered close together. But there were also the radio towers, lined up toward the heavens, sometimes with as many as four or five lights per rod. After a long silence, I would tell my brother how many lights I thought I saw. I was rarely right. One time, my brother pointed up to the sky above and asked if I was ready yet to count the stars.
It made me realize how insignificant I was, looking up at all those stars in the night sky. I was nothing. I hardly mattered. The stars, they were everything, because they were uncountable.
My brother wanted to be an actor from an early age. He practiced every day, trying to be this or that famous person, just like on the silver screen. He worked at it the way a painter does, mimicking the canvases of the masters. One day my brother might be Charlie Chaplin and the next Albert Einstein. Albert was hardly an actor. But we saw him on TV. And so my brother would mess up his hair and stick out his tongue and say funny things in a foreign accent. It made me laugh until I fell over.
My brother became so good at playing other people that his teachers were confused about who he was. Or more accurately, I should say, they were concerned about who he really was. One teacher asked if my brother saw people who weren’t there. Did they talk to him? Were any of them dead already? Could they tell him about the future? It bothered my brother. Instead of receiving acclaim like those actors in bright lights, those giants arising out of Hollywood, my brother was looked down on as if he might have a tumor growing in his head.
From there, my brother went on to be a magician, because people can easily accept a magician who is a little off. It’s all part of the show, they say. My brother fit in perfectly with the circus. He traveled far and wide, and I didn’t see him for many years.
As I grew older, entering the winter of my life, I dreamed of seeing my brother perform, even if just one time, on the big stage. I had hoped the circus would come to our little town, but it never did. One day I decided to go in search of him. There was a road leading away to the west with an open invitation to follow it. I wasn’t sure where it went, but I was sure it would take me somewhere important, and there I might find my brother.
On the map, I saw an enormous city called Des Moines. I’d heard that big shows appeared there often. I traveled west away from home until I came to the city and bought a ticket for the circus. That night, the stars twinkled up above. My brother was the headlining act.
The auditorium was immaculate. It was packed to the brim. I’d never seen anything like it before. It left me feeling out of place. I was nothing more than a stranger from a small town. I took my seat with only minutes to spare before the show began. Seeing all those faces of people I didn’t know, pressed in tight around me like pages in a book, it left me at a loss for words. I looked down at my shoes and wondered why I’d come here.
The show came to a climax, and there he was, my brother, center stage, all eyes upon him. Many of the tricks he did were simple but still amazing. I couldn’t guess in the least how he did them. I knew little about magic. As his performance approached the end, he explained that he was going to dazzle the world with a new trick, something he’d never done before. He was going to disappear, and then reappear, somewhere else, as somebody else, somebody similar, but not the same. Of course, right away I knew how it would be done. It was a foolish idea.
My brother entered a monolithic box dominating the center of the stage. The doors on the box were closed by a pair of lovely assistants. The crowd waited in suspense. The lights grew low. And then there was an ominous sound, and after that, the box was opened, and he was gone. Next came the crash of an oriental cymbal and the stage lights shifted. They swung out upon the audience, dancing back and forth, blinding us. When the lights stopped moving, they were pointing at me.
I stood up, and the crowd began to cheer. But this was no trick. I was not my brother. We might be family, but still, I hardly dressed like him, hardly spoke like him, and even rarely had the same mannerisms that he did. How was I to go on stage and pretend to be him?
An assistant appeared beside me and took my hand. She was lovely. Her skin was so soft. She wore next to nothing. I followed her without hesitation. She took me down through the audience to the stage and then I was in front of the crowd, and they were all looking at me, and they were waiting for me to speak. I looked behind me for help, any clue as to what I should do, but I had been abandoned on an empty stage.
As I scanned the crowd, seeing the light in their eyes, I was struck by how much they all looked like stars in the sky. There were so many of them that I could hardly count them. I felt small. I felt unimportant. I felt like I was standing on the frozen river and I’d just heard the ice crack. We’d made it across the ice on a dare, nothing more. It was foolish of us to try. I knew that then, and I know it now.
I smiled at the people out in their seats, and I made a slight bow and waved my hands like I imagined a magician might do. I said, “Good night, ladies and gentlemen. The show is now over.” I said it as well as if I had been an actor in the role. Perhaps I was more like my brother than I thought I was.
I didn’t get the chance to talk to him. He went on to fame and fortune beyond anything imagined. I grew old and was unable to travel far from home, and he didn’t return to our area again. Sometimes, I still miss my brother, but I try not to think about it.
When the river thawed out, back in 1939, a lot of people died that year. They wouldn’t stop crossing on the ice, although it sounds hard to believe. They refused to pay the toll for the bridge. One day the weather warmed up, and the ice cracked open and down they went into the rushing water, carried away, never to be seen again.
I think about those people sometimes. I think about what it must have been like to lose consciousness, never to wake up, never to become who you are. I’m glad it didn’t happen to me. And I’m still waiting here, between the river and the stars.