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My Brother’s Voice

ISSUE:  Spring 1997

For the last 32 years my brother has made his living reading the words of others. I am one of the others I suppose, though I have never suggested to any of my producers that my brother be the one they cast to read my words. I am a writer, an advertising writer. I am also a person of principle. I see a smile beginning at the corners of your mouth. An oxymoron, you are thinking. Principled advertising person. Not so. I could introduce you to so many men and women in this business who are thoughtful, scrupulous, moral. Oh they would confess the work they do is of small consequence in the larger world, but they genuinely love their work; they do it with thoughtfulness, with commitment, and yes, with a sense of responsibility. So in a situation like this, I mean in choosing the voice for words I have written, I have never had a doubt about the right moral position. To me it was simply unethical to lobby for using my own brother. That was the honest reason I never did. It would have been wrong. He was my brother. It was that simple. Not because of some perverse feeling I had which made me resent him or want to keep him at a distance from my work. I never even suggested he be included in a casting call. Not once. Yet even without my support, time after time they wanted him. Insisted even that we use him. On at least eight occasions, perhaps more which I can’t recall, after listening concentratedly to a hundred-odd tapes, my producers were drawn to one voice and one voice only, the voice of my brother. There were no alternatives to be debated. The voice, they insisted, had to be his.

“Nick, why are you fighting it?” the producer challenged me, “It’s a voice in a million. A voice that opens up their hearts, their minds, gets out their charge cards. Don’t you want that for your words?” I hesitated. How to resolve it? His face came inches from mine. “Well, don’t you?”

Silent, with pain on their faces, they focused on me. I could feel the strength of their wills. It was an energy field, urging me to do what they wanted. It was not right, I told myself. Then I gave in. I told myself I was not a part of the decision. They hired my brother.

He is older than I, older by nine years. His name is Charles. Charles Morgan Ferry. You have heard his name. He has intoned it often, always with that same rhythm, that same confident yet understanding of your attitude. His voice is a signature stroked with a felt tip pen; in it you see strength and sureness, a certain flair, a spiritedness, but an appealing warmth too. You would not call him Charlie. He is not a Charlie. He is not a Chuck. He is a Charles Morgan Ferry. He was that in his seventh grade yearbook. He is that still on the label of the cardboard box which holds the tape his agent sends out to advertising agencies. Odd that box. There is no picture of him on it the way so many announcers and actors have it. Instead there is a striking black and white photograph. It is a close-up, larger than life-size, of only his lips, his mouth; and you see parts of his teeth, which are large but here look beautifully shaped, pearl white, perfect. The picture is riveting. Do you know that painting of Jesus where his eyes seem to follow you around the room wherever you go? I first saw it in a store window when I was ten or so. It made me extremely anxious. I don’t like being watched. Certainly not by Jesus. I was glad my parents had nothing like it in our house. Not that the Charles photo disturbs me the same way. It doesn’t really. But I can not look at the photograph of his mouth without seeing his lips moving. He is saying words. Saying them beautifully. Most often they are words that I have written. I can almost read them as they form on his lips. “There is a town in northwestern Pennsylvania where only 26 people live. . .” I am in love with the way he stretches out the word Penn-syl-va-n-i-a.In that one word his voice conjures up for me 200 years of humanity and history. I can actually see the faces of Pennsylvanians, the men, their wives, their children. They stand there poised, waiting on his words.’I have flown a Ferrari at 120 miles per hour.. . . . I have propelled a Porsche faster than any man . . . but there is no automotive machine on this earth as satisfying to drive as. . . .” A man with all the self-assurance I want myself speaks to me, his foot pressing down with no anxiety on the accelerator pedal and sends his car soaring through the dips and rises of an empty highway in the soft light of dawn. I am sitting there in the crinkled tan leather seat beside him. This is not the affected voice of a manipulative actor. This is a man you love. You welcome his words. You want to own the car he wraps around you.

Women, too, listen and want.” He said he loved you, he always would, he said.” Grandmothers look up from their magazines, wives would down the morning mail.”He touched you and held and drew you close. But never, not ever, did he do the one thing that matters most.. . . .” The voice speaks the words softly, gently; you can hear the sensitivity for the woman whose soul he sees into. Never will one man’s voice prompt so many inquiries as did this for the insurance company whose advertising it was. It was not the words I had written which touched their hearts. It was my brother’s voice. Whenever I look at this photograph and hear the timbre of his voice fill the room, I feel a lack in me. A jealousy overcomes me, a deep, inner hurt, a sadness that pulls me down. I want to be my brother. No, that isn’t true. What I want is to have his voice inside me.

Did I say? I have a younger brother as well. And a sister. They are two years younger than I, 11 years younger than Charles. I love them. I see them often. But there is nothing of theirs I hunger for. It is to my older brother alone I am drawn. I’ve heard that is often the case in families. Siblings look to the eldest child. They are envious of the life they imagine, the room perhaps, the greater closeness to parents, the more generous privileges, most of all the greater authority that comes with seniority. I was jealous of none of these. I loved Charles. I loved trailing after him when he went on one of his meandering explorations through the woods to shoot his BB gun. I liked his placing me in the scenes he staged for the photographs he took with his new flash camera. I liked him riding his bigger bike with me to school in the cold mist of morning. I liked getting the shirts he didn’t want any longer, plaid, scratchy wool shirts that flopped down to my finger-tips. I rolled the sleeves up and wouldn’t take the shirts off till my elbows came through and my mother said that was that. They were dead, she said. She threw them out. I hated seeing her do that.

But the things Charles owned I never hungered for. Not his bedroom next to mine without a bunk bed. Not the famous college he went to, and later flunked out of. Not the woman who was his wife, though I did love her. Marcie. Senorita Marcelline Maria Ferrer of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose uncle, Javier, was head of Bacardi. I have always loved his wife, but for her calm, her joy, her goodness. I have never wanted her to be mine.

Only one thing in the entire world which my brother owned did I want. I knew I could do more with it than he would.

Yesterday he called me. “Free for a little lunch?” he asked. “I’m in a session next door at Asher. You could come by and get me.” I looked at my watch.11:45.1 wasn’t getting anywhere with what I was working on anyway.

“Sure. I’ll come now,” I said. “We can go to the French place. The cheap one.”

“I’m buying,” he said. “The expensive one. Gotta go.” A click and I heard only dial tone. I took my jacket from behind the door and walked out to the bank of elevators.

I leaned my head and shoulders through the opening to the pool of secretaries in the Asher Sound office. “Hi. Could you tell me please which studio Charles Morgan Ferry is in? I’m his brother.” The pretty brunette in front, her name was Jackie I thought, smiled up at me.” Hi. I know who you are. Nick, right?”

“Right. And you’re, Jackie.”

“Close,” she said, still smiling. “Jennifer.” She seemed to be taking me in while with one hand she sorted some papers on her desk, without having to look. “Charles is in C,” she said. “You in the business too?”

“Not exactly. I’m a writer.”

“Good for you,” she said. “I mean, well, Charles is special. But you know what I mean. Like there are enough voices already. You want to go in?”

“Can I?”

“Sure. No clients there. Just Charles and the engineer. Third one on the left. Have fun.”

Jennifer, I thought. I should write that down somewhere so I get it right the next time. I jumped. That loud buzzing sound always startled me. I pushed against the door, the sound stopped. The small halls were carpeted so noise wouldn’t leak in where microphones could pick it up. There was an odd silence in this space even as engineers and young men and women in jeans I didn’t know hurried by with tapes or coffee from one small room to another. It felt so purposeful, but playful too. On the left wall were four or five doors. Beige same as the carpet. The doors were thick. On each one at eye level was a large wooden initial in gold edged in black identifying the studio as A or B or C or D.E, I knew, was around the corner, the end of the next hall. I stopped outside C.I put my ear against the thick door. I waited. There was no sound. I never could hear a thing. Still I always did it. Stopped and listened before I felt I could open the door. I didn’t want to disturb. A habit my parents drilled into me. The proper thing to do. Some habits stay with you. Mine have at least. Funny. Then I remembered it didn’t matter. The announcer’s booth on the inside had its own thick door. Soundproof. Open the studio door and the next one and I would intrude only on the engineer at his console. Engineers are used to people walking in. Nothing fazes them.

The light in the large room was muted. No overheads were on. The only light was a glow from the dials on the console and from two goose-neck halogen lamps bent over the worksheet on the Formica surface in front of the engineer. He was a competent looking fellow in his early thirties, with a high forehead, a receding head of blond hair, round glass lenses set in a thin black frame. He spun from side to side quickly, sliding the settings on his board as he did so, then he leaned forward toward the glass booth at the end of the room and spoke into a small microphone built into some part of the control panel. “Just like the last one, Charles. Maybe a tad slower. But just a tad. And keep that intimacy. You’re right on.” An ugly reverberation through the speakers. A throat being cleared. Then cleared again, more insistently this time. This instrument would be tuned perfectly.

Then absolute silence. It seemed to last an eternity. I sat alone on the fat leather couch in the darkness, tearing at my fingers. I could feel my ears becoming more acute. I could feel them anticipating the sound to come. Then, from somewhere, the voice materialized. Not from the enormous speakers in the dark corners of the room but from out of the air itself, it seemed, filling that air with wisdom and caring and confidence and love. There was no other voice like this in all the world. The voice embraced you. It made you give yourself over to it. You longed for this voice to be your friend. You ached for the voice to be yours.

The words came effortlessly, lovingly. Everything they described I could see before me. “Somewhere near Machias, Maine,” the voice began, “the tiniest of towns in the northern part of what Mainers call the Sunrise County.” It was sensual. I inhaled the words. I felt the freshness of cold air on my skin, stretching out in the space of Maine, watching a ball of sun slide up onto the horizon “. . .there is a cobalt blue lake a small plane can set you down on.” I felt myself tilting in the air then dropping down between giant pines, then bouncing, once, twice, in long-jump like leaps across blue waters with not a boat anywhere.

“You may not want to swim in these clear, cold waters. The average temperature is 45°.” No note of smugness in his voice. Nothing that said this was knowledge he alone had. On the contrary. This was a truth he wanted to share with his listener. To be helpful. To give him or her The Truth. “But when the plane delivers you to the end of a long wood dock you will be in for an experience you will want to take part in again and again.” Oh yes, yes. Whatever it is, I want to experience it now. “Because now you are at the home of Sunrise County Canoe Company where you can head out for your own private week paddling the empty lakes of Maine, with the good company of a Maine guide, and maybe a moose or two, eating well, and sleeping under a million winking white stars. If you come. . . .” How could you not come after hearing this? “. . .you can travel light. Just bring some old clothes and your VISA card. Because Sunrise County Canoe Company doesn’t take a lot of baggage and. . . .” I knew what was coming. The coup de grace. Still he delivered it as a gentleman. ”. . .and they don’t take American Express.” Not even American Express could be offended. Not by this voice.

“Perfecto, Charles. Now give me thirty seconds of RT.”

The engineer’s hand flew across an array of buttons, punching some, turning others, then he drew back for a last overall look and said crisply, a colon at the end: “Room tone.” There was a click and the aluminum wheels of tape turned, capturing the strong stillness of my brother’s space. I could see Charles, standing perfectly still now, his eyes on me as the large second hand room swept round and foot after foot of tape slid silently through the recording heads. A strange business, this. He grinned. Then made a gesture which seemed to say “Was it okay?” I nodded, too much probably. I held a thumb up. With a hand from his forehead and a dip of his head he gave me a thank you bow.

“Got it.” said the engineer to him with his microphone. “You’re released for lunch, Charles. You were great,” the engineer said.

“No, Stephen. You were great. You saved me. As usual.” From his shirt pocket I saw him take out a light blue cigarette pack. The booth door opened and he emerged, an unlit cigarette between his lips. I could see he needed to get outside. “So Stephen, did you meet my kid brother, Nick?”

“Not formally.” The engineer stood and leaned toward me. I reached out a hand.

“Thanks for letting me snoop.”

“No problem. Glad to have you. Y’know . . .you probably get it a lot.”

“Get what?” I said.

“Get told you sound just like him.”

“I do?” I said.

“100 percent,” he said, “Weird.”

Charles put his arm on my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. “Genetics. It’s all genetics. Let him write already. He likes being a writer.”

“I don’t blame him,” the engineer smiled, “Who’d want to do what you do, Charles?”

“Certainly not anyone who has all his marbles,” Charles said. He turned toward the door. “Lunch calls,” he announced. Even the way he spoke these words was striking. Not arch. Not at all. It was good humored, natural. Even a dated phrase like “all his marbles” sounded fresh and funny. And when he said “Lunch calls,” with that mock formality, it didn’t sound like bad Noel Coward. It was loose, it made me smile. In the right voice things just sound better, if you know what I mean. “Happy pastrami, Stephen. Nick and I will be dining Francaise.”

“Mais oui,” said the engineer. Smiling he turned back to his tapes.

I will never forget that lunch. I don’t mean the food. The food was superb. It was always superb. At least it was the couple of times I had splurged and gone there. It was only four blocks from my office. But it was two or three levels above what I liked to spend on lunch. Once a waiter there sliding gracefully past me dropped something against my back. I felt the hit but paid no attention, in front of me was the perfect piece of calves liver on a delicate china plate, liver perfectly seared on the outside and pink rare. Suddenly at my side was the woman owner, petite, white gray hair, black dress and pearls. She was making a full-scale French fuss. Apparently a waiter had dropped a small boat of salad dressing on me. My experience there had been ruined, she felt; she insisted the restaurant pay for my meal and my jacket be restored by her own French dry cleaner. Subject to so much attention, I felt even more out of my element. I still do. The woman has never forgotten me. Today again as Charles and I came in, though the reservation was in his name, she nodded at him but smiled prettily at me and said quietly, “Bonjour, monsieur,” as if I was someone who came four or five days a week.

Charles ordered a red wine, I asked for a glass of white. We talked about work. His. Mine. He wanted to know how Nellie’s new job was going. About our boys. He told me about their Carrie, tall like him, dark long hair like Marcie. Their twins. The menus had been on the table a while. I had been daydreaming for a moment I guess. You know how you can do that with people you’re close to. You’re relaxed, sloppy even. You don’t feel you have to be on for them every second. Then I heard his voice. Softly, close by me.

“I know what you’re thinking, Nick.”

He had a serious look on his face. “You do?” I said. I realized now where I had been. Saying to myself in the studio of my mind as slowly and dramatically as I knew how the words “Somewhere near Machias, Maine.. . .” I was mortified. Had I spoken the words aloud so Charles could hear them? Or see them form on my lips? Is that how he knew? That I wanted the most precious thing my brother had. Oh I had wanted a few other things once. A fringed buckskin jacket like Red Ryder wore. To swim faster than Andy Beer. To dance with Cordie Davenport. I even began to get them. Starting in fourth grade. I won a foot high statue of the Virgin Mary, completely white, for a story I wrote about a saint. I don’t remember which saint. But at night in my pajamas I would say Hail Marys in front of it and at the same time I would sometimes think about a thing I wanted until my knees hurt and I had to get up. The odd thing was more often than not I got what I prayed for. I haven’t prayed in a long time, not the get down on your knees land anyway. But I do spend some quiet time thinking hard about what I want. When Charles spoke, I hadn’t only been saying to myself the words “Somewhere near Machias, Maine.. . . .” I had been wanting the voice from his throat put into mine.

“Yes, I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Charles said, looking into me.

“You do?” I heard a change in pitch in my voice. Did he?

He said, “I know exactly.” Charles did not speak for a moment. It seemed forever. Then he smiled at me. “You want the Steak Tartare.”

“I do?” was all that came out.

“You do. Because this. . .this is one of the finest French restaurants in all of New York, and because you love it and because I am paying for it and that’s that. Am I right?”

“Well. . . .”

“I rest my case. Except to insist you order exactly what you want. And to remind you that Steak Tartare can be extremely French. And also extremely delicious.”

I had the Steak Tartare, the egg, the scallions, the capers, the whole shebang. I don’t know the French word for “shebang,” but that’s what I had. I ate up every luscious little morsel. I don’t remember what Charles had. Whatever it was he only picked at it. He seemed to be in another place. I had seldom seen him this distracted, and never with a beautifully prepared meal in front of him. “More water, m’sieurs?” The waiter’s white sleeve thrust in a sweating silver pitcher of ice water and held it poised above Charles’ glass. Charles did not react at all. “Please. Yes,” I said, embarrassed a little by the silence. The sound of water pouring down on ice was a relief. I touched my glass to my lips, watching my brother over the rim. He seemed to be staring inside himself somewhere. He said nothing. He took out a light blue pack of Gallouise and lit one with that cheap lighter he likes. I hate the smell. Then I saw the smoke drift off behind him, away from us, and I untensed. In all our years together he had never asked if I minded him smoking. He knew I would say I didn’t mind, even if I did. He was my older brother Charles.

Two espressos were put in front of us. He put a sugar cube in his. I didn’t. Absently he took his small spoon and began to move it round and round in the black liquid, continuing the motion long after the sugar had to be dissolved. The silence hung over us. I thought I could hear the sound of my watch. Finally he made that throat-clearing sound, that same way he did in the announce booth, once, then once again, harder. He always smiled about it and said he “liked his pipe totally clean and clear.” Yet now as he began to speak his voice sounded different to me. Maybe it was the contrast with the minutes of silence. But I heard it now as more real, yet not so sure, not so solid. This is what he said to me. I remember the exact words.

“ ‘It’s leaving me, Nick. I am going to miss it. I am going to miss it like hell.’”

I had no idea what my brother was talking about. And I knew I was showing it. On my face I knew was my pained, I-don’t-understand-a-thing-you-are-saying look. People hate it, I know, but I do it. I can’t help it.

“Nicko,” he said, and he put his hand on top of mine. In that touch I could feel the love my brother had for me. It’s no less than mine for him. “You don’t have a clue, do you?” he said.

“No,” I said. “Something is leaving you?”

He nodded his head and looked down at the table cloth. His shoulders in his hand tailored suit seemed less powerful now than they had on the man I had walked in with.

“How bad can that be?” I said. “I mean, if some thing is leaving you, that’s not near as serious as some person, right?” I was quick always to want others to see things as I did. I would force it if I had to.

“Some things are extremely serious, Nick.” I looked into his eyes. I stayed fixed on them. Our father had taught us that. You must connect with the very heart of a person, he had said. Look directly into his eyes, as deeply as you can, and keep on looking; then he will know you are honest, that he can trust you completely and open himself up to you. It was a conviction our father himself lived by.

Right now I wanted to connect with Charles more intimately than I ever had before. He needed me. I kept looking straight into those gray blue eyes of his. I never blinked. Not once. Finally I felt my discomfort growing. I couldn’t help it. I looked away.

“Like what things are ‘serious?’” I asked.

“My voice,” he said. He said it so quietly I barely heard the words.

I stared at him. I think my lips parted for words to come out but no words came.

“My voice is about to leave me, Nicholas. It’s like someone is wishing it right out of me. I can feel it slipping away, getting ready to be out of me.” For the first time he gave me that smile of his. “And like they say in the fairy tales, ‘. . .for ever after.’”

“Wishing it out of you?” I gave him his words back, hoping he could see how unreal they were, hoping I could make them be unreal if they weren’t. “You make it sound like black magic,” I said.

His words were rational, measured. “It is not black magic, at least I don’t think it is. It is medicine. And my own damn fault. No one else’s. It’s two and a half packs of these rotten Frenchie cigarettes a day for 25 years. It is cancer of the larynx; and the doctors, I’ve gone to three of them, they all say the only thing is a laryngectomy. Then it’s a voice box. Have you ever tried to understand anybody who talked with that godawful thing? They sound like a g.d.frog. Nobody will be able to understand a thing I say for the rest of my natural life. Shit. Shit.”

He had run out of breath. Run out of pain, I hoped. But he hadn’t. He was trying now for control. “I’m sorry. Really sorry. I didn’t want to act like this. I just can’t help it. I’m scared, Nick, more scared than I’ve ever been of anything in my life.” He reached across the tablecloth and squeezed my hand. Some nails dug into my skin. I didn’t move. “The thing that scares the shit out of me is how’m I going to make a living? I’ve never done anything but this. All I know is talk. Talk faster, sound slow. Talk slower. Talk serious. Talk smiling. Talk sad. Talk intimate. Talk with authority. Talk closer. Talk farther away. Talk, talk. Talk is all I can do. Not like you. You, you don’t even need a voice. You’re a writer. You can write. Write until your fingers fall off. Then you can learn to write with your toes, your elbows, something. What was that movie? That obnoxious guy Christy something, he learned to write with his toes or paint. Whatever.”

“I never saw that, sorry. Doesn’t sound like a lot of laughs, Charles.” “It wasn’t. But at least he could do something about it, and he did. You could do something about it. God, how I wish I was you. Nicholas, my voice is leaving me. What am I going to do the rest of my life? Damn it all. Damn it. Damn it to hell.” Then he was done.

He scrunched his eyes shut and hunched over closer to the table cloth. I watched a land of tremor run through his body. I don’t think anyone saw it but me. Then, with his head down still he said in a whisper I could barely hear, “I’m sorry.” He said it again. “I’m sorry.”

While he was looking down my hand went up. I wanted a waiter. Thank God, one came instantly. I ordered us a scotch. Then two more. I don’t know if it was, what’s the word the medical types use, contraindicated for him or not. For me it was indicated. Anything that could dull down the guilt in me. As I remember, Charles didn’t drink much of his. Then I paid the bill.

“You get the next one,” I said to him. He brightened some. I knew why. If I thought there would be a next one, I must have believed he’d live. I took him home in a cab. I don’t know what I believed. All I know is I couldn’t sleep much.

The operation went pretty well all things considered. It just took more doing than any of us thought. Two more operations before the doctors were satisfied. The peculiar thing was Charles seemed almost pleased the way things worked out. He got a disability pension of some sort. He wasn’t hurting for money. And he finally realized, he said, his voice had done it all, and he, quote, “. . .had a bellyful of working, period, and taking direction from dumb, arrogant lads. Let me tell you,” he said, a puckish look on his face, “retirement is beautiful.”

But something was horrible.

It was the voice box.

Though it seemed to bother no one but me.

Charles was incredible. He learned to speak as clearly with it as if he still had his own voice, only without the inflection, the nuances, and the intimacy that wonderful voice of his always had. Nobody was uncomfortable with him. Only I was. Each time his voice came out in that flat monotone, even when I could see how happy his face was, I was hearing someone from another world. It was an all-knowing voice, one that could enter my soul. I can’t bear to listen to it for long. So I don’t spend as much time with Charles now as I used to. I know that is unfair, but it is the truth. And so is this.

At night after I brush my teeth and while my wife watches the ten o’clock news, I go into the study and I shut the door. Sometimes I light a stick of incense. I buy them on the street now and then. The smell relaxes me. It helps me go to another place. I turn on the chrome desk lamp and swing it up against the white wall so no harsh light will fill the room, only a contained glow. I sit on the floor. I think as hard as I can about Charles and his voice and what I want. I wish I could say what I want is for him to have his voice back. In a way I do. I really do. I love my brother Charles. And by some miracle if I wanted it enough perhaps his voice would come back. Faith can work miracles. Sister Mary Louise used to tell us that. But that is not what I wish for. I sit on the floor in the mostly dark room and I feel all the power of my wanting reaching out and reaching out and reaching out to take from him and implant in me the one object I crave most in all of this life. What I want above all else is the voice of my brother. Charles. I’m sorry. I love you. I love you Charles Morgan Ferry. Forgive me. Please.


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