Updated: Oct 29, 2021
My brother Peter would have been 78 today, Oct. 1, 2021.
This was the last time I saw him...only the second time I’d seen him at all, in more than two decades of unimaginable estrangement, after a childhood of unimaginable closeness.
The year and a half following this night was spattered with his wide-sprayed invective against our long-dead mother, up to the very day of his own death, a couple of weeks short of his 65th birthday.
This was to be a chapter in a biography my other beloved lost brother, John, and I were trying to write about the incomprehensible fall of the family favourite. The heart for it was lost, but I'm trying to revive it.
April 24, 2007
He would have come at the theatre stepping importantly, joyously even, with that jaunty splay-footed walk, as the crowd milled and swelled. The block he was coming from--I always picture him coming from the darker end of the street; a cheesy metaphor, I know, and he may just as well have plunged straight across the main drag, straight toward the roaring marquee.
Did he stop for a moment before he crossed the street? Taking in the name of the film, the long lineup? Like an actor taking a last deep breath before hurling himself onstage. Did he chuckle and do his head-rubbing thing, savouring the surprise? He'd have been close enough for his crooked glasses to send back the light, maybe even the name of the movie. Close enough that you could see his little grin, the friendly gap between his front teeth.
He may, of course, have come earlier, while it was still light, set somewhere, and waited. Maybe got a coffee, and went over what he wanted to do--but no, he didn't need to, he was ready. He was ready....
Anyway, at this point we, the family, that is, are in a bar opposite the theatre, clinking glasses, raising them to the marquee, mugging, hugging, laughing out loud.
Across the trafficky street, the movie lineup buzzes and stretches around the block. The marquee blazes the title: Kike Like Me! Punchy. Risky. Original. The hot ticket at HotDocs, this primo international documentary festival. Breakthrough doc by Jamie Kastner, our family's very first grandson!
Ladies and gents, we vamp, we give you Jamie Kastner! Proud grandson of Martin and Rose! The boy who put the Like in Kike!
People stare and nudge. Who are we? This is a major documentary festival. We must be somebody. Yes, we giggle and fizz, we are. By gad, madam, sirrah: we are The Kastners!
Who, you make bold to ask, sir, are The Kastners? Fie, fie, they be we. Here we are, three of Martin and Rose's prodigy progeny. Such a garden of talents! Susan--that's me, the so-called doyenne-- in the well-worn family lexicon, the vain lazy talented one. Brother John, the fearless temperamental talented one. Little sister Kathy, the high-energy high-strung talented one.
And here is Jamie, the first of our own children. My son, my own stellar son. The firstborn grandson! The newest film maker, the director! Jamie, who is this night making his own original and joyous imprint. My darling one and only. My baby! in truth, not so very, with his own very pregnant wife blooming at his side; another firstborn, another generation!
Wouldn't Daddy and Mummy be proud, we tell each other, in the baby terms Martin and Rose still inhabit for us--our nonpareil parents, our lost joyous risk-takers, devil-may-darers, creative high-flyers.
We've come through, we toast. Fulfilled, soaring, contentedly partnered. After our parents' deaths threatened to fracture us. Learned to stick together. Work together. As Martin did with Rose and they with us, each of us with each other--ah, the closeness, the symbiosis, and oh, the bumping-against, the obstacles overcome; and the fizz of conjoined success.
Clinging to the imposing guy I wittily call my fourth and final husband, though not to his face, I'm saluting myself in the pub mirror: Not bad for a multiple divorcee of a certain age.
And so, here's to Love! Victory! Remarriage! The third generation of Kastner Kreativity! The streetlights' sparkle, the traffic roar, the marquee blaze is all for us, and for us all. It feels like the old young days around the Kastner dinner table, or at one of the Kastner parties. Wowing our friends, Toronto-grayed children of silenter households, with our joyous uproar, high-stepping parent-stoked banter.
We convoy in bop-step across the street, nearly a dozen of us, uproariously holding back traffic. chanting the (marginally) mocking old family mantra: We're the bestest, we're the brightest! Glimmering like stars breasting a red carpet, heading for the front of the line, to be ushered past the crowd. And how the crowd murmurs and stares!
I don't remember which of us first spotted him, toward the far corner of the block. A figure in black, buttonholing people in the lineup.
My sister and my son and I know right away, but John doesn't, neither do the younger kids. They jump into a giddy improv.
"What is that guy doing? -- Heavens, the fellow is trying to butt into line. By gad, sirrah, I believe you're right. -- Because this is the hot ticket...."
The lights bounce off something in his hand, we see he is passing out sheets of paper, talking as he goes.
Some in the line laugh and murmur, some take the handouts. Some look. Some stuff them into pockets, some let them flutter to the ground.
"No, he's got to be one of the desperate newbies at this doc festival, flogging his rococo little film. "Twenty-eight minutes on cross-dressing whales in Baffin Bay..."-- "And the herring who love them."
He moves to the curb. Against a lamppost a black satchel is slumped. He reaches in. Starts to take out papers. Then changes his mind, hefts the big satchel across his chest, goes back to hawking and talking.
"Hey! The dude is no fool. He knows this is the epicentre of the festival."..."Of the continent!"..."The galaxy!"..."And suburbs!"
Now he is close enough to the circle of light that you can see it caroming off his skewed glasses, which keep slipping down his nose.
"It's Peter," I say, finally.
"Where?" says John
"There," I say.
"Where?" John says. Looking straight at him.
"That's Peter?" John says.
Oh yes. Peter. Our brother the movie star.
Peter, whose name has flickered on so many marquees. Peter, the youthful toast of Tinseltown. Peter, Francis Ford Coppola's very first star. Martin and Rose's number one son; the favourite, the funniest, the sunniest. Peter, our long-missing fourth sibling. Our beloved, our incandescent Peterboy.
Come home to surprise us, on this sweet and starry night.
We stop. Clocks stop. This quarter-note in time freezes, a stop-motion plink, before which things were one way and after which, never the same. Behind John and me the family stalls, shifts and whispers.
"I didn't recognize him," John says. "If you hadn't told me I wouldn't have known it was him."
We're perhaps four yards apart. Peter is all in black--I remember being struck by it, because coordination was never him. In our ritzy high school he once staged an anti-fashion show, him in work boots and farmer pants with suspenders, crooked glasses taped at the bridge. It brought the house down, like everything he did in those days.
Now he is near enough for our eyes to meet, him moving up the line, us frozen under the marquee, but his eyes behind the off-kilter glasses stay swiveled down. The jaunty splayfooted walk gets jauntier, though. His hair is gray and buzzcut. From time to time he knuckles his head, he chuckles. Now you can see that his black jeans are bagged and droopy, the t-shirt yawing at the neck.
His face -- it's hard to tell you what it is about his face. To anyone seeing him for the first time, it may just look like a face that has got older. No longer the sunny fat-cheeked kid, of course; no more baby roundness that for so long masked his years. But-- it's as if his frown, the faint frown that bloomed when he was, what? 13, 14-- that frown has darkened and deepened and sprouted tributaries, tentacles, sending them to crevasse and mark out every part of his face, the agitated forehead, the collapsed cheeks, joyless eyes, the mouth with its furied grin. Or maybe, maybe the frown was the crack through which the real Peter might have been glimpsed, the lines on his brain thrusting now through skin made papery not by age, but by rage, and disappointment.
Still not meeting our eyes, his glasses glittering, he raises his voice, as if in greeting, more joyously peddles his papers
"Hi, I'm Peter Kastner! I'm Jamie Kastner's uncle! " he is saying, over and over. Bright, friendly, the way he always introduced himself on the countless shows he hosted and presented and lit up. He keeps pushing his glasses back up, the way he has since he was a kid.
It brings him back, the voice, still sweet and real and a bit hoarse. His sinus. The bronchitis, the asthma that kept his newborn self in hospital, anguished our parents through his childhood. How is your nose? How is Peterboy? The little brother who put up his baby arms for help. The sweet-voiced kid who riffed and cracked up a family gathering or high school assembly, who harmonized Midnight Special with me--we were The Singing Siblings, him on banjo, me on guitar. The voice that plucked heartstrings, in his own breakthrough movie:
The water is wide, I cannot cross over
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that will carry two
And both shall row, my love and I
"Come see my video and learn the truth about Jamie Kastner's grandmother!" Over and over, the rough familiar loveless voice chants gleefully, as he hawks his papers. "Hi, I'm Peter Kastner! Jamie Kastner's uncle! Come see my video, Let's Meet The Kastners! Learn the truth about Jamie Kastner's grandmother, Rose Kastner..."
"What is he doing," John says. "What on earth does he think he's doing."
Jamie has taken a breath, is standing in front of him.
"Peter, why are you doing this? What have I ever done to you?"
They're face to face, Peter square, solid, glittering, Jamie looming and tense. When's he's agitated, Jamie's expression is a lot like Peter’s, and when he smiles a certain way too.
Peter's face, the underworld avatar face, gleams: a hit has been scored.
"Can't we talk about it?" Jamie says.
Our brother's voice loudens. Back straightens, glasses dazzle.
"I'd be glad to discuss it, Jamie," he sings. "Get in touch. Here's my email at the bottom of the page." He shoves at him one of his papers.
It has a copy of Rose's, our mother's, newspaper obit, which ran with a big laughing picture of her.
The headline says: ROSE KASTNER, FILMMAKER, WRITER, WON TWO EMMY AWARDS WITH SON.
Not Peter, though. The son in the headline is John. The number of his Emmys has doubled since then.
The obit is thirty-four years old.
Peter has slashed it with a home-typed banner: JAMIE KASTNER'S GRANDMOTHER! FEATURED IN 'AND NOW, LET'S MEET THE KASTNERS!' A NEW DOCUMENTARY PREMIERING AT THE BRUNSWICK THEATRE!
"I think I have to keep him out of the theatre," Jamie says. He turns toward the box office, pivots, turns again.
"What is this, some kind of publicity stunt for your film?" says the organizer at the door. "A tad heavy handed, no? Dirty family laundry doesn't make for great press."
A voice calls from the lineup. "Hey, Peter! Coming to your nephew's premiere?"
"No-ho-ho," he says, raising his voice, grinning, "no-ho, my family is having me barred. Come see my video, learn the truth about Jamie Kastner's grandmother, learn about the real Rose Kastner..."
"That face," John says. "Our poor brother. What could have happened to him? To give him that face?"
Oh how much tenderer-hearted than I, my brother John is, so stricken still by his painful unabated love for Peter.
For me, overlying the sickened sense of dread, the choking fury is not so much for my son on his glorious night, the effect of that hasn't sunk in yet -- but for our mother, for her poor bones, the bones our brother is dragging into this now tawdry light, for his assault on her, who loved him beyond everything.
Jessika, my sister's fearless teen daughter, takes it upon herself to mount the charge. "What are you doing here. We don't want you. Nobody wants you," she yells into Peter's face.
Jess! We call her back. Flinching in spite of ourselves at the pain this must cause him.
But he doesn't flinch, the blank grin does not waver. He has no idea who she is. Apart from Jamie, he has never met any of his nieces and nephews.
Chuckling, he goes on with his work.
In the glister of the marquee, the clatter of the crowd, his voice floats, like an old love song, like a new curse.