A crucial difference between my brother and me was that he spoke German and I didn't — which is to say, he inherited my mother's facility and I inherited my father's all but total lack thereof; in fact, it became another aspect of Scott's curious bond with my mother, as they'd lapse into German whenever they wished to speak or yell privately while in my presence. Scott learned the language at age thirteen, during a solo trip to Germany to visit our grandparents, and on return he contrived to insult me in a way that would call attention to this superiority. I was ten and didn't brush my teeth as often as I might, so he dubbed me Zwiebel Mund, or "onion mouth." It stuck: he never again called me anything else unless he was angry or discussing me with some third party.
Mind, there were many variations. Usually he called me Zwieb, and what had begun as an insult assumed, over the years, the caress of endearment. In its adjectival form — Zwiebish, Zwiebian, etc. — it meant something like: pompous but in a kind of lovable, self-conscious way (as he saw it), or benignly self-absorbed (ditto) and given to odd, whimsical pronouncements because of this. The nuances were elusive and mostly lost on the world beyond my brother and me. There were also ribald noun variations — Zwiebel-thang, Zwiebonius, etc. — or, when he was particularly delighted (high-pitched) or admonishing (low), he'd throw his head back and say Zwiiieeeeeeeeb! with a faint, nasal Okie twang to the vowel sound. My brother had more of an accent than I, especially as we got older, due in part to the different company we kept and perhaps because he was often stoned. Kind people tell me I have little or no trace of an Oklahoma accent. If so, I have my mother to thank — her own English sounds, if anything, vaguely British — though my father too has mostly purged his deep, lawyerly voice of its Vinita origin, except when he's trying to connect with the common folk, and in any case he still pronounces the a in pasta like the a in hat.
And what, in turn, did I call Scott? I called him a very matter-of-fact (or deploring) Scott. No endearments on my end.
AFTER NYU, my father was hired by Morrison, Hecker, Cozad & Morrison in Kansas City, where he and my mother and Scott lived in an apartment complex called the Village Green. I picture their two-story row house as a rather drab, dispiriting place, but of course it was paradise next to Hayden Hall at NYU. Life got steadily better. Burck's colleagues at the firm were a festive, hard-drinking bunch who thought Marlies was a hoot (she danced on tables at parties), and meanwhile she'd found "some kindred women" through volunteer work at the Nelson Art Gallery. One of her better friends was a gorgeous trophy wife who used to complain bitterly about things, and finally hanged herself in the attic.
The Village Green was aptly named, as its long blocks of housing units surrounded a big lawn perfect for frolicking toddlers. Scott played mostly with toy cars, pushing them back and forth in the grass while making a monotonous vroom vroom sort of noise; when the neighbor kids tried to join him, he'd gather up his stuff and leave. Indeed, he preferred the company of an imaginary friend named Ralphie. No doubt Ralphie was a quiet, thoughtful little chap like Scott, and hence a reasonable alternative to the real-life playmates at hand, so raucous and silly in comparison. The two-year-old Scott also had a great fondness for climbing, another maverick tendency: on the children's playground at the zoo was an old fire engine, and he'd scare my mother by skittering to the top while the other kids watched wide-eyed from below.
That was the year they decided to move back to Burck's home state. As Marlies would always tell it, they'd been driving through a blizzard to Vinita for the holidays, almost wiping out at one point when the car went into a spin. Then, at the Oklahoma border — like entering Oz — the snow stopped: not a flake in sight. "This is where I want to live," my mother announced. As luck would have it, the state's new attorney general was a friend of Burck's cousin, Bill Bailey, who urged my father to apply for assistant AG: the pay wasn't much, but it was a good way to build trial experience. Burck was hired a few weeks later, and in January 1963 they moved to Oklahoma City with me in utero.
AT THE back of my grandmother's house in Vinita was an ugly paneled room that used to be a screened porch. My grandfather had once gone there to drink in peace; Scott and I slept there during our childhood visits. One wall was covered with photographs of then-living relatives I knew slightly or not at all — for example, my great-uncle Tom and his wife, Louise: not only did these two refuse to smile for the camera, they appeared to make a positive effort to look nasty. Perhaps they thought it was more dignified. A few years later, when I was seventeen or so, I encountered my uncle Tom in the anteroom of the funeral parlor he ran with his (nicer) brother, Charles. This was maybe the second time our paths had crossed. Tom had a glass eye that stared obliquely over one's shoulder. After a brief chat he announced — apropos of nothing I can recall — that I was a bleeding-heart liberal just like my father. Tom's glass eye gave him a dreamy air as he sat there denouncing me.
The first time I ever heard the expression "not worth the powder it would take to blow them up" was when I asked my father about that photograph of Tom and Louise, whom I'd yet to meet at the time. In those days, as far as I could tell, my father divided his Vinita family into two basic categories: tiresome, bigoted creeps like Tom and Louise, and "salt of the earth" folk like my uncle Charles, who almost never left the environs of Craig County during his eighty-odd years on earth. The second kind of person was better than the first, of course, but I'm not sure either was particularly desirable.
My grandfather Frank was the local postmaster for twenty-five years. He'd served his country in both world wars, never missed a Rotary Club meeting, and (according to his obituary in the Vinita Daily Journal) could "cuss out his best bird dog then pet him as he would a child." A man's man, in short. When he first heard that his son had married a German, he was furious:
"I go over there to kill the bastards, and he marries one!"
Marlies was fretful, then, at the prospect of meeting this man for the first time (his remark had reached her somehow), and she asked her husband to suggest some of his favorite foods. But Burck was no help; his family, never mind their cuisine, had apparently made little impression on him, as if he'd grown up in a series of foster homes. So finally she chose something simple but tasty from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook — corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes — and the man's heart was won. Or so she reductively tells it. The main thing, perhaps, was that Frank enjoyed having a comely young woman in his life, and a refreshingly eccentric one at that: far from scolding him for his drinking, she'd join him on the screened porch and match him snort for snort.
From The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey. Copyright 2014 by Blake Bailey. Excerpted with permission from W.W. Norton & Co.