Nancy Quinn - December 1, 2020
My brother started hollering at traffic on the Alameda at a pretty young age for such an old fart eccentricity, 16 or 17. Must have been 16, I was in my senior year when his girlfriend Minnie stopped me coming out of AP French to let me know what was what. She had songleader practice, so I drove over by myself. Bobby was standing on a milk crate, declaiming Whitman from a worn copy of Leaves of Grass: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” I sat on a nearby bus stop bench until he was done, then I drove us both home.
He did this every day; it was his ecstasy. Our mother didn’t notice: she had chronic migraines, which seem to have started around the time our father got fired from his job at the hospital. Now all our father did was smoke pot in front of TV talk shows.
Bobby’s hollering was altogether literary in nature, one hundred percent, which made it different from the scripture-shriekers on other corners. Joyce, Woolf, O’Connor, Gogol, Shakespeare, you name it. Camus, Achebe, Morrison, Tagore, Cervantes. I came to listen whenever I had the time: I was fucking my history teacher, taking piano and tennis lessons, and also doing step-dancing at the United Irish, but I liked being able to sit on the bus stop bench when Bobby was doing his thing. Honestly? I never actually understood the ending of The Sound and the Fury until Bobby proclaimed it to the Camrys and the Chevy trucks and BMWs whizzing along the Alameda. It just suddenly made sense.
I graduated, went to Boston, fucked my Lit professor, then my Philosophy professor, moved to Paris. Our mother called to tell me that Bobby had been arrested, not for hollering at cars but for hijacking a municipal bus. The diagnosis was schizophrenia and his meds were (shall we say) not doing the job. Our mother had swapped migraines for Jesus, and our father was gone. I came home and found Bobby drugged and fat.
“Hey,” I said, “how ‘bout we go over to the Alameda and holler at traffic?”
He blinked at me.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun.” I flicked off the game show he’d been watching and grabbed the car keys.
When we got to his old corner, Bobby acted like he didn’t recognize the place.
“Really?” I said. “Not even a little Wordsworth? Pliny the Elder? Pliny the Younger? F.Scott?”
Nothing. So I clambered up on the bus stop bench in my ridiculously expensive French heels and recited “O Captain! My Captain!” from freshman year. “Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.” I let the rumble of the cars and the clash of exultation and loss in Whitman’s lines wash over me, my arms outstretched, palms lifted. “For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths, for you the shores a-crowding…”
When I finished, Bobby was gone, the river of traffic streaming by.
Nancy Quinn is a San Francisco-based fiction writer whose work has recently been published by The Blood Pudding and Two Sisters. Decades ago she studied writing at UC Santa Barbara with Marvin Mudrick, Raymond Carver, and John Ridland. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program at San Francisco State University and is a longtime member of the San Francisco Writers Studio Master Workshop.