“Dude, I got a line on some liquid Nag Champa. Have to call you back,” my brother Eddie screamed over the phone. I’d wanted to check in with him before I started school after a two-week spring break.
“Where are you?” I asked, having no idea what Nag Champa was or why liquid was the preferable form to purchase it in.
“I’m at Willows, Wands and Whatnot,” he said and hung up.
The last text I’d received from Eddie before this curious exchange about something that sounded like slang for horse feed was a photo of my nephew Nick in oversized sunglasses holding out two peace signs. “Front row of the Chubby Checker concert, baby!” the text read, as if getting up close and personal to a man who should have died during the Ford presidency was something to brag about. But then again, Eddie lives in Orlando, Fla., a place that cherishes its parades and firework displays as well as concerts by the last remaining members of bands that most of us remember from AM radio and fast food commercials on television.
I was in my house, making lists of all the things that would cause me pain when I returned to my duties trying to teach novels to hormonal teenagers in springtime. I tried to imagine where Eddie was trying to “get sorted,” as they say on the street; he could be at Disney World, where he worked, I thought, or Gatorland or SeaWorld, where he held annual passes because Mouseschwitz wasn’t enough to feed his theme-park appetite. Eddie and his family are always attending (or starring in) festivals and fairs of one sort or another.
Their life is a series of the kind of attractions not found in singles bars. His family photo album brims with topiaries, thrill rides and adults dressed in animal costumes waving padded hands.
He called me back a few hours later, happy to talk with the single brother who is most fascinated with his manic Technicolor world. For me, it’s like speaking to one of the human oddities featured in a reality show, only this one shares my childhood memories of parents who smoked over our cribs and brothers who barely escaped jail after fleeing flaming automobiles.
“Dude, it’s really brown and totally uncut,” he said without even a hello.
“The Nag Champa?” By then I’d Googled the stuff and saw that it was an Indian essence favored by balding hippies and Sri Lankans with big-ass afros.
“No, the patchouli,” he corrected me. He’d already bagged the Nag.
“You still buy patchouli? I thought that shit died with Jerry Garcia.”
“Sandy doesn’t like it,” he said, “but I couldn’t pass it up. This is no dollar store watered-down version, bro.
This is pure and uncut, straight-up deadhead.”
Eventually, I got him to slow down enough to explain that he had traveled with his wife Sandy and the kids to attend a Renaissance Faire in Tampa. Eddie and Sandy met and fell in love over turkey legs and horns of beer when they both worked at one of these historical freakfests in the early 1990s. According to Eddie, some of their olde friends were working this particular fayre and offered them free tickets. When I called, Eddie was visiting an apothecary called Willows, Wands and Whatnot, trying to score. His daughter Marcy spotted her father in his blazing tie-dye and dropped a dime by yelling, “Daddy’s buying scents again!” to her disapproving mother. That’s when he hung up on me.
I wondered what a grown man in his 40s did with those kind of fragrances.
“I like it strong, so I put some drops on my socks, wrist and behind my ears,” he said.
I was about to quote him the “you know how I know that you’re gay” scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin when he said, “I also splash it on the lavender pillows I keep in the freezer. You remember the ones: you loved them when you were here, dude.” This was a sad but true reminder. After opening and closing all three parks at Disney with my fast-walking and faster-talking brother as a guide, it felt great at the end of the day to have him also act as my Moroccan whore with eye pillows, tiger balm and tropical flavored coffees.
“Sounds like you’re having a pretty good time,” I said, recalling how my face tingled.
“It’s pretty great living the Rennie lifestyle again, but things have definitely changed.” He sounded almost solemn.
“What do you mean?” I thought the point of these cross-dressing fests was for modern times not to touch the food, dress, contraception and sanitation habits that originated in the Middle Ages.
“Well, for one thing, all the fairies now have darkened their colors because of Twilight.”
“That’s too bad. Twilight ruined everything,” I said.
“Yeah, and when you speak Olde English to the archers now, they just sneer and say two words.”
“Worse than that.”
I had a million more pairings that included severe loneliness, mild obesity and blinding body odor, but we both had work to do. “I’ll bite,” I said.