I was lifting a beer to my lips and scanning the newspaper when I heard a loud knock at the window next to my head. I jumped up, ready to run, straining to see into the darkness. My brother’s face appeared, grinning maniacally, nose pressed against the glass. His partial plate wasn’t in, and he looked like a jack-o’-lantern. I hurried to the door, whispering to my husband as I went, “Christ, he would have to come when I’m having a beer.”
I opened the door wide to the cold night air. The doorstep was a solid patch of ice, glinting in the porch light.
“Calvin!” I called. “Hey, Calvin, come in!”
I heard his boots crunching through the snow, and then he was there in front of me. We hugged clumsily in the mud room. Neither of us wasted time taking the offensive.
“You reek of pot,” I said.
“I just had a hit off this stogie,” he crowed, as we moved into the kitchen. He flourished a thick joint, which had been stubbed out. “What’s that, beer you’re drinking?”
“Oh, you know us alkies,” I said. “We backslide sometimes.”
“Sybie,” he said, and he laughed.
Hearing my family nickname weakened me. He hunched down and tried to put an arm around my waist. I shied away. He smelled as if he’d been sleeping in his truck for days. He had on work boots, corduroy pants, a rumpled dress shirt, and a wool suit coat. His hair was gray. His skin looked gray, too.
He sat down at the table across from me. We both lit cigarettes. My husband, Jim, hovered in the background. He usually insisted I smoke outside, but a visit from my brother was an extenuating circumstance.
“I just came from Tema’s,” Calvin said. “What a bitch! She called me a loser and threw me out.” (Tema is my older sister, who lived nearby.) “She thinks she’s so great ’cause she married a doctor. That ain’t nothin’. I built the best house in Chelsea.”
“Yeah, Tema can be mean sometimes,” I said, hoping to placate him. I could tell he was getting worked up, and when he was worked up and drunk, he tended to repeat himself ad nauseam. I didn’t want to hear again about the best house in Chelsea. Though it arguably was the best, he had built it ten years before. It irked me that Calvin trotted out his past achievements as if they justified years of disintegration. I could picture him on the street, reaching up to grab someone’s hem and mumbling about the best house in Chelsea.
“Man, that really burns me. I took care of her when she was young,” Calvin said. “I did everything for her: took her places, got her food, pulled her in her wagon. She really loved me then.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. Like my nickname, the image of Calvin as a boy pulling Tema in the wagon got under my skin and hurt in an urgent way, like a sliver.
He and Tema had run away once, when he was only six and she was three. They’d gone eleven miles on dirt roads before they were found. They’d drunk water out of a brook, and he’d had to carry her sometimes, in that funny way small children carry even smaller children, with both arms locked under the other’s bottom. The pain that I felt when I imagined them was a solid thing; it could have been a person sitting in the room.
I had seen Calvin beaten, scorned, humiliated by our father. I had been spared; Katie had been spared; Tema had been spared — all because of Calvin. He was the better target, the only son, born with one testicle, his head misshapen by the doctor’s forceps. He’d been our shield. In our daily reconnaissance, he was point.
Our father was a self-educated left-wing radical. He was also a primitive man, subject on rare occasions to ennobling emotion, but basically violent and unenlightened. All his rage, all his frustration, was beamed at Calvin like withering radiation. Our mother tried to protect Calvin — we all did, swirling around him like a Greek chorus. I remembered leaping from the top of the stairs onto my father’s back as he punched at Calvin. I recalled the impact when I hit my father’s solid body and the sensation of hanging there, clutching his shirt. Then the shirt ripped clean off, and I landed on a pile of broken glass in the hallway.
There was shame after a fight, but the tension soon built again. Calvin would be standing by the stove, his back hunched, and my father would roar, “Goddamn good-for-nothing . . . Bring some fucking wood in.” And we women would sniff the air and get ready.
“I ’m gonna move back here,” Calvin was saying. “Build on my land. I want to see more of Adam. I didn’t see enough of Sarah when she was growing up. I have a good relationship with her, though. I have a good relationship with both my children.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, suddenly impatient. “How can you say you have a good relationship when you don’t see them but every six months, and when you do see them, there’s a scene half the time?” I could sense my husband flinching.
“What do you mean?” Calvin asked.
“Like the time I was taking care of Sarah, and you were supposed to take her out for the day, and you came hours late with that huge cut on your face. She ran upstairs crying. Maybe you were too drunk to remember, but I’m sure she does.”
“That was only one time,” he said.
I didn’t reply.
“Christ.” He laughed fondly, remembering. “I got cold-cocked at Joseph’s Waterworks. You put Golden Salve on it, remember? That stuff works good.”
“Maybe Sarah can apply it to her heart,” I said.
Calvin rose angrily and went outside.
Jim grimaced at me. “Don’t get him mad,” he said.
I ignored him. Our daughter, Celia, came down the hall, fresh from her bath, dragging a towel. I helped her into her pajamas. By the time I was done, Calvin was back. He had a beer. Celia stared at him, her thumb plugged firmly in her mouth.
“Hey, cutie,” Calvin said to her.
Celia backed up and stared hard at him. “Is that Calvin?” she asked, in her clear, high voice.
No, I wanted to say. It’s not Calvin. It’s an incubus in Calvin’s body — though I wasn’t really sure what an incubus was. The word made me think of suckling, of evil, the way Calvin tipped his head back and poured the beer in, his neck pumping like a calf’s when it gobbles milk. No, I wanted to say. It’s not Calvin. It’s a man under a spell. Forget taking him to a detox center; you may as well hire ten Abenaki to dance around him in a circle, strewing him with ash of hemlock. You may as well steam him good and dip him in a freezing stream. Calvin is gone, and what makes someone come back when they’re that gone is a question only God can answer.
I wanted to say all of this, but instead I said, in my special loving voice reserved for Celia, “Yes, that’s Uncle Calvin. That’s Adam’s daddy.”
Calvin ran away from home again when he was sixteen. He went with my parents to the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. When the time came to board the buses for the trip back north, Calvin was nowhere to be found.
These days, the police would be involved; there would be news alerts and pictures on milk cartons. Back then, my parents boarded the bus and went north without their son. Once they got home, they found the note under his pillow. It began, “To Whom It May Concern.”
Our parents grouped my sisters and me around the wood stove, where impromptu family conferences were held, probably for no other reason than that it was the warmest place in the house. Our mother said, “Calvin has run away.” We girls cried silently.
We found out that he had thumbed his way across the country to California and gotten a job working for a man who silk-screened T-shirts. He stayed there for two years.
I still don’t understand why my parents didn’t try to find him. He was their only son. He was clearly in trouble. What were they thinking?
Eventually Calvin came home on his own and tried to finish high school, but it was too late. He was drinking and using drugs daily, and school had become irrelevant. He was caught sniffing glue and put on probation. He ran away again, this time to Beacon Hill, in Boston.
My parents learned where Calvin was from a high-school friend of his. The friend told them Calvin was dying, that he was shooting and dealing crystal meth and weighed about ninety pounds. His nickname was “Skeleton.” He was a well-known figure in the hippie enclave of Beacon Hill, where he’d taken to painting huge murals on the sides of buildings. His specialty was jungle scenes: vines, snakes, birds, blossoms, all twined together in a lurid, impenetrable thicket.
That night my father dreamed he was flying in a plane over Boston. He could hear someone crying. It was Calvin, his voice floating up from the gray streets.
The next day my father drove to Beacon Hill and rented a cheap room. For a couple of days, he wandered the neighborhood, asking anyone he saw the same simple question: “Do you know Calvin Jones?”
No one would tell him a thing. My father was a construction worker then, and wore dungarees, short hair, and cheap black-rimmed glasses. He was obviously a parent, or a narc, or a probation officer: the enemy.
He was about to give up when he met a group of hippies by the entrance of a three-story brick apartment building. “Do you know Calvin Jones?” he asked them. No, they said. No. No.
Suddenly a window flew open above them and Calvin’s face poked out, thin as a blade — so thin my father didn’t recognize him. “Dad,” he said, “I heard your voice.”
Calvin had been lying on a dirty mattress in a filthy room. He knew he was dying, and he felt that some kind of prayer might be in order. “God,” he whispered. He had never been to church. He had never read the Bible. He would have to ad-lib. “God,” he began. And then he heard my father’s voice.
This was a small miracle, but a miracle nonetheless. Calvin still thinks back to that moment when he’s in deep trouble. It is a touchstone of sorts, a notch on the God side.
Calvin handed me a tape from his pocket and said, “Here. Put this on.”
It was Joan Armatrading’s first album.
“You’re still listening to this?” I asked.
“Still?” Calvin hooted. “It’s all I ever listen to. I’ve been playing it for three days straight.”
I put the tape in the tape deck. “You were playing this when Adam was born,” I said. “We were driving to the hospital from that Godforsaken mountain in Brownsville, and you were singing, ‘Throw me a lifeline / Save me.’ The road was all ice.”
Calvin’s wife had insisted that he drive, though he was drunk. I thought we were going to get stuck, and she’d have the baby in the cab of the truck. I had just gotten my nurse’s license and was rehearsing the scenario in my head. I knew I should put the baby inside my coat, next to my skin. Then I’d walk to get help. God was on my mind.
“But we made it,” Calvin said. “Why do you guys worry so much? I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I ain’t dead yet.”
“You can only abuse yourself for so long,” I said.
“You don’t have to tell me I’m an alcoholic,” Calvin shot back. “Don’t you think I know? I go to sleep with a six-pack by my bed in case I wake up shaking. But I’m not just an alcoholic. I’m doing things. I’m progressing. People like me. They seek me out. I can do things. . . . Besides, any fool can drink himself to death.”
Calvin delivered this last sentence with the vast, unwarranted satisfaction of a drunk who thinks he’s being profound. My heart sank. I had finished my beer and taken a few hits off his joint. Calvin had drunk most of his Budweiser. His body was registering that transient lift in mood, and Joan Armatrading was making him mellow. Talking to him was useless. But I knew I would always try, with a sister’s grim determination.
Calvin was going on about how his frequent brushes with death were proof of his invincibility. “When I was in that accident, and they thought I was brain damaged, said I’d never walk again, you remember how worried Ma was? But I made it. I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna come out into the white light, and you guys are gonna be stuck back here, in the mud.” Calvin broke out laughing after this last declaration, his face lit with an odd, childish glee.
“By ‘white light,’ do you mean death?” I asked carefully.
“No, I mean spiritual . . .” He couldn’t think of the word. “Realization,” he finally said.
I looked at him then, really looked. The light from the lamp over the table fell directly on his face. His bright blue eyes were merry, his gaptoothed smile wide, his large nose bent from numerous breaks. “You’re a madman,” I said.
“God, and I do thrive on it,” he replied.
When my father brought Calvin home from Boston, it was as if he had gone to a strange land and captured a wild, injured animal that we were now supposed to tame. And like a cat retreating to the corner of its cage and hissing, Calvin immediately ran upstairs to the big room we called the dance hall. (Our old colonial house had once been an inn.) He put the Standells on the beat-up stereo and danced alone while we girls peeked in from the bedroom. He smoked cigarettes and danced and sang:
Down by the river, Down by the banks of the river Charles That’s where you’ll find me, Along with lovers, fuckers, and thieves, ’Cause I love that dirty water, Ohhhh, Boston, you’re my home.
He was a dervish, so thin his veins stood out like creepers. His eyes were like two blue buds. He looked like a gangling fetus.
Downstairs my mother soothed my father, who hated rock music and never let us play it when he was home. He drank beer after beer and sat in the living room while she hovered over him.
As the day wore on, Calvin began to slow down. We coaxed him downstairs and got him to sit by the wood stove, in an upholstered chair we’d put there for him. He ate oatmeal sweetened with maple syrup. Fatigue, which had waited so long, finally claimed him.
It wasn’t an ordinary sleep. When we tried to wake him for bed, he couldn’t be roused. His head rolled, and his eyes wouldn’t open.
“I’ll have to carry him,” my father said.
He squatted by the chair and got Calvin into his arms, legs over one arm, head cradled in the other. He walked steadily through the kitchen into the hall and began to ascend the stairs. I followed as closely as I could. That’s how I saw my father crying. He cried silently. He wasn’t able to wipe his eyes, and his tears made streams down his cheeks. They reached his chin. They fell on Calvin.
Calvin stayed on a mattress in the dance hall for weeks. It turned out he had hepatitis. His skin and eyes turned bright yellow. He urinated in a Mason jar, and the pee looked like Coca-Cola. Katie and I emptied his jar, brought him orange juice, and brushed his hair, which was so matted it took a solid day of brushing to get it smooth.
I was reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel at the time; one of my more sophisticated teachers had given it to me. The urgency of Plath’s voice released some of my own frozen feelings, and I wrote a long poem about Calvin, which I found recently in my boxes full of papers. It began, “Jaundice man, yellow man, / I knew you well, too well when, / brother of mine, you lay . . .” The rest is not worth reading.
This journey my father took to Boston was a turning point in both their lives, a chance to change direction. And I was there, and I saw my father miss the turn. He went upstairs only once to see Calvin. It was the heart of winter. The sun was going down, and the light shone in the row of west windows, which were curtainless. Dad was nervous. We all knew the signs: he blew air out of his mouth — heavily, audibly — and ran his thumb along the fingers of his right hand. Perhaps he wanted to say something.
Katie and I were sitting on the bed, on either side of Calvin, playing cards with him. It was cold upstairs. We wore blankets around our shoulders. Calvin’s hair was in braids, and his skin still had a tinge of yellow. He looked like a captured Indian. I believed in happy endings then. I believed that he would rise and walk triumphantly into the future, that this convalescence was like the sleep of enchantment: ultimately healing.
In that late-afternoon light there was no hiding; the apprehension on our faces would have been completely clear. Perhaps our father wanted to ask forgiveness, but couldn’t bear the eyes of witnesses. Can someone’s fate hinge on a thing so small? He did what he probably would have done anyway: He walked around the room, as if inspecting it for soundness. He looked out one of the windows, into the backyard. “It went to thirty below last night,” he said. “Tonight is going to be another cold one.”