In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My birthday is tomorrow. I’m turning sixty-one, the Year of the Nap. A couple of gift cards for coffee and clothes, tip the pizza man, and that will be that.
Not that I’m ungrateful. I live in a big house in Kansas City, Missouri, with two teenagers and my ex-wife. Yes, you read that right. We’ve been divorced a dozen years — five more than we were married — and we know now what we didn’t know then: that family is what matters, that love is relative, that life is full of unexpected turns.
My ex and my kids are all I have, if I ignore my younger brother — which I can’t, because he’s outside tooting his car horn and blaring what sounds like a Robert Johnson blues song.
He told me he was going to buy a camper van, and here it is, a rusty tan Explorer, but the E and the X have fallen off the logo, leaving just “PLORER.” He says the roof leaks, which explains why it smells like a wet ashtray inside. My brother wears his usual getup: XXXL tie-dye T-shirt, King Biscuit Blues Festival ball cap, saggy stonewashed jeans. October in Missouri is not cold enough for his favorite full-length leather duster.
He’s only just arrived, and my head is already pounding.
My brother lives in the California desert but summers in a trailer in Tennessee, which is like swapping hell for the equator. He’s currently on the last leg of a circuitous cross-country run. Picture Dante’s Virgil visiting all nine circles of the Inferno in a camper van. At the end he’ll be back in the desert again, where the sidewalk doubles as a frying pan, but for now he’s here to help celebrate my birthday.
“Not bad, huh?” he asks, unlocking the van’s side doors.
He’s wanted a camper van ever since our dad died three years ago. Dad left us both some dough, and my brother didn’t waste any time spending his. He bought a modest house with an elaborate surveillance system (it may or may not have once been a meth lab) and now this van, which he got from an old hippie couple for five grand. He put another nine hundred dollars into the engine but ignored the mechanic’s advice about the transmission.
“Screw that dude,” says my brother, who’s no more of a mechanic than I am.
Our father, a Baptist preacher, didn’t raise us to have a lot of common sense. After our mother left him, his congregation asked him to step down, and he was just a man with two sons, no wife, and no church. My brother and I became his cult of two, watching sitcom after sitcom while he tried to figure out what to do.
My brother starts toweling off a pair of iguanas with a dirty rag. “This one’s Gilligan, and this one’s Mary Ann,” he says, letting the lizards cling to his belly as he lights his second Camel in five minutes. “And this,” he says, draping a seven-foot ball python around his neck, “is Lilly.”
He refers to them as his “family,” not unlike how Charles Manson did his followers.
While my brother leans into the van to grab a plastic bag of pet supplies — two heads of lettuce and a box of dead mice — I pick up his dirty terrarium to bring inside.
Our father disciplined us harshly as kids. He told us it hurt him more than it hurt us, but I don’t think anyone believed that. We all just passed the pain down: father beats older son, older son beats younger brother, younger brother brutalizes family dog, brutalized dog disappears.
Dad screamed at us for that, too.
My brother’s all about peace and reptiles these days. He delicately wraps tiny harnesses around his iguanas’ legs so they won’t escape.
I escaped home after graduation, got a job, and never looked back. My brother was too traumatized to get away, and our father took advantage of that, supporting (or enabling) him into his early thirties so that he, our dad, wouldn’t be alone.
Having suffered the self-inflicted wound of my divorce, I can sympathize with my father’s loneliness. And I apologized long ago to my brother for treating him the way I did: beating and belittling him and condescending to him. But dang if I don’t still feel bad every time I see him.
He carries a cane now. That’s new. Its handle is a silver skull in a top hat, like some souvenir from the Church of Satan gift shop. “I just use it for stairs,” my brother says, grunting up the six steps to my front door. Carrying three hundred pounds on arthritic knees and a bad back, he’s fifty-eight going on ninety. In fact, our elderly dad was in better shape, until his prostate gave out.
My precociously geriatric brother coughs, lights another cigarette, and takes a break on a porch chair, resting the devil’s walking stick beside him.
“Got a good deal on a dozen cartons of Camels,” he says, breathing hard, “but I’m almost out of meds.”
It was our dad who got my brother started on antidepressants, because he feared my brother might kill him. My brother thought the same about our dad. When I visited, they’d stand around in their underwear, yelling about who forgot to order cinnamon bread sticks with the takeout pizza or why the instant cheese grits had a hair in it. And then they’d argue about who was going to say grace.
There was a time when it looked like my brother might make it on his own. Pushing forty, he finally graduated from college and worked the next ten years as a truck driver, zookeeper, and schoolteacher. Each job ended in termination or resignation, usually related to his anxiety disorder and hypersensitivity to “assholes.” There was also that time, as a trucker, when he rolled his rig and shut down an interstate for half a day.
Finally our aging father bought my brother a car and gave him a place to stay in exchange for running errands and fetching glasses of iced buttermilk on demand — an arrangement my brother likened to slavery. The camper van is a symbol of what he believes he’s owed for all those years of captivity.
Which is why we so rarely talk about our father. Bygones, for my brother, are never bygones; they are three-page, single-spaced e-mails detailing every lie, every broken promise, every injustice, every deception our father ever allegedly perpetrated on his younger son, while I, in my brother’s story, am the golden child, shining and unabused.
What can I say? It’s mostly true. He didn’t have the grades that I did. He wasn’t quick enough to run away when Dad reached out to let him have it. He was always guilty until proven innocent, even though a lot of the time it was I who’d broken the neighbor’s window or busted the bike. When the police wrongly accused my brother of being the lookout for a couple of wannabe car thieves, our father took the cops’ word over his, and my brother never forgot it. Meanwhile I snickered in the shadows with a fresh bag of weed.
Not long after that incident, my brother, who has never wrestled, started wearing the robes and capes of a championship wrestler and talking about himself in the third person.
Even as a grown man, my brother struggled under our father’s disapproval. Meanwhile Dad bragged to his friends about my career as a television-news reporter. He had no clue I was also a drug addict and a drunk.
I confessed all this a dozen years ago — not to my father and brother but to Jesus. The Gospel seed my father planted in us as children had finally sprouted. Since then, I’ve slowly, tenuously reconstructed my life and family and moved on from my past. But now, with our father three years in the ground and my brother sitting in front of me, low on meds and holding Satan’s scepter of the damned, the past is not so past. My brother pours Dr Pepper from a two-liter bottle into a thirty-ounce plastic Subway cup he never goes anywhere without, like a fast-food-sponsored athlete in training for a diabetes competition. He sips, stubs out his smoke, and pulls out his marijuana pipe, the stem of which is a Confederate flag, as if he bought it in a Klan head shop. Twice he has called me after getting arrested for pot: “Dude,” he said each time, “you’re not going to believe what happened.”
He was right. I couldn’t believe he’d made the front page of the local Tennessee paper for irrigating two acres of marijuana that weren’t his. And I couldn’t believe he’d thought his California-issued medicinal-marijuana card would keep him from getting busted for possession in Texas. (For something that’s supposed to relieve his anxiety, weed sure seems to be the cause of a lot of it.)
In my brother’s mind it wasn’t his fault he’d let some dude borrow his hose to water a pot crop, any more than it was his fault he looked like a central-casting drug dealer: long ponytail, purple-lensed granny glasses, Fu Manchu mustache. It was the cops’ fault. The crooked, profiling cops.
But he’s not getting caught on this trip, he says. He’s packing his stash wrapped in tinfoil, sprayed with deer urine, and taped to the inside of his engine, as per a YouTube tutorial.
“Good luck sniffing that out,” he says, tapping the pipe’s bowl on the heel of his Teva sandal.
I don’t ask where he got the deer urine from.
My brother laughs and explains that he also registered the van in Tennessee to avoid suspicion — as if red-state plates guaranteed safe passage.
I’m silently praying for compassion toward my brother, but God’s apparently got me on hold. The feeling I have toward my brother is like what Charles Bukowski said about people: “I don’t hate them. I just feel better when they’re not around.”
The truth is I feel terrible that I can’t love my own brother as I love myself. I can’t appreciate him for who he is. I’m in league with Dad all over again, holding him down.
All I wanted was a quiet birthday weekend, not this gift-wrapped guilt.
Fortunately I can rely on my brother not to notice my condescending looks nor to ask why I’m slyly smiling as he begins another long monologue in which he casts himself as Easy Rider in a used camper van: “Dude, you’re not going to believe what happened.”
My brother tells me that, back in the spring, after rigging the van with an air mattress and loading up the reptiles for the trip to Tennessee, he made his first stop in Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a woman he’d reconnected with online. She had a porn-star-sounding name like Lacy Longwood.
When my brother was twenty-three, he’d dated Lacy’s older sister, but he’d also had something on the side with Lacy, who was fifteen. (“Nothing illegal,” he says.)
Now she’s a retired military officer fluent in several languages. She has three grown kids, two ex-husbands, and nerve damage in her right hip that requires surgery.
“Dude, it was like falling in love all over again,” my brother says of their hour-long rendezvous at a Cracker Barrel. “It’s like I finally had a reason to live.”
My brother hasn’t been with a woman since before Y2K, so his excitement is understandable.
Lacy kissed him good night beside his camper van, launching a series of late-night texts and e-mails as he continued his travels. He says their correspondence reminded him of his truck-driving days, when the CB crackled with the voices of whorehouse madams.
“You got any fat ones?” he’d yell back. “I only like big, sloppy, fat ones.”
“We got whatever you like, honey,” the madam would say.
And all the other truckers would laugh in the static.
My brother’s point, I assume, is how the promise of amorous relations turns sterile black roads into places of enchantment. Lacy had gotten his heart racing like a thermos of coffee and three hits of speed. By the time he reached Waterloo, Iowa, he was in love.
His self-published book on old-time championship wrestling didn’t sell, but it did give him an excuse to attend wrestling conventions like the one at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo. It was an annual pilgrimage he wouldn’t miss for anything, not even our dying father. My brother was taking selfies with wrestling great Nikita Koloff when Dad took the final three-count.
This year the convention featured Bruiser Brody’s widow and a former mixed-martial-arts champ. But the real star of the weekend for my brother was his freedom — not exactly the freedom our father fought for as a tail gunner in World War II, but the freedom to nod off in the camper van in a strip-mall parking lot after a long day of talking wrestling, then to wake up the following morning and use the bathroom at a closed Subway.
He admits something seemed off when he walked into the empty sub shop that Sunday morning in Waterloo. The door was open, but the lights were off, and there was no one around. Also the alarm was blaring — which he assumed had nothing to do with him, of course. He walked to the bathroom and did his business, and when the alarm stopped, he decided to take his time and shave.
The alarm resumed when he left the bathroom. Still, he stopped at the soda dispenser, topped off his trusty thirty-ouncer, sipped, and topped it off again before he walked out. In my brother’s mind, a thirty-ounce plastic cup should not only grant eternal free refills but also unlimited use of the facilities, even before the restaurant opens.
He was just starting the engine of the camper van when the Waterloo police arrived. My brother rolled down his window and yelled to the cop, “Somebody forgot to lock the door!”
“Thanks.” The cop waved back.
And that, miraculously, was that.
“Maybe it was the deer urine,” I say, but he’s paying more attention to packing his pipe with another pinch of weed.
Next his movable feast of freedom showed up on our relatives’ doorstep in Dearborn, Michigan, at two in the morning.
“Well, look who’s here,” our uncle said.
Our uncle and aunt have despised our dad ever since our mother, their sister (and sister-in-law), left him. But they’re Christians. So they regarded a surprise visit from their stoned nephew in a camper van as a test of their faith.
“Have you found a good church to go to?” our uncle asked him.
“I’m still looking,” my brother said. “It’s hard to find a church that preaches the gospel without telling me how to live my life.”
I laugh at this. My brother can’t understand what’s so funny as he lights up his Johnny Reb pipe. To him Jesus is just another authority figure with too many rules.
He finally arrived at his Tennessee trailer, where he spent the summer. Then, in early September, he got the bad news that Lacy’s hip surgery was a bust. Doctors said she may never walk again. She was hysterical. Chivalrously my brother offered to catch the next flight out to Arizona — then checked ticket prices, realized it was Labor Day weekend, and decided chivalry was out of his price range.
He recounts their conversation in full, including how he called Lacy “darlin’,” which is what our dad called our stepmother — as in “Damn it, darlin’, don’t interrupt me when I’m talkin’.” That my brother was unconsciously channeling the only role model he’s ever had is both sad and endearing. Acting out the dialogue with Lacy, he sounds like a space alien portraying an elderly gentleman caller.
“Darlin’, don’t do anything rash,” he pleaded with Lacy over the phone.
But it was too late. Staring partial paralysis in the eye, Lacy did what any military vet would do in a time of trial: she dyed her hair Marine blue and posted a picture on Facebook with the tagline “Semper Fi.”
My brother, a neophyte in the diplomacy of romance and women’s hair, didn’t get it.
“Why would you want to look like a clown?” he asked her on the phone.
She hung up.
After a somber series of maybes and we’ll-sees, Lacy suggested their Cracker Barrel romance wasn’t working out, leaving my brother with nothing more to live for than a rust-bucket van, two iguanas, a snake, and a brother now another year older and deeper in regret.
It doesn’t help that I’m driving the old Lincoln Dad left to me. The car still smells like our father. My brother and I get in it to go to a barbecue restaurant, but we eat our ribs without mentioning him. We don’t even say a prayer of thanks, even though it’s our inheritance that pays the bill.
“Remember what Dad used to say?” I ask my brother on the way home: “ ‘Live every day as a holiday and every meal as a feast.’ ”
“Yeah,” my brother growls, “and then scream at me for getting the wrong kind of pot stickers at TGI Fridays.”
My ex-wife and kids say hello and good night before my brother can regale them with a long Woody Guthrie story they don’t want to hear. I give him my room and take the couch. I feel as if I’m just about to realize something when I fall asleep.
The next day I receive my birthday presents from my ex and the kids with all the attention a sixty-one-year-old with one eye on the football game can muster. At halftime I try on the T-shirt with Snoop Dogg’s face on it, and everyone laughs.
The game’s long over by the time my brother wakes up.
“What’s all this?” he asks in a raspy voice, nodding at the wrapping paper on the floor.
“My presents,” I say.
“Oh, yeah.” He shuffles out to the porch to smoke.
I hear him cough and hack, cough and hack. When I go to join him, his eyes are closed and his head is bowed, his body slumped. I can’t tell if he’s nodded off or had a heart attack. For a second he looks so much like our father that it’s as if our dad has actually taken his place. It’s beyond physical resemblance and posture. It’s him. It’s Dad, sitting right there. Then he’s gone.
Without opening his eyes, my brother says, “I had a dream about Dad last night.”
Dad was driving a big rig in the dream, and my brother was riding shotgun.
You good, Dad? my brother asked. You want me to take over for a while?
No, Dad said. I’m still feeling pretty good.
They were looking for a place to park the rig when my brother suddenly realized Dad had disappeared. My brother had to park the truck on his own, but there was nowhere to put it.
“Which is weird,” my brother says, opening his eyes, “because Dad never even drove a truck.”
I’m trying not to cry.
My father made me promise to look after my brother. “He looks up to you,” he said on his deathbed. And now my brother’s van is parked in front of my house, and I’m impatiently waiting for the meter to run out on his visit.
Dad used to say the same thing when we were kids, about looking after my little brother, but I didn’t listen then either. My brother was a nuisance to me. He still is. I bail him out of jail. I return his calls and listen to him wail about some utility-bill injustice. But I’m not looking after him the way Dad intended.
My father was relieved when I came back to Christ, and he prayed that my brother might follow suit. But now Dad’s dead, and my brother’s left driving the endless circles of Dante’s Inferno without any direction from me. We’re just two old men loading up a camper van with iguanas and terrariums on a pretty fall day, one self-righteously overcompensating for his decades of secret addiction and sexual debauchery, and the other so laid-back it’s killing him.
“God is my copilot,” Dad used to say; my brother prefers to let his snake ride shotgun. As he starts the camper van’s engine, Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” picks up right where it left off: “And I said, ‘Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.’ ”
The final leg of my brother’s cross-country voyage will feature a community-college production of A Raisin in the Sun with an old acting buddy in Colorado Springs, then a few days in Vegas with a Mormon friend who sells “virtual kiosks” from a literal kiosk. And finally, depending on Lacy’s rehab schedule, he’ll make a trip down to Phoenix, where a Cracker Barrel waitress will hear a three-hundred-pound man try to convince a woman with a walker to give him another chance.
He pulls out, toots the horn, and my two-day migraine recedes into the melancholy of good-byes. I actually feel kind of sad when he’s gone — until my phone rings an hour later:
“Dude, you’re not going to believe what happened.”