Sample chapter from Not Helping
We had been in a lull with Kevin’s addiction when suddenly, he disappeared again. Same drill as usual: we waited and hoped for the best.
About a week and a half into my brother’s current absence, I was on the far side of the Valley hanging with a couple of buddies in Peoria. I’d been there since Friday night doing nerd shit – video games, paintball, overeating, drinking, watching movies and football – adult male immaturity at its finest. Anyway, Sunday afternoon rolled around, and the thought of making the 55-mile drive home to prep for the workweek began to oppress me.
Suddenly it occurred to me my phone had been oddly quiet all day, and I realized it had run out of juice in the night without me hearing its plaintive warning beeps.
After trudging out to my Celica to power my phone up, I discovered I had three voicemails, all from my dad. I was instantly besieged by guilt — I hadn’t spoken to him since early Saturday. His first message was my brother had unexpectedly shown up on sonar and needed a ride. The second message was a follow up asking me to call home immediately, and my guilt began building compound interest. The last urgent voicemail was from half an hour ago.
“I have tried to call you three times. Why are you not answering your phone?”
Fuck. Nothing like being a shitty, lazy son though the selfish, irresponsible part of me still demanded its right to feel annoyed and put upon. I could detect the anxiety bubbling through Dad’s exasperation. My stomach churning, dreading his disappointment, I reluctantly dialed home. He picked up on the second ring.
“Dad, it’s me.”
“I have been trying to get a-holt of you all day.”
Great, dad sounded a little boozy, and there was an uncharacteristic sharpness to his Virginian drawl. Though he’d converted to Catholicism for my mom’s sake, he had long ago returned to his true religion — golf — which required the sacrifice of a few beers in the clubhouse afterward.
“Look, I’m sorry — I didn’t get your calls. My phone died. You said Kevin needs a ride?”
“I wasn’t home, so your brother called Mrs. Zeier. She says he needs you to pick him up. I had a few beers, so I can’t go.”
Which was good. I didn’t need dad getting another DUI. Once had been humiliating enough for him and had mortified my mom. Also, dad didn’t know the Valley like he used to, and I didn’t want him driving around in some sketchy neighborhood.
I was ready to leap into action to make amends for my irresponsibility.
“Okay. Where is he at?”
And here was where the trouble started.
My dad gave me mangled, drug-hazed coordinates my brother had fed to Mrs. Zeier, whose geographic knowledge beyond the safe confines of Mesa was debatable. The areas Kevin frequented might as well have been in another country. She hadn’t asked any clarifying questions but had merely passed the directions along to my dad. I quickly realized I was the end recipient of the message in a game of Chinese Whispers. Supposedly my brother was in front of a Chinese restaurant by a park somewhere on 24th Avenue and Camelback or he was at a park near a Chinese restaurant. The Avenues seemed questionable to me, an old prejudice from before they started gentrifying downtown Phoenix – my brother wasn’t an Avenues kind of guy was he? Central Phoenix seemed more reasonable because it appeared more gay-friendly to my uneducated eye. But my dad insisted that’s what Kevin had told Mrs. Zeier: 24th Avenue. Of course, dad didn’t have the name of the restaurant or park, so I couldn’t even call Information.
“Dad, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.”
“Just find your brother. Call me when you’ve picked him up.”
A few minutes later, I was flying down the I-17. When I arrived at 24th Avenue and Camelback, there was no Chinese restaurant, nor any park. Shit, what now? I drove west a bit, but no joy. I figured my hunch was right, and it was 24th Street, so I headed east, scanning both sides of the road, but nothing.
Consternated, I backtracked west, driving slowly, looking for a missed landmark, a sign from God, fuck, anything at all, with drivers impatiently pulling around my car, and one guy blaring his horn. I hit 24th Avenue again with no success.
Back and forth I drove. My dad rang me again to let me know my brother had called and was still waiting and wondering where I was. It would have been so much easier if Kevin would have called me, but, apparently, he was using a pay phone and couldn’t remember my number, had no pen and was almost out of change. I told my dad to have my brother pick out an easy to spot landmark, preferably one with a sign, and go stand there. My dad told me he was standing by one – the apparently nameless Chinese restaurant.
Why didn’t someone just shoot me and get it over with?
I decided to expand my search zone and headed towards 44th Street.
When I got there, no goddamned Chinese restaurant.
A few minutes later, I got a new update. My brother wasn’t at a Chinese restaurant (no shit) but claimed he was at the park near 4th Avenue. So, I hung another U-ie and headed back in that direction. Anxiety and frustration had mated to produce a giant swarm of disgruntled butterflies in my stomach.
Because God apparently hated me, there was no park at 4th Avenue and Camelback. Not even a blade of grass. My thumb stabbed my cell phone’s buttons as I called my dad.
“Dad, I’ve driven up and down everywhere…I don’t know how many times! There is — NO — goddamned — park!”
“It’s on the corner of the street.”
“What street?!?” I asked in exasperation.
“Well, just a second, let me look at what I wrote down,”
Oh for fuck’s sake. I could hear him fumbling around. I wanted to bang my head on the steering wheel.
“Look. Dad — It’s not here. There is no park.”
“Did you look for the Chinese restaurant?”
Oh my God.
“No! Because you said, there wasn’t a Chinese restaurant.”
Dad stammered trying to recall what he had said. The old man didn’t like the F-word, but I was about to become an F-bomb dropping motherfucker if he mentioned that Chinese restaurant one more time. We finally agreed it was no longer part of the equation.
It was apparent to me I was the tribes of Israel doomed to wander the desert for forty years because Moses didn’t know where the hell he was going. Basically, I was looking for a syringe needle in a landfill. I’d pretty much given up on landmarks at that point and would have probably had better luck using the Force.
Meth addicts aren’t known for their boundless reserves of patience, and the longer my quest dragged on, the more anxious I became. I didn’t know how long I had before he slipped back beneath the slate grey surface of the seamy ocean he floundered in.
My fingers squeezed the molded plastic of my steering wheel relentlessly till they ached; it was the only thing I was in control of right then and only barely.
In a desperate change of tactics, I started hunting randomly through the backstreets of the neighborhood. Irritated, I answered another call, expecting my dad, but it was Kelli. I gave her the Reader’s Digest version of the situation. She’d always been supportive of me, and I expected sympathy but instead got an unexpected dose of The Absolute Truth according to Kelli.
“Honey, you need to stop making excuses for him. You keep giving him one chance after another. How long are you and your family going to let him ruin your lives?”
“He hasn’t ruined our lives.”
Not true, but I didn’t want to have that conversation with her at that moment. Involved in my search, I half listened to her as she delivered in her quiet, sultry voice, her draconian suggestions on how to handle my brother.
In hindsight, to me, it always seems easier to pull the trigger to end someone else’s problems. Maybe as an outsider, she had more clarity, or perhaps as an outsider, she couldn’t see the full spectrum of pixels that completed our family picture. But her well-meant advice was fraying my nerves, especially considering the blazing rubble of her family relationships.
“He has wrecked your family. Look what he did to your poor mother…”
Okay, I was done with that conversation. I understood my brother because we had different iterations of the same faulty genetic coding. I knew the catalog of his sins better than anyone — but I knew mine too — and I knew hers. Nobody hated him more than I did at that moment, but that was my right as his big brother. I’d earned the scars, and I bridled at her casting judgment on him — on all of us.
But Kelli was a pit bull. She had the problem by the ass and wasn’t letting go anytime soon.
She saw me as another sacrificial victim meekly allowing Kevin to lead me to the altar for slaughter. Kelli had been going through a lot of therapy and was applying everything she knew in spades. She told me I was co-dependent. Okay, time out. Seeing as she was the reigning queen of Co-Dependia, I’d had enough.
“You know,” I said a bit harshly. “I know your family is really fucked up, but that doesn’t make you an expert on everyone else’s problems!”
Yeah, why go for nuance when you can lob tactical nukes? Of course, I instantly regretted it. I mean, it was true, but I shouldn’t have said it. I didn’t want this fight, particularly not now. This was not my better self speaking.
There was an intense moment of silence. And I had that sinking feeling. I knew I’d fucked up.
“You know what,” even when the warmth of her tone dropped several degrees her breathy voice still sounded sexy. “That was not loving and was completely uncalled for. Why don’t I talk to you when you aren’t being an asshole.”
She hung up. Fuck. I hurt my fist slamming it onto the steering wheel, so I blamed my stupid brother for that too. Oh, well, on the plus side, it ended the clinical examination of my family’s poor decision making. Of course, I now had one more item on my list of problems to solve.
By then, I’d given up any form of organized search and was Zening my way through a lower-class neighborhood. I felt he had to be somewhere nearby because, without fail, he always returned to that area like a migratory bird.
As I pulled up to a stop sign, ready to zip across the main road, I happened to glance to my left. On the corner was a small brick building with a bum sitting by some oleander bushes. I’d passed by it twice, barely glancing at it. Ready to gun the Celica’s engine, I almost overlooked the white, postage stamp-sized sign jutting from the building. I did a doubletake. On it was a green pine tree, and in neat letters it said:
Bar & Lounge
It almost didn’t register that I’d stumbled upon a vital clue in my quest because I’d been expecting swing sets and kids, not a bar. I whipped my car back around and then into the parking lot, almost running over the curb.
Like the bar, the parking lot was minuscule, more of an asphalt apron. I was about to pull into one of the few parking spots when I noticed the bum get up and shamble forward like the walking dead.
Holy shit, I realized it was my brother.
I’d never seen him looking shabbier. Wearing a faded red t-shirt and cut off jean shorts, he was barefoot and carrying his running shoes, and his feet looked filthy. His face contorted, he walked gingerly as if under attack by the needles of a vengeful voodoo priest. His slow, herky-jerky movements reminded me of a wind-up toy soldier that is still marching but barely.
He eased himself into the passenger seat, hissing in pain when his feet, red and swollen underneath the grime, contacted the floor.
“Thanks,” he croaked.
I caught a whiff of him, and he was a real funk monster. The rank miasma of chemical sweat, dried beer, and stale cigarette smoke beat up my nostrils in the confines of the car, so I cracked my window. He rocked in his seat, his arms gyrating weirdly like those giant inflatable tube men that dance in front of businesses, which kind of freaked me out.
His dark hair was unkempt, he hadn’t shaven in days, and the reddish stubble bristled on his jaw. When I looked at his eyes, they were two small fish darting erratically to elude predators.
Horrified, I couldn’t stop watching his unnatural gyrations. I eased the car out of the parking lot and headed for the freeway.
I had an emotional tug of war going on, but I didn’t know what to say, so I stuck with small talk. My brother babbled about hiding behind a dumpster from the police and other shit I couldn’t really follow.
His twisting limbs moved with the heavy limpness of an exhausted swimmer in a riptide, one arm banging weakly against the passenger window the other hitting the console, his foot painfully knocking against plastic, which elicited a gasp.
“Dude, what the fuck. Stop thrashing around.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he mumbled.
“God,” he groaned his eyes glinting with delirium. “I feel awful.”
I asked him why he put himself through it.
“Because I love it.”
What the hell can you say to that?
Flailing, he knocked the car out of gear, and I barked at him to stop. He apologized and clamped his hands under his armpits, becoming a human straight jacket, but only momentarily because the meth addict’s version of St. Vitus’ Dance wouldn’t let him stop.
“But after the second day, it’s not even fun anymore,” he said. “I know I need to stop, and I keep telling myself ‘Okay, you’re going to leave now.’ And I really mean it. I’m going to drive home and go to sleep and go to work, and things will be cool. I’ll go to bed, and I can still make it into work. But even when I’m saying it, I know I’m lying because I’m never going to leave, not till I’m through, you know? Until I have to stop because I’ve run out or I’m going to die. It’s bad, it’s bad. It’s really bad. Oh God…”
His jerking limbs reminded me of Elaine’s spastic dance on Seinfeld. I asked him how he could do this to himself and he said he didn’t want to.
“God, I’m going to pay for this,” he moaned.
I reminded him to stop thrashing and asked him how long he’d been up.
“What day is it?”
“Sunday?” He seemed caught between uncertainty and surprise. “I don’t know. Five days. Six days. I don’t know.”
He tried clamping his arms to his side again, but they eventually escaped and took flight.
It was fucked up. I couldn’t imagine what he’d gone through — was still going through. The meth was a caustic truth serum that compelled him to ramble on, but his words were bicycle riders sprinting pell-mell at the end of a race, occasionally tumbling in a pileup. He’d seen things, but who knew what was real?
He told me about a conversation he’d had at the bar with his friend Tom, just talking to him until he realized he was talking to an empty bar stool because Tom was dead. Instead, he’d been alarming some nearby, random day drinker with his monologue.
I wanted to rail at him, to shake some sense into him, but he was talking in tongues again, and I was worried. The talk I’d rehearsed seemed fucking useless.
“You need to stop and buy me some beer.”
His demand pissed me off.
“I’m not buying you beer. The last fucking thing you need is beer.”
“Please,” he begged. “I’ve been drinking so I can sleep. But I’m still going. Oh God, I can’t believe I’ve been up for so long. I can’t take this.”
Against my better judgment, I got him some beer at the Diamond Shamrock on Sossaman. Dad was sitting on the couch when we arrived home.
Kevin limped into the house, a beer in his hand and then forced himself to sit down in the living room where he attempted to apologize.
Dad had heard it before. We all had. He talked, trying to reach my brother, to share all his pent-up emotions. There was no anger though, just a bit of relief and mostly concern. My brother tried to listen, for maybe twenty seconds, a meth head record, before interrupting.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And I really want to handle this, but I just can’t deal with it right now.”
“Son, you’ve got to get off this poison. If it doesn’t kill you, it’s gonna kill me.”
He said he was going to try. Shortly after that, my brother disappeared into his bedroom.
Dad and I talked about how we were fed up and how we didn’t know what to do. Eventually, he went to bed, and I retired to my cramped room to type out some of what had happened and then I played video games for several hours. I could hear my brother through the wall groaning in his post-meth coma. Meth must have given him the ultimate cotton mouth because he kept making this horrible hawking noise in his throat.
But at least he was safe — for the moment — and I knew where he would be for the next couple of days. For that, I was thankful.
And with that thought, I went to bed and drifted off.
There’s nothing like being yanked out of bed by a tortured scream. I stood there in the dark wondering what the fuck was going on, my heart thumping as I fumbled for the switch on my floor lamp. I thought I was having one of my patented night terrors where dream and reality merge. But nope, the screaming was still going on and grounded in reality. There was a thud against the wall, and I rushed into the hallway as Kevin’s door flew open, and he bolted out naked and shrieking like a soul-devouring demon was after him. I stood rooted to the cold tile, wide-eyed, with every hair on my arms, legs, and neck standing at attention as he ran into the bathroom.
I don’t know what freaked me out more: his shrieking or the fact that he was buck naked. Okay, it was the buck-naked part – we were raised Catholic after all. When I followed him into the bathroom, worriedly asking what was wrong, he was clutching his heart, hunched over like a terrified animal looking frantically for a bolt hole. I was terrified he was having a heart attack.
Whatever was going on in my brother’s head, I was invisible to him. My dad joined me in the hallway, hair tousled, blinking like an undernourished child in boxers and a grubby undershirt. It crossed my mind that I really needed to buy him new t-shirts.
I hovered near my brother, asking if he was okay, afraid to touch the wild-eyed creature, but he was beyond regular communication unless his spitting on the wall was some form of primitive code.
“What happened?” asked my dad.
“I don’t know,” I replied truthfully, worried, my mind whirling.
“Should we call an ambulance?” I asked my dad.
“Son, do you need an ambulance?”
I looked at my dad. Apparently, he had not been following along with my recent communication attempts.
My brother sank to his knees, his back to the toilet. Thank God he wasn’t screaming anymore. He started moaning and tried to hawk up phlegm, spitting on the bathroom wall.
Neither my dad nor I was doing stellar in this crisis, and we debated our options which seemed to be down to two: do nothing at all or call an ambulance. He went to get the phone.
Suddenly, my brother stopped moaning, spit on the wall one last time, and then with hooded eyes, he stood up and lurched past me like a zombie into his room and flopped onto the bed. Whatever demon dwelled in there was quiet now, and my brother immediately slipped into unconsciousness.
I pulled a sheet over Kevin, made sure he was breathing and closed the door.
Dad had the phone in his hand but hadn’t called 911 yet, so I waved him off. We sat out in the living room, searching for that slender thread of normalcy.
My dad sighed. “This ain’t living.”
No, it wasn’t. And I felt pretty bad hearing him so low because he had always been resilient, though my mom’s death had taken something out of him. I didn’t want his twilight years to have come to this.
Of course, I wasn’t fucking helping the cause just coasting along as my equally unsuccessful alter ego, Gamblor.
I felt sure that his stooped shoulders weren’t just from his habitually bad posture and osteoporosis. The strong man I had looked up to since boyhood had shriveled up into a little prune of a man, with sun-etched wrinkles in his tanned leather flesh. The old man was battling a bleakness of soul. People look to their children and grandchildren as a form of immortality, and my dad had two freeloading evolutionary dead-ends camped out with him. My sister led a good life but was still having trouble conceiving.
He looked discouraged, and that bummed me out.
“We’ll do something, dad,” I said with false confidence and cheer.
“What?” he asked.
God, I hate when people expect you to follow up your empty statement with a meaningful solution. It’s like they purposefully ignore the conventions of polite conversation. It was a valid point though.
I didn’t reply because there was nothing left to say, and we just sat there.
Days later, after he’d recovered from his binge, my brother set about trying to duct tape his life back together into some sort of normalcy. He didn’t bounce back as quickly this time into his normal hectic reboot.
I was concerned, though I grew hopeful when he decided to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When he returned, I asked him how it went and he shrugged.
“You didn’t go, did you?”
Kevin resented my doubt but admitted that, no, he hadn’t gone. Well, he had, but apparently, the meeting had started early, and rather than disturb them, he’d gone to the bar across the street.
I was incredulous.
“Are you fucking retarded? You went to a bar?”
He got defensive and blamed it on the AA people for either starting the meeting early or posting the time incorrectly. He said he was sure they’d locked the door. I wasn’t buying it, but I understood his excuse-making. I was afflicted with the same shyness and introversion, and I’d been looking for excuses not to do things in public since childhood. And while I sympathized on one level, he couldn’t bullshit me, one of his own clan. We argued as brother’s will, and when things got testy, he left the kitchen and slammed the door to his room.
I felt bad about how I’d handled it, but I couldn’t believe it. He just didn’t really want to get clean. Or he did, but he didn’t want to put the hard work in and redefine the parameters of his life.
Things were never going to change.
And then one day, my sister called.
Thanks for reading! This is a sample chapter of a book I’ve been (trying) to work on about my family’s trouble dealing with my brother’s former drug addiction. Some of you may recognize it as a short piece of flash fiction I’d published earlier, which also appeared on The Drabble. The original version of the chapter was a lot longer and far more serious in tone. I found myself not liking the grimness of it and decided to abandon my stunted literary pretentions. Anyway, let me know what you think. Be brutally honest.
Liked what you read? Check at my other sample chapter: Late Night Offerings to Mammon
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