I’m still suffering from blogging lethargy, though at least I’m putting my energy into my book. I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish it, but I definitely feel a lot more positive about it these days. I’ve decided that it will never be perfect and if the story is flawed, I no longer care, I’m just going to tell it to the best of my ability. And that has helped immensely.
Anyway, this is a longish chapter and needs more work, but I’m moving on for now. As always, please leave your thoughts, criticism, and suggestions. And thanks for reading!
The Prodigal Brother
My brother Kevin has disappeared. Again. Infuriating and disappointing, yet not wholly unexpected. He specializes in erratic behavior these days.
I should have known it was coming because he has been acting sketchy all week, more than normal. And then earlier this morning the phone rang and it was someone from Frys, where my brother works in the deli. They were looking for him because he was late. I told the girl on the line that I hadn’t seen him. Then, an hour later, when I was getting ready to leave for school, someone else from Frys called, and I lied and told her I was surprised he wasn’t there.
“Okay,” she replied. “If you hear from him, please have him call work immediately.”
I had assured her I would, knowing full well that I was probably not going to talk to him today.
Now it’s three in the afternoon, and when I call my mom from a payphone on campus, Kevin is still missing in action. No big surprise there, but it doesn’t stop that feeling of dread growing in the pit of my belly as a pair of invisible hands twists my insides like a sodden dishrag, ringing concentrated anxiety into my veins so that my heart bangs out an uncomfortable rhythm in my chest. I’m not mentally or emotionally ready for another round of this.
“His work called back again. He never showed up.”
I let out a heavy sigh.
“Figures. He’s going to lose this job.”
“I don’t know what he’s going to do then. He’s not lying around here all day.”
Over the phone line, the worry in my mother’s voice transmits its subliminal message of despair, and it kills me. Kev is her beloved youngest with the face of a Renaissance angel and the mercenary heart of a hedonist. His behavior hits her hard because she has no frame of reference for it. Alcohol is a different story because her father, being a stereotypical Irish dockworker in Liverpool, had a taste for the ale, which caused a bit of high ding dong, as she would put it, in their home when she was a teen. But as far as drugs go, she’s getting a crash course in dealing with someone who has a taste for illicit substances — actually, we all are. Mom cannot fathom how Kev’s love for partying could trump his sense of family fidelity. All along, with a mother’s naivete, she has assumed her maternal love can save him from evil, but I don’t think Dr. Spock’s famous tome on childrearing, Baby and Childcare, had a chapter to prepare her for situations like this. But she won’t — can’t — give up on Kevin because blood is thicker than water.
Me? The selfish brother. At this moment, I just want to kill him. Anger and frustration have tag-teamed my brotherly love and choked it out. Why is he doing this now after he seemed to tone it down for the past couple of weeks? God, it’s so frustrating. I was hoping that maybe, finally, he had decided to get his act together. But today, the ever-present gray smudge of distant dread on the horizon has billowed into a towering thunderhead looming above me.
Concluding our call, I slam the heavy handset on its hook harder than necessary, eliciting curious looks from startled passersby. My mom doesn’t deserve to be treated like this. Dad doesn’t either, but during the week, he works 130 miles away at Davis Monthan, the Air Force’s boneyard in Tucson, so he misses out on most of the fun while she gets the brunt of it.
Who thinks this is going to happen in their family? Shit, not me — I never saw it coming. I grew up with certain expectations knowing that life was going to turn out a certain way, until one day, it didn’t. We’d all go to college, get jobs, have families — the dream was kind of light on details, but the outline was there. Now, nothing is fucking going to plan. Dad got screwed by the Civil Service and is forced to work in Tucson; mom spends all her time worrying; I’m regressing and have traveled back in time to live at my parents’ house, and my brother is apparently working on establishing a meth addiction. Life feels like it’s not going in the appropriate direction. My sister Bridget is the only one who seems to have her shit together.
What the fuck am I going to do about my brother? I don’t have time for this — I’ve got my own shit to worry about. For a while, I thought Kevin was just an asshole who was partying too hard, so I wasn’t that concerned because I’ve known a lot of those guys, and most of them have grown out of it. God knows I haven’t been a saint myself. I’ve done my share of irresponsible living, especially during my undergrad, but Kevin is going well beyond the Pale. His extracurricular activities have transformed into more than normal clubbing — he’s been disappearing more frequently for days at a time and growing more irresponsible. He’s been getting in trouble at work for showing up late or calling so often you’d think he has some rare, debilitating syndrome.
One night, a couple of weeks ago, he came in agitated and confessed he had accidentally hit another car, causing minor damage, but panicked and sped off when the other driver pulled over. I remember looking at him in disbelief as a conflict of emotions warred in me.
“Dude, that’s a fucking hit and run! Why did you leave the scene of the accident?”
“Because I’d been snorting crystal meth. I could not talk to the police like that.”
His admission shocked me. Not because I’m a prude, but he’d activated my sense of empathy for the other driver. My outrage warred with hypocrisy, and on one level I can understand his flight. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve driven buzzed, though I’ve never been in an accident, what would I have done in a moment of fear if I had?
“You could have killed someone, you idiot.”
Despite my sense of offended justice, I also felt a heavy undercurrent of relief sweep through that he had gotten away because if he went to jail, his life might get that much harder. I have no idea what the penalty would be for driving on drugs, but the family doesn’t need that particular problem. But this left me feeling guilty because now an innocent person was going to have to deal with the damage. Hopefully they had a low deductible and more coverage than liability.
My brother knows he did wrong, but that hasn’t changed his behavior, as evidenced by his current disappearing act. In hindsight, maybe getting caught would have been the best thing. Hypocritically, no matter how bad I felt for the other driver, I couldn’t turn Kevin in, though I wondered what I would do if he’d seriously injured or killed someone. But thank God I didn’t have to face that moral dilemma.
Maybe it’s unhealthy, but I’ve become consumed with trying to control him, first by reason, then through a combination of guilt for what he is doing to mom and then browbeating him. None of it has worked.
As shocking as it is to me, I have to face the fact that my brother is probably a meth addict. At the very least, he’s got a strong fondness for it. I don’t want to believe that we have a meth abuser on our hands — I discounted the original rumors heard from old classmates of his — but you can only ignore facts or view them in isolation for so long. In totality, they paint a convincing picture. But how the fuck did a drug addict masquerading as my brother infiltrate our family? That happens in other families, not ours. We are solid and boring middle class. Nothing eventful ever happens to us. When we were growing up, drugs were feared and taboo — and not talked about by our parents except for, obviously, don’t take them. We got our education on drugs through osmosis, picking up facts, myths, and horror stories outside the house. In junior high, I used to have self-righteous fantasies about beating up evil drug dealers who were trying to corrupt my little brother and hook him on pot because my understanding of pot was on the level of Reefer Madness — Now, I wish weed was the problem. As our friends began to experiment with drugs and alcohol, I was horrified at first, but they never turned into monsters. By the time I got to college, my inhibition had begun to dissolve. Like any self-respecting ASU undergrad, I drank like a fish, and then I began dabbling in weed and the occasional psychedelics. When offered coke, I snorted it a few times and enjoyed the high and how cool it made me feel, but being poor saved me. Back then, my old high school buddy Mike Sturgeon and his girlfriend did crank, and he told me they’d stayed up for eleven days, but I wasn’t really hanging out with them at that point. I did speed once, but lying awake in bed boring holes into the darkness with my eyes while my heart pounded out an extended drum solo was not my cup of tea. However, my college experimentation pales in comparison to my brother’s embrace of the party scene. Somewhere along the road of life, Kevin drifted off it, and now we’re all stuck in a ditch with him.
This morning has left me out of sorts, and I don’t feel like going to class, but I roll into ASU for a mid-afternoon short story workshop. When I finish up three hours later, I head back to my parents’ house. I call my friend Lori to go to happy hour at Casey Moore’s, but she’s out of town working a flight. I don’t feel like going home, but I really should check on my mom, not that I look forward to seeing her sitting around while she waits in vain on Kevin. But, this is probably a sign from God that I need to get some writing done — this damned script isn’t going to finish itself. So I hop into the Mobile Oven, which has been roasting all day under the blazing sun, roll down the windows, and head off through rush-hour traffic.
On the drive home, I try to clear my head, but my mind is a whirlwind. I need to focus and do some writing tonight because I’m behind where I need to be for my next meeting with my mentor. Hot air blasts through the open window like a nuclear-powered blow dryer as I curse my car’s lack of AC. Sweat rolls down my sides and soaks the back of my shirt, which doesn’t help my mood. Being at ground zero for my brother’s bullshit makes moving back home for grad school feel like a mistake, but in honesty, I had a nagging feeling before I quit my job that I was taking the easy way out by moving home. I should have seen about getting into the grad dorms and picking up a part-time job. Now my progress as an adult feels stifled, and I’m afraid I’ll turn into an evolutionary dead end. But it’s only temporary I keep telling myself — only temporary. I’ll write a blockbuster script that Hollywood fights over, sell that bad boy, make a boatload of cash, and the family proud. Maybe I can help my brother out. He’s a good looking guy, maybe I can get him into entertainment, and he’ll become a famous actor once I’ve got connections and have some pull. But I’ve got to get cracking — I’m behind the curve already. In my first semester with Geller, he told us the average age of a screenwriter is twenty-four. I was twenty-five when I started the program, which bummed me out, and that was three years ago. Now I really feel that I’m behind the eight ball. Goddamn it, I would have graduated by now if Geller hadn’t left. I went from breakneck speed, taking a full load while working forty-hours— I wrote a feature-length script in three months — to instant paralysis.
I should have followed him to Boston University, but Jesus Christ, it was so expensive. But I’m racking up student loan debt anyway — might as well have gotten a degree from a kickass school. Now, I’m spinning my wheels. ASU was a top-ten writing program, but it feels like it’s been slipping, though that could be my bias. Anyway, Geller’s replacement, the producer they fly in from L.A., is not great when it comes to a class setting, but I work well with him one on one. He even thinks my project has possibility. And shit, he’s got more TV movies in the development pipe — I’ve got a fucking connection. I need to focus and get this done.
The heat and frustration have me teetering between anger and depression. Always the fucking waiting game to see what Kevin is doing. God help me, but for a moment, I wish he would take his bullshit elsewhere. The upset that he causes has become routine, and my inability to control him stokes the furnace of my anger causing it to burn white-hot. But I am more deeply afraid that someday he will disappear. Or end up a wreck of a human being. These frightening thoughts make me depress the gas pedal and drive faster.
Interested in reading more? Check out Late Night Offerings to Mammon
By the time I get home, I’m a sweaty mess; my long hair is damp and plastered to my scalp, and my saturated shirt clings to me like a slimy, new skin chilling me in the house’s air-conditioned interior. Mom is on the phone, and from conversational clues, she’s talking to Mavis, her friend from Trinidad, who lives a couple of miles away. They share a bond of sisterhood and unruly, disappointing children. Mavis and her husband have an adopted, mixed-race daughter whose dominant wild gene is too strong to be restrained by a good upbringing. Luckily, Kevin’s gay or they could have gotten together and produced the Godzilla of fuckups as an offspring.
I wave at Mom and grab some leftovers from the fridge, passively eavesdropping on her conversation. She mentions my brother and being at a loss of what to do — sounds like Mavis has mentioned tough love; they talk about it, but I’ll believe that when I see it. When Mom is done talking to Mavis, she asks about my day and then expresses her worry and disappointment with my brother. I try to be supportive, but what can I say?
Later, I’m sitting at my computer in my bedroom, trying to collect the trickle of thoughts that have been dribbling into a shallow and murky pool in my brainpan. I am taking another crack at making meaningful progress on the Great American Screenplay — it’s going to be the thesis for my master’s degree. I met with my current mentor yesterday— the university flies him in from L.A. every week — and he gave me some solid feedback about my story, but I’m still having trouble making decisions to move it forward. Every time I believe I’ve made a breakthrough and start writing in changes, it screws something up. I try to fix that, and it affects something else, and then it cascades through the whole goddamned thing, causing serious plot problems and broken character interactions. My inability to move clear of this tangled mess is driving me insane. For weeks, I’ve been sliding on a scale between exultation and despair when it comes to my project — tonight, I’ve landed on ennui. My cluttered desk in my untidy room isn’t exactly conducive to inspired writing. Nor is Ponyboy and the other Outsiders, the judgmental bastards, staring down at me from their lofty perches with their dreamy eyes and mocking smiles, along with all the other teenage crushes who paper the walls of my sister’s former bedroom, which is a shrine to teenage heartthrobs.
“Fuck off,” I mutter at them.
Their perfect alabaster smiles remind me I really need to get around to taking all my sister’s high school shit off the walls and redecorating; there is far too much pink frilliness going on in here, starting with the lacy, Laura Ashley bedspread. I about died when my mom let the guy in from the telephone company to put in a new phone jack in the wall. I was kicking back on the fucking bed reading. He looked at me and my long hair and then at the Dream Squad, and I could tell what was going through his mind. I was fucking mortified. I just haven’t gotten around to it; for some reason, I still think of this as Bridget’s room even though she’s been living across town for the past year attending ASU West. But I’m not one for change; plus, it helps me to feel like my situation is only temporary. I’m just a short-term visitor.
It’s not good. The elusive herd of ideas that was gathering skittishly around the waterhole of my imagination earlier today has scattered with the explosive fleetness of frightened gazelles, leaping for freedom before I can pounce on one of them and feed on its warm inspiration. Again, my mind wonders where my brother is and, annoyed, I push the thought away.
My massive creative block will not shift, and after an hour, I wonder if a change of scenery would help, but I’m not driving all the way out to Coffee Plantation back in Tempe, so like Prometheus on his rock, I am chained here at my desk. I used to write longhand in notebooks and, on occasion, I still do; Geller advocated that method because he said it slows your thoughts down and lets you think about what you’re going to write about rather than barfing gibberish out onto a computer screen at breakneck speed, but I’m spoiled by computers now. Speaking of outmoded technology, I can’t believe that, just a few short years ago, I was banging away on an electric typewriter, and after that broke, on an old manual one that Lee from across the street must have bought circa World War Two. Talk about nerve-wracking — pulling an all-nighter trying to type a term paper due in the morning and handing it in hot off the press with correction fluid dabbed on it like war paint.
A fragment of dialog comes to mind, and I tap it out on the keyboard; I re-read it on-screen, but it leaves me uninspired, and I feel my enthusiasm for tonight’s writing session ebbing as I backspace the words into oblivion. Sometimes I wonder if there is a tiny, yet powerful, black hole hidden under my desk, inexorably stripping away my creativity in the same manner that one would consume the hot gases of an unfortunate sun that has wandered too close. Or maybe I just suck — maybe Geller made a mistake when he let me into the program.
So I sit here staring at the screen, trying to conjure my muse and not to think about my brother. God, I hate writing. What the fuck possessed me ever to want to be a writer? Oh yeah, I loathe dealing with people and their expectations. It’s kind of funny, the genesis of my calling originated when I was fourteen. Was I a child prodigy? Hardly. My main motivation was I didn’t want to go to high school — Junior high had sucked bad enough, and the thought of being among all those older kids terrified me. And in my mind, every class I attended would be taught by a stern, unforgiving teacher who mocked me as I failed. Writing a best seller over the summer seemed like an excellent solution — I’d be rich and, obviously, wouldn’t need to attend high school. It would also make me super popular with the chicks. And, of course, I’d be good at it because I liked to read. Not surprisingly, that plan never panned out as I drove myself crazy trying to come up with a story. I had an awesome first page and then nothing.
Why am I not blessed with talent and a sharp mind? I have just enough ability to frustrate myself. If Salieri, the antagonist in Amadeus, is the patron saint of mediocrity, then I’m its altar boy. What am I going to do with my life? In essence, I have shoved all my chips into the center of the table on one big hand — I’ve gone all-in on being a screenwriter, and it doesn’t look like I even have a pair of deuces in my hand.
In essence, that’s what I told the head of the Creative Writing program when he queried me on my post-graduation career plans.
“What’s your backup plan?” he asked in all seriousness a couple of weeks ago. Honestly, I have none I replied. Few people, he explained to me, even published authors can make a living solely writing books. Assuming one can even get published. Geller said the same thing about screenwriting — at any given moment, there are tens of thousands of scripts floating around Hollywood. You can have a magnificent script, but good luck getting it in front of the right set of eyes who will see it’s potential. The way I am coming to think about being a writer is that you’re a salmon swimming upstream, leaping in exhaustion, trying to traverse small waterfalls — and there are hungry bears — and even when you are successful and get to your destination, you die. Not a perfect analogy, but it captures my current negative feelings. But then again, what else have I got on the agenda? I guess I’ve always had faith I’d be one of the few lucky ones, but lately I’ve been beset by doubts. If my assumption fails to pan out, I could be seriously fucked. But I’m talented, right? Maybe? But talented enough? Fuck.
One mistake I regret is that my intense apprehension of speaking in front of people has robbed me of any practical experience of teaching in a college classroom. Geller mentioned that TAs were practically slaves and exploited by the university system for cheap labor, and he didn’t think it was necessary to take that route. My fear jumped all over that to rationalize why I would not be teaching in grad school. But now I’m sort of regretting that decision, though I think it’s too late in the day to go the T.A. route.
What am I going to do to earn money when I graduate — whenever that occurs? I’ve gone to the Career Center and thumbed through job listings, but there’s nothing for creative writers. Other programs funnel their students into internships, but I feel like it is make it or break it on your own in the Creative Writing program because, as I’ve discovered, it’s such an amorphous degree. There’s no defined career path, just a dark scary woods ahead.
The bright monitor mocks me. My fingers, powered by anxiety, drum the desk top rapidly. Next to me, the phone jangles, and I pick it up fully expecting it to be my brother, but it’s my buddy, Greg Harrison.
“Hey, man, stop by the store at closing time. A bunch of us are all going out to a casino.”
A casino? I haven’t been to one since I quit the airline and lost my free flights. I’d heard the Indians are running bingo tents and have been expanding into gaming machines, which intrigues me, but not enough to venture forth — I think of myself as a Vegas guy playing cards or rolling the bones with the pros.
“Eh, I’m not really into slot machines.”
He relays my objection to someone else.
“Simpson says they’ve got blackjack and craps.”
Okay, he has my attention, but still, I temporize with half-hearted roadblocks.
“I dunno, man. I really need to get some writing done and…”
“Come on, dude. It’ll give you something to write about.”
I make a noncommittal sound.
“Quit being a pussy and get out here. It’ll be fun, man.”
And so I save the newest fifty-seven words of the Great American Screenplay and close down Word. God, I hope I don’t regret this.
Shortly before nine, I arrive at Waterloo. It is a dingy and dusty game store housed in what used to be an ancient feed store on old town Gilbert’s main thoroughfare, but even though it looks like a dungeon, it’s become my home away from home. It’s kind of like Cheers for nerds, the bar where everybody knows my name. Our posse tonight is me, Greg Harrison, this rich kid Bryan Simpson, and the new assistant manager Jeff. Simpson’s been to Harrah’s Ak-Chin casino before, so he’s point man, and I ride with him in his bitchin’ Camaro. We’re driving way the fuck out west past this little town called Maricopa, deep into the Ak-Chin reservation. I’ve never been this far out. There’s a lot of desert and not much civilization, but Simpson says it’s a real resort hotel and not some cheap-ass building like you’ll find at the other casinos. God, it’s nice riding in a muscle car with AC, the powerful engine rumbling, Smashing Pumpkins powering through Zero. I’m unwinding on the long drive, but I feel guilty leaving mom at home alone, but my being there isn’t going to change the equation — my brother will show up when he shows up, whether I’m pacing around the house or playing blackjack.
And there it is, the casino, towering against the darkened desert sky like a neon beacon. I find it kind of surreal — but exciting. It’s not Vegas, that’s for sure, but it will do.
Inside, there is the nonstop electronic hoopla and the nonstop, torturous ching ching ching of slot machines dropping heavy metal tokens into metal trays. Employees push change carts around selling racks of tokens for the machines. I’m disappointed at first because there are no actual blackjack or craps tables. Instead, for blackjack, there are clusters of stations, five machines linked to a central monitor that acts as the dealer. The craps table is a monstrously large video game with a horizontal flat screen that eight players sit around — each player has a roller ball to “roll” a pair of ridiculously big digital dice when it’s his or her turn as the shooter. But once we start playing, it’s fun, and we’re laughing and joking and making some money. The stakes are small — the max bet is eight dollars — but that suits me fine since I don’t have a job right now. I play a buck or two at a time and wager more if I win a few hands. We have a blast. I’ve brought forty dollars, which is forty more than I should be risking, but it lasts me for a while, but then I have a bad streak and get cleaned out. We’re there a couple of hours, and then Jeff needs to get back to his family. Simpson was the big winner, winning eighty, but only leaving ahead fifteen dollars.
On the long ride back to Waterloo, I’m a bit bummed that I lost, but I had fun. Next time — and there will be a next time — I just need to play better. Simpson and I talk about what we did wrong. I’m still kind of fuzzy about the finer points of blackjack, like splitting pairs — I pissed off some grizzled old gamblers at our station when I split my tens. Apparently, that’s a big no-no. One old guy told me they’d hang me if I tried that in Vegas. He calmed down after I apologized and told him I was more of a craps player, and he took me under his wing and gave me some pointers. Man, I can’t wait to go back, and Simpson and I agree to another trip out to the badlands again in a week or two.
At home, it’s after midnight when I tiptoe in, but the living room TV is on. My mom has nodded off in her chair, the soft glow of the lamp on the end table washing away the lines on her face. I watch the peaceful, rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, and I don’t want to wake her, but she needs to go to bed.
“You weren’t drinking, and driving were you?” she asks, bleary-eyed.
Truthfully, I tell her, no, and I mention I went to a casino.
She says I should stay away from them. I tell her I didn’t lose much.
She runs her fingers through her graying hair, her eyes red-rimmed and tells me Kevin never called. A sigh escapes.
“Nanny used to say, ‘None to make you laugh; none to make you cry.’ I just don’t understand…”
By nature, my mom always has a happy smile and a laugh ready on her lips. But not tonight. And to hear her like this unsettles me.
“I never thought in a million years that any of my children would behave like this.”
“He’s just not himself right now,” I try to comfort her. “It’s not your fault.”
I don’t know why I’m making excuses for him. I suppose I want to make it right for my mom. To let her know she hasn’t failed.
After playing video games for a while, I get ready to go to bed around three a.m.— still no sign of Kevin, not that I expect to see him at this point. But what a bastard.
I flop down on top of the Laura Ashley bedspread and tell the Outsiders and the other heartthrobs goodnight and to fuck off, and then I click off my floor lamp.
As I lay there, I fantasize about beating Kevin’s ass until he sees the error of his ways. In reality, that would involve him being immobilized first since he’s grown stronger than me. Being nearly five years older, I miss the days when I could enforce my rule by fear or thumping him. But those days are long gone. When Kevin was fourteen, our parents bought him a weight bench for Christmas. I hadn’t used it much until one day I went onto the back patio, and my brother was bench pressing. He paused mid-set and looked over at me fiercely and growled:
“Two years. Two years and I’m kicking your ass.” And he resumed pumping iron.
That got me lifting weights for about a week.
And two years later, he did kick my ass after I’d moved out and returned home to visit. I walked uninvited into the room we used to share and wouldn’t leave, and next thing I knew, he’d pounced and thrown me to the ground, fundamentally shifting the balance of power in our tiny universe.
Eh, even if I were stronger than him, I know it won’t do any good. I would still be powerless. As my eyes get heavy, I pray that he is still alive, and then I drift off to sleep.