Runner-Up: Dysfunction

 

1.

“I can pick up my pistol tomorrow,” my brother says. “It’s so badass.” His words slide off the plate of our conversation like leftovers.

“I’m on my way to grandmother’s house to buy an onion.” This is a drug reference. I shift the phone from one ear to the other, the ridges of my earlobes burning from prolonged contact. We’re talking about how he finally immunized his pup, born in December. It’s April now, and the pup is anxious but learning.

“That bitch,” he says, meaning our mother.

“I’m going to make a silencer,” my brother says, and chuckles.

I’m on the phone because I live far away. We’ve spread out, middle brother, older brother, and I, to various strongholds. The thought of gathering for an intervention energizes us.

“Your father and I discussed it. There’s schizophrenia in the family,” my mother says. “Undiagnosed, of course.”

“I’m just going for closure,” my oldest brother says. “If he gets help, we can continue to have a relationship; if he doesn’t, I can start to put it all behind me.” I get the sense he’d prefer the latter. It’s easier, if we’re honest.

“Even pot, especially that new synthetic stuff, can induce schizophrenia,” my psychiatrist friend says.

“It’s just supply and demand, sister,” my brother says.

“Coke?” I ask. “Meth?” I want specifics.

“The stuff that dirty Mexicans smuggle up across the border,” my brother says. “Yes,” he says, to meth.

“Heroin,” my fiancé whispers in my ear. He’s listening to all of this, even after my brother sends a text with a picture of the family, my fiancé’s eyes blacked out with deep pen grooves.

“Don’t be a dum-dum,” my brother says. “My phone’s been tapped since I was like 16.” He’s headed to an open mic to play music, has to stop texting so he can leave without inducing a panic attack. Hours later, I get another text: “Leaving now. Driving fast. Really fast. Google any Qs.” His gaunt face in mirror view selfie, obscured by the red-eyed cat-bear figure sketched onto his mirror.

The next day, more guns.

“I think you should call the police,” my psychiatrist friend says. My brother’s just lost his funding for school, for his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, and he’s been fired from his job in the stock room. I think, a rehabbed addict working in a stock room. I think, maybe he’s invented a superdrug.

“If he hasn’t made a direct threat on his life or someone else’s, there’s not a lot you can do besides talk to him,” the counselor on the crisis hotline says. “It’s not illegal to be psychotic.”

“There are so many unknowns,” says the intervention specialist hired by my mother. I try to tell him they are not unknowns but secrets. I try to tell him that we don’t trust each other, that surprise intervention, the Johnson method, is something we’re familiar with: it’s just one more in a queue of manipulated silences.

“I miss how you used to write to me,” my mother says. I can almost hear her brain clicking and whirring, weighing the loss of one child against the possibility of reclaiming another. “I went through a box of all the birthday cards you’ve sent me over the years.”

“Her positive comments hurt so much more than the negative ones,” I tell my fiancé. I don’t want to play this game: the one in which I give in, share my affection, watch her hands twist it, clamp it, wring the goodness out of it. I lose every time.

“Mom is very manipulative,” I text my brother.

“No shit,” he replies. “She needs to give me my fucking money.” He invokes her dead mother, of whom, it seems, we are all most afraid; he invokes her dead brother, claims that someone likely cut off his penis after he was killed in Viet Nam. “They did that shit, that shit is real,” he urges. It’s not what I had in mind.

“I’m manipulating Mom so she’ll give me the money,” he texts. He’s not really buying a house on the coast.

Mom’s response: “Sweetheart, don’t you think you should get a job before you move?” I think, yes, this is about appearances, isn’t it?

“We’ve got to find a way to put all of it behind us,” says my fiancé. I say he’s right, and I believe it; I imagine cutting off my left arm and tossing it on the pile before we close and bolt the door.

At work, students bring me papers about zombies. Their faces animated, hands wild, they tell me how zombies relate to native legends, how the music of zombie films can teach us about the nature of fear, and best of all, how zombies and drug addicts are strikingly similar. I think, all of this for something that’s not real.

The young man with the paper on drug addiction wants me to listen, not talk. His professor has given him an article about Nixon’s cabinet and the War on Drugs. In it, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor claims that the administration made a deliberate choice to criminalize heroin and marijuana, but only after they created a deep associative pattern in the American mind: heroin is used by blacks, and marijuana by antiwar hippies. The student has dug up reports of the American military using drastically overblown portrayals of Haitian “zombies” to push for continued military occupation of Haiti and suppression of the locals. It’s starting to sound like a conspiracy theory, but I say yes, consider who the real masters are in all of this.

My brother has panic attacks when people yell at their kids. He can’t breathe; he doesn’t speak for hours. His heart rate soars. He says the gun is for protection from the train kids in Idaho, who emerge from the woods to mess with him and his friends. They let the air out of his tires when he’s a few feet away in the darkness. He talks about wearing gloves to erase his fingerprints; he talks about auto-loading and semi-automatic: he wants to keep his prints off the bullets, too. There’s never a direct threat. I think he learned this from my mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from God knows where.

“Is there something you know, that you learned recently, that you’re not telling us?” my oldest brother asks. My mother asked the same question days earlier.

“It was your idea for us to bring in a professional,” she says. It’s an accusation, meant to keep me in the game. I think, this house will crush me.

I ask the intervention specialist if he can perform an intervention on someone who isn’t sober. I realize I’ve been thinking of it like a magic trick. He’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat, spew some shady incantations, and through sleight of hand he’ll unburden my family. It’s like the zombies: I don’t understand why we’re talking about things that don’t exist.

 

2.

I’m supposed to get married a month after the intervention that I’m not attending. My relationship, our impending marriage – all real – are threats to the static instability of my family. If I leave the game, it won’t be as much fun for the rest of them. Game makes it sound like a fun thing, but really, it’s a Russian roulette kind of game. I imagine it’s similar to the game of selling drugs: the consequences are random but inevitable. Everyone gets hurt.

Interestingly enough, I tell the zombie-drug addict student, we’ve decriminalized marijuana but not heroin. What does that say about racism? If drugs were legal – regulated – would my brother seek other employment? Would he simply drop into the methadone clinic on his way to a reputable office job?

When my brother was two, my oldest brother pushed him off of a couch and broke his arm. The story goes like this: negligent babysitter. I wasn’t born yet; it’s not my story. I think, could it really be an accident? Soon after this incident, my brother lost all of his hair. I’ve seen the pictures: tiny boy, arm in a cast, cast in a sling, bald as a cancer patient. No one knew why. After a while, he grew it all back.

“I have a photographic memory,” my brother says. “That’s why I smoke so much pot. I don’t want to keep seeing those things.”

I don’t know what those things are, but I have my own. I think, our choices aren’t all that different.

On New Year’s eve we go to the public boardwalk to watch the fireworks light up the sky over the beach. There’s a group of revelers nearby, dancing on the beach, singing in Spanish. My father mumbles a derogatory comment, and I watch my brother pick it up and wrap it around his neck like a warm scarf.

“Fucking drunk Mexicans,” my brother says proudly.

Back inside, we watch the tail end of the festivities in Times Square. A young man reaches his arm out toward the young male performer.

“He’s clearly gay,” my father says. I watch my brother laugh.

My mother teeters in with another bottle of champagne. When no one wants more, she purses her lips; there’s a pout forming. My fiancé gives in, says he’ll have another. She jumps up, delighted, and pours him an overfull glass. I think, this is a very old hate. I think, this is how they bond.

In high school and college, my oldest brother dated overweight girls. He hit at least one. The next brother in line dated anorexic girls, girls so thin you worried they might fall and break something, or pass out. At least one of them did. Me, I had a problem with jealousy. I let one guy hit me for almost a year before I thought to leave.

“All three of you, always trying to help other people,” my mother says of our early dating habits.

“I’ll let you tell Mom yourself that you’re not participating in the intervention,” my oldest brother says.

“I will,” I say.

“I imagine that will be a hard conversation,” he says. “I remember having to tell them about my second DUI,” he says, without irony.

I think, this house really will crush me.

Maybe zombies are real, and the apocalypse is coming. Maybe things are only real because we believe them to be. Maybe I write about my family so I can pretend they aren’t. Real.

“Maybe it’s not so bad,” my fiancé says. “Maybe your brother has just become a Donald Trump supporter.” He’s trying to lighten the mood. I think, angry white guy. I think, this is what the South has become.

But we don’t live there anymore, my brother and I. We left. I try to tell my brother this; I try to give him the key.

“I’m living off of peanut butter,” he says. “It’s high in protein.”

In the past weeks, he’s bought two guns, ammunition, a home security system, a puppy, a camouflage jacket, and rhino liner for his amp. I don’t know what else. Several burner phones. An onion.

I think, I’m always supposed to feel bad. I want out of the game.

“I love you,” I say, and I do, all of them, every last one. Then I hang up.

 

3.

I write my brother a letter in lieu of attending the intervention. At the last minute, I send it off by email to the specialist. I don’t know what to say, so I start with a quote from an anthology I’m reading called Family Trouble:

“Here’s something I don’t typically tell my students, perhaps because it has less to do with writing and more to do with how I want to live in this world: secrets help no one. Maybe it’s because I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and I know the danger of a well-kept secret. The secrets of my childhood mutated, dividing and growing into malignant cells of shame and isolation, multiplying until I had the choice to cut them out or be consumed.” (Jill Christman, “Chewing Band-Aids,” p. 26)

 

I tell my brother he has to ‘cut out’ whatever it is. I tell him that I think secrets slowly kill us. And then, to give an example, I write about my abusive ex-boyfriend. I don’t plan to, it just happens. I have processed this relationship so many ways, over so many years, and I realize that lately it has shifted again. I’ve been thinking of it like an addiction that I had to fight to release myself from. It wasn’t my fault, but it became my responsibility.

I try to put myself into my brother’s shoes. I imagine overwhelming amounts of anger. I hit on anger towards family members, and I categorize in the letter several ways that each of us has betrayed him. I add that my oldest brother and his friends used to beat my brother up in high school. It seems innocent enough when I write the letter.

In closing, I tell my brother that he should help himself even if he doesn’t trust anyone in front of him at the intervention. I tell him to shed his secrets, to someone else. I tell him that writing was the best way for me to communicate with him.

“If you want to respond by song, sometime, I’d be happy to hear it,” I write.

 

4.

My brother responds systematically, to each of us.

“The song will be called ‘Dawn of the Righteous’,” he texts me.

He lashes out at my oldest brother with an accusation that I hear about only as something my mother thinks it best she stay out of. Maybe, she thinks, it is the same thing I once told her, the thing I remembered and did not want to keep remembering. It comes late, at the end of a conversation, and I have to ask.

“What did he actually say?” I repeat several times. She never delivers.

My stomach is in knots and I think, I knew and didn’t know all along. I think, you will and will not know the answer.

When I hear this news, I wander weightless for days. I hear nothing from my brother until his threat of suicide rallies the allied forces. I’ve become, or have always been, the family counsel. I tell my mother to call the police with his threats if they continue. He will be arrested for more than protective custody, given the blacked-out curtains, the bedding on the floor in the closet, the firearms, the drugs that may or may not be cooking in the bathroom. I tell her she must call anyway.

“He’s not the type to do well in prison,” my fiancé says.

“Thank you, yes, we are all well aware of that,” I snap back.

“We want everything to be black or white, good or evil,” I tell my composition students during their unit on writing argument. “But we mostly live in the gray.”

I love teaching argument. I feel closest to the heart of the writing process there, more honest about its manipulations. Good argument follows a logical path, and yet as soon as one endeavors to write logically about an issue one is passionate about, one discovers that there are many paths through the gray matter which, at the onset, seemed so clearly on one’s own side. Mostly my students don’t get there.

“What about cannibalism?” one of them asks, starting a classroom landslide. “I mean, some things are just plain wrong.” We talk about snake charmers and Haitian voodoo culture. I tell the cannibalism student that his judgment of the practice is couched entirely within his own culture.

My family lauds the letter to my brother. The intervention specialist has read it out loud, with “wonderful intonation”, according to my mother, and they find it “difficult” but “powerful”. It’s unclear whether they knew or didn’t know about my abusive ex. I tell them I am just trying to be honest, but even as I say it I realize that this, too, is a manipulation. I think, aren’t we all?

My fiancé and I work in the garden. We dig holes, tamp down new posts, re-stretch and top off the existing fence. Bit by bit, I plant all of my little starts. Most are perennial herbs known for healing. Many of these are purported to have “calming” and “brightening” effects. The poppies are among the last starts to go in the ground. I plunk each one into the composted earth, tearing open just the bottom portion of the newspaper cups to allow the roots to expand more rapidly. They are beautiful plants, silvery-green and sensuous. I think, we are all innocent until we bloom. These are Opium Poppies, organic seed, and though I have no idea how, they will mature with the capability to make heroin. Right now, their struggle to establish themselves in the garden is paramount. They soak up water and nutrients, sunshine.

If they make it – if they flower – I’ll collect seeds for baking in the fall. They should re-seed themselves and come back the following year in this climate. They should have glorious, blood-red flowers that open in a few months. That is all. I am driven by a desperate need.

 

5.

When my grandfather starts to die, I get another call from my brother. He’s stolen a rental car, ripped some sort of tracking device right out of the back, he tells me, and he’s pulling his trailer across the country.

“Where am I? I don’t know where the fuck I am and I’m going to run out of gas,” he yells at me. When I suggest pulling over, asking for directions, he snaps again.

“It doesn’t matter if I find the gas station. I don’t have any money for gas. I already stole the last tank.”

His own vehicle is in a body shop in Bozeman, Montana, where my parents are paying to have it repaired. For the past few months, he’s been making random stabs at returning to Savannah.

“It felt so good to be firm with him,” my mother says. “We’re just not going to keep giving him money.” This doesn’t apply to the rebuilding of the car, apparently. I think, who is she saying this for?

My brother thinks he will arrive before my grandfather’s death, even though he is still in Washington and my grandfather is immobile, refusing food and drink. When I call to apprise him of the situation, at my father’s request, he tells me his plan. He’s bought two vintage organs on EBay, and several antique speaker casings, all of which he will pick up in person on his drive across the country. Stops in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia, some in the middle of the night. Thousands of dollars. He wants to open an online music shop.

My adult life is riddled with a growing awareness of my privilege, of the opportunities I was handed that others were not. They are simple, really, a set of givens I didn’t do anything special to receive. I marvel at how my brother seems to take these gifts in stride, as if he deserves more, as if the world hasn’t given him enough.

By now my fiancé has become my husband, my partner, my other, and I think, the world has given me so much. I am more than a little afraid to lose it. I have never trusted as I do now. Still, there are times I won’t let him touch me. I ask him to tell me I’m not like the rest of them, my family, but I am like the rest of them, and we both know it. So he tells me that I’m not crazy. I ask again.

“Anyone else in my brother’s shoes would be dead by now,” I say.

“He may still get there.”

My brother does arrive, in the middle of the night, just in time, and he is alone with my grandfather when my grandfather dies early in the morning. I think, what passes between one drug-soaked consciousness and another? It is less than two weeks away from my grandfather’s 95th birthday, and my grandparents’ 75th wedding anniversary. My brother does not take off his shoes the entire week he stays in Savannah.

“Are you okay?” I ask him. The more appropriate question would be, ‘Are you currently residing in your body, or have the aliens taken you?’

He mumbles a response, one that I hear as ‘Yeah, leave me the fuck alone,’ and my husband hears as ‘No I’m not fucking okay.’ I don’t really know what I hear because all I can focus on are his eyes – the eyes of someone who is not home. The slack face. I think, he hears me but cannot answer. I think, he’s trapped in there.

We are driving, the three of us, in the car. My parents call, close on our heels.

“We think that if he leaves now, this is the last time we’ll see him,” my mother says. She may have practiced this in front of the mirror.

“We have a bad feeling. I think you should say goodbye.” She means that he’s going to die. I think, we all are, you bitch.

I want to say a lot of things, but when my parents pull into the driveway behind us, all I can say is, “Take care of yourself.”

There is no response but the eyes. They beg – or do they sear?

At the cemetery on the bluff, the beautiful place with the Spanish moss on the live oaks, we have all shaken hands with my oldest brother, who is departing with his wife for the California coast. I wait until the last minute and when I see that it is unavoidable, I slide in for a side hug. I search my brother for a sign of resistance but his hand goes out automatically. There is no eye contact, but we all breathe easier when they have gone. I visit my other grandfather’s grave, and then my friend Jennifer’s. It has been ten years since she died – almost exactly – and my father has to walk me through the rows to her grave, because I have forgotten where it is. On the way we pass a friend of my brother’s, killed in a car accident the same year as Jennifer. I think, again, our choices are not all that different. I think, what is the difference between choice and circumstance?

I don’t get the bad feeling myself until I cannot reach my brother a week later. The phone is off, and stays off. I call my mother, who relays the crisis.

“I really appreciate your concern,” she says, as if a stranger has called to inquire about her osteoporosis.

The phone is gone after my brother has called from a gas station in Colorado and whispered to my mother that there are people in the back of his car with a gun. He has called the cops, who have responded and called for backup. But this has all taken place at an alternate location, a dead-end road in a suburban neighborhood, and the cops have woken my brother up and sent him on his way. He called my mother a second time with chants of numbers and colors, with talk of keys.

“It was like some weird secret code,” my mother marvels.

Or classic schizophrenia, I think. But I’ve only watched movies.

“Your father and I have a bad feeling,” my mother says. I say that I do, too, and then I immediately regret saying this.

“I mean, we think he might be dead in a ditch somewhere. We’re close to calling area morgues.”

I have taken up kickboxing in the basement. I have punched the air so hard that I throw out my own shoulder. I fight the air until I cannot breathe and then I have to look in the mirror – panting – to confirm that yes, I am strong, and I will beat those motherfuckers.  If they come close enough I’ll fucking kill them.

No one comes. There is just my mother on the phone – I’ve called from work – my mother who, in the 48 hours and counting that my brother has been missing since his “episode”, has not called the police to report a missing person; she has not reported a person with a mental health crisis who may be a threat to self and others. She has instead thought about calling the morgue. Or she’s just thought about herself, I think, about how good it feels to be in charge during a crisis.

I don’t cry until I’m home alone, behind a locked door. I gravitate toward the bookshelf where a few short months ago I set up the antique Greek icons of Mary and the Archangel Michael, wedding gifts. I’ve put a crocheted blue circle underneath Mary – another wedding gift – but I’ve stayed away from her. Now, home and desperate, it’s her or not-her, and I want to choose her, I really do, but the only thing I can think when I look at her is, are you trapped in there?

I fumble around lighting the candles. There’s a small one, beeswax, about two inches tall to Mary’s four. I flip over a bleached out sand dollar from Savannah and place the candle on top. I don’t want the wax to drip all over the bookshelves. Then I find the tapered beeswax candle that was blessed by the priest. I light both candles and watch the gold flakes on mini-Mary start to shimmer and jump.

“You’re it,” I tell her. “I don’t even know how to do this,” I say. I mean, how to let go– and this is when the tears really start to come – fast, choking sobs.

“My brother doesn’t believe in God,” I say.

She looks back at me, immobile save for the effects of candlelight, and I think I can see her suffering, with the boy-child in her arms, but it’s hard to know.

“Please help him,” I say, meaning all of us. I feel clandestine, veiled. I’ve come straight to her, skipped any formalities with her boy-child, and maybe the male priest would not approve of what I’m doing. Because right now I need to feel like God might look like me. Spitting image. The power to bleed.

After a while, the phone rings. I’m still standing there, staring at her in the candlelight, and I think, dear God maybe I’ve done it.

“I just want to update you on the situation,” my mother says, and I snort back up all the snot that’s been falling out.

She’s called the sheriff’s department a county away from the county my brother was last seen in. She’s gotten “the nicest woman” in the records department who couldn’t give her any information.

“I know she stayed late, I just know it.”

“She was practically whispering what she knew into the phone, and I just said to her, ‘You must be a mother,’ and she said, ‘Yes.’”

I think, I have been such a fool.

My brother surfaces a few days later, after a mysterious ER visit. It was all a game, that same game I don’t want to play. I’ve been playing all along – now that’s good teamwork.

I’m not an idiot, and I know that I need to keep my distance. I see it. I just can’t quite do it yet. Isn’t there something else I could do? Shouldn’t I go to Washington and have the heart-to-heart in which I reveal that I, too, was molested by our older brother? Or does he already know, and does he not know? Would that be the tipping point, or would I just get shot?

 

6.

In the fall we collect the poppy seeds. All that work, all that coddling – and the seeds pour forth, hundreds from each flower head – and they fill a scant half-pint jar. I leave some of the heads there, in the garden, to re-seed for next year. The flowers were intoxicating. Tall, and not just blood red – purple, too, different shades. They lasted only a few days. The stalks turned woody, vents opened, and seeds fell to waiting earth.

What difference would it make, really, were I to give myself over to that beauty? It’s natural. And what difference, really, between the plant and the tar-like opium, between the tar and the pill, between the pill and the powder? The slow death and the short burst – the ecstasy?

I like slowness. I drag my heels against the rush, against the progress of time, against putting the garden to bed. A freeze kills all the mosquitos and slugs. Somewhere in there is a point of no return. I think my brother has already crossed over.

His was not the bright bloom but the slow march, the natural progression of disease. The temporary delusions hold on longer, twist in his mind, solidify. It’s not the drug anymore, it’s mental illness, but who is to say where one ended and the other began, and what difference does it make, really?

There’s no ending to this story. A death is not an ending; a recovery is not an ending, and anyway, we’ve had neither. There’s a pattern, perhaps – a cycle – and a small difference – one that matters – between natural and manipulated rhythms. The way the frost came late this year, the thaw early; the way we’ve given zombies a lifespan, and post-apocalyptic worlds a formula; the way my brother’s body resembles my grandfather’s; the way their minds could no longer find purchase in the world. There’s nothing we haven’t manipulated, no word we haven’t twisted to meet our needs. There’s no such thing as individual suffering, just individual minds, clicking and whirring, telling and re-telling.

I’ll just change the story again to excuse myself.

Join the discussion

  • (will not be published)