I hadn't seen my brother Dean in over a year. His hands were folded on the visiting room table in front of me, the hands with the square fingernails of my father, the tapered fingers of my mother. I looked down at my own hands. My mother's long fingers also; a wedding band on my left hand, a twisted silver ring next to it, and a heavy turquoise and silver ring with a shooting star on my right middle finger. I looked at Dean's hands again. Light brown hair between his second and third knuckles. No rings, no watch. Stripped of everything worldly.
When Dean was free, he used those hands to make puppets. I could see his sewing set-up in the shed behind his house; see him stitching the fake fur on an industrial machine, gluing on the Velcro, fastening two blue glass eyes to each head. Lining the bodies of the puppets with soft material. Demonstrating them at street fairs and swap meets.
He read my mind. "You know, sitting back there in the shed, living in the shed, making those puppets, kept me alive for a long time." His face looked so serious when he talked. As if he had to tell me everything he'd figured out about himself in the past few months, had to tell me all of it, or it would disappear and never make any sense. I remembered that feeling of urgency to talk it out when I first got clean. Who was I kidding? I still had to talk it out. All the time. I kept my mouth shut for so long that when I finally opened it, it never closed again. Except around members of my family.
"It was also a thing about waiting for the abusive parent to come home." Dean spoke in the Synanon recovery dialect of the felony drug treatment facility he'd been locked inside for three months. Six months left of his sentence, if he followed all the rules. "You know, like when I'd be in trouble, I'd be waiting in the basement. Waiting for him to come down there when he got home from Quantico." He looked up at me. He didn't have to say another word. I knew exactly what he meant. Waiting for the Major.
I wasn't sure exactly why I'd decided to spend several hundred dollars and two days on this journey to see my brother in the Texas joint. I thought it was because I loved him, but did I really know how to care for anyone in my family? We clung to each other as children in the storm of violence our father, the Major, inflicted on the family. A strong connection, sure. But we'd all been in and out of treatment and jails and institutions throughout our adult lives. We'd tried to have relationships with each other, but something always got in the way. Was I there to support him, or tell him what to do? Or was it some other reason?
The only thing I knew for sure was that he would come to visit me if I were the one inside.
On the wall to my left, a huge clock with a white face and black numbers ticked away each second of our visit. I wanted to grab Dean's hands and tell him I loved him. Before it was too late. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry I quit coming around when he started using again, hadn't even come over to his place once and said "Hey, wanna go to a meeting?" That it didn't matter where we were today. And that it was only today that mattered.
But I couldn't say any of it. I was a coward. It hurt too much. I knew if I started talking like that, I'd end up writhing on the floor in a puddle of tears. A blue-uniformed prison guard would escort me out of the visiting room. The only crime I'd committed so far was the long, slow torture of self-hate. This time my rap sheet would read: "Extreme emotion. Pain in the first degree." They wouldn't let me back in to see Dean the next day.
I wished I were the kind of person who could say "Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time," and turn my back on him. Did that mean I wished I didn't love my brother? Because it hurt to see him behind the bars? Or because loving Dean reminded me of how I'd failed? How I, the youngest, the lost child, the little clown, had to finally admit that I couldn't have saved him, no matter what? Couldn't have done anything for him, ever, ever, period, end of sentence?
Because it wasn't my job in the first place.
There were green and white signs along the highway every few miles as I sped north from Lubbock in a rental car—"Don't Mess with Texas; $100-$1000 Fine for Littering." Late, late, I'm late, we won't get the full four hours to visit. Late, late. My brain turned it into a mantra, a frantic call out into the flat wheat and cotton fields of the west Texas plains. I'd never been to Texas. Never driven a Suzuki Sidekick. Hadn't visited anyone inside in at least twenty years.
Some of the fields along the highway were planted and green, others brown, fallow. The flatness of the land brought images of the Central Valley of California that my family traveled up and down nearly a hundred times in the early 70's to visit Dean in prison at Tehachapi. I was a teenager then, Dean in his early twenties, doing hard time on a drug conviction. I thought I'd changed since then. I wasn't sure if he had. This time he got probation and an order to undergo treatment.
The highway to Plainview was bleak and straight, cutting a black scar down the middle of the Texas panhandle. A strong wind blew creosote bushes over sideways along the road. The rental car swayed a little too much for comfort, and tumbleweeds flew across in front of it. I had to keep both hands on the wheel. The wind didn't care if my mind scattered in all directions like those weeds; it would gladly strew my body all over the road if given half a chance. Fighting the wind gave me something to focus on. I was grateful for that.
A local radio station played opera. I turned up the volume and a soaring soprano filled the car. I couldn't understand a word the woman sang, but it didn't matter. My soul floated on the music like a bird flying south for the winter—so much better than that head-pounding "late, late, late" chatter in my mind only minutes before. I laughed at the incongruity of the European classical music blasting across west Texas.
The announcer explained the opera in his Texas drawl—tales of royalty, "kangs" and "quanes" and great pride. Lost love and destructive death. Aren't all operas about those things? Isn't all of life, too? I laughed, not frantic and rushed anymore, but happy to be driving on the freeway, any freeway, on my way somewhere, anywhere. The urge to travel was always in my blood.
I drove through Plainview. Not much there. What did people do in this town? Work at the prison? Raise cattle? Go to church? At the junction of Highway 70, there were huge signs along the road for a junkyard, yellow with black letters: Antiques and Collectibles: Largest Selection in the World. If we don't have it, you don't need it! I wondered if I'd ever have such confidence in my own existence. Probably not. For almost twenty years I'd questioned my life, analyzed it to death, in fact; peered at it under the microscope of psychotherapy; beat it to a pulp in 12-step programs. I'd probably never feel confident and secure. Maybe recovery wasn't supposed to include that. Maybe it was only about uncovering insecurities, one at a time, like picking scabs off sores.
The prison was seven miles east of town. Seven miles of broken-down mobile homes with an old Chevy or Ford on blocks in almost every front yard. "Can't miss it. Looks like a pig farm," the woman at the prison had told me on the phone a week before, laughing, when I called for directions and names of hotels.
"Is it a pig farm?" I asked, feeling her out. I couldn't tell if she was aware of her own play on words. I was afraid to offend her. Approval for a special visit with my brother was in her power.
"No, but I think there's one up by Amarillo," she said, still laughing.
Sure enough, there the prison sat on the south side of the highway. Couldn't miss it. J.B. Wheeler Unit in black block letters on a stilted water tower. Rows of long white buildings with tiny windows running just below the roof. A 20-foot chain link fence surrounding the complex, razor wire looped on top.
I turned in at a carved wooden sign: Felony Drug Abuse Punishment Facility: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and drove down the dirt road into the parking lot. The next sign—yellow painted metal—listed all the things prohibited on the premises: weapons, drugs, alcohol. I gripped the steering wheel while I read: You and your vehicle are subject to search and seizure at any time. My eyes stung, remembering other signs, other prisons, all the other times I visited my brother behind fences and bars and had to leave him there when it was over.
I parked the car and stared at the buildings for a few minutes. I wasn't ready to go in. I wanted to sit there for a while to get centered, or to chicken out. But I knew if I loitered too long, someone would probably come out to investigate, so I got out and unlocked the tailgate of the Sidekick, took money out of my wallet and put it in my front jeans pocket, my driver's license and Visa card in my jacket pocket. I had a quilted flannel shirt underneath my jeans jacket, but was cold, almost shaking.
The wind blew so hard across the plains I could barely walk. I braced myself and trudged up the sidewalk to the double glass doors of the prison entrance. I wondered if one of the men dressed in white standing in the dirt yard behind the fence was Dean, waiting for me, or if anyone even wondered who I was. Hundreds of eyes watched me walk up the sidewalk.
When Dean was arrested this time, he didn't call anybody. He sat in the county jail in Tucson for a month before they extradited him to Texas for a probation violation on a two-year-old marijuana trafficking charge none of us knew about. In one of my first letters, I asked him "Why didn't you call?"
"I'd say it was one-third shame," he wrote, "one-third pride, one-third waiting to see what happened. Of the last third, somehow I knew I didn't want support out of pity which I may have been able to use to manipulate my way into bailing out, or being sent to a program in Tucson, blah, blah, the details." The cops had beaten him up on the way to jail.
I opened the glass door. Straight ahead in a Plexiglas booth as wide as the lobby sat a guard who looked young enough to be my son. He wore a blue-gray uniform and squinted at me through thick horn-rimmed glasses, pimply and poker-faced. Dozens of Texas driver's licenses sat on the counter inside the booth. There were ten or twelve small round holes in the Plexiglas, right above a larger oblong hole shaped like a mail slot. I passed my license through the slot and leaned over to speak into the little holes: "Dean Lewis." A rack of billy clubs hung on the back wall inside the booth; three of the clubs were missing.
The guard looked at my license and said "Do you know his number?" No eye contact. I slipped a tiny piece of paper through the slot that I'd ripped off the corner of one of Dean's letters because I knew I'd never remember his number. The kid took it and didn't say anything, didn't tell me to go sit down, or to go through this door, or that door. Nothing. It was as if I wasn't there.
"Where's the women's room?" I asked him. He ignored me and pushed a button, turned his head and talked into an intercom speaker on the desk. I couldn't hear what he said.
"Over there," a woman said behind me. I hadn't noticed her until she spoke. I turned and she pointed to the right. I nodded my thanks, and looked around as if seeking permission, an automatic paranoia filling my body like a drug. I already felt watched. I went into the restroom and checked myself in the mirror. Up since 4 a.m., driving, flying, driving. Eyes bloodshot and hair blown all over the place. This isn't a beauty contest. Something my dad used to say when my sister and I took too long to get ready. Some kind of great pep talk to myself. The air conditioning blew into the white-tiled restroom like the north wind across a glacier-lined cell. It was January, for Christ's sake.
I went back out to the lobby and sat in one of two chairs on either side of the door. Wood-framed photo portraits lined the top edge of the cage. Counselors and guards, I guessed. Above the drinking fountain between the restrooms hung a much larger portrait of J.B. Wheeler, himself. White hair, wrinkled brown skin. The warden, I guessed again. I almost got up and stood under the picture to read the inscription, but knew it would say a bunch of things I didn't want to hear, about how this place was helping the drug addicts of Texas. I didn't understand what billy clubs had to do with drug treatment.
I shut down and waited.
When I first found out Dean was in county jail six months before, I went through hell deciding whether to write him or not. At first, I sent anonymous greeting cards with black and white photos of little kids wearing floppy hats. Then I mailed postcards showing scenes of the Nevada desert, with crazy Tom Robbins-style stories printed in tiny blue letters on the back. Finally, I sent him a Federal Express "care package" full of clothes and recovery books and cookies. We started corresponding.
A young guard walked out from behind a door to my left, turned his head slightly and almost as an afterthought, said "Lewis?" My brother's name, not mine. I nodded and followed him through a locking steel door, after the kid guard in the cage pressed a button to let us in. There was a sign on a door to the right—Interview Room. I sighed. Good, he's going to tell me what I can and can't do. How functional. I looked at my escort. So young, a dark stubble on his face. I must've looked confused, because he said, "You haven't been here before." A statement, not a question.
"No." We didn't go into the interview room. I followed him through the next door into the visiting room, instead.
When we came through the door, everyone turned and stared. It got really quiet for a few seconds, then the noise started up again like someone had flipped a switch. It was deafening. Dozens of people talking at once, babies wailing, the loud clank of the soda machine dropping its heavy aluminum cans. The room was about the size of a rich person's living room. Twelve gray Formica tables in three rows, each table with a hand-written number on a square of white paper taped to the center. The gray plastic stackable chairs at the tables were so close together, they practically bumped into each other. I stood by one of them, right next to a door where another guard sat. There was a row of inmate ID cards on the table in front of him. I looked around, waiting, not knowing what to do. I didn't see Dean anywhere.
I stood for a moment, the noisy room spinning around me. Then I felt a white fire in my gut, all the prison's various forms of control starting a rebellion inside me. It was better than the paranoia I felt earlier, and a good sign to have identifiable anger churning in me, except I wanted to do something about it, yell something at somebody, get in somebody's face, ruin the opportunity to visit my brother.
The only thing I said was, "What door will he be coming through?" The guard pointed. I sat down at Table #5, facing that door.
I couldn't figure out what to do with my hands. In my lap. Up on the table. In my coat pockets. The noise swirled around me like a grimy fog and put me into a kind of trance, pushing me back to the other times I'd waited to visit Dean. Nothing like it. Nothing can compare to the chaos and cacophony of visiting someone inside. My mind went wild.
I imagined being suspected of all kinds of terrible crimes. Drug possession. Murder. Mayhem. I was the only one who knew anyone who was locked up. I was a freak and weirdo. Present or past? I hated myself. I hated the key-keepers. Monster motherfuckers. I wanted to fix Dean's horrible past. I wanted to save him from a terrible future. The events of now and the memories of then mingled in that clanging atmosphere as if they were a crowd of half-loaded people forced to talk to each other at a boring cocktail party. I stared at the door, wishing it would all disappear, wishing I hadn't come.
When Dean walked in, he was just this side of recognizable. If I'd seen him on the street, I might have passed him by for a stranger. He was very thin, and in a split second, I realized I expected him to be really fat. No drugs, no cigarettes in the place. I got fat when I quit smoking, so why shouldn't he? His letters said he worked in the kitchen. One more reason to gain weight: all the food you want, whenever you want it.
His silver hair was about two inches long on top and Marine Corps short on the sides. He had big ears, like mine, and wore glasses. He'd never had glasses before. He wore baggy white cotton clothes and black leather work boots. I looked at his face again. No mustache? He always had a mustache. He looked like one of those old convicts we used to see at Tehachapi or Vacaville twenty-five years ago. He looked like Gary Gilmore. No. He looked like a monk.
I stood up so fast I knocked into the table. We stared at each other, grinning. The guard gestured to Dean. I couldn't hear what he said. He pointed to the name tag clipped to my brother's shirt. Dean took it off and handed it over. I panicked for a minute and said to the guard, "We get a special visit, right?" If you came from far enough away, they gave you two four-hour visits on consecutive weekend days. Once in ninety days. I wanted to be sure we got what was coming to us.
The guard looked down at a yellow computer print-out and nodded. "Special visit. Right."
"I'm a little late," I said, as if I needed the guard's approval. I turned to Dean. He was the one I needed to tell. "I had trouble at the airport. The rental car. A crack in the windshield." He nodded.
The guard said, "You'll have to leave at 5 o'clock." I nodded and looked up at the clock: 1:20.
Dean and I shuffled around a little, then sat down at Table #5. I realized I'd picked the table closest to the guard. Shit. Stupid.
"Wanna go outside?" I asked Dean, half standing again.
"I think we can only move once," he said. "It's kind of windy out there." Understatement of the year.
"Okay." I sat down again and stared across at him, then looked around. The soda machine.
"You want a soda?" I asked him. Why was I so nervous? This was my brother. We grew up in the same houses together, survived the same wars.
"Sure. That'd be great."
"A Diet Coke would be good."
I glanced over at the soda machine again. "Looks like Diet Pepsi."
"That'll work." He grinned at me. Some of his teeth were brown and rotting away. His eyes were exactly the same color and shape as mine, right down to the slight droop of his right eyelid. Looking at him was almost the same as looking in a mirror.
I fumbled with my dollar bills at the soda machine. It took three tries to get it to take the first one. I admonished myself for not getting change before I came in. Precious minutes were ticking away. The paranoia returned. I felt a hundred eyes on me again, staring at my back this time.
An old guard with laugh wrinkles around his eyes followed me to the table and leaned over to watch Dean pop the flip top on his can. As I opened my soda, the guard asked, "Is that for you?" I looked up at him. His eyes had no depth, the laugh lines from laughing at people, not with them.
"Yes." He nodded and walked away.
"Don't worry, I won't put any dope in your Pepsi," I said softly to Dean, grinning. This was the guy who planted primo pot down by the river and tended it meticulously; who blended the best daiquiri slushes in the world, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here blasting from the living room in that funky house in West Sacramento. Lifetimes ago.
"I don't think you're supposed to say that word around here." He laughed, then his eyes darted from side to side, as they would for the next few hours, until we got more comfortable. Until we forgot where we were.
I laughed, grateful for the joking, the easing of my tense muscles. I stopped when his face changed, darkened.
"You know, they strip search us all day long. During the counts. Before and after each activity." His voice was calm, matter of fact. "That's why that guy's got on rubber gloves." He gestured with his head to the guard across the room, the one who'd just checked our sodas.
"Oh." Jesus. Why'd he have to wear them in here? The one place they might feel free from it. Fucker. I didn't know what to say. I'd forgotten the details of being inside, just filed them away in that boxed-up never-never land of my mind. The same way I'd hidden the particulars of my childhood from myself for decades, until that certain point when those very details ganged together and threw open the door and demanded to be acknowledged. I'd checked into treatment that year. Eight years ago.
"You got glasses," I said.
"Yeah, just got them."
"You look so different." I couldn't believe how much different. A stranger.
"Now that I've got these," he reached up and touched the clear plastic frames, "I'm really starting to realize how much my mind made up to compensate for what I couldn't see." I wondered if he knew what a play on words that was.
"Yeah. I know what you mean," I said. "My hearing's pretty much shot and I make stuff up all the time. Like at work when I'm transcribing tapes." I laughed.
He nodded. "Mine, too. I guess we're both gettin' old."
"Too many drugs."
"Yeah, look where it got me." He spread his arms out like an eagle.
"Better than dead," I said.
"Yep. Most of the time."
Dean talked a mile a minute, waving his hands around. I was the first person he'd seen from outside in over six months, three of them spent in some county jail in a tiny town on the Panhandle. "I always thought I could quit before," he said. "I mean, I always could, for a day or two. But this time I couldn't." His voice was soft, his words deliberate, as if he was in awe of this fact about himself. He told me every booze or drug situation he could remember from the past five years, since he started using again after three or four years clean time. He began each story with "I don't want to make excuses for myself, but this is the way it is."
A line from the AA big book came to my mind: What it was like, what happened, and what it's like now. I was grateful to sit and listen, honored that he trusted me enough to tell me these things. Eye to eye, across the table, I tried to be a receptacle for what he'd put himself through, what drugs had put him through. Besides, I needed to hear those stories, to be reminded. I'd gone through similar things, although not quite as dramatic. Women alcoholics usually don't last as long. They die sooner, or they get sober. I got sober at twenty-five. I also went through much less in our family than he did because I was the youngest, and a girl. Lucky me.
I resented my brother for all the attention he'd gotten, the trouble he caused. For years I blamed him for all the distraction and chaos in my childhood. Mostly because I thought I hadn't gotten what I needed when I was little. But I had recently begun to see what the real truth was and what my part was in it. I had thought I was perfect; he was a troublemaker. We were both my father's victims, but I thought I was better than he because my life hadn't turned out as badly as his. I even thought I could save him somehow. But the truth was if he hadn't been there when we were growing up, I'd have been beaten down just as badly as he was. So it was really my brother who saved me.
The bottom line was that we survived a horrible situation using the only means we had. In a way, this visit was an attempt to make amends for the resentments I'd harbored against him for all those years. I thought I had the whole thing figured out. I wondered if I'd have the guts to bring it up.
"Did I tell you about the time I almost died?" Dean said, tilting his head, reaching up to adjust his glasses. "I mean the time I knew I almost died. That doesn't count the times when I didn't know." He laughed.
"I heard something about it." It was hard to keep straight where you heard what in our family. It was better than it used to be, but we still had a newsletter mentality, each of us being a pipeline for one of the others when someone wasn't talking to someone else. And Dean, with all his arrests and other escapades, was usually in the headlines.
"Mushrooms," he said.
I nodded, looked down at the table. I never did mushrooms. Considered myself a failed drug addict because I'd only done acid once and cocaine twice. I liked speed, but mostly was a pothead. In the end, I turned out to be just a plain old boozer, like our father.
"I came home one night and there was this jar of mushrooms on the living room table. The kids, you know. Suzi and her friends." His stepdaughter. "I ate a bunch of them. Boy, that's an addict for you. I didn't even know what they were!" A light came into his eyes. He shook his head. "So the next thing I know, I'm sitting on the couch with a half empty quart bottle of Vodka in my hand and I don't remember drinking it. Then I passed out."
I looked at him, waiting.
"Yeah. So I guess what happened was Sandra came home and saw me on the floor and saw the mushrooms and the bottle and couldn't tell if I was breathing or not and the thought ran through her head 'Gee, I can call 9-1-1 or I can be $50,000 richer.'"
My eyes got wide. His wife. She told him that? What a bitch. They had life insurance?
"She told me that," he said, laughing and rolling his eyes. "Hey, I probably would've thought the same thing in her situation."
I nodded. Jesus. I couldn't imagine thinking that about my husband. Years ago, my first husband, maybe. Well, okay, maybe even my second, but not now.
"So the next thing I know, I wake up in the hospital, and this doctor's saying shit like 'I sure have learned a lot from you in the past three days.'" Dean threw back his head and laughed. "And I don't remember a thing."
I laughed too. What else could we do? It was too horrible and sick to cry over.
We took a bathroom break, me out to the lobby, Dean through the strip search to another part of the compound.
When we sat down again, he said, "You know, I was thinking, it sure is nice of you to come all this way to visit me." I'd waited for him to say that, craved it in a certain way, like I crave a hug from my husband when I think the world's dumped on me that day. Or the way I used to crave approval from my dad for all my frenetic swimming, piano and flute playing, choir singing and backpacking. I'd even rehearsed in my mind all the things I might say to Dean: "I had to come, I was compelled." Or, "I love you, I wanted to show you support. I didn't think anyone else would." Or, "You know, this is what Dad would've done." We hadn't talked about the Major yet.
Instead, I shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes, then looked straight at him and said, "It's an adventure." I knew he'd understand that. He nodded, his hands folded on the table.
He told me story after story and usually jumped off into a side story because, after all, everything is related to everything else, especially when drugs are involved, and we hadn't talked in so long. I followed his train of thought every time. We're sewn with the same thread, my brother and I, practically the same stitches. Overactive brains, like most addicts. Top two percent in terms of IQ numbers. Should've finished college and become doctors or lawyers or college professors. Didn't. Couldn't. Not yet, anyway.
"Now what was I talking about?" he said, shaking his head. We were laughing because one of the stories seemed so far off the track from the story he'd begun with, although it really wasn't. All of his long, involved tales ended up in powerlessness and giving up. Starting over again.
He stopped smiling. "You know, some people think I'm burnt out, that's why I go off on tangents like that."
I shook my head. "You always get back to the main story. It's like flashbacks in a novel. Or a movie. I can follow it."
"I knew you'd understand." He stared at me. "You know, something's happening to me here. I'm starting to remember stuff . They took me to a psychologist or something."
"When you were little?" The family story was he started stealing money out of my mother's purse before he was six years old. Before I was born.
"Yeah. Well. No, I must've been thirteen or fourteen. The counselor. I can even see what he looked like. Black curly hair, a bushy mustache. He said it was a family problem."
"God! Back in those days, that was some counselor."
"Yeah. And Dad jumped up and was pointing at me and yelling and saying, 'No, he's the problem, it's him, THAT YOUNG MAN IS THE PROBLEM.' Just raging and yelling. Mom just sat there."
"You look like him right now," I said. I'd never noticed before. The thin upper lip, the startling blue eyes, the long face. Eerie. The only time I'd had the guts to really look the Major in the face was when he lay in the hospital bed in my parents' living room the year before, dying of cancer. That was the day I found out whose nose I'd inherited. Now Dean looked exactly like him, only twenty-five years younger.
"I've got to go to the bathroom," I said, pointing at my soda can. "That Pepsi." I jumped up and went back out through the steel door to the lobby. I looked in the restroom mirror. Red eyes, tired face, tears streaming down. I didn't think I'd ever stop crying. I decided I'd better not stay in there too long. They'd come looking.
I washed my face and went to the bathroom. Everything was in slow motion. When the door slammed on my way out of the stall, the metal trash container fell off the wall and banged to the floor. It echoed off the tile walls, a huge sound like a car wreck. I jerked a couple of inches off the floor, looking back into the restroom on my way out the door. The kid guard in the cage stared at me with no expression as he pressed the button to let me back into the visiting room. As if nothing happened, no loud noise had occurred.
How stoic could a person be? I thought. I figured he was on Valium. He probably saw the whole thing on a hidden camera. To make sure no one's doing drugs in there. Good. I hope he got a thrill watching me change my tampon.
When I got back, Dean said, "It wasn't all bad, you know."
"I mean, there was some good stuff along the way." My brother saying that? After all the shit he took from the Major? After all those years of rebelling against that dominance?
I squinted across the table at him. I had such a hard time remembering anything good about growing up, except the things Dean had done for me—the blue Mickey Mouse helium balloon he bought me at a carnival when I was five; the red Radio Flyer wagon he put together when I was four; the space ships he made out of washing machine cartons and refrigerator boxes. I could see him drawing elaborate control panels and pilot instructions in the front half of the space ships. I could hear him reading to me—Horton Hatches an Egg, The Wizard of Oz, The Happy Hollisters.
All I remembered about my father was a fear that blacked out anything else that might have been good. I remembered his alcoholic rages. Getting beat on the butt for using the bed as a trampoline. The noises coming from the back room when he was "disciplining" Dean. My sister and I hiding in our bedroom, thinking we were next.
"I know there must have been good things, but I was so afraid of him, even when he was dying, I couldn't see past that." I stared down at my hands. "I really regret it now."
We looked at each other. Then Dean's eyes darted from side to side. "The first place I'm going when I get out of here is the cemetery."
"It's beautiful there," I said. "All those trees. Backed up against that hill. Did you know the head stone's up?"
"It took five months, that's the government for you. You want to know what it says?"
"George M. Lewis, Major, USMC, World War II, Korea, June 13, 1919-November
25, 1995. Did I ever tell you about when Mom and I went to pick out the casket and all that?"
He shook his head. Of course not. We hadn't seen each other since the funeral. Fifteen months ago.
"It was weird, me, the baby, doing that with her, being so responsible and everything. Anyway, we were sitting in the funeral home with one of those funeral guys, what do you call them, undertakers?"
He nodded. His hands rested on the table, one on top of each other.
"It was so cold in that place. Like a meat locker. It was November, for Christ's sake. And we're sitting in one of those little offices they have next to the chapel, talking about the funeral and everything out at the Fort, you know, getting the Marine honor guard together and what day it was gonna be, and we're kind of crying about it, dabbing our eyes and everything. He's giving us tissues, you know, holding out the box to us. And Mom asks him doesn't she get to be buried there, too? And he says, 'Yes, ma'am, I think what happens is they dig the grave for the husband deep enough so that the wife's casket can go on top when her time comes.'
"Then Mom goes 'Well, I certainly think it's time I was on top.'" Dean grinned at me. "I couldn't believe she said that. I turned and looked at her and we just started laughing and laughing, tears streaming down our faces." I smiled. "You should have seen this guy, he's so cool and calm, the undertaker. He just sits there and nods his head. I could hear him thinking, 'Yes, ma'am, whatever you say, ma'am.'
"And then he says, 'Yes, ma'am, and then your name will be engraved on the back of the gravestone.'
"And Mom says, 'Well, I want to be buried in my uniform. I'll fit in mine.' You know, they had to cut Dad's up the back to make it fit. Even though he lost all that weight at the end. His stomach was still so big from the cancer."
"Where was I?" Dean asked.
"You left right when I showed up, the day he died." I looked at him. "You were standing there with your bag on your shoulder when I walked in." I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me, the way he stayed there the last week of Dad's life and helped Mom take care of him, when none of the rest of us could. How in awe of his strength I was. But I knew he'd shrug it off. It was easier to tell a funny story about the funeral home.
Later, while I was talking about one of my daughters, waving my hands around, Dean said, "You look like someone right now." I stopped and looked straight at him, eyebrows raised.
"Maybe it's yourself you look like," he said, laughing.
The truth is it's him I resemble. Our mother used to always say that. When he was missing, or locked up, or the folks and he were just plain on the outs with each other, Mom and I would be playing Scrabble, or talking, and all of a sudden she'd gasp and say, "That thing you just did with your eyes, you looked just like him." Or, "That gesture, what was it you just did with your hand, you looked like Dean just then." As if he were a ghost who appeared every now and then out of nowhere, through me, and then disappeared just as quickly.
Maybe that's why I was there visiting him. For years, I'd been forced to take his place in some kind of weird missing-person way and now I needed to see what he really looked like.
See what I really looked like.
It was after 4:30. We'd moved outside to one of the picnic tables to escape that noisy room. I was doing most of the talking now.
"I was driving to the dentist, and I saw the daughter of this friend of mine, the woman who stood up with me at my wedding, Sheila. There was her daughter, Taylor, hawking newspapers on the median. At Orange Grove and Thornydale."
Dean nodded. I was facing the bright sun with my sunglasses on. I could see his pupils, small dark circles against the blue of the irises.
"Taylor's mom and I go way back to when we were both single moms trying to stay sober, almost back to the beginning. Tay used to help watch Annie when she was little. Tay's 19 now, I think. So I swore to myself I'd go back after my appointment and stop and talk to her." I talked really fast now, to get it all out. I knew visiting time was almost up. I felt like I was swimming in a 50-yard race—sprint to the finish.
"I hadn't seen her mom in years, we had some kind of falling out. I never did know what it was about, Sheila wouldn't tell me. But I knew Taylor'd been in and out of treatment, running away on and off since she was 14. That she was a heroin addict. God, she was my Annie's age when she started using. The age I was when I started using." I didn't know why I was telling him all this. He didn't know any of these people, he hadn't been around then. He hadn't even come to my wedding, had called from somewhere back East and promised to send a wedding present that never arrived.
Dean nodded again. He was being such a good listener. I didn't remember him being that way. Now, if he interrupted, he always said "Oh, I'm sorry, what were you saying, I interrupted you," and let me continue.
"So I went back to that intersection and Taylor was just coming in off the street. I park at the 7-Eleven and walk out to meet her. Her hair was all matted into those dirty dreadlocks things. She was barefoot. Her clothes were hanging all loose. She saw me and her eyes got big and she grabbed me and gave me a big hug. She stunk. When she hugged me, she started crying." I looked down at my hands on the table.
"I said, 'How ya doing, honey?' and she said 'Okay.' I said 'Where are you staying?'
"She says 'In the back of someone's truck. Me and my boyfriend.' Then this guy walks up. I hadn't noticed him out there on the median. He looks about 30, tattoos all over. Same pitted face. She introduced us.
"She says 'How're the kids?' and I tell her Annie's taller than her now. 'No way,' she said. "'Way,' I said. She threw her head back and laughed.
"I ask her, 'Can I buy you a cup of coffee?' She said they had to go back downtown with the newspaper guy.
"I said, 'Can I give you some money?' She said, 'Sure.' So I gave her a handful of change. It was all I had with me that day. About four bucks. And I gave her my phone number."
I looked up at Dean again. I wanted his approval so badly. He nodded his head. He was listening. His eyes were that startling blue, the same as mine, the same as the Major. I had that eerie feeling again, as if I were looking at myself in the mirror.
"So we said good-bye and I bawled all the way home. And then a couple of days later, God, it was so weird, I kept seeing her everywhere. I'd seen her running across the street about two weeks before, Congress Street, no shoes on, only socks, but I didn't stop that time. This time, she's sitting downtown in front of Walgreen's on Congress with one of those cardboard signs, 'Homeless, Please Help, God Bless,' you know, like you see those guys with at the traffic lights?" I looked up at my brother. My throat ached from the tears stuck there.
Dean said, "So that's what kids do these days? Instead of walking around panhandling, to get the money. Hmm." He'd started out as a burglar.
"So I'm coming out of Walgreen's and I say, 'Taylor!' and she throws down her sign and jumps up and gives me the biggest hug, a rib-crusher and she starts crying again. She's got this dirty blue knit cap over her hair this time. She looked better, though, her eyes were clearer. She goes 'Yeah, we checked out a bunch of books from the library. I lost them all except this one.' She held up a Tom Robbins book.
"All I had in my pocket was a dollar. So I gave it to her. She kept thanking me over and over. Said they only needed $35.00 to get a room in somebody's house."
I was crying hard, trying not to. I took my sunglasses off. "I talked to my sponsor that night." I put my hands over my face. "She told me not to give Taylor any more money, to pray for her to hit bottom, to pray for her to give up." My shoulders shook, I covered my face, I couldn't stop crying.
"She's making some choices, you know," Dean said. I'd almost forgotten he was there.
I uncovered my face and looked at him. "What? What do you mean? The minute you use, you quit making choices, don't you?" The people at the tables around us were getting up and going inside.
"Yeah, but at some level she's making decisions. At some point she has to get sick of it, she has to want to stop. And when she does, maybe something will happen. Something will happen to help her. Right?" Dean looked straight at me. Blinked.
Oh. Like what happened to me. To him. I hoped.
"I guess so," I said, wiping at my eyes.
A guard standing by the fence glared and waved us back inside.
Five o'clock. Time to go.