I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The short story is my brother got arrested. Again. In Pampa, Texas, this time: possession of marijuana and driving under the influence. “A total violation of my rights” is how he put it. They took his passenger into protective custody — “they” being animal control, since his passenger was a snake.
This is the long story.
My brother had been staying with our recently widowed, ninety-three-year-old dad in Southern California, ostensibly to keep our father company and help around the house. The payoff for my brother was his own medical-marijuana card (“arthritis”), an opportunity to promote his book on late-nineteenth-century comic strips to the local comic-book fans (they were unresponsive), and free food. My brother weighs nearly three hundred pounds, has chest pains, and receives disability for “chronic anxiety,” certified by a doctor who pushes naproxen, buspirone, and paroxetine. My brother is partial to the 500 mg tablets of naproxen from the local pharmacy. He likes the way they taste with his Dr Pepper, a can of which he is never without, ever. There’s always an extra in his car, because “you never know.”
On my brother’s fifty-fourth birthday I flew down from San Francisco to surprise him. I arrived early, but he didn’t get out of bed until seven that night. “Oh, hey,” he said in an affected guttural growl.
My brother has held many professions. He was a regular performer in community theater before his careers in wildlife (fired for mistreating an emu), long-haul truck driving (fired for an interstate rollover), and teaching (resigned during an investigation into inappropriate sexual language). All these misunderstandings or vendettas had now led him, in the guise of being a considerate son, to our father’s guest bed, where he slept from sunup to sundown, preferring the nocturnal life of cigarettes and soda and Wi-Fi to “getting barked at” by our father all day long.
Our dad has told me he’s afraid of my brother sometimes — which is odd because my brother has said the same thing about our dad.
“Dad’s always screaming at me about my weight, and then he buys us all these doughnuts.”
“Your brother talks to himself. Have you noticed that? He giggles at nothing.”
“Dad yells at me to come into his room and then tells me to get him a glass of milk. And I was just in the kitchen!”
“Your brother runs off to visit his buddies and doesn’t come back for days.”
I nod or shrug and generally don’t get involved.
As we prepared for his birthday dinner, my brother asked me, “How come you’re not fat?”
I immediately felt bad, because it was an innocent question of the sort that has vexed him since childhood, when our preacher father was raising two boys as a single parent. My brother’s conundrum could be summed up as “Why does my life suck and yours doesn’t?” Favorite-son syndrome aside, I was always sneakier than he was. I saw all the angles, anticipated the fallout. My brother just took the consequences in the face: slap. The truth is I was no great success, either, in my early careers as bowling-alley dishwasher, fast-food floor mopper, and construction-site garbageman. (I got fired from all three.) But I got my degree on Daddy’s dime and slid safely into a career tailor-made for phonies like me: local-television news anchor. And while my father crowed about his firstborn making the big time, I drank and drugged my way through two and a half decades until finally I was ready to get down on my knees and pray for help. Divorce will do that to you.
I’ve tried to talk to my brother about my spiritual realignment, my return to God’s fold, but my attempts are met with the same response he gives when I suggest a low-carb diet: a drawn-out “Riiiiiight,” like a slow passing of gas. I don’t blame him for not listening to me. You see, I’m the one who handed my brother his first joint. I’m the one who led him away from the love of Christ and the church in the first place.
My brother got up four times to smoke during the course of his birthday dinner, our father pontificated on the genocide that is Obamacare, and I flew home the next day.
If it’s not clear yet, my brother considers himself a lone wolf who prefers solitude to the “hassles of society,” such as paying rent and car insurance. He rode the rails for a while as a hobo, until the railroad authorities made him walk three miles to a bus station on a sweltering Arizona summer day, and he had to use Dad’s credit card to buy a plane ticket home. Soon after that, our father pulled some strings and got him a rent-free lot in a mobile-home park on some family land in Tennessee. Now my brother is the big-bellied man on the hill who yells at kids to keep off his property.
Our pop, meanwhile, is ambulatory but could use a little help. Since our stepmother died a couple of years ago, my brother has acquiesced to spend winters and springs with him in “straight-up slavery” in return for, among other things, a new Ford Taurus, the interior of which already smells like an airport smoking lounge. A Dr Pepper can full of butts sits in the drink holder. My brother mostly drives the car while scouting shooting locations for his long-in-the-works documentary on musician Captain Beefheart’s early years.
In the late spring of last year my brother loaded up his pet snake, Tabitha (named after an old “lady friend”), and headed east for the summer. He planned a circuitous route, stopping at landmarks related to Butch Cassidy and Woody Guthrie. He phoned me from Alma, New Mexico, where Butch and Sundance had holed up with the Wild Bunch. Then I heard nothing from him for a while.
During that period of silence I ended up standing by the deathbed of my father’s cousin John and watching John’s dog lick his dying master’s hand.
“That’s so cute,” my father said, laughing and pulling out his phone to capture the moment.
John was an ex-fireman with the ravaged lungs of a lifelong smoker, who’d retired to a town about an hour from where I live, where he waited to die. Now the hour was nigh. And since my brother wasn’t around to “drive Miss Daisy,” as he put it, my dad had hopped in his Lincoln and traversed the six hundred miles over two days, driving in short shifts to minimize the wear and tear the leather seats put on his cancerous prostate.
I know from my mother’s slow death about the mundane chores and duties of hospice. It almost gets to the point where the dying person has been prematurely grieved and the family proceeds with the business of boxing everything up to move while prospective buyers check out the house. There is a shock-induced grace, but it’s still awkward, all the hugging and whispering, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I barely knew John. During the visit I mostly stared at the gaping mouth of this unconscious fellow smoker and thought, I have got to quit.
John died an hour after we left, just past the stroke of midnight.
The next morning the detritus of death had disappeared, and funeral arrangements were matter-of-factly laid out. My father made conversation about headlines in the news: A boy who’d been killed by the cops for waving a toy gun. A home invasion involving an unlocked door. Both were somehow connected to illegal immigration in his mind.
“That’s why I leave the chamber empty,” he said, referring to the gun he keeps for home defense: “The first click is a warning. After that, I mean business.”
It’s also a deterrent to accidentally shooting oneself in the foot, which my father has done.
My phone vibrated. It was my brother, so I didn’t answer.
I saw my dad off, went home, and marked “funeral” on the calendar for the following week. Sometime near dawn, while I tried to excite this ramshackle temple of the Holy Spirit with caffeine and Scripture, I listened to my brother’s phone message.
“Dude!” His voice echoed cavernously, and I heard clangs and bangs in the background. “You’re not going to believe this.” He laughed as if he were at a party. “I’m in jail. Yeah. Pampa, Texas.” He dropped a few F-bombs to punctuate the absurdity of the situation. “Anyway, I need you to call this lady named Vicky at Bobby’s Bail Bonds.”
By noon I was on the hook for two and a half grand and had been treated to the full jailhouse confession:
After Dennis Hopper Day my brother had dined at the Big Texan in Amarillo — “Home of the Free 72-Ounce Steak” — and then hit I-40 East. He was driving through Gray County when he passed a semi without signaling. The trooper who pulled him over invited my brother into his cruiser, where he wrote out a warning ticket for an improper lane change. As my brother went to leave, the trooper asked, “Do you have any drugs, firearms, or child pornography in the car?”
“What? No!” my brother said, genuinely offended by that last part.
“Do I have permission to search your car then?”
Long pause. Oh, yeah. The weed.
This is where my brother claims the Constitution gets crapped on: “We’re supposed to have all these rights, but the cops can find loopholes, so what’s the point?”
The trooper claimed to smell marijuana on my brother’s person and therefore had probable cause to search his car — which was total bullshit, my brother said to me, because he hadn’t smoked any since the day before! Plus, he’d bought the pot legally.
“Yeah, but in California,” I said.
The trooper, too, explained that it wasn’t legal in Texas, gave my brother a field sobriety test (“Which I passed with flying colors!”), and hauled him down to the hospital for a blood test. During his stint as a trucker, my brother had relied on a detoxifying agent called Tommy Chong’s Urine Luck to keep his drug tests clean, but he’d long ago dispensed with it. The test came back positive. He got charged with possession of less than an ounce and driving under the influence. According to Texas law, any trace of weed in your system won you a night in jail, with the potential for 179 more, plus a two-thousand-dollar fine or a hundred hours of poking at candy wrappers with a pointy stick. That’s unless the judge doubled down on both charges.
“I will take this to a jury trial,” my brother vowed.
The last time he’d said that was when he’d claimed not to know anything about the field of twelve-foot-high marijuana plants in the woods behind his mobile home in Tennessee, nor about the hose that led from the field to his outdoor spigot. The front page of his local newspaper had pictured a detective with his arms around a bushel of confiscated weed and a headline reading, “Marijuana Ring Busted.” My brother was accused of being its kingpin. He swore to me that he knew nothing about it.
I bailed him out then, too, and he filed suit for wrongful arrest, police brutality, property damage, and defamation of character. That my brother is the cliché image of a pot smoker — replete with tie-dyed shirt, tinted granny glasses, ponytail, and Fu Manchu mustache — did not discourage him from believing he could win.
Surprisingly, he managed to make a plea deal, since the detective who’d arrested him had a bit of a shady history. Even with this good luck, my brother saw himself as a victim of “society’s hypocrisy.”
Live and learn, right? Wrong.
I faxed papers to Vicky and got my brother sprung. She gave him a lift to the impound lot while he enjoyed a Mr. Pibb from a vending machine (no Dr Pepper) and inhaled a Camel Light in freedom.
The man at the lot told my brother they didn’t have his car: “We only do city tows. That was out on the interstate.”
My brother’s car was thirty-five miles away in the town of McLean, and Vicky had already driven off.
“They’re still screwing me over with all their mind games,” he complained when he called me with an update. “And they better not have messed with Tabitha.”
After an hour of “sweating my balls off,” he left animal control with Tabitha and went patrolling the Pampa streets in search of a ride to McLean: a three-hundred-pound hitchhiker holding a snake in a bucket. Vicky finally returned his distress calls and took him to recover his car. Having no dough, he used our dad’s credit card to pay the fine and then drove straight back to the jail, where he waited patiently in the parking lot until sundown for the trooper who’d arrested him.
In my brother’s telling, the trooper said, “Well, hello there. How was your night in jail?”
My brother screamed, “Fuck you!” in the trooper’s face, dramatically eyeballed the name on his badge, and said, “I’ll see you in court, motherfucker!” At which point my brother hawked up a mouthful of phlegm and spit it at the trooper’s shiny black boots. He missed.
The trooper advised my brother to keep his bodily fluids to himself if he didn’t want to spend another night in jail.
“I just got back in my car, flipped him off, and peeled out of the parking lot,” my brother told me, finishing the story with a laugh.
I wondered if there was a warrant out for his arrest.
The only reason my brother had driven through Pampa was to check out where Woody Guthrie had worked as a soda jerk during the Dust Bowl. He said Woody had written “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” upon leaving Pampa. I guess Woody didn’t have to come back for a court date.
“The tow-truck dude gave me the name of a lawyer who hates cops as much as I do,” my brother said, “so I know I’ll win.”
I was still shaking my head when he called again a few hours later to say he’d been pulled over by an Oklahoma state trooper for weaving. No arrest this time. “Cops suck wherever you go,” he concluded.
And potheads look like potheads, especially when they drive cars with California plates.
Once, years ago, my father and brother got stopped at a police roadblock together. My father had an unlicensed gun in the trunk. My brother had weed on his person. Neither knew of the other’s stash. They sweated it out, but the cops let them pass after Dad tossed his Bible on the dashboard.
My dad still isn’t sure my brother smokes weed, and my brother still hasn’t fully accepted the grace of the Gospel.
My father paid for my brother to fly to California to attend his cousin John’s funeral. I went out to dinner with them the night before the service.
“I’m ninety-three years old,” my father remarked as the waiter led us to a distant table, “but if you want to make me walk all the way to the back of the restaurant, fine.”
Heads turned. We got seated near the front. Mission accomplished. A nonagenarian World War II veteran was in the house.
“Tell Luigi I’m ready to order,” my father said after glancing at a menu.
I tried to tell him the waiter was Hispanic, but he didn’t care.
When the waiter came over, Dad adjusted his PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH cap and ordered soup: “But take the corn out of it. My doctor said no corn.”
“Cup or bowl?” the waiter asked.
“Oh, my God! A bowl, I guess. And more bread, please. Come on, man.”
After the waiter had left, Dad announced that he loved this place. I believe he meant it.
My brother pulled out his vapor pipe and took a hit.
“I’m not sure you can do that in here,” I said.
I’d once told him the same thing after he’d taken a hit in church. He’d declared that a lot more people would go to church if there was a smoking section. I couldn’t argue.
The food arrived. My father sipped his soup. My brother picked up his avocado-and-bacon California burger and gobbled it, face to plate. He took a fistful of fries, dunked them in ketchup, and opened wide.
“Tell Luigi I’m ready for the bill,” Dad said.
Later, back in our hotel room, I asked my brother why he’d felt the need to scream at that cop — and not just scream at him but drive all the way back to the jail to spit in his general vicinity.
My brother was lying in bed, sans everything but his Fruit of the Looms, ham-hock thighs spread and laptop propped on his bare belly, perusing Internet porn and baseball scores. He sucked on his vanilla-milkshake nightcap and made an expression as if someone had farted.
“Those assholes at the jail wouldn’t let me take my medicine. And then I had all that hassle to get my car back. And it was all because of that fucker Barney Fife.”
“You could’ve just left the weed in California.”
Years after the Tennessee marijuana-field fiasco, I had found out from a cousin that my brother had lied. He’d been letting the grower use his water in exchange for free weed. I’d never told my brother I knew. Why steal a man’s sense of injustice and victimhood when it’s his only identity? And now he had another delusional fight for his rights to occupy him, another chance to blame “the Man” for all the wounds he refused to realize were self-inflicted, even self-mutilating. At some point it’s too late to be your brother’s keeper. At least, that’s how I rationalized not trying anymore.
I once asked my dad why he enabled my brother.
“You won’t know until you have a son,” he replied.
I do have a son, and I still don’t know, not fully. But I get the idea of overcompensation. Our dad was a hotheaded parent, and my brother got the short end of a lot of sticks and the long end of a lot of belts. In the lengthy shadows of regret, our father tried to make up for his mistakes with all kinds of recompense, but the damage was done. He was only aiding and abetting the emotional cripple he’d created. Of course, as I said earlier, I contributed my share to my brother’s plight, and I am a co-enabler in my silence.
“They have porn on TV, but you gotta pay for it,” my brother said, outraged.
“Charge it to Dad’s room,” I said, half joking.
My brother was still considering this option as I began my silent bedtime prayer, thanking God for His amazing grace, which had saved a wretch like me: two DUIs, one drunk and disorderly, one public intoxication, two decades of cocaine addiction, and a half dozen adulteries. We’re all sinners in need of salvation. But it’s up to us to pull our own heads out of our butts and see the light sooner rather than later. Or not. In Jesus’s name, amen.
My brother didn’t sleep much that night, but he made up for it at the funeral, using a pose he’d perfected when we were kids: hymnal or Bible open on lap, elbows on knees, head bowed, eyes closed — drooling optional. Our dad used to call us on it from the pulpit, stopping in the middle of preaching to yell, “Somebody wake up my son, please!” The embarrassment was supposed to teach us a lesson. He held us to a high standard — until our mother left him for another man, and then the standards didn’t matter much anymore.
My father got up to give a sermon at the funeral. He hadn’t preached since the funeral of another cousin, so he was a little rusty and long-winded, especially for a hot chapel full of firefighters, golf buddies, and agnostics. The sermon was a mix of fond memories of the deceased and talk of eternal life. He wound it all up with a story: A man gets a chance to tour both heaven and hell before making his decision where to spend eternity. Heaven, of course, is beautiful — streets of gold, huge mansions, the whole bit — but hell is a full-on party with gorgeous women and drinking and dancing and throwing down. When Saint Peter asks the man for his choice, the man gives heaven its due. “But I’m going to go with hell,” he says.
The man takes the elevator all the way down. The doors open. Fire rages. People are screaming in pain. Satan is laughing.
“This isn’t the hell I saw earlier,” the quivering man says.
“That was the campaign,” Satan tells him. “But today was the election.”
At the punch line, the funeral congregation was dead silent.
“Make sure you vote for Jesus,” my dad said, and he hobbled back to his seat.
“Is it over?” my brother whispered to me, suddenly awake.
The wake was held in the same house where John had died. Wine flowed. People laughed. Kids got wet in a pond. My exhausted father stayed close to the brisket buffet. My brother stood outside smoking — in the middle of a remembrance for a man who’d died from smoking. Then he stubbed out his cigarette, grabbed a kid’s guitar, and started serenading the crowd with Woody Guthrie’s farewell to Pampa:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
In a week my brother would go back east and make a “run” down to Louisiana, where he’d interview one of Captain Beefheart’s mentors. He would buy a mountain bike to ride at night and vow to cut back to just one Dr Pepper a day. He would call me, hacking and spitting and lighting another cigarette, to tell me about a former cop’s website called Never Get Busted, which gives advice on how to beat nonviolent drug charges and sells a product similar to Tommy Chong’s Urine Luck, only better. My brother will pay them two hundred bucks for a half-hour consultation on his case, “since I believe in what they’re doing.”
My brother has told me that he was technically under arrest when he got in the cruiser: “But the arrest was over the second he handed me the warning ticket. That means he had to arrest me a second time for possession and DUI, and you can’t do that! It’s an unlawful arrest. It’ll get thrown out!”
And maybe it will. For a few thousand dollars in court costs and legal fees, my brother might remain a free man. I hope so. I would hate to see him have to change.