The first person to show up for my first-ever book signing was my little brother Paul. It’s a good thing the restaurant manager didn’t throw him out. He does, after all, look like a homeless person. That’s because he is. Sure, he couch surfs from one person’s house to the next, until something or somebody nudges him to the next. Paul’s been without a couch to call home since my mother passed away six years ago and I honestly don’t know how he continues to survive, but somehow, so far, he has, even with a few, brief stints where he didn’t have a sympathetic friend with a spare flophouse and was truly on the street. He told me he was glad it was summer, at least. Friday before last, he took the bus, all the way from Albuquerque’s North Valley, way up the hill to Nob Hill, in fact, to attend his big sister’s reading and book signing at a cute little Mexican restaurant on Old Route 66. The setting was apropos for a book about a summer road trip that paved the way to enlightenment.
Among the revelations was, that no amount of time or distance, or decades of destructive behavior saturated with liquor and drugs, can dilute blood. Blood ties have a shelf-life which can outlast this lifetime and the next. Paul is now, and forever will be, my baby brother. I write about him in Off the Leash, Chapter Ten: Land of Enchantment, Trail of Tears.
It would be impossible to know exactly what day, what year, or what inciting event nudged little brother Paul off the grid. He has been off longer than he was ever on. It started with drinking, then smoking pot and ended up with meth. The fact that my mother, may God grant her peace, was a textbook enabler, cajoling, threatening, pleading, caving, excusing, blaming, forgiving—that whole decades-long, co-dependent psychodrama, I am sure, contributed to his demise. Not as justification, but as context here, I would venture that we all know a family with at least one member who has failed to launch. Such was Paul’s journey until my mother died and he was launched off her couch. Believe me when I tell you he got his share of the modest inheritance. It didn’t last too long. In the six years since her passing, he has lived with a number of his compadres in Albuquerque’s North Valley, within five miles of where the rest of us grew up. This is his universe. I have offered in years past to bring Paul to St. Louis, to try to help him find a job, to put him up until he can get back on his feet. But I knew it was lip service because I knew he wouldn’t come. Heaven forbid if he’d taken me up on it. I truly don’t know if I could have handled it; I’ve already done my share of raising kids. Plus I knew he’d never come because that ship has sailed. I can’t fix him. I can’t save him. I can’t pay to replace his teeth. All I can do is round him up when I’m in town, buy him a meal, a pack of cigarettes, give him some pocket money and share a few laughs about what once was. He remembers. Criminal and psychosis-inducing childhood memories notwithstanding, there was a lot of normal in the mix. It was a normal life—we had sack lunches, we went to church and Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls. We had a dog. We went on vacations to the Grand Canyon, even Disneyland! We had big family Christmases and Easter-egg hunts, trips to the zoo and a Slip ‘n’ Slide in the summertime. There was Little League baseball and piano lessons, summer camp and art classes at the museum. There was allowance and family meetings and leftovers in the fridge. How did Paul get left behind? I miss my baby brother, the old Paul, the way he used to be. Yet, even in his syncopated, addlepated chatter, he reminds me with a certain look, an expression, or tilt of his head, of why I come home. I come home because he is still here. I come home because J.R. is here. No matter how far away I go, I always come back home. I come home to see my little brothers: they’re the only homies I have left and I need them as much as they need me. We were five. Now we are three. I come home to hear our stories—the familiar pitch and tone, from blood to blood, the DNA of cadence, passed down from one generation to the next. I come home. I’m the matriarch, the oldest of the clan, a reluctant and somber guardian of the stories.
I worried that Paul might have his feelings hurt over me outing him like that. With others, I had the chance to vet the chapters ahead of time, not so with Paul, I had no email nor mailbox to send it. “I hope you’re okay with what I wrote about you,” I told him as he walked out of the book signing. “It’s all good,” he said with his characteristic laissez-faire attitude. “You’re not saying anything that isn’t true.”
The next day, he left me a voice mail, laughing as he spoke. “I was reading the book on the bus and I got so caught up, I missed my stop! I looked up and was two stops beyond where I was supposed to get off!” I went and picked up Paul later and took him to see my other little brother J.R., who is recovering in the hospital from his second stroke. J.R. had been in alcohol rehab and the know-it-all, 20-somethings at the rehab center changed his blood pressure medication without consulting his doctor. Despite his repeated requests for some pain relief for a blinding headache, which they characterized as “addict behavior,” (they suggested he was trying to game the system to get drugs) they refused to investigate the cause of the headache, ignored his ever-rising blood pressure and he had a stroke. By the grace of God he is actually doing okay, immediately transferred out of that hell hole and getting stronger every day, walking on his own, amazingly, cognitively still in tact, with an unquenchable sense of humor and a steely resolve heretofore unseen. “I do not ever, ever want to go back to a place like that,” he says, recounting stories of sixteen-year-olds addicted to heroin. “I’m thinking maybe I can do something to help kids like this,” he says, “maybe that’s my purpose now.”
On our way home from the hospital, little brother Paul, clothes grimy from tearing down a huge yard sale for a neighbor woman, from which he walked away with forty dollars and a stack of flannel shirts and jeans, offered to buy me dinner with his wages. He has $40 to his name and he offers to buy his big sis some dinner. I declined, only because I had a meal waiting for me at an old friend’s house who I see as rarely as my brothers. I think he understood, although I had second thoughts about not taking him up on the offer. I know he just wanted to return a favor, but I didn’t want to cut into his $40. I dropped him off at the house where he’s staying. “We should have the lights back on by Monday,” he said, alluding to some hassle with the deposit and the name on the account, “I’ve been reading your book with a flashlight.” He had been reading my book by flashlight.
My sister-in-law Karen is reading it out loud to my little brother J.R. in the hospital. His vision is severely impaired from an accident when he was just twenty, made ten times worse by multiple strokes. “We got through the first chapter last night,” J.R. said over the phone yesterday, me back in St. Louis, him still in the hospital. “Pretty good, sis.”
There are only two human beings on the planet who can call me sis with any degree of authenticity. My new-found brother Mike in California does occasionally, and that’s cool with me. It’s a novelty for us both. But we didn’t grow up in the same house. We are paternalistically connected and curiosity driven to continue to cultivate some kind of familiarity, but my Whatley brothers, we are family. Here’s the end of Chapter Ten.
We were all just kids once, together, under one roof. We were just a pack of plain ol’ kids, thrown together by a force of nature named Beverly, a remarkably smart and strong-willed woman with high ideals and occasional weak morals. God bless my mama. A passel of kids, all from one mother, but three different fathers. Five kids, me the only girl. In the bottomless, jagged-edged gaps where we longed for normal to reside, my brothers tried to fill the empty space with liquor or drugs. I’m the only one who dodged that bullet. I am not passing judgment. Like wads of paper ever mounting, in a metal trash can in a barren room save for a table, a chair and a typewriter, I stuff the holes of my life with words. Therein lies my addiction. I am a writer.