Note: This is another one of my longer pieces but I hope you find it worth the read.
by Jennifer M. Dryden (c) 2009
Somewhere stuffed inside a photo album is a four-by-six photograph of a two-year-old girl in a duck t-shirt. Her fist is up to her mouth with her blistered thumb tucked inside, tongue clicking every second. She’s sitting atop her father’s outstretched legs on the beach in Florida, next to her glowing mother, and smug big brother, Chad, in his red and navy zigzag swim trunks. Chad, seven, is looking to his left at the little pig-tailed toddler – eyes wide with pride.
After the photo is snapped Chad takes that little girl’s hand and they trudge down the beach, inner tubes bumping together like bumper cars. Her steps are unsteady but Chad looks ahead strategically paving a clear path around big rocks and scratchy broken shells so her delicate feet won’t bleed. He’s her silent bodysuit of bubble wrap. He’s in full “big brother mode.” She stumbles to a fall – going too fast – but before she can let out a yelp, Chad crouches down meeting her eyes.
“AreyouOK, Jennifer?” he asks with rushed words.
Her… my two-year-old teary self connects eyes with Chad, searching for comfort. His eyes calm me. My puckered bottom lip flips into a smile and stretches out to my dimples. He smiles back. With his hands leading, I climb to my feet once again. My thumb reinserts itself. We walk slower.
By the time I’m sixteen, our backs turn on each other and our footsteps lead away. Being sixteen wouldn’t be so hard if it hadn’t been for Chad’s drinking. He’s legally twenty-one and maybe he’s just living his college-aged years to their fullest – although he’s a high school dropout striving for his GED – but he’s still under our mother’s roof. I sound like his mother. I’ve trained myself to handle it. I handle his outbursts; handle his temper, which mimics our absent father’s; I handle everything my mom’s clinically-diagnosed weak heart can’t or, in my mind, shouldn’t. I immaturely feel responsible for him.
He calls my cell at two in the morning most days from the Club House stammering the usual – “You have to come get me now,” which is followed by a blurted, “They’re going to kick my ass, Jennifer!” Sometimes he likes to switch it up and all I get is “Club House, help. Click… duuuhhhh…” Chad’s always talking smack to some other stumbling fool at the bar who’s had one too many, just like him. But, he’s my brother so I drag my high-school-sophomore-self out of bed, put shoes on, and drive downtown.
I park just outside the Club House doors and spot him standing in a circle with a couple guys. I don’t recognize them. Please make this night an easy one, Chad. I’m tired. Twenty minutes and seven phone calls later, I open my door pissed, stomp my way up to the bouncer and point. “He’s my brother… can I go get him?” The sober fat dude nods sympathetically and opens the door.
“Heeey Bud! How’s it goin’?” Chad spits out, reeking of hard liquor. Damn, that smells disgusting. “Guys, this is my little sister, Jennifer. Jennifer meet the guys,” he gestures, letting his hand swoop passed each guy like he’s showcasing a brand new car on some game show. I roll my eyes and weakly smile. They match my annoyed look. I get the hint.
“Chad, let’s go. I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. It’s closing time anyway.” I’m steamed. He throws his arm around me then tells me to “relax.” Fine. “Fine. I’m leaving. Walk your ass home.” I fling open the door, which is followed by the bouncer’s wish – “Have a good night, Miss.” I don’t turn around. I’ve reached my breaking point. I yank my shift into reverse as Chad runs and gets in passenger. We drive home in silence.
The sun peeks through my flowered curtains placing stripes of morning on my daybed. Rubbing my eyes, I realize it’s Christmas. My clock says it’s 6:30 and I’m not positive Santa has left yet. My stomach knots in sudden fear of no presents. Pre-teen Chad is still sleeping in the room at the end of the hallway and to get there it’d take fourteen of my seven-year-old steps – on my tippy-toes, of course, just incase Santa was still downstairs.
I cracked Chad’s door open tiptoed another three steps before climbing aboard his huge bed. His curtains didn’t stripe sun like mine because they were dark blue with ships and sailboats. The sun resisted dark colors. He lay there still, asleep. “Chad… pist Chad…” Shake shake… “Wake up.” Chad turns over to find me sitting on my knees, arms crossed. “Can I sleep in here until Mom and Dad wake up?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” he mumbles. No questions are asked. He knows why I’m in here nervous… I’ve done this every year I’ve been out of a crib. He’s my bodyguard from monsters and that includes Santa Claus, even if he did bring me a kitchen set last year.
In the midst of a winter advisory, the house phone rang. I awoke to my mother’s frogged voice. I roll over to check if my phone was turned off, it wasn’t. Why is Chad calling the house phone? I roll over assuming it’s just another one of his drunken calls… I’ll let mom handle this one. I tune the one-sided argument out.
The light flips on outside my room. I sigh, infuriated with this tradition. “What is it this time?” I groan pissed off but curious, squinting through the heavenly-lighted hallway. I stretch my eyes open to stare diagonally into my mother’s bedroom where I notice she’s still on the phone. Her nightgown is wrinkled, her shoulder-length brown hair is matted from her pillow, and a Kleenex is clenched in her fist. “He’s lost,” she says covering the phone. There it is. The reason he didn’t call me. I wouldn’t put up with this. I’d leave him high and dry. She’s babying him. Just what he wants.
His belligerent remarks reach my ears and I lose it. “Mom, just hang up.” My voice is stern making my lips a straight line as my teeth grind into each other. This is why I handle it, all of it. I hate it when my mom cries. Her tears fall and I approach to take charge. My mom is an over-the-top mom, always going the extra mile for her kids. She just can’t put her foot down and is overly obsessed with sugarcoating reality. Surprisingly, this time she speaks clearly… and rationally. She mirrors exactly what I would say. Maybe I’m rubbing off on her, or maybe I never give her enough credit.
“Chad, I can’t come look for you in the middle of the night. It’s dark out. You don’t even know where you are. It’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she says bucking up. I hear Chad rebut with “I’m on a gravel road, just come find me!” Ha, wow. Really, Chad? There are a million gravel roads in rural Iowa. Was this a serious request? Mom hangs up the phone then pushes “Talk” again so the monotone duuuhhhhh… fills the thick silent air. Good move. He would have just called back.
I stare at her narrow, bloodshot eyes for some answers. “He ran out of gas on a gravel road west of Carroll somewhere. He says he’s cold and there’s nothing around him – no farmhouses or barns – and he’s by himself. I’m not going to look for him at three in the morning. He’s drunk… he’ll just have to wait it out until the sun comes up.” Her voice is forced, it doesn’t rise and set like usual. She’s worn out. I go back to bed.
Mom hung up the phone, making it ring every thirty minutes with the same drunken brother on the other end. “I’m so cold… I’m shivering… I’m gonna die out here… This is your fault.” None of this was anyone’s fault but his. And, I know, as I lay there pretending to sleep, those sniffs coming from my mom’s room aren’t because she has a cold.
The sun peeks through the same flowered curtains striping my room like years before. As promised mom and I take off in search of Chad. Overnight, he miraculously noticed a farmhouse just a few yards away and asked the elderly farmer’s wife for her address. Red-cheeked with embarrassment, my mom and I drive thirty minutes east – the opposite direction of where Chad thought he was – to a white farmhouse in Jefferson. My mother apologizes and thanks the woman for letting her drunkard son warm up in her house. I wouldn’t have answered the door if I were her. He’s lucky, but ungrateful.
I drive mom’s car back after filling Chad’s up with a gallon of gas we brought. He sat shotgun and embalmed the car with a stench of hard liquor… again. He should invent new cologne; obviously, he likes to wear it a lot. I wanted to hit him… and hit him hard. He’s going to kill himself or, even worse, someone else eventually. All because of a habit he couldn’t kick, a stench he couldn’t wash out, and a boy who won’t mature. This is my brother?
I’m slinked up against the wall with my hands together and pointer fingers out, waiting. The air is silent. The rain pats at the window as if it wants in. My six-year-old self has wide eyes that pan the room for the robber. OK I’m going to count to five and enter the kitchen. I know he’s in the kitchen. One… two… three… four… Flop. My brother, Chad, rolls shoulder first out our old-western-era swinging doors and onto the carpet. He climbs to one knee, his fingers together pointing at me. I lower my gun from the air to match his height; he lowers his to the floor in defeat.
“I’ve got you now,” I deepen my voice to sound tough. “What do you have to say for yourself, robber?” Chad opens his mouth to speak but I cut him off… “bang.” He slumps in a heap on the floor, dead. As I blow out the smoke coming from my finger gun, Chad, eleven, stands and smiles at me. “Good job, Bud,” he says declaring his fake death, my victory.
Two flashlight strobes light up our stairway from outside as our doorbell rings. My heart sinks and goose bumps cover my teenage body because I knew this day would come… even if my family happily ignored reality sometimes. I knew whom they hunted and the huge grudge against my grown brother made me twist the doorknob to let the officers in. My mom joins me on the stairwell; she begins to weep. Her hand clenches the handrail relying on it for her balance, and her sanity. The Kleenex weren’t ready for this so she stands empty handed.
“We have a warrant out for Chad Dryden’s arrest in connection to a vehicular homicide case last June,” the woman cop strictly repeats as if it’s just another normal procedure. Her outer shell is protected, like concrete – and a male cop stands off to the side scanning my yard for a runner.
“Chad’s not here,” my mother blurts behind me. My head turns to look at her. My eyes blink, too lubricated. I won’t cry. My hand is still gripped around the knob, nervous, but refusing to give in to the shaking. My heart races and for a minute I don’t breathe. I have to remind myself Chad’s mistakes aren’t my own. Chad can’t get to me anymore. I’m numb to this…to him.
“Do you mind if we check the premise?” they pose as if we actually have a choice. As my mother gives them permission, I wonder where exactly my brother is right now. I find myself stumped and assuming the usual. Probably drinking, dubbing it his “last” hoorah before prison time.
As another red and blue flashing cop car parks in my driveway, I dunk behind the door, shielding myself from my neighbors’ peeping eyes. Blinding flashlights pan my house. The same house I grew up in; the same house Chad and I grew up in. They skim against the walls like I did as a six-year-old cop, this time it’s not a game. They go into Chad’s room with the same blue-shielded curtains and huge bed, but find it empty. They have to know he’s living here and will probably return tomorrow morning to handcuff him. They leave handing us a card to call “immediately” upon my brother’s and my mom’s son’s arrival. Why would I hand over my brother to you voluntarily? Thanks for the card, but next time, spare the tree.
Playing a cop as kids is a game; shooting my brother with my finger gun is a game. This isn’t a game. For a minute, I’m sad. I let one tear drop off my cheek before I wipe it away aggressively, scowl, and lead my mother upstairs to sit. I can handle this. Do I wish it were all a childish game? Sure, but it’s not and if I’ve learned one thing from being in this family, it’s time to accept reality – my brother’s not my hero anymore, his smile can’t cure my pain, and it’s never going to be like it was. My brother’s not my bodyguard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. He’s replaced me with a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He’s a felon, who’s guilty of vehicular homicide while driving drunk. I called it a long time ago. His habits were “going to kill him, or, even worse, someone else eventually,” I believe those were the exact words.
I’m seventeen, and Chad’s walking boots came off today while I was at school. He shattered his right heel and fractured everything else from the ankle down on both feet. Hitting head-on going 65 miles-per-hour can do that to you. After cousin Ben’s wedding reception, Chad hazily got behind the wheel of his red Nissan, got lost, and crossed the centerline. The on-scene cop’s words echoed in my mind. “…crossed centerline…head-on…fatality…” June 12, 2004 was a dark night.
I walk in, slip off my shoes, and quickly turn to climb the stairs before Chad can invite me to “sit and hang” downstairs in his newly converted apartment – our basement. I don’t want to talk to him. “Hey Bud!” he spoke, too optimistically. I roll my eyes and back up two steps to peek my head around the corner, practically doing a backbend. “Hey Bro.” I continue to take the stairs two-by-two. Get me out of here.
His depressed Linkin Park music blares in my ears as well as my mother’s upstairs. No respect. He’s trying to blare out his guilt he internally feels. Externally, he’s just the same drunken brother we’ve all grown to deal with. I fall asleep to Bitter Sweet Symphony – his sad song.
Knock, knock. “Jennifer… pist Jennifer…shake shake…Are you awake?” I can hear Chad’s voice. Maybe I’m dreaming. Creek, my springs descend as he sits and my backside slumps inward. I roll over. “Hey Bud.”
“Hi,” I respond, my voice raspy.
“Sorry to have to wake you…” he says sniffing his runny nose. Is he crying? “Why don’t you talk to me anymore, Bud? I miss you; I miss us – us battling the world together…” he says, getting into his deep-talk-mode – philosophical tonight. I sigh, giving in just for five minutes… ten, tops. I hold my breath as he speaks. At least fake me out; convince me you haven’t been drinking. But that’d be too much to ask now wouldn’t it.
He’s full on tear-dropping on me. Maybe fifteen minutes, but that’s it.
“Remember when we used to play Cops and Robbers? Hah, and when you were always afraid of Santa Claus every Christmas morning?” He lets out a single sullen chuckle. “Jennifer, we were a team, weren’t we? We always had each other’s back. What happened?” He’s hesitant, secretly not wanting to admit his addiction… or completely unaware. This makes me sad. I search for his eyes in the darkness. Maybe my confident eyes can cure his and make it better again like his did mine years ago. I wish for that day on the beach in my duck t-shirt again. It doesn’t work. Today is all we have.
Found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison with parole in maybe five to seven can take a toll on a person, especially the felon’s little sister. Handcuffed, and escorted out of the courtroom, I find myself thinking back on the days Chad’s protected me from everything – seashells at two years old to Santa Claus, fake robbers, and drinking habits into adulthood. Today, I visit him – a 27-year-old man – at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale, Iowa. It’s been six months since my last visit. I feel bad. Our mother goes every month; I just can’t break away from my schedule, or at least that’s what I tell Chad. I can’t bear to see him in the same designated grey sweatshirt and faded boot cut jeans. It throws my emotions off. It fucks with my head.
As I enter, I throw my ID into the drop box as the security officer looks me up and down to match my face with the card and the list of approved visitors. I sign in on the yellow paper, which asks for Inmate Name, Visitor Name, and Relation to Inmate. I write in “sister” for the last one and sit in the waiting area while Chad is summoned.
“Dryden, you can go in.” A man in a forest green uniform says as he unlocks the first of five secure doors with a buzzz. I strip off my shoes, and empty my pockets and spread ‘em. A woman officer pats me down – a man is not allowed – and I replace my shoes entering the second door. Each door closes behind me before the next one opens. There’s no turning back now. I enter the final long thin cement caved hallway; it has fogged windows allowing no sunlight in. My eyes are set on the rectangle window inside the door to the visitor’s room. It’s bulletproof. There he is. My brother. I slow my pace so I can leak a few tears before sucking it up for him. God, I miss him.
“Hey Bud!” he says just like before. “I’m glad you came. I’ve missed you.”
“Hey Bro,” I return as I wrap my arms around his waist, secretly never wanting to let go. “Yeah, me too.”
For the allotted five hours, we talk. Even though we’re watched and can’t sit on a comfortable leather couch and shoot the shit like we used to, it’s refreshing. He’s refreshing; his minty breath is refreshing; our sober conversation is refreshing. We laugh… a lot, maybe making up for lost time. I’m tense, but only for the first few minutes. His eyes meet mine, and I feel safe. Among all of those convicted sex offenders, drug dealers, and lost souls, I feel safe.