Note: This is part four of my growing memoir entitled, “Concentrated Breathing”. If you’re a newbie to this, read Concentrated Breathing, Subconscious Resistance, and A Prison Hug first. If you’re a regular reader, here’s the next chapter.
One Step From Rock Bottom
(c) All Rights Reserved 2011
Halfway home I speak for the first time. “Chad’s beard looks dumb.” It’s nonsense talk and I know it. We silently want to talk about our impressions of prison and how we really think Chad is doing, but we don’t; neither one of us wants to darken the day anymore than the clouded sky has. Our hearts are heavy and so are my eyes, so as Mom tilts her head in halfway agreement, I lean back for a nap. A nap is the only thing that cures a ride home like this one.
I attempt to fall asleep to the country music channel Mom always plays once I’ve given up custody of the radio. She sings along half-volume. I try to think of a normal life. That normal life I used to have where the only thing Chad and I fought about was who got the TV remote Saturday morning or who’s friends got the downstairs basement on another night of nothing-to-do syndrome. Sometimes we mixed our friends up and we’d all hang out once we got to that appropriate age where we were both rebels without a cause. We shared some friends even though we were all five years apart in age. This was before the younger sibling passed him up in maturity and ditched the bad attitude.
My mind circles back to the most recent fight, well the most recent fight that wasn’t going on in my head, silently. It was seven months ago when he had the court date in three weeks. Another screaming, drunk panic attack that left him apologizing at 3 a.m. at the foot of my bed. Something about “You don’t know what I’m going through!” and “I’m the one suffering and going to prison here!” and a bunch of curse words I frankly am too used to and tired of.
My mind goes back even farther to the middle of my junior year in high school, before this entire situation began, the last step before he hit rock bottom that June night. It was the first sign that Chad had a problem with alcohol. I sigh as my eyes shift focus into nothing but black air.
In the midst of a winter weather advisory, the house phone rings. It only rings twice before I awake to my mom’s frogged and panicked voice. My clock’s red numbers read 2:48. 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 mom’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 blue tissue is clenched in her fist. “He’s lost,” she says to me covering the phone with her hand. 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 but silently breaking inside. 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. 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 want to hug her or take away the guilt she feels for not being able to save Chad. But I don’t really think my hugs help anymore. I go back to bed.
Mom hangs up the phone again because the robotic woman keeps repeating “Please hang up and try your call again.” This makes 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 is 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 opening in my flowered curtains in my bedroom. 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 thinks he is – 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 the three gallons of gas we brought with us in a red funneled jug. He sits shotgun and embalms the car with a stench of hard liquor… again. He should invent new cologne; obviously, he likes to wear it a lot. I want to hit him… and hit him hard. He’s going to kill himself or someone else eventually. All because of a habit he can’t kick, a stench he can’t wash out, and a boy who won’t grow up. This is my brother.
I awake as the car slows and the clicking of the rhythmic turning signal repeats in the dead silence. Mom’s country music is off now. We’re home and I reach for the lever on the side of the seat to erect myself to face the partly sunny sky and the opened garage door we’re pulling into. I breathe a little easier when Mom offers, “Want to order out tonight?” with a smile on her face.