(Another recent column for the print version of CounterPunch.) It was a run-down house in a bad neighborhood. In the front yard, a gray Chevette with a smashed grill. The porch sagged and creaked as I walked across it. The front door was unlocked. I went in. It was not dark yet, but late in the day. The wide front room was shadowy; no furniture except a folding card table, a couple of folding chairs and a clapped-out recliner. The table was heaped with a jumble of loose papers, unopened mail, empty beer cans, a dead computer. A slight whiff of spoiled food coming from the back of the house.
I found my brother on the floor, crawling slowly across the bare wood. Although I hadn’t seen him for a year, maybe two, he showed no surprise at my sudden appearance. “Do you see them?” he said, looking up briefly then returning to his intense scrutiny of the card-thin space between two floorboards. “The little red things. A line of them.”
I didn’t see anything. “Ants?”
“No, the little creatures, the things. They come out, then go down into the other place. I’ve got … I’ve got to … I can’t tell what they’re saying.”
“They must be gone,” I said.
He got up. “No, but forget it. How ya doin’, boy?” He padded over in his bare feet and gave me a hug. He was a shambling mess, in baggy, stained tracksuit bottoms, baggy t-shirt over his bloated belly, his thinning hair long and greasy, his beard unkempt. But in his eyes, I could see, for a moment, a gleam of his old self.
We sat down and talked. He was as lucid as you please, catching me up on the latest disasters of his life. Fired from his third job in a year. Banned from Wal-Mart after some kind of unspecified altercation. The car wreck. The tense encounters with our father, who was paying his rent and buying his groceries while hiding his true state from our mother. The guitars he had to sell. The meds.
The meds. Thirty years of them by now. It began in the service. His luck had already started turning sour in the aimless years after his ultra-hip, high-school hero days, but it took a sudden, deep plunge when his draft lottery number came up. He rushed to join the Air Force before he was drafted and fed into meat grinder in Nam. He never saw combat; somehow he ended up working in the psych ward of a military hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi, dealing with those driven out of their minds by the war. Day after day of bad craziness, doling out pills — and scarfing them down himself, trying to stay just this side of sane amidst the howling pain of the maimed and mad.
Never got off the pills. Never made it all the way back. He lived a dazed and stunted half-life, burying himself in conventional tropes, strangling his bohemian spirit, letting the music in his mind wither away. His sporadic attempts to break out always ended in disaster and defeat. Then his son got killed by a drunk driver, and the brittle conventional facade fell to pieces. The unhappy marriage collapsed from dry rot. The sinecure at the post office was lost. Always the meds, legal and otherwise. He sought help at a VA hospital; they put jumper cables to his head and volted his brain. He came out more confused, flailing in a downward spiral.
Now here he was. Here we were. When he went to the kitchen for more beer, I looked at the open page of a spiral notebook on the table. Among cryptic scribbles — “She’s the daughter, not the wife She will be the wife Or both Closing song Allmans? New set?” — I saw this:
“Today is Thursday. It’s May 24. I live in Lebanon, Tennessee. Bill Clinton is the president.”
The whole set-up was depressing, but it was this that broke my heart — his struggle to hold on to reality, clinging by his fingernails to the rock, trying to keep from being swept away by the waves and lost in the thrashing depths of “the other place,” where little red creatures spoke in unknown tongues and a ghost tour filled with music and romantic intrigue rolled through an alternate universe. (A universe that I soon learned could be entered — when certain conditions coalesced — through a damp spot on the bedroom wall.)
Even this was not rock bottom. That came later, with him living stranded in a seedy motel room, with a broken TV and an air-conditioner that couldn’t be turned off, broken glasses, teeth falling out, shivering, crying, menaced by the dealers and gang-bangers who’d set up camp in the surrounding rooms. Through tears, he said: “I’ve become them. Back then.” The ones he’d treated in the psych ward; the maimed and mad. The ones who lost the music.
Then came a rescue of sorts. My mortally ailing father and my aunt finally got him into decent housing back in our hometown. A new doctor — a Muslim who had somehow fetched up in the rural depths of Tennessee — flushed the mind-bending meds from his brain. He and the doctor had long talks, about Islam, Christianity, war, old movies. His drug-swollen body slimmed down. He was still fragile, still shell-shocked, but starting to wake up, bit by bit.
One day my father got a call from my aunt: she hadn’t heard from my brother for two days. My father dragged his frail frame to the nearby apartment block. He had a key; he opened the door. My brother’s body was on the couch; he had died, peacefully, in his sleep.
They buried him in a military grave.