When my husband, Vale, and I arrive in Gulfport, my brother, Chris, does not come to the airport to greet us. His absence is both surprising to me, yet not unexpected at the same time. I have learned to accept so little from him over the years. Chris sends his ex-girlfriend, Romy, who has remained his live-in roommate in spite of their change in relationship status, to gather us.
“Hey, sis,” she calls out with a familial greeting, even though our standing as family is a marginal concept at best, “Chris is back at the trailer. We’ll meet him there.”
Our first stop is to pick up the mid-sized SUV we reserved from the rental car kiosk. Vale and I normally rent the cheapest economy cars, but this time we make certain to get a vehicle that will be able to hold all of us, plus Chris’s three large dogs. Chris does not have a car himself, or a driver’s license, and Vale and I will be responsible for providing all transportation during our time together.
We follow behind Romy on a desolate two-lane highway. The absence of streetlights creates an all-encompassing blackness that nearly swallows her car from our sight.
Chris was not present for any of the most important moments in my life. He did not come to my graduations from high school or college, even though I was one of the few in our family to finish high school and the first to attend college. He did not come to my wedding. He never called when Dad passed away and I provided both emotional support to our mom and dealt with the logistics of Dad’s death single-handedly. Chris was so physically invisible in my life that many of my closest friends thought I was an only child.
In spite of this invisibility, my life was defined by his. Chris was seven years older than me and as he navigated through adolescence, I watched him change at the hands of drug abuse and alcoholism. I watched his life get away from him; our family running behind him to emergency rooms and rehab centers, juvenile detention facilities and later, jails. I watched every bad decision he made and its adverse reaction. I studied him and made my path the opposite way.
We were born and raised in Oregon, but we both felt called to futures that lay in other places. In his early thirties, Chris cleaned up a little and left home for Gulfport, Mississippi. At the same time, in my late twenties, I moved to San Francisco. I landed a good-paying job at a prestigious university, my husband and I lived in the heart of the city and we became avid world travelers. Recently, as I returned from a trip to Mongolia, it dawned on me I had just flown twenty-five hours and spent three weeks of my life to visit a foreign land, but I had not seen my own brother, a mere six-hour flight away, in over seven years. With that, the planning began.
Maybe now as adults, maybe after this prolonged absence, with us more secure in ourselves and who we have become, he and I could finally establish the meaningful sibling relationship that had eluded us.
The plan for our visit is to spend the evening with Chris and Romy, but then it’s understood we have chosen to sleep in a hotel room at one of the nearby casinos. Although Chris and Romy’s double wide trailer has two bedrooms, it does not have a TV or telephone or hot water, and the electricity comes and goes. There is also the thought things could get cramped between four humans plus the multitude of critters who have set up home inside the trailer – the three dogs, a rooster, a turtle and a parakeet, and an assortment of rats and cockroaches. But in our travels, Vale and I have stayed in some pretty rundown places. Really more than any of those things, what is motivating the hotel room is the fact that I’m unsure how this unprecedented visit will go.
Upon arrival at their place, in the middle of a defunct mobile home park, off a forgotten stretch of county road, Chris addresses me with, “Hey, you came,” as if he doubted I would show up at all. Nodding his head in acknowledgment, but no smile.
“I told you I was going to come,” I remind him, smiling, although it stings to see how little he trusts my words.
His voice has adopted a deep Southern twang. He wears denim overalls without a shirt, and a black stocking cap over his shaved head. His appearance is markedly different from the last time I saw him. He has aged more than his years, and his body is thicker, heavier, no longer his youthful athletic self. It is hard for me to look at this man, situated in this unfamiliar place, and affiliate him with the vision of my brother in my head, that this stranger is someone I love.
He suggests we go out to eat at the Island View Casino, where they are said to have the best steaks in town. After placing orders, our server, a Black man, begins to walk away from the table. Chris calls after him, “Hey, don’t forget to bring those drinks out first.” Turning back towards us, Chris adds, at the same volume, “Ya gotta keep on top of these guys. They’re so lazy. Don’t wanna do any work.” His implication is clear, and my face flushes hot with embarrassment. But I remain silent, stunned, futile.
As it nears ten p.m., we return to his trailer. Romy brought back a new karaoke machine from her recent visit home to the Philippines and we decide to test it out. I have never sung karaoke before. It seems intimate, vulnerable, to sing in front of each other this way, no barriers between us.
Chris cracks open a tallboy of Keystone Lager, and starts us off with a loud, off-key version of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” He always loved The Doors. He would listen to their music constantly around the house growing up, even teaching himself how to play many of their songs on the piano. Recounting these memories fills me with a sweet nostalgia. Simultaneously, I cannot help but take note of the ultra-thin aluminum walls of the trailer and the windows ajar. I wonder if the neighbors will complain about our noise at this hour of the night.
Romy emerges from the kitchen where she is making a fresh batch of lumpia to sing a stirring rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie, Pocahontas. She has the voice of a nightingale.
Vale is up next with “Rock the Casbah.” He stomps along to the beat and I can tell he is having a much better time than he expected. When the music ends, he picks up the song book to cue up his next selection.
This moment, where we enjoy the company of one another, is both precious and precarious. Things can go astray so quickly with my brother. My hope is nothing will disturb this evening we are having together.
I follow their performances by busting out my best MJ-inspired dance moves in the confined living room. My delivery of “Bad” is so spot on, even Chris compliments me, “You really nailed that one.” It is the first kind words he has spoken to me in over a decade.
As a child, I adored my older brother. There is a photo of the two of us sitting in the sand at the Oregon coast. I am three or four years old; he is ten. I wear my favorite T-shirt at the time. It reads, “Brothers are Big and Bossy.” In the picture, Chris wraps his arms around my midsection, trying to render the catchphrase unreadable, and we both grin up at the camera, two joyful companions. In spite of everything, that is how I have thought of him my whole life.
In youth, Chris sported a headful of reddish-brown curls and eyes so clear and blue it was like peering into a glacial lake. His quick-witted sense of humor made me laugh from a very young age. I used to hang around until he agreed to let me play Atari games with him and then we’d spend the afternoon watching WWF wrestling together. We grew up rural, in the country, devoid of a community, with few ties to extended family. Chris was the first playmate I’d ever known.
When Chris started abusing drugs and alcohol at age fourteen, the shift in his personality was severe. He became sullen, recalcitrant. As a younger sister, I feared upsetting him. I worried I annoyed him, that he found me boring, stupid, insignificant.
I kept my conversation with him minimal, speaking only when spoken to. I came running whenever he requested anything from me, like a ride into town once I had my driver’s license or to borrow five dollars. Anything to make him see I cared.
Above all, I never gave up hope. I waited with an unwavering belief in the day he’d return to me, as if his true self were missing out at sea, and once he resurfaced, we would re-build our childhood camaraderie into a soulful alliance of brother and sister.
To help this process along, I prayed every night, “God, please bring my brother back to me.” To try to increase the odds of success, every time I puffed out the candles on a birthday cake, every penny thrown in a wishing well, every sprig of dandelion fluff that I blew through, I had the same wish, year after year, “I want my brother back.”
As we enter Chris’ trailer for our second day together, conservative talk radio blares from his stereo. I know Chris is a regular listener, but I also know, at this volume, he is trying to make a statement to me. It is a commentary on my liberal politics and urban lifestyle. He is testing me to see how much I really want to be there with him, if I will get offended and cry foul. But I am capable of ignoring this micro-assault if it means appeasing my brother. I have endured so much more throughout our relationship; what is one more held tongue, one more bruise to my psyche?
It is Christmas week, and we decide when night falls, we will visit a park where we can see holiday lights. As the evening wears on, I get hungry for dinner. Chris tells me he has steaks at home and he will cook for us; we should skip the park’s snack bar and save our money. But we forget the park is a considerable drive from their home and when we finally return, it is already after nine p.m. I try to stay composed and not show my frustration around how hungry I am, that he has told me to wait to eat, that several hours have since passed, and now that we are back at the trailer, he realizes the steaks are not defrosted.
He says he can defrost them quickly, under hot running water, then asks, “How many do y’all want? One each?”
But it is so late already, and the idea of cramming a semi-defrosted hunk of meat down my gullet directly before bedtime sounds unappealing at best. I respond, “No, Vale and I’ll just split one. That’ll be enough, thanks.”
Forty minutes later, Chris hands me the steak Vale and I will be sharing on one plate. I want to ask for a second plate, but I don’t want him to think I’m pretentious, that I think I’m too good to live like him. We have made it all day on amiable terms. The kitchen table is overloaded by Romy’s bric-a-brac and Chris’s books, old newspapers, and an oversized assortment of condiments and bottles. Passing the plate back and forth over this chaos will require some dexterity. Instead, Vale and I scoot our chairs as close together as possible in order to make eating off one plate feasible.
“Hey Chris, could we get some silverware?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” he gives a haphazard look around the disheveled kitchen, then hands me one butter knife and one spoon, these two utensils meant for both Vale and me.
I don’t know if he actually thinks what he’s given us is adequate, or if they own more silverware than this, or if he’s testing me to see if he can get a rise out of me. If it’s either of the former, I don’t want to make him feel badly, like I am looking down or judging him, and if it’s the latter, I don’t want to provoke a squabble over eating utensils.
Vale and I lock eyes for a quick second, having a conversation without saying a word:
— Is this what we’re supposed to eat with?
— I don’t want to deal with this right now; let’s just figure it out.
Vale holds the simmering meat in place with the spoon and saws tenaciously with the butter knife. When one ragged piece breaks free, he hands me the spoon to toss the rubbery morsel into my mouth. I hand the spoon back to him so he can repeat the process for himself.
Maybe, if I am just okay enough with everything, Chris will finally know that I love him, that I have always loved him.
When I was fifteen, Chris got me a job as a hostess at the diner where he was a line cook. When the waitstaff asked, “So, you’re Chris’s sister?” I responded with enthusiastic affirmation. Their corresponding reply was always, “Huh, you guys are so different,” with a shake of their head.
I guess, on the surface, I could see what they meant. Chris’s demeanor was rough. He smoked and drank, got into fights and caused trouble. He could be unpleasant, hard to deal with. I was well-behaved and politely spoken, “upwardly mobile” – or stuck-up, depending on who one asked.
But in all the most important ways, we were the same. We both appreciated physicality and athleticism – him playing baseball and me as a dancer. We both took tremendous pride in being the hardest worker in any room. We both read voraciously and found humor in the off-beat crevices of life. Most significantly, we both carried a deep well of pain, stemmed from shame and scarcity, of parents who worked too much for too little, who neglected our emotional needs in order to meet our physical ones, of an extended family who abandoned us and a school system that failed us, of generational histories of dysfunction and violence embedded in our DNA. It was our shared identity.
The next day we drive into New Orleans. We bring the three dogs, crowded into the back of the SUV: Mac, Parker, and Luke; all of them mutt mixes of Shepherd, Labrador, and Boxer. Vale drives, Chris rides shotgun, and I sit in the backseat where Luke hangs over the seatback from the rear and breathes into my face.
Our first stop is a local hole-in-the-wall where we order fried chicken to go, then take it to a nearby park. I sit on a bench, watchful of splinters, and eat fried okra out of a brown paper sack, grease already seeping through the bag. The dogs enjoy the remnants of our chicken bones, and the freedom afforded them from being off-leash in the park. Chris loves the dogs more than anything, more than he ever loved me.
As we prepare to walk through the bustling streets of the French Quarter, Chris pulls out two ropes, instead of leashes, to corral the dogs. One rope will hold Parker, the most rambunctious of the three. Luke and Mac share the other rope, one dog tied up on each end, as though they are walking each other. Spotting a liquor shop, Chris hands all the ropes to me. He’s made it across the street before I realize he’s deserted us on the opposite corner. Just as he’s about to run inside the store, he shouts out over his shoulder, “Hey, I’ll just be a second,” leaving Vale and me to detain three unruly dogs, outnumbered.
Chris returns with a can of Budweiser in hand, already opened, and grabs Parker from us. We continue through the French Quarter and come upon a musician jamming on a banjo. Taken by the music, Chris stands Parker up on his two hind legs so they can bounce around together, somewhat in time to the beat.
Standing there, holding two outsized mutts shackled together by a dirty rope, waiting for Chris to finish his drunken dance number, I try to suppress a seeping self-consciousness. I feel like I am having an out-of-body experience, looking down on myself in this context, trying to equate this scruffy looking trio with the woman I am in my San Francisco life.
Neither Chris nor I ever wanted to be characterized by our lack. But we have dealt with this very differently. Coming into adulthood, I ran from the name that could have been ascribed to us — “white trash” — with the same fever pitch I would have run from an impending tsunami. I spurned it, suppressed it, beat it into submission until no sane person would ever associate me with that phrase. But my brother appropriated the label, absorbed it, embodied it, until he himself became an archetype of the term.
In my third year of college, I spent the Thanksgiving weekend at my parent’s house, where Chris still lived. On a rare occasion, Mom, Dad, Chris, and I were all going out to a restaurant. Mom and Dad both worked multiple jobs and kept odd hours. Dad worked swing shift at the cannery, then went to a part-time job at night. Just as he returned home around four a.m., Mom would be rising to clean the house, bake a loaf a bread for the rest of us, then depart on her multi-hour commute to work. I could not recall when the four of us had last been in the same space at the same time. In the back of my mom’s 1996 Suzuki Tracker, Chris and I shared the bench seat, our parents up front.
Chris’s most recent release from jail was still fresh, and he was already doing things to jeopardize his parole. I was never certain why it had to be discussed right then, all of us packed in together like that.
Mom opened with, “I found pot in your jeans pocket this morning.” She never let any of us use the washing machine for fear we’d break it. She did everyone’s laundry, including Chris’s, even though he was then twenty-seven.
Chris found the discovery funny and chortled a little, “Yeah, I was lookin’ for that.”
Mom’s concerns were practical. “You can’t be smoking pot while you’re on parole. If you get picked up again and have that on you, you could end up in prison.”
“Yeah, I know,” he retorted with dismissive annoyance, because he did not want to face the consequences of this truth.
“You do not want to go to prison,” she emphasized. The thought of Chris in prison became the stuff of our nightmares.
Dad and Chris had a longstanding adversarial relationship, and now he needed to chime in, “You aren’t allowed to smoke that in the house anyway. You better knock it off.”
Chris ignored him, stared deliberately out the window, away from Dad.
“Do you hear me? Are you gonna quit?” Dad asked sternly, wanting to dominate.
“Probably not,” Chris mumbled.
“I am sick and tired of you disrespecting us. I am telling you to quit and you’ll quit goddammit or you’ll get the hell out of our house!” Dad’s voice intensified, dropping into attack mode.
They were powder kegs, each one of them, ready to light off with the slightest provocation. And once one erupted, the rest followed. The match was on now, each one yelling aggressively over the top of the other.
But I was the sensitive one, the quiet one. I ingested their rage and let it eat away at me from the inside. Most of the time I was able to keep a placid exterior. But that day, with the hostility so intense and so close, noiseless tears streaked down my face. I already knew the weak are preyed upon and I tried to keep from making any semblance of sound.
But as luck would have it, after years of being ignored by him, that was the day Chris noticed me.
He turned his head my direction and spat across the six inches separating us, “And what are you crying for? You don’t give a shit about me! Don’t even talk to me, you think you’re so much fucking better than me!”
How could he think that? How could he not know that my whole life had revolved around him, around me wanting him to love me?
His tirade attacked like dynamite, blasting my world apart. It was difficult to form full sentences without whimpering. My elocution degraded into slurred half-speech.
“That’s not true,” I eked out. “I tell all my friends about you’n how smart you are and everything.”
That would not be the only time I found myself trapped in a moving car with him, assaulted by his words.
On our final day together, Chris asks us to take him on a road trip up north to Madison, MS, about three hours away. This means round trip, we will drive six hours today. He says he’s thinking of moving up there; he’s read that it’s nice. Chris does this often. He fantasizes about the reality of other pastures. But everywhere is essentially the same if the troubles one runs from lie within. He and I are not so different from one another in this way.
As we hit the road, we assume our traveling positions: Vale behind the wheel, Chris in the passenger seat, me in the back with the three dogs crammed in. Although Chris is a staunch conservative, he reads books that are written across all party lines. He rides much of the way with Obama’s biography, Dreams of My Father, open on his lap, and a can of beer in his hand.
Two hours into the drive, he starts, “This part of the Obama biography is shit. He says he believes in America. He talks about this country like he knows anything about it.”
“How far to Madison?” I ask, trying to divert the conversation, attempting to make my disinterest in this topic clear.
“It’ll probably take another hour,” Vale replies.
I gaze out at the spindly pine forests giving way to marshy swamplands, enjoying the brief moment of quiet reprieve.
Chris begins again, “I read Romney’s book and he talked about healthcare and the debt to the system. Obama lies about all this.” He has been trying to goad me into a fight over this stuff for four days now.
“Luke keeps licking my face,” I laugh in response and gently push his snout away.
“Did you see the debate between them? Obama was just lying his ass off. Romney asked him his thoughts on America being the best country and what he was doing to make us stronger and he couldn’t even answer. Romney totally schooled him.”
“I didn’t see the debate,” I answer with indifference.
“They’re still talkin’ about how they wanna stick us with that fucking Obama-care, liberal assholes.”
Finally, I take the bait.
“At least then you’d have health insurance,” I utter under my breath.
“I don’t want their mother-fucking Obama care shoved down my throat! They can keep that fucking shit!”
“I do not care about Democrat and Republican. I care only about the working class and the moneyed class, the issues that have shaped our family, a perspective that I think will resonate with Chris. I respond with what seems to me an evident retort, “Why do you support Romney anyway? Romney is a rich asshole. He doesn’t give a shit about you, none of them do.”
But I misjudge his views.
Chris turns in his seat to face me, his rage already at full throttle, “At least Romney’s trying to keep government out of my business! That’s more than I can say for your guys!”
“Chris, you live in a goddamn trailer park! Nobody cares about your business! None of them would care if you were dead!”
“Do you even know what the act says? Or’re you like those hypocrites in DC? Don’t even know what you’re supporting!” Then, with his encyclopedic knowledge, he starts yelling the provisions of the ACA at me with pronounced force, adding in his derogatory assessment of each.
I holler over the top of him, breathless, “Don’t you think everyone deserves health care?!”
I don’t know how it escalates so fast.
Before I realize what’s happening, we are screaming at each other, cussing with vengeance. Half-thoughts and broken phrases spew out of my mouth, vomit-like, both of us nearly frothing at the mouth. The words we use are liberal, conservative, rich and poor — but this is not really about any of that.
For Chris, this is one of countless outbursts since adolescence. His way of expressing his hurt and insecurity and resentment that life has not treated him the way he thinks it should.
For me, this is a dam unleashing. This is twenty-five years of pent-up aggression; this is the culmination of every moment his pain has superseded mine, of my unwavering love being pushed aside and trivialized. After decades of silence, Chris seems surprised to see that I carry an anger within me that equals his.
Electricity charges through my veins. I am amped up, not human. In this moment I know, this must be what it feels like right before one man kills another.
I need to get away from him. “Stop the car! Vale, just stop the fucking car, right now!” I shout.
Vale swerves off the highway into a Walgreens parking lot.
Before the car fully stops, I jump out and race into the store. I pace laps around the perimeter aisle to calm down, to expend the energy. While shaking uncontrollably, I mutter aloud, furious, at my fucking brother who could not just leave well enough alone, could not just enjoy a day trip with me, had to keep poking at me until I broke.
After several circles around the store, I find the bathroom at the back. The second I enter and close the door behind me, I sob with hysteria.
When I am composed enough to re-enter the store, I buy a box of dog bones in reconciliation. I return to the car and show Chris what I have purchased for his beloved best friends. He does not respond, and then we keep driving.
We ride the rest of the way without talking. Slouching into the backseat, I shove my hands into my jacket pockets. In there I find change from the purchase of the dog biscuits. I pull out a penny, like I used to wish upon when I was kid, wishing for my brother to return to me. I flip it over, back and forth, between my fingers. I see the heads side of the coin facing out in one direction, and tails looking the opposite way, and even though both faces are made of the same copper substance and tethered together, they will never exist side-by-side.
Then, reaching into the box, I pull out a rose-colored dog bone. Luke eats it from my palm with eager delight.
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in Full Grown People, Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins and the Oregon Quarterly.