Ascent of Man/A Vanished Smile

before the fall

When the seas are calm, all ships alike show mastery of floating

One evening in 1965 we were having a fried chicken dinner at the kitchen table in our house in Cheyenne, my newish little brother in a highchair. He suddenly screamed and raised his little arms like a guy being held up at gunpoint. A sharp chicken bone, yet another ill-fitting component of God’s perfect plan, had penetrated the roof of his mouth and stuck there. My mom shouted in a high terrified pitch that still rattles me in the remembrance.  I turned my head away in terror and she dislodged the bone. Then in 1982 my little brother’s car crossed the center line of a road near our house in Phoenix and plowed head-on into a pickup truck, breaking both his legs, severing nerves, slicing his neck, scrambling his insides and unfolding his map. We all know how difficult it is to refold a map. A young firefighter from the station house near Thomas Mall kept him alive by pinching his hemorrhaging jugular closed. At the very instant of the collision, it will be shown, that overpraised jackass Robert Frost arrived on the scene with his stupid plaid shirt, dangling forelock and sleepy staring eyes and ushered my brother down a Road he would not otherwise have traveled. I would much much rather he hadn’t had to travel it. This road has been corrosive. I can see why other routes are preferred by those in the know.  In the single lifetime we’re all granted this quantum path-foisting ate away much of his time on Earth. The crash left him badly damaged but he lived, terribly broken. On the crazed night my mom and I ran to the hospital we found him swaddled in tubes and surrounded by machines, his swollen, battered, terrible, unfamiliar face the bloodied living stillpoint at the center of a metal chrysalis from which he would later emerge, a changed brother, to begin an involuntary midnight voyage. A family member, in the midst of all the sorrow, reminded me that my brother’s own choices had brought this mayhem on, which was absolutely true, however powerless and empty a factoid at that moment.  He’d been playing a drinking game at a friend’s apartment, and his idiocy had dragged two other people into his F***ed-Up Mistake Orbit (FUMO).  The young guy in the pickup truck walked away without a scratch but was badly shaken up, of course.  My brother had a girl in the car with him that night, a casual friend. She would lay in a coma for 6 weeks, the recipient and later ungrateful benefactress of my feverish praying.  During that slumber her parents would successfully sue my parents and later buy a condo with the award money, we learned. When the young lady finally did awaken I remember running giddily around the living room of our house on Mulberry, assuring everyone that Christ, my boyfriend at the time, had heard my prayers and taken care of her, as he would take care of my broken brother.

The hospital that took him in that night absolutely saved his life, possibly in defiance of the natural order, and in the hurry to do so didn’t notice that they overlooked a break. He had two broken thighs and a broken shin and his guts were scrambled. Don’t miss that broken shin, doctors, please. And so they simply didn’t know to set his broken shin. Incredibly. In time he was moved out of Intensive Care, bedazzled and crushed by the full weight and reality of what had happened, and in near constant pain. My mom describes an intern/therapist coming into his room one afternoon a mere week after the crash, to readjust the system of ropes, pulleys and counterweights that held my brother’s badly broken legs aloft. P. reportedly tried desperately to talk the doctor-in-training out of moving his legs at all, when suddenly the young intern released something and my brother’s legs dropped to the bed like deadweights, his spontaneous screams filling the whole floor of the hospital, at which point my mom jumped up and hustled out of the room like a hurried somnambulist, then fled, running running running down the corridor with her hands over her ears. When he went home from the hospital my brother screamed as he moved about with his walker, cried out as he struggled to get out of bed, wept in anguish in the night. It didn’t occur to us to wonder if some broken piece of him hadn’t been seen to. We were idiots in hell. Maybe because he’d been drinking when he crashed we were the family he deserved. At any rate, this episode tested my faith, which had previously been in full flush, from Young Life meetings my sophomore year in high school to the darkling months after my brother’s ruin. Yes – his self-inflicted, choice-driven ruin. The abject failure of prayer in the coming period would change me, as idiotic a reason to surrender one’s faith as dumb luck and glowing new friendships are to find it in the first place.

By the time it became clear that he’d been sent home with a still-broken leg, it was too late. Eventually the unmended shin bone had gone ahead and reassembled itself according to both the crazy determinism inherent in living tissue and the rules of entropy and chaos. The natural mechanism makes the most out of the highly organized bedlam that is repeatedly shown to be at its center.  In the absence of surgical intervention the smashed living bone roused itself, the ragged halves finding each other in the dark to follow the deeply programmed imperatives of repair and survival. The result was a mess. Constant pain and fear, to state the results plainly. Later, one leg shorter than the other, so he wouldn’t be able to run anymore. The hospital offered to rebreak it and my brother demurred. Neither could he smile the way he’d been able to before the accident. The severing of nerves in his face saw to that. When in time he would be moved to reflexively smile the result was more a grimace. Eventually he stopped smiling altogether, the better to avoid being reminded of all the dumb little things he’d taken for granted before. So. My dear little brother went careering down the chute into the arms of a pharmaceutically informed, acute rolling misery that would leave him friendless, directionless, and finally homeless. A few days after the wreck a commiserating neighbor would tell my mom, “Just the sound of the collision was the most awful thing I’ve ever heard.” Through all this period I would lie awake in the dark, every every every night, and picture him in his high chair, his little arms swinging up and shaking with the pain of a chicken bone having speared his hard palate. Like a harbinger. To that nightly vision would later be added the scene, plainly described by my mother, of the intern dropping his legs on the hospital bed.

In 1969 my brother and I were living in Libya on an American air force base with my big lifeguarding, scuba diving sister and my parents. It was our last assignment as a service family. I’d personally arrived there by way of Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas, Wyoming, Florida, at what I later realized was the zenith of an air-base cloistered, crewcut existence of cuffed blue jeans, jug ears, occasional cowboy boots and every day the same species of oversized, horizontally striped Montgomery Ward pullover shirt with the floppy, outsized lapels. My largish 8-year old’s ass was made even more pronounced by the tiny nondescript beige bubble I wore for a head. Having just come from Cheyenne, Libya was a strange and unnerving new world for Little Jug-Ears, and my brother and I made the most of it. Just before daybreak every morning the skies and gardens and kitchen windows and parked fighter jets and barracks and Office’s Club and movie theater would reverberate to the disturbingly monotone, air-raid-siren-loud singsong of prayers being broadcast from the mosques just off base. Until someone explained the practice to me I assumed these early morning loudmouths were just yelling at everyone to wake up.

Patrick and I didn’t know we were in a Muslim country, couldn’t know our concrete and barbed-wire, wall-surmounted Air Base was an island of grudgingly accepted Western sovereignty in an ancient land of nomads, oases, sword-swinging Berbers, and sandstorms so weirdly fierce that after the event you would find sand from the Sahara at the bottom of what had been a factory sealed cereal box, a phenom I never had explained but at which my friends and I marveled. My brother and I accepted this occasionally jarring new world with the mildly grinning equanimity of the stupid. In a couple years Gadaffi would storm in with his henchmen, topple the buffoonish King Idris, and close the base.

Like good crusaders my brother and I dutifully walked the 5 blocks to Sunday school once a week to be reminded we’d been born in sin and that our salvation would only come at the behest of a gentleman whose framed portrait on the classroom wall made him look like a freshly shampooed gentile from Cleveland. On leaving our quarters Sunday morning I  would carry the lone family bible, an unread, threadbare, dust-streaked prop with a broken zipper, interestingly tissuey pages and red letters to indicate Jesus’ alleged speeches, murmurings and often ruinously indecipherable pronouncements. We’d lifted it from a hotel somewhere in our scant travels.  Patrick, not wanting to show up empty-handed, would carry a bright blue hardcover copy of The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics. True. Naturally the inclination in hindsight is to wonder which of us carried the more fabulist tome.

I can remember vividly that our Sunday school teacher, to my frustration, pronounced the word ‘hell’ as ‘hal’; an impediment that made her uniquely unsuited to threaten us with brimstone. She once asked our class where people who did not allow themselves to be saved from sin were destined to go. There was gravity in her voice and a sense of careful treading, I remember. We all bowed our heads in embarrassment. The name of the place in most of our households was itself a form of invective, a curse word; something mom yelled with conviction when the meatloaf fell apart. The teacher had singled out a little blond girl in the class who couldn’t help but raise her hand to half-mast in what looked like an almost unwilling Pavlovian response. She knew the answer but couldn’t say it.

“Yes, Audra?”

“I can’t say it.” Her blushing face was aimed squarely at the floor. No matter. Our teacher couldn’t say it either. She nodded in gentle commiseration as she spoke.

“It’s Hal, isn’t it?”

Some of my classmates’ heads bobbed up in mild curiosity. Hal?

Hal, I thought, doesn’t sound so bad.

*

My brother is recently happily married. He and his wife go to church and they’re studying the Bible, whose Old Testament is the story of a pissed off and impatient God who yells from the empty sky and grows more and more angry as his people continue to f**k up. Great numbers of livestock and desert tribespeople are consumed in cantankerous sheets of fire, men are ordered to put knives to their own kids’ throats in order to prove their fidelity to this Creationist Egomaniac. There are also dark warnings about eating shellfish. It’s a mad grab bag of amorality and eye-crossing gibberish. No publisher today would touch the thing. The New Testament God acquires a bold new brand, though. He is merciful and nice, wears a terrycloth robe and a beard that, in photographs, is neatly combed. He offers up His own Son for once, and makes frank, sweet, apologetic promises that as yet we’ve no way of fully trusting. It’s as if He wearied of murder, became embarrassed by it, and walked into His own light. So it is with my brother. The Fates are taking a breather. They’ve delivered their beating and their arms are tired. My brother’s turning to God may be standard operating procedure once you’ve come through a fire, or after having for years been consigned to sleeping on curbs, in alleyways, in shelters and in fleabag hotels. For years and years! Then through his own heroic efforts and bootstrap-yanking heartwork he finds himself on a mattress with a new best friend. Bigger than a PhD.

It must be said that I did the consigning.  When my dad passed away (“Don’t screw up,” he’d said levelly to P. when he’d sensed his own end was near; one of the few things he ever said to my brother or me) and my mom became P’s safety net and protector and constant companion, his ride to the courthouse downtown, his jailhouse advocate and sacrificial lamb, his inadvertent co-conspirator in the housing of stolen goods, the adventure took its toll over a decade or so. When a final straw appeared and was put in place my wife and I went out to Phoenix and moved my mom out here to SB. My brother, dismayed at the turn of events and terrified at his being cast out, had said to me in a private moment as we loaded the U-Haul, “Maybe I’ll just tag along?” To which I’d gestured emphatically. No.  “…but I don’t know how to take care of myself!” he’d hissed tearily, in a scene I’ll never shake.  It was a rare burst of openness and vulnerability that was too late in arriving. And I was an overwhelmed and intransigent son and brother, confusedly and ineptly trying to rescue his collapsing mother.

He was given $500 and instructions that amounted to “make a life and call us when you’ve done so.” At the end of that trip we’d hugged, and then he climbed into his battered Pontiac and drove away with a wave, the Valley of the Shadow of Shit awaiting with surprises and miseries none of us, even then, could foresee. When his car disappeared around the corner I sat down on the curb in front of the family homestead, put my head in my hands and sobbed like a guy in a movie, racked and comforted by the pretense of helplessness. My little little little brother, he of the rope swing behind our house in Cheyenne, the matchbox car collection, the Star Trek mural I’d painted on his bedroom wall to his unguarded delight, the daily attempts to smash his curling hair down before going to school, his tongue in the corner of his mouth with the effort. Driving away to a life I still can’t even imagine, a period of blunt survival among strangers in dimly lit, filthy surroundings, no mom or Jeff to hold onto. I see him in his bow tie beside our white picket fence, in Libya of all places, then his compliant sitting in Sunday School with an open book of Science Fiction Classics on his desk.  Note to self. Call him. Luv ya, Pat. You did it.

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