I knew him alright, pushing the slush back and forth with his worn out tennis shoes. Even from across the street I could see the darkness around his eyes, the haunted scrutiny darting from person to person, the incessant scraping of his thumb across his middle finger. People were beginning to avoid his side of the street.
He had gone off his meds again. I could intervene and drive him the thirty miles for re-admittance to the mental hospital. He would either sit mute next to me or talk relentlessly about the constellation, Orion, as God in the flesh, or the myriad acronyms for Jesus, or his design for a perpetual energy backhoe. I could also walk away. It was the same decision I’d faced for too many years and would continue to face until the day he died. I knew only too well that he didn’t want to be seen by me and yet he did. My brother wanted rescuing just as much as he wanted to die.
I ducked inside a drug store, needing time to think, to calm down, to decide. Across the street was a man who was once a bright light to everyone who had the fortune to know him. As a child, he’d run up to everyone he met and greet them with so much ebullience and joy, and hug them with so much enthusiasm, that sometimes he’d knock them to the ground. Laughing, he would tumble down on top of them, rolling them over, shouting, Hi, Hi, Hi! And now here he was. Six feet four inches tall, with a tangled black beard flecked with new white, greasy and thin shoulder length hair straggling out from under a blue stocking hat, and wearing that same threadbare thrift shop coat and dirty jeans with holes in both knees.
Watching him from the drug store, I could see he was starting to shout; to the sky, the shop window, the bus stop bench. That’s all it took to get the cops. They’d take him the thirty miles all right.
“Nick!” I yelled and rushed across the street. He kicked at a lamppost while watching me cross. I wanted to reach out and touch him but this could trigger a rage moment. He jerked away from me, looked down, and said nothing.
So this was to be the mute occasion. I would find out nothing; not when he last took his meds or even if he had any left. Off the meds, Nick wandered the streets talking out loud, scaring people. I’d given him a broken cell phone once, to hold up to his ear. “Everyone looks crazy talking on their phones. You’ll fit right in and the cops will leave you alone.” But he lost the phone just like he lost everything else.
I wanted him to tell me, right then, that he was ready to go to the hospital even though it wasn’t much better than the halfway house where he lived. But he had to get back on his meds and the hospital was the only place where he’d get stable again (at least until the next time).
I led him to a nearby diner. He ordered a cup of coffee and nothing else. His hands shook as he poured the cream and dropped in two sugar cubes. He gulped it down like he’d never had coffee before. Every day he drank countless cups of coffee, smoked two packs of cheap cigarillos, and this along with the meds made him look ragged, ready to expire.
I ordered for him, his favorite tuna melt. When it arrived, he never once looked at the food, just stared out the window. His stained fingers never stopped their obsessive scraping.
“Nick.” I said, “I love you.” I reached out but he would not give me his hand. I’d always thought he had lovely hands, with long fingers and wide palms. But for all his largeness, his confidence in himself and the world was miniscule. So much wasted potential. Such a beautiful boy. Still a boy.
“Yeah, love you too.” He stared at me, unflinching. I did the same. “I ate them you know.”
“Ate what, Nick?”
“The tiger eyes. They were a portal to the ship. You remember. Over your house in Vermont 30 years ago. They had a message.” His mouth twisted into a smile that was threatening.
Yeah, I remembered alright. I’d seen the golden eyes too, except not the polished stones he swallowed or the UFO he claimed later was flying low over the house. I saw actual eyes, staring at us in the dark from behind the maple, scaring the bejasus out of me. I ran. Nick stayed. He came into the house later, trembling and ecstatic. I was frankly jealous that I hadn’t the guts to stay and experience what he had. From that moment on, I always thought he had an advantage over me − ready to liquefy while I stayed solid, grounded, and too much in the world. In a world gone mad.
Was it a bobcat I knew existed in those woods or was it some alien Nick desperately wanted interaction with? He never told me.
Maybe he would tell me now, finally, what had happened to him that night, perhaps the beginning of it all.
“What message did they give you, Nick?”
“You don’t remember? You were there too, you know.”
Was I? What did he mean, I was there too?
Maybe I was schizophrenic as well? Maybe everyone was. And if we were all crazy, who would even know?
Oh my god, it was all too much. How did my mom stay with it for so long?
“I wanna go outside and have a butt now.”
“Wait, Nick! You need to tell me. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you want me to do?”
It was always like this, left up to me. Our father had never accepted Nick’s schizophrenia. He thought his son was just lazy, living on disability, not contributing anything to society. Our mother made her choice early on, but she never, ever complained. She would take care of Nick until the day she died and that decision tore our parents apart. Then Mom got Alzheimer’s and forgot she had a son.
It didn’t matter now. Our parents were dead.
While he drank his second refill and ate the tuna sandwich, I thought about all the bright ideas I’d had for Nick, and how none had worked. Like when he moved in with me and ended up trashing the apartment and freaking out the neighbors. Or the health retreat I paid for, which ended when he cut down some of their trees. Or how most of the money I lent him was spent on countless used books never read, and broken computers he wanted to fix but never touched.
I watched him eat, ever so slowly. If only I could rescue him, I thought. Save him. Save myself.
“I don’t know what else we can do, Nick.”
“You like counseling me, don’t you?”
“You’re 58. It’s up to you.”
“You’re my sister.”
“Don’t worry so much.”
“Okay then. Let’s go to the hospital.”
“Can I have another cup of coffee first?”
Another round of silence. We were both so tired.
Finally he was finished and I paid the bill. We walked out onto the cold street. I waited while he smoked a cigarette. After he’d stubbed it out on the sidewalk, and before he could light another, I asked him one more time.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Nick?”
He looked me straight in the eye, his own tiger eyes shining brightly. And laughed.
I wanted to punch him in his sunken gut, wanted to slap his face until he woke up. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg him to die. I wanted to scream, to weep uncontrollably − to run away.
I loved my brother so much.
I opened the car door for him. He looked me straight on, deep into my eyes. “It’s OK, Sandy. I’m OK.”
We drove to the hospital in silence. We were both exhausted. I kept thinking of our mom and all the mental health advocacy groups she headed. How many families she had supported in their helplessness. How much research she had done; late at night, alone, unable to sleep. Thirty Years. I had tried to help but I’d probably failed her too.
At the hospital, I helped Nick to check in. At least this time he wasn’t brought in by the cops, straightjacketed, ready for major doses of drugs that knocked his spirit flat.
I held him close and he let me. After many long moments, I looked up at him. I was crying and he was smiling.
“Maybe this time, Nick,” I said.
“Yeah, it’ll be the last. You’ll see.”