I haven’t heard from Peter in several weeks. We had been talking regularly since I found him in October. Whether he used a friend’s phone or his Tracfone or sent me a text from the phone of some random stranger he passed by and asked to use their phone, he found a way to get messages to me to let me know that he was alive if not well. And, more recently, he’d been finding the time and phone minutes for fairly lengthy conversations. To be truthful, it was kind of getting on my nerves. More often than not he’d greet my hello with that idiotic, “How ya doooo’in?!” which always sets my teeth on edge. And even before I could regain my composure from his irritating greeting, he would ask what I was doing/where I was, and then be flummoxed that I was at work (where he expected me to be in the middle of a random weekday I have no idea). He would then launch into a monologue about his exploits on the streets and his girl (a 20 year old addict he is in love with and helping (sic) get straightened out so she might get her kid back). With vague half-hearted inquiries about me or my family, he would interrupt my responses to regale me with more minutiae of his encumbered existence than I could handle, process or really cared to know about. In the months since I’d first seen him he’d lost at least a half dozen backpacks and bags, several articles of clothing, and at least 4 pre-paid cell phones, leaving him once again and still with only the clothes on his back. In that time though he’d survived a pretty harsh Boston winter. I give him credit for that at least. Also, to his credit, he only asked me for help or money a handful of times and didn’t balk when I didn’t give it. Even with my heightened irritation with him, losing contact with him for this long a period of time troubled me. I found myself imagining the worst. Stories about the recent rise in heroin overdoses and the introduction of new dangerous drugs in the area popped out at me in the news every time I turned on my computer and added to my unease. Once in the last 6 or so weeks my phone rang and it was a call from Peter’s pocket. I heard through a layer or two of fabric his drawling discourse, about how this shit was so much better than that K2 shit. Though I screamed into my phone trying to get his attention, I only succeeded in giving myself a headache and hung up after a few minutes of listening to what I didn’t want to hear anyway.
And so it is that I (and every other family member of an addict) continue on this ride through the un-funhouse. I don’t know what it is that keeps me interested. Part of it is that I keep expecting, wanting, hoping for him to be my brother; the boy that I grew up with; quick-witted, wickedly funny, smart-alecky and bold as brass, comically defiant but basically good-hearted. The comrade and co-conspirator of my childhood years. I guess I also just want a brother and I have some apparently ridiculous notion of what that means. As if Leave-It-To-Beaver and the concept of family were fed to me in my pablum, I can’t let go of certain stereotypical notions of sibling or family. And I end up feeling ripped-off because I ended up with the calamitous consolation prize. Not only don’t I have Beaver Cleaver as a younger brother, I have this shell of a man who can’t support or sustain himself, never-mind have anything to offer anyone else. A guy who rambles on about absolutely nothing and has so little self awareness that he can’t tell fact from fiction or have even an inkling that the life he lives is so far from normal. Yes, we were a far cry from Ozzie and Harriet’s relatives. Actually, even the Munsters were saner than us. The alternate feeling to feeling cheated is the feeling that perhaps I expect/demand too much (with the flip side of that coin being that I don’t deserve better). What family is “normal”? What siblings get along so well that they are truly friends, close confidants? The Beave isn’t a realistic brother on any planet. Make the best of what you’ve got because nobody has exactly what they want. A similar theme to my gender and body issues? Perhaps.
At any rate, I got a message to Peter saying that Jo had an orthodontist appointment downtown near where he hangs out in the city and that I had a pair of sweatpants and 5 bucks for him if he showed up at 9:15. Joita’s appointment was actually at 9, but I thought it would be simpler and better for her if she didn’t have to deal with uncle Pete. As luck would have it, the orthodontist was running late. Poor kid. Peter walked in past the suspicious guard at about 20 past 9. He caught sight of me almost as soon as he entered and bellowed, “Hiya Sissy!” He then turned his attention to Joita, whom he hasn’t seen since she was about 4 and trumpeted in the most avuncular tone he could muster (as if she were still 4) (and deaf), “Is that my little niece?! Och, when did they let you grow up!? So beautiful honey. Here, plant one on your uncle Peter’s cheek.” Of course, he was shouting this from more than a dozen paces away across a crowded waiting room. Every head turned to stare at this filthy, disheveled, bedraggled, blatantly homeless man shambling into the room (and it being school vacation week it was packed). I stood up and was shushing him as I got between him and my daughter. “Aw, don’t shush me! I don’t care who hears me. I’m just happy to see my little niece and my family!”, he said getting progressively louder (gotta love that oppositional defiance). I edged him to a seat near but not next to Joita and sat there with him. Lucky for Jo they called her in for her appointment. Peter sprawled sloppily across the chair and started talking before his ass settled into the seat.
The discourse was much the same as our phone conversations had been. He talked non-stop about his adventures in homelessness. He half abashedly half smugly told me stories of his less reputable escapades such as stealing from Goodwill, the food pantry and other helping organizations. When he saw that my response was more pity than pride, he moved into narratives that painted him in a somewhat better light. He told me how he is a veritable role model on the streets and in the shelter; clean and sober, smart and savvy, a sage swami to his vagabond comrades. When I cocked my head quizzically at the mention of being clean and sober (remembering the pocket-call) he looked stricken. “That’s right”, he told me angrily, “Clean and fucking sober, not even a joint for 3 solid years!” Fuck everyone who doesn’t believe him, doesn’t believe in him. Fuck anyone who questions his credibility or esteem. He knows he’s a reputable citizen of this fair city. Did he tell me how he’d bumped into a friend of mom’s and how he actually gave Peter 35 bucks?! Yes, several times. Yeah well Harvey, nearly a stranger, helped him out more than his quote, family, has in quite some time. From there I got lecture on how difficult it is to get a decent meal without money and an inventory of the half dozen dumpsters and trash cans he shops at. In order to better illustrate, he jerked around like a dog chasing his tail and rummaged through an inside pocket to retrieve a thick handful of dirty, used, lottery scratch-tickets. And as he flipped through them, putting the ripped sides together and peering intensely at them, he learned me some lessons on the fine art of finding a winner among the detritus. Even when I showed less than no interest he went on in a compulsive agitated manner, searching for the ever elusive pot-o-gold icon. He scratched the remaining gray off tickets with his already filthy thumb nail and talked as if he were giving a scientific lecture on quantum physics and the importance of rapt attention to detail. He abruptly stopped and jerked his leg spilling the defiled tickets onto the floor as a new thought struck him. Had he shown me the scar from his surgery last summer? Yes, several times. He tweaked up his pant leg to reveal a long scar that was so caked with filth that I literally recoiled. Not that he noticed as he went on to tell me about his surgery and recovery and the pain the leg still causes him. But then something made him think of his girl, Mary. Has he told me about her? Yes, several times. She’s incredible and so intense and quite intelligent and wise for her age. And he is crazy in love with her and plans to get himself a job and a place to live. As soon as he gets a pair of clean underwear. Did he tell me how some scumbag stole his backpack with his change of clothes in it (that self-same bag he stole from Goodwill mind you). Yes actually, several times.
I got up purposefully with the intention of getting off the carousel of lunacy and walked him to the door. He didn’t question where we were going, simply followed my lead, though he did keep talking. I paused on the landing outside the doorway and, aware of the guard’s inquiring stare, hugged Peter goodbye. With a hand on his back I nudged him on his way and watched him light a cigarette as he got his bearings and shuffled away.
I watched him fade into the foot-traffic on the busy street. My brother. Not the brother I always wanted or ever wished for. But the only brother I have. I deserve better.