More than anything I was embarrassed that he was my brother. I knew Winston was capable of genuine stupidity. It followed him like a half-witted dog with nothing better to do.
“Your brother called. He got himself arrested,” Mama said.
“Some kind of drug sting.”
“Is he still in jail?”
“Yeah, Lisa don’t have the money to get him out.”
“What’s he gonna do?”
“Your daddy is going to post bail.”
“Your daddy is worried he might lose his job.”
“What do you think?”
“He’s probably already lost it.”
“How long has he been in there?”
Mama filled in all the blank spaces, the angles. Nobody knew much, other than that he was locked up, probably for trying to buy some weed, caught up in the basic drug sweep, round them up, sort them out later. As much as Daddy worried about Winston’s job, Mama worried about his kids. Little Win was old enough to know what was going on, even if Nicole, his little sister, didn’t. How were they going to take their daddy being in jail? Lisa, my brother’s wife, already had a stack of problems to deal with; they were always behind on something, phone bill, electric. The mortgage. They were months behind on that.
I wanted to keep the whole thing at a distance because that was how I learned to deal with the old neighborhood. I wanted to know what was happening as much as anyone, but I didn’t want to have to sit on a porch with somebody I hadn’t hung with for years, who probably wanted to bum a few dollars, to hear.
We were the one family who hadn’t lost somebody to the tidal wave of rock cocaine. We had gotten through unscathed, unlike so many from the neighborhood who decided to commit suicide, to reduce themselves to shadow husks of what they once were.
Then Winston slapped me in the face with the reality of it.
Daddy was there at the arraignment. He heard the charge, “attempting to purchase a quantity of a controlled substance, rock cocaine.”
Winston still wouldn’t admit to it.
“Why don’t you talk to him? Find out what’s this all about,” Daddy asked me.
It was hard to catch up with Winston once he was released. I’d call, and Lisa would say I just missed him. After a while, I suspected he was avoiding me. Finally, during lunch, I left the teachers’ lounge early and caught him.
“Hey, Winnie. Where you’ve been hiding?”
He laughed nervously.
“How’s it going?” I asked when he refused to pick up the lead.
“It’s alright. Nothing but a humbug.”
“So, you’re not worried?”
“Why should I be worried? That was straight out entrapment.”
I knew it then. He was smoking. He didn’t deny it. It was just that they caught him.
“You didn’t ask, but they offered it to you?”
“Yeah! That’s exactly what they did.”
“How did it happen?”
“I was in Pomona.”
“I know that. How’d it happen?”
Winston shut up then. He knew he had admitted too much.
“I was drunk. I don’t remember.”
The perfect defense.
“What’s Daddy saying to you?” I asked.
“You know Daddy. Bugging me.”
“Why’s he bugging you?”
“You know, he thinks I’m gonna run off or something.”
Then Mama called with her spin on things.
“She’s going to lose that house,” Mama said.
“Yeah, no way she’s gonna come up with the cash for all those backed up bills.”
“But they’re making good money.”
“Well, if she ain’t lying to me, they’re in a hell of a lot of trouble. Don’t be surprised if they don’t try to borrow something.”
Those were the words that scared me. People knew me to be a chicken-shit skinflint. I wasn’t going to lose that label for nothing less than a true crisis. For a while, I wouldn’t pick up the phone. Tina did, and I’d wave it away. It was unfair, but she was the one who had to listen to the updates on the upcoming trial and Winston’s doing. She had especially long conversations with Lisa, and that’s when the plan backfired. Tina ended up loaning Lisa six hundred dollars. Lisa said she’d repay us and that the bills were under control. She needed the money to finish remodeling the kitchen is what Tina told me.
The closer Winston’s court date got, the better Winston became at finding money to catch up with bills. Lisa remarked he was spending time around the house playing with the kids.
Maybe everything wasn’t going to go to hell for him, I told myself, but it was just wishing and hoping.
Jude started having problems—somehow he lost all his furniture and rent money, and of course, he wanted to borrow forty dollars. I bargained him down from forty to ten, a sum of money that I thought he wouldn’t be inclined to come all the way out to Pasadena for.
At about eleven that night, after Tina had already gone to bed, I was stretched out on the couch dozing, watching some TV show, when the doorbell rang. Disoriented, I stumbled to the door, flicked on the porch light, and peeked through the blinds. Both my brothers, Jude and Winston, were standing there grinning like idiots. Pissed, I opened the door.
“What are you guys doing here?” I asked.
“You said come by and get that twenty,” Jude said calmly.
“Twenty? I didn’t say twenty. I said ten.”
“Aw, come on. Who’d come all he way out here for ten dollars?”
“Keep it down. I don’t want to wake Tina.”
Neither of them seemed buzzed. They both were pleasant and calm, but they really wanted twenty dollars.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t have it.”
“What do you have?” Jude asked again.
“A ten. I told you that.”
“What about Tina? Could she come up with a ten?”
“No,” I said.
“Could you ask her?” Winston asked.
“No,” I said and reached for my wallet. I noticed how Winston’s eyes followed my hand. I had thirty, but I wasn’t giving it up. I twisted awkwardly and slipped out the ten.
“Here,” I said and handed it to him.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Aw, come on.”
Sighing, I reached into my pocket and came out with some change and poured it into his hand.
“Don’t you go to court tomorrow?” I asked, going on the offensive.
Winston stepped off the porch as though he was going to leave without answering.
“Yeah,” he said, not bothering to turn.
“You worried?” I asked, trying to sting him.
Winston laughed, “Naw, I told everybody it’s a humbug.”
The family once again had to visit Winston in an institution. A lot had changed since the first time. The family was bigger—kids, wives, and girlfriends—and this time there was no doubt it was Winston’s fault that he was “back to the box,” as he called it. Again, it wasn’t a typical jail. It was more or less a hospital.
It was very relaxed. Many of the men there had their families visiting. I’d wait, playing ping-pong and watching TV, for Winston to finish with therapy, but Mama, Daddy, and Lisa would watch along with the other families. The men were supposed to stand and announce their particular addiction. Some of the whites, the largest group present, would grow red in the face when their turn came up.
“I’m addicted to alcohol and cocaine,” this bearded trucker-looking guy said, talking so fast his words sounded like one big mumble, when his turn came up. It was the most typical statement, and afterward everyone applauded. Finally, Winston’s turn came up, and Tina pulled me away from the ping-pong game I was playing with little Win. She wanted us to watch Winston’s testimony but not where I wanted to sit, far in the back, beyond the last row of seats. She led us to where Mama, Daddy, Lisa, and the baby, Nicole, were seated. It felt like church. Church always made me feel crazy as though the priest or minister were talking directly to me about my shortcomings.
Winston grinned nervously as he stood there in the circle of men. It made him look very young.
“My name is Winston Michaels, and I’m a drug addict.”
As soon as he said addict, he sat down in a panicked rush.
Everyone laughed, and a handsome Latino man waved for Winston to stand.
“Brother, don’t you think that was a little fast?”
Painfully, Winston stood up again.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Could you explain your addiction?”
Words must have left Winston for higher ground because he just stood there shrugging like an idiot.
“What started you? I started ’cause I liked hanging out with my homies.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Same here. I liked hanging out with the fellas.”
“But, bro, it’s different for everybody. Everybody has their own story.”
Winston wasn’t one of the oldest of the inmates or patients or whatever they called them, but he was up there. Now, though, he was shedding age, getting younger by the excruciating moment.
“I . . . you know . . . like to smoke a little weed.”
“But you said you had a problem with cocaine?”
“Yeah, where I worked, they started testing for weed. Somebody said coke was harder to test for.”
“Did you get away with it?”
“Yeah, for a while.”
“But it caught up with you.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Winston looked as though he was about to relax. He glanced at the seat and started to sit.
“Did you ever ask yourself why’d you do something like that? Ruin your life over a weak little plan, so you could keep getting loaded?”
“I . . . ah . . . you know.”
“What did you think?”
“I made a mistake.”
Winston happily sat down, but he wasn’t getting out until he showed more humility. I worried more about him getting out than being in there. When he was a kid doing time at YTS, he never admitted to doing anything wrong, even if his only involvement in the robbery was being dense enough not to notice his passengers getting ready to rob a liquor store. Now, even with his probation contingent on a good faith attempt at recovery, Winston could barely bring himself to admit he had a habit or a problem or whatever he wanted to call it.
I suspected, when he finished the diversion program, all of our support wouldn’t slow him down a bit from rushing out to find the first pipe to get a hit from. Though Winston seemed genuinely happy for the family being there, he still had periods when he slipped into that face he wore before he was institutionalized.
“So why won’t you loan me twenty? I know you got it.”
“We want to buy a house,” I said, which was my usual response to money questions. And I wondered what he needed money for in jail. Didn’t they take care of the basics? Also, sometimes Winston would go off on Lisa when they had a moment alone; his face would flush red, and he’d talk to her so fiercely it looked to me that she might cry. Tina told me how much she was starting to dislike Winston.
“He’s just intimidating her, so when he gets out, she won’t divorce him.”
“You think Winston plans that far in advance?”
Which Tina disregarded with a smirk.
I didn’t mean to say that. I wanted to say something else. I wanted to say that I thought it was impossible for Winston to be intimidating. And, even though Lisa was very sweet and non-confrontational, she should be able to stand up to Winston.
I had sense enough not to say that to Tina.
A homecoming was planned. Mama made preparations to cook a huge meal, and Lisa and the kids decorated the living room of their quickly falling into disrepair house with streamers and balloons. Daddy firmed up the job offers. Even Jude came, and he even brought his daughter, Maria, which meant he probably caught up with his child support payments. Everyone seemed in good spirits except for me and Tina. Tina helped out with the cooking, the stirring of the big pot of gumbo and checking on the oyster patties, but that was a little self-serving because patties and gumbo were her favorite things my mother cooked.
“Why so glum, gump?”
“I’m not glum. I’m just waiting to eat.”
“Yeah. That’s why you got a gut. Always waiting to eat.”
“Aw, Daddy,” I said and went to find Tina. She was in Nicole’s room, braiding Nicole’s hair. Nicole was dressed in a pretty white dress with polka dots and a matching hat that Tina had bought for her.
“Is your brother up yet?” Tina asked.
“No, Lisa’s in the bedroom trying to wake him up. She says she has a system. She sings his name and flicks the light off and on,” I said.
Both of us were straining to sound polite and happy that, after we had driven all the way out to Chino to see him, my brother was too tired to wake up and join his own party. Nicole was very smart. Tina flashed a loaded stare as a warning: say nothing that even hints of anger at Winston.
After finishing the braids, Tina led Nicole to a mirror.
“Don’t you look beautiful,” she said. Nicole smiled reservedly as she did.
Winston finally did wake and came out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes, shoeless, his new prison socks glowed white on the dingy rug.
“Hi,” he said to all of us.
“’Bout time you got up!” Mama said, rolling her eyes as she went to the kitchen to ready the food.
“Oh, uh, I’m sorry,” Winston said, shrugging his arms, looking hopeless.
Daddy shook his head, obviously irritated, but he kept his peace.
“Man, we was going to eat without you,” Jude said.
Jude ragging Winston was memorable because it was one of the few times that either of them attacked the other.
“Aw, ya’ll could have. I was just catching up on my sleep.”
That might have been a reasonable statement for him to make if he had been released yesterday or the day before, but Winston had been out for almost a week.
Now, on the couch with his legs crossed laughing with Daddy, Winston seemed too damned reasonable.
I saw Lisa setting up the table.
“Need some help?”
“Oh, thanks, Garv, but I can handle this.”
“So how’s he acting? Everything going alright?” I asked.
“Your brother is just . . . getting along.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
After a long moment, Lisa replied.
“He’s looking for a job; that’s good,” she said.
“Do you need money?” I whispered.
“Don’t worry. I’m taking care of everything,” she said.
Then she hugged me and started to cry, but she caught herself. She patted my shoulder and returned to the kitchen.
The rest of the evening went well, but it seemed as though something was going to happen. Something that I didn’t want to hear or see or be anywhere around.
On the way home down the dark-ass 210 Freeway, Tina talked bitterly.
“I don’t see how everybody can have a good time when they’re in so much trouble.”
“I asked Lisa if she needed money. She said she had everything under control.”
“Because, Garvy, you want to believe that, so you don’t have to open your wallet. They’re so far behind on their mortgage payment that they need over six thousand dollars to catch up.”
“Six thousand,” I repeated.
“Why are you repeating me?” Tina asked flatly. “And that brother of yours—he’s back at it.”
I knew it. I knew he would, still, Tina’s word’s made my stomach ache.
“Lisa told you?”
“What’s she going to do?”
“I told her to leave him.”
“That’s good advice. What did she say?”
“She’s going to stick with him. See if he can pull himself out of it.”
“One last chance,” I said, “She’ll give him one last chance even after they bury his stupid ass.”
We were quiet the rest of the way home. My stupid-ass brother didn’t even have the sense to know he was miserable. In fact, I suspected he was happy. As long as he wasn’t in jail or having his ass kicked or being nagged by his family, life was good. The bastard.
“You know, Winston’s a happy man.”
“You call that happiness?”
I mumbled a reply, and thankfully, she didn’t ask me to repeat myself.