The year before, 1981, we’d moved to a new house in Nichols Hills with a pool. It was the summer after my freshman year in college, and most of my weekend time was divided between swimming, reading, and tippling, while my stepsister was off with her boyfriend for the most part. I enjoyed myself. I liked being alone, but I also liked having friends over to share my happiness; that summer was perhaps the closest I ever came to achieving a golden mean in this respect. It made me feel benevolent.
One day I was entertaining five or six friends when my brother called. He had tickets for the Cheap Trick concert that night and wondered if I wanted to come. This was a novel invitation and rather touching, though I wasn’t interested for any number of reasons; still, I wanted to make some sort of reciprocal gesture. I explained that I was busy that night (true), then asked if he’d like to come over and spend the day with me and my friends. It was the first time I’d ever willingly exposed others to the adult Scott, who seemed moved by the offer.
He rode over on a motorcycle he’d recently bought cheap from one of his coworkers. Full of my own benevolence, I pretended not to mind that he was drinking a beer as he rode up, sans helmet and license to operate a motorcycle or any other motorized vehicle. I looked at his eyes, assessed the slur in his voice, and figured he’d taken maybe a bong hit and drunk three or four beers. It could have been worse, and besides he seemed so happy to see me, just to be there, that I couldn’t bring myself to remark on the fact that he was half in the bag by noon and should be more careful, at least around my friends.
Everybody tried to be nice to Scott. They knew he had problems and knew, too, that there was something momentous about his being here at the pool — this brother whose existence I rarely acknowledged. My friends acted as if they’d been enlisted in a secret charity, as I suppose they had. Scott sat on the edge of the shallow end, near the gazebo and beer, while, one by one, my friends swam over to chat with him. After a few hours I began to relax a little — even to cast ahead to other such occasions, to plan a whole summer project of easing my brother into the social mainstream and presenting him, at last, to my proud father.
I was in the kitchen when I caught a glimpse of Scott lurching toward the bathroom. He caromed off a wall and splashed beer all over the floor, righting himself like a fullback pawing his way into the end zone with a scrappy bit of second effort. I dropped what I was doing and waited outside the bathroom. He was in there a long time, then burst out the door and collided with me full speed.
Hear Blake Bailey speak about the life and death of his brother, Scott.
I got back on my feet and glared at him there on the floor. He was laughing and wanted me to laugh with him.
“What’ve you been taking?” I asked.
Scott looked hurt. “Whaddya mean? Justa few beers!” His head wobbled with denial.
“You are so full of shit.”
“Justa few beers . . .”
I went outside and asked my friends to leave — all but sweet-natured, redheaded Matt, my old pot-smoking companion, who came closest to being a confidant where drugs and my brother were concerned. Matt wanted to tell me something in private. The others didn’t have to ask what was wrong, as they’d already noticed (while I was gloating over my benevolence) that something odd was happening to Scott.
We were all standing around the driveway saying sheepish good-byes when one friend pointed to the roof and laughed. I looked. Scott had somehow clambered up there with my nine-year-old stepbrother’s banana-seat bicycle, which he was now poised (if that’s the word) to ride into the pool for our entertainment.
“You think that’s funny?” I said to my friends, all of whom had succumbed to a kind of sickly mirth — these people whose parents had never divorced and whose siblings were a lot of regular guys and gals just like themselves. “Get the hell outta here!” I started herding them into their cars, giving one of them an extra push when he paused to glance back at my brother, who’d apparently sensed he was losing his audience and rolled off the roof without further ado.
He wasn’t badly hurt. Ours was a largeish one-story house whose eaves were maybe eight feet off the ground. I found the little bicycle crumpled at the edge of the pool, its front wheel wanly spinning, while my brother sputtered “Fuck, my knee!” (laughing) and splashed around a bit before losing his balance and slipping underwater.
“What’re you, fucking six years old?” I yelled, when he came to the surface again. “What’ve you been taking?”
“Justa few beers…” Plaintive.
My friend Matt waved me inside. He seemed reluctant to speak. For maybe five minutes we just stood at the sliding door watching my brother, who was trying to mount a Styrofoam raft with a singular lack of success. Twenty or so times he jumped on belly-first, only to slip off the side or capsize, hugging the thing for dear life; then he tried hiking a leg over, both legs, both sides, many times . . . Plainly Scott lacked the coordination to board that raft — he fell fifty times, a hundred, it wasn’t going to happen — but he seemed to find meaning in the effort per se. The raft was his thing. At some point I changed clothes and rejoined Matt at the sliding door. Scott was still at it. He reminded me of a trick-riding clown I’d seen at the Vinita rodeo.
Finally Matt spoke: Scott, he said, had been shooting heroin in the bathroom. How did Matt know? Well, because Scott had offered him some.
“And what did you say?” I asked.
“I said no. I told him thanks, but no.”
“And what did he say?”
“He told me not to worry about needles. He said he’d, you know, do it for me.”
I thanked Matt and asked him to leave. Then I went outside and sat on a chaise longue by the pool. Scott had towed the raft to some steps in the shallow end, where he hoped to mount it in a sitting position; he stood on the top step and eyed that slab of Styrofoam as if it were a
“Having trouble?” I asked.
He spotted me there on the patio and broke into an ecstatic grin. We might have just encountered each other on the streets of a foreign city: What a surprise! Wie geht’s, old man? . . .
“So now you’re a junkie too?”
The smile wavered as he parsed this; then he looked plaintive again. “Whassa matter?” He looked at me with infinite self-pity: Why did I have to ruin everything? If he was happy, why couldn’t I be happy too?
I went inside and phoned our mother. I explained the situation. At first she didn’t believe me about the heroin, but when I told her what Matt had said (she knew Matt) and reminded her of what my father and I had seen that day at the Earl Hotel, she believed it. She advised me to keep him there. I said it wouldn’t be easy. I told her about the motorcycle and the Cheap Trick concert; moreover I had a dinner engagement with an old family friend, the chef at the Grand Boulevard Restaurant, Scott’s former employer.
“Well, cancel it!” said my mother.
I said he’d be here any minute, that he’d made a reservation at an excellent restaurant, and really I had no intention of missing a good meal for the sake of some junkie asshole who shoots up around my friends. I said as much while glaring directly into the misty eyes of the junkie in question, who’d tottered into the doorway with a look of dim foreboding. He stood there in his wet underwear, dripping on the floor.
“Whosa?” he asked.
“It’s our mother,” I said. “You want to talk to her?”
I held out the phone, which squawked “Scott? Goddamn it! What’ve you been . . .”
A number of complicated attitudes seemed to play on Scott’s face: there was the haunted look of a little boy caught; there was jaded impatience with our mother’s browbeating; there was not a little humor. All this blended at last into a look of nonchalant denial. He shook his head at the phone with a bleary frown, then on second thought muttered “Justa few beers” and fell back against the dining-room table, folding his arms as if his staggering were natural.
‘Justa few beers’ was the best he could muster — or rather he couldn’t be bothered: that inane little mantra was good enough, it seemed, for the likes of me.
“Well, there you have it,” I said.
“Keep him there,” said my mother. “And call me back.”
I hung up and asked Scott to give me the keys to his motorcycle. He looked stricken, amused, incredulous: Why?
“You know why. Don’t give me that shit. Matt told me all about it. Give me the fucking keys!”
He shook his head.
“Scott,” I said, “listen carefully. You’re in no condition to ride a motorcycle. You can hardly stand up. Feel free to spend the night here, but you’re not going to any goddamn Cheap Trick concert.”
“Justa few beers” was the best he could muster — or rather he couldn’t be bothered: that inane little mantra was good enough, it seemed, for the likes of me. He stood there with his arms folded, weaving slightly, mouth agape with infantile defiance.
At this point I snapped and did something violent, resulting in a softball-sized hole in the expensive, upholstered wallpaper my stepmother had picked out in the course of redecorating the dining room. They had to cover this hole with a picture for some months. I simply can’t remember how I did it. Did I throw something? Did I use my fist? Such was the extremity of that moment — such was my blinding rage toward the vacuous, fucked-up face of my incorrigibly fucked-up brother — that I lapsed into a kind of fugue state.
But I was instantly sobered by the hole in the wall, as well as by the sound of knocking on the door. Chef had arrived.
“Hold on!” I yelled. I looked at Scott. He was pondering the hole and looking vaguely hurt about things, as though he’d been spanked on his birthday.
“Scott,” I said, “promise me you won’t go to that concert tonight.”
He sniveled that the tickets had cost him twenty bucks, that he’d been looking forward to it for months, and (it went without saying) he had so little to look forward to. I handed over the thirteen or so dollars in my wallet; if he promised to stay home, I said, I’d give him the seven later. Did he promise?
After a pause (knock knock knock), he nodded. I patted his shoulder and started to go.
“You’re leaving . . . ?”
Scott wagged his head. That was not part of the deal as he saw it.
“Who’re you . . . ?”
He took a deep breath. “Fat — fuck. No talent . . . faggot.”
“Scott, I’ll see you later,” I said. “Get some sleep.”
“. . . Can I come?”
At the door I squeezed past our friend Chef.
“What’s the hurry, you little shit?” he said, then turned around and faced Scott there in the doorway. They hadn’t seen each other in years, not since the man had finally fired Scott. My brother stood glaring in a way that was meant to be menacing, but most of his strength was spent on the mere standing, so that he couldn’t quite focus his menace. He was still there, and still glaring, when we pulled out of the driveway.
“God,” Chef sighed a block or so later. He shook his head, his breath whistling in his beard. “God, I wish I hadn’t seen that.”
During dinner I remembered to call my mother back. I excused myself and found a pay phone.
“Where are you?” she asked.
I told her.
“You left Scott alone?” This in a neutral voice my mother used when she was beyond vexation.
“What else could I do? He wouldn’t give me
She sighed. “You know where he is now?”
“He’s not at the house?”
“He’s in jail.”
And then she proceeded to explain what I surely already knew — had known, indeed, when I left my brother alone at the door: namely, that he had promptly endeavored to ride his motorcycle to the Cheap Trick concert, and had naturally been arrested for driving while intoxicated, without a license, and whatever else. I remember being impressed that he’d almost made it all the way to the Myriad Convention Center downtown, where the concert took place. Another block or so and all might have been well — in which case, no doubt, he would have reprised the “Justa few beers” mantra for my benefit.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 9, May 1, 2014.
Excerpted from The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait by Blake Bailey. Copyright © 2014 by Blake Bailey. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.