Matthew Roberts 82362 Five Lakes Rd. Bush, LA 70431 985.373.0414 mattt.roberts@gmail.

com Donny Isn’t There When Tom Calls Me for a Ride 1. Donny is there. Donny’s there on the stage in the cafeteria at James Madison Elementary School for the talent show. He wears a white jumpsuit, thick framed sunglasses, and a cape. He lipsynchs to Elvis, mimics the King’s patented moves for the PTA. Taking a knee. Spinning the arm. Being all shook up. Donny’s there. Donny’s there in the front room of that low white house on Chastant with the fake suits of armor flanking the china cabinet. Those fake wood handled swords and maces mounted on velvet above the lamps behind the couch. A large crucifix on the wall. The heavily lacquered wood plaque with the Footprints poem found in the home of so many Catholic households in suburban New Orleans. Donny’s there in that front room wearing a navy blue Cub Scout uniform, his thick black hair no longer greased back, but still plastered down, over a slim face of freckles with almond eyes. Others are there, wearing bright yellow bandanas and brass Fox badges. Trey Higgins. Glenn Olivier. My brother, Tom. The boys make their costumes for the annual Cub Scout parade, paw through bags of old beads and doubloons from last year’s Mardi Gras. Endymion. Argus. Rex. Deciding what to keep and what to throw to the families lined up along Kawanee. Donny’s there in the backyard of that house with Tom, horsing around the in-ground pool. Splashing. Running. Skinning a knee or elbow on the concrete bottom. Donny’s there with Tom at

2 the tiki bar at the back of the cabana. The boys sneak slugs of Ten High, fill their pulltab Coke cans with rum. Donny’s there. Donny’s there when Mr. Don comes home late from the car dealership on Causeway Boulevard, stopping first at Sweet William’s Tavern and then someplace with the word “Lounge” in the name. Again. And again. Donny is there. Donny’s in the driveway, washing the Chevy SuperSport his dad gave him for his birthday the year he gets his driver’s license. That black hair standing out against the red screen that means Under 18. That doesn’t matter. Donny stands with Tom under the fluorescent lights of the convenience store sign waiting for David Seoul, Chris Wertz, or one of the other older boys to reappear from inside with a six pack of Miller ponies. Donny’s there in the back room of our house playing Intellivision with Tom, in the garage converted into a game room after the fire, when a knock comes at the double doors. I’ll be right back, Tom says. Donny stays behind, the controller in his hand, while Tom sneaks off to sit beside The Green Thing on the corner to get high. Donny’s with Tom in the courtyard at Archbishop Rummel, wearing the powder blue collared shirt and navy pants, each daring the other to ditch Religion to smoke cigarettes behind the modular buildings, keeping an eye out for Brother ______. Donny has trouble with math, Tom has trouble at the bus stop with older boys. Donny gives Tom a ride home in that fine car Mr. Don gave him as a birthday present until Tom transfers to King. Donny is there. Donny’s there when papers are served. Donny’s in his own room in the house on Chastant, a converted garage with Led Zeppelin both on the walls and the stereo. Donny is there in his room while Mrs. Pat makes pudding on the stove. Donny is there when Dougie or Dwayne opens the door and find his body, fifteen with a twentytwo in his hands. The posters are ruined. The record is over, only a buzzing hum coming

3 from the speakers and a wet iron smell in the air. They hadn’t heard a thing. Nobody had heard a thing. From that point forward, Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there when they find the note. The note that says he is failing math. The note that doesn’t say he wants to live with his father. Nor does it say that he doesn’t want to live with his mother. Just that he’s failing math. Donny isn’t there when his mother places that note on a small table in the front room of the low, dark house on Chastant. Photos in frames. Prayer cards. A candle. Other things. Donny isn’t there that morning when my mother, unable to think of a way to present the news, wakes my brother and says, Donny shot himself. Donny isn’t there that afternoon as Tom watches children chase each other around the pool at the Jewish Community Center, splashing and skinning knees and elbows. Tom thinks about the last time he’d seen Donny. It was the week before, and Tom was driving towards Avron down Chastant after buying smokes from Food Etc. Donny was in front of the house, leaning against his car. Donny and Tom exchanged small talk about Brother _______ at Rummel. The bathrooms at King. Other things unremembered. But now Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there at the wake, but Donny’s body is, dressed in a dark

suit with a crisp white collar. His face, the first dead body for many in that room, is a mystery. How did they make him look so good? Where is the hole? Why an open casket? Donny doesn’t hear people say out loud that parents should never have to bury their children while thinking of reasons why and never finding them. Tom is on the left, along with Dougie, Trey, and the others on the right, hoisting the heavy casket down the steps. Each one hopes desperately not to slip, trying his best not to think about the weight of the body inside, trying not to think about how heavy someone can be when he

4 isn’t even really there. Because Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there in the cemetery as the sun shines off of the white-washed tombs and the broken brown glass littering the cement corridors. Pigeons lighting on crosses. Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there when his parents make a go of it. Not because they still love each other, but because it’s what they think they should do. Donny isn’t disappointed when papers are signed anyway. Donny isn’t there to help Mr. Don pack his shirts and leisure suits, that bottle of Old Spice, an unopened carton of Kools, and his cut crystal rocks glasses into boxes, and then those boxes into the car. Donny isn’t there to watch the brown stain form on the dry slide around the greening pool. Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there to see the fragile smile on Mrs. Pat’s face when she returns from her pilgrimage to Spain. The six-foot rosary of white beads with the heavy iron crucifix that she gave my mother disappear into a closet in our own house. Donny doesn’t see the bottles disappear from the tiki bar in the backyard, the entire house. Donny doesn’t see bottles brought into Dwayne’s room and stashed in the closet. Donny doesn’t see the brown paper bags full of dime sized Ziplocs. Weed cleaned and rolled on the cover of a Nazareth album purchased at Warehouse Records and Tapes along with the slim orange package of Zig-Zags. Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there to see Dougie impress the shop teacher. Rebuild the carburetor. Bleed the brakes. Refinish the body. Wire the stereo. Donny isn’t there in the black and white pictures of Tom and his friends leaning against one another at Pat O’Brien’s during Mardi Gras. Hoisting cups of Bud Light poured from plastic pitchers at Parlay’s. Stacking cans and playing quarters on the coffee table in our converted garage when the parents went to Florida or Chicago. Donny isn’t there when anyone makes twenty-two.

5 Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there when Dwayne passes out in the courtyard at King, hitting the concrete with a wet smack. When Dwayne graduates a year late, saying he needs a degree to get a good job, get my life back on track. Donny isn’t there when we hear that Dougie is doing well. A good job. A steady girl. A new house. Helping Dwayne get right. Donny isn’t there when Dougie follows his older brother’s example. A handgun? In the new house? Details are hard to come by. Glenn, Trey, and my brother didn’t talk to Dougie much. Donny isn’t there to tell his brother not to do it, to tell him that papers get served anyway, little brothers make mistakes, or that math really doesn’t matter. Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there when another family fears things are bad. A low spot in a child’s life. The unraveling of a long relationship, a feeling that things are going nowhere. She marries within a year, the restaurant folds. No more photos from the courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s, but still plenty of drinking. And Donny isn’t there. Donny isn’t there to offer Tom an alternative to things that loom larger than the bullies at the bus stop. Donny isn’t there to sit on the curb at two a.m. after others move away or start having children. Donny isn’t there to ride shotgun to the Smoky Mountains to spend a twenty-fifth birthday on the twenty-fifth of August. Donny isn’t there. But I am. And still am. Not for alcoholic fathers or for failing math, but for a pet that needed to be put down at the vet. A ride home from work. A cold beer and some conversation about an old friend who committed suicide.

2.

6 Tom calls me for a ride. Some days I relish the call, because I need to get out of the house. Some days it only means trouble for me. Some days he doesn’t call me for a ride. Tom calls me to borrow money. Just for the week. Until pay day. To float his rent until pay day. But it will be a ride anyway, because I eventually say “yes” and he will need the check immediately along with a ride to the bank. Tom calls me for a ride to review his new lease. I take Tom into the bank to see customer service about removing an overdraft fee. Tom buys me lunch at the Trailhead. Tom buys me beer with money I know he doesn’t have. I call Mom to tell her that I got the check she sent for his security deposit. I call Mom to tell her that I will take him to see a dentist after he cracks open a tooth while falling up the stairs to his third floor apartment. She thanks me for taking care of him. I’m his little brother. He’s three years older than I am. He’ll be thirty-five this year. In many ways I am relieved. I am glad to still be getting calls for rides. At one time I didn’t think that I would be getting these calls. At one time I thought that these calls would stop. That one day I would wake up and find that Tom simply isn’t there any more, that there would be no more calls. I remember how my heart sank, sitting in that little apartment I shared with Jenn on that Saturday night, when Tom called me for ride. I already knew where he was calling from when I heard his voice. Can you come and get me, he asked. They won’t let me go unless someone comes and gets me. I first needed to know what happened. I needed to know that nobody was hurt. I needed to know that he hadn’t hurt anybody. Tom was lucky. He and his roommate T-Bone had left the Trailhead and walked down to Tom’s little black pickup, and when he tried to pull away without his headlights on the officer flashed her lights. Tom still lived in the little house on Wood at the time,

7 was really only minutes away. It was inevitable. T-Bone walked home, but Tom was taken to the station just around the block behind St. Joseph’s church. They won’t let me go unless someone comes and gets me. He sounded scared, but was holding it together pretty well. I thought about letting him spend the night there. Let him sleep his drunk off in the tank; let him walk home in the morning. I think about it in the car on the way to get him because I’m not brave enough to say “no.” When I come to collect him, he smells like Rumple-Mintz. “Jesus, Tom, I can smell you. Did you really think that you were going to fool anybody?” Then he starts in on how close he is to home, how he does it all the time, how he would have been fine. I try to explain to him that he is putting other people in danger, that somebody could get hurt. Tom pleads his case down to Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI) and I sometimes give Tom a ride to his alcohol classes near the Lincoln Center downtown. After every class he walks straight to the Trailhead. He walks home, although sometimes Tom calls me for a ride. He’ll slur into the receiver come on, Matt, I’m really fucked up. Sometimes I’m there beside him, drinking, but I ride my bike home, myself more a possible target than a potential bullet. Tom walks home most nights. He moved into a third floor apartment at 200 W. Laurel St. a few months before Jenn and I moved out of the same building. He needs to be closer to the bus route. Tom has no intention of getting a new driver’s license. He knows that if he tries to get one that they will find out he never completed his community service. So Tom calls me for rides. I’m relieved to get them, precisely because Tom is thirty-five years old. I thought Tom would be dead by thirty-two. I had set an expiration date on my brother’s life, and I chose thirty-two. I don’t know why thirty-two. He was somewhere between twenty-six

8 and twenty-eight when I came up with that number, although I can’t remember exactly when. Maybe it was around twenty-eight, when I was spending more time with Jenn than with him. That would have been when all of his friends were starting careers and families, his old crowd finally becoming adults. That would have been when he was left with nothing but a couple of pill-popping drunks who liked to hit the Riverboat casino at the Williams Boulevard boat launch along the lake in Kenner. They would get coked up and get in fights. I didn’t think Tom would make it, remembering the little mirror I found in his gray Chevette back in high school. I could tell that he was lying about how much money he was spending at the casinos. I can’t ever bring myself to lie to my brother, and maybe because of this I can always tell when Tom is lying to me. I would have been fine. I make that drive all the time. He would have been driving home from Daiquiri’s unable to see straight, the lights of that little black pickup weaving a little down Green Acres, weaving a little along the canal full of night-herons and toads, right at Bissonet, left on Irving, right onto Purdue Drive to pull into the driveway of his parent’s house, the only son yet to leave the nest. But this was never how I saw it happening. I imagined him in the alley outside some Fat City bar, maybe Uncle Larry’s or Zeppelin’s, maybe the building where our father’s office used to be, and he’s drunk. He’s being manhandled by some thick-fisted goombahs over borrowed money. Tom is thin, stooped, and alone. I watch as they beat him unconscious and leave his cracked and bloody body on the blacktop next to a dumpster full of rotting seafood, alone and unmoving. Or maybe it was earlier, when he was around twenty-five, sometime after I moved home after college or during the year right before. Maybe it was during the time he moved out of our parents’ house, into the house that smelled like shit—the gassy stench

9 of rancid sewer pipes rising from the central register in the hallway. Everything was filthy, his roommate a well-meaning born-again Christian borrowing money to keep his hack license, his cab often parked in front of Bill’s Seafood after hours for the open tap. That house was a particularly sad place, and Tom started driving home from Daiquiri’s to stay at Mom and Dad’s house rather than return to that awful house. The house sagged, and the neighborhood kids would break in and steal Tom’s stuff. The girl Tom had been dating for the last five years had broken up with him, and I guess he wanted to get out of the house. Tom had been seeing her for the last five years and now found himself passing her house everyday on the way home. She found Tom fun during school, her long black hair always present in the photos from Parlay’s and Pat O’s, one small hand clutching a plastic cup, the other arm propping Tom up as the drunken mob leans in for the shot. Things started to change as her friends started getting married to their boyfriends; those boyfriends starting tile businesses, driving trucks, getting ASE certified. Tom became something that needed to be fixed. He needed to change. He tried as best as he could, failing two semesters of college to prove his love. Tom spent more time in the Sandbar than in the classroom, swilling down light beer with my friends, occasionally driving up to Baton Rouge to spend the night. He was horribly devastated by the breakup, and felt only more betrayed when he found out that she married within the year. Her house, with a new boat out in front, was along the route to that awful shitsmelling house. He started driving home to Mom & Dad’s, instead of returning to that awful house, his little black pickup truck with the Rumple-Mintz sticker turning out of the Daiquiri’s parking lot and north onto Green Acres instead of south on Transcontinental towards Metairie Road. Mom & Dad were worried when he started

10 showing up at their house, sleeping on the floor because all of his stuff was at the shit house, waking up the next day and going to work in the same clothes in which he had slept. We all knew that it was the after-hours open tap on the keg of Budweiser that creating the problem. Maybe Mom and Dad saw it as a small black truck in the canal or wrapped around a streetlight. I don’t think so. I think that Mom and Dad saw the same thing that I did: a body on the bathroom floor, alone and unmoving. Maybe choked on its own vomit, but more likely pills. A razor. A knife. Sometimes you don’t know why you feel something that you do, and we all felt it about Tommy. It went unspoken among us, but I started coming home more on the weekends, moved in with my parents and met Tom after work at Charity’s in Fat City, still getting antsy years later whenever a few days go by without talking to him. This is why I put his age at death at thirty-two. I didn’t think he would make it. This is why I am relieved when Tom calls me for a ride. This is why I usually say yes. There is tension in my house right now. My wife is angry because I lend my brother money. She is angry because it directly affects us. Us, she says. But she feels she doesn’t have a say in the matter. She’s right; she doesn’t. She thinks he drinks too much. She’s right; he does. Like so many people, my wife probably looks at Tom and sees a waste. Like so many people, maybe she looks at Tom and thinks that he needs to be fixed. I know she thinks that he shouldn’t have any help until he learns to help himself. That’s not the way it works. “He’s family,” I tell her. Family takes care of one another. If we don’t, we might one day open the door to a bedroom full of the sick buzz of flies, static from speakers being interrupted by the hiss and click of the turntable needle repeatedly bouncing off the record’s end. In that room might be a body, broken,

11 alone and unmoving. There might be a note for display on an end table shrine, along with the gold dangle earring, the senior photo, the unfinished coconut ashtray from shop class. A little brother left behind to lift a casket down church steps because he couldn’t be bothered to help. One day Tom calls me for a ride and when I follow him upstairs, I watch as the legs on his ferret, Chuck, continually slide out from under him. In the next few days Chuck’s condition will worsen, a fatal cancer of the lymph system common in ferrets, until the poor animal is dragging its hindquarters behind itself on the hardwood floors like a dirty rag. I take Tom to my vet to have Chuck put down. Tom keeps stroking the animal and kissing its forehead, apologizing for what he is about to do. He doesn’t want the animal to suffer any more. I pay to have the animal put down, pay to have the body destroyed instead of thrown in a dumpster but decline to keep the ashes. Tom sits on one of the chairs, rapidly bouncing one leg and trying not to make eye contact. “Alright, let’s go,” I say. That’s it?, Tom asks. “Yeah. That’s it,” I say. Tom needs a cigarette and a beer, and everyone at the Trailhead makes a sympathetic awww noise and sometimes places a shot of Rumple-Mintz in front of him. Tom doesn’t talk about Chuck. Instead, Tom wants to talk about Donny Willem, my first dead body. Tom tells me about the last time he saw Donny.

3.

12 Jenn and I know that we can’t stay in Fort Collins. I am applying for jobs every year. We are pregnant again and aren’t making enough money. We can’t seem to make ends meet, are too often buying groceries and gas on the credit card. During this pregnancy, Tom moves out of the apartment on Laurel to live in a one-bedroom across from the Trailhead. People help him stumble across the street, but usually leave him at the door fumbling for his keys. One night he falls down the stairs, breaks his nose so hard that he can’t see straight for a few days. Everyone asks me what my brother is going to do without me around if and when I move. “I don’t know,” I answer. Whenever I don’t hear from my brother for a few days, I start thinking about things I don’t want to think about. I wonder if he is lying on the sofa at home, not breathing, his heart and lungs exhausted, his arm nonchalantly resting across his forehead as if he were only sleeping. I’m afraid that he’s been rolled by bums in the dark alley between Matthews and Remington, eyes swollen shut, lips split, stabbed in the gut with a penknife and left to bleed to death. I see a cracked and broken body at the base of the stairs, alone and unmoving. But what disturbs me the most is when I wonder if he is just sitting at home by himself, thinking about things he shouldn’t be thinking about. Talking to his cat about things he shouldn’t do. Apologizing, as he always does. He is always apologizing for something. My biggest fear is that something will happen one day, and that people will heave a sigh of relief. That there will be nothing to worry about anymore. That there will be no more apologies. It’s the end of July and its hot outside, probably around 100 degrees. Tom will be thirty-five in August, and has decided to move, packing up his one bedroom apartment

13 for the studio in Old Town across from the Trailhead. His new place is non-smoking. And starting in October, Fort Collins will join a handful of cities in banning smoking in restaurants and bars. Tom decides to quit smoking. Now it’s humpday. They say all it takes to quit is two weeks. Today is eight days, a week and a day without a smoke. He’ll kill for one today. It’s the down time that gets to him. The times when he’s not doing anything, like riding in a car or walking between holes of a disc golf course. His leg bounces. He chews a toothpick, a pen, anything. He gets crabby. Today we decide to duck out after finishing the 6th hole. It’s hot, clouds of flies hover in patches near the ditch that cuts across the common. Tom needs a smoke. He’s been going all day and hasn’t really eaten anything. We pass a new memorial. This area is filled with them. Trees. Benches. A bridge. Everything has a bronze plaque attached to it. This one is a small fir, some petunias, a juniper and some phlox, all mulched into a nice peanut shaped mound. The plaque riveted to the rock reads: The Survivor Coalition, 2002. Tom gets crabby, a black cloud settles over him, his face curling downward into a sneer. He starts badmouthing the survivors. He refers to their failures, how they failed only because they didn’t succeed. He is contemptuous of the idea that depression is an illness, that some people could not ask for help, that some people didn’t think that they needed help. That those people succeeded in going where we all thought he might have been thinking of going once. He’ll give up smoking for six weeks and start working at the Trailhead part-time. When Jenn goes back to work at the Cupboard, I’ll wheel Chloe and my new son, Carter, downtown to the Trailhead when its time for lunch. Tom will make Chloe a grilled cheese sandwich and we’ll split some cheese fries and watch an afternoon football

14 game. The job prospects are becoming more promising, and Tom needs to spend time with Chloe. I want her to know her Uncle Tommy. He calls her by our pet name for her: B. When we visit him at the studio across the street from the Trailhead, she dangles toys for Sam, a cat from the animal shelter we visited several times, each visit to the shelter a call for a ride. Now, when Tom calls for rides, I always say “yes.” I’m trying to spend time with my brother. We’ll be moving soon, and all I can tell people when they ask me about Tom is “I don’t know.” Early during the same week I will move to Arizona, Tom calls me for a ride. Tom calls for a ride to help him move his stuff into a new basement apartment across the street from Aggie Liquor. He says that he knows he is drinking too much, that he is getting too fucked up all the time, but he is hopeful that this new place, a good five cityblock trudge home from the bar, will help him to slow down. The night before we leave, the last thing I drop off to him is a bunch of food from our kitchen and our plastic deck chairs. I’m sure Tom wants me to stay out that night, grab a few beers, but I have to get my family to bed. We sleep on a blanket on the floor of an empty house that was never ours in the first place, the carpet still damp from the steam cleaning earlier in the day. Jenn wants to have one last breakfast at Avogadro’s Number, and Tom walks down from his new place around the block to join us, to kiss the kids on their foreheads and say his good-byes. I feel guilty, leaving him alone in Colorado, because I’m the one who moved him out here, who moved him out here to be with me, where I could keep an eye on him. I felt the same way when I first moved out of our parents’ house for Colorado, and again when I left him alone in a house so I could begin to share my life with Jenn. Only this time I’m not moving around the block or to the other side of the

15 university, I’m moving to Arizona. I don’t like the idea of leaving him alone, one more person abandoning him in part because we can no longer accommodate his lifestyle. One more person in Tom’s life that he won’t be able to call for a ride. One more person who isn’t there. It’s nice to believe that Tom understands, that he knows that there are others who require our time and attention; we have other responsibilities. Where does one family end and another begin? We take a long time to eat breakfast, and Jenn starts to cry when it is finally time to go. She hugs and kisses Tom, tells him to take care of himself. The kids give him big squeezes. Tom and I try hard to keep our shit together, hold tight to each other for what seems like too long, choke out a few words that I won’t recall, and then he turns and I watch him walk up the street without looking back. I climb into the passenger side, unable to drive, my lip quivering. The car pulls away from the curb and towards some kind of future for me, the future I have feared since that first dead body in a dirty cemetery filled with pigeons and broken beer bottles. Once in the car, I don’t bother looking for Tom. I don’t want to look. I don’t want to look because I’m afraid that I won’t see him, that he will already be gone, that I’m too late, that I will turn my head and find that Tom isn’t there.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful