by Tom Larsen
The day after the Trade Centers came down I drove my brother Rob to yet another VA hospital. Admission had been scheduled a few weeks earlier and in light of events, could have been postponed, but he was ready and I was anxious to get it over with. For the next six months he would wrestle with his demons in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The Bath complex offers intensive therapy and occupational training and is the showpiece of the program, according to the literature. How my brother came to be placed there is fairly miraculous. With no health insurance and a history of intransigence it would seem to be his last and best chance.
I had reserved a rental car but within hours of the attack there were none to be had. My own car didn’t look up to the trip and my wife had need of hers, so I did the only thing I could do. I borrowed my mom’s. I arrived at Rob’s house at 5:00 AM to find the lights on and the doors open. From the kitchen I could hear a television and a radio blaring upstairs. The usual images flashed through my head as I climbed the stairs, Rob hanging from the rafters or lying in a pool of blood. Scenes so familiar they seem predestined. When I reached his bedroom I could see him sprawled on his back, his face frozen in the TV light. I looked for the rise and fall of his chest then stepped inside. The TV showed the towers imploding for the millionth time. I watched the dust rising, the floors caving in on themselves, then a montage of people running from a dozen different angles. Great rolling smoke clouds squeezed free of the buildings behind them. From the other side of Rob’s bed the radio played at the same volume. Words swirled around each other making no sense. When I hit the creaky floorboard he jack-knifed up and fixed me with those floodlight eyes.
“Sorry,” I shrugged.
“Is it time?” he croaked.
He rolled out of bed without a word. While he showered I sat in the kitchen scanning a newspaper open on the table. The same paper that was there on my last stop around a week earlier. A time so distant and inviolate I couldn’t bring myself to turn the page. Rob shuffled down and sat across from me lighting the day’s first cigarette.
“You OK?” I asked, lighting my third.
He fixed me with the look of the heavily medicated. “Never better.”
“You know how to get there?”
He handed me a two page computer printout with curb-to-curb directions, alternate routes, estimated times and mileage down to the second decimal. How to get there, alright. We finished our smokes, gathered his things and left by the kitchen door.
“Aren’t you gonna lock up?”
“What for? The kids might need to get in.”
“You’ll be gone for six months?”
“The front door doesn’t lock. Anyway these people are scared to death of me.”
As well they might be, more than one tranquil evening shattered by sirens and flashing lights. Still, Rob tends to overestimate his impact and I made a note to buy some padlocks. While he loaded his bag in the trunk I checked the night sky making out the Dippers, the North Star and what looked to be the logo for Mercedes Benz. The trees appeared silver in the dim street light with lighter patches where the leaves had turned. It would be February when he returned.
“You’ve got everything you need?”
“I’ve done this before, remember?
“Right, OK then, …”
We sat in the car for a minute listening to reports of Muslim bashing in Texas. The dashboard clock read 5:15 as we pulled away and I couldn’t help feeling we were being watched. I know I’d be watching. We approached our first intersection, maybe 300 feet.
“Left,” he nodded without consulting the map. Checking right I eased out nearly clipping an old man and his old dog. The last person we’d see for thirty miles shaking both fists in indignation. We passed through unfamiliar towns with familiar names, countless flags and messages of consolation, the gray dawn of a different world.
“What road is this?”
“This is route 313, … and this,” he gestured to a row of brick duplexes, “is Quakertown.”
“The very one. Weird little burg. Full of Germans.”
I tried to imagine a town filled with German but I had no reference. It’s the sort of little-known and unverifiable observation Rob is always making. We stopped for smokes at the only place open, a convenience store at the edge of town. The clerk spoke Russian into his cell.
“How long have you been in this country?” I asked him.
“Any problem with the Germans?”
“I know nothing.”
On the way out of town we passed a dozen “God Bless Americas” and one “Nuke Afghanistan” with Afghanistan spelled wrong. I hit the extension northbound and we were halfway to the Poconos by sunrise.
“So tell me, how is this VA hospital different from the
others?” I asked.
“It’s farther away.”
“From everywhere. Plus there’s bears.”
“Six month rehab free of charge. A wonderful thing, the VA.”
Rob said nothing to this.
“It is free, right?”
“It is when you don’t pay the bill.”
“How did you get in?”
“I told them I was suicidal, but salvageable.”
Working the system, as my wife would put it. Veteran psych nurse, she’s played this game with the best. The ward being the last refuge of junkies and crackheads. If it isn’t suicide it’s hearing voices. Or both, just to hedge your bets. They say I should kill myself and shit. My wife calls it the voice of reason.
“It’s no scam,” Rob said, almost to himself.
“Hey, what do I know? You do what you have to do to get help.
He was drafted in the summer of 1969. We’d both been summoned for pre induction physicals and by Christmas he was in Seaside, California bound for Viet Nam. He was lucky though. His unit bounced around stateside ending up in Newark, Delaware, two hours from home. My own luck was even better. My draft notice never came.
The sun was just clearing the mountains when we stopped at Macdonald’s. We sat outside at a picnic bench swilling coffee and chain smoking, watching the shadow line move across the valley. A day as perfect as the day before, whatever comes next still to come.
“Look at it,” Rob studied mom’s Escort parked alone in the lot.
“The prototype mom car.”
“I’m trying to remember the last time we were in a mom car together.”
“Might have been when dad died.”
“After that you were never around.”
Possible, but unlikely. Our dad died in 1962. My brother recalls a deathbed vigil that never happened. The old man was gone by the time we got to the hospital. What he would make of all this is easy to imagine. You get out of life what you put into it, boys. Can’t means won’t. How a grown man could believe such shit is still beyond me. He might have changed in later years but not without a battle. The old man died when Kennedy was president. Reducing things to sophomoric terms was endemic with that bunch.
“A 1962 Oldsmobile 88. Ragtop.” Rob closed his eyes.
“White with cranberry interior.”
“A godamn pimpmobile, for Christ sake!”
“Definitely not a mom car.”
My father bought it for her 35th birthday and to mom’s credit, she drove it like a chanteuse. A year later he was gone and a year after that the Olds was stolen from the parking lot of the box factory where I worked. The same factory my father ran as regional sales manager. The thieves puked all over the seats then tried to set it on fire. My mother never drove it after that.
Rob aims a finger. “A 1966 Chevrolet Corvair.”
That one I ran into the garage wall.
North of the border we picked up the Adirondacks, bluer than the Poconos, set farther off the highway. We passed stone farmhouses, fields of crops, hillsides mottled in cloud shadows. How is it I’d never been here before? I’ve traveled twice as far to places half as nice for my vacation! Rob seemed oblivious, lost in thoughts of extended confinement. Once they closed the door you may as well be in Coatesville. I felt I should cheer him up but I didn’t want him to think I was enjoying myself. I was doing him a favor, after all. Any other Wednesday I’d be in a graffitti scarred printshop in North Philly.
“Do the numbers 493-2005 mean anything to you?”
I thought for a minute. “Calling Donald Tessien for a pick-up game.”
“So it’s not just me.”
“I guess not.”
“The thing is, kids don’t play baseball anymore.”
“A damn shame.”
“It was like, six phone calls and you had a game going.”
“And you knew those numbers by heart.”
“It wasn’t just the cool kids either. Everybody played. The jerk-offs, the fart smellers, the fat kids. It was democratic man.”
“Of course off the field you didn’t know them.”
“No, of course not.”
I tried to picture Tessien today but got no farther than an egg-shaped head. I’d heard he lives in Cincinnati.
“You know what else you don’t see anymore?” Rob scratched at his beard. “The vertical hold knob. Nobody makes them.”
“It has been a while.”
“I used to love watching the picture roll up and down, then down and up.”
“I seem to remember.”
“It did me good. I don’t know.”
“What about the horizontal hold?”
“Horizontal hold did nothing for me. I was strictly vertical. Twenty up, twenty down. I had a system.”
“The even keel. Life in the balance. I guess I was nuts even then.”
“You’re not nuts.”
We drove a mile in silence.
“The thing about the vertical, it was continuous like a line. A never-ending parade. The horizontal was like a wheel. Maybe only three pictures going around.”
That I could see what he was saying was no consolation.
Outside Binghamton the highway narrowed to one lane. We followed spewing dump trucks between concrete barriers, the steady ping of gravel off my mother’s paint job. To our left the city shimmered in the haze, home to Blue Cross, American Ladder and my wife’s former boyfriend, Ed.
“So when does it get ugly?” I wondered.
“It doesn’t. The VA has a certain aesthetic. Plus people out here work for cheap. “
He gave me a look. “It’s the economy, stupid.”
“Everybody has four jobs and nobody’s making it. Fucking Dogpatch, man.”
“Only in Pennsylvania, you got Pittsburgh on one end, Philly on the other and in between its Alabama.”
His smile exposed glaring gaps. “Ordinary fucking people. God I hate ‘em.”
I smiled back. “Harry Dean Stanton, Repo Man.”
Rob laughed for the one time that day. “So it isn’t just me.”
“Yeah it is.”
We listened to jazz on the tape deck, previously unused. Rob refrained from smoking, in deference to Mom. For this I was grateful. When he smokes I can see his hands shake. My guess is that cigarettes will kill us both if we live that long We picked up the habit from our parents who eventually quit. Mom for her 50th birthday, dad for the obvious reason. We are the last of the breed. Lurking in the shadows outside office buildings and restaurants. Hacking our way into deep middle age. Were either of us alone now we’d be smoking our brains out.
“Guess you won’t be getting the games.”
“Not unless the Muslims bomb the WWF and NASCAR.”
“Too bad. The Phillies are making a move.”
“Turk Wendell is making a move? Get fucking serious.”
“I like having a guy named Turk on my team.”
“Just the kind of management decision that got us where we are today.”
“Especially considering the name we’re getting rid of.”
“Gomes? Biggest goddamn lips in the major leagues.”
We can do this for hours. The history of baseball circa 1959 to the present is our own history. The one true bearing, ten thousand games, the rise and the falls, sons of sons just hitting their stride. Above all, the minutia. Entire phone calls over nothing else, a sort of telepathy the non-fan can never know. Rob may be the only other guy on the planet who remembers Bobby del Greco. Someone like me needs someone like him.
“Fuck the Phillies,” he grumped.
“Yeah right. Fuck em.”
“When we get there you can just drop me off. I don’t want to hang you up.”
“You got it,” I jumped at the chance. I had a fat joint and a fist full of Basie tapes. Roadwork not withstanding, I’d be home by dark.
In Bath all roads led to the VA medical center. We drove through the gate, up a tree-lined entrance to a sprawling brick compound that could pass for a resort hotel. Rob grabbed his things from the trunk and we smoked one for luck. I, for one, could never do this. Not at fifty. I saw now why Rob wanted me to take him. In case he chickened out.
“Any chance you might know somebody?” I asked him.
“A good chance. It’s your basic revolving door.”
“That would make it easier, no?”
“Not really. No buds here. Turn your back they steal your Walkman.”
“Jesus, I hate to just drive off,” I lied.
“Hey, I made the bed. Go watch your Phillies.”
“You got any money?”
“There’s nothing to buy. I’ll be fine,” he started off across the blacktop.
“OK, See you.”
I watched him listing slightly as he headed up the hill. I thought for a minute he would turn to wave but he never did. Then he was gone, the pines bleached blue in the stillness, the bricks beaming in the midday sun.
Could be he’d get well there, but I had my doubts. He’d been down this road a few times too often. The resilience that marked his comeback years was no longer in evidence. The meds and the decades had taken a toll. I thought back to those days after high school, Rob and his buddies on their farm near Princeton, can’t miss college kids coming of age. My own friends seemed seamy in comparison, dopers and dropouts, low life losers. Thirty years later they’re still going strong while the best and brightest flamed out to a man.
I circled the driveway and out the exit with a smart salute to the grunt in the gatehouse. Little fucker looked right through me.
Tom Larsen was a journeyman printer for 25 years before giving it up for the writer’ life. His work has appeared in Newsday, Philadelphia Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and the LA Review. His novel FLAWED is available through Amazon. Mr. Larsen writes mostly fiction, but every word of 9/12 is true.