You’re driving across the country to surprise your older brother at The Pine Pavilion in St. Louis. The Pine Pavilion is a mental institution, and your brother ended up there because he tried to kill himself by swallowing several tubes’ worth of your mother’s antifungal cream. Oh, the indignity of never learning to swallow pills! Your brother is a piece of work, fine. He’s complicated, but it’s his 30th birthday, and you love him. In the past he might have made mistakes. Like when he showed up at your place in Albuquerque and locked you and pregnant Cheryl in a closet and then urinated on your kitchen floor. He is sorry for that. Or, when, after Neveah was born, he took her for a few hours. But he just took her to the zoo! And yes, maybe they stopped a couple places first, and your brother is not proud of that, but that was the disease. That was not him.
Your mother has left you several messages from his hospital room. She is burdened by guilt because she was not a good mother. She had her own life, her own problems. When she’d disappear for days at a time she’d let your step-dad lock your brother in the Animal Room, which had no animals and no windows. It only smelled like animals because that is where the previous tenants kept foxes or mongooses or whatever it was they ordered from the back of specialty catalogues. Your brother would spend hours in the dark, petting the carpet. You knew about it at the time, but didn’t help him. But your brother is not upset with you about that. You were little. What could you have done?
Children make mistakes. Him forcing you to eat snake eggs, he realizes now, was a mistake. That was not a nice thing to do. And then there was the incident with the dog. But that was an accident. It was his dog too! He was only twelve.
You’ve been driving for hours across the dusty plains of Texas, or Kansas. No, Texas. Let’s say Texas. You’re listening on repeat to the mix CD your brother sent you for Christmas. All of the songs are Motown hits about forgiveness, as a reminder that forgiveness is like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it enough it’ll become atrophied. If you do not forgive your brother, your soul or spirit or whatever it is rattling around inside you will look like your arm did after you got the cast removed in 6th grade (and for that cast, please forgive your brother as well!).
You haven’t listened to Motown in years and it’s arousing deep feelings of nostalgia and joy. Rainy afternoons, your brother wearing your mother’s beehive wig and long silk gloves. You roll down your windows, stick out your arm and sing: I've got this yearning, burning… ba da da da daa… Ooh, deep inside me… lala lala laaa…
You’re probably outside Amarillo when morning traffic begins to curdle. It’s a good thing you left in the middle of the night when it was still dark and Cheryl and Nevaeh were asleep. You knew Cheryl would pitch a fit about you missing work and putting so many miles on her car. She is so scared of spontaneity and sudden fierce expressions of love.
When the traffic eases up, you pull into a gas station to call her.
She is pissed. “Neveah won’t stop crying. That’s my car. Your brother is a toxic force in our lives. Blah blah blah.”
“Well, my brother is turning thirty,” you’ll say, “and he practically just died. He is stuck in a loony bin in St. Louis surrounded by people who can’t keep their tongues in their heads. And, even if he is there voluntarily, it’s still a terrifying and lonely experience to have at the entrance into another miserable decade of living in his mother’s basement and working in the same video store he’s worked at since high school.” That’s what you say, and then you hang up. Because she’s your wife, and maybe in the past you always did what she wanted you to, but this time this is all there is to say on the subject.
What happens on your drive through Oklahoma? Lots of trucks. Birds, maybe. It’s uneventful. You think about how differently things turned out in your life than you expected, but that there is still time to make the unbearable things bearable.
As you cross the state line into Missouri, you realize that you’ve forgot to get your brother a birthday gift. Your surprise visit will be gift enough (obviously!) but you want to give him something too. Something nice. And then you see a PETCO by one of the exits.
“I’ll get him something here,” you think. “Something small and furry with a quick heartbeat.”
For the remainder of the trip you listen to the hamster you bought, spinning in his wheel.
When you finally arrive in St. Louis it’s dark. You misread the directions your brother sent you, make several wrong turns. But finally, completely exhausted, you find parking in Lot B. Unsure about the pet policy, you tuck the hamster into your coat’s inner pocket where you can feel his warm little body squirm against your chest.
The orderly, the one with a ratty mustache, is standing outside your brother’s building, smoking a cigarette. You ask him for directions to your brother’s room.
“Oh, visiting hours are over,” he tells you. “The office is closed.”
You point to the car, tell him how far you’ve driven, tell him that you haven’t seen your brother in three years. You make a scene and more orderlies will come outside.
They’ll say: no.
But you came all this way! you’ll repeat.
They’ll shake their heads.
They’ll say: visiting hours are over, but we’ll be sure to tell him you stopped by.
But they’re liars, the orderlies here.
It is your brother’s 30th birthday. And he misses you. He misses you very much. He loves you, and feels terrible if he has hurt you. He knows you tried to come. He knows you got his letters. Your brother covered them in stamps, so only the two addresses were visible.