Like Sherman, I have burned Atlanta. Or maybe Atlanta has burned me. Either way, I’ve been blackballed from every bar I ever frequented, and it took only a dozen years. Now I find myself married with child, sober, and moving on. My wife, pregnant again, wants to live in the heartland, Kansas City, where her family waits and I can stroll the streets in recovery without people whispering.
My brother’s happy to help us move. Larry loves family, or at least the idea of family. Ours was broken by divorce, and lies about love retroactively stain every smiling Sunday-school picture. We both grew up distrustful of other people. I drank my way through and beyond my paranoia, but Larry never escaped his. He trusts no one who’s in a position to disappoint him, including God.
Stung by our preacher father’s belt and our mother’s absence, Larry and I fought plenty as kids. Since I was three years older, I always won, and Larry brooded over the injustice of this. Beaten down by years of defeat, he became someone else, a smiling clown in the rain, distancing himself from all reminders of his childhood, especially me.
Five years ago I called him to apologize. I was on a cocaine bender, but he didn’t know that. He accepted my apology, and we became friends again, or maybe for the first time. But our relationship still seems tentative. Larry is forty-two, a beefy but fragile man with a Fu Manchu mustache. He gets frustrated easily. Last night his temper flared when I interrupted his rambling road stories. So today I tried not to laugh at his outfit: extra-large tie-dyed poncho covering his short shorts, so that he looks like he’s not wearing any pants. I also tried not to yell at him over last-minute delays as we hit the road in two vehicles.
My wife and son are already in Kansas City. Larry and I are hauling all the items the movers didn’t get, plus my two dogs. I have Oscar with me in my wife’s new car. Larry has Catfish in my truck. The rain is so heavy, I can barely see the highway ahead of me. We were supposed to caravan, but when I look in the rearview, I see Larry’s headlight beams veer north, drifting up the exit ramp. I call him on the cellphone.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“What?” His Woody Guthrie tape is blasting in the background. “Wait a minute,” he says, frustrated. “This fucking dog is all over my shit. Get off! I had my tapes all in order, and Catfish fucked them all up. Get off, God damn it!” I hear the dog yip. “Now, where are you?”
“I’m heading up I-20, like we said.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want to take the back roads.”
“But you said — hang on, God damn it. Catfish! Get the fuck off!”
“Turn your music down.”
“Do you want me to pull over and wait?”
“No! Just keep going. I’ve got to take a shit. I haven’t taken a shit all day.”
“Why didn’t you take a shit before we left?”
“Because I didn’t have to take one then!”
The radio says Bob Hope is dead. The DJ is thanking him for the memories. I wish Larry and I could talk about ours, about how we both got lost, and how we are still going our separate ways.
The storm fizzles out at the I-459 split going north. I stop to walk Oscar. I haven’t seen Larry since he took that exit. He’ll catch up, if he doesn’t get too stoned.
Larry knows the roads. He’s a truck driver, or was until recently. To pay off his student loans (the high cost of four years of “total bullshit,” as he calls it), he took a job working for a Christian trucking line with Pentecostal leanings. They promised to reimburse him for training fees if he drove for two years, and they did. Then he quit. When asked why, he said, “I hate living in this monetary society.” (That and the random drug testing, no doubt.) He walked away with a new belly and a chubby bank account. “But it all goes back to those money-grubbing liars in Tennessee!” he says, referring to his college alma mater.
School would’ve been cheaper in California, where we grew up, but “everyone’s so materialistic there.” So, at thirty-six years of age, Larry escaped to Knoxville to study wildlife. “But they were all hunters!” He even wrote a song about it: “It Ain’t Wildlife if You Can’t Shoot It.” His dream job was to be a park ranger at a desolate outpost, but his pot conviction killed that. Two “fat pigs” on bicycles busted him for smoking a bowl in a parking lot. He was willing to settle for a job at a wildlife refuge after graduation — anything where he’d get paid to be alone — but there weren’t any jobs available. So he drove a truck for the long buck. And now he’s unemployed. Again.
Larry and I reunite on I-65 north in Fultondale, Alabama: A friendly city. Visit our website. I let Larry take the lead in the clear darkness and worry about the Star of David coat rack — an antique-store find — tied down in the back of the truck, what country crucifixion it could attract when we pass through New Hope.
Larry sometimes goes by “Captain Smoke,” a name he adopted during his ten-year “career” in community theater, lifting it from a character in the Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels. Larry even wore an old captain’s hat and played the harmonica, ingratiating himself with Venice Beach street performers. When they started giving him the sandy shoulder, he graduated to riding the rails and became a “weekend hobo.” That’s where Captain Smoke learned the guitar and the spirit of “being free.” He hopped trains with his guitar case, riding to “conventions” where he and other weekend hobos sang songs with real hobos. Money was never an issue, unless you got caught by “the bulls” in Texas and had to use your father’s credit card to book a flight home. Which Larry had no problem doing. Twice.
Larry’s written many songs about his “penniless years” of homelessness and struggle. In reality, he lived with our father, who gave him whatever he needed. “It was like being in prison!” Larry protests. He’s still imprisoned by our father’s generosity. Dad’s late brother’s wife owns a forty-acre manufactured-home park on some family land in Tennessee, and she gave Larry an acre to live on, at Dad’s request. It’s not Larry’s dream log cabin in the woods, but it’s away from the “hassles of society,” like paying rent.
A church down the road from there bears our family name. A distant cousin began witnessing to Larry and invited him to the church. Larry agreed to go, but only if he could sing a few songs, he told me.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “What did you sing?”
“It’s on the tape,” Larry said, referring to the homemade cassette he’d given me. I’m listening to it now:
Bill was the biggest drunk in town He was known for many miles around When a preacher came to hold a meeting Just outside of town Things began to happen Before the gospel tent came down.
That’s from a number called “The Preacher Who Made a Believer Out of Bill.” Larry also played “Life’s Railway to Heaven” and “Tramp on the Street.” The church averages fifteen worshipers a night, mostly hillbillies, and they all gave Larry a big, dirty hand.
“You’ve got to know your audience,” Larry said to me.
We stop in Columbia, Tennessee, just shy of Nashville. Three out of four motel marquees along the road read, God bless America. The Comfort Inn takes it one step further: God bless America. Enjoy our hot tub.
We pay $51.36 for a night at the Best Value. The room reminds me of our old “family” Christmas get-togethers, when our father would rent a room in a Chattanooga motel, and the three of us would rendezvous. After we’d opened our gifts, Dad would sit in his underwear watching political talking heads on TV, and I’d pass out from drinking.
“Where’s your brother?” Dad would ask in the morning.
“Where he always is,” I’d reply: sleeping in his car because he couldn’t stand Dad’s constant snoring.
Our room at the Best Value comes with cable. Larry is watching Barfly.
Wanda (Faye Dunaway): I can’t stand people. I hate them. You hate them?
Henry (Mickey Rourke): No, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.
Captain Smoke (Larry): That’s exactly how I feel.
We’re heading north up I-65 toward Louisville in the rain. A semi’s tire explodes just this side of the Kentucky line. We hit I-57 and take it toward Chicago. I spot a spray-painted message on an overpass: Trust Jesus.
My earliest memory is of Larry coming home from the hospital. The bright sun was glaring through the windshield of my father’s black Buick. My mother held little Larry in her lap. I asked if the baby was sick. No, my mother said. Then why was it so red, I wanted to know.
“That’s just how brand-new babies look,” my mother said.
She put Larry in a crib in her and my father’s darkened bedroom. I stared at him briefly and then forgot about him.
It must’ve been a little more than a year later when the accident happened. We were in the parking lot of the grocery store. My mother told me to hold Larry’s hand while she locked the car, but I didn’t want to hold Larry’s hand, so I let go, and he toddled off.
The sound of screeching tires was loud, like a plane landing. My mother’s screams scared me. I followed her up the aisle of fenders and chrome to where my brother’s body lay still on the asphalt under a car’s bumper, its front tire an inch from his head.
My mother picked him up and ran inside the store, where she walked in circles, crying, “My baby, my baby!” She was covered in Larry’s vomit: on her shoulder, down her back and front. People tried to clean it up, but it just kept coming. Someone tried to take Larry away from her, to see if he was OK, but my mother wouldn’t let him go. “No!” she screamed. “No!” I was mad when we had to leave because I didn’t get my free cookie from the bakery. Later, the doctor came to our house to check Larry over. There were no broken bones, just a few scrapes.
Larry never did well in school. My parents paid for a tutor. They paid for special medicine. They even put him on the Wednesday-night prayer list at church. But he always acted up. He was rough, too rough, and other kids were scared of his improvised wrestling moves. My mother always wondered if the accident had damaged Larry’s brain, but I think he was that way because I beat him up and made fun of his allergies, his big lips, his gullibility. I was his big brother, and he would never be as good as me, never. I sprayed furniture polish in his eyes. He cried. I laughed. He opened his eyes. I sprayed again. The cycle never ended. He used to play baseball by himself in the backyard, hitting imaginary home runs, announcing his heroism to the tomato plants — until I’d take his ball and throw it over the fence. Game over.
We head west on I-64 toward St. Louis. The St. Louis Arch appears on the horizon. A sign in the foreground reads, Jesus. The radio plays Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs.”
I gave Larry his first hit of weed. He was only twelve. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was smoking so much, he was bound to be around when I did it, and one night there he was. I didn’t feel bad about it. I didn’t feel anything. I just handed the joint to him. Our father was already in bed. He was always in bed if he wasn’t at work, driving a lunch truck. We’d sneak into his bedroom and steal quarters from his change machine, then buy Cokes and sit in the yellow-blue apartment pool. We didn’t worry about church anymore. We just didn’t go. Our father couldn’t preach because our mother had split. So he drove his truck, and we got stoned.
An eyestrain headache is hammering my head and making me nauseous. I want to drive on, but it’s no use. We take Exit 193 and park behind a Budget Inn to hide the dogs. At the front desk, an eight-year-old Pakistani boy casually handles the transaction.
“Room 121,” he says, and he hands me the key.
The room stinks of chemicals and nicotine and bodies. Flies buzz, but there’s no fly swatter. I walk back to the front and ask the kid for one.
“This belongs to the office,” he says officiously. “You must return it when you’re finished.”
Larry attacks the horde while I sit on the bed and moan.
“Road really got to you?” he says.
“It’s just this fucking headache, man. It’s the worst non-alcohol-related headache I’ve ever had.”
“Yeah,” Larry says and kills another fly.
I take a shower and try to sleep, but I can’t close my eyes. It’s still daylight, and the crack of Larry’s ass keeps smiling at me from the other bed. I chuckle a little, but it hurts my head. Larry has a huge penis. My father and I used to laugh about it. My father would hold out an arm and chop at his elbow: “Like a horse.” Larry must have gotten the big-dick gene from our maternal grandfather, because my father and I are little-dick men. I always wished girls could see past Larry’s social inadequacies and appreciate the special gift he has to offer, but he’s never had many girlfriends. He occasionally mentions a new “lady friend,” but never more than once. Maybe his is too unusual a gift for them to enjoy.
I climb in the bathtub and wait for the pain in my head to pass. When I lift my ears above the water, I hear Larry laughing. He’s smoking a bowl and watching Seinfeld.
We didn’t talk a lot when our mom died two years ago. Larry still doesn’t say much about it. They’d been estranged for a long time. My mother had kicked him out of her house because she had her own troubles, and he was twenty-three and called himself “Captain Smoke.” I was the son who did well in school and got a decent job. He was the seeker. He looked up to me, but I never gave him much guidance. When we were kids, I told him Jesus loved him, and he believed it. When I said I didn’t give a shit about salvation, neither did he. But when I left to live my life, he was alone with the idea of a brother who did things he couldn’t do: sports, girls, graduation. So he overcompensated, created a cartoonish image to attract attention, but it always failed, leaving him plenty of time to dwell on the old beatings, the put-downs, my unbrotherly indifference, the jokes at his expense. He says he’s blocked it all out now, but when I ask him about something, he recalls it with crystal clarity.
“Did you ever get a spanking you didn’t deserve?” I ask him from my bed.
He looks at me. “Just about every one.”
He counts off each instance of our father taking someone else’s word over his.
“And then there was that time with the cops.”
Larry was arrested for burglary. He said he was just standing there when a couple of kids from our apartment building broke into a car. Someone fingered Larry, and our father told the cops to do whatever they had to do.
“Shit like that happened my whole life,” Larry says. “So just change the subject.”
At some point along my road to recovery, I had to ask everyone I’d hurt for forgiveness, including Larry. Reluctantly, he gave it to me. My wife says my father and I are overprotective of him now. We probably are. But it’s a big debt we owe, and I don’t think we’ve paid it yet, if we ever can.
The headache’s gone. The sky is clear. I see a succession of three signs in an open field: Made, You, Look. Down the road another sign invites us to do time at Leavenworth Prison. Another fifty miles, and we’re at my in-laws’ house, honking the horn. My toddler son looks up indifferently from the porch, as though I’ve just come back from the store.
My in-laws are fascinated with Larry, always asking him for more road stories, more songs. He tries to contact a couple of his hobo buddies who live in town, but they never return his calls. So he sits down with his black “Lone Wolf” T-shirt tucked neatly into his tight coach’s shorts, hitches up his tube socks, and pulls out his harmonica.
“This is a song about mulligan stew,” he says, warming up. “A guy named Skinny Willie taught me this one.”
And my brother plays, my little son dances, and everyone smiles genuine smiles.
My wife and I give Larry a five-hundred-dollar check for helping with the move. He looks at the amount, then folds it and puts it in his pocket.
“This’ll really help with the mobile home,” he says, and he smiles. “Thanks, brother.”
We’ve also bought him a plane ticket back to Atlanta, where he left his car. The next morning, getting ready to leave for the airport, he strips the bed in the guest room.
“Larry, you don’t have to do that,” I tell him.
“Ain’t no one gonna be my chambermaid,” he says.
And I think, If anyone should be, it’s me.