Plain China

Helpless

by William Lambert · University of Connecticut
Self Portrait, Kyle Ford · College of Charleston

Jimmy swerved into a tree. Drunk. I fix a pot of coffee.

“He’s an idiot. An idiot with a broken arm,” my mother says, shaking her head with a brief, caustic laugh, “He blew a two-point-oh, Billy, can you believe it?” Poor woman, I think, suppressing a smirk at my mother’s manic dyslexia. With sadistic amusement I imagine her answering the door—grumbling all the while in fear that my stepfather would be woken up by the racket—before learning that Jimmy had been rushed to the hospital. Mom and Tony drove there immediately after, no doubt unleashing loving threats of violence and rehabilitation centers upon a Jimmy too fucked up to remotely comprehend. It is just another day. As I pour a large thermos of black coffee, I think with pride and genuine fascination of Jimmy’s stubborn refusal to be brought down when the cards are stacked against him. Cocaine habits. Drug deals. Drug fights. Alcohol dependency. He has traveled down the darkest corridor of each, and escaped with the fortuitous ease of someone destined for something. He has incredible charisma, a talent that has allowed him to avoid danger at home and abroad, manipulating perceptions by balancing his steely introversion with just enough warm extroversion to keep you precariously hopeful. Only with me has Jimmy ever opened up (at least to some degree). I love him dearly and consider him my only family. Previously, I had let him drive me to buy cigarettes after having watched him take five generous swigs of Rubinoff (over the course of what must have been barely an hour), because of an implicit fraternal trust. I would do anything for him. As I walk gingerly down the steps to my mother’s car, I can’t bring myself to care about any of it.   When I see him in the emergency room, I feel afraid but don’t show it. I sit in the turquoise chair to his left and attempt a disarming comment about how handsome he looks, despite the violet gash on his right temple. He grunts in approval, preferring my remark to my mother’s incoherent ramblings about inpatient detox. Old feelings of sympathy come to me, but I ward them off. My mother pulls me aside and tells me that she is going to fetch a social worker to see if Jimmy can be “taken care of” as quickly as possible. I do not dissent. He’s had his shot. I sit with my brother as he complains of stomach pains. The bulky cast that encloses his fractured left arm gives Jimmy a Popeye-esque appearance—that is, if Popeye frequented funhouses. His head seems abnormally shrunken above it; his recent decision to shear off his fine brown hair doesn’t help. His thin lips jut out to form an obstinate pout; I hate to see it. Though I initially attribute my disdain to pangs of jealousy, I soon decide that my reaction was rooted in the cruel curves on the outer edges of his otherwise pathetic expression. It’s as if he is internally revolting with all his might against his bondage and, like the loyal fan of a prizefighter past his prime, my ideal of him falls as far from grace as he looks at this moment. I do the bare minimum for my woeful brother, swabbing his gums with water (he isn’t allowed a full drink, surely tortuous to his dehydrated, morning-after system), but nothing more. I say nothing, observing in detached fashion the room, with its various machines of stabilization. After a few minutes my father rushes in. He must have caught an early ferry, and it surprises me that my mother bothered to tell him the news so early in the game. He is well accustomed to being briefed offhandedly about events past their currency date, and usually finds an abject comfort in it. “Hey, son, how is he?” Before I can reply, Dad looks sullenly at his battered child, his eyes stained with the tears of self-fulfilling prophecy. I glance at him, knowing that right at that moment he is thinking of himself on that hospital gurney, swearing sobriety while his car smoked behind a telephone pole on Route One—it is the most personal story our father has ever told us. Of course, private hospitals never gave out information on its plastered patients back then. It is different now. My mother eventually comes back with a social worker. She greets my father lukewarmly, and pulls us both out into the mint-colored hallway. “Melanie’s already told me a bit about Jimmy,” the social worker says, wearily. I figure he deals with vindictive parents often. “Unfortunately,” he continues, “James is eighteen. He’ll have to voluntarily commit himself to a program.” “I’m sure he’ll be willing,” my mother offers. She turns to my father. “What do you think, Jeff?” “Yeah,” he says emphatically, as if someone were shaking him from behind. “Whatever the kid needs.” Good old Dad. I stare contemptuously at his ruffled flannel, his beer belly, his soft blue eyes—a dependable source of masculinity withheld, with his painfully familiar shyness and uncertainty overwhelming the unremitting anger bottled inside. For my brother and me, this is how we define our absent father, and how we recognize the worst in ourselves. I need a cigarette. I walk through the double doors of the E.R. as my brother’s nurse calls for a second CAT scan, just to be safe.   Ihave not been outside long when an old woman walks through the opaque rotating doors, pulling out a cheap tin Gambler cigarette case just as she passes the No Fumar sign on the sidewalk. Before she appeared I’d watched hesitant cars meander their way along the many entrances of UMass Memorial Medical Center, and imagined them as hearses lost on their way to the graveyard. They would all be on their way there eventually, no need to rush. “You need a cigarette in a place like this,” the woman says, looking directly at me. “Tell me about it.” I turn casually to her in faux-acknowledgement, and with one glimpse I already know her type. Short grey hair and stocky stature; Mickey Mouse jacket and loose, generic Salvation Army jeans that fail to diminish her robustness. Marlboros, too, of course. Probably worked in either a Walmart or some sort of rundown factory far past her retirement age. I briefly entertain myself wondering how many cats she has pouncing around her apartment as syndicated games of Jeopardy glare lifelessly against the dusty, nicotine-stained wallpaper. However, she is persistent. “What are you in here for?” Ha. As if I need to feel more like I’m in prison. “My brother got into a car accident early this morning. Only a broken arm and a nasty cut on his head. I think he’ll come out all right.” The woman gives me a long look. “Happy to hear he’s doing well. My Billy has been doing pretty well himself.” Billy. That’s my name. I don’t normally bite on coincidences like this, but the woman’s small talk has distracted me from my sordid imaginings. “That’s nice to hear. What’s wrong with him, if you don’t mind me asking? I hardly know my manners around this place.” She takes a drag and waves me off. “Perfectly fine, honey,” she pauses, collecting herself. “My Billy has been in the hospital since he was born. Premature birth.” Another drag. “He was never supposed to hold on this long, but he’s a fighter. He’s sixteen, and he’s never been able to walk, go to school, have friends.” She looks into my eyes. “He’ll never be able to drive, either.” I am moved, and keep my condolences brief out of respect for her situation. She shrugs them off with the carelessness that comes with habit. “How old is your brother?” she asks, suddenly. I knew this would be the clincher, but I don’t mind very much. I feel a kinship with this woman that can only be brought about through cigarettes and opposing stages of life. “Eighteen.” Her eyes twinkle through the afternoon frost. “He was drunk driving?” “Yes, ma’am.” She stomps out her cigarette and takes me gently by the arm. “Come with me; I want to introduce you to Billy.” As we walk through the revolving doors and through the echoing ochre hallway to the elevators, the woman tells me the story of her former husband, an alcoholic who miraculously survived a charging Amtrak train (it was more likely skidding to a halt on impact, but still) only to succumb a few years later to the natural effects of a life lost in the haze of perpetual inebriation. “Sometimes you can do everything for a person,” she says cryptically as we board the large silver elevator, “but one way or another, he has to figure it out on his own.” We get to the Pediatrics wing and speed through a sterile maze of special access doors. Cheap pinups on wax paper billboards of cartoons grin sourly at unfortunate passers-by, parodies of permanence now more ominous than uplifting. By the time I get to the room, I am anxious. How long had I been away from my brother? I hoped that I wasn’t missing anything important. Before I can make any move toward extracting myself from the situation, the woman opens the door. She leads me into the cold, sanitized disquiet of the room, introducing me to each member of her family. Her daughter, Billy’s mom, is in no way moved by my intruding presence. She lies propped up against her left forearm on a blue foldout couch, staring vacuously past me through brown eyes which recede into her pallid, acne-ridden cheeks. Her husband, Billy Sr., stands beside the bed, looking somewhat like my father, if not for the tattered sweatpants and faded tattoos on his forearm. A boy plays next to the mother, shouting. “He’s been acting up. He’s been thinking about what’s going to happen to his brother,” she whispers. Then, louder: “Hey, Billy, look who I brought to meet you! His name’s Billy, too!” Billy lies splayed in bed, a hundred tubes tethered to his emaciated frame. His body seems fossilized under the thin white sheets, as if preempting the death shudders soon to come. It becomes clear to me that the woman has been less than forthright about the boy’s grave physical condition, and any remaining doubt is stripped away by his face. It is pale, paler than I have ever seen a face. The pallor gives way to a feeble shade of grey on his forehead, reminding me of the froth that floats over a cup of beer that has been left out for days. Like my brother’s, his eyes contain the watery resignation of physical immobility—eyes that watch as loving relatives and jaded nurses humiliate him over and over again with kindness. His thin brown hair is dreadfully sweat-matted, neglected. But what strikes me the most are his teeth, crooked and agape; I find myself staring down through the black chasm between his sharp teeth, which have never seen a dentist. How easily our lives could be switched. I never brush my teeth at night, but if this kid were me, I bet he would brush his damn teeth all day long. I wonder if he knows this. I wonder what a boy in his place allows himself to know. I look around at the boy’s family. They don’t seem to be paying much attention. I look back at him:These parents of yours were probably fucking around with drugs while you were in the womb, you know. They probably met at some townie rager in a redneck meth addict’s basement and your dad probably knocked up your mom one night when he couldn’t find any underage girls to score with. Don’t you see that you’ll never understand how you’ve been wronged? That you will never be able to show them how wrong they have done you? I search his eyes. They are placid, unfocused, through the thick lens of morphine. I look away and see Billy Sr.’s knuckles shine white from clenching the bedside railing. I hug the old woman goodbye and walk out of the room without a word.   Ihurry back toward the E.R. and catch sight of my mother and father facing each other on opposite couches. The CAT scan has revealed a serious wound to Jimmy’s spleen, they tell me, and he is under the knife to get the thing removed. I sit on the third hard beige couch adjacent to my parents, and I talk to them. Until the surgeon comes out three hours later, I talk to them both as if the gaps between our equidistant positions belied an interconnectedness that had simply been forgotten or misplaced with time. I talk to them with the hope that this bond is as strong as Billy Sr.’s grip, its power capable of understanding anything short of life and death. We talk together, and that is a good enough start.

About the Author

William Lambert · University of Connecticut

William Lambert’s essay first appeared in the University of Connecticut’s literary journal, Long River Review.

About the Artist

Kyle Ford · College of Charleston

Kyle Ford is currently employed at Jimmy John’s as a delivery driver. He doesn’t ever know what he will create next, and that’s the best part about it, he says. His artwork first appeared in the College of Charleston’s journal, Miscellany.