The next day I dropped off my brother Shag at the rehab center on Montgomery Avenue. He was shaking bad, babbling about his daughter, Lily, and the new asshole in her life. The Growing Treethat was the name of the center, and true to the words there were trees all over the place. Pine, maple, oak, and something bent I couldnt identify but it looked like something me and Shag used to climb on.
We poked inside, Shag still a shivering mess. A nurse and orderlyone of them smelled deeply of peaches fryingescorted Shag to his room. The orderly told me to let go of my brothers hand. I told Shag Id be back. When he hugged me, I pulled back from the weight of him, the sweat cling and misery of our lives.
* * *
The next day, I brought over some Diet Mountain Dew and a pecan pie from the Food Lion, but the nurse wouldnt accept the food or even me. She said Shag was on a strict diet. She said, This is the hard part, the recovery, the shakes and night sweats and nightmare place. And one day, she said, hell be better. And then comes the rest of his life, she saidthat parts hard, too.
* * *
The next day, I went for a walk with my dog, Henry, and Shags daughter, Lily. Earlier, shed given me some treasures to deliver to her daddy. A Toblerone bar, a half-eaten sack of almonds, last weeks TV Guide, two hunting magazines, and one glossy magazine on the Royal Family of England.
Lily reached down to scratch Henrys belly, and he flopped to his back, panted, and slam-wagged his tail. I told him to stand up and show some backbone and the three of us shambled down an empty street littered with leaves and at least two condoms. Lily seemed distant, twiddling with her hair, and I checked her face and arms for bruisesbut she looked fine. I promised her Id give her gifts to Shag. Outside my house, she gave Henry one more hug, and said, Adios, Eddie. Tell Shag to clean up. Tell him we love him, still, she said. In spite of him, she added.
In spite of us, I said.
* * *
The next day, I went to Shags apartment to steal all his leftover drugs. Lily helped. She worked night shift at a factory that makes cookies and keeps our town smelling like vanilla when the wind is right. We cleared out Shags cabinets and drawers and helped ourselves to a few handfuls of mood enhancements. Nothing crazy, mostly Klonopin.
We each took a couple and drove out to see Shag. It was like National Bird Day on the drive there. Songbirds and mean birds all over the place. Buzzards eating road kill, and purple finches slipping out of trees, criss-crossing, music. We rolled down the windows and Lily lit a joint and I braked for hot dogs at this place that looked like a bunker but those hot dogs were the highlight of my life up until then. All my senses were amplified and everything felt liquid and close.
Anyway, we missed the visiting hours, and the night orderly gave us a judgmental snarl but took our gifts anyway.
Shags eating regular, he said. Playing ping-pong, even. He helps out around here, he said. Good guy.
I was standing there, like, OK, I get it. I suck.
* * *
The next day, I woke up surprised to find Lily sleeping on my couch and I hoped she didnt attract bedbugs because that couch had arrived to my apartment via someone tossing it out to the street two months ago. Shag had helped me haul it inside in the middle of a persistent drizzle. That couch and two beanbag chairs served as my furniture set in my abode.
I fixed scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for Lily and we watched two Clint Eastwood movies. Talked about Shag. I didnt ask about her boyfriend, and she didnt talk about him. The eggs were flecked with red pepper flakes that looked a little too close to mouse droppings. We washed dishes side by side like we were a family, and then we took some drugs and nothing else happened that day. Nothing worth talking about, at least.
* * *
The next day, I walked to town, picked up my disability check, and drank three cups of Coffee at Monas Deli. Hands shaking, I moseyed across the street to Bettys Beauty Box for a haircut. My regular barber was no longer working because he was dead. Betty snipped her scissors and complained about my cowlick but I cant help that, I told her. That was Gods work, I said.
Hair fixed, and coffee working, I rented a bike from the lesbian bike place. I was already out of money but my friend Terri let me have a bike on the promise of a rapid payback and a loaf of my small-town-famous banana bread.
I pedaled out west, out of town and into the country, on my way to Shag. Last night, on the news, theyd reported a bear loose, a grizzly, dangerous and hungry. I kept an eye peeled for that bear but I only saw a bunch of squirrels and a cat with no tail.
Halfway to The Growing Tree, I felt dizzy, dehydrated, sick. I changed course. Aimed the bike back to my place, and moved my legs just enough to stay upright. Lily was waiting for me, on the stoop. Her hair caught the light and her tennis shoes were all marked up with the hearts she liked to draw on them.
Inside, we ate cereal, Captain Crunch, and talked about drugs. She wanted to stop. Ill prove it, she said.
She made a big show out of dropping her pills, one by one, into the sink and down the drain.
That was wasteful, I told her, and she gave a look Ive seen before, from teachers, police, Daddy, and my ex-wife. A look that said, When will you stop it?
* * *
The next morning, I woke up early enough to make a day of it with Shag. He looked good, clear-eyed, clean-shaven, all of it. We ate hard-boiled eggs and melon slices in the courtyard. Shag pointed out a sugar maple tree, just starting to turn orange. Ground workers armed with Weed Whackers edged the winding sidewalks. People moved along, hugging each other, even crying. A family of four had gathered by the scuzzy-looking pond. Three of thema mother, father, and brotherkneeled in prayer while the sister smoked a cigarette and looked embarrassed. She wore overalls that looked more city than country. Black, silky-looking. Shag was talking about ping-pong. Thats all we do around here, he said. We take our meds, do our walk, eat the eggs, and play ping-pong.
He asked me about Lily and I told him the news.
She left that guy, I told him. Shes off drugs, I said.
Shag leaned back in his wrought-iron chair and let the sunlight splash all over his face. I left him there. We hugged a decent and honest good-bye. In my car, in the rehab parking lot, I swallowed a pill of something strong, and then I drove back to where I lived.
On the way home, I played a tape of Hank Williams that meant the world to Shag and me. Its direct and pure and it hurts. Hank sang, I steered, and the drugs kicked in hard. I almost missed my exit: Robinson Lane. I made a hard left, dug up some gravel, and let the wheel right itself.
Three dogs witnessed the whole thing. They stood together on the top of a long-sloped hill. They looked regal, and disappointed. I wanted to brake, pull over, and make those dogs accept me as a friend. I would throw a ball to them. Put chicken in their dry food on holidays. Pat them on the head when thunder boomed. Stand beside them on rainy days and even comb out their tangled hair. I could do this. There were still a few things I could do OK.