Back in the late 90s, my brother — an incorrigible drunk — was picked up by the cops, taken to a hospital, dried out for four weeks (at the government’s expense because he was indigent), sent to rehab, brought back from rehab, put in a motel with a few bucks to get him started. Naturally, he got drunk. At that point he realized that he had no place to live. His landlord had evicted him from his apartment. All the money left him by my mom through the sale of her house was gone, apparently stolen from under his mattress by his drinking buddies. In short, he was up shit crick without a paddle.
I’d been given strict instructions from his social worker not to help him, not to send him money, to do what I could to push him into sobriety. He had already told me how little sobriety interested him, but…
So one late afternoon the phone rang. “Martha Ann? This is Kirk. Your brother.” I only ever had the one but this is what he always said when he called. “I just want you to know I’m OK. I’m living at the Montana Rescue Mission. It’s nice and they’re giving me a job.”
My brother was living at a rescue mission. I didn’t know what that meant, how to take it, nothing. I was numb inside from two years of trauma in my family — my mom dying, my brother self-destructing all while trying, in my own life, to patch things up and hold them together.
While I was on the phone, there was a knock at my front door. “Someone’s at the door. You want to call me back?” He said he’d call me the next day.
A neat and clean, poorly dressed man about 40 stood there with a stenographer’s notebook and a bag over his shoulder holding flyers.
“I’m here to invite you to a Thanksgiving Dinner.”
“At the San Diego Rescue Mission. It’s $2.50 a ticket.”
I felt very strange hearing that. “I’ll take two tickets.” I thought one for me, one for Kirk. “Do you live there?” I asked him.
“Can you tell me what it’s like living at a rescue mission? I just talked to my brother on the phone and he’s living at a rescue mission now. He’s an alcoholic.”
“I can tell you.”
So we sat down on the stoop and he told me all about himself. His name was John and he’d been a drunk and a druggy, he said. Lost everything to his habits but he really wanted to be sober this time. He was a soft-spoken man, without the inexplicable charisma a lot of users have. “God will help your brother, if he lets Him.”
I didn’t doubt that.
“It will be good for your brother. He’ll be with a lot of people like him who are trying to do better. It’ll be easier for him without the pressure of all the people outside who judge and aren’t fighting that demon.”
I could see the logic there. We talked for nearly an hour and then he said, “I have to invite more people. What’s your brother’s name? This is my prayer list.” He showed me the steno notebook. “These are the people I pray for every day. I’ll add your brother’s name.”
So my brother’s name went into that book and John was on his way with $5 for the dinner. I set my two tickets on the table and went out back to be with my dogs, never thinking I’d ever see John again, but I was wrong. He came by two weeks later to check on me.
“How’s your brother?”
“He’s doing all right.”
“So far,” said John. “Always remember, ‘so far’.”
“Yeah,” I laughed.
And John came back nearly every month just to be sure that I was doing all right. Then he disappeared. “Oh well,” I thought, “so far.” A year passed and I didn’t see John. Meanwhile, my brother had given up on the Rescue Mission, gone to Colorado, got a job with a friend, and seemed to be doing well. I went to Colorado and visited him. During the visit he did something that showed me that if there was a wagon, he’d fallen off and the wagon was long gone. That was the last time I saw my brother alive.
More time passed — four years? My brother headed back down that chute, though this time in Arizona. I was working four jobs, one of which was supporting him in rehab. Housing prices went up and I decided to move out of the “barrio” and up to the mountains if I could find a place. I did. There was work that needed to be done on my house before the deal could close. I was working frantically to get it done, but I was out of money. There remained a 12 inch bit of wall all around an enclosed veranda that needed to be stuccoed. My real estate agent was going to do it, but had a heart attack instead. I was given 10 days to patch that bit. On Friday, home from school early, I decided to try it myself. After all, I’d textured a lot of walls and I was a painter, but I quickly leraned that troweling stucco above my head was impossible. It was too heavy. As I was standing on the step ladder, giving up on the stucco, there was a knock at my front door and the dogs went wild.
You know what’s coming.
It was John.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” I said. “Are you OK?”
“I messed up and had to leave the mission, but I’m back.”
“I’m glad,” I said.
“How are you? How’s your brother?”
“My brother’s in rehab again and I’m OK. I sold my house.”
“THIS house? How could you sell it?”
“I want to move up to the mountains.”
“That’ll be nice.”
I thought for a minute, guys like John… “Hey John, in all your work, did you ever do stucco?”
“Yeah. That was my trade. Why?”
I told him my stucco problem. He laughed and said, “Where is it?”
And he did a beautiful stucco job for me.
“I want to pay you,” I said.
“No,” he said. “You can’t pay me. We’re friends. You’ve always been here when I’ve knocked on your door. You never judged me. Your brother costs you enough and I know you work hard. Let’s go get a pizza sometime. You can buy.”
I gave him my cell phone number so he could call me about the pizza, and he left. A few weeks later I moved up to the mountains and five weeks after that came the Cedar Fire, the worst fire in California history. I was evacuated from my new house, scared and all the emotions that come from finding oneself living in a place surrounded by flames.
I was driving down the freeway toward a friend’s house where I would wait out the fire with my dogs when my cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Martha? This is John. I just want to know that you’re all right.”
“I’m all right. We’ve been evacuated, but I’m fine.”
“Are the dogs fine?”
“We’re all fine.”
“Thank God,” he said. “Well I gotta’ go. I’m on the mission’s phone. No personal calls.”
I never heard from John again.
You can’t create stories like this. Life writes them.