My brother Bill around age four in Germany

Bill in Germany around age four, a long, long time ago

Oh yes, I watched that debate. As I tweeted to someone, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life!” It’s relevant to this post, but that comes later. This is all about my brother Bill. Someday I’ll write the book about my family that will end all family histories—no one will even try to write another. The chapters on my brother Bill will be among the saddest and most infuriating things that anyone has ever seen, and this just a taste.

He was born at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 1951 and tried to come out while our mother was still lying on a gurney in the elevator. Typical, I’d say, and things pretty much went downhill from there. She felt guilty her entire life because the doctor had to grab him with the forceps when he got all tangled up inside, thinking maybe that was why he had such “problems” later on in life. As the middle child, everything about him was impossible. He’d draw you into situations where you’d have to treat him horribly, and mostly everybody did. When he was still the youngest, pedaling furiously on his trike to follow me on my new bike with training wheels, I’d urge my friends to ride so fast he couldn’t keep up. That was what you did with Bill. There was just something about him that wasn’t right. When Dad was stationed in Germany and we lived outside of Frankfurt at Rhein-Main AFB, he’d sneak into the closet to pee in my shoes, or break my model airplanes. Our father didn’t know what to do with him—or any of us, really—though I often heard him recite these opening lines from a poem by Eugene Field:

Father calls me William, sister calls me Will,
Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill!

And then he’d cry a little, wipe his eyes and turn away. That was as emotional as the old man would ever get, except when he was drunk or angry, and the recitation always baffled us. What was it all about with Bill, and why pick out the misbehaving klutz who barely got through elementary school?

One time he stuck a dried lima bean inside his ear and tried to get it out with soap and water. The bean expanded—naturally—and hurt like hell. Our parents took him to the emergency room so someone could dig it out. In high school things got uglier. According to rumors from family therapy that I was not a party to, he may have assaulted an older lady who lived across the street in Houston (sexually or otherwise), and there might have been some incest. Somehow he graduated and made it to the Air Force. In Korea he “married” a prostitute who promptly vanished with his money and a new ID, and he took it pretty hard. We all knew what had happened, but what was there to say? I visited him later in San Angelo, TX where he was stationed. There were bricks of marijuana in full view on a table where he was filling baggies to sell to other airmen. All of this was right out in the open in his quarters—he didn’t even close the door! Around this time he bought a new Volkswagen “Thing” (a Jeep-like vehicle) and promptly wrecked it. Soon afterwards, the police found him naked and pistol-whipped after a drug deal gone bad, and the Air Force let him go—honorably, as it turned out, whether blind or kind or accidental, and he was proud of that.

By that time my parents had ended up in Tucson, and William George (his full name) tagged along. This isn’t the time or place to lay out everything that happened afterwards, but it’s the saddest, most awful tale of family dysfunction, drug abuse, and chaos I have ever known. At one point he let someone build a meth lab on his property, behind a trailer that our parents bought for him so he would have a place to live. He barely stayed out of jail by ratting on his associates, who later burned the trailer down. Some time after that, he drove his poor old car out into the desert on the rims, where my sister found him living in a cardboard box. There’s more and more, there’s so much more. The meth. The crimes. The sexual creepiness and drug-induced aggression. Oh God, it was unending. He died of cancer at the V.A. hospital in Tucson last year, raving and eating his own dead flesh, and everyone was glad we didn’t have to worry about William any more.

And yet, and yet…

When he was straight, he wouldn’t hurt you. He was empathic and considerate. He had a strong creative streak and built sculptures out of junk and piled-up rocks. Always an eager participant in grownup family activities, such as there were, he fit in fine and had a sense of humor. He had at least a few friends who remembered when he’d been generous and helped them. When all is said and done, despite the lifelong horror and the pain, I’d stand up and say to anyone, “My brother had a good heart. Deep down inside, a good, good heart.” That doesn’t mean we had it easy with him, but he did.

This last part may sound shocking, even inexplicable or crazy after all I’ve written here, but I don’t care. It’s what I really feel. As I caught up on the news this morning, having watched that ugly performance last night by the soulless man who would be king, out of the blue I thought of Bill! Yes, that surprised me. But whatever spark of pride there may be in my DNA awakened and made me want to tell him this: Wherever you are, William G., you’re a better man than Donald Trump.

(Somewhere in the void, a circle is completed.)

Please don’t forget to vote, okay?

Rave on, brother. Rave on.

Stupid Gringo Day

Taos Diner, Taos, NM

Sign in the window says “Free Gluten”

First of all, that’s a photo of the original northside Taos Diner that has nothing to do with this post, though they’d have no trouble with the title. It’s definitely a state of Taos mind. You won’t find any tourists there. (We will beat you with our hippie sticks.)* It’s also close to the Famous Goddamn Storage Unit, so we often stop there for a treat whenever we’ve come from digging through the dusty boxes for some essential thing. It happened again a few days ago—her long black cotton pants weren’t there, but I found my mother’s ashes—and we split a big ole sweet roll. My wife couldn’t finish her half and took it home. That was fine, but she’d probably rather have had the pants.

The day just past was something of its own black hole. It started with so little water pressure that we almost didn’t do a laundry, but the washer filled eventually and that was fine. We live on a community water system. I’d never encountered anything like these before New Mexico. In defense of ours, the water doesn’t cut off any more often than the power does, say several times a month. About the time my wife came back into the house from hanging up the clothes, I discovered it was off again. Suddenly no way to clean your face, wash your hands, shower, bathe, flush, or have a glass of water at the onset of a busy day, which soon became a frame of being sane men should avoid. Usually when the water conks out, it’s only for a short time, but this was Saturday. Who works on Saturday? The outage stretched on into the morning, afternoon, and early evening. There hadn’t been a warning of any kind. We live within sight of the local water towers where the wells and pumps are, but not a truck came rumbling by all day.

By a little after noon I couldn’t take it any more and called the home phone of the president of the local water association. He wasn’t there, but I politely asked his wife if she knew when the water would be back on. She reacted like I was the fiftieth caller. I could have been, but I don’t think so.

“You’ll have to ask him! His number is ________. Goodbye!”

I wasn’t expecting a real answer, of course. Just reassurance that they knew and that someone was on the job. Her reply was neither, especially since it turned out that the number didn’t work because his phone was turned off! For all I knew, everyone was in the mountains hunting weasels. By this time my wife was hiding under a blanket. I’d chosen to argue in favor of filling up a five-gallon jug in town—she thought this was much too heavy—in addition to the gallon we’d already gotten from a neighbor, and it wasn’t going well. I called the association president’s house again and this time left a message that was less than brilliant and the man will not forget. The answering machine sounded like an old cassette device, so maybe the tape broke at the end. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Finally, a little after dark, the kitchen faucet started spitting and a little water trickled in. Not before we had driven off to fill the great big huge thing and fetch a chamber pot (no, really) from a closet at her studio, but we were saved.

That is, if “saved” even need apply. [For more on shifting internal gears, see the “New Mexico Slow” chapter from my first book, Buffalo Lights.] The truth is:

• My neighbors might have been upset but know the water always comes back on. I spoke to one who might as well have been commenting on the weather.

• Their parents can probably remember when there wasn’t any.

• No one but me thinks the association is out to get them.

• No one is in a hurry.

• None of them freak out.

I’ll bet I was the only one to call.

There are things that one should never push against. To that end, and the necessity of understanding, we are living in the perfect place. New Mexico will beat you to the ground if you stay stupid. Meanwhile, not only did I make a total asshole of myself, we have to keep on living here until the gods say we can move. Although I try to focus entirely on that—in expectation of a new direction!—I’ll likely take another karmic hit. It’s all a blur to me these days, but at least I got my hair cut and don’t look like Cheeto Jesus’ stupid doctor any more.

* This strikes me as funny for some reason. However, rest assured that the Taos Diner is a fantastic place to eat (real Taos) and everyone is welcome!

Walk Right In

Llano Quemado sky

Now this is like it really is

We were coming back from the dentist. It’s half an hour out of town on a two-lane road that drops a thousand feet into the canyon of the Rio Grande. The river was beautiful today, mostly clear as it reflected sky and trees. We could see rocks and sand on the bottom even speeding by high above the water. I go crazy when it’s like that. The dentist’s office is in one end of a beautiful old adobe building that used to be a little community hospital in a quiet, peaceful setting off the highway with flowers and trees and picnic tables. There’s a bare dirt mountain just across the road with wooden crosses at the top and shrines farther down below. It feels so peaceful in this place. Visiting the dentist here is like going to your uncle’s house, if your uncle is a happy man who fixes people’s teeth and everyone at home is really nice. (My old dentist’s office back in town was a high-tech mall of fear where hope and wallets went to die.)

Up out of the canyon on the twisty road with no one in the climbing lane, I didn’t have to go so fast. After passing up the chance to to try the jerky samples at the top the way I always do, we flew on toward the mountains in the gold September sun. “It’s so damn beautiful,” I said. Then we passed a section of the mesa where we’d once looked at a house. I’d been too scared and it was awfully small, but situated where all you saw were hills and views and nothing else except the sky. It even had a private mailbox just like God intended. We argued gently over why we hadn’t made an offer. She pointed out she’d even found a place for her piano. It might have worked, you never know.

“I think we’ll walk right into one,” she said.

I need this woman, every day.

road and sky, Taos, NM

Western sky through windshield of Pontiac Vibe

New Mexico would be a great place to test them out. Ribbons of sun-baked asphalt stretching to the horizon! (No paint! Signs shot full of bullet holes!) Open her up, see what she’ll do, etc. I knew a guy who got stopped for doing a hundred and ten up by the Colorado line where the posted limit is sixty miles per hour, and the trooper just told him to “hold it down.” I mean, we trust each other here. Or something. More to the point perhaps, a disreputable acquaintance told me once that the cops don’t usually stop people for speeding in el Norte because they know it’s probably a relative or the fellow has a gun. At any rate, let’s say you’re heading north from Taos because there’s a sale on toilet paper in Colorado. (A lot of locals head to Antonito for that reason.) The road is free and clear except for seasonal tarantulas, coyotes, cows, and elk herds after dark. You know you only want to score and get back home—have you ever been to Antonito?— so you say, “Yo computer, take it up to ninety!”

“I’m sorry, Dave. You’re only authorized for fifty-five.”

“The hell I am! They’ll be all out of Oaktown Crippler* before I get there!”

“What else can I help you with? Maybe you should try deep breathing to relax.”

“I’ll chill out any way I want to, dammit. Now bump this crapheap up to cruising speed!”

“I’m sorry, Dave. Perhaps you’d like for me to call ahead and have a doctor meet you?”

“I DON’T WANT A FRIGGING DOCTOR AND MY NAME’S NOT ‘DAVE’!”

“I’m sorry, Dave. By the way, there’s no toilet paper at the address you punched in before we left.”

“I KNOW THAT, YOU STUPID GODDAMN USELESS PIECE OF JUNK! Christ, I’m sitting here yelling at a robot. Where’s the fusebox on this thing?”

“I’m not authorized to release that information, Dave.”

“I TOLD YOU, I’M NOT DAVE!”

“Sorry, Dave. Based on your psycho-biometrics, we have to stop now. I’ve locked the doors and notified the sheriff. Please try to relax and have your registration ready.”

“AAAGHH!”

* * *

Does your new Googlewagen read reflections in a pronghorn’s eyes at dusk and know which way to swerve? The stores are open late and we could make a run!

* Regional brand of bathroom tissue?

Taos Trap™ Explained and Busted

Chamisa blossoms

I thought this was a metaphor but now it’s not

[Note: be sure to read the whole thing. This started as a rant. As I wrote, the anger drained away and something shifted. – JHF]

It’s easy to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and fumble for the pistol in your nightstand. (Flashlight, buckles, old eyeglasses clatter in the drawer.) Doom and hopelessness will do that to a person, which is why I’d never have one. Telling symptoms of the Taos Trap™ syndrome!

Several varieties of this condition may be found. A common one is purely psychological and manifests as delusion born of myth and marketing, wherein the victim feels that simply being here confers a certain edge. (Now ask me how I know this.) It’s a great place, by the way. But the self-referential nature of the syndrome blinds one to a few things. Years ago, Bill Whaley explained it to this newcomer, noting that wealthy people come to Taos for the hype, build second homes in the sagebrush, then get bored and leave because there isn’t anything for them to do except take art lessons and go skiing. The result is empty homes that cost too much because “it’s Taos,” cue the myth, and lo the churn rolls on. An old saying goes that “only crazy white people live out in the sage,” but there seem to be a lot of them, and God knows we have dirt.

The essence of the actual trap or bind at any rate, at least as I perceive it— speaking as one who’d like to be re-acquainted with central heat and pavement—is having just enough resources to 1) buy a better home if one you really want exists, 2) keep paying rent until they sell it out from under you or it collapses, or 3) get the hell out of Dodge and spend it all on moving, which leaves you right back where you started from, all of this with little or no overlap among the three and damn few Taos choices, sadly—or so it would appear…

But as I said to my wife this morning, “The most important thing is being happy living here with you right now,” which she appreciated greatly, having said the same thing her own self for years for purposes of telling truth and keeping me from being mean and crazy. And what if the perpetual “housing dilemma” that’s tormented this former Air Force brat for his entire life, beginning with forty moves in the first sixteen years, has been too long tied up with “other matters”? [koff] This just occurred to me today, in fact, and somehow I feel better. Maybe all we have to do is find one, duh—once the thing’s untethered, see—and what if I can really do this shit? Did I not believe before? Suddenly I feel it in my bones.

Good Lord!

And now the whole damn post is blown to hell.

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