It’s not unusual for Thanksgiving temperatures in Florida to exceed 80 degrees. We were sweating outside of my grandmother’s condo in Venice when Brian rolled up — five hours late — and fell over on the grass piss drunk. His bike landed beside him with its wheels spinning, and he lay like a dying cockroach, grasping at the air. He showed up just as we were preparing to leave for home. He was on his bicycle because by this point he’d gotten so many DUIs, the state had suspended his license indefinitely. What I didn’t know at the time is that you can still get a DUI on a bicycle. I would learn this three years later, when he was arrested for the final time. Although, on that particular occasion, he wouldn’t even be drunk.
We circled around him and watched his eyelids bob open and closed. His nose had grown considerably since three years before, when I’d seen him last, and with its gaping pores and shiny finish, it had come to resemble an upside-down colander. His skin was so brown that, looking at him, you would never imagine him to be a member of our family. The rest of us are fair-skinned, freckled, Elvin-faced: black Irish. The only feature Brian shared with us was his eyes. They were clear blue. And they were always kind, even when he was bloodshot drunk.
I had met Brian a couple of times before, though I only recall speaking to him once, about his work. He was a carnie; he traveled with a caravan around the state, assembling and disassembling carnival rides. He had calluses on his hands so thick, he could barely bend his fingers, and his skin would crack if he tried too hard to bend them, so there were scabs all over them. His fingernails grew at odd angles and thicknesses.
Of my mother’s three brothers, he fell somewhere in the middle in terms of acquaintanceship. I say this because Mike died when I was very young and Dennis I can actually attach memories to. That Thanksgiving is the only complete memory I have of Brian. Everything else, every other image I can point to in my mind, is a composite of photographs and stories shown or told at family gatherings, or discovered in albums dragged out of closets.
I saw in his eyes that he had a good soul, but he squandered it. He hurt his family — he hurt my family.
The Brian of photographs bears little resemblance to the Brian who told me about ratcheting Ferris wheels. In that memory, we are floating in empty space and I am any age between 4 and 14. In photographs, he’s a happy baby in a gauzy onesie; a handsome teenager in a button-down shirt; a respectable-looking young man, sitting amongst his five siblings at their mother’s condo.
I didn’t finish the story of Thanksgiving, though. Brian spoke. Although I remember that conversation about the carnival, I can’t recall the timbre of his voice then — but I remember it on this Thanksgiving. It was garbled, like he was talking with food in his mouth. All he said was, “This is bad. This is really bad,” just kept saying it over and over again, rolling on the grass.
The only other thing anybody said was, “Yeah, it’s bad, Brian.” That was my dad. It was like him to crack a joke at the least appropriate moment. Everyone else just stared in horror. Or disappointment. Or practiced indifference. My mom’s arms were crossed over her chest. She was shaking her head. I don’t remember what I was doing — maybe holding my dad’s hand. My grandmother had seen him like this so many times before, it didn’t even make her sad or angry anymore.
Brian died three years later in the back of a police cruiser. He had taken up with some older woman, also an alcoholic, and they’d decided to quit drinking together. This was nothing new — Brian had quit drinking hundreds of times before, had even been to treatment. The cops picked him up on his bike because they thought he was drunk when really, he hadn’t had a drink for five days and was having delirium tremens. Some of the symptoms of delirium tremens resemble drunkenness: belligerence, confusion, vomiting.
All the cops in Venice knew him and routinely took him to the hospital, so when they took him to the hospital this time, the medical staff just sent him away: he was drunk again. The cops didn’t second-guess them. Brian died on the way to the station, and when they realized what had happened, they took him back to the hospital, but it was too late.
I remember the night my mom got the news. I answered the phone and my Aunt Maureen was on the other end. I knew something was wrong because she only called with important family business. I handed my mom the phone and watched while Aunt Maureen told her he was dead. You should understand that my mom is very stoic; she rarely evinces emotion if she can help it. I’ve only seen her cry a couple of times, when I had done something that worried or scared her, like when I was hospitalized with anorexia. Even then, they were silent tears.
She hung up the phone and walked back to her bedroom. My dad and I left her alone for a while because that’s what you do when my mom is upset. My dad went in first. I followed a few minutes later. The feeling was like walking through a bombed-out building: there was a reverence, with the knowledge that you were witnessing the aftermath of something awful.
She was sobbing. My dad was sitting next to her, and she kept saying, “My baby brother, my baby brother.” I didn’t stay long. I didn’t know how to comfort her; she had always been the one to comfort me.
I’ve wanted to mourn for Brian, but how do you mourn for someone you barely knew? With so little to recollect, it’s difficult to feel nostalgia, or derive any meaning from his death. I didn’t go to his funeral. I didn’t want to. What I feel most of all is pity toward him for living so long like a deadbeat. I saw in his eyes that he had a good soul, but he squandered it. He hurt his family — he hurt my family.
Maybe that’s why we didn’t sue. It wasn’t anyone’s fault except for Brian’s, and it wasn’t even really Brian’s fault. He inherited a long history of alcoholism.
I first wrote this story almost 10 years ago. Back then, I was trying too hard to milk emotion from it. I claimed I was hurt by Brian’s failure to be my uncle, and angry at the officers and hospital staff for failing to save him — but the truth is that I’m not. There isn’t any lingering emotion.
We don’t write literary elegies for people like Brian. Even so, that’s a shitty place to end his story.
Here is the best that I can do for my uncle: He carried the load bestowed to him at birth, as we all do. He laid it down in a police cruiser, where he’d placed it, briefly, so many times before, and in that sense, he died the way anyone wants to die: with people who knew him, and who probably loved him in their way. His death had dignity, for he had undertaken to live a better life. He left this legacy.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novel Binary Star
(Two Dollar Radio), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times
Award for First Fiction and appeared on best book of the year lists for NPR, Vanity Fair
, and Flavorwire
. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times
, Paris Review Daily
, and other publications. She teaches writing in New York City. The Sunshine State
is her most recent book.