I replied, “Of course I remembered Sid. Why?”
Sid and I were best friends for the first few years of elementary school. Our brothers were best buds too, so I had the privilege of seeing him a lot. It was easier for our parents to have both kids headed to the same destination. My brother Justin and Sid’s brother David would hunt small animals while Sid and I would throw dirt clods at one another. I loved going home at night and lying on my bed, rubbing my scalp to pull every piece of dirt and sand out of my hair. My mom wouldn’t understand why there was an arc of dirt on my pillow in the morning.
Guns would usually be involved when we hung out with our brothers. The BB gun wars would consist of the younger versus the older. I remember getting shot in the chest, seeing the copper ball bounce off my camouflage jacket into the grass. Sid’s brother had shot me, and I fired back. The bark flaked off the tree with each shot at David. I remember cocking the Red Rider and not taking my time with aiming. I would just raise the barrel and fire in his direction. I came so close to taking his eye out. I wonder what we would have said to our parents had he come home a Cyclops.
My brother had a more powerful gray pump-action pellet rifle. Whereas the Red Rider only pumped once, he could build up the pressure in his gun to give a stronger shot. I was hunkered down behind a bush hidden from everyone else. I could see my brother scoping out Sid’s hiding position. I knew what Sid was thinking, a change in trees would be beneficial because the one he was behind was smaller and paled in the brush quality to the thicket of trees 15 feet away. My brother pumped his gun multiple times while he studied Sid’s movements. Justin said he would only pump the gun once since everyone else’s weapons wouldn’t pack the same kind of punch.
Sid wasn’t out of shape, the same as most kids in the early ‘90s. The Internet was still years in the future and none of our parents could afford the newest videogame systems. We were tossed out of the house until sunset. Make your own fun, they would say, use your imagination. But as Sid tried to run the 15 feet to his new cover he moved so slowly. I willed him to move faster, but Justin had already lined him up.
The volume of Sid’s screams didn’t match that of the pfft from Justin’s gun. A momentary truce was called so we could all assess the damage from this skirmish. Sid was still rolling side to side when the three of use stood around him. He never would survive a bear attack, I thought. Tears made clean lines down the side of his face, revealing the young flesh underneath the filth. He clutched his arm to his chest, hoping the pressure to the wound would relieve him of the pain. I didn’t want to see how bad it was. I imagined a clear, scarlet liquid flowing down his arm in thick trickles.
Justin said sorry with a smile. David sat on Sid’s chest, preventing his continued rocking. There was a welt on his arm, but the pellet didn’t break the skin.
“Don’t be such a fucking pussy,” David slapped Sid upside the head.
That is what Sid and I got from them. If there wasn’t a mark on our bodies then they didn’t deserve to get in trouble. Our tears weren’t enough of a reason for them to be punished.
As we grew we began to model ourselves after our brothers. They were always laughing and having a good time. We wanted to have a life full of laughter too. I used to see my brother talking on the phone for hours. He would walk around his room, the cord from the yard sale phone dragging behind him, and tell jokes and learn about people’s lives. He was teaching himself how to talk to other human beings. I was never able to stay on the phone for more than five minutes. I would let the silence swell into awkwardness and have to hang up. I never had many girlfriends.
Then, as most teens do, the older brothers started smoking pot and drinking beer. My parents caught on and our home life deteriorated. My parents were vigilant about where he was going, whom he was with and what he was doing. He had to call and check in every hour. They were a police force. He had a rebellious spirit and never gave them an opportunity to trust him ever again. Justin was all they had on their minds and I was given free reign for most of my youth. At this point I regret not taking advantage of it. My mother smelled my breath once in my teenage years, and the funny part about it is it was the one time I drank beer in my high school days. She didn’t even notice, but smelled as a mere formality, assuming I was only getting candy on Halloween.
I never wanted to go home, but at the same time I was a homebody so I never wanted to leave. I was marooned in my room and that became my haven. I would read and draw comics in the company of no one. I went through a phase where I’d draw posters for fictional movies I’d made up. Brothers – ‘One’s a cop. The other’s a criminal. Family’s all that matters?’ The tagline was always my favorite part to make up, but I’ve never been very good at thinking of quipping lines.
I would be able to sit on the far end of the house in the living room and watch movies after nine in the evening. My parents both went to bed early and Justin was in his room planning an escape or talking on the phone. I was able to sit in solitary darkness and let the pictures of John Woo and Michael Bay wash over me.
One night I was watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Justin asked if he could join me. He would normally plop down and start complaining about what I was watching or he’d just grab the remote and change the channel. If I tried to tell on him he would punch me in the stomach. I’ve been punched in the stomach many times because of him, and I would prefer a face shot. When all the wind is knocked out of you with a diaphragm jab and your body tries regaining equilibrium, your lungs seem to be unable to retain any air. It feels like you’re going to suffocate, unable to move because you’re crippled on the floor.
So when he asked if he could join me for the movie I was surprised. I wondered if this was a new, hopefully permanent, side of Justin. We weren’t 20 minutes into the flick when our dad walked into the room holding a two-liter Coke bottle that was transformed into a bong. There was a small green cylinder duct taped to the side, giving access to whatever smoke was in the chamber.
Justin didn’t finish the movie. He left with our father and had a sit-down with both our parents. I finished the movie but wanted to go to bed the whole time. I just didn’t want to walk by my parents and Justin while going to my room at the opposite end of the house.
Things like this were constant; I was caught in the crossfire a few times. One night I woke up in a sweat from a nightmare; my family had been murdered and I could only see their lifeless bodies strewn across the floor, blood soaking into the carpet. I got out of bed and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door. I waited for a moment, my ear to the door in hopes that I would hear the floor creak with the weight of a newly awakened Mom or Dad. Instead, I heard the slider on the other end of the house shut.
I moved towards the kitchen. A shadowy form moved to the fridge and opened the door. The light shown from the box revealed that the figure was Justin.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“What are you doing up?”
I could smell cigarettes on his clothes and breath. The clock on the oven read 12 a.m. I figured he did this routine every night—sit at the bottom of the stairs in the basement waiting for all the televisions to be turned off and all the doors to be shut, then creep to the far end of the house to smoke a stolen or bummed cigarette. He wouldn’t have discriminated which kind; be it a light or a robust or a 100, Marlboro, Camel or American Spirit, he would have been grateful for the tobacco and nicotine.
“I had a bad dream.” That was when we heard the parental footfalls I was hoping for a moments ago. And then the click of a door opening. Justin grabbed me by my arm, rushed me to the sliding door, pushed me through and told me to run. I didn’t think twice. I ran. He was behind me, but it only took him a few seconds to catch up and run alongside me. We ran up the street away from what would have been yelling and disappointment, from looks of anger and sadness. Once we got a couple blocks away, Justin sat down on the curb and I followed his cue. He pulled out a half a cigarette and lit it. I pushed the gravel off the sole of my foot. My pajama pants were too long for my stubby legs, letting the backs of them get wet from the nighttime dew.
We didn’t say anything while we sat on the curb. He blew his smoke skyward and I looked at the stars. We lived far enough out that the city’s lights wouldn’t mush the sky into a dark gray. Instead we could see all the constellations the dome had to offer. After about five minutes Justin stood up, scrubbing the asphalt with his cigarette butt.
“I think that should be enough time,” he said.
As we walked back to our house I noticed how different our neighborhood looked at night. I wasn’t even out of elementary school, so I hadn’t had the benefit of late night explorations with friends yet. I was always a few years behind on what kids my age should have been doing anyway.
When we got home, we walked around to the back of the dark house. If our mom or dad knew what had happened, they surely would have locked the slider. That would mean Justin would have to ring the doorbell and he’d—we’d—be caught.
The slider slid open with a whiff.
Justin looked back at me and nodded his head in victory. He whispered to me to be quiet going to my room. He let me take the lead into the kitchen.
“Have a nice walk?” My mom was sitting on the counter, in the dark. Her legs were crossed at the ankles. Even in the darkness I could feel the stare of disappointment.
“We—” he started.
“I don’t want to hear it. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
“I had a bad dream,” I said.
“I don’t care. Get to your room.” She was done with us.
I don’t blame her. From her perspective I was out with him. Living up the life of the rebel older brother. Moments like these, though, are the reasons I didn’t want to leave my room. I didn’t want to get caught in the cross hairs, whether I deserved it or not.
As David and Justin got older their drug use and drinking got harder. They were teenagers and set out to prove themselves, wanting to show everyone how “badass” they were, to do as much partying as a “normal” adult would. Sid followed in our brothers’ footsteps; he saw them rebel against the status quo and thought they were cool. He wanted to prove he was just as hard as they were by getting into hot water with his parents—and not giving a shit. I could only see the tears in my mother’s eyes and the voices of both parents as they fought at night about my friendship with Sid. My father’s deep voice would timber through the walls into my room. I could never make out the words, but his voice sounded angry and defensive.
Sid continued to push the envelope and I opted to become a wallflower; we lost touch through the years. I started to read more books and watch more movies and made friends who shared those interest. Sid and my old group of friends started scheming ways to get booze, meeting each weekend to lose all recollection of teenage life in a haze of weed and cigarettes and vodka. I saw Sid at school now and again as we got older, but once we graduated I never thought that I’d see him again.
Then in 2006 Justin died of an overdose.
As I read my letter to my older brother at his memorial service I saw Sid amongst 600 faces. Standing room only. I was amazed that a 22-year-old drug addict could fill a mega-church, more people than the pastor’s mother’s service a few months earlier. These people must have known something I didn’t.
I heard stories about how my brother was an amazing guy, incapable of judging people. It didn’t matter if you were a shitty person or a nice person, he would treat both of you the same. If you stole from him or if you gave him gifts, he would allow you into his house. Apparently, he loved to laugh and joke around with people. He got to know—and even hugged—people. I wanted to believe these stories, but I did not know this side of him. Makes me wonder what I would’ve thought of him had he treated me like a friend opposed to his younger, un-hip brother. I just can’t get away from the look in his eyes when he would judge me, when he would call me a faggot for not smoking weed with him. He was the only person who ever tried to peer pressure me, but I was able to withstand his advances—probably because of my hatred toward him. A benign, loving big brother is a wonderful thought, and I’m sure the several hundred faces at the memorial knew that side of him, but I failed to connect the two. Sid’s face showed me that he was able to connect the two.
So when Dan asked me if I remembered Sid my heart sank.
The grapevine had told me that Sid had served time in prison for armed robbery. That he became religious and read the Bible regularly. That when he got out of jail, he was hooked on oxycontin, and his parents were on the verge of kicking him out. That was a year ago.
It had been a few years since anyone I knew had died.
Justin was cremated. But I imagined Sid’s parents would put him in an open casket. They would have him wear a blue suit. Make the whole outfit monochromatic: a navy blue button up shirt with a dark blue tie that matched the jacket. He’d be clean-shaven with only a quarter inch of stubble on his head. I concluded that he probably wasn’t beaten to death; it must have been a prescription drug overdose, perhaps passing away in his sleep. I would probably see a lot of my old friends at the church for his service. We’d exchange funny memories of Sid. We’d say goodbye to the corpse and smoke cigarettes outside. I would feel like a fake because where have I been? I took an introspective lifestyle in my youth and it became more complex as I grew. They’d embrace me nevertheless. We’d be a group of friends again. Of course I would be sad about Sid, but it’s better than my parents or my wife.
My phone beeped again.
“He just wanted to say ‘Hi,’” Dan finally responded.