Bubby by Ali McCart

closed bars of jail cellI snapped a picture of Timm when he strutted toward me at PDX. He stood a full head taller than everyone around him, his face revealing the goofiest grin I’d ever seen on a thirty-one year old.

Over the past ten years, I’d seen Timm off and on when I visited him at the Idaho prison. We’d play cards, and I’d buy him vending machine food that I had to heat up in the soiled visiting room microwave. Armed guards hovered nearby, listening to every part of our conversations and counting down the seconds whenever we touched. It wasn’t glamorous, even for siblings. I pitied the wives visiting their husbands.

I constantly envisioned how confining his cell must be. The worst visions came for me was when I knew he was in the hole: a dark, furnitureless, six-by-six cell—not quite long enough for him to lie down—with a pit for a bathroom. I sent him letters at least once a month, sometimes once a week, during his entire sentence. Dear Bubby, each one would start. Writing every month was my own penance, in a way. Of course, I wasn’t responsible for the crimes that had landed him in prison, but somehow I’d ended up with the slightly more functional childhood, and I felt the weight of that. Sometimes my letters were long scrawls about the sports I played or the classes I was taking, but mostly, they short notes to let him know I was thinking of him. I included postcards, dried flowers, found poems, and of course pictures—of places I’d been hiking, of us as kids, of our family members (the ones that still spoke to him).

I imagined him somehow affixing them to his cinderblock walls, papering his cell with scenery—a window to the outside world.

My favorite picture of us stayed in one of Mom’s photo albums; Timm and I held out cereal-filled hands to a magpie as we stood on the rim of Crater Lake. You can’t see our faces, but I’m sure I was smiling too eagerly. I wanted the magpie to choose me, to eat my cereal. But it chose Timm. At that time, I thought good fortune always chose Timm. I was too young to see otherwise. I turned to that album page often, but I never removed that picture—not to mail to Timm, not even to hang on my own wall. It was too precious to remove.

But this day in the airport marked the beginning of a time when I could take pictures of Timm anytime I wanted. I’d no longer have to pay the prison photographer ten dollars for a blurry shot in front of the visiting room mural. And Timm could take his own pictures of the ocean, the mountains, people—whatever he wanted. Finally, he was just ten feet away, and I couldn’t contain myself anymore. I ran to him and threw my arms around his neck. He picked me up to spin me around, just as I’d begged him to do when we were kids. He’d always said it was uncool back then.

 

Three years later, I’m standing outside his house. No matter how much I focus on calming my breath, I feel dizzy.

I hang on to that moment at the airport, when we were both happy to see each other and our biggest concern was where to grab lunch on our brother-sister road trip to Seattle. It does little to comfort me, though.

Mom rushes forward, rubber gloves and plastic trash bags in her hands. She’s in crisis mode, which is honestly when she thinks and acts most clearly. Once when she’d seen a little boy disappear under the surface of a lake, she plowed into the water and in an instant had him on his back on the beach, where she started administering child CPR. She’d never practiced child CPR, only read the short manual, but she knew what to do. The boy coughed up the algae-green water, and Mom won the Governor’s Award.

Nobody will be winning an award for today’s endeavor, though. I take one more deep breath and follow Mom inside. My stomach seizes, this time not from the stress but from the smell—a rotting life.

 

The first stop in Seattle was the Experience Music Project. Timm had been playing guitar for about six years. His friend Roman, an old professor in the joint for life, saw Timm’s pent-up anger and suggested music as an outlet. He even loaned Timm his extra guitar. Before long, he was playing prison concerts and calling me collect to show off his Metallica mastery. I always smiled as if he could see me through the phone. I’d never once listened to Metallica by choice. Still, I had respect for those complex guitar riffs.

“What is up with this building?” Timm twisted in his seat as I pulled into the parking lot. The EMP’s architectural budget was definitely not lacking.

Inside, Timm feigned interest in the museum exhibits—Kurt Cobain’s guitars and lyrics handwritten by Jimi Hendrix—as he followed me around. I’d always been the more bookish one. But he came alive when he saw the recording studios upstairs.

“Pick up that guitar,” he told me once we were inside booth #3.

I held it awkwardly by the neck as he fiddled with the amp. Sensing my hesitance, he turned and narrowed his eyes in that same you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look he’d had when he was fourteen.

“You told me you took lessons.”

I shrugged. “One semester.”

“So? That’s what, like, six months? I was basically a pro by then.”

“Well, four,” I corrected. “All I can play is Tom Petty!”

Timm pressed his lips together while he thought, clearly disappointed we wouldn’t be playing a Joe Satrioni duet. “All right.” He sat on a stool and motioned for me to do the same. “You remember C and G chords, right?” He picked up the other guitar in the booth and positioned his fingers on the frets to refresh my memory. “Just alternate between those every eight beats.”

I nodded, feeling a pang of admiration for my brother.

He plugged in both guitars, flipped a switch on the amp, and started us off. After only a few minutes, my fingertips were raw, and my left wrist ached. I remembered why I hadn’t continued to play after my guitar class ended. But I focused on the frets and tried not to press the wrong strings. Then Timm launched into a solo, his fingers so dexterous, I had to stop playing to watch them. He seemed to do it without even thinking. His fingers just knew where to go.

He’s going to make it, I remember thinking at that point. There was no doubt in my mind.

 

The Idaho State Correctional Institution’s ex-con return rate is 80 percent. When the odds are stacked so heavily against you, how long do you try to resist?

 

“You take the bedroom,” Mom delegates. “I’ll work on the bathroom.” Her businesslike demeanor hides everything she went through in the past year—surges of a mother’s undying love alternating with overwhelming fear.

I notice that Timm doesn’t have a bed anymore, just a couch that’s soiled with a yellow crusty substance and a desk that’s piled high with papers. The walls are what knock the air out of me, though. They’re papered with photos—not of mountains or lakes or even his friends. Copies of the same picture of his eighteen-month-old son, William, are taped over and over on all the bedroom walls, some of Timm’s own sketches of William appearing intermittently throughout. Sassy took William and moved out a few months ago, when Timm started accusing her of spying on him. I’m not sure, but I don’t think Timm’s seen his son since.

I sit at the desk and pick up the first paper I see. I know I should just swipe the whole pile straight into the trash bag, but I can’t help but read some of them. I want to understand what’s been going on in Timm’s head.

            I’m trying so hard to make things right, but everyone is against me, I read.

It sounds genuine, almost even sane, but then I flip the paper over.

            11:06 p.m. Denny’s: Two men in suits tell me I should watch out.

            11:37 p.m. I leave. Black helicopter follows.

            Tuesday, 3:16 p.m. Sassy goes to Burger King. Who did she meet there?

Scratched sideways in the margin, in a hand so frenzied, only the t’s and a’s are recognizable as Timm’s writing is: Bugs in all electronic devices. Ask Ali for help. They know wherever I go, whatever I do.

He did ask me for help. He called about a month ago while I was on my way out to breakfast with my then-boyfriend. I had just parked the car when the phone rang, and I almost chose not to answer it. Mom had told me about Timm’s escalating paranoia, and I didn’t have the energy to get involved. But I did answer, telling Casey it would just be a few minutes.

I don’t remember exactly what Timm said. His words were so fast and convoluted, I had trouble piecing them together. Bugs, spies, computer, and tracking were the common threads, though. Casey made a face at me, trying to lighten the mood. I turned away.

“When’s the last time you slept?” I tried to divert Timm.

He made a sound of frustration and launched into a tirade that I think was about no one trusting him.

My patience grew thin. “Timm, no one is following you, and no one is spying on you. What makes you think you’re important enough for someone to do that? You have to calm down and take the right meds. I can’t help you.”

The line went dead.

Casey and I sat there in silence for a moment. Then he spoke up. “There really could be bugs, you know. You can buy them almost anywhere, and they’re not hard to install.”

“Oh, great, so you’re going to feed into it?” I got out of the car and slammed the door.

“No.” Casey did the same. “I’m just saying he might not be crazy.”

I walked heatedly toward the restaurant door. There was a line already, probably a twenty-minute wait.

“He’s your brother.” Casey played the family card.

I felt my shoulders sag as I slowed my pace. When was the last time I’d called Timm Bubby? Would I ever have the chance again? Casey put his arms around me—if he never knew what to say, at least he knew when to hug.

“Just think about it,” he whispered.

I nodded into his chest. Maybe the next time Timm called, I’d have something better to say.

But he never called again.

 

In Seattle, Timm wanted to go to the Space Needle next. “There’s a restaurant at the top, right? Come on, I’ll buy you dinner.”

“No, really, that’s okay. Let’s just check out the view,” I protested.

He was stuck on this idea of paying for my dinner though, and it occurred to me that he had never bought me—or any other girl—dinner. Instead, I’d bought him countless vending machine Philly cheesesteaks. Okay, I decided. Maybe he should buy me dinner.

At the entrance to the restaurant, I watched shock contort my brother’s face. “Fifty-six bucks for a steak? I was expecting, like, twelve.”

“Prices have inflated a little over the last ten years,” I said. “Besides, this is Seattle, not Idaho.”

“Highway robbery,” he muttered.

The host was starting to walk our way. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s find a hole-in-the-wall place with good beef.”

He hesitated, clearly emasculated.

“I’m not dressed nice enough for this ritz anyway,” I prodded.

We found a pub with seven-dollar burgers, a nice waitress, and a table in the back. Mom had warned me that Timm was often jumpy in public places, especially when he was sitting where people could walk behind him. “You don’t walk up behind a prisoner unless you plan to jump him,” he’d told her. I guess ten years of self-preservation instinct is hard to turn off.

Now, he rested his head against the wall, almost relaxed.

When the bill came, I excused myself to the restroom, hoping to make up for the earlier blow I’d landed on his ego. When I returned, Timm informed me the pier was next on the tourist list; apparently it’s possible to forget what lapping water sounds like. As we walked out into the night, Timm’s eyes were happy.

“What’s up?” I asked, a little suspicious.

“That waitress was cute, right?” He adjusted his leather jacket on his skinny shoulders. “I think she liked me.”

“Oh yeah? Did you get her number?”

“Nah,” he said. “But I did tip her 12 percent.”

I tried to see it from his perspective, but I couldn’t figure out how a 12 percent tip was anything but an insult.

Seeing my confusion, he explained. “Ten percent’s normal, right? So I added a little, just to make her night.”

I tried to hold back my laugh, but I couldn’t stifle it completely. “Timm, normal’s 20 percent now.”

 

Now, seeing Timm’s notes in person—pages and pages of poetry, calls for help, accusations, even notes on black market gun dealers—I am grateful for the distance between my home in Oregon and his delusions in Idaho.

Mom called me last week, describing Timm’s paper-thin skin and his wild, black eyes. “He carries paper grocery bags everywhere with him,” she explained. “They’re full of all these receipts and notes. Some of it’s obviously trash he’s just picked up out of the gutter.”

He’d gone to Mom’s house carrying the bags of papers and demanding Mom get under a blanket on the floor. “Why?” she initially resisted.

“So they can’t see us talking,” he growled. “And unplug the clock. There’s a bug in it.”

I can’t help but wonder, if I had been closer, could I have helped him hang on to reality? Could I have prevented his mental break? Maybe Casey was right. If I had shown more compassion, would that have stilled his fists when the psychosis set in? But I wasn’t closer, and when his rage erupted this time, it was nothing less than murderous.

 

We took countless pictures that weekend in Seattle. Standing under the tower of guitars at the EMP, posing in front of street art, leaning over the railing at the pier. I don’t think he put his camera away the whole weekend. I imagined papering my walls in these images—the memories I’d always hoped to create with my big brother.

“What are you gonna do next?” he asked me after snapping a shot of the highway mileage sign: Portland 143.

“I think I’m going to try the freelance thing.” I had just finished graduate school for book publishing, and it was time to leave my minimum-wage bookstore job. “I mean, I love editing, and I’ve already got a couple clients.” I adjusted the air flow to keep the windshield from fogging in the humidity. “What about you?”

He shrugged. “I guess I’ll do the carpentry thing for a while. It seems stable.” He paused. “Wish I could do some tattooing, though.”

I sucked in my breath. Tattooing was how he’d made cash—or scored smokes and jungle juice—in prison. But tattoo parlors in the Boise valley were drug pits. “Is that going to keep you around the right kind of people?” It came out before I realized I sounded like our mom fifteen years ago: “We’re moving so you can have a fresh start at the right kind of friends.”

Timm said nothing, just watched the center line as we careened toward the rest of our lives.

I sift quickly through the papers now. Timm lost that camera shortly after the Seattle trip, but I want to believe we’d had some copies printed of that weekend’s photos. I specifically remember our cheesy grins in the security line at PDX as he headed back to Boise. If I could just find that photo, if I just knew that he’d held on to it, I’d believe my brother was still in there somewhere, the real Timm a faint glimmer in a sky clouded by paranoia.

Instead, I find a picture of me holding William at just three months old. I’m awkward, clearly scared of hurting this fragile being, but the baby is peaceful. No part of his expression reveals the delusions growing in his father’s brain. I stroke the edge of the image and hope the demons will not haunt him too.

 

Ali McCart

Ali McCart has spent the last seven years as a book editor, literary journal publisher, and writing contest director in Portland, Ore., but in the process, she forgot to focus on her own writing. Then she moved to a remote island in Southeast Alaska. There, she's found the inspiration to write between hikes, ferry rides, Northern Lights sightings, and regular editing gigs. But she still gets homesick for Voodoo Doughnuts. She blogs about her Alaskan experience here.

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  • Tears were already coming to the corners of my eyes by the third or fourth paragraph. This piece speaks so honestly, so simply, and so clearly to what it means to be family in this beautiful, fucked-up world. Thank you, Ali, for being brave.

  • Brett

    It’s always a tough balancing act writing about family – well done!