“How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” by Natalie Diaz (from The Speed Chronicles)
How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs
by Natalie Diaz
(from The Speed Chronicles)
If he is wearing knives for eyes, if he has dressed for a Day of the Dead parade—three-piece skeleton suit, cummerbund of ribs—his pelvic girdle will look like a Halloween mask.
“The bones,” he’ll complain, make him itch. “Each ulna a tickle.” His mandible might tingle.
He cannot stop scratching, so suggest that he change, but not because he itches—do it for the scratching. Do it for the bones.
“Okay, okay,” he’ll give in, “I’ll change.” He will return to his room, and as he climbs each stair, his back will be something else—one shoulder blade a failed wing, the other a silver shovel. He has not eaten in months. He will never change.
Still, you are happy he didn’t come down with a headdress of green quetzal feathers, iridescent plumes dancing like an emerald blaze from his forehead, and a jaguar-pelt loincloth littered with mouth-shaped rosettes—because this beautiful drug usually dresses him up like a greed god, and tonight you are not in the mood to have your heart ripped out. Like the bloody-finger trick your father constructed for you and your brothers and sisters every Halloween—cut a hole in a small cardboard jewelry gift box, hold it in the palm of your hand, stick your middle finger up through the hole, pack gauze inside the box around your middle finger, cover the gauze and your finger in ketchup, shake a handful of dirt onto your finger, and then hold it up, your bloody-ketchup finger, to every person you see, explaining that you found it out in the road—it has gotten old, having your heart ripped out, being opened up that way.
He comes back down, this time dressed as a Judas effigy. “I know, I know,” he’ll joke, “It’s not Easter. So what?”
Be straight with him. Tell him the truth. Tell him, “Judas had a rope around his neck.”
When he asks if an old lamp cord will do, just shrug. He will go back upstairs, and you will be there, close enough to the door to leave, but you will not. You will wait, unsure of what you are waiting for. While you wait, go to the living room of your parents’ home-turned-misery-museum. Explore the perpetual exhibits—“Someone Is Tapping My Phone,” “Como Deshacer a Tus Padres,” “Mon Frère”—ten, twenty, forty dismantled phones displayed on the dining table, red and blue wires snaking in and out, glinting snarls of copper, yellow computer chips, soft sheets of numbered rubber buttons, small magnets, jagged, ruptured shafts of lithium batteries, shells of Ataris, radios, and television sets cracked open like dark nuts, innards heaped across the floor. And by far the most beautiful, “Why Dad Can’t Find the Lightbulbs”—a hundred glowing white bells of gutted lightbulbs, each rocking in a semicircle on the counter beneath your mom’s hanging philodendron.
Your parents’ home will look like an Al Qaeda yard sale. It will look like a bomb factory, which might give you hope, but you ought to know better than to hope. You are not so lucky—there is no fuse for you to find. For you and your family, there will be no quick ticket to Getaway Kingdom.
Think, all of this glorious mess could have been yours—not long ago, your brother lived with you. What was it you called it? “One last shot,” a three-quarter-court heave, a buzzer-beater to win something of him back. But who were you kidding? You took him into your home with no naïve hopes of saving him, but instead to ease the guilt of never having tried.
He spent every evening in your bathroom with a turquoise BernzOmatic handheld propane torch, a meth-made Merlin mixing magic, chanting, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” then shape-shifting into lions and tigers and bears and pacing your balcony, licking the air at your neighbors’ wives and teenage daughters, fighting with the Hare in the Moon, conquering the night with his blue flame, and plotting to steal your truck keys, which you kept under your pillow.
Finally, you worked up the nerve to ask him to leave. He took his propane torch and left you with a Glad trash bag of filthy clothes and a meth pipe clanking in the dryer. Two weeks after that, God told him to do several things that got him arrested.
But since he is fresh-released from prison and living in your parents’ home, you will be there to take him to dinner—because he is your brother, because you heard he was cleaning up. Mostly because you think you can handle dinner, a thing with a clear beginning and end, a specified amount of time, a ritual that everyone knows, even your brother. Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home. You are optimistic about this well-now-that’s-done-and-I’m-glad-it’s-over kind of night.
If your brother doesn’t come back down right away, if he takes his time, remember how long it took for the Minotaur to escape the labyrinth, and go to the sliding-glass window looking out onto the backyard. This is the exhibit whose fee is always too high, the reason you do not come to this place: your parents.
Your father will be out there, on the other side of the glass, wearing his luchador mask. He is El Santo. His face is pale. His face is bone white. His eyes are hollow teardrops. His mouth is a dark “Oh.” He has worn it for years, still surprised by his life.
Do not even think of unmasking your father. That mask is the only fight he has left in him. He is all out of planchas and topes. He has no more huracanranas to give. Besides, si tuvieras una máscara, you would wear it.
Your father, El Santo, will pile mesquite logs into a pyre. Your mother will be out there too—wearing her sad dress made of flames—practicing lying on top of the pyre.
“It needs to be higher,” she’ll complain, “I’ve earned it.”
See the single tower of hyacinth she clutches to her breast as she whispers to the violet petals, “Ai, ai, don’t cry. No hay mal que dure cien años.” But the hyacinth will already have gone to ash, and knowing she is talking to herself, your throat will sting.
Your father will answer her as always, “Oh,” which means he is imagining himself jumping over a top rope, out of the ring, running off, his silver-masked head cutting the night like a butcher knife.
Do not bother pounding against the glass. They will not look up. They know they cannot answer your questions.
Your brother will eventually make his way down to the front door. The lamp cord knotted at his neck should do the trick, so head to the restaurant.
In the truck, avoid looking at your brother dressed as a Judas effigy, but do not forget that a single match could devour him like a neon tooth, canopying him in a bright tent of pain—press the truck lighter into the socket.
The route will take you by a destroyed field—only months before, that earth was an explosion of cotton hulls—your headlights will slice across what remains of the wasted land, illuminating bleached clods of dirt and leftover cotton snagged here and there on a few wrecked stalks. The only despair greater than this field will be sitting next to you in the truck—his eyes are dark but loud and electric, like a cloud of locusts conducting a symphony of teeth. Meth—his singing siren, his jealous jinni conjuring up sandstorms within him, his harpy harem—has sucked the beauty from his face. He is a Cheshire Cat. His new face all jaw, all smile and bite.
Look at your brother. He is Borges’s bestiary. He is a zoo of imaginary beings.
When he turns on the radio, “Fire” or “Manic Depression” will boom out. He will be your personal Jimi Hendrix. No, he will be your personal Geronimo playing air drums for Jimi Hendrix—large brown hands swooping and fluttering in rhythm against the dashboard like bats trapped in the cab of your truck, black hair whipping in the open window, tangling at the ends and sticking to the corners of his wide-open mouth shiny as a freshly dug hole, wet teeth flashing in the rearview mirror as he bobs his head to the beat.
Sigh. He is not Geronimo. Geronimo held out much longer. Your brother has clearly given up.
The sun is bound to lose its grip on the horizon, and when it does, the sky will burn red. It will be something you understand.
Search the road for something dead—to remind you that he is still alive, that you are ungrateful—a skunk whose head is matted to the faded asphalt, intestines ballooning from a quick strip of black and white like a strange carmine bloom.
“This is what it’s like,” you’ll say aloud, “to be splayed open,” but you will mean, This is what it’s like to rest.
He will not hear you over the war party circling his skull—horses, hooves, drums, and whooping. “Ai, ai, ai.” He will smell the skunk and say, “Smells like carne asada.”
Your brother’s jaw will become a third passenger in your truck—it will flex in the wind, resetting and rehinging, opening and closing against his will. It will occur to you that your brother is a beat-down, dubbed Bruce Lee—his words do not match his mouth, which is moving faster and faster. He is the fastest brother alive.
The next thing you’ll know, you and your brother will be on Han’s island, trapped in a steel chamber—being there with him, being there together, in that impossible cage, makes you root for him, makes you understand that you could lose him at any moment, so you love him.
When you were ten, your brother took you to the powwow down the street. He held your hand as you walked up to the open tailgates of the pickup-truck vendors and bought you and him each a pair of black wooden nunchucks with gold and green dragons up the sides. Bruce Lee was his hero. Back then, your brother was Fists of Fury. He was Enter the Dragon. He was Game of Death I and II. But back then was a long time ago. Now is now, and now you are here with a brother faster than Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is dead. In a way, so is your brother. But you cannot forget how hard he practiced that summer. How he took his shirt off and acted out each scene in front of the bathroom mirror—touching his imaginary bloody lip with his fingertips, then tasting that imaginary blood, and making that “Wahhhh” Bruce Lee face as he swung his nunchucks over and under his shoulders. Remember the welts across his lower back and ribs? Remember how he cried when he hit himself in the chin?
Admit it—that was another brother. This brother is not Bruce Lee. This brother is Han. He is Han’s steel chamber. Keep an eye on him—be prepared if he unscrews a metal hand at the wrist and replaces it with a metal bear claw. It would not shock you. He has done worse things. Face it. You are not here with him. You are here because of him. Do not be ashamed when it crosses your mind that you could end him quickly with a one-inch punch.
Your brother’s lips are ruined. There is a sore in the right corner of his mouth. His teeth hurt, he says, his “dead mountain of carious teeth that cannot spit.”
At the stop light, he will force you to look into his mouth. You hate his mouth. It is Švankmajer’s rabbit hole—a bucket you’ve tripped over and fallen into for the last ten years. One of his teeth is cracked. He will want to go to the IHS dentist. “My teeth are falling out,” he’ll say, handing you a pointy incisor, telling you to put it under your pillow with your truck keys. When he says, “Make a wish,” you will.
When you open your eyes, the light will be green, and he will still be there in front of you. His tooth will end up in the ashtray.
On the way there, he will wave to all the disheveled people walking along and across the roads—an itchy parade of twisting arms and legs pushing ratty strollers with big-headed, alien-eyed babies dangling rotten milk bottles over the stroller sides, a marching band of cheap cigarettes and dirty men and women disguised as an Exodus of rough-skinned Joshua trees, whose grinning mouths erupt in clouds of brown yucca moths that tick and splatter against your windshield.
Take a deep breath. You will be there soon.
Pull into the restaurant parking lot. Your brother will not want to wear his shoes inside. “Judas was barefoot,” he will tell you.
“Judas wore sandals,” you answer.
“No, Jesus wore sandals,” he’ll argue.
Not in that moment, but later, you will manage to laugh at the idea of arguing with a meth-head dressed like a Judas effigy about Jesus wearing sandals.
Night will be full-blown by the time you enter the restaurant—stars showing through like shotgun spread. Search your torso for a wound, a brother-shaped bullet hole pulsing like a Jesus side wound beneath your shirt. Even if you don’t find it, remember that there are larger injuries than your own—your optimistic siblings, all white-haired and doubled over their beds, lost in great waves of prayer, sloshing in the belly of a dark whale named Monstruo, for this man who is half–wooden boy half-jackass.
Your brother will still itch when you are seated at your table. He will rake his fork against his skin. If you look closely, you will see that his skin is a desert—half a red racer is writhing in the middle of the long road of his forearm, a migration of tarantulas moves like a shadow across his sunken cheek.
Slide your fork and knife from the table. Hold them in your lap.
He will set his hands on the table—two mutts sleeping near the salsa, twitching with dreams of undressing cats.
He will lick his shattered lips at the waitress every time she walks by. He will tell you, then her, that he can taste her. If you are lucky, she will ignore him.
Pretend not to hear what he says. Also, ignore the cock crowing inside him, but if he notices that you notice, “Don’t worry,” he’ll assure you, “the dogs will get it.”
“Which dogs?” you have to ask.
Your brother will point out the window at two dogs humping in an empty lot across the way—slick pink tongues rolling and unrolling, hips jerking and trembling. Go ahead. Look closer, then clarify to your brother, “Those are not dogs. Those are chupacabras.”
“Chupacabras are not real,” he’ll tell you, “brothers are.”
The reflection in your empty plate will speak: “Your brother is on drugs. You are at a dinner that neither of you can eat.”
Consider your brother. He is dressed as a Judas effigy admiring a pair of fuck-sick chupacabras—one dragging the other across the parking lot.
The waitress will come to take your order. Your brother will ask for a beer. You will pour your thirty pieces of silver onto the table and ask, “What can I get for this?”
NATALIE DIAZ grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia for several years, she completed her MFA at Old Dominion University. She was awarded the Bread Loaf 2012 Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry, the 2012 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, a 2012 Lannan Residency, as well as being awarded a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellowship and a 2013 Pushcart Prize. She is on faculty at the IAIA low-residency MFA program in Santa Fe. Her first book,When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published in June 2012, by Copper Canyon Press. She lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, and directs a language revitalization program at Fort Mojave. There she works and teaches with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language.
Posted: May 8, 2013
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