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The other man sits on the brown couch in the living room, his face in one hand, crying. The sounds are muffled and light, but the anguish is deep and extreme. His breath catches in places along the line from oxygen to escape, and the body silently convulses with every catch. It is more than a bad day or even the death of a friend. It is the sight of life being gagged upon, forced upwards, and expelled into the cold air. The eyes tight-shut under the pressure of unclean fingers. The wetness and the dirt and the snot running slowly past the scars down the wrist to the elbow and soaking through a round point on the thigh of the jeans. The low smell of metal and medicine and the hum of the cylinder inside the shaved chest. A pistol in a cold hand resting in the lap.
The man in the doorway closes his eyes and remembers. The memories tell the story, and the story ends the same. There is no real purpose except the purpose we create. You make it or you don't, and if you don't, there's no reason to wait. No one's coming to the door to explain. It's like sitting in the waiting room of an abandoned building. Eventually, you have to get up and leave. Eventually, against all hope, you must recognize the futility.
His eyes open to see his brother on the couch, the muted light touching his shaking arm and shining on the clear liquid. He has shit his pants again, and the stench overlays all other smells and drifts without restraint through pockets of air to the four walls.
The step forward is deliberate. The futility recognized. The strong are always the chosen. "Why is that?" he thinks to himself. "Why are the strong always the chosen?"
"Because they choose themselves," he answers, five steps from the threshold, and two steps from his only brother.
And his brother looks up. And the pistol is raised, and the barrel points precisely, and there is the human hesitation, and then the pull of the trigger.
With the sound of the explosion in the cold room, misery ends, and yet for the living, only continues.
(Monday, January 17th)
I don't know much about the law. Believe it or not, my experience with the criminal justice system was limited. It's not limited anymore.
The sound of the gun was unbelievably loud. I just stood there with the noise vibrating inside my ears. Don't get me wrong, I didn't fail to grasp the weight of the moment, having just shot my little brother in the side of his head, but I'd already done all my crying beforehand. I'd already spent years and years agonizing over the decision. It was almost a relief, to get it behind me, to move to the next step in the process. I called the police, and now I'm right smack in the middle of the next step in the process. But this part never really mattered anyway.
My father was crazy as a fuckin' loon. Certified, honest-to-God crazy. I watched the mental illness eat away my brother, from the inside out. It was just a matter of time, and it's just a matter of time for me. You can't get away from your blood, and my blood's poison. I imagine tiny blue balls floating through the river of my veins, each filled with toxic liquid, the outer blue shells of jelly slowly melting away, releasing the poison into my blood until I end up just like the old man and Danny, rubbing my hands over my head and talkin' crap. You wonder, does it sneak up on you, slowly, until you don't know the difference, or does it hit quick out of the black, like a full punch in the face? I guess I'll find out soon enough.
Because mental illness runs in the family, and because they can't find a motive to satisfy themselves, and also because I won't let them argue self-defense, my two court-appointed lawyers decided to have me evaluated to determine my sanity at the time of the shooting, as well as my competence to stand trial. What do I care? Maybe the doctor can help me understand a few things I haven't figured out for myself. So I agreed to cooperate.
Before I met the doctor he had me take a bunch of written tests: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Wide Range Achievement Test, Bender-Gestalt, Multi-phasic Personality Inventory, and Competency to Stand Trial Assessment. It was like being in high school again. At first I thought I'd just blow it off and fill in the dots, but I figured, what the hell good would that do? The man's got a job, and besides, maybe I really am crazy. Maybe this is what it's like. After all, I'm sittin' in a jail cell for murdering my only brother, who I loved by the way, and I've got all these little tiny blue capsules floatin' inside me, each one about the size of a cricket's eye.
He was a tall, lanky guy, about six foot three, with glasses, maybe forty years old. Dr. Ellis Andrews introduced himself with a smile. We met in a conference room in the county jail, separated by wire mesh, but I could get a good look at him. He wore a wedding ring. It wasn't too shiny anymore so I figured he'd been married a good long time. There was a watch on his left wrist, one of those digital watches with a black rubber watchband. Some folks wear watches like jewelry, for decoration, intended to impress. Other folks, like Dr. Ellis Andrews, wear watches because they really like to know what time it is.
"How you feeling?"
"Pretty good, I guess."
He sat down and started shuffling through some papers. I saw the tests I'd taken days before. His face was a good face, clean shaven, solid, but not too hard. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, and I could see lots of dark hair on his arms, which was odd because he didn't strike me as a hairy man.
"Joel, you know what I'm here to do, and I know from your tests you're a smart man, so I won't talk down to you. I need you to be open and honest with me. Nothing you say in our conversations can be used against you. I'm here to learn about you and give the court an opinion on your mental state at the time of the incident and your competence now to stand trial. I'll put together a written report. The District Attorney, and your lawyer, and the judge, will all receive copies. Do you understand?"
"Are you willing to talk to me, answer my questions?"
"I'm ready. I've got nothin' left to hide. It's like water built up behind a dam. Get it started and gravity will take care of the rest."
I've always had really good eyes. I can see things other people can't. Dr. Andrews jotted a few notes on a yellow pad. Upside down, through the wire mesh, in his scribble, I could make out most of his words, but I didn't let him notice me looking. I figured it might come in handy.
"I hope those tests turned out alright. When I got arrested, they wouldn't let me get my glasses. It was a little blurry."
"I can help you with that. Just let me know who to call."
"It's O.K., I'll get my mom to bring them up next time she comes."
He wrote down, "Subject appears late twenties, white male, five feet ten, 170 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes. Strong eye contact. Intelligence test reveals high IQ. Education level high school graduate, one year college. No obvious indication in written tests of malingering or deception."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight. No, I'm sorry, twenty-nine. It's strange to forget how old you are. It seemed so important when I was a kid."
"I guess we'll just start at the beginning, Joel. What's the first thing you remember?"
"Yes. The first thing you remember as a child?"
"Well, I've got some early memories, bits and pieces, you know, like my mother's face, but I guess my first complete vivid memory is when my father wrecked the truck down the road. He was a crazy son-of-a-bitch, you know? I mean really. Screwed-up-in-the-head crazy. But how can you know that when you're a little kid?
"I was about five, I guess. Danny was just a baby. My dad was off somewhere, and he called home. I could hear him screamin' through the phone at my mother. That crazy screamin'. The kind my mother couldn't control.
"You gotta understand. We lived underneath the man everyday. It was like a hurricane sittin' off the coast. You got no way to know what it might do. And I guess she loved him like a person might love a hurricane. It's necessary. You might as well love the fuckin' thing, even if it doesn't know.
"Anyway, he was screamin' through the phone. Somethin' about the dog. Somethin' about me not cleanin' up the dog shit in the backyard. And for some reason, he took the dog with him that day. He told my mother he was comin' home to beat my ass, and she was tryin' like she always did to calm him down. It was nighttime, and rainin' outside, and he said he was comin' home to teach me a lesson about bein' a man in this world."
"Was there mental illness in your family?"
"Yeah. I was told my grandfather died in an institution somewhere, but I never met the man. He died before I was born, which is O.K. with me."
"Anyway, Mom hung up the phone and tried to tell me not to worry. But I knew different already. I knew what he could do. I'd seen it.
"We waited. I sat at the front window and waited for the headlights of the truck. But they didn't come. I remember hoping he'd gone off again like he sometimes did. Gone off to wherever he'd go for days at a time.
"And then the phone rang again. I remember the sound made us both jump. My mother was afraid to answer the phone, but she did anyway, and I could tell somethin' happened. My father wrecked the truck just down the road from the house. A neighbor lady called.
"I remember wishin' he was dead. At five years old, I didn't know what dead really meant, but I remember closing my eyes and wishin' he was dead. Think of that.
"The dog didn't even have a name."
"We went out in the rain to see, me and Mom and Danny. She had him wrapped up in a blanket with his head covered. She got an old umbrella. I was in my pajamas. I remember they were blue. The kind with feet. Mom made me put on my little boots. I guess she figured I was safer with her than back at the house alone. In case the crazy son-of-a-bitch walked away from the wreck and came to the house through the woods or something.
"We could see the headlights of the truck up against a pine tree. The neighbor lady was out in her yard. As we got closer, I could hear the windshield wipers on the truck still slapping back and forth. There was no ambulance or cop cars there yet.
"My momma made me stand back a few yards. She put down the umbrella and opened the truck door real slow. The inside light came on, and I could see my father slumped over the steering wheel. A whiskey bottle fell out on the grass at my mother's feet. When I think about it now, I wonder what she was feeling. I wonder if she was hoping he was dead, too. Or if she was worried about the son-of-a-bitch, like you might be worried about a wild animal caught in a trap.
"Anyway, he wasn't dead. He started to moan a little bit. The window on the passenger side was either rolled down or busted out. I kept standin' on my tiptoes in those little boots, tryin' to get a look past my father to see the dog. But the dog wasn't there. He was gone. I ran around the other side of the truck in the mud to look for him. I remember callin' for the dog, lookin' out in the black woods for any movement.
"The ambulance showed up. My momma had the neighbor lady take me and Danny inside her house. It smelled like mothballs. Our house always smelled like my father. I watched through the window as they put him in the ambulance, and I cried for the dog. The dog with no name. Maybe I was cryin' because the old man wasn't dead. I don't know. I just remember thinkin' about that black-and-white dog somewhere in the dark woods, alone, afraid, not understanding what happened, or what was gonna happen next.
"You know what I mean?"
"Was your father's mental illness ever diagnosed?"
"I don't know. I doubt it. I'm not exactly sure what that means anyway. If nobody gives it a name, can we pretend it didn't exist? Does the illness make the diagnosis, or does the diagnosis make the illness?"
"Do you mind if I talk with your mother? Maybe she can provide some family history and background."
I was careful with the question. I didn't want to appear hesitant, but I hated the idea of my mother going through everything again. I glanced down at the doctor's notepad. I couldn't make out the first sentence. The second line said, "Possible manipulation."
"Yeah, you can talk to my mom, but be nice please. She's been through enough."
I closed my eyes and felt emotion come up inside. I could have cried, but I didn't want to.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm O.K."
"Tell me more about your father."
"He was a tall man, skinny, like you. My brother favored him. I look more like my mom. Maybe that's why the old man was always harder on me than Danny. Or maybe he just knew I could take it.
"I don't want it to sound like the old man was always a bad father. There were times, when he took his medicine and stayed away from the bottle, he could be a good father. He was a funny old bastard. Always tellin' stories. He had a quick mind when his mind was right, but mostly I remember the times when we were scared of him.
"He smelled weird. It's embarrassing when you're a kid and your friends say your dad smells weird. He let his fingernails and toenails get long and yellow. Mom would have to sit him down and cut his toenails like he was a baby. She was always on his ass to take his pills, cut his toenails, take a shower. She'd hide the whiskey and some nights you could hear the crazy bastard going room to room looking for his whiskey bottle.
"He talked to God."
"What do you mean?"
"He used to tell us God would say things to him, and he would say things back. When I was a little kid he told us God ordered him to plant twenty-seven Christmas trees. So he did. Twenty-seven Christmas trees in a row along the back of our property. He said God told him he would be alive twenty-seven more years, and so he would need twenty-seven Christmas trees.
"Every year after Thanksgiving he'd go out with his saw and cut down the next tree in line. We started out with little trees, just little scrawny trees in the living room with a few Christmas ornaments hanging off like earrings on a skinny street whore.
"He died on the fourteenth tree. I guess he wasn't talkin' to God after all. The other thirteen trees are still lined up in the backyard. They're big now."
"Do you believe in God?"
"That's a pretty big question. Does the definition of insanity include belief in God?"
"Let me ask the questions, please."
Excerpted from blood and circumstance by Frank Turner Hollon Copyright © 2006 by Frank Turner Hollon. Excerpted by permission.
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