BROTHER-III: Flight Fuel
On the way to the motel my brother stopped at a liquor store off the highway, for “flight fuel” he called it. (I called it rotgut.) And fly he did. Speeding down the freeway in his powder-blue Mercury, tempting death, daring it to take him, he would throw his head back and roar with laughter. How he could consume so much booze and still be alive, much less drive, was beyond me.
I knew from the moment he invited me to this little adventure of his, I would be out of place. All the same, he was my brother, and wanted me with him. So with a sweaty brow, white knuckles and a queasy stomach, I slumped into the car, braved the flight, and prayed. I felt captive with a man I had only known for a few years in my early childhood.
Buddy, that’s what we called him, was 19 years older than me. Our mother gave him that nickname the day he was born, August 28,1932, three years into the Great Depression. Edward Martin was his real name; named for our grandfather. He was mother’s first-born child.
Buddy, who over the years abused himself and his familiar leadership role as firstborn, took on the aura of his birth year, depression. He tried, with alcohol (and god knows what else), to escape the reality he had helped create. His family, that is his immediate family, his daughter, his two adopted sons, and his estranged wife, had pretty much given up on him. He spent most of the last year of his life battling demons. Even so, mother never lost sight of him. She cared for him until he died. Which, I believe, was from a saddened heart.
Buddy loved me because I didn’t judge him. When pleading for him to slow down didn’t work, I would use my best 7th grade schoolgirl scream, trying to keep him from driving so fast. Nothing stopped him. My attempts to save us from a fiery disaster would only make him drive faster and laugh harder. I just held on. It was all I could do. I was the designated passenger.
So on this morning, a bottle of vodka and two bottles of wine later, we landed. Motel 6, Knoxville, Tennessee!
“Hey!” he says. “They’re already here!” He hadn’t told me exactly who “they” were, but I assumed he had planned to meet fellow workers. Once inside the motel, he introduced me. There were back slaps and rough disingenuous handshakes all around. Then my brother gave me a directional nod and I slipped outside to smoke. They started mapping their strategy. I didn’t even care to know what was up. At this time, my brother had already been a Teamster’s Union organizer for twenty years. This in itself was a little dubious for me. Although it was 1978, his work still conjured up images of picket signs, blood baths, and a scab worker (as they called them) being buried under the concrete pad of an innocuous carport in some generic neighborhood of Chicago.
Buddy was always traveling. He had spent most of those twenty years driving, or holed up in a drunken state in some cheap motel. Different city, same routine. (How very glamorous.) His family never asked about his life on the road, or in any way acknowledged the danger he may have had as his constant companion. The open wallet and fancy new shiny things it bought seemed to be all they cared for. When he needed them most, they could have cared less.
My brother left me at the motel with Hank. What a solid name. (He was Hank all right, hankering for trouble.) I felt Jerk would have been a more suitable name. He was short, lean and wiry, and the pointed toe cowboy boots he was wearing, made his feet seem way too big for his body. Apparently they were the shit-kickin’ defense that helped him walk with an ‘I own the world’ attitude. His jeans were so tight, as they say in the South, “You could see his religion!”
“We’re gonna clean up this here town. We’re gonna git rit of all the faggots!”
Those were the first words I heard as I climbed into the passenger seat of Hank’s black pick-up truck on that bright sunny summer day in East Tennessee. Little did I know that before the day ended I would find myself in the parking lot of a dive bar, unloading guns from the trunk of a white Lincoln Town-Car into the trunk of that powder-blue sedan!
Later that evening, after stopping in Tallapoosa, Alabama for more “flight fuel,” I was sitting in an avocado-green faux leather recliner, next to my brother’s bed, in a hospital room in Birmingham.