Third Drink Decisions

By

Before I could pull into the space in front of his hotel room, my brother opened the door to Room 4 carrying a black garbage bag. Inside was a change of shoes, t-shirts he’d found or borrowed, a couple of button-up shirts, dark socks, one pair of jeans, shorts. He was fidgety. He was slouching. He was forty-five.

In the years before he showed up in Lubbock, he wandered the streets of downtown Dallas near Fair Park. He hung out in abandoned apartment buildings, run-down hotels. He huddled in crack houses. He slept under bridges and a few nights on the air conditioning unit of a hotel. During those years, when I was in graduate school, I didn’t know if he was alive or not, but every few months, he’d call our father from a payphone.

The voice on the answering machine was my department secretary’s. She said my brother called sometime around noon. He was at that one-story blue hotel on Avenue Q. She said he was friendly. He made her laugh. He said to tell Dr. Talbot her ol’ brother was in town. I pulled the phone book from the drawer and looked up the number.

There are fifteen years between me and my half-brother, James. When he was five, his mother gave birth to a girl who lived thirty minutes. He remembers our father holding him up to the window of her hospital room. Not long after that, she became addicted to pills. She drank. She left. After months, her car was found on the side of the road. Windows down, bottles in the floorboard, the seats soaked with rain.

James told me that when he went out with his friends in high school, he’d get so drunk he’d forget curfew. He’d panic, jump on the trampoline in his friend’s backyard until he’d throw up, hoping that would steady him enough to drive his VW Bug back to our house on Eastbrook Drive. One night, as he stumbled through the back door, he only got a few steps before he rushed out, sick again. My father found the door open. He bolted it and made James sleep outside. I would have been about two.

James knew West Texas well. He played football at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas—two hours south of Lubbock—in the mid-seventies and left college three credits short of a degree. During his last year, he worked at a stereo store in town, making more than he knew he ever would as a football coach. By the time he was twenty-six, he had his own business in Roswell, Georgia and was twice named Samsung’s Rep of the Year. He entertained clients with hotel suites and Dom Perignon. He entertained himself with a red Porsche 911 that was often pulled over. Once a judge wiped his DUI record clean after James wrote some Congressional candidate a check for ten thousand dollars. It went on that way for years. He bought his way in and out of trouble until that’s all he had.

The day he showed up in Lubbock, I drove him straight to my favorite bar. I sat on the stool next to him and watched his silhouette dissolve to shadow against the tint of the Texas sun. He fumbled his lighter and unraveled the last days of his life in pieces disassembling with each drink. Through the years, we’ve done lots of drinking together. One night in his kitchen, we drank everything in the house trading stories of the lives that neither of us had been around for, and the next morning, when his wife woke to find us still at it, she asked him what the hell we had to talk about all night. He told her, “We’re trying to figure out who we are.” I’ve always meant to tell him that no one has ever made anything clearer to me.

On the night before his wedding in 1976, his buddies took off his clothes and tied him to a telephone pole on Greenville Avenue, a high-traffic street in Dallas. He came to a few hours before he was supposed to be at the church and struggled through the ceremony. He was twenty-one. I was six. I was the flower girl.

One night when we came back from the bar, James asked if I’d give him thirty bucks. When I said no, he picked up his black garbage bag and turned it over and shook it until all his shirts and socks and shorts fell to the floor. When he yelled I could go fuck myself, I ran to my closet and hid. After I didn’t hear him for a few minutes, I crept out in the living room and found the door wide open.

After a month, I told James he couldn’t stay with me anymore. I gave him sixty bucks to get back to Dallas. He took a bottle of Windex to his Altima in the parking lot and tried to clean off the black marker graffiti etched onto his console. He loaned his car out almost every night—traded it for crack—but this was the first time it had come back vandalized. Once, I drove him to a dingy apartment complex to get it from some guy and waited nervously in my Jeep while James disappeared behind a closed door and came out fifteen minutes later with the keys. Once, I paid fifty bucks to get his car out of the pound. Once, I found a note in my empty change jar with his hard-pressed letters: IOU 38 bucks. Another time I drove down Indiana Avenue in the gray rain on my way to teach my morning class and passed him walking down the sidewalk. I did a U in the middle lane and pulled alongside him and asked not where he’d been, but if he knew who had his car. He ducked into the passenger seat and sobbed into his hands while I drove to my building. We sat outside. The rain coming down.

While people called my brother Two-Fisted Talbot in college, I roller skated in the driveway behind our house. At some point, my father must have told me that James was on a plane because I remember an afternoon when one flew overhead, how I skated to the alley waving my arms as big as I could calling his name, sure he could see me from the sky.

About two weeks after he had been living with me, James got a job as a car salesman. One Friday, he showed me his commission check for three-hundred and twenty-eight dollars before he went out the door. I didn’t see him until two o’clock the next afternoon. The money was gone.

When our grandmother died in 2009, the family decided to let James live in her house in Gainseville, Texas, until my Aunt received a phone call from the county court asking why he didn’t show up that morning. When she got to the house, she found the garage door and the back door open. Moving through the empty rooms, she saw trash cans crammed with beer cans and cigarette butts in makeshift ashtrays. Later, she’d describe the smell of sweetness and burning plastic. Going through his things, she found a crack pipe in the inside pocket of his only suit. He had skipped town after his third DUI within the month. No one knew he had already pawned our grandmother’s car. That gave him about nine-hundred dollars worth of disappearing.

In Lubbock, after he had been gone for a few days, James called me one night to come pick him up at an apartment complex in a part of town I avoided. When I turned the corner, my lights found him sitting on the curb in a baseball cap that didn’t quite fit. On another night, I stood at the locked gates of that same complex yelling his name, the way I did in my driveway when I was four and saw a plane in the sky. After a while, a man who moved as if he were liquid came out and told me my brother was “in one of the stalls” with one of his ladies. I looked at him longer than I should have through the bars of the gate trying to accept what I knew. The closed doors of the complex weren’t apartments. They were crack dens. When I yelled again, the man put his head down and shook it. My brother was lost behind one of those doors. I yelled his name again. I might has well have been waving at a plane in the sky.

While James was still in Dallas, my father once met him at an Exxon Station with a pair of shoes. He had noticed, the last time he saw him, that the soles were worn down. My brother had been walking on holes. But my father didn’t buy him a new pair of shoes. Instead, he had the soles of the old shoes redone. I wonder if there was supposed to be a lesson in that.

When we pulled out of the hotel parking lot the afternoon he showed up, he asked if we could stop somewhere and get a beer and catch up, as if he’d stopped by on his way through town on a business trip. But he had lost his business years ago.

At the bar, James told me that the night before he’d been slumped on the floor of a hotel room and that the man he owed was outside yelling threats and banging on the door. He said it’s all he remembered about that night. But after his third drink, he told me he had been sitting there with a gun in his hand and that he couldn’t do it.

On one of our drinking nights, James accused me of hiding behind words to avoid my life. “You’re always behind a book,” he said the words as if he were spitting them, “or behind your fancy words.” He said I changed the way I talked, that I sounded “all metropolitan.” No hint of my Texas drawl. He said he wondered where I had gone. I wonder the same about him. Even now.

On the rainy morning I sat outside my building with him, James told me he’d drive my Jeep back home and pick me up when I was done with office hours. I didn’t see him for three days, and the next time I stepped into my Jeep, cigarette butts crowded the ashtray and the coins I kept in the cup holder, around twenty bucks worth, had been cleaned out.

Not long before she left him, James’s wife described the way she’d wake up in the middle of the night to find the back door of their two-story home open. “It happens often,” she told me in the hush of the hallway during a family dinner. She described the unsettling—the house empty and open—nothing between her, their two kids, and the danger of the dark. There came a point every night when James forgot everything but what was out there waiting for him. Abandoned rooms. When he’d come home, he could never remember leaving.

The last night James and I spent together in Lubbock, I pulled into the 7-11 for gas. Before I could fill the tank, he ambled across the parking lot to the pay phone, where he dissolved into a shadow I could barely make out. He had explained to me that crack sellers were easy to find. All he had to do was drive down certain streets and he could spot someone within a few minutes. I imagine he was trying to get a hold of one of them. I called to him through the open passenger door. No one answered.

***

At parties in high school, I was always the drunkest. I spent the entire summer of my sixteenth year grounded because word got around about my drinking. In college, my nickname was Two-to-One Talbot. The last time I remember going out with my brother and his wife, we went to a bar where I climbed up on a stool to dance while the crowd raised their arms to me and cheered. When I got down, James’s wife said, “You two are just alike.” The way she said it was sad.

I worry. I worry that every man who left me went because of the doors I open after too much wine. I have never owned much, and I’ve never stayed around long, and I never tell anyone I’m going. I, too, tremble a tendency toward chaos, and I fear I’m living a life based on third-drink decisions. I write myself as a drunk and disheveled woman because it’s the only way I know how to keep her at bay. So yes, I use words to avoid my life. But it’s the opposite of hiding.

Maybe all my brother and I have ever done is walk out of every door that has tried to hold us.


Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She's also the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, the Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, Slice Magazine, and more. Three of the essays in The Way We Weren't were named Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016. More from this author →