MY BROTHERS KEEPER
By Milton Cust
”So what do you think, are we going to do this or not?” 12 year old Joey asked his two friends.
“Oh, I don’t know,” 11 year old Raymond replied. “It’s against the law to steal and I don’t want to get into any trouble like that or my dad’ll whip my ass.”
“I told you before. We’re not going to steal anything. We just want to sneak into that crazy old guy’s yard and have a look at his bike. I have never seen anything like it,” Joey countered and looked at the third member of the group, a thin gangly youth, of 12, who had been sitting quietly throughout the discussion.
Paul had been listening to the talk, ran it through his mind and came to the conclusion that Joey was right. After all, they had no intention of stealing anything. They just wanted to have a look at the bicycle. Besides,sneaking into that weird old man’s yard did have a certain sense of excitement to it.
“I agree with Joey and majority rules,” Paul announced. “Since we’ve been watching the old coot for a few days we know he disappears into his house about five every afternoon so I think that’s the best time to do it. We sneak through his back gate, take a good look at that contraption of his and leave. It should only take a few minutes.”
Outnumbered, Raymond agreed. He appeared to be still reluctant but underneath he felt a sense of relief and excitement because he was just as anxious as his friends to get a better look at the strange looking bike.
“Okay,” he nodded in agreement. “But we only stay long enough for a good look and that’s it.”
It was a hot summer day and the trio were sitting on an old wooden picnic table sheltered from the sun by a grand old oak tree. They sipped away on giant Slurpees as they made their plans for their afternoon foray into the old man’s back yard.
The need for a closer look of at the bike had been brought about due to John Collin’s habit of riding his antique bicycle through the town every afternoon. He looked quite a sight as he pedalled the 1916 Indian Motobike straight down the main street of the small mid western town called Martinsville. He held his tall, skinny frame completely erect and the tails of his coat as well as his long hair floated out behind him as he appeared to roar down the street without any apparent effort.
His daily excursions attracted the attention of the youngsters who daily patrolled the streets on a variety of the latest mountain bikes. Groups of them waited at different street corners for John to ride by on his odd looking bike and then give chase but none of them were successful in even keeping up with him, let alone passing him.
John, lost in his own thoughts, never bothered to even acknowledge the boys’ pursuit of him and this irritated Joey, Mark and Raymond to no end. After all, they were known to have the fastest bikes around and took great pride in the fact. Thus, the idea of sneaking into John’s backyard and taking a look at his odd looking bike.
Shortly before 5 pm on the designated day, the trio met down the block from Ian’s house and prepared for their task.
They left their bikes chained to a tree and slowly made their way down the alley behind Ian’s house. Once they had reached the flimsy gate into his back yard, they crouched down and watched Ian wheel his bike into the yard and then enter the back door of his house. They waited for a few more minutes and then Joey impatiently whispered, “Okay he’s inside. Let’s go.”
All three boys rose from their crouch and made their way to the gate. Joey, always the leader, pushed it slowly open and entered John’s back yard. Behind him crept Paul and Raymond as they made their way along the side of a shed. At the end of the shed, they waited as Joey poked his head around the corner of it.
“No sign of the crazy old coot, let’s have our look and get out of here,” he whispered back to his pals.
Assured the old man was nowhere in sight, the boys left the safety of the shed and gathered around the strangest looking bicycle they had ever seen.
“Wow, look at the size of the wheels,” murmured Raymond as the boys studied the antique bike. “Must be at least 28 inches, maybe more and the tires are really wide.”
“And the fenders,” said Joey. “Sleek and wide with mud flaps, almost like a motorcycles’.”
That was as far as the boys’ examination got because John suddenly appeared at his back door.
“What are you boys doing? You trying to steal my bike?” he yelled at the trio causing making them to explode into action. Without answering John, they turn and fled back the way they had entered the yard. Because Raymond had been behind his friends, he was the first one leaving. Right behind him was Joey screaming,”Ooh shit, he’s here, go, go, go.” Paul, the closest to the back door and the slowest to react barely managed to react before John was upon him.
He struggled fruitlessly as Ian grabbed his arm in a strong grip and demanded to know. “What you boys doing here,? Trying to steal my bike are you? Well, we’ll see what your parents say about this. Where do they live?”
Paul said nothing and still desperately tried to escape Ian’s clutches. He twisted his body and pushed and pulled at Ian who refused to let him go.
“Your parents, where do they live, or perhaps you’d sooner I call the police.”
That threat had Paul relenting and telling Ian. “Me and my mom live two blocks over.”
“Let’s go,” John announced.
He led Paul out his front gate and began marching him down the street. His strides were so long and fast, Paul could hardly keep up with him. It seemed as if they had arrived at the ramshack of old house where Paul and his mother lived in no time but to Paul, it was the longest walk of his life. The whole time he kept cursing himself and Joey and Raymond for coming up with such a stupid idea. Still, he was more worried about what they may find in his house than what his mother may say.
In truth, he knew his mother would probably do nothing. She was always sick, acting weird and sometimes she would simply disappear for several days at a time. Paul never told anybody about it, but lately his mother seemed to be getting even worse.
He never knew what to expect when he came home and dreaded what Ian may see. He reluctantly opened the door to the house and let John come in behind him. The door opened to a tiny foyer and as John pushed Paul around the corner of it, he caught sight of Sylvia Wilson for the first time.
She was sitting at a kitchen table amidst an array of over filled ash trays, dirty dishes and empty liquor bottles.
Sylvia was also a mess. She sat barely upright in a broken down old kitchen chair in a stained and rumbled old sweat suit. Her eyes were half closed and blood shot and her face looked swollen and full of ugly red blotches. Her straggly unwashed hair was a dirty unknown color and hung limply around her alcohol bloated face.
John took it all in in an instant and was immediately swept back to a time in his life that wasn’t much different than this.
The prolonged drinking and the obsession with alcohol had led him to ignore his wife and children until finally they left him. But even that wasn’t enough to sober him up. It took several more years of a downward spiral that found him living on the streets before he managed to find Alcohol Anonymous. Even then it was quite a struggle before he got a grip on his drinking problem.
The sight before him, brought back long buried memories of his first days in AA. That has been 30 years ago and the group in Martinsville was small with only three or four active members. That included himself; nicknamed Long John because of his height, a jolly over weight woman nicknamed Mother Mary because she always seemed to be mothering and watching over everybody, and a guy nicknamed Mad Marvin because despite his staying sober nobody knew what he was going to do next.
Yes, it had been a ragtag group of misfits and outcasts seemingly on their last legs but they did succeed in staying sober. John had stayed with the group for nearly 10 years before he stopped going to the meetings or associating with the group. He never questioned why he drifted away. It just happened but despite remaining sober all these years, things never felt completely right with him. At times he’d feel lonely and downright lost and he thought of returning to the group but he never did get around do it.
John’s thoughts were interrupted by Sylvia trying to get off her chair and come towards him. She did manage to stand but swayed as wildly as a young sapling in a wind storm and promptly sat back down, almost missing her chair in the process.
“What are you doing with my son,” Sylvia bellowed at John between puffs of a cigarette that dangled dangerously from the corners of her mouth. The air was blue with cigarette smoke and ashes fell unnoticed onto the messy table.
John was thinking furiously. He felt duty bound to try and help the woman. After all, he had the solution. Take her to an AA meeting and see if she could get straightened out. For some people, it’s the only thing that seems to work.
“Just bringing your son home,” John explained. “Caught him and a couple of other boys in my back yard. They all scattered but I managed to snag this one.”
“Paul’s no thief. He’s a good boy. Helps me a lot when I’m not feeling too good,” Sylvia was slurring her words as she replied. “Just leave him with me. I’ll talk to him okay,”
“Yeah, says he never meant to steal anything. That they just wanted a closer look at my bike. I believe him, the bike is an antique and the boys were probably just curious that’s all.
John released the boy, who immediately rushed to his mother’s side, but he remained standing at the entrance to the kitchen, staring at Sylvia.
“Okay, now what?” Sylvia asked impatiently between puffs of her seemingly never ending cigarette. “You brought him home, thanks,” she added. But John was not so easy deterred.
“Now that we solved the problem with Paul, what are we going to do about you?” John asked.
“Eh,” Sylvia muttered in disbelief. “Nothing wrong with me.”
John decided to be blunt. Sometimes it worked and it got to the heart of the problem quite quickly. That way he wouldn’t waste any time if she decided she wasn’t ready to sober up yet.
“Ever thought of getting sober,?” he asked her.
“Tried to but can’t seem to manage,” Sylvia replied. “Nothing seems to work.”
“Ever try AA?” John asked.
Sylvia seemed in deep thought for a moment and then replied
“Well no, I’m not that bad. That’s for street people with brown paper bags. Alcoholics you know and I’m not one of those. I’m not like one of THOSE people.”
“I didn’t figure I was one either. Had a family with a couple of kids and a good job but I lost it all. Spent several years on the streets before somebody took me to an AA meeting,” John explained and then spent the next half hour briefly relating his story to Sylvia.
By the time he had finished, Sylvia agreed to come to a meeting with him. John went home long enough to grab a quick supper and then returned to Sylvia’s house. She had seemed so reluctant, he doubted whether she would come to a meeting or not. However, she was waiting for him in the same dishevelled state he had left her in.
John found himself quite excited at the prospect of taking in a meeting after so many years. In the short distance to the church basement where the meetings were held, he chatted with only half a mind to Sylvia as the other half was wondering if any of old friends would be in attendance.
John’s first surprise of the evening occurred when he attempted to find a parking spot in the church parking lot. It was full, almost over flowing but he did manage to squeeze his car into a spot in the far corner.
“Must be something else being held here tonight as well,” he mentioned to Sylvia as he led her towards the door to the church basement.
His second surprise occurred when he and Sylvia stepped into the room marked with an AA sign. His mind was still in the past and he expected to see a small group of people sitting around a small table. Instead he found a jam-packed room. There was row upon row of chairs and most of them were filled with happily chatting people.
“Welcome to the meeting,” a man greeted them in a cheerful manner.
“I don’t recognize you. First time here,” he asked.
“She is, I’m not but I have to admit it’s been awhile,”
John replied led Sylvia to a couple of vacant chairs.
He barely had time to grab a coffee before the meeting got underway. It started with the usual readings from the AA big book and then the chairman for the evening announced that it was going to be a very special evening.
“Two birthdays tonight and together they represent almost sixty years of sobriety,” the chairman continued, barely heard because of the loud applause.
“Tonight Mary and Marvin will be receiving 30-year medallions. Now Marvin claims his sobriety date is a few hours before Mary’s but he has graciously allowed Mary to receive her medallion first. Or maybe he’s just being polite and letting a woman go first.” Again, there was thunderous applause coupled with hoots and howls of laughter.
“Eh, 30 years impossible, I don’t believe it. How did they do that,” Sylvia muttered to John.
“One day at a time and if you listen you’ll find out how they did it,” John retorted with a sharp tone to his voice. Although he had heard their stories numerous times, He was suddenly anxious to hear them again.
As he expected both Mary’s and Marvin’s stories were great. They kept the crowd riveted at times as they explained their live and death struggles to get sober. Other times the crowd roared with laughter as they described their drunken antics.
After they finished telling their story, the meeting broke up and slices of birthday cake were passed around. There was a huge mob of well wishers surrounding the birthday pair, so John ate his slice of cake while waiting impatiently for a chance to greet his old friends. In the meantime, several female members had introduced themselves to Sylvia, offered her some cake and were quietly talking to her in a corner of the room.
Finally, as the crowd around them thinned, John was able to reach Mary and Marvin. At first he was just going to shake their hands and congratulate them but he found himself hugging first Mary and then Marvin.
Neither of them said a word or asked where he’d been all these years.
They just said, “Welcome back John, welcome back.”