Cousins are different beautiful flowers in the same garden. -Anonymous
Family and friends congregated in the foyer of the Baptist Tabernacle speaking in hushed tones. My Uncle was in the men’s room, dry heaving, his eyes shot blood-red. In the sanctuary, members of Travis’s mother’s family were huddled around her, trying anything to console her as she wailed–a tortured, pinched and wrung soul, afflicted with a loss from which a parent can never recover.
It was later that night, sitting alone on my front porch, when the memories burst out of the gate and galloped through my mind.
There was the time that Travis and I, little boys, were manning the bunker, made by imagination, and an old itchy army blanket thrown over the top of a cattle trough. Peering out the side of the trough, we waited, poised, with pretend rifles cocked and pointing in the direction of where we were pretty sure the Nazis would eventually show themselves, marching over the grassy, and cow patty covered hill. It was tough work keeping the countryside, outside Collinsville, Oklahoma, safe from fascism.
We spent a lot of time patrolling the banks of the creek that ran through our Grandma’s and Grandpa’s property. We would find turtles the size of hubcaps, interesting rocks, and snakes. Occasionally we would spot a cottonmouth, and run back up to the house to tell Grandma. She would purposefully take down one of the rifles off the rack from the bedroom, load it, and march down to the creek with us. We would show her where it was, and “POP, POP, POP!” the snake would be dead.
Often we would take off over to the other side of the creek, climb through the barbwire fence to the next property that had a large junkyard on it. We would run and play between rows of the hulls of stripped down, rusted out cars. We would sit in the front seat of a car, springs bursting through the ripped upholstery, the dashboard cracked, and pretend we were in the cockpit of a space vessel, on an important mission to save the solar system.
One event I will never be able to erase from my mind: We were nestled in under blankets on pallets on the floor of the den. Grandma and Grandpa were in bed, and we were doing our best to keep each other from going to sleep, talking, giggling, and squirming. Eventually, sounds and thoughts subsided, and my eyes closed. Just as I was about to pass into a deep sleep, Travis jumped up in nothing but his tighty-whities, sat on my head, squishing me into the pillow, and let rip a thunderous fart that rung in my ears, and hung heavy in my nostrils. A fight ensued as I desperately pushed him off of me. The lights flashed on with the sudden appearance of Grandma at the doorway to the den.
“What’s going on here? You boys need to quiet down and get to sleep.”
“He farted on my head,” I pleaded.
“No I didn’t,” Travis lied.
“Yes, you did!” I hollered.
“HEY!” my Grandma said, clapping her hands together, once and loudly. “That’s enough. One more peep out y’all, and I am going to send your Grandpa in here.” We closed our eyes and lay still.
We had this dart board that Grandpa had hung from a tree. Instead of marking off ten paces, and playing darts by the rules, we invented our own extreme version. From fifty feet away we would hurl darts, with all our might, the object being to see who could just hit the dart board. The kicker was, the one not throwing darts would stand in front of the dart board to break the other’s concentration, by making silly faces and hurling insults, and move out of the way in time not to get hit after a dart was thrown.
That fun kept us occupied for a while, until ... Travis was throwing his darts. I moved just in time to avoid what I thought was his last dart. It hit the board. I reached up to the dart board to remove the darts that had hit their target, and suddenly there was a dart hanging out of the back of my hand. It didn’t really hurt, and I managed not to freak out, but rather showed the curiosity to Travis.
“Look at this,” I said, holding my hand in the air with a dart stuck in it. Travis ran up to me.
“Wow, that’s neat,” he said.
Fourth of July at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s was always a family event, and great fun for Travis and me, lighting off fire works in quick succession for hours on end, intoxicated by the smell of smoke they produced. I hatched an idiotic plan, and explained it to Travis. He was one-hundred and ten percent on board with it.
We crawled under neath a cattle guard, a bridge made of pipes that the hoofs of cattle could not navigate across, but vehicles could. It spanned the width of a shallow ditch. Getting under it required us to crawl on our bellies with lit punks in our hands. Directly under neath the center, we extracted M-80’s from our pockets, about six in all. We embedded them in the dirt wall of the ditch, tying the fuses together so they would all explode at once. And they did.
Travis and I emerged from the ditch in a cloud of dust. My ears, and I’m sure Travis‘ too, rang for a week after. Our faces hurt from all the dust and pebbles that hit us square in the face from the combustion. We wouldn’t try that again.
With the onslaught of puberty we saw less and less of each other. We were too busy taking care of matters in our own corners of the world, him in the country, and me in the city. Travis graduated from high school, fell in with the wrong crowd, and spent his nights partying, and days sleeping on people’s couches in mobile homes. I went off to college, and later law school.
On Thanksgiving, Christmas, or family reunions at the lake, if Travis showed up, I noticed that he was looking more haggard as time went on. Even though I was two years older than him, he always appeared my senior in a run down way. We would smoke cigarettes a little out of view of others, and talk about shows we both enjoyed on Comedy Central, or football. Every now and then I would bring up the incident when he sat on my head, describing it in exquisite detail, and we would hold our bellies laughing, losing our breath, tears rolling down our cheeks.
Otherwise, the little I would hear of him was about his various run-ins with the law. Over time, his rap sheet grew with DUI and Possession of Controlled and Dangerous Substance convictions. Getting his driver’s license back must have seemed like an unattainable goal after his third arrest for DUI when he lost control of a pickup and crashed into a parked ambulance on the side of the road. Nobody was hurt, and that was the only thing that kept him from getting the maximum sentence.
I looked him up on the Department of Corrections website. Though nobody comes off photogenic in a mug shot wearing Department of Correction issued grays, his head was shaved, his face sagged, the rings under his eyes were dark and puffy, and he had a slight frown. By all reckoning, he probably deserved to be in prison, but my gut and heart hurt imagining the struggle that he was losing against addiction.
I was walking across the second floor of the courthouse, in my capacity as a lawyer, to file some pleadings with the court clerk when a voice from behind me shouted my name. It was Travis. He was being led by a sheriff deputy to the cost administrator to make a payment plan for his fines, and was to be released that afternoon after spending a year in custody.
“Hey,” he shouted. I was glad to see him. He appeared much healthier than the last time I saw him and was grinning from ear to ear. We chatted for as long as the deputy would allow us. “I’ve found God,” Travis said.
Though I am not particularly religious in any traditional sense, for some people, finding God is a big step in the right direction. A little God couldn’t hurt Travis. “That’s good. Keep up the good work, and stay out of trouble.” He waved to me as best he could with handcuffs on, as he was ushered away.
The last time I saw him was at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s on Thanksgiving, two years ago. He was back to looking ten years my elder. Though I tried to engage him, he kept a polite distance from me, and avoided eye contact with me, only responding to the small talk I was trying to make in grunts, and nods. He left early, before the prayer and dinner. Right before my wife and daughters loaded into the car to drive back to Tulsa, I learned that my aunt caught Travis in the bathroom pocketing pills out of grandma’s and grandpa’s medicine cabinet.
As the story was related to me, a few months later Travis ingested methadone and a hand full of barbiturates, laid down on the couch in his mom’s mobile home and closed his eyes never to open them again.
His mother’s wailing echoed through the sanctuary as I stood numb over Travis’s open casket looking down at his corpse. Someone had put an OU ball cap on his head, and despite the mortician’s best efforts, his face was a pallid blue-gray, but had a faint smile, as if he might say, “I guess I kind of fucked up.”
That evening, after my wife and kids had gone to sleep, I sat on the front porch, in the dark. The memories burst out of the gate and galloped through my mind. I bawled my eyes out.
This story was originally published at Madmikesamerica.