My cousin Eric came in on Thanksgiving morning a couple years ago, after having ridden fifty miles or so on his Honda Goldwing motorcycle. We all said hi to him and he said hi back, but he was looking all around, like he was thinking about something else that had more of his attention than us.
"Are you all right?" his mom, my aunt, asked him.
"Yeah." He lifted the corner of the rug and looked under it.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." He kept looking at his hand, turning it back and forth. He hadn't shaved. he smelled kind of bad. He sat silent by the fireplace for some time. We looked at him.
"A tiger attacked my motorcycle when I was on the highway," he finally said. He appealed to us with his eyes. You could tell he was ashamed. He looked at his knees.
"Yeah." He was sweating bullets. He lit a cigarette. He wouldn't say anything else about it. Eric used to make little tanks out of empty spools and rubber bands that really rolled by themselves across the rug. He'd make his own transformers and go-bots out of paper and they really transformed.
My aunt and uncle have read every book on schizophrenia and lent them all to my mother. Some of them say it's very common for close relatives of schizophrenics to suffer from vivid nightmares all their lives. Like the kind where I dreamed I found a little baby in a trash can, but it was all charred and blackened and when I picked it up it disintegrated into dust in my hands.
Almost everybody in the family has had dreams about my grandmother, Mommie. The day before she died my mother dreamed they were on a greyhound bus together but Mommie got off at the wrong stop and got left behind. Poppy is eighty-eight now. He said to me once, apropos of nothing, "Sometimes when I lay in bed I see Mommie come into the room."
"You dream it, you mean," I told him.
"I don't know what the hell I mean but I'm getting the chills just talking about it," he said.
The nightmare champion out of us all, the one who takes the cake and wins the prize, is my big brother Joseph. He had night terrors which aren't the same as bad dreams. Night terrors are a whole different thing. He had to sleep in the bottom bunk because of it. He would get up out of bed, eyes open, and walk around the house screaming and screaming. He would scream and grab at his head like he felt his skull was coming apart. In the morning he wouldn't remember a thing. He'd tell me I was full of it and punch me in the arm for lying. He would wake up refreshed and not remember any bad dream, any screaming, or anything at all.
Recently, Joseph and I went and saw a movie together and went out for burgers afterward.
"Remember when we were kids and you'd do that thing where you'd walk around and scream at night?" I asked. "Do you do that still?"
"I did it in college," he said. "During finals. I locked myself out of my room in the dorm one time, doing it."
"God, that's so weird. I bet you freaked everybody out!"
"I don't know. I guess."
"Have you done it since college?"
"How the fuck would I know? I live by myself."
After the burgers he headed to drop me off at my apartment. In his car, in the spot where the volume knob of his stereo used to be, was a bare metal spike.
"What happened?" I pointed. He didn't look down.
"Did your volume knob break off?"
"Well, ah. This one time, once I like got really mad and just ripped it off." He looked over his shoulder as he parallel-parked in front of my building.
"Well shit, that was kind of a dumb thing to do. Breaking your own car stereo."
"I was just kidding," he said. "See you soon. Don't forget Mom's birthday."
When we were kids, Joseph would scream when he was awake, too, but instead of just noise it would be him telling me I was a fat piece of shit. He'd throw chairs at me. Kicked my front teeth out one time. Got the big knife out of the drawer and chased me with it. He'd call Mom names, call her ugly and dumb and say he didn't love her. When he got that way, Mom and I would get in the car and drive around. It felt funny and special to be in the car at eleven o'clock on a school night, in my pajamas. Mom would be in her robe, driving barefoot. We would go to the Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru and get two orders of seasoned curly fries. Then we'd park by the tracks and watch the freight trains go by while we ate, our fingers getting orange and seasoned.
"I'm not going to do this again with him," she said. "I already told him I'd send him away to a special school. I'll do it. I'm not going to let it go this time."
On the way home we passed a little pink house on Delaware Avenue. Its front door was standing open. A baby was standing all alone on the lawn. The baby walked across the lawn, out to the sidewalk, and into the middle of the dark street.
Mom stopped the car and flung her door open. "Get the baby. Get the baby! Get it!" she shouted to me. I ran out and picked the baby up. It was heavy and wearing fuzzy blue pajamas that were a lot like mine. Mom left the car in the street, doors open, motor running. She marched up to the house and rapped loudly on the door. "HELLO," she said. "HELLO!"
She is the kind of mother who would get super-human strength, enough to lift an overturned tractor off you, if she had to. When I was living out in the woods they used to say that if you see a baby bear all alone you should run away as fast as you can, because god help you if its mother shows up. My mother is like that.
A sleepy-looking teenage girl came to the door. She wearily lifted the baby out of my arms. The baby hadn't made any noise the whole time except a few rattly coughs and sniffles.
"This your baby?" Mom asked.
"We found him in the street."
"My dad was supposed to be watching it," the girl said.
"Your dad shouldn't have to be in charge of that," Mom said.
The girl took the baby inside and shut the door.
Back in the car, Mom pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen and carefully noted the address of the pink house. "God only knows what kind of thing is going on in there," she said.
When we got home, the lawn chairs from the backyard were laying broken on the sidewalk in front of the house. My brother was sitting outside on the front steps. Earlier that night, when we got in the car to leave, he had run out after us, calling us stupid and ugly as we got in the car, flipping us off as we drove away. By accident, the door had shut behind him and locked. He had been stuck outside barefoot in his pajamas for the whole time we'd been gone. He threw lawn chairs in the street until he got tired. Then he just waited for us to get back.
Mom made him hot chocolate and sat on the edge of his bottom bunk, rubbing his hair until he fell asleep. Then she took the paper with the pink house's address and tossed it in the trash.
I can't see what goddamn difference it would make," she said.
One time he and I had a phone conversation that ended with Joseph saying, "Dad is a piece of trash, his whole family is a piece of trash, and you only talk to him because he gives you money." Then there was a loud bang followed by static, because he had thrown the cordless phone against the wall and broke it.
The last time I saw Dad he asked, "So how is he? I follow his company's stock in the paper and it doesn't look so good."
"He's fine," I said.
After a pause to sip our beers he kind of laughed, shook his head, and said, "I never understood what I could've done to make him not talk to me." He shrugged, faking that he didn't care. "Whatever it was, I guess it must've been preety bad."
I picked up the TV guide. "That National Geographic thing is coming on in a minute," I said.
When I was eight, Dad played catch with me on one of his visitation weekends and I told him I wanted to be like Willie Mays when I grew up.
"No, no," he said, laughing a little bit. "When Willie Mays was your age he could probably hit a ball from here clear to that fence way out there, and you can't hit half that far."
On the underside of the chess board, he used to write in ball-point pen who won every game. "12-18-85: DAD. 1-25-86: DAD. 2-1-86: DAD." It goes on like that for four long straight columns without interruption, until "7-6-88: JOSEPH." There's no more dates after that.
Our cousin Eric did six months in the state hospital for slugging a cop. He was trying to tell the cop he should call someone to get the tigers out of the road and the cop laughed at him. So Eric punched him in the gut. His parents sold his bike while he was in there. Now he lives with them and they feed him his pills alongside his scrambled eggs every morning and his mom drives him to his job bagging groceries. He got fat. He says the pills make him better but when you talk to him you can tell that he's looking all around at things he knows about and you don't. Maybe the pills just make him want to keep all those things quiet.
I've read books and seen movies that are about a guy who thinks that his dad or older brother or cousin is a hero, but he turns out to be a pathetic son of a bitch. I'm lucky. I knew they were pathetic sons of bitches to begin with
About the author:
Jasper McGinnis is a college student in California. He has been a high school dropout, psychiatric hospital patient, fast food server, busboy, dishwasher, and hotel desk clerk. This is his first published story, and he hopes his family never sees it. He is 23 years old.