Chapter of possible or impossible endings:
My brother steadies his mental state with mega doses of B vitamins and fish oil. He sleeps in an enclosed space and washes his clothes semi-regularly. He writes lyrics in notebooks that he does not lose on the city bus. He starts performing his raps again at low-key venues in South Minneapolis. He has friends. He freestyles with them about ghosts and the extractive vampires of industrial civilization. His fiction reads more like metaphor or poetry than delusion. He thrives.
Injectable antipsychotics taken once a month keep him out of the paranoid abyss. He shows up to these monthly appointments and jokes with the nurses, who appreciate his sweetness and sense of humor. His face emerges through the clouds. His feet are fine. He survives.
An apartment just for him and someone to watch over him and make sure he doesn’t overdose, which he never will because he doesn’t need the drugs to numb his mind or rocket-ship him to his preferred state of invincibility. He retires from his career as a secret agent and un-adopts the clone he’s kept under his tutelage. We watch each other get older, that adage about the dreaded phone call just another fable.
One ending is that my brother dies before I can get to the other endings.
Another ending is that he stays alive but the premonitions of amputation are true, his hands cut into stumps at the wrist. (The dream where he holds a big black lamb, hair shorn, humbled agony, young moon face—finally regretting what I’ve wanted him to regret. The dream where I chant a nursery rhyme about his missing hands: “oh my god / what’s the matter / did you hurt yourself / tripping on a ladder?”) In this ending he shrivels into an infant with an over-aged body alive as a smear, body parts discarded in medical and psychosocial establishments. Radio signal from the social workers verify the survival I become responsible for: my solitary grief when he outlives our parents.
(And there’s an ending about me, too, to a story that begins in Olympia. Looking through curtained windows of the modest two bedroom houses perched on Fir street and dreaming my way into my own little house with a pile of firewood in the backyard. In this ending I look out from inside, washing my dishes amidst anxiolytic decor: handmade baskets, stones on the windowsill, sheer cotton curtains draped elegantly. How right I’d been to believe the future held a home for me, a place with windows and doors I could call my very own. In this ending I have an elderberry bush and a tiny persimmon tree and an herb garden with an established root system. My creative efforts are rewarded with this spiritually robust domesticity—a wood stove and a pleasant place to sit outside. My brother and I sit on the stoop under the crystal clear sky while I bat away his smoke.)
My brother Jonah looks mystical when he’s smoking cigarettes, like he is communing with the dead. He gazes up at the sky when he takes a drag and down at the pavement when he exhales, squinting his eyes. Before he was homeless and after his first batch of extended psychiatric hospitalizations Jonah already was smoking like there was a flood inside his lungs that needed drying out. He smelled like cigarettes, and his skin looked like ash, and he stared with suspicious deer eyes at our parents like they were speaking to him between lines of silence. He placed this same fixed gaze on me when I got the chance to see him, which wasn’t often. He still lived in Minnesota and I’d abandoned him for the West coast.
The last time he visited me in Olympia he was twenty years, old, spindly fingers stained ancient orange from cigarettes he rolled out of pipe tobacco he carried around in a ziplock bag, the cheapest driest option for smoking. I was almost twenty-five and about to graduate from college, which was why he is visiting me. From my kitchen window I watched him smoke a cigarette on the worn-out beige couch my housemate and I ditched on the curb earlier that week.
Jonah was wearing paint-stained jeans and work boots. His shoulders sloped forwards, his hair grown-out into a swoop since the last buzz cut. A faded wolf was etched onto his decaying t-shirt. He rolled another cigarette and wiggled his shoulders to a beat, smoking like death defiance. A fragile glass brother on the edge of breaking. Or a cracked brother who could become unbreakable, fiberglass filaments compressed in pending invincibility.
Behind him was the murky pond-colored house where I was tenant. If he turned around, he’d see a sister with a face almost identical to his (same caterpillar eyebrows, same coarse brown hair, same brown eyes) staring back through the kitchen window, her face rounder than his bony angles, her skin slightly puffy with fatigue. He’d see her quickly cloak concern with a smile.
He’d been born itchy and gassy, a small red stranger. All through elementary there was his erupting, obsessive clinging; I was forever his sibling with the hall pass breezing by his trouble. But for a window of time he’d trailed me, leaning his limbs into adulthood. His own stubborn confident determination. When I was twenty-one I went back to Minnesota for the first time after moving away. When we went down to the train tracks with my friend one evening, a forest of sumac at the peak of summer’s humid glory, Jonah crouched in the weeds and said, So you guys want to smoke? Opened up a flashlight and pulled out a joint like it was summer camp. My friend laughed. In the shadow his lips had looked ducky and unpracticed around the joint, and he got it all wet. But he was practicing. He said,I want my life to be exactly how I want it to be. It was the second anarchist awakening to unfold in our parents’ house—using desire like a battering ram to escape its solitude.I feel like we have a psychic connection, he told me.
When I was twenty-three, I showed my friend a video of my brother rapping at an open mic. Jonah was a wispy dragon rapper just beginning to spit fire, winding the mic cable and throwing his limbs about under the purple red lights. Look at how his hands move, these spears drawing dashes along his words. The rhythm he carries in his mouth. I held up my phone in front of my friend’s face like a prize. See how far the baby has come. And my friend said, yeah, Jonah could make money doing this.
After Jonah was discharged from his second weeks-long hospitalization, I went to Minnesota and we hung out on the swing-set by our parents’ house. I was twenty-four, he was nineteen. While we pumped our legs he called the hospital a “mind cubicle” and told me about these two psychic ladies he’d met at a bus stop. How they’d invited him into their house. Yeaaaaaah, I got into a CULT, he said. You have no idea how weird the past year has been. He was laughing. I fucked a guru, he said, and silently I was coiling my own inner coil, thinking about poetry and how every day is the open air of not knowing what to say, trying to outrun my skin before the next mile-marker, but that does not a professional make, nor a legend. And we could spend our lives trying to brush against impossibility, trying to learn our own saltwater streams, the words that hit the right places. Have to keep our feet hovering over the ground, but not too far off, and even that is no guarantee but we have to try, Jonah, we at least have to try, this endless endless labor and its tempting possible completion, a place where you and I will be held.
I pump my legs into the darkness by the old turtle statue in the familiar playground and say this psychically in case psychic messages are real, because this was the only form of persuasion he’d listen to.
Now, dulled, smoke-stained, and sitting on the couch, his buoyant teenage grandiosity was deflating. Prescription antipsychotics made his face twitch. He said everyone could see the twitches happening, plus it messed up his flow. And still, his mind broke through that thin chemical barrier with its own symptoms. He’d come inside the night before, urgent and wide-eyed, telling me that some people yelling had told him to Get away from here! A car was being followed by a bike, and the car told him Good job, you figured it out, now it’s my turn. He looked at me and said, I just wanted to tell you. In case they were somebody you knew. And whoever it was, they had been calling out his name. I swear to God, he said, fixing his eyes on mine, his nervousness a thready buzz filling the air. I thanked him, said I didn’t know anybody like that, asked if he was okay. My nervousness buzzed in tandem with his.
From the kitchen window I watched our next-door neighbor, this guy my housemate nicknamed Potatoes, join Jonah on the couch. Potatoes’ khaki shorts grazed just below his knees, no shirt, a slinky ponytail dangling down his back under a backwards baseball cap. Potatoes looked like Olympia’s local Kid Rock. Jonah looked like a kid brother all grown up, a bit frayed and side-eyed. Potatoes said, Hey brother mind if I join you? Jonah didn’t mind. He rubbed his hand across his forehead. Potatoes gestured wildly with camaraderie and inebriated life wisdom. Jonah nodded. Potatoes said something about pussy and faggots then dropped his hands, resting against the couch open-bellied, relaxed. Jonah slouched forwards with his elbows on his knees. I whispered to my housemate across the living room, “Oh my god, do you see this, Jonah’s talking to Potatoes.” They were having a heart-to-heart.
Potatoes lived with another guy we called Meat. Meat grew up in the little boxy house next to ours, and had bought it from his mom. He grew corn in the backyard and parked a classic car in the short driveway. “They’re good guys, they just like to drink,” our landlord reassured us (or maybe warned us) when we signed the lease. Potatoes worked as a cook at a tiny tacky silver bar just down the block. Meat did contracting. It’s true they liked to drink, and many evenings their gatherings with the ruddy-faced neighbors a few houses down overflowed into a dull sloppy din.
In truth, Potatoes looked more like meat than Meat did. Potatoes looked like beefy jerky, an impossibly lithe and leathery lizard-human with a ponytail. His skin was bronzed from his daily shirtless practices of mowing the dry, yellow lawn and basking in the sunlight. He was maybe in his early 50’s, but could have been in his 30’s or 60’s for all I knew—simultaneously preserved and aged by sunlight and alcohol. His habitual lawn-mowing seemed sad and unnecessary, but Potatoes appeared perfectly comfortable with his lifestyle. In the mornings I’d see him walk back from the corner store with a 12-pack of Natural Ice pressing heavy through a thin plastic bag. He’d traverse back and forth through the small rectangle of their dead lawn with a mower, then perch atop it in a blue collapsible lawn chair, draining beer can after beer can.
I worried my own self-discipline was just as arbitrary as the way Potatoes separated his time into chores and leisure. Leisure frightened me, and so did Potatoes’ relaxation. Was that repose some kind of enlightenment? Was it really, or was it just giving up?
Watching my brother sit next to Potatoes on the couch, I thought if he could just hold it together in the most basic way, art could be what saves him from peril—his flight away from a binary of paternalistic psychiatric treatment and the unchaperoned forest of delusions he was headed towards. I also knew which side he would err on. I imagined a narrator peeling off of me like a ghost or an angel who levitated in the warm breeze and deflected his danger. Yes, soon the boy will sink close to death, but it’s merely the valley before his inevitable ascent, a fictional voice reports in real time, captioning the scene on the couch and rendering it the beginning of a novel. A novel that will be like dialysis, an apparatus which filters experiences before they damage my organs. Fiction that will freeze reality before anything bad happens in real life. Fiction where it is safe to admit to danger because suffering has a denouement and it is grand, full of bright shiny flashy lights and stable living situations. Street life will smack him, but he gets out quick.
Ambition can be a callous, though. Was my shield—this artifice—mythological or pathological? Perseus holding a mirror to Medusa’s writhing head: I cut this thing off without ever having to look at it and now I carry around this sack of honor, my weapon: the deaths that almost happened, but didn’t yet.
A pathological artifice might be anesthetic: not a suave deflection of reality, but numb delusion.
More poisonous than numbness, though, was the potent greedy thrum of everything I wanted the novel to do for me. Once in class a friend said Haruki Murukami swam laps at 4am every morning and then wrote for hours. And my best friend V told me about writer who sang hymns before picking up her pen. I wanted that suspension—to bath in endorphins and then conjure up imaginary worlds. Swim or sing my way into a world that’s mutable and worthy of my love, as if only then would it be possible to say or write something that wasn’t snagged with real-life cynicism.
I needed magical realism where shack-dwelling witches give magic potions to take away delusions. Where poetry itself is regenerative—makes body parts grow back later. Where bright blue river-worts dissolve scars, and strangers offer cogent life advice. Where nineteen year olds go on vision quests and return intact. Where poetry makes patience with the impossible possible, which is the true meaning of the fable—patience, not outcome.
The reward for this patience was great, I hoped, and very urgently needed, because I couldn’t re-write the ending until I stopped trying to, my ambition hardening everything I saw through it into stone. A mirror that wasn’t so cold and weaponized.
It might take a whole lifetime to learn to make art for its own sake, but this was time I couldn’t afford to take, which was why I wanted the novel to run through me and answer all its own questions.
The summer after I graduated from college (the final summer before Jonah’s homelessness), Potatoes held a garage sale, spreading his worldly possessions on the lawn he’d so carefully tended. For three days he erected an exhibit of the interior life that I’d not yet glimpsed: framed posters of Marilyn Monroe and Pink Floyd; button up shirts; power tools; an inflatable full-sized mattress; a stereo system;. a few trophies; an entertainment chest.
When my boyfriend and I went to check it out, we asked Potatoes if he was moving. Potatoes said he was quitting his job and moving to Alaska to live with his sister.
He wasn’t wearing sunglasses this time. I’d never seen his eyes up close before—slate gray, bluish, the planetary haze of intoxication up close. You could see it in the pink rims.
Potatoes said, “We all need a change sometimes, you know. It’s important to stay open to different things. I’m ready to get out. I have my career and everything here, man, but sometimes you just have to uproot and, you know, move on. Try something new. You know, a fresh start.”
I used to hitch-hike a lot and was used to nodding my head while a man philosophized. So I stood there nodding at all the outer space in his face, feeling righteous about all my commitments and the big great mountain of a novel I was just beginning to climb.
On the final day of the sale, I biked back from my opening shift towards home and saw one of Potatoes’ drinking buddies sleeping face down on the inflatable couch on the lawn. It was noon.
I felt a bit of regret for my earlier judgement of Potatoes’ resolution, and wondered if it was so wrong, so destined to fail, his project of personal transformation. Wondering at what point the past clings on too strongly to be dissolved with a speech act.
It was just another day slanging beans at the coffeeshop. In a lull between the morning rushes, my co-worker Dan joked with a regular who was sipping his latte at the white marble counter. The regulars always want to know what Dan’s up to and what art he’s working on.
“Do you ever write about, you know, this cafe?” the regular asked Dan.
“Yes, you’re all characters in the novel I’m writing,” Dan said. He was laughing, like, No way you’re in my novel, because there is no novel.
I stood at the entrance of the cafe, out of the stream of their conversation, facing bags of high-scoring specialty coffee into a neat rows. Their pretty pastel letter-pressed labels looked back at me. I was thinking, Just wait until you see mine.
I’d watched a lot of Lady Gaga music videos and imagined I’d someday find myself emerging from a burning car in a cat suit, makeup running tastefully down my face—evidence that my persistence counted for something or that I’d arrived at the end-point of an era of strife. My body would look different, too—a new sleek form chiseled from the ordinary toad-self that I am, having eaten away all my excess flesh in the process of burning up all my doubts.
The novel, a burning car I want to emerge from.
When I sat at my wooden sawhorse desk trying to unspool the plot of the experimental epic, I got hot and sleepy and hungry. Felt a thickness in my throat, and a weak grip on all the ideas which seemed so clear when I’d jotted them down in the employee closet. The tiny notebook I kept in my backpack, making list after list.
How shameful, parading around all these ideas and never finishing them.
All the fireworks fading.
The album my brother was going to record. How amazing it was going to be.
The coffeeshop was going to be in my novel and so was its owner. He’s a small pale man with a baby face and a shock of black hair. He wears button-up shirts and Pendleton flannels, an elfish fellow with small hands who points out smudges on the luminous glass pastry display to his employees. When the baristas serve him espresso shots, he rolls the liquor around in his mouth, checking for papery bitterness or unpleasant sour acridity—quality control. All of the employees get heart palpitations in his hyper-discerning presence, but he imagines his aesthetic stringency to be in service of their interests: the better everything looks and tastes, the more money everyone can make.
This is true through the whole chain of production, from the African and Latin American farmers who grow the coffee to the baristas who prepare it (the cream of the Olympia service industry) up to the owner himself. They must be professionals at their job, each and every one.
It’s a beautiful cafe, with hand-felted wool hanging on the wall above the espresso machine—aestheticized sound-proofing—and the baristas gliding about the bar with gooseneck kettles behind this backdrop of wool and imported tiles. The minimalist art deco space gleams soft, white, and shiny.
The cafe would’ve made a great setting for a story about that enchanted little town and its inhabitants. Their daily trials and tribulations.
Pacific Northwest Gothic. A mythologized millennial Olympus redux.
The absurdity of relying upon aesthetic refinement as a solution to collective precarity: this is why the fancy coffeeshop belonged in the novel, but also why I couldn’t write the novel at all—there was no platform of sincerity to rest upon in that circular carousel of divine irony.
During my junior year in college, the ambition of writing a novella had been preternaturally reparative. My novella was about heartbroken nihilistic anarchists I knew and had been, and the sad aftermath of our FBI infiltration. Through writing about these bad memories I discovered my pessimism had a specific entry-point, an unattended puncture wound around which bruised beliefs had formed a webbing. Writing felt like a fairytale where I got to bring my own self to life. And as I felt myself lifting up off the ground from ordinary existence, I wanted to pull everyone and everything with me.
When I lost faith in the work I called my brother and he encouraged me. He was my number one collaborator.
While I was still gliding around in an unreasonable sense of possibility, my brother had a psychiatric breakdown in an airport in Warsaw. He had been talking with a freaky glassy distance about some kind of danger while a friend of his tried to guide him through the airport terminal. Jonah was spookily quiet, his friend nervously corralling him towards the plane.
Once they got to the gate Jonah refused to board. He grabbed a pen and tried to stab a stranger with this blunt object—a flying squirrel soaring towards some startled middle-aged man in a sweater.
(How did they get him to the ground? How did they get him to the antiquated psychiatric hospital that had heavy wooden doors unlocked by skeleton keys—in the back of a Polish police car? An ambulance?)
Jonah spent two weeks there amidst its trees and walking paths before being given a safe pass to leave. Our dad sent me a photo of Jonah the day he was discharged. He was sitting in a hotel bed in a green shirt, mouth open and eyes gazing away from the camera. He was so skinny that he looked like a slip of paper. A cut-out of a human being.
When I visited him in Minnesota a month later he was just as skinny. He’d gotten a job installing internet cables in Minneapolis residences. He woke up early and donned a reflective safety vest five days a week, climbed up on ladders and rode around with a crew in a utility van. Packed a PB&J in his pocket and drank french-vanilla flavored coffee from gas stations and walked around with his skinny hipster hiphop swagger. He wasn’t taking the psych meds prescribed to him and instead was saving up to move out of our parents’ house. It was August; I’d just finished my novella and taken a week off from my job at the Farmer’s Market to see after him.
By the tail end of my trip Jonah and I still hadn’t talked about going to the hospital or what had led up to that or how he might avoid going there again. We went to the Minnesota State Fair together, just us, and on our way to the bus I finally asked him about Poland. He looked at me sideways several times and lit a joint he pulled from his pocket. He shrugged, and said he’d wandered alone at night through the streets of Warsaw listening to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar on his headphones, thinking that he was the Angel of Death brought there to kill a nearly-dead woman who was on the trip with him.
“It was actually amazing,” he said, exhaling smoke.
“Oh,” I said. There was no string of regret to tug at.
We crossed through the gated entrance of the fair. The air was swampy with the dusty broad smell of deep fryers, and the pathways were loosely packed with strangers. A clump gathered around the KDWB radio station booth, which was blasting Ariana Grande’s “Problem” into the atmosphere and handing out free branded lanyards and other useless garbage giveaways.
Jonah stopped at food cart to buy a sundae and we made our way to the penny arcade, where I checked in with a mechanical fortune teller. It was a disembodied plaster head missing one eye, and it spit out a card predicting changes in the year ahead. Jonah and I made monster faces in the antique photo booth.
After we received our wet inky strip we wandered back into the fray, crossed between stalls and over dead grass, made a circuit and looped back over it again. We watched a plume of fake smoke dance around the haunted house. Watched taffy stretching like pastel petri dish muscles being born. Watched people drink milk and slide down a yellow chute in potato sacks.
An hour passed. Jonah bought fries and then tacos and cookies. “Aren’t you trying to save up money?” I said.
He shrugged, kept passing his little plastic card across the counter.
I felt my skin getting tan. The warmth in the air had a sense of consummation as opposed to the blossoming of a beginning. Tomorrow it would be September, which had the slippery S sound of sadness, of slinking away from the sun. Usually I felt like things were leaving me as soon as they began, but finally I was seizing summer. Like life was taking place exactly where I was.
As the sun was setting into a smolder I noticed the butterfly window—some exhibit about butterfly metamorphosis, a flutter of gentle movement—and pulled Jonah towards it. Under the glass were grimy white towels lined with dense rows of chrysalides. Some were hatching open slowly with delicate stability. The butterfly wings were like eyes blinking open, awakening, a film that separated before and after. Their wings were shiny velvet blue pages turning towards each other. And the bottom of the window was a graveyard lined with their papery husks, carcasses, and fluttering blue butterflies on their way to death.
In front of the window Jonah and I were nearly touching. He had his baseball cap backwards and I touched the brim of it and then his shoulder without thinking, holding the hem of his t-shirt like a leash. The warm roughness of his arm was as familiar as my own.
Witnessing metamorphosis up close felt crude in that context, a grotesque exploitation of the butterfly’s vulnerable biology. The display was also super dirty. It was unsettling to see life curated but so unkempt, but the deep indigo blue of their wings was transfixing, with each gnarled chrysalis hump holding the possibility of flight.
Jonah said, “This is pretty fucked up.”
A woman standing next to us, who was holding hands with a guy in basketball shorts said, “Yes it really is.”
Jonah asked if we could keep heading to the Creative Activities building, but it took me a moment to turn away from the sight of something awful and beautiful and heroic quietly unfolding.
The chatter of the fair disappeared into the concrete fortress of that building, whose halls were filled with home-baked breads, cookies, cakes, pies, jams, and jellies on backlit shelves. The jellies especially were like glowing jars of neon light. It was kind of like the butterfly window but less sickly. Like the cakes were large, mute biological beings whose living bodies were shaped from inert matter incapable of experiencing pain, adorned with frosting or arrangements of tiny candies as expressive as a face.
Jonah walked in front of me while I took it all in, gasping with pleasure. We’d gone into that building plenty as kids, but I’d never appreciated this much before. Because even baking bread was art. Even things we did for ourselves inside of our homes made the world. Outside that building, energy was cheap: my brother blowing his paycheck and throwing a grease-stained plate in the garbage, a losing game of minimum wage all around. But inside and under glass the handmade was precious and unquantified. A hall lined with glass shelves suggested a world made into an apothecary and pantry, as if the building was an alter to that possibility. That egalitarian arrangement was tenuous and unlikely, but at least art held the door open for it.
I pulled out my phone to take a picture of Jonah in front of the bundt cakes. I wanted to capture the quality of light and the promising way it felt to be alive. All day our conversations had been full of syncopated pauses, Jonah floating away into impenetrable distance (perhaps listening to a different conversation). But in front of the cakes, he put his hands in his pockets and smiled. His shirt was blue with the Kool Aid logo grinning underneath his own face, which was lit warm and yellow in the warm yellow building. I caught the outline of my own reflection in the glass that protected that library of cakes. Only the tiniest slices were removed from them, just enough to sample their quality without mangling them too much.
The first fall after I finished my novel (the first fall after Jonah had been hospitalized for two weeks after trying to stab a stranger with a pen in an airport) (the first fall that he was supposed to be taking antipsychotics but wasn’t), we had a phone conversation about our art. His voice sounded muffled and defeated.
He said, “I don’t have much to say. Someday I will know what to say in my heart. Someday I will have something to give.”
The words themselves suggested patient optimism, but they coiled at the base of my belly. I wanted to pounce back and steer him away from the dangerous murky territory where he was headed, a place of indefinite waiting.
Someday I will replace irony with sincere grief for the particular ways I’d imagined my fate to be conjoined with my brother’s and the particular ways that fate was severed.
On the first day my brother spent on the streets, I cut the very tip of my finger off. I’d been making kindling. I brought the hatchet down but didn’t get out of the way fast enough. Before the pain came I observed an opaque oval of skin on the hatchet, slightly convex like the end piece of a bread load. On my living finger, a watery white line framed a headless horseman, this pink moist sheen of strawberry jelly.
Perfect, I thought, and wrote this down in third person: another scene for my novel about a real life metaphor, this throbbing reminder of the sensations in my appendages, the parts of me I take for granted. But it wasn’t a metaphor, it was actually just my body.*
“…this physical thing that we are that can no more enter into the sphere of language as enter into the space created by a mirror.” (Robert Glück)
While I worked a closing shift alone in the shiny beautiful cafe, making Americanos and pour-overs for the evening customers and calculating the dollar bills in the tip jar, back in the employee closet my phone dinged with voicemails. They were from the social worker at the hospital and from my parents. They’re calling about my brother, who has been on the street for a little more than a month now. My parents are wondering if I might be able to talk some sense into him because he will soon, once again, be denied a bed in the psych unit. It’s an emergent pattern, presenting himself to the ER at night to no avail but refusing to seek help during the day. He doesn’t want a treatment plan or the paternalism of the shelter, but the only solution my parents can imagine would be for him to swallow his pride and accept social support services when he’s not in the crisis of night-time.
The hospital social worker is wondering if there’s anything I know about my brother’s circumstance which my parents don’t. My brother had told her he’s not sick, just needs a place to sleep, which is part of why the hospital will turn him away. (Also, there are no beds.)
That night, the social worker told me, his face is swollen and bruised, and it seems his backpack has gone missing. He denied any foul play.
Before he was homeless, his paranoid delusions were reason enough for hospital admission. Now, he’s beginning to look truly shredded and dirty, which is maybe another reason why he doesn’t get a bed: a hospital is not a homeless shelter.
Thwarted at this attempted indoor rest, my brother will continue pretending that he doesn’t need anywhere to sleep.
It was December. After hanging up with the social worker I biked home in the dark past the glowing blinking lights strung on the pretty houses of Capitol way. I imagined writing something sparkly about an awful situation, about this seasonal pageantry of generosity, dressing up the world as a home for everyone during its darkest coldest weeks. Wondering if this kindness is more of a mask over its cruelty or proof that we do in fact bend the world with our minds, that we might dazzle the ordinary world with green red blue and purple illumination and little bursts of warmth. Wondering if life is a movie about a better world we could unfurl if only we tap into the soft hazy glow of the inspiration place (its fictionalization).
A hospital where he gets a soft fluffy bathrobe to wear and a courtyard to wander in. Where no one makes him talk when he’s not ready to talk, and these conversations are more than diagnostic devices. Where nurses aren’t overworked and overwhelmed and worn down by the irrationality of their patients. Where it’s possible to treat delusions without entirely discounting their content. Without the oppressive imposition of reality. A hospital which he’d prefer to the street and his fantasies of independent living.
Two years into my brother’s homelessness I quit my job at the coffeeshop and spent three weeks in a small town in Minnesota. I was there through an artist residency program. The apartment where I stayed was in the reconstructed nurse’s dormitory, in what was once the largest state mental hospital in Minnesota. I could see the walls of that vacant institutional behemoth from the windows of my apartment.
The hospital—the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center—had opened its doors in 1890, and its final shred officially shuttered in 2005, after decades of reduced service. The hospital’s architecture was modeled after that of physician Thomas Kirkbride’s, who believed the structure of an asylum was crucial for a patient’s recovery. Its bat-wing shape was designed to maximize the sunlight that streamed into the bedroom windows. The construction of the hospital was linked to the first iteration of the “humane asylum” movement, a cause which later justified the closure of these kinds of institutions. In its last standing operation, the hospital was preserved as an addiction treatment center. Then even that went away, replaced with outpatient halfway houses, the kinds of semi-supervised living arrangements that Jonah was avoiding. (He avoided any supervision.)
The treatment methods utilized at the Regional Treatment Center shifted with the eras and their oscillating ideologies about what caused mental illness and how to control its symptoms. Naomi, the director of the artist residency program, had grown up in Fergus Falls and gave me a tour of the hospital grounds upon my arrival. As we circled around in her car, Naomi pointed to the turret where lobotomies briefly had been performed, but also to the recreational facility where, as a child in a youth program, she did arts and crafts with psychiatric hospital residents. She described her friendship with one woman whose fingers were perpetually stained orange with Cheeto dust. There was a salon where residents could get their hair done. Naomi pointed to the outdoor band-stand where residents performed shows. Pointed out the cigarette lighters built into the walls of the screened-in porches where patients could sit outside and smoke.
The residency program was rooted in questions about connection and transition, including What can be done with unused space? There was a wholesome, tactile utility in that question. It seemed terribly un-abstract, especially with my self-imposed flustering attempt to capture all the leitmotifs and coincidences of my real life with the fictional vantage of someone who actually understood what they meant.
Scenes I couldn’t possibly have dreamed up, as if the novel was writing me. How I got on the #74 bus and there he was, smiling at me from the middle row through all his vines.
I had taken a few days in Saint Paul before my scheduled arrival in Fergus Falls. I’d tried to get in touch with Jonah, but he didn’t have a phone or live anywhere, so he was impossible to get a hold of. But one of those Saint Paul mornings I got on the city bus and there he was. It took a moment for my eyes to register his face through the dark blur of his hair. Relief and aversion jumbled together as I took the seat next to him—relief that he was alive, aversion to seeing him like this. A cloud of skunky weed and sour milk wafted off of him. His toes were sticking out of a pair of old Pumas so I could tell he wasn’t wearing any socks. His feet looked red and raw. There were little skin flaps around his eyes that looked like oil droplets.
Between Hamline and Highland Parkway we told each other how good it was to be together. Then he got quiet and looked straight ahead, staring at the seat in front of him. When we got off the bus together I privately squirmed and panicked, fishing around for the right thing to say that would coax him back into conversation.
After he bought cigarettes at the gas station with his SSI card we waited for the next bus west. I rested my hand on his upper back for a moment, as if this non-verbal reminder of how magnificently and tenderly he was loved would cure him. He said nothing.
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked.
He said, “Nah.”
So I followed him like his silent shadow to Minneapolis. We crossed the Mississippi river in silence.
As the bus cut through the first neighborhood along the river Jonah looked up at me and said, “Your aura is toxic.”
I shook my head and told him no, it wasn’t.
He said, “Yes it is,” laughing and shaking his head. “Yup.”
When I got off at the 46th Street Station and said goodbye he didn’t look at me or open his mouth to speak—just kept his head resting against the window. I stood on the platform and watched his stoic face and messy hair disappear along with the vehicle that held him. I felt like he’d punched me and now I was swelling with my intrusive, impossible concern for him. I thought about premonitions and coincidences, and whether this serendipity was a sign that I’d never see him again.
On the bus back from this surprise field trip with Jonah I pulled out my little notebook and wrote about wanting to see him scrubbed as clean as an apricot, to see his clean brightness now hidden under all that batting. His eyes had felt like fish-hooks burrowing into me. I resentfully willed his care-taking back to the state. Let them have him, I wrote, still stinging from his cosmic burn.
This elliptical encounter with Jonah on public transportation trailed me to Fergus Falls like a hangover, so when I walked through the cream-colored hospital grounds on my own time I imagined each shadowy window as a theoretical bedroom for my sibling.
Contrary to my expectations, the defunct hospital felt less like a haunted house and more like the site of a subtraction. I stared through the dusty windows of the vacant building, its empty rooms cut off by shadow and wall, floors mosaic’d with tiny off-white tiles that looked like teeth. I felt accompanied by the disappeared, as if ghosts were smoking cigarettes behind me, mingling in the worn gazebos whose doors dangled like dead insect wings.
130 years earlier these patients were fed milk from cows raised in adjacent fields. Quarts of it were given warm to quell agitation. The hospital administration believed in the power of bedrest; morbid mental excitation, febrile excitement, nervous exhaustion, and acute delirious mania were among their diagnostic categories, and were could be redressed to peace, tranquility, and a wholesome diet. The head doctor was a homeopath, and as was modern then, a healthy lifestyle was expected to clear up psychic distress. Occupational therapy was especially important, so the wards of the state were put to work. They raised prunes, apples, twenty vegetable varieties, hogs, dairy and beef cows, horses, and chickens, a mimeographed manuscript in the Ottertail County Historical Society told me. Later, Rights and wages were the main reasons for the farm’s closure. Unpaid patients couldn’t legally work for their food.
Towards the end of my stay in Fergus Falls, I wandered the hospital’s perimeter and pictured the living things that no longer grew there, like fruit trees and vegetable patches. In that expanse of dry grass the whole world seemed like an hourglass waiting to get filled up again. The hospital looked like an empty castle, its cream-colored turrets flanked by oak trees with leafless lacy branches.
I conjured up my own pastoral fantasy in that patch of stolen almost-prairie, imagining that my mornings are occupied with chores on a collective vegetable farm, pulling carrots out of the ground with strong dirt-caked fingers and squatting in the rows of chard. Horticulture keeps my body moving through physical space, and this keeps my mind from exhausting my body. Time moves quickly in the company of my comrades as we shout stories at each other over the rows of lusty, muscular vegetables. We lunch on stews made with tubers and strange greens and fresh herbs. We are old and young, and we hold important meetings where we cooperatively, gently explore decolonizing practices to apply to our agricultural work, acknowledging the intractable ethical contradictions of land cultivation in this context.
The whimsical levity of idealistic homesteading seemed absurdly remote against the backdrop of the hospital’s unused architecture. Still, it made me feel less far away from my brother to imagine that whatever was wrong with him was also what was wrong with me, which was that we lived in a world where something was missing. I squeezed my hands in my pockets and braced against the cold spring wind whipping against my jacket. The dream I’d been moving towards so urgently and anxiously—this symbolic literary project which was itself a privilege to undertake—was shaped by the same reality that made my brother’s situation so dire. My aspirations were the landscape of my brother’s fall, a land where it is necessary to protect ourselves through supernatural talent and good luck because we are not otherwise guaranteed to survive.
It didn’t necessarily have to take the cult-like form of my pastoral fantasy, but would it ever be possible for him to find a home in the work of living as something therapeutic, communal, and safe in its forgiving, non-competitive reciprocity? To be un-exiled by his uncompromising difficulty? To be saved even without outsmarting his circumstance?
As I walked the edges of the hospital what I’d wanted to say, but what seemed too obvious or simple to write about, was that this question matters not only to those who depend upon care the most but also to those of us who are better able to entertain the notion that we can do without it, and can instead win our safety by merit.
Siloh Radovsky currently lives in San Diego, where she is a student in the MFA program at the University of California. She writes mostly personal essays. You can find her work in [PANK], Alchemy, Teen Vogue, Inkwell, Sundae Theory, and this magazine.