Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chasing the wild turkey

November 26, 1981

My uncle Frank was with me tonight as we looked for his brother along Route 37 in Toms River.
Ritchie was on the loose again, only this time roaming around barefoot and in short sleeves on a day when the temperature fell below freezing.
We shiver even in the car wearing down jackets.
I kept wondering how Ritchie felt.
Or did madness provide its own unique protection, insolating him against the elements after it robbed him of everything else?
“I used to hate going home for the holidays,” Frank said as he drove, twisting the steering wheel to avoid things we could only vaguely see through the misting glass, both of us trying to clear the windshield with our gloves. “There was always something going on. Fights and other shit.”
We both recognized how much the family had deteriorated over the last few years, brothers and sister scattered across the state and even beyond, as if they could not put enough distance between each other for comfort.
This wasn’t new, but none recognized the signs until after I was born and my mother went mad – a family illness that tends to come out in the weakest link, reflecting a struggle for power among the strongest, held in place by a most powerful grandfather – and later by his loving daughter, my mother’s sister. When passed away, so did the family for all intents and purposes – revealed most evidently in the family’s next weak link Ritchie.
This was his fourth attempt since my bringing him down from Passaic to Toms River for Thanksgiving.
I could not trust to leave him alone up north, and he resented my dragging him to meet a family he had no use for any more than they had for him.
Each member of the family had taken turns taking him in, mostly for a week or two. Frank gave up when Ritchie decided to sleep in the cab of his carpentry truck rather than on Frank’s fold out bed, drawing scorn from neighbors who complained about the drinking and the stench. Ted already had my mother and my grandmother to take care of did not need one more of the old family to interfere with the raising of his own family.
He didn’t mind us visiting, but could not handle a mentally ill drunk.
So Ritchie got dumped on me, with the suggestion that I might commit my wayward uncle into one of the less than fine institutions such as Greystone or Bergen Pines, or the terrifying Willowbrook on Staten Island.
They had asked me to do the same thing for my mother, saying that I was so poor that the state could not expect me to pay when each of the other family members had a house or savings the state might tap.
Having my mother in such a place for most my childhood, and her pleading for me to get her out, I could never sign anyone into one of those places – even Ritchie, who I had hated most of my life.
Ritchie terrorized me during those early years when I was still impressionable and my mother in the hospital. I would be sitting on the floor watching television or reading a book and he would come into the house in a drunken stupor and lecture me about everything I was doing wrong in my life. Later, when I started to get in trouble with the law, and got dragged home in the back of a police car, my punishment was to work for him – something each of his younger brothers also suffered until they grew big enough to tell him to fuck off.
I never got big enough and so I avoided him, hiding out in my room, or finding places out of the house to hide – and eventually, I fled the house entirely partly to get away from him.
So it is one of life’s ironies that I should get stuck taking care of him when he got too unstable to take care of himself.
Ritchie may be crazy, but he’s also crafty, playing an assortment of head games – whether to mess with me or get sympathy, I can’t tell
He used to limp around my cold water flat complaining that his leg hurt until I noticed it was never the same leg he complained about, and he stopped.
We found Ritchie finally stumbling towards the on ramp to the Parkway and put him in the back seat of Frank’s car for the drive back to Ted’s place for lack of any place else that would take him. We called the hospital down here and they said they didn’t have room. The police had stopped him on the side of the highway earlier – but did not pick him up even though he was clearly under dressed for the weather.
Ted and his family left for north to see his in-laws, leaving me to lock Ritchie in the spare room downstairs.
But I have to stand guard until it is time to drive back up north for fear that he will again climb out the window and take to the highway barefoot.
Happy Thanksgiving. I keep wondering which one of us is the turkey.

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