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The Imbecile and the Penitent


Ivan Whitte

Imbecile: 1. a mentally deficient person; a feebleminded person having a mental age of three to seven years and requiring supervision in the performance of routine daily tasks of caring for himself. 2. a fool or an idiot.

Penitent: 1. feeling or expressing humble and regretful pain or sorrow for sins or offenses. 2. a person who repents of sin. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

When my wife asks me why I do the things I do for my brother, I am reminded of the question that was asked of George in Of Mice and Men. "Why does one man take on so much trouble for another?" George did it for Lenny because he was his friend and he felt obligated. I take care of my brother because he's my brother and maybe I feel obligated, because I was so mercilessly cruel to him when we were growing up. Thus I am his keeper.

Still, there is truth in my wife's comment that everyone has been thinking for my brother for so long that he has never had to do it for himself. He can simply rely on others to pick up the mess for him. And without doubt, someone has been there to try, pull strings for him or fix the problem.

Take this last episode.

He was on leave from his base in Louisiana. Joining the army wasn't his idea; completely anyway, and it took a lot of help from a lot of other people to get him in. However that is all a story for another time. He got his leave in mid-July and decided to bring his expecting bride home to Michigan. But trouble always seems to follow my brother at a heel's distance; and he decided to have a friend drive him to the airport on the first day of his journey. Well, they took a left turn instead of a right one and instead of arriving at the airport in Shreveport; they ended up in Lap Land. That's where Louisiana laps over into Texas. Now there's old myths about the mosquitoes in east Texas and how a score of the small dog sized insects can carry off a man. But I wonder if it was 10 score of bugs or the complete lack of thought, or proper planning, or even common sense that delivered my brother, his wife and friend to the suburbs of Houston. But by fate or fault, he was late, missed his flight and had to wait for the next one.

The airline business is a racket. Not only do they (they being the airlines, not the grander conspirators so often remarked upon), fix the prices, cram you in like sardines, and make horrendous mistakes, but also they dare wonder why air rage is a growing concern. So my brother got another flight out of Louisiana and it landed him in Memphis. With a lot of hustle and huff, the airline decides to try and get my brother on the first plane to Detroit. In theory, a brilliant idea; so they grab his bags and shuffle him and his wife towards the gate. And as you probably could guess, the plane is over booked and there is no room. But his bags are safely on a flight to Detroit ahead of him. Or so we'd hope.

Several hours later, a red eye out of the Volunteer State delivers my brother into the arms of my mother; a woman we all lovingly refer to as the Hurricane. I'm proud of my mom. I love my mom. But she is a storm in wait and generally has little patience for stupid mistakes. When something stupid occurs, the hurricane comes ashore and even for those who have decided to stay and weather the rain, the wind can be ferocious. The one exception I noticed while I was growing up has however been that of my brother. With the problems that my brother experienced growing up, the protective instincts of my mother went into overdrive and she did what she could to shield him from the harsh realities of the world.

She got him special tutors, sent him (and then my sister and myself, I think in part to make him feel better) to a parochial school and then scheduled countless meetings with the mentioned above as well as school counselors, administrators, coaches, and anyone who had contact with my brother so that she could plead his case. She's a good mother, despite what anyone would say. But around the time my brother turned twenty the shine wore off and my mother decided it was time to kick that little bird out of the nest and then began a torrid venture of others taking care of him. It was a bad-bad scene and not a story I care to relate at this time. Instead, I got a phone call from my brother on a Monday morning, around 7 am, while my wife and I were getting ready for work.

"Hey, what are you doing?" It was seven a.m. I thought: What do you think I was doing? Instead I answered:

"Nothing, what are you doing?"

"Nothing, say listen, my bags are lost and I need them; could you go to Metro and get my bags?"

"Bullshit, dude, you tell them that they lost your bags and you want them delivered."

"No, I can't. See, I missed my plane and the airline said that because it was my fault, they wouldn't deliver them at their expense."

"Yea," I began with a long sigh and a roll of my eyes at my wife who was standing by tapping her foot, and wondering why my brother would dare call at a time when the kids would be as cranky as possible at being woke up too early, "okay, what do they look like?"

"There are two bags. Both are black and both have the US Army symbol on the sides. One's a garment like bag and the other is just a bag. You can't miss them."

"Okay, but I need some claim numbers, what does your claim ticket say?."

"I don't have a claim ticket."


"They took it from me when I was in Memphis."

"Why? You know, it's not important. You need to call the airline and get some numbers and then tell them that I will be picking up the bags."

"Okay." "What's in the bags?"

"All of our clothes."

"And, by chance did you remember to put an extra set of clothes in your carry on?"


"So you have no clothes or anything with you, other than the ones you have on your back?"

"Yeah." So I explain to my wife that I would need to go and get my brother's bags, because I'm closer to the airport and because he has no clothes. To which she asks: "Why the hell (he) and his wife can't do it?", and "it's his own damn fault and who the hell doesn't pack an extra set of clothes in their carry on?" A good question and several good points, I guess. Then she makes the best point about my brother to date. "Sand, those two are going to bring a child into the world. Doesn't that bother you?" Yea it does. It bothers me a lot, because I have this horrid fantasy about my brother and his wife leaving the child somewhere without a return address and forgetting about it. But I take trouble on for him because he's my brother.

(And because I feel guilty about the times I made fun of his dimwittedness and used my size and strength to pummel him. See, I think it is safe to say I was the worst older brother a little brother could have. I have several stories but just a taste can be summed up into the size of a class ring. For my sophomore year in high school I received a class ring for Christmas. It had a raised golden crest on its top and I would spin it around on my finger so that the crest was palm down and then I would plunk my hand down on my brother's head whenever he said something stupid or whenever I felt like it. I was cruel and even though I think he's either forgiven me or forgotten it, I seem to remember more and more all the time.)

Hours pass. Then I get a call at work. "Hey, I'm looking in the phone book for a number for the airline and I can' t find one." And that is all I hear on the telephone. Now this may not seem so strange to you; surely you would think the phone book would have the listing for the airlines. But you'd be missing a valuable bit of information if I didn't tell you that the phone book my brother was using was for the area where my folks lived. That area is about three hours away from where the airport is. Get the picture? I sigh deeply and begin to rub my temples. "Dial 1-313-555-1212. That will give you information. Then ask the lady that answers the phone for the number for the airline's baggage retrieval area."

"Oh, okay, I call you right back." I couldn't help emailing my wife at work and explaining that I had to explain to my twenty-two year old brother how to call information and how the local phone book for northern backwoods Michigan wouldn't have the city listings. She didn't find too much humor in the affair. A lot like the Hurricane, my wife doesn't tolerate stupidity or the lack of general common sense. In fact, she's pretty rough on me as well. What seem like 3 years passed and he calls back. "Okay, they say that the bags would be there tonight by 9:30 p.m."

"Yea, well I'm not spending all of my night in Detroit, so if they are there, I'll have to wait to go get them on Tuesday."

"Okay, no problem."

"But wait now. What about me picking them up? I don't have any numbers or any of that!"

"They said as long as you have the same last name as me, you can get them without the tag." I thought about this for a long-long time and then said: "fine" and "goodbye", as I hung up the phone. So I had another brief conversation with him on Tuesday, and he had no other information for me except that the bags were black, had US Army on them and if I wouldn't mind picking them up for him and taking them to our uncle's in Flint, he'd appreciate it. It's about an hour and a half from Lansing to Metro. And after a long day at work I jumped in my truck and made the drive for my brother. I arrived at the monstrosity that is Metro shortly before seven and went directly to the baggage claim area. I gave the obligatory short spiel about who I was, why my brother failed to have claim tickets or put his name on his baggage and what I needed from the airline. To which, a cold, abrasive white lady with gargantuan bifocals and a nervous little mouth, looked at me and said: "Good luck." There were mountains and mountains of unclaimed bags. I began to sift through the luggage, looking for the eagle that marks the United State Army. I looked for tags on the giant black bags. I looked for my brother's name on anything. But all I found was a hard-time. I was beginning to loose my patience. So, I called my folks place. My father was there I had obviously brought him out of a dead sleep. "I don't know, call back in five minutes. I'll go get your mom."

"Mom, I'm a metro and I don't know what to do. Where is he?"

"He went to the movies. Call back in 10 minutes and I'll see if I can find out where he is and if I can get in touch with him."

So while I waited I went back to the unclaimed luggage area and began to look for his bag. I tried to entreat any of the baggage ladies into telling me about their organization system and where they might have set a bag that had come in late Sunday night or early Monday morning, but as you might know, they don't organize them that way. The bags I mean; the airline doesn't organize the bags in such a way. The airline, however, does an outstanding job of designing help that is as surely and churlish as possible. But finally, a fantastic exception named Sybil who had dark skin and a pleasant disposition decided to help when all of the cold, uncaring, abrasive and uncouth customer service representatives had decided that I was a thief, an idiot or a terrorist. "Oh, here is black bag with an Army insignia on the side. Do you think it could be your brother's?" Well there was an airline tag, but no nametag and the only thing in that black bag with the gold Army insignia on it was four pair of the gaudiest, ugliest and most unsightly shoes I had ever had the misfortunate of seeing. But they looked like the hideous style of items that my brother favored. I then tried to comb the rest of the bags, looking for any sort of garment bag that had an ensign, a nametag or some distinguishing feature that would say that it belonged to my brother.

"Mom, all I could find was this one bag and I don't know if it is his or not."

"He should be here in about 5 minutes, I don't know what he had in the bag other then it was all of his clothes."

"Mom, who the hell doesn't put their name on their luggage when they travel?"

"I don't know! I just don't know." My mom goes softly silent for a long second and a half, so I make sure to continue my barrage.

"You know mom, he's being a fucking dumb-ass again. I'm sorry for saying the f-word again, but he is."

"I know. All he does is whine and want up here. He won't do anything. And her…ha! forget about it. I've had it up to the gills with him and her! Son, Neither one of them moves!"

My brother's wife. At the time of this writing, I have yet to meet my brother wife. It was a shotgun wedding and I didn't have the time or the money to get to Louisiana to see the wedding. But from what I gather, she is from that witless, classless and ambitionless section of society that is referred to in the slang "white-trash". You know the soft speaking, slow-southern, trailer-park living, flea infested, country music listening, welfare cheating, WWF watching, Jerry Springer participating, wife swapping, motorcycle ridding, drag-car racing, moonshine running, tobacco spitting, big haired, toothless, tactless-shoeless-red-necked-hillbilly-baby-making-machines. And this from my mother who it is fair to say is one generation removed from the northern cousins of those southerner-folks. And I say all of this with a bit of care, because my father's father was from Georgia, my best friend is a Texan and me, well I like professional wrestling, southern fried chicken and lazy Sundays as much as they do in Memphis. But apparently there is a drastic, glaring and devastating difference. I also gather that my brother's wife is a lazy child that does not do anything except eat Doritos. Of course, another topic is why my brother continuously dated girls like this and then finally married one of them. My brother is actually a good-looking kid, with a muscular build and soft eyes, but he has always and I mean always-dated skinny girls with dirty blonde hair. And now one will be the mother to my first niece of nephew. I guess I should reserve my judgment until I meet the girl. But my mother, the Hurricane, has always said trust your gut. So, I'm silent as I reserve the right to change my mind or opinion at a later date.

"Here he comes in the yard now. Oh my god, he just ran over his own basketball. I can't believe he just did that." Quintessential behavior for my brother.

I hear in the background. "It's your brother; now he can yell at you."

"Hello?" "Dude, lets' start with what I've got. I'm looking in a bag with the army ensign on the side and it has about four pairs of shoes in them."

"Okay, there should be a pair of boots in there on top that has a scuff mark on the toe."

"What? I don't see any scuffed boots, I do see a pair of gaudy red Air-Jordan's." The long pause and then;

"Well then that's not mine. You say it has the Army ensign on it?"

"Yea, that's what I'm saying. I just went through someone else's stuff. Why didn't you put your name on the bags?"

"The bags should be a large duffle bag, like the hockey bag I got for Christmas a few years back and a garment bag."

"Well I'm telling you that with out a claim ticket or a name on the bag the people here can't help me and I just drove two hours for nothing."

"Well, what do you think I should do?" He asked me with a bit anger bubbling in his own voice.

"I'll tell you what you are going to do. You are going to call the airlines right now while I'm standing here. You are going to ask for Sybil and you're going to find out where your damn bags are. Because if they are in Detroit, I'm not leaving without them."

"Okay. I've got the number right here in front of me; I'll call right now."

"You do that." I then slammed the phone down and began to wait again.

I chucked the old army bag back where I found it and waited, and waited and waited. Sybil walked past me about three times and never gave me any indication that she knew she was to be helping me to find my brother's bags. So I tried to call my folks house again and again and again, but kept coming up with a busy signal. So I called my wife. I told her my situation as she rounded up our kids to send them off to bed.

"So let me get this straight, your brother is at the movies while you look for his shit--shit that has no name tag on it or any other bit of identification other then an Army ensign?"


"See that's exactly my point. He will never learn anything if you or everyone else is there to fix it. He didn't have to worry about his bags because you would worry for him. This is the story over and over again. When your parents got mad at him, you took him in. When you got mad at him, your parents took him back. When he got sick everyone ran to help him. He can't take care of himself. How the hell is he going to take care of child?"

"Yup. I told my mom what you said about them bringing a child into the world and she agrees. I also told my mom that he had better never leave the Army so that someone will always take care of him."

"You've got that straight." Was all she could answer as she told the kids to "hold still" so she could brush their hair. I waited around another fifteen minutes and tried my folk's house again. The Hurricane answered the phone. "He tried to call and couldn't get through. I was standing right here while he tried. But he said that he'll go to Detroit tomorrow, get his own bags and then swing by to pay you for your gas. Thanks for all you've done. C'ya." I could tell that she was beyond upset, so I gave her a C'ya too and walked out of the airport.

I suspect that there is bliss in being ignorant. But I know that I know too much. Hemingway indicated that intelligent people were among the unhappiest of people in the world. So I wonder if that means that the idiots, dolts and morons are among the happiest. Because while I write this and I feel bad about shooting my brother with a BB-gun in the ass when we were kids or the time I beat his nose so bloody that he couldn't walk straight; but I am also worrying about getting my brother's things. Meanwhile he's out running the roads, watching movies and having a gay old time. Perhaps neither of us will ever learn.

I called my brother when I got home to Lansing and told him that he'd better make sure that his luggage was indeed in Detroit and not in Memphis, or Shreveport for that matter. I also told him that it was time for him to grow up and stop being such a duffus. He should have foreseen all of these problems and planned for them. But apparently he wasn't ready to take responsibility for himself as he started in about the airline. And he didn't call ahead. Turned out one piece of his luggage was in Memphis and the other could not be found. Of course he didn't learn that until he had come all the way to Detroit. He then called me and told me that the airline was going to send the bags, when found, to the airport in Lansing. To which, I explained to him that I couldn't run right out and get the bags because I had to watch the kids that evening. He scoffed and sounded inconvenienced. I shrugged. There is nothing else that could be done. I don't know.

My mother and father are worried that they went wrong somewhere and I have a terrible guilt-complex about the way I treated my brother when we were kids. But I'm left here wondering and worrying about my brother and his kid. The world is a tough place. People fall through the cracks and terrible things happen. The only real defenses that anyone has is common sense, rationality and luck. My brother doesn't appear to have any of those traits. The problem is that this is bigger than not putting one's name on your luggage when you travel, or having someone else run errands. This is the way one lives their lives, because it's not just single isolated incidences, but a continuing chain of tragedy that has yet to be broken. So my wife is absolutely right about my brother needing to take charge and essentially break the chain himself. Yet still I don't know. It is said that God looks out for children, drunks and idiots. I guess in this case I just hope that God continues to look out for my brother and his kid; even if it's through my eyes. Perhaps that's how he is able, to live like he does and it is my penitence for raising being so terrible to him when we were younger.

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