Welcom to the Hotel Illness

Cagey  Part I

09/14/02  7:52 PM

I watched my brother building a house of cards through the sticky sweet smoke.  He sat cross-legged on the bed directly across from mine, his left forearm resting on his thigh, and a ceramic one-hitter shaped like a budding lotus cradled in his palm.  In his right, he gripped a disposable lighter with his ring and pinkie fingers, and the queen of spades between the thumb and middle.  His apron lay folded beside him on the bed, its shiny red and white embroidered logo of Mama’s Truck Stop looked strangely three dimensional against the greasy black cotton apron.  Brett’s B.A. in philosophy qualified him for a number of things, among them apparently, was a job as a nightshift dishwasher at Mama’s. 

Music posters covered the walls of our room.  All the staples were accounted for:  The Wall, a Led Zep Swan Song, Are You Experienced?, The Bends.  What was saturating the room, though, was something from one of Brett’s classical compilations.  Anymore, he only listened to classical stuff while he was high, or getting high, or thinking about getting high, which is to say, he rarely listened to anything else. 

“Think about one person you know,” Brett said, leaning two cards against each other.  “Maybe you don’t know them anymore, but someone you knew once.”  He paused to re-pack and fire up the pipe.  “Think about a perso. . .” his voice erupted into coughing.  I watched the house of cards tremble on his bed, and he took a sip from a Styrofoam cup.  His blued eyes fixed on mine. 

“Think about everything you know about that person - every single little detail.”  He placed another card on the tower.  “Now, think about where you’d be without them.  How would you be different if you had never met them?”  He tapped the ceramic lotus on the ashtray and the tower shuddered again.  “Think about that the next time you meet someone.”

“I gotta go to school.”



“Don’t look at the sky when you go outside.”

I rolled my eyes and picked up my backpack.  Outside, of course, I immediately looked up and watched some cirrus drift across the late May sky.  Bastard

Thinking back, I realize that probably wasn’t the most     normal way to start the day, but then again when you’re a junior in high school nothing is really normal.  It was a habit, or rather, a ritual we followed.  Every morning while getting dressed I’d hear the back door slam.  Every morning I would put on my shoes while Brett espoused some bit of inconclusive wisdom over the strains of Rachmaninoff or Vivaldi.   

At first, my friends thought he was cool.  He was 26, had a motorcycle, and was perpetually high.  That alone should have put him up there right next to Jim Morrison.  The problem with Brett was, you couldn’t just buy a dime and leave.  You had to smoke some with him.  You had to talk to him.  No.  You had to listen to him.  Brett didn’t make much selling unless there was a drought, and then they would stop by, one by one, nervously smoking and trying to remember their prefabricated excuse for leaving.

“Dude, your brother is fucking weird.”

“He must have had some bad shit up there at Kent.”

I tried to laugh Brett off as some kind of a joke, and dismiss all the stuff he told me in that raspy voice.  It was only his voice, after all, that got to you.  Not just the mellow rasp, but the way he exhaled all those incoherencies as simply as if he were stating the price of milk.  You tried to forget, but it always came back though.  In the middle of trying to solve some stupid quadratic equation on the chalkboard, or giving a report on The Battle of Wounded Knee, I’d begin to hear his voice.  Sometimes I could hurry through whatever I was doing, other times, the battle in my head would be too overwhelming.  My thoughts tumbled over his.  The sweat would trickle down the inside of my arms.  My chest constricted, refusing to hold air until I could stagger to the hallway and put my head between my knees.  Panic attacks.  That’s what the counselor called them.  I was just going through the “Spotlight Stage.”  Teenagers think the entire world is watching them, and I was just getting overwhelmed with it.  I just needed to practice speaking in front of people, that’s all.