My Brother, My Self

Katie Prout tries to untangle the story of her brother’s complicated, life-long battle with alcoholism against the backdrop of her family’s history of addiction.

Katie Prout | Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,270 words)

Every addict is a lawyer and my brother is no exception. On the first winter day that feels like spring, the boys next-door get too rowdy. Beer cans fall to the ground under a faint February sun. Frat boys slur-shout along to Drake and make my thin walls quake. I huff and puff, and I consider putting on my boots and crunching over through the melting snow to tell my neighbors I have a sick kid (“Will you please turn it down?”), but instead I pull my bathrobe tighter and text Hank. I feel like you know about noise complaints, I write.

Huh? he texts back.

I know it’s only 5:30 and a Saturday, but I’m trying to work on my thesis, I have a deadline, the undergrads next door are having a party. I’m about to cut their wires.

It’s not too early to call in a noise complaint, he writes. It just depends on how loud.

I thank Hank and call in my noise complaint, and as the sun goes down I screenshot our text exchange and go back to writing, as I always do, about him.

Every addict is a pharmacist and my brother is no exception. In June, our mother asks for Hank’s take on a new pain medication before allowing our youngest brother, struck by spina bifida in the womb, to be put on it. I am less inclined to take his advice when it comes to my own medication: “Xanax is as bad as a drink,” he says, and perhaps for him, that’s true. Like my mother, I go to Hank for his take on medicine in general, on how various pills may or may not interact with one another, even if I don’t always follow what he says. As an addict, he’s come to know the law, from its loopholes to its nooses, as intimately as he knows how ADHD meds mix with benzos, or how much vodka can steady withdrawal shakes until he can figure out his insurance for the hospital.

Every alcoholic is an addict, but not every alcoholic is taken seriously as such. I think about this every time I refer to Hank as an addict in conversation with others or on the page by myself: I think about this a lot. “Addict,” I say, and the faces of the people I’m speaking to grow still in sympathy; “alcoholic,” I say, and their faces are blank. The word alcoholic doesn’t mean much to them, or maybe it’s that the word alcoholic could mean anything. “I’m basically an alcoholic,” a man said to me once over drinks, laughing, and then frowning when I didn’t laugh too, when I stood up from my barstool and asked him if he was OK. It’s a joke, he said, you should joke more. But words matter to me, and that one matters in particular.

***

My brother is an addict, by which I mean he is an alcoholic, and I’m a collector of his words, by which I mean I am his sister who writes about him and is afraid he is dying as I do so. Sometimes months pass with no contact between us, as they have since we began to diverge from the tree trunk of childhood into our own lives and minds; since he turned 12, I could say, which is when Hank began to drink. But sometimes in those months, late-night texts show up on my phone. Whenever I receive them, I use Hank’s messages and texts to try and see into the future, as though whatever words he hurls my way — seldom, then sudden; abbreviated, elongated, tender, cruel — are his just-bitten fingernails or tufts of the light brown hair he had me clip for him in our parents’ bathroom in Howell, Michigan, the last time I came home. It was May, the month of his birth, a few days before he turned 29. The buzzer went, the dogs barked, and the chickens scrapped in the backyard as my fingers held metal to his neck. He couldn’t ask one of our brothers to do it, Hank said, because that would be “gay.” “Just make sure it’s even and shit, not too high, I don’t want to look like I need a lobotomy.” Like fingernails, like hair, Hank’s prickly words are of and from his body, evidence that he lives. I didn’t keep the tufts, but when I left him to deal with his hairy dustings, I did write down his words in my notebook, with the date.

My brother is an addict, by which I mean he is an alcoholic, and I’m a collector of his words, by which I mean I am his sister who writes about him and is afraid he is dying as I do so.

I’m a collector of his words, which is to say that I’m a writer, and on the day I call in that noise complaint and cement my identity as terrible neighbor, I’m in the dead middle of my thesis year at MFA school and I’m writing, or trying to write, about Hank and his alcoholism. It’s February 2018. I feel as turgid and slow as the oil-licked mud and shit and slush I know is slowly filling the ditches of my parents’ house during this freak 24-hour thaw: I feel full but useless. For my thesis, I proposed an investigation into Hank’s drinking against the working-class backdrop of our larger family saga: an intergenerational narrative of addiction and violence, football and women, survival and ghosts. In this way, I thought to begin to write Hank’s story — and mine — as I see it. I just had to choose the characters; I just had to find the facts.

I start with the news clippings of our great-grandpa, a craggy-faced fullback who played for the NFL when the Detroit Lions were the Panthers. Nicknamed “Dinger” by the press for the force of his hits, I find articles in the Boston Globe on his plays. I also find reports on his drunk driving. And then I find a few brief paragraphs announcing that Dinger’s first wife was granted a divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment. Here, I think, is the beginning of the story. Over the years, our parents have received late-night phone calls from many of Hank’s girlfriends: “Come get your son,” they’ve said, “or the cops will.” And for awhile, our parents did. Then there was a time where they didn’t, and one of Hank’s AA buddies would drive over and scoop him up instead.

It’s never been clear to me what happened between Hank and these women on those nights. I’ve heard stories about engagement rings thrown, about a knife that appeared in my brother’s hand. In that specific case, I know after that particular girlfriend said, “Are you gonna kill me?” Hank said, “No, but I could kill someone,” before shutting himself in their apartment bedroom and locking the door. That’s when this particular girlfriend called our mother. I know that each of these times, Hank was drunk in a way I’ve never been, at the end of a months-long relapse that he thought he was hiding, and spent the next few days going through withdrawal; I don’t know what he remembers from these nights, or tells himself he remembers, or doesn’t. I also am not ready to ask. I don’t have the words, but these old newspaper pieces do.

And so, from the Globe archives, I lift whole texts on my great-grandfather’s strength and skill as he slid into addiction and theft. A jalopy promised, then stolen; a best friend who died in the hospital from a mysterious fire after a drunk Dinger crashed his car and put said friend on a cot in the first place. There’s no lack of words for Dinger, nor photos. When I see one of them, taken when he was in his late teens playing for Colgate before his face got busted on drink and the sport, it shows me a face so like Hank’s I gasp. The same high, flat cheeks; the same small, haughty mouth that’s always made me think of Vivien Leigh. Even in a black-and-white photo, I can see that my great-grandfather has my brother’s lake-like eyes.

The similarities scare me, but I want to write about the differences too, to give myself hope. But Hank, though he’s been arrested, was never charged, I think to myself as I try to write But Hank didn’t end up playing pro. But for about 12 years, Hank and I didn’t really much speak. It’s this last that leaves me dry; what do I have to say about him, without him? Between alcoholism and hurt and different dispositions, Hank and I hardly spoke from the time I was 14 until I turned 28. My first year of grad school was the first year he referred to his alcoholism during a conversation with me, although it would be another three years before he said the words alcoholism and alcoholic to me in reference to himself. There was the call when I was 28, walking back from the public library, where I had been writing about him. Just before I got off the phone, so quick and shy: “It’s, uh, been eleven months.” Without him explaining it, I knew he meant since his last drink. “That’s good, Hank,” I said, “that’s great.”

I’m 31 now. This reoccurring silence between us was why I started saving his texts in screenshots. They proved to me we had a relationship and that I had a brother. I tried to keep his texts from one phone to the next; after breaking my third phone in as many years, I emailed screenshots to myself to keep his words there, too. If Hank was talking in the room I was in, I wrote down what he said in the Notes app on my phone and pretended I was texting. I’ve moved seven times with a fortune cookie fortune from the one time we went to lunch at a sushi buffet, when I was in my early 20s and visiting the town where we grew up. The fortune says Actions speak louder than Talks. I do try actions, but after I move away to Chicago, then to Iowa for grad school, words become all we have. Texts, emails, messages — spare but present proof I am still moved to dig up and find, the way we, as children, dug through our mother’s garden looking for dinosaur bones. Of course, we found only chicken bones because our house was built on the buried country garbage of the farmhouse on the other side of our backyard, the oldest one in town. Sometimes raccoon bones, sometimes bits of porcelain and blue glass our mother put in the windows of our kitchen, where they caught the light. Once, a brown glass medicine bottle, empty. No matter what we found, we rejoiced; we were just happy to play in the dirt. But now, this new digging and keeping I do doesn’t always feel good. Each word I reread scores me even as it sings. I want to chew his words, I want to sleep with them under my pillow or cupped against my cheek. Most of all, I want Hank’s words to tell me, finally, just who my brother is and to promise me that, even when we’re not talking, he’s somewhere out there still alive.

***

BLANK, I write, in all caps, when I put the news archives about Dinger down and try to write about Hank. BLANK [BLANK]. My boyfriend asks me if BLANK is an artistic choice. My thesis advisor, after I fill in the BLANKS with some sideways words, says she still can’t see Hank on the page. “You know him, Katie,” she says, but that’s exactly it: After years of silences and secrets and blackouts and lies, I am terrified that I really don’t. I keep returning to our texts, the ones I’ve screenshotted. I want to include them whole on the page, like an image, and let them speak for themselves, but that feels like a betrayal of trust somehow different than my writing about him in the first place. It is also, when I do try it just to see what it looks like, clearly not enough. Those brief lines give the reader nothing of Hank or the cornflake-looking cold sore that’s periodically flared up on his lip since elementary school; his near-frightening recall of World War I battles, contexts, and facts; or the flask I brought back from India and gave to him when he was 18 and I was 20 because the only thing I really knew about him was that he liked football and alcohol. Nothing on the way he held the flask in his hands and looked at it, smiling; and how, watching him, I felt relief. I’d gotten him something he really did like; surely that meant I knew Hank after all.

Ten years later, I am sure I know nothing. The words don’t come. My advisor tells me it’s time to accept my own expertise and authority, to trust that I know him and how to write, but I am at a loss for words. I am afraid to say the words, for just as much as I fear getting Hank wrong, I fear being right.


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Hank is my brother. Hank is an addict who majored in history, thought about trying to work for the State Department, but really wanted to be a marine biologist. I used to read him books about sharks when letters still looked like worms to him. He’s been a middle school teacher and a tow truck man; he’s definitely worked in a bar. Hank now works as a journeyman in the electrical workers’ union our family has been part of for three generations, but I recently learned that he used to work for the Department of Natural Resources, or maybe I had always known and forgot. I found out four months after the lukewarm February; it was early June, shortly after his 29th birthday. We were talking, just a little bit, over the phone, and I told him about my head getting bit to shit by deer flies while on a hike in Wisconsin. “It’s because they think your hair is fur,” he says. “Thick hair is like fur to them, especially when it’s wet with sweat. In the DNR, I always wore a hat.”

After we hang up I write that down too, worried about forgetting anything about him ever again. Maybe I just learned he used to work for the DNR, or maybe I knew and forgot, because I can’t keep who he is clear. Hank, the former youth football coach. Hank, the almost father. Hank, the regional fishing champion. Han,k the Simon and Garfunkel fan. Hank is also not Hank’s true name.

Once we were children at night in a bathtub together. I got in first. When my brother joined me, his little body made such a splash I yelled his real name out loud in annoyance. “Don’t call me that,” Hank said, sliding down the curve of the tub to meet me in the water, his knees thudding against my wet, naked back. “My name is Hank Rock.”

Hank Rock was the first time my brother constructed a narrative about himself and shared it with me. I believed in it, and thus him. It’s who he re-introduced himself to me as then, when he was 3 (“I’m free,” he’d say when anyone asked his age, the th catching on his lower lip, “I’m free!”) and I was not quite 5, and it’s the name I call him now when I write about him. Hank like Hank Williams Jr. who played from the radio on top of our fridge most mornings while our dad made us breakfast; Rock like the stones we’d pull out of our backyard and scrub carefully with our siblings’ toothbrushes before wrapping them in damp toilet paper, pretending the wet tissue was our own plaster of Paris as we tried to make molds of what we called fossils. And Hank is the name he named the tiny, glittering black cat he adopted before going into his first halfway house, a few years back.

This reoccurring silence between us was why I started saving his texts in screenshots. They proved to me we had a relationship and that I had a brother.

Once, I was back home in Michigan and witnessed one of their reunions. When the kitchen door opened and my brother walked through it, my body braced itself against a wooden chair out of habit, but before he could take another step, the cat was right there. “Hey,” I said; “Oh hi,” said my brother, then Hank picked his cat up by the scruff and, for one long moment, held his face to his. The two regarded each other. I watched Hank put one black ear, very gently, into his mouth. The cat purred. Then, opening his mouth, my brother put the cat on his shoulder. I still said nothing. The cat perched perfectly, bobbing on my brother’s shoulder like a demented parrot, while Hank began to sniff leftovers from the fridge. Even as I desperately try to sweep up and create a narrative about Hank that I can use to contain him, pin him to this earth — lawyer, addict, alcoholic, aggressor, brother — he evades the constraints I put on him.

Hank is partial to black cats. Besides Hank the Cat, my brother has another, an ancient fat creature named Arnie. Our parents once spent money they didn’t have making sure Arnie’s kidneys didn’t fail when Hank was in the hospital after a particularly nasty bender. And by bender, I mean my mother found my brother in the bathtub with vodka in his veins and pills in his hands. Ripe for the swallowing. “I don’t know what else to do,” she’d said. “This cat can’t fucking die now.”

While on the phone talking about Wisconsin and deer flies and the date he just went on, Hank’s voices grows muffled. Arnie has jumped onto the hood of my brother’s truck. Hank reaches over to pick him up. When he straightens, his voice returns: “I pick the best fuckin’ cats.”

“Everybody loves Arnie,” I agree. Hank, then: “It’s because he’s so snuggly buggly.” The hair on Hank’s head is as thick as a cat’s, and I know it. I imagine deer flies in it, his cursing. Later he won’t really remember the call, and I won’t be sure if it’s because he was secretly drunk or because he has a terrible attention span. The narratives of alcoholics are tricky, gaps and blurs. Because I can’t know the truth, the possibilities of his catch like a burr in my mind.

***

Every addict is my brother, or I want them to be, or I want to read their stories so that I can understand Hank and maybe even start to write his as I see it. But on this front, I’m not doing so hot. Toward the end of this last winter, after I called in my noise complaint and Hank relapsed again, I turned to contemporary addiction narratives to help me find the words. In every narrative, I looked for my brother; when I couldn’t find him, I dismissed whole books. When I thought about Hank in college, drinking a fifth in the morning just to steady his tremors enough to walk to class, drinking another fifth so he could eat lunch, another so he could sleep, I couldn’t care about the story I was trying to coax myself into reading. Everywhere, it seemed, the words alcoholic and sober were trending, felt like a trend. What do you know about shit, I wanted to say to the narrators I met on the page, or seizures, or knives, or threats of knives.

And yet, simultaneously, publicly, I was advocating for acknowledging the complexity and diversity of addiction via language, via narrative. “If alcoholism is only allowed to look a certain way, follow a certain story, then of course the treatment is narrow” — I said over fizzy waters and lattes, chewing gum and beers — “and of course doctors, and the rest of us, only see some people as really ill, really worth treating, and really worth listening to.” In cars with spring rain rolling down on the windshield above us, I told one friend, and then another, how I believed that expanding and deepening the word’s definition could help more people. Alcohol abuse spectrum, for example, allows for more nuance of illness, more individual treatment beyond abstinence-or-it-doesn’t-count. And yet, despite what I said and even after all the almost-reading I did, I still felt so bewilderingly angry when I encountered people publicly identifying as alcoholic if, during this encounter, I determined the definition of their word didn’t precisely match the bewildered and bloodied body of the one I had in my head. “Alcoholism” was a word in the shape of a body and that body was Hank’s. Hank, who I’d never heard say the word, whose definition I was ready to throw fists for to claim, at least not in reference to himself. Hank had never called himself an alcoholic, or said “I have alcoholism.” What he would say: “I fucked up, I wasn’t doing the shit I was supposed to be doing, I’m a piece of shit.”

What he will say: “I’m cursed.”

Hank is my brother, and I’m a writer. I’m trying to write about my brother who is dying from a disease he can hardly stand to name.

The only text on addiction I am able to get through during this time in my life is a song.

They get on me and wanna know, “Hank, why

Do you drink? Why do you roll smoke?

Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?”

Over and over, everybody makes my predictions

So if I get stoned, I’m just carrying on an old

Family tradition

What I do during this time, when I can’t read or write, is listen to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” a song I’ve known by heart since I was 8 years old. What I do is look through my screenshots of Hank’s texts over the last year. What I do is write the words my brother over and over again.

Sometimes I think the two most important words to me are my brother.

***

The first two paragraphs I write about Hank don’t come until I’ve been drinking. Scotch, an alcohol that tastes to me like ugly old men, but it was a gift for my 30th birthday when I was too broke to regularly afford my own liquor. What Joy Harjo wrote in her memoir Crazy Brave, the first book depicting scenes of addiction that I was able to to finish —

All of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.

— I think about, over and over, as I write. It’s a Friday evening, and I’ve locked myself in my apartment until Monday, determined to pull the words out of me for Hank. And they’re in there deep. Whenever my eyes leave the computer screen and look down, instead of my lap, I see my own abdomen with a dark hole in it and my hands reaching in. They come back out bloody, with something silver in them flashing in the light. A needle, or a knife. A cutting, or the stitching-up. This vision floats in front of me each time I pee, pace, or try to make food. It’s on the backs of my eyelids whenever, that weekend, I close my eyes and try to sleep, and I find it comforting. It confirms what I feel: Writing about Hank hurts so bad it’s like I’m performing surgery on myself.

All weekend I speak to no one, and leave the house only at dusk to run laps around the neighborhood track: six miles of circles, silence, and me. Halfway through my miles, the silence begins to unnerve me, so I put on Live Bullet, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s live concert album, recorded over two nights at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Live Bullet dropped in April 1976, 13 days before our dad turned 10, and thus just in time to become an integral part of his swampy good nature. Seger is cheesy, or so I’ve heard, but I grew up on his sweaty, bearded music, and his voice pushes through my headphones and into my ears as I resume my loop of the track. At the edge of the track’s rim, my audience of Michigan ghosts appears.

Back in my studio apartment, the level in the bottle lowers as I take what I need. Drinking in this moment feels dangerous, but I welcome it…

Normally, I hate tracks. Tracing the same path over and over gets to me, but right now, the revisiting one place throughout time makes sense. Each time I loop, I remember something different. There is our grandpa, rewiring Cobo Hall in his bitter 60s, slung high and humid in the summer air. Here is Hank, going to college in the town where Seger was born, spending his final year there so drunk he remembers nothing. Only a piece of paper proves that he made the dean’s list.

Back in my studio apartment, the level in the bottle lowers as I take what I need. Drinking in this moment feels dangerous, but I welcome it, as I’ve had so many fraught experiences before this. This particular one makes me feel closer to my brother, the way my mother keeps a pouch of Red Man tobacco in our fridge to be reminded of the smell of her dad. I hold the scotch in my mouth for a moment before I swallow; I notice how it lights up the soft pouches of flesh near the back of my tongue. Beyond my tongue; the tunnelling dark.

Down in that dark are the words I’m trying to reach to make sense of what can’t be made sense of; habits and addiction, destruction and love. Words for my brother’s story and how I see it playing out in the past and present of my family, yes, but for my own story, too: words that, for a long time, I could not say. I’d started therapy for bulimia when I was 18, but it took six months of sessions before I could say the word in the room, and another six before I could apply it to myself.

A year ago, I was chatting with a friend about my family’s history of alcoholism, about how destructive all my brothers tend to grow when they drink, even when we’re laughing, even when we think it’s funny — pulling off blinds from their buddies’ windows and lighting them on fire because they think they’re ugly, daring each other to pull sinks out of walls. “It’s weird how that gene skipped me,” I said to my friend. Too much alcohol makes me drunk, sure, and like any drunk person, I might list sideways into a brief argument or cry, but I’ve never had the flip switch inside me the way my brothers have, from the urge to laugh loudly to the urge to destroy property, or people, or myself. Or so I thought. “Oh,” said my friend, “you used to do the same thing, just with your body.”

The way that alcohol goes down Hank’s throat, so food, for a long time, came up mine. It’s not a sexy problem to have. As alcoholism is to drugs like heroin in our popular narratives, bulimia is to anorexia: the messy, embarrassing sibling. Clumsy, bloodshot, and bloated instead of heroin chic. In trying to escape your body, you must touch it. I am not saying bulimia is the same as alcoholism, but I am saying that I remember the secrecy, the tricks and tips I learned for hiding my habits. Or for allowing myself to believe I could. And I remember need. Like my family members’ alcoholism, my bulimia was a violence that I was compelled to do over and over to myself, that brought me into contact with the darkest parts of my insides; acid and blood on my fingertips the way piss might spread on the front of a drunk’s pants. And I liked it; or not so much liked it as needed it, because bulimia worked. It gave me the release from myself that I craved. Even when I sobbed from exhaustion and fear, even when I went a few months without throwing up, I never, not ever, thought I would truly quit. It was, quite simply, too hard. Bulimia ruled me. It was what I thought about, it was what I longed for. After the relief of giving in has faded: Here I am again, doing the ugly thing. Here I am, in shame. If anyone knew, how could they ever see me as capable of anything else? And yet, here was my friend, telling my story back to me when I couldn’t. He knew what I was pretending to not know, and loved me enough to be honest. We’ve known each other for all our adult lives.

***

The late sunlight comes into my studio slanted, and then it’s dark, and then eventually light again. My hands move on the keyboard as like the hands of my vision; at the edges of my eyes, a silver needle gleams. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes. I am not saying that my relationship to drinking has always been benign, but on this night, it is a tool I use. Unlike bulimia, it gets me to the edge inside myself. I can peer down without falling in.

I am not saying bulimia is the same as alcoholism, but I am saying that I remember the secrecy, the tricks and tips I learned for hiding my habits.

I drink and write, wavering between buzzed and sober. The liquor helps me hurt a little less, enough to be patient and pay attention to the pain I feel and the story it’s telling me without inflaming that pain or numbing myself. As I write, I think of the holes in Hank’s stories and memory, holes I sometimes call lies, but often think of as a kind of merciful protection for both him and us. I think of the holes in my own memories, and in me. In the dark, my hands are slippery as they try to make sense of what I don’t know but still feel. I pour the honey-colored spirit into a cup while crying, but the sip I take is steady.

***

Hank’s most recent relapse was the most notable for three reasons. First, because it was the first time I understood how close to death withdrawal brings him; second, because it was the first time he called to tell me about it. When he called, Hank was at our parents’ house, puking and fevered as he waited for his insurance to get straight and his sick leave to kick in so that our dad could drive him to the hospital; I was cooking dinner with food I’d gotten from the food bank and told him so in an effort to meet his vulnerability with vulnerability. “Huh,” he said when I’d finished. “So you’re a piece of shit too.”

“Yup, sure, I said, because a conversation about food insecurity and assistance would end with us in a fight and I wanted him to keep talking. I wanted to hear his voice. And I did. The phone call was almost an hour long, and throughout it, Hank drank. Once in the hospital, there would be medication to help ease his symptoms of fever and seizure, but in that moment at home, as drunk as he had been all day, every day, for the previous two months, if Hank detoxed too fast, he’d be in worse danger. “Yeah,” Hank continued, “you’re a piece of shit, but at least you’re not an alcoholic.” It was the first time Hank said that word to me in relation to himself. This is the third reason.

I won’t tell you everything we said to each other, because that’s just for us. I can tell you, of course, that I wrote it all down after, and that my free dinner went cold. I’ll tell you too that we got in a fight, even then, about language and the meaning of words: Hank said he never wanted to let his siblings in to what he was going through because he didn’t want to us to see him like this. “I’m a pussy, I’m a pussy,” he said.

“You’re not a pussy,” I said, both of us crying, “and anyway, pussies are the strongest part of the body.”

“I know!” he said, “I’m a fucking badass.”

I can tell you too that I keep the notes on that call in my phone, next to my notes on what Hank said the last time I saw him, along with what he was wearing, what we did. It was a day in May, just before the deer fly call. It was his birthday. We were fishing with our family. Hank was drunk and pretending we didn’t know; I was furious, half pretending, half aggressing, and so scared. But it was his birthday, and I wanted it to be a good one. As I cast, Hank pointed at the twilit sky. “Red disappears into the color spectrum first,” he said. His hand went over mine to help me to reel in a massive carp. “Nuh uh,” Hank said, when the fish finally flopped at my feet and I looked at Hank to do something. “You have to let him go, that’s the rule,” he said. “But to let him go, you have to pick him up, hold him tight.”

Bending down, I hugged the squirming fish up off the grass, and held him as tight as Hank holds his cats. The fish was enormous and mean-looking, with spines like a dinosaur, but his eyes were pale gray, almost blue, and his gills bled red in the air. Mucus slipped down my shirt. I tripped down to the lake’s edge. Bending down, I let him go. Back in the lake, the fish waited, caught his liquid breath, and swam away. When I stood up, I saw how Hank watched, smiling. I knew he was happy for real.

I will tell you how my brother summarized his own story that night. For after all, this story I am trying to write him into surviving is his.

“I think, ‘Why was I born with this curse?’ It’s not fair. Why am I the one in our family? But then I think maybe it had to be me. Maybe only I could do it, so it wouldn’t hurt the others. Maybe I had to take it, to protect you.”

I want Hank to see himself in my writing; not only to see what’s happened, but what’s possible. I’m desperate to put the right words in the right order so I can read his story back to him, and show him how it’s one worth living. I recoil from the words written by others because I want their addiction narratives — their own relationship to, and understanding of, the words alcoholic and sober — to evoke my brother, and when they inevitably don’t, I’m afraid he’s already gone. I want Hank to know his story doesn’t have to end like Dinger’s, drunk till dead on a rainy street in Detroit. I want this so badly I fear every word I write. I’m terrified that, in a year or two, what I’ll look back on and read will be not a thesis but an obituary; not the beginning of my book, but the end of my brother’s life. But the weekend I am finally able to write, I learn something I will forget and have to relearn throughout the time it takes me to write this, as long as that time takes: There are no right words, only the ones I have. No making Hank stay alive in the future or protecting him from our family past; only telling him, in the now, that I love him. Hank the addict, Hank the protector, Hank the would-be marine biologist, Hank my brother who, these days, to stave off the sleepless panic that induces him to drink, goes out on Michigan rivers and fishes all night: These strong and lonely people are not the only people he is or can be. It is so terrifying to say the words we mean, to be honest with ourselves and each other, to risk loss. I just want Hank to know that I am ready to hear the words he has to say. I just want him to know that I’m here.

Sometimes on these trips, Hank texts me pictures of the fish he catches, and information on how our other brothers fared if they went with him, whether or not they were fucking dumbasses; how the river was, whether or not it was fucking cold. Sometimes he texts love you too. These are words as coordinates, words as flares in the dark. They briefly illuminate our faces, no matter the distance of space and time, and let each of us know that the other is there.

***

I used to think about being a writer as being a craftsman, because I wanted to be like my brothers and because I believed it to be true, but now I think of that needle. Bloodied so as to look pink, flashing in and out of my stomach as I ruptured myself on purpose so I could go in and make something that wasn’t, whole. In the muck of my own shit and guts, memory pumping like blood, I finished that first essay, and snipped and tied the thread tight.

* * *

Katie Prout received her BA from Kalamazoo College and her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has been featured in LitHub, The Toast, Runner’s World, and elsewhere, and in 2017 her micro chapbook, Liner Notes, was published with Ghost City Press. She is currently at work on a book about her family’s history with addiction, football, and ghosts.

Editor: Sari Botton