Vapor

Finding these drugs is like suddenly coming across flashing detour signs. Everything changes. I am here in this suburban nook of a playground because I’d read in the weekly that cops had busted teens right by the sliding board and swings. The news had been accompanied by an editorial stating that the scourge of addiction migrates across society. Ya think?

I’d ventured out to see the scene of such urban-like mischief expecting, really, to see nothing. And it’s just there, next to a bush. I reach, snag it, stumble, hit the turf and then bounce up, amazingly, since I am somewhat beyond my buoyant years. I stash the bag in my pocket, where it crinkles like litter. No car passes at this particular moment on this dusky edge of rush hour. As I turn about, I slide it halfway out as if I might be checking a message. Yep. I stuff it back.

Dormancy being pushed aside flavors the air and spring-set kisses the modest single-family homes across the street. I try my best to hide that I look for witnesses. No one’s gardening or grilling, no curtains move. Nothing unusual except for conspicuous me: left foot, right foot, left, right. Robotic.

“You’ve done nothing wrong,” I remind myself, though I can’t help adding: “But something big has been done to you.” I stop thinking my walk and normalize my stride. Sometimes you really can control your thoughts, or at least turn them off.

As soon as I get home I dump the contents on the kitchen table. Yep. Grass, Percocet, Xanax, Zoloft, and OxyContin. And something else that I bet is crack cocaine because there’s also a syringe and needle. Par-tay! I piece together an abstraction from cop shows. Police crashed in; the stoner tossed and dashed.

“This should do it,” I say aloud, and I would say this even if my Jenny lived.

She would have called from the living room: “Are you talking to yourself again, Shope?” That’s Shope as in hope, not shop.

It’s been two years since, and I still think about her. Some memories I duck, and some I open the door to. Sit. Relax. Stay a while. Like the time she’d been undergoing chemo and she wasn’t able to drink for months and I stayed off the brew in solidarity and then the two weeks down the shore toward the end of the treatments and hanging out at Harpoon Harry’s near Cape May and her first wine and my first beer and listening to James Taylor’s rendition of Wichita Lineman and wishing I could have her for another 20 years but only getting five more. That’s memory, but there’s also essence. Her bravery, goodness, optimism that not even the demons could dim. She chose to be happy every day, by forgetting herself and trying to make others happy. Did I mention she was a special ed teacher?

“Vapor,” I say.

Jenny and I talked about Vapor, sure, though I never spoke that name to Jenny or anyone else. It’s a nickname a man shouldn’t use on his nephew. And I am not proud to have coined it, but it’s a coin never spent. Give me that, at least. It mocks, maligns, marginalizes. It roils about that spot in my brain where gargoyles dine. It squeaks just below the manhole cover.

He’s my sister’s problem, I keep telling myself. I tried to help Vapor—Robinson, really, and yes, that’s his first name. Wanted to ground floor him in a tech startup right here in Darrington County, Pennsylvania; the intersection of—wait for it—art and technology. An internship, thanks to my connections, which would have given him a chance to learn skills that would make him an invaluable employee to 21st century companies. Oh, hell, who cares about that? Something fun, I thought. Something that he could dreamstate himself into. Something that fixates him so that time stops. I offered him the zone.

My intercession stuck about as well as anything anyone’s done to give direction, spark desire, launch him. He’ll be 27 in a few months. Strapping, handsome, a nice young man in many ways. Girls love him. Blonde shoulder length hair that he messes with too much and usually ties in a hipster ponytail. A blue-eyed gaze that can chisel ice. He’s had a couple of serious flames but then snuffs those relationships when the young women hint that skateboarding might not be the foundation upon which to build something that lasts.

He takes a job, swears that he’ll stay with it this time and then he gradually drops out and off. Sometimes the gigs are make-believe. For about two months there he would leave for “work” everyday at a car detailer. My sister noticed that he never seemed to get paid. She went to the place once, told the owner that her son worked for him, which was news to the man. He’s adept at dodging. “I got another job already!” True? Lay no bets. He avoids his parents. Sleeps late. Stays away. Vapor.

“My Dylan was like that,” Cornelius tells me later that night. “I had to have the come-to-Jesus talk with him. Says to him, ‘you have now four options: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.’”

Cornelius is Jenny’s oldest brother. A Marine who fought in the first Iraq war and now one of the township’s top cops. He’s suit and tie all the way, and those creases and fit make him look uniformed. Pumps iron, jogs. His 6-foot, 3-inch frame tapers to the waist, and a slight beer belly only shows when he sits. Bald head that women call beautiful and a hunter’s stare that he shrouds by focusing on some middle distance at social settings and also, I imagine, in the kind of situations that he’s told me about. Those times when he talked someone into dropping a weapon after explaining that suicide-by-cop isn’t the only option. He displays hands and forearms like you might see on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even friends and family call him Cornelius. Never heard Corn or Corny; I wouldn’t dare, myself. We still get together about once a month at the Irish Rover.

“So which?” I ask.

“Coast Guard. One last ‘fuck you’ to the old man, but that is a ‘fuck you’ I am fine with. Brass running those wars in the Middle East just do not know what they are doing.”

The Cornelius/Dylan tangle might be instructive to my sister, I am thinking. The trouble they’re having with Vapor isn’t that unusual, I’ve always known that. How many families have a Vapor? Young adults who go wrong, sometimes irrevocably, tragically wrong, even though they’d been brought up by parents who are, as far as anyone on the outside can tell, good, conscientious, sacrificing, doting, and willing to battle (so much a part of raising kids)—people who could be nominated for parents of the year every year. Their other children, if they have any, excel, proving that their love can nurture, lift, then release. And yet, and yet … a child can go wrong despite all of it. That Cornelius and his wife had been rung through this emotional wringer proves that no one’s immune.

Jenny and I have a daughter who’s thriving in young adulthood, a dynamo of animal exuberance and kindness, possessed of an indomitable will, and uplifting character. A life-enhancer from the beginning. Teachers used to tell us on PTA nights: “Bottle it.” Jenny would say to me after college visits: “Whatever she does, whatever her accomplishments, are hers. I was just the vessel, Shope. Roots and wings!”

Now, I tell Cornelius: “My sister tried to talk Robinson into the military.”

“No go, right.”

This is Cornelius being gabby, by the way. Usually, he’s a locked vault. You can’t get anything from him when he ponders a case, and he’s always pondering a case. He finesses his preoccupations with just enough charm to not be rude. He’s a bit unapproachable, definitely intimidating and even someone who’s forgotten to pay a parking ticket flinches when around him. He knows it. He messes with people. At family parties he’ll say to one of the younger ones, “You look guilty,” and suddenly they do. Everybody’s guilty of something.

Now, I say about Vapor, “No go for the military. Nothing go for anything. He likes his weed.”

Cornelius places his pint on the coaster as if screwing it in.

“You are telling me this.” I’d suddenly become an informant.

“Hasn’t been caught yet, except by my sister.”

Cornelius turns to me and for a moment I wonder if I’d somehow betrayed my nephew; that this man will raindance a deluge.

“Anything else?” Cornelius asks.

“He swears it’s only weed.”

“They all swear that until they are caught with other shit.”

“And get this….”

I want to lure Cornelius out of predator mode, so I tell him the story about God’s-own-job. My sister’s a corporate lawyer and one of her clients saw the potential in fracking early on. She could get Vapor on a rig mid-state that’s perfect for a young man adrift. You live in a dormitory, pulling long days. Room, board, and food all free. The work isn’t all that hard and you get paid for a full year even though you’re only on the job half that time. A lot of the guys have young families and the owners know that they wouldn’t get too many who could sign on for a year. So three months on, three months off, three on, three off. There’s a town nearby, bars, girls. Hell, there might even be a library. You start at $80,000 a year and that can go up to well over $100,000 no problem with overtime. And you don’t even need a GED.

Cornelius says: “I would like that job.”

“But let’s just say that a young man hates that job. He can’t hate the money. And he can find his bliss during the six months he’s off. Learn guitar, become a rock star, if it’s that. Go to college for a semester, study art history. Whatever. Yet….”

“And your nephew does not want it.”

“It’s something he’s definitely going to do, or so he’s been saying for the last five years now. He’ll never do it. He lies. Sometimes I think that him getting caught with grass, him getting in real trouble with your team, the law, might….”

Cornelius drinks to the dregs, holding up an index finger.

“You do not want that, Shope. Scared Straight looks good on TV, but my experience is that someone like your nephew is not inclined to change and putting him in jail, even for a bit, starts a nasty spiral.”

I shrug. He’s right. “You’re sounding like Jenny, now.”

She’d sometimes lose her temper as I spun schemes to get Vapor straight. “Shope, get it through your head. He. Will. Not. Work. He gets everything he wants without working. Car. Car insurance. Health care. Cell phone. Computer. Video games. An allowance so he can take girls out. Why should he work?” Slapping the palm of one hand with the back of the other with each point. Teacher Jenny.

“But what about when his friends talk about their jobs, college, plans for the future? Doesn’t that shame him?”

“They probably don’t believe him either,” Jenny would say. “But he thinks they do, and that’s enough. Or they’re screw-ups themselves.”

Cornelius now says, “Do you want me to talk to him?”

“Let me think on it.”

“Drugs these days, um, um, um. Strong.”

“Even if you can scare him off the illegal shit, say he just does alcohol from then on out? He’s still going to live in my sister’s basement for the rest of his life.”

Another beer is placed in front of me and I gaze into contracting foam.

“What’s going to happen when my sister and her husband die?”

I say it almost to myself, but then shudder out of it. I’d concluded some years back that that’s one of Cornelius’s interrogation techniques: Make the other person think he’s only talking to himself.

“Tricky meddling with free will.” He squints at the check. I am about to protest, but he holds up his hand. He wipes beer sweat on the bar with a napkin and lays money. A good tip, as usual.

“Do courts give guys like my nephew a choice?” I ask. “You know, you can either go to prison or you can join the military?”

“That is old school. Happened in Korea. Happened in Nam. Now? Military is very picky. They do not want you if you got a record, especially a drug record.”

He slaps me on the back with his plank of a hand.

“I can drive you home, Shope.”

I say, “There’s my lift.”

I nod toward the entrance, where Vapor surveys the swelling crowd. My nephew looks suburban street, down to the backwards baseball cap and loose-fitting workout shirt under which a bulk of muscle shifts. I wave. He grins, waves back. As he comes toward us he tamps down his strut when he sees whom I’m talking to. Cornelius and Vapor’s paths have crossed, but I introduce them again.

“We know each other, Uncle Shope.”

I say, “You might even be related, somehow, but I can’t pin that one down.”

Cornelius wields a smile, while his gaze stays neutral. Sweat on Vapor’s forehead.

“You have gotten big, young man, since last I saw you,” Cornelius says. “What have you been up to?”

Get this: Vapor’s working for a handyman, learning about home remodeling, saving his money, hoping to start his own business in a year or so. Cornelius and I poker face it as my nephew serves this bullshit.

“You ready to hit the road, Uncle Shope?”

I shake Cornelius’s hand; gulp my last to the halfway mark. My nephew and I turn toward the partiers and pass through their midst.

Listen, now, because here comes the part where Vapor’s life changes forever. I can tell you the exact moment. The setting’s so Americana, a Wawa that we stop at on the ride home.

“Just need some smokes, Uncle Shope.”

“I thought you quit.”

“So did I.”

He disappears into the store and I open the glove compartment. As I lean over, child-song la-la-lars from a van that’s pulled up beside us. Little goobers, maybe 5 or 6 and I even hear one toddler’s persistent warble. I remember when Vapor was that young. I recall under the neon island lights of that gas station moments of promise in my nephew’s life. Goals in soccer games. Ribbons from spelling bees. I try to name the tune. It is one of those ubiquitous songs that Sesame Street’s been running for 40 years now.

A few minutes later, I brood in my dark living room among the battery-powered candles that illuminate photos of my dead wife. I speed-dial Cornelius before Vapor even pulls out of the driveway. Tell my brother-in-law of the opportunity that we have to change a young man’s arc.

Cornelius’s exasperation drags my name over two syllables. “She-ooooope.”

I say, “It’s right there.”

“And you just happened, for no reason, to look in the glove compartment of your nephew’s car.”

“I looked for exactly that reason.”

“You are asking me to break so many rules.”

He sighs. I look at the mantle above the fireplace, at the little shrine I’d assembled for Jenny. The photo of her when she was so young and beautiful, the purity of an image that must have twisted the demons into furious industriousness so that they slaved over forges for years on the cancer that would take my girlfriend decades later. I tell Cornelius the make, model and plate number of Vapor’s car. Letting the cop know where the suspect’s heading.

He snaps: “Do not go to bed.”

An hour later, I let him in. He sits, tells the story. I feel bad when I hear how Vapor had sobbed. “I swear these are not my drugs!” I picture Cornelius sitting in the passenger’s side, calmly telling my nephew how much jail time such a haul could bring. Then, like any good preacher, after guaranteeing perdition, the flood of hope. Uncle Sam wants you.

“Did he go for it?” I ask.

“He does not see much choice. I believe him, by the way.” Cornelius’s gesture indicates his car in the driveway where the drugs are stowed. I wonder just how he’ll destroy them. Cornelius says, “That is not your nephew’s shit.”

I start to protest, but Cornelius cuts me off. “Best not to say anything. There is a whole world of doubt, things we will never know the answers to and most of it we do not need to know the answers to. I ask: Now where would Shope buy drugs? Where would this man that I have known for so many years even begin to look for this shit? I cannot piece together an answer and even if there is one, I do not want to know.”

He stands, his white shirt glowing in the darkness. “Turn on some stinking lights, Shope,” Cornelius says. “It is not good for a man to live in shadow.”

“Shadow,” I repeat, when he’s gone, savoring the word as it bounces against the walls. “Shadow, shadow, shadow.”

The shadow closes over all our lives like a full eclipse about a year and a half later. From this darkness memory illuminates some images and sounds. The funeral with full military honors is a truly beautiful sight. The snap, snap, snap and folding of the flag. The stalwart men in uniform. The three-volley salute echoing crisply in winter. Cold wind blowing unimpeded through gardens of stone.

Cornelius and I talk, of course, during the days after the tragedy, the funeral reception, and even at a family wedding a couple of months later. There are always others around, so the main topic stays buried, alongside that little box placed in the hard, wintry ground. We both know, however, that the great white will turn at some point, and circle our strand.

He sits in my living room, finally, one night, having come from the Irish Rover. When he called, I turned on all the lights. He slouches, rubs face-stubble, downs one beer and then another. He shouldn’t drive, but am going to say that?

“How’s your nephew?” he finally asks.

“Thriving. Turns out he loves the regimented life. Loves breaking balls with the guys. Loves chasing the girls on leave. You did a good thing for him.”

“Maybe.”

“No maybes, brother. You helped that young man. Just like you helped Dylan.”

Cornelius’s chin droops. “Did I?”

“Your son died a hero.”

Dylan had been stationed at Quillayute in Washington State when a distress signal came in about 1 a.m. during a storm. Wind had broken the mast off a sailboat, the vessel taking on water, sinking. Dylan and two comrades jumped into a little motorized lifeboat and headed into the driving rain and 25-foot waves. The lifeboat rolled several times, throwing Dylan and the other two into the churn. That was it. They gave Dylan a host of medals. Cornelius mounted and framed them, and put on them wall of his study—which he never goes into anymore.

“I want my son back.”

“I know.”

“I will never get him back.”

“He’s with God.”

“God?”

“I am sorry.”

“Yeah.”

I say, “When you raise kids, you try to give them direction. That never stops.”

Then, the strangest thing. Strange that it happened. Strange that it ever could happen. Stanger still that I remember every word because sometimes I forget what it is I wanted to do when I go from one room to another. Maybe I don’t actually remember every word, but these are the words that come to me. Cornelius, this man who rarely strings more than three sentences together, leans back and talks, and talks, and talks, and talks, and talks.

“Maybe giving them direction should stop, though. Maybe it stops when they are young adults, when they are old enough to decide how they want to live. And maybe fools like us should not meddle. I know, I know. We call it helping. But maybe helping needs a time limit. Or helping needs the call for help. That is what took my boy. Someone called for help. We should not help young adults unless they ask for our help.

“Do you know what I whispered when I leaned over that body bag at Dover Air Force Base? I was the only parent who asked to approach the dead, and they were hesitant at first but they saw my badge, knew I would not get hysterical and try to unzip the thing. So I walk over after the honor guard saluted. Click, clack, click, clack my footsteps echoing in that big-ass hanger. I lean over and say, ‘I am so sorry, my boy, my son, my angel, my Dylan, my hero. I am so sorry, but you are dead.’ Cause the dead, you know, they often need to be told. Old man at the VFW, when he came home from Nam he used to take long walks in the woods near his house in the twilight. That is the time. People talk about midnight and the witching hour. But seems as if it is twilight when they are most confused. The dead. Twilight is when they wander and wonder. These voices would be calling out to this newly returned Nam vet and he would 360 in the woods and see nothing. He knew the voices, though. They were the guys whose dead bodies he had to crawl over in a firefight, saying, ‘Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me’, the whole time. Finally, one night he called: ‘I am sorry, but you are dead. I am alive, and I am truly, truly broken that you are not. But you need to leave me alone, now. You need to rest.’

“He never hears the voices again. Took that with me on the job. First thing I do at a murder scene is lean in and whisper to the victims that they are dead. They do not need to worry about anything anymore. The evil and madness that brought them here cannot touch them again.

“So I made my boy join the military and now he is gone and I so much hoped that he had heard me that horrible day at Dover. Do not say anything, Shope. Just stop. I need to…. I guess I need to put it out there. I put it out there a lot when I am by myself. Once or twice the wife caught me talking and then I find these pamphlets around the house about mental health services. Believe that shit?

“I am not talking to you, Shope. I am talking at you. Because we both made the same mistake. We think we can be God and step in and change someone and call it all a good deed. But God goes away in a child’s life about the time someone learns to drive. God is a Santa Claus who had forgotten to make a few stops. Like I say, I am not going to help some young adult unless that young man or that young woman wants my help. Sometimes they go someplace where you cannot help them.

“Last few nights I hear it. ‘Dad! Dad!’ Dylan. And the words that work for me all these years do not work anymore. I do not want to disturb the wife. I go down into the kitchen, sit at the table. “Dad! Dad!’ I say, ‘I am so sorry, baby boy, but you are dead. You need to rest.’ Still the voice though. “Dad! Dad!’

“I come to accept that I will always hear it. Maybe I need to hear it. Then, the next day I am up and out and on the job. As if it never happened, but I know it is going to happen again and I want him so much to hear me. But my words have no effect. They’re air. They’re vapor.”

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