My Brother, Muhammad by Darragh Savage
I go to see my brother in a penitentiary. It is two days before his twenty-eighth birthday.
The walls of the visiting room are painted a loveless beige. There are black lettered warnings whose meanings are clear and a variety of color-coded lines and dashes whose significance I cannot decipher. In the air is a strong smell of disinfectant and weaker ones of urine and something similar to cabbage.
A guard checks my name against a list and points me to a booth with his sharp chin. I sit on a curved red plastic chair that is too small and makes me hunch my knees like a child. Opposite the chair, a heavy pane of glass divides the visiting area from the prison proper. There will be no physical contact. A battered white telephone without buttons is bolted to the counter in front of me.
Beyond the glass, there is an identical telephone on an identical counter and a guard (this one fat, his belly on his belt) standing by a brown door, which my brother comes through a few minutes after I sit down. He walks over without catching my eye and lowers himself into his little chair, splaying his long legs out and leaning back. He doesn’t reach for the phone.
He appears well, considering, strong and healthy, even under the fluorescents, his neck thick from lifting weights. On his hands and at the collar of his brown uniform are areas of white scar tissue where tattoos have been removed. His head is shaved down to stubble and his thick beard shot with grey that makes him look older than he is. I pick up the phone and he smiles at me but still doesn’t take his receiver.
In the booth next to me, a woman with a wrecked voice is saying: He would’ve done it for you. You’re not even a man.
I start to stand, but then he reaches for the phone.
His voice is ghostly likes he’s calling from the other side of the world. Through the thick glass, his face looks very serious now. He holds my gaze and enunciates clearly, speaking from three feet or, more accurately, eight thousand miles away, his voice colored by the trace of a false and indeterminate foreign accent.
Don’t call me Devon, he says.
Before I visited him, I went to see our parents.
-What’s wrong with him?
My mother was drinking, but not drunk, as she likes to say.
-I mean, really. Do you know?
-Now, look. It’s hard for Devon. He has problems.
My father spoke with hesitancy.
-We, Michael, we have problems. He is a problem.
My mother looked sorry. She was sorry. She was tired. We’re all tired of this.
She looked at me and asks again, softly.
-What is wrong with him, though?
Devon was kicked off the baseball team when he was thirteen. This is the first in a sequence of events in my brother’s adolescent development that my father would examine in manic minutia. Hoping find some reason that it all had to happen.
His team wore blue uniforms with white stripes at the shoulder and Aram’s Roast Beef & Seafood lettered across the chest, and after the games, we would get pizza from a white truck with a battered silver counter that folded from its side. I remember him hitting a homerun in the playoffs against a team from Boston, still small enough to be clutching my mother’s hand as I watched.
Then, for no reason he could afterwards articulate, one afternoon in spring at the start of a practice, when coach Mike came over to ask him why he wasn’t running with the rest of the team, instead of saying he was tired or that his leg hurt, Devon turned and said, Go fuck yourself, loud enough that everyone on the field heard it.
Snarled was the word coach Mike used: He snarled at me, like an animal. Then Devon got up and walked away without the glove that his uncle had bought him and walked home on the path through the marshes, leaving my mother to be embarrassed when she came to pick him up later in the afternoon and had to be told what happened.
-Then. The baseball thing. That is when I should have done something.
My father is a lawyer. He believes in chains of causality. He believes that things happen because other things happen.
-We thought he would be okay. Hormones, right? We said he’s going to be a teenager. What do you expect? We should have done something.
They did, of course, do things. What he means is that they should have done something that worked.
Soon, there were worse things than swearing at coach Mike. Devon was sent to see his first, but not last, psychologist, but wouldn’t talk to her any more than he would the ones who came later.
There were fights in school and out, a lot of broken windows, the police once, then one of the special school-like-prisons or prison-like-schools out of state where you can pay to have your troubled or troubling child temporarily incarcerated. A man who was massive like a football player and made our stairs creak even though he went up them on tiptoe came to the house early one morning and escorted Devon to the plane. The school or prison was in the desert. They were taught to survive in the wilderness and navigate by the stars and manage their emotions by chanting.
While he was gone, my mother and I painted his room blue. She’d read that cool tones were calming for angry people. It was a nice blue, like a good sea. Devon liked it, though it didn’t make him calm enough.
He sits in front of me now. He asks me about school, and I tell him I finished, then my job and if I like it. I don’t, but say I do. Smiling, I think, like he never used to, smiling as though he’s learned something, as though he knows something. What could he possibly know?
As we talk, I try to read his tone, but because of the poor connection, everything he says sounds in any case unnatural.
-He’s terrible. You’re here. But he’s not sick or anything, if that’s what you mean?
When Devon was fifteen and a freshman in high school, he started writing graffiti. His pants and fingers were stained with paint and his room smelled of the fat markers he kept in big ziplock bags underneath his bed. He was arrested a few times, and my parents paid the fines.
Dad said it was just a phase and mom said, his whole life is a phase, and looked at me like she wondered why she could only have one kid that worked the way it said they would on the box. They threatened him with another trip to the desert, and he implied he might kill himself if they did, though I think this was a lie.
My mother did not believe in fate or karma or even luck. She sold art, but if she had been something else, she said would have run a nursery—our house is always full of plants—and she does believe in genetics, or at least in blood. Last year, she took me out for lunch at a hotel downtown and with a note of triumph told me she had extracted the true story of my father’s long deceased oldest brother, a man who I had always assumed died of sickness or accident.
-No. Not at all. He stabbed a woman and was shot, running naked in the street. That’s where he gets it.
-Even as a baby—I know it’s horrible to say—but I could always tell there was something wrong with him because of the way he looked at me.
Devon wasn’t a good artist, but he had wild daring. In the car one day, he nudged me and pointed up to a half-rusted girder fifty feet above the highway where he must have hung by one arm or perhaps upside down by his legs in order to spray-paint the four clumsy letters of his tag, AITR, with the A like the A from the Anarchists Cookbook he carried around all the time then.
It stood for Art Is The Revolution and must have been a phrase he picked up from somewhere, probably from his closest friend at the time, a muppety boy named Cedric, who was always stoned. Devon acquired a misunderstood vocabulary of revolution, asking our mother with suspicious anger if we were bourgeois, to which she replied that she certainly hoped so.
This though, was not quite what he was looking for. Devon grew contemptuous of Cedric and his graffiti friends, talking about how drugs made them weak and slow. He required greater velocity.
Devon started going to more hardcore shows and writing graffiti less and had XXX tattooed across his left knuckles. He talked about drugs and weakness and sex and cursed our mom’s cigarettes. His friends were strong and stupid, or at least they pretended they were. They called him Elbows and Big D. He had split lips and re-broke his hand too often, coming home late with a sharp light in his eyes, talking too fast. They’d beaten two skinheads once and would talk about it every time they were together, how they’d taken care of those Nazi motherfuckers like they’d won the Second World War by kicking in the crooked teeth of two skinny kids in bomber jackets.
Nothing lasted long with him, though. One day he came home, went to the fridge, and took one of the beers dad sometimes drank. He popped the top off and sat down at the table, dark brows furrowing and eyes glinting. Those guys I was hanging with, Julian, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Devon turned to drugs with the same sort of misguided literalism he approached everything else. He listened to reggae and smoked weed rolled up in cartoon spliffs. He read Hunter S. Thompson, wore dark aviators, and did speed that made him jabber like a fool. He read Burroughs and wore suits and shot smack so white worms of scar tissue grew at the crooks of his arms. This was the drug that stuck. I knew where he got his ideas because I would visit him in the apartment my parents had rented for him and talk to him about books sometimes: he never really understood what he read, not so much the meaning as what it should mean for him. He got confused when I tried to explain that they weren’t manuals for life.
His cheeks hollowed as though he were sucking on sour candy all the time, and he moved back home. There, he looked away from us when he talked and kept his door locked, creeping out at night while we slept. Once dad stood in the hall, knocking and calling softly for an hour, trying to get his son to come down and just eat something with the family, please, while his own food grew cold and me and mom ate and talked about an artist showing at her gallery.
One time, he stood with me on our porch. Our parents were gone, and I was smoking one of my mother’s cigarettes.
-How can people be office workers? How do they do it? Can people actually accept that they’re going to spend their whole life in a cube staring at screens and taling on phones?
Devon had never worked in an office, of course, so he was probably thinking about something he’d seen on television.
-You don’t have to—
-But that’s normal right? To want that? That kind of life is what people want, right?
Devon was confounded by oughts and shoulds, and he thought that for everyone else in the world it was all clear and easy. He believed that there were secret formulas to life that people refused to share, so he always narrowed his eyes as he listened and watched your hands to make sure he wasn’t cheated.
I knew he’d be angry however I answered, so instead I shrugged and smoked. He stared at me for a little while more and left.
What is wrong with him?
You could probably say something about cognition, something about brain chemistry, something about impulse control and impressionability, something about genetics and epigenetics and the interplay of heredity and environment. You could also say that, at some time before my birth, I can’t say exactly when, something dark like a shadow or a growth or a creeping vine attached itself to my brother and wrapped itself around either his neck or soul.
But he was kind sometimes. When I was old enough to take the training wheels off my bike, he rode with me down to the dirt field behind the middle school to play catch. The air was fat with summer and my arms itched from mosquito bites. We had to ride up a hill to get there, and I wobbled and almost fell over, just keeping upright. Devon saw me but didn’t say a thing, just smiled in a way that made me feel big and proud.
When he went to prison for the first time he was twenty-one years old. Possession with intent, sentenced to two years. His bones poked at his skin like a dead horse in the desert. We had started to accept that he would die young.
He surprised us by showing up at the first visit smiling and already filling out. God, he said, had found him, and God was pronounced Allah. He told us his new friends were looking after him, and he was eating and sleeping well. He leaped up to hug us and was pushed to the ground by a guard, ending our visit.
When he was released, he found a new best friend and a spiritual leader: Malik, who lead a prayer group of ex-convicts. Malik had huge muscles and a bigger belly. He loved to eat and listen to Sufi music and laughed often. I liked Malik.
The discipline was good for don’t-call-me-Devon-I-told-you–my-name-is-Muhammad-now. He ate and was big and strong again. Malik’s good moods seemed to affect him, and he smiled more than any of us could remember. He apologized to our father and hugged him.
I have no use for religion, but Malik seemed to be good for my brother. He preached a rough asceticism, lots of weightlifting and sports (Malik’s father was from Trinidad, and he made them all learn cricket). No drinks or drugs. In a fit of zeal, my brother had all his tattoos removed, badly, and his body is covered in the scar tissue they left behind.
Malik comes to visit us now. He says cars follow him and the few thousand dollars he had in his foundation’s accounts have been frozen—it was from my grandmother, peace on her soul. We stand on the porch and smoke his cigarettes. He shouldn’t, he knows, but, he says, the stress, man, the stress, I’m so scared they’re going to come take me away. He always apologizes, says that he tried to tell Devon to stay away from the man they knew as Adad, whose name will be redacted in the documents my brother’s lawyers acquired—he is referred to only as ‘confidential informant 354a’. I knew your brother didn’t need to be around anyone talking that kind of angry stuff. I tell him it’s not his fault. Your brother, sometimes he can’t listen, sometimes he’s difficult, you know?
Adad must have been delighted when he met my brother, who, in his way, had been waiting for something like this since he stole Steal This Book and found the thrill to not quite satisfy.
What is wrong with him?
He is like a child who will never stop asking why the sky is blue. He stuttered and could not answer the teacher’s question and felt embarrassed and small and ground his teeth. Things on the television filled him with a dark red rage like a bruise, and so he punched a brick wall and his knuckles swelled up like mushrooms. He lived under the delusion that there must be a wrong commensurate to his distress, that the claws clutching at him or the fires burning him or whatever strange sensations drove him must be transmitted or imposed, which is to say that he believed that where there is pain there must be fault and the possibility for correction.
I ask him how he felt when his bomb failed to explode, the bomb he’d cared for lovingly, the bomb whose details of use (his best cursive) were written down in a small purple notebook that would have been presented at the trial if there had been one. I ask him what he thought when his bomb didn’t work and just made a little hiss, not a fiery roar, and instead of a fireball rising behind him as he ran like some stupid movie, there were strong men in dark uniforms who pushed his face against the pavement with their knees and laughed when they told him it was all a trick. Or perhaps I don’t say all that. Perhaps I just say, Why? He shrugs and just shakes his head a little, and I realize that he doesn’t know any more than I do.
I would like to touch him through the thick glass, rest my fingers on the back of his hand where the tattoos had come off and say, not that it was okay and that I was sorry, which would be untrue, but that he was my brother and would be. I could not touch him, though, so I do not speak and instead stand and run my fingers down the glass, leaving the faintest of prints, and turn to the guards, the exit and away.
Darragh Savage was born in Ireland and has lived in Boston & Tokyo; he currently resides in Los Angeles.