Phoenix Sunset

I remember the airport at Phoenix on that Sunday evening. It had not been a pleasure trip for me: I didn't, for example, get a motel room--determining to sleep over at the airport until my early morning flight home. But I was on a grim mission: I was there to bring my brother back home.

All that I'd been able to salvage of Tim, though, were his meager little belongings, all of which could be stuffed into his two beat-up duffel bags: some ragged jeans and shirts, a razor, an alarm clock, some AA pamphlets and a Bible.

People were getting flights back home to California that Sunday evening for that last short hop home. It was the largest number of California residents, with their California accents, that I'd encountered at one time, in one place, in a number of years.

As I heard those accents saying they were "goin' back home," and "gettin' back in," so they could be ready for work tomorrow morning, I began to remember our home in Ceres, California, visits to cousin Doug and our own trips back home on Sunday evenings. The weekend over, I could relate to how the families were going back to their California homes just as we used to do, when Tim was still with us.

I began to recall bits and pieces about our lives in California several years before: it had seemed so long ago, until then!

But it was a different life, a different place--almost a different world--back then. And, as Paul Williams said in his song,

"Like an old familiar tune that still won't rhyme I could get back to the place but not the time."*

* (Lyric from "Waking Up Alone," by Paul Williams. Copyright 1970 Paul Williams)

But, for awhile after this--ultimately, a few months, I found--I could, briefly, mentally, go back to that place and time. Images kept coming back; I kept wanting to write--and Tim's words kept coming back to me: how I was "smart;" how I should "go back to college" and "use my creativity."

I had avoided confronting my brother's images of me--the exaggerated positive images he'd always had of me--because I knew better than anyone else how exaggerated they were. Sometimes, for instance, he'd argue with me, leave for awhile, and, when, he'd come back, say, "You were right--I thought about it, my brother, and you were

right." It was amazing how he could always "lose" the argument, yet not feel he had lost-- because I was his big brother, and if I was right, that just made him feel safer.

On some level, then, he put me up on a pedestal. And that torments me--hurts me: does this mean I failed him in some way? Did I have the kind of influence over him that could have caused him to change his self-destructive ways? Did I fail to see this power, and, worse, fail to use this power?

What I'd give if I could only ask him that--if nothing else, just ask him that. But I can't. What I'd give, too, if he weren't gone. But he is: I may never see him again. And there could never be another person like him--there was only one Tim.

For just a few days, before this trip to Phoenix, I'd entertained the fantasy that maybe, somehow, it had been a case of mistaken identity. I'd entertained the thought that, as a street person, maybe he'd just sold his i.d. to someone else, and that's who they'd found that morning. Maybe he had just wandered off and would turn up, somehow. I thought I saw him walking down streets or driving cars a couple of times. I'd slow down, or circle around, to double-check, but it was never him. Even so, I made the trip to Phoenix, in part, to finally determine if it was him.

There was no doubt in my dad's mind that it was Tim, because he'd talked on the phone to the man Tim had been staying with up to his death. The man had told dad that Tim's agreement with him had been that he couldn't share the trailer with the man if he bought liquor. And Tim had been doing pretty well about not buying it, the man had said.

But, that day, Tim had walked down to a 7-ll to buy some groceries and, while he was gone, the man noticed an extra five dollars was missing from his jacket. When Tim got back, the man double-checked the grocery sack, and there were two bottles of beer in it. He told Tim he'd have to choose; and Tim had chosen to leave and sleep in a shed in the back of the trailer lot where two other alcoholics stayed. They'd let him come in, he'd laid down on the ground there, finished the beers, and gone to sleep.

When they tried to wake him up the next morning, he was dead.

The police autopsy, done shortly before the state of Arizona, with our parents' permission, had cremated my brother's battered, pale, thin and frail little body, said he died of pneumonia. But he had so many health problems, it was probably all of it together.

He had TB, for example. In addition, only a few months before, the doctor had told him that each time that he took a drink, he was courting death at any moment, because his pancreas had lost its function and there was no way his body could cope with alcohol. That had scared him--for awhile.

There is no doubt, however, that he had pneumonia, on top of everything else. He'd been diagnosed as having severe pneumonia at hospitals in both Arkansas and Arizona on two different occasions, and he'd walked out both times before treatment was anywhere close to completed. It was like suicide.

Tim was at war within, and I really think he was tired of fighting with himself-- just tired. He was twice-divorced, with two now grown children back in Arkansas--one by each marriage--whom he hadn't seen in at least eight years. He seems to have felt that, at 41, he just didn't have enough time left to fight another round and really win. Maybe he was right, but I couldn't let myself acknowledge such an idea.

In a dream a few months later, Tim and I were in a long building in which we seemed to float up and down stairs instead of negotiating them, looking out of long rows of windows onto a mass or bank of some material from which flowers were growing, and which seemed to be fenced or railed off as if being exhibited. As we stood and looked at this bank or exhibit of flowers, with other people walking by, Tim said from behind me, "You see those flowers? I'm gonna get me some of them flowers." I could clearly hear his voice saying those words as I awakened.

The dream building was multi-level, so I knew it wasn't the Phoenix airport terminal--although its long rows of windows looked out onto the desert landscape; and I'd also gotten the impression that it was a "university"--unusual in itself since I'd never thought of Tim as a fellow college student at all. In recalling the dream, I "identified" where we were: some years back our family had taken a vacation trip, stopping at a large lava field in this desert. There were flowering plants growing from it. I remembered how we marveled at this, so I came to remember the mass or bank from which the flowers were growing in the dream as a lava field--or maybe a Phoenix zoo exhibit.

Over the next several months I kept feeling a deep need to go back to school, to complete something, to seal a chapter in my life--to fulfill some of what Tim had wanted me to do. And I kept wanting to write, to write. As I worked out a plan to finish my degree, ideas about how to finish faster kept flashing to me, as if out of nowhere.

After I re-enrolled at UALR last Spring, as part of my travels around campus (which I hadn't been on since l988), I learned about the new Donaghey Student Center. As I sat near the row of windows on the second floor, I looked out and saw a bank of flowers, with a railing nearby.

I could hardly believe it: it was the scene from my dream! Those flowers and that railing, (which I'd recalled as being something like a zoo exhibit), were there! And now, I wonder if I wasn't recalling or predicting the ramps, too, since you can change levels at the Student Center without using stairs.

Had I, then, experienced a prophetic or predictive dream? Had Tim really been talking to me?

Dad called me at about 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday to tell me of Tim's death; and later that same night, at about 3 a.m., Wednesday morning, I awakened from a dream that I can't recall. And just as I woke up, I clearly heard Tim call my name--as if we were at an airport, I'd just stepped off the walkway, and he was trying to call my attention in his direction: not a shout, just below that.

A record album Tim and I always liked and shared a lot was "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.," by Simon and Garfunkel. He particularly liked the title song, which pertained to the relative evils of robbing a "hard liquor store." I guess this was because of his anger with liquor at having ruined his life: how much of a crime could it be, the song almost said, to "rob a hard liquor store?"

Maybe this was just a coincidence. But there was another incident as well.

The night before dad made the call telling me of Tim's death, I had just returned from a visit with he and my mother and had gone to bed at about 10:00 or l0:30. Just before I turned off the light, I remembered that Tim and I had a mutual interest in the comic book "super hero" Green Lantern, who says a rhyming "power" verse that I briefly tried to recall.

As I thought of how Tim would probably be able to help me recall the rest of the Green Lantern verse, I had a vivid image of the Far West and of the sun going down. I'd then immediately thought of how time is earlier out West and wondered if it was dark there yet, since it was early summer and the sun was going down later everywhere--when almost on impulse I'd said aloud, "Well, I guess I'll go click--click--jing, anyway, Tim." I then recalled a little wooden orange crate we'd used to store comic books, that dad had allowed us to pick up on the beach out in California one beautiful evening around sunset.

Just a little less than twenty-four hours after this, dad called to tell me that Tim was dead. He'd laid down to sleep for the last time at about sunset Phoenix time, from what we can put together: about nine or ten o'clock, Arkansas time--almost simultaneous to the time I'd been going to bed--and seeing that image.

The coincidence of all this could almost sound eerie, but it is some comfort to me, at this time, to think that there was this connection between us. And, since then, I've been able to recall more details about that day at the beach in California.

It had been beautiful, and Tim and I had spent an unusually long time with dad, hanging around what was probably actually a rather decrepit sandy area, with a dilapidated timber shed that dad was exploring as a possible site for ocean fishing. He never followed up on that, but Tim and I did get the wooden orange crate out of the deal: there'd been a small stack of them rotting in the sand near the shed, and dad had allowed us to rummage through the few still-usable ones for a minute.

"Pick one out if you want it, and then let's go," he'd said. So we did.

When we got it home, our mother had put a cloth cover over it, put a small porcelain lamp with a pull chain on it, and put it between our two beds. We'd then used it to store our small stack of comics.

I can now partially recall the peaceful scene that often occurred there in our home in California at night, when Tim had still been small. As I'd lay reading a comic book, Tim would "read" for a shorter period of time. Then he'd put his comic book back in the orange crate, roll over, and say, "Max--go click, click jing, " which, I knew, meant turn off the light--because the little chain on the lamp made that sound as you pulled it.

That image--the lamp and the orange crate, the feel of the just about perfect temperature of the salt air on our faces that sunset at the beach--is something only Tim and I can probably really remember. But now it's something I can never forget.



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