When I was about 15, I was living alone with my single mother. My sister Evie had married and left home long before I was born. My sister Carol had married and moved out when I was 13, and a few years earlier my sister Shirley had moved to California to live with our brother Bill. Our brother Ray, the first child, had died when he was fifteen, a tragedy from which my mother never fully recovered. Bill was about 20 years older than me and, like Evie, had never lived at home after I was born.
My mother developed severe diabetes and eventually lost both her legs to gangrene from diabetic ulcers. As her health declined, my brother Bill decided to return to Colorado and live with us. Thus began a new phase in my life.
When Bill was about 19, he was shooting craps with a group of older men and there was a police raid. For some reason, the cops told them they had to take one of them in, and they could decide who would go. Because Bill was the youngest and had no record, they decided he should go. He was offered military service in lieu of a jail term and joined the Navy. A year or two later the attack at Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. Bill was on one of the first ships sunk in the Pacific. He was in the water for several hours before an American ship picked him up. The night his ship was sunk, Mom had a dream in which Ray, not Bill, appeared to her in a life jacket and assured her he was all right.
A lot of guys in the Navy got tattoos. Bill became a Christian Scientist. The only part of the religion he took seriously was the part about healing through prayer, or rather through affirming that there is no truth in sin, sickness or death. He never went to a doctor and never took any medication, not even an aspirin. But he didn’t eschew the pleasures of nicotine and alcohol, although I never saw him drunk. After the war, Bill had gone to the University of California on the GI Bill for a couple of years. I’m sure the experience broadened his perspectives, but it didn’t of itself propel him into the middle class as it had done for many others. It also didn’t change his speech patterns. For Bill, the regular past tense of the verb “to see” was “seen.” The Sisters of St. Joseph beat such non-standard verbal forms out of Carol and me.
Bill was into sales. For me that meant that he was the first able-bodied adult I had ever met who didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to work. It was summer when he came back to live with us, and suddenly I had a combination of a friend and a father figure. I was 15, and he was 35, but I was in some ways old for my age, and Bill was distinctly young for his. He was child-like without being childish. He was the perfect companion. We really hit it off.
At various times Bill sold cookware, encyclopaedias, siding, guitar lessons (he didn’t play the guitar), and rugs. We spent a lot of time in coffee shops talking about how much money could be made in one of those endeavors. Bill dreamed of getting rich.
Once, after my sister Evie and her pharmacist husband Bart had come for a visit, I noticed some change on the seat of the big overstuffed easy chair Bart had been sitting in. When I put my hand down between the cushion and the side, I found even more change. I tried the other side and came up with even more. There was enough for a couple of packs of cigarettes and a couple of coffees, which Bill and I immediately went and bought. After that, every time Evie and Bart came to visit, we made sure Bart sat in that easy chair. But the take was never as big as that first one.
Bill never did get rich.