My brother and I speak on the phone three or four times a year. We don't have much to say that is new. The conversation follows a familiar script: I listen while Marty talks about his plans to master the guitar, shoot par at the public golf course and come back east for a visit. If Marty is sober, his voice has a tone of bravado and optimism. More often than not, though, he's deep into a case of beer.
The last time we spoke, he summoned memories of Barbados, where we spent the three best years of our childhood, flopping on the sand and surf like turtles.
We lived in the second largest house in St. Michael's Parish, a monkey's leap from the forested compound of the prime minister's mansion. In the afternoons, we would climb over the unguarded walls, to find shade from the Caribbean sun and to catch small brown-green lizards in nooses fashioned from the slender spine of a palm leaf. In the evenings, we would sprawl on the cool cement veranda and fire marbles with marksmen thumbs. Our parents would watch from wicker chairs: my mother glancing up from her book, my father looking over the rim of a banana daiquiri.
Marty and I loved the rum drink, its opposing textures of creamy banana and gritty chopped ice. Dad would allow us a sip from his cocktail glass each night, then give us a $5 bill and send us for another bottle of Mount Gay.
In bare feet we would race to the small corner shop constructed out of rusty corrugated tin nailed to two-by-four ribs. The owner, an old black woman who day and night cooked over a low fire in an oil drum behind the counter, would silently hand over the bottle of dark spirits. Then we'd go outside, sit down in the dirt and eat deep-fried fish balls with Bim orange soda, bought with the change from the liquor.
I was seven, Marty was six when we discovered the transcendent nature of alcohol. One day I took a handful of coins from the tin can on the night table where my father collected his change and went to the corner shop to buy a bottle of Mount Gay.
That evening, we smuggled the rum out our bedroom window and headed to the beach. The sun was setting as we arrived and camped between the hotels, away from the tourists.
I opened the bottle and took an unwary drink.
The liquor singed my lips and mouth, burned throughout my chest and blazed its way into the pit of my stomach. I gagged until my eyes watered and mucus dripped from my nose into the sand.
I felt wonderful.
Marty and I made a game of drinking the rum. We played "eenie meenie miney moe," and whoever was "moe" was obliged to take a sip. Marty passed out when the bottle was half empty and I continued drinking alone, setting a pattern that would remain constant in our lives. Marty never could hold his booze; I always held too much.
The tide was rushing in. I shook Marty but couldn't wake him. I put my ear against his chest and was relieved to hear a heartbeat. I took his arm and dragged him up the beach, beyond the tide line. Then I ran to the hotel for help.
Marty spent the next day comatose in the hospital. As the "older" brother, and therefore the one responsible, I was grounded for a week.
"You took the bullet," said Marty as we wound up the phone call. "And you saved my life."
I wanted to tell him that I'd been sober for six months and that he should stop drinking too, but I didn't. It's hard to save your brother's life after the age of seven.