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She did her best to be delicate, but there was no other way than to be out with it: my brother’s car could be claimed at the state police impound yard in downtown Salem, Oregon. It was no longer a crime scene, now that Thomas Cleveland had been convicted of my brother’s murder. Cleveland had somehow wrangled my brother into the back seat of his silver ‘98 Oldsmobile Cutlass and shot him through the skull and in the chest. A guy out for his morning walk a couple of hours later noticed blood seeping out the bottom of the door, pooling onto the asphalt parking lot of the Mormon Church.
       I learned of it walking toward baggage claim, in the Nashville Airport, on the front end of a business trip. My wife, who loved him too, had waited tortuously for my usual touchdown call. When I got her, her words tumbled horrifically. I heard them several times before I could process them. I sat against the wall, and remnants of the immediate haze still linger, as the tenth anniversary of the event streaks toward.
       There weren’t many calls to be made: he and I were the last of the four siblings, he the oldest at sixty-two, me the youngest, ten years his junior.
       He was the example my parents used when I was growing up. Don’t use drugs. You’ll end up like Jimmy.
       They came into his life early. He was ravaged by polio in the early 1950s. Today, every school kid gets a vaccine. My brother got shots too – morphine, every day. He lived at the Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children for months at a time. We visited him on weekends. When he got home, I was six, and he was a very pissed off teenager in a turtle-shell cast with a strong preference for being high.
       He was constantly in trouble, occasionally went to high school, was a voracious reader, and compensated for his diminutive size and severe limp (one leg was left a few inches shorter than the other) with quick-triggered violence and criminal daring not common to his age group. I was a scrawny, unkempt city kid, but I was given a wide, resentful berth everywhere in my neighborhood because of my brother.
       There was nothing he wouldn’t try. We shared a bedroom: there were pillow-cases filled with jewelry, electronics, coins, crap. A .22 tucked between the mattresses. He got arrested repeatedly. A crippled judge, Birch Donahue, cut him major slack.
       He robbed a grocery store, got caught, went to prison. He ran a drug ring in Portland, carried huge cash, drove a sports car, carried a gun. He bought a house. I visited him, drove his new Fiat convertible. He married, but his first love was heroin. He went down the chute, fast, lost control, lost his business. He robbed the same neighborhood bank three times, limping to his self-driven getaway car, finally got caught. Went to prison, got out. Got reacquainted with his first love. Tried to rob a zoo, got busted in a movie-like car chase on the grounds. The older he got, the higher he got, and the higher he got the more desperate he was to stay that way.
       I spent varying amounts of time with him through the years, interspersed between his succession of stints in criminal institutions, beginning with The Ione Reformatory School for Boys in Central California, a few hundred miles from where we lived. He was fourteen.  My parents and I visited him a couple of times a year.
       That first eighteenth-month stint reinforced my brother’s lifelong preference for being alone.
       I cultivated my own preference for solitude in other ways, making up worlds on paper and writing for hours until my mother’s factory shift ended.
       My brother eventually landed in Lompoc, a Federal Penitentiary in California, and I lived closer than four hours drive. In seven years, I found time to see him three times. Then he was sent to Pennsylvania, and I had a geographic excuse for my detachment. I visited not once for a decade. We spoke, awkwardly, on the phone a couple times a month. I had little to say. He had no one else to call. Sometimes the calls were furtive and embarrassed requests for money. I complied when I could, enabling him.
I met my brother off the plane six years ago – he had been paroled, to a halfway house, in Portland. He was fifty-six. We stopped at a Starbucks in the airport on the way out. He could not fathom a three-dollar cup of coffee, protesting vigorously as he struggled to adapt to a new life algorithm. He found a job the second day he was out. He left the halfway house three months later. He had saved $1400 since hitting the street, about two thirds of what he earned, after paying his halfway house rent. He got a dank apartment.
       We talked once a week, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I enjoyed it. The disciplined life of a long-term convict served him well at his telephone soliciting job, and he advanced. His sense of humor flourished, and he shared his insight and anecdotes. He saved money. He got credit cards, financed a car, and was never late with a payment. Within two years, he had a credit score of over 700.
       He rekindled with his daughter, reviving a relationship that was one of the casualties of his previous lifestyle. He had pictures of her all over his apartment. She was a marine, a sharpshooter, jumped out of helicopters.
       He was self-sufficient, and proud of it. He lived a spartan lifestyle – his lone extravagance was eating out. He saved money, took road trips. He visited me in Hawaii, took a trip to Mexico, to the Sierra Madre. The trip inspired him to write a screenplay. He saw life sober for the first time, and liked it. His daughter was skittish, waiting for the inevitable lapse, and he was determined not to engage it. He told me he didn’t miss the high. There was an occasional woman in his life.
       Everything seemed fine, but always there was an undercurrent of impatience. His life was an ill-fitting suit.  He seemed unsettled. There was an ugly incident outside the apartment he rented. It reignited racist views hardened in prison. He turned angry. He moved to Mexico, rented a three-bedroom house in a dirt street neighborhood, the only gringo for miles. He paid a year in advance, $800. He lived there six months. I visited him. I couldn’t find his house – there were no street signs – so I asked the first person I met. “Ah, loco gringo!” the guy said, and drew directions in the dirt with a stick. I stayed a week. We took a train trip through the Sierra Madre. It was the longest we’d been together in one stretch in forty years.
The ’98 Olds was the newest car in the neighborhood. The stereo was quickly stolen out of the dash, and afterward, the car lost some of its luster. James complained that it was impractical on the dirt roads, that he really needed a truck. One of the Mexicans he hung with was the brother of someone he’d known in the joint. He had the unmistakable texture of a player.
       James drove the Olds 2500 miles back to Oregon, took him the better part of a week. His daughter gave birth. He was softened by the reality of a grandbaby, then another. He made a few trips to Mexico, returning to Oregon each time.
       When the cops ran the victim’s rap sheet – his wallet was still in his pocket, along with a few hundred bucks – the circumstances began to take shape. Ex-con, convicted heroin dealer, armed robber, shot in the head in the bright of day – it added up to a drug deal gone south.
       The cops went to Portland, asked around. Maybe there had been a dispute with a business contact in Salem, sixty miles to the south, they were told. They worked up a list. They canvassed the neighborhood. The first house they went to in Salem was ten feet from the blood-soaked Oldsmobile, separated from the church parking lot by a wood fence.
       No Tom here, the woman told them. Tom is my son, but he hasn’t lived here for years – but he does visit occasionally.
       They got a warrant to search the home.
       They swarmed him on a Sunday morning as he stepped outside a Denny’s. They found methamphetamine, heroin, weed, and a couple of guns on him, and in his car. He was on parole, and had been arrested, but cut loose, in a drug bust at a local hotel a few months prior.
       The Salem daily was quick to reconcile the mystery of the unnamed sixty-two-year-old shot to death in his car in the parking lot. The suspect had meth and heroin on him, and the dead man’s criminal history was riddled with arrests for drug dealing. Police were vague, but hinted at a botched drug deal, the only thing that made sense. The reporter made a leap, reporting a meth-heroin connection between the men. I called the detectives. If it meant anything to me, they said, they had the commodity as weed, from Mexico. They asked me a lot of questions about my train trip a few months earlier, and how long I’d lived on Maui.
       Before the arrest, I went to the parking lot, the asphalt still painted with the black-brown stain of my brother’s blood. I leaned over the fence, looked at the house, wondered if anyone had been home to hear the shots. The neighbor across the street had heard it, and called police.
       I spoke with a couple of neighborhood kids on bikes, who asked if it was true he had been in the Mafia. I called the deacon of the church. I wanted him to know my brother was no heroin addict or tweaker, that he was no innocent, but that the papers had gotten things not quite right. That James wasn’t a vagrant drug addict, but a guy with a daughter and a brother who loved him, with two grandbabies.
       The plea bargain has Thomas Cleveland doing twelve years at the Oregon State Penitentiary at Salem. I had visited my brother there twice. The first time, in 1968, I made the twenty-hour car trip with my parents, in a last-leg, ’58 Chevy that stranded us repeatedly. Our trip home was paved by fortuitous timing and the kindness of strangers. The second time, I was seventeen. It was my first solo road trip, in my newly acquired ’66 VW bug. Forty hours round trip on the road, eight in the visiting room, maximum four a day for two days. 
       The ’98 Olds made the reverse trip, Portland to LA (and beyond, to Mexico) and back, four times in the year before my brother’s murder.
I don’t know why I was irritated that they called me about the car. The first thing I thought of was what the smell must be like.
       Then I decided that whatever I did about it was better than doing nothing.
       So I agreed to claim the car – or at least to designate someone.
       My brother was generous to a fault, often sharing when he didn’t have enough.
       There must be a way to get rid of the smell.
       Someone would be able to use the car. 

© Kevin Spaise


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