This isn’t about me, at least not directly. It’s about my younger brother Maurice. It was twenty years ago yesterday that he didn’t come home from William H. Holmes Elementary School. It was the beginning of the final month of my mother’s so-called marriage to my now ex-stepfather Maurice. And it was the beginning of a bumpy ride, to say the least.
It happened right after I returned from my second year at Pitt, flush with money but with only about three weeks to look for a summer job. In the meantime, I came home to a pigsty. It was the filthiest I’d ever seen our apartment at 616, not that there was that much to dirty. The entire hallway and foyer had bags full of dirty clothes piled up to wash. Some of the bags had overflowed. There was an endless amount of dust along the washboards of the hallway walls, as if they were in bomber formation. Trash and food were all over the kitchen, and the once-brown carpet in the living room was literally black and gray from Eri’s spills and my stepfather’s feet and oily body. I had steeled myself for the disconnect between my life at Pitt versus 616, but almost nothing could’ve prepared me for that. Boxes of my stuff from Welsford were coming in at the beginning of the week, so I knew it would be impossible to walk into the house if they were stacked in the foyer too. So I did what I always had done, only with some righteous indignation. I sorted two or three bags of clothes, made Darren get our siblings dressed, and went down to Pelham to wash clothes.
Over the next two weeks, that was mostly what I did it seemed, wash pile after pile of dirty clothes. I figured that there were about six weeks of clothes sitting in the hallway and foyer the day I came home. I also cleaned up as much as I could, got my siblings out of the apartment. I didn’t have much help. My mother was taking three courses at Westchester Business Institute that quarter. Darren had taken a job as a courier down in the city with a company that had a weird name, something with Blake in it. He was a foot courier. Darren had neither a license nor a bike. On weekends Darren would just lie around on his bed, or worse, he’d spontaneously jump up and down in his room with a big grin on his face, about what I didn’t know. My stepfather Maurice had gotten a job with the Mount Vernon Sanitation Department in February. He was a garbage man, an irony too delicious for my mother to leave alone. “Of all the jobs out there, ‘garbage’ goes and become’s a garbage man,” she laughed sarcastically on a couple dozen occasions. Their fights were every day now, with constant and open name-calling to boot. It was the worst I’d seen it since before my mother had been beaten up by Maurice seven years before.
So it was that on the tenth of May, with everything going on between my mother and my stepfather, Darren in his own world and my own hands full with my younger siblings that no one noticed that my brother Maurice hadn’t made it home from school. He was almost ten, but he still didn’t have friends he hung out with. I started worrying about an hour after he should’ve been home. I asked Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri if they’d seen him at Holmes during the day. Of course none of them knew anything, a sign that my mother and their father’s willful ignorance of the world around them had penetrated all of their heads. By 7 pm, I was really worried, to the point where I told my stepfather that I thought his son was missing. “Whatcha want me to do about it, look for him?,” he laughed. I was so horrified that I immediately called the cops to report my brother missing.
Just before my mother came home from class, the police called back to report that Maurice had been found, safe and somewhat sound. He was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and having soiled his clothes from the long and unending walk. I went downstairs to wait for my mother, bumping into our neighbor Helene along the way. She had this “What’s wrong?” look on her face, so I told her what was going on. My mother had made it to the front steps of 616 by then. Within a few minutes, Helene was giving us a ride in one of the Milton limos to pick up Maurice from the police station in Fort Lee. “He must’ve have walked twenty or twenty-five miles,” I said as we merged on the Bronx River Parkway. It turned out it was only somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles. My younger brother somehow figured his way through the Bronx and into Manhattan, taking Route 9 and Broadway through the Bronx, crossed the Broadway Bridge into Manhattan, and followed the signs to the George Washington Bridge. From there Maurice found his way onto the pedestrian path on the upper deck of the mile-long bridge across the Hudson and meandered his way to nearby Fort Lee before the police picked him up. When we finally arrived and saw him, I was really happy that he wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t angry at him, I just wanted to know why. My mother hardly said anything herself. When I asked Maurice, “What were you thinking?,” he said “I don’t want to go home!” That was all he said the whole ride back in Helene’s car. When we got back, we both thanked Helene, and my mother attempted to give her money for the ride, which she didn’t accept.
But it was more than enough, at least for my mother. She laid into my stepfather after we cleaned my brother up, fed him, and sent him to bed. For big Maurice’s part, he just left the house, presumably to carouse with another one of his victims.
My brother Maurice was in fourth-grade Special Ed at the time, labeled as mildly mentally retarded with an IQ of 78. And he was in a way. Holmes and the Mount Vernon Board of Education had no idea that my brother had been physically abused at the ripe old age of six months, beaten by my stepfather because “he was cryin’ too much.” Neglected often while I was in sixth and seventh grade, as my idiot stepfather rarely changed his diapers or fed him during the school day. My brother Maurice’s childhood was a disaster, and with the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, he might’ve been better off homeless. Years of chaos, poverty, and abuse and lack of food must’ve had some impact on my younger siblings, especially Maurice, as he lived through the worst of it all. Putting him and Yiscoc in Special Ed at five or six years old seemed rash, a cruel punishment for kids barely old enough to understand what was happening. I refused to believe that either of them were actually retarded. Certainly life at 616 had stunted their mental development. Retarded? Sure, if by that they meant that my mother and stepfather never read stories to them, took them places to learn about the world, or even took them to the park to play. That role usually fell on my shoulders.
So I didn’t blame Maurice for running away. He had many reasons to run. It was a watershed moment in a eight-year period of drama and grinding impoverished boredom. Within two months, my stepfather and my mother would be well on their way to divorce, my older brother Darren on his way to moving out. And I would begin my journey away from seeing myself as the surrogate parent to my siblings and surrogate husband to my mother.