My mother thought so poorly of her son-in-law that the most she could say in his favor was, “Well, at least he doesn’t beat her [her being my sister].” I believe this was true if only because Russell’s ambition extended no further than music, marijuana, Marlboro, Miller High Life, and what was then a new video game called PacMan. While it was also true that he would take a job from time to time, he never worked for long, although he made up for it to some extent by working god-awful hours in god-awful places, the kind of places that put people into early graves from respiratory failure, places like swamps, cotton gins, egg factories, and demolition sites.

He was a pleasing man to look upon: slim, mustached, a slightly dark complexion, a bit over six feet tall, almost black eyes and hair, and a quiet, mellow disposition that was enhanced by substance abuse. He was supposed to be my sister’s shackperson (their dwellings never rose to the designation of house) while she checked groceries at Kroger, but she was the one who kept the place tidy. As for cooking, he would break open a tube of crescent rolls and microwave a couple of TV dinners each night, but I never saw him go beyond that.

Because I was too frugal to buy pot after it passed $15 a lid, I took advantage of Russell’s ever-present supply. I wasn’t so crass as to ask for a hit, but would instead drop-in and wait for him to fire-up his homemade water pipe and offer me one. Some days I had to wait as long as fifteen minutes, but I’ve never been a complainer, leastwise in situations where it might work against me. Russell had a saying about marijuana and because it came from someone whom I perceived to be cool, and because I viewed drugs as the gateway to higher consciousness, I put more stock in it than I otherwise would, although not enough stock to make it my own. “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope,” he would say, and he lived it to the extent that if he were out of pot, he would drive any distance to get some. This was in Mississippi during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and people were sometimes sent to jail for being caught with a single seed in their floor-mats, so if he had been busted with a pound or two, he would have ended-up in Parchman (I knew of a repeat offender who was sentenced to life without parole for possession of a single roach), but pot was that important to him.

Russell had another saying about pot that annoyed Peggy no end because it was directed only at her, and she heard it a lot. It went, “Peggy, wanna hit? It’ll do you good.” Peggy, you see, was strongly opposed to pot, not because it was pot, but because it was illegal, and she had the notion that people should obey the law. “No thank you, Russell,” she would say again and again, but it never deterred him, and she was too young and shy to tell him to get the fuck out of her face. After knowing Peggy for a few years, Russell got to worrying that “she might turn us all in for our own good,” and I had to reassure him repeatedly that she would never do such a thing. His fear surprised me since, as I said, it wasn’t pot that bothered Peggy; it was getting busted for committing a felony that bothered her, so it would have made no sense for her to subject her husband and relations to the very thing that she feared. I don’t know how much thought she gave at the time to the fact that she too would have been hauled to jail if there had been a raid—a lot more people were raided back then and for a lot less reason. When she later became a nurse, it added greatly to her own risk, but she never declined to visit her pot-smoking relatives, and she never asked them to leave their drugs at home when they visited us.

Being mellow and untalkative were what made Russell seem cool, and it was seeming cool that made him appear to possess a great deal more depth, if not wisdom, than he actually did. In retrospect, I can see that every remarkably cool person I ever knew was, in reality, so deeply troubled that some of them came to tragic ends before they reached thirty, yet I ignored the pattern of what people were in favor of the image they projected, and in the case of cool, it was an image that I envied. Whenever I was complimented (believe it not, I used to be complimented at times), it was always because I was mistaken for being cool, and I even felt that way when I was in a good mood, but I was more often intense, lonely, moody, easily hurt, and the poster boy for existential angst. Despite these things, I still believed in people—especially women—and this made it easy for me to present a relaxed appearance that, while real, was the tip of the iceberg compared to what lay below.

I didn’t see much of Russell after he and my sister divorced, not just because he lived further away—about eighty miles—but because it wasn’t long before he married a straight-laced woman with three kids who successfully demanded that he give up beer, dope, and all of his previous friends and relations. Russell moved his new wife and kids into the rundown Southern mansion that his mother had recently died in, and it was no time before the new wife was pregnant.

The last time I saw Russell was in 1992 when I went South to sell off my father’s things and move him up to Oregon to live with Peggy and me. Some years before, Dad had sold a table saw to Russell, and Russell had never paid him for it despite several requests on Dad’s part, an omission that pissed me off enough that I put Dad in the truck, and set out to find Russell. He was still living with the straight-laced woman, but, it being early afternoon, we went directly to the egg factory (the biggest one in Mississippi at the time) where he was working, and told him what we had come for. He paid Dad, even giving him a little extra, and Dad and I celebrated by buying a couple of malts (malts being another thing that used to be a big part of my life but are probably nonexistent by now).

Russell is the same category as a lot of people who used to be important to me in that I couldn’t even tell you if he’s still alive. I sometimes think about looking him up, but I know that it was circumstance more than affinity that brought us together, and that if we came together again, it would be strained and we would be as strangers... I’ll close with another of Russell’s favorite songs—after “Illegal Smile” and pretty much anything else by John Prine. “That’s how life is,” he would say when it was playing, and maybe he was right.


Stephen Hayes said...

I have more cousins like Russell than I can count. All whacked out on drugs they couldn't control and now all dependent on the State. It's sad to see potential wasted. I've enjoyed drugs since I first started experimenting with them at seventeen but they were never important enough to make me lose focus on what I wanted to do with mt life.

Snowbrush said...

So far as I know, Russell stopped everything but the Marlboros. His former friends hated his new wife at the time, but it was his choice to give up those friendships and doing so no doubt made it a lot easier to quit drinking and smoking pot because his social life had previously been based around such things.

Elephant's Child said...

There have been a lot of Russells in my life - except that I never thought they were cool. Comatose, but not cool.
And whats this I used to get compliments crap? I don't think a post goes by where someone doesn't say that it is thought provoking as always, or a stunning piece of writing. Or are you just fishing? If so, take it as read - your posts are often confrontational and always (without exception) worth reading.

Snowbrush said...

"And whats this I used to get compliments crap?"

I anticipated someone making this observation and am not at all surprised that it was you. Your point is a valid one, but I should explain that I was thinking of compliments regarding my personal likeability rather than compliments regarding how well I present myself on paper, so to speak. As I write to you about this, it occurs to me that I'm ambivalent about compliments no matter where they come from or what they're for. Like much in life, I don't really know what to make of them. Some stick with me, and I ponder them from time to time for months or years, and others I almost dismiss. I think the distinction has to do with how heartfelt I perceive a compliment to be. In the case of the compliments I used to get about how mellow I was, I knew that the person was mistaking a small piece of me for being a big piece of me, so I always felt that I had fooled them to an extent. As for compliments regarding my writing, I appreciate those more because I work so hard at it and am quite clear regarding my vision, yet am often unsure how it will be taken. I think that a great many people miss the point of what I'm trying to say in a given post, so when someone gets it, I feel validated in a way that matters quite a lot. If no one got it, I would feel that I had failed to make myself clear, so when someone does, I can take comfort in the fact that I have succeeded, and can tell myself that the reason most others didn't get it might have been that they read hurriedly, didn't find the subject interesting, were offended by my viewpoint, etc.

"There have been a lot of Russells in my life - except that I never thought they were cool. Comatose, but not cool."

Quiet people often draw me in because whereas loquacious people make their limitations known (without meaning to), quiet people seem mysterious and this makes it easy for me to imagine that there's more there than there is. Also, I really saw drugs as being a gateway to another world, and Russell came to represent that world because I had never known anyone--other than in books--who spoke of them in the same exalted way that he did. Today, I still see drugs as having the potential to bring gifts into my life, but I know it's not necessarily a good world that they take me too, and even when it has good parts, those parts can come at considerable cost. In my case, I'm not talking about addiction but a state approximating psychosis that is followed by days of fatigue.

Elephant's Child said...

Your writing is an integral part of who you are. Pithy presentation of the myraid of things which you think about. So... from my perspective at least, a compliment about your writing is also an affirmation of you.
And I hope your lack of suprise at my compliment was itself complimentary.

Snowbrush said...

"I hope your lack of suprise at my compliment was itself complimentary."

It was. I have enough knowledge of my regular readers to anticipate how things I write might strike them, and in the case of contradictions--or apparent contradictions anyway, I'm usually aware when I make them and it would seem obvious that the people most likely to catch them are the people who read most carefully, and that includes you. You also have directness about you that I appreciate and anticipate.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, fascinating how certain things and behaviors can seem cool to us at the time. But times change.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Nice profile Snow.

It's funny how we can seem so close to someone and yet, circumstances change and you realize it was only circumstance that made you friends.

Snowbrush said...

"I hope your lack of suprise at my compliment was itself complimentary."

Yes, maturity and experience comes along and ruins perfectly good illusions. The question is, are we then better off in regard to trust, optimism, and so forth. I think not, yet I wouldn't go back. I pride myself on being the kind of person who wants to know the truth not matter how dismal the truth might be, but, of course, that image of myself could simply be another illusion. How would I know?

"circumstances change and you realize it was only circumstance that made you friends."

I think this is the case with nearly everyone we know. Move, change jobs, change religions, and see how many people you care for remain in your life. I think this is one reason--death being another--to avoid putting too much stock in any given relationship. The worse pain that has come into my life came because I tried to hold on to the transient, yet all things and all people are transient.

Joe Pereira said...

I too had some relatives (anonymous)who were so apaced out during the 70s they must have missed the decade altogether. I really enjoyed listening to Freakers Ball again, Ah.. the good ol' days

Snowbrush said...

"I really enjoyed listening to Freakers Ball again."

Joe, I prefer another song on the same album, but I posted Freakers' Ball because it was Russell's favorite. Check this one out:

kylie said...

i have always regarded it as an enormous compliment o be called "cool" and you're killing it for me!

and snow, i am frugal, i like frugal, it's a good thing but if you were deliberately bludging weed off your BIL, that makes you less frugal and more tight, in my opinion

Linda said...

Since I never did drugs and never took a drink until I was over 30, I never had friends like that. But, on some level I do relate to what you wrote.

My four siblings were the only drug users and drinkers with whom I associated. The respected my mother and probably feared my disapproval, so they never brought their habits to us at family occasions. There were times I suspected they were high, but Mama never did. Alcohol never was allowed in the house, so would not have dared to drink openly. One sister knew how to hide vodka in any fruit juice, so she probably had some stashed in her purse or car.

I don't blame Peggy for her fear. I would be just like

I wonder if your sister had demanded Russell give up drink and drugs if he would have. I suppose not. It always amazes me that a man will not do the thing that will hold his marriage together, but will then do those things for the next woman.

Putz said...

i wrote a piece on my blog about my cousin louie once and everyone thought i was talking about me><<><>ate gophers and rattelsnake

Snowbrush said...

"if you were deliberately bludging weed off your BIL, that makes you less frugal and more tight"

I hesitated to use the word frugal because, like you, I define frugal as a virtue, but I define cheap as a willingness to sacrifice quality for price, so it didn't apply either. What I did was conniving and tacky, rather than frugal or cheap, so I'll have to think about it some more.

"I wonder if your sister had demanded Russell give up drink and drugs if he would have."

Well, she liked cigarettes, pot, and cocaine, so I doubt that it ever occurred to her to ask Russell to give up drugs. How odd that all four of your brothers and sisters did drugs and you didn't even experiment with them. A great many people do experiment, but don't like them, so they don't continue to use them. For the most part, I've been open to trying any and everything, and can only think my lucky stars that I don't have an addictive personality. For example, I've taken narcotics for pain for years now, and even though I enjoy the high, I'm not an addict. There was also a time in my life when I got drunk frequently, but I never became an alcoholic. I think that's how it tends to be with people, either they have an addictive gene, or they don't. I take it that your siblings do, which means that you probably did well to avoid drugs.

Hi, Putz, you're a man of mystery, eh?

Joe Todd said...

I think that's how it tends to be with people, either they have an addictive gene, or they don't. I think so to.. great post and comments