Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In the middle of a sunny Las Vegas day, my brother Harlan, whom we called Deed, passed away, just minutes after he had talked to his longtime companion, Anita, who left his bedside to greet Deed's granddaughter, who was arriving from out of state.

Deed had cancer, but it wasn't the cancer that killed him. It was his heart and, weary of the constant testing and medication, it just stopped beating, in that momentous period of time that takes us from life to death. Anita had just reached her home when the telephone rang with the news. Deed was gone. He had just closed his eyes, sighed, and given in to the illnesses that plagued him, too tired to fight any longer.

I remember him best as a scrawny young boy with a shock of yellowish brown hair. I remember him wearing his corduroy pants and I can still hear the whistle and squeak that they made as his legs rubbed together as he walked. Whist! Whist! Whist! We knew Deed was nearby when we heard that sound. We could also hear the clump of his hightop boots!

Those hightop boots, with their tangle of strings, are the ones that received the healthy dose of Tabu, from the perfume bottle that Helen had sent to Helma and me. Helen was prone to sending the most romantic gifts. Helma and I were always thrilled when they arrived. She sent us black lace nighties and ribbons for our hair. She sent us shampoos and curlers and that enormous bottle of Tabu!

Deed's hightop boots had an odor that would have rendered an elephant unconscious within minutes of standing near them. The odor was a sickly, cloying foot smell that would invade the upstairs of the house and cling like a nauseating miasma to every ounce of oxygen. So it was natural that Helma and I pitched the boots to a spot on the windowsill and doused them liberally with Tabu.

It didn't take long for Mom to come to the foot of the stairs and ask about the horrible smell. Deed's boots sat outside all night to air out, hoping to rid them of the sickly sweet, clinging, half-foot smell, half expensive perfume smell that drifted into the window with each breeze.

The next morning, Deed had to clump off to school, smelling like a French harlot afflicted with a horrible, smelly disease. He didn't want to go, but Mom was firm. She chastised Helma and I for pouring perfume in his boots.

What a day Deed must have spent in that tiny schoolroom, with that odor drifting into the corners and seeping through the woodwork. At one point, he was made to stand outside, to no avail. Once that odor took over, there was no escape. It lingered even when the boots were gone.

That was the day that Helma and I had to rescue Deed from an attack by about five young boys. We had just finished charging a penny Bubble Gum onto Mom's bill at the neighborhood store. Those Bubble Gums not only tasted good, with the sweet taste lingering for several minutes in your mouth, but they were wrapped in a cute little comic, you could enjoy reading this as the sugary saliva dripped down your chin.

We were enjoying our gum when we heard a commotion. Investigating the shouts of anger, we saw Deed on the ground, being beat up by five young boys. We were so frightened, we didn't know what to do, so we ran for help, pounding on the door of the first house we reached. The lady came outside and made quick work of ending the fight. In just a few minutes, we headed homeward, myself, my sister, and my sweet smelling brother.

Deed was always in a fracas or two. He could get into mischief without even trying. Somehow, when he was seventeen, he got a little car. It was a convertible, but I cannot remember its make. You had to push it to start it and stick out your foot to stop it. It wasn't much of a car, but Deed was proud of it.

One day, Mom, Pop, Helma and I were picking corn, a chore that neither Helma nor I thought should be necessary. As we dawdled about, shoving ears into a bushel basket, we heard a loud motor coming down the road. Sure enough, it was Deed in his car, going far too fast for the curve he was about to reach.

"He's going too fast!" my mother commented, watching him, her face reflecting her worry.

"And there's no way to stop that car," I said to Helma, who rolled her eyes and sighed.

At that moment, Deed's car did a somersault into the air, sailing like a kite toward the ditch, where it landed upside down, wheels spinning in the wind.

We all started running. Mom was praying. Pop was cursing. Helma and I were wide-eyed with fright, trailing after our parents and gasping for breath as we ran.

Before we could reach the wreck, Deed pulled himself out of the twisted metal of that car, and stood up to face us as we ran toward him.

"No brakes," he explained, as we approached him. My mother embraced him in relief and we all walked back to the house. As Deed walked along, I could smell the sweet odor of his boots, mixed with the tangy smell of sweat.

Deed was born in Decater, Illinois, and the car accident was not his only brush with death. When Mom and Pop lived in the "House in the Holler," the house burned down in the early hours of the morning. Flames shot through the house and up the stairway, where Pop, Homer and the baby, Deed, were asleep. They woke up with searing fire and suffocating smoke throughout the room, and Pop woke up Homer, snatched up nine month old Deed, and tried to make it down the stairway. The flames were so hot, they couldn't walk down, so Homer and Pop, who was carrying Deed, slid down the bannister to safety, running out the front door of the house, where Mom and the other eight children had already congregated. Helma and I, born later in Michigan, missed this adventure.

Deed had no memory of that early morning thrill ride, but Mom talked about it often. Nothing they owned was saved except the lives of the family and the clothing they wore on their backs. It was just another blow from an already grim fate that was destined to keep this family poor but intact.

Deed went into the Army when he was about eighteen. He fought in the South Pacific and ended up in the Philippines, where he fell in love with a girl named, Conception. That romance didn't work out, however, and I was always a little relieved, because I could imagine myself introducing, "My sister in law, Conception." Deed came home with a terrible case of malaria. He lay on the couch for days and days, dosed with a medication called Atabrine. Whether it was the medicine or the disease, I don't know, but his flesh turned a brilliant shade of yellow, like a luminous lemon. Slowly, the color faded and Deed began to recover, weakened, but able to resume his life.

Deed is gone, but the memories stay behind. He has had much tragedy in his life. He lost his first wife, Juanita, the mother of two sons and daughter and, a while ago, lost that only daughter to cancer. Then he met Anita, gave up trying to drown his worries and sorrow in drinking, and found someone to live for again. He worked, until his retirement, with the Atomic Energy Commission, in Mercury, Nevada.

Anita's grief will fade and life will go on, one day at a time. She will always remember the years she spent with him, with his love of bowling, of dancing, of going to the Masonic lodge for an evening. Deed was a devoted member of the Masons and I used to tease him about being the "Grand Poobah!" Well, our Grand Poobah has left this world behind, but wherever he is, he will have his bright sense of humor and his ever present kindness with him.

Goodnight, my brother, may the Good Lord look after you forever.