Closer Than A Brother

“Daddy, why are we going downtown? I forgot…. to see who?” The little boy held onto the pole next to him as the train ambled along toward Chicago from the suburbs. His father, John Wilson Bach, sat beside him and his older brother across from him. The train was crowded.

“Want to see my friend, remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

The boy looked ahead. “What’s his name? Ginger?”

“Yes. Ginger Bob.”

“That’s a funny name. Is it his real name?”

“It’s what everyone calls him.”

The thought occurred to John Wilson that no one called Ginger Bob by any name anymore, probably. Maybe a few of the other street people did.

The boy stared at his brother and tried to remember something. He rubbed his eyes. ‘Where does he live again? I forgot.”

He lives in the city, but he doesn’t have a home. John Wilson patted the overstuffed backpack resting on his lap. “That’s why we’re taking him this stuff.”

The boy looked up at his dad. “ He doesn’t have any stuff?”

“Well, no… yes, he has stuff. It’s just that his stuff is probably getting old. Time for new.”

“What about the guitar?” the boy asked. “Gonna give him that too?”

“No, just hoping he might play it for us.”

The train jerked a bit on the tracks and John Wilson grabbed the backpack to keep it from falling. The older son across the way looked out the window. The neighborhood through which they passed was run down. A few scattered people walked about. A group of young thugs sat along a stoop to an empty building.

“Must be getting close,” the boy announced. “I remember this neighborhood.”

John Wilson looked out and agreed, “Not too much further.”

“How long we gonna stay?” the younger brother asked, resting his head back and rolling it from side to side against the window pane behind him. He didn’t wait for the answer but continued, “Mom says we gotta be back by supper. Grandma’s coming over.”

“We will be,” John Wilson sighed. “Don’t worry.”

 

John Wilson wondered if or when he would explain to his boys how the name Ginger Bob had evolved from his friend’s given name, Robert Edward Ginger. Would they even care how it happened? Would the curiosity of a child even hold for such a mundane explanation?

The memory ran its familiar course through his mind. First day of gym class years before, each boy lined up by his last name. John Wilson near the start with the last name of Bach. Joe Young bringing up the end. Just to the left of middle stood Robert Edward Ginger. That’s all there was to it. A simple misunderstanding by the boy’s mother. Each boy’s white shorts and t shirt marked with his name in block letters as the coach had instructed the first day. Each lined up for roll call. That was it. The sum total. A simple mistake by a loving mother who wrote her son’s last name first, then a comma, then the first name. Ginger, Robert.

John Wilson remembered the coach walking along with his clipboard, checking off each boy’s name for attendance. Something made him stop at Robert Ginger. The coach looked at the boy, rechecked his clipboard, and then declared the new moniker that would travel with the boy as his shadow… all through that gym class and through all of junior high and then all of high school. Into a year of failure at college, a couple of years at various labor jobs, a stint in the Navy, back into a meaningless work history, and eventually into the barbaric and kaleidoscope nonreality of mental illness on the streets of the city.

“Ginger Robert?” the coach asked. John Wilson could still hear it.

“Robert Gin…” the boy tried to correct.

“Ginger Robert?”

“No, sir,” the boy attempted again.

The coach snickered and shook his head.

“Ginger.”

The boy stood silently.

“Robert.”

The boy stood silent in defeat, and nodded.

“Ginger Robert,” the coach announced to the class. “We have a new student with us,” he continued, “Ginger Rob…” his eyes shifted. “Ginger Bob!”

Some of the classmates laughed. The boy shrugged his shoulders and laughed in defense of himself and that was that.

Ginger Bob it was.

 

A half hour later, John Wilson and his boys spotted Ginger Bob crumpled up in a heap next to a building, his arms folded up over his head to ward off the heat of the late morning sun. Had John Wilson not been looking carefully, the pile of humanity before him could have been mistaken for a disheveled bunch of laundry. Discarded. Not to be washed.

Two high top tennis shoes, both without laces, below a thin veil of pants, settled below a long-used t shirt with a man in it.

The face was hidden between the raised arms, but the stringy, greasy hair was aloft, flopped about and unkempt, as a little boy might wear on a Saturday morning sitting before the television. The man was asleep.

“Ginger?” John Wilson asked, to make sure. Nothing.

“Is it him, Dad?” the older boy asked. This bum didn’t seem so different from the others they had passed as they walked from the train station. Some had cardboard signs. Some had coats on even. None had much facial expression if any, Their eyes, if open, staring out of sunken sockets. One had introduced himself repeatedly to the passing boys as Charles Manson. The boys asked the dad after rounding the next corner if that was the man’s real name. ‘No,” he answered.

John Wilson tried again a little louder, “Ginger?”

A cat poked his head out from under the remains of Ginger’s chest, as a butler might look out when answering the door for his employer. He looked at John Wilson, looked at the boys, then sprang out onto the sidewalk and stretched.

Ginger looked up, squinting. “Huh?”

“it’s me, John Wilson Bach.” The cat rubbed against the younger boy’s leg. Ginger said nothing.

“How are you, my friend? I brought the boys to meet you. Mind if we sit down?”

Ginger looked around as if to see where he was. He puckered his lips, looked up again at John Wilson and rubbed his eyes with open palms.

“Boss,’ he said. He nodded his head.

John Wilson sat beside his old friend and stuck out his hand for a handshake. Ginger only stared at the gesture and looked to the ground. He then kissed the air, nodded, and said, “Boss,” again. John Wilson patted Ginger on the shoulder.

“Boys, sit down here beside me and let’s visit my old friend for a bit, what say?”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Sure.”

 

The first few minutes passed in silence. At one point, Ginger stared at John Wilson as if examining him. He tilted his head and held it that way for a bit, and then tilted it back and looked a while longer. He nodded his head quite often, almost to the point of a violent tremor at times. At one point, finally, he slapped the concrete beside him, kissed the air, performed one dramatic nod and said, ‘I know, I know.”

John Wilson knew the antics of his friend. He knew the shell of the man robbed long before of his senses. Robbed slowly but left a victim nonetheless. Each visit the same… a hint at muted recognition at best.

This spot on the sidewalk, hot against a highrise office building, this spot was his friend’s retirement, his hospital, his front yard, his vacation trips, his needless errands, all rolled into one. It would eventually be his place to die, John Wilson supposed.

On the way back, later, the questions would come as to why they couldn’t take Ginger home with them, why they couldn’t hire someone to take care of him, why they couldn’t at least give him some money. John Wilson would answer the best he could.

“Boooooo-oooooossssss!” Ginger suddenly erupted, voice rising as a shout. The boys jumped a bit and giggled. The ever-passing crowd jogged in its course, the loud voice of Ginger bouncing them back as a rock thrown into a lake might scare a school of fish.

John Wilson patted his friend’s shoulder again. “Thirsty, Ginger?” He reached into the pack he brought for his friend and pulled out a bottle of water.

Ginger took the bottle of water and held it to his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut twice and then looked to the heavens. “Oooooohhh… get me some wash, boss. Get me some wash.”

He looked back down at John Wilson and thrust the quickly-sweating bottle toward him. “Boss wanna wash?” He tilted his head like a puppy.

John Wilson looked down, “No thanks, Ginger.”

“Boys wanna wash?” he leaned out and held the bottle around John Wilson toward the two boys.

They shook their heads in unison.

“Okay by me, boss.”  He tucked the bottle under his shirt against his bare stomach. John Wilson glimpsed the white flesh, even in repose stretched tightly over the gaunt frame of his friend. The ever-passing jumble of legs busied themselves in his periphery. A few cars passed. A horn sounded, tinny and hollow as it rang against the towering steel and glass structures. Someone cursed in response.

“My boys here wanted to meet you, Ginger.” Ginger nodded his head and looked straight out.

“And I been meaning to get back down here for awhile myself.”

Ginger kept nodding at a decreasing pace. He looked around as if bored.

The legs continued by. The boys kicked each other playfully.

“Boys, I didn’t tell you about Ginger playing football.”

Ginger stopped nodding and raised his eyebrows. His cat was snuffling around in his shirt and licking the perspiring bottle of cold water. He retreated momentarily, looked at John Wilson and meowed and repositioned himself for better leverage to get at the moisture.

Ginger scratched his chin and rubbed his forefinger and thumb repeatedly into the grizzle.

“1977. October 3rd, if I remember.” John Wilson continued. “Big game against Falcone High. Damn hoity toity kids…” The boys looked up to their dad and then at each other. They smiled in unison at their dad’s use of the word, “damn.”

Ginger looked away, took in a big breath that raised his shoulders, held it and exhaled just as big a sigh, his shoulders melting back into his tshirt. He patted his knees with open palms.

“Ginger here passed for 212 yards that night, boys. Ran for another 82, most of those on his own. Our line was shot.” John Wilson laughed. “I sure wasn’t any help.”

Ginger jutted out his chin and said, “Wash.” He rocked in place and rubbed his face.

John Wilson looked up at him.’

“Do you remember, Ginger?”

Ginger patted the bottle and pushed his cat away.

“Yep.”

John Wilson looked back at the ground, wishing it were true. Wishing his friend could remember. Years before whatever it was had stolen his mind. He poked between his drawn up knees at a loose rock.

“That ain’t all,” he continued, picking up the rock and rolling it like a booger. ‘Knocked JD Cooke on his tight little ass three times.”

“Dad!” the older boy erupted. The younger one stared, mouth open as if in a dentist’s chair, staring in awe at his brother.

“What? He did! Started at quarterback and played defensive end too! Least that night he did. High school kid at that!”

Ginger snickered.

“294 yards of total offense and three solo sacks. Game of the year, they said.”

“Wow!” the older brother said, leaning around his dad to take in the measure of Ginger.

“Wow!” the younger brother echoed.

“Wow is right, boys. That’s old Ginger for ya.”

“Did he play in college or the pros?” the older boy asked.

“No, boys…. No.” John Wilson searched for more to say. He shook his head.

Ginger picked at his teeth. His cat had earned free passage to the bottle, licking it intently now.

Again, a horn sounded, this time a block away. A mime had taken up stage on a far corner, capturing a gathering crowd.

John Wilson sighed. “Let’s sit here a little while longer, boys, and then we can go home. We’ll get some ice cream on the way.”

The older boy pumped his little fist in the air, “Yes!”

The younger boy asked, “Can Ginger come with us?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He just can’t…”

“I wanna show him to my friends. I wanna see him throw a football.”

“Well, he can’t, so be quiet for now, okay?” John Wilson looked at his littlest boy and smiled at him.

The boy looked back at him. He swallowed a little, becoming embarrassed at his suggestion, “Okay, Daddy.”

Ginger lifted his shoulders again and sighed. He fumbled in his backpack for a cigarette.

John Wilson repeated, “Let’s just sit here a little while.”

 

The sun angled from the glass walls surrounding the foursome, gathering its heat from building to building. Passersby glanced down occasionally. A little girl walked by, her hand in the hand of her own daddy, he a hip young professional beside his equally hip wife, the girl’s mother. The little girl gazed not at the bum, but at the youngest boy, and he returned her gaze. She smiled and looked at her daddy, pulling on his hand as they walked away, and after getting his attention she pointed back at the boy now retreating from her. He looked back, interrupted himself ever so briefly to respond, “I see…” and continued on. The little girl looked ahead too, finally, as the crowd filled in between them.

Many more little girls and little boys passed by, all in the knowledge of safe passage at the sides of their parents. Life was to be enjoyed this day. Many adults of many ages passed by, their numbers in the thousands, perhaps, if one cared to count. The minutes ticked by, the sun edging around on its arc.

Ginger found another cigarette in his pack, this one previously half-smoked. He struck a match and cupped his hands as a master lighter of cigarettes might, if there was such a vocation. There was scant breeze available to bother the flickering flame though, and the exhaled smoke hung about as the haze from a smoke bomb. The little boys watched and enjoyed the smell of it.

The littlest boy began to pretend to smoke, cupping his hands in imitation and blowing out his breath through puckered lips.

John Wilson felt sleepy, his head resting against the brick. The heat baked his thoughts, even in the shade. He remembered back to high school summers and the past hot days he knew during the August football practices. Each day had held the coming promise of a perfect season. 1977 was to be a banner year. The game against Falcone had indeed been the apex of a season as perfect as could be hoped for. Ginger Bob was as quick as they came on offense with an arm that could whip a rope to a slanting receiver or loft a perfect lob, free-throw in its gentility, dropping right where needed, even in a nest of outstretched arms. Ginger Bob, the subject of many game films passed among high school coaches, the subject of many articles of small town sports reporters.

Years later, in fact, J.D. Cooke would dream occasionally of Ginger coming at him, unblocked, a dog attacking. He would see the face framed within the advancing helmet and hear his own pads being popped and feel his body being slammed back and his breath punched out of him against the ground. He would awaken and rub his eyes in his middle-aged sleep and shake his head and shiver a bit, all those years later. And he would wonder, briefly, whatever happened to that boy who had stolen his senior year glory from him.

 

“Daddy, I’m bored,” the older boy said.

John Wilson opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He looked around.

The passing legs were a bit fewer in number, and for a third time, louder than ever, Ginger lifted his shoulders and let them collapse with a massive sigh.

“One more thing…” John Wilson grabbed his guitar case and pulled it to his lap. He unlatched the case and pulled his guitar out.

“Will you, Ginger?” The boys perked up a bit.

Ginger shook his head and rubbed his hands together. He placed them as in prayer under his chin and looked up at the sky. “Gotta wash is wash, boss. Hot, hot today, boss.”

John Wilson held the guitar to him. Ginger looked at it and kissed the air. He looked ahead.

“Ginger? Please? I’d really like my boys to hear you.”

Ginger reached over and took the guitar from John Wilson. His squeezed the neck of it with his smudged hands, his overgrown fingernails striped black. When he released the too-tight grip the guitar buzzed a little in protest.

“He plays the guitar too? the older boy asked. The younger boy leaned over to watch.

“Best player I know.” John Wilson said.

Ginger straightened up ever so little and pushed the now resting cat off of his lap. The cat arched his back and spread his claws in stretching. He sneezed a little cat sneeze. Ginger cradled the guitar and strummed, holding no chord. He sat still.

“Little wash,” he whispered.

John Wilson leaned in a little. Ginger sat still, screwing his lips sideways and chewing against the inside of his cheek.

“Okay, Ginger. Okay.” John Wilson sat back.

A chord sounded. The shriveled man whose only family was a homeless cat, who didn’t own more than his own clothes, who never again would see more of the world than a couple of blocks of concrete and glass and steel, and the ever crowding people… he played, the successful banker from the suburbs beside him with his two boys in tow.

More chords followed, followed by a brief pause and then a surprising foray up the neck of the guitar. The beauty surprised even John Wilson, who grinned as a man might when receiving a long-desired gift on his birthday. He looked at his boys. They were smiling in return. The shaded sunlight presented them as angels to their father, and he tussled their hair each in turn.

The guitar continued and then a familiar tune. John Wilson found himself singing softly.

“Amazing grace… how sweet the sound,,, that saved a wretch… like me….”

An older couple stopped to watch and listen, thinking they might be witnessing an act.

“I once was lost… but now am found…. was blind…  but now I see.”

The couple moved on, the man relieved he hadn’t had to give money.

“I’m……the……. thief…..” Ginger whispered as he played. John Wilson stopped singing and turned to him.

“What, Ginger?”

Another run up the neck.

“I’m… the… thieeeeeef…” his voice a bit stronger.

“Ginger, I don’t understand. What do you mean you’re a…”

“I’m the thief…… on the cross….,” he flinched as he spoke.

John Wilson was surprised by the sudden metallic tingle behind his brow, the quick fog in his vision. He hadn’t cried in years.

The guitar stopped and Ginger sang suddenly, a gruff and muted voice, “Remember me…. remember me… oh, Lord, remember me.” He kissed the air and rocked twice.

John Wilson blinked and looked to his boys again.

The guitar continued then. Ginger’s head bowed low as he pulled a different melody from the strings. His head swayed, and shook no, as if in answer to the ground below him. He looked up and at John Wilson.

“I’m the thief… on the cross,” he sang again.

John Wilson understood and laughed the burst of a man stifling a cry, but too late. His nostrils flared, his eyes welled up, his shame at all he had accomplished in life and branded as his own consuming him. He sobbed a little. He grabbed his friend and pulled him close and whispered, “I’m the thief, too, Robert. I’m the thief, too…” Ginger continued to play and hum, unaffected. John Wilson sat back and wiped his eyes, embarrassed. His boys stared at him and arose to scurry into his lap.

“It’s okay, Daddy,” the older one offered. The younger one patted the strong shoulders.

John Wilson gathered his wits and breathed deep. A brief repose as he sniffed and smiled and nodded at his sons. They beheld him in wonder.

It was then that Ginger sang out, calling on the name of his Creator, the name of the One Who would never leave him … “Remember me, Jesus. Remember me, oh Lord…”

John Wilson looked to the heavens and sobbed again, his strong shoulders heaving, his soul free and his arms full of boys, the softening voice of Ginger continuing around him, yearning for the kingdom.


“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24

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