Big Muddy

I needed to connect with the brother I’d grown up with

By Elizabeth Withey

I found him asleep at Wendy’s on a scuzzy patch of 17th Avenue, his forehead resting on the makeshift pillow he’d created from one arm. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew it was my brother: the black dreads, the lean build, the spatulate brown fingers, once slender, now swollen and encrusted with dirt in fingerless cycling gloves. Near his foot, a lone slice of deli meat from the sandwich he’d dropped. “Graham.” It’s the kind of sibling coffee date you will never imagine, and saying his name out loud made it real. I called to him gently as I approached, faux-nonchalant, tentative. Would he be angry? High? Would he even come to? A clutch of other drifters sat in the atrium section of the restaurant awash in blind-ing late afternoon sunlight, some asleep, others staring without seeing. I felt out of place in my floral dress, carrying my overstuffed mom tote. What was I doing here? What exactly was I looking for? In my belly, emotional swamp water: curiosity, frustration, protectiveness, shame.

A little louder now, I said his name again. “Graham.” I tapped the sleeve of his black leather jacket. He grunted, raised his head and smiled. His left front tooth was missing.

“Hi, Liz! Oooooh,” he cooed, “I’ve missed you.” His voice was raspy but warm; he seemed genuinely happy to see me. As we hugged, I caught the unmistakable stench of garbage. Everything Graham was wearing—his clothing, his two gold watches, the blue contact in his right eye—had been salvaged from dumpsters. I headed to the counter and ordered him four Junior Burgers and a large Coke.

Graham is my younger brother. My parents adopted him in Saskatchewan when he was an infant. It was our mother’s idea to adopt; she was a social worker and wanted to help a child in need. After reading The Family Nobody Wanted, she decided on a black one. Impossibly, my father went along with the idea. A former Mountie, Dad ran a precast business, spoke Fahrenheit and never wasted anything, not even a tear. What made him want to raise someone else’s child? Did he say yes to make Mom happy?

They got Graham in Saskatoon in February 1979, not long after my first birthday. “I hope he’s dark enough for you,” the foster mother said to my parents when they collected their new son.

Graham was the only black person in Nipawin, the small town where we grew up. Needless to say, he was plenty dark enough. His black curls were loose and lush, just big enough to wrap around your finger. In Grade 3, I cut my blond hair short and got a perm, so we’d look more alike. People knew, by association, that we were siblings, but only after our baby brother, Aaron, came along, did I come to know the spitting image adage.

My parents got Graham in February 1979. “I hope he’s dark enough for you,” the foster mother said to them when they collected their new son.

Kids gave Graham nicknames: Sometimes he was The Juice, after O.J. Simpson, but mostly he was Mud Puddle. A playful but nasty nickname, it had a smooth side and a rough side. They’d say it with these big stupid chuckles because they thought they were so clever, the jocks on the high school football team twice my brother’s size, the slick ski shits in their Sun Ice shells who swaggered in gangs through the school hallways. What’s for lunch, Mud Puddle? Because who couldn’t see the likeness between skin and soil, because how could it possibly hurt to be held up to filth?

Yo, Mud Puddle! Graham would smile when they said it, but it wasn’t his joyful smile, or his mischievous smile, it was his nervous, frightened, gonna-pee-my-pants smile, the same smile he had when Dad lost his shit for the umpteenth time because Graham couldn’t keep quiet, or stay still, because there’d been an incident: a smashed glass, a split knee. “Can you keep it down to a dull roar!” Dad would shout, and I was too young to appreciate the irony.

At home Graham would confide to me how much that nickname hurt; almost as much as the N-word, he said, which flew around the playground on occasion. I’d vow to avenge my brother. Wasn’t that what big sisters were supposed to do? Not that I was immune. For a time I was “Lezzy,” because it sounded like Lizzy. Without even really knowing what a lesbian was, I lived in mortal fear of becoming one. The cool kids knew how to find the scabs and pick them, just to watch us bleed.

Graham had perked up after finishing his burgers. As we chatted, he pulled a bottle of cologne from a pocket in his cargo pants—Pur Blanca, pure white—and sprayed himself twice. “The antithesis to all this,” he said with a laugh, gesturing to himself and his things.

It occurred to me he might like to come over for a little respite. “Do you want to take a bath?” I was only in Calgary for the week, job-training at CBC Radio, and had booked a bed and breakfast in the Mission neighbourhood. The bathroom had a clawfoot tub, just like the one we had growing up. Mom had always wanted a clawfoot tub, and when she and Dad renovated the basement, she got her wish and painted the tub herself. We seldom got company in northern Saskatchewan, so when my brother got his own room in the basement years later, the guest bath became Graham’s domain, his curls sprinkled on the lino, the sink, the tub. Everything white in that bathroom, in our world, everything white but Graham. Pur Blanca.

Ever the shivering child, my brother took hour-long, scorching baths that drained the hot water tank, always—or so it felt—right before I wanted to shower upstairs. If only I knew, then, the paltriness of my sisterly woes.

“I’d love to get cleaned up,” Graham said in the burger joint and gathered his things. I needed to connect with the brother I’d grown up with, to talk some sense into the self-described “hobo” sitting across from me, to at least understand this. Sleeping in fast-food restaurants. Walking away from his six children—five of them now in foster care. Panhandling, shooting meth, committing petty theft at night. Graham is bipolar. “It’s only a minor mental break,” he explained as we left the restaurant.

His shopping cart brimmed with a hodgepodge of junk. He covered it all with a beige animal-print blanket, as though this might keep it safe, and tucked it behind the Wendy’s dumpster before relieving himself. Using public washrooms is tough when you’re homeless; no one will give you the key. He stooped to collect two half-smoked butts, neatly crushed by someone’s shoe. His stiff gait made him seem much older than 37. “Street feet,” he told me, “from walking around non-stop.” Later, I Googled it: a condition common among the homeless, the result of wet socks and poor footwear.

Before leaving, Graham shot the shit with some of his street buddies: Hatter, Dove and Bert. He pulled out a ziplock bag of candy he’d found in a garbage can, offered it around, then unwrapped one for himself. “I’m just gonna season it,” he announced before dropping it on the sidewalk, then picked it up and popped it in his mouth. “Four-day rule.” “Gross,” I said, but laughed; Graham was still the class clown.

Before hopping into the front seat, my brother opened the hatch and tossed in his backpack and a weathered guitar. I’d never seen Graham play guitar; only piano, but Mozart and metronomes were never much his thing. Who, I’d wonder as I ran scales in our sunken living room, gave the white keys majority? And why did the black keys always sound so sad?

I sat cross-legged on the floral bedspread listening to my brother singing in the bathtub. “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”

My brother stopped making contact with us in early 2015. He’d disappeared from Facebook, and no-showed to visits that social services arranged each Saturday with his kids in Regina. Around Christmas he appeared on a police WANTED list for burglary—or was it fraud?—leaving us to wonder if he was even alive. Mom was beside herself, calling around to shelters, hospitals, social service agencies. Ken, a stable long-time friend of Graham’s who kept tabs on his movements, told her Graham was in Calgary. We found out later a gang had forcibly taken him to Alberta and held him hostage; he stayed there to avoid jail in Saskatchewan.

Eventually Mom got in touch with a police officer who worked with Calgary’s homeless and knew my brother. The officer arranged a rendezvous for us: a Saturday in late February 2016.

I drove down from Edmonton with my son, met Mom just before noon. Would he even show? We fidgeted with our takeout coffee cups. The McDonald’s on 17th had a Buddy Holly decorating theme, and my son, then 5, ran laps around the classic car booth between French fries, petting its fake chrome tailfins.

“Oh,” my mom said at 12:04, her voice strangely flat. “There he is.” I turned and saw a street person locking up his bike, cigarette dangling from his lips. Was it…? It was.

People stared as we lunched. How had this drifter caught the attention of two pale-faced women and a squirmy little boy? Were they being harassed? Conned? Every now and then, I sent a reassuring smile to some other stranger in the joint, though all I wanted was to shout. Eyes in your own plate, asshole! He’s my fucking brother.

“Everything’s going great,” Graham was saying between sips of his chocolate shake. “I’m loving what I’m doing!” Mom was trying to hold back tears. My son had grown quiet, taking in the loud, beardy man across the table.

“But Graham”—My brother cut her off. “It’s August.” August? It was February. No, he clarified. He didn’t go by Graham anymore. He’d renamed himself August Winters.

I sat cross-legged on the floral bedspread listening to my brother singing in the bathtub. “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”

His voice was husky and charming. How did he know all the lyrics? Maybe he really could play that guitar. I imagined him in a beanie and plaid, onstage at Edmonton Folk Fest. Over the bathroom fan, I caught the sound of an occasional tub splash, shampoo bottle squirt. “All at once, the moon clouded over. We heard a gurgling cry. A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet was all that floated by…”

I texted Mom.

Graham’s in the tub, singing Big Muddy at full volume. I hope we don’t get kicked out!

You’re having an experience, was her reply. Have you seen his feet?

Everyone in Nipawin knew Graham “belonged” with us, but we still grew up with questions. Dumb questions, rhetorical questions, legitimate questions. Why had my parents adopted when they could still make their own babies? Why did they get a black child instead of a white one? I got picked on too. “Hey, Liz, which one of your brothers is adopted?” a clutch of boys asked me in Grade 7. I made my best you’re-total-morons face, then skulked off, cheeks burning. Graham made me proud, and resentful. He was proof we were better, somehow, wasn’t he? And yet, I didn’t want to be singled out. I stood up for him when it suited me, aligned myself with him when he made everyone laugh in class, but rolled my eyes in disdain when he got in trouble. We were on different planets, under the same roof. I baked muffins every Saturday; Graham got heat from Dad. I got all As; Graham went to the principal’s office. I got another trophy from the music festival; Graham fell off a roof. We weren’t opposites so much as constant and fearsome reminders to each other of how hard we had to work: to win our cranky father’s love, to matter. Graham, always trying to climb higher up the tree, and me, trying never to fall out.

After he’d bathed and dressed, Graham unpacked all his stuff on the bed and took inventory. One axe. Two drumsticks. Several butter knives. Batteries. One toothbrush. One pair of shimmery gold stretchy gloves. What would Dad make of this, I wondered, were he still alive? I imagined his angry hazel eyes, wet from the whisky, his head swaying no, no with disapproval. What part had he played in this? What part had each of us played?

Graham kept sorting. A corkscrew, a cheese knife, nail files and a butane torch. A Cohiba cigar and a Princess Leia button. He accidentally pricked his finger on it, swore.

I pressed my brother: What it’s like being on the street?

“It’s terrible,” he told me. “Ninety-nine out of 100 people hate you. It’s not unbridled rage; it’s just hatred without knowing anything about you or where you come from.”

But why do they hate you, I wanted to know. Because you steal things from their garages? Because you ask them for money?

“I believe a lot of it is fear. They don’t understand homelessness. What really blows their mind is I’m here because I want to be here.”

How could that possibly be, I wondered, none the wiser myself. Who wants to be homeless? Who wants to sport dumpster chic? Who wants to walk 18 hours a day, pack and bury their tent every morning so it doesn’t get stolen?

“I’m fed up with society and I’m not going to play by its rules,” he told me. “You have to realize I am OK.”

Anger chafed at my temples. He was not OK. This was not OK. No one wants their kids to grow up in separate foster homes.

“It’s a constant source of pain,” he admitted when I brought up the kids. “I built an off switch. I can’t… it’s just too much sad.” There. A glimpse of the brother I’d once known. He was still there, underneath it all, packed and buried.

I asked if he wanted to sleep over. No, he said, it was too weird being inside. He asked if I’d drive him to Alpha House so he could get clean needles. He only took meth to stay warm at night, he told me, lacing his grey sneakers: “I can quit whenever I want.”

“Hang a right here,” Graham told me from the passenger seat, and I spun the steering wheel and braked outside a building I’d never seen. Men gathered like moths around a dimly lit entranceway, their breath against the crisp spring air visible, rising up. “Lock your doors, Liz,” he said as he got out of the car, and I did. Crouching over to peer out the window from the driver’s seat, I watched my brother join the queue of darkly clad bodies, half-huddled, half-standoffish, waiting for the door to open.

At once, it was Halloween 1983 and Mom was sitting behind the wheel while my brother and I huddled outside a doorway, snowsuits over our costumes. It always seemed to snow on October 31 in Nipawin. We held our plastic pumpkin candy buckets tight, outstretched in anticipation, pretend-smoking with our exhalations until the door swung inwards. “TRICK OR TREAT!” One year, Mom dressed us up as Raggedy Ann and Andy; another year, I was the Queen of England and Graham was a devil.

I shut off the engine outside Alpha House and waited for Graham to emerge, my eyes half-fixed on the odometer. I didn’t want to stare. Who was inside, and who was out? Did they hand the syringes out in a big metal bowl, like Halloween candy? Was it one per person, like chocolate bars, or could you take a whole handful? Harm reduction, they call it; providing safer options for drug users. Was I reducing harm too, by bringing him here? I didn’t feel that way. I felt like an accomplice.

A knock on the window. My brother’s bushy face, peering in.

“Where to?” I asked after he hopped back in. I did not ask to see his loot.

In the summer of 2017 I moved to Calgary. Graham—sorry, August—had spent five months in jail earlier that year for possession of stolen goods. He’d also spent time recuperating from surgery following a machete attack to his right wrist. Some guy had wanted his fancy watch, and Graham refused to give it up. He’d called my mom every day from jail, bored and wanting a top-up on his canteen money, but once he got out in May we’d lost track of him.

I typed out a list of Things to Do in my phone:

-hook for the bathroom door

-vacuum bags

-yard sale?

-look for Graham

-library card

The first few weeks after moving I thought about him all the time. I sussed out every skid on a bike with a bag of bottles and cans—Is it…? Nope. I started teaching at a yoga studio on 17th and was convinced I’d bump into Graham with his shopping cart and guitar. And as I lay in bed at night in my new house, I’d wonder where in the city he was. Knowing that, even once I tracked my brother down again, I’d probably still be looking for him.

Elizabeth Withey’s book on homelessness, The One with the Scraggly Beard, will be published by Orca Books in 2020.


Not a White-Bread Childhood

Toronto freelance portrait photographer Markian Lozowchuk (disclosure: his mother and I are second cousins) has photographed Justin Trudeau for Toronto Life and Margaret Atwood for Maclean’s, but his editorial shoot of Chrystia Freeland for Toronto Life in 2017, including the cover, was “the most memorable shoot I’ve done.” Even three ...

An Unwanted Voice

In August 2019 the government of Alberta invited me to join the 16-person board of governors at the Banff Centre for an initial three-year term. I had applied through normal channels, was vetted, and was grateful for the appointment to this volunteer role at a place I knew well and cared ...

“It’s no longer a mental hospital”

"Hello, 911. What is your emergency?” “I’m at the St. Albert Inn and I think someone has poisoned me.” “We’ll send someone right away.” I hadn’t been poisoned. I had just spent the night in a hotel room after taking cabs all over town, causing all kinds of “disturbances.” One of them was going ...