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.