Amanda Patt was awarded third place in Memoir in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


When my friend Abby drives us around town we always listen to the oldies station. Tonight is a night that we are wasting by drinking too much beer and smoking too many cigarettes. On my part a mild ingestion of narcotics ensures my ability to forget the night. Drink, talk shit, then sit to eat Mexican food while drinking and talking shit, then go home. This is the formula for wasting time in my youth in Houston, Texas.

Abby pulls up to my house on Lexington Street and there is a person- seemingly asleep on my porch. The dark outline of this guy seems shady and dangerous, although I can’t see who it is yet. I reach for the car door apprehensively, unsure whether I want to get out. I need to get into my house, but to do that I have to walk over to this dark figure, and to do that I have to get out of the car. No words spoken between me and Abby, although I know she can see the person on the porch. The car radio is turned down which highlights the silence between us. Eventually, I step out of the car and close the door, briefly making eye contact with Abby before turning to my house.

As soon as I approach I can see it is not a scary stranger, nor a scary person waiting for me or my brother, which is something I have become accustomed to by now. Many of my brother’s friends look scary, being of the punk persuasion, adorned with tattoos and spiked hair and metal piercings. My brother has a shaved head, wears suspenders, and steel toed boots at all times. He listens to punk rock and heavy metal and hip-hop. He is an anti-racist skinhead, which means he hates racism and he fights it in every way he can. On one of his calves, he has a tattoo he carved himself that reads P.N.D. (“Punk’s Not Dead”). On the other calf he has another of an anarchy sign. He drinks Guinness, but only warm. He drinks Hennessy, usually warm. He has broad shoulders, lean and sculpted arms, a strong jawline, intense hazel eyes and a strong Italian profile. To the average onlooker he emanates toughness and has an aura of intimidation, as if he’ll take your dignity and walk away with it like it belonged to him the whole time. To a stranger he looks like someone to be avoided at all costs. To me and everyone who has actually ever met him, he looks like he is about to say something that you hadn’t thought of, which will make you laugh and/or will ultimately fix all your problems. Then he will give you the biggest bear hug you’ve ever had in your life. This person on the porch, is not a dangerous stranger. It is my brother.

My brother is slumped over on the porch, in the dark, and is not asleep at all. He is not breathing. His lips are blue and he has no shoes. No aura of toughness at all. No aura at all. I run to him and try to pick him up by lacing my arms under his shoulders and lifting, but to no avail. I look up to see Abby still sitting there in her car and just staring at me. As soon as she notices me looking at her she peels out of her parking spot. Her silhouette suggests extreme panic and fear and shit headedness from where I sit. I remind myself to never call that bitch again.

Realizing in that moment that I am on my own, I rush to unlock the door and get to the house phone. The door always require a little finagling, as the ground beneath the foundation of the house is constantly shifting and misaligning the door and the lock. In this particular moment none of these facts seem to exist because I am able to easily glide the lock loose and swing the door open. My footsteps pick up to a run as I jog and jet around some furniture and two more doorways. My arm extends as I reach the phone on the wall and I immediately start dialing 911.

The operator is too fucking calm for the situation. No urgency, no concern in her voice. Just a plaintive disposition and very useless seeming questions.

“No I cannot stay on the phone and talk to you! YES! Send someone immediately!” I screech loudly into the phone. “What? I’m calling to talk about the fucking lottery?!” I give the address as LOUDLY and as slowly as my screaming mind will allow me to. At the end of the conversation I use my finger to press down the receiver. I drop the phone carefully down towards the floor and am careful not to slam it back onto the cradle on the wall, which is my usual habit.

It’s a heavy phone, so it is loud when it slams into the cradle, and I don’t want to wake the house up. Plus, the phone could chip the paint on the wall and dent the wood and damage the wood permanently, and I am acutely aware that I have to prevent all permanent damage tonight. Right now is about keeping everything exactly the same – not letting one thing fall out of place. Not the phone, not the paint, not my brother and not my emotions because if any of these things fall out of place, life as I know it will be over.

I am already en route to my parents bedroom. Without hesitation, and with false aplomb and a sociopathic-like demeanor I walk into the dark bedroom and flip on the lights. As soon as I do this my parents jolt awake with angry eyes, shooting lightning bolts at me for waking them up. I kneel down on the floor in front of the bed facing them directly. I place a hand on each of their feet-lumps before I begin to speak. I notice the alarm clock flashing 3:33 in large, fluorescent red numbers next to my mother’s face illuminating her facial expression in short bursts.

“Tony is outside on the porch. He is not breathing and his lips are blue. I have already called the ambulance. They are on their way as we speak. You need to get up right now.”, I say as calmly as I can without hyperventilating. I leave them to climb out of bed and assemble themselves. I go back to my brother still slumped over on the porch, and I now notice that the porch light is on. The entire neighborhood can now witness the most embarrassing and most painful ordeal my family has had to deal with to date, as it unfolds. I assume I turned the light on when I opened the door as is my habit when I come home. I don’t remember having done it this time. I stop and stare at him, getting my face closer to his face as if I’m waiting for instructions. I keep trying to read his facial features, trying to determine where in his sleep cycle he currently resides. Where the fuck is he right now?? Instinctively I pound on his chest, clench his nose, breathe aggressively into his head. I repeat. I keep doing this until my mother appears and announces her presence with a slight yelp. Behind her I hear my father’s voice, I’ve never heard this tone from my father. It’s the kind of tone that never leaves you.

My father drops to his knees in an attempt to lift my brother’s torso, locking his arms under my brother’s shoulders and rocking back and forth. Tony’s head limps forward, his expression unchanging and puffy. This scene continues for some time although I am unsure of how long and I am unaware of what I am doing. My attention is completely on my parents – I am consoling them – I am anticipating their needs. I am fixing this and I am seeing this through all the way to the end and I am doing whatever I have to do to protect my family.

When the ambulance comes the E.M.T.s immediately get to work and I feel a sense of relief that was entirely unexpected. It isn’t until the ambulance that I realize that I have no idea what I am doing with my own self. That I am in over my head. What I am doing, however, is impersonating my brother. We are so close, we are so connected, that even though I don’t have a clue what I would do if I found my only sibling half dead on the porch, I know exactly what he would do. He is the protector, the hero, the fixer. He is my everything. So I am just doing whatever I think he would be doing. I never do anything as well as he does anything, I am never as cool as he is, but I always impersonate my brother. I look up to him. He shows me how to be cool, how to stick up for myself, he is the epitome of awesome and popular. I want to be just like him. In fact, I fix a lot of my problems in my life by channeling my inner “Tony” and by impersonating my brother. He is always way cooler than I am, and so he helps me out of a bunch of tough situations that he never even knows about. So it isn’t until the ambulance comes that I realized that I am impersonating my brother, yet again.

“I found him like this – I don’t know how long he has been like this. Yes, it could be pills! Yes, it could be alcohol! Yes, it could be cocaine! Yes, it could be heroin! Yes, it could be all four!”, I say to the EMT, my voice cracking. They cart my brother away and get him in the van and they almost have the doors closed when I remember to ask where they are taking him. As soon we hear the answer, my mom and I turn to look at each other and lock eyes. We both know what comes next as we spring into action, no words needed. She runs to get the keys to start the car and I run to my dad to explain what I know and what is happening next. He needs a cane to walk, and will slow us all down and he understands this, and that he cannot join us going to the hospital. What is needed right now is not patience, but hyper-vigilance, speeding and miracles. I help him back into the house, hug and kiss him and promise to call as soon as we know anything. I’m soon in the car with my mom and we are circling the parking lot of the hospital looking for a place to park.

She passes a lit cigarette, halfway smoked with terrified and grateful eyes. I sense her hesitate and I understand. I take a drag and pass the smoke back to her. For a full minute we sit in silence and finish the cigarette together. We both know there is nothing more we can physically do except sit and wait in the waiting room- if that is- we are lucky enough to have someone to wait for. My big brother could be dead, and that is not something either of us are in a rush to hear just yet. She gets out of the driver seat and I get out of the passenger seat. I walk over to her and hug her and gently remind her we will get through this part, no matter what.

As she goes into the Emergency Room, I pull the car into the garage entrance and stop to get a parking ticket. It takes forever to tell the machine that I am sitting there and that it needs to raise its arm up and let me into the parking lot. I argue with the dumb machine for what feels like eternity. Finally, it understands what I’m saying and it spits out a ticket and slowly raises its arm to let me in. A troll with an impossible riddle would be more pleasant. I park as close to the elevator as possible. I get out of the car. I read the walls and try-to absorb as much information as I can from my surroundings without slowing down. Where am I going? Where am I right now?

How do I get back?

I land in the waiting room somehow and do not see my mother. The lady at the desk has no information and does not care about my situation at all. I wonder if she is related to the person who answered the 911 call from earlier or maybe even the parking lot ticket machine. I slump in a chair and let my head fall into my hands. The room is suddenly full of people. There couldn’t have been this many people here a moment ago, could there have been? A lady tells me she saw my mother come in and go into the back with nurses. I’ve never met her before but she seems to know my mom and she knows what I am going through. I don’t ask why she is in the hospital herself, I am just grateful that she is. An hour goes by and I age twenty years. My mother comes out and tells me that my brother has woken up, and that he is crying and ashamed and I should go home for now.

“Can I see him?”, I ask desperately.

“He’s embarrassed sweetie… and seeing you would just make it worse”, she says quietly and she trails off with her eyes.

I make a face that she knows to mean that I don’t give a fuck if he’s embarrassed. I need to see him right now. He needs to know my side of this. He needs to know how lucky he is that I came home at just that moment. What would have happened if I hadn’t come home just then. How fucking lucky he is to have me as his sister. How much I love him and how much I hate him right now. How much I want to throttle him and how much I want to hug him. How he needs to tell me who the fuck he was hanging out with tonight. How I’m going to kill them. I need to tell him how I’m going to fuck them up, in front of their mother, their girlfriend, their children, their wives! We’re notorious for this kind of shit. I will put whomever I have to on blast for this. We send messages, that’s what we do, it’s what we’re known for. Everyone knows damn well who we are and what we’re capable of and this is the ultimate of pissing me off. These people left my brother on the porch to die. A different type of anger is tapped into when your family gets hurt and a superhuman surge of strength comes to help you with whatever gets in your way, which in this moment, is just about half of Houston.

He’s not able right now sweetheart – plus he’s crying and he… peed himself… and.., she trails off with her eyes again. I know this to mean that he shit himself. My big, billy-badass of a brother has just shit himself and is three inches away from death. Now, I do give a fuck how he feels, and I feel guilty about not giving a fuck. Tears sting my eyes. My throat closes in around my words, oblivious to children and polite company I scream,

“TELL HIM HE’S A FUCKING IDIOT!!!”. I snap my head towards the nice lady from earlier who is a mother with her child and mouth an apology. She smiles tersely and nods meekly. She understands.

“He knows, baby. He knows…. go on home now. I’m gonna stay the night with him. We will call a cab tomorrow. I love you. Go be with your father.”, my mom says with one foot still behind the large hospital door. Love and fear and relief are all over her face, plus something I can’t place. She seems to know the fight that lays ahead and just needs one night alone with her baby, her only son, while she still can.

I leave the hospital and go to the parking lot by following my mental queues back to the car. I drive back to the ticket machine and return the ticket and pay the toll, effectively apologizing for our earlier argument. It raises its arm immediately, almost as if it is waving me good-bye. I make a mental note to remember how much money changes things.

I drive home through notorious Houston traffic to my house not knowing that this is the first of many overdoses that would ultimately end my brother’s life. I find my father on the porch, sitting and waiting as if he knows I will be driving up at that very moment. I get out of the car and run to him and he envelops me in his arms. He knows by my face what he needs to know. My family is close, we hardly ever need to actually speak in order to communicate. I sit next to him and we slump onto each other’s shoulders and watch the sun rise.

I never see that ticket machine again.