When I was 5, my mom asked me what I wanted for my next birthday.
I said “a brother.”
It was just my mom and I in the beginning. She had me when she was 21- still in college. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house.
I remember that I didn’t feel like I was very tough. I was being bullied a bit at school. I remember thinking that if I could get an older brother he would make me tougher, and he wouldn’t let anyone pick on me.
Well, my mom pulled it off. She met my eventual step dad who happened to have a son about 4 years older than me. Josh Fuller. My older brother. But that wasn’t all…he also had another son about 2 years younger than me. Jon Fuller. My little brother.
Boom! Best gift ever. Before long, I had a (step) dad and 2 brothers.
I remember it pretty clearly, considering my memory isn’t great. I was 6, Jon was 4, and Josh was 10.
It wasn’t nearly that simple. In fact, it was more complex than I care to get into, but none of it changed the fact that they were my brothers.
And I was right – I wasn’t tough. Jon was able to get the best of me for the first year or so. He was in wrestling and could get me in some holds that I wasn’t able to get out of. I eventually got tougher, and we all fell into line. Josh was the quintessential big brother. He always had a pretty blonde girlfriend. He taught me to play basketball. He liked Michael Jordan. Oddly enough, I started rooting for the Pistons (the only team that could beat Jordan). We played a lot of one-on-one games. He would beat me at basketball until I got mad and tried my luck at fighting him, and then he would beat me at that too. He was getting into fights a lot, but that only made him seem cooler in my view. And I was starting to get tougher. Not such a “momma’s boy.”
Above all his other great older brother qualities, Josh was an excellent protector.
Once a kid at Southtown pool stole my Pistons Starter hat. I mean I guess he stole it. He caught me in the locker room, said “give me your hat,” and I handed it over. The kid was a known bully, and I still was a coward… or maybe just smart enough not to lose a fight.
I came home mad, my mom yelling at me for losing the expensive hat. I told Josh what happened and 2 hours later he came back with my hat. Kid never messed with me again. That bully started to look out for me instead of pick on me. That’s how respected Josh was.
He really was the coolest guy I knew. He was my hero. He was troubled though. After he dropped out of high school, we were seeing Josh less and less. He had gotten in some legal trouble here in Iowa and moved to Florida for a while and California after that. We would get letters and calls from detectives, lawyers, and bill collectors. I feel like that was kind of how we knew where he was. It wasn’t as easy to stay connected back then. I really don’t know what all he was doing, but I know it wasn’t normal stuff that most 20-year-olds do.
The summer before my senior year of high school I remember Josh was back, but he was in trouble and was at the Fort. That’s the Fort Des Moines Correctional Facility, part of the Iowa Department of Corrections. It’s a kind of halfway house / work release program for people looking to avoid prison or coming out of prison and needing to reacclimate to society. It was just a few blocks from our neighborhood, so Josh was able to stop by and visit us sometimes on his furloughs or on his way home from work. It was really cool getting to see him again, but he could never stay long.
One night the neighbor kid came to our house and was frantic to get me. “Robb, you got to get to my house right now!”
Boner was a couple years older than me and was easily excited, so I really didn’t think much of it but went along anyway. He was out of breath- he must have sprinted across the street to get me.
We walked inside his house, and there was Josh. He had broken out of the Fort. Escaped from the DOC and was officially on the lamb. (Later I would find out that breaking out of the Fort wasn’t nearly as exciting as my 17-year-old mind imagined it would be.) There was a story about someone stashing drugs in his drawer and he was going to be sent to prison or something- there was always a story like that with Josh, and according to those stories he never actually did anything illegal. He was somehow wrongfully accused- and convicted- every time.
A week later, they almost caught him at the Quick Shop on Titus but he was able to run and get on the YMCA roof, and hide from them until they gave up. At least that’s the story he told me.
At this point my brother was a mythical legend in my mind. He was the coolest and toughest guy I knew. He lived this dangerous, criminal fast life that seemed so exhilarating.
Despite him being my idol, or maybe because he was my idol, I still tested myself against him every so often. Every 17-year-old middle boy dreams of the day when he can finally kick his older brother’s ass. My day was coming soon, I was sure of it (in my delusional confidence).
It was a Friday night; my parents were out of town and I was drinking at the house with some friends. I was complaining about my new pair of Nikes that had come up missing, when Boner told me that he had seen Josh take them a couple days earlier. Boner said Josh came outside, put the shoes on the back bumper of our parents’ car, and then went back inside. When he left, he took the shoes with him.
Josh stole my fucking shoes. I was so pissed. I was drunk too. Drunk and justifiably mad. Ready to fight. We drove down to Hackley and I got Josh to come out of the house. He stole my shoes. I was going to kick his ass and I told him both of those things. Maybe several times. Loudly.
But he wouldn’t fight me. He swore that he didn’t take the shoes and acted betrayed that I would believe Boner over him. Hit me with some guilt trip shit like “come on man – saying I stole your shoes and you want to fight me? You are drunk, go home before you get beat up believing some bullshit Boner told you.”
But I knew he had them- why would Boner lie? And that is totally something Josh would do. I mean I stole his clothes all the time, and Jon would steal mine. We all stole each other’s shit. We were brothers.
I went back home and proceeded to get smashed. 17-year-old angry middle brother drunk. Fuming and telling the guys how I could kick Josh’s ass. No one believed me, but it was a fun and somewhat typical night.
The next morning Marlas, my mom’s friend who lived with us, woke me up by saying “Robb, you have to wake up, something is wrong. Your brother Josh got shot, and he is dead.”
I’ll never forget that moment. I immediately went into shock. I jumped out of my parents’ bed and ran to the living room. They were out of town, and I was the only one home. Jon was staying at his mom’s. I turned on the TV and saw right away- WHO-13 had a breaking news cut that said “a man was shot on Hackley and is believed to be in critical condition.” For a second I felt relief. I told Marlas “he isn’t dead, Marlas.” She was trying to explain something to me but I wasn’t able to make any of it out. At the same time the phone rang. It was Hans from down on Hackley. He was a little older than Josh, and knew our family well. I started to explain to him that I was told Josh is dead but then saw the news and now I know he is in critical condition, but Hans cut me off. He said “no Robb, I am sorry buddy, he is gone.”
I remember breaking down after that. I remember pulling my shit together as well. My parents weren’t home so basically, I spent the day sitting in my step dad’s chair answering the phone telling people “yes, its true,” “thank you,” “I am doing okay,” “I am not sure when my parent’s will be home,” “thank you,” and “I’ll be okay until they get here.”
I remember the worst call I got that day- my mom. I don’t remember the details, I just know that hearing the pain and shock in her voice tore down any defenses I had built. It made it all very real. Maybe until that point it hadn’t been.
Then Jon showed up. He didn’t talk. He actually fell asleep on the couch. I was happy he was there. I suddenly felt a million times closer to him. I had to protect him. I was the big brother now.
Boner brought us a roast that his mom made for us. We picked at it a bit but couldn’t eat.
I answered the phone. “yes, it’s true,” “no they aren’t home,” and “we love you too.”
So, the last Josh story (as I remember it) goes like this:
He and the neighbor kid from Hackley had stolen a 4-wheeler and were fighting over who was going to get it or the money from it when they sold it, or some shit like that. They were at the neighbor kid’s house. The neighbor kid pulled out a shotgun. Josh grabbed it and they started to wrestle with it. The gun was near my brother’s waist when it fired. It hit him point blank in the iliac artery. He bled out on their floor. Probably before they called the police.
He had on my shoes.