A wooden door swings shut in the East Ridge night court, and Darryl Linticum glides with his signature walk, arms swinging wide and knees bent, to a courtroom chair.
His sister Paula Tucker sits next to him, in a room full of people waiting for cases to be heard.
She and their mother, Vicki, who sits a few rows back, are here because the judge demanded it.
Both women are anxious — not about what’s going to be said to Darryl but about what will be said to them. It has been 18 years since a drunken Darryl starting pacing Ringgold Road alone every day. He walked so far, so often, for so long, that he became infamous. Store owners know him. He’s the unwashed eyesore who begs customers for change.
Drivers know him. They swerve to keep from clipping him when he lumbers along the road’s narrow shoulder.
Police know him. They’ve arrested him 160 times on paper, and countless times without documents, after his binges.
He is a nuisance who owes the county nearly $30,000 in court fines and has paid nothing more than $1,000 toward the bill since he started getting locked up for public intoxication in 1993 as an unemployed 28-year-old.
And so it comes to this day, when the judge and the district attorney and the public defender want to know why Darryl is still plaguing East Ridge, and why, at 45, he keeps flirting with a roadside death, and does it again and again and again.
Darryl, his mother and sister are called to the defendant stand.
“Why haven’t you done something about him?” East Ridge City Judge Arvin Reingold asks Paula. She looks at her brother, who stares blankly past them all.
She imagines what’s inside her brother’s head: Thoughts jump. Lights flash. Voices echo. If he could, he would drown them, guzzle by guzzle. But they would come back like parasites, pulling his mind into foggy chaos, leaving him, as he is now, with what doctors describe as an emotional flatness, a face without expression.
But there is love in there, she tells herself. She knows it. He never shows emotion, but years ago — before people would say he was an alcoholic and wonder why — she saw him cry once.
To put a wedding ring on a woman’s finger, to hold a baby of his very own, to be the kind of son who wasn’t shut out with a lock and key by his own mother: That’s what he said he wanted for himself that day.
Their mother stays quiet. Paula looks at the judge.
She wants to explain how sick Darryl is, how it seems only something divine could change him and how at night she asks God why he’s forgotten about her brother.
Darryl was 17 when he picked up that first beer, just trying to win the respect of their father and to escape their mother.
But Paula is usually careful about saying things like that.
“He has his rights,” she says.
Reingold glares at Darryl. This is the last straw. So the judge pauses to make a rare offer, one that could take Darryl away from Ringgold Road, his family and everything else that felt comfortable, for the first time, possibly for good.
“You have a choice,” he says.
Family takes care of family. Isn’t that what we were raised to believe? That no matter sickness or addiction or loss, people carve a part of their hearts away for their family.
Between sisters and brothers, mothers and sons, the unforgivable can be forgiven; the problem of one becomes the problem of many.
But what happens when the burden of family stretches bonds so thin they could snap, when it’s hard to love someone who’s yours to love, when it feels impossible to accept that change is impossible for some?
A record of Darryl Eugene Linticum’s criminal history lies in an expandable file holder in the bottom drawer of a tall file cabinet in the East Ridge Police Department. Amid hundreds of thin manila folders, Darryl’s looks mammoth in comparison, a thumb-length thick.
All the other cases are numbered, but his is labeled just “LINTICUM.”
Inside are Polaroids from arrests dated 14 years ago, showing a younger man, hung over, with bruised cheekbones and gashes on his forehead. The police chuckle a little when they look at them now. He looked good then, they say.
The man they know is thin from consuming little more than coffee, King Cobra malt liquor and cigarettes — weather-worn by the incidents penned in police narratives:
Darryl is found passed out in the back of an old rusted car in a scrap yard.
Darryl is found sleeping on a bench inside the laundromat.
Darryl is found lying in the hallway of a local hotel, in an alley, on a stranger’s porch.
Darryl is found peeing on a family’s backyard bushes.
Darryl is found covered in his own urine and vomit.
Darryl is found panhandling outside the Food Lion, and clerks are asking police to shoo him away — again.
He smells bad, they say, and customers complain.
And when he isn’t slumped down or begging somewhere, he walks on and off the road. At times, when the traffic on Ringgold Road is stop and go, drivers honk to scare him out of the way, put up a middle finger or yell curses out their windows.
Dispatchers take the calls. Darryl’s out again, they say.
“Have you been drinking?” the officer asks when they come to get him.
“A little bit,” he says and gets into the police car without being asked.
Many times, the officers take him to jail, where he waits for up to a week for Reingold to sentence him on charges of public intoxication or criminal trespassing. But other times, when they feel compassion for Darryl, they take him home to Moseley Circle and hope his mother will let him inside.
She tells the officers she’s afraid of him. She isn’t going to tolerate his drinking, not for a night.
The police watch him beg.
Momma, he says, at least let me sleep on the trampoline outside.
But the answer is usually no. Back in the police car and off to jail.
Every town seems to have one, a sort of goodhearted drunk whom people pity more than they hate. He roams back and forth inside the city lines, becoming a caricature of himself, familiar but not really known.
Among police, Darryl is chided and indulged like a misbehaving child. He is to East Ridge what Otis was to Mayberry, patrolmen like to think. They imitate the Darryl walk and trade Darryl stories.
“Are you talking about Darryl?” they say. Remember when he used to do those kung fu moves on the side of the road, punching and kicking the air, or that time he checked out all those Bibles from the library?
In some police reports they call him the Rain Man.
“Go to East Brainerd and they may not know him, but around here they do,” said Erik Hopkins, who, as an East Ridge policeman, made his first Darryl arrest in 2005.
On Darryl’s birthday in jail one year, an officer got in trouble for decorating his cell with a banner that read “Happy Birthday Darryl.” The women at the courthouse give him coffee when he comes by during walks and worry when they don’t see him around.
Reingold felt sympathy, too. He always thought Darryl was a nice guy. He didn’t talk back or make excuses in court like other criminals. Tennessee judges don’t typically offer mental health treatment in exchange for jail time on public intoxication charges, but Darryl had to be an exception.
Another 30-day stint in jail wasn’t going to change him, and many felt the next time he got out he would finally stumble straight into a speeding car.
In the courtroom that day last August this was the deal: If he got evaluated and attempted treatment this time, the city would drop any charges against him and cancel the debts he owes.
Darryl agrees, and a few months later a case worker at Moccasin Bend would find a place for him at a group home in West Tennessee, 300 miles away.
Everyone is relieved when Darryl accepts being sent to Martin, Tenn., but Paula feels something else, too.
She carries guilt about her brother, knowing his family helped push him to the bottle and couldn’t pull him back. He has nearly destroyed himself by walking and drinking, but it was all he had.
Later, before he leaves in a van, she pulls him close, tears welling up, and tells him he won’t be coming home for a long time.
“I can understand that it’s hard not to have your freedom, to do what you want to do,” she tells him. “But you don’t take care of yourself.
“Darryl deserved to be treated better. You don’t give Darryl baths. You don’t give Darryl the medicine he needs. You don’t eat like you should. You need to be better to Darryl than you have been.”
“I got you, Paula,” he says.
Every few days Darryl talks to one of his sisters. At the group home, where he shares a small, white-walled room with another man, he is allowed two calls a day and always uses them to reach home.
“Hey, Judy baby,” he says when a sister answers the phone.
“How are you doing?” he says. “I miss you.”
“I’m ready to come home.”
Since Christmas, when they sent Darryl away, he calls with a lot of plans and promises. He’s ready to leave treatment. He misses being outside, walking. He needs to come back to see his sisters, his mother, his nieces and their babies. He imagines he’ll sit in the middle of family meals and hear them laugh around him. He tells Judy he wants to save up to buy a house with her and can’t wait to pet their momma’s cats, Dre Dre and Chuchi, again.
“Soon, real soon,” Judy says. “But you have to get right first.”
When she’s off the phone, she cries. She doesn’t know if she should believe he’ll ever get better.
“I think he feels like he’s making progress,” she tells Paula when they talk. “But I don’t know, if he came back ... if it would take him there again?”
The sisters can’t say when Darryl started to seem different from them, when he started mumbling to himself and stopped looking people in the eyes when they talked.
As a very young boy, he started wetting his bed at night and their mother, who took speed and complained of chronic pain and nervousness, got so angry she sent him to the bus stop near their apartment in the East Lake projects with his urine-stained underwear on his head.
From second to seventh grade, she sent him to Orange Grove, a school for children with developmental disabilities. Sometimes he came home with patches of his hair torn out because classmates got violent, Judy said. Darryl pulled her aside once, she said, and asked if he was mentally retarded. He didn’t go to school after that and never learned to read well.
But his sisters admired him. They loved it when he stole their mother’s food stamps when she wasn’t looking, traded them for cash and bought jewelry at the local flea market to give to elderly women nearby.
Their mother, who was often depressed after her own mother died, was a taskmaster, comforted by order. In the middle of the night she woke them because the sheets on their beds hung longer on one side than the other.
“Who did this?” she yelled when something was out of place.
When no one admitted doing it, as she prepared to whip them all, Darryl would step forward.
“I did it, Momma,” he would say. “Whip me.”
As a teenager he started drinking during visits with his father, who Darryl’s sisters say hallucinated and became violent when he drank, often mistaking people, including Darryl, for a threat.
Darryl came home with a broken rib once. Another time, he bore red, swollen hand prints on his neck. Paula and Judy, both teenage mothers by that time, drove to their father’s house to confront him about it. Judy hit him on the head with a beer bottle, but Paula took the blame when police arrived and was arrested.
“Darryl had a thirst to be with dad,” Paula said. “He wanted it so much he would do whatever he could to get close to him. If it took him drinking, drowning himself in alcohol to be like him, then that’s what he wanted to do.”
But the smallest buzz turned his mind into a carnival, making him erratic, nonsensical.
“He just lost it,” Judy said. “We would call the police and have him handcuffed to a pole.”
When Darryl was 22, a doctor told the sisters he was schizophrenic, suffering from a complex mental disorder caused by a murky combination of genetics and early trauma. His brain was short-circuiting or flooded with neurotransmitters that regulate mood, attention, memory, motivation and thinking.
The disease would be impossible to recover from. With medication and support, he could avoid the ends of many schizophrenics: state hospitalization, homelessness or suicide. But the symptoms would be terrifying, and for the rest of his life he would live between real and unreal, hearing voices that weren’t there, seeing things that weren’t there.
Darryl started taking medication regularly not long after the diagnosis, and the voices, the rushing thoughts, calmed some.
But in the stillness of those years, he went back to drinking, this time to disappear in it.
The seven-hour drive to Gaither’s Generations Group Home stretches from Chattanooga through small towns near the Kentucky state line and winds to a white house on the edge of a rural neighborhood.
Eight men with serious mental illnesses, including Darryl, stay voluntarily in this locked facility.
Paula puts a hand on her forehead and worries for a long time about what Darryl will say when he sees them. How will she tell him he isn’t coming home this time and won’t come home unless he changes? How will she feel if he fights her on it, if he pleads?
As they approach, she reapplies lipstick with a shaky hand. Inside, Darryl is waiting.
He’s lost weight since she last saw him four months ago. But he’s wearing clean jeans and a T-shirt. His balding head is shaved down, and his goatee is trimmed and graying. His eyes are bright, chestnut brown, but still cloudy.
He hugs his sisters tight.
For their few hours together, he wants to go to the Chinese buffet in town. In the car, he calls his mother, who didn’t make the trip because she said it would be too much.
“What are you doing? Having fun? Making jokes?” Vicki says over the telephone.
“I don’t really make jokes,” Darryl says. “Life is a joke.”
She asks him more questions, but he doesn’t know how to answer.
“I forget too much,” he says.
Then there is a long pause between the two.
“I wish you could have been good at home, that you wouldn’t have drank,” Vicki says. “Every time I go down Ringgold Road, I think about you stepping in front of a car. I’m sorry we couldn’t get along.”
“I’m getting there,” he says. “Don’t worry about it, Mom.”
Paula was the one who never grew bitter with Darryl. She just wanted to fix him, get him right, give him a normal life. She thought he could work hard and turn himself around. After all, that’s what she had done. Her mother lived in the projects for 28 years, but she would not.
She had to hold the family together. Their father, in a nursing home now, left when they were babies and someone had to look out for her mother, for Judy, for Darryl. She spun yarn at a carpet mill five days a week and worked at a retirement center on the weekends to buy her house on Moseley Circle.
Then, 13 years ago, she brought a 32-year-old Darryl to live with her and her mother at the house in East Ridge.
After his slew of evictions, missed doctor’s appointments and failed treatments, she convinced Vicki that Darryl could no longer take care of himself, that they had to do more.
Paula kept ice cream and frozen shrimp, his favorite foods, in a special freezer in the basement. She got him new clothes and made him coffee in the morning and bought him his cigarettes. She cashed his $650 disability checks and gave him $5 to spend every day.
But Darryl didn’t get better. He would swear to stop drinking but never did.
And this wore on Vicki more than anyone else. She hated how he would go out drinking and come and go, how he would bring books home, mostly Bibles, spread them out across the floor and fold them into one another, a trick he called making poems.
Paula tried to mediate between them but failed.
They couldn’t force him to shower, and open sores formed on his skin from nights of sleeping in the woods or on dirty concrete. Burning cigarettes fell out of his hand because he shook, and Vicki worried he would burn the house down while she slept. He fell on the floor with seizures. He scribbled nonsense about death and family on loose paper he left around the house.
In his 40s, he still wets the bed.
When Paula left for work in the early morning, their mother started encouraging Darryl to leave the house first thing. She locked the door behind him. If he came back drunk, the door stayed locked.
So he kept walking.
Darryl is mainly upbeat at the restaurant, more talkative than usual. He tells his sisters he’s eating well at the group home. He’s taking his medicine, going to therapy, making friends. On a recent field trip to Walmart, he bought 10 watches with part of his disability check and has given most of them away.
But he still wants to be drunk all the time, he says.
“I like feeling confused. I have too many thoughts without the beer,” he tells them.
The nurses say he’s still trying to get out and walk the roads, looking for a gas station where he can buy beer. His window at the group home is locked, secured with an alarm, because he’s crawled out of it a dozen times. The home’s director always finds him and brings him back.
At lunch, Paula cries about this, about knowing they’ll leave him behind, about the fact that she couldn’t keep him clean or off the roads as well as these strangers can.
Darryl can’t stand to see his sister cry, just as he hated making his mother angry.
He stretches his arms across the table and grips her, revealing a brief flash of sadness on his face.
“I will be all right, Paula,” he says, straining. “Don’t worry. I love you, Paula.”
She hangs her head and keeps crying.
“It’s going to be all right, Paula,” he says, desperately. “Don’t cry. You don’t have to cry.”
She puts her hand over his.
“You know we miss you a lot,” she says.
It’s been five months, and no one knows how long Darryl will be able to stay in Martin. If he gets better, the group home might ask him to leave. If he doesn’t get better, he also might be asked to leave. It can’t be his permanent home.
Darryl and Paula talk every night now, and every night he asks to come back.
So Paula daydreams about her brother being cured, returning a different man, helping around the house, not sneaking out the back door for a drink. But she knows these can only be dreams.
Darryl won’t come home to Moseley Circle, she says. Even though she will always feel the responsibility weighing on her, she’s ready to let him go.
Vicki had a heart attack recently and is being treated for liver problems, panic attacks and continuing pain. She tells Paula that Darryl destroyed her health and will break her completely if she has to care for him again.
Paula finally, reluctantly, agrees. She will find a way to keep him in other people’s hands where he’s safe from himself.
And she’ll try her best not to feel ashamed of this decision.
“I couldn’t stop him from being Darryl,” she says. “But I’m at peace.”
“He’s not going to die today.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...