My fifty-year old brother collects money from people who park their cars in chain-linked cement lots scattered around a neon city in a dry desert. Las Vegas, city of sin, where they once used camels as pack animals. My brother Jonnie looks like a camel—jowly, droopy, saggy and dusty. He's got a hump, too. You can't see the hump; it's an invisible burden. I know it's there because I have one too. It's so heavy I should be crawling on my knees. One of these days I'll unpack it, lighten my load, surprise my hard backbone with release. Jonnie—his hump is permanent. Not a thing in the world can change that.
I remember when Jonnie was a blond, blue-eyed boy. Not a freckle on his sad white skin. He walked like he'd been shackled, arms longer than his torso so he shuffled around with his hands shoved under his armpits. When his hands weren't stuck there, they were in his mouth. An entire fist. As he grew older he learned to suck one finger at a time, very methodically, until each finger and both thumbs were shredded and bloody. He wore a bright red baseball hat, each year a new one, until his head got too big for any hat at all.
In the parking lot booth in Las Vegas, his fingers shake when he takes the dollar bills and he never looks anyone in the eye. He pulls his hair out so he looks like he has mange. His teeth are all cracked and broken because, since he can't afford cigarettes, he sucks on nails he steals from construction sites. Sometime he forgets and chews the screw-shanks, as if by eating steel he'll become Superman, his hero.
How do I know this? I go out West once or twice a year to visit, but Jonnie and I don't talk much. I just watch. If I could say something it might be, We aren't so different.
I can't risk it though. Jonnie'd just call me names. Daddy's Girl. Little Apple. Gwen the Wren. Dad wanted to name me Roxanne, but my mother said absolutely not. My father said in my next life I was sure to come back as Roxie, he could just see it. Not like your brother, he'd say. He'll come back as a potted plant.
When we were kids, our father beat Jonnie for getting bad grades. He stuck my brother's head in the toilet when he didn't make the softball team. He threw him against the garage wall for bringing home a stray dog, which my father shot with his service revolver. Rabies, he said.
My mother said my brother cried so much as a baby she wanted to give him to the postman, that each day when the mail came she hid in the shower until she was sure the postman had gone to the next house.
What was I like as a baby? I asked.
Adorable, she said. Perfect.
Hood rats. That's what they are, those girls who cluster around cars in parking lots. Midnight blue. Asphalt black. Slick butterscotch. Anything but white. Anything but good. They claim bad. They want bad. They want boys bad and they get bad boys. And that's the way they like it. That's what they say. I fucked your friend and I'll fuck you, too. Unzip those flies. Lift those crotch-cut skirts. Rip off the hoodies. Peel away the skinny cotton shirts. Get greasy. Because hood rats, they don't like clean. They want you to know where they've been.
My brother let them into the lot, even though I told him not to. He thought the hood rats were his friends. Jasmine, T-Cola, Zara, Angelique, Brittany and G'less. Big Daddy got big money? They rapped on the booth, danced around the cars to a scritch-scratch song. G'less bent down, lured my brother out of the booth. Big Daddy come out and play?
Hood rat attack. They beat my brother, left him for dead, took the cash from the till.
Now all his teeth are gone.
In the University Medical Center in Las Vegas (now Jonnie and I have both been to university) my brother meets a guy who tells him life is good in the mountains in California. Things grow there. They can grow things. What things? I ask.
Jonnie doesn't know. He says they will be farmers. He and Tony will grow things, and Jonnie will sell them at the market.
Jonnie, I say as I cradle the phone. This doesn't sound good.
I can take care of myself, he says, but we both know he's lying. He's on the other side of the country, and I hear the sound of a door slamming in his voice.
I have a kid, I say. I've learned a few things. Like how not to get suckered.
Tony's my friend, he says,as if to say I am not. I ask Jonnie why he called me.
The hospital social worker made me, he replies. I told her you wouldn't care, but she looked you up on the Internet and everything.
God bless cyberspace. I wonder what the social worker found Ð my faculty page or my Facebook page.
Let me talk to her, I say.
She tells me she can't discuss my brother's case without his permission.
Fuck you, I mutter. He's right there. You want it signed in blood? What I leave unsaid: Then why are you dragging me into this now? To make me feel bad? OK, I feel bad. Now what?
I'm afraid I can't help you, she says. Talk to your brother. Get his permission.
I'm on it, I say. But Jonnie hangs up. I am guilty, guilty, guilty. I have betrayed my brother; I have not walked through the valley of the shadows beside him. Throw me down the ravine where the animals will pick me clean. Maybe I will blow my brains out. They have not served me well.
But I resist this urge because I know that some people are born homeless, and that is a fact. I cannot change this. What difference does one person make? I have witnessed too much and been blind-sided by my mother, who, the night before she died, said: You? I don't worry about you. I know you'll take care of Jonnie.
Now how am I supposed to do that? I asked.
You'll know what to do, she said. God gave you strength. Use it.
I shake my head at the thought of this, her misplaced faith. She might have worried about me. Just a little bit, because I am just as lost as Jonnie, but I have money. A wedge of green.
The year after the hood rat attack shoots by like a rubber band and snaps in my face. A year lost to time. No word from Jonnie for three-hundred and sixty-five days. I do not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. In the end, I will find it was a bad thing. But with Jonnie a good thing and a bad thing are the same thing.
After, after, after. After exactly what? Using the strength my mother thought I had, which is not so strong anymore, I bridge time and space. After the fact (I am big on facts), I piece things together. I start from the corner edge and work in. Don't look for four corners, I tell myself. Nothing squares where Jonnie goes.
During the forever-gone year Jonnie and his new friend head to an old campsite in northern California. Police warn hikers to steer clear of it. The homeless gather there in the spring, rob lost trailblazers. Sometimes a group raids a nearby campsite; they come back with cans of food and bags of chips. Once Jonnie and Tony tried to bring back a bottle of vodka but they drank it all and spent the night next to a stream.
Tony hates Mexicans. He tells my brother he killed a Mexican and took his pickup. Like who's going notice one dead Mexican, Tony says. Later, much later, too much later, when my brother tells me this I ask him, Who would notice one dead homeless guy?
You would, he says. Wouldn't you?
My brother, my other half, the half that hit the road not taken, and hit it hard. What a road. He stopped for incarceration, yielded to false affection, threw himself under the bus I was on. I sent him money when he popped up. I tracked him down when I could, when he called. Sometimes years went by and I didn't hear from him. Just when I began to wonder where he'd been buried, just when I made a little alter out of what I saved from his childhood Ð a gray Matchbox Chevy, a pale blue rattle with a yellow duck on it Ð Jonnie appeared as if summoned by genies. Or maybe my mother shoved him back onto my road. She can do things from the grave she could never do in life.
So, it is on day three-hundred and sixty-six, a day after the anniversary of the hood rat attack, that a postcard arrives from California. A redwood. Petrified. On the back, in beautiful cursive, my brother has written, I like farming.
Jonnie's back on my radar. My feet hurt from his trudging, but I can't be sure it isn't my imagination Ð or my job. On my feet all day teaching. On my ass all night, hunched over my laptop, spilling my guts to cyberspace.
Two months later, another postcard arrives. We're growing things.
That fall, my brother harvests the crops with Tony, who sends him seven miles down the mountain to meet a guy who will buy the stuff. Like a mule, my brother goes. He's standing in front of the general store when he passes out from dehydration and malnourishment. He falls so hard he breaks his cheekbone and five fingers. The crop? Jonnie can't remember what happened to it. For five days or maybe it was only one he wanders around town begging, a bone sticking out at the first knuckle, his cuts suppurating. The local sheriff picks him up, dumps him in the hospital. By then Jonnie is hallucinating about Tony and guns and killing. I'm dead, he wails. He's going to kill me.
Tony is the least of his problems. Jonnie's liver is failing.
Like a bird I will fly cross-country to see my brother.
Twenty years ago.
Our parents are dead, long dead, and Jonnie finds me. I'm in the phone book, and Jonnie can read. He knows I'd never leave Boston, even though I don't want to run into people who used to know us. I hide in my new life—wife, mom, teacher. I look for kids like Jonnie and I find them all over the place. I teach them. It's penance. It's not enough.
In the three days Jonnie has lived with my family he has been good. He showers every day and brushes his teeth, even scratches at the scum on his tongue with the bristles of the brush. I buy him deodorant, but he uses the entire can the first day. I discover he has not sprayed his body; he has sprayed his clothes.
We buy new clothes.
The second day I find him in the kitchen. He has opened every box and can, looking for something that tastes good.
I pour milk over cereal and he eats. He watches my daughter smear oatmeal and strawberries over her face with her little spoon, and he does the same.
This might work, I think. My husband stands behind Zoe, kissing the top of her head. Jonnie's eyes go bone mad and black. He will steal love by destroying the loved, but I am trying to believe he is better than the boy who ground my forehead in driveway gravel, the boy who stuck a steak knife in my shoulder by mistake. He was aiming for my heart.
The third day we go to the zoo. I let Jonnie push Zoe's stroller. The monkeys on hot rocks, dipping their paws into cool water. The impossibly graceful giraffes. The putty-dusted elephants. We stop at the lion's den. Roar! I say to Zoe as I lick her mother of pearl ear. She laughs.
Jonnie lifts Zoe out of the stroller and holds her over the pit. A lazy lioness looks up, ears flicking. Fresh meat.
Never scream around Jonnie. It makes him really mad.
Jonnie, I say. Let's get ice cream. Your favorite, ok?
Ice cream? he replies. Can I have chocolate?
Only if you let me hold Zoe.
Who wants your stupid baby anyway? He turns around, hands her to a complete stranger, who hands her to my husband. And Jonnie clomps like a horse (Neigh! Neigh!) to the ice cream cart.
You promised chocolate, he yells, because it's ok for him to yell. I buy two scoops on a waffle cone for him. Jonnie doesn't like it when people break promises.
That night I read bunny stories to Zoe while Jonnie stands under the window, blowing cigarette smoke through the screen. Good Night, Zoe, I say, and I kiss the tip of her nose. When her long lashes flicker and she sleeps, I go to Jonnie.
That's one bratty girl, he says. Someone should hit her. He grabs my arm and grinds his hot cigarette into my wrist. I don't flinch.
Jonnie, I say. It's wrong to hurt people.
He shakes. You're going to send me away. The burn on my wrist blisters. The fat parrot at the zoo said you would.
Jonnie talks to birds and they talk back. And why wouldn't they? He's one of them. Hollow bones and beady eyes, his talons gripping an electric wire, watching the world below. He tugs my hair, not hard, but hard enough. Talk like a parrot, he says.
Gwennie loves Jonnie, I say. He grins. I grin. It's like the day when he let me have a lick from his ice cream cone. We're related.
The next day I pack his bags and my husband walks him to the car. We drive him to the nearest psych ward where he spends ten days. After that he disappears, long enough for me to understand that Jonnie and I will always be playing hide n'seek. Which is why I try so hard now. All-y all-y in come free. I do not like California, I do not want to go to California, but that's not the point. Jonnie is the point.
Perhaps this effort will make my mother happy. Then again, she's dead, so how will I ever know?
My husband thinks he's clever when he says my father liked to beat women, small children and dogs. I let my husband think what he wants, but I don't think my father liked it at all. My father had a plan and then woke up on the breaking wheel. Poor guy. I know how he felt; I understand the necessity of hurting someone before they hurt you. That was my father's gift. And my mother, what did she leave? The lesson that it was better to absorb the hurt than pass it on. It worked for her, until it didn't.
So when Zoe asks me about my parents I tell her my mother was a saint and my father was a sinner. It's a parable, I say. She looks at me with disgust, the sort of angry incomprehension best suited to twenty-year olds, and asks, Did they even love each other?
As a matter of fact, I say, they did. They had a hot relationship. That shuts Zoe up. Sex talk is off limits.
But Zoe's not finished with me. Her inch-long red hair sticks straight up like bloody needles, and she scuffs the hardwood kitchen floor with her biker boot. Can I come to California with you? I want to meet your brother.
This is a new request. It's not like asking for the salt and pepper, or maybe it is. Zoe has grown up without relatives. They are all dead except Jonnie, and Zoe has been about as interested in him as she is in hand-painted china.
My daughter doesn't know Jonnie tried to feed her to the lions when she was a baby. When I tell her she clicks her tongue stud against her teeth. I see that years of dental work have paid off. Awesome, she says.
Jonnie's not like other people, I say.
You're not like other people, she says. She even grins a little bit. And it's that grin, that sweet little smirk, that rips me to pieces. She looks just like Jonnie in red. So I ask, You really want to meet him?
Yes, she says slowly. He's my uncle.
I never thought about it that way.
I'm thinking about uncles (Uncle Wiggily comes to mind) as I walk down the hospital corridor to Jonnie's room. I'm alone because I'm alone. Zoe hates flying, so she backed out. She says she'll ride her 2010 Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Sport to California. A hog. I guess we're all on the road now.
Hospitals in California seem so much cheerier than hospitals in Boston. It must be all that sun. I stop at the nurse's station and introduce myself, and the nurse looks at me as if I rip wings off flies. I want to explain, but what's the point? She's wearing pink scrubs. In my experience, people who wear pink are bleeding hearts, which is why I wear black and blue. Life is one long jazz riff, or maybe it's punk cabaret. I count up the times I've been truly happy. I don't run out of fingers.
I poke my head in Jonnie's room. Hey, I say. I brought ice cream.
He lifts his head and smiles. He's got teeth—how did that happen? Angry red patches like Rorschach blots dot his bald head. His rickety arms reach out for the carton of Ben & Jerry's. Chocolate? he asks.
You bet, I say.
You bet, he sings. You better watch out. I'm really sick and I might give it to you.
I hand him the ice cream and a spoon. Just as he's about to dig in, he looks out the window. I've been talking to the birds, he says.
They said if you don't take me then Dad will.
That's what he wants us to think. Jonnie narrows his eyes and throws the ice cream at the window. The nurse comes in and gives him a shot, while I clean up the ice cream. I dump the mess in a kidney-shaped bedpan. When I sit down in the chair next to his bed, he stares at me. He looks like an eighty-year old man, folded badly into his flesh. His eyes are so sunken you could float a toy boat in his sockets. And then his eyes close.
I lean over and kiss his sallow cheek. He stinks. His eyes flutter and he reaches for my neck. I let him close his hand around my throat, but the medication kicks in and his hand drops hard against the bed's metal rail.
Maybe he'll die in his sleep.
A day later he does.
So Zoe will never meet her uncle, unless you count her walk-on as lion bait. She will never know what she missed unless I tell her.
And I won't because there's nothing to say.
But the strange thing is I do miss him. Not the him he became, but the him he should have been. He is the shadow that's fallen across my heart, my stomach, my lungs, my colon. Collectively, they go on strike, leaving me gasping, ticking, and leaking everywhere. My gauges are off. I drive down familiar roads, but I don't know if I should turn left or right. Statues spring to life and jump in front of me, and I slam on the brakes. All the houses look like the house we grew up in. School buses are full of us.
Sorrow is absurdly common.
I go to the attic, rummage around for our tenderly composed baby books. I open six boxes before I find what I am looking for, and even then I have to dig through a pile of kitchen towels, my brown and white Steiff doggie, Jonnie's sucked-on twisted Teddy Bear, a stack of report cards, art projects smashed beyond recognition, and an old glass baby bottle. And then, the baby books: I'm a Girl! I'm a Boy! I consider this: the hours our mother spent on them, the effort she made to chronicle our little lives. Well then, let the story be told.
I open I'm a Girl! You can take a lot of pictures in five years. So, yes, I am five years older than my dead brother. I look at one page at a time. Just look. There I am with my dolls. My hair is tied up in pigtails with striped ribbons at the ends. That's me holding a kiddie stethoscope to my chest. I'm wearing one of my dad's long-sleeve white shirts. In another photo I'm sitting in the tub, my hair styled in a soapy topknot. And there I am rocking an empty cradle while my obviously pregnant mother looks on. My starched and frilly dress sticks up in the air as I bend over the cradle, which has a duck on the small headboard.
Here is what I never told Jonnie. I asked for a brother.
Here is something else I never told my brother, and that's what my father, his fist in the air, said to me: You asked for it.
From outside I hear the shriek of a bluejay.
I lick my index finger and touch the upper right-hand corner of another page in the scrapbook, which is, all of a sudden, so heavy I struggle to hold it. The whorled, wet tip of my finger leaves a spot on the paper.
If I don't turn the page I will never come to the part where my brother is born.
-Catherine Parnell (from The Baltimore Review)