Susan Straight

November 24, 1963

What My Brother Left Behind

My brother was born on November 24, 1963. President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on the twenty-second, and my mother cried so hard she went into labor. He was born in the early morning.

I had just turned three a few weeks earlier, but it is my first memory—my mother sobbing uncontrollably, sitting in a wooden chair very near the wooden clock that had come from Switzerland with her when she was only seventeen and arrived in California. That Swiss clock, with the rhythmic ticktock that sounds mournful no matter what—even now, in her living room. I tried to climb into her lap—to comfort her? to calm myself?—but she had no lap, I remember, so I slid off and sat by her feet, near the pine-cone-shaped lead weights that dangled from the rope that kept the clock ticking. My father was gone. He had left us—her pregnant, me refusing to eat our last oatmeal—and now the president was dead.

She left me that night with a neighbor, and went alone to the hospital. During the dark, a fierce Santa Ana windstorm swept down off the foothills the way it always did where we lived, in a tiny rural place of one-bedroom houses and dirt roads in inland Southern California. Somehow the neighbor fed me, fed the cat, but didn’t lock the front door, and the wind blew it open. When my mother arrived home the next day, her house was surrounded by tumbleweeds piled so high they blocked the windows like brown snowdrifts. Inside, the rooms were filled with fine dirt and sand that covered the yellow layette my mother had knitted during her time alone, waiting for my brother to be born. She cried and cried, and he cried, his hands never unfolding from their fists for weeks. She cleaned out the bassinet and laid him there. She taught me the words—layette and bassinet—and because I was her only girl, she taught me to knit as she had learned in Switzerland, hand-rolling the yarn around pieces of shiny hard candy. As I moved the needles to make stitches, the yarn would unwind around the candy, and if it fell out, I could stop and put the piece of peppermint or butterscotch in my mouth.

I have three half-brothers and -sisters from my father and stepfather, four stepbrothers and -sisters from my stepmother, and many foster brothers and sisters who were raised with us for my entire childhood. But my brother Jeff and I shared the exact same blood. We had the same thick blond wavy hair, the same spaced teeth, the same blunt, strong fingers, and eyes the color of year-old jeans.

I loved to read. My mother taught me how that same year, when I was three, so I would stay quiet and not bother the neighbor woman who watched me. But my brother loved to run wild, taught himself how from the time he could walk and carry his first rocks, snails, and wooden rifles.

We were the same person, but I kept my wildness to the page, and went to college, and he became a house painter and citrus farmer, living so free and off the grid that in every sense of modern life he was invisible. There was little record of his existence. No driver’s license, social security, or tax records, few photos. He never had a computer or cell phone. He didn’t even like to call me on a landline.

He died ten years ago, when he was thirty-eight. He would be forty-nine today. I do not miss him less than when he died. I miss him the same every day.

Here is what he left me:

His heavy Levi’s jacket, sheepskin lined, with ragged holes in the left side where someone threw battery acid at him. He left it here when he moved from the house where I still live, where he had lived with me and my husband when we were all very young. We had to ask him to leave, and I feel guilty about that even today. He and his friends were living a life people watch now with fascination on HBO, but it was dangerous, involving drugs I can’t even explain because they were so homemade and particular to where we lived, long before anyone made cable shows about them. When I got pregnant, I had to choose my kid. I wear his jacket only in winter, when that wind comes howling down off the mountains we used to climb when we were children. When I wear it my daughters say I look exactly like him, like who we were—crazy white-trash inland Californians.

But we had so much fun.

He left me his Mexican fighting hen named Coco. She is of Chihuahuan extraction. She is twelve years old now. My brother lived as a caretaker in a barn, in an orange grove bordered by a ranch where a man named Little Jose raised palm trees and a man named Big Jose raised fighting roosters. Coco was the mother of some of those roosters, but my brother couldn’t bear to fight his pets and so he trained them to sit beside him on the couch and watch football and eat Doritos. When we inherited Coco, she had never been caught or left to run free, because she was so fierce. She tried to kill my other chickens, so I gave her a large cage of her own. Now, ten years later, she still lays eggs, guards them murderously, and I never take them away. She tolerates me. She listens to me. When I let her out, she eats bananas, studies me calmly, but I have already hidden my American and English hens behind plywood in their cages, or she will fling herself at the chicken wire until her beak is bloody. That is who she is. The testament to my youngest daughter’s love for her gone uncle is how she takes care of Coco—who once tried to eat a dandelion whole and was choking on the long stem for hours until we noticed, and I held Coco for the first time in my arms while my girl pulled the endless green filament from her open beak. “I think that was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she whispered. “But it was Uncle Jeff’s chicken.”

He left me a tree. My birthday gift seventeen years ago, a tree he raised from a seed the size of a peppercorn, suspended in a cloud of fluff called silk floss, a Brazilian tree with an iguana green trunk and thorns the size of steak-knife tips. He planted it in the sidewalk strip in front of my house. “It’s your security tree, for when I’m not here,” he said to me and the girls. “Anybody tries to mess with you will see this.”

And now he isn’t here. The tree blooms with pink orchid-sized blossoms in fall, and the last flowers fall just before his birthday. Then the clouds of pure white cotton, surrounding the black seeds, fly across the whole neighborhood in the wind that comes when I miss him most. Every year the neighbors say, “Your brother’s tree—look at all that fluff.”

He left me an ancient weeding trowel, a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD he gave me to teach my three daughters about his favorite songs. We played “Simple Man” when people entered the funeral home, and “Free Bird” for the memorial. “You’re joking—that was ironic, right?” someone said to me this year, when I mentioned that. “Did people hold up lighters?”

“We’re from Riverside,” I said. “We don’t do irony.” My brother sure as hell didn’t do irony. When he lived here, he answered the phone, “What the fuck do you want?,” and when I pointed out that it might be someone from my new college teaching job, he said, “They still want something. I don’t care who they are. Everybody wants something.” Then he’d sing “Everybody Wants Some”—the Van Halen anthem.

When “Free Bird” came on the car radio, as it often did during the years I was driving my girls around, they were immediately quiet and patient when I blasted the volume in his honor. I never cried in front of them. But they are grown now—the youngest just passed her driving test last month, and so now I am free to cry when that song comes on my radio. I drive through the desert, or on the bleak stretch of freeway just north of that little house where we were brought home when we were born, in the hospital only three blocks from where I live still, where he used to live here with me, where he chopped down huge agave plants one night with a machete because he was angry with someone and didn’t want to use the machete for revenge, which left the clear space near the street where his spiky-thorn pink-flowered tree now towers fifty feet into the air. My ex-husband remembered that last week—“He never wore a shirt and he had blood all over him.” Some drops of his blood are in the wood of the living-room windowsill. He must have been looking out to see when I would come home.

I lost his words. But I have his words. One day a drug dealer who lived briefly on my block sideswiped my van, my beloved not-new but just-bought van that transported those girls. He refused to pay the $324 worth of damage, so my brother said to us, “If you can’t get the money, I’m just headed down there to get $324 worth of satisfaction. I’ll tell him I need $324 worth of love off his face.”

I got the money. That was his way of giving me love, for my entire life. He trimmed the trees with his chain saw, showing my girls the huge cut on his belly from where the saw jumped back and hit him while he cut orangewood to sell. “You want to take out the stitches for Uncle Jeff?” he’d say in that crazy voice. And he brought oranges, grapefruit, avocados, cherry tomatoes, and firewood.

I have five pieces of orangewood left. I cannot burn them. I try to put them in the old stone fireplace he loved here. But I can’t. They sit next to the river rock he helped me collect, and at the end of winter I vacuum up the spiderwebs.

He painted my house twenty-one years ago, with his lifelong painting crew of friends. His first boss, the man who hired him at seventeen, was here last week, because it is time. His own brother is sanding off the shingles, and I have chips of my brother’s paint in my hand, pieces of green and red like small fingernails, and I’m so sad. “Your brother had an eye for color like no one else,” his mentor told me. “He could see how the shades played off each other. But he was my Bukowski, I never told you that. He’d say the perfect thing. Somebody would go on and on like an idiot, and your brother would shake his head and smile and say, ‘Man, I don’t get that station.’”

The radio. He never had an iPod. We had a transistor radio, yellow and round like a grapefruit, which hung from a chain on our bike handles, playing Van Halen. Runnin’ with the Devil. Everybody Wants Some.

“Wind the clock,” our mother would say, when she realized the terrible ticktock we hated had stopped, and he’d pull those pine-cone lead weights hard until she yelled at us. He swung from them when he was a baby, in that tiny living room.

My brother died after crashing his truck into the palm tree in front of the Jack in the Box a mile from here, a few blocks up the street from the hospital where we were both born. His best friend since they were five years old, who used to stay here with him during the bad old days, who also painted this house, had killed someone three days earlier. My brother was in the van when it happened. They’d been on a painting job. Two days later, he went to the friend’s house, where police had arrived, and my brother raced away, got on the freeway, flew off the exit closest to my house, and crashed into the tree. He had left me a phone message that day, which I hadn’t heard, that he was coming by. Was he coming here?

I had his words, all these years, on the old answering machine, until I began to write this essay, exactly ten years after he died. The little beige plastic square sits on a wedge of wooden shelf in my kitchen, under another wedge of shelf on which sits a handwoven straw basket from Mexico, bought by my parents when we were on a trip to Chihuahua when my brother was only twelve, which now holds some of his ashes. I have some of his ashes.

Then a windstorm slammed all the doors and windows in my house, and my dog lost her mind, and she ran into the kitchen and knocked the machine off the shelf, and the message I had saved for ten years was erased. The machine still works. But my brother’s voice is gone.

I can hear it anyway. “Hey, it’s Jeff, it’s your Uncle Jeff,” he says, crazy as ever. “I’m gonna bring a new puppy by. Late.”

That was in the morning. He crashed his truck at eight that night, while we were at basketball practice in the junior-high gym down the street.

Exactly a year later, I was being interviewed by Vendela Vida, for the first issue of the Believer. She walked home with my three girls and me, from the gym. Did I tell her that I’d heard the sirens, but I only thought about that momentarily, because there are always sirens here? I showed her the palm tree where his truck crashed.

It is the kind with overlapping bark that cradles mesh like brown hairy fur, the same exact tree from our childhood front yard. We used to play with the bark, make things with the mesh. We used to climb the boulder-strewn foothills called the Sugarloafs near our house. We stayed up there for hours in the hundred-degree heat of summer days, just the kids, no adults, and we carried pickaxes and hammers and buckets and shovels. We had a gold mine. We dug for what we thought was gold. Mica. Sheets of metallic silver and gold that we collected, sure we’d be rich. We were. We were completely free. No one cared what we did, and we were the luckiest kids in the world, the harsh wind coming over the hills from the desert, the hawks overhead, coyotes watching us from a distance while we dug.

I have no altar, no memorial gravestone, nothing anyone would call valuable.

I have Coco, who studies me every morning when I give her cracked corn and her favorite bananas—never dandelions! my daughter reminds me—and I wear my jacket this month when I go up to the hills no one would call beautiful. When my brother lived his craziest life with all his old friends from our neighborhood, even though a few of them were already dead, he and a buddy bought some dynamite one day from a guy in Orange County. They transported it fifty miles in the trunk of a car, on one of the busiest freeways in America, during rush hour, because they lost track of time. Then they set up a launch in these hills, to see what would happen when the dynamite blasted. “But it never landed near enough to for us to see the hole,” my brother said when he told me the story, laughing. “It always landed on the other side.”

Susan Straight has published eight novels, most recently Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s). She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at U.C. Riverside. She was born in Riverside, California, where she lives with her family, whose history is featured on susanstraight.com.

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