My brother Mark is the essence of juvey cool, hair slicked back in a perfect duck’s ass, white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled up in one sleeve, Levis like the skin he was born in, pointy-toed shoes that the Mexican kids call cockroach killers. He is sixteen, months from dropping out of high school to join the Navy, one of the last recruits they’ll take under eighteen without a diploma. It is a time of screaming all over the house, wives throwing ashtrays at cheating husbands’ heads, acid-bitter grandmas pounding their canes against guestroom walls, sisters squabbling over trinkets, and Mark in a boxer’s stance, face hard, while Dad shouts about speeding tickets and F report cards and a room like a demolition site. “No more sitting back here in squalor messing around with this thing,” Dad yells, picking up Mark’s acoustic guitar by the neck from a pile of clothes and papers near the bed. Mark grabs the guitar from his hand, raises it above his head, and brings it smashing down on the bedpost. Sprong, go the strings.
* * *
He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in.
Mark is vivid in the family legend, the first born, the original in a bookend-set of two sons sixteen years apart with four daughters in between. He is a rebel and a scrapper, knows how to fight and to fix cars, falls hard in love. He has no use for his old man’s life-of-the-mind, expressed in hours of booze-fueled talk around the kitchen table, nor for the mild professional tolerance of his social-worker mom. He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in. I know all the Mark stories, and have a couple of my own, but mostly I associate him with absence: his first, then mine, then his again. That, and the passionate memories of others. I have scarcely any claim on him at all.
* * *
My older sister is born in 1953, five years after Mark, and occupies with him the temporary nucleus of a perfectly calibrated postwar family. My parents call her Eve, the first female, with a middle name of Adrian after the college where they met, from which they’d set out on bicycles to Oregon to start a new life of letters, running a weekly newspaper far from the sad snows of Michigan. Adrian turns out to be the name that suits her best, Mark agrees. Those Sandy, Oregon years set the template for who the four of them will henceforth always be to each other. The brilliant, reprobate father who would buy a horse for $10 from some Indian bar-buddy. The sensible wife who would laugh tartly that the office rent had yet to be paid, and no one in the family knew how to ride. The fearless first son, who would vault onto the pony’s bare back and lean forward into its mane, urging it forward. And the fierce first daughter who would chase behind, face to hooves, clamoring for her turn at the danger.
* * *
Family pictures tell a certain kind of story. There’s Mark at eight in his plaid cowboy shirt and six-guns, scowl-smiling under his cowlicks, hand on the shoulder of Ade in her braids, gazing up at him as if for a signal. Riley the collie is poised watchful at their feet. The house has a front yard with a red wagon and a couple of bikes. Mom has cat-eye glasses, Dad smokes a pipe. There’s rough newsreel glamour in their setting of type and running of presses, Mark helping deliver the paper they publish every week. Things start tipping out of balance when I am born two years after this photo was snapped, though Mark and Adrian are united as the big kids and praise the collie for keeping me herded in my playpen in that cluttered front yard. Then twins Merry and Melody come a year and a half after me, and the little house and the little town are suddenly too small, the books too short to keep it all going.
* * *
In 1962, Dad gets a job at the Sacramento Union, a real newspaper, a daily where he won’t have to sell the ads, just cover his beat: state politics, the aerospace industry. I remember the trip south from Oregon, stopping in the redwoods, driving through a tree big enough to have a car-size tunnel in its trunk. Mark is thirteen. Does he roll his eyes and press his forehead to the car window while the old man plays tour guide to the squeals of us little kids? Or does he patiently read the explanatory placards with me, helping me sound out the hard words? I can’t recall. The snapshot only shows us all lined up against the Chevy in stair-step formation with Mark looking off to the left when the camera flashes.
* * *
Rat Fink has bulging pop-eyes and bright green fur, a long tongue lolling out of his maniacal grin, spittle flying while his pointy tail swipes back from his torn T-shirt. Rat Fink loves hot rods and hates rules. Mark draws Rat Fink in elaborate detail on his notes in history class, all over his math homework, and on the back of his report card. Rat Fink puts the school on notice. Of course, Mark is smart: our parents wouldn’t have any other kind of kid. But he’s restless, engine always racing. He’d rather have his head under the hood of a car than in a book. He’d rather act first and worry later. He’d rather leave the rest of us in his dust.
* * *
One hot Sacramento Delta summer day, my sister Melody and I, ages four and six, decide to run away from home. We’re bored. We’re tired of watching cars pass by outside the split-rail fence, bound for the freeway. We decide to visit our grandmother who has an apartment in town near the high school where Mark is in tenth grade. We pack some dolls into hobo sacks on sticks and load up a Barbie lunchbox, then head out down the frontage road. We get as far as the creek where some older boys stop fishing to watch us approach.
Where you going? they call out, sauntering up the embankment. Whatcha doing?
We’re frozen to the spot when a Highway Patrol car suddenly pulls up just ahead of us on the shoulder, Mark in the front passenger seat. He leaps out and grabs us both up, one sister under each arm. He slides us into the back of the cop car and orders us to sit while the officer radios to the general store, where Mark tells us our parents are assembling a search party. Mark paces alongside the car, stopping every few circuits to lean his head through the open back window and harangue us. “You little shits,” he says. “You should have seen Mom. What were you thinking?” We’re crying silently, too scared to make a sound, when suddenly he starts to laugh. “And Elk Grove! You could at least have aimed for the city. Maybe even San Francisco. That’s what I would have done.”
He slides his wiry frame into the back seat, scooching Melody and me to the side. “This is where I’m more used to riding,” he whispers to us, out the side of his mouth, then taps the glass separating us from the front seat. “Let’s get these little criminals back home,” he says.
* * *
In the fall of 1964, my parents finally have their last child, their second son. They joke that Matthew should have been born with the Pill in his fist, so unexpected is he. He’s also just golden and sweet enough to extend their marriage a few years beyond the end of its natural life. One day when Matt is two, he toddles out of the yard of the house we are renting in the middle of a dairy farm, drifts away from his babysitter, who is in front of the bathroom mirror perfecting her Cleopatra eyeliner. The corn is already a couple feet high; the pear orchard is leafing out; the silo door gapes open; the bulls in the big barn are pawing the ground and snuffling toward their lady cows, bumping together around the milking machines. The babysitter’s screams bring the farmhands running, and finally one of them climbs up to the top of the silo and spots Matt making his meandering way across the cornfield toward the county road. The Portuguese foreman and his teenage son bring Matt home howling with fury. Melody and I know Mark would have found Matt in an instant and made him laugh just as fast. But our tracker-brother is gone, off to the other side of the world. He left when Matt was barely a year old. Maybe that’s who Matt was looking for when he wandered off.
* * *
The Navy has Mark’s date of enlistment as December 15, 1965, five days after his seventeenth birthday. He serves most of his four years on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, listening through headphones for enemy subs, like his father in another war before him. “This is the USS Floyd B. Parks (DD 884),” he writes on the back of the regulation photo he sends home. “She was in WWII and Korea also.” On the front of the picture he marks with arrows pointing down below decks, “My sonar station,” and “Where I sleep.” He also sends a picture of the assembled 200-plus men on board, all of them tiny and practically indistinguishable in their matching crewcuts and white caps, with one circled near the left front: “I think this is me.” He gets an elaborate certificate the first time he crosses the equator. He is engaged for a few months to a bar girl in Hong Kong but breaks it off when she calls him another man’s name during one of their scratchy long-distance calls. My mother keeps Mark’s dress blues in her back closet. When we clean her house after her death in 2010, the wool uniform disintegrates at our touch.
* * *
She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.
By the time Mark comes home on leave in September of 1967, we’ve moved again. We’re in Sacramento proper now, giving a Summer of Love-style combined family a try: my mom, us five kids, my dad’s latest paramour and her three kids, all in a haunted-looking Victorian a few blocks from the Capitol. Carilla is in her late twenties, as close to Mark in age as she is to Dad, and beautiful in a sharp, freckled way, partial to white cotton shifts and gold bangles. She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.
Mark seethes around the house, chin out, cracking his knuckles and muttering imprecations about disrespect of our mother and neglect of our moral care. He’s in Dad’s face daily, seemingly trying to draw him past argument into an actual fistfight that Mark must figure he can win, muscled up as he is by basic training. After each near-blowup there are whispered kitchen conversations between Mark and Carilla in the name of restoring the peace. Soon the whispers are more frequent than the fights. When it’s time for Mark to report back to San Diego and his ship, he leaves behind a letter declaring his love for her. “I may only be nineteen but I am more of a man than he’ll ever be again,” Mark wrote in his all-caps hand on blue-lined loose-leaf binder paper. If she wrote back, there’s no trace of her letters in his small cache of papers. By late 1968, Dad has moved solo to San Francisco and Mom has transported us kids to Bakersfield. No one seems to know where Carilla landed.
* * *
The fall I am supposed to start seventh grade, I am instead in a body cast in a crank-up bed in our living room. I’ve broken my femur in a park-swing incident involving a boy I like and his miscalculated show of interest: Here, let me give you a real push on that thing! After four weeks of traction at the hospital, I am now encased in plaster from my chest to my pelvis and all down my left leg. It itches and I think I will go crazy from not being able to move more than a few inches one way or the other on my own, but my yet-to-be-met homeroom classmates write me nice get-well letters, and the visiting teacher keeps me sporadically busy with worksheets and paperback novels.
In November, midway through month two in my cast, Mark finishes his stint in the Navy. He rolls into Bakersfield with his release pay in his pocket and a permanent scowl on his face. It’s 1969, and even here in Okie-from-Muskogee country, the war is unpopular. “Fucking hippie freaks, what do they know?” Mark snarls, tapping the front page of the newspaper with his cigarette hand. One night he storms through the park out by the river searching for Adrian when she’s late coming home. When he finally steers her through the front door in her beads and bell-bottoms, they won’t look at each other. They barely speak for the few weeks Mark lives on the couch, my living-room-mate, till right before Christmas when I finally get the cast removed.
The doctor comes to the house to saw the thing off, and once he leaves I am horrified to see my dead-white, atrophied left limb. I’d just started shaving my legs before the accident, and now I am convinced I looked like a diseased gorilla. I start crying the way only a twelve-year-old girl can, as if all life is ending. My mom and sisters are fluttering around, trying to console me, when Mark drains his beer and stamps out his cigarette. “Start the bath water running,” he tells Ade, who scurries off to comply. He scoops me up off the bed like a in a fairytale. “Time to get this one ship-shape again.” Ignoring my shrieks of mortification, he carries me into the bathroom and places me gently in the tub. “Don’t worry, I kept my eyes closed the whole time,” he tells me.
The next day he throws his duffel bag into the back of his Impala and heads out again.
* * *
There’s a girl in Milwaukee, the sister of a Navy buddy. They’d met by chance when Mark was on shore-leave six months earlier. Christine is dark-haired, dark-eyed, ivory-skinned, the kind of girl you’d drive all night and a day to see. They get jobs together at the appliance factory in West Bend. He fixes cars on the side. In their wedding picture marked August 1970, Mark in his white tuxedo seems to fade a little in the flare of Christine’s beauty. They have a baby girl the following May and name her Misty. We all take turns pushing her stroller to the corner and back in front of Mom’s house in Bakersfield when they bring Misty to visit as a toddler, the first grandchild. She looks just like her mother, who seems weary of childrearing already and is inclined to snap when Misty and her Uncle Matt, now eight, get racing too fast on the sprinkler-wet sidewalk. Mark draws a cartoon of Misty guarding her ice cream cone from our assorted pets. The posture is pure Rat Fink, though the face is essence of Veronica.
* * *
Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play.
Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play. Mark and Christine are in their groove, staggering shifts at the plant, kid-chasing, pillowing into a cluster of other young couples doing the same. Everyone in their twenties, smoothing out the rough winters and rougher childhoods by grabbing onto good times. At some point someone cheats a little, grabs a good time that’s not really theirs, and it starts a chain reaction. Next thing you know, Christine is slicing into Mark’s clothes with pinking shears and throwing them out onto the frozen lawn, then digging a scratch across the cherry paint-job on the hood of his Impala with her nail file. Mark moves in with Ellen instead, who is small and kind, with long honey hair and flowing skirts to contrast with Christine’s hard glamour. Once Christine sets her sights on her next husband and starts making it hard to see Misty—no, she can’t visit your house while that whore is there; no, Sundays won’t work anymore, Kurt and I take her to church now—there’s no point in Mark’s staying around. He makes his way with Ellen back to California, where at least there’s no snow, and no exes to trip over every time you go out to pick up a six of Schlitz.
* * *
That June, Mark and his Navy buddy Snakey lease a gas station together near Whittier. It is right off the highway, two exits from Disneyland, and a crushed empty’s throw over a concrete canal from East LA. Mark hires Matt, age eleven, to come work for him for the summer. Matt is thrilled to be hanging with the big brother he is just getting to know, but his real focus is saving up enough money to go to Disney. Matt paints the gas station bathrooms, and repaints them when they get graffitied the very next day. He sweeps the office and restocks the windshield washing fluid and once in a while gets to fill up a car, careful not to spill a drop of gas. On days off he sneaks through the hole in the chain-link fence and picks his way through the dust and sand to the trickling stream of the Rio Hondo Channel, a tributary of the LA River. Down there, the roar of the freeway mixes with the wind and water to make a sound like a good engine humming.
When they get to the last week of summer, Mark drives Matt to Anaheim, pulls up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and opens his wallet. “Here’s your pay,” Mark says, handing over $100. “I’ll be back to pick you up at 5 p.m.” The next day, he does exactly the same thing.
Matt figures out the first day that by stationing himself near the exit around mid-afternoon and looking forlorn, he becomes the recipient of every departing family’s unused tickets. He goes on his favorite rides three, four, five times. He eats his body weight in Matterhorn sundaes. And when Mark later gives up the gas station and moves to Bakersfield, he puts Matt to work again, this time sorting the seeds out of oversize plastic bags of pot.
* * *
By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives.
In 1976, Mark and Dad are roommates for a few months. The Bicentennial is in full swing, Americans trying hard with fireworks and readings of the Declaration to poke through the funk of stagflation, the gas crisis. Mark and Dad wash up a few weeks apart in Bakersfield, where neither of them really belong; I am already gone, escaped to college on the other side of the country. By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives. I imagine them as saloon buddies, road dogs, backing each other up with pool cues when things get ugly near closing time and knowing just how low to keep their voices pitched in the morning. I don’t know if Dad assumes that he and Mark will grow old on adjoining bar stools at the Woolgrowers Tavern. I just know that after Mark is gone and Bakersfield is out of the question, Dad becomes a magnet for young hotheads all up and down the West Coast, the first call they make from lockup. The crappy apartment they shared near downtown is an empty lot now next to a bail bond agency called Gotta Go.
* * *
Melody is barely able to sleep for a month after her twin dies in a one-car crash into a freeway embankment that Merry’s boyfriend is too dumb or drunk to see. Melody knows it could just have easily been one of many other things that took Merry out at sixteen: the wrong pickup while hitchhiking, a bad batch of pills, tightrope-walking over the Golden Gate. The two of them ran hard but Merry ran harder, and now Melody can’t bring herself to face junior year alone. Instead she buries her face into her big dog’s fur until the spins stop, and then lies on the bed in her deadly quiet room waiting for dark.
I can see Mark padding into the adjoining bathroom, wiping off the grease from his latest car salvation project. He usually has two or three hopeless cases going at once in Mom’s stifling garage out back on the alley. He pokes his head into what everyone is now reminding themselves not to call the twins’ room.
“You okay there, Mel?” he asks. He doesn’t expect a yes but he also doesn’t anticipate the wild glaze of her eyes beneath a nest of dark blond tangles. She’s wound and wound hanks of her hair around her fists to try to still her mind for the sleep that won’t come.
“Hey now, hey,” Mark says. He sits on the corner of her bed and lifts her head onto his knee. He sees her hairbrush in the dresser and can just reach it without dislodging her. “I got good at this with Misty,” he says, dabbing at each knot till it loosens and catches some of the tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.
“I’m just so tired,” Melody whispers.
“I know what might help,” Mark says. “You just can’t let Mom know.” He puts down the brush and digs his Marlboro hard-pack and Bic lighter out of his back pocket. Fishing inside the pack, he pulls out a fat joint and lights it up.
“Two or three good hits ought to do the trick,” he says. Melody sits up a little and holds it to her lips. “I see you’ve already met my friend Mary Jane,” he laughs as she inhales, then lets the smoke roll out through her first smile in weeks.
* * *
The 7-Eleven is on everyone’s flight path. It’s where all his sisters and little brother buy penny candy or trade up for a Slurpee. It’s where you go when you’re a teenager and you need someone to make a buy: you hang out over toward the ice machine until someone with a real jones pulls up and is willing to make a deal, five bucks if you buy us some Boone’s Farm, a pack of Camels for you if you get one for me. It’s where frazzled moms pick up Pampers and milk after bedtime, praying the kids will sleep through their exit and return. It’s where local stoners go for Funyuns and Twinkies, and local bums go to pee and wash up.
Mark takes the graveyard shift, midnight to eight. He likes the quiet, the long hours broken by occasional headlights pulling up to the front, the jingle of the front door as customers float in and out, maybe two an hour. Plenty of time to read and do a little drawing, and time to chat if someone he knows comes in. Friends of his sisters’ out on the town, or the dudes living across the street, or a new buddy from the apartment on K Street he shares with Ellen and, astonishingly, his dad. There must be something to this idea of mellowing out, Mark thinks. The old man doesn’t piss me off anymore. Slow drivers don’t piss me off anymore. Christine doesn’t even piss me off anymore.
He catches sight of his face in the fisheye mirror behind the counter. Brown shock of hair, mustache and goatee, eyebrows that seem to move on their own. Ellen keeps telling him he’s too skinny, but that’s just because she’s starting to put the baby-weight on. He thinks he looks tough and interesting, like someone you’d want to have a beer with but never cross.
Mark looks up at the Coors clock. 5:20 a.m. Another forty minutes, Melody will jog by to wave hello and then the breakfast crowd will start filtering in. Better check the coffee-maker after I take care of this guy from across the street. He looks like he’s having a bad night.
* * *
The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976 “Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”
The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976
“Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”
Police today appealed to the public for help in solving what a spokesman called the “cold-blooded killing” about 5:30 a.m. yesterday of store clerk Mark L. ____________, 27. An autopsy by coroner’s pathologist Dr. Dominick Ambrosecchia disclosed ___________ had been shot once through the heart with a .22-caliber bullet. His body was found by a customer about 6 a.m.
Coroner Richard P. Gervais said the victim, who was employed at a 7-Eleven store, 2331 Chester Lane, was shot at close range. Powder burns were noted on ____________’s shirt. Also, a police official said, the clerk apparently was surprised by the action of his killer.
* * *
Christine takes over all the funeral arrangements. He is still her husband, though they’ve been separated for almost two years, though Ellen has been with him ever since. It is Christine who insists on an open casket at the Bakersfield funeral home—as we file by we can’t help joking that it is the only time we’ve ever seen Mark sit still. Then she has him cremated and stashed in a niche at Union Cemetery, where the mausoleum is something out of the Gilded Age though the neighborhood around it is getting ragged. There Mark rests in a drawer marked with his name and dates—December 10, 1948 to November 8, 1976—surrounded by other people’s dead devoted brothers and loving husbands and loyal sons for longer than he walked the earth.
* * *
By the time Mark’s daughter Merry is born in March 1977, Ellen has purchased an old bread truck and outfitted it for the drive to Alaska. Adrian is there now, in Ketchikan, a town that has bathtub races on the Fourth of July. It’s as far away from Wisconsin as you can get—far from Bakersfield too. Before Merry has started crawling, Ellen tucks her into the bassinet she’s built in behind the driver’s seat, asks Mom for directions to the freeway, and heads north.
* * *
Half-sisters who grew up separated by half a continent of silence, Misty and Merry make up for lost time. Ever since their father’s mother connected them, first by letter and then by cautiously orchestrated rendezvous at her house in Bakersfield when they were twenty-three and nineteen, respectively, they’ve been deeply intertwined. The tattoos are just the latest thing. There’s the elaborate one of a swallow—a perennial sailor’s favorite—with a Converse-red star and cherry blossoms that they designed together in 2008 in honor of their dad, and then got inked separately in Wisconsin and Seattle according to detailed mutual instructions. Then there’s the simple feather from 2013, also for Mark. Whenever they find a white feather in the street or the random back yard, they believe it’s him saying hello. And now he’ll be greeting them every time they catch a glimpse of their own forearms, or each other’s.
* * *
At about hour thirty-six of labor, Merry swears she sees her father in the corner of the delivery room, visible just over the heads of her husband and aunts and cousin as they cluster around her, urging Gemma into the world. Is it a ghost or a hallucination from the meds they’ve finally given her? Doesn’t matter. Though she’s never actually met him, she knows it is Mark. He is the age he should be in real time, in his sixties, his slicked-back hair streaked with gray, but his face has that same surprised look it has in the photo Merry props up in the little shrine she recreates wherever she lives. He is wearing a red flannel shirt, because it is Seattle in October, and he can be practical that way. Right before her wedding a year earlier, Merry saw him in a dream wearing that same shirt, sitting at a picnic table on the bluff near where the ceremony would take place, and now here he is again. Afterwards, when she feeds Gemma very early in the morning, Merry swears the baby always squirms to face the corner where Merry keeps Mark’s picture along with the latest feathers she’s found.
* * *
In July 2010, all of us who are left pool our funds and buy a cluster of four niches together at Union Cemetery, where none of us have been in three decades. We put Mom’s ashes in one compartment—what’s left of them after we fill nearly twenty small pouches for the siblings and grandkids and great-grands—and in the drawer next to her, the cookie tin of our dad’s ashes she’d been saving in her file cabinet since he passed in the mid-1980s. We make the third niche for the original sister Merry, though there are no ashes to put in it since we scattered hers in the Kern River in a special and wholly illegal ceremony orchestrated by Dad and abetted by Mark. We move Mark over from terra incognita and prop his door open so his daughters can add a poem and a ring and some feathers to keep his ashes company. Then we file out into the summer air thick as pomade, gun our engines, and peel out.