My brother and I stood waist-deep in the Pacific on a cold day in November. Along the shoreline, signs screamed, People Swimming and Wading Have Drowned Here, but George had said, “What are you? Some kind of coward?”
I couldn’t help obeying him; I existed in the world as his younger brother. At ten thirty that morning, our president had been shot in the head, and they let us out of school early. We hadn’t gone home, but came here. Fog pressed towards us, bone-chilling. In the distance, cypress trees fell into shadow, gnarled and bent like old women.
“Why’re we doing this?” I asked.
George made no response, but took a step farther into the dark sea. At seventeen, he stood a head taller than me, his brown hair swept back by the wind, his body shaking, until suddenly he plunged forward, going deeper. My heart stopped. A wave crashed, and I followed its thrust shoreward, slumping into the sand. In the cold, my face flushed.
“See?” George called, poking his head above water. He swam towards me, fumbled to his feet in the shallows, and plodded from the ocean, up the beach to where I sat. “I told you we wouldn’t die.”
I was fourteen when Lee Harvey Oswald took aim and fired. We were far from home, and my wet jeans chafed against my thighs as we headed east. My brother’s strides were long, and I skipped to keep up with him.
“What should we do now?” I asked. “Set ourselves on fire?”
“We’re too wet.”
“You’re stupid,” George said. “I’d rather be crazy than stupid.”
How could we have known how to talk about it? George stomped up Taraval, his shoulders rolled forward, and I couldn’t tell him my secret, that I had wanted the Kennedys to be our parents—a strong, kind father, a mother who smiled. Our real mother had left five years ago in the dead of night, and George seemed determined to learn her vanishing act. In the living room, he would palm our father’s globe, spinning it slowly. He wanted what I didn’t, to leave his world behind, and sometimes I worried that this included me too. But on that day, wading with him into the sweep of the ocean, I’d felt confident that we were a team.
The outer reaches of San Francisco were always quiet, but I’d never before felt such emptiness in the streets. Soon we reached Sunset Boulevard, usually thronged with cars, now silent. We crossed at a red light. As we passed the rows of houses, painted pale pink and green like Easter eggs, I imagined each family gathered around a television, watching the end of times, the mothers crying, the children afraid for their mothers. Yet when we made it home, we found our father slumped on the sofa, not watching the news, but listening to Bach on the stereo. At the sound of our footsteps, he looked up.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked.
I shrank back as George drew himself up. I didn’t know how we would explain this, what lie we’d concoct, and felt a wave of horror when George said, “We went swimming.”
“You went swimming?”
“At Ocean Beach.”
Our father was a tall, thin man with graying hair, and his dark eyes narrowed as he studied us. He groped for the radio, finding and twisting the knob, letting a long silence fill the room. I shifted my weight between my feet, my wet socks making a squelching sound.
“I’m not an idiot,” our father said. “How are you both idiots?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” George asked.
“You went swimming in the goddamn Pacific Ocean?”
“Really just wading,” I said, my voice a squeak, and George elbowed me hard.
“It was swimming,” he said. “I went deep. Too deep to stand.”
Our father shifted on the sofa, bending to scratch the sole of his bare foot. “If you want to die,” he said to George, “don’t take your brother with you.” He straightened, drawing a pack of Camels from his coat pocket, tamping it against his palm. “Dogs get caught in that riptide,” he said. “Maybe you’re dumb as a dog, George, but do you think you can swim like one?”
We were soaked and chilled but no longer dripping, standing next to an oak davenport with clawed feet, which our mother had loved. On top was a vase of flowers—who had put it there?—which George picked up. I wanted to go upstairs to our attic bedroom, but was struck by the sight of my brother, the way his knuckles whitened as he gripped the vase, the sunflower petals brushing his chin. His strange, blank expression mirrored our father’s.
“So you’re saying I’m stupid?” George asked.
“I’m saying you do stupid things,” our father said. “You tell me what that means.”
My brother, strong though he was, venom flashing in his eyes, didn’t hurt people. He put them in chokeholds and let them go. Once, when Tim Patterson stole my gym clothes, George chased him into a tree and stood beneath it for an hour, watching the boy quake. It wasn’t that he was my keeper, because often he let me flounder, leaving the other kids to screw with me, vanishing from sight when I needed him—but the danger he represented prevented anyone from going too far. When Tim was in the tree, I had loved George for driving him there, but later he would say, “You think I did that for you? I was bored, is all. Win your own battles, dipshit.”
Still, he looked for fights. “I’m bigger than you,” he said to our father. “I could kill you right now.”
Our father arched his eyebrows. “With flowers?”
“You want to try me?”
“You want a roof over your head?”
“Maybe I don’t.”
I hated siding with my father when it meant turning against George, but I could no longer deny that my brother was being stupid. Where had he found all this fury? I could never muster much. Mostly, as a kid, I felt small and confused. I tugged on George’s sleeve, willing him to walk away, but he shook me off and took a step closer, his voice dropping an octave. “I can see why Mom left,” he said. “Every day, I understand it more.”
My stomach dropped. I didn’t know why he’d had to go there, and my unease turned to something like panic. Our father’s face drained of color. He gritted his teeth, the muscles in his throat constricting. Then his expression turned impassive.
“You remind me of her,” he said to George. “You’re just like her. Completely off your rocker.” He waved a hand, finally averting his gaze. “Go to your room,” he ordered us both. “Stay there ‘til morning, or it’s not your room anymore. For Christ’s sake, the president is dead.”
That night, in the moonlit attic, I swung from the rafters while my brother lay on his bed, his hands clasped behind his head. Glancing at me, he said, “I’m going to leave.”
I stared at him, unable to find words, to face the fact that our father, at least in this case, had good reason to be angry. Why had we gone into the ocean? What had we been trying to prove? Loyalty, I realized, in my case. George’s motivations were unknowable, as they so often were.
“Where will we go?” I asked.
“You think you’re coming?”
“Listen,” he said. “You don’t get it.”
My heart sank. I wanted to get it.
“He’s different with you,” George continued. “He leaves you alone. All my life, my job has been to piss him off. I used to want him to like me. Now, I don’t care.”
“There’s no maybe,” he cut in. “Since when does he buy flowers? They made me feel so sad. What kind of moron gets sad over flowers?”
When we were kids, George ran away from home seven times, never for long. Only once did he invite me. It was almost Halloween, and the houses in our neighborhood were strung with orange lights, plastic witches suspended from trees. Our mother had made six ghosts out of empty gallon jugs of milk, a plan she must have had for weeks. On each jug, she painted a face—one frowning, one laughing, one dead with x’s for eyes—and dropped stones inside to keep them from blowing away in the wind.
Laundry bags slung over our shoulders, we slipped from our house, stomping up the hill to St. Francis Wood, where tree-lined streets curve off Portola Drive and make a loop. At the top was a white fountain with busts of lions, which by October was filled with rain. George crouched over the water, collecting pennies that people had tossed in for good luck. He made stacks of ten, lining them up in rows, and when he’d gathered all the pennies, he counted, biting his lip. When was this? George was no older than ten, but perhaps much younger, and his pennies totaled forty-seven cents.
“I don’t think that’s enough for two bus tickets,” he said. “You’ll have to go home.”
I was shocked. I had thought we would live here together, among the bright stucco houses, gathering our own food, and his plan alarmed me. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“It’ll have to be just me,” he said, sounding sad. “I’ll write you letters.”
Yet when George left for real, he didn’t write letters. Even now, I have only snatches of the story, how he hitchhiked east to discover the sway of Montague Street, the clamor of 5th Avenue, gray slopes of mountains, long stretches of prairie. He slept on the floors of strange apartments. He walked until his calves ached and his thighs blistered. In the meantime, I had to live. At camp that summer, I fell for a girl named Ingrid, who at fifteen had her nose buried in Marx and Engels.
“We have imperialistic interests in Vietnam,” I announced to my mortified father, the veteran, upon my return home. “The communist threat is a scapegoat.”
How did he bear all his failures? In 1945, at the age of nineteen, he believed he had brought order to the world, and must have later wondered what that meant. His wife left. His son left. He rarely talked to anyone, but would stare at me until I had to look away, his lips just slightly parted, as though I were a firework.
In the spring of 1965, we started getting phone calls late at night. My father would pick up to find no voice on the other line, and finally he decided to give up, to let it ring. The calls persisted for a week. They came later and later, and he grew angry, more resolute, while my curiosity mounted. “You are forbidden to pick up that phone,” he told me, because that was the way he talked to his sons, the only way he knew how.
I was someone’s younger brother, and knew how to wait—for hand-me-down clothes, for my plate at dinner, for the day on which I would finally grow up. One night, at midnight, I let the phone ring five times, and tried my luck. “Congratulations!” I said to the caller. “For calling this number, you have won a million dollars!”
My heart stopped. “George?”
“Is Dad asleep?”
“Where are you?”
“Tell me if Dad’s asleep.”
“He is,” I said. “Where are you?”
For a long moment, George said nothing, making me fear that he’d hung up, as he must have been doing for days. When he spoke, the quake of his voice scared me more than any silence could.
“I think I did something stupid,” he said. “I think I did something really stupid. I don’t know why.”
Eight months later, I sat with my brother in the living room of our father’s house, where he would stay, miserable, until he learned to walk on his new leg. “You want to know if I killed people?” he asked. I didn’t, but he continued, “Fifteen, twenty people, at least. They sounded loud when they fell, a big thud, but I might have been imagining that part.”
He’d been home for a week, and was slumped on the sofa with a knit blanket draped over his shoulders, his prosthetic leg in his lap. The landmine had only blown off his foot, but they’d amputated up to the knee. Unable to climb the stairs well, he was sleeping in the living room, and hated it. “Did you know the old man wakes up at three in the morning?” George said. “You don’t hear him, up in the attic, but he comes down here every night to make a roast beef sandwich. Too much mayo. Way too much. It’s disgusting.”
I turned to him, studying his scowl. He’d shaved his face that morning, and his crew cut made him look younger than his age. “How do you know about the mayo?” I asked.
“Because he makes them for me, too,” George said. “He shakes me awake with a sandwich in his hand, mayonnaise dripping from his fingers, at three in the goddamn morning. No plate, either. Not even a napkin.”
“Isn’t it?” George stared off at the drapes, pinching his chin so that it dimpled. “It is nice. Everything he’s ever given me is something I don’t want or need.”
Silence fell between us. Our silences had once been comfortable, but in that moment, everything about him made me want to leave. Questions rose like heat in my chest, and my mind turned to the last time I’d felt that I knew him, when we stood waist-deep in the Pacific, in the suck and thrash of those gray waters. On that day, in Dallas, were there birds to be seen? I can’t imagine a single pigeon. When I remember at all, I think of the things my brother taught me: how to tell a gunshot from a firework, how to feel danger in your bones before your mind can register it, how to be cold as the fog that swallows the city. John Kennedy’s hands jerk automatically towards his head.
© Sara Brody
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Sara’s interview]