My brother Mark is:
Mark worked under the hood of a red VW bug. The garage door was up, allowing in California sunlight. Outside, identical houses lined the cul-de-sac, which ended and restarted in a loop. I sat smoking Camel Lights with my back to the light. Mark disappeared under the hood and then reappeared as he talked, his voice softer and then louder. Once in awhile he would step back from the car and pull a Kool cigarette away from his lips with an audible little puff. With one eye closed, he’d survey his work and its ever-changing configuration of parts. He’d stroke his cheek with a thumb or vigorously rub his dwindling hair. Then he’d walk to the workbench to swap tools or take a swig from his jug of sweet tea. The goth years were long gone. Mark had traded in the all-black outfits for, of all things, the uniform of a prison guard. When he wasn’t working as a corrections officer at the Pelican Bay supermax facility, he wore a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, each item non-descript and chosen for comfort. When I visited, those clothes had become filthy with grease and oil, as Mark spent more and more time in the garage, keeping his mind off the emptied house. A portable stereo played Hole and Counting Crows. I tried to like those bands because Mark did, without much success. Back under the hood, my brother puffed, ratcheted, wrenched, and of course told stories, one of which pertained to the garage itself.
There’s only one moment of the garage story that I remember specifically. But leading up to that one moment, Mark and I must have talked about his ill-fated homecoming.
A year or two earlier, Mark had driven from California to Ohio with his wife and kids. At the same time, our brother Ed and his wife came north from Florida. It was a monumental visit: the two brothers under the same roof for the first time since Ed left for the Army some 20 years earlier. Mom called me when everyone arrived. I drove the 15 minutes from Athens, where in my early days at Ohio University I took lots of psychology classes. It was a short visit, a warm-up ahead of several days of getting reacquainted—a family-reunion appetizer, if you will. Sadly, there would be no main course. Two days later, I got away from classes long enough to drive back to my parents’ house to find the coop flown, both brothers gone. It turns out that Ed and his wife had always planned to only stay for the weekend. Mark’s sudden departure was a different story, but neither Mom nor Dad volunteered details. I was shocked, but once again, not surprised. Eventually I heard Dad’s side of things: Mark’s wife had hovered over my brother, following him from room to room, always making a point to sit next to him, by his side at all times. Dad wanted to talk to Mark alone, but it wasn’t happening. So Dad, being Dad, stated his preferences to Mark’s wife directly, leaving little room for interpretation. I imagine Dad telling me all this on the back porch while smoking one of his rum-crook cigars. “And then,” he might have said, waving his hand to disperse smoke, “they all just left.”
I don’t remember what Mark told me about the drive back to California, but I can imagine.
He would have spent five days in close quarters with an upset spouse and even closer proximity to his own pain, hurtling down the highway mile after mile, replaying the incident with Dad (whatever exactly that had been) on an endless loop. It was all over now. The vacation time off work, the kids away from school, his wife’s schedule, all of it syncing up again at some point in the future for another drive across the country, another shot at peace and togetherness? Not in this lifetime. When they finally made it home, Mark’s wife left immediately to see the family friend who had been watching their house. Mark slid out of the car, no one at his side for the first time in a week. Hoping to take comfort in the familiarity of home, he found none. The garage looked different. His tools were organized on the workbench. The random buckets of paint were neatly stacked in the corner. Mounds of old newspapers had vanished. The floor had been swept—not as good as a Jarvis boy could do on his hands and knees with a horsehair brush, but not bad.
I imagine that Mark walked onto the driveway and looked at the row of identical houses across the street. At least they had stayed the same. In their unrelenting blandness, he felt some measure of peace. He had just been, as he would later term it, “disowned” by Dad, and then spent five painful days on the road, but at least these houses hadn’t changed. He lit a cigarette and felt the menthol settle into his lungs. His eyes ran down the street, all the lawns trimmed, the raised mailbox flags like cardinal wings, the cul-de-sac loop coming and going, always moving past him but always circling back, easy come and easy go on this side of the “No Outlet” sign. Then, just as he had started to feel grounded for the first time in a week, his wife reappeared with a new disaster.
This is the part of the story I remember Mark telling me, while he either leaned under the hood or made eye contact, his voice either softer or louder:
His wife said that the neighbor who looked after their place had cleaned out the garage.
Yes, Mark had noticed. That had been nice of her.
Well, that neighbor got talking with another neighbor …
And that other neighbor said …
And that neighbor said, “Well, it’s about time somebody cleaned out that garage.”
Then Mark’s wife lost it: tears streaming down her face, gasping for breath, openly weeping because … wait—Mark needed to get this straight …
“I just got disowned by my father, and you’re crying because someone said our garage was messy?”
Exhaling smoke in the garage, Mark told me that from there, the conversation with his wife just got worse.
And then, at some point, in hours or days, she just left.
At some point during my brother’s time as a prison guard, he mailed me a gray hoodie sweatshirt. It had been designed as a spoof of the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts. On the front there was a pink circle, like the Hard Rock circle, and similar lettering. Instead of “Hard Rock” it said “Hard Time,” and under that, “Pelican Bay State Penitentiary." I wonder if the sweatshirt seemed as strange to me then as it does now. Where did it come from? Was there a prison gift shop? Did the prisoners make the sweatshirt for like 20 cents an hour or whatever? Unlike the Holland sweatshirt from years before, I never wore the Pelican Bay one. I would get it out of my closet and look at it every so often, but it didn’t really go with my high-school wardrobe. By that point, I was already looking ahead to senior year, making an early push to get voted “Best Dressed” for my class. But it was also during his prison-guard days that Mark gave me my favorite of all his gifts. After he bolted from the family reunion, it hurt me that I hadn’t heard anything from him. He could’ve asked Mom for my number to tell me what happened. Instead, he was just flat-out gone. Then, one random Sunday, I went home from college to eat some home-cooked food and have Mom do my laundry. At one point I went back into my old bedroom to listen to music. I popped open the CD player to find a sheet of folded-up legal paper inside.
In the note, Mark said that he was proud of me. I can envision the blue ink taking up at least a quarter of the yellow page, but him being proud of me is the only specific thing I remember, along with this one snippet: “… psychology is a difficult field.” Ultimately, I would agree with my brother and major in philosophy, but I found the new field just as hard.
This was my brother at his most stylish.
No, Mark was no longer the dashing man in uniform, and he had outgrown the edgy goth attire in every way imaginable. But those overly stylish (or style-laden) looks couldn’t compete with the off-hours panache of his mid-30s. When he would come home from work at Pelican Bay State Penitentiary, Mark changed out of his prison-guard uniform into clothes that he chose primarily for comfort. Comfort, however, was not the be-all and end-all. Mark still had style. At this stage in his life, his style hinged on a sense of contrast—one that was representational, rather than literal. Mark would have looked ridiculous offsetting his “relaxed dad” ensemble of jeans, t-shirt, and generic sneakers with a top hat or sequined jacket. Instead, he wore a t-shirt with a portrait of Marc Bolan, the glam-rock pioneer known for his top hats and sequin jackets. The t-shirt represented an idea that contrasted with the rest of Mark’s outfit. My brother, who around this time started working with computers, had gone past the obvious to the encoded.
Then there was the Mickey Mouse fanny pack. The little cartoon rodent, with his irrepressible smile and “Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!” enthusiasm, rode around on my brother’s waist as a testament to Mark’s absolute self-confidence. But confidence only gets you so far when it comes to inmates recently released from Pelican Bay, especially when those inmates know the names of your children. And so, when we went out—on a cigarette-and-donut run at 7-Eleven, wandering through the redwoods on the coast, or just walking down the block—Mark carried Mickey, and inside his zippered face, Mickey carried a locked-and-loaded Glock 9mm.
Another contrast, another subtle depth of style.
My brother Mark is: