But brief, we had full bellies and fat hearts.
I stepped out of the coroner’s office and onto the sidewalk. Into the dark. Into the wind. October in the city of angels. Headlights bled by on the street, a bleach-like shock to my pupils. Wind kicked up soot from the gutter. I squinted. Turned my head so I wouldn’t taste it. My face felt swollen. The inside of my head, a deafening thud. An anchor sinking from ribs down into my gut.
I steadied myself against the swirl of the Santa Ana winds, clutching the clear plastic bag containing Jacob’s possessions under my arm as I cupped my hand around a lighter and tried to get a cigarette lit. Eight or twelve tries. Then sucked until the niccotine put the weakness in my knees. Even through the smoke I could could still catch the scent of Jacob’s hair on my fingertips.
I slumped down onto the curb, my ass cold on the cement. I held the cig between my lips and opened the bag. Jacob’s faded red cloth wallet, a AAA card, a bent ATM card, a library card, a California Driver’s License with an 11 year-old picture of him at 16, smiling smugly with one missing eyebrow — the result of being the first to pass out drunk in the presence of other drunken teens, wavy brown hair shaved on one side by choice, a faded Motley Crue t-shirt. Nobody thinks to think that these pieces of plastic will outlive them.
I reached into the bag and pulled out our grandfather’s gold wedding band on the silver ball chain and clasped it around my neck beside our grandmother’s.
I watched a white grocery bag tear into the air with sudden urgency and hover a moment before whipping itself around my calf. I plucked it from my leg and pinched it between finger and thumb, watching it twist and tremble in the wind a moment before letting it soar back out to the road where it waisted little wrapping itself around the grill of a busted Cadillac that carried it out of sight. A graceful impact.
"Killed on impact."
Jacob was dead.
I took one last drag off the cig and stamped it out beneath my boot, swallowed hard, and stepped into traffic.
After that it was the blow of my face slamming the pavement. After that was the nowhere space of unconsciousness. Dream-like, a sensation of watching my life back in splintered memory. I was seven again, six maybe. Jacob and I riding with our mother's lover in her 1976 blue Toyota truck with all the windows down in the height of summer. The three of us squashed up in the front. Gearshift between my scrawny thighs. “Chicken legs,” Jake had often called me then. My hair tornadoing wildly and slapping Jake in the face. He’d squinted and turned his head to the window and dangled an arm out, the other sweaty palm resting on my kneecap. He was 12.
Jess was chain smoking slim menthol cigarettes. Newports maybe. Her tan hand tapping ash out the window as she drove. I remember wondering how someone could drive like that. Smoking and shifting and changing the cassette in the tape deck all at the same time while both of our hair whizzed around in front of her face. I liked that she could.
We’d left my mother at home on a film set where she was playing the loving wife of some governor or other. She’d been elated to be on a studio picture again after years of drought. She’d join us in a week or so when production wrapped and she was still riding the glow of what she’d just done. Jess had figured we’d leave my mother to her work and get a headstart on some fun.
We were on our way up 395 to Bishop to ride Jess’ father’s horses. We’d stopped for some carrots to feed them and then wound up with burgers for us too. Even a milkshake from some place called Astroburger that left me with the feeling that aliens might be around. I was assured that when night fell I would see more stars than I’d ever seen. Shooting ones that passed over the tips of the mountains and through the Milky Way.
Dust blew in through the windows as we passed signs that told us how many miles we were from Death Valley. We were drinking Mexican Cokes to wash down the gritty feeling of dust in our mouths and listening to The Nightfly on the home stereo speakers strapped to the back of the seats by orange bungee chords.
I tapped Jacob’s shoulder to show him how far I could wiggle my front tooth with my tongue. Each time I bit into something it loosened a bit more. The burger had done a good job of making some significant progress. The other front tooth had already fallen out. I’d worn a fake for the last month of filming until My Dear Family went on hiatus. My hair swirled around us as Jake took the tooth between his index finger and thumb, pulling his face in close to get a better look. A mischievious smile. “Can I pull it?” he said.
“Not till it gets a little loother,” I said, his fingers still holding on.
“Alright, fine,” he said, and let go.
For days he’d been asking if we could just tie a string around it and the other end to a doorknob and slam it and watch the thing fly out of my mouth. It sounded violent. It wasn’t ready. I wanted to let it go naturally even if it meant letting it just hang there a while before finally giving up and falling at some insignificant and unplanned moment while I was watching TV.
Jake, reluctantly patient, squeezed my knee and said, “keep me posted, bud,” before turning back to the window and hanging an arm out.
“You ready for the roller coasters?” Jess said.
Just then the road dipped so suddenly and so steeply that I felt the burger I’d eaten bounce off of my stomach’s floor. Jess pressed her foot to the gas and for the next ten minutes we rode the dips in that stop of road screaming as the sun set behind a mountain top painting the sky with pinks and oranges I’d never seen in natural life.
Our greasy hands still smelled of onion rings as Donald Fagen sang about what a beautiful world this will be and what a glorious time it was to be free. But brief, life promised a future of full bellies and fat hearts.
I came to in the ER like a landed fish gasping for water. Gasping to stay in that unconscious space with Jake. Gravel stuck in my face and chest. Both arms outstretched with wrists handcuffed to a gurney. Fluorescent lights in my eyes. My chin throbbed with a distant ache, masked by whatever it was they were injecting into my veins. A feeling of watching the world through fogged glass as doctors, nurses, cops scooted around talking about but never to me. Something about a 5150. Some conscious part of me recalled what that meant. A familiar wing of the hospital where I’d visited my mother, and where Jake had been to visit me. A place where he and I had buried time building pyramids out of single serving coffee creamer containers and where visitors were required to remove their shoelaces before entering. I still couldn’t quite picture how anyone in there might kill themselves with shoe string.
My kneecaps felt cold, like wind was hitting them. I craned my neck to see that they were bleeding.
“I caught her just as she was getting ready to take on a semi.” A man’s voice. I turned my head and watched the blur of his navy uniform as he followed one of the nurses down the hall, focusing on the gun bouncing in his holster and wishing it was in my mouth as a kind of sleep found me again.
Jake and I standing at the foot of the Owens river. Wide-eyed in thigh high weeds watching the grey clouds roll in and the cows roll by, ocassionally stopping, moving their jaws clockwise to grind grass in their teeth or stare one of us in the eye.
Thunder clapped and our mouths formed giant O’s as lightning came down over the Sierras. Jess hooked an arm around my bare waist and carried me off. Away from the water. Away from the storm. Pausing to drape a frayed beach towel around Jacob’s head to take the water from his hair, then using it to pull him toward the truck. She got into the driver’s seat. My mother in the middle with me in Jess’ lap, Jacob at my right, his nose pressed up against the car window’s glass. All of us dripping and cloaked in towels. Jess’ hand resting on the nape of my mother’s neck. My mother smelled different. Like jasmine and earth. She smelled like Jess. Her smile had returned. A smile that could make the sky clap.
The heater blasted our ankles and fogged the car windows as the air caught the odor of the cow pies stuck to our heels. We didn’t mind. So pig-in-shit happy to meet nature that we could have eaten the mud. Licked it off our fingers like cake batter. The best kind of joy two city kids could ever come by.
We’d spent the day floating the Owens in a yellow raft filled with the four of us and a cooler full of enough booze to make an army of men happy. My mother and Jess getting lit on rum and cokes mixed up in red plastic cups. They even allowed Jacob a couple of buds.
I drank Hawaiian punch until I was drunk on sugar and red dye number 5 and fell asleep in my mother’s arms with a red ring around my mouth and a tongue that stayed hot pink for a week.
I’d woken up with a sunburn that ran a straight line down the left side of my face, giving Jacob a lazy laugh that scooted off into the breeze. Sleepy on sunshine and a belly of beer.
I splashed him with water and then we were all swimming. Jacob disappearing beneath the surface, then yanking my legs and pulling me under. I popped up like cork in my life jacket. Six year-old legs kicking with purpose in every direction.
“Don’t do that!” I squealed, pealing streams of hair from my eyes.
“It was a river shark,” he said, laying back into floating position.
“There’s no sharks in this river,” I said, indignant. I’d just learned this in class.
“Sharks only live in salt water,” I said.
“How do you know?” Jake said.
“But how do you know?”
“I just do,” I said. “I learned it.” Then second guessed, “Wait, Jess!” I called out, kicking myself over to the side of the raft where she was floating. “Do river sharks live here?”
“Oh yes, the infamous river shark,” she said, winking at Jacob. “Plenty of them. But don’t worry they don’t have any teeth.”
I felt a tug at my legs again. I whipped around and caught Jacob’s back with my ankles, hooking them around his waist.
Then, like a skipped tape, I was back to black. Maybe a kind of rest. No. But something close to the sentiment.
I was slow to register the sound of a nurse’s voice on an intercom ordering patients to gather in the group room.
I sat up slow, little pieces of memory lingering in me as I struggled with opening my eyes. I ran my tongue over dry teeth, found a styrofoam cup beside me and tipped it to my mouth. It was the psychiatric ward. I’d been here before. Not my first go around. Only this time I’d meant it.
My mind went to my mother. I wondered where she might be. If she’d been called. About Jake. About the crash.
Jacob was dead.
I hadn’t seen or heard from my mother since the Christmas before last. As far as I knew she was living on a farm for people recovering from drug addiction. Minding the pigs and feeding goats. Simple tasks she was built for. Tasks unlike raising children. I was hesitant to believe a place like this could make someone sober.
The first time she OD’d, Jacob and I had been playing in the sprinkler in the backyard with the neighbor kids when Jess' screams put a halt to our laughter. Jess had come home from a month in New Mexico wrangling horses on a movie and found our mother lying face down on the ornate rug in the living room in a puddle of pill-induced vomit. Her fist clenched tight around a bottle.
Our mother scarcely spoke or left her room when Jess was away. We learned to make do. During these spells where our mother increased her prescription pill intake, we quietly counted down the days until her lover returned to us.
Little Mowglis, We made the best of living as latch keys, perfecting the art of TV dinners and pillow forts where Jake and I would sleep enshrouded in cocoons of blankets with no one around to tell us to turn off MTV. We once dragged a mattress down the stairs and shared it in front of the TV each night for two weeks. But this time was different. This time Jess had been gone long enough for our mother to disappear so far inside herself that we weren’t sure she would return even if she did come back from the hospital in the flesh.
I’d stood dripping on the front lawn in my yellow bathing suit and bare feet with my mouth hanging open, gripping the hem of Jacob’s board shorts as I watched the lights on the ambulance turn on and back out of our driveway, taking our mother and her lover away.
We stood there long after they were gone, watching our street become one giant shadow as the sun made its way down flushing the sky with pink as goosebumps formed on our skin.
I was 9. It was the first time I’d seen the blade of love. The knife. What it could do to a person. How it could be wielded. How it could be turned on itself. How it could be used to summon someone, make them run. And it was the first time I glimpsed its fragile underbelly, its ability to wilt in the absence of beloved’s gentle sun.
The first time Jacob left on tour with his band, two weeks gone, I’d snuck off to his closet each night to put on his T-shirts and sweaters, holding them up to my face and trying to catch his scent as I left snail trails of snot on his sleeves.
I’d begged to come on the road. Jess had pulled me from the van kicking and screaming, my fingers nearly caught in the sliding door as it slammed shut. He too had had tears in his eyes. I was a minor. And I was a television star. My paychecks were paying my mothers bills after her character had been killed off. A slip of paper, a work permit, had given me permission to pay our mortgage, but I was not permitted to go on the road.
I cut all of my hair off in the bathroom mirror with Crayola scissors that night. Hours in the makeup chair the next morning with frantic make up artists making phone calls to find the right wig and wardrobe assistants tucking paper towels in my collar between takes so my leaking face wouldn’t spoil my shirt, under which, to my dismay, tiny breasts were beginning to develop. Horror, the morning I was passed a tiny training bra to put on with my wardrobe on set.
By the end of that first week I’d managed to make myself so desperately inconsolable that Jake had had no choice but to come home early.
By the 4th time he left for the road, and the second time I’d earned myself a first class ticket to the psyche ward, I’d managed to strike a deal. Jake had fled home to me, shoes in his hands, a van full of his band waiting in the parking lot, tears in his eyes. I both lavished in and despised the gravitational pull I possessed over Jacob. Survival teaches us to use what we have. And I did. I used it. I used what I knew.
The only solution was for me to come on the road.
This worked for some years. Sharing a van and a bounty of laughs with the band, motel rooms, and eventually a bunk on the tour bus. I learned to pee standing up on the side of the road.
But what I hadn’t anticipated, what hadn’t occurred to me, never in my wildest dreams was that there would come a day when my brother would not longer want me to be his band’s mascot. That he would no longer want me on that bus. That he would grow legs and need to take on a shape all his own. What I couldn’t have anticipated was that the day he shared this news with me, the night he left me at 2am on my birthday to drive to the studio and meet his band for an early light on the road, that day, that night, that day, would be his last. That he would leave me in a flash of light. Something so stupid, so finite, so fluke, like a crash. It hadn’t even been his fault.
The only sound in my head,
“Your brother is dead.”
“Jacob is dead.”
“Your brother is dead.”
“Your brother is dead.”
And the sound of my own breath.
What was a world where Jacob was dead and I still had the capacity to sip breath.
In the coroner’s office I was offered a phone to make a call. I stood holding it in my hand a while. Nothing. No one. My eye moved from a spot of chipped paint on the wall to a photograph on the desk. A smiling face of a mother squatting down with her arms around two young kids. There was even a dog. I’d rested the phone back in its cradle and wandered out the glass door and into the bleary night.
About the Creator
Jen Parkhill “JP”, a first generation Cuban-American artist and proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Cat dad, writer, filmmaker, actor, friend, and graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU.
Hurling through time.