My brother Mark is:
When we meet in the junkyard, I don’t ask Mark about the two Combat Control stories I remember from my childhood.
I don’t want to know whether he really approached a guard tower outside a university in Grenada dressed as an American student. I don’t want to consider why a university—even one in Grenada in 1983—would have a guard tower in the first place. I want to keep the story as it is, however implausible it might be: Mark asks the guard for a cigarette lighter. The guard obliges, lowering the requested item in a pail, unwittingly signalling a U.S. sniper. A warm bullet fizzes through the air. The guard slumps and the pail falls. Mark hustles onto campus, to help American students evacuate the island in the hours before the American invasion.
That’s the story I remember hearing when I was a kid. The part where Mark lights a cigarette with the guard’s lighter, looks up to the tower, and says, “I guess these things really do kill you”—that’s all my invention.
I also neglect to ask Mark whether he really engaged Russians in hand-to-hand combat in Alaska, to prevent the pesky Reds from sabotaging an oil pipeline. That’s the story I remember from my childhood. And again, there’s my director’s cut: Mark moving as a blur in his all-white arctic uniform, alternately hip-tossing Russians or cracking their jaws with a knockout punch.
However tall the tales, these stories portrayed a member of the Jarvis family as in control of who lives and dies. That’s a stark contrast to the decade between 1969 and 1979, when death very much had control of us. In those 10 years, Mark, who is my half-brother, lived through the violent deaths of his mother and three of our siblings. Our brothers Bobby and Joe died before I was born. (Had Joey Gavilan Jarvis not died in 1975, I, Joey Travis Jarvis, might not have been born the following year, or possibly at all.) Our sister Patty was murdered when I was three; I have no memories of her. Mark has memories of all three siblings, as well as his mother, Frances, whose suicide in 1969 started the 10 years of tribulation.
Mark’s direct experience with death is beyond my comprehension. However, I am familiar with the world of shadows that death leaves behind. Children of soldiers have some knowledge of war, after all. For me growing up, death was a lingering scent in an empty room, a shadow that occasionally fell across adult faces. No one talked about the departed Jarvises, so naturally I became fascinated with them. During the isolation and awkwardness of adolesence, I began to feel that I had more in common with the dead than the living. This morbid fixation found a counterbalance with Mark’s Combat Control stories. Like our other siblings, Mark had danced with death, but he had learned how to lead the waltz. Death had bruised our heel, but he had crushed its head. His stories shone like a red flare in the distant night sky. If I could just fumble along in the dark long enough, maybe I could make my way over there, to where he was.
We wait at the gate inside the Columbus, Ohio airport: Dad, Mom, and me. The first wave of deboarding passengers emerges through the jet bridge. I stand on tip-toes, leaning side to side, looking around all these adult bodies, wishing I could see through them, scanning for red hair. Then comes the second wave of passengers, then the third, and then the stragglers. With each passing wave I feel Mom’s anxiety tick upwards. After the last of the stragglers come and go, she probably touches the side of her cheek or squeezes my hand harder than she means to. Finally, down at the back of the jet bridge, a distant figure appears, a solid black silhouette that moves forward slowly, calmly, towards us. As the shadow passes under the overhead lights, distinct features ease into view: the waist belt dangling from a black duster jacket (it’s possible that Mark didn’t buy this jacket until years later, but I remember it here, now); pale skin, yellow in the fluorescence; and then … red hair.
Every bit the Hollywood hero—at least in my eyes—here he is in the flesh, this man who has just gotten off an airplane (I won’t fly for another decade or so, when I’m 18), who has seen places I can only dream of (Amsterdam! Austin! Los Angeles! Lackland Air Force Base! Wherever! Anywhere but here!). Back at the house, Mark will give me a pair of wooden shoes. In the years to come I will occasionally put them on and stagger around, wondering how Dutch children ever manage to climb barbed-wire fences or hop from sandbar to sandbar in creeks. Along with some Dutch bank notes that I still have, he will also give me a red sweatshirt with a white line-drawing of a windmill and tulips, which I will wear to my public school with undue pride.
But far more importantly, during the two-hour drive home (and at any other time I manage to corner him during his visit) Mark will give me stories, white-magic spells that can teleport my body across oceans and even keep death at bay.
Years later, after reading "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Jorge Luis Borges, I’ll be inclined to consider all mental phenomena—drug-induced states, dreams, or in this case, memories—as experiences that are not turned on and off, but instead accessed. If a tree falls in an empty forest, it does indeed make a sound.
In which case:
My brother is always stepping off the plane. He is always making his way towards me.
Some of Mark’s stories were instructive (drugs will tear down the walls) or inspirational (you don’t have to die young, and you don’t have to die here). Others were initials carved into a signpost (you are here; I’ve been here too). That’s the case with his personal Fight with Dad story, of which everyone in our family has their own individual version. I don’t know what Joey Gavilan’s exact Fight with Dad was about. But I heard a story about the aftermath: Backing his car out of the driveway for the last time, Joey stopped to tell Mark, “I pity you.” Not a particularly helpful thing to say, but at least it expressed some measure of fraternal empathy and advised of uneven roads ahead. Another brother, who will remain nameless here, got ratted on for drinking beer. Dad got it into his head that the beer was stolen. (It wasn’t.) As his Fight with Dad escalated towards living-room fisticuffs, this other brother said to Mom, “You need to get this old motherfucker out of my face before I knock his dentures down his throat.” Mom said, “Leo, you had better sit down.” Dad heeded Mom’s counsel.
And then Mark with Joann Malone.
"And then me with my bleached hair.
The bleach dye-job was a relatively minor addition to my ever-changing physical appearance, which I thought Dad had been taking in stride remarkably well throughout the years. Apparently, though, he had just been pushing down his growing disapproval, until the latest hair color sent him over the edge. Mom was in her bedroom, changing into night clothes, having just arrived home from Sunday evening service. Dad had not changed, and sat in his recliner with his church clothes still on. When I walked into the room, he stood and said, apropos of nothing, “Joe what are you trying to prove?”
“With what?” I stammered.
The next two sentences hissed out of this mouth, like a shaken bottle of soda opened slowly. “With that hair,” he said. “You look like a freak.” And then, his voice hollowing out in disgust, he capped off the conversation with, “Joe, I’m ashamed of you.”
No one could have prepared me for the shock of that moment, but at least it wasn’t a surprise. I had already heard the stories, so I recognized my new surroundings, standing in the middle of an intersection all of a sudden, free to go in any direction. The signpost listed three potential destinations, as trailblazed by my brothers: Death, Exile, and the Air Force. The corresponding initials carved on the sign post read: JGJ for Joey Gavilan, XXX for the brother-who-remains-nameless, and LMJ for Leo Mark.
I am the youngest of 10 children and Dad died 13 years ago, so no one will ever stand in this intersection again. It is, then, with aimless pride that I add my own mark: JTJ, trusting that I have established a fourth path, one that compared to the other three has fewer blind turns and better guardrail. Following their Fight with Dad encounters, Joey, Mark, and our unnamed brother left home more or less immediately. After my Fight with Dad, I stuck around for another three years or thereabouts, wiser and less afraid. When I finally moved to Chicago, Dad and I would often talk on the phone. In almost every conversation, he asked, “Joe, don’t you imagine that you’ll move back here some day?”
I wonder if he ever asked my other brothers that, if and when they called.
I was around 16 or 17 — old enough to be finished with hero worship. I came across one of my brother’s service shirts. The long, light-blue sleeves included patches that denoted my brother’s rank. I cut out one of the patches, and asked Mom to sew it onto the chest of a t-shirt. She indulged me, and off I went into the world. Wearing my brother’s insignia on my chest, I met some friends in uptown Athens, expecting everyone to ooh and ahh over the shirt. Of course no one said anything. I mentioned this oversight to my friend Jeff.
I said, “You haven’t said anything about my shirt.”
Looking at the wings on my chest, Jeff replied, “What could I say … sir?”
A decade or so earlier, I created a superhero named the Bolt. I don’t remember the name of the Bolt’s civilian alter ego, but the guy was an airman in the United States Air Force. One night riding his motorcycle back to base, he got caught in a storm and was struck by lightning. Afterwards he had the ability to fly, propelled by a surge of crackling energy, and he could shoot electricity through his fingertips. I liked to draw the Bolt in my school notebooks. His uniform was standard superhero fare: mask, tights, and boots. (In retrospect, the Bolt didn’t need clothing. He could have just swathed himself in electricity.) On the chest of his uniform I drew a lightning bolt, kind of like Captain Marvel’s, but smaller, more understated. The Bolt had a younger brother, the Hawk. The Hawk wore a bird suit and could fly. I don’t remember the Hawk’s secret identity, or how he gained his airborne abilities. I’m not sure I gave him a backstory.
My brother Mark is: