A dozen Decembers ago, my brother was found in his Bronco, burnt to shit. He had been out drinking with strangers—at least, that’s what the detective told us. The last words we know he said were, “Good night, new friends.” Then he went to a payphone, made a few calls to people who didn’t answer. He drove his Bronco II onto a desolate road. Some development outside Houston, Texas. There, he parked. There, he died. Those are the answers.
With any death, there are questions. The first is always “Why?” The answer to that is always some version of “Because…”
When they found my brother—after putting him out, because he was on fire too, the whole thing just burning—he was sitting on a handful of .22 caliber bullets. There was a hose running from the exhaust pipe of his car to the driver’s side window, which was rolled down nearly halfway. His key ring had been taken apart. Some of his keys were found beneath the burning Bronco. There was a rifle in the trunk. His CD player was in his lap, and he had earphones in his ears.
Some people think this is all mysterious. The bullets, the lowered window, the keys, the fire in the car.
I don’t. I know those answers. What always bothers me is: What music?
This is why they say the Bronco burned: there was an oil leak. As the Bronco idled, hot oil dripped from the leak, landed in the dry grass. At some point, the grass ignited. At some point, a blaze grew. Caught the Bronco. The fire was what found him. For nearly a day, my brother had been missing. When they found him, they didn’t find him. They found a body, charred beyond recognition. When they first called us, they said, “We’ve found your son’s car. In it, there’s a body.” They could not say. My aunt was the last dentist my brother saw. In the night, my uncle went to her office, got the X-rays of my brother’s teeth. Drove hours across Texas to determine that, indeed, the body was Pat’s.
Here is a story my brother told me in the eighth grade. There was a boy who wanted to kill himself. He had his father’s gun. The gun was a pistol. A .22. I think my brother said he was killing himself over a girl. Maybe he was killing himself over grades, sports. Maybe he was gay and couldn’t tell his parents. We lived in Plano, Texas, in the early ’90s. It seemed stories of suicide and heroin were everywhere. So the boy was in his room. He placed the pistol to the side of his head. Maybe all the lights were out. Maybe he was crying. He squeezed the trigger. Twenty-twos don’t make a big bang. The size of the round is so small, you could swallow one without water. Supposedly, if the projectile gets inside you, it’ll swim around, bounce off everything. If you get shot in the chest with one, it might slam around off your ribs like a pinball, piercing your organs until you bleed out. But it’s not a super strong round. I’ve shot an armadillo with one just to watch it run off, the leather shell of the critter presumably keeping it safe. That’s what this boy’s skull did, allegedly. My brother told me maybe the kid wasn’t holding the gun right. Maybe the mouth of the barrel sat at an angle. When he pulled the trigger, the bullet pierced the flesh of his head, swam under his scalp and over his cranium, and exited on the other side. His parents found him, alive, in a pool of blood. After that, the family moved away.
I imagine my brother thinking of this story as he cradled a palm full of .22 shells in the dark and thought about getting his rifle out of the trunk.
The toxicity report found that my brother died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, but if I remember correctly, the fire department ruled it “accidental death by fire.” Some speculated murder, some said suicide. In the years since, people have struggled over the specifics of the death. The window being partly rolled down doesn’t help. Some ash was found in my brother’s throat, but there were no signs of struggle. I imagine people on fire flail from the pain, even if they want to be on fire. Sure, there are the Buddhist monks who self-immolate and stay still with legs crossed and hands folded, but my brother lacked devotion of any discernible kind. Presumably, he died from poison as his car simultaneously caught fire. The window being down confuses people. I remember all this talk with detectives about parts per million, things I didn’t understand.
The issue was whether or not the Bronco, with the window down, would have filled with enough carbon monoxide to kill my brother, but I always thought that line of logic was ridiculous. My brother was a hunter. He killed things for sport. That’s perhaps a negative way to explain hunting, but it is truthful. When it came to hunting, my brother approached the sport with reverence. He had worked for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. He followed the rules when hunting and fishing. But there were other endeavors. In high school, he’d drive around the neighborhood shooting cats with pellet guns. He’d set frogs on fire with gasoline, and while they burned, he’d pelt them against a fence post. Once, on a fruitless fishing trip, my brother cast his line into a flock of seagulls. He caught one by its body, and reeled the thing around as it batted its wings violently, flying it almost the way you fly a kite. The hose would have been in my brother’s mouth. He would’ve huffed and sucked on it until his vision went black.
For all his faults, my brother was a thoughtful guy. At the time of his death, he was living with an uncle of ours. The uncle had two kids, very young, though I don’t remember their exact ages. My brother would’ve thought this: What if it’s not the police who find me? What if it’s some bad man? What if he gets my keys? What would he do?
My brother, in the last kindhearted act of his life, took from the ring every key he didn’t need to kill himself. He took them and hid them to keep his family safe.
When I was nineteen years old, my brother and I went to see Elliott Smith play. He was on tour supporting his album XO. I got carded at the door, and they put a bracelet around my wrist. My brother got carded at the door, and they put a stamp on his hand. As soon as we got in, he grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bathroom.
“What the fuck?” I said.
He pulled me into a stall, looked over the stall wall, reached down, and yanked the bracelet off my wrist. It hurt like hell, and I pushed him. He laughed. He grabbed my wrist. He pulled my hand to his mouth and licked the back of it. I struggled against him.
“Calm down, dammit,” he said, and I calmed. He then put the back of his hand against the back of my hand. He mashed them together. When he pulled them away, I had a stamp of my own. “Happy birthday,” he told me. A birthday would’ve only made twenty, but I didn’t argue.
Later, I sipped a Guinness in the crowd and sang along so loud with Elliott that a blond-headed girl turned around and looked at me. I thought she was gonna kiss me, but instead she just said, “I didn’t come here to hear you sing.” My brother laughed and laughed.
When your older brother dies, you get all his things. His clothes. His bike. His book of CDs.
When they gave me his CDs. I looked through them. Nothing was missing that should have been.
Pat’s CD player melted in the blaze. They didn’t know what he’d been listening to, and neither do I.
The day my brother died, I went with a friend to the highest point in Austin, Texas, and we took a picture of a full moon with a blue filter on the camera’s lens. At that point, I didn’t even know my brother was missing. We had a tripod with us, but we were on top of a rickety structure. We used a long exposure time, so when the button of the SLR was pressed, we couldn’t even breathe or the composition would streak. We stayed still and silent, the only sound the motor of the camera keeping the shutter open.
My brother’s death is that silent to me.
When I got his CD book, I found his copy of XO. I found his copy of Either/Or. I found his Floyd. His Steely Dan. His Weezer. His Chicago. Everything that might’ve been. I’ve come to terms with all the other mysteries. But it never fails. Every December, I’m haunted by that silence.
Second photograph © by Phil Douglis.