My last memory of my brother Jon was my most suspect.
It was Oct. 28, 1973, and we were on the sidewalk outside our house. I was a stocky 4-year-old with a brown, bowl haircut, and Jon, wiry and lean with wavy red hair, was 11. Earlier that year, we’d moved to this small ranch house with a red Spanish style roof in Tampa, Fla. It was the northern edge of the burgeoning suburbs, the last home on the last street by the woods.
For the kids in the neighborhood, the woods represented the great unknown, a thicket of freedom, a mossy maze of cypress and palms begging to be explored. Kids ventured into there on horseback, barefoot, on bikes. They had worn a path to the 7-Eleven convenience store across the woods, and that’s where Jon was heading this day.
Jon straddled his red bicycle, aiming for the trees. These were the Easy Rider years, and boys’ bikes were designed to resemble motorcycles, the kinds we’d see driven by Hell’s Angels around town. Jon’s bike had a long red banana-shaped seat, shiny chrome upright handlebars, and fat tires. For added effect, kids would tape a playing card in the back spokes to sound like a motorcycle when the tire spun. They’d lower their heads, extend their arms, and hunch their backs as they pedaled, visions of Evel Knievel in their minds.
My parents had given Jon a green ten-speed Schwinn for his birthday in September, but for some reason he decided to ride his old one this morning. Maybe he wanted something more rugged for the woods, or just wanted to take one more spin on his old bike before retiring it. He wore a brown muscle shirt, and cutoff blue jean shorts with a patch from his day camp, Camp Keystone. His sneakers were red, white and blue Hush Puppies. I could tell by the way his feet bobbed on the pedals that he was anxious to leave.
“You’re going to forget,” I told him.
“I’m not,” he replied.
“I know you are.”
“Let me go with you.”
“You can’t. You’re too young.”
I wanted something specific from the store, Snappy Gator Gum. It wasn’t just gum, it was a toy. The gum was packed in the mouth of a plastic alligator head, that opened and closed when you squeezed the neck. I had to have it, and didn’t want anything to get in the way.
What if it rains? I asked Jon. I was thinking about an afternoon at our last house, when Jon had biked to a store shortly before a torrential Florida downpour. I remembered standing next to my mom in the kitchen when Jon called, and my mom telling me that we had to go pick up him in the station wagon because he was, as she said, “caught in the rain.” I hadn’t heard that phrase before, and it struck me as strange. I pictured Jon literally caught in the rain, stuck in suspended animation, hovering in a cage of falling drops.
“If it rains I’ll call,” he promised.
“Call me anyway when you get there,” I said, “so I can remind you what I want.”
“Fine,” he said.
Jon grabbed the handlebars and quickly pedaled down the sidewalk toward the woods. I watched him ride off, still wishing I could go with him. I never saw him again. It would take decades to unravel what happened, both in this final exchange and in the years to come. But my search would always lead me back to this spot.
Like most parents at the time, my father and mother, Gilbert and Lorraine, didn’t worry about Jon riding off into the woods alone. They were raising their children – Jon and me and our 13-year-old brother Andy – in a different age and different spirit than the one in which I’m now raising my own.
It was the early ’70s. The Age of Aquarius had given way to the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. We were unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized play dates. Our parents let us climb over the seats of our smoke-filled station wagon, puffing on candy cigarettes and, on road-trips, sleeping in the way back. When we had a stretch of hours to play, they let us put the free in free time, wandering off to learn and explore and find adventures. They weren’t being negligent or careless. From today’s perspective, they were at worst naïve. They shared our innocence. They hadn’t learned to be afraid.
Our house, a small ranch home with a Spanish-tiled roof, had been built on the lot of a tree nursery. The backyard teemed with Podocarpus trees, which had thin pointy leaves and small sour purple berries. Neighbors tore down their trees to build swimming pools, but my parents told the bulldozer drivers to keep away from ours.
My brothers and I were thankful the trees remained. We lost ourselves there, tunneling into the paths to play hide and seek. We had company in the backyard, a colony of pet turtles. They began arriving one day when one of us brought home a yellow-and-green shelled boxer turtle found outside. Then came another, and another. To accommodate the growing herd, my dad dug a shallow hole in the back, and filled it with concrete to make a pond. He fixed a green wire fence around the perimeter. Word got out and other kids began bringing errant turtles by: snappers and tortoises. Soon we had nearly a dozen. We became known as the turtle family. The turtles were a great incentive for throwing out the garbage. Every night, my brothers and I fought over who would go to dump the half-eaten vegetables into their pen.
A creek behind the turtle pond led into even wider and wilder world to explore. Because our house backed up against the woods, the paths seemed endless. After school and on weekends, we’d see skinny, long-haired kids in cutoffs and T-shirts dart by on their urgent adventures. Where they were going I had no idea, but I was jealous that Andy and Jon were old enough to join them. I imagined them off in some incredible secret place, like the cove from my favorite TV show, “Sigmund and the Sea Monster.” The show was about this boy who, while off on his own neighborhood adventure, discovered a cave of friendly sea monsters: Sigmund, the nice one, and his mischievous brothers Burp and Slurp.
The sea monsters were just actors in some Hollywood lot sweating inside big rubbery green costumes, but I was still young enough to suspend disbelief. The fact that the hero of the show had red hair and was named Johnny made it even more compelling. Maybe my own red-haired brother Jon would find Sigmund beyond the creek and bring him home to play with our turtles, I imagined. Kids spoke of secret caves in the woods across the street from our house, not far from the 7-Eleven.
* * *
Oct. 28, 1973, began like any other Sunday. Andy woke up early to go to a youth group meeting at our synagogue on the other side of town. He sometimes carpooled with a local teenager, whom he never really liked. He and Jon had made a game out of his dread, hiding by the window and peaking outside as they heard the kid pull up. On this day, they let their inside joke go further than usual, and, unbeknownst to my parents, pretended they didn’t hear the door when the boy came knocking. Andy figured my mom would just drive him instead, which she did.
But it was going to be a busy day. That night, my parents were hosting a dinner for the social club at our synagogue, Havorah. After Andy and mom left, Jon went outside to mow the lawn. The grass, even in the fall, grew quickly and thickly, and my dad encouraged Andy and Jon to take turns mowing to earn their allowance.
By around noon, when Jon was done, he asked my dad if it was OK to bike to the 7-Eleven through the woods to buy some candy. It was the same ride he’d taken countless times, just like the other kids. My dad said OK, and settled into his big black chair in the den to catch the Vikings/Rams games on TV, a formidable battle of two undefeated teams.
Jon slipped on his red, white and blue Hush Puppies, and went into his room, where he slipped a dollar from his wallet, headed out to the garage, and grabbed his old bike. As he pedaled down the driveway and turned right on the sidewalk toward the woods, I trailed after him until he stopped. We had that conversation in which I reminded him about the candy I wanted, the Snappy Gator Gum. And then he was gone.
Because I was 4 when Jon disappeared, I only have a handful of memories before that day. But beginning with my last conversation with Jon on the sidewalk, several more memories rapidly piled up that week.
I am on the sidewalk talking with a police officer. He’s asking me to describe what Jon was wearing. A brown muscle shirt, I say. Shorts.
A kind, older woman, Marge Bernstein, takes me to buy Silly Putty. I return to find a lot of people at my house, including the police.
I’m inside the house when the door opens to another police officer. He’s big and serious. He says something, and I run into Andy’s bedroom. Andy is sitting on the edge of his bed, forlorn. “They found him!” I shout. Andy looks up as if numbed. I follow him back to the foyer, where, overhearing the conversation, I realize they haven’t found Jon at all. They’ve only found his bike. I feel terrible for telling Andy they had found our brother instead. But if Jon isn’t in the woods, where is he?
Some time later, I’m in the kitchen and the transistor radio is on. The person on the radio is talking about our family. My mom and Andy are sitting around the round white kitchen table, and Andy is comforting her as she was crying. I say something about how at least our name was on the radio, as if that’s somehow cool and uplifting. I feel confused and terrible as my mom continues to cry, and Andy, his arm around her shoulder, helps her out of the room.
At another point I’m standing in front of an empty grave, and tossing the black flight book Jon and I used to play with inside it.
Then my memories of that week stop.
* * *
I don’t recall when or how I learned that Jon had been murdered. All I knew was that something very awful and very public had happened to my family, and that Jon wasn’t coming back. It felt like being cast into some kind of Grimm fairy tale made real – a boy went into the woods where he met monsters and never returned. But the pages of my book were torn and missing.
Eventually a narrative lodged in my mind, though, being so young, I struggled to process truth from fantasy and lacked the courage or wherewithal to ask more. While biking through the woods, he had been hit in the head with a lead pipe and taken by two men. He suffocated in the trunk of their car. He was missing for a week before he was found dead.
What happened to Jon remained a mystery. Like all mysteries, it was one that I had to answer for myself in order to go on. Along the way, I discovered something I didn’t know I was seeking, the answer to the question that almost everyone had for us when they heard our story. It was one that applies not only to our rare experience, to anyone suffering a loss: How do you go on?
I began seeking the answers at the spot where the future ended: on the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. It was about 30 years after Jon had died. I was visiting from New York City, where I was working as a writer, and living with my wife and 3-year-old daughter. On this sunny warm winter morning, I had taken my daughter outside to ride a new tricycle for the first time. The bike was pink, and had pink and white streamers on the handles. I helped her guide it out the garage, and down the small hill of the cracked concrete driveway. The Spanish tile roof had long since broken away and been replaced by flat shingles. The once barren yard had filled in with thick lush green bushes and pink azaleas.
We set the bike to rest at the first level spot on the sidewalk that ran to the end of the block at the street by the woods. A few homes had been built across the street years before, but many of the cypress trees remained, taller now, and dripping with long gray tangles of Spanish moss, like the beards of thin giants. In the years following Jon’s death, I never ventured into the woods. I didn’t have the courage or desire, and my parents didn’t want me going into there anyway. But the woods remained, looming reminders of a shadowy past, trees that had bore witness as Jon pedaled over the palm fronds beneath them to the 7-Eleven on the other side.
Standing there with my daughter, I saw the two moments overlaying, like film strips playing over each other in double-images. There was me as the little kid standing next to my brother on his bike, and me grown up standing next to my daughter on her own. I thought about how much had changed, how the freedom that Jon had in his final moments seemed so endangered, if not extinct, in children now. The last free generation of kids had let their fears take away the freedom from the kids of their own.
As my daughter eagerly climbed onto her seat, I wondered what most parents wonder: how I would find the strength to give her the freedom she needed? How could I let her go into the world knowing that anything could happen? How could I survive if anything did? When I asked parents how they did it, they said they always wanted me to the get the most out of life. But now, as my daughter wiggled her feet on her pedals I had no idea how they could possibly have endured. I had to venture into the woods of time and memory where the mysteries remained.
ABOUT THE STORY
From “Alligator Candy: A Memoir” by David Kushner. Copyright © 2016 by David Kushner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Kushner is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone who has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, The New York Times Magazine, New York and GQ. His books include “The Bones of Marianna,” “Jacked,” “Levittown,” “Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids” and “Masters of Doom.” He is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.