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Where I grew up, people kept their business to themselves. I lived in the desert, far enough east of the big cities of Southern California to render them meaningless to my daily life, closer to the border of Mexico than most people would have liked to admit. People did not so much choose to live in that parched frontier as they ended up there. It was a place generally ignored because it did not have much to offer, and so it was a place where you could be left alone. The desert's plants and animals thrived in seemingly impossible circumstances, against heat and drought and other odds. The same could have been said of its people, too.
On a spring afternoon in the late 1970s, a boy I knew died of a gunshot wound. The boy was of no consequence. During his life he had been tossed from home to home like the object in a game of hot potato, while one or another well-meaning soul tried to handle him, then passed him on when the real heat of his nature became untenable. It would be hard to make a case for his goodness given the deceitful and sometimes violent things he did. And as much as I was captive to the bright, angry flame of him when I was young, I cannot, even now, easily point to his value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own.
The news of the shooting made its way from the local newspaper to the big city papers in San Diego and Los Angeles where it was reworked and retold so that our story became unrecognizable to us, and we read the paragraphs incredulously as if we couldn't imagine people who lived like that. The story captured readers' imaginations not because of the boy who was shot, but because of my brother, whose mute, some would say insensate, presence occasioned the killing. What captured people's attention, what had the phone ringing in our trailer in Bombay Beach until my mother tore it out of the wall, what provoked an intrepid young reporter from San Diego to make his way to our overlooked town, was the fact that my brother could not talk or read or write, was more at home with objects than people, and could not look a person in the eye or suffer a stranger's hand on his narrow shoulder without screaming as if he had been branded. He could not, finally, tell any judge or jury what had happened that day to cause such violence. He was a boy locked up in himself. Now there are words for the kind of child my brother was, labels and therapeutic regimens and even drugs. But thirty years ago, in the remote place where we lived, science had not caught up to us, and diagnoses of abnormal behavior, when they were made at all, ran to generalities. My brother was simply "backward," as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong. It was left to others to speak for him, to tell our story to the police, judge, and the newspaper reporters, who then turned the information inside out, so that the boy who died was forgotten, my brother became the unwitting victim, and I became a hero. But I was not a hero that day.