My oldest brother was twenty-five when he had the life stabbed out of him, but I was only eight. I’ve always known that he was murdered in Paris in 1969. What I didn’t learn until recently was that his whole life was only a dress rehearsal for that ugly final act.
My other brother Johnny, who’s thirteen years older than me and knew my oldest brother far better than I did, has helped me fill in a lot of the blank, bleak details.
Dad met mom at a USO Dance in Philly, accidentally knocked her up, and was in Europe fighting the Nazis when informed that he’d gotten her pregnant. Their first baby was born out of wedlock.
His legal name was Alton Howard Goad, Jr., but all we ever called him was Bucky.
Bucky was different from 99 percent of us because he couldn’t hear or talk. My mother insisted that he was born deaf, but Johnny now tells me she was lying. While dad was off dropping bombs on the Krauts, the infant Bucky came down with scarlet fever, which can begin to cause hearing damage if left untreated more than 18 days. Eighteen days is a long time to passively watch one’s infant suffer. My mother, not God, slammed the doors shut on Bucky’s ears and then blamed it on God.
Back then, the disabled weren’t given government checks and awarded luxury box seats in the coliseum of public respect. They were treated more like freaks—openly mocked and even abused while the crowd laughed and cheered. Johnny says that while Bucky was friendly to everyone, society mostly kept its distance.
His looks didn’t help. Whereas Johnny was an athletic, cliff-diving, hot-rodding greaser, Bucky was shy, runty, and withdrawn. In the hippie-dippie multicolored DayGlo flower-power year of 1969, Bucky still looked like a quaint black-and-white photo from 1949—tightly barbered hair slicked down with a smear of VO5, black-rimmed Coke-bottle glasses, and a black undertaker’s suit with a white shirt and skinny black tie. If you’re old enough to remember Wally Cox, the original “Mister Peepers,” he looked almost identical to Wally Cox. Or picture a much meeker Elvis Costello with a faint, pathetic mustache. He was not an alpha male or even a beta. He was full-blooded omega.
Johnny says that my father treated Bucky like a disappointment. An embarrassment. A burden. A marriage trap. A prison sentence. Things often came to blows. Objects were smashed into faces. Stitches were required. Johnny found himself having to pounce on my father to stop him from pounding on Bucky.
The outside world was no kinder. During his teens in our bricks-and-cement all-Catholic Mick-and-Dago neighborhood, rumor had it that a quartet of guys Bucky’s age would habitually beat him up or force him to blow them to spare him from yet another thrashing. He was their little deaf-and-dumb punching bag and plaything.
Johnny says that with the way Bucky was treated, it’s a miracle he never became a serial killer. But he says Bucky never acted bitter, mean, or violent. Time and time again after being tricked, robbed, shit on, and abused, he merely dusted himself off and came back naively seeking kindness.
He never had friends or girlfriends. His few acquaintances always turned out to be people who were trying to squeeze him for a favor. Mostly he lived absolutely alone and in total silence.
Bucky started drifting around the country. Maybe he thought he’d find some kindness somewhere out there. I remember seeing one Polaroid self-portrait after the next of him sitting sullenly and slump-shouldered in some lonely motel room, the camera’s lens the only thing looking back at him.
Florida police were called to one of those motel rooms after witnesses heard a gunshot. The cops found Bucky alive and another man dead. They also found a revolver legally registered to Bucky. Although he vainly screamed through his sign-language fingers that his new friend had been playing with his gun when it accidentally fired, they hauled his deaf-and-dumb ass straight to jail.
He’d send letters from jail that he was having nightmares about demons slipping in through his cell bars to attack him. He also wrote that while awake, real living humans would come into his cell to either beat him down or rape him. And even though the passages about dream-demons and the paragraphs about real-life human assailants were on separate pages or sometimes in different letters entirely, my mother pretended it was all dreams. She never could bring herself to admit what was happening to him.
After eighteen months, investigators concluded that Bucky’s alibi was true—the stranger he’d met on the road had shot himself. So after an eighteen-month marathon of beatings and rapes and nightmares, they threw Bucky back onto the street, no apologies.
Another death came quickly.
Shortly after returning to Pennsylvania, he accidentally drove into a pedestrian and killed him. The cops believed his story that time, and he wasn’t arrested.
And then came the final act.
The night before he left for his Paris vacation, my mother wrote a warning to Bucky on the back of an envelope: DON’T TRUST ANYONE! Underneath that, Bucky wrote back in jest: OVER 30! At the time, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was a popular hippie slogan.
Whoever killed him was never caught, so I don’t know if they were over thirty. But he obviously trusted them.
His corpse, pecked apart with over thirty knife wounds, was found the morning after the night he arrived in Paris about a hundred yards from his rent-a-car. A French trucker spotted his bloody body in a ditch along the River Seine. Bucky had also been strangled with his own belt. His face had been bashed beyond recognition.
A diamond ring was missing from his finger. His cameras were retrieved along the river bank, their casings open and with the film removed. Earlier in the evening, he apparently had photographed whoever wound up killing him.
We got a telegram from French authorities on a Friday threatening that if we didn’t wire them fifteen hundred dollars by Monday, they’d toss his carcass in the trash. We appealed to our local Catholic parish for the fifteen hundred, which, through inflation’s magic, translates to about nine thousand dollars today.
On September 26th, two weeks after Bucky’s murder, we got a postcard he’d sent from Paris. “I’ll see you on the twenty-seventh,” he promised.
On the 27th, he arrived in a wooden box. Air France honored his return ticket and flew his cadaver back in their cargo section at no charge. French authorities sent documents claiming they’d autopsied and embalmed his body. They were lying. He showed up at Philly International still wearing the bloody shirt in which he’d been murdered. His corpse was already decaying. The sight was so ghastly, the family mortician wouldn’t let us see him. It was a closed-casket wake. The French had extorted nine grand from us merely for cramming Bucky in a box and shoving him on a plane. There was to be no resting in peace for him or us.
Bucky’s murder was the day all the kiddie cartoons ended for me. It punched a radioactive black hole through my young mind. Both my grandmothers died around the same time, so at eight, my brain was being punctured and re-punctured with death. I put down the toys and realized that none of our stories has a happy ending.
Due to blood—the same blood that was splattered all over him as he was being stabbed and slashed and smashed and beaten into oblivion for some cash and a little diamond ring—Bucky remains closer to me than the seven billion other humanoids who cling to this planet like germs on a toilet seat. I still have a strong blood instinct to avenge his death.
But it’s not only about blood. What hurts me is remembering that Bucky was always nice to me. There’s nothing more valuable in life than someone who’s nice to you and means it.
All I ever felt from him was love. I could tell he was proud of his little baby brother. Whenever he visited, he’d bring me toys and candy and souvenirs from places where he’d traveled. I never knew about the scarlet fever or the jail or the beatings or the forced cocksucking. Kids are supposed to be intuitive, but I had no clue his life was so sad.
Besides God, Bucky is the only entity to whom I’ve ever prayed. I’m not sure what makes me think he could hear me now when he couldn’t even hear me while he was alive. I haven’t prayed to him in a long time, but I guess I’m sort of doing it now.
I remember a picture he took of me when I was around five. I was standing in our kitchen near a white countertop wearing a green checkered shirt. My body was turned away, but my freckled young face was looking back, sneering at the camera. Pure hatred on my face. Bucky had walked up behind me and called out my name in his deaf-mute broken English—”Jimmy” sounded like “Deemy”—and I had spun my head around with an attitude of, “What do YOU want? Go away. You bother me. I hate you. You’re not normal. You’re beneath me.” I was scowling at him just as my father always did. At only five, I had already absorbed my father’s hatred of him. Even though Bucky had shown me nothing but kindness, I was hating him by imitation.
I still remember that when I turned around after he called my name and realized he was only snapping another picture of his baby brother—his favorite model—I instantly felt bad for looking at him like that.
I don’t believe in immortal souls or an afterlife or time travel, but I’d like to pretend they exist just so I can see him again.
I want him to take another picture of me, and this time, I’m going to smile at him.