Mardi Gras in June. That was the noise out the window. Like a spray of firecrackers. A tack-a-tack-a-tack-a-tack-a-tack-tack midnight burst of joy.
It was a new twist in a long night.
The evening had begun for us at a movie theater in Santa Monica. For the life of me I can’t recall which so-bad-it’s-almost-transfixing early ’90s screwballer we’d seen. I do remember the film’s apparent message: bodily fluids are hilarious. Elastic, spastic faces and groin shots. Bodily fluids for days.
Evangeline doesn’t remember much about it, either. The name of a country music singer and a life like country songs. Evangeline. Evan. Her parents were splitting. She lived with her dad in a dark, dusty apartment. The bathroom cabinets were packed with pills. We made out on top of her unfolded laundry.
As we left the movie theater, I was pretty damn psyched. I’d grown up in Baltimore, a million miles east, give or take. Barely 21, I’d been set loose in the land of endless summer, legs. I was ready. For what, I couldn’t really say, except it was going to be sweet. Maybe I’d be in a band. Or those method acting classes with the teacher with three names would pay off. Big time. If only the other students didn’t dredge themselves to tears during our exercises on emotions. So much was possible.
My brother, Asher, had said so. He’d called me after my freshman year at NYU, when it was clear I couldn’t afford to go back there.
"Move to L.A.," Asher said from Northern Cal. "You’ll live with Aaron and take acting classes and buy a motorcycle."
Aaron, our cousin. Taller, cooler, blonde, able to surf, skate, play guitar. The Thurston Moore of Huntington Beach.
So I moved. The rest of the plan, such as it was, involved Ash finishing school in Sonoma, then joining Aaron and me. Together, we’d take over. The New Coen Brothers or some shit. He’d been writing a script with Aaron. There were toxic accidents set to shredding Metallica. It would transcend genre flicks.
Now he'd moved on down, two weeks earlier, into our cramped ground-floor one-bedroom. The plan was happening. Life.
But there was more. This amazing heart-killer liked me for some reason. Evan was a California girl but better—flakey, opaque, sexually at ease. Hazel-green eyes that were kind, not cunning. Hair the color of molasses. A pattering laugh like a sudden storm.
That night she wore a sheer, black blouse, her dad’s ’70s leather jacket, deep blue, low-rise velvet pants. Stylistically, she was in her Kelly Lynch-of-Drugstore Cowboy phase.
And me, trapped in a confused amalgam of John Fante and the Beastie Boys. A gap-toothed redhead, flapping wide-wale corduroy coats and vintage Pumas. When my girlie shakes her head, she sure gets funky. Invincible. Sure, kiddo.
My brother and Aaron were off somewhere else, working on the script. Evan and I headed back to the apartment. We held hands and walked toward the sun-roofed Rabbit I hadn’t yet named. I’d traded for it hastily when my ’66 Dart went from gushing oil to stopped. I had to get to work behind the counter at the new Metropolitan Museum gift shop in the Century City mall. The tape deck worked? Done. To hell with a mechanic check. I was not very good at Los Angeles.
The night smelled of birds-of-paradise and charred taco meat. The smell of L.A. It was on the short walk to the Rabbit that memories jump-cut into clearer focus. I remember…a feeling. A wobble in my gut. Physical. A hollowing out. Not nausea. Closer to the opposite, like I can’t get enough air in. And all I can say, behind the wheel: “I feel weird.” And then, at the light, looking past the windshield but not seeing much: “I feel. Weird, man.”
I fought it. Denied it. Look at this rad girl. Look at the swollen moon through the sunroof. Moonroof! Shove in the Tom Waits cassette and forget the gut. We'd get to my place and await further evening instructions from friends. A bar? Dinner? Drinks? We’d see. We’d make some calls.
When we got there—just west of Hancock Park and east of a place called the Miracle Mile, (a place that is neither a mile nor, I would soon learn, capable of miracles)—Evan and I decided to smoke pot.
I don’t know why.
Neither of us were big weed smokers. We were alone and we wanted the night to go on and on. Maybe the pot could coat the peculiar wooziness still swirling my innards, two negatives stacked atop one another to reach a positive charge. Maybe. But no, the effect instead was cumulative and I was left with whittled wits. Unhappily stoned.
We played a Sonic Youth CD and sat on the bed. Swooning feedback covered us completely, a sheet of spiked velour.
I bounced up to fix us some chocolate milk because we were young and thirsty and she keeps coming closer saying I can feel it in my bones. Cocoa powder. Milk.
And then: Tack-a-tack-a-tack-a-tack-a-tack-tack went the firecrackers. Strange for the neighborhood, I thought. Strange for anywhere.
I ran shaky to the window and poked a finger into the Venetians. Peeking, peaking. Like a cheap detective in middle-class squalor. A cheap dick.
“What is it?” Evan’s voice wobbled across the room.
“I don’t know. Nothing. I don’t see anything.”
I ripped back to the couch for more stony groping. Mardis Gras in June, what a lark.
Detective Frank Bolan of the LAPD’s Mid-Wilshire homicide division told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that Asher Montandon was shot “in the lung and aorta” during a “robbery attempt.” It was in the early morning of June 17, 1992.
The paper said my brother and Aaron "were double-parked and looking for a parking space…when a man ran up and said he was being robbed. Another man ran up and fired a shot through the car’s window. Montandon and [Aaron] managed to drive away, but soon crashed into a parked car. [Aaron] hailed a cab and took Montandon to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Police have no suspects, but hope to soon release a composite drawing of the gunman.”
Aaron has told me a slightly different version of the story. He said the first man ran up asking for money. My brother went for his wallet, to give. That’s when the first man stepped aside and the gunman, waiting behind, emerged. Asher, confused, instinctive, mashed the gas. Bullets exploded the driver’s side window. My brother screamed out in pain: “I’ve been hit. I’ve been hit.” The car—in my memory, a turquoise Geo Tracker—tacked right and crashed.
Aaron somehow hailed a taxi. (I should remember this the next time I want to badmouth a cabbie.) My brother stained the pavement crimson. But this cab driver, this stranger, stopped. He helped Aaron carry my brother to the cab’s back seat. He would lose money later that night while toweling blood from cushion crevices.
It wasn't long after the Mardi Gras noises that the phone rang. How long I can’t say. It felt like 15 minutes, maybe fewer. It felt like no time at all. One second I was at the Venetians, the next the phone rang. I remember hearing it through the haze, the wooze, the Sonic Youth.
He was dead before Evan and I arrived at the hospital. He had been looking to park on South Detroit Street, the street we lived on, a block away. By the time the doctor called Aaron and me into a small, windowless room to tell us he was dead, I’d already realized I would never see my brother again. I didn’t want to see him dead. I would never see him again.
The Press Democrat transcribed the language of nothing:
Friends are mourning the death of a popular Sonoma State University graduate who was shot and killed a few weeks after he moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter.... Montandon and [Aaron] had written a full-length screenplay. He hoped to sell the script to a Hollywood studio.
“He was one of the people society needs,” one of Asher’s Sonoma State advisors told the paper. “He was ready to go on and make his mark.”
We would not become the New Coen Brothers or some shit. We would be nothing together.
Asher and I went to the same high school, three grades apart. The Park School of Baltimore was a progressive, private place tucked verdantly into a wealthy suburb of Charm City, not far from rolling horse country, with a once very helpful and liberal scholarship policy. All seniors were required to do a final project during their last semester—an internship at a hospital, say. Filing for a law firm.
My brother went a different way. Over the spring semester of his senior year in 1986, Asher made a short film designed largely to eviscerate our headmaster, whose real name was Dr. F. Parvin Sharpless. Asher considered him a buffoon, a blowhard, and possibly actually evil. Somehow, overachieving with his casting, my brother convinced a popular history teacher to play Sharpless in the movie. The character’s name was—in case there was any doubt what Asher was up to—Dr. Bluntmore.
Asher cast me as the lead. He and his cinematographer, a theater-school refugee and transfer student named Jeremy (who remains a close friend), shot straight to VHS. They edited by cutting and splicing strips of magnetic tape. They videotaped my character scoring with hot New Wave girls and prep-school field hockey stars alike; working out shirtless on a Soloflex, 7 Seconds hardcore on the soundtrack; showering behind frosted glass in the bathroom in the Pikesville house mom shared with her New Age friends. They filmed me organizing the scheme that would bring Sharpless/ Bluntmore down. (It involved several boomboxes and blasted bad classical music.)
Park Punk Rules played in the well-appointed auditorium at the end of my brother’s final semester, during our school’s weekly assembly, which was attended by the faculty, staff, and students. Sharplesss stood in the back of the auditorium, arms folded tightly across his chest.
My brother adored me. When he was the judge of our pre-teen dance contests at a neighbor’s house, he often named me the winner. (I’m crushed now to admit that when I took over as judge I often gave him low marks for “bending his knees too much.”) He also made my life unbearable. One high school night, downtown, our small gang’s parents absent as Peanuts adults, we were in a 24-hour greasy spoon on Charles Street after an all-ages punk set. A beehived waitress spilled a glass of water on the checked floor near our table. I joked about feigning to fall, and the lawsuit riches that would rain down on us.
Ash was taken with the idea and wouldn’t let it drop. He said I had to do it, the pratfall. He said he wouldn’t drive me home unless I did. I thought he was joking and looked for a wink in his eyes. It didn’t come. He was serious. So serious.
Why? Because he thought I could pull it off and successfully sue the dive? Or was it because he knew the waitress’ life was hard enough already and yet here was some asshole—me—smirking about making it worse, and so I must be punished? Or did he just want to stir shit up?
I never knew. I still don’t. But in that moment—or, rather, the many moments of brotherly standoff he engineered—was a glimmer of my brother’s wounded, mercurial spirit. Eventually he would relent and drive me home. But not before amping our evening’s drama. Not before blowing up, like a rainbow soap bubble, what was possible, real, and imagined. Not before making me sweat.
Everyone at the memorial services said my brother would have wanted us to party, not mourn. They were probably right. From his high school freshman year on, he was ready to party, to drink and drug and play Led Zeppelin very, very loudly. “Have a good time, all the time,” he’d say frequently, quoting from Spinal Tap with a pirate's smirk.
He was obsessed with Woody Allen, Steve Martin's standup, and Mel Brooks. We played the cassette of A Wild and Crazy Guy to dust before I was old enough to understand the jokes. I watched dad and Ash to know when to laugh. He could perform the entire script of Blazing Saddles.
But he also watched a lot of Fellini, Truffaut, and, most dearly, Kurosawa. He had some samurai in him. He was probably the most loyal motherfucker I've ever known.
Like most of us, he contained multitudes. He could be somber, sensitive, depressed. In fact, a few years after Asher died, our mother told me that he used to dream, often, of dying young. He wrote her pained letters saying he was quite certain he wouldn't live to see 30.
The memorial services were in Los Angeles, back in Baltimore, and in Walnut Creek, California, where our parents—though divorced and no longer living together—had both moved years before the murder. I took the heartbreak tour, and by the time I went East that summer, Evan and I had broken too. I couldn't or didn't let her sunbeam goodness crack through the gloom encasing me. In my memory, it was mutual. Just one more regret.
Family and friends gathered, drank, went ribald, raunchy, blue. I read an original poem I called “Laughing Like Trains,” written months before the occasion.
Once the memorials were over, and as the days, weeks, years slugged along, it proved impossible not to mourn. We did it in different ways.
As a young boy, my dad didn't care much for guns. He grew up in a forest clearing along a dirt road in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Trailwoods, in the northeastern corner of the state. There were only 11 other families in the town. About half of the dads in those families hunted for elk and bear meat to feed the kids. Not my grandpa. He was a trout fisherman who rarely caught any trout. My dad remembers standing at the edge of a lake watching his dad fish, while the pop, pop, pop of hunting rifles echoed in the forest. During hunting season my grandmother wouldn’t let dad play in the woods.
Dad took after grandpa. When he was seven he went shooting with an uncle, popping helium balloons tied to rocks with a .22 rifle. But shooting didn’t thrill him. He did like his BB gun, with which he would stealthily slip into the woods, meaning to nail a squirrel or two. The creatures hid too well, however, and he never bagged one.
By the time he entered high school, dad’s family had moved to a middle-class neighborhood in southeastern Massachusetts. Dad had had a considerable growth spurt. He started boxing and played on the football team. His team was made up of guys like him: not naturally athletic, but hungry. Starved. Desperate to put the opposing quarterback not just down, but out of the game. Their unofficial team motto was: We’re small, but we’re slow. They won the state championship his senior year.
After graduating, dad hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across the country. He fell in love with the West Coast and decided to attend Reed College in Portland, studying philosophy.
It was around this time that he met a young widow with a two-year-old boy named Asher. After dad graduated, they moved to Baltimore and, with the help of my mom’s parents, bought a house on a busy street in an otherwise quiet middle-class suburb. They planted a row of spruces at the edge of the front yard. A prickly, sweet-smelling wall against the world. Dad completed med school and went to work as a psychiatrist.
Together, he and mom became intensely interested in spirituality, mysticism, and Sufism—the Eastern philosophy that is sort of to Islam as Kabbalah is to Judaism. They began attending regular Sufi meetings in Washington, D.C., learning the teachings of the Indian mystic Merwan Sheriar Irani, known as Meher Baba. Boiled down to a bubble, Baba’s teaching, devoured by my parents and many other liberal seekers of the 1960s, seems to be an variant of the Golden Rule: Love others as you want to be loved.
Which is partly why I found it strange when, in the late ’90s, dad told me he’d begun buying guns and shooting at a range in Alameda, Calif. The way he tells it, when he turned 50 he made a list of things he wanted to learn: No. 1 was ballroom dancing, which he ultimately didn't seem to have a talent for. No. 2 was French, which he realized he'd never speak fluently, so he quit and turned to No. 3, buying a computer and teaching himself computing. That one took, as did No. 4—abandoning his primary amateur interest, physics, he turned to neuroscience, spent years constructing a brain map, and now works with some of the country's most accomplished neuroscientists on various projects.
No. 5 was learning to shoot. Though he’s never been diagnosed as such, to my mind, dad displays certain Asperger’s tendencies. When he turns to a subject—Sumo culture, ballpoint pens, perfume—reading a book or two isn't enough. He must know everything. When he got interested in Native Americans, he ended up with a hand-painted to-scale Sioux-style teepee in the backyard. Its top still shows over the roof on the approach to his house. For years he slept on a bearskin rug beside his bed.
Dad told me he joined the NRA so that he could get a subscription to its magazine, American Rifleman, because it had comprehensive information on guns. He stopped paying dues a few years ago when the organization “started being nasty about Obama,” but there’s still an NRA sticker on the back fender of his white pickup truck. Next to it is one for Amnesty International. A dreamcatcher hangs from the rearview mirror.
Northern California has fairly stringent gun regulations, so it wasn’t easy for dad to find a place to legally buy his first gun. Google led him to a licensed dealer in Richmond, about 30 miles from Walnut Creek, where he bought an M14 that was made by a company based in Baltimore. “It’s one of the greatest rifles ever made,” dad told me, detailing its use in World War II, the Korean War, and even the early part of Vietnam.
He found a range in Alameda and packed the M14 into his pickup. At the range, he met the director, an older guy with a military background named John. Dad marveled at the breadth of John’s knowledge—on the history of firearms, ballistics, you name it. Dad spent about 15 hours training with John before ever firing a single bullet.
“Finally, the day comes and I’m nervous,” dad told me. “I’m using iron sights at 100 yards. All set up for my first shot. A couple minutes go by and John says: ‘You’re not shooting.’ I turned to him and said ‘I’m savoring the moment.’ He just cracked up.”
At that, dad’s familiar rat-a-tat cackle burst from my cellphone’s speaker. But he quickly sobered: "You’re taking this incredible force, and you’re using metal and wood to control this amorphous, chaotic force. And you’re training it at 200 yards away. It’s still mind-boggling. The physics are so incredible."
More guns followed: A Sako 42 (“Now there’s a rifle”), two Glock pistols, a Remington 300 Winchester magnum, two shotguns, and a .22. He turned away from the don’t-worry-be-happy Sufi ethos surrounding him in Walnut Creek and hardened himself, at least in appearance, against the world. Most Sufis at the time were awash in white—white, flowing clothing, white paint on their walls. Dad went black. Black T-shirts. Black military-style cargo pants. Black Nikes. That was his uniform. I took to thinking of him as Johnny Cash, if Johnny Cash were a Navy SEAL.
Dad’s preferred firearms are rifles—due to his Swiss heritage, he speculates, and an appreciation for the physics involved with long-range shooting. “Shotguns, I don’t like,” he said. “They’re very inelegant. But they are the last word in self-defense weapons. If a guy did burst in and you had choice between a Glock and a shotgun, you pick up the shotgun.”
Dad told me that when he first heard about the Holocaust as a young teenager, he was devastated, and the terror of it has stuck with him. He was also quite moved as a young man reading about Russia’s forced labor camps in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. He thinks often about the lesson he learned from that book’s section on those who resisted arrest: “You fight back.”
In 2011, Walnut Creek had a population of 64,390. The city had one murder in that year. There were 422 burglaries in 2011, but in the 24 years dad has lived there, he has never been robbed. One day a couple of years ago, he was working in the backyard when my stepmom came out of the house and said she thought a stranger was in their garage. Dad grabbed his Glock and crept into the garage. No one was there.
“These things aren’t rational,” dad said. “I don’t really think people will break into the house, but if they do I want to be ready.”
I asked dad why, if a shotgun is the best home-defense weapon he owns, he went for the Glock. He thought a minute and then said: “Remember, the shotgun is really, really messy and I rent this house. It would take out not only the person but a good portion of the wall behind them.”
My brother didn’t have a chance to fight back the night he was killed. There is no way to know if the outcome would have changed if he’d been armed. But my dad remembers the events differently than I do. His version is that Asher was trying to break up a fight, and he never should have gotten in the middle of the quarrel.
Dad told me about a time when Asher was living with him in Oakland, before dad moved to Walnut Creek and Asher went to college in Sonoma. Asher picked dad up at the San Francisco airport one night. When dad got in the car, my brother was irate. He couldn’t believe dad hadn’t told him that he’d need money for the toll to go over the Bay Bridge. He had to talk his way past the tollbooth operator. Luckily he was good at talking his way past tollbooth operators.
Dad couldn’t understand how Asher didn’t know about the tolls, and that he’d left the house with no money. “He was a smart guy but he didn’t have street smarts,” dad said.
He thinks that if Asher had taken a course with John at the range, he never would have confronted someone who was holding a gun—though, again, that was not my recollection of how events had unspooled that night. Dad said John stressed the seriousness of firearms. Guns were always a last option. If you were unarmed, you avoided someone armed. And if you trained and practiced, you’d be safer carrying a gun.
Dad said he often thinks about how things might’ve been if only my brother was less naïve, better prepared for confrontation. Armed.
“I still think that,” he said quietly on the phone. “And I think: Damn.”
The line was silent for five long seconds.
My mom has been a spiritual seeker all her life. Or, at any rate, as long as her mom, my grandma, can recall. If it wasn’t a Bohemian poet guru-friend who held all the answers, it was a Santa Fe psychic, or Sufism. How it looks to me: Mom has never felt right in the world. She has never been satisfied that, as her own father was fond of saying: “Life doesn’t give a shit.” She gives a shit and wants to know what it all means.
Even as events like Asher’s murder show me a world in which randomness and cruelty and devastation are part of the soil, for mom there must be more. And so she has wandered—from Baltimore to Portland, Chicago, India, Walnut Creek—searching, lost.
As a very young woman she fell in love with a dashing University of Chicago philosophy and mysticism student named Alan. He looked like a Jewish Al Pacino and turned mom on to Sufism. Soon enough she was pregnant. And then she was driving herself and Alan and their friend Barbara from Chicago to San Francisco, to visit Alan's mother.
Mom drove through the night until her eyes closed like their future. The Volvo skidded off the road, down a steep hill and into a culvert. Barbara was in the front next to mom, and survived with serious injuries. Alan, in the back, was crushed to death by the front seat. Mom broke a wrist and was badly cut up. This was just before dawn on December 20, 1967, outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Asher was born almost exactly five months later.
Mom and dad’s marriage broke apart when I was 11, Asher 14. For many of the ensuing years mom has drifted from home to home, coast to coast. Some years she’s lived alone. Other times, she’s found a community of friends to take her in. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars she’s spent on quasi-spiritual classes, never-recouped loans to fellow seekers, long-distance calls to perceived mystics. I don’t think I want to know.
A couple years ago she clamped onto a Northern California group called the Pathways Institute, attending seminars and workshops conducted by mom’s guru du jour, Carole Kammen.
Its website describes its purpose:
The Pathways Institute Mystery School is life-long learning academy in the human arts. In all cultures throughout the ages, mystery schools appear at times of extraordinary cultural, societal and technological change to help ordinary men and women bridge the resulting chasm between the inner sacred and outer mundane life experience. Like the mystery schools of old, Pathways Institute revives ancient wisdom and practices relevant to today's challenges.
To me, it’s all a mystery. Mom has had an on-again-off-again relationship with the considerable Sufi population of Walnut Creek. I believe it was during an off-again stretch, and following a concussive fall on the job while working as an early childhood teacher, that she fell in with Pathways. Hard to know if it’s post-concussion fall out, early Alzheimer’s symptoms (as one diagnosis has suggested), or Pathways’ New Age-y voodoo, but these days mom seems cloudier, sadder, farther away than ever.
When I saw her last December, over the winter holiday, she suddenly seemed to be aging very quickly. She was, by then, living with Kammen in a rented Marin house with a pool. She was not working—and had not had a job since her fall. She told me her driver license had been revoked on account of the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but my online research indicated this is only done when a physician believes the illness has reached a suitably dangerous stage.
A fellow Pathways member had driven mom to meet me, my wife, Catherine, and our two young daughters for lunch at a bookstore café not far from her house. An hour and a half later, mom’s friend picked her up. It was like visiting a prisoner in the jail of a Marin mini-mall.
During lunch mom seemed lucid. She asked me about a screenplay I was writing, which I hadn’t mentioned to her for several months. But she also seemed to be receding, a half-ghost nibbling egg salad. She didn’t appear capable of relating to the kids. At one point, with the girls and Catherine off browsing books, mom and I talked about possible holiday presents for her grandchildren.
“Do they like warm blankets?” mom asked, as if she’d just fallen to Earth.
A few years ago Catherine and I were out to dinner with dad at a Brooklyn restaurant. Somehow, unfortunately, gun control came up in conversation. I bit my tongue as dad rehearsed his familiar, flawed arguments. States with a higher percentage of gun-owners in the population, he said, have lower violent crime rates. Switzerland, he said, where compulsory military service results in high rates of gun ownership, reports almost no gun-related homicides.
Dad told a story about a boy that used to bully me when I was about 8 years old. He said he still gets angry thinking about the bully. He said he wishes he had gotten into guns earlier so he could have done something about it.
I felt sick. “What, you would have shot an 8-year-old kid for picking on me?”
Dad likes to be provocative.
“If I thought it would stop him from picking on you? Sure.”
I pictured myself reaching across the table to stab my dad in the face with a salad fork.
And yet, I’ve never tried to do anything about guns. I never wrote my congressman, or donated to the Brady Campaign. I rationalize: the NRA is too powerful, there’s too much money involved, nothing will ever change. Watching a Harry Nilsson documentary not long ago, a tsunami of guilt washed over me as the film chronicled Nilsson’s dogged gun-control efforts following the murder of his good friend, John Lennon. When all of Nilsson’s work came to naught, I began to sob, the laptop wobbling on my chest. I’ve failed, I thought. I’ve failed my brother.
If I wanted to become active on the issue, January 2 would’ve been a good day to start. That day I received an email from a friend I'd met while living in Los Angeles. I hadn’t had any contact with Josh in—what, nearly two decades. I didn’t remember Josh being particularly close with my brother.
The reason I am writing, is the Sandy Hook shootings really hit me hard. As the dad of a 3-year-old and even just as a human being, I was physically sick hearing about what happened. There was a pit in my stomach for a good 48 hours and I am still so terribly sad at what happened.
The day of the shootings, I really decided that enough was enough and that if I didn't do something to stop gun violence, I was as much a part of the problem simply for not doing anything at all. Aside from my own education on gun control which continues, I realized I wanted to do something good and positive.
Josh, who works in the music industry, talked about putting on a benefit for the Brady Center. Then he arrived at the second reason he was writing:
It has been about 20 years since Asher's death and I really can't believe this is still is an unsolved crime (as far as I know). If you are willing, I'd at least like to try and bring his case back to the LAPD to look into this cold case that I think needs to be reopened.
With your blessing, I'd like to at least try and do something to catch the guy who killed Asher… I'll never forget Aaron telling me that the cop who interviewed him at the hospital said, ‘Don't worry, we'll catch this guy.’ 21 years later—they didn't and that's a fucking shame. Asher's life was worth more than an empty promise.
Empty promise. I agreed with Josh that Asher’s life was worth more than that. But I’d truly never cared much if they caught the guy or not. I’d never felt vengeance burn in my veins. I didn’t think much about justice.
But I found Josh's note incredibly kind and big-hearted and brave. In March, I wrote to the LAPD’s homicide records department requesting a copy of the report concerning my brother's murder. After several phone calls and many faxed documents proving I am in fact who I was claiming to be, it arrived in my mailbox in early June.
The paperwork my brother's murder generated consists of just over one page of rote information memorializing the make of his car—and it turns out it was a grey 1989 Chevy Tracer—the time of the shooting (0045 hours), where it took place (460 S. Detroit Street, just two doors down from where we were living) and witness names and addresses.
I learned that there was one witness who saw a possible suspect get picked up by a driver in an American car made sometime between 1975 and 1980, which was either brown or maroon. The possible suspect was described as a male Hispanic (M, H) around 5’7” tall and 175 lbs. He wore a “WHT T-SHIRT, BROWN ¾” LENGTH PANTS.”
There was also a page-and-a-half of witness accounts. According to that section, the first man who ran up to my brother’s car that night had actually approached the passenger side door. The man had passed the suspect a block up Detroit Street and had “observed the butt of a handgun protruding from the suspect’s right front pocket.” That witness ran, saw my brother’s car double-parked, approached the car and “shouted, ‘Help me, help me please,’ then looked back and proceeded to run northbound.”
The suspect demanded money and then fired one round through the driver’s side window striking Montandon on the left side. Montandon, Asher lost consciousness from his gunshot wound and collided with a vehicle.
My brother was pronounced dead at 1:22 a.m. by a Dr. Verham, a person I don’t remember at all. Detective Bolan “observed one gunshot wound to the left upper side.” I was “notified of [my] brother’s death by Detective Maxwell at Wilshire Station,” an event I have no recollection of.
I tried for several weeks to reach Detective Bolan to find out if a suspect had ever been taken into custody, but he retired in 2007 and didn't respond to calls from me or to emails from current LAPD detectives. But one day I received an email from Det. John Skaggs, the homicide coordinator for the West Bureau homicide department. Two weeks later—also in early June—we spoke by telephone.
Skaggs told me there had never been a suspect identified in my brother’s case. “It’s just a tragic, tragic event,” he said.
I asked him a question I had long wondered about: Was the first man who approached the car ever considered a possible accomplice? He said no, this was never believed to be an option. Then he told me something incredible.
After seeing my initial email queries, Skaggs had looked into my brother’s death. He told me that there had been a single 9 mm shell casing recovered at the scene. That casing had been entered into the LAPD’s forensic computing system in 1992. If a match ever turned up, the police would then trace and track down as many of the gun’s owners as they could, looking for fresh leads. Over the first decade following Asher’s murder, there were zero possible matches entered into the tracking system.
Then, in 2004, police found a gun while responding to a domestic violence call in the Valley. Back at the LAPD’s lab, the gun was fired once to generate a shell casing, which was then entered into the same database as the 1992 casing. Skaggs told me that the lab technician who entered the casing information from the 2004 call had indicated that there was a “possible match” with the casing taken from the 1992 crime scene. He said the technician had retired not long after entering the data in 2004, and the casing match remained unconfirmed.
Skaggs told me it was very unusual for a possible match to remain unresolved this long, and he didn’t know why it was still listed as a possible match. He said he was looking into the situation and if he determined that the casings did match, he would find out as much as he could about the gun in question and its previous owners. The possibility of a match made me, for the first time, curious to know who killed my brother.
But that hope lasted only about six weeks. Two weeks ago he emailed: “The tentative match on the Domestic Case was negative.”
I was surprised to feel so disappointed.
Skaggs added, somewhat cryptically: “There are some other areas that I’m looking into. I will let you know if anything were to develop.”
That’s the last I’ve heard on my brother’s case.
Meanwhile, it surprises me not at all that after all these years, there is still no suspect: In 1992, there were a record number of killings in Los Angeles County. The 2,589 homicides that year were 8 percent more than the previous year.
A few weeks after Josh first emailed me about my brother, I found a letter from the Brady Campaign in D.C. in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was a note saying that Josh had made a contribution in my brother’s name. I stared at the letter for several minutes, my throat squeezing, battling hot tears so my kids wouldn’t worry.
Aaron and I moved out of Los Angeles as soon as we possibly could. The sleepless haze we operated in while boxing the apartment on South Detroit slowed progress. By the fall of 1992 we’d landed in San Francisco. Some of our closer L.A. friends followed, a few of us living together in an apartment building across from a hospital between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill neighborhoods. The Tendernob. We started a band called Coal. Changed the name to Postman. Inspired by Nirvana, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Clash, we performed at bars. Clubs with no windows. Aaron played guitar and wrote songs. There was another guitarist, a bass player and drums. I sang. Not really. I drank beer and Jim Beam and jumped around and shouted until my voice was a croak. Some nights there were fewer people in the crowd than in the band. We didn’t care.
I didn't think about writing lyrics for or about my brother but every show was a eulogy. A wake. Jewish punks playing a musical memorial. At a few shows, Aaron and I drank so much we could barely stand. But we finished the set.
Around the same time I began thinking that perhaps school wasn’t a terrible backup plan. I was now a California resident, and had taken enough community college courses from Santa Monica to Diablo Valley that I could enter the UC system as a junior, and maybe even afford it. I applied to Berkeley and Santa Cruz. Berkeley was kind enough to make my decision easy by not admitting me.
Santa Cruz in the early ’90s was a great place to live if you wanted to wear thrift-store wool vintage suits, study postmodern literature, drink Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine, and drunkenly deconstruct Beverly Hills 90210. Which I did. Only I didn't know how much until I arrived.
I lived with my stepbrother, Abe, a sort of cerebral hillbilly with a narrow face and dark eyes. Small lips and rough teeth. A handsome squirrel. Abe seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the modern world and compensated by being very honest about his desires and impulses. He said what he thought. He could wear overalls and not look ridiculous. He worked landscaping on campus. He liked to get his hands dirty. He’d say things like: “If only I could meet a fine, big-breasted woman and shack up in the country."
We developed a secret language: "The Proge" was our backyard fitness program, which primarily involved stacking bricks in empty plastic milk crates and running a sturdy stick between them for curls. “You broke my TV controller,” was code for: “Life is insane and my head might explode.”
We scrounged free food from friends at coffee shops and never cooked at home. Once I came home from class and there was rotisserie chicken in the refrigerator. I felt betrayed. Weren’t we in this together? Since when did we go around purchasing Safeway chickens? Abe found this hilarious and I realized he was right. We fell on the dirty kitchen linoleum, laughing like trains.
At night I’d drink too much and walk out the front door of our small, white clapboard house. Before I reached the nearby health-food store, I'd cross the street and head for the stucco walls of the liquor store on the other side of Laurel Street. If it was late enough, about 1 or so in the morning, the streets would be empty and I'd be alone with the walls. I’d walk steady, determined. Eyes on the pavement. Around and around the square building. Dragging my right hand across the stucco until my skin cracked open and knuckle blood beads hit the night. I’d go as long as I could take it. And then try for one more loop. The open cuts sliced wider on the raised fake stone.
Back inside I'd wrap my stinging fist in a bandage. Sweat out the Beam in my sleep. In the morning, I’d put on a vintage suit, careful not to yank at the bandage, and catch the shuttle to the country club in the redwoods that was our campus to talk Ballard, Baudrillard, Lacan, Kristeva.
I might still be out there, marching, bleeding through my knuckles, if not for Catherine. She was blonde and built. A scrapper. She took life rambunctiously. Vinyl records piled everywhere in her tiny, carpeted bedroom: Bowie, Muppets, Oklahoma, Flash Gordon, both Elvises, Police, Police, Police. She did the worm on dance floors in a black cocktail dress. She made a running, diving catch in right centerfield to save the game for our intramural softball team of misfits.
She had 12 siblings; if things were ever truly dire we’d always have a roof over our heads. We met on a Thursday night at a 90210 deconstruction party. She wore a white Victorian nightgown. I had the word “BRENDA” written in Sharpie across my abdomen. On our first date, we curled up on the street beneath a yellow digger truck and kissed. At dawn I dosed off on the beach and stayed asleep even as a grinding sand-cleaning cruiser passed a few feet away. Catherine did handstands—sandstands—and watched me sleep like I was an alien.
After college we spent a summer traveling Europe. When we returned, broke, we moved into the Little House in my dad’s Walnut Creek backyard. Rent free, until we could get ourselves sorted. The Little House was smaller than some doghouses, built years ago for my stepsiblings. The ceiling was so short we couldn’t stand up straight, so we laid down a lot.
Catherine worked as an administrative assistant at my dad’s psychiatric clinic in a poor part of Oakland. Once she’d saved up enough from her paychecks we moved up in the world—to a single, ground-floor room in Berkeley. No kitchen, no bathroom. One room. We peed in a plastic Golden State Warriors souvenir cup and tossed the urine out the window.
On my birthday that year, Catherine bought a ping-pong table. During the warm months we kept it on the front yard grass. In winter, it and the bed took up all the space in our room. You had to inch sideways past the ping-pong table to go for the Warriors cup.
By the time we moved to Brooklyn—to be young-ish in the city and because we wanted adventures and because that’s what all aspiring writers did in those days—my brother had been dead for eight years.
Once, on a cross-town bus, I was absolutely convinced he was riding behind me. I risked my own life and stared at a stranger on public transportation. Couldn’t help myself. Couldn't not look. Was it? Is it? Had he faked it all in order to—what? Move to New York? It couldn’t be. Could it?
Maybe-Asher stood up several stops before I was due to get off. He made his way to the middle of the bus, ready to exit. I stood, too, and moved close behind him. Was it? The same dark hair, parted to fall over his right eye. Same gently sloping nose. Freckles. My eyes stung from not blinking.
When Maybe-Asher stepped off the bus, so did I. He walked east and I followed. I began to think that, incredibly, it was my brother. Science was against it but still. The same pigeon-toed strut. If at any point this Maybe-Asher stretched his right arm to the side—a spastic air-punch my real brother did to loosen a tight elbow, a twitch only he possessed—well, what then? I followed him from half-a-block distance, a cheap dick.
Finally Maybe-Asher bounced up a short flight of brownstone stairs and entered a Midtown building. I froze. My chase was over. But was it even a chase at all? Can it be a chase if you don’t know what you’re after?
It’s difficult to admit but perhaps part of my hesitation to approach a stranger that day had to do with my ambivalent feelings surrounding Asher’s death. I don’t mean I’m conflicted about his dying—of course I wish he were still alive. But for many years I felt a toxic wad of gut-based guilt because I didn’t feel enough. I thought I should be sadder. I thought I should be undone. I thought, like a Beckett character, I should not be able to go on. And to not go on.
There was relief, too. No longer would I be the younger sibling, squirming under his rule. Never again would he take an off-hand remark about spilled water and turn it into an hour-long battle of wills that I was sure to lose. No more would I have to endure his dorky jokes. His too loud squawk of a public laugh. His OCD-like finger-sniffing habit. His Grateful Dead bootlegs. His cajoling. His hectoring. His preternaturally stinky feet. His awkward and uncool way with girls. His insistence on making and standing by claims I knew—I knew so hard—were not true. Impossible. The way he drew out my name, annoyingly, when he wanted something: “C’mon, Maaa-uhhhh-cccccc.” His never failing to upbraid me because he believed I ordered terribly in restaurants and should look the waiter in the eye and speak louder. His related feeling that he’d always ordered the best thing on the menu, far superior to what I’d gotten. His stoner friends. His egg breath. His egg farts. His tie-dyed T-shirts. His mirrored shades. His fondness for wizards. Fairies. Led Zeppelin tropes. His confidence in his own coolness. His unstoppable loyalty to me. His belief in me. His belief I could do better, try harder. His pushing me. To move, move, move to Los Angeles. Take acting lessons. Buy a motorcycle. Wait for me. The new Coen Brothers or some shit. His not knowing there are tolls to pay on the Bay Bridge.
When that relief reared its perverse head, I had those knuckle-shredding nights at the liquor store wall in Santa Cruz to make things right. Guilt. Punishment. Pain. If I couldn’t feel enough on my own, I needed help. The bloodied stucco was there for me, my silent partner.
Now I feel more. Catherine and I still live in Brooklyn. We have two young daughters. Our oldest has his name: Oona Asher. Every few weeks it hits me hard: I wish Asher could meet the girls. I wish he knew them. I wish he could see the Grease-motivated dances Daphne performs. I wish he could hear Oona’s heartfelt poetry about cheese. They’d have a fondness for Shel Silverstein in common. I wish he could hang out with Catherine. I think they’d really get along. I wish he were there for mom in ways I cannot be. I wish dad didn’t believe he could’ve been saved. I wish we could talk together, walk in the park together, write movies together. I wish I could hear just one more dorky joke.
When Josh made his contribution to the Brady Campaign, he added this note: “Asher, I only wish I got to know you better. Love Josh.”
There isn’t a fountain big enough for all the pennies.
On May 24 of this year, my brother would’ve turned 45 years old. I wish we could’ve thrown him a party.
Maccabee Montandon is an editor for Fast Company's website. He wrote Jetpack Dreams: One Man's Up And Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was, and edited Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader. He's written for the New York Times and New York magazine. He is currently at work on a screenplay set in Baltimore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.