Kimberly Brennan found herself struggling through her daily routine of classes. Troubling her was the news she heard while driving to her Cal State San Bernardino campus on the morning of November 17, 2005, about a particularly gruesome murder that occurred in the pre-dawn hours mere blocks from the Palm Desert home of her grandmother, Virginia Bragg. She called Bragg to ask if she knew anything about the murder. She didn’t get a clear answer.
Even though she was estranged from him, Kimberly couldn’t stop thinking about her brother, Kevin. She’d been angry with him for surrendering his potential to rabidly addictive methamphetamine. But today, Kimberly was feeling more apprehension than anger. It was the kind of intuition twins are famous for having, and Kimberly had a sick feeling. She thought about the murder, then she thought about Kevin. No, he couldn’t have been involved. The killer was 35 and the victim was 20. Kevin is only 19.
Kimberly called her grandmother one more time, saying that she wanted to visit. Driving east along Interstate 10, she tried to stay calm by imagining arriving at her grandmother’s and seeing Kevin there. Or maybe her grandmother would tell her Kevin had called and everything was fine.
Passing San Bernardino’s fast-food outlets and ’50s-era suburbs, Kimberly followed the freeway southeast through mountain vistas, across grassy hillsides, Indian gaming casinos, and the fields of spindly windmills outlying Palm Springs.
East of San Bernardino, the air turns crisper and clearer, and Palm Desert’s tract homes, its rows of palm trees and expansive golf courses, imply a wealth that’s harder to find back in San Bernardino, or farther east in Indio.
Though the scale of drug use that for years earned the Inland Empire the reputation of “meth capital of the world” has started to decline, the stark brutality of meth and its consequences still covers the landscape like a layer of dust, even in upscale burgs such as Palm Desert and La Quinta. Meth is a drug of camaraderie as well as a respite from the disappointments and heartbreaks that are indifferent to income levels and neighborhoods.
So pervasive is meth here that Dr. Kiti Freier of the Loma Linda University Medical Center estimates that 30 percent of the Inland Empire’s quarter of a million schoolchildren suffer some consequence of the drug’s grip on the area. This, despite raids on local labs by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency last year and the passage of the Combat Meth Act in 2005, which restricted the sale of cold medicines that provide ingredients of the synthetic drug.
Originally from Chicago, Virginia Bragg is of Irish stock. The Catholic Church has always been a central part of her life, and of her family’s. Looking at Bragg, one can see where Kimberly and Kevin inherited their high foreheads and wide noses. Kimberly and her grandmother also share a gentle demeanor and wry sense of humor — not quite sarcastic, but on that trail — especially when describing the tragedies and absurdities of their travails. They both speak in short, clipped phrases and don’t dwell on their hard knocks. Instead, they pray and put on strong faces — until they explode, or break down in tears, or both. But for the most part, they endure with stoic perseverance, like pioneer women of folklore, world-wise and a little bit weary because of it.
“My daughter, Nancy, was promiscuous,” Bragg tells me when I meet her at her spacious tract home with its cozy fireplace and her knitting and embroidery projects draped over the kitchen table. She seems lost in the fog of memory, running her fingers across the tabletop as she speaks.
An incongruous mix of health addict and occasional drug user, Nancy abandoned the Catholic Church for more bohemian interests, like many hippies of her generation. An avid sewer, she worked as a wardrobe mistress for MGM Studios in Las Vegas, and as a waitress in a coffee shop. She traveled to China and was a vegetarian before she had the twins.
The story of the twins’ origin is a monument to convolution. Nancy was going through so many boyfriends at the time of their birth; nobody has been able to determine where her AIDS came from. (Bragg is sure that Nancy never used drugs intravenously.) The twins got their surname from one of Nancy’s boyfriends, a guy who called himself Paul Brennan. (Nancy already had two small children when she met Brennan.)
Later in the day, over a snack at the local Coco’s Restaurant — one of Bragg’s favorite hangouts — Bragg sips on a glass of ice water and ties together her truncated recollection of Paul Brennan. “Nancy was crazy about him because he somehow convinced her that he cared for people. He got her to take the kids and live in a trailer up in Oregon.”