I tried to count the blisters on my feet while you watched from the doorway. At age five, you were a year younger than me, just outside a dirty bathroom in a house I don’t remember. I remember the bathroom, though. The damp towels hanging limp, the smell of mildew, the grout turned to dirt. The adults crowded above me, ran water from the tub over my feet, shook their heads and discussed what to do. They asked over and over why I walked through the coals, why I didn’t go around the fire pit, why you didn’t stop me. We never had an answer. They carried me to the car and strapped me in. You followed with a pan of water slopping in your arms.
We went to your mom’s place, where she refilled the pan and set it on uneven floorboards in the living room. You sat down next to me, your feet tucked under your legs, cousins closer than brothers. We played Mortal Kombat for hours, and you never left my side, not even when your stepdad came over and told me I didn’t need the pan, reminded me to call him uncle, to let my feet breathe. Outside for dinner, we picked green peppers off pizza while I held my feet above cracks in the driveway. The sun beat down, and the pain slowly faded. Ants crawled past oil patches and dandelions poking through the concrete.
* * *
In a 1984 Ford Tempo GLX 4-door, Medium Dark Wheat, we made our way around Lake Michigan. These are some of my first memories, sticking gum under the back seat, holding my head against a vibrating window, pulling away strands of starchy fabric. We stopped at buffets, visited people I’d never see again. I remember meeting an uncle, being told, “He’s Rich.” I would spend many years thinking we had wealthy relations in the north. I remember birds in cages in a room with plastic covered windows and newspaper floors. Feathers floated down when they flapped their wings. They shuffled along perches every time I took a step forward, until I stood under the cages, catching every piece of them I could.
I remember forests and the way my father smelled, sharp like pepper. The cigarette smoke drifting to the backseat, gaps in tree canopies over highways, turning the sun into a slideshow. Stories about distant relatives, about road trips longer than this. I remember photographs in albums, a hubcap on one tire, cheap motels and hand-me-down swimsuits. I remember a five-mile bridge, and the fear I felt there, but nothing of the water beneath.
* * *
We lived together for a year when you were in third grade. We’d walk home together after school every day. We shared the same top bunk in a tiny house in a tiny village, ran from the same kids across the same tracks, right after the trains went by. The rails were hot enough to turn our shoes sticky. The coal dust lingered in the air long after they passed. Every night we went to bed at nine, laid down with the radio on and listened to the top five countdown. Cascada was our favorite.
On the best days, we cut through freshly tilled fields. The loose dirt shifted under our feet like sand. Some always got on your thin nose, into your wide pores and salty blond hair. We went to an antique store where you introduced me to the old lady you called friend, to the man who told us stories about phonographs and windmills for hours, gave us quarters for glass bottles of Coke. The shop was packed with pictures frames, crosses, wind chimes, vases, candles, tables covered in doilies, no two things identical. We ran our fingers along jars, hid behind desks, climbed over mismatched chairs in that still, dusty air. We knew it was time to go home when the five o’clock train went through, when we heard the vibrations of crystal shards hanging from a hundred lampshades.
* * *
In a 1994 Ford Aerostar, Two-tone Bimini Blue, I got my first concussion. A car ignored the red and hit our van in the side, right next to me. My head bounced off the window, tossed my sister all around, shoved a tooth through a lip, bent an ankle too far. The flash of lights and hurried hands blurred together, the sirens and glass crunching drowned out voices asking if we were alright. The doctors tried to explain why we should have been wearing seatbelts, how much danger we were in. My parents wouldn’t hear it. The bridges of their noses turned purple where the airbags smashed glasses into cartilage. Seatbelts, they said, trap you during an accident. It’s better not to be locked in.
* * *
At thirteen you and I beat a boy in a ditch. He was a year younger, a foot shorter, pallid face damp with sweat. He knew we had an audience, that we were doing this to impress a girl. He knew he couldn’t outrun us. Not with his feet sliding over wet grass and crickets. He got desperate.
“Why don’t you pretend to beat me?”
You looked at me, and that brief eye contact was all it took. We started our swings soft, let his fake whimpers carry, played along and let him feel safe. We pushed him around and waited for the right moment. When he lifted his arms up, I hit the ribs hard, felt them bend, push in. He dropped into the ditch, and you kicked him in the back. His hands grasped wet leaves and mud as he crawled away from us, stood up and ran. We watched him go.
We found that girl crying in an alley a block away. She told us the boy wanted to be with her, that he was trying to get rid of us, but none of it was true. She only wanted to see what we would do. I think we knew that before, but it only mattered after. We hopped on our bikes, churned our tires through thick gravel along tiny roads. We stopped at a house half-covered in new siding, a large deck of unfinished wood, a screen door that swung on its hinges. We knocked hard.
The boy had just made it home. His mother was comforting him through tears, and there we were, in the doorway. He ran to his bedroom before we could explain, apologize. It took us a while at the door to convince the mother that we were there to make amends, that we knew we were in the wrong. She eventually let us in the house, pointed us toward his bedroom. We were careful not to touch the hunting rifles hanging along the hallway. In the boy’s room, a St. Louis Rams blanket covered a double bed where he sat, next to a large TV and several gaming consoles. We mumbled apologies, but only had eyes for the desk with two monitors, the anime posters, the bookshelf stuffed with figurines and comics, stacks of video games. He must have seen us looking, because he asked if we wanted to play, his voice still shaking. We grabbed two controllers and sat down on the floor. We offered a third to him, but he declined. He pulled up his blanket and sheet, wrapped himself tight in those covers. We sniped aliens in Halo. We stayed for hours.
* * *
In a 2001 Buick LeSabre, Light Bronzemist Metallic, I drove in the rain for the first time. It was three in the morning. The backseat filled with bundles of newspaper, my mother next to me, preparing more bundles for delivery. Inky hands counted out papers. Her spindly fingers tied cellophane sleeves in a quick blur. On a smooth blacktop between the small towns of Bement and Milmine, I started to fishtail. It was subtle at first, a brief shift to the right, so I turned the wheel away. The rear swung back, harder now, and I turned the wheel faster, panicking. I tried to aim the car where I wanted to go, but my steering was all over, and in moments we were airborne, heading toward a steep ditch. I don’t think I ever let off the gas.
My mother didn’t say a word until we were bouncing along, heads hitting the roof of the car, teeth clamping down. She told me to hit the brakes. Newspapers toppled over, rubber bands scattered across the floor. The ditch was slick, the car going too fast, and a telephone pole was dead ahead. I thought of my mother in that moment, sitting there next to me. I thought of the dent in her forehead where the surgeons cut in and removed part of her skull when she was still a teen. Of a story told decades ago, of another car hitting another telephone pole. Of months in beds, jaws wired shut, milkshakes snuck into hospital rooms. I thought that didn’t sound so bad. I turned the wheel left, because I didn’t know what else to do. Somehow that car managed to get up the steep ditch. We missed that pole by inches and skidded to a stop on that smooth blacktop.
The car was fine. My mother was fine. I got out of the car and said: “I’m never driving again.”
And she said: “Get back in the fucking car. We’re not done yet.”
* * *
At sixteen I took over the paper route, and you tagged along. This is how we spent time together, then. You hadn’t dropped out of school yet, like I had. You didn’t work every night yet. In the town of Cisco, IL we set out to deliver door-to-door, bags full of papers rolled tight, the ink still wet, the sun just starting to rise. Our feet cut through wet lawns, startled dogs and toads. We began the route near the volunteer fire department that doubled as a library, moved on to the rusty water tower, past the post office and fuel station co-op. We banged doors with newspapers rolled tight, Circuit City ads poking out.
We finished at an abandoned set of railroad cars near a grain bin. We climbed inside them, breathed in the moldy air. Sat in chairs, the upholstery long ago fallen off, pried windows open that sat still for decades, poked feet through holes in the floor. We moved on to the grain bin, grabbed on to the ladder. You climbed your way to the top, to a platform made of iron grating and pipe rails. I stopped on the third rung and stared up as you called for me, told me about the view up there. How you could see the cars moving along the highway, trace them all the way to Decatur. My hands grew slick, my legs seized up. I could just make you out, wiry frame circling the top, a hundred feet above me, pointing at the early morning light.
* * *
In a 1980 Ford F-150, Pastel Sand, I stopped in front of a tree. The tree was covered in ice, as was the road, and the power line draped over the road. If I couldn’t get down this way, I’d need to go back twenty miles, use the interstate and cut all the way around, and the snow was still falling. The line bounced around in the wind, a few feet off the road. A couple dozen people died that week, but I didn’t know about them when I hit the accelerator and heard the power line scrape across the metal hood of the truck. I pushed forward, listened to the sound of branches bending, limbs cracking, snow crunching underneath.
There was a man in an orange hard hat with a large beard waving his arms at me. I couldn’t see him through the snowfall, not until he was right next to my window. The snow collected in his beard. His breath plumed out over the flakes. He yelled at me about the power line, said that it’s still hot, that I’m lucky to be alive. I agreed with him, but that didn’t calm him down. He tried to explain to me how dangerous this storm was, how it only took getting it wrong once. He talked about the cars he’d seen off the road, how most people didn’t have heat, how the storm was going to change things. I nodded along, but I couldn’t stop staring at saliva dripping down his bottom lip, into his beard, where it froze in that grizzled mess. I wondered if someplace else—someplace warm and inside, there was someone who loved him.
* * *
There was a canopy set up in the backyard. I had just turned twenty when my mother decided to remarry. The guests arrived in jeans and t-shirts; I wore the same, dark grey with a faded royal flush. The pastor stood on a stack of wooden pallets, metal folding chairs were kept even by a rope pulled taut, and you were not there. Our family kept a chair empty, asked questions in whispers and heard no answers. My niece tossed paper flowers along a white plastic runner in the grass. My mother moved along in a dress with long sleeves and a short train. The ceremony only lasted a few minutes.
I filled a horse trough with ice and beer, brought out buckets of potato salad made last night. My sister heated trays of twice-baked potatoes, grabbed hundreds of chicken pieces, helped wheel out a massive sheet cake. Chairs were organized around folding tables, paper plates bent under the weight of food piled high. My mother posed for pictures taken on cell phones. Your mother paced, never without a cigarette in hand.
The tables were cleared away. The speakers were set up. Drunken fights broke out in the driveway, drunken dancing in the yard. Bottles broke, noses were bloodied, the neighbors wandered over. More people filtered in, faces we didn’t even recognize, and still the beer flowed, the wine never stopped. Rumors spread through the crowd. Talk of a gun store robbery, broken windows, squealing tires. Of Walmarts along an interstate, payphone calls, and how afraid you were. Our family tried to keep going, to get through every song on the list, to cut the cake and swat away bugs while the sweat built and the music got louder. People kissed, and vomited, and bled.
Before the sun set, the call came in. A call about a hunt for a 1992 Ford Probe, Calypso Green, found in Wisconsin, just north of where we were born. Your mother listened to a cop who tried to be kind while he explained what mandatory minimum sentences are, why it didn’t matter whether or not you held the gun, whether it was ever fired. We collected trash in large plastic bags, stacked chairs and tables in the shed, sent everyone home and kept the doors locked. In the morning, we cut clippings of your face out of the newspaper.
* * *
In a 2016 Honda Pilot, Dark Cherry Pearl, I lifted your mother into the backseat. She was bloated with water and breathing hard. When she toppled in, I shut the door, but she opened it right back up and lit another cigarette. The terminal diagnosis didn’t slow her down. It was six years after you took a plea deal you didn’t understand from a public defender who just wanted to get rid of you, and I was driving 150 miles to tell you your mother was dying.
My mother was with us, navigating to Robinson Correctional Center. We went down two lane highways and country roads, stopped at a diner in a small town I’ll never see again. We ate cold biscuits smothered in gravy. When we got to the prison they announced shift change for the guards, and we were left on plastic chairs for over an hour, waiting. We talked about our jobs, drugs, politics. Anything but you. There was a vending machine in the lobby that dispensed cards. Put $20 in, you got a card with $15 on it back. That card was the only way to buy snacks and drinks inside the visiting room. You couldn’t take money, wallets, purses, cell phones, or keys inside. Only the card got through.
When we finally made it to the visiting room, we waited as long as we could to tell you the news. We bought pulled pork sandwiches in plastic bags and baked potato flavored chips, sipped on coffee and sat on steel stools bolted to the floor. We played dominos and poker, retold stories we’ve all heard before. You told us about your new job taking care of retired police dogs, about Reginald, your favorite. Any time one of us left the room, the guards pulled us aside, grasped our legs firmly, ran their hands all the way up. They worked around the body, asked questions in bored voices, told us we only had an hour left. It was time. You knew about the cancer, but not the prognosis. The news didn’t surprise you. You saw it on her face.
On our way out, I decided it would be a fast drive, with no stops this time. But deep fog had settled in, and the highway was hard to see. Your mother said you seemed well, that you liked your new job, that you’d be alright. We made promises about the future that we’d never be able to keep.
* * *
Just outside Green Bay, the rain started. I was on my way north, and I knew the lake was near. It was dark outside, but my phone was showing me a map of the area. The vivid blue was right alongside the road, as if the water was almost touching the pavement. I was in a 2002 Cadillac Deville, Sable Black, and my headlights reflected off the road. I couldn’t make out anything to my right. I knew if I stopped, if I just stepped out and walked a few yards, I could reach down and touch water. I could take off my socks and dip my feet in, let them grow cold, until I couldn’t feel a thing. But there were other lakes along the way.
I thought of a road trip we took long ago, before the first year between prison visits, before phone calls left unanswered. You with your feet on the dash, socks faded to grey. Me stopping at any exit we wanted, pointing out horse farms along the way. We drove south through the night, checked into a motel at 8 a.m. We met strangers on the streets in Lexington, talked to anyone who would listen, gave fake names just because we could. We were in that same Calypso Green Ford Probe, an atlas open between us, pen marks covering the margins. A list of all the places we’d go, all the pages we’d visit. All the roads we’d follow. So long as we had a way to get there.
© Jacob M. Hall
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Jacob’s interview]