crossroads of america

Fiction, 2/10/12

It was on a Friday afternoon, four days after our grandfather had passed away in a bathtub, that I found myself in the Glendale suburb of southeast Indianapolis, walking up the stepping-stone path to my little brother’s house.  He was home, thankfully, shelling peanuts on the porch with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He had grown a ridiculous little moustache and his dark hair was longer than I remembered. He looked thinner, too. He smiled around the cigarette as I drew near.

“Hey, bro. Nice moustache. Did you hear the news?”

“Huh.” This was his grunt of amusement. He took a drag from the cigarette, plucked it from his lips, and carefully balanced it on the armrest of his sky-blue Adirondack.

“Nope, I have not. Must be important, though, for you to show up unannounced. Haven’t seen you in weeks, bro.”

“I know. And I’m sorry for the unexpected arrival, but, if you recall, you’re the one who stopped paying his phone bill. I have no other way of reaching you.” I walked up the steps and sat in the green Adirondack beside him.

“Oh yeah. You got a point.” He reached for the gunnysack of peanuts and pushed it toward me.

“No thanks, I’m good. Anyway, whatever. The news is that Gramps is dead, bro.”

This got his attention. Gramps had been our buddy for as long as we could remember. Every summer, from the time we were in preschool all the way up into our late teens, we would visit Gramps and Grams at their lakeside cabin in northeast Indiana and stay for a couple weeks in their summerhouse out back.

Gramps was a mentor par excellence. He taught us how to swim, to fish, to clean fish, to cook fish, to swim like fish, even to think like fish. He stocked his bookshelves with texts on natural history and implored us to page through them. He instructed us on the art of driving stick, of identifying birds, of finding bargains at the flea market, and—indirectly, inadvertently—the art of dulling one’s senses with drink. Gramps was probably an alcoholic but a high-functioning one, meaning that he drank almost constantly but managed to get by more or less as a sober adult. This included driving on country roads, operating power tools, winemaking, chopping wood, and fly-fishing, among much else.

Gramps was diagnosed with late-onset diabetes when he was seventy, and when the doctor told him he would probably need to stop drinking entirely, Gramps laughed in his face. He continued to make sweet currant wine and eat rich foods and drink cheap beer as if nothing had changed.

“What happened?” my brother asked, with what sounded like genuine concern.

“I guess he had a heart attack while he was taking a bath. Grams found him. Apparently he had been listening to the Tigers game on the radio, because it was on when she walked in.”

“Damn.” My brother picked up his cigarette and stared at it. “Guess there’s gonna be a funeral, then, right?”

“That’s why I’m here. Mom says we need to be in Orland Saturday morning for the service. In suits. We gotta rent ’em now, too, because we won’t have a chance tomorrow. The shops all close at six.”

“Shit, man. I can’t even remember the last time I saw him. Must’ve been like five, six years ago. Wow. Insane.” He took a drag, and then reached into the sack for a handful of peanuts. “Man, I wonder if he was still putting those jigsaw puzzles together in that shed out back. He would stay back there for hours—you remember that?—plowing through a sixer of Natty Ice…” I nodded slowly, remembering. That solitary, drunken puzzling: that was a habit Gramps had acquired toward the latter years. My brother looked at me with a vague apprehension. “Also, bro, I don’t know if I have the money right now for a suit…”

“How did I know you were gonna say that? I’ll cover you for now, but Mom better pay me back.”

It was getting on toward four o’ clock, and the mosquitoes were coming out. The air was slack, muggy, listless—typical Midwest summertime, pregnant with latent possibility. Cicadas sawed through the afternoon stupor with their strident droning. Across the yard, in an irrigation ditch filled with duckweed and cow shit, I saw a great blue heron wading knee-deep in the muck, hunting for frogs and minnows. I swatted a mosquito on my forearm and came to attention.

“Alright. Let’s go, bro. Pack an overnight bag, okay? We’ll head to Muncie for the monkey suits.”

While my brother packed, I walked off the porch and stood by my rickety Ford pickup parked on the street. It had been more than six years since I last stepped foot in this state, and everything seemed…different. Gramps had engendered in me a shrewd awareness of my surroundings, and I couldn’t help but notice subtle changes to the landscape on the drive up. I saw less farmland, more housing developments; fewer trees, greater asphalt expanses; less wildlife, more people. And the people were fat. Everyone was fat, from the toddlers to the doddering geezers. It was disgusting, all of it.

I glanced across the street at the tightly-packed rows of houses, each one outwardly identical to my brother’s. This particular development went up three years ago, in a former soybean field, and it took eleven months from start to finish. One boundary of the development—the one my brother’s house sat on—abutted a field already chest-high with corn. Corn and soy were still king in this country, but not as crops for human consumption, no. Increasingly, ill-advisedly, they were being grown for fuel: corn for cars, mostly, and soy for feedlot cattle, those beefy burger machines.

My brother emerged from his house clutching a duffel bag and sauntered out to the street.

“This the same truck you drove to Gracie’s wedding a few years back?”

“The very one. It’s still running fairly well, too, considering. I’m happy with it.”

I got on Interstate 69 going north. It would be three and a half hours’ drive to Orland, not including the stop in Muncie. We settled in for the ride. My brother mostly kept silent, apparently content to stare out the window at the blurred scenery flying by. We passed miles and miles of corn and soy fields spread across undulating hills. The air smelled strongly of cow manure. At one point my brother pointed out the windshield.

“Hey. Look. Cooper’s hawk on that telephone wire.” I craned my neck to see. So it was. “Good eye,” I said.

My brother cracked a smile. “Gramps would always say that—‘Good eye.’ I remember how we’d go out in the mornings with binoculars, and every time one of us spotted something, you and I would just say it over and over again—‘Good eye, good eye.’”

I laughed. “Yep! And do you remember how he’d always say ‘Get fat’ when we were playing crazy eights? If you didn’t have a card to play and had to draw, he’d point to the deck and say ‘Get fat!’ Goddamn.”

“I bet, through the years, we’ve played a thousand games of crazy eights at that summerhouse,” my brother said, shaking his head. “That’s fucked up.” We fell quiet again, breaking the silence only to point out birds on either side of the interstate. My brother lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the window.

We reached Muncie by five-forty, just in time to rent a couple tuxes before the shop closed for the weekend. I offered to buy dinner for the two of us.

“What do you want to eat, bro? Nothing Asian, though—I just had pho for lunch.”

“You had what? Never mind, actually,” my brother scoffed. “How about burgers? Or are you still a fucking vegan or whatever?”

“Bro, I’m not vegan. I just don’t eat meat, really. Especially not beef.”

“Well, fuck. It doesn’t matter to me, then.”

By the time we finished arguing over where to eat, we had driven past most of the restaurants in Muncie. Finally, in the outskirts of town, as the sky glowered with the beginnings of a thunderstorm, we found compromise and salvation in a Pizza Hut.

“Man, I’m not gonna lie, I am kinda nervous about seeing the family tomorrow.” My brother had put away an impressive five slices and was stretched out languorously in the booth.

“Why is that?” I watched his face, normally expressionless but now slightly pinched, embittered.

“It’s kinda like I’ve been avoiding them, you know? I haven’t done shit with my life besides put hours in at the shop—for, like, ten years now—and I feel like I never have anything new to talk about. Because I hate talking about work. There’s nothing to talk about.” He exhaled loudly through his nose. “Fuck man, I don’t know, I just feel so awkward around them.”

I hated to admit it, but I felt his pain. Our sisters Gracie and Beth were both just amazing people, doing amazing things, and at family functions they were lionized to an almost embarrassing extent. My brother and I were the sideshow, making a perfunctory appearance and then ducking out as soon as possible. It was pathetic, really. But this would be different.

“I know what you mean, bro. I’m right there with you. But this isn’t about you or me, it’s about Gramps. Let’s just try and remember that.”

“Yeah, man, I know, I know.” He sat up and flicked a crumb off the table. “Jeez, poor Grams, huh? I wonder how she’s holding up.”

We drove on into the darkness, thunder rumbling in the skies just west of us. “Don’t fucking rain on us,” I said to the sky, and this seemed to work: not one drop fell. We stopped outside the Fort Wayne city limits to grab gas and use the bathroom. Just another hour or so longer, I figured. I couldn’t remember the exact route to Gracie’s house, and I decided I would call when we got closer. While the gas pumped I squeegeed the windshield, scouring off all the insect entrails we had amassed. A couple minutes later my brother came out of the quickie-mart with a shit-eating grin plastered across his face. In his right hand was a twelve-pack of Natural Ice, and in his left were two can cozies, one yellow, one blue.

“Bro. What the fuck?”

“For old time’s sake, man! An homage to his legacy! I saw the cozies in there and I couldn’t resist. We could even pour a libation, if you want.”

Against my better judgment, I smiled a little. Gramps was so very fond of cheap, high-alcohol beer—and although it was disgusting, utter rotgut which quite likely foreshortened his life, it was a perfectly irreverent, fitting tribute, I had to admit.

“Jesus.” I laughed, and I had a flashback of us as kids, goofing off in the sultry summer heat. “Well, get in the car, you fucking moron.”

Good ol’ Natty Ice. In the garage below the summerhouse, Gramps would accumulate enough empty cans by mid-summer that my brother and I could build pyramids out of them that grazed the ceiling. He would buy Natty Ice by the case, and it was rare to see Gramps during the day without a can in hand. Whenever he drove us into town, he’d simply shove a cozy over one and pop it in the drink holder. It wasn’t until my early teens that I realized the illegality of this maneuver, but at that point, I had the sense to admire the brazen ingenuity of it all.

“See? Your cozy says ‘Fort Wayne, Indiana, Amber Waves of fucking Grain’, and mine has a picture of an Amish buggy on it. Pretty sweet, no?”

For the last stretch of I-69 we drank and drove and bullshitted and it was terribly, terribly exhilarating. I was going the speed limit, in fact, all the way up until we exited the interstate and headed west for Orland. It was nine o’ clock by then. We had each downed four beers. We were on a two-lane highway, poorly lit, and passing cars were few and far between. I stepped on it.

“Yes.” My brother was wasted, glassy-eyed, smoking another cigarette out the window.

“The roads here are so straight,” I remarked, watching the speedometer creep above ninety. “This is, like, the most boring road ever. I remember driving with Gramps on this road, in his old F-150.”

We cruised at ninety or so for the next ten minutes. There were no cars on the road. The night had gone from dark to downright inky blackness. When I absentmindedly looked into my rearview mirror, the telltale flashing lights damn near gave me a heart attack. “What the…”

“Ah shit! What the fuck?! Bro, there’s a fucking cop behind us. Shit, shit, shit!” I was pounding the steering wheel. My brother turned around, saw the lights, and started moaning.

“Ohhh fuck. Fuck! Ohhh Jesus. Fuuuuccckkk.” He turned to me, wild-eyed. “Dude, this can’t be happening. We can’t fucking go to jail the night before Gramps’ funeral! Because we were fucking driving drunk! That shit is not gonna fly! I’ll never be able to face our family again…” He trailed off, and then was struck by a thought. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew what he was going to say.

“We can lose ’em, bro. We can totally lose them. You remember that one road, Strickler Lane, or whatever? The one with the poplars, that goes past the McLandry farm? It’s like a quarter-mile from here. We can do it, bro.”

Strickler Lane was indeed lined by poplars, and I remembered how Gramps would often drive us there in hopes of spotting the flocks of wild turkeys that roosted nearby. It was an old, rutted road. There were no street lamps on Strickler Lane. It ran north-south for quite a stretch, and the poplars eventually gave way to cornfields on either side. One of these fields belonged to the McLandrys. Every fall they set up corn mazes and the like and left their property open to the public, as a Halloween attraction of sorts. It was the most harebrained idea I had ever heard, but my brother had made a pretty compelling case. Plus, I was drunk and feeling mighty confident.

“Alright. Let’s fucking do this.”

The police car was closing in, sirens blaring. Perhaps they had been blaring all along and we were just oblivious. We were still going much too fast. We reached Strickler Lane, turned a harrowing left, and sped south to McLandry’s. I turned off all the lights except the dash. We were going almost a hundred in pitch darkness.

“Okay, bro, it’s coming up on the right. They’ve turned onto Strickler, but they can’t see us.” My brother was acting strangely calm, and I felt pretty serene, myself. “Okay, okay, right there!” We turned onto a muddy track hemmed in by cornstalks seven feet tall. We rolled slowly for another half-mile, and then I cut the engine.

The cops didn’t stand a chance. We heard the sirens Doppler by as they tore southward, no doubt wondering where the fuck we had disappeared to.

“We did it, bro! Fuck yeah!” My brother was a disembodied voice in the darkness. The adrenaline was ebbing fast. I felt utterly, absolutely drained.

“Shut up, please. I’m not driving any more tonight. We’re sleeping in the cab. Jesus, what a fucking night.”

Again the disembodied voice from my right: “Amen to that, brother.”

We woke before sunrise, cold and aching. I drove to the state park in Orland and we washed up in the restroom and got dressed for the service. It would be an overcast day, by the looks of it, and from the oak trees I heard the soft cooing of mourning doves heralding the dawn.

One thought on “crossroads of america

  1. Peter-
    I remember our road trip. Not that we drank beer from cozy cozies, but your always attentive eye for birds.
    Thanks, as always, for writing. It’s inspiring to be reading your work, and find the threads of what I know about you woven into the fiction. Write about what you know, They say. Yup. This is why.
    And…Mourning doves? Nice choice for ending.

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