What Could Have Been
It didn’t have to happen that way, Jamie’s older brother dying in the curve of Old Shelby Road at 2:13 in the morning eleven days before Christmas. It could have been different. Boe McCann could have lived.
If the McCann family hadn’t moved to Clemmons, South Carolina from the tiny town of Campbellton, New Brunswick in Canada, Boe would have finished middle and high school with the same fifty kids. He would have played hockey instead of football, and he would have lost a few teeth in brawls that his teammates had started (Boe wasn’t ever the kind to start a fight, but he was too loyal not to jump in). By the time he was sixteen he would have fallen in love with Marjorie Hargreaves, the girl he’d had a crush on since she punched him in the eye after he mussed her hair in second grade when she went down the curly, yellow slide once day at recess. By sixteen, Marjorie would have been flattered enough by Boe’s attention – he’d race to leave sticky-notes with sweet, short messages under the windshield wipers of her car before she got outside after the school bell – to think that she had stumbled into love, too.
There would be an incident, in their junior year, when Boe would land in the hospital for a few days after he inadvertently doused his legs and the logs in kerosene at a bonfire in the middle of nowhere. Fourteen-year-old Jamie would drive Boe’s stick-shift jeep to the hospital with two of Boe’s friends, one riding in the front for directions, the other steadying Boe in the back seat. The sheer idiocy of him striking the match that left him with second and third degree burns would put a strain on their relationship, but Marjorie would suppose that you couldn’t really break up with a fellow while he was in a wheelchair. He’d be so cheerfully apologetic for his own stupidity that she’d forgive him eventually, although she’d be nervous about him setting up bonfires for the rest of their lives.
They would have gotten married before they both turned twenty. It would have been a smallish wedding at a secluded chapel out in the woods, with his family and hers and everyone who graduated with them at Montgomery High. Jamie would be his best man, and they would both have worn blue jeans.
Boe would have gotten some sort of blue collar job that allowed him to spend most of his time out of doors – probably working for Allen’s Lumber with his younger brother – and made decent wages on sweat and hard work. Marjorie would have commuted to Atholville every day, working as a secretary at a large pulp mill. They would have led pleasantly boring lives together, had five kids, and Boe would have remained happily, intentionally ignorant of Marjorie’s occasional dalliances with the plant supervisor for whom she worked.
If Mrs. McCann had been more concerned with the type of education her sons would get when they moved, she might have cajoled her husband into moving to a bigger city, like Columbia, SC. Boe and Jamie would have gone to Jefferson High, with its great Advanced Placement programs and an emphasis on high test scores, a school where it was socially acceptable to be smart. Boe, being naturally drawn to popularity, would have pushed himself harder in classes than in football. He still would have played, of course; Boe was too restless not to stay active. Jamie would have followed his brother into football, but he would never excel in academics. Boe would ask a girl he dated to tutor his little brother in everything from Algebra to English, and Jamie would turn red with embarrassment each time he passed the older girl in the hallway.
Though many of Boe’s classmates would go to college and major in things like Entrepreneurship and Finance, Boe would decide that he wanted to be a history teacher and coach. He would have gone to university at University of South Carolina, though he wouldn’t have been good enough or tall enough to play football for either school.
He would have done all the standard student activities that happen at universities like those – chest painting at football games, decent amounts of studying, joining intramural teams – and his grades might have slipped a bit from the height they’d enjoyed in high school, but he’d have graduated in the standard four years with a double major in Education and History. Jamie would stay at USC for five years, in part due to football and in part to his indecisiveness over whatever it was that he wanted to do with his life. Boe would have gotten a job as a teacher and coach in Columbia at his old high school, and in five years’ time he’d lead the Jefferson Wildcats to a state championship. During his third year of teaching, he would have quietly dated a senior in one of his U.S. History classes.
Lauren Albright, a wiry soccer player and winner of the “Best Smile” Senior Superlative, would have been smitten with Boe since the day that she passed by the door to his classroom during her sophomore year and saw him teaching, his broad-shouldered back to the door, dark brown hair a little too long for a male teacher. Boe would have noticed Lauren only when he saw her seated in the front row of his class two years later. When she stayed after class, professing a need for tutoring, and made her interest apparent, the part of him that hadn’t quite become an adult yet would convince the rest of him that she was too pretty not to date. He would tell all of this to his brother, who had moved back in with their parents while looking for a job after college graduation, over beer bottles a little less than a month after he and Lauren began dating.
They would meet in the next county over until that May, when she received her diploma and turned eighteen, and Boe would propose four years later, right before her senior year at College of Charleston. Boe would find a teaching position at a high school in Charleston with a good football program – his state championship win would have made finding another job relatively easy. He and Lauren would do the big church wedding thing after she got her bachelor’s and everyone except for Jamie and Lauren’s parents had forgotten that she had once been one of Mr. McCann’s students.
If Boe’s family had moved into the townhomes that Mr. McCann liked (less yard work, less space in the house to clean) on the other side of town in Clemmons, SC, the boys would have been slated to go to J.W. Clemmons High School, a school inside the city limits. Clemmons High had a historically terrible football team and, even though Boe would play, he would treat the games as a joke because that’s what the rest of the football team, and the rest of the school in general, did. Even the team would laugh about how most of the people who showed up on Friday nights were there because of the stellar marching band, not the football game. When a preteen Jamie would watch his older brother play on Friday nights, he would know something was missing from the way these boys played football – passion? sincerity? – but he wouldn’t know exactly what to call it. By the time he’d enter high school, he wouldn’t even try out for the team.
Boe would end up focusing most of his energy on wrestling because Mr. Weinrich, his history teacher and the head wrestling coach, would approached him during his freshman year. Weinrich would think that Boe had the makings of a wrestler’s body; short-to-average height, slightly heavyset but still lightly muscled. Boe would join the team because Weinrich liked to kid around in class and wasn’t a hard-ass when he graded tests.
Boe would lose thirty pounds between his freshmen and junior years of high school because of the diets the wrestlers would go on during the season in order to “make weight” – that is, to lose enough weight to be at the top of the weight class directly below the class they ought to be fighting in. His little brother would worry about him, but know better than to say anything. For three days before matches, Boe would eat nothing but iceberg lettuce, and wrestling season would start around the time that football ended and last well into March. He’d miss a lot of Christmas dinners – his Canadian family didn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, so no loss there – because of making weight for wrestling tournaments.
By his senior year, the girl who tutored Boe in Calculus would begin to lecture him about how the wrestlers’ crash diets were beyond unhealthy. He’d have to do a senior project on some controversial topic, and at her urging he’d research the bad dieting habits of high school wrestling teams. Boe would find an article about three student wrestlers who died because of their extreme weight loss techniques, and he’d become concerned enough that he would drop the team. He’d corner Jamie in their basement one day, away from their parents, and tell him he wasn’t allowed to go out for the wrestling team that year. Jamie wouldn’t bother to tell Boe that he had never wanted to wrestle in the first place.
Weinrich would be livid when Boe dropped the team. Boe would take Weinrich’s verbal rampage looking straight at him, eyes blue as a robin’s egg, unblinking. But he wouldn’t change his mind and, several years down the road, he’d end up becoming an advocate for healthier wrestling practices. Clemmons High would hire Boe shortly after they fired Mr. Weinrich for forcing two sophomores to run in trash bags in order to dehydrate and make weight. Boe would marry Katie McClellan, the girl who had tutored him; they would have both gone to college close to home and she’d be inordinately proud of him for becoming so passionate about healthy wrestling diets, loving that it had been her insistence that pushed him in that direction. After they graduated from Lenoir College, she would become a CPA while Boe taught history and revamped the high school’s wrestling team. Jamie would also end up teaching – Phys. Ed. – and the whole school would love the two McCann teachers.
They would all live average but happy middle-class lives.
If the McCann family had been more affected by the recession that hit America shortly after they moved, even if they had still moved to Clemmons, SC, Mr. and Mrs. McCann would have told Boe and Jamie that if the boys wanted a car then they would have to find jobs as soon as they were old enough. The two would work for cash on the farms owned by their friends’ fathers during the summer, doing everything from bailing hay to picking green beans. They’d grow closer in the hours spent working together under the blistering Carolina sun and their identical farmer’s tans. Both would come to value hard work, and Billy Martin’s father would often lecture his boy, asking why he wasn’t willing to work for as long as the McCann boys. The boy would reply that it was because Boe and Jamie got paid, and the red stripes of a hickory switch would make his teenage rear end throb for the rest of the night.
The week after Boe turned sixteen, he would be hired at the Hannah’s BQQ, and his friendly, smiling face and the fact that it had become so well known after he ran eighty yards to score a touchdown against his high school’s rivals would ensure that he made plenty of tips. He would buy a 1984 Ford pickup from Mr. Martin for fifteen hundred dollars, and Jamie would spot him five hundred – all of his savings – on the promise that Boe would teach him how to drive, and that Boe would pass the truck down when he was old enough. Mr. and Mrs. McCann would be proud of both of their sons for their work ethic and teamwork.
Boe would graduate from high school and take classes in auto mechanics at the local community college. Jamie would follow his footsteps. The boys – the young men – would work for a Ford dealership for several years before opening their own shop, which they’d call McCann Bros Auto Repair. Boe and Jamie McCann would run the moderately successful business together for fifty years and become known for the repair shop’s commendable customer service and the deep affection they had for each other.
But Boe and Jamie’s father did get a job in Clemmons, SC, and the whole family moved there the summer before Boe’s freshman year of high school. And when the recession hit they were middle-class enough that they didn’t lose much in stocks, so Boe and Jamie weren’t told that they had to go get a job if they wanted their own cars. And while Clemmons, SC was larger than Campbellton, New Brunswick, it was still a fairly small, rural town. The McCanns bought a three-bedroom house just outside the city limits, and the boys ended up in a country school with kids who’d spent most of their lives working family land. The physical labor showed in the large, muscled boys on Maiden High School’s football team.
Their mother wanted Boe to wear nice clothes – a button-down, at least – on his first day of high school, but Boe wouldn’t listen. Instead he wore ripped jeans and an oversized coppery Carhartt over his t-shirt because he was a fourteen year old boy who really didn’t care what he was wearing. Jamie got dressed in a button-down because he was almost twelve and in seventh grade and couldn’t win arguments with his mother, but Boe did what he wanted. Boe didn’t realize – how could he? – that this outfit was the uniform of the muscled farm boys who played football and clustered around the Masonry/Agriculture building at the back of the school like mosquitoes around a pool of water. So these boys would recognize him as one of their own, and he’d assimilate flawlessly into the group, as if his family had lived in the South for generations, as if his father had been a farmer and not a software analyst who’d moved his family to the states just because he’d gotten a better job offer.
At Maiden High School, it wasn’t considered cool or popular or trendy to be smart; the cool kids were the jocks, the big country boys, and they all partied hard. So Boe played football, even though he ended up being one of the smallest guys on the team, and he’d spend the next four years with these big country boys whose words were muffled by the wad of tobacco in the space between their lower lip and bottom teeth. By the end of his first year of high school, he’d traded any trace of Canadian inflection for the long drawl of Southern vowels. Boe turned into a redneck country boy who lived in plaid flannels, torn jeans, and oversized work boots.
Boe was a running back on the varsity football team all through high school and, during his senior year, started shacking up with the freshman flyer on the varsity cheer squad (all the football players would date younger girls, who didn’t already know about their reputations). After winning football games, Boe and the rest of the team and their girls would spend whole weekends at Frankie Moretz’ house, smoking just about anything and staying too drunk to ever reach hung-over. When Jamie asked Boe why he didn’t come home after Friday night games, Boe shrugged and told his brother that he had things to do, punk, you got a problem with that? Jamie imitated his brother’s clothes and attitude in the hopes that Boe would pay more attention to him, but all that came of it was getting grounded for a week when Jamie snapped at their mother, no, you got a problem with that? when she told him to eat his steamed broccoli. By the time he reached high school he refused to admit to himself how much he still idolized his older brother.
After graduation Boe stuck around town, soaking up the loose ends of the glory the team once had – the season after he graduated, the team went on a six game losing streak and lost in the first round of playoffs, so Boe and the players from his senior year were considered something like legends. Boe wasn’t the only one who stayed around, reliving the rut of high school simplicity; most of the young men who played football ended up going to technical schools and in fields like firefighting, auto-mechanics, or EMS response teams. They still went to the high school football games every fall Friday night, only now Boe stood on the sidelines instead of on the grass, whooping at the team’s mistakes, his little brother on the field, and at his sophomore girlfriend when the other cheerleaders threw her into the air.
Boe had signed up for classes at a community college, but his attendance was spotty, and he spend most nights at Frankie Moretz’ cramped house drinking cheap beer, brown whiskey, and moonshine that Frankie’s dad brewed at a still on family land. And cheating on his girlfriend, when she wasn’t there. It didn’t really matter, he thought, because she was cheating on him, too. His parents didn’t ask questions if they sometimes woke to clattering keys and curses at stubbed toes on the staircase in the night; Mr. McCann was constantly being sent on trips for work and Mrs. McCann adopted, at her husband’s insistence, the mentality that eighteen translated into something like adulthood. The former football players who passed out on the sagging leather sofas in Frankie’s living room spent most Saturday afternoons calling sick into work, hung-over and sprawling. On most Friday nights – or the wee hours of Saturday mornings – Boe left to drive whatever girl he was with home because Sally or Ashlee or Mandy was too young for her parents to let her stay out all night. Sometimes he’d stop drinking an hour or two before he cranked the car. Sometimes he wouldn’t.
The December 14 issue of the Clemmons Daily Record said that Boe was going 75 mph down Old Shelby Road. The speed limit on the back country road was 35 because of the turns shaped like the bobby-pins his cheerleader girlfriend stuck in her hair. Boe’s pickup truck didn’t even lean into the turn, just crashed straight through someone’s fence and wrapped around a tree. Boe died on the scene and Audrey, the girl who was with him, didn’t even make it out of the helicopter they airlifted her in. There was a half-empty bottle of Jack on the floorboard.
Jamie woke up when his cell phone began beeping at four in the morning. Seth Rudisill, one of Boe’s friends was calling, and Jamie answered assuming that Boe or another one of his friends wanted a driver. Instead, Seth told Jamie, between halting gasps that seemed to prevent a total breakdown, that he’d been working as an EMT on the ambulance that pulled up to a 1992 Ford pickup. It looked exactly like Boe’s, down to the dent in the middle of the rear chrome fender. Seth said that a policeman had just left for the McCann’s house, and that Jamie ought to wake their parents up, prepare them. Jamie nodded, flipped the phone shut, and held his pillow over his mouth while he screamed.
A little less than a year ago, a young man I knew died in a very similar situation. He was a kind, wonderful, imperfect person, and he should have gotten to live a much longer life.
I didn’t go to his funeral, for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now, and that decision was up there in Liz’ top ten bad life choices.
Writing this piece of fiction is my attempt to make up – atone? – for that choice.