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 Camden, 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 continued to play hockey instead of the football he learned when they moved to the States, and he would have lost a few teeth jumping into brawls that his brother and the other teammates had started. Jamie McCann would have been just young enough that the New Brunswick Junior League would have put him in the age bracket below Boe, but Jamie’s talent for playing center and scoring repeatedly would have caused the league to bump him up. He’d have played on Boe’s team and their coach would have often become frustrated when, yelling McCann!, both boys turned their heads. When Boe was fourteen and Jamie twelve, a boy on an opposing team, with freckles that helped mask his pockmarks, would have picked on Jamie for being younger, and Boe would have started a fight on the ice for the first time.
By the time Boe was sixteen he would have fallen in love with Marjorie Hargreaves, the girl he’d had a crush on since second grade, when she punched him in the eye after he mussed her hair one 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 have been an incident, in their junior year, when Boe landed 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 have insisted on driving Boe’s stick-shift Jeep to the hospital and two of Boe’s friends would have ridden with him, one in the front seat for directions, the other steadying Boe in the back. The sheer idiocy of striking the match that had left him with second and third degree burns would have put a strain on his relationship with Marjorie, but she would have supposed that you couldn’t really break up with a guy while he was in a wheelchair. Jamie would have had no such scruples against injuring his already injured brother: he’d have thrown his fist into Boe’s left shoulder the moment the older boy was released from the hospital, angry at how scared Boe had made him. Boe would have been so cheerfully apologetic for his own stupidity that his girlfriend and Jamie would have forgiven him eventually. For the rest of their lives, both would have been nervous whenever Boe joked about setting up another bonfire.
Boe and Marjorie would have gotten married before they both turned twenty. It would have been a smallish wedding at a chapel lost somewhere in the woods of the Canadian-Appalachian Mountains, with his family and hers and everyone who graduated with them at Montgomery High. Jamie would be his best man, and the young men 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 the nearby Atholville every day, working as a secretary at a large pulp mill that employed many from the surrounding rural communities. They would all have led pleasantly boring lives together, Jamie’s wife and Boe’s playing bridge and cooking while their men were out hunting or drinking or carousing together. Boe and Marjorie would have 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, South Carolina. Boe and Jamie would have gone to Jefferson High, with its great Advanced Placement programs and 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 and too reckless in his uses of un-channeled energy.
Jamie would have followed his brother into football, but he would never have excelled in academics. Boe would have asked a girl he dated to tutor his little brother in everything from Algebra to English, and Jamie would have turned red with embarrassment each time he passed the older girl in the school hallways. He would have wanted to excel or fail all on his own, but Boe would have watched over his younger brother enough that this wouldn’t have been possible. In time, Jamie would have come to resent Boe for his unsolicited help and for the legacy that by association trailed after “Boe McCann’s little brother.”
Though many of Boe’s classmates would have gone on to college and majored in things like Entrepreneurship and Finance, Boe would have decided that he wanted to be a history teacher and coach. He would have gone to the University of South Carolina along with a substantial portion of his classmates, but he wouldn’t have been good enough or tall enough to play football for the Gamecocks’ Division I team.
Boe would have participated in 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 would have slipped a bit from the height they’d enjoyed in high school, but he would have graduated in the standard four years with a double major in Education and History. Jamie would have stayed at USC for five years, in part due to playing football and in part to his indecisiveness over whatever it was that he wanted to do with his life. He would have wondered if he ought to be a teacher like Boe, coach football at his old high school, or if he should do something – anything – else.
Glad for recognition he received for being a USC linebacker, recognition that didn’t begin and end with Boe, Jamie would have basked in the attention. Proud of his younger sibling, it wouldn’t ever have occurred to Boe to be jealous. For the two years in which their college experience overlapped, Jamie and Boe would have eaten dinner together every Thursday night, and Boe would never have missed a football game.
After he graduated, 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 have led 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 classroom two years later. When she stayed after class, professing a need for tutoring, and make her interest apparent, the part of him that hadn’t quite become an adult yet would have convinced the rest of him that she was too pretty not to at least take her out on a date. He would have shared all of this with his brother – who had moved back in with their parents while looking for a job after college graduation – over cold, bottled beer a little less than a month after he and Lauren had begun dating. Jamie would have only told Boe to be careful in between sips of his lager, knowing by his older brother’s tone that he wasn’t looking for an opinion on his actions, just a brother to talk to about a girl he was interested in.
Jamie’s succinct advice would have been all that was needed to remind his older brother that seeing an underage student could lead to serious consequences. Boe and Lauren would have been discreet enough to only go on dates at the far end of Lexington, next county over from Columbia in Richmond County. They would have driven separately until that May, when she received her diploma and turned eighteen. Four years later, right before Lauren’s senior year at College of Charleston, Boe would have asked her to marry him. Jamie would have helped him pick out a ring, and they would have gotten raucously drunk in celebration the night that Boe told his little brother that he was going to propose. Jamie would have realized that Boe and Lauren shouldn’t move back up to Columbia before either of them decided that they really ought to stay in Charleston – after all, small town busybodies with overlong memories might cause problems – but he wouldn’t have let his sadness at the thought of Boe moving two and a half hours down the road show to the eager, happy bridegroom-to-be.
Boe’s state championship win would have made it relatively easy to find another teaching position at a Charleston high school with a good football program. He and Lauren would have done the big, church wedding after she received her bachelor’s and everyone except for Jamie and Lauren’s parents had forgotten that she had once been one of young Mr. McCann’s history students.
If the McCann family had been more affected by the recession, they would have moved into the townhomes that Mr. McCann liked on the other side of Camden, and the boys would have been slated to go to J.W. Camden High School, a school inside the city limits.
Mr. and Mrs. McCann would have argued in hushed whispers about bills, money, and allowances for the boys, but Mr. McCann would have the final word, both because he was the only one with salaried employment and because their family tended to adhere to stereotypical conventions of familial roles. Their fights about money would have led Mrs. McCann to begin substitute teaching in an effort to contribute, while still being available to her boys. 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 have worked for cash on the farms owned by their friends’ fathers during the summer, doing everything from bailing hay to picking green beans. They’d have grown closer in the hours spent working together, developing identical farmer’s tans under Carolina sun that made air feel like boiling water. Both would have come to value hard work, and Billy Martin’s father would often ask Billy, rhetorically, why he wasn’t willing to work for as long as the McCann boys. One day, the boy would have replied that it was because Boe and Jamie got paid, and the red stripes of a hickory switch would have made his teenage rear end throb for the rest of the night.
The week after Boe turned sixteen, he would have been hired at Hannah’s BBQ. His friendly, smiling face would have become so well known among the farming families who frequented the diner that it would have ensured that Boe made plenty of tips. He would have bought a 1985 Ford pickup from Mr. Martin for fifteen hundred dollars, and Jamie would have spotted him five hundred – all of his savings – on the promise that Boe would teach him how to drive and pass the truck down when Jamie was old enough.
Mr. and Mrs. McCann would have proud of both of their sons for their work ethic and teamwork. Jamie would have continued to work odd jobs, selling pumpkins here or mowing grass there, until he was old enough to work at the BBQ; neither of the boys would have played sports because the practices interfered with their work schedules and because, even without scheduling conflicts, they’d have still been too tired to run across any sports fields.
Boe would have graduated from high school and take classes in auto mechanics at the local community college. Jamie would have followed his older brother in this, as with everything else in their lives since the move to South Carolina. The boys – young men, now – would have worked for a Ford dealership for several years before opening their own shop, which they’d have called McCann Bros Auto Repair. Boe and Jamie McCann would have run the moderately successful business together for fifty years and become known for the repair shop’s commendable customer service and the obvious affection they had for each other.
But Boe and Jamie’s father did get a job in Camden, South Carolina, and the whole family moved there the summer before Boe’s freshman year of high school. And when the recession hit they were distinctly squarely 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 Camden, South Carolina, was larger than their tiny hometown in New Brunswick, it was still a fairly small, rural town. Mrs. McCann didn’t think to peruse the area schools in search of the best education for her boys; she’d only completed high school and was not particularly aware of the nuances of the public educational system. The McCanns bought a three-bedroom house just outside the city limits, and the boys enrolled 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.
Mrs. McCann 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 a t-shirt under his oversized, coppery Carhartt jacket because he was fourteen and really didn’t care what he was wearing. Jamie got dressed in a button-down because he was almost twelve, going into seventh grade, and couldn’t win arguments with his mother, but Boe did what he wanted. Boe didn’t realize 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. And because he dressed like them, because he smiled with just the right about of bluster and impudence behind his teeth, these boys recognized Boe as one of their own and he assimilated 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 popular or trendy to be smart; the cool kids were the jocks, the big country boys, and they all partied hard. Boe played football, even though he turned out to be one of the smallest guys on the team, and he spent the next four years with those big country boys whose words were muffled by the wads of tobacco in the spaces 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.
Jamie faithfully attended every one of Boe’s football games, even begging their parents to drive to the away games. He’d bring a friend or two from the middle school and they’d shuffle awkwardly together around the outskirts of the bleachers, Jamie paying as much attention to the game and his brother as he could without looking “uncool” to his friends, who looked eagerly at high school girls as they walked by on trips between concessions and the bleachers. By the time Jamie reached high school, he refused to admit to himself how much he still idolized his older brother, who ignored him in favor of the Carhartted boys around the Masonery/Ag building on more days than not.
Boe was a running back on the varsity football team all through high school and, during his senior year, he started seeing a 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 varsity 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 little brother that he had things to do, punk, you got a problem with that? For a while, Jamie imitated his brother’s clothes and attitude in the hopes that Boe would pay more attention to him, but all that ever came of it was getting grounded for a week when he snapped at their mother, no, Mom, you got a problem with that? after she told him to eat his steamed broccoli. Mrs. McCann was startled by his outburst, but chalked in up to puberty in the same way that she’d chalked up Boe’s tendency to hang out with his football buddies all weekend.
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 didn’t even make it through 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 nearby technical schools and into fields like firefighting, auto-mechanics, or EMS response. They still went to the high school football games every fall Friday night, only now they stood on the sidelines instead of on the grass, whooping at the team’s mistakes; Boe yelled, good-natured, at his little brother finally on the varsity team and at his sophomore girlfriend when the other cheerleaders threw her into the air. When the coach caught Jamie turning his head to glance at the crowd when he heard Boe’s voice, he gave the boy an earful about keeping his head in the game.
Boe signed up for classes at a community college, but his attendance was spotty. He spent most nights at Frankie Moretz’ cramped house drinking cheap beer, brown whiskey, and moonshine that Frankie’s father brewed at a still on family land – not to mention cheating on his girlfriend, when she wasn’t there. It didn’t really matter, Boe thought, because she was cheating on him too. Most of the overgrown boys he was friends with were in similar situations, with young cheerleader girlfriends they didn’t care to get rid of and a sense of monogamy that had long gone out the window.
Boe’s 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 Saturday afternoons calling in sick to work, hung-over and sprawling. On most Friday nights – or in the wee hours of Saturday mornings – Boe left briefly 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 Camden Daily Record said that Boe McCann had been going 75 miles per hour down Old Shelby Road. The speed limit was 35 on the back country stretch he’d been driving, namely 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 tangled the front fender, the hood and everything in it, 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 Daniel’s on the floorboard.
Jamie’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused, when his cell phone began beeping at four in the morning. It was one of Boe’s friends, a Seth Rudisill who Jamie had met a handful of times, and Jamie answered assuming that Boe or another one of those guys wanted a driver. Instead, Seth told Jamie, between halting gasps that seemed to prevent the young man from breaking down, that he’d been working as an EMT on the ambulance that got called out 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 he’d had a bad feeling when he saw it, and was the first one out of the EMT van, leaving the door swinging open as he rushed to the driver’s side of the truck. Seth said that a policeman had just left for the McCann’s house, and that Jamie ought to wake their parents up, prepare them so they didn’t have to hear it from someone who wasn’t family. Jamie nodded without realizing that the voice on the other end couldn’t see his chin, flipped the phone shut, and rolled out of bed to thrust his fist through the double-paned window beside his bed before walking into his parents’ bedroom, fist still closed and dripping.
Well, this is the third big round of revisions. I know it’s long but, believe it or not, I cut a lot. Added some more important things, but cut a bunch of the stuff that wasn’t doing much work. I might still need more of Jamie in there – I’m not quite sure yet. But this is probably the last big draft before what will turn into the final for portfolio, so any thoughts are always appreciated!