What Could Have Been / What Was
The night after Blake McCann’s funeral, Jamie McCann couldn’t listen to one more condolence from the mourning relatives who filled his family’s home. They didn’t know his older brother, not really. Not the person he’d been when he drank himself into a stupor and tried to drive his pickup anyway. They hadn’t seen Blake or Jamie since the McCanns moved to South Carolina years earlier. Jamie kissed his mother, who sat on the couch with his Aunt Margaret, whispered, “I’m heading out,” and scooped his keys off their hook before slipping out through the garage.
The living room of Frankie Whitener’s house exploded into silence when Jamie walked in the front door. The music had been quieter than he expected it to be when he’d driven up, parking in the loosely scattered gravel that passed for a driveway, but he had still been able to hear the low, thudding bass and cackling of drunken girls as he walked up the rough wooden stairs and into the double-wide trailer. His heart beat time loudly in his ears, replacing the bass that one of the lanky Hull brothers – Jamie never had been able to tell them apart – turned down when he saw Jamie standing in the doorway. Jamie shifted from one foot to the other on the crinkled linoleum flooring right inside of the door, scanning the room of recognizable but unfamiliar faces; recent Maiden High graduates, girls from his class, boys still dressed in the plaid button-downs they’d worn to Blake’s funeral. A young man with patches of scruff and crooked, yellowed teeth walked behind an armchair and lightly pinched the shoulders of the two girls sprawling in it, who had begun to giggle again, as if over some private joke. When he leaned between their heads, Jamie could make out a slurring introduction: Blake’s little brother… accident…respect.
Seth Rudisill, a good friend of Blake’s, one who had always grinned while teasing Jamie good-naturedly, pushed himself off of one of Frankie’s well-worn couches – the brown leather pillows of which looked as if they’d had half the stuffing beaten out of them – and walked over to Jamie. There were nearly a dozen crumpled cans of cheap beer on the table across from where Seth had been sitting and another, un-crumpled, in his hand. He slung his arm over Jamie’s shoulder and cracked a smile. Seth didn’t seem to realize how sad his smile looked, but Jamie noticed the wobbling corners of Seth’s too-wide grin. “Let’s get Blake’s brother a drink!” Seth said loudly, steering Jamie through the living room and into the kitchen. Frankie was pouring shots of clear, pungent liquid out of a glass bottle with no label. He handed two of the glasses to Seth, who set his beer on the counter and passed one into Jamie’s hands. Jamie copied Seth’s hold on the small glass, unsure, and the three shuffled back and forth for a moment, glasses half-raised. As if in an afterthought, Frankie scooped Jamie’s truck keys out of the boy’s other hand.
“Stay here tonight,” he said, pulling open a drawer behind him. Jamie could see a collection of key rings jumbled in the drawer before Frankie swatted it closed. He felt his eyes begin to water but shook his head, blinking. Frankie clapped Jamie’s shoulder before raising his own shot glass above his head. Seth and Jamie did the same.
“Glad you’re here, man,” Frankie said. “To Blake.”
If the McCann family hadn’t moved to Camden, South Carolina, from the tiny town of Campbellton, New Brunswick, in Canada, Blake and Jamie McCann would have finished middle and high school with the same fifty kids. They would have continued to play hockey instead of the football they learned when the family moved to the States, and Blake would have lost a few teeth in brawls that his younger brother and the other teammates had started. When the boys began playing, Jamie McCann would have been just young enough that the New Brunswick Junior League would have slated him into the age bracket below Blake’s, and Jamie would have begged their mother to ask the official with the handlebar moustache to please, please let him join Blake’s team. The man’s walrus-like facial hair waggled as he indicated that this just wouldn’t do, and Jamie seriously considered yanking the moustache when the official bent down to his ten-year-old head and patted it condescendingly.
Jamie would have practiced incessantly on the frozen pond behind the McCann home, and soon his talent would have caused the league to bump him up to Blake’s team. Their coach would frequently become frustrated when, yelling McCann!, both dark-haired boys would turn their heads. When Blake 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 two years younger. Blake would have started a fight on the ice for the first time.
There would have been an incident, during Jamie’s freshman year at Campbellton Secondary, when Blake landed in the hospital for a few days after he inadvertently doused his legs and the logs in kerosene at a bonfire five miles from the middle of nowhere. Fourteen-year-old Jamie would have insisted on driving Blake’s stick-shift Jeep to the hospital and two of their friends would have ridden with him, one in the front seat for directions, the other steadying Blake in the back. The echo of Blake’s first scream as his legs went up in flames would have run through Jamie’s head for days.
The sheer idiocy of striking the match that left Blake with second and third degree burns would have put a strain on his relationship with Marjorie Hargreaves, the girl he’d had a crush on for half his life and had been dating for a year, but she would have supposed that you couldn’t exactly break up with a guy while he was in a wheelchair. Jamie wouldn’t have had the slightest problem with hurting his already injured brother: he’d have thrown his fist into Blake’s left shoulder the moment the older boy was released from the hospital, angry at how scared Blake had made him. Blake would have been so cheerfully apologetic and self-deprecating that his girlfriend – who would become his wife before they both turned twenty – and Jamie would have forgiven him eventually. For the rest of their lives, both would have exchanged nervous glances and raised eyebrows whenever Blake joked about setting up another bonfire.
If Mrs. McCann had been more concerned with the type of education her sons would receive when they moved, she might have cajoled her husband into moving to a bigger city. In Columbia, South Carolina, Blake 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. Blake, being naturally drawn to popularity, would have pushed himself harder in classes than in football. He still would have played, of course; Blake was too restless not to stay active in one sport or another.
Jamie would have half-reluctantly followed his brother into football – he liked playing, but wanted to make a name for himself outside of “Blake’s little brother” – and he would have excelled in blocking and tackling in a way that he never would have been able to in Algebra and English. Blake would have asked a girl he dated to tutor his little brother, and Jamie would flush red with embarrassment each time he passed the older girl in the school hallways. In time, Jamie would have come to resent Blake for his unsolicited help and for the unwanted legacy that by association trailed after “Blake McCann’s little brother.”
Blake would have gone to the University of South Carolina with many of his high school friends, but he wouldn’t have been talented or tall enough to play football for the Gamecocks’ Division I team. He would have participated in all the standard student activities that happen at universities like those – chest painting at football games, decent amounts of studying, having flings with pot and pills – 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 his football scholarship contract and in part due 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 Blake, so that he could coach football, or if he should do something – anything – else.
Jamie would have tried not to bask in the attention he received for being a USC linebacker, recognition that didn’t begin and end with Blake, but his thinly veiled gloating – detailed play-by-plays of practices and games, repeating stories of how girls threw themselves at him – would not have been lost on his older brother. Proud of Jamie, Blake would have hidden his irritation at the repetitive bragging. It wouldn’t have occurred to Blake to be jealous.
For the two years in which their college experience overlapped, Jamie and Blake would have eaten together every Thursday night, and the only football game Blake missed would have been a December bowl game during Jamie’s sophomore year, as he’d contracted pneumonia from cheering in the rain a couple weeks before. Sometimes Jamie would have wished that it mattered less to Blake, that his brother would forget a game or three. Jamie would have shaken his helmeted head whenever he saw Blake screaming, jumping up and down with his friends, all their chests painted black and burgundy.
After he graduated, Blake would have gotten a job as an American History teacher and, by pure coincidence, coach at their old high school in Columbia. In five years’ time, he’d have led the Jefferson Wildcats to a state championship. During his third year of teaching, he’d have quietly begun dating a senior in one of his U.S. History classes.
Blake would have told Jamie– who had moved back in with their parents while looking for a job after college graduation – about pretty Lauren Albright over cold, bottled beer a little less than a month after their first date. Jamie would have looked at his older brother seriously, questioningly, for a moment in between sips of his lager, before simply telling Blake to be careful.
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 – unemployment, jail, scandal. Blake and Lauren would have been discreet, driving separate vehicles to dates at the far end of the next county over. Four years later, right before Lauren’s senior year at College of Charleston, Blake would have asked her to marry him. Jamie would have helped him pick out a ring, and they would have gotten raucously drunk celebrating on the night Blake told his little brother that he was going to propose. Jamie would have been glad when he realized that Blake and Lauren shouldn’t move back up to Columbia before either of them decided they really ought to stay in Charleston – after all, hometown busybodies with overlong memories might cause problems – though he wouldn’t have come to understand why he felt that way until years later.
Blake’s state championship win would have made it relatively easy to find another teaching position at a Charleston school. He and Lauren would have done their big, church wedding the summer 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, South Carolina, and the boys would have been slated to go to J.W. Camden, a high school just inside the town limits. Mr. and Mrs. McCann would have argued in muted voices about bills, money, and allowances for the boys, but one night Mr. McCann would have slammed his hand into the faux-marble kitchen countertop loudly, and that would have been the end of it.
Mr. and Mrs. McCann would have told Blake and Jamie that, if the boys wanted a car, they’d have to find jobs as soon as they were old enough. The two would have worked for cash on farms owned by their friends’ fathers during the summer, doing everything from baling hay to picking green beans. Jamie and Blake would have grown closer in the summers spent working together, developing identical farmers’ tans under a Carolina sun that made air feel like boiling water. Both would have learned to value hard work – years later, as an adult, Jamie would thank their parents, sincerely, for giving him and Blake that opportunity – and Billy Martin’s father would often ask Billy, rhetorically, why he wasn’t willing to work as hard or as long as the McCann boys. One day Billy would have replied that it was because Blake 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 Blake turned sixteen, he would have been hired at Hannah’s BBQ. His friendly, smiling face had become so well known among the farming families who frequented the diner that it would have ensured that Blake made plenty of tips. He would have bought a gray 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 Blake would teach him how to drive and pass the truck down when Jamie was old enough. They would have continued to tinker with that truck, tightening this valve and replacing that starter, until even Mr. Martin, upon seeing them driving one day, said that it ran better than it had in the twenty-five years he’d owned it.
Jamie would have continued to work odd jobs, selling pumpkins or mowing grass until he was old enough to work at the barbeque; neither of the boys would have played sports because the practices interfered with their work schedules.
Blake would have graduated from high school and begun taking classes in auto mechanics at the local community college while running a small repair business out of the family’s one-car garage. That summer, Jamie would have recognized a girl who came to pick up her family’s takeout order from Hannah’s as one who had sat two rows across from him in U.S. History. Alison Sanger was pretty – light blond hair and freckles – and, as Jamie tucked the Styrofoam carryout boxes into a plastic bag, he would have asked her if she’d like to spend the fourth of July with him, Blake, and some of their friends.
After a night of fireworks and several dinner dates, Alison would have been replaced by an older, sterner version of herself with pursed lips and large pearls instead of appearing on her family’s weekly barbeque run. Jamie would have recognized the Van Gogh credit card Alison usually handed him and asked if she was sick. Mrs. Sanger would have given him a look that could only be described as down her nose as she took in his stained apron and tousled hair before saying that her daughter was quite well, thank you. When Jamie saw Alison in school that fall, she would have smiled, but politely declined his attempts to revive their summer sparks. Jamie would have brought his confusion over her to Blake and learned a hard lesson about class and money, the differences between girls who lived in gated communities and boys who worked on cars and in restaurants.
Jamie would have followed his brother into auto mechanics upon graduating from Camden High, as with everything else in their lives since the move to South Carolina. The boys – young men, now – would have worked at a Ford dealership for several years before opening their own shop, which they’d have called McCann Bros Auto Repair. The moderately successful business would have stayed open for fifty years, running on their commendable customer service and the clear affection the brothers shared.
But Blake and Jamie’s father did get a job in Camden, South Carolina, and the whole family moved there the summer before Blake’s freshman year of high school. And when the recession hit they were distinctly middle-class enough that they didn’t lose much in stocks, so Blake 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 secondary school in Canada and was not particularly aware of the nuances of the American public education system.
The McCanns bought a large gable-front house on several acres of land 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 Blake to wear nice clothes – a button-down, at least – on his first day of high school, but Blake wouldn’t listen. Instead he wore ripped jeans and a t-shirt under an oversized, coppery Carhartt jacket because he was fourteen and honestly didn’t care what he was wearing. Jamie dressed with a button-down tucked into his jeans because he was almost twelve, going into seventh grade, and couldn’t win arguments with his mother, but Blake did what he wanted. Blake 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 so many mosquitoes around a pool of water. And because he dressed like them, because he smiled with just the right amount of bluster and impudence behind his teeth, these boys recognized Blake 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 Canadian software analyst who’d moved his family to the states just because he’d gotten a better job offer.
At Maiden High, 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. Blake 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 the big country boys whose words were muffled by the wads of tobacco in the spaces between their lower lips 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 Blake’s football games, even begging his parents to drive to the away games. He’d bring a friend or two from the middle school and they’d shuffle, self-conscious but cocky, around the outskirts of the bleachers. Jamie paid as much attention to the game and his brother as he could without looking uncool to his friends, who stared eagerly at high school girls as they walked by on trips between concessions and the bleachers. By the time Jamie reached high school, he didn’t want to admit to himself how much he still idolized his older brother, who ignored him in favor of the Carhartt-ed boys around the Masonry/Ag building more days than not while Jamie stood on the very edge of their group, laughing at the others’ jokes and banter, but rarely offering his own.
Blake was a running back on the varsity football team all through high school. After winning football games, Blake and the rest of the varsity team and their girls would spend whole weekends at Frankie Whitener’s house, smoking just about anything and staying too drunk to ever reach hung-over. When Jamie asked Blake why he didn’t come home after Friday night games, Blake 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, hoping that Blake might pay more attention to a younger version of himself, 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 jokingly asked him if he planned to eat any vegetables with his hunks of steak and bread. Mrs. McCann was startled by his outburst but chalked it up to puberty in the same way that she’d chalked up Blake’s tendency to disappear with his football buddies all weekend, only reappearing on late Sunday afternoons, claiming the beginnings of a pounding headache.
After graduation Blake stuck around town, soaking up the loose ends of the glory the team once had – the season after he graduated, they went on a six-game losing streak and didn’t even make it through the first round of playoffs, so Blake and the players from his senior year were considered something like legends. Blake wasn’t the only one who stayed around, reliving the rut of high school simplicity; most of the guys 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 they swarmed on the sidelines instead of on the grass, whooping at the team’s mistakes. Jamie had finally made the varsity team and Blake yelled, good-natured, at his little brother. When the coach caught Jamie turning his head to glance into the crowd as he heard Blake’s voice, he gave the boy an earful about keeping his head in the game.
Blake’s parents didn’t ask questions if they occasionally woke to clattering keys and curses at stubbed toes on the staircase in the night; Mr. McCann was constantly being sent on short trips for work and Mrs. McCann adopted, at her husband’s insistence, the mentality that eighteen translated into something like adulthood. On most Friday nights – or in the small hours of Saturday mornings – Blake left briefly to drive whatever girl he was with home because Sally or Ashlee or Mandy’s parents wouldn’t let her stay out all night. Sometimes he’d stop drinking an hour or two before he cranked his truck. Sometimes he wouldn’t.
The December 13 issue of the Camden Daily Record said that twenty-year-old Blake 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 because of the turns shaped like the bobby-pins that Aimee or Nikki stuck in her hair by the dozen. The paper said that, at approximately 2:13 a.m., Blake’s pickup truck didn’t lean into the turn the way it should have, instead crashing straight through someone’s fence and tangling the front fender, the hood and everything in it, around a tree. Blake 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. The shattered remnants of a half-empty mason jar of corn whiskey rested on the floorboards.
Jamie’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused, as his cell phone began beeping at four in the morning. It was Seth Rudisill, one of Blake’s nicer friends, and Jamie answered assuming that Blake or another one of those guys wanted a ride back from Frankie’s. Instead, Seth told Jamie, between halting gasps that seemed to prevent the young man from breaking down altogether, that he’d been working as an EMT on the ambulance that got called out to a 1992 Ford pickup. It looked exactly like Blake’s, down to the dent in the middle of the rear chrome fender. Seth said that he’d been the first one out of the ambulance, leaving the door swinging open as he rushed to the driver’s side of the wrecked truck.
Seth said that a police officer had just left for the McCanns’ house, and that Jamie should wake his 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.