What Could Have Been / What Was

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.”

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

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The Days You Left

The Days You Left

You left a week ago.
I had rolled over, into your side, when you shifted and jerked me out of my bleary half-sleep. I’ve been sleeping with men, or boys who thought they were, on and off since I was seventeen, and I still can’t get used to the feeling of being in bed with someone. When you moved, I woke up and briefly saw the red glow of my clock blinking, 3:07 AM. You pushed back my hair the way my mother might have done, kissed my eyelids and my forehead. And then you dressed, pulled on pants and your oversized Army sweatshirt, turning halfway to look back at me before creeping out the door.
You thought I was still asleep.

– – –

Today you’re about to fly clear across the world to do all the brave things politicians like to say that soldiers do for honor, for love of their country. I’m not so sure that’s always how it works. To me it just feels like you’re running away from me, or maybe from your marriage.
I watch the woman who is your wife drive you onto the base, watch Private Owens tip his hat at her as your truck comes through the gate. I’m sitting in my parked car, knees pulled up against my chest because it makes me feel like I can hold myself together, with a baseball cap over hair I haven’t washed all week. It took all the effort I had in me just to find a shirt and a mostly clean pair of jeans to put on.
Your wife parks at the furthest end of the small lot, and I know that she does it so it’ll take that much longer for you to leave, just a couple more seconds of walking. You’re going to have to walk past me. I can’t decide whether or not I want you to notice. You both get out and I see you swing your bag out of the bed of the truck. She’s standing there beside you, brushing at her eyes with one hand – even though I can’t see any tears – and I’m startled by the way that she’s holding onto her softly rounded belly with the other.
You put your arm around her, your newly pregnant wife, but I see you glance at my car as you walk by and I can tell that you recognize it, that you see me. Your lips twitch as if they want to smile. But then you look away.

– – –

The morning after you left, I threw my hand onto your side of the bed before I’d woken up completely. Even then, I knew I hadn’t dreamt your socked feet padding out, but I still hoped it wasn’t real.
You’d left a note stuck on my favorite mug beside the coffeepot, which was unfortunate because it jolted me back into remembering that you were really gone. Until I saw that – your heavy man’s handwriting on my bright purple sticky note – I could pretend it simply hadn’t happened and rub the sleep-dust out of my eyes in peace. But you’d even brewed coffee for me – strong, just how I like it – as if that would soften the note that read, We shouldn’t have done that. I threw my mug into the pantry door.
I spent the next half hour sweeping and re-sweeping up the little bits of olive and cream pottery because I never do seem to get around to buying a mop and I didn’t want to cut my feet on forgotten shards later. The painted owl fragment of the mug was cracked, but still intact, and I sat it by the sink. I poured the steaming coffee down the drain.
Even I’m sorry would have been better than that note, that voice of yours sounding in my head like reproach, like you were a parent and not the man I’d been sleeping with for the better part of two years.

– – –

You were right, though: we shouldn’t have slept together again. You came because I begged you to, even though I knew that we were over, though I didn’t exactly know why or how. All I knew was that you hadn’t returned my calls in a month. In that month without hearing from you, without sleeping with you, everything bubbled to the surface, some chaotic blend of anger and indignation and attachment to you boiling my skin from the inside out. But finally you picked up and I hated myself for sounding happy instead of furious, and I asked you sweetly to come over.
You said no, and then I begged.
Please, I said, please, Jake, let’s just talk about this. I need to talk about this.
So you came.

My little apartment grew smaller when you entered it, you with your big Army muscles and your dog-tags and your regulation shirt, some odd color between tan and gray.
That’s what I get for living near a military base.
You didn’t hug me like you used to do whenever I came to the door. You used to be glad to see me, swallowing me in a hug and picking me up like I was nothing. But that night you sat in the only chair in my apartment, and I perched on the arm of the loveseat across from you. I didn’t ask why you hadn’t returned my calls. I’m not sure I really wanted to know.
This isn’t going to work, you said. I’m leaving.
I wanted to batter my fists against your hard, solid chest; I wanted to throw something heavy and unwieldy the way that angry women do in the movies; I wanted to argue that it could and that we could pick up where we left off when you come home in twelve months. But you had that stupid final look on your face, that scowl your mouth sets into when there’s no changing your mind, like when I would suggest going into town for dinner at DiMaggio’s instead of cooking in my cramped apartment. Not the same look you had when I dropped by your little house on the base soon after we’d started dating. I didn’t realize, then, that those little houses are reserved for men with spouses, and you opened the door and told me to leave. The look you gave me that day said I’m sorry. That look I could change. This look was hard and cold, the same sort of unreadable look I used to see on the faces of the young men who guard the base as I drove up, before they realized that I work behind the bar at Luther’s. But even then, once they recognized me, they’d crack a smile and let me in.
So that’s it? I said, trying to get you to meet my eyes. You weren’t going to say goodbye at all? You were just going to leave, get on a plane bound for the middle of Godforsaken nowhere with Al Qaeda shooting at you?
You wouldn’t look at me.

– – –

After I saw you at your house on base, I knew that you were telling the truth when you said you weren’t looking to leave your wife. That was fine with me. Chalk to up to that overworked, girlish excuse – daddy left when I was young – or a need for something that looks like affection, or maybe even the sometimes-desire for a warm body in bed at night. I don’t care. You and me, it was fun. Meeting you at the bar where I pour drinks for so many Army men, letting you stumble home with me after we closed, your number scrawled on a much older sticky note the morning after…even later, when I knew that you were married, we were fun. There’s adrenaline in that, the rush of being with someone else’s man, like being newly in love every time you walked through my door even though I knew I wasn’t really. But it was like that.
You said that your wife had cheated during your last tour overseas, the one you’d gotten back from shortly before we met, and that your marriage wasn’t doing too well. Actually, I think you said it was a train wreck, but that both of you were ignoring the rubble heaped over the tracks. Neither one of you really wanted to go through a divorce. She wanted kids; you thought she’d stopped taking the pill just to make it happen, and you said that you’d stopped sleeping with her out of sheer spite. But a man has needs. At least that’s what you told me once, apologetic and drunk, sprawling over the loveseat and me. I was scrunched up in one faded green corner, holding the glass of water I kept forcing on you so you wouldn’t have a head full of cotton when you drove back to your house the next morning.
You were seven years older than me, old enough that you seemed almost exotic but not enough to be creepy. You hadn’t turned thirty yet when we met, but your hair was already a little gray around the temples from the stress of people shooting at you. I suppose it should have made me uncomfortable, that night you started hitting on me at Luther’s, but it was right after the man I’d moved down to Beaufort for had gotten plastered and hit me, twice, and I had left him. I was feeling pretty low and tired of faking smiles, and it was nice, the new attention.
I got used to you so easily.

We fell into such an easy rhythm, you and I, even though we both knew what we were doing was fucked up. I think we needed each other. You needed…well, we both know what you thought you needed. I thought I just needed a good time, some honest flattery. Maybe I was a little cocky about it all; I’d fallen hard and suddenly for someone else before you, and before the man I moved to Beaufort for, and I didn’t think that anyone else could hurt me like Curtis had when we fell apart.
The thing about that relationship had been that I couldn’t stay mad at him – it wasn’t really his fault we didn’t work out. He was five years older and I’d just started at College of Charleston, and we were just in two very different places in our lives then. At least, that’s what he said when we ended. I didn’t think I could blame him for that, but it did mess me up pretty badly. And by the time May rolled around I’d gotten really good at mixing drinks and doing things that got a guy’s motor humming, and not so good at turning papers in on time. One English professor even failed me because he said that, although I knew the material, I didn’t apply myself well enough. Or show up to class, much. So I lost my scholarship and moved in with some friends, took a few classes at the community college. But Curtis had moved on, and a year later I met the guy I ended up moving down here for. Clearly not my best life decision.

I thought that since I’d fallen in love once it wouldn’t happen with anyone else, that I couldn’t get hurt again, at least not like that. I think men smell that self-awareness and read it like a challenge, to make the jaded little cynic care. But you didn’t need me to care about you. You didn’t ask for commitment; you were married. Maybe that was what made me feel safe, sleeping with you, giving you increasingly larger chunks of my time and my life.
There was that weekend when your wife went out of town, about six months after we first met. It was one of the few times you’d stayed at my place for a whole weekend, and I baked banana bread. While I was running water for the dishes I had dirtied, you came up behind me. You put your arms around my shoulders and squeezed for a second or two. No kissing my neck, no sex on the kitchen counter. You just held me.
And that was when I thought, Shit.

– – –

When you finally met my eyes from across my tiny living room, you had the audacity to say, It would have been better that way.
Better? I said. My voice was rising and I knew you hated it when I got shrill, but I didn’t care. You were going to go off and maybe die without so much as an it’s been fun? After all of this? After two years?
You still didn’t look at me. Why do men think the best course of action in the face of a mad woman is silence? Don’t you people get that it makes us even angrier? I could tell your wife, I said, spiteful. I think I just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you. Most of the time you were so stoic, reserved until we got a few shots of whiskey into you. I ought to tell your wife, I said.
And finally you showed something, some emotion, sober. You stood over my curved body on the arm of the loveseat, you grabbed my shoulders and the two hard shakes you gave me tore my arms free of my legs. You think she doesn’t already know? you said. I was glad that you looked angry. You think it hasn’t been clear already, what we’ve been doing? You shook me again, once, and I could feel the tears building up behind my eyes. Their heat surprised me, made me blush, and that made me even angrier.
I’d love to know why I always seem to cry when I get angry – because I was angry, not sad, angry at you for the cowardice of leaving without ending things cleanly, clearly. How dare you try to disappear like that, get on a plane headed towards deserts and terrorists without saying goodbye. The nerve.
And of course as soon as you’d made me cry you backed off. In a way, that was nice, predictable even. I’ve never met a man who got meaner once a woman started to cry. But niceness is probably the worst thing in the world when I’m teetering on the edge of crying. All of a sudden I could feel my face contort the way it does when I’m trying – and failing – to keep myself together and I made that awful sniffling noise, and your hands weren’t gripping my shoulders anymore, but stroking my back as I bled mascara onto your ugly Army shirt.
Shh, you said, like that could help, could make me stop. Shh, it’s okay.
My fist thumped your chest, but it was more playful than angry then, and I was sort of laughing at myself even as I kept on crying. Sometimes I feel as temperamental as the South Carolina fall, wavering one way and then another. A minute ago I wanted to throw something at you. Shut up, I said, that doesn’t help anything. And then I pulled away from you, not because I didn’t want to stay there, held close to you like nothing was wrong with us, but because I wanted to stop crying.
I dragged the back of my hand across my face like I was five years old. You thumbed mascara off my cheek. Not your best look, you said, almost grinning.
No shit, I said. Squinty eyes and red faces never do seem to come in style.
You laughed at that and it got me giggling, too.
Once that happened, I knew it was inevitable. When you’ve been with men as much as I have, there’s a moment you come to recognize when you know they’re going to make a move. I wasn’t naïve enough to think you’d stay, necessarily, but I did know I’d get to sleep with you one more time.

In bed with you after, I buried my face in the hair on your chest, trying to memorize how it tickled my face, how you smelled. You’ll be careful, right? I said. I’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.
You laughed at me and said, I will be.

– – –

The first near-fight you and I had happened a few weeks after the dishwashing incident. I suppose that having the whole weekend with you while your wife was gone had been a little heady. I got all swept up in spending so much time with you. And then the next time we were able to see each other, you were three hours late stopping by on a Saturday afternoon. By the time you let yourself in – you’d quit knocking after two months – I had to be at work in forty-five minutes. I looked up from my peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich and said hi with my mouth full. It was the first time I didn’t meet you at the door.
I didn’t answer when you asked me what was wrong. What was I supposed to say? Oh hey, I’d appreciate it if you showed up on time? Or how about, I think I might want you to leave your wife?
You apologized anyway, believing – I suppose – that I was just irritated you were late. I’ll be here right at 8 o’clock on Thursday, you said. I can spend most of the night.
I remember saying, Good for you. You laughed.

– – –

You showed your attachment to me subtly, in the way you’d twist both pairs of our hands together before you drifted off to sleep even though you couldn’t stand displaying your affection like that during the daytime, or the way that you’d complain if I moved away from you when your skin burned up the sheets. In the time that you held me while I stood over the sink.
Did you know you left that ugly Army shirt behind in my apartment? I found it wedged between the headboard and the mattress of my bed, with mascara streaks still down the chest, and wondered if you wife noticed its disappearance. I mean, you do have half a million of them, and you did have a sweatshirt on that last night, but still. Maybe the mascara stains would have been worse to explain than the disappearing shirt.
And now it’s been a week since the last time that you walked out my door, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye, not really, and that bothers me. I hate it when people leave the ends of relationships hanging open like so much loose thread, but you sneaking out without a goodbye at a little past three in the morning, leaving a note that said We shouldn’t have done that and a fresh pot full of coffee? That took the whole damn cake of awful.

I came on base to watch your plane take off today; I’m friendly with most of the privates who work the gate and bribed Owens with a couple of free drinks next time he’s in the bar. He’s a nice guy, Owens. He let me park my beat-up Durango – which you once said you’d teach me how to fix – in the lot beside the gate. I just wanted to see your plane take off, to see you leave, to make it all seem real. To say goodbye to you, even if it’s only in my head.
I know it’s messed up, I get that. But what do I have to lose? I’ve been wandering around my apartment like some kind of crazy old Miss Havisham – and I hate that reference, I find Dickens boring and stilted – all week. I called in sick to work, even, and I’ve been having these crazy, throbbing headaches because I haven’t made coffee since I poured yours down the drain.
I was not supposed to love you.

My sister called four times since the morning you left; we talk two or three times a week, and I guess she knew something was wrong because I’d been avoiding returning her calls. I haven’t been answering anyone’s calls. But yesterday I heard her voice on the answering machine, just a little strident, and the muffled sound of kids playing in the background. I picked up right as she yelled at Cassie to quiet down and play nice with her friends while Mama’s talking.
Lynn sounded relieved to hear me on the other end, and then concerned by my deadened voice, scratchy from crying. My little sister with her toddler and her boat mechanic husband – what a role reversal now, her acting as if I’m the younger one because I’m single and work owlish hours at a bar. She asked me how you were. I had ended up telling her about us at Christmas a year ago because she kept pestering me about my love life and, since then, you’re the one thing she hasn’t tried to mother me about. I think she’s been living a little vicariously through my misbehavior. You should’ve seen her back in high school. She used to be crazy. When I told her that you and I were over, I started to cry again.
She told me it was time to get over you. Even when I told her last Christmas, it wasn’t like I acted like I cared; I just said that I was sleeping with a Staff Sergeant from the base, and your name, and that you were married. I never said anything about loving you.
By the time we hung up, she’d repeated Move on so many times that it was ringing in my ears.

– – –

A couple weeks before you disappeared for that month, you came over looking even more serious than usual. I already had a teapot nearly boiling on the stove, and I fixed two mugs with chamomile teabags while I asked you what was wrong. You told me to sit down, so I hopped up on the counter.
What is it? I said. Spill. I tried to hook my legs around your torso but you pulled away, pacing all of three steps back and forth in my little kitchen. Calm down, I said. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. After all, we already knew you were being deployed again. I didn’t think it could get much worse than that.
You stopped pacing and looked at me. Remember how we went and played paintball up in Charleston last weekend?
The kettle whistled and I nodded, sliding off the countertop to pour the water. I’m sorry I ended up staying the night there with my sister. Cassie had been sick for a few days; Lynn just needed a night off.
Yeah, no, you were fine. That wasn’t your fault, I didn’t mind, it’s just…I slept with Katelyn that night. You started pacing again, talking faster. You weren’t here and we’d had such a good time, and she was here and you were there…
You trailed off, waiting for me to say something. We did have a good time that day – you were grinning and whooping and carrying on – and I suppose that my staying up in Charleston hadn’t been exactly how you wanted the day to end. Still, I didn’t know what you wanted me to say. I settled for, Jake. You’re married to her, not me. I hopped back on top of the counter and might have held my mug a bit too tightly, but other than that I think I looked pretty calm. You just seemed so upset. I mean, for you.
Finally standing still in front of me, you squeezed my knees. Are you sure? you asked. You seemed so young all of a sudden, like my niece seeking approval for her outfit. I just…it’s the first time that’s happened since way before me and you met. And I feel awful.
Perhaps I should have told you how awful this made me feel, but you already looked so worried. We didn’t have long until you were leaving, heading to the desert for a year, and I didn’t want any of that time to be wrapped up in fighting. So I pulled you closer and pecked your forehead. It’s okay, I said. You’ve got too much guilt rolling around in that big Army head of yours. She’s your wife. It’s not exactly like you’re cheating on me.

– – –

My head turns slowly, following you and your wife as you walk farther away from my car, towards the airstrip and the other soldiers paired-off with their spouses.
You’re really leaving.
It’s so sunny today, too bright for my eyes – which I think may be permanently bloodshot because I haven’t cried since I talked to Lynn yesterday, yet they’re still swollen and red-streaked – and I raise my arm to shield my face because of course I didn’t remember to grab sunglasses before I headed over here. I’m not ready to look away from you, though seeing you with your arm around your wife is about as painful as the time I saw Lynn kissing Shawn Massey, a guy I dated for a while when we were younger, near the Golden Dragon in the food court at the mall.
You’re too far away for me to make out details anymore, but I see that you embrace her, and then you and all the other men in uniform are swept up into a plane I think is entirely too small to be carrying you safely. It rolls down the runway, and then it’s up in the sky and I’m watching this small piece of plastic, glass, and metal barrel through the air.
And then it’s over. You’re gone.

I’m not exactly sure what’s supposed to happen next. But your wife is walking back over here now, and she’s with a small gaggle of crying women, and I’m pretty sure I want to get out of here before they reach this parking lot. The Durango’s engine turns over loudly, but it’s on, and I give Owens a small wave as I drive off the base.

I head to the store, stand in the middle of the row of cleaning supplies at Harris Teeter, and stare at mops. I’m not sure how long I stand there, but it feels like forever. Like it’s some sort of badly scratched record, my mind keeps replaying the scene where your plane disappears off the horizon. Mops, plane, mops, plane. A lanky store clerk who can’t be more than seventeen taps my shoulder and asks, Ma’am, are you okay? I jump at the contact but nod and grab two mops, one with a head that looks like Medusa’s ponytail and another with a flat thing I’ve seen advertised a million times on the television. You’ll need these, the clerk says, handing me a box that sort of looks like baby wipes. He says it’s refills for the flat one.
I check out, try to smile at the boy for being nice and helpful. He looks at me like he’s wondering when my caretaker’s going to show up. After I buy the cleaning things and they’re wrapped bulkily in a brown paper bag, I’m back in my car and a little startled at how loudly my heart’s thudding.
At home I throw the brown paper in the trash and slide the flat mop-thing into the space between the fridge and the countertop. I run a sinkful of warm, soapy water and rub my thumb over the jagged edge of the last piece of my owl mug before I drop it in the trash can. And then I scrub at the tile flooring in front of the pantry with the stringy mop. The thing’s too wet – how do you wring these things out? – and rivulets of water stream out in all directions and I follow them, scrubbing. Soon I’ve mopped the whole apartment.

– – –

Well, if you just read all of this, thanks so much for talking the time! For some reason, it seems like I’ve been experiencing with form lately in my fiction. So let me know what you think!

Potential Beginning??

Hi lovelies! So, it’s that time of year: finals for us college students. I know everyone isn’t in that boat right now but, at the moment I’m drowning in revisions. And I think – I THINK – that this is how What Could Have Been / What Was begins. Thoughts would be SO appreciated!

What Could Have Been / What Was

The living room of Frankie Whitener’s house exploded into silence when Jamie McCann walked through the front door. The music had been quieter than normal 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 thudding bass and raucous cackling of drunken girls as he walked up the rough wooden stairs. His heart beat loudly in his ears, replacing the bass one of the lanky Hull brothers – Jamie never had been able to tell them apart – had 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 over some private joke. When he leaned between their heads, Jamie could make out a slurring introduction: Blake’s brother…accident…respect.

Pushing 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 – Seth walked over to the younger boy. There were nearly a dozen crumpled cans of cheap beer on the table across from where Seth had been sitting and another, uncrumpled, still in his hand. He slung his arm over Jamie’s shoulder and cracked a smile that poured sadness through his teeth. “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 scummy 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 and he felt his eyes begin to water and shook his head, blinking. Frankie clapped Jamie’s shoulder before raising his own shot glass above his head. Seth and Jamie did the same.

“Welcome home, man,” Frankie said. “To Blake.”

The Days You Left (formerly There’s No Such Thing as Safe Sex)

The Days You Left – by me.

You left a week ago.
I had rolled over, into your side, when you shifted and jerked me out of my bleary half-sleep. Two years of this and I still can’t get used to the feeling of being in bed with someone. When you moved, I woke up and briefly saw the red glow of my clock blinking, 3:07 AM. You pushed back my hair the way my mother might have done, kissed my eyelids and my forehead. And then you dressed, pulled on pants and your oversized Army sweatshirt, turning halfway to look back at me once before creeping out the door.
You thought I was still asleep.

– – –

Today you’re about to fly clear across the world to do all the brave things politicians like to say that soldiers do for honor, for love of their country. I’m not so sure that’s how it works. To me it just feels like you’re running away from me, or maybe from your marriage.
I watch the woman who is your wife drive onto the base, watch Private Owens tip his hat at her as your truck comes through the gate. I’m sitting in my parked car, knees pulled up against my chest because it makes me feel like I can hold myself together, with a baseball cap over hair I haven’t washed all week. It took all the effort I had in me just to find a shirt and a mostly clean pair of jeans to put on.
Your wife parks at the furthest end of the small lot, and I know that she does it so that it’ll take that much longer for you to leave, just a couple more seconds of walking. You’re going to have to walk past me. I can’t decide whether or not I want you to notice. You both get out and I see you swing your bag out of the bed of the truck. She’s standing there, brushing at her eyes with one hand – even though I can’t see any tears – and I’m startled by the way that she’s holding onto her softly rounded belly with the other.
You put your arm around her, your newly pregnant wife, but I see you glance at my car as you walk by and I can tell that you recognize it, that you see me. But then you look away.

– – –

The morning after you left, I threw my hand onto your side of the bed before I’d woken up completely. Even then, I knew I hadn’t dreamt you tiptoeing out, but I still hoped it wasn’t real.
You’d left a note stuck on my favorite mug beside the coffeepot, which was unfortunate because it jolted me back into remembering that you were really gone. Until I saw that – your heavy man’s handwriting on my bright purple sticky note – I could pretend it simply hadn’t happened and brush the sleep-dust out of my eyes in peace. But you’d even brewed coffee for me – strong, just how I like it – as if that softened the note that read, We shouldn’t have done that. I threw my mug into the pantry door.
I spent the next half hour sweeping and re-sweeping up the little bits of olive and cream pottery because I never seem to get around to buying a mop and I didn’t want to cut my feet on forgotten shards later. The painted owl part of the mug was still intact and I sat it by the sink. I poured the steaming coffee down the drain.
Even I’m sorry would have been better than that note, that voice of yours sounding in my head like reproach, like you were a parent and not the man I’d been sleeping with for the better part of two years.

– – –

You were right, though: we shouldn’t have slept together again. You came because I begged you to, even though I knew that we were over, though I didn’t exactly know why or how. All I knew was that you hadn’t returned my calls in a month. In that month without hearing from you, without sleeping with you, everything bubbled to the surface, some chaotic blend of anger and indignation and attachment to you boiling my skin from the inside out. But finally you picked up and I hated myself for sounding happy instead of furious, and I asked you sweetly to come over.
You said no, and then I begged.
Please, I said, please, Jake, let’s just talk about this. I need to talk about this.
So you came.

My little apartment grew smaller when you entered it, with your big Army muscles and your dog-tags and your regulation shirt, some odd color between tan and gray.
That’s what I get for living near a military base.
You didn’t hug me like you used to do whenever I opened the door. You used to be glad to see me, swallowing me in a hug and picking me up like I was nothing. But that night you sat in the only chair in my apartment, and I perched on the arm of the loveseat across from you, clutching my knees like a child. I didn’t ask why you hadn’t returned my calls. I’m not sure I really wanted to know.
This isn’t going to work, you said. I’m leaving.
I wanted to batter my fists against your hard, solid chest; I wanted to throw something heavy and unwieldy the way that angry women do in the movies; I wanted to argue that it could work and that we could pick up where we left off when you come home in twelve months. But you had that stupid final look on your face, the look you would get when there’s no changing your mind, like when I would suggest going into town for dinner at DiMaggio’s instead of cooking in my cramped apartment. Not the same look that you had when I appeared at your little house on the base soon after we’d started dating. I didn’t realize, then, that those little houses are reserved for men with spouses, and you opened the door and told me to leave. The look you gave me that day said I’m sorry. That look I could change. This look was hard and cold, the same unreadable look I see on the faces of the young men who guard the base as I drive up, before they realize that I work behind the bar at Luther’s.
So that’s it? I said, trying to get you to meet my eyes. You weren’t going to say goodbye at all? You were just going to leave, get on a plane bound for the middle of Godforsaken nowhere with Al Qaeda shooting at you?
You wouldn’t look at me.

– – –

After I saw you at your house on base, I knew you weren’t going to leave your wife. That was fine with me. Chalk it up to that overworked excuse of girlish daddy issues, a need for something that looks like affection, or maybe even the sometimes-desire for a warm body in bed at night – I don’t care. You and me, it was fun. Meeting you at the bar where I poured drinks for so many Army men, letting you stumble home with me after we closed, your number scrawled on a much older sticky note the morning after…even later, when I knew that you were married, we were fun. There’s adrenaline in that, the rush of being with someone else’s man, like being newly in love every time you walked through my door even though I knew I wasn’t really. But it was like that.
You said that your wife had cheated during your last tour overseas, so your marriage was already rocky, sort of a sham. Neither one of you really wanted to go through a divorce. She wanted kids; you thought she’d stopped taking the pill just to make it happen, and you had stopped sleeping with her out of sheer spite. But a man has needs. At least that’s what you told me once, apologetic and drunk, sprawling over the loveseat and me. I was scrunched up in one faded green corner, holding the glass of water I kept forcing on you so you wouldn’t have a head full of cotton when you went back to your house the next morning.
You were seven years older than me, old enough that you seemed almost exotic but not enough to be creepy. You hadn’t turned thirty yet when we met, but your hair was already a little gray around the temples from the stress of people shooting at you. I suppose it should have made me uncomfortable, that night you started hitting on me at the bar, but it was right after the man I’d moved down to Beaufort for had gotten plastered and hit me, twice, and I had left him. I was feeling pretty low and tired of faking smiles, and it was nice, the new attention.
I got used to you so easily.

We fell into such an easy rhythm, you and I, even though we both knew that us fucking was fucked up. I think we needed each other. You needed…well, we both know what you thought you needed. I thought I just needed a good time, some honest flattery. And somehow, in the middle of all that, it felt like we went from a casual lay into something more like lovers, or friends.
There was that weekend when your wife went out of town, about six months after we first met. It was the first time I’d been in your house, and I was baking brownies. I couldn’t find a wooden spoon to stir the batter with, and I started to make fun of you when you didn’t know what I was talking about. You never had a wooden spoon, not even for stirring sweet tea? I asked. What’s wrong with you? You tapped my hand with a serving spoon and told me to use that instead. I laughed at you and, while stirring, stuck a finger in the batter and left a streak of chocolate on the bridge of your nose. You just sort of stared at me as if you couldn’t make up your mind how to react, then began running water to wash the dishes I had dirtied. And for a moment I imagined brownie batter everywhere and both of us on the floor, leaning up against your Formica cabinets streaked with chocolate goo, sliding our fingers around the edges of the bowl.
That was when I thought, Shit.

– – –

When you finally met my eyes from across my tiny living room, you had the audacity to say, It would have been better that way.
Better? I said. Better? My voice was rising and I knew you hated it when I got shrill, but I couldn’t help it. You were going to go off and maybe die without so such as an it’s been fun? After all of this? After two years?
I looked around for something to throw at you as you stood up. I’ve always been hot-tempered like that, I suppose, and it’s not like I could have fought you. I could tell your wife, I said, spiteful. I think I just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you. You were always so stoic, reserved until we got a few shots of whiskey into you. I ought to tell your wife, I said. I threw that at you, words instead of objects.
And finally you showed something, some emotion, sober. You stood over my curved body on the arm of that loveseat, you grabbed my shoulders and the two hard shakes you gave me tore my arms free of my legs. You think she doesn’t already know? you said. I was glad that you looked angry, in pain. You think it hasn’t been clear already, what we’ve been doing? You shook me again, once, and I could feel the tears building up behind my eyes. They surprised me and made me even angrier.
I’d love to know why I always seem to cry when I get angry – because I was angry, not sad, angry at you for the cowardice of leaving without ending things cleanly, clearly. How dare you try to disappear like that, get on a plane headed towards deserts and terrorists without saying goodbye. How dare you.
And of course because you’d made me cry you backed off at once. In a way, that was nice, predictable even. I’ve never met a man who got meaner once a woman started to cry. All of a sudden I could feel my face heat up and contort the way it does when I’m trying – and failing – to keep myself together and I made that awful sniffling noise, and your hands weren’t on my shoulders anymore, but stroking my back as I bled mascara onto your ugly Army shirt.
Shh, you said, like that could help, could make me stop. Shh, it’s okay.
My fist thumped your chest, but it was more playful than angry then, and I was sort of laughing at myself even as I kept on crying. Sometimes I feel as temperamental as the South Carolina fall, wavering one way and then the other. A minute ago I wanted to throw something at you. Shut up, I said, that doesn’t help anything. And then I pulled away from you, not because I didn’t want to stay there, held close to you like nothing was wrong with us, but because I wanted to stop crying.
I dragged the back of my hand across my face like I was five years old. You thumbed mascara off my cheek. Not your best look, you said, almost grinning.
No shit, I said. Squinty eyes and red faces never do seem to be considered attractive.
You laughed at that and it got me started giggling, too.
Once that happened, I knew it was inevitable. When you’ve been with men as much as I have, there’s a moment you come to recognize when you know they’re going to make a move. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that you’d stay, necessarily, but I did know that I’d get to sleep with you one more time.

In bed with you after, I buried my face in the hair on your chest, trying to memorize how it felt, how you smelled. You’ll be careful, won’t you? I said. Promise you’ll be careful.
You said, Okay.
I remember falling asleep while your hand leafed around in my hair.

– – –

It was dumb to get attached to each other – I’m saying each other because I know you were attached to me, too, in some way. You showed it subtly, in the way you’d twist both pairs of our hands together before you drifted off to sleep even though you couldn’t stand displaying your affection like that during daylight, or the way that you’d complain if I moved away from you when your skin burned up the sheets. It was just too complicated.
And now it’s been a week since the last time that you walked out my door, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye, not really, and that bothers me. I hate it when people leave the ends of relationships hanging open like so much loose thread, but you sneaking out without a goodbye in the middle of the night, leaving a note that said We shouldn’t have done that and a fresh pot full of coffee? That took the whole damn cake of awful.

I came on base to watch your plane take off today; I’m friendly with most of the privates who work the gate and bribed Owens with a couple of free drinks next time he’s in the bar. He’s a nice guy, Owens; he let me park my beat-up Durango – which you once said you’d teach me how to fix – in the lot beside the gate. I just want to see your plane take off, to see you leave, to make it all seem real. To say goodbye to you, even if it’s only in my head.
I know it’s messed up, I get that. But what do I have to lose? I’ve been wandering around my apartment like some kind of crazy old Miss Havisham all week, only I’ve been wearing that ugly Army shirt you left in my apartment, unwashed, with mascara streaks still down the chest. I called in sick to work, even, and I’ve been having these crazy, throbbing headaches because I haven’t made coffee since I poured yours down the drain.
I was not supposed to love you.

My sister called four times since the morning you left; we talk a lot, and I guess she knew something was wrong because I’d been avoiding her calls. I haven’t been answering anyone’s calls. But yesterday I heard her voice on the answering machine, just a little strident, and the muffled sound of kids in the background. I picked up right as she yelled at Cassie to quiet down and play nice with her friends while Mama’s talking.
Lynn sounded relieved to hear me on the other end, and then concerned at my deadened voice, scratchy from crying. My little sister with her toddler and her car mechanic husband – what a role reversal now, her acting as if I’m the younger one because I’m single and work owlish hours at a bar. She asked how you were. I had ended up telling her about us at Christmas a year ago because she kept pestering me about my love life and, since then, you’re the one thing she hasn’t tried to mother me about. I think she’s been living a little vicariously through my misbehavior. You should’ve seen her back in high school: she used to be crazy. When I told her that you and I were over, I started to cry again.
She told me it was time to get over you. By the time we hung up, she’d repeated Move on so many times that it was ringing in my ears.

– – –

The first near-fight you and I had happened a few weeks after the brownie incident. I suppose spending that whole weekend in your house while your wife was gone had been a little heady. I got all swept up in spending so much time with you. And then the next time I saw you, you were three hours late stopping by on Saturday afternoon. By the time you let yourself in – you’d stopped knocking after two months – I had to be at work in forty-five minutes. I looked up from my peanut butter and raspberry jelly sandwich and said hi with my mouth full. It was the first time I didn’t meet you at the door.
I didn’t answer when you asked me what was wrong. What was I supposed to say? Oh hey, I’d appreciate it if you showed up on time? Or how about, I think I might want you to leave your wife?
You apologized anyway, believing – I suppose – that I was just irritated you were late. I’ll be here at 8 o’clock sharp on Thursday, you said. I can spend most of the night.
I remember saying, Good for you. You laughed.

My head turns slowly, following you and your wife as you walk farther away from my car, towards the airstrip and the other paired-off soldiers with their spouses. You’re really leaving.
It’s so sunny today, too bright for my eyes – which I think may be permanently bloodshot because I haven’t cried since I talked to Lynn yesterday, but they’re still swollen and red-streaked – and I raise my arm to shield my face because of course I didn’t remember to grab sunglasses before I headed over here. I’m not ready to look away you, though seeing you with your arm around your wife is about as painful as the time I saw Lynn kissing Shawn Massey, a guy I dated for a while when we were younger, near the Golden Dragon in the food court at the mall.
You’re too far away for me to make out details anymore, and I can see that you embrace her, and then you and all the other men in uniform are swept up into a plane I think is entirely too small to be carrying you safely. The plane rolls down its runway, and then it’s up in the sky and I’m watching this small piece of plastic, glass, and metal barrel through the air.
And then it’s over. You’re gone.

I’m not exactly sure what’s supposed to happen next. But your wife is walking back here now, and she’s with a small gaggle of crying women, and I’m pretty sure I want to get out of here before they reach this parking lot. The Durango’s engine turns over loudly, but it’s on, and I give Owens a small wave as I drive off the base.

I head to the store, stand awkwardly in the middle of the row of cleaning supplies at Harris Teeter, and stare at mops. I’m not sure how long I stand there, but it feels like forever. My mind keeps playing the scene where your plane disappears off the horizon, like it’s a badly scratched record. Mops, plane, mops, plane. A lanky store clerk who can’t be more than seventeen taps my shoulder and asks, Ma’am, are you okay? I jump at the contact, but nod and grab two mops, one with a head that looks like Medusa’s ponytail and another with a flat thing I’ve seen advertised a million times on the television. You’ll need these, the clerk says, handing me a box that sort of looks like baby wipes. He says it’s refills for the flat one.
I check out, try to smile at the boy for being nice and helpful. He looks at me like he’s wondering when my caretaker’s going to show up. After I buy the cleaning things and they’re wrapped bulkily in a brown paper bag, I’m back in my car and a little startled at how loudly my heart’s thudding.
At home I throw the brown paper in the trash. I run a sinkful of warm, soapy water and rub my thumb over the jagged edge of the last piece of my owl mug before I drop it in the trash can. And then I mop the whole apartment.

Welllll…This is revision # who-knows-how-many-but-we’ll-say-two. I’ve pretty much been working on this almost exclusively since workshop yesterday. I did that thing where you cut up your scenes and rearrange them on the floor – that was fun. NOT.  My knee’s still sore since I banged it on a friend’s car two weeks ago.

Anyway…One of the critiques I got in class was that some of the breaks were kind of jarring. I tried to fix that – still a little concerned it might be a bit jumpy. If you’ve been brave enough to read the whole damn thing, let me know if you think it works or not and why. I’m really attached the the way scenes sort of pop up, half-finished, ’cause this character is kind of a bit loony right now. But if it’s confusing or messing with how you perceive the story as a whole, I want to know!

Thanks, all!

***Disclaimer because of confusion on the first draft: this is short fiction. Not nonfiction. Not even loosely-related-to-my-life fiction. (Well, an old boy and I did get into a brownie batter fight in his kitchen once, but he was not married.) But, other than that…not real life.***

You Look So Beautiful & Lost

Isn’t that a lovely line? It’s from the very nice, very talented musician Ron Pope’s song, Beautiful & Lost. Anyway, I was thinking about that song tonight while I read Nineteen Fifty-Five, a short story by Alice Walker (if she sounds familiar, she wrote The Color Purple).

The MC is this African American singer who gets approached by an agent and sells one of her songs to him and his little white musician boy. If I’ve got it right, the boy is basically Elvis Presley, only in the story his name is Traynor. With Traynor singing, the song becomes this huge hit, he becomes hugely famous, but he also develops this relationship with Gracie Mae; she sort of mothers him, I guess, and he’s always trying to please her.

He’s so lost, this Traynor. He doesn’t understand the song he’s singing, the song that’s making him so famous, and his lack of understanding is eating up at him. The fact that his fans don’t know, can’t recognize what he feels is a lack of authenticity on his part, is eating up at him. He buys Gracie Mae and her man all these nice things to try to compensate. The whole story reads so matter-of-fact (it’s sort of SoC in Gracie’s voice) but heartbreaking. He’s so beautiful and lost, this sad musician boy.

He’s always searching. He dies searching, sad, “always asleep” and never really living.

It’s a beautiful story.

There’s No Such Thing as Safe Sex

You left a week ago.

I had rolled over, into your side, when you shifted and jerked me out of my bleary half-sleep. Two years of this and I still can’t get used to the feel of being in bed with someone. Anyway, when you shifted I woke up and briefly saw the red glow of my clock: 3:07 AM, it read. You pushed back my hair the way my mother might have done, kissed my eyelids and my forehead. And then you dressed, pulled on pants and your oversized Army sweatshirt, and you touched my hand lightly before creeping out the door.

You thought I was still asleep.

As I woke up in the morning, curled up towards the wall, I threw my hand onto your side of the bed. You see, I knew I hadn’t been dreaming when you tiptoed out that night, but I hoped that I was.

You’d left a note stuck on my favorite mug beside the coffeepot, which was unfortunate because it jolted me back into remembering that you were really gone. Until I saw the note, your heavy man’s handwriting on my bright purple sticky notes, I could pretend it simply hadn’t happened and brush the sleep-dust out of my eyes in peace. But you’d even brewed coffee for me – strong, just like I like it – as if that softened the words on the note attached to my favorite mug, which read, We shouldn’t have done that. I threw my mug into the pantry door.

I spent the next half hour sweeping and re-sweeping up the little bits of olive and cream pottery because I never seem to get around to buying a mop and I didn’t want to cut my feet on leftover shards later. The painted owl part of the mug was still intact and I sat it by the sink. I poured the steaming coffee down the drain.

Even I’m sorry would have been better than that note, that voice of yours sounding in my head like reproach, like you were a parent and not a lover.

– – –

You were right, though: we shouldn’t have slept together again. You came because I begged you to, even though I knew that we were over. You hadn’t returned my calls in a month. In that month without hearing from you, without sleeping with you, everything bubbled up. Too many emotions. But finally you picked up and I hated myself for sounding happy instead of angry, and I asked you sweetly to come over.

You said no, and then I begged.
Please, I said, please, Jake, just let’s talk about this. I need to talk about this.
So you came.

My little apartment grew smaller when you entered it, with your big Army muscles and your dog-tags and your regulation shirt, some odd color between tan and gray.
That’s what I get for living near a military base.

You didn’t hug me like you used to do whenever I opened the door. You used to be glad to see me, swallowing me in a hug like a bear or picking me up like I was nothing. But that night you sat in the only chair in my apartment, and I perched on the arm of the loveseat across from you, clutching my knees like a child. I didn’t ask why you hadn’t returned my calls. I didn’t need to.

This isn’t going to work, you said. I’m leaving.

I wanted to batter my fists against you, I wanted to throw something, I wanted to argue that it could work and I could be waiting for you when you came home in twelve months. But you had that stupid final look on your face, the look you would get when there’s no changing your mind, like when I would try to get you to rent a chick flick instead of something gory, or when I suggested going into town for dinner instead of always cooking in my cramped apartment. Not the same look that you had when I appeared at your little house on the base soon after we’d started dating, not realizing that those little houses are reserved for men with spouses, and you opened the door and told me to leave. That look said I’m sorry. That look I could change. This look just said you didn’t care.

So that’s it? I said, trying to get you to meet my eyes. You weren’t going to say goodbye at all. You were just going to leave, get on a plane bound for the middle of Godforsaken nowhere with Al Qaida shooting at you.
You wouldn’t look at me.

– – –

After I saw you at your house on base, I knew you weren’t going to leave your wife. That was fine with me. Chalk it up to daddy issues, a need for something that looks like affection, even the desire for a warm body in bed at night – sometimes – I don’t care. You and me, it was fun. Meeting you at the bar where I poured drinks for so many Army men, letting you stumble home with me after we closed, your number scrawled on a much older sticky note the morning after…even later, when I knew that you were married, we were fun. There’s adrenaline in that, the rush of being with someone else’s man, like being newly in love every time you walked in my door even though I knew I wasn’t really. But it was like that.

You said that your wife had cheated during your last tour overseas, so your marriage was already rocky, sort of a sham. Neither one of you really wanted to go through a divorce. She wanted kids; you thought she’d stopped taking the pill just to make it happen, and you wouldn’t out of sheer spite. But a man has needs. At least that’s what you told me once, apologetic, drunk.

You were seven years older than me, old enough that you seemed almost exotic but not enough to be creepy – you hadn’t turned thirty yet, when we met, but your hair was already a little gray from stress, you had told me, the stress of people shooting at you. I suppose it should have made me uncomfortable that night you started hitting on me at the bar, but I didn’t because it was right after the man I’d moved down to Beaufort for had gotten plastered and hit me, twice, and I had left him. I was feeling pretty low and tired of faking smiles, and it was nice, the new attention.
I got used to you so easily.

– – –

You had the audacity to say, It would have been better that way.
Better? I said. Better? My voice was rising and I knew you hated it when I got shrill, but I couldn’t help it. You were going to go off and maybe die without so such as an it’s been fun? After all of this? After two years?

I looked around for something to throw at you as you stood up. I’ve always been hot-tempered like that, I suppose, and it’s not like I could have fought you. I could tell your wife, I said, spiteful. I think I just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you. You were always so stoic and devoid of emotion until we got a few shots of whiskey into you. I ought to tell your wife, I said. I threw that at you, words instead of objects.

And finally you showed something, some emotion, sober. You stood over my curved body on the arm of that loveseat, you grabbed my shoulders and the two hard shakes you gave me tore my arms free of my legs. You think she doesn’t already know? you said. I was glad that you looked angry, in pain. You think it hasn’t been clear already, what we’ve been doing? You shook me again, once, and it tore something else inside me that had been holding back the tears I didn’t know I had, and they made me even angrier.

I’d love to know why I always seem to cry when I get angry – because I was angry, not sad, angry at you for the cowardice of leaving without ending things cleanly, clearly. How dare you disappear like that, get on a plane headed towards deserts and terrorists without saying goodbye. How dare you.

And of course because you’d made me cry you backed off at once. In a way, that was nice, predictable even. I’ve never met a man who gets meaner once a woman starts to cry. And all of a sudden I could feel the ugly streaks of black mascara running down my face and I made that awful sniffling noise and your hands weren’t on my shoulders anymore, but stroking my back as I soaked mascara into your ugly Army shirt.

Shh, you said, like that could help, could make me stop. Shh, it’s okay.

My fist thumped your chest, but it was more playful than angry then, and I was sort of laughing at myself even as I kept on crying. Shut up, I said, That doesn’t help anything. And then I pulled away from you, not because I didn’t want you, but because I wanted to stop crying. I was feeling so many emotions.

I dragged the back of my hand across my face like I was five years old. You thumbed mascara off my cheek. Not your best look, you said, almost grinning, but still beautiful.
And then, of course, it happened.

In bed with you after, I buried my face in the hair on your chest, trying to memorize how it felt, how you smelled. You’ll be careful, won’t you? I said. Promise you’ll be careful.
You said, Okay.
I remember falling asleep while your hand leafed around in my hair.

– – –

We fell into such an easy rhythm, you and I, even though we both knew that us fucking was fucked up. I think we needed each other. You needed…well, we both know what you thought you needed. I thought I just needed a good time, some honest flattery. And somehow, in the midst of all that, we turned into lovers, into friends.

There was this weekend when your wife went out of town, about six months after we first met. It was the first time I’d been in your house, and I was baking brownies. I couldn’t find a wooden spoon to stir the batter with, and I started to make fun of you when you didn’t know what I was talking about. You never had a wooden spoon, not even for stirring sweet tea? I asked. What’s wrong with you? You tapped my hand with a normal serving spoon and told me to use that instead. Then there was brownie batter everywhere and we were both on the floor, leaning up against the Formica cabinets, sliding our fingers around the edges of the bowl.

And that was when I thought, Shit.

It was dumb to get attached to each other – I’m saying each other because I know you were attached to me, too, in some way. It was just too complicated.

And now it’s been a week since the last time that you walked out my door, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye, not really, and that bothers me. I’m bad enough with closure – I hate it when people leave the ends of relationships hanging open like so much loose thread – but you leaving without a goodbye in the middle of the night, and a note that said We shouldn’t have done that? And a fresh pot full of coffee.

So today you’re flying all the way across the world to do all the brave things politicians like to say that soldiers do for honor, for love of their country. But to me it just feels like you’re running away from me, and from your wife.

I came on base to watch your plane take off; I’m friends with most of the privates who work the gate and bribed them with a couple free drinks next time they’re in the bar. And Private Owens – he’s a nice guy, Owens is – let me park my beat-up Durango and hang around the lot beside the gate. I just wanted to see it, to see you leave, to make it all seem real. To say goodbye to you, even if it’s only in my head.

I know it’s messed up, I get that. I’ve been wondering around my apartment like some kind of crazy old Miss Havisham all week. Called in sick to work, even, and I think my fish died of starvation. And I’ve been having crazy, throbbing headaches because I haven’t made coffee since I poured yours down the drain.

I was not supposed to love you.

I watch the woman who is your wife drive onto the base, watch Owens tip his hat at her as your truck comes through the gate. I’m sitting in my parked car, knees pulled up against my chest again because it makes me feel like I can hold myself together, with a baseball cap over hair I haven’t washed all week, wearing that Army shirt you left in my apartment. It still has mascara streaks down the chest.

Your wife parks at the furthest end of the small lot, and you’re going to have to walk past me. I can’t decide whether or not I want you to notice. You both get out and I see you swing your bag out of the bed of the truck. She’s standing there, brushing at her eyes with one hand – even though I can’t see any tears – and holding onto her softly rounded belly with the other.

You put your arm over her shoulder, your newly pregnant wife, but I see you glance at my car as you walk by and I can tell that you recognize it, that you see me. Just a glance, and maybe – maybe – your lips moved half a twitch closer to a smile.

More fiction! More finished fiction, which is really an improvement over the half dozen, half finished short stories I’ve been working on lately.

ALSO…I’m still on the fence about the title. It’s the first time I’ve chosen a title after writing a story and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Let me know what you think.

What Could Have Been (a 3rd draft, yes I know)

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.
I.
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.
II.
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.
III.
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.
IV.
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!