My mother kept a photo of my older brother, Jimmy, on top of the big TV set in the living room. The picture had sun-washed a little in its wooden frame, but Jimmy was still as handsome as ever. He smiled from beneath a dark blue graduation hat and wore his hair short and close around the ears like our dad. He had the most wonderful brown eyes and a set of perfectly lined teeth which were the only pale thing against his paperboy tan. In his hands he held his high school diploma, tied with a red ribbon and across his shoulders was draped a yellow valedictorian sash.
That’s how my mom liked to remember Jimmy, as he was in the photograph. Still. Never changing. But I remember Jimmy looking at me with wide and dark circled eyes. His hair hanging limp and low against the collar of his jacket. I remember him telling me, stay in the car. Shouting it. It made me cry. Then he got out of the car and was swallowed by the blue lights in the rear-view mirror. That’s how I remember Jimmy, walking towards the lights like some Martian coming home; his shadow cut out and black as the light broke through him.
We lived in the poor part of town. Steely Ridge was an old mining settlement nestled under Eagle Mountain, the northernmost part of Cook County, Minnesota. It was the only place I had ever known. My father worked long hours at the lumber yard, so until the late evening it was usually just me, my brother and our mom. Most of my memories from my childhood are of eating supper in front of the TV set and watching old westerns or cop shows. I remember my father had been a big fan of an Alan Ladd movie I can’t quite remember, about a gunman with a sense of morality. I often wonder if he thought he was that kind of man too. My mother didn’t work. Not that she couldn’t, but my dad made enough money at the yard to keep us all steady and he didn’t like the idea of my mom having to take the bus into town ‘with the blacks’. So, she stayed at home.
The night Jimmy woke me up, I was twelve years old. It was a day or two after our dad had the accident at work. A falling piece of wood struck him over the shoulders and blew his arm right out of the socket. A new worker had piled the pieces a little unevenly and our father had seen it as a plot against a good white man’s life.
Jimmy was stood in the dimly lit corridor that led to the stairs and the front door. His hair hung over one side of his face until he brushed it away with his hand. He had an unlit cigarette between his fingers and a blue-feather earing winked from the gap between his curls and the sheepskin collar of his jacket.
“You fuckin’ stink of booze and reefer. What’s with the earing? You a faggot or something?” My dad was sinking a can of Grain Belt Beer.
My mother had pulled her legs up to her chest and was hugging them, a fat tear rolled down her cheek. Jimmy turned his back and went to walk away but my father had already thrown his beer and it had missed the wall and crashed into the frame that held the photograph of Jimmy.
“Don’t you fuckin’ walk away from me.” My dad adjusted his arm in the sling.
“Good shot,” Jimmy said, smiling.
“What’s happened to you? Huh?” My father spat. “When did you stop being yourself? Stop being Jimmy, started being… a faggot?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dad. Maybe the time I sucked my first dick behind the bleachers in tenth grade.”
The room took on a kind of silence I had never experienced before. The blood in my ears was making a low booming sound. I could hear it being pushed around my body from my heart, feel it work around my head like the beat of a war drum. Time hung suspended. My father’s face grew red.
“I want you out the house, tonight,” My dad said.
“Done,” said Jimmy.
“You don’t ever come back here. You hear me?”
Jimmy was already half-way out the front door.
I was woken up in the middle of the night. Jimmy was bent over me and his wet hair ran across my cheeks when he whispered me awake.
“Gus, we gotta go. Pack a bag. Clothes. A jacket. Any pennies you got saved up.”
“Is it raining?” I asked.
“No, I just took a shower- of course, it’s raining, Dumbo. Let’s get a move on.”
I don’t know why I didn’t ask him what was happening or why he had come home to wake me after what had happened earlier. I trusted him. Right then, sat upright in bed, with the streetlights throwing the rain covered shadow of my window across the floor, I didn’t need to know why.
When we got to the car, Jimmy took my bag and threw it in the backseat of the Dodge and motioned for me to get in the passenger seat. It had been a graduation present from our dad, I think he must have paid it off monthly or took extra shifts at the yard. There was a time when he would have done anything for my brother.
Jimmy put the keys in the ignition but didn’t start us just yet. He lifted the handbrake and let us roll down the empty street until we were out of sight. Then he turned the keys and we took off.
About an hour into driving in silence I finally asked the question.
“Where are we going? What about Mom and Dad?”
“We’re taking a trip. A real, long trip.”
“Do Mom and Dad know?”
He didn’t answer me.
“Is this because of what happened? Won’t Mom and Dad worry? Call the police?”
“Probably. But it’ll work out. Trust me.”
“The way Dad got mad at you, what he called you…”
“I don’t hate him, Gus. He’s just scared and old, like the guy in that western he loves so much. What does he say when he leaves?”
“‘No more guns in the valley,’” I said.
“Yeah. It’s kind of like that. Dad likes to think he’s the hero, but they’re both just old men, ya know? The way they think. Their time’s gone.”
There was a short silence.
He looked over to me from the steering wheel and told me straight. “You can count on me, alright? Gus, you can count on me.”
“Alright,” I said and leaned back into the seat and fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up in a truck stop somewhere in North Dakota. The window was down, and a soft wind was stirring my hair. The road outside the window of the Dodge Charger was damp but drying, the morning sun of August was working its way higher and higher over a clear blue sky. Jimmy wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He’d parked us next to some big-rigs that made it feel like I was sat in a Matchbox car. I opened the door and stepped out into the chill morning air. The temperature was already climbing, but in the shade of all the trucks, a cold remained. I walked around the lot a little, seeing if Jimmy was sat down somewhere having a smoke. The truck stop was empty, save for the people eating in the diner. I went inside.
The room was thick with cigarette smoke and truckers of all the same size eating grits with biscuits and gravy. Apart from their caps, they all looked pretty much the same. Tired, overweight and proud of it. A petite waitress who made me turn red with how pretty she was asked me if I was looking for someone.
“Uh, yes. My brother. Sort of tall, long hair and a tan leather jacket?”
“Oh, him. Um, why don’t you take a seat right here, honey. I’ll fetch you some eggs and bacon? Maybe some pancakes?”
“What about my brother? Is he in here?”
I noticed how nervous she had suddenly become.
“He’s just making a call in the back, sweetie. He won’t be long. Now would you like coffee or soda?”
“Soda, please. And no eggs, just bacon, and pancakes. Please.”
“You betcha. Be right back.”
The waitress, whose name tag had said Shirley, glided away behind the counter and disappeared into the kitchen. It wasn’t until after I finished my breakfast and my second soda that Jimmy reappeared. I watched him from the inside of the diner, step down from one of the big rigs right next to our car. He climbed down the stairs of the truck and when he came into the diner he walked straight by me and into the toilet. He emerged five minutes later with a shaved face and brushed teeth. His hair was wet too.
“Just had to freshen up.” He smiled and sat down beside me and put his arm around me.
“You sure can work up an appetite huh, kid?” He picked a scrap of bacon and popped it into his mouth.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Just sorting the route. One of the truckers helped me. Ya know, they know American roads like the back of their hand.”
“Oh,” I said. “Where are we going?”
“San Francisco sound good to you?”
“Doesn’t Dad hate that place?”
“All the better to go, right?” Jimmy smiled.
“What’s in San Francisco?” I asked.
“Beaches, surfing, seafood, amusement parks—”
“An amusement park?”
“One of the best in the country.”
“And we can go?”
“Yeah, we can go.”
“But how we gonna pay for it all, breakfast too? I only have a handful of pennies.”
“Relax, man. I got us.” He pulled out a small roll of bills from the inside of his jacket pocket and left one the table. I caught him looking over to the big truck that I had seen him come out of. Then he saw that I was watching and jerked his head away.
“Come on, don’t wanna wait around, do we?”
Back on the road, Jimmy had put on his sunglasses, a turtle shell brown and orange. We passed a rain rusted sign for Grain Belt Beer and it made me think of what Jimmy said about old men and it not being their time anymore.
Jimmy flicked open the tape deck and put something in. The day was hot and it sent little spirals of heat off the asphalt in front of us. The road ahead was winding and either side was fields of cornland and grazing cattle. I rolled down the window as guitars played, and let the wind run its fingers through my hair. We drove for about six hours. Just shooting the breeze. Who would you rather be stuck in an elevator with, Ed Kemper or Ted Bundy? Who were the most far out, Led Zeppelin or Thin Lizzy? Supper or dessert? We talked until we didn’t want to talk anymore and then we drove in silence, enjoying the shared company and the thrill of the open road. Small and never heard of Midwest towns came and went the same as the trees that flew by the windows. We stopped at a gas station when the sun had gone down, and Jimmy hung outside the bathroom whilst I ate a soggy cheeseburger and read an issue of the Uncanny X-Men. Around midnight Jimmy had made enough money to get us to Wyoming. I knew what he was doing, and he knew I did too. But we never spoke of it. Not once. Even then at twelve, I understood the nature of what he was doing to keep us both afloat.
In Wyoming, I found out that Jimmy had kept a fanny pack of Amyl Nitrite under the passenger seat. “Poppers.” He kept the little capsules rolled up inside a bandana. When I had kicked the bag over by mistake when stepping out the car, he ripped into me bad. Told me I need to watch out more and not be so clumsy. He calmed down a little after that and apologized. Told me he didn’t mean to get mad at me, but that I nearly broke his “medicine.” That it was important that they didn’t break, or else we might not be able to get to San Francisco. I had a vague idea of what it was, its purpose. I had seen him sniffing every so often at the bandana when was stood outside the gas station.
It hurt me in a way I can’t describe to think my father would abandon someone like my brother for the simple fact he was homosexual. There’s a line in a Johnny Cash song that came out in the eighties, about riding shotgun with a hero, running from the law. I remember listening to that after Jimmy’s death. I broke down in tears. It’s a corny song, really, but it struck a chord within me, took me back to the sights and the sounds of that scorching August in ’78. The blood pressure, the weather, the last thing I can remember eating… a hotdog at a liquor store five miles outside of San Francisco, a policeman draping a blanket over my shoulders. The Dodge Charger smoking and filled with bullet holes.
It’s always the past we want to visit, never the future. Sure, people say they want to see what’s ahead of them, but is that really what they want? Or are they just running from the present because what they have always wanted is already gone? These are the things that keep me awake, that made me sit down to write about Jimmy. The ghosts of days gone by. Are we ever free of them?
We spent another day or two on the road, passing one-pump stations and Volkswagens driven by young men with long hair and women who pressed their tan breasts against the windows when they passed. Stopped to fish at a grand lake before we entered Nevada. Jimmy bought us a couple of rods and we sat in some deck chairs with a cold ice tea and a beer. The lake was old. The fish here knew of a time before people, when the basin was pregnant with the first flourishing of life and the rivers had carved their blue course out into the empty land that stood quiet and waiting.
I remember getting a bite, a big one. It took me onto my knees in the shallows and I scraped them on the rocks. Jimmy thought maybe it had been a Mackinaw, maybe more than thirty pounds. Mackinaw doesn’t breed until late October. I came back one winter and caught one with my son.
Jimmy pulled out a little hip flask and dabbed something onto an old t-shirt.
“It’ll sting a little,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Vodka.” He held it to my nose.
We stayed the night, laying on our coats. The Milky Way had unfurled itself clear and white above us like some beautiful scar torn into the night sky. Somewhere out in the black, a coyote called, and a soft wind blew sand out into the water.
“You ever think people figure out who you are before they really even get a chance to know?” I asked. “How people say books can’t be judged by their covers.”
I watched Jimmy sip his beer and think for a minute. And then he said:
“I think we are all like the aperture on a camera. How we act depends on how people see us or understand us. You let a little light in with the camera, it brightens the image. You close off the aperture ring, it makes the image darker. I think we work like that. Human beings, I mean. We can let people see what they want to see. Whether that’s good or bad. Whether they like it or not. If it’s the truth or a lie.”
I didn’t know how to respond. But I think I do now. We dozed. It was warm enough without a blanket, but the minute I drifted off Jimmy must have placed one on me. I woke up with it tucked around me, a little chilly. We set out for Nevada.
Jimmy dressed up well, could have passed as the lead singer from The Doors. Women were drawn to him, couldn’t see past his boyish charm. He used that to his advantage. A few bucks from their purse when they’d go to the bathroom. Pay for a round of Long Island Ice Teas and walk away with forty bucks. He kept us going on the road.
In a morel outside San Fran, he told me he was going to grab some takeout and be right back. Which was half the truth. I stayed in and watched TV. The channels were sparse, but I found something to keep me occupied. Lieutenant Columbo was tracking down a bullfighter that had arranged for a man to be killed. The bullfighter had saved a young boy from being gored earlier in his life. I guess it’s harder to stay a hero.
Jimmy came through the door with a bag of Chinese food and a black eye. Someone had whacked him and stolen his fanny pack. I ran to the old lady who owned the motel and asked if she had any ice for a black eye. She gave me a frozen pack of peas and told me to git.
“You gotta keep it on or it’ll bruise really bad,” I said, holding the frozen peas to his face.
“Yeah, yeah. Eat your rice or it’ll go cold.” Jimmy roughed my hair.
We sat on the bed of the motel room and watched as men on the TV in sweat-stained shirts, with thick mustachios, waited in the sand, and a brown-eyed woman cried for her lover’s safe return.
I had a soda resting between my brown legs that poked from beneath a pair of beige shorts. Somewhere along the stopping and starting of motels and truck-stops, I had gotten quite the tan.
“That’s a paperboy tan,” said Jimmy. “It’ll last all summer.”
“Yeah, waitresses love a tan.” Jimmy winked.
“Hey, watch your language or the Wicked Witch of The West will come out with her flying monkeys.” Jimmy shot a thumb over to the reception where the sour-faced old lady sat. We both cracked up.
I don’t remember falling asleep. I woke up during the night and the alarm clock read two-thirty-eight in the morning. I turned over and could see Jimmy through the window of our room, outside. His Cuban shirt blew out behind him like a cape and in his shadowed hand I could see the ember of a cigarette. A car pulled up and Jimmy lent into the window. He snapped the cigarette to the floor and then got in. The car drove away.
When I woke up again, Jimmy was placing me down on the passenger seat of the Dodge.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Cops givin’ me grief,” he said, nodding to where two police officers leaned against their cruiser.
The motel sat lonely beside the dark highway. Over the road, the fields of corn were purple in the early morning hour. Jimmy walked back over to the officers and I looked out passed the backseats to the rear window. One of them was asking him something and writing on a small pad of paper, looking Jimmy up and down like something was wrong with him. Jimmy stood with his hands on his hips, occasionally running his hair back with his hand. He was nervous. The officer looked up and caught my eye, mouthed something and pointed with his pen towards me. I ducked down behind the seats.
When the door opened, it was Jimmy. Behind him the two officers. One of them made a nod to the bandana hanging from Jimmy’s back pocket and they snorted.
“Gus, these officers just want to look around the car. You wanna hop out?”
“What for?” I asked.
“They just need to look. It won’t take long.” He smiled the same way he had the first night we left. I got out of the car.
Jimmy and I stood with our backs to the highway whilst the two officers searched the trunk and backseats with a flashlight. When the tallest of the two officers got to the passenger seat I heard him take in a breath.
“Well, shit,” he said, smiling and dipped further into the car.
He called over his partner and stood looking at Jimmy with a grin whilst the other officer bent inside. When they both came over to us, the tall officer was fingering his nightstick.
“You know these are illegal to sell to minors?”
“Huh?” said Jimmy and I saw the color drain from his face.
The police officer opened his fist and cradled inside his palm were four bottles of Amyl Nitrite.
“These was under the little fella’s seat.” He looked at his hand and then at me.
“You know what they call these?” The tall officer said to his partner.
“Poppers,” said the other officer.
“Makes me sick.”
“You heard him,” said the officer gesturing to his partner “Illegal to sell to minors. Under the little fella’s seat.”
“They’re mine,” said Jimmy.
“Oh yeah? What they doin’ hidden under his seat then?”
Jimmy side glanced over to me. My stomach sank. Neither of the officers were smiling anymore.
“I must have dropped them,” Jimmy said.
“Is that a fact? Thought these were like gold-dust to you queers?”
The tall officer laughed.
“Listen, I’m sorry,” said Jimmy “I’ll pay a fine if I have—”
“So, you’re admitting it then?”
“No.” said Jimmy. “I mean—what?”
“Why would you pay a fine if you’re not guilty?”
“Yeah,” said the tall officer.
“No, I mean—you guys are just being—”
“What are we being, huh?” said the tall officer.
“You better watch your mouth, honey,” said his partner.
“Jimmy,” I said, and everyone went quiet.
Jimmy looked at me and then looked at the ground. I saw the muscles in his jaw flex and relax.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Huh?” was all the tall officer managed before Jimmy dropped him.
“Get to the car!” Jimmy shouted.
I ran. When I climbed into the passenger seat I looked back. Jimmy was pushing over the other officer. His partner had come to and was on his hands and knees reaching for something. My brother looked back to me and then to the officer and grabbed whatever he had been reaching for.
Jimmy slammed into the driver’s side of the car and got in. We burned rubber backing out the hotel and clipped the wing mirror of the police cruiser on the way out. Jimmy was shaking. He had a vice grip on the wheel. My stomach dropped when I saw the Colt .45 in his lap.
“I thought he was gonna shoot.” His words caught in his throat. “He was reaching for it, and I thought he was gonna shoot.” Hot tears ran down his cheek.
The blue lights of the cruiser emerged on the dark road behind us. Jimmy punched the tape deck in anger and out droned the somber voice of Scott McKenzie.
We sped down the highway, passing a sign that read:
“San Francisco, 5 Miles.”
Jimmy looked at me.
“You stay in the car, okay?”
‘What?’ I said.
“Just stay in the car!”
He brought us to a stop, swerving and putting the front end of the Doge halfway into a ditch.
I began to cry. Jimmy took the pistol by its barrel and closed his eyes. I heard him whisper something to himself, I think he said “Please.” Then he got out of the car and slammed the door. I watched him through the rear-view mirror grow smaller and darker until he was nothing but a shadow, cut out from the blue lights. He stood there. The rhythmic glow of the cruisers illuminated his shape and swallowed it, again and again. He raised the pistol in his hand like an offering. I covered my ears.
When they opened the door of the car one of the officers nearly had a heart attack. The body of the Dodge was riddled with bullet holes. It was like looking down on tiny burned-out campfires. There wasn’t a scratch on me.
They sat me down beside a liquor store a few miles out from the scene. They fed me coffee and a bad tasting hotdog. I had watched the paramedics carry Jimmy’s body on a blanket-covered stretcher into the back of the ambulance. That was the last time I saw my brother until I stood over his grave.
I resented my parents for a long time after that night. I still do, to an extent. I buried them ten years ago and I have a family of my own, but that night still haunts me in the same way that faces of old friends do when you catch yourself listening to a song or smelling a certain smell that brings them hurtling back. The smell of cheap cologne is what does it for me. That smell, and the sound of Scott McKenzie’s voice singing San Francisco over the little drumming of rain.
I went back home for a few years before moving away to college and meeting my wife. My father left pretty soon after. He didn’t come to the funeral, told us he had to stay and fix the guttering. When my mom and I came back in the late evening, the guttering was still broken and we found my dad asleep on the sofa bedside an empty case of beer. The broken photo of Jimmy was on his chest. He never spoke of that night or how we found him. He didn’t speak about his Jimmy before he left, either. I wondered if the idea my father held of himself, this abstract image, something illusory, was more important than anything real he felt inside. I thought about men like him as the last of a dying breed. And then I thought about men like him thinking that way too, so I stopped. Time moves on, as it always has, always will do. I woke up one morning and my dad was gone. No letter, no call. He just took off on a rainy morning in August and never came back. My mother didn’t cry, she just stayed quiet. We had the picture of Jimmy repaired and it sat on top of the TV set until she passed. Now it sits on my desk whenever I sit down to write.
Around the time I heard that my father had died was when I finally tracked down the Dodge. It took me a while, and to be honest, when the officer from San Fran dug up an address of a scrapyard, I was skeptical, to say the least. I chased the trail and although the car wasn’t in the yard, a young fellow working there directed me to his father’s plot of land a few miles away, said that some of the automobiles he got back in the day he held onto, for safekeeping.
I got to the place a little before dark. The sun was low, burning up the sky an angry purple and red like something out of a bad dream. The old man sat in a deckchair on his front porch. I could see him squinting at me as I came up the gravel path, looking down his eyeglasses. He told me I was on private property and if I was trying to sell something, he would sling me onto my keester. I smiled.
“Not selling anything sir, I’m actually looking for a car. Heard you might have it.”
I’d gotten to the first step of the porch steps now. Weeds poked through the flaking white paint and reached up like a thousand desperate hands. He finished his beer, set it under his foot, and crunched the can. Then he leaned back in the dirty seat and studied me. “Them pants are awfully tight, fella. Your back pockets touchin’?”
“Well, what you after, come on now?”
“I’m looking for a Dodge Charger, old model. 78’.”
“Woo-ooh. That’s a mean piece of engineering. I watched that beauty win fourteen NASCAR Grand National races, you know that? Nothin’ could touch it. It was like the sound after a gunshot—you watched it go by in silence, then came the noise.”
I looked out past the house and saw the beginnings of fenders poke through the shrubbery.
“My dad bought it for my brother a long time ago,” I said. “I sort of lost hold of it. Wish I hadn’t, but life was moving fast. I’m sure you understand.” I took my hands out of my pockets and held out a roll of cash.
The old man took another beer from the cooler box beside him. He cracked the brew and knocked it back. I wasn’t even sure if it touched his lips. “She ain’t pretty, can use a lot of work, someone that understands her.”
“I’ll give her to you for $800 and I won’t go no lower no, alright? I ain’t gonna be cheated out a set wheels like that. Especially not by some young buck—”
“Is she back there? Does she still drive?”
The old man looked at me sort of sideways and then he simply said, “Yeah, she still drives.”
I handed him the money and walked to the back of the house. The sun had fallen far behind the trees and when I came back in the Dodge, its glare was falling across one-half of the old man’s face like he was being eaten alive by the light.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded at me and reached down for another beer.
I drove away.
Over the state line, I pulled over and shut off the engine. It was dark, and when I looked up, I could see the stars shooting down white-hot. I followed the Milky Way with my finger like I was tracing an old scar, and when I finally pulled up home, I leaned my head into my hands and cried. I think there was something in what my brother said to me. About people being like a camera, how we see each other. But then again, if the human heart can be initialized like that, into a sentence, maybe we don’t know what’s behind the glass at all.