The words from my mother’s phone call rattled around my head as I opened the door and walked into the bitter Indiana air. “Ivan got fired today, honey,” She said. “I think they’re gunning for your dad next.” With overdue bills to pay and a looming tuition deadline, my priorities were rearranging themselves by the minute. Four years of balancing our finances to afford a private college education teetered us on the edge of bankruptcy three months from my graduation. And all the way in California, my mother still spent nights at the kitchen table reworking the numbers. Money was an issue that was two late notices from burying me, and I had tried my best to be prepared for a call from the dean’s office about my expulsion from the school due to lack of payments. It gave everything a delayed and vaguely underwater-like quality to it. I walked down to the sidewalk, not even noticing the rusted van creeping up beside me.
“Hey boy,” a man shouted, his heartland accent twanging like a broken guitar string. “Does Jason Corn live in that house?” He hid in the shadow of the van, the window only revealing his rumpled brow and five-o’clock shadow.
“Um, no.” I tried to put my head down and walk past the car.
“Does Jason Corn live there?” He said, pointing at my house.
“Nobody named Corn lives here.”
“Oh, so you live there?” He turned to the driver. “Pull the car over.”
The back of my eyes began to tingle, telling me to run. I didn’t. The first man got out of the car and made a brisk walk towards me on uneasy legs. “Hey. Come here, boy. I’m talking to you.” He was a tall, wiry man, and even through his brown Carhartt jacket, I could make out hook elbows and gangly limbs. His razor cheekbones, sunken eyes, and unkempt beard pointed down at me. The top of my head only reached the middle of his chest. His bloodshot stare fixated on me as he liberally scratched the inside of his right forearm, like he was trying to dig up an insect from underneath his skin. The cracked, dry back of his hand wiped over chapped lips. Then the driver got out of the car and began to walk up to my porch. His skin was the color of cheap leather, and had the same manufactured sheen to it, most likely from sweat. The first man scratched the other arm. “I’ll ask again,” he said. “Does Jason Corn live in that house, or has Jason Corn gone through that house lately?”
“I don’t know any Corn kid.”
“You go to Wabash College?” He said.
I didn’t answer.
“I know you guys stick together. I know you would lie for each other too. Even with shit like this.” His breath quickened, and I noticed sweat beading around his hairline and cheekbones. The lack of hygiene evident by the inflamed scratch marks scattered around his face and neck. The man who had been driving peeked through my front window. He tilted his head to look in, his body leaning too far to the right. Stumbling, he caught himself against my mailbox, nearly tearing it from the wall. I wanted to throw them off my porch, but then the first man held out his arm, his index finger poking me in the chest, and I didn’t feel so brave anymore. “Hold on,” he said. “We still gots to discuss somethings. Corn has our money and he said he was here. Take us to him.”
“All right,” the driver said, his facial muscles doing an involuntary twitch. “Let’s go inside. We need to see this kid.”
He turned toward me, grooved and spotted hands fingering his belt loops, a calculating anger creeping its way onto his face. The first man stepped near me, leaning his head forward, dilated pupils scanning my face for fear, both of their bodies less than a foot away from me. They waited on my move.
“I’m telling you guys I don’t know Jason fucking Corn. What does he even look like?” They paused, and looked at each other. Finally, the driver spoke. “Kinda like you.” I took a dry swallow; even my saliva glands were short-circuiting.
I watched the first man’s face. It remained still and blank except for the nose, which flared a little in anger. His eyes were a vibrant blue, almost an aqua. They burrowed through me, as if to try and find a sliver of doubt or apprehension, and pounce on it. The driver moved two steps closer. I was outnumbered, out-muscled.
I returned the first man’s gaze, fighting every impulse to look to the left. Instead, I stared at the crook in the bridge of his nose. To combat the hesitation, I purposely drew out my words an extra syllable. “I. Do. Not. Know. A. Jason. Corn.” And I didn’t, but I had to make sure they believed me.
We locked our stares for three seconds more, and the game was on — the first to blink admitted defeat. I tried to let my mind go blank and stare off into my peripherals. For a moment, I thought of my dad. How would he go about this situation? Would he run? Would he fight? The other man blinked.
“I think this kid is telling the truth,” he said. “That fucker burned us man. Let’s get the fuck out of here.” With some reluctance, the driver made his way off my porch and down the stairs. The edge of desperation melted off them both. Maybe they were starting to come to their senses. Maybe they were embarrassed. They began to talk to me as if we were co-workers leaving the third shift at the local mill. Even through their threats, they began to seem so normal. It warmed me, and then saddened; life wasn’t good or fair for them right now. It may never be.
“I’m sorry about that, man. That guy just burned us, burned us good. Lot of money, lot of drugs. I swear to God. I’m gonna kill him. Do you think you might know where he would have gone?”
“I come home and go to school. That’s about it. I wish I could help though, man.”
“I get that, I get that.” He let out a rattled laugh. “I just really want to beat someone’s brains out over this.”
I knew that for those affected with addiction it’s a constant cycle. It grabs you by the throat and squeezes till the blood vessels behind your eyes split. Even in my college town, Crawfordsville, there are five drug rehab centers for only 16,000 people. Five rehab centers for nine square miles. Most of us often focus exclusively on the inner demons — genes, personality, or character — when it comes to dolling out blame. In doing so we ignore what may be the greatest catalyst for behavioral change: the external pressures or the system that allows such situations.
“Again, I’m sorry about this.” The first man said. He held out a hand. We shook, and I felt cold steel and a rubber handle under my fingertips. He locked eyes with me again, trying his hardest to make sure I was telling the truth. “You sure you haven’t seen him?”
“I swear.” He nodded and let go of my hand. A tremor snaked its way through his shoulders.
Then a stock AT&T ringtone shattered the silence between us. His knotted hands reached into his pocket for the phone. He snapped it open and put the receiver to his blush-red ear. He turned stoic and faced me. I cowered as his cheeks took on a cherry-tomato-like hue. Another detectible tremor worked its way up from his chest. His teeth began grinding, and those blue eyes glared.
“Mother fucker! He says he is in the house right now. Saying we should come in. You lied you little fucker!”
His right hand rose quickly over his head, and I stared at the point of an ice pick — close enough to take my eye out with a snap of the wrist. He gripped the pick with such vigor that the veins in his wrist became taut like a drumhead. The driver came out of the car, reaching for something in his jacket. What else could they have in the van?
“I will send this through your fucking forehead if you don’t take me to him!”
He grabbed me by the collar of my shirt. His skeletal fingers and coarse knuckles scraped into the base of my neck, the other hand waving an ice pick inches from my face, only one quick motion from cracking my skull like a watermelon. I felt my face reddening. I could try and fight him. He was frail, but also on drugs, and I wasn’t sure what sort of advantage that would give him. Even if I did fight him off, I still had the driver to worry about, and there could be anything underneath that jacket, or in the van.
I could throw a punch and beat the first man, but the driver could have a gun. And in seconds I would be lying on my back, bone, shrapnel, and blood pooling in my mouth and on the ground around me. But they seemed just as scared as I was. Could they really be capable of killing someone? They were in as much of a panic, maybe more. So with an ice pick two inches from my nose, I tried my hand at negotiation.
“Okay. Okay.” I said. “Let’s calm down. I have been the only one in that house for the past three hours. If we all relax we can go inside, and I can show you that he hasn’t been in this house.” My voice cracked. “I don’t know how many times I have to fucking tell you.”
Once we got inside they saw all the lights were turned off. The washing machine’s tumble cycle was all we heard. Whatever sense of reason they had was touched, and they realized that I had nothing to hide.
“Shit, this place is dead.” The first man said. “Fuck, we gotta leave.” He hung his head; a burning look swelled in his eyes, and he all but ran out of my house.
“We’re sorry about this son,” the driver said. “If the cops weren’t involved. That be good.” He stepped toward the door and looked right into me, making his intent to intimidate clear. It worked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They won’t be brought into this.”
I walked them to the door. On their way out, the driver slapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry about that, bud.” He smiled, revealing battered teeth and a receding gum line. “Take it easy,” he said.
And then they left.
I walked out of the house again just in time to see them drive off in their rusted van. My heart hammered inside my ribcage, and I began walking; to where, I wasn’t sure. Once I got to campus I saw a friend. He asked how I was doing with such typical Midwestern sincerity.
“Not ok,” I said.
“Why? Why are you not ok?”
Here was my chance; the adrenaline coursing through me was going to make my veins pop. I had to let it out. I had to let out an emotional response. I should have told him I just talked my way out of a closed coffin funeral, but I just wanted to weep. My friend’s eyes narrowed at me. I forced a smile, but my lips trembled.
“I’m fine man,” I said. “Just one of those weeks, with school and all, you know?” I left before he could respond. Then I remembered: I didn’t lock the door. What if they circled around the block? What if one of my roommates ran into them? I sprinted back to my house and wedged myself against the front door, holding my knees to my chest. Sweat dripped off my brow, forming dime-sized ice spots on the wooden deck under the heartbreak of a cold winter sun.
Rural America has always been more complicated than the popular stereotypes suggest. The explosion of drugs like meth and crack in these communities has torn away at the psyche of each and every small town they encounter. And with very little to do, towns like Crawfordsville are seeing adults and teens abuse alcohol and drugs at a higher rate than their urban counterparts.
Towns that were once a picturesque place to raise a family have been taken over by a lifestyle of pills, powders, thirty-packs, and unemployment checks. Those affected with the addiction cast a shadow over peaceful rural life with acts of burglary, assault and murder. My experience wasn’t the last one, either. Two weeks later my roommate walked out of the door to find three men waiting outside our house with switchblades. It has nearly devastated the town of Crawfordsville, but the tightknit communities that amplify the drugs’ effects are also the town’s saving grace against them.
When I returned to my house I told my roommates the day’s events — my eyes glassy, my hands jiggling continuously in my pockets. It didn’t help that they were all drunk or high.
“Man if that were me, I would’ve let them inside and grabbed my bat. Then, skadoosh! They’re done. Woulda been like, ‘All right. Here’s my baseball bat to your face!’”
He mimed an upward baseball swing, his chapped lips pulling backward into a smile, his head tilting to the side as puffy, bloodshot eyes squinted to see how far his swing sent the imaginary baseball.
“It doesn’t sound too bad,” one said.
“You fucking let them in our house?” another said.
“So, we should go to a strip club tonight. You know, do it for the story. Why not, after that?”
“I woulda kicked both their asses.”
“Oh, is that what you would have fucking done?” I said. “I didn’t see your ass out there trying to talk them down. But you wouldn’t have even been doing that, huh? Well, if only I was as brave as you.”
I thought the same way they did once, but that was before an ice pick was brandished in my face. It’s funny: in that moment of potentially becoming a chalk outline, my idealistic view of life vanished. See, it’s not that I didn’t think it would end that way, it’s that I never thought it would end. Science classes taught me that the physical is not destructible; things merely change forms. I was simply made of matter, ever changing, ever moving. And they were, too. A mixture of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that would end up working its way back into the soil at one time or another.
In theory, there wasn’t any reason to fear death. Every human before me had done it, and every human would do it after me. But I didn’t want to die. I had an English paper to write. I had bills to pay. Who would take out the trash if I wasn’t around?
With all of their superfluous, intoxicated comments flying around the room, I wondered what could have happened in front of my house. The man could have snapped his wrist like he was casting a fishing line, and the ice pick would have punctured my eye. My brain would have hemorrhaged, my body fallen on the grainy concrete. At the closed casket funeral people would come out and profess their feelings — undoubtedly amplified by my death. Talking about how I was the good kid in the family, always respectful and the like. Talking about how I wasn’t loved enough, which is true — only because no one is ever loved enough. And then I would be cremated. My ashes spread wherever my brother saw fit: the cove beneath the Pike Place Market we found as kids, or the deserted island in Mexico where we touched a wild dolphin. It was all one snap of the wrist away.
I suppose it’s impossible to know how you will react when facing death. And seldom do you get a second opportunity to prove that sense of bravery that supposedly resides in your bones. I couldn’t stop thinking about how those addicts were just like me, because there is never a them, just a different reflection of us. I saw a flicker of civility in them, if only for a moment.
My high school football coach used to say that we were all one “oh shit” moment away from a never-ending downward spiral, from chasing our own Jason Corn. I couldn’t help but feel that mine was slowly creeping up on me.
Those men didn’t come back that night, but with every creak of the house I got off the couch and looked out the window, like a meerkat who saw something rustle in the grass. I assume brushes with death like this are something you have to get used to in life. That doesn’t mean that the first one is any less unnerving. You don’t forget anything about the first time you face death: the smells, sounds, the minute ticks and nuances. It’s all branded in you for life. That night I slept with the light on after my friends left, feeling like I was seven again. The next day I was in the backyard playing with our dog. She knocked the ball underneath the deck, and as I reached down to get it, I saw a set of footprints. They were foreign to me — not the sole of any of my roommates’ shoes, either. This one was more rural in design. It was the sole of a shoe I didn’t recognize imprinted in the mud.
I went inside, and locked the door.