by Taylor Lewandowski
My mom forced me to listen to Nickelback on repeat. We were on a long drive to cope with another break up. We passed the endless fields of corn husks, the farm house with a busted truck, the crooked barn, the family cemetery, the schoolhouse packed with farming equipment. The usual shit I’ve seen a million times. Her Pontiac Grand Prix smelled like cigarettes, breath mints, sweaty men. She cried and I asked her if she was okay, if she wanted to talk, even though I knew she’d reply, like always, “You wouldn’t understand.”
When we returned home, my boyfriend, Lucas, sent me a text detailing the death of one of our classmates. A boy I barely knew who played trombone. I remembered him playing in the band at a football game. He had ratty, blonde hair and wore oversized shirts and off-brand tennis shoes. He was quiet, aloof.
Mom opened the freezer and grabbed an ice pack for the bruises along her shoulder. She fell upon the couch and continued to chain-smoke and click through TV channels.
I replied to Lucas, “What exactly happened?”
Apparently, it started with the boy’s father firing his shotgun at a garbage truck. A neighbor called 911 and cops shortly followed, cruising into his yard with sirens running. They ordered the father to exit the house. He fired another round through the window; this time it hit the mailbox, exploding in an array of miscellaneous paper. The cops happily unloaded their firearms. After they ran out of ammo, they approached the house and kicked the front door open. Somehow the father was still alive with bullets lodged in his obese body. One of the officers found the son in the kitchen with a screwdriver lodged into his skull.
The father was chained to a hospital bed up north. Everyone wished he was dead. I walked to Lucas’ house, thinking about my own father. I bet he was smoking meth in a small-town named after a country. Maybe Russia, Indiana, or Mexico, Indiana, or China, Indiana. I didn’t give a shit, but it weighed me down till I arrived at Lucas’ house and opened the door and climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
The boy’s name was Colton. And I, like a lot of us, could not stop thinking about him. His name and picture flooded the news. The awkward photo taken sophomore year. I was shocked to find he had a half-brother, Johnny, who stood next to his mother on TV. Johnny didn’t look like his half-brother. He was lanky, starved-looking.
At lunch, I noticed Johnny for the first time sitting alone. I wanted to speak to him, reach out, but I thought he needed space, time.
“Do you think he’s okay?” I asked.
“Probably not,” said Lucas.
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”
“He’ll be fine.”
I didn’t respond, because I knew he was wrong, but I suppressed the impulse to go and speak to him, and asked Lucas instead, picking up our conversation from drive to school, “Who’s you favorite Slipknot member?”
He emphatically pronounced, “Clown.”
I resented him, but kept quiet, because I knew his life was much easier than mine or Johnny’s. His father was a pediatrician and his mother stayed at home attending to every little detail and spoiling Lucas with lavish gifts, like a brand new Ford Mustang. His bedroom was twice the size of my living room. I really thought I loved him and believed our shared Hot Topic attire bound us together.
On Wednesday, Lucas and I took a walk in Paradise Springs—a city park with trails leading to a muddy river. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders and said, “Amy,” and I mumbled, “Lucas,” and we stumbled to our spot underneath the railroad track, watching the shit-stained water flow, and occasionally kissing and holding hands. I laid on the ground and stared at the bridge overhead. Lucas stood up and walked into the brush to take a piss. He said, “You are the offspring of Evil.”
“Huh,” I said, flipping over on my stomach.
I read the spray-paint on the concrete pillar. “You are the offspring of Evil.”
“What does it say below?”
Lucas pushed past the weeds and said, “It’s just a mark that looks like a ‘J’”
“It couldn’t be,” I said.
“I bet Johnny wrote that,” I said.
“I doubt it.”
“Maybe he was trying to communicate something. A warning.”
“I don’t think so,” said Lucas.
“How would you know?” I asked.
“He’s not the type to vandalize. He’s shy, reserved. I had algebra with him last year. He grows his nails out and reads books about mythology.”
“Still,” I said. “You never know what a boy like that might do.”
We walked back into town. I held Lucas’ hand. I kept thinking about the fact I knew no one beyond my mom, my grandma, my grandpa. I remember a counselor in elementary school speaking about the effects of alcohol on a pregnant woman. The stress and compulsion imprinted on the DNA. I kept imagining Johnny sitting alone in the cafeteria. His bony shoulders and bad posture. His jet black hair, pale skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Even when Lucas sent a text that night, “What are thinking about?” I couldn’t help but respond, “I really can’t stop thinking about Johnny.”
The next evening I had to serve at Bob Evans. There was this famous Christian preacher speaking at the auditorium downtown, so, of course, everyone bombarded the restaurant afterwards. Groups of pudgy moms and old men with golf polos and Velcro shoes slowly marched inside.
I sat a four top of moms with Karen haircuts. They couldn’t stop talking about the preacher’s gorgeous suit and his pronouncements against this “liberal country.” They ordered water and a nacho appetizer. As I punched in their order, I noticed the crowd, the whole Bob Evans scene and I was struck by the uniformity. Everyone sat at their table with bad posture. Their stomachs protruded in their baggy clothes. Their eyes held a certain sorrowful emptiness I recognized as nonhuman. Eyes I recognized in the face of my mom when drunk, nearly passed out, a person possessed, speaking in tongues. My manager told me to hurry up. I rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever, Fred.”
When I handed over the nacho appetizer, I was surprised by my disgust, which rose suddenly in my chest. I tried to hold it back, but the aroma of the melted cheese, ground beef, sour cream pushed me over the edge. I dropped the app on their table and preceded to vomit all over. The women screamed and pushed their chairs from the table. I ran through the room. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. I tore off my vomit-stained apron. When I walked into the kitchen, Fred threatened to fire me, even though I knew he wouldn’t. I walked out the back door and followed the highway, past the church and through a neighborhood till I arrived at my house. I didn’t bother to go inside. I sat in the backyard and listened to the dog next door digging a hole under the porch, while the neighbor yelled out the window, “Quit it! Quit it now!”
The school bus picked me up Monday morning. They say these corn fields used to be a tangle of overgrown weeds and gigantic trees. I could not picture my home without these stalks and beans, this flatness.
I sat in my English class and stared off into the distance till the bell rang. I was the first to leave the room, but as I moved through the hallway, weaving through the students, I felt nervous, slightly off. A hand grabbed me; I turned around, startled. It was Lucas.
“I have a surprise,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Just follow me and you’ll see.”
He grabbed my hand and led me into the poorly lit cafeteria. Kids were in lines waiting for prison-like food on paper trays. We skipped the line and entered the main concourse where tables were arranged in parallel rows. He pointed to the corner of the room and said, “We’re going to talk to him.”
I blushed and stepped away.
“Shouldn’t we leave him alone?”
“No,” said Lucas. “We’re going to talk to him. You want to talk to him.”
“Are you jealous?”
“No, I’m not jealous.”
I knew what he was doing. It wasn’t fair, but I’d play his silly game.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go talk to Johnny.”
As we approached him, I noticed his untied shoelaces, baggy jeans, and zip-up hoodie. He was huddled over his food, picking at it.
“Hey,” said Lucas.
Johnny didn’t respond.
“Hey,” said Lucas again, poking him on the shoulder.
Johnny pulled off one earphone and slowly turned his head at Lucas, but averted eye contact.
“I want to know something,” said Lucas.
“This isn’t necessary,” I said.
“You’re just a normal guy like the rest of us, right?”
“What?” he asked.
“There’s nothing different about you.”
I couldn’t believe this. I walked away.
After school, Lucas tried to grab my attention by revving his Mustang and blaring Mudvayne from the stereo. I walked onto the school bus. It was filled with loudmouth kids, but I ignored them and made it to the back with little resistance. I noticed Cindy, who I hadn’t thought about in a long time, staring at me with those desperate eyes. Cindy adored me. She was two grades below me. She mimicked my style, the music I listened to. Everything I did, she did. It honestly freaked me out, but today I decided to sit next to her. She blushed and scooted over so close to the window. She looked out at Lucas in his Mustang.
“Don’t you usually like ride with him after school?”
“Who?” I asked.
“You know, Lucas? Isn’t that like your boyfriend?”
“Oh, I see,” she said, smiling. “You’re breaking up.”
“Something like that.”
“Interesting,” she said.
I looked at Cindy with my full attention. She had a septum piercing and wore a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt. She had these wonderful yellow-green eyes. It had been forever since I rode the bus home. We made our way through town, dropping off kids at the end of small neighborhoods, and drove across the highway, passing McDonalds, a Shell gas station, Ponderosa.
“He’s still following us,” Cindy said.
I looked over my seat and sure enough Lucas was still there.
“God,” I said. “I wish he’d go home.”
I took out my Walkman and put in my headphones. I wanted to block off Lucas, this bus, these people yelling and cheering. Cindy did the same, yanking out her own CD player and ragged headphones. We coasted along, as kids were dropped off. I listened to my mix of Kittie and Slayer and other metal bands. I closed my eyes and envisioned a place where I was floating in darkness. When it was time for Cindy to get off she poked me on the shoulder. I opened my eyes and unhooked my headphones.
“I’ll see you around,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “See ya.”
I scooted over to the window and watched her walk down the long gravel driveway to a house lodged in a clump of trees surrounded by cornfields. Before we continued, Cindy looked back at me with this certain look of such devotion. I would never again ignore her. I noticed the patrol car in her driveway. I forgot her dad was a deputy officer. I couldn’t even imagine.
When I arrived home, mom was smoking cigarettes in front of the TV. She told me about a funny run-in with an old friend at Wal-Mart who used to breed ferrets. She said, “He used to be in this band. They played Mötley Crüe songs and ran around town thinking they were hot stuff.” I smiled and said, “That’s nice,” and went into my bedroom and closed the door. I wanted to sleep for hours, days, maybe decades.
I woke up to a bunch of texts from Lucas. I read a few: “I’m not like that,” “Don’t do this,” “Why are you ignoring me?” “This isn’t fair.” I deleted his messages, stared at my bedroom ceiling. I was antsy, unhinged. I went into the kitchen to fill up a glass of water. Mom was nowhere to be seen. Probably drinking somewhere. So, I decided to take a walk. I needed to get outside. I put on my shoes, swung my coat over my pajamas, and left the house. The neighborhood was dark, silent. I made my way past the gas station and aimed, unconsciously or not, toward the house where Johnny’s brother died. It wasn’t a great neighborhood. There were overdoses, unpredictable scenes, weekly crimes. A tangible scene of the opioid crisis, an outsider might say. No one said much about it, but everyone knew. I didn’t care. One of my teachers said the town began here. The founder chose a name from the Miami language and dutifully banished them from their land.
I felt the cool night wind. The terrible smell of sewer, diesel, and that specific Indiana country musk wafting in from the outskirts. I passed the dilapidated Victorian houses with overgrown bushes and unkept yards. I was the only one on the street; it felt dangerous, unsafe, but I didn’t care. The houses declined in nostalgic value as I walked up the incline of the street. They were no longer neglected treasures from a bygone era, but cheap manufactured single-family homes. A man smoked a cigarette on a porch in the shadows. I stared at the ground and kept walking. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I gripped my phone in my coat pocket. The house was past the next intersection. I could see the missing mailbox—a crooked pole jutting from the ground. I approached the house. The windows were boarded up. Police tape was still wrapped around the porch. I heard the rustle of something nearby and, shocked, stepped back, because I noticed a boy standing next to the house wearing no coat, flipflops, and a Toronto Raptors jersey. I couldn’t’ see his face, but I knew. He was so pale in the darkness. Johnny moved closer to me and said, “Why are you here?”
This couldn’t be. My life. This town. These people. My birth. This body. Johnny moved towards me, asking again, “Why are you here?”
I gripped my phone, about to call Lucas, Mom, anyone. He said, “Don’t be afraid. I don’t mind. I’m only digging a hole. Wanna see?”
I did not respond, but mechanically followed his steps through the busted fence and around a knocked over playground.
“See,” he said, pointing to a small hole in the ground.
I was surprised. It wasn’t very deep. I imagined a cavernous hole, not this picked at clump in the dirt.
“Have a seat,” he said.
He sat down near the hole. I noticed his hands. They were covered in dirt, nails rimmed in black. He leaned over, clutched at the dirt with both hands, brought it to his face, opened his jaw wide, and shoved the clump into his mouth and chewed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He struggled to swallow and replied, “I am eating the dirt.”
He took another handful from the ground.
“We eat the land we desecrate.”
I watched him shove another handful. The dirt around his mouth, crumbles falling from each labored chew. I sat down next to him and brushed the dirt off his jersey. I took off my coat and wrapped it around his shivering body and leaned into the hole and smelled the deep scent of soil and stuck my tongue into the dirt, tasting what Johnny knew.
Taylor Lewandowski lives in Indianapolis, IN. His work has been published in Bookforum, NUVO, Forever Magazine, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and elsewhere. He also edited the photography book, Pathology (Nighted), collecting crime scene photograghs from his grandfather, who was a coroner in northern Indiana.
Image source: Chris Bair/Unsplash