After These Messages
What we were arguing about after Spencer’s funeral—Ramada Inn conference room, cold chicken finger buffet, carpet that felt like tree moss—was which part of the ceremony would have been Spencer’s favorite.
I was kicked back at a table with Spencer’s high school friends, far away from my family, far away from Uncle Ron and his stiff upper lip. I was already contemplating when I would punch Uncle Ron in his full-moon face.
“Spencer wouldn’t have gone for any of it,” said a kid wearing a leather jacket over his crumpled dress shirt. I could tell from the knot of his tie that someone had cinched it beforehand and draped it, like a medal, over his head.
“No, man,” said Bobby, tapping me on the knee. “He’d have liked what you did, Witt. That story you told about the bikes.”
Somehow Bobby didn’t remember the part I left out, the part where Bobby almost killed Spencer and me and turned our bikes into modern art.
Actually, I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to Bobby Igzonski, the dude who used to beat me up every day after third grade. The dude who used to bring his lunch to school in a gator skin bowling ball bag. I couldn’t believe he’d become Spencer’s friend. But, then again, I couldn’t believe Spencer was dead.
“Yeah, that shit was funny,” said leather jacket kid. “But what about that song about eagles’ wings? Fucking weird. Spencer would have barfed.”
I peered around the table, took in these teenage disasters radiating disordered energy like those cartoon characters surrounded by lines to indicate cosmic strength or something. Clobbering time? Whatever it was, these were not my people. And I had a hard time imagining them as Spencer’s. Three years I’d been in college, and Spencer had fallen off the rails.
I knew which part Spencer would have hated the most, same as me. It was when god-damn Uncle Ron walked up to that casket with that god-damn triangle-folded flag. Spencer wasn’t in the military. He was in fucking military school. If I’d been in a made-for-TV movie, the kind Spencer and I used to mock relentlessly from the floor of my den, I’d have leapt to the front of the church, grabbed Uncle Ron by his too-wide lapels and shoved him into the flower displays. Maybe spat something about how Spencer wasn’t a soldier. Spencer was his son.
Sarah, my girlfriend, raised a hand at me from a distant table. Beside her, my mom was talking to some teacher-looking guy in a cheap suit and touching Sarah’s hair. Sarah, I could tell, was a little freaked out. I leaned forward, let the chair legs slam into the thin carpet.
“Excuse me,” I said, knocking Bobby’s leg a little as I turned to leave.
“Yo, Witt,” he said. “Really sorry, man. Sucks, I know. Spencer was …” I could see him flipping rocks in his head, trying to pin down the words that never came.
“Yeah. We’re getting wasted later, if you want to hang out.”
I accepted his awkward upside-down high-five handshake as I slipped past to rescue Sarah from my mom’s ADD fingers. She had problems. For real.
“Sweetie,” Mom said, squeezing my hand. Why did everyone want to touch me these days? “You got some lunch?” Her face was locked in the same sad expression she’d basically worn since my dad moved to Utah when I was eight. She looked like a dinner plate that had been scraped clean but not yet washed.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding to Sarah. “We’re going to get some air.”
Outside, Sarah rubbed my back while we sat on the curb. She was a year older than me, already had a PR job lined up in New York after graduation. She didn’t have to be here.
My hand was in my coat pocket unfolding the scrap of paper I’d torn from the bulletin at the service. With the stubby pencil sticking out of the hymnal I’d written “Spencer’s dead.” I could hear a TV playing from an open window on the first floor, some auto dealer ad featuring an overeager madman whose last name would be affixed to any vehicle he sold. I wrapped an arm around Sarah and imagined the Energizer Bunny (one of the nicknames I’d given my cousin long ago) circling us on the sidewalk, and then, finally, grinding to a halt, batteries drained, drumsticks frozen in mid-strike.
* * *
When we were kids, Spencer and I spent most of our time lying in front of 24-inch Magnavox in his den or the 27-inch RCA console in mine. I was an only child, and my mom, the nurse, was always at the hospital, so Spencer and I were free to drink as much Kool-Aid and watch as much TV as we liked. Aunt Karol didn’t care either. She was always on the porch swing knitting stupid hats for her grown-up kids.
Spencer and I tuned into everything from Inspector Gadget to Saved by the Bell, but what we lived for were the commercials, never flipping channels during the breaks. Our favorites were the ongoing campaigns with regular characters or pitchmen. They were like episodes of an epic miniseries featuring the Jolly Green Giant, Ronald McDonald, even pathetic Mr. Whipple wagging his finger at the ladies who couldn’t keep their hands off the toilet paper.
“You catch the latest Pillsbury ad?” Spencer would ask as we rode the bus to Longfellow Elementary. “Dough Boy helps the kids bake cookies for their mom.”
“’Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven’” I’d say. “Tickle-poke at the end?”
It wasn’t that we thought these commercials were jokes. We just got jazzed by the little worlds they created. They made us feel safe. Everyone in the ads was always so happy.
* * *
Sarah picked up my suit-coat from where I’d dropped it in the front hall and draped it over the recliner. I needed a break from all the tissues and the self-conscious chuckling of the luncheon. I needed a break from the ghosts. All I really wanted to do was bound up the stairs to my old bedroom and look at baseball cards.
“You want to go over to that thing at Spencer’s house or …?” Sarah said. “I guess this place is empty. Finally.” She gave me her coy look, the one that said we could have these clothes off in two minutes.
I shrugged away from her reaching hands and pressed my fists to my temples. For five days, ever since I got the call about Spencer, there’d been a small bird in my throat, clawing and clawing but never managing to escape. In between sobs, my mom had told me about the field training exercise miles from campus, the hornet sting, the allergic reaction, Spencer’s swollen trachea. According to the medical reports, he started gasping. His group leader called for an emergency rescue crew, but Spencer couldn’t breathe. He was dead before the EMTs arrived. The school classified his death as an “anomalous circumstances.” I don’t like how that sounds. It reminds me of Uncle Ron referring to Spencer’s entire existence as a “mistake.”
What bothered me most was how they explained it all so matter-of-factly: Cadet Joseph Everett Welles Sullivan died at 15:47 on October 12. They didn’t even know enough to call him Spencer.
I fell back on the couch, the one on which Spencer and I had enacted countless Wrestlemania moves, and Sarah slid next to me, her body still. What I needed her to understand—what she should have understood, even though I couldn’t say the words myself—is that I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the whole fucking fiasco. Not, of course, for the random hornet sting, but for the spiral that led Spencer to that ridiculous school, for my silence during all the years of Uncle Ron’s pinches and digs, his ugliness, and, yes, his fists.
“He was loved,” Sarah said, sounding too much like a greeting card. “I didn’t know him much, but I loved him, too.” Sarah, bless her heart, was trying, but we were 21. What the fuck did we know about anything? Spencer, looking in on this scene, would have told us to cut the sentimental crap. I stared at the pulse in Sarah’s neck and wondered, for the millionth time why I didn’t do anything at all to save him.
* * *
We called him Spencer because he had a speech impediment.
“Chif,” three-year-old Spencer would say when he pointed at an aquarium.
“No, sweetie, it’s a fish.” Aunt Karol—his mom—would stroke his hair and smile.
One Christmas she dressed him in the ridiculous bow tie and suspender outfit that you see on little kids in the advertisements for the K-Mart photo studio. Spender waddled around all day showing off his new clothes.
“I got a tie on,” he told my mom. “A bowed tie. And spencers.” He confidently snapped his new suspenders. “I’m three.”
I was a completely unimpressed kindergartener so I poked him in the eye. The grown-ups laughed and yanked me away, but, following a full day of the kid running around yelling “spencers, spencers, spencers!” the nickname stuck.
Besides, his real name gave him trouble: Joseph Everett Welles Sullivan—a mouthful even for a kid who can enunciate like an opera star. Most of the adults in our family (except Uncle Ron) thought his mixed-up tongue was adorable, but then he had to spend half of first grade in the speech therapist’s office. It took him six months just to learn how to pronounce her torturous name: Miss Throckmorton.
I was a fourth-grader then, just happy to make it through a bus ride without getting my face slapped by Bobby Igzonski, so I always looked the other way when the older boys made fun of my cousin’s inability to say “rubber baby buggy bumpers.” I gazed out the window or made faces at girls whenever Spencer was getting slugged in the head.
Before Spencer started school, I’d been Bobby’s daily punching bag. I’d be riding my Huffy over to Spencer’s for afternoon cartoons and Bobby would appear out of nowhere to block my path.
“Get off the bike, weinerboy,” he’d say in a voice that reminded me of Mr. T.
“Okay,” I’d say, stupidly, and climb off. Then the beating would begin.
Bobby liked to focus his punches on my mid-section. “If I hit you in the stomach enough times,” he assured me, “you could die.”
One day, after my knees had been bloodied following an encounter with Bobby, Aunt Karol took me into the bathroom for peroxide and Band-Aids. When she went to fetch some cotton balls, I noticed the door across the hallway was ajar. Uncle Ron’s study. The Kane Room. I’d been told never to enter.
Uncle Ron still has this office full of memorabilia from his favorite movie, Citizen Kane: posters, books, photographs, and, for some reason, a baseball signed by filmmaker Orson Welles.
“He’s obsessed,” my mom told me once when I was in middle school.
“No, duh,” I said, by that time aware of the weird origins of my cousins’ names. Susan Alexander was the oldest, born a full two decades before Spencer. The boys, Charles Foster and Jedediah Leland, were sixteen and fourteen years older than Spencer.
“Just be thankful Spencer isn’t named Sloane,” my mom said.
“Or Rosebud,” I said grabbing a Capri-Sun from the fridge.
But that day of the scraped knees, I didn’t yet know what was beyond the forbidden door, so I hopped from the toilet seat and peeked in. On a shelf to the right was a row of snow globes, one of which I picked up and started shaking. That’s when Uncle Ron’s voice barked from behind and I dropped the bauble and watched it shatter into a million glittery pieces on the wooden floor.
Uncle Ron charged at me and I had to hop into the office, crunching some broken glass, my shoes covered in shiny white flakes. He had my arm and I was sure he would smack me like I’d seen him smack Spencer. His face was sunset red as he pulled me up toward his clenched teeth.
I said I was sorry, my toes nearly off the floor.
He squeezed my bicep, no bigger, really, than a garden hose, and spun me around. That’s when both of us saw five-year-old Spencer standing in the doorway. He was looking at us the way you’d look at one of those boring shampoo commercials. He didn’t say anything, just kind of squinted his eyes, his attention more on Uncle Ron than on me.
Uncle Ron released me and I stumbled to the door. He told me to stay out of his space. He told me I’d broken something that couldn’t be replaced. Then the door slammed.
“Wanna watch Batman?” Spencer said, heading down the hallway.
I rubbed my arm, stomped glitter from my feet, and followed him to the den.
* * *
My phone rang from inside my coat and I leaned over to fish it out. Sarah grabbed the striped blanket from the armrest and sank back into the couch. “Uncle Ron,” I said, looking at the screen. “What an asshole.”
“His son just died,” Sarah said, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.
I pressed the button and said hello.
Uncle Ron informed me, in his chirpy little voice, that my mom wasn’t doing too well, that she wanted me to come over for the gathering. Just family, he said. “But you can bring that girl.”
“Sarah,” I told him, and she lifted her head from the cushion.
“She can come.” I could hear Uncle Ron breathing through his nose. “And … I wanted to thank you for speaking today, Witt. You were good. Spencer would have … He looked up to you.”
“Yeah,” I said, itching to hang up, not wanting to hear any of Uncle Ron’s gratitude. “We’ll be there.” Uncle Ron dropped the call without saying goodbye. I’d bottled up my confusion and anger about Uncle Ron for long enough, and now Spencer was dead. The next time I saw him, Uncle Ron was going to get cracked in the nose.
“Are we going?” Sarah said.
“In a minute.” I wasn’t yet ready to face the haunted house five minutes away.
“Maybe it would help if you talked more about Spencer,” Sarah said, pulling me under the blanket. “You know, like that bike story.”
I thought of all that I could say about the freckle-faced monkey who’d been my best friend growing up. How he’d been able to make me laugh just by the way he pronounced Oklahoma. How he’d been fired from his summer job at the mini-golf for stealing Whatchamacallits from the vending machine. How, for years, he’d been the perfect example of the physical law that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. As a kid, he would roam the house throwing imaginary curveballs to invisible batters just to keep his arms busy. “Stee-rike three,” he’d say as he snapped his arm down while strolling through the kitchen. Even when we were watching TV, he would be shuffling cards, spinning a Rubik’s cube, bouncing a Nerf ball off the wall.
I decided to tell Sarah about the time we broke the coffee table while violating Uncle Ron’s strict policy of “No Horseplay In The House.” I started with the funny stuff: Spencer’s Bill Cosby impersonation, his penchant for phony neck-chokes and sleeper-holds, his triumphant somersault over the couch. But eventually there we were, staring at the coffee table’s splintered leg and holding our breath, drowning in the silence of children who know they have done something wrong.
We heard Uncle Ron coming through the kitchen, his heavy breath reminiscent of Darth Vader’s. He was not a big man, not a beast. Just a man unafraid of violence, a simple machine, like a vise, or a wench, so easy to turn, but powerful enough to lift a car. You’d not have thought him capable of throwing punches—I mean, he wore glasses—but all you had to do was catch Spencer on one of the rare occasions when he went swimming without a t-shirt and you’d see the evidence of Uncle Ron’s anger spelled out in purplish roses across Spencer’s chest, between his shoulder blades, under his ribs. Spencer, of course, never admitted to me—or, as far as I can tell, anyone—that he was abused. He’d blame the bruises on falls from trees, inside fastballs. Whenever he could tell I was about to call bullshit, he’d bounce his Nerf ball off my face and crack some joke he knew I’d get: “Takes a licking, keeps on ticking.” Then he’d wrestle me to the ground until we both started laughing.
What was I going to do? I was a kid. I was used to TV shows, to games. I was good at playing Charades. Nothing, not even the beatings I knew were taking place behind closed doors, was real.
The day of the coffee table, Uncle Ron calmly told Spencer to go to his room, and Spencer complied moving carefully as if he was avoiding landmines. Uncle Ron waited until Spencer passed him in the hallway, then he told me to go home. As I let myself out, I looked up the staircase where Spencer and Uncle Ron had disappeared.
In the driveway, I straddled my bike and stared at the open second-floor window. “He’s getting grounded,” I told myself. “That’s all.” As I started pedaling away, I heard a thud, like someone dropping a heavy book. After circling the block five times—each time coasting quietly past Spencer’s house and gazing up at the silent window—I decided to go home.
When I got there, I raced to the phone. On the seventh ring, Spencer answered, and I hung up.
* * *
For a while, Sarah didn’t say anything. Then she shrugged off the blanket. “That was not a happy story,” she said. “That … you never … he used to hit him? Like, hit him?”
Now it was my turn to shrug. This was not a court of law, the evidence no longer relevant, the charges no longer clear. Spencer was gone. Did any of this matter?
“Maybe just forget it,” I said. “We should go.”
Sarah’s sister had a baby last year, a girl named Chloe. We drove up to Massachusetts for the big events: first week home from the hospital, Christmas, baptism. I have to admit the kid is cute. Blue eyes, blonde hair, spoiled rotten. She’s the first grandchild in the family, so she gets more attention than the starting quarterback at the Super Bowl.
When we went up for Chloe’s first birthday, she had fifteen cameras stuck in her face all day long. She sat on the floor and all the adults gathered in a circle waiting for her to make a noise or point to something or fall over. She was born first. She is lucky.
Spencer was born last. Not so lucky, I think, to be last. Aunt Karol called him “The Surprise Child.” Uncle Ron called him “The Mistake.” Sometimes he said it like a joke, but often he said it because he was angry at Spencer for doing something “idiotic” like melting G.I. Joe action figures in the toaster oven. He’d kick the toy trucks out of his way and yell, “Holy Christ, you have got to be the worst mistake I ever made.”
When I looked at Sarah holding Chloe in her lap and making fish faces or monkey noises, I had a hard time imagining that anyone would ever refer to this child as anything but a blessing. But Chloe hadn’t broken the coffee table yet. She hadn’t lost her bicycle.
When we got home from the birthday party, Sarah climbed on me and said she wanted to have seventeen babies.
“The world already has enough,” I said, and Sarah punched me in the arm.
“Can’t you ever just let me say my dreams out loud without making me feel stupid?” After a minute of silence, she said, “They’re just dreams.”
I wanted to apologize, but I didn’t. I never had the courage to say anything when Spencer was getting knocked around, so what kind of father would I be? I wanted to tell her I was afraid. But instead, I played a more familiar role: I kept my mouth shut and looked away.
* * *
On the drive to Spencer’s, Sarah leaned her head into my shoulder. How long was she going to put up with me? How could we survive her move to New York, her new paychecks, her new life, while I was still hanging around at frat parties, doing problem sets, playing football every Saturday. Why couldn’t I just tell Sarah that I’d been starting to look more closely when she dragged me past all the diamond-ring cases at the mall?
Sarah pointed out the windshield at two kids on bikes, one of them standing on the pedals hollering at the trees. “Like you,” she said, but I was already ahead of her. The one in the front, the one on his feet, wasn’t me. It was Spencer. I was the kid behind him, the one following his lead. It had always been that way.
At the funeral, I’d told the story of having my first beer with Spencer when I was eleven. We were exploring the woods behind our neighborhood. By an unwritten rule, the older kids—middle-schoolers, mostly, the ones with mopeds and BB guns—owned everything: the forts, the bike paths, the crabapple trees. “You listen,” Uncle Ron once said while pointing a knobby finger. “Stay out of those woods. The only people who go in there are boozers and grits.”
So that day Spencer and I straddled our bikes at the top of the hill and peered down into the land of boozers and grits.
“They don’t shoot real BBs, do they?” I said.
Spencer shrugged, and I pushed my bike onto the dirt path and headed downhill, pedaling furiously.
Spencer came shooting past, crowing.
Though I was three grades ahead, Spencer had almost caught me in height. And we both knew he was the toughest second-grader in town. I followed him deep into the trees, on worn grass trails, across sagging two-by-fours that spanned muddy creeks, past a grove littered with rotting apples. Both of us were fizzing with adrenaline.
Ahead of me, Spencer slowed, and I had to drag my feet in order to keep from slamming into his back tire.
“Holy shit,” Spencer said, skidding to a stop.
We stared at what we would later describe to our friends as the coolest tree fort in the world. It was in the middle of a dusty clearing that had all the markings of a big-kid hangout: scattered cigarette butts, crunched Budweiser cans, a fire pit full of ashes and broken glass, moped tracks everywhere.
The fort was wedged between three trees and stood fifteen feet off the ground. It was enclosed on four sides and had windows and a roof, like a giant birdhouse. Boards were nailed to the trunk of one of the trees leading up through the bottom of the fort.
Wordlessly, we leaned our bikes against a log and climbed.
The floor was covered with empty beer cans, the walls with graffiti. “KISS Rules!!” and “Life’s a bitch and then you die” and “Freedom of Choice: Legalize It.” Hieroglyphic sketches of boobs, devils, and what I would later recognize as marijuana leaves. I noticed a pentagram surrounding the words “B. I. was here.”
We had found Igzonski’s Fort, the El Dorado of playground lore. I knew we should leave immediately, but Spencer said, “Whoa! Look at this.” He was standing in the corner, peering into a red Igloo cooler where five silver cans floated in a shallow pool of water.
“It’s beer,” I said. I’d never tasted the stuff. All I knew was that the cans were shiny and that beer commercials made Spencer laugh.
Spencer dipped his hand into the water and picked out two cans. He handed one to me and smiled, cool as ever. I’d have smiled, too, if I hadn’t been so terrified. I opened my can and foam bubbled from the top. It tasted awful, worse than the root beer-Orange Crush-milk-Pepsi-lemon juice Suicide I’d been dared to drink at a birthday sleepover. I looked at Spencer who’d just taken a huge gulp. He was still smiling.
“Tastes good,” I said. “Right?”
Spencer smacked his lips and made the “Ahhh” sound from the 7-Up commercials. Then he chugged the rest and reached for a second can.
“Down the hatch,” I said, something I’d heard on a sit-com.
I squeezed my eyes shut and put the can to my lips, determined to like it. Determined not to let my eight-year-old cousin make me look like a wimp.
And then I heard the mopeds.
I choked and grabbed Spencer’s arm. The buzzing of the engines was getting louder. “They’re coming,” I said, like we were under some kind of alien attack.
We dropped our cans and scrambled down the ladder, our skin scraping and jeans ripping on the rusty nails. I was pretty sure we were going to die. The mopeds roared into the clearing just as Spencer and I were frantically pedaling away.
“What the fuck, you little fuckers!” a voice yelled.
I risked a glance over my shoulder and saw that the mopeds were idling in the clearing. Maybe they weren’t going to chase us. Then another voice: “They drank our fucking beer!” The engines revved.
We had a head start but no real chance of outrunning mopeds. Ahead of me, Spencer hopped from his still-moving bike and stumbled off the path. Panicked, I did the same. We crashed through bushes heading toward the farm field a dozen yards off the path. I didn’t know what kind of leafy crop was growing there, but the plants were big enough to hide two scrawny bodies. We crawled deep into the field and pressed ourselves into the dirt.
By this time, the mopeds had reached our abandoned bikes.
“Okay, you little freaks, keep on running.” It was Bobby. The devil himself. Head Grit. Chief Boozer.
“We got your bikes, you pricks.” I didn’t recognize the second voice; the crackly noises that come from either pubescent boys or awkwardly husky girls.
“We’re gonna smash ‘em,” Bobby yelled. He laughed his hyena laugh, the kind of sound that is guaranteed to get a kid a lifetime supply of Ritalin nowadays.
There was a loud metallic crash and a scraping sound like a rake being dragged across a driveway. I imagined Bobby lifting my bike over his head and spiking it to the ground like a football. I imagined him popping the spokes off the wheel rims with a tree branch. I imagined him gnawing the rubber tires and foaming at the mouth.
Finally Bobby yelled, “Here’s your bikes, babies. Now stay the fuck out of our shit.” Then he spit several times. His sidekick was giggling. The mopeds sputtered to life then buzzed into the distance.
On the long walk home, Spencer and I talked about the latest Alka-Seltzer commercial—plop, plop, fizz, fizz—and thought of lies. We couldn’t reveal that we’d left the twisted remains of our bikes in the farm field. Spencer came up with the best story: our bikes got stolen outside Danny’s Dugout, the baseball card shop downtown. We were only in there for five minutes so we hadn’t bothered to chain the bikes to the lamppost. I worried that this story might mean we’d have to talk to the cops, but Spencer just shrugged. With the self-assurance of a convict, he looked me in the eye and said, “Lying to cops is easy.”
We knew we’d still get in trouble for “losing” our bikes, but we figured anything was better than telling Uncle Ron we’d been drinking beer in the land of boozers and grits.
As we dragged our feet through the neighborhood, Spencer looked at me and squinted his eyebrows in a perfect imitation of Bobby Igzonski. “You mother-butt-licking-ass-face-douche-bag-fucks better hope I never catch you ‘cause I’ll take you apart just like your shitty-ball-sucking baby-bikes.”
I lost it. We spent the next fifteen minutes trading Igzonski insults, trying to top each other with creative curse combinations. By the time we got to my house, I’d nearly forgotten that my bike had been destroyed beyond recognition and was now abandoned in a field.
Amazingly I didn’t crack when I had to answer Officer Turner’s questions, and even more amazingly, my mom felt that losing my bike was punishment enough so I got away without so much as a grounding. I just had to walk everywhere for the rest of the summer.
Spencer wasn’t so lucky. He got grounded for a month, and when I went over to his house a few days after our adventure, the skin around his bicep was a weird color, and for the first time in months, he was wearing his bangs straight down his forehead, almost over his eyes. I looked at him funny but, predictably, said nothing.
I replayed this moment there in the car with Sarah, her hand atop mine, my eyes trailing the bicycling boys as they disappeared around the corner. What could I have said? What good could I have done? Why didn’t I grab Spencer and tell him I knew what was happening, that it was definitely not okay? I might not have saved his life. Hell, a hornet could have stung him anywhere. But if I’d offered some repair, or, at least, some small sign that I gave a shit, maybe things would have been different. Maybe Spencer would have summoned enough of his own courage to speak up. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt so alone. Maybe he wouldn’t have started smoking pot as soon as I drifted off to college, seven hours away. Maybe he wouldn’t have linked up with Bobby and his boys. In my imagination, I can go back and say what needed to be said. I don’t know how Spencer would have reacted—collapsed into my arms? twisted my nipple?—but in my imagination, his reaction doesn’t really matter. It’s mine that makes me cry.
* * *
The last time I saw Spencer was eights months ago, right before I headed to school for pre-season football conditioning in July. He’d just finished junior year. My mom had called around Thanksgiving, told me that Spencer was getting into trouble, but I was a college kid. I thought she was exaggerating. When she said “trouble,” I assumed she meant the good kind. Later I found out about the suspensions, the dealing, the girlfriend’s abortion. I told my mom I’d call, but every message I left for Spencer produced the same return text: “busy as fuck man. keep carrying the family torch. catch you soon.” I let it slide. I had practice, exams, Sarah. Besides, Spencer had always managed to come out unscathed. The real damage always missed.
We were on our annual trip to Cedar Point amusement park when I finally got a chance to talk to Spencer about his plans. We’d come to Cedar Point almost every summer since we were old enough to hit the coasters—with half an inch of toilet paper stuffed in my shoes.
“So your dad’s got you going to fucking military school next year,” I said as we stood in line for the Corkscrew.
“My idea, bro,” he said. “My idea.”
“You realize there’s like a war going on,” I said.
Spencer nodded as we wound through the corral. “I’ve always wanted to do more before six a.m. than most people do all day.”
I ignored the joke. “This is kind of fucked up, man.”
“No,” he said. “School sucks. College ain’t happening. I just gotta get away.” His eyes brightened as we neared the front of the line. “I don’t know, Witt. I got some stuff I need to prove.”
I should have told him that there were other ways to get away from Uncle Ron, that, anyway, fuck Uncle Ron and his bullshit. But before I could speak, we were being ushered into our car, the shoulder harness was locking us into place. Any words I might have said evaporated as the rickety old ride twisted us in wicked spirals and spun us completely upside down.
Near the end of the day, I looked at Spencer as we rocketed down the hills and through the curves of the Blue Streak—our all-time favorite ride. There was a familiar brightness in Spencer’s eyes. Maybe he didn’t need to be saved. I thought of Spencer in a military uniform and it made me laugh. Spencer started laughing, too, his hands stretched above his head as if he were trying to touch the sky.
* * *
At Spencer’s house, I hugged everyone for the millionth time that week. I got my mom an iced tea. I showed Sarah where the old Magnavox had been replaced by a new plasma screen. It was like the whole place—the people, the lighting, the food—had been enveloped by a cloud. I kept flexing my fingers, ready for my showdown with Uncle Ron, but he was absent from the proceedings. Probably off somewhere smoking a cigar with his bowling buddies.
As I continued the tour, eventually Sarah and I found ourselves outside the Kane Room. Sarah knew about my uncle’s obsession; my cousins’ names had given it away. She was always trying to get me to watch old black-and-white crap instead of the Will Ferrell flicks I could recite by heart. I knocked on the door, not expecting an answer. Sarah would think this room was cool.
“What,” came the answer, not quite a question. Uncle Ron.
I turned the knob and leaned in, my right hand tightening into a cube. “My lifetime ban still in effect?”
From his black leather armchair, an older, defeated version of Uncle Ron lowered his book, flipped his hand and looked out the window—the grown-up version of “whatever.”
Sarah looked at the posters and movie stills on the walls, the books and props on the shelves. I remained in the doorway and watched Sarah be amazing. I wanted to be back under a blanket with her, listening to her tell me I wasn’t to blame.
As a kid, watching TV with Spencer was always safe. When a voice said, “after these messages, we’ll be right back,” we could rest easy. We knew that two-and-a-half minutes later, our show would return, same as it ever was. Now the future’s not so predictable. Spencer’s dead. After these messages, anything can happen.
“It’s an outstanding film,” Sarah was saying. “Amazing narrative structure.”
Uncle Ron looked up.
Sarah’s hand played light along a shelf, her head tilted to read the spines of the various Orson Welles biographies. Her voice was soft when she said, “He was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it.”
Uncle Ron spoke, and I realized he was completing a line from the movie. “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.”
Sarah turned and gazed out the window like an award-winning actress. “I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.”
“… missing piece,” Uncle Ron finished. Then he gave a little hum of contentment, like a cat.
“Favorite scene,” Sarah said. “All those crates and statues.”
The afternoon sun made me squint as I looked at Sarah. The electrifying pain of discovery shivered through my body, like a fiery pinprick.
I cleared my throat. “We should go.”
Sarah thanked my uncle and slid by, pinching my arm. I nodded at Uncle Ron and closed the door.
As Sarah moved down the hallway, she stretched her arms to the side and lightly touched the walls with her fingertips. When she reached a corner, she looked back. “Coming?” she said.
I let out a deep breath and nodded. “I’m right here.”
A few paces behind Sarah, I threw my arm out in front of me, following through on an imaginary pitch to an invisible batter. Just like Spencer, I was floating through space, snapping off curveballs, striking out something that wasn’t there.
About The Writer
Timothy Hedges has received a Pushcart Prize and Hopwood Award. His essays, stories, and poems show up in print from time to time. He spends his days trying not to psychologically damage his children and battling entropy on his kitchen counter. His wife is a bad-ass history teacher at a public high school near Detroit, and his two sons are bad-ass destroyers of Lego towers in the basement. He works at the University of Michigan.