A few months back, I caught your goateed grin while thumbing through the “People You May Know” list on Facebook, a reality decades distant from our fragile, long-haired skulls in that time when we knew each other best. I’d searched for you before, in those moments after some match-flare of memory lit up the chambers of my brain, but I could never spell your last name, all those mid-syllable vowels, where to place them. Hell, we rarely called each other by our names, anyway, other than the ones we gave each other. Our handles, we called them, like we were truck drivers, like our dads, or the other men who growled through our lives, down-shifting but never sticking around. You were Dirt and called me Killer because I wore a thick chain. We even had that elaborate handshake, remember?
Before I stumbled across you online, my ma had given me a clipping from the newspaper. Turned out you were you were doing a bit down in a southern Ohio penitentiary, where I’d done a little stretch myself several years after the last time I saw you. Assault, the paper said, and I remembered how impulsive you were, the both of us, all of us back then. Always looking for something to prove, an excuse to make a scene. Staring at your mugshot, I couldn’t say I couldn’t see it coming.
We are thirteen and fifteen and looking for our way back.
But this is not where it starts.
It starts in a house that will one day be razed, on Logan and Dennick, across from the burned out mill.
Dude’s name is Dude, and I’m talking in a time before the Big Lebowski. He’s siphoned cable and juice from the house next door. All the rooms are cracked plaster, rotten wood, bare wires. Dead things in the walls.
He has a white-and-black cat named Wild Child that lives in his Chrysler and suns itself on the dusty dash when we drive out in the country on summer days, smoking joints and chugging warm beer. . . all those sins and all those wishes out there, just floating.
“You went ghost on me, brother.” That’s the first thing you say to me after all these years. You bailed me out of County in May of ’99, or maybe it was June. Probably thought I’ve been dodging you because of the hundred-dollar bond. Not even sure what possessed me to call you that night, of all people, what made me think you’d have the scratch to come through. But you came through. Afterward, I crashed on the nasty couch on your parents’ front porch to sleep off a mean mixture. You dragged my frayed ass to court the next morning, where I stood, still drunk and sleeveless in front of the judge. Then you dropped me at my ma’s work and I never saw you again. But I knew I owed you. Money. Maybe something else.
A downtown alley between the Burger King and the New Music Station, which will become an Irish dive, then a husk and then a lot and then—what else will be left when the decades recede?
Some sort of ruin. Seeded with grass.
We breathe deep and ride our first numbing rails into the high hammering glare of a grocery store. A stolen can of nacho cheese and a bag of chips. A scatter-shot departure as the guard gives chase.
We find each other in the bushes by the bank, creep through backyards and over fences, each shadowed step leading us farther from where we need to be.
A flicked thumb. A ride.
“That way, I think.”
Now we’re near the river, the towering past of cold stacks pressed against the night. There’s the county joint we’ll someday know so well. There’s the bus station that will someday be both an escape and inevitable return. We’re from the sticks but in the city, underage and on the run. Everything we’ve dreamed but never thought through.
Downtown now. How did we get this far?
I’m on my way to the walk-in clinic to see about this cough that’s been wracking me since Christmas, when I stop at a red light only a couple blocks from where we fled the grocery store all those years ago, and when I look over to where they’re putting up a new Rally’s burger place, I’ll be damned if that’s not you right there beside that ditch, hooded and zipped up in a pair of faded blue coveralls, handing a piece of pipe to some guy in the trench.
The sky is the color of a dirty dishrag, and the cold air turns your breath to smoke.
There’s that flare again. Those early days. Those moments that haven’t left me.
Over the years, I’ve driven past your parents’ house. I do stuff like that sometimes, because no matter how unlikely, I fear forgetting more than almost anything. One day the house was just gone. Just a big vacant space now. A couple gravel driveways and patches of high dead grass. Perhaps it’s strange, but the first time I saw that emptiness, I saw in it your mother—her warm face, her milky, crooked eye—and how she used to fix us food when we came in from the cold, sprinkling tortillas with water and scorching them on the stove while we sat at the table. I smelled the meat and the spices and the smoke from her cigarette—she smoked Slim Price, I remember—and the ever present eggy scent of well water coming from the kitchen sink. I saw the mountains of clothes everywhere. I saw your old man’s chicken coop and the time you threw the grate from the grill like a Frisbee, beheading one of his fattest hens, its body running off into the brush. I saw, about twelve feet up, the room with the mattress on the floor, and the porch roof where we’d jack off side by side to ratty, hand-me-down skin mags (we never did know what it was like to have anything new, did we?). The sound of trains hid us as much as the night did. The summer stars stared down but did not judge us.
We catch another ride, and another.
“We can’t pay you. All we got’s this knife, and we need it for protection.”
“And all I got’s this gun. Hop in.”
We end up on Dewy, near the rehab clinic I won’t know for another few years. Then again much later.
“This is as far as I’m ridin’. Good luck, boys.”
Our last refuge is the neon beacon of the Adult Book on Market.
We hang among the flesh and rubber and smoke a joint with a drummer named Tim. He has a handlebar mustache and wears a gold chain around his neck, keeps nodding like he’s answering a question no one asked.
At first light he drives us to your Cousin Juan’s trailer.
Juan lets us rest while he lifts weights and practices his boxing combos in front of the mirror above the TV, then he gives us a lift back to where our mothers are pissed off and waiting.
They’ve been worried sick, they say.
We glance at each other, a shared thought between us: If you only knew. But neither of us says it.
On that first contact a couple months ago, after you got out, it was all How you been? How’s your ma? Sorry to hear about your folks, man, wish I coulda been there to say goodbye. Remember that one time? Crazy days, brother, crazy days. We made loose plans to get together soon, which is the typical thing to do, but I’ve got this life now, ya know, the kids and all. I still owe you, I know, and want to pay that debt. Hell, I’m sure you could use the money. I consider honking the horn, or rolling down the window and shouting your name. To let you know I haven’t yet forgotten, any of it. But the light just turned green.
William R. Soldan is the author of In Just the Right Light, a collection of linked stories set in Rust Belt Ohio. His degrees and publications aren’t important, though he has at least a couple of each. If you’d like to connect, you can find him at www.williamrsoldan.com or on the various social media platforms. His second book, Houses Burning, is due out in 2020 by Shotgun Honey Press.