By Amber Thompson
“Come on,” Devon says, tying his shoes. “I’m gonna get Mom some cigarettes.”
My brother is trying to convince me to let him take my car out for a drive with me in the passenger seat and, presumably, my husband in the back. It’s working; it sounds nice to get out, and I like to think that a vote of confidence may help him finally get his license.
“Shoot” I mutter, realizing I kicked over the can of Coke I’d sat on the ground beside the couch.
“What happened?” comes Mom’s quick response from the kitchen.
“Oh, Sis spilled her soda,” he calls to her. “You’re always doing that. You’ve done that since you were eleven,” he says, in a way that makes it feel as though he’s the older sibling. It’s a bit jarring, the way he exposits this scene. I pause momentarily to glance up at him from the reddish-orange carpet, worn down in spots, yes, from years of this same mistake. It’s the same carpet I played dolls on with Dad and the same one Devon wrestled me onto when Daniel and I came home to tell them we were engaged. I’m more aware now of memory than I’ve ever been, and I’m starting to wonder if Devon feels the same way.
When I finish cleaning up, I check in with everyone to make sure it’s a good idea.
“Can he drive?” I bend over to ask Mom, jerking my thumb toward him. I eye my dad, sitting next to her.
Dad gives a placid affirmative shrug, and Mom gives her classic, “Yes, honey.”
I look my husband straight on.
“It’s okay with you? In my car?”
Besides attempting to contextualize what sometimes seems like an overload of memories these days, worrying has, in a sense, become duty. My constant aim is to ensure the people around me (Daniel gets the brunt of this) that I’m responsible and have, as responsible people do, considered every worst possible outcome of the decisions I make. I look for validation for even the most basic of my choices, simply because I’m terrified that if I don’t, I’ll have jinxed myself, or worse, put someone I love in danger.
For instance, what if Devon, whom the state of Oklahoma has not determined is fit to drive a car (he’s not made it past the written exam), flips the car off the road or drives us into a bouncy, oncoming farm truck? What if a cop pulls us over (even though a cop is about the hardest thing to find out here)? Would I lie to a cop?
“Up to you,” my husband says.
“I think it’ll be alright,” I reply.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Daniel says with as patient a smile as I can ask.
In the car Devon adjusts his seat and mirrors intuitively. And maybe I shouldn’t be so easily impressed, but his turn out of the driveway is smooth and careful. I relax beside him. He takes us down the road that was our typical route to school. The pale red dirt and its papery clouds of dust are as familiar to me in a vehicle as they are on foot or bike. The last time we were here, a few months ago, Daniel and I had just moved back from Illinois, and Devon was visiting from Virginia before moving back himself. We walked, in the dead of summer, over a mile to the creek part-way between our parent’s house and the school, just for something to do.
As we drive I ask Devon about what’s changed here in the place we grew up. Knowing that it can be difficult for Daniel to find his place in our sibling banter, I’m careful to point out things of note to my husband. I shouldn’t be surprised, but with nearly every fact, Daniel responds pleasantly, “Yes, I remember. I keep up, you know.”
I myself remember and misremember and reimagine all sorts of landmarks. Repair and dilapidation exist in the same space, indistinguishable. When we near our old school, Devon pulls around through a designated exit that didn’t exist when I graduated. He points out some new playground equipment and pulls out through the entrance. I compliment another smooth entry onto the highway, avoiding commenting on his blatant directional defiance.
“Of course I’m gonna look about eight times even though no one’s ever on this road. Just don’t want to get cocky. ‘Cause I know I will.”
Again, as with the soda, that jab of reflective commentary. The more I’m around my brother, the more exposed I feel to his vulnerability. There are a little over three years between Devon and I, but we operate on a frequency much closer to that of twins. There is no one else I share so close a history with, and our declarations about ourselves and our environment, though they cannot be fully understandable to anyone but the person making them, seem to complement each other. We are each growing into what seems to be a merging of personalities: rule-follower and dissident, rebel and observationalist.
I look over at him for the first time in a while. His 6’4” frame only appears slightly crouched in my little car. His mop of blonde hair is padded under a trucker hat I got him for his birthday one year. It reads ‘My Other Hat is Made of Tin Foil.’ Beneath its bill are his thick-rimmed black glasses, behind those his squinty blue eyes balanced out by our dad’s nose and mom’s chin. His mouth, which is thin and sometimes uncertain, is very much like my own.
We pull into the gravel lot of the gas station up the road, what now feels like an imitation destination. Daniel and I get out, after I verbally assure the three of us that going into the store should be fine, being in the midst of a pandemic as we are. For some reason, I’d imagined much more bustle on a Saturday afternoon, but things are as quiet as ever, and only a single cashier rests boredly inside. When we return to the car, I make reference to a lot across the highway known only as “Dead Lou’s”, eyeing Daniel to see if this tidbit is in fact as new to him as I hope. Devon responds with simple repetition, “Dead Lou’s.”
We find ourselves next at the old post office, a place I was very fond of. It closed down six years ago, and we both, apparently, are still sore about it.
“You’re not gonna believe this place,” Devon says disappointedly. “It’s just trashed.”
The signage has been removed from the orange brick exterior, and the barred window coverings, which I always assumed were metal, have turned out to be beaten down, paint-peeled wood. Through the pane glass windows we can see what looks like a hack remodel job, complete with an assortment of pop cans looking eerily enough as though they’ve been there far longer than a half decade. Debris litters the small lot. In the back, there’s a hole in the roof and through the office window, we spy an unused varmint trap. I remember one of the last times I checked the mail here at our little box. It was after a school event, spring semester. I was happy. The sky was awash with pinks and blues.
Instead of going straight back to the house, Devon rolls ahead onto another dirt road. He asks me to repeat a story I’d begun earlier. The details I’d gathered from an article about a string of hack surgeries, suspected cannibalism, and an unfortunate alias—all here in the backwoods of Oklahoma—seem to make him squeamish. His morbid interests, I realize, must be further in line with remote facts about obscure rocker deaths, the abstract and easy to recite. Maybe I’m the disturbed one for thinking he’d find any entertainment value in this story. I wonder if this conversation I’ve struck up bothers Devon like another one from earlier, when I mentioned that I’ve found myself checking obituaries from the local funeral homes. Although we’d been talking then about the deaths of a teacher, a schoolmate, and bosses just before, my confession was met with a solemn, “Jeeze.” Still, he does exhibit a certain cavalierness about death at our next stop: the cemetery.
I take in the beautiful fall day around us. Because there aren’t many trees in this part of the state, there aren’t many true autumn scenes to experience on a drive like this. But over one part of the road is a beautiful low-hanging tree, its not-quite-decaying yellow leaves carpeting the damp, patchy asphalt underneath. Many elements of this drive, but especially this particular moment, have a homecoming feel to them. Something as spiritual as a holiday, or at least the escape of one.
Buffalo Cemetery is probably the largest of any of the dozen that belonged to the many once-distinguishable communities in the area. Devon eases the car into the last entrance, and again, I’m impressed. He asks about the last time I was in a cemetery.
“There was this really old one back in Illinois I went to sometimes,” I tell him. “It was nice. Very peaceful.”
“Man, cemeteries just are,” he says. “I love this one.”
I eye him carefully as he gets out, making sure I see him put my keys in his pocket before I close my door. The last thing we need, I think to myself, is to be stuck here without a spare.
Besides that momentary fear, the cemetery is indeed peaceful. Though you wouldn’t know it from the road, it sits on a hill, and from just about any point, you can see for miles. There are cows a couple dozen yards away, and the sky is open and blissful.
As we begin to meander, Devon talks with sadness about the people who outlive their spouses by twenty years, and then, with what feels like appreciation, those who pass within months of each other.
“Like, look at these two! Six months. That’s the way to go. That’s sweet.”
Daniel reaches for my hand, and I return his loving smile. He is dark-haired, my height; a convergence of classical sunniness and an inner complexity. Though we for different reasons may not always like to admit it, we are truly understood by the other. Being around both my brother and husband is at once strange and comforting. Devon was my best friend growing up, and I sometimes wondered if I would ever meet a person, a romantic partner, I could be as good as friends with as I was with him. The two couldn’t be more different, but I’m fortunate now to share a wavelength with them both.
Devon lights a cigarette, his second in the last hour. His smoking is somewhat natural to me at this point; there is familiarity to it. As he waves his hands around he says, “They’re all me.” It reminds me of a poem I wrote that I think of sending him later: I am certain it is one thing/one experience/One life and one death.”
When we come to a water pump, the three of us stare at it and a faded, unreadable sign beside it as if a water pump in the middle of a cemetery should have the answers to all of our questions. Daniel pumps the handle, and to our surprise, out comes a careful stream of water. I slip my fingers under it wondering about the frequencies of water, specifically that pumped from final-resting-place ground.
Devon remembers a particular set of tombstones and a story to accompany them, so we set off to try and look for them. When we can’t find them, I make a mental note to look it up later. Though I won’t find what he was talking about, I will find a strange number of twins buried there.
As we make our way back to the car, I begin to notice, with some giddiness, the late afternoon light subtly changing. Devon, who’s fallen behind us, begins to lumber toward Daniel and me. He draws out a low, “They’re coming to get you, Bahb-ra!” a Night of the Living Dead reference that hangs gleeful and heavy in the October air.
Whatever became of Barbara—or will of any of us—here she is, here I am, with brother—and husband—in a cemetery. Devon claims he would have gotten out of there alive, and I make a “R.I.P. to Barbara’s brother, but I’m different” joke. Both of them laugh: Devon a straight but genuine, “Ha!” and Daniel a clucky snicker.
The three of us are relieved to find that the car doors open, that the engine starts, and that for now, we’ve made it out alive.
Amber Thompson is a Pushcart and Best New Poets nominated writer whose work has appeared online at Critical Read, Poet’s Billow, Rockvale Review, and GNU Journal and in print in Westview and Ocotillo Review. She released her debut poetry chapbook A Heart has Many Homes in May 2020. Her work can be found at https://amberthompsonwrites.wordpress.com/