Girlfriend I had, year I turned twenty-one, told me—loudly—that I had a “destructive imagination.” I still don’t know what she meant, but at the time it meant I would be alone for the summer. Even that didn’t last.
I was home from school for the season, jobless, and my mom told me we would be having a houseguest. He was a welder from West Virginia, just a couple years older than me, and we even shared a first name. We were doing him a favor because he was good to My Brother I Don’t Talk To when they were working together in Tulsa. When I got home, he was reclined on the bed in the guest room scrolling through a page on an iPad. My mom said to say, “Hi,” so I poked my head in the room and I said, “Hey, Dan.”
He said, “Dan-O, welcome home.” On the screen glowed a picture of a girl in a bathrobe sleeping on a pool table. He showed it to me, kind of sitting up. “They have people send in pictures of their friends when they’re wasted and they publish them on Monday mornings.”
“Funny,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I think it’s kind of stupid. They should at least blur the faces.”
He had this real low, real calm kind of voice. It had just the hint of an accent, but not the one I was expecting. I didn’t know what West Virginia was supposed to sound like, but I had an idea. I was wrong. It sounded like falling asleep to a low-Richter earthquake, like a humid thunderstorm. I could feel it, but I wasn’t in danger. He wanted to go grab some food, and since my mom was going out with friends and my dad was still out in the Midwest, it was just going to be the two of us.
He’d been working for the same company as my dad, just like My Brother I Don’t Talk To. The only time he ever actually worked with or around my dad, though, was in a town called Normal, Illinois. They were doing work on the Keystone XL Pipeline. “Get me far from Normal,” he’d say. My dad would say it too.
They had Dan and my brother in a training program for a position similar to my dad’s except at a lower level. I don’t even think he got to assume the title of “project manager” before he died, which was only a couple of months after I met him. He would only ever be a welder and a corporate trainee.
On the night I met him, though, we went and got some cheesesteaks. He wanted something local, so I figured that would do. We didn’t have much else to offer in my town anyway. I was getting real bored of the suburbs around then. I was ready to get back to the city, back to school. All my friends had jobs or internships and I still wasn’t working at that point and it was starting to get to me. He drove. He insisted.
“I never feel right in the city,” he said. He wrung his hands on the steering wheel of his truck. He drove this black GMC Denali, the Sierra—the pickup model. We listened to alt-rock satellite radio as we rolled by the high school, a couple of grocery stores, and all these houses with long driveways. The sandwich shop was in a little strip mall next to a furniture outlet and a cash-for-gold place. We ordered our food and he paid. He insisted, again. He motioned toward my hand when I went for my wallet. I learned to stop trying.
While we were eating, he asked me how old I was. He called me Dan-O again.
“21 last week.”
“No shit,” he said, “you’re the exact same age as my baby sister. To. The. Day.”
“That’s cool. What’s her name?”
“Sophia,” he said. “She died when she was eighteen months.” He took a big bite of his sandwich and smiled at me with his eyes while he was chewing. I was going to say something like I was sorry to hear that but he told me to stop, and before I knew it we were back in his car and he was asking me if there were any good head shops around the city. I couldn’t think of anything like that so we just kept trucking towards home. He kept calling it “the city” and I never corrected him. To me, the city was about ten miles north—skyscrapers, brownstones. I couldn’t imagine what it was like where he was from, where he was comfortable. I didn’t want to.
“Do you smoke?” He said.
“Do you smoke weed? You seem like you do. I bet you get that a lot.” He was very forward, but he wasn’t wrong, and it made me uncomfortable. He looked in my eyes when he talked to me. I told him no. “I don’t know how I could get by without getting high. I seriously hurt when I can’t get away for a little bit… wait what’s that?”
Sandman’s Tobacco Shop was right on the boulevard about a half-mile from home. It was in a strip with a consignment shop and an Italian bakery. This guy Raffi I knew from high school ran it. He was older, a senior when I was a freshman, but we were in marching band together for a year. He tutored me in calculus, too, and told me how I should have been washing my face. He opened the shop with his older brother earlier that year, after his brother got home from a tour in Afghanistan. When they first opened up, I kept getting invited to “like” the place on Facebook, but I always ignored it. I’d always been passive online.
The brother was the only one in the shop that night. I could see him in the office in the back. His dog, a Staffie mix, was pacing behind the counter. There were water pipes on all the walls and glass pieces and tobacco in the counter. It was a while before we were helped. Dan checked out everything while I tried not to touch anything. I just watched the dog. Dan bought this candy with some kind of depressant in it and he ate it later that night while we watched reruns of The Walking Dead. I took the wrappers to the trash outside before I went to bed.
He went home most weekends, drove at least six hours each way. I thought it was crazy. He’d told me me he was crazy anyway, so it wasn’t exactly surprising. Still, that’s a long way to go on Friday after a 60-hour workweek. As for what you do on a Saturday in West Virginia, one time he pulled out his phone and showed me a video of himself holding a high powered rifle, standing, looking through the scope. I could tell it was him from his wild hair and because he pointed to the screen and told me so. The camera panned to a slope maybe ninety yards away. I heard the shot and there was an explosion and Dan in the video and Dan in my mom’s kitchen both started laughing.
“What was that?”
“Somethin’ that’s not that hard to make. We do that every once in a while. Just stuff you can find at the hardware store and the bullet sets it off. You ever shoot a gun before, Dan-O?”
“Oh, man. I gotta get you out to my dad’s place. His land is basically the size of your neighborhood, no offence. It’s just different where I’m from. He’s got all kinds of guns. I’d show you a good time out there. He grows great weed too. I know you don’t smoke but I like to think you’d try it out of respect, you know, for our hospitality. He brought it back from Vietnam—the habit I mean. It was kind of a first for where I’m from. Of course, I wouldn’t be talking like this if your mom was home. My mom doesn’t like it either. She lives by herself in a little place that used to be her dad’s.”
This was on maybe a Monday or a Tuesday, only a few weeks into him staying with us. There was this refinery on the Chester waterfront that he was working out of then. That weekend, he decided to stick around with us and I thought I’d take him to try out this Cajun restaurant at a farmer’s market near the Delaware border. I gave him directions from the passenger seat.
The market was directly across the street from a funeral home. It was where we’d had the service for my aunt who had throat cancer when I was almost in tenth grade. My uncle and my cousins were huddled on this couch up front and the place was packed to the walls. My uncle couldn’t talk and the pastor invited anyone up to say what they wanted about my aunt. Nobody budged, and I hated them all—but I didn’t talk either. I thought all this, and I thought how Dan would most definitely tell me that sort of thing if it were him directing me around his town. I wanted to show him that I felt like him, to tell him there was where I saw her for the first time with a bald head because she didn’t want to be buried in any of her wigs because wanted to donate them. I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t talk and that it was the lowest moment in my life, but I never said a word and he pulled into a parking spot out back of the market. He held the door for an old couple and a little kid with suspenders and a bowl cut.
I had a fried oyster po-boy and he had pork gumbo. He liked it and I was glad. He paid and I felt small. We wandered around the market some after we ate and we ended up on the lower level. The lower level of the place was all junk. Just a bunch of stalls stuffed with knick-knacks. One had mismatched shelves of VHS tapes, another had piles of records and fifty-cent paperbacks. There were racks of old clothes in one, and the one closest to the exit had a line-up of rusty lawn care equipment. What seemed to catch Dan’s eye, though, was the only well-organized stall, a corner space specializing in war paraphernalia. There were uniforms, weapons, armor, propaganda, medals. It was actually pretty impressive.
What was even more impressive than anything for sale, though, was the girl behind the counter. Where all of the vendors were ancient men in stained sweatshirts or middle-aged women with breathing problems, this girl was out of place. She wore a tight leather jacket despite the heat, her hair was enormous, and her lips were red. Her posture was incredible, but her eyes were somewhere else. She had high cheekbones that could make smiling effortless, but she was an expert at holding that back. I made up stories about her, about her dad who owned the place, about how she wanted to move to the city with me. Dan floated over to her and asked how she was doing. I watched everything—his slight underbite, her wandering eyes. I didn’t listen to any of their words. He bought a knife out of her case and we were on our way.
He was behind the wheel again, and I decided to show him another way home. The back way was a little more spread out, all winding little roads and there was even a farm or two.
“Can you believe that slut wanted $800 for this thing?”
He put the knife in my hand. It felt heavy.
“It’s a Luftwaffe dagger, look at the handle there.”
There were swastikas at the hilt and the butt. They were soft and subtle, with rounded edges. I ran my thumb over them. I kept the blade in the leather sheath.
“What did you give her?”
“Seven fifty. I can’t believe she wanted eight. This thing is worth at least twelve hundred, dumb slut. Here.”
Even when he was talking like that, his voice was calm, balanced as ever. I handed him the knife back, handle first. I wanted to ask him why he talked like that about her, why he thought that was okay.
“You always carry that much cash on you?” I asked. He pulled the knife out of the sheath, started pressing it hard into his gut.
“It’s not sharp, that’s the only problem,” he said, stabbing himself.
“Don’t mess with it when you’re driving,” I said.
“What, like this?” He squeezed his hand around the blade, I could the strain in his arm and his eyes.
He dropped the knife and showed me his open palm. There were white lines but no cuts, no blood.
“That thing’s not dangerous, nothing like this,” He said, quickly pulling a thin short blade from between the center console and his seat. “There’s blood on this one.”
It was shiny, about four inches long and half an inch wide. He was flicking his thumb against the tip. He held it out to me.
“It’s from Vietnam. My dad brought it back. It belonged to one of his buddies who died. It’s real sharp, Dan-O.”
He hit a bump in the road and the knife fell out of his hand. It stuck into the upholstery near my leg.
“Dammit,” he said, and he pulled the knife out of the seat and put it back next to the console.
“Why do you keep that there?”
“I like to feel safe. It helps. When I’m in the city like this, I keep a buck knife in my pocket too.”
We passed a little goat farm.
“This isn’t the city,” I said.
“To me it is. If I could, I mean if this was home, I’d keep my gun in the glove box.”
We stayed quiet for a little while, I just gave him directions, wondered where else in the cab he was concealing weapons. When we were on the highway, I could see the skyline on the horizon.
“What’s it like moving around like this?”
“Hate it, Dan-O.”
“Where all have you been?”
“Uh, Tulsa, Orange, Bellingham, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Salt Lake, Montana, here. I’m probably forgetting some. It’s been almost two years now, and some of the spots I’m only in a couple weeks.”
It was a kind of life I’d envied then. He was making absurd amounts of money as far as I knew and he was out there seeing the country. He was lucky, I thought. If I’d had any kind of courage I would have loved to have been doing the same kind of thing.
“This isn’t the life for you Dan-O,” he said. He talked to me like a brother might. “When I started this thing, they said, ‘12 to 14 months and we will have you placed somewhere permanently.’ I’ve been jumping around like this for two years now and there’s still no end in sight. I talk to my advisor and I talk to HR and they all tell me that it’s almost over. Just one more stay here or there, a few weeks and I’m home. I just want to be home.
“I’m a 28 year old man and I don’t have a home,” he said, “I just hop around to different hotels, go to the job site where I can’t do any actual labor, go back to the hotel and drink and jack off. Then I just go and do the same thing in another city. The last two years have been on repeat and I don’t think I’ve even touched a welding torch in months. You know they have guys here in Chester, welders who get to scuba dive in the river? I’m stuck watching them suit up, disappear with those little bubbles, and come up glistening, while I’m sweating it out in an oxford shirt and khakis. Don’t get me wrong, I like your place, you guys are nice, but it is time to go home.”
The next weekend he went out to West Virginia again. I’d told him to drive safe and I’d see him Monday. I don’t remember what he said to me. It was the last time I’d see him.
When my dad told me Dan got arrested, I looked it up online. There was a write-up in a local West Virginia paper. It had two pictures, one of the haul—a couple hundred pills—and his mug shot. His eyes were blank, like they were dreaming or seeing far away, but he was beaming, smiling like an idiot. His hair was wilder than I’d seen it before. He was hurting and I knew it. I’d known it the whole time. He had told me and he had shown me, but there on that website was the first time I’d really felt anything about him. The screen blurred. My imagination was a pile of dead leaves doused in lighter fluid.
I pictured him out there, at one of his friends’ places. Jimmy Fulton? A name like that rang. He would have been feeling fuzzy when he left. Well after two AM and his blood felt like crystal. The boys were all out, right? Maybe they came around because he was home. Robbie even drove down from Ohio in his old Bronco. Yeah. Dan was still convinced that Robbie’s brother stole his quad right out of his trailer way back, but it wasn’t high school anymore and Dan was drunk as all and when he gets drunk as all he lets The Ghost of his Baby Sister hang around and he just loves everybody and it hurts. Plus, Robbie had the coke and he needed some of that lightning real bad on account of all of the booze. He shouldn’t have gone after the stuff, he shouldn’t have, but he didn’t care about the drug tests anymore. If they got me, they got me. They’re not gonna change the way I live.
The electricity, it knocked him off the couch and they wanted to know where he was going and he said, To the moon, you wonderful dirtbags, and of The Ghost of his Baby Sister had him say, If I see you all again, I’m a lucky man. He heard them laughing through the screen door.
He took a deep breath and burped up a little puke before he started the Denali. He rolled down the window and spat. A light scratching noise came from up out of the toolbox in the truck bed, so he slid out of the cab to investigate. With his hands on the sidewall of the bed and one boot on the tire, he started rocking himself and the truck. The motion made him dizzy until he could finally hurdle up and onto the bed, where he landed on his back. Maybe he fell asleep and maybe he stared at the blurry-bright stars, but he definitely hurled all over the truck bed. The scratching noise turned into a clangy banging coming from the inside of the toolbox. Take it easy, sis, I’m comin’!
Dan fumbled with the latches until the thing popped open and he pulled himself to his knees to look in. He was seeing real fuzzy but he ran his hand all slow over everything. His cutters, his torches, his tanks, his fillers. Everything I know nothing about, everything sort of cased in foam or otherwise secure—where it all should be. He pulled out one of the strikers and gave it a squeeze. Sparks jumped in front of his blinking eyes. There’s that light. He stuffed the thing down his belt and pulled out his mask. He felt the side where he’d stenciled a spider and he slipped it on his head and flipped it down.
He drove blind down to 7-11. The kid at the register said, “You gotta take that thing off your head, sir.” Sir, he said. Sir! He flipped up the mask and squinted at the nametag. Daniel. Pack a smokes, Dan-O! The kid was all shaky when he handed them over. Dan-O, you’re a beautiful boy. Don’t ever change. His baby sister carried him back to the truck that he had left unlocked and running. The cab was vibrating and he fell asleep.
There was a knock at the window. A man in blue, spinning. Dan’s head was heavy.
“Step out of the car, please.” His eyes stayed closed, he shook his head. The engine hummed.
“You’re lucky,” he said, spinning all around the way he was. “I peel shitheads like you off of trees every weekend. You’re lucky you didn’t kill anybody—or yourself.” He was rocking around in the back seat of the cruiser in and out of sleep, wrists cuffed behind his tailbone. He breathed deep and faster and faster. He wanted to say thank you, I love you, and I really am a lucky man. You and fate, you saved me, and I’ll never work again. I’m home now and I’m staying. He tried to shimmy around and use the striker to light his pants on fire so he could use the light to sing about how beautiful the night was. He was mumbling, no real words, just drooling and spitting up puke. The men and the women at the station, under fluorescent light, they were all working so hard. Their uniforms were radiating and they were shuffling white and yellow and pink papers around their desks. They were sharing everything.
The Ghost of his Baby Sister shook her head when he smiled big for the camera.
I pulled up Facebook that night before I went to sleep. It was early in November, one of those near-freezing nights and I was cursing myself for not taking the AC unit out of the window of my apartment yet. I was back in the city, back in school. I was scrolling through the stories about my friends, friends of friends, and drunken acquaintances. Somewhere on there I saw a picture of Dan from West Virginia and I stopped. It’s Dan’s birthday, celebrate with Dan and write on his timeline. I decided to have a look at what people were saying though I wasn’t planning on writing anything. It just felt fake, impersonal. You could at least send a text to someone to say happy birthday. At least pretend you care. I was glad to see he wasn’t still in jail, though I knew he probably still wasn’t working. A DUI was serious and I’d heard he was facing federal charges for all the pills.
All of the posts were consolidated into a box on his page and it only showed the latest three. The bottom one said, “HBD, man, have a good one!” The middle one was a picture of Dan from high school with a caption that said, “I’ll always remember you like this.” That’s nice, I thought, he’s got good friends out there who don’t care that he lost his job, people that are helping him through it. The last one said, “R. I. P. Dan, I’ll miss you bro.” Then I got it. I expanded the birthday posts and started scrolling through everything. It was maybe half happy birthdays and half consolations with some old blurry pictures thrown in. I couldn’t find what happened anywhere, but I knew.
My heart was beating fast. It was too late to call my dad. If I had texted my brother he wouldn’t have answered. Google searches didn’t turn up news yet. I looked up his mugshot again just to see. That sideways grin, those blind eyes. When I’d heard he was in trouble, I wished I could watch him in court to see his twisted honesty on display in a house of law. I don’t think his date came before he was gone.
All I knew then was that Dan was out there—home—and he was dead. I was his fake little brother for a few weeks, his kid sister’s twin, and I thought that maybe I had helped him. I didn’t do well enough, obviously, but I drifted around with him, kept him company for a while.
Write something… I expanded the box. The cursor blinked. I almost wrote something, but knew I wouldn’t get it right. I couldn’t just say, “R. I. P. bro,” and I didn’t have any pictures to share. I closed my laptop and I tried to sleep. I had visions of driving all night to the hills of West Virginia, never stopping, arriving just in time for the eulogy, thinking the whole way of what I would say when I got there.