They left Idaho because his dad ran through their sliding glass door in a blind rage. Brandon Jenkin described it to his new best friend Joey inside the tire fort on the school playground. “Blood and glass all over the carpet,” Brandon whispered. His mom got him and his brother to the family car. Joey imagined a station wagon kicking up smoke, leaving Mr. Jenkin and the whole mess behind. Mrs. Jenkin drove them cross-country, all the way from their home in the shadow of the Caribou Range to New Hampshire. “No matter how mean her acts, her good,” Brandon said. “Her saved us.”
The Jenkins landed in Grange, in a brick apartment complex called Lucky Valley. It was not in a valley but at the top of a brown hill. The first time Joey went there to play, his mom walked him the three flights to the door. Brandon answered in dirty jeans and bare feet. Joey’s mom thought Brandon had a fresh mouth after volunteering for their class on Field Day. “Is your mother here?” she asked. “I’d like to say hi.” Brandon touched his mouth and pointed toward the bedroom. They left their shoes on the welcome mat and found Mrs. Jenkin sleeping cross-legged on the white carpet, surrounded by lit candles, the shades drawn. She smiled like a cat, bounced up, and gave them both a fragrant hug.
Their single-level apartment was smaller than Joey’s Cape. Brandon and his younger brother shared a room. The kitchen was a shoebox, covered in dark brown tiling. Even so, it felt spacious. The rooms were covered in a clean, vast white carpet. The boys were not allowed to walk on it in their shoes because Mrs. Jenkin was afraid the landlord would keep the security deposit. The living room was large with few pieces of furniture, a sliding glass door that led to a terraced iron balcony, and a high ceiling with a whirring fan. Brandon had a double bed he and his brother shared and a single chest of drawers only.
After Joey’s mom left, they shut the bedroom door and played endless games on the carpet in bare feet. They made an obstacle course for the gerbil, who lived in a cage in the closet. They sent him crawling through paper towel rolls, running through a maze constructed from the Encyclopedia Britannica set Mrs. Jenkin had scavenged from the town dump, sliding down a full-length mirror propped against the bed at a tilt, and landing on a mass of pillows.
They played pirates at sea, an adventure game. The double bed was a life raft, drifting on the savage ocean. They let Brandon’s little brother be the shark, circling and leaping from the carpet and biting at their arms and legs. Bran had a handful of GI Joe action figures from his favorite cartoon, but Joey had no interest in America’s daring, highly-trained special missions force, so they flung them out the window, praying they wouldn’t hit someone in the parking lot below and hoping they would. The boys sprinted through the apartment, past Mrs. Jenkin where she was still meditating, down the endless metal staircase of Building C, through the heavy door, and into the sunburst of summer. They raced like dogs on the scent, scanning to find the Joes in the bushes along the edge of the pavement. Joey would remember the excitement of spotting a camouflaged leg and pulling it from the rhododendrons, holding the action figure high above his head, and laughing jubilantly as the sun caught the shine on the helmet.
In their final game of the day, they were Han Solo and Princess Leia from The Empire Strikes Back. They re-enacted the scene when Princess Leia is tied up in Jabba the Hutt’s lair. She says, “I love you.” He says, “I know.” They didn’t have a bikini. Joey wore Bran’s swim trunks, two sizes too small. He placed his hand over his mouth, so Bran kissed the back of Joey’s hand and Joey kissed his own palm.
“Lady men!” Brandon’s little brother sang. “Pussy boys!” He was one to talk, standing in a green pillowcase with the pillow still in it, his face smeared with his mother’s liquid green eye shadow. “Har har har,” he added in Jabba’s deep, growling voice. Even with the makeup, his face was all toothless, juice-stained grin. It took just one karate kick from Bran for his brother to go running to Mrs. Jenkin, screaming, “The boys are making out!” Mrs. Jenkin pushed everybody out of the tiny kitchen where she was assembling a tuna fish sandwich with avocado. “I need room to breathe, dammit.”
When Joey’s mom came to pick him up, Mrs. J. told her straight out, “Brandon and Joey are playing like they’re boyfriends.”
“She lives in Cuckoo Land,” Joey’s mom said in the car.
“We were just practicing,” Joey said. He knew this sounded wrong.
She nodded and arched an eyebrow. “Play the fight scenes.”
Bran was his best friend for one summer. Afterwards, Mrs. Jenkin got her professional masseuse license and started working out of the apartment all day. Joey’s mom said it wasn’t appropriate for him to be there along with oiled, naked people. Then the Jenkins won a court case and got $15,000 inheritance from a dead uncle. They bought a condo on the other side of Grange in a better complex called Stonehill Gardens.
Joey and Brandon got split up in fifth grade. Brandon went to Milton M. Hood Middle School near the shopping plaza. Everyone called it The Hood because it was in the heart of Grange’s rough downtown area. Joey attended East Brookside. Newly constructed, it housed a real theater with stadium seating and professional lighting, an enticement that made the split acceptable to Joey. His first year there, he played the Tin Man in the The Wizard of Oz. Brandon saw the show but didn’t come to say hi afterwards when all the actors jumped off the stage to autograph programs for their families and friends. That next week, he and his brother sent Joey a letter, written in colored pencils with funny drawings of turtles and frogs in the margins, telling Joey he was a great Tin Man and Dorothy was hotter than any girl at The Hood. “Her smokin’!” Bran said.
When Joey’s mom saw the letter, she sighed. She didn’t say, “Good old Brandon Jenkin,” like she said about other kids Joey had lost touch with in the middle school split.
Joey planned to write back and tell Bran he felt shy in fifth grade. The play had made things better for about a day. Now all the kids were back to calling him Mr. Mute. One day he said only five words, “Excuse me” and “I’m not sure.” Most things could be communicated with a nod or a shake. The lunch lady asked him if he wanted a fruit cup. He nodded, yes. Mashed potatoes? He shook, no. Joey liked the drawings of the turtles and frogs. Of course he wanted to still be friends.
Too much time slipped away. Then he couldn’t write back. It would have seemed weird at that point.
Every year, Grange’s kids grew dirtier; the downtown awnings became tattered; businesses soaped the windows, leaving behind empty spaces with for rent signs. Kids of The Hood punctuated every side street and gas station convenience store. They wore oversized jerseys and baggy cargo pants. They gained weight and took up cigarettes. They copulated and vegetated like weeds. If you asked Joey’s mom, theirs was the only nice family left in Grange. Nice kids went to college. Nice families moved to the seacoast. But his mother could not leave. “This is the town we loved,” she explained. Joey knew we meant her and his father. It was the only detail he knew about the man who’d been gone since the beginning of time, as far as Joey was concerned, the man who in his imagination had no face, just a smudge where a face should be. For the next twelve years, his mother hunkered into their little Cape, keeping her door locked, peering out the window every time a car rattled around the cul-de-sac, and leaving for work only.
No longer Joey but Joe, he came home from college. He spent his first day searching online for glamorous jobs in far-off destinations—stagehands wanted in a European theatre troop, English teachers needed for a Chinese study abroad program. He spent hours filling out the application for a ranch job in Idaho at a place called Luckie Stables, emailing it just before sunset. Out of all the ads, this one seemed meant to be. It fit his paperback novel fantasy of wide-open spaces, muscle-building manual labor, and cute ranch hands named Ricky. Joe had a liberal arts degree from the state university and a lot of imagination but hardly any real-world experience, if you didn’t count shelving videos at Movie Scene.
He searched in secret while his mom was at work, knowing she was thrilled to have him home. She had painted his bedroom walls a deep blue and hired Service Magic to redo the floors, a huge expense considering her thirteen-dollar-an-hour wage in the Women’s Department at Macy’s. That night, she stayed up late with him, watching videos of his high school musical productions and gossiping about old friends. Gina Denmark, a tall girl with manic energy, had fallen out with her liberal parents after joining the Marines. Casey Manuel, a jock their group had transformed into a musician, was playing lead guitar with a funk band in the Boston scene. One kid, Greg Castleton, had actually made it to New York and was in his last year at NYU, saving money for headshots and a ticket to Hollywood. Joe didn’t tell his mom Greg had blown it all on weed, liquor, and fancy dinners. Last time he visited Greg during spring break, they had made out behind the stage at the senior showcase.
During their whole talk, Brandon Jenkin’s name did not surface. In fact, he never crossed Joe’s mind. Brandon was already dead, but nobody knew it then.
Long ago, Bran and Joey had struck a pact with razor blades and a lot of blood in the woods behind the apartment complex. They promised to protect each other like brothers. “Now we share the same DNA,” Bran had said. Joey wasn’t sure it worked that way. In those woods, they pretended to be cowboys, a couple of rough riders surveying Grange from a ridge along the edge of the trees. They sat on imaginary ponies, chewing grass and trying out swears. Bran said, “We leaving this shithole behind.” It wasn’t the first time he suggested running away. “Where will we go?” Joey asked. Why go anywhere? he wondered. “West. Just West,” Bran said. He made Joey promise to meet him in the center of the traffic circle at midnight. “Bring money,” he said. Of course, neither of them showed. At least, Joe always assumed Bran hadn’t.
His second morning home from college, Joe awoke to the static voice of the morning DJ reading the news. “Twenty-two year old Grange resident Brandon Jenkin was shot and killed last night, following an alleged dispute with his nineteen year old brother.”
Joe sat up, at first more shocked by the incongruity of Brandon’s name on the radio than his death. The sunlight drenched his bedroom in late morning light. The smell of polyurethane radiated off the floorboards. The energy of summer rushed through him, just as it had that day in the parking lot with the action figure.
The true tragedy of Brandon’s death would not hit Joe until decades later, after he became a father and his own son almost choked in the school cafeteria. His kid’s best friend Michael Woods saved him, this big boy with kind brown eyes who was like Joe’s second son. Mike squeezed so hard, he broke a rib. Sitting in the ER with his husband, Andrew, a wave of guilt hit Joe in the gut. Only then, he realized the impact Brandon’s murder must have had on Mrs. Jenkin.
That morning, in his childhood bedroom, it did not occur to Joe to track down Mrs. Jenkin or send condolences. Instead, he made a singular plan, all in the name of Brandon. He showered and got dressed, carefully choosing a pair of worn jeans and a plain white t-shirt. He combed his hair.
I’m gay. Maybe you already know? Maybe you don’t care. I’m terrified you will.
I don’t want to be the kind of person who runs away, but I can’t face you.
Please forgive me.
He left his cell phone on the kitchen counter. On his way out of town, he withdrew eight hundred dollars, his full savings after four years at Movie Scene.
Why go to Idaho? Joe will later wonder this. In retrospect, he can’t fathom it. The night before his son’s wedding to his grade school sweetheart, they sit at a sticky bar in Boston, gripping Miller Lights. Everyone has gone back to the hotel across the street. Joe marvels at the way his boy knows his own mind, how he has loved the same girl since they were in reading group together in the second grade. There is no finer quality in a man than loyalty.
He tells his son, Grange was not such a shithole. You know. It was the town we loved. Brandon didn’t hate it, either. He felt like he had unfinished business elsewhere. But my reasons for running weren’t so justifiable. Wanting to see the world is fine. When you’re running, you can’t see anything but the monster on your heels, even if that monster is nothing but a shadow.
I rested for a while at a place called Lakefront Park, overlooking the tip of Lake Michigan. The air blowing off the water was so thick I couldn’t see the lake. I eventually fell asleep.
At some point, a train went by. I got out of the car and stumbled around in the dark. I thought I had died.
After the train, every cricket and bullfrog started making noise. They overlapped and intensified until I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. They were singing, “Coward, coward, coward!” In that abandoned lot, I found my shadow, my shame.
Hundreds of thousands of people have driven cross-country, but to me the accomplishment felt heroic. The sun rose and set. The trees scattered, becoming individuals. Each mile was new land conquered. The deeper I went into the West, the closer I came to Han Solo.
I couldn’t see the Red Desert when I drove through it at one am Mountain Time, but I could sense the weight of severe space surrounding me. The horizon became the terrifying black wall of the Rocky Mountains. I kept pressing the gas.
After forty-two hours, I pulled up to the long ranch house of Luckie Stables. I hadn’t thought this part out. I stood at the front door without knocking. It was three in the morning.
From somewhere in the valley behind the house, a dog barked. I stepped off the porch and looked toward the grass. I couldn’t see much. It barked again, so I went into the grass toward it.
He was there, on the edge of the valley. Every hair on my body stood on end. He was just a little kid, standing in the tall grass only a few yards away, dressed in beat up jeans and a t-shirt, the clothes he had worn when I knew him. Brandon. Even though I was fully-grown and dressed exactly like him, he looked badder than I’d ever be, with his filthy black hair and mouth grinning from some secret joke. We stared at each other. Brother, I thought, I love you.
We walked through the grass toward a barn. Was I dreaming? No. It was the strangest and most real moment of my life. Brandon entered the barn through a large open door, and I followed.
He wasn’t inside. Instead, I found a slew of people, sweating and shouting. With all the commotion, nobody saw me. I was inconspicuous.
“Okay now, Louise, you’re okay,” a woman said.
A giant brown horse lay on its side in wet hay, panting in great chugs. Her belly was swollen twice the normal size. Her tail flicked up, revealing two small black hooves, coated in a thin white membrane.
An elderly man crouched behind the horse’s rear. “Don’t take your eyes off her or you’ll miss it,” he said to the group.
The mare rolled onto her back, almost kicking the old man in the head.
“Good girl, Louise,” someone said to the horse.
In the pause before the violent rip, I thought of my mother. I saw her shining gray eyes, her arched eyebrow. She’d told me to “play the fight scenes,” but I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t fought for anything.
The baby colt was born in seconds, wrapped in wet paper. The old man actually caught it. “Give me a towel,” he said. His fingers ripped it free, the drenched head and the twisted legs. He patted down the neck and fluttering eyes.
The poor mare lay in a heap, heaving and forgotten.
The colt tried to stand and fell. “He wants to run, but he can’t even stand,” some boy said. Everybody laughed.
Without a word, I left the barn. I left the valley. I left Idaho. I went home.