“I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form,
Come in, she said, I’ll give you…
Shelter from the storm.”
—Bob Dylan, ‘Shelter from the Storm,’ Blood on the Tracks (1975)
The months that followed felt like an unraveling. For so long, the group had felt like an unbreakable cluster. We acted in complete union and harmony, like a single, giant organism, inhaling and exhaling as one.
In the wake of Brisby’s death, the bond felt loosened, frayed at the edges. It wasn’t complete, and it didn’t happen overnight, but by early spring, it was undeniable. There was a false note shattering the harmony, a subtle arrhythmia, throwing off the beat.
At first, I attributed the disconnect to the sour mood surrounding Brisby’s death. After all, we had learned precious little about her death. All we knew was that her body had been found at a defunct construction site on the south side of town, some sort of expansion project at the old Reynolds plant that had been abandoned before the factory closed its gates.
According to Whistler’s connections, she had been lured there and killed, but that was about all we knew. No one had seen her or heard from her that evening, and Karl hadn’t managed to dig up any new leads regarding our business rivals. We were at a standstill, and the lack of certainty tainted everything, like a thick cloud of poisonous gas.
For the most part, business operations—both at the Hall and within our distribution networks—continued as normal, but the mood was entirely different. Zevon even had to break up a few fights here and there, one between Toke and Farley and another between Mule and UB.
Whistler could see that his little brotherhood was beginning to crack, and he was wearing the strain like a yoke across his shoulders. He spent more and more time smoking weed in the back room, and his loud, unrestrained laugh started sounded more and more manic.
One night, I spent a few hours drinking at the Hall and shooting pool, but then, about eleven o’clock, I felt the sudden urge to get out, an abrupt and unmistakable sense of claustrophobia. I grabbed two cans of Budweiser from the fridge, slipped them into the pockets of my shorts and walked quietly out the front door.
Zevon, who was working at his usual post, was the only one to notice. “You leaving?”
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Just feel like a walk.”
“Alright, just be careful,” he replied. “The sky has been dark all day.”
As I walked back towards the main campus quad, I could smell the approaching rain. It was the kind of thick, humid evening that was an inevitability of the fickle Midwestern spring. One day, the evening air would be almost chilly, and the next would bring a heat that bordered on the unbearable, pregnant with a humidity you could almost taste.
It was the kind of weather that always threatened severe storms, but I wasn’t overly worried. The front had been stagnating in the west all day long, yet it had only sprinkled rain a few times.
I walked down to the Whitehaven campus and sat down against a tall oak tree in the center of the upper quad, cracking open one of the beers that was weeping with condensation in my pocket. Though the chill had faded from the can on the walk over, the beer still felt cool and refreshing as I sat in the stiffling air.
Despite the relatively early hour, the campus was mostly empty. A few people shuffled back and forth along the sidewalks that crisscrossed the quad, but I mostly found myself sitting alone, listening to the deafening sounds of silence that settled over the area.
I looked back over my shoulder at an old wooden swing hanging from a bough of the Oak tree. The massive and ancient tree was a point of emphasis for a student ambassador when I had my freshman orientation. “Every student who has ever attended Whitehaven has swung on this particular swing.”
The statement seemed beyond ridiculous, even to a lost freshman in his first days on the campus. Even if the swing was old enough to fulfill the ambassador’s lame prophesy, there was no way that every student had sat on it at one time or another. I made it a point, right then and there, to vow that I would never sit on that swing.
To hell with your traditions and institutions, and fuck your petty, nostalgic pride.
As I finished the first beer and popped open the second, I walked down through the manicured landscaping that lined the central path cutting across campus. The students had affectionately dubbed the stretch the “rape garden” because the ornamental grasses and seasonal foliage created dark shadows that completely blocked large sections of the path from any light.
Making my way down the walkway, I understood the name more fully than I ever had before. I was clutched with a brief sense of irrational panic, as if there were some sort of stalker hiding in the thick bushes, waiting to reach out and pluck me from the shadows.
It was stupid, of course, but I knew the sensation well. It was the kind of absurd fear that had haunted me as a child—afraid of being at home alone after nightfall, the eerie impression I felt walking alone through the sanctuary at church, the uneasy feeling I got when I went into my grandparents’ attic.
Suddenly wanting to be free of the strange panic, I stepped through a set of ornamental grasses and found myself standing at the base of the chapel’s stone steps. I recalled the moment I met Brisby in this very spot. I could still see her bounding from the shadows with chipper excitement.
It had only been a few months, but it felt like an eternity. A wholly different lifetime.
I’m not sure why, but I swallowed the last few gulps of the lukewarm beer and chucked the can at the front steps. A truly worthless and immature act of petty rebellion.
I turned and walked away from the campus, heading vaguely south towards absolutely nothing.
I was two blocks from campus when I heard the first clap of thunder. “Of course,” I muttered to myself, a moment before the first thick drops of rain fell. By the time I reached the end of the block, it was raining in thick sheets, and lightning was crackling in every direction. I was a mile away from the Hall and a half a mile away from my dorm, so I decided to turn around and head back towards the chapel, which would at least give me a safe, dry place to wait out the storm.
As I turned to head back, I found myself facing headlong into the brunt of the storm, a stiff wind pelting my face with buckets of water. I held up my hand to block as much rain as I could and started trudging back up the block. After a few steps, I noticed a porch light flickering on at my right. I turned and saw a figure standing on the front porch, screaming towards me through the rain.
Though her words were swallowed by the wind, and she was little more than a dark silhouette, I could tell that she was calling me over, and anything was better than walking through that stinging rain.
As I stepped off the curb, my feet sank down into a shallow stream of rainwater, flowing through the gutter. I felt a cold rush as the water fully soaked my already damp shoes.
Half-way across the street, I could see that it was Caroline. She was standing on her front porch in an oversized and worn Chicago Bears sweatshirt. She waved excitedly at me, her chest heaving as she laughed at my struggles. “Get in here!” she shouted. “Get out of that rain!” I bounded up the stairs and stood motionless in the entryway to the house, dripping on the hardwood floor. “Yikes! You’re soaked,” she said, still chuckling. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” She disappeared around the corner, leaving me shivering in the air conditioned hallway.
Next to me on top of a book shelf was a picture of Caroline from high school, leaning against a bottle of spiced Jamaican rum. I picked the picture up and turned it around in the semi-dark hallway, catching the light bleeding in from the opposite room. She was leaning against an old silver Camaro, her mouth cracked open, caught in mid-laugh. That loud, carefree laugh that had always reminded me of Aimee, frozen forever in the frame.
She returned carrying a large, plush towel. “Ugh,” she said, “you’re soaked to the core. Go ahead and take off your clothes.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” I said, flashing a toothy grin.
“Shut up,” she said, slapping me on the shoulder and throwing the towel at me.
I stripped down to my boxer shorts and wrapped myself in the towel, hauling the dripping mess of clothes into the living room.
“I’ll take those,” she said, grabbing the pile from my hands. I slipped back into the hallway and grabbed the bottle of rum before returning to the couch. When she returned, I held the bottle up and shrugged my shoulders.
She stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips with a devious smile. The old, frayed sweatshirt was long enough to cover her shorts, leaving the impression that she wasn’t wearing anything at all but the ratty old shirt. She looked absolutely stunning, reflected in the soft gold light of living room.
Just looking at her knocked the wind from my chest, filled me with a longing so intense that I could scarcely breathe. It reminded me of staring up at the stars above the Illinois River. Getting lost in the impossible depth of the limitless universe above.
Still shivering from the cold rain, I could feel her warmth as she slid into the couch next to me. She smiled warmly and grabbed the bottle from my hand, taking a pull. When she dropped her chin back down again to hand me the bottle, I could see that her left eye and cheek were red and swollen. I hadn’t noticed before in the dark, but now that she was sitting next to me, the wound was obvious.
“What happened to your…” I reached out to brush my hand against her cheek. She grabbed me arm and said nothing, just slowly shaking her head from side to side.
I had seen Karl’s rage often enough to know the truth, though I had stupidly convinced myself that he’d never go that far. This wasn’t the first time that I had marveled at the human capacity for self-delusion, but our ability and willingness to ignore the obvious sometimes has no bounds.
“It’s ok,” she said, pressing her hands to my lips. “It happened, and now it’s over.”
For a long time, those true crime shows on cable had been one of my guilty pleasures—an hour of grisly crime-scene footage narrated by a stiff news anchor with a trench coat and ominous voice. I’d always marveled at the battered women, the ones who made excuses, who stayed in the relationship just a little too long.
How could they be so stupid? Why didn’t they get out sooner?
In truth, I had been no different, staying with Whistler despite all of the obvious warning signs. If Whistler and his little band of brothers were an abusive husband, I had been a battered housewife from the very beginning.
The truth is so much easier to recognize in others.
“It’s not ok…”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know,” she said. “I’m not one of those pathetic girls that makes excuses, I know.” I could see that tears were welling up in her eyes, but her voice remained calm, unwavering. “I mean that it’s ok because it’s done. That’s the way things were with us, anyway.” She took a deep breath. “It was bound to finish explosively…” She trailed off and stared over my shoulder, finishing a thought in her mind that she was unable, or unwilling, to put into words. “I’ll get us some glasses and a few cans of Coke,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen.
When she came back, I suddenly felt awkward, sitting in wet underpants and wrapped in a towel next to my friend’s ex-girlfriend. I did my best to make small talk as she poured us each a glass. “When did you move here?” I asked. “I thought you lived over by the Country Market.”
“I did,” she said. “I moved in here last month. Guess I just needed a change.” For a moment, she looked lost again, then she shook her head and turned back to me. “I needed something after Angie…”
From the time I had known her, Caroline had been the only one in the circle that refused the nicknames. With the exception of Whistler, she called everyone by their real names. I put my hand out on her shoulder and squeezed. “I know it was hard,” I said. “It’s been rough on everyone.”
She turned and gave a grateful smile before shaking away the demons. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said.
“Ok, well, whose place is this?”
“My friend Lori rents it,” she said. “Her roommate flipped out after her o-chem final, packed up her shit and left, said she wasn’t coming back.”
“Where’s Lori?” I asked.
“She’s at her boyfriend’s place. Won’t be back until morning.”
I tried to picture Lori. Though I was good with faces, I was always shit when it came to remembering names. “Lori? You mean Ma…” I stopped myself abruptly. In the hours before the girls showed up at the Hall, we often discussed the regulars in graphic detail. We had our own nicknames for most.
“You can say it,” she said. “You call her man-hands.” She was spot-on with our nickname. We had delved into more than one conversation regarding her enormous hands, most of which ended with the finer points of receiving a hand job from a girl with a fat palm. Though both UB and Mule had given it a go, the results were mixed. “You probably thought I didn’t know about your little nicknames,” she said. I shook my head and smiled, blushing in spite of myself. “What’s your nickname for me?”
Though we talked about Caroline quite a bit, she somehow seemed to be above a lot of it. The bawdy talk, the strange nicknames, our sometimes cruel interactions with one another—she seemed to hover above our bullshit with a knowing, accepting grin.
“We really don’t have one,” I said. “I think everyone is too afraid of Karl.”
She huffed loudly and shook her head. “Figures.”
I realized that I had ruined the mood. It was a painfully recurrent path that I found myself following. I seemed to have a habit of poisoning the well when it came to moments like this.
She shook her head again, wafting away the bad thoughts with a swish of her hands. “Ok, ok” she said. “Then let’s figure it out,” she said. “What feature about me do you think stands out?”
I looked at her and smiled. I thought at first about mentioning her long legs or her full lips. The handful of conversations I’d had outside of Karl’s earshot usually involved various applications for her full lips. As I looked at her, though, I suddenly found myself desperate to tell her the truth. It had been so long since I had told someone the complete, unabashed truth.
That’s the thing about loneliness that nobody remembers. When you are in a relationship or surrounded by love, you think about the physical touches and the emotional highs that you get from that other person, but real connection isn’t about any of that stuff. Real connection involves the ability to look a person in the eye and release the baggage that’s been weighing us down. We’re drawn into relationships of all kind by chemistry—physical attraction, a mingling of kindred spirit, the magnetic pull of finding someone who understands our way of thinking—but we stay with people for the catharsis, the release that comes through complete and unabashed honesty.
That was the difference between this place and home. That was the difference between Whistler’s band of brotherhood and the brothers I had back in Drury—in the ground and above it. Even with everything we’d been through, I could still not look at Whistler or Karl or Bonnie and speak with absolute honesty. Too many walls still existed.
As I followed my winding train of thought, she reached up and grabbed my chin, turning my face towards her. “Come on,” she said. “I want to know. What’s my best quality.”
“Your laugh,” I said. “Hands down.”
She pulled back and smiled, her cheeks growing red. I had the feeling that she was prepared for the sexual overture, a direct and physical flirtation, but my answer had thrown her off.
I reached over and freshened our drink with a fresh shot of rum and a bit more Coke. “You alright?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, still blushing. “I guess that was just a really good answer.”
Within an hour, the bottle, which was almost full when we started, was nearly empty. We were both feeling warm and cloudy from the spiced rum, and we had started telling each other stories about our childhood. She had been raised in South Carolina, not far from Myrtle Beach.
“You don’t have an accent, though,” I said.
“Yes, I do. It’s just not a South Carolina drawl anymore.” She laughed loudly and slapped my leg. “When I spend more than a few days with my mother, it comes raging back,” she said, snorting a bit as she laughed. “Like it’s some sort of dormant virus!”
“Do I have an accent?” I asked.
“Naw,” she said, mimicking her Southern roots. “You Culver County boys don’t have an accent at all.”
“You’re being a smart ass,” I said. “I don’t have an accent.”
“Oh really?” she asked. “Say concrete. Go ahead say it.”
Though I thought her request was ridiculous at first, when I said the word, I heard it. Con-crit, instead of crete. She doubled over laughing, slapping hysterically at her leg.
“Ok, ok,” I said, “at least I’m true to my roots.”
She straightened up, holding her hand to her chest in mock-offense. “I’m true,” she said, “it’s just that South Carolina hasn’t been my home since I was little. My mother was born and raised there. I moved when I was seven.”
“You still remember, it though?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I remember the beaches. My mom and dad would take me there every weekend. I loved the smell of the ocean. The feel of wet sand between my toes.”
“I feel that way about the river,” I said. “I could sit and watch it all day, the swirl of that dark water, the pull of the current.” She looked at me and smiled, nodding her head. “I guess that part is universal. No matter how much we want to get away, we’re connected to our home.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but as much as I love it, I don’t think I ever want to go back.” She looked off into the corner, staring deeply at absolutely nothing. “Maybe California,” she said. “The same but completely different, you know?”
In some ways, that is exactly what I had been looking for since the moment I left town. Brothers of a different kind, a home of a different kind, feelings of a different kind—familiarity without the baggage, all the comfort without any of the pain.
In one of the more impulsive acts of my life, I leaned forward and kissed her, pressing myself onto her fully, tasting the sweet, cherry taste of her lips.
Somewhere inside me alarm bells were ringing, a deeply logical warning that told me this was a bad idea. Whether it was a fear of Karl, or a fear of violating some kind of universal man-code, I couldn’t be sure, but a second after I did it, I felt ashamed.
I leaned back and looked her, half-expecting her to slap me upside my head.
She leaned forward, put her hand against my chest and kissed me back, rocking me gently back on the couch and lingering on top of me.
Though I still wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, there was not going to be any way to quiet the louder voice rambling through my bones.
It might not have been smart, but it felt better than anything had in a very long time.
I grabbed her around the waist and rolled with her onto the floor, landing on top of her. We fell into the rhythm of each other as the storm outside kicked up again, the rain pelting the windows in slow and steady waves.