B.J. Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America—the winner of the 2012 Society of Midland Authors Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa. His collection of stories, Sightings is forthcoming from Indiana University Press/Breakaway Books. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
We've decided we've had quite enough of Breconshire Drive, so we leave that place. Neither of us thinks to say goodbye to our parents. We are seven-years-old and inseparable, best friends for life-what need do we have for parents? In a few months his parents will inform him he is moving, that they are leaving Breconshire for good, but it will not feel that way.
Bad, I'll think while balled up in my Spider-Man bed sheets. Jeff is leaving Breconshire for bad.
I am losing my best friend, but not yet, and on this summer evening-as we try hard to forget the fresh reams of paper and pencil boxes that have begun appearing in our bedrooms-we decide to leave this neighborhood together.
To hell with it all, we think. We don't have a good sense of what “it all” is, but to hell with it all anyway. We don't need some stupid teacher (who we will later love) running us through stupid ciphers on a stupid blackboard. And we certainly won't need some Goddamned boss to transfer some Goddamned dad to some Goddamned city in Goddamned Michigan two hundred Goddamned miles away.
We live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, after all-on Breconshire Drive-and what right does a boss have to move a family so far away when my best friend is a part of that family?
This argument will make sense to me when that day arrives, but it is not here yet, and since it is August and the sun stays out late, we decide tonight is the night we leave together for good.
Three months before leaving, our summer began with the tent worms.
“Take this,” Jeff says, handing over a baseball bat or a tennis racket or some other weapon of choice. I do, gripping whatever I am assigned to grip as Jeff shimmies up the tree. He bear hugs the bough, inch-worming upward and kicking off bark until arriving at the opaque tents spun into the branches. We have gotten it into our heads that these tent worms are killing the trees, and since we love God, and our country, and those trees, we believe it our patriotic duty to slaughter those velvet-furred invaders.
Do not be fooled by their velvet, we remind one another, those creatures are treacherous.
Of course, we are the treacherous ones, murdering indiscriminately. Secretly we love when those tent worms crawl across our hands and feet, but what we don't love are their vast networks of tent cities, the way they ensnare entire trees in their tightly-wrapped cocoons. We tear away at their cities with our weapons of choice, shredding the webs and watching as hundreds of our beloveds spill down like a busted piñata. They can't spin fast enough to keep themselves from falling, and I watch them-all those furry heads knocked cold-while awaiting my orders.
The orders are given, and their bodies bleed green as I stomp them out of existence. Jeff leaps down to join me, and suddenly we are just a couple of blood lusting boys clip-clopping a frantic two-step while the neighbors watch on. We don't stop smashing until the last of those writhing bodies turns to jelly.
Once the massacre concludes, we share a high-five and a prolonged slurp from the garden hose.
None of those neighbors thank us.
We leave Breconshire Drive by the path alongside the guardrail where once-in an attempt to prove his tight roping skills-Jeff slipped, his split-legged fall crushing his testicles as his face shifted from pink to red to purple. His hands pushed down hard on his crotch as if searching for a reset button. And then, quite suddenly, he recovered, laughed it off, and we walked freshly healed back to his two-story house at the end of the street.
We survived that and so much more (bug bites, rug burns, crawdad claws), so when it comes time to leave our neighborhood for good we just do. We walk in the middle of the street-to hell with it all-and cut across somebody's property until arriving at the field beyond the last house. In the middle of the field sits the saltlick that Jeff once licked on a dare. Never mind that his act was the equivalent of French kissing a deer. We loved deer after all, and how else does one show love for a deer?
“If we get thirsty,” Jeff explains as we continue our march, “we can always just lick the salt.”
I nod, my friend is a genius; this is further confirmation.
We walk together but not quite, his stride pulling forward a few inches more than my own. I try to keep up, but I am still the chipmunk-cheeked little boy, while he's the blossoming athlete. One day at recess he and I will take on the entire grade at soccer and win. (Or he will win; I will complain of a side cramp).
In everything we do, Jeff is just a little bit faster and a little bit stronger and a little bit better than me. I adore him for it. He shows me how to choke up on the baseball bat so I, too, can knock one out of the park. He teaches me how to leap heart first onto the slip-n-slide so my body can spill to the grass. He's even better at Nintendo than me, his elbows jerking like a marionette as his thumbs smash onto the controller. We like the two-player games best-Contra, in particular-and even after all my lives run out he never gives up on me.
Steal one of my lives, he urges. I can't kill all these guys alone.
After a few minutes spent tromping past the guardrail, and the salt lick, and deeper into the field, Jeff turns to me and says, “I found some magazines, the kind with naked ladies.”
His discovery had been made at a relative's house a few month's back, though this is the first he's mentioned it.
“What did you see?” I ask, now trying even harder to keep pace.
“I don't know,” he shrugs. “Everything.”
I have no idea what everything includes, and for a brief moment, the image of French kissing a deer beside a saltlick mashes up with what I imagine a naked lady might look like (also, in my mind, beside a saltlick).
Love, I think, must be some combination of these things, but I know the answer is nowhere on Breconshire Drive.
We keep walking. Maybe we talk about other things but I doubt it. My mind is still latched to the ladies in the magazines. Several more minutes are lost until I look up to see our neighborhood in miniature.
It's getting darker now, and I am maybe just a little bit scared.
“How much farther you think we'll go?” I ask.
“Who knows,” he says, leaping over a stick, “I guess we got a ways.”
Two months earlier, nature's second assault arrived in the form of Japanese beetles. We know they kill trees for sure (our fathers confirmed it), but since they can fly, our two-step slaughter tactic proves mostly ineffective. A neighbor shows us the proper way to kill them, which is to buy a beetle bag and connect it to a pole in the front yard. One after another, they land atop the bag's slick yellow slide and slip down the perilous chute. Jeff and I army crawl for a closer look at how those curious beetles click and buzz and hurl themselves into hell. The bag overflows with their bodies, their shells glinting in the sun like the insides of seashells. Peering inside, we watch them crawl their way to the top of the pile, all those limbs crushing their brethren beneath.
Jeff presses his hands around the bottom half of the bag and squeezes, feels the way their bodies push back against the pressure. The bag is a torture chamber, and while several years will pass before I ever hear rumor of things like mustard gas and concentration camps, when I finally do, I will think back to that bag.
“Feel them,” Jeff orders, removing his hands so I can take his place.
I crouch, turn my hands into c's, and I feel them.
I think: I wonder if they feel me, too.
By now, Jeff and I have journeyed well past the guardrail, and the salt lick, and the neighborhood, and are making good time. Somewhere, beyond the field, is a car dealership. I know because once, as we drove past, my mother pointed it out.
“That's where Jeff lives,” she said, but I didn't believe her. I couldn't yet fathom a world in which property lines fit together. Didn't understand, either, how a flat map of America might include all the houses on Breconshire Drive. How could a map know about the neighborhood's pine trees, picnic tables, the ditch, and the low-swooping bats? How could something as vast and complex as best friends ever be confined to paper?
Maybe, I think, if we just keep walking until we reach the dealership, then the salesman will give us a car. And maybe, I think further, if he gives us a car, he'll fill the trunk with candy!
We are to be rewarded for our bravery, and since we've walked farther from home than ever before, surely some kind salesman will toss us the keys to a car and wish us well in our travels.
Jeff will drive (I'll ride shotgun with my seatbelt fastened), and as we pull out of that lot, we'll glance in the rearview to watch that salesman shrink smaller and smaller, until he, too, is back to being a boy.
Our final summer slaughter occurs just days before Jeff and I leave Breconshire Drive. After months spent ridding the world of its infestations, one day we wake to find there is nothing left but dust. Since May we'd watched from Jeff's kitchen window as construction crews decimated the forest at the edge of our neighborhood.
They are the tree killers, we realize, glaring at the machinery. It has always just been us.
Still, we blame the ants they leave behind, and we bulldoze every anthill in sight, pulverizing anything with six legs and watching wild-eyed as those thoraxes and abdomens try to scurry away. They can't. We don't let them. We are everywhere, after all, and they are just stupid ants.
Those anthills stretch for a football field or more, but we don't tire of the game. Nor do we bother tricking ourselves into false heroics-those ants aren't hurting trees. We hurt them mostly because they are ants and we are people and we are everywhere. We hurt them because although we are small, they are smaller, and they can be hurt, and we can do the hurting. We destroy their homes for the same reasons we kill tent worms and Japanese beetles. Because somewhere in our futures is a boss who will one day say, “Jeff's Dad, it's time for you to move your Goddamned family to Goddamned Michigan.”
There will be nothing we can do to protect our homes, either.
“Here,” Jeff says as we tromp through the field, “I want you to have this.”
He hands me a plastic orange ring.
I love it.
I love it because Jeff gives it to me.
That car dealership is apparently nowhere, and while we don't turn around exactly, we begin circling back in a curve so wide it seems we're still moving forward. It is dark now, and we can just barely see the shadowed houses calling for us louder than our mothers. Later, we will blame our poor navigation on the dark-how we meant to keep going but got confused, and somehow, ended up back in the safety of our homes, tucked tight in our Spider-Man bed sheets.
Jeff will soon leave, but those tent worms return the next summer, as do the beetles, and the ants. One day I will wake to find I can't kill them all alone.
On another day, that field will transform into a megastore, and on the day just before that, the salt lick will melt to a puddle. One fall night as the bats swoop low, the last deer in Breconshire will leap over a picnic table, wade through a ditch, and search out a better field.
One that is not a megastore. One with us still in it.