Marvin Shackelford is author of a poetry collection, Endless Building (Urban Farmhouse). His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Epiphany, Hobart, FiveChapters, Southern Humanities Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. He resides in the Texas Panhandle with his wife, Shea, and earns a living in agriculture.
Clean and Bright and Leaving the Body
Brian, who’d always been my cool friend, kind of my sensei for pot and music and making a career out of college, got bald and fat. And his little brother Mikey had, too. They were redheads, real Irish, and I don’t know why it surprised me so much. I found them dressed in khakis and dress shirts, looking like a couple of displaced little boys. They’d lost their earrings, tongue rings, had no tattoos showing, looked clear in the eyes. Brian pulled his wallet from his pocket and showed me a picture of his little boy, Dylan. Then he flipped open his phone to show me more. Freckly, full head of black hair, tiny and smiling. He was dressed in baseball and soccer uniforms in most of them, apparently leading a life of running and kicking and swinging.
“You wouldn’t believe the wild times we have, Vance,” he said.
We’d run together at a coffee shop in Joliet, and I almost didn’t recognize them. When Brian tilted back his head and laughed, though, next table over from me, I knew the high lilt of his voice, childish and manic. I was a little baked and stammered my way into a hello. We hugged and slapped backs, consolidated to a single table, and started catching up. I’d met Brian at college and Mikey after that. They were both older than me, but it took Brian eight years to get his undergrad. He’d finally become an accountant and had been cleaning up since, he said. Tax code was king. He always talked about being a lawyer, back in college, but that would’ve been too long a haul. His family was rich, owned a bunch of grain elevators across western Illinois, so I’m not sure it mattered what he did. But he was happy with how things were going. He asked if I was good on the return front. I told him I was okay, nothing much to bother with, and he gave me a business card just in case.
Mikey didn’t say much, looked from his coffee to the window, busy street beyond and back to the table again. He hadn’t finished college. He dropped out and bounced around and had landed with the state highway department not too long ago. He’d gotten an apartment in Joliet but spent a lot of his time on the road—literally, he said—working on big projects. Taxpayer dollars hard at work, he said.
“So you guys get them going and coming, huh?” I said. They stared at me. “Taxes.”
Brian laughed. Mikey checked his watch and then looked at his brother.
“We ought to get going,” he said. He glanced to me. “We’ve got this thing.”
“Baptism,” Brian said. He clapped him on the back. “Mikey’s getting baptized at his church. That’s what I’m up for.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what one said in that situation. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” He wiggled around in his chair.
“Yeah, we ought to get going,” Brian said. “I rode the train in, so I need to call an Uber.”
“I can give you a ride,” I said. “I’m not busy.”
“It’s in Aurora.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I don’t know,” Mikey said.
“Really. I don’t mind. I’m excited to see you guys.”
“Okay,” Brian said. “Let’s do it.”
We exited the shop and loaded Brian’s suitcase into the trunk of my car. He got in the front seat and his brother in back. Mikey asked if it was okay to smoke. He cracked the window and lit up. I wasn’t as free as I’d made out—I had a comp class in half an hour. I sat long enough to get my head together and then used my phone to send a group email, canceling. I didn’t figure a day would hurt, and most of them probably wouldn’t have shown up, anyway. That’s what I’d made of my life in the years since I last saw Brian and Mikey. Two grad degrees and teaching intro courses at a community college. I had a girlfriend who was on the outs with me and a novel that wouldn’t ever be finished. A mountain of debt I’d never crawl out from under. I didn’t mind giving them a ride at all, kind of liked the idea of going somewhere else for a while. Anywhere.
I got out into traffic, past the worst of the morning rush hour but moving slow with some construction they’d been at for forever. I wondered if Mikey critiqued them as we drove past their blockades and barrels and cones. If there was an art to it or if it just sucked everywhere. Brian and I got back to talking. We were surprised we hadn’t run into each other before. Both of us had grown into pretty decent Cubs fans and attended games, though we sat in different sections. He sat with his kid behind the plate, had friends and clients with tickets to give away all the time, and I sat high up in the cheap seats. We ran off a list of games we’d been to in the last year and found a good bit of overlap.
We got to cataloguing people we used to know, drug up some stories from the good old days. The ride was enough to take me back—I’d been the only one of us with a car in college. They’d come to Monmouth, its small college, from Chicago, on the train or dropped off by their parents. I’d come from Nashville and had to get myself around. I earned my keep, more or less, driving where they needed to go. Cigarette and beer runs, grocery trips, the occasional date-night chauffeuring. They’d practically had a personal driver. We had one tradition we called Breakfast in Iowa. After a late night drinking we’d pile in my car and drive the 45 miles to Burlington, just across the river, and eat a sunrise meal at a small café full of farmers and little old retired men. We laughed, remembered the stupidity and pointlessness of it, and I saw even Mikey smile a little in the backseat. We got quiet for a minute after that, though, and then he spoke into the lull.
“I don’t miss those days too much,” he said. I glanced back at him, and he lit another cigarette off the one previous. “All the booze and dope. I’ve been sober nearly a year now.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“We’re real proud of you, Mikey,” Brian told him.
“I killed a man in Champaign,” he said.
“Jesus, Mikey. You did not.”
“Well, I let him. I let him drive us back to the motel when we were drunk. Guy on the crew with me. I couldn’t stand up straight, and he said all right, okay, he’d suck it up. Julius Whitlock. Good guy, all said. But we were in my truck. He wrapped us around a telephone pole. “Killed him,” Mikey said. “Threw him out the windshield.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s messed up.”
“It is. Messed me up a long time. Made me worse. Couldn’t fix it.”
“You’re doing good now,” Brian said. “We’re all real proud of you, Mikey.”
“I found the Lord, and he saved me.” He chained another cigarette to life. “How are you with the Lord, Vance?”
I looked at him in the mirror, and he locked eyes with me. He held me there a moment before I had to look back to the traffic. Brian was staring out the passenger window, frowning. I had to think about what Mikey meant, how I was supposed to answer it. I’d never been a church person, much less that sort of a person. I wasn’t okay with anybody, and if there had been a God I imagined he’d be displeased with me and I with him.
“I reckon we’re okay,” I finally told him.
We neared Aurora. Mikey directed me off the main drags and onto a side street. Kind of at the edge of where businesses and warehouses turned into the houses of a neighborhood we pulled into a lot with a large steel building surrounded by several dozen cars. It was a Baptist church of some sort and reminded me of the ones all over the South, Independents and Nondenominationals that sprouted up on a budget and with very particular ideas about serving God. I found a spot to park and stopped a moment, waiting for them to hop out and us to say our goodbyes. Brian opened his door but Mikey sat still. His brother asked what was wrong.
“I’m nervous,” he said.
“Serious? This is it.”
“There’s all those people.”
“They don’t matter.”
“Yes,” Mikey insisted, “they do. Baptism is a symbol of what God’s done. A sign.”
“What’s that even mean?” I said.
“Look, come on. We’re here for you. We’ll all go in together,” Brian said.
“I’m nervous,” Mikey said again. I thought he was shaking a little and wondered how he could get so scared.
“All three of us, little dude. Let’s go.”
“You want to get high?” I asked him. “Take the edge off a little?”
Mikey stared at me, and I realized I shouldn’t have said it. I was only half thinking, maybe. I’d meant to be funny, a little serious if he wanted. But his eyes locked on mine and the look on his face was mortifying, heartbreaking. I stuttered for a way to take it back.
“That’s a joke,” Brian said. He gave me a hard look. “A really bad joke.
“Come on,” he said, turning in the seat. “Let’s go.”
He climbed out of the car, then. Mikey took his eyes off the rearview, finally, and followed his brother. Like a dutiful soldier, inspired by his commanding officer just enough to comply. I lowered the window and told them I’d be along in a minute, since I’d become invited. They made their way to the building and entered its nondescript glass doors, Brian keeping a hand on his little brother’s shoulder like he was helping hold him up, or he worried Mikey might bolt. They disappeared from view, and I opened the glove compartment, took out my little glass bowl and baggie of weed. I took a few hits to get a warm buzzing through myself. I didn’t know how they’d brought me to this place, God and church and what sounded like the tail-end of some self-help program or another. He’d been bad on the booze, that I understood, but not the rest. I thought about leaving but sat until I felt going inside was all there was to do.
I entered the foyer, shook hands with a guy and refused his offer of a program. I stepped immediately into their big, carpeted sanctuary and looked around. The preacher was already onstage, firing away, and I couldn’t see Brian and Mikey. I took a seat in the back row of folding chairs and listened to the man go. He was fiery and springy, moving from side to side around the big wooden pulpit set out in front of a mural of a river and mountain turned purple by sunset, or maybe sunrise. He blessed us for being there today, on a weekday, and Lord bless those who weren’t there, too. It took me a moment to realize he was praying. I bowed my head. He was a southerner, I could hear the drawl in his voice, and I thought he was probably doing an all right job. I looked around, spotted Brian, alone, out in a middle row, but decided I’d better stay put.
The preacher finally wrapped it up told us to stay put. We were in for a blessing. The piano and organ came to life, playing soulfully but measuredly, and we sat still. He disappeared through a door at the back of the stage and returned a few minutes later in fishing waders. Behind him came a string of men who could’ve passed for a chain gang, seven of them, but they were dressed in pure white robes. Mikey was there, his tattoos down his arms showing in the short sleeves. He and the others waited to the side while the preacher, with the help of a man from the front row, lifted up a section of the floor. They set it aside, and then the preacher stepped down into the opened space. Water splashed a little with his entry. He settled himself and then checked the microphone still clipped to the front of his white dress shirt.
“People always say I look funny, but I like fishing and I like dry feet,” he said, and everybody laughed. He told us about Jesus’s baptism, and the Spirit’s descending to mark the occasion. God was well pleased in His Son. This was a covenant between God and a man, and a symbol to our fellow people of what God’s done for us, he said, echoing Mikey’s earlier words.
“We enter the old man and emerge the new,” he proclaimed.
Then he motioned the first of the men into the water. The big guy took steps tiny like a child down into the baptismal. They did their do, the preacher having his say and dipping his charges one after another. Mikey was next to last. His face was dark and unsmiling, and he stared at a spot on the floor between the stage and audience. Scared. When his turn arrived he went in, met the preacher and seemed to bob for a moment. The rippling of the water reflected blue and brown against his white robe. He had six inches and fifty pounds on the preacher but somehow managed to look tiny beside him. He clinched and unclenched his fists, scratched at his beard with wet fingers, and then shut his eyes.
“Brother Mike, God bless you,” the preacher said. “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who died on the cross and rose again to forgive your sins?”
“Yes,” Mikey said, and then, again, louder, “yes.”
“Hallelujah, Brother.” The preacher put him under just like he had the others, completely submerged with a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll see you in Heaven.”
Mikey came up gasping and spluttering and soaked. Then he smiled, all his teeth out at once, and I realized I hadn’t seen him look happy at all that morning until then. He tried to blink the water from his eyes, laughing, and hugged the preacher. With his robe soaked and clinging to him the outlines of all his tattoos showed clearly. For a moment I thought I could see the new man rising from what he used to be, clean and bright and leaving the body. But then he started out of the tank and I caught the strong outline of the tattoos on his back. A blue skull on his chest, its long red tongue whipping loose of its jaws, and a Magic 8-ball I knew, even if I was too far away to see it, read FUCK YEAH.
I giggled, sound washed out by the clapping and cries of amen and hallelujah from the congregation. He was still the Mikey I knew. He disappeared from the stage, into the back again, and the preacher ran his last supplicant through the process. I waited until he let us go with a final prayer and then walked out front. A cool breeze pushed through while I waited on the guys, and I wondered if Mikey had found what he wanted, what he needed. He’d looked like it, for whatever that was worth. I’d searched long and hard for the same thing he was after, the relief and vague joy that had wrapped his features up, though in different places, different ways. There was nothing wrong with finding the way out.
When he finally walked from the door, Brian again guiding him by the shoulder, Mikey had a tight-lipped, satisfied look on his face. He’d changed back into his dress shirt and pants, transformed again. He stopped to shake a couple hands and then we shook hands. He squinted in the sun and put a hand up to shade his eyes.
“Congratulations,” I told him again.
“We’re real proud of you,” Brian said.
“Thanks. It feels good.”
“Buy you guys some lunch?”
“I have to work. Just took off for this.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a train home.” Brian checked his watch. “Take a lift if you’re still in the mood, though.”
I told him sure. We loaded in the car again. Mikey told a couple more of his fellow parishioners goodbye and then crawled into the backseat. He lit a cigarette and leaned his forehead against the cracked-open window and rode quietly back to Joliet. All three of us got pretty quiet, drawn a little into ourselves. We’d done things, witnessed things, and there wasn’t much left to say. Mikey directed me to an IDOT outpost, and I dropped him at the curb out front. Brian climbed out to give his brother a hug, and I lowered my window to tell him goodbye, good luck. I started to tell him good to see him again but held back. He nodded to me, sober, patted Brian’s arm, and walked toward the big concrete and metal garage where his future waited.
“Jesus Christ,” Brian said when he climbed back in the car. “To the train station, Jeeves.”
I pulled back into traffic. He leaned back in the seat, covered his eyes and moaned.
“Mikey,” he said. “It was driving me crazy. He acts like he’s always on the brink. I guess he is.”
“I’m sorry, dude.”
“That’s why I do this. It’s keeping him clean. He likes it.”
“He really wreck with that guy?”
“Yeah. One-hundred percent true story. Blames himself. Won’t drive, anymore. Works for the department of fucking transportation and doesn’t drive a car,” Brian said. He laughed his high-pitched laugh. “Listen, thanks for helping with him, going up there. The driving helped.
“When you offered to get him high, though.” He shook his head and punched me in the arm. “Fuck.”
“Sorry. I don’t know.”
“No, I kind of laughed. I almost laughed.”
I was a little taken aback by the sudden shift in the atmosphere, my old friend’s relaxing. He’d slipped into a cadence I remembered, but there was a still a weight hanging on him. I drove us into the center of Joliet. The station sat blocky and gray, still kind of pretty, I thought, in front of the tracks. They were in the process of shutting it down, though, building a newer, somehow better terminal next door. Most of what came through the station was livestock. Cattle, pigs. Whatever they’d slaughtered in Chicago since the beginning of time. Passenger trains still came through, though, and Brian said he had half an hour before his. Bounce into Chicago and then back out the three hours into the countryside. I parked us at the far end of the quiet lot.
“You really got some pot?” Brian said. “I mean, you do. I smelled it.”
He took my pipe from the dash and packed the bowl with shaky, slender fingers. Guitarist hands, thin and nimble-looking, though I was pretty sure he’d never learned to play. I handed him my lighter and he fired into it, taking a long drag. He held his breath several second and then coughed, uncontrollably. I laughed, and he laughed. Gave me the finger.
“Shut up,” he said. “I quit when Dylan was born. I don’t have it in me anymore.”
“I can’t imagine you with kids. I’m so far behind. I can’t imagine anyone with kids.”
“Growing up is awesome.” He took another hit, without the coughing this time, and passed to me. “It doesn’t really change anything. You just, I don’t know. You do it.”
We sat getting high, handing the glass pipe back and forth for a while. I turned the radio on and flipped around the stations. Brian had kept up with his love for music, if nothing else, and he insisted on one of the local college stations. They were playing some sort of jazzy techno. He asked about my job, if I liked it. If it was like still being in college, and I said yeah. Close enough. I went in three days a week but got paid now. He nodded, got quiet.
“What are you supposed to do?” he said after a bit. “I don’t know. Going forward. Getting ahead. Feels like the past is always right here on top of us. You know?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I did know, but I didn’t want to admit it. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m great. Thanks for taking us today,” he said again. He sat for a moment, and then he shook his head. “My brother could have been a lawyer or something, you know.”
“We all could,” I told him. “It isn’t too late.”
“Yes, it is,” Brian said. “It’s okay.”
We sat until we saw a train slowing to a grinding and wailing stop. He checked his watch and then stepped out of the car. I pulled his suitcase from the trunk and handed it to him, and we walked to the platform. Brian told me not to be a stranger. While we waited we traded numbers into each other’s phone. He talked about Thanksgiving, maybe Veterans-Day weekend before that. They had a spare bedroom and all the TV stations and a great view of the countryside. I could meet Dylan, and we’d do it up right. I told him definitely, if not then soon. We’d do it.
An attendant came down from the train and started taking on the handful of people waiting on the platform. We shook hands and then hugged. He boarded the train. I tried watching through the windows but couldn’t see where he went once inside. After several moments the train chugged to life and trumpeted away again, headed downtown. I got back in my car and sat a while to collect myself. I had an afternoon class still, and I had make my way home again after that. The circle of my life. I thought about Mikey afoot on the highway and Brian bulleting his way across the prairie to his home again while I sat very still in their wake, and I knew all too well how hard it was to go forward from a moment that never ended.