The Dead Air


When I dragged myself from the stained and worn-out piss yellow sofa that had served as my bed for the
past six nights, it was noon and raining.  My eyes were blurry and dry from sleeping with my contacts in.  
My back hurt from the couch, and I had to shit, but the plumbing was broken.

The day was looking marvelous already.

I dressed in my clothes from the day before; a soft, dark blue t-shirt, jeans, and Dollar Store black boots
that rubbed my ankles raw.

After grabbing my keys, black hard shell guitar case, and olive duffle bag, I hugged Christina and Claire.  I
told them I loved them and informed them they needed to fix the toilet and burn their sofa.  Then I headed
out the door to greet the dreary-ass Thursday laid before me.

I loaded my stuff into my car, a dolphin gray '83 Volvo 245 turbo wagon I loved immensely for its rugged
good looks and dependability.  It was a graduation present from my best friend Dustin's family.

His family served as my family growing up.  My mom died in a car crash two days after I was born.  After
the accident, my father decided he'd rather get a job on a ridiculous mainstream fishing unit that would
keep him out to sea more often than at an empty house.

I think he blamed himself for the wreck.  He was acting goofy to make my mom laugh, which he did often
and was probably why she married him.  He was not much of a looker, so he developed a sense of humor
to help the situation.  It usually worked to his benefit except for the night he paid more attention to
making Mom laugh than to the road.  He never saw the deer run out in front of us. We hit it and swerved
into a tree.

I was in my mom's arms when it happened.  Our car had no seatbelts because it was a '58 Impala, from a
period before seatbelts were a requirement.  Christina slammed into the side of the car, knocking her
unconscious.  Mother crashed through the windshield grasping me in her arms.  My father flew out as well,
but his head found a much softer fall-breaker than the rock that killed my mom.

I know this because Christina told me.  When I turned six, my father had a lapse of character and decided
to throw a birthday party for me.  Christina is thirteen years older than me, so she was nineteen at the
time and had come home from the University of Georgia to see me.  Besides her and my dad, only Dustin
came.  Not much of a party, I guess, but it was a nice gesture.

After eating the frost bitten ice cream cake from Winn-Dixie, Dustin went home, and my father packed for
his next trip on the boat.  Christina went with me to my room and asked if I ever wondered why I didn't
have a mother around.

The thought had occurred to me several times, especially on the nights I spent at Dustin's house when his
mom would come in before bed and tuck us in.  She would kiss his and my forehead and tell us she loved
us.  We would stay up longer talking and joking, but when he'd go quiet from sleep, my mind would
wander.  I'd get sad and dwell on what was missing from my life that was apparent in his.  But I wasn't
jealous; his mom and dad treated me as if I were their own, and they never made me feel I'd overstayed
my welcome, even when I stayed every night of the week.

It took me longer in life to realize how bad my relationship with my father was.  I think the exact moment
came when Dustin's dad took us camping at Fort Gaines.  We were sitting on the bank a few yards from
our campsite, and his dad was fishing as we sat and watched.  He told us a story about how Dustin's
grandfather always hated to fish because he'd had a dream as a child in which he bit something hard inside
his Twinkie and was pulled out of his living room by an old bamboo pole being held by a large brim with a
menacing stare of determination.  I watched Dustin's eyes as he listened with full attention to his dad's
story.  He was enthralled with every word, every syllable, and I thought about how I never looked at my
father that way.  I can't recall a time he'd bothered to tell me a story.

So when Christina asked me if I ever wondered why I didn't have a mother around, I said yes, but refrained
from asking why I never had a dad who wanted anything to do with me.

She seemed hesitant at first, possibly to take enough time to choose her words carefully.  She began with,
"Well, this is a little hard to say, but I think you're old enough now to understand and not be dramatic
about it."

I wasn't sure what dramatic meant, but I listened enthusiastically, as if I were to be let in on some great
secret.  She remained silent for a few seconds, so I started to feel impatient and asked her to keep going.

Then she spit out the details as if the longer it took her to get it out, the worse off she'd be afterwards.  
She told it pretty much exactly as I explain it to this day, with the rock fall-breaker and all.

She wasted time at the university partying before dropping out and becoming a lesbian at age thirty-four.  
She rented a one-bedroom loft apartment in Bainbridge with Claire.  They both got jobs as waitresses at
Smitty's Diner, and they make enough to live comfortably.

                                                                       ***

My car had no stereo, so it was a quiet drive.

I arrived at his parents' house before one to pick him up.  I didn't stay long, because I felt out of place and
unwanted.  I couldn't think of anything to say to them; I felt they blamed me for not talking to Dustin for
so long.  Like the gap we'd gotten between us was my fault.

With Dustin in the passenger seat, my mind got off his parents, and I began the drive to the mud pond.  
It was half the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot, and it was located in some woods outlining a pasture in
Vada.  He and I found it while riding our bikes and exploring.  Runoff from a slough created the pond, and
it was mixed with cow manure and urine.  It was easy biking distance from my father's house, and
whenever Dustin would stay with me, we'd make the trek.  When we got to be around eleven or twelve,
we'd spend more time at my house than his since my father was always gone.  There were more great
opportunities for trouble when no one was around to watch or care.

The mud pond was our personal dirty haven, and we would spend the night there whenever it wasn't too
cold.  We had a little two-person navy blue tent with a few patches on it to keep some of the bugs out;
the mosquitoes would still drive us crazy so we always packed bug spray. We loved the spot.  It was a
secret between us, and he told me once he held it closer to his heart than anything.

He was able to say things like that without making me feel uncomfortable.  It was something about his
tone and his eyes as he spoke.  I never doubted his sincerity, even when he said the mud pond was the
only place he felt he could die smiling.

The real piss ant part of this whole ordeal was I never told Dustin any of the important events in my life.  It
wasn't because he wouldn't want to listen, no, he was an excellent listener, and he gave great advice.  I
just thought everything I did would be less than what he thought I could do.  He held me up on a pedestal
thinking I was strong for handling my mother's death as well as I did, and for working hard to do well in
school even though I hated every moment of it and had no one in my family to impress because no one
cared.

He didn't understand.  There was nothing to handle about my mom's death; she was just dead.  I was
only a few days old before the accident, so I don't remember anything about her.  I've seen pictures, and
that's it.

He didn't understand I worked hard in school to impress myself.  I tried telling him, but he laughed and
said it made no sense, but it made perfect sense to me.  I looked with envy at the kids who did well in
school even though they seemed to barely try, and I wanted to prove to myself I could do well in my own
way.  I would go home and study my ass off, but at school, I would play it smooth and act as if I didn't
know there was a test today, or I didn't know this was extra credit; I thought we had to do it.

When the events I considered important came up, mostly those concerning girls and sex, I would try to
change the subject.  Sometimes I'd lie and say I had done nothing or even try to pull the "I don't kiss and
tell" routine.  I did this because I thought he would disapprove of the girls I did these things with.  He used
to try to boost my self-esteem by telling me I could have any chick I wanted, but it just made me feel like
he was being sarcastic or something.

Looking back, I think I just misjudged him.  I think I was too paranoid about sharing all this personal stuff
with anyone. I guess I've always been a little off with this whole friendship thing.

                                                                             ***

In lieu of talking as I drove, I tried to focus on the good things about Dustin.  The way he never told his
parents he didn't believe in a god while they hauled him to church every Sunday.  The way he worked at
The Huddle House when school let out until midnight most nights and still made better grades than I.  The
way he remained calm when he saw his ex girlfriend and me holding hands at a redneck party in a field.  Or
the time he helped his neighbor, Miss Pransty, weed her garden even though she was an ungrateful and
creepy hag who stared.  I could go on, but the point I want to make is this:  He was a better man at fifteen
than I am now at twenty.

I wish I would have come back to visit more. Maybe there wouldn't have been so much silence in the car.  
But when I left town the summer after graduation to dip my poor impressionable self into the so-called real
world, I had no intention of spending any more time in Georgia.

My father set up a checking account for me when I was five so I would have money to buy food and
everything else I needed while he was fishing.  Once I graduated, the balance was over seventy thousand
guilt-ridden dollars.  I never spent much of the money growing up since I basically lived off Dustin's family.  
When I graduated, my father told me to keep the checking account and do whatever I pleased with it.

So I moved.  I took the Volvo Dustin's parents gave me and headed to San Francisco where I thought I
could become independent and inspired enough to write a novel.  I didn't want fame; I just loved the idea
of sitting at home in front of a computer making money roll in.

I saw Dustin only once since graduation, a year after I moved.  He decided to fly in so he could get more
cultured and catch up on lost time.  He got there on a Tuesday morning during fall break from Bainbridge's
community college.  He hated going to such an undistinguished college, but he wanted to stay close to his
high school sweetheart Ashley.  He swore he would marry her, but I never really liked her much.  She was
kind of prudish.

We hugged as soon as we saw each other outside the airport, and then I drove us to my apartment.  That
day, we stayed in being lazy and talking about what had been going on with his family.  The next morning,
we got up and ready to go early so we could fit in as much of San Francisco as we could before he had to
leave on Saturday.  We spent most of the time on the piers walking around, talking, and just watching
people.  We went to Ghirardelli for ice cream and took pictures in front of the fountain.  We went to
museums and thrift stores and watched homeless people ramble about and saw one piss on a tree in the
middle of a crowd.  We went to bars at night and ignored no-talent folk singers on stage.  We drank flat
liquor and smoked Black and Milds as we talked about the future.

We decided he'd visit every year, but this was the only time it happened.  Don't ask me why because I
have no idea.

On Dustin's last night there, we wrote a song together.  We considered ourselves songwriters even
though we were the only ones who heard each other's songs.  That night we picked up our guitars, he had
brought his dad's old Martin, and I had my trusty Alvarez I bought in Georgia from a pawnshop.  We wrote
a song we titled The Truth is Raining Down.  It was simple, but it was beautiful to me.  The words didn't
make much sense, but the rhythm reminded me of some of Dylan's first recordings, and I was proud of it.  
We stayed up most of the night practicing it.

At seven the next morning, I drove him back to the airport.  The goodbyes were difficult, but I was glad to
have the apartment back to myself, and I know he was glad to get back to Ashley.

After that, we lost touch.  We'd email each other maybe once every six months.  They were short and
uninteresting ones about random news and happenings in each other's lives.

Two years after his visit, I came close to running out of money because living at ease in San Francisco is
expensive, and my novel was at a standstill.  I had gotten a job at a minor newsletter doing copy and
taking photographs, but it wasn't enough to compensate my expenses.

I called my father and couldn't get a hold of him.  We rarely talked, maybe twice since I moved out.  I still
had a key to the house, so I figured I'd drive myself back to Georgia.

I ran ads in the paper for my furniture, sold some at a garage sale, and then took the rest to Goodwill.  I
put most of my clothes in the trunk of the Volvo, and I packed the ones I wear most often in a duffle bag.  
I put my guitar case in the backseat and walked down the street to eat one last time at Caffé Cozzolino,
which had the best Italian food I'd ever eaten.  I ordered the same thing I always did: fettuccine with
chicken and alfredo sauce.  It seemed like the perfect meal to have before taking off.

When I finished stuffing myself, I walked back and got in my car.  I wavered at first, reluctant to leave the
city.  Once the Volvo sputtered to life, I put it in drive and made my way back.

There was nothing special about the drive.  Since the Volvo had no stereo, I rode with a blistering
soundtrack of old country favorites in my head.  Nothing like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash burning in your
brain while you're making your way back to a place you hoped to always avoid.

After almost thirty-nine long, boring, and forlorn hours, and only stopping twice to eat and seven extra
times for piss breaks, I arrived back in good ole' south Georgia.  I was in somewhat good spirits despite
being exhausted and dry-mouthed.

The lights were off when I pulled up at my dad's house, which was not odd since he was never home, and
it was two in the morning.  I let myself in and checked the fridge to see what I could drink and eat, but
there was nothing.  Complete emptiness except for two ice trays filled in the freezer part.  I guess he
cleans out the fridge now before he leaves on trips so the food doesn't spoil.  It seemed dumb to me he
would leave it plugged up while he was gone; it's a huge waste of electricity, but then again, he'd never
been the kind of guy to consider things like that.

I found a glass in the cabinet, in the same spot where we used to keep them when I lived there, got some
ice, turned on the tap, and fixed myself some water.  Not exactly the best evening capper but better than
nothing.  Then I checked the messages on his answering machine because the blinking red light annoyed
me, and it was too dark to see how to turn it off.  It seemed my father has a new woman in his life who
refers to him as "honey munchkin," and it also seemed he owes a guy named Ike money for fixing his
bronco, a '78 model he bought a few months after the accident.  I pressed erase and carried my glass and
luggage through the house.

My room looked the same as it did the day I left.  I took everything with me when I moved except a camel
colored wood dresser with scratches and my iron bed painted black.

I set my bags on the floor and crashed onto the bed.  There were no sheets or blankets, but I was too
tired to notice.

Several weeks passed without the return of my father, and I spent most of the time sulking around the
house.  I didn't try to see Dustin. I'm not sure why; it just felt awkward.  I missed him, but I didn't know
what to say.  I didn't know how to excuse myself from not talking to him for so long, and I felt bitter he
hadn't tried to get in touch with me.  I got a job bagging groceries at Harvey's, and I kind of hoped I'd
bump into him some time, but admitting that to myself immediately brought a nauseous feeling to the pit
of my stomach.  Nerves, I suppose.

I used the money from Harvey's to get out of town as much as possible.  I'd usually squander the
weekend in Tallahassee roaming, missing the busy life of San Francisco.  I drank a lot; it's easier to pass
time when you're drunk.

About a month into my stay back at home, with still no sign of my father and no communication with
Dustin, I came home after work to a message on the machine from Ashley.  She sounded upset. The
message was directed to my father, and she said she needed to talk to me about Dustin, but she wasn't
sure how to reach me.  She had no idea I was back in town.  I guess whatever she had to say was
secretive or serious; otherwise, she would have blurted it out on the machine.  I had no idea why she
would need or want to talk to me in the first place; we never really talked before.

I picked up the phone and called the number she left.  She answered after the first ring and sounded like
she hadn't slept for days.

I don't want to get into the details of the conversation, but afterwards I was pale and shaking and decided
I couldn't stay there tonight by myself.  I called Christina and asked if I could come over. I told her what
Ashley told me, and she agreed it would be best if I did.

I stayed there six nights before I had the courage to drive to Dustin's house to pick him up.

*****
I drove my car with Dustin in the passenger seat to the mud pond.  The silence was overwhelming.

When we arrived, the rain had long stopped, and it was beautiful outside.  I parked the Volvo at the
ramshackle church close to the bridge over the slough, and Dustin and I got out.  The walk down the side
of the road and through the hole in the fence seemed to take an hour, but it could have only been five
minutes at the most.

We remained silent.  I started thinking about the pictures I'd seen of my mother.  I thought about how I
fucked things up with Dustin.  I cried tears that burned deep and strong.

After following the slough for about fifteen minutes, the mud pond came into plain view.  The smell of cow
manure stung my nostrils, but I looked with fondness at the knee-deep water.  I headed to the rock
Dustin and I used to sit on.  It was still positioned solidly half in the water and half on the shore.

I climbed the rock and sat crying.  I struggled with shaking hands to unscrew the lid covering what
remained of Dustin.  I told him I loved him, and I was sorry I wasn't there for him.  I told him about every
girl I'd touched.  I told him every regret I'd discovered.  I prayed for the first time in years.  I asked a god
neither he nor I had acknowledged before to help his family deal with this.  I prayed for Ashley, and I
prayed for myself.

Then I turned the urn over and let Dustin rest in the first place we ever found that, no matter what, always
gave us a sense of peace and completion even when we were far from feeling we deserved it.

As the last ash dissolved in the dark brown water, my throat felt swollen, and I could barely see through
the tears.  I lowered myself from the rock and walked to my car as the dead air swirled silently around me,
choking and consuming all that was left.
Brandon K. Brock
Brandon K. Brock lives and writes in south Georgia with his fiancee, cats, dogs. He is editor and publisher of Flint River
Fiction and is currently editing his first novel as well as a series of short stories for Erica Schreiner. You can learn more
about Brandon through his website at
www.flintriverfiction.co.nr
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