Evelyn-Jean Jones knows she does not look like that beige-blonde girl on page 28 of her brother’s Field & Stream October issue — the page with the below-the-fold advertisement for Kodiak boots and, apparently, women’s shorty-shorts — the magazine he keeps buried under his collage of college brochures — the brochures he broodily ignores when he comes home from JFK #3 Collegiate High School — the school he enters every morning as if it were a trench filled with mustard gas. He hides that magazine with that girl on that page underneath all the constricting thoughts in his life: the colleges that don’t really care if he attends them; the unremarkable grades that seem flat to everyone but his parents; the girl he likes who sits beside him in homeroom and advanced trig, and who likely walks to each of her classes with the standard-issue High School Richter scale to measure anxiety due to: pimples, grades, assorted teenage cruelties, and a thousand different oscillations of bad vibrations such as: being measured for every pound of flesh, every bead of perspiration, every drop of blood she sheds that must be so obvious to absolutely everyone. She does not wear Kodiak boots, but she does wear Dollar Tree sandals that will soon need Krazy Glue to keep the insoles from snapping down the hallway like a pre-teen boy’s trail of farts. This is a thing that boys do, and if she has a brother, he has already confirmed this to her.
But back to Evelyn-Jean: she knows who she does not resemble, and that is Miss Page 28. However, she is generally unattached to the idea that this is who she’ll always be, and there’s a pretty good chance that all the big changes are pending. Fourteen years old, and she may already be wise. She does not pretend to be smarter than she is, unlike her bro, who thinks he could be the next Ian McEwan or maybe Ralph Ellison (urmm, thing to consider here, and I’m hawking this from Sister Oprah: my dude, maybe you should be the first you instead of some watered-down version of someone else. She never EVER says my dude, not even when she’s mainlining M&M’s and maintaining a wicked weekend Mountain Dew rush, but Coolio over there is a special case, an inert exception to that particular rule, so you go on ahead and be the new Edgar Allen Duck if that’s gonna be your next performance-art thingy, my dude).
Evelyn-Jean has met the girl to whom her brother is enamored (– is that word still up for grabs, or has it been permanently preserved in amber by Miss Jane Austin and her Lady Avengers, strictly reserved for suitably cotillion’d adjectives / so the loud-mouth’d verbs can leave now, okay? –) and she is a slight and pretty thing, in a vague CW teen vampire victim sort of way. Blonde, but not Page 28 blonde, casual no-name denim, not-too-blousy blouses, freshly-washed face, clean nails, yes, my lord, she will do as a bridesmaid, but not as the main course. The Chosen Girl knows who Evelyn-Jean’s brother is, probably, but other than the slightly hesitant name recognition attached to the face, he could be anyone to her: an actor in soft-focus to the left of Jason Priestley in a “90210 Reunion Special”, or an enfant terrible from one of the lesser state senates recently depositioned for three counts of Awfully Stupid. Is he your brother? Tell him I said hi, I guess. Oh, the burn of immortal love, bro, but you’re almost seventeen, so this is not your real life yet, unless it is, in which case, so sorry your soup is cold and we’re all out of those cinnamon bread sticks you like so much.
Evelyn-Jean Jones knows her brother does not look like that photograph on page 17, second column and above the fold, of the old obituary notices –a jejune black and white shot cropped from a blown-up photo from a lousy yearbook capture of him and his Math Crew celebrating whatever it is that math geeks celebrate when there are still Math Girls in the room: probably Batman, or a Skywalker, or a particularly cute cosplay. He did not look like that at all / so ill-defined / when he died, and Evelyn-Jean hurried past him so she wouldn’t have to remember what remained of him. That was a thing she would never say to anyone, not to any future husband / child / god, should she ever go looking for that particular character again.
“Ya’ll don’t know how this feels,” she says at her graduation. “You can push them all together, all them black and white newspaper dots, and still not see him. Not for what he did in his three-and-a-half years of high school, not for what he did outside the hallways and classrooms. But that ain’t the whole him. What he thought, how he felt — they shoulda called me up, I had real pictures of him. Good pictures. He was a real, real kind boy, an urgent kind of boy, and I teased him about it, and he brooded over my words, because he knew I was right. When he laughed, it was a real thing. That boy could laugh when he wanted, and a lot of time, he did not want to. He felt all his moods, and he tried to be generous with them when they were good, and sometimes he failed at that. But we knew him. I knew him, his folks knew him, and they knew him to be a real sincere boy. His hurt was real, and he had a hard time showing it off to others. But I knew him. He was not as average as he thought he was. He would have been a good man, given a chance, given a few more years. But I guess you can’t put that into three paragraphs and a show-nothing photograph taken by a ten-dollar camera, can ya?
“I did not stare at his gravesite. Why would I do that? Nothing there everlasting. And there ain’t no stone there to read, and there won’t likely be one until there’s money for one, because that’s the way those things get done. But it’ll get done. He’ll be remembered, stone or not. The preacher read things from his bible, and they were good and pure words, for sure. Words about faith and resurrection and the humble flesh we all wear. But the flesh ain’t all. I’m not a preacher, and you’re probably all tired hearing about such things right now. I’m not, but I am his sister, and I care about such things. I care about his spirit and about being one of the owners of his memory. Let me tell you what I saw as I stood there weeping, listening to the wind, listening to the spoken words, listening to myself weep and asking myself, and asking hard: why? Why him? Why was it my kind, uncertain, curious brother? Why him? Gunshot, ya’ll. Three times. Because he was carrying a pencil case and not a handgun. Why him? He was probably thinking about — and y’all listen to these words — he was thinking about / not doing about — asking a girl he liked to the senior prom. That was his big thing, his big deal for the day. Knowing him, it was probably his life commitment for that month. Just thinking about: Should I ask her? Maybe I’ll just stay home. Or should I just go ahead and ask her? That was the way he thought. Contractions and uncertainties. Should I have peanut butter on my toast or cinnamon? Should I write poetry or study for that math quiz some more? Should I, could I, if I. I get tired imagining the travails and the traveling those thoughts had to take, all those back roads and blind curves. And thoughts were what he had. And thoughts were taken from him, and taken from all of us. And now I’m the same age he was when he was taken. I ain’t been shot yet, but I may be, same as you. Same as any of us. Because we’re all hurting, but we’re all strong. And I think of my big brother, and I think, I know that boy. He wasn’t perfect, but at the same time, he was. I can’t be the only one who knows that.
“And I stared, not at his gravesite, but at the field across the way. A field with a lot of cows and… I think I saw a few goats. The dirt was reddish and raw, with the last of winter finally draining away. But there were long paths of laid-down hay, kind of in a swirling and rambling pattern, according to where the tractor had dragged the bales. And the cows were eating the hay, and the goats were with them, eating the grass, and I thought: that’s where we should all rest. In a cinnamon colored field with others not like us, but just like us, who want to be friendly with each other and share what’s good. And I liked that my brother’s place overlooked such a place. It gave me hope for all the disquiet we feel. Maybe that kind of place is our real home, and not some gold-plated stone road full of mansions and riches, but a place of tough grass and stubborn soil, and calmness, always calmness, always slow and relaxed, with plenty of time and space to think about the space we have and the time we have to share it. I like to think that whenever my thoughts turn hurtful and blue.”
“Damn,” Evelyn-Jean Jones says to her partner. “I don’t know how that boy could stand the taste of cinnamon on everything. Both the girls seem to like it, though, and I’m glad of that. Now, don’t be getting any of that stuff near my cereal bowl, you hear?” And then she smiled without knowing she was smiling, remembering him.