In the few months before my brother Andrew died, he often took me to the junk yard with him. There, he and his friends would run between the rusting cars and through the mazy rows, or sometimes sit in one of the backseats, feet up on the doors, talking about girls or work or sports. Graduation was close, and The Future was an exciting time for them, unlike me, for who Tomorrow was still not that much different from Today.
I was really too young to tag along, I was 10 and Andrew 18, but I begged him so much he took me anyway. Going to a junkyard didn't thrill me that much, but because my brother did it, it naturally seemed a special and important place.
Andrew, who was tall and dark-haired, had a cleft chin, and I often watched him stroke it while he was thinking or when he was flirting with some girl. The last time we drove to the junk yard, when we went to pick up his friends, I sat in the front seat watching him run a finger over it, his mind on other things. I started pinching myself, to make my own cleft, and he looked at me and laughed.
"What're you doing, mighty mite?" he asked.
I looked up at him. "I'm trying to get a split too, like you," I said. I then pinched so hard my eyes watered and I yelped in pain.
"It doesn't work that way," Andrew said. "You gotta get born with it. Why'd you want one anyway?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. You got one, I want one, too."
He grabbed me by the back of the head and gave me a shake. "You're a good kid," he said.
I smiled, feeling proud, then settled back in my seat and stared out the window watching homes rush past. As we rode, I reached into my jeans pocket and pulled out my knife. It was a simple jack knife with two blades that Andrew had given me for my birthday. There was a flat place on one side, and Andrew had them engrave my name on it: "CLIFFY." I'd had it only a few weeks, but I had used it so much that it already had several nicks and cuts on the case and the blades themselves. I cut brush at the junkyard or pried off hubcaps and sometimes I whittled or carved my initials in some tree, just so I could use it. I loved that knife, because even when Andrew wasn't around, he was with me.
We soon picked up Andrew's friends – I was banished to the back seat – and we went on. Andrew found the dirt road that ran along the back of the junkyard, and as we drove we bounced through every hole and over every rock. We came to a grassy field, parked the car, then walked through a narrow veil of the trees. There was a fence, of course, standing 10 feet high and grown-over with kudzu and brush. At one point a small oak tree had fallen on the fence and now leaned against a stack of cars three high. We'd crawl up on our hands and knees until we reached the trunk of some once-white Cadillac, then climb down to the ground.
If you stopped for a moment on that Cadillac and looked around during daylight, you'd see a red clay pit filled with hills colored red and white and blue. Except in the rear, where they were stacked three high, the cars rested on cement blocks, doors and hoods opened and guts exposed. Far off in the distance stood the shack where the owners worked, and rarely ventured from. As long as we stayed near the back end, the older end, we knew we'd never get caught.
We'd climbed the fence just before sundown. It was early summer, and hot, and we sweat just from the climb. Then, instead of wandering around as we usually did, we went directly to death row. I didn't like it there, it scared me, but I had to follow or be left behind, and the shadows were already getting thick.
Death row is sort of a monument that the owners had created in the center of the junkyard. It was a single row of cars that were too smashed up to be of any use anymore, even as spare parts. These were the cars that were mangled in the worst accidents, run over by trains or caught in high speed collisions. Even looking at those twisted piles of metal made me shiver, because it was clear what'd happened to the people in them.
There was one particular car, a Buick, that had fascinated my brother and his friends, since it'd belonged to a classmate of theirs, a guy named Marky. Marky and five others had crammed themselves in one night, then rushed down the streets, weaving left to right in the rain, trying to hydroplane just for the fun of it. At some point, going too fast around a curve, they slid too far out just as an 18-wheeler came by, and the result was a bloody mess. The side was caved in, all the windows were smashed, the rear-end torn off. All six of them died.
The Buick stood at one end of death row, and I stood a few yards away and watched as Andrew and his two friends climbed into the front seat, where they sat still and silent, trying to imagine the wreck, or perhaps trying to reach out to their friends, thinking this place where they were last alive may, just for a moment, bridge the gap.
Andrew sat behind the steering wheel – barely able to fit because the seats were jammed forward – and he stared out the windshield, which was now a frame made of jagged glass. He ran his hands over the wheel, touching it lightly, then he leaned against the door and stared off into space. None of them said anything for a long time. The wreck had happened a few weeks earlier, and this was the first time that they'd come to the junkyard since then. I watched Andrew's eyes, and even when he looked straight at me, he didn't seem to see me. He was somewhere else, and that frightened me. When we left that night, they were all silent for some time, no jokes or horseplay as usual. When I asked Andrew if we're going back now, he put his arm on my shoulder, but didn't say anything. No one did. So I stayed quiet until we got home.
That night, while lying in bed and waiting for sleep, I spent a lot of time thinking about my brother and the accident. Marky had been his closest friend until then, and one of the girls was an ex-girlfriend. The others had been friends too. Losing them had been hard.
I wonder why sitting in that car had had so much affect on him that night, yet failed him when he really needed it.
A month later was prom night, and Andrew was dressed in a sky-blue tuxedo. I helped him put on the cummerbund and tie and stood by him in each picture my parents took. I refused to allow him to have any pictures made without me. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and we had one of him and me, him and me and mom, and him and me and dad. There's probably one of him and me and the dog, too. Then, while he waited to go, I went out to play in the back yard.
We had a large back yard, and beyond the immediate grassy area, there were a number of rocks and trees to play around. I took my knife and began to carve my initials on yet another old oak. After that, I began to pry rocks loose from the ground. I used my favorite blade, which was the largest of the two, my "working blade." The other was just a back-up in case of emergencies – if aliens ever attacked and my big blade was shot off by death rays, I'd still have something to fight back with.
The rocks I'd found were large and flat, and I thought they'd make great skipping stones. I had a small pile when I drove the blade under the largest rock I'd found so far, and as I pressed on the handle, I heard a click. My stomach knotted up as I lifted the knife and saw I'd broken the blade – half-an-inch was gone. I began to cry from shame and sadness because I'd broken the knife Andrew had given me. I didn't know what to do, or how I'd tell him. I was so upset that I didn't notice when he walked up and stood beside me.
"I gotta go," Andrew said, and I jumped away, surprised. "What's the matter?"
I looked up, chin quivering and red-faced, and held up the knife. "I broke it," I said, "I'm sorry."
He squatted down next to me and took the knife. "What happened?" he asked, and ran his thumb over the broken tip. As I told him he nodded, then helped me up. "Well, don't worry about it," he said. "There's a place that can fix it, they can put in a new blade. I think they're open tomorrow, we'll go over when I get up."
I immediately stopping crying and smiled. "Really?"
"Really," he said. "So come on, you can walk me to the car." As we walked, he folded the knife and put it in his jacket pocket. We went inside, then I carried the corsage to his car for him.
"Have fun," I said, as he closed the door and hung his elbow out the window.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll see you later, Cliffy. And don't worry, we'll get the knife fixed." And I believed him when he said that, because he always kept his promises.
And as he drove off I waved the whole time until he turned the corner and went out of sight. I'm glad I did, because I never saw him again. Not even at the funeral, because it was a closed casket.
After he'd left, Andrew went to his girlfriend Jenny's house, her parents took the usual pictures, then they drove off to the prom. Sometime in the night they began drinking, as most teenagers do. They left the prom with some friends and went to buy beer and liquor, and sometime on their way to a party, got into a high speed collision. They were killed instantly.
I suppose the accident was my brother's fault, he was drunk, but that doesn't seem to matter now, not with him dead. And back then, I had other concerns, because they never found the knife. It sounds strange to worry about a knife, but I was 10 and it was for me the most important link I had to my brother. It was the last – and best – thing he ever gave me. But they didn't find it, it wasn't in his coat pocket, nor was it anywhere in the car. My father went to the junkyard and checked it himself. He even called the police several times. Later, I made him drive me to the crash site and I ran over the area for three hours, looking everywhere, in the road, the ditch, the grass. He helped, but it wasn't there, and I collapsed in tears. Then he said it was time to go, but I wanted to keep looking, and he had to drag me to the car. I screamed that we had to go back and find it, we couldn't leave, not yet. My father had to hold me in my seat with one hand as he drove. It was just a knife, but it was more than that, too. The other stuff didn't matter, the pictures, the trophies, the balls and bats. For me, for whatever reason, it was the knife.
Time passed, and I began to grow up. I entered high school, made new friends, lost old ones, and though scared to death, I got my driver's license. I also grew taller, and my round boyish face grew long and thin. Then I got my first whiskers, and I'd run my fingertips over those few patches on my cheeks to feel the roughness.
When I got my father's car on the weekends, I and a couple friends would drive around, hanging out. I'd never drink, but they would. In fact, I didn't really trust anyone else to drive and stay sober, so it was always me who drove.
Like my brother and his friends years before, my own friends also had a fascination with the junkyard. I understood why, but would never go with them. Later, they'd talk about the rusted cars and how silent it was, and of course they'd talk about death row.
Death row began to fascinate me too, but for a different reason. Many of my friends knew my brother, and they knew about the accident, and they confirmed for me that yes, my brother's Chevy was now also there. I'd half-expected it.
As time went on, a desire grew in me to see my brother's car. I resisted it at first, for a whole year I fought it, but one weekend night, when I was seventeen, a friend and I drove about aimlessly, and I suggested, half-hoping he'd refuse, that we go to the junkyard.
But, he didn't refuse, and so we went. Things had changed in 7 years. They'd said the place was overgrown with vines, and they were right. Kudzu had grown so thick that climbing the tree to the Caddy was like walking on a carpet. And though it was already dusk, I could still see that the other cars had grown rustier and more faded over the years. But, I paid little attention to any of them, my friend and I walked straight to death row.
The row had grown longer by two or three cars since last I'd seen it. The sight of it made me think of a freak show, a collection of deformities. My brother's Chevy was there, on the right, second from the end. As I approached I saw that it, too, had grown a bit rusty. But, rust is a slow form of decay, I suppose, since my brother had probably already rotted away to nothing, yet the car was still here.
I circled the Chevy for a long time before I walked up to it. I peered into the windows and looked over the smashed front end, at the crumpled hood. The front doors were crushed shut, so I opened one of the back doors, and it creaked open. I crawled in the back seat and looked around. I saw little but bent metal and jagged glass. The seats smelled of mildew and the springs squeaked as I shifted on the seat. Then I sat still, trying to be so still that even my breath was silent. I wanted to listen, to hear my brother talking. I wanted to hear him flirt with his girlfriend, to hear his last few minutes, the joking, the laughing, the sighs. But, I heard nothing.
After a few minutes, I got out, shut the door, and walked to the front of the car. I was silent, lost inside myself, like my brother had been years before in Marky's car. My friend decided I wanted to be alone, and he said he'd wait for me by the Caddy. As I stood there, I thought, how strange life is, to make me feel so empty at such a young age. Surely you're not supposed to feel this way until you're old? But then, maybe you do.
Although my morbid curiosity was satisfied, I still didn't want to leave, feeling that I might have missed something, something that I'd regret not seeing and feeling. I had often felt that way since my brother died.
I sighed, then heard someone behind me laughing. Actually, I heard two people, a man and a woman, and I turned to look at them. They were two high school students, dressed for the prom – it was that time after all. I watched them rush past me, hand-in-hand, and I was happy to know that life does go on, even here at death row, and I smiled – until I saw their faces.
The girl, who wore a red dress and corsage, was Jenny, my brother's girlfriend. The boy, with a cleft chin and blue tux, was my brother.
The oddness of it made me dizzy, until I realized that my wish had come true, that I was watching them on their last night. They ran to the car, which was now intact, no longer a wreck, and Andrew opened the passenger's door and Jenny got in. As she sat, he leaned over and whispered something to her, and she smiled and giggled, one hand on his cheek. Then she looked in my direction, her eyes saw mine, and she stopped laughing and pointed to me. Andrew looked up, still laughing, then his smile faded as he recognized me. He turned back to her and said something, and she nodded. He stepped back and closed the door, then walked over to me.
He was the same as he was that last night. By that I mean he hadn't aged, he was still 18. He should be 25 or 26 now, with whiskers instead of smooth cheeks, perhaps heavier. But, he wasn't, he was still in high school.
He stopped near me and smiled. "How are you?" he asked.
I stared at him, wondering if I could see through him, like a ghost. But even close-up he looked solid, and he shifted from foot-to-foot as he waited, like he sometimes did when alive.
"Andrew?" I asked.
"It's been awhile," he said. "You've grown up."
"You haven't," I said, then regretted saying it.
He nodded. "You're right, I didn't."
We stood there, face-to-face, silent for a long moment. I was almost the age he was when he died.
"What does this mean?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing that I can explain. Have you been all right?"
"Yes. I mean no, I miss you."
"I miss you too, Cliffy. Or should I call you Cliff now?"
"Yeah, they usually do."
"So, mighty mite grew up?"
I nodded. "Yes," I said.
We stood silent for several more seconds, and I couldn't think of anything to say. It was painful, because I was given the chance to see him again, but I didn't how to fill those few moments. From behind him came the shrill blast of his car horn. He turned to look back a moment. "Look," he said, "I have to go. But I have something for you. Hold out your hand."
I did, and he reached in his pocket. "I wanted to make sure nothing happened to it, so I took it with me." He put something in my palm, then wrapped his fingers around my hand. His fingers were warm, almost hot. "Remember this?" he asked.
I looked down, and saw the knife. I recognized the scratches on the case, and the carved name, "CLIFFY."
I choked, my throat burning. "I looked everywhere for it," I said. "I looked so hard."
"I know," he said. "I've been waiting to give it back myself."
I shook my head and started crying, having so much to say but not knowing how to say it. "I don't want you to be dead," I said.
"I know," he said. He showed little emotion. Sympathy perhaps, but not tears. We stood silent again, I just didn't know what else to say, then the horn blew a second time, and he looked back. "I have to go," he said. "Goodbye, little brother." He hesitated, then he walked and wrapped his arms around me, holding tight. I felt his cheek against mine as I hugged him back. "Listen to me," he said, "life's short, so kick ass out there, ok?" I nodded, then he pulled away and walked back to the car.
"Andrew!" I yelled. He turned and looked at me, waved, then got in. He started the engine, and it seemed like a roar out here in this cemetery of dead cars. I saw him turn and say something to Jenny, and I saw her put her hand on his cheek for a moment. Then he looked forward, released the clutch with a grinding of gears, and the car began to move. He and Jenny waved at me, and as the car turned to my right the headlights flashed on, flickered a moment, then it all faded away. They were gone – the car, the headlights, the growl of the engine – and the old, mangled remnants of that night so long ago were again sitting before me, unchanged and unmoved.
I stood numb for many minutes, hoping something else would happen, but knowing it wouldn't. What I'd asked for had come, and now it was over.
I began to walk back to the Caddy, where my friend waited. I fingered the knife, and out of habit I pulled open my old working blade. I held it up in the moon light and flashed it around. It was like being a kid again, and I laughed at myself for being so childish.
Then I stopped, stunned. I looked to make sure I had the right blade, the big one, and not the back up. But, it was my working blade all right, and it was unbroken. Andrew said he'd fix it, and he had.
It took seven years, but Andrew had kept his promise.
x x x
I might have titled this piece ‘The Knife,’ but it’s so good—one of the best I’ve had the pleasure to choose for AR—that I decided to keep it as the writer intended. Tell me what you think of the story — and of my decision — on the BBS. -GM