The Men from Town
My brother Garrett owns three cell phones, and he’s talking on two of them as he speeds down a rural highway in the middle of winter. I’m older than him by four years and sitting beside him with a plastic container of cookies balanced on my lap. I keep telling him to slow down his giant truck because he’s not really paying attention to the road. He hangs up both phones and tosses them across his dashboard, and in the first moment of silence we’ve had in about thirty miles, I ask again if he’s sure he remembered to pack the new shoes we bought him the night before. He remembered the new coat, I’m certain, I can see it hanging back there, but the shoebox isn’t visible. “Fuck yes, I already told you!” he shouts. It’s the fourth time I’ve asked. Reaching across the cab, I tuck the peeking tag of his sweatshirt back under his collar.
We’re driving to meet my parents at my grandparents’ farm so we can bury my grandfather in two days. He died of a heart attack yesterday in his nursing home, though it seems as if he’s been gone a few years now because he’d already lost his mind to Alzheimer’s. He was my father’s father, a farmer for many decades, a mandolin player in a bluegrass band, a leader in his basement church and tiny town—a lonely spot in the otherwise blank northeastern corner of Missouri’s map—and the man with the largest hands I’ve ever seen.
My brother and I have our parents’ dog with us. They rushed up to the farm as soon as they found out about my grandfather, to be with my grandmother and help plan the visitation and funeral. Now it’s our job to bring their carsick golden retriever. My parents got this dog after I moved out, so I don’t know her very well, and she’s as nervous about riding in this truck as I am. At twenty-two, my brother still lives at home, so he knows her but doesn’t really like her. Before we left, I forced some kind of Dramamine for dogs down her throat, but when Garrett takes some of these tight curves quickly, I can still hear her whine.
One of his phones starts ringing, so he grabs it off the dash and looks at the little lit-up screen. “It's Mom,” he says, shoving the phone in my face so I can see her name. Just before he answers it, he clamps the antenna between his teeth and pulls it out. She’s calling to ask how much longer it will be before we get there. “Hour,” he says. “We got to get gas before long.” My brother’s voice sounds as though it’s octaves deeper than mine. He listens another few seconds, then says, “No. One hour. Just hold your damn horses.” When he hangs up the phone, he shakes his head at me, and sighs. “Fuck.”
On down the highway, he pulls off at an exit where we have to drive a couple of empty miles before reaching the gas station. “Why did you pick this ghost town?” I ask, glancing across the road from our station to an ancient, derelict one, bristly weeds poking through the pavement in holes where gas pumps used to sit. He gives his reliable sneer at my reliable attitude problem and gets out to pump. This is February, so cold that in two days, on the morning we all huddle at the gravesite, a record will be set for low temperatures. My dad will tell me a story about a funeral he attended as a boy in the same cemetery on a similarly grey and freezing day when it was so cold that all the men parked their cars—these were the kind that had to be cranked by hand to start—but left their engines running through the ceremony.
Garrett opens the truck door and leans in, letting in a lot of wind, and throws two twenty-dollar bills in my lap. “Go pay,” he says.
I pick up the twenties and lay them on his seat. “You do it,” I say. “I don’t want to go in.” Over his shoulder, inside the squat gas-station store, the cashier sits on a stool and stares at us, smoking his cigarettes and wearing one of those hunter’s caps with the bright orange that means watch out.
My brother pinches the twenties between his fingers, waves them from one corner, and drops them back in my lap. “Don’t you have to go piss?”
“I can wait, thanks,” I say, rolling down my window and holding my hand out, letting his bills flap in the wind as if I’m about to toss them free.
“All right, all right,” he says, grabbing my arm and pulling it back into the cab.
Inside the station, he stands for a couple of minutes talking to the orange-hat man—about what, I can’t imagine. Shifting from one foot to the other, his big frame swaying in front of the cashier’s counter, he scratches his red beard, laughing. While he’s in there, I undo my seatbelt and lean into the back to check for his shoes.
When we arrive at my grandparents’ farm, Garrett wrangles the dog while I carry in our suits, zipped together in the same garment bag, and my container of cookies. My dad’s only sister and my mother say they have the perfect job for me. I’m handed a booklet provided by the funeral home, and as people come by and drop off food for us, it will be my task to log in who brings what, and to affix numbered stickers to any dishes we’ll need to return. I sink into a chair at the table they’re sharing with casseroles covered in foggy cling wrap. Across the house in the living room, my father and grandmother stand in front of each other fixed in a wordless stand-off about whether the casket should be open during the visitation and funeral. “But I don’t know any of these people,” I say. “Am I supposed to ask their names at the door?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll tell you,” my aunt says, nudging the booklet another inch closer to my elbow.
All afternoon, my grandfather’s friends and cousins drive over the big hill on the narrow road that passes in front of the house and turn in to the white gravel driveway. The women bring food, and the men bring their loud voices. My dad has a list of six names from my grandmother, and he asks those men, one by one as they arrive throughout the day, if they would do us the favor of acting as pallbearers. They are all honored, and tell my father so. I watch all of this from my perch at the kitchen table, fussing with stickers and glass dishes, drinking cup after cup of thin, instant coffee, eavesdropping as the women talk in words almost whispered. My brother stands near the door in a clump of men from town.
He doesn’t know them, but they all talk like they’re friends, as if my brother and not my dad was the boy who went to school and 4-H and steer shows with them, or their cousins or older brothers or fathers. They’re talking about duck hunting, which my brother has been practicing for the last couple of seasons. He would actually be hunting right now, if he weren’t with us for the funeral. He and his buddies go every weekend, standing in frigid flooded fields clutching their rifles and drinking beer. From the kitchen, I watch my brother tell the men about his most recent outing. His long arms point to the ceiling, and he squints one eye like he’s aiming his gun. He tells about a beautiful flock of ducks that was headed his way; I imagine the huge dark V against a white sky. “But right before they’re in easy range, the wind picked up. Those birds locked their wings and in one second, they were fucking gone.” All of them shake their heads in silence; they sure know that story. Garrett thrusts his hands in his pockets, tilts back a little on his heels, and sighs. “So, no, we didn’t bag any.”
It’s his phrase “locked their wings” that echoes over my roomful of women. Putting those words together is unfamiliar, but the image they conjure is exactly right—I’ve seen birds open out their wings straight and rigid and turn in the wind that way, like keys. This is the first time I’ve heard my brother make language do something surprising, and I smile because I know that he doesn’t realize his words are beautiful.
On the morning of the funeral, I unzip the garment bag and lay our outfits side by side on a bed. Even just by our clothes, it’s easy to see he’s the larger one; the shoulders of his shirt spread wider than mine, and the cuffs of his pants nearly skim the wood floorboards. We change into our suits and stand in the kitchen. He’s already wearing his new coat even though we don’t have to leave for another hour. I blow on new coffee as he paces the tile floor. I can tell he’s listening to the tap of his shoes on the linoleum. He rarely wears shoes like these, which is why we had to go out before driving here and buy this pair, along with the coat. His usual shoes are work boots, and all his coats are camouflage.
My mother joins us in the kitchen, picking off yellow threads of dog hair stuck to her. “You both look very nice,” she says. She looks a second time at my brother, handsome and serious, and tells him she loves his new coat. Instead of finishing his lap around the kitchen, he pauses and looks down at himself to admire it. That night at the men’s store, he first picked out a long, ill-fitting black one. “No, no, no,” I said, and pulled this coat, the one he loves now, off a crammed rack and told him to put it on. The deep grey was a better color for his bright orange hair and yearlong sunburnt face. “Three-quarter length is nicer,” I said, trading his choice for mine. “And long coats make you look like a mobster.” He ignored my words—he had no idea what I was talking about—but he tried on the coat and smiled. I had guessed his size, and he fit inside it perfectly. He grinned and stared at himself in the mirror while I stood behind one of his big shoulders, only the top of my head visible, and fixed his collar.
Ryan Van Meter has been published in Indiana Review, Colorado Review, The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and River Teeth, among other journals. He also has an essay in Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to Present. He is an MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa. (7/2008)