We kick rocks
down a long, straight gravel road
that leads nowhere.
A strange, “in-between” place
that won’t show up on anybody’s map.
We’ve walked about a mile,
just talking about nothing.
Flies buzz around us,
and the ditches on either side of the road
blossom with huge swarms of mosquitos.
Every so often,
a big, old dragonfly
will buzz by,
but you barely notice.
I can see your eyes are focused out,
like you’re trying to spot the end
of this road to nowhere.
I’ve known since we started walking
that you’ve got something on your mind,
but you just haven’t found
the courage to say what it is yet.
I’ve got time,
and miles of straight roads,
nowhere to go,
and a pack on by back
that had a dozen cold beers in it
when we left the farm
a little while ago.
The beers were kind of heavy,
but every five hundred fence posts or so,
I watch you finish yours off
and throw the can in the ditch.
I hand you another,
and my burden gets a little lighter.
I’m on about beer number three
when you suddenly stop walking.
Your eyes are still fixed dead ahead
in that thousand-yard stare.
I kind of figure
you’re gonna want to talk about
or your ex,
or your friend that killed himself last year.
Oh, shit. No. That was two years ago, now.
Instead, when I stop and turn to face you,
you’re looking up at the sky,
kind of calm,
kind of peaceful.
Somewhere in my mind, I realize that I haven’t seen you smile,
I mean really smile,
in a long time.
Then, you speak.
“Y’know, Jake. I’ve been thinking a lot about God lately.”
I try not to choke on my beer.
You say it so casually.
You voice so genuine.
Not the voice of the man
who hated on organized religion
for most of his life.
Not the voice of the former soldier
who would get drunk and rage
at God for the friends
that didn’t make it home.
Not the boy
who abandoned faith when he was fourteen.
The boy who grey sullen,
dark, and more than a little mean.
It’s not that voice.
It’s something I have never heard
from you before.
There is a calm determination there.
I just stay silent
and you continue.
“I know, right? I see the look on your face, Jake. And I don’t blame you. Not one bit. That’s the thing. I’m about done blaming anyone, anymore. God too.”
You’re looking at me, now.
Eyes bright and clear in the August sun.
“I’m letting it all go, Jake. I have to. If I don’t, it’s gonna kill me.”
You look down for a second,
shake your head,
then slam back the rest of what must be half a luke-warm Coors Banquet.
Off the empty can sails, into the ditch.
I realize I’m smiling.
So, I follow suit and drain my beer as well,
then pull two more cold ones out of the pack,
toss one to you,
and we keep walking.
“Do you remember Steph?” You ask. “The girl I used to date right after high school?”
“Sure.” I reply. “The redhead whose father was a pastor.” I chuckle.
“Yeah, that’s her.” I can hear the smile in your voice as you remember how much
it infuriated her old man to be dating a big, tattooed heathen.
“Well, I ran into her at the pool a couple months back, and we got to talkin’.
She divorced that Todd Marcus douche like five years ago. I guess he OD’d not long after.”
I can hear the derision in your voice.
“Fucking ‘Todd-Mark’, I spit.
You exhale a rough breath, not quite a laugh.
“Yeah. That guy was a dick.” Then you continue.
“Anyway, we started chatting a little bit on Insta. she had posted a few videos about God, and Faith, and family. I asked her how she could have any kind of faith in a world that had done her so dirty? I mean, that Todd dude was abusive to her and the kids before he got all tweaked out and went nuts. Her dad died of cancer when she was like twenty-three. Totally out of nowhere. How could she still love a God that could do all that to her?”
We aren’t walking anymore.
I’m standing dead still,
listening to every word you say.
I can hear you’re walking on glass.
I’ve heard this in your voice before. Usually when we get into a bottle of Buffalo Trace, and you start telling me stories about Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s like your memories are trapped under a thin layer of December ice, and if you go too far out on them, you’re gonna break through.
I think you’re worried that if you go in, you’re never coming out.
But we’re here.
Hay fields on either side of us,
a blue sky above,
and no one but us
and a rapidly dwindling beer supply
for miles around.
I look you in the eyes,
and I can see they are full,
almost ready to burst.
“You know what she said, Jake? It’s the bravest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard anyone say in my life. She said:
“God didn’t kill Todd. Todd killed Todd. He made his own choices and those choices cost him his life. God didn’t kill my Daddy, either. Cancer did. It was a brain tumor that was probably there for a long time, before it spread to his liver and pancreas. No. God didn’t do that.
But God was in there to give me strength when Todd would go off on a bender and come home all crazy and fucked up. God gave me the courage to leave him before things got really bad. And God worked in the hearts of friends and family that helped us in those first few, hard months as we tried to get settled. He helped me find direction.
God worked in the hearts and hands of the doctors who did everything they could to try to save Daddy. When there was nothing more they could do, they did their best to make him comfortable. The nurses and the doctors in hospice were so kind, so caring. God was there.
Jesus taught me to forgive. He taught me to be strong. His words helped me through the dark times, so I didn’t give up. So, I kept going.””
There are tears in your eyes now.
Big, fat ones.
I can feel a lump in my throat, too.
I take a long drink, but it doesn’t go away. I stare off into the hay field. It’s high and ready to cut. I find myself realizing that I’m not prepared for where this is going. When I look back at you, you’re crying, now.
Crying and smiling.
Your eyes catch that late afternoon light and look like fire.
You look clean, and light, and unburdened for the first time in years.
“She’s right, Jake. She’s so fuckin’ right.”
There’s both an airiness and a heaviness in your voice, now. You sound broken but broken as if there has been something inside you that needed breaking.
“I drove out to her place a few times last month. We had coffee, talked and she showed me a few things in the Bible that made sense to me.”
We’re walking again. Fresh beers in hand.
The pack is light now. Barely anything left in it.
I stay quiet. Hoping.
“Do you know how long it’s been since anything made sense to me? How long it’s been since I haven’t felt like I’m just fighting myself every minute of every day?”
Then you start again. Your voice stronger.
“Y’know, she’s got some nice horses out there. We saddled a couple up and went for a ride out in the hills one day. We didn’t talk for hours. Just riding in the evening light. She took me down to a creek that runs by her place, and we sat and just stared at the sky for a while.”
“I told her everything. About me, and how I’ve been having such a shit time since I got home. How I couldn’t forgive God for losing Steve, Gary, and Dylan. How I couldn’t forgive myself for hating everyone and everything, and how I just kept getting more and more desperate to find some way out of all this pain, and shame, and hate. How I have sat there, drunk and high, and just stared at my Glock sitting on the table. I don’t think I ever wanted to kill myself, but I’ve wanted that gun to kill me. I’ve wanted it to be the evil death machine that the gun grabbers say it is, but it just sat there. Every time.”
I feel my hands starting to make fists, and my fingers sink into the can. I’m emotional, now. Angry. Sad. Relieved. My eyes are now fixed dead ahead and I can feel my skin prickling up hairs as I try to process what I’m hearing.
I knew you were struggling.
I wish you had told me.
I drown my jealousy in two big gulps, telling myself, “This isn’t about you, stupid!”
You continue walking and talking. The freshly graded gravel on this new field approach we’re coming up on crunches loudly under our boots.
“She listened. Just like you’re doing. After a bit, she came over and sat right next to me. She took my hands in hers and laid her head on my shoulder. She said that I could lay all those burdens down at the foot of God’s throne. I could ask God to take away all that darkness, and He would do it. She said that Jesus would intercede for me, lift me up, heal me, and make me new, if all I did was believe.”
You laugh, suddenly. Loud and clear.
I can see you’ve stopped walking again, so I stop and turn around to look at you.
I am struck by the sight of you. Standing straight and tall, head thrown back in laughter. White t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and old, worn Ariats. You’re framed by the road, the ditches, and the fences on either side, running off straight for miles behind you. The gold of the fields and the beep blue of the sky above. I see you’re standing in the light. A new light, and all the darkness is gone. All the weight you have been carrying, that tried to smash you down, is absent from your shoulders. You look lean, and strong.
You stop laughing and look at me. The smile on your face is the same one I remember from when you were a kid.
That pure look of joy that only comes when all there is is goodness in the moment.
“I did it, Jake. I did. Right there by that little creek, with Steph holding my hands, and the breeze in the leaves. I did it. I asked Jesus into my life. I asked God for forgiveness and peace. I prayed for the souls of Steve, and Gary, and Dylan, and asked God to watch over them. I prayed for you, too. You, and Mom and Dad, and Chelsea. And I cried like a baby. Big, shaking cries, and she just held me without saying a word.”
“When we rode back, the sun was setting off behind the farm. I watched the horses play in the dust, and it felt like I was looking at the world through new eyes. Seeing the world for real, for the first time in a long time. Maybe a lifetime. But I guess that’s why they call it being “Born Again”, huh?”
Now I laugh. It feels amazing. Like I have haven’t breathed in a few minutes.
I take a few steps and wrap you up in the biggest hug I’ve ever given my big brother.
“That’s the best story I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” I say.
You return the embrace, and then you reach into the pack on my back and pull out the last two beers.
“Last two.” You say. Handing me one. “Y’know, it’s crazy, but these things taste so fucking good right now.”
You laugh again, and so do I, wiping tears from my eyes and grinning like an idiot.
“C’mon. Let’s head back. Mom will have supper ready soon.”
We start walking back down the gravel road the way we came. Kicking rocks, drinking beer, and telling jokes.
The pack on my back is empty. Its burden gone.
Both of us are walking with a little more life in our step.
Sure, we’re a little buzzed from the beers, but we are also bonded.
Brothers; together through pain, and joy, and victory, and loss.
United under God, and the immaculately blue, summer sky
that stretches from horizon to horizon, here on this wide prairie.
The breeze blows, and the hay fields wave,
like the wings of ten thousand angels,
welcoming their lost brother home.
DJR – 2023