John’s brother Colin went to jail when he was twenty-three.
Colin stole cars and used them to pick up kilos of cocaine from the docks at the edge of town, then drove in to the city to sell. He later told John he would leave the cars somewhere no one would be likely to find them—behind abandoned warehouses, inside abandoned warehouses, in fields next to abandoned warehouses. Colin would then call one of his boys to come pick him up from wherever he was and do the same thing the next day.
Colin had been running drugs in the city for years, but he’d only been caught at twenty-three because he’d cheated one of his boys out of a couple thousand dollars and had been ratted out. Colin found out and beat the man to the point of brain damage only moments before the cops arrived to put him in handcuffs. When they shoved him in the cop car, he said, simply, “I can’t survive in prison.” He had ten years left.
John spent every Thursday afternoon at the prison visiting Colin, or talking to him on the phone, or at his apartment waiting for one of the guards to call and tell him his brother had been locked in solitary and therefore John couldn’t visit that week. Knowing that someone would call, one way or the other, weighed heavy on him, heavier than the image he had of Colin sitting on a metal folding chair with his socks pulled up on his calves and his ear to the receiver. If not on Thursdays, John went on Tuesdays. Visiting the jail twice in one week was often too much; having to walk through the metal detectors and go through the process of being patted down was just too much. But he still went.
John knew Colin had run drugs. He’d known it for as long as he could remember watching television with his father and seeing news clips of women who’d lost their husbands to drug warfare, babies in the crook of their arms. Colin had started when he was seventeen, used to come home early in the morning looking haggard, dustings of white under his long nose, smudges on the backs of his hands.
John never said anything, because their father never said anything, just used a third of the money Colin brought home to pay the electric bill and keep the television going. Before he got sick, their father had worked at the coffin factory in town and had spent all day drilling wood planks together for someone to be laid in after they died. When the boys’ mother died, he built the coffin for her funeral. John went to the funeral; Colin was in the city that day and didn’t get back in time for the ceremony. Their father said nothing.
And then Colin ended up in jail, and John ended up living in an apartment they’d rented once John turned twenty and had finally moved out of their father’s house. The apartment was in the bad part of town, out near the docks, which was why Colin wanted it. John didn’t really care. He worked at a body shop in the center of town. He’d come home with grease on his forearms, take a shower, watch a movie, and go to bed. Colin would come in around the time John left for work in the morning. John took money for rent; he did not know what Colin did with the rest.
Colin had a girlfriend named Renee who sometimes came along when John went to visit the prison. Renee was the daughter of the man who owned the body shop where John worked, and the two got along well enough that the hour’s drive to the prison each week wasn’t so bad. Renee would paint her nails in the car on the way because she wanted to look nice for Colin, who’d never once said anything about the color of Renee’s nails.
In December, Colin had been in jail for two years and three months. It was John’s second time seeing his brother that week. He hadn’t been able to come the previous Thursday, since Colin had been in solitary for kicking a guard in the face. When John arrived at the visiting room, Colin was stretched out in a chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles. The sleeves of his jumpsuit were rolled up and a fresh tattoo of a skull, raised and red, was on his right bicep.
“Long time, no see,” Colin said.
Colin’s voice was as long as the rest of him, drawn out vowels and consonants that hissed at the ends. He stood half a foot taller than John, and his hair was buzzed close to his narrow head. His face was purple from left eyebrow to chin; his right hand was bandaged, and John could tell Colin’s shoulder was dislocated from the way it hung loose in his jumpsuit.
John sat down on the other side of the barrier from his brother and looked at his body cut into circles through the hole into which one spoke. Renee always scooted her chair up close to the barrier when she was here; she hated that other people could hear her conversation. John didn’t care. He figured the type of people who visited other people in prison had bigger things to worry about than what he might say to his brother.
“Hey.” John adjusted his body in the hard chair. Colin re-crossed his legs.
They talked about nothing for a few minutes. John didn’t mention his brother’s injuries. Colin told him about spending the weekend in solitary, which was always the same: “pretty damn solitary.” Eventually Colin asked about their father. John told him that he wasn’t getting any better, and that the treatments were eating away at what little money their father still had from their mother’s life insurance. Something bitter flashed in Colin’s eyes, a dark stroke over the irises, and was gone.
“How much does he have?”
“Not enough,” John said. “I don’t know.”
Colin sighed, ran a hand over his head and realized there was no hair to grab, a nervous tic he had.
John listened to the woman next to him tell her husband that their son had started walking. Her voice was flat. She held up an iPhone with a video of the child taking steps. The husband crossed his arms and watched. This moment, like every second John spent in the prison, was like pressing the jagged edge of a key into his palm, and then pressing it harder.
Colin started talking about religion, about a book he’d read this past week and how people turned every day occurrences into holy things, like the way their food was shaped on the plate and how that could mean something miraculous. Colin never really talked about things like this. Faith, to John, was the chill of winter and the steady belief that the days would, eventually, get warmer. John didn’t know what faith felt like to Colin, if it felt like anything anymore.
“What was your lunch shaped like?” John asked, scratching his wrist.
“Like getting out.”
John looked up at his brother. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“My lunch was shaped like getting out of prison.” Colin blinked steadily. “I can tell, John. I can tell they’re gonna let me out early.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, it’s true. My green beans looked like Renee’s face and my mashed potatoes looked like the apartment. I just know they’re letting me out.”
John ignored this. It hurt him to hear the earnest seriousness in Colin’s voice. He sounded younger, and it didn’t match his hollowed cheeks, his lean, tense body. John had never thought of his brother as naïve, but at this moment, he saw something had shifted. “Letting you out for what?” he asked. “Good behavior? Yeah, right.”
Colin narrowed his eyes, sat up straight, spoke defensively. “It could happen.”
“You kicked a guard in the face last week. You’re not going to be let out anytime soon. I’m sorry.” John’s throat hurt. He swallowed twice.
Colin stood up abruptly. Two of the guards yelled something and made their way over. One put his hand on a nightstick.
“Colin. Come on,” said John.
“Fuck you. I can tell you don’t believe me. I’m not gonna waste my time talking to someone who doesn’t have any idea about what it’s like to be in here. You’ve never even asked. You just come here and complain about your own life.”
“Anderson! Sit the fuck down. Visiting hour isn’t over yet.” The guard with his hand on the nightstick patted it. “I’ll tell you one more time.”
Colin didn’t move. “How about you just listen to me when I talk about the one thing that’s given me hope?”
John swallowed again. When the guard grabbed Colin by the forearm, John heard Colin’s shoulder popped loudly.
“Anderson. Are you fucking listening to me?”
“Colin,” John said. “Just—”
John watched his brother be led away, gray-eyed and angry. He tried not to listen to the sounds he made when the guards pulled out their sticks. On the drive home, he tried to think like Colin and looked for signs in the clouds, something telling him it would get better.
Two weeks later, John was back to visit, one cubicle over from the last time.
Renee was not with him, since she had come last week. John had not. Colin hadn’t called him last week either; John had thought about phoning the prison but had decided against it.
Colin was led in. His shoulder was back in place, and the bruises around his cheekbone had faded to brown, edged with yellow. He didn’t look at John.
John wanted to make easy conversation, but there was none, so he told Colin about the most recent round of their father’s treatment.
“At least he’s not getting any worse,” he said finally, because it was the only thing he could think to say about it.
“I knew it,” Colin said.
“It’s not going to get better,” Colin answered. “I know it’s not.”
“Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell yourself that.”
“I saw it, John. He’s going to die.”
“What do you mean you saw it.”
“I saw it the other night, when I was eating dinner. I saw a tombstone.” Colin crossed his arms, stretched his legs out in front of him. “It was Dad’s.”
John saw his father’s thin hands in the light of the television, imaged their absence on the sides of the recliner.
“Fuck off,” John said. “Are you still talking about that bullshit miracle-in-the- meat thing?”
His brother’s face darkened. “You don’t know.”
“Actually, I do. I know that it’s all a load of shit and that if you believe it, you’re finally letting this place get to you.” John knew his voice was shaking. He wondered if Colin had been like this when Renee had been here. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t answered John’s call about coming today.
“I know you think it’s crazy. But the more you think about, the more sense it makes. John, Dad’s gonna die, and it’s gonna be soon. That’s just the truth. I didn’t have to see the sign to know. But it just made everything so much clearer.”
“Did your dinner tell you when, exactly? I’d just like to be fucking prepared for the day my father dies. If you can see that information for me, that would be really helpful.” John’s hands tightened into fists at his sides. “I didn’t come here to listen to you talk like this.”
“Of course not,” Colin said. “You came here so you didn’t have to sit with Dad and listen to him choke when he sleeps and lean over him to make sure he’s still alive.”
John didn’t say anything. He stood up. The girl in the cubicle next to him looked up, saw his expression, and looked back down. He realized his voice was getting too loud but he couldn’t lower it.
“I’m leaving. You’re crazy. You’re being crazy.”
Colin just sat there. John knew his brother watched him leave.
Colin’s face was thinner the next time John went to visit, his shoulder blades jumping nervously at his back.
“Renee,” he said when John sat down.
“John,” John said.
“No. Renee. She’s pregnant.”
John looked at him. “Whose?”
“That kid that works with you guys at the shop. Max.”
They sat there for a moment; John drew a circle on the knee of his jeans. Colin stared at the tile, his mouth set in a proud line.
“What happens now?”
“I love her,” Colin said. “I just keep loving her.”
John asked him if he was eating, rubbed at his own shoulders to indicate his brother’s. “You look…not great.”
“How am I supposed to eat the face of God?” said Colin.
He looked like any one of the other prisoners, sullen and close-shaven. There was no seven year-old boy, draped long-limbed over the seat of their father’s motorcycle. Maybe that was someone else’s story now.
John walked out.
Four days later, the phone rang at noon. John paused his movie and answered it. One of the guards at the prison said that Colin had been asking for him before they moved him to solitary on Friday, that he was unresponsive now and hadn’t eaten in three days. He wondered if John could convince Colin to eat something. The prison would make an exception for a visit.
“What’s he in solitary for?”
Someone was yelling in the background so John missed the guard’s answer. He said he’d be there later.
Colin was sitting in the room alone when John arrived, since it was before visiting hour. John sat down across from him and said nothing. His brother looked bad. His lips were cracked open and the side of his head was swollen, his ear bloody.
“What the fuck happened to you?” John finally said.
One of the guards behind them answered, “Hit his head on the cell door. Said we needed to let him out because he’d seen it coming, and we weren’t doing anything. When we ignored him, he hit it harder.”
John felt his stomach flip. “What is wrong with you?” he asked Colin. He wasn’t sure he wanted an answer.
“I told you. They have to let me out. I saw it.”
“Colin, that’s not…that’s not how it works. I’m sorry. You have to behave if you want them to let you out.” He felt like he was talking to a stranger; Colin’s eyes were on the floor and his shoulders were hunched. John could smell his brother from across the barrier, piss and sweat and blood and something even sharper.
“You need to eat, okay? You have to. Stop being like this. It’s not helping your case.” John wished he could reach out and put his hand on his brother’s arm, his index finger light on his tattoo, wished he could feel his pulse and know he was still in there somewhere.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Colin said.
“You need to eat.”
“I can’t. It doesn’t show me anything anymore.”
On Saturday, after a cancelled visit the Thursday before due to Colin’s time in solitary, the phone rang just after ten a.m. John picked it up and there was static on the line. It popped, and he was reminded of Colin’s shoulder, the way the guard had yanked it, the sound it had made.
“It’s Warden Darren Harvey, down at county.”
John held the receiver tight. His hands had begun to sweat.
“John, I’m sorry. I’m calling to tell you that your brother died last night. He hanged himself from the water line in solitary.”
John was silent.
“I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”
He threw up on his sweater.
John and Renee went to Colin’s funeral. John’s father couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t breathe now that it was below freezing. He had maybe two months left. They had enough money for one treatment, which meant they had to choose between it and pain medication.
Renee held onto John’s arm and didn’t cry. He wanted to say something to her, like she would be a great mom, but he couldn’t say anything. John hadn’t cried at all, but when they were asked to throw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin that his father didn’t make, he felt it starting in the back of his throat.
There hadn’t been a spot left next to their mother, so Colin was buried in one of the back rows. There were only a few tombstones there. John saw one belonging to a girl who had died when she six. It was snowing and quickly covered the dirt John had thrown into the hole where they’d put Colin. John felt like he was the one who had died.
Renee dropped him off at the apartment after the service, told him to visit soon. John went to Colin’s old room and sat on the edge of the bed. Colin hadn’t been in this room in over two years and four months. John thought about calling his father but couldn’t make himself pick up the phone. He hadn’t picked up the phone since he’d gotten the call from the warden, although it had rung many times. Each time it rang, John almost picked up the receiver, imagined he would hear Colin on the other end of the line, his long voice over the static.
He realized, sitting there in Colin’s room, that Colin had always been a kind of oracle, a kind of light that could find other lights, things John wasn’t able to see. The day of his arrest: “I can’t survive in prison.” Looking at Renee when she was playing with a child in the park: “That girl is going to break me.” After their mother died: “Dad’s not going to make it”—all of it said so frankly and without a doubt. John had just pretended he hadn’t heard and looked away, always looked away.
Now John picked up a photo of the three of them, him and his brother and their father, their father dressed for work, Colin tall and proud, that had been tucked into the corner of Colin’s mirror. John was smiling and Colin was looking across the frame, his face in profile. Their father was healthy. Colin looked just like him. John looked at the photograph and tasted the stale air of the gravesite, noticed the dirt still on his fingers, leaving prints on the edge of the paper. He put it back in its place, smoothed the edge of the comforter back straight, and left the bedroom.
Morgan Blalock is a junior at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she edits the literary journal Cargoes and studies creative writing and ancient philology.