I spent a month hitching around Scotland. When I was really broke, I borrowed money from my mom for a plane ticket. I spent my last three days with a girl named Lil. She was German and she loved Herman Hesse. We stayed up together until seven in the morning, along with the other people at the hostel, and the old party animal owner. She asked me not to go, I think, because she knew I would go. We would have had some fun together, she said.
Two days after I got home, I went back to work for Top Shelf Construction. I drove Blanco half an hour over to Cedar Rapids. The radio was Talk of Trump Today and Big Olympics. I switched to 88.3 KKR Jazz. They talked about that crap too, but they also blasted good music. I passed the Tick-Tock Bar and the Club House. A big pile of trash bags was stacked next to a fire hydrant. We were working at a little house on a numbered street. One block over was the elementary school. The students had become wild kids of mid-July.
Uncle Danforth showed me the house. His young pit bull followed. His younger son, Tristian, followed playing Pokémon. I followed. Top Shelf was behind and we were working on a Saturday because my other uncle, Dave, had ditched this gig and left town. Dan showed me the floors that needed to be finished by the end of the day.
He said, You know, I did that exact same thing when I was your age? I did a circle around Ireland and Scotland. I stayed out there for a while to do school, and I was scared as hell that I would go broke. So, the only thing I ate was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for months—but, I’m out the door.
Tristian wobbled in the doorway playing Pokémon, and then he sparked back into reality and stumbled over to Dan’s truck. He was a loose-limbed kid. He had a lot more time left before he had to do any summer work.
It started to rain and thunder outside, but it was all-American-summer type of rain. It was rain that could make you sweat. I ate a whole bag of Tootsie Rolls, and I sanded the floors until 6:30 a.m. Then I drove a half-hour back to my parent’s house in Coralville.
My family had steak for dinner. My mom talked about how she traveled around Europe twice. Once with a boyfriend, and once with a girlfriend. She said the second time was more fun because it was easier to meet people. My dad took a motorcycle trip around the United States when he was my age. He camped out, and at night he read the Star Trek Adventure Dreams of a Raven.
I woke up at 10:00 a.m. and had coffee, and I watched Disney’s Hercules with my brother, Mike, while our parents went to church. He rested his elbow on the windowsill and set his head so that he could see way down the street. It was raining. I think he likes having the TV on more than he likes watching TV. Mike is Severely Autistic. At noon we were both hungry, and we both wanted pizza.
On Monday, Dan took me over to a place in Southside Iowa City. Tristian and the pit bull. A guy named Shane, a new guy, and me. We followed Dan from room to room. The place belonged to one of Dan’s friends and they were moving in a week from today. It was a seventies-style, wood-paneled, carpeted place.
I ripped up the carpet and staples and nails. Little kid drawings were hung on the wall and covered in dust. The new guy split his lunch with me. It was a Milo’s sandwich, chips and a Coke. There were twisted-up wet wood chips and green clouds. I could see alley cats hiding. Cop cars waiting. Blue cars. A cracked windshield in the opposite driveway. Yellow-green. A pip-squeak bird. Cold coffee, and iced coffee.
The next house was behind Ace Hardware. I installed new boards on an old porch and tore out an old patio. I pulled the bricks up one at a time, and tossed them into a pile along the edge of the patio frame. Underneath were pounds of poorly mixed cement. The remodeling was overdue. It was 96 degrees.
Tristian’s older brother, Roan, was working his first job. He was scraping all the paint from the side of a garage. When he was done he would need to sand it and then paint it. Then he would probably need to paint it again. Roan’s hair was all frizzed out and curly. His arms were heavy beside him. He looked bummed.
I took him out to lunch at No-Do, the hippie sandwich shop connected to Ace Hardware. I got the number nine Reuben sandwich. I told Roan, When I was your age I had a job clearing out bomb shelters, and there was all this weird shit. I found porno mags and stolen street signs and stuff like that. What I didn’t tell him is that I only cleaned out one bomb shelter working for my neighbor. I didn’t tell him that I hated that job and I quit after a couple weeks. Cool, he said.
Roan was headed for seventh grade. He had become aware of himself, and he was too nervous to talk to me anymore. There was a road being ripped apart up the street. It looked like a cast being broken open. Roan looked out the window. I wondered if he would remember any of this.
I pulled more bricks out, and I found a colony of ants, and the queen, and a big batch of eggs. Two cats quarreled sideways around the side of the house. The temperature rose to 102 degrees. I poured in the new sand, and I tamped it down.
I told my parents that I was headed to Lowell at the end of August. Unofficially, Blanco Van had been mine for years, but now I agreed to buy it from my dad with a hundred dollars that I didn’t have yet. It was the middle of July.
I stripped out the back of Blanco. I tore out the rubber on the floor, and I washed out the dirt and grime with a hose. I took out the cage separating the front cab from the back. I bought a piece of wood not much better than particle board, and I installed it in the bed of the van with metal piercing screws.
Danforth told me that I could get free carpet out of the dumpster at Randy’s carpets on second street, so I went out there. The lot was open and the dumpster was open, so I jumped in and I picked out a big industrial piece of carpet. It was purple and green, like something that used to belong to an office or a bowling alley. I cut it up outside of Danforth’s house. I used primo-grade glue to attach it in the back.
I bought a wooden futon frame for fifteen dollars from a second-hand store. Dad and I hauled it into the back. I fastened it to the bed and the wall. In place of the futon mat I strapped Mike’s old memory foam mattress. I bought a set of drawers from Craigslist for twenty dollars. I bought some rollers and I installed the drawers under the futon to store my clothes. I built a feeble but functional bookshelf on the armrest. Dad and I built a cabinet out of two-by-fours and installed it on the opposite wall of the futon. I painted it green, sanded it down, and painted on another coat. A board of good yellow wood doubled as the cabinet door and a desk. The camping grill fit between the futon and the front driver seat, next to the cooler. I used cheap painter’s tarp to build curtains at the front and back of the van. I installed spaceman insulation on the walls, and covered it up with fake-wood paneling. It looked like a finished basement inside. Mike liked sitting on the futon while I worked. He felt the fake-wood paneling and the memory foam. He seemed to think it was funny having a couch in the back of a van.
My parents went to Minnesota for a long weekend, leaving Mike and me feeling restless. We didn’t want to go to the mall or go to Lake MacBride, or go to a regular movie. So, we ditched town for the day. We buzzed a little less than 65 miles per hour past the World’s Biggest Truck Stop into Davenport, right on the Mississippi River.
We found a park with ducks and kids. There was a wedding happening. We walked over to the botanical garden. It only cost a dollar to get in. Mike and I touched lamb’s ear-type leaves, and we walked around the big aquarium tanks. We weren’t supposed to, but we touched the water. I held my fingers still until the fish nibbled at me. I tried to get Mike to do it, but he wanted to circle his finger instead.
Mike was echoing, Look—look—ok? Got it?
He had heard someone say it somewhere. Maybe I said it. He was echoing and pausing and echoing again, Look—look—ok?—
We went out by the river. There was no beach. There was a train station and a bus station. A deep shadow under the bridge and a high school on the other side. The road on the hill seemed to fall away for the forest, pushed on by the heat. It was the kind of quiet that animals probably hid in. All the cars were parked. Nobody was walking around. Mike was sweating. He was giggling, breaking the silence. He said, I need to go to the bathroom, please. We went to lunch at this place down the street called Boozies. It was a lame sports bar, but it had the kind of food we were in the mood for. Mike got chicken fingers.
We drove an hour north towards the drive-in theater, but I saw mean looking rain clouds. I could imagine Mike and me dying and our parents finding out about it on Monday. We turned around and drove back to Iowa City. Mike didn’t mind. He seemed to like driving more than he liked getting anywhere. We took a blanket to the college lawn downtown and we got snacks. Far off I could see lightning bombing down silently. Directly above us was the clear night sky. I could see stars and a blue-red blinker, maybe a satellite. A plane flew by. All the crickets had gone quiet. I didn’t know if the thunderstorm was going to make it over here or not. I thought the heat was starting to break.
Mike took his time to finish his Fritos. Lying down, I looked at the blades of grass. They were bigger than the doors of the old capitol building. Mike looked at me from time to time. He looked me in the eyes. His head was as big as the sky. He was a giant, eighteen years old. I imagined that we could do this all over the country. We could stop in places like Boozies. The waitress could ask us what we were up to and I could say, We’re just passing through.
I asked Mike, What do you want to do next?
Mike paused, and then he said, Do you got it?—Yes, I got it.
I felt like Mike was the important one. I felt like Mike had no idea that he was an angel, and somehow, he got trapped down here with the rest of us.
I asked Mike again, What do you want to do next?
And he said, Do you got it?—Yes, I got it.
The next day sucked. Mike slapped me before lunch, and the dog got scared. I yelled at Mike. I yelled at the dog for being scared. Mike lurched at me, trying to claw my arm, and I grabbed him by the wrists and lead him to his room. I tossed him on his bed.
I bought him some McDonald’s. Then I dropped him off at his day program, summer camp. Mike could hear everything, but he couldn’t say so much. That meant I needed to listen to him carefully, and to get along with Mike somebody really needed to want to hear him. Looking in his eyes I could see that he was thinking a lot. I figured he probably missed Mom and Dad. That didn’t mean his vice fingers hurt any less. It was easier to want to leave when Mike was mad.
At 7:30 p.m., moths were fluttering in the junior high football field. Music played down in the park by the public pool. A kid said, I can see a rainbow ring around the moon. His friends told him, That’s not right. You’re not supposed to see that. Two girls without shoes were climbing on the old jungle gym. I used to play on it. Mike and I were walking over to Applebee’s to get something to eat. Mike echoed, Cut the shit, cut the shit, cut the shit, and then, Geez Louise, Geez Louise, Geez—. We walked by the cop station, by the Coralville Public Library, by West Music, and the new 5th Plaza on 5th street.
I cut Mike’s steak into bite size pieces, and gave him some ketchup. Mike kissed my hand. The windows in Applebee’s were tinted, so everything looked blue-black outside. Our waitress thought that we had a bad time because I was quick, and I paid quick, and I answered for Mike. But I tipped well and we left quick.
Mike echoed, You know who I am?—of course!—you know who I am?—of course!
I said, What are you sayin’, Mike?
We walked home the long way. A boy said Hi to Mike and his mom smiled. Boys were running down the street one way and the other. Some boys stole candy from the Hy-Vee supermarket, and the manager called their parents and the cops. Boys played on roller blades in their parents’ driveway, the lights on. Old dog and lemonade smell.
Mike was already sitting on the steps of the back porch before I could take my own shoes off.
Mike was looking out into the darkness. No wind. His shoulders relaxed, and his head pointed towards the big black tree-line way out in front of us, over the fences, to further than we had gone. I knew what I saw. I wondered what he was looking at. When Mike noticed me noticing him he started laughing like crazy.
Danforth set me up at a place in Coralville, two blocks from my family’s house. I was installing a floor for the parents of two guys I went to high school with. I remembered thinking they were crazy, but there they were in pictures on the wall, posing with their sisters.
I never learned how to distinguish exactly what types of wood we were working on. This wood was yellow. It was soft. The sound of the nail gun cinching a plank of wood into the floor is a suppressed bap. Bap, bap, bap. The sound of a mallet slipping and smashing my finger is more of a thud. Shane and I covered up the vents that could be covered. We opened all the doors and windows. There was a skylight too. The house filled with light, dust, and dust bunnies when we turned on the sanding machines.
The heat wasn’t so bad. It was so-so heat. Eighty degrees. The feeling I had in my chest was a little tense. It was like calm-mad. Sweating felt good. It meant nobody could say I wasn’t working. Big blotches stained the floor. Newly sanded wood soaks up water easily. Soaks up coffee if somebody isn’t paying attention. Gets ruined by cat piss. Sensitive to scratches and shoes with dark rubber soles.
Shane used the big sanding machine. I worked the edger. There was only enough work for two people, so the new guy was somewhere else. With the big machine, it’s all about keeping the stomach tight, and fingers loose, and sharing control with a mindless sander. The edger rotates fast enough to scrape a nail into nothing in half a second. The rule with the edger was: keep fingers tight and thumbs loose. Keep elbows out, and legs squared out of the way. Still, I wasn’t worried about messing up: a floor can’t be fucked up too badly.
I went home for lunch. Pickles in the fridge, and chicken and vegetables from the grill.
After Shane and I finished, we tried to move the fridge and we scratched up the floor all over again. Shane said, Fuck. Goddammit. We had to fix it quick or just cover it up. We were already behind. These people lived here, and we didn’t want to keep them from living normally for too long.
I thought, the last day of the world might feel like this. Except, it would be too hot for us to care. I could go to the park with my family with old Dalmatian blankets. People could set their dogs free. The public pool would be free. A ton of us could go for a twilight swim. A big bunch of boys could start chicken fights, and a lot of girls would look pretty. We could enjoy ourselves. Snow cones, picnic, family. Food truck, live music. A long sunset. Then it would be over. There would never be another slow afternoon again. No more hot days turning into cool nights. It would all be still, and nobody would have to make another decision about anything.
I think we fixed it up ok.
At 4:30 I left to pick up Mike at his day program across town. I passed the University Hospital. The new children’s wing was being built and it looked like a spaceship. I stopped at The Wedge Pizza out on the Iowa City strip to pick up a slice for Mike. Across the street were Dairy Queen and the Iowa River and the old train bridge. The bridge always looked like it was going to collapse. I got my gas at the Kum-and-Go. Red dirt, and gasoline nozzle pointed up. A RedBox movie rental sat under the thin awning. The ice machine around the side. The bathroom around the side. The parking lines diagonal. A woman looked at me sideways from her red car. A year from now the place would be torn down.
I drove, switching the channel on the radio. A talk show personality: That’s a great new song by—and another—By the second amendment— I got too bored to listen. Here was a place the radio couldn’t fill, but the radio towers blinked in the distance anyway. There was far-off thunder again.
When I picked up Mike from his summer program, he was sitting in a green beanbag chair by the fire exit. I pulled a baseball cap over his head. We took the pizza and parked on a hill to eat. I showed Mike my purple fingernail. He wasn’t talking or echoing but he seemed to be with it; he seemed to understand. There was so much left that we had to do today, but we couldn’t do it, because we didn’t feel like it. I looked out over the river and out over Iowa City. It wasn’t such a big place. From up here it looked like nobody could get too busted up over the summer. From the road I saw an old man with bent shoulders and big ears. He walked toward the road from the assisted living home carrying a suitcase. He looked like he was through with that place for good.
On Saturday, my family and I went to a BBQ at Danforth’s house. Danforth had one of those Southside Iowa City backyards. No fences, just the impression of fences. Wildflower beds. Different dogs and cats. Rabbits and dead baby rabbits. Recently cut grass, and the cow smell of recently cut grass. The shed and the alley. Truck parked. The grill was out. Birds. Sprinkler. Hot day. Trees holding in their water. Kids that I remembered babysitting at one time, and their parents. There were two families there whose floors I had worked on. Ben Schmidt was there. I had grouted a floor with him a few years ago. Roan was the biggest kid, but he wasn’t really a kid, not like Tristian. Damian stopped by just for a second on his tall Harley chopper. He said, I remember when I was young. I saw this really gnarly biker. All leather and tattoos. He had a girl on the back. I remember thinking, I wanna be just like that.
The pool was next to the trampoline. The kids were jumping from the trampoline into the pool. I got in and we ran in a circle to make a whirlpool. We all started shouting, Whirlpool! Whirlpool! Whirlpool! The current got so strong that one of the boys got stuck on the ladder, and he started crying.
I sat with Mom and Mike in the sun. Mom said, Kids always end up crying. But not Mike. Mike was sitting back in his lawn chair. He had eaten a burger. He was covered in sweat, but he looked happy.
Tristian and his friends went and played video games.
Roan, Dan, Dad and I played basketball. Roan was going to try out for the seventh-grade junior high basketball team, and he would make it. I told Roan about how I had tried out in seventh grade and I was the worst player. Funny, he said.
Later, I loaded up clothes and groceries into Blanco. I piled the bookshelf with books I hadn’t read. I got bedsheets with flowers on them from my mom. A real pillow. Loaded winter clothes in the front. Jumper cables and the jack stored behind the futon. Propane and a few tools. Pencils, papers. Old notebooks. The journal I wrote in while I was in Scotland. Stuff I thought I would need. I paid Mom back for the plane ticket, but I never gave Dad the hundred dollars for Blanco. I was gonna go to Lowell. I thought I would see Jack Kerouac’s grave. I thought, It’s my middle name, Lowell. And, maybe I would go further than that. Maybe, I’d pass Maine and go to Canada and drive to Nova Scotia. Then I would be on the edge of something.