A Heap of Broken Images

On the night that Maybe Aaron was killed, I hadn’t even wanted to go to the fair. It happened on a typical evening, possibly a Tuesday or a Friday, and I had no plans other than to stay home and listen to the cassettes I had recently purchased. I must have been sixteen at the time — old enough to drive myself wherever I wanted to go, but not old enough to have entered the relationship that would become my first ill-fated marriage. That means the night in question had to have fallen between October 26th, 1986, and August 5th, 1987 — unless, of course, I am misremembering the circumstances, which is a distinct possibility.

I lived in Crossett, Arkansas, a small town nine or ten miles north of the Louisiana border. It must have been summer, because I don’t recall wearing a coat. The weather was warm, and as I left, my parents did not prod me about finishing my homework or coming home in time for school-night curfew. Or perhaps it was early fall, when the temperature first began to change, days as hot and wet as microwaved soup giving way to mornings when the air burned your nose a little if you breathed too hard.

In my memory, the day is all these things and none of them. The knife-edge precision of recollection has gradually devolved into scattered images. I have moved forward in time and replaced the details of that evening with more vivid moments — the feel of a woman’s breast in my hand, the sweet odor of cannabis drifting over a concert arena, the taste of a whole pepper I once accidentally bit into and the subsequent pain, as if my tongue were undergoing electric shock therapy. I recall some events in four dimensions, some as a series of linear moments, others purely as sensations. But this night I only recall as a tagline of sorts, a brief summary that encapsulates much more.

I didn’t care to see another half-assed traveling fair. We got them occasionally in southeast Arkansas, the mechanisms popping up on the Earth’s skin like a case of the shingles. One day you’d drive by Wal-Mart or a grocery store, and the parking lot would look a good deal like the fields and meadows beside the highways outside of town — less grassy, sure, and with cars and pickups instead of cattle, but just as flat and often nearly as empty. Then, the next night, the fair would be there, complete and running full-throttle. I never talked to anybody who ever saw one of them under construction. It always seemed ominous somehow, like they were all just simulacra of Dark and Nightshade’s, waiting for the right little boy to come along.

These fairs always had a Ferris wheel, along with some version of the Octopus and the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Scrambler. There was always a Midway or thoroughfare, and lined up on either side were stalls where you could toss rings or try to pitch softballs into the tops of milk cans or shoot impossibly bouncy basketballs into open, devilishly angled bushel baskets. You could fire bent-sight pellet guns at moving targets too large to miss with a decent weapon. You could eat hot dogs that crunched between your teeth like fried chicken skin, soggy funnel cakes, nachos with alarmingly orange cheese, cotton candy that would always stick to your face and that could not be removed by any means known to science, so that you spent the rest of the day in fear of stumbling into a cloud of gnats and looking like someone’s windshield. Once you had done it all a dozen times, it held little charm.

I credit — or blame — Erica for my being there at all. We had dated a little that year, though we were too different to last long. She was boisterous, gregarious, prone to telling anecdotes about almost anything — the price of gas in east Texas or the age of the chemistry textbooks we were using that year or who was dating whom. As for me, I was quietly, romantically angry and prone to fits of rage that could, and sometimes did, injure. She and I went out for a few weeks and found we were really more interested in other people, and that was the end of that. Except that it wasn’t the end — we sporadically dated until we married other people, and again after the initial divorces that now seem to have been so inevitable. She has been an occasional presence in my life ever since, though I don’t recall our ever speaking of Maybe Aaron. Not after the night at the fair.

That evening, I was tired, and heartsick over another girl. I was determined to sit in my room and listen to hard rock ballads that have mostly not aged well, and so no thank you, no fair for me.

But Erica would not let it go. “Come on,” she said. “I don’t want to go by myself.”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Come on. Please?”

“Nuh uh.”

“Please?”

“Nope.”

“Please?”

“No.”

This went on for some time. Finally, I gave in, as I have always been wont to do when confronted with a strong woman’s insistence. But I was not heading back into that cornucopia of creaking, rusting deathtraps without backup. So I called Mike, my lifelong best friend. To this day he is really more of a brother, one of those guys who will back you up no matter how self- or other-destructive your plans might be, just because he knows you would do the same thing for him.

“Erica browbeat me into going to that goddam fair,” I groused. “If you go with me, maybe we can get out of there earlier.”

He thought about it carefully for about two seconds.

“Okay,” he said.

I drove a 1981 Ford Mustang, red with a white vinyl top. Mike lived just down the street from me. I didn’t even bother turning into his driveway at the appointed time. I just pulled over, my driver’s side tires resting in the ditch, and waited for him to emerge.

Soon enough he ambled out of his house and folded himself into my passenger seat. Even then, Mike was taller than me, rail-thin, with dark hair cut in a rockin’ 80s mullet, a ’do that matched my own style. He also drove a Mustang; along with another buddy with similar taste in cars, we even formed a kind of road club called, imaginatively, the Mustangs. Like me, he favored t-shirts — preferably emblazoned with a hair band like Iron Maiden — jeans, and sneakers. So, coiffed similarly, dressed alike, and equally ambivalent about the fair, we pulled away from his yard and headed toward Maple Street, where Erica lived. The drive took between five and ten minutes because we lived in Rolling Acres, a subdivision shaped like a square and nestled a few miles outside of town proper. Maple was located several blocks off of Main Street, so several low-speed-limit roads and stoplights lay between us and her. Mike and I listened to half of one side of a cassette tape before we reached her place.

Erica was never much of a girly girl. She stood 5’7”, with shoulder-length brown hair. She did not eschew make-up or accessories like purses, but she never struck you as the type to patronize Neiman Marcus, either. When we arrived, she was ready to go. I cannot remember if she climbed into the back seat or if Mike let her ride shotgun — another detail lost in time’s inexorable march.

This year, the fair had set up in an empty lot next to a Dixie Dandy in north Crossett. We parked near the store and made our way through the lot, mud from recent rains staining the whites of our sneakers. The midway ground itself was slowly turning into a quagmire as a couple of hundred pairs of feet churned the mud into viscous goo. We tried to skirt the worst parts by moving foot over foot near the games of chance, looking like tightrope walkers in training. This allowed us to stay out of the muck, but it brought us closer to the hucksters, who not only insisted that we plunk down our cash to play their games but also insulted our manhood when we ignored them.

“Hey, you! Step on up! Win the lady a teddy bear! One dollar for three shots!” shouted a carny with long, scraggly hair and a ZZ Top beard.

“The lady doesn’t want a teddy bear,” I said.

“Wassamatter? You can’t throw a ball? You some kinda wimp?”

This was the kind of stimulating conversation you could expect from men who made their living by conning rural Americans into playing rigged games for toys you could buy at Wal-Mart for a couple of bucks. The only booth we frequented held a dart-throwing game. Mike saw it and pulled me over by my sleeve. A dollar would buy you three darts, none of which seemed bent or suspiciously weighted, and what you did was throw your darts at the back wall, on which were hung dozens of rock star posters. You could keep whatever posters you hit. So we both spent five bucks or so and walked away with a bunch of five-by-sevens depicting Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. I planned to tack them up in my room amidst all the larger pictures I had cut out of several years’ worth of Metal Edge magazines. If Ozzy sported a dart hole between his eyes, well, what did you expect for a dollar?

Erica wanted to go on some rides, so we climbed into the creaking seats of dinosaur-era contraptions, all of which seemed about five minutes from utter collapse. We were pitched into the sky and spun around in circles and whipped back and forth in spine-rattling arcs, and in spite of their appearances, the rides neither killed us nor fell to pieces. What we did with all those posters I cannot recall. Perhaps we took them back to the car or rolled them up in tight cylindrical shapes and stuffed them down our shirts while we rode. The sun went down and the stars came out overhead, the whine of mosquitos and the tinny carousel music competing for the loudest and most annoying sounds in the world.

We must have wandered to the northernmost edge of the fairground for some reason, because when the car ran down Maybe Aaron, we heard the impact, a screeching of tires followed by a deep thud, like someone had taken a baseball bat to the side of a dumpster. Then more squealing tires.

We turned to look, all three of us, our gaze traveling through the parking lot and across the highway, where we saw a person leaning over a prone figure, both of them little more than silhouettes, bathed irregularly in the light of oncoming vehicles’ headlamps. Perhaps no one stopped and the scene was not fully lit until the police arrived. Perhaps a car or two pulled over to help. That detail is lost in the wake of what came next.

I think it was Erica who said, “What happened?”

Most likely it was Mike who said, “I think somebody just got run over.”

That means it was me who said, “Jesus Christ.”

I don’t remember talking about what we should do next. I don’t even remember crossing the parking lot or the highway. The next image I can recall is the three of us standing over Maybe Aaron. He lay on his back, one leg bent slightly at the knee. His arms crooked at the elbows, one hand resting on his midsection, the other perpendicular to the ground, limp-wristed. His eyes were closed, his face screwed up in a grimace, like someone who has a terrible headache. Perhaps he did.

It seems like a cop or a paramedic stood nearby, not touching Maybe Aaron, not speaking with him. As if he were already gone. Perhaps he was.

A few feet away, his friend — I want to say his name was Randall — tore at his hair and paced about, wailing, “Oh God, Aaron!” Tears streamed down his face. He looked as if he wanted to punch someone and collapse at the same time. I know that guy, I thought. By that, I mean that I recognized his face, his dirt-stained clothes, his greasy hair. He was one of those kids that most of us never thought about much. Mike, Erica, and I all came from solidly middle-class families. We were not rich, not even what people called well-off. Our families often bought used cars; we lived in one-story houses. We wore retail brands or designer knock-offs. But compared to kids like Maybe Randall, we lived in luxury. Those kids’ families dwelled in ramshackle houses beside highways or on obscure backroads that you would have needed special knowledge or luck just to find. These boys and girls did not seem to bathe as often as the rest of us. Sometimes they smelled. They moved away from the main student body at school and gathered behind an enormous tree on the campus’s border, there to hide and smoke and talk about whatever they talked about. I had seen Maybe Randall nearly every day of my school life and had thought about him maybe half a dozen times, usually after nearly bumping into him in the halls.

I had a better memory of Maybe Aaron, but only because I met him on his first day in our school. Working on some math problem, constructing an essay’s introduction, writing “punishment lines” for some offense against classroom rules, carving my name into a desk — I could have been doing any of those things and more when he first walked into my study hall. When Maybe Aaron arrived, the teacher announced his name to the class. She smiled and invited him to take any empty seat. He chose one next to me. On that day, he was quiet and reserved. When I asked him his name, he whispered it to me. I promptly forgot it and went back to what I was doing, which is why I call him Maybe Aaron.

That night beside the highway, he was dying in front of me. In those days of my youth, death was only a word, one that had nothing to do with me or my friends. Now that I think about it, my attitude made no sense. Already I knew people who had died — my paternal grandfather, for instance. I had seen him lying in his hospital bed, a bit drawn and pale but still very much alive, and then I saw him again at his open-casket visitation, where he lay in state, dressed in suit and tie, his eyes closed, his complexion still hearty enough that he might have been sleeping or playing a trick on us. I had seen the light go out in the eyes of animals that I had killed on hunting trips with my father, trips that I would eventually avoid for that very reason. I had seen death, felt its presence before, so I should have known better than to take anyone for granted. I should have remembered Maybe Aaron’s name.

His schedule must have changed after that first day in study hall, because I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day, with no explanation, he was in the same class again, months after his first appearance. In the interim, something had changed. Now he wore old, faded jeans frayed at the ends, so threadbare that parts of them had disintegrated. His jacket looked like something from Goodwill. His complexion was bad, his hair much longer and unkempt.

Moreover, the same teacher who had introduced him to us now scowled at him, distrustful, as if she expected him to whip out a dozen rotten eggs or perhaps a hand grenade. They exchanged words that day. I don’t remember the content of their conversation, but I do remember the open hostility of its tone, as if they were patriarchs of feuding families who had happened to meet, unarmed, on neutral ground.

He carried some kind of toy with him — a Hot Wheels car, an action figure, something of that nature — a toy you would not have expected a kid his age to bring to school. Maybe Aaron kept it on his desk until the teacher noticed it.

“Put it away,” she said, an edge in her voice, “and get to work, or leave this class.”

Maybe Aaron smiled and stuck the toy in his coat pocket.

What had happened to him since I had last seen him? Why did he look so different? His new appearance suggested his membership in that group of outliers who spent their time huddled together in restrooms or behind that big tree as they tried to avoid the administrators’ gazes long enough for a smoke. His soured relationship with the teacher intimated that he had metamorphosed from the quiet, unassuming kid I had met to some kind of troublemaker. Moreover, I had no idea how I had somehow missed running into him at some point in the preceding months. Our school served a few hundred kids, but it wasn’t that big. It was as if he had camouflaged himself, but only from me and those who ran in certain social/economic circles. The teachers had apparently seen him. And now he had popped back up on my radar, just long enough for me to measure the changes.

After that period, I went on to my next class, and he headed off to wherever it was he went, to do whatever it was he did. I did not see him again until he lay on the ground in front of me, unconscious or close to it, groaning in pain.

I recognized his face. I recognized his name from Maybe Randall’s expostulations, though I have since forgotten it again. I saw him lying on the ground in his extremis, heard the sounds of his pain. And I listened to Maybe Randall tell the authorities what had happened as we all waited for the ambulance.

“They hit him!” he cried, his voice a mixture of pain and rage. “They hit him and then they just drove off! Oh, Aaron!”

So there it was. A hit and run. The thudding sound we heard was the sound a vehicle makes when striking a teenage body with enough speed to kill. The first sounds of screeching tires had been the vehicle’s attempts to swerve or brake; the second had signified the driver’s haste to get the hell out of there.

“You think they were trying to cross the highway?” I asked.

“Probably,” said Mike, quietly, his gaze fixed on Maybe Aaron. A few years before, Mike had been riding his motorcycle through a business district when a reversing car had run him down. He had suffered broken bones, severe road rash, and a mangled foot. At first, the doctors had wanted to amputate the whole foot, but they had managed to reconstruct it well enough so that he only lost his big toe. His thigh still bears the rectangular scar of a skin graft. He spent much of that school year in the hospital. So perhaps he was seeing his own averted fate lying there on the ground. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it.

If Erica said anything, I don’t remember it. I just remember that the ambulance eventually arrived, and we drifted back across the highway, making doubly sure to check for traffic. But whatever meager magic the night had held was gone now. Soon enough we got back in my car. We took Erica home, and then Mike and I drove back to our neighborhood, where our families and living friends waited.

When I think about that night now, I cannot help but ponder the nature of memory. Often we see or hear or feel something so urgent, so immediate, so overwhelming that we think, I will never forget this day, this hour, this moment. I will carry this with me for the rest of my days, and when I am old, I will be able to tell this story with all the clarity of detail that you see in the most realistic paintings. Just the chiaroscuro in that moment when the moon and oncoming cars painted Maybe Randall’s upper torso and head in bright light while the rest of him blended with Maybe Aaron’s body, as if they had become a composite creature straight out of mythology — that image alone will haunt others as it has sometimes haunted me over the years. I will tell it, and in the telling, I will preserve it, and through the preservation, perhaps I or someone else will arrive at some understanding, some meaning, some explanation that negates the sheer randomness of Maybe Aaron’s collision with that vehicle, which might have been a Ford two-door sedan or a Chevy extended-cab truck or anything at all.

But then life happens. Other people die. Children are born. We meet new friends, move to new cities, get married and divorced and remarried and re-divorced and married again. We go to college or not, graduate or not, pack up our belongings and haul them across countries, or else we get a job in the paper mill and live in the same house all our lives, our yards now covered with thick green grass that needs mowing, now with brown and crackling leaves that have to be swept and burned. The refrigerator breaks, the car’s air conditioner needs more Freon, and the sump-pump malfunctions, the results of which are the deep and cloying smell of waste bubbling up from the toilets and a smattering of new flowers in the backyard. We take out bank loans and read hundreds of books, see thousands of films, listen to the stories of our friends’ and families’ lives, and as all that new information and new experience takes precedence, the dead from our past fade, their lives shimmer in our minds like desert mirages, and what we are left with is less a narrative than what T.S. Eliot called “a heap of broken images” — a screeching tire, a rictus grin of pain, the skeleton of a story without the meat and gristle.

I feel like I should remember Maybe Aaron better. I wish I knew his name at least, so that I could help keep him alive in some small way, even if I never really knew him. I am now forty-three years old, a writer and a teacher of writing, a father and a husband. I have lived nearly three times as long as Maybe Aaron ever did. I cannot honestly say that I would go back and give him some of my time if I could. I’m not that generous, not that good. And given that I only remember seeing him three times, I cannot breathe life back into him through a fully developed, detailed story. Fragments of him were all I ever had, and so fragments are what I give back. What they tell me is this:

Maybe Aaron lived. He died. I didn’t know him. And so I moved on — not with malice or contempt, but because that is what the living do.

Wherever he is, I hope he understands.