Abe Lincolnby Tom Vollman
Mid-March ushered a change in the weather and the phone calls stopped. It’d been almost eight months since I had talked to my mom or my dad. For awhile, there were texts, but soon those stopped, too. It didn’t really matter that much; I’d managed to ignore most of their messages anyway. From the time of the accident until around St. Patrick’s Day, voice mails drifted in. If I listened to them at all--and usually I didn’t--it would only take about 30 seconds for the shame storm to begin. I never deleted any of the messages. For the most part, I left them untouched. Each time I opened my mailbox, the tiny blue dot would remind me that there was more than one way to pay the piper.
Back when the calls did come, I'd shudder off waves of anxiety every time my mom’s number flashed on the screen of my cell. Then suddenly, the calls switched their display. An Unknown identifier would appear, followed by a corresponding voice mail from my mother. After that, calls came from a handful of other area codes. All of them, though, showed the location tag FL, USA.
My mom lied all the time. As a kid, I soaked in those lies. They became normal; the truth somewhat relative. She lied at the library, the bank, even at hotels. She lied when she didn’t have to--when it didn’t matter.
Sometimes, for dinner, she’d cook these tiny pieces of fried chicken, dry as hell and barely two breasts for the five of us. They were terrible and coated with Shake ‘n Bake, so my brothers and I always wanted sauce. Those afternoons--the ones when the chicken was sure to occupy the stove top by four--we’d roll through the McDonald’s drive-thru at 2:00 or so. My mom would skip the speaker and pull right up to the window, which would eventually open.
It would always be some gangly, pimple-faced kid that would appear in the frame, confused and a bit flustered.
“Can I, uh, help you?” he’d choke.
“Yes,” my mom would beam. “I just came through the drive-thru and you forgot my McNugget sauce.”
She spoke with the confidence of a life-insurance salesman. I’d be in the backseat, embarrassed as hell.
“It wasn’t in the bag,” she’d follow. “I need three sweet ‘n sour packets.”
She never got BBQ or hot mustard. It was always sweet ‘n sour.
When I was 15 and I worked my first job at that very same McDonald’s, I finally had some hot mustard and almost lost my shit. It was so fucking good.
I was always so aware of the tick-tick-tick of the Plymouth’s valves as we idled and waited, cutters in the drive-thru line. I’d keep my eyes down and watch the stick shift jiggle.
Each time, though, we’d get the sauce, free and clear. At home, my mom would serve it in a tiny, cut-glass bowl. The packets never came to the table, but their foil tops always seemed to stick to the side of the trashcan liner. I’d see them suspended on the white plastic bag as I cleaned our plates. When I watched those masked calls idly shake my phone, I took a sort of solace in the fact that, apparently, some things never changed.
But others did. My brother got worse. His lung collapsed and he sped in and out of the intensive care wing of the Orlando Regional Medical Center. I hadn't been to see him--not since well before the accident that left him a quadriplegic, bound to a motorized wheelchair that was tongue-operated, when his tongue worked. Often it didn't.
Updates were tough to come by. My mom, when I used to speak with her, would tell me how well he was doing.
"He's just so fragile, Tyne," she'd drawl. "But strong."
Then her voice would gain momentum, as if it had the capacity to reshape reality.
"And we're behind him. We all are--your dad, your brother, and I. And your uncle's been fantastic." Most of the time, her tone would dip here. The words would slow just enough for me to notice. "Someone we can rely on to be there," she'd quip.
A good deal of what she said was hyperbole.
"We're going to talk to his teachers and see about getting him going on some graduate classes."
My brother finished college seven years ago. He spent nine years at three colleges and a technical school to earn an undergraduate degree in microbiology. Before the accident, he worked at a ski and snowboard shop.
"We're just trying to keep pace--moving him, siphoning out his lungs, monitoring the ventilator, checking his oxygen." She'd stammer a bit, here, perhaps afraid that with the wrong word--a jumbled phrase or misplaced modifier--her whole world would collapse. "He just needs something. Something to help pull him through."
And so quickly, her resolve would harden.
"There's a whole world out there, so many things we haven't thought of. So many things he can do."
A cool pause would descend, buckled by the weight of eternity.
"People like him do great things. It's just a matter of what he believes. He can be whatever he wants." Here again, she'd pick up steam. "And it's really just about what we believe."
At that point, she'd pause. The silence was a desert, but I never filled it.
"He believes what we believe,” she’d eventually continue. “And we just need to stay positive."
My dad never said anything about my brother. Not at least out loud. All of his updates arrived via email. I don't think my dad has initiated a single phone call my entire life. His emails read like police incident reports--high on technical detail, low on emotional investment. And they're always too long and ordered. There’s never a single detail out of place.
A friend of mine once told me that if I lied, I should be sure to lie big.
"Go for broke, man."
"For real. I'm serious," he followed. "Nobody who ever tells the truth, tells the real story."
I was puzzled.
"Look, what I mean is this. When somebody tells the truth--what actually happened--shit's all jumbled and fucked up. Especially if it's something that really matters. Nobody ever knows what went on during some disaster or tragedy or shit like that."
My smile stopped him short.
"Seriously," he pushed. "Haven't you ever watched a fuckin' cop show? 18 witnesses and 18 different stories, all of 'em true." He stared at me and squinted. One of his eyes was green, the other, brown. "Or at least a version of the truth," he added.
"But really," he continued, "the truth’s messy--all over the place. It's the lies that are ordered, too perfect. If you lie, fucking go for it. Make it messy."
Later, he wrote a story about our conversation.
And stories are important. Especially when they help to get at the truth. So when Tony Franklin told me the story about how he got locked up, I did my best to listen. We were on a march with Jesse Jackson to protest the restrictions applied to Wisconsin's early-voting procedures. Jesse was headed to City Hall. Tony and I weren't.
Tony was a student in my 12:30 pre-college composition and was on paper.
“You voting early?” he asked before we began to walk.
“Nah,” I replied. I liked the sound of my ballot as it cranked through the box.
We crossed 5th Street and the bells on St. John’s chimed quarter after.
"Yeah, T," he said, "It was kinda fucked--I mean--" I shook my head. I spoke freely in class; he could certainly do the same outside of it.
He continued. "Collared for somebody else's dirt."
I pointed and signaled for us to break from the march. It was three blocks back to campus and our class was on the fifth floor of a building with only a slightly reliable set of elevators.
"But see, I had this ticket--for an expired license--so the cops took me in. Rodney's bag was in the trunk, a bit of weed and enough white for about a dozen eights."
"Fuck," I sighed, "and you didn't know?"
"That he dealt? Shit. That was clockwork. By the time he was 19, he was chopping rocks the size of breath mints."
We walked up a concrete ramp to the college’s main building. Tony pulled open the handicapped entrance. The protest of gears and electronics welcomed us inside.
"But," he continued, "I didn't know my brother had put Rod's backpack in the trunk." He shook his head. "I don't even think my brother knew what was in there.” He paused. “Hell," he said as we climbed the first flight of stairs, "he was 12. How could he?"
"And Rodney?" I regretted it the moment I asked. Maybe earlier.
Michael whistled a low, slow, single note.
"Smoked," he said and clicked his tongue. He held his hand in the shape of a pistol. His thumb, the hammer.
My dad told me once that hope was fragile. I was 14 and I'd just tried out for a traveling knothole team.
"You've got to be vigilant," he said.
We were in the Malibu--just the two of us--and outside the rain was steady. The vinyl seats felt cold with the air conditioning and the windshield fogged only at the bottom, right above the dash where the wipers couldn't reach. "They'll try to take it, crush it, anyway they can.” He paused and adjusted the rearview. “It takes courage to survive out there."
We spilled off the gravel drive that led down to the park and the patchwork of baseball diamonds. The Malibu's tires grabbed the wet asphalt greedily.
"Hope," my dad continued, "has to be defended.” He gripped the steering wheel tightly as we rolled to a stop at a red light. His plain, silver wedding band whitened a small section of his ring finger. “It’s the courageous that make something of themselves."
And that's probably why he never called. It was impossible. Too risky, I suppose, with something so fragile as hope. Behind the emails--the wordiness and the silence--was fear. Hope has to be defended; it can’t possibly survive on its own.
Just before Tony and I split from the march, he snapped a picture of Jesse Jackson. His phone was a few generations old and Jesse was a good 20 feet away when the electronic shutter clicked.
"There," he said and slid his cell back into his front pocket, "my Grands ain't gonna believe that." He cracked a broad smile, which played a strange partner to the flat-brim Chicago Bulls cap that sat a bit too far back on his head. "She talks about him all the time. She was there in Memphis with Dr. King." He motioned toward Jesse. "So was he, I guess."
"No shit? Your grandmother marched?"
He laughed. "Yep, for real. She's why I'm here and not still locked up." He pulled off his hat and gently tucked it into his backpack. "It's funny. Before I went to jail, I was pretty straight. After, though--whewee."
Michael looked off toward the horizon and the grind of midday traffic.
"I fell in with a rough crew,” he continued. “Things got raw for a minute. Then she put her foot down. Told me that there was more to it than some game. Life, she said, should be full of hope, and hope, she would tell me, isn't just something to mess with. It's strong. You gotta be responsible with it." His eyes met mine as we approached the intersection in front of the college. "And you can't fuck with that. No way. She was always on my ass about it. Always."
I nodded. "I feel that. Your grandma sounds like a smart woman."
"Shit. Don’t you know it," he replied. "Like a drill sergeant, too. Made sure I never forgot who I was after I came out." He rubbed his chin. "I'm just saying, though, it got me here."
He paused as we waited for a walk signal. "She's got this thing in her kitchen, like a plaque or something. I read it every day. It says, Keep hope in your heart. It's what you've got to lean on."
We crossed the street and I looked back as Jesse Jackson and the marchers carried forward, then disappeared onto 3rd Street. For a moment, I tried to imagine Selma or Birmingham, the bridges and busses, fire hoses and the dogs. It was impossible. I couldn't fathom that kind of strength, that level of resolve.
"Goddamn," I said to Tony as we stepped up onto the sidewalk. "Can you imagine the courage, walking with those guys back then?"
He shook is head. "It wasn't courage, T."
"What?" I puzzled.
"It wasn't courage," he repeated. "Courage is bullshit. I saw courage in jail. People mix lies with courage all the time. Gets so you can't tell them apart. Ain't nothing but empty talk." He knocked his knuckles on the railing. "Nah, what those guys had--what he's still got--" His hand pointed to a long-gone Jesse Jackson. "--is hope. Courage ain't got nothing to do with it."
So it wasn't courage that kept me moving. And I'm not sure it was hope, either. I'd like it to be, but I'm not sure I'm there yet. I still care too much about what other people think. It’s hard to talk about my parents and my brother. It’s even harder not to feel like an asshole when I do.
My dad emailed me a few years back to tell me he wasn’t coming to my wedding. He said I was being ungrateful and hurting my mother because I was getting married in Paris and the ceremony wasn’t happening in a Catholic church. I read his message three times, ate lunch, then called him. As we talked, he got angry, then angrier.
“Look,” he said. “I changed your fucking diapers.”
I didn’t believe that for a second.
His emotions slipped and got the better of him. “I sacrificed for you. And so did your mother and it’s killing her, simply killing her.”
He paused and collected himself in the space of a single, drawn-out breath.
“You’re being so goddamned thankless.”
I moved the phone’s receiver away from my ear. I even almost hung up.
He continued. “And this is how you treat her? Don’t you have any shame? You’re our son.”
I wondered what that even meant. My breath quickened.
“And what about you?” I said. My voice shook and I’m sure I cried a little. “It’s a two-way street. What’s on you--” I stammered, “And her? What about you?”
I went quiet then and probably cried a bit more. I wanted to say more, to yell or scream, to break my own frustration over the line--the weight of everything--but I couldn’t. I guess I didn’t have it in me.
At the time, I thought things were hopeless. Now, I might know better.