Big Country – RJC Smith

We are going out into the country. We drive from central New Jersey to western Pennsylvania. Leave in the morning, get there at dusk. It is August.

The tree is in the yard. A single elm in an unoccupied field that stretches until it hits the corn. I turn to the right and see a house. The house is made of white wood and there is yellow light coming out from the one big window on its second floor, bifurcated by its frame into four smaller yellow squares.

There is a porch out front.

The cousins. All towheaded. Their names are inaudible when they leave my parents’ mouths. Their heads are perfect ovals.

In the upstairs they are playing a video game on the TV. I look at it. My sister is all doe-eyed around the older cousin, with his patchy stubble and Adam’s apple and whatever dint of muscle’s on his lank teenage frame. The younger ones, the twins, are only a few years older than me. They are uglier than their older brother.

A strange color palette and form of movement is on the little TV, an unknown world unfolding on the screen to me like deep-sea divers on cable. But there are only four controllers. “Fuck off, you’re not getting that,” one of the twins says, when he puts his controller down for a moment.

The door to the balcony is open and then I am sitting out on it, with the door open, on a little plastic chair, watching them play, watching the TV set. I fall back, tumble out the chair, knock with my back and head into a post of the metal railing and it falls out and down to the grass two floors below and I begin to fall through the new hole before I am scooped up by my older cousin.

“Jesus,” my sister says.

“Come on,” she admonishes me.

When people aren’t watching me I walk out of the house to go and play in the barn. I am climbing up and down bales of hay. I fall from a bunch stacked onto the soft wood but become scared for my safety anyway, and then I am looking up at dying light twinkling through the barn’s windows and cracked wood, leaning against a bale of hay, thinking, “How long could this life go, possibly?” because I’m exhausted. And then I fall asleep.

I have a dream that I have fallen into a part of my cousins’ house that is made entirely of pillows and cushions. It is an obstacle course, a maze, a trap, a sentient thing, almost, it seems. I have to rescue my sister. I have to grab my mother’s hand before the entire place collapses in and on top of me, squashing me to death.

I wake up in the dark barn, alone, but thankfully there is moonlight coming in—I leave the barn and walk under it to go back into the house. All silly and drunk, my parents and my aunt and my uncle heave and move and laugh as a rhythmic unit in sight from the front door, where I am standing looking through the hallway and into the kitchen. In avoidance, I go down to the basement to find my sister and my cousins.

My older cousin has gotten his hands on a bottle of whiskey. My sister too. And the other cousins. The basement is unfinished and scary looking, looking more like a dungeon. They stand around a ping-pong table and the older cousin grips the whiskey tightly as if it were a very delicate possession.

“We’re going for a drive,” the older cousin says after we’ve marched up from the basement. The adults are so in the throes of hysteria that it takes a minute before one can wipe the tears from their eye to wave their approval. I’m allowed to go as long as I don’t mention the balcony or the liquor.

I do want to go for a drive.

Everyone in the car is making a commotion. My sister is trying to lean over and talk to the cousin she is in love with, one arm on the console supporting the weight of her torso, and he is turning up the heavy metal music on the stereo more, and the cousins that are seated to my left and right—I am being made to ride “bitch,” they have reiterated this—are shouting and throwing things at each other.

Ahead of us, looking out through the windshield, there is a shape that we approach rapidly. What shape it is: like a fat missile, pointed at the top, a dome on top of a cylinder two yards in diameter, at the edge of the bend, edge of the forest, opposite an embankment for stopping or parking. As we get closer—the station wagon drifts around it, is pulled, threatens to tip over, like the object contains some dense, immense mass—we see that it appears as a giant, very darkly colored owl. I am reminded of a segment from a totem pole.

In the car there is so much noise, even without the yelling and screaming and the jumping around. I stay quiet, in excitement as much as resignation, as I’ve had some inkling since arriving that my time has come.