To me you’ll always be the boy with the backpack, the boy whose daddy left him left us left meth in the tin house, the shed in the backyard and the two black dogs. Remember the dogs? Remember the pipe, the drawer, the cubby hole in the wall near the beach, and the cigarette smoke in your skin? I remember the length and height of you, the string bean weaning of you, the arch in the caked rims of you, homeless and smelling of shoes.
I hated you.
The way you stole from me, the cigarette packs we scoured, the nights we devoured.
You asked me to marry you, and I answered we have time.
I don’t know where your time went, where you went, where the pockmarks on your face went. You grew into the lime on the shower wall, the hole in the floor of the rusted mustang, the burns in the carpet, and the locked door behind which your step-mama lay ruined in her bed every night every day your real mama was dead.
Danny you were there when they pulled the thread, the coffin, the tomb, the water wheels that took our two best friends, twins in the riverbed, the canal watering red sediment in the window. Your daddy found them dead, leeches in the beds of their blue fingernails, and the yellow glass frames on Anna’s eyes, the ones we bought together when we were kids.
This is the backpack for what I can’t find—you’re dead to me Danny.
I heard maybe you’re in Texas and in dreams I wander the alleys where I loved you, landscape of the dead, canal waterways, desert storm front, sky stacked to alfalfa, the frog pond.
I heard your voice the other night, the military man, the slick and pomp of you, the never was of you, the war you never waged, your face (you never age), the nights in jail I searched for you and I was a little girl again calling home, driving to the river’s edge: this is what the water did.
Hey little sister what have you done?
When the twins died, their parents’ best friends sped to the trailer in the country, truck bumping dirt road past the canal where the paired teen bodies had been fished out less than an hour before, drove as fast as they could from town, Lars from the auto shop and Angie from church where she’d been leading a Pentecostal women’s Bible study when Lars came, eyes bloodshot, and said, “We got to go, quick,” and she’d jumped in her husband’s pickup sobbing and praying and sobbing and praying once he’d told her what had happened, drove past stop signs without pausing once they’d hit that back road into the dirt driveway, past chicken wire past water tank past doghouse and tomato garden and the colorful glass bottles strung from trees and patio, and marched right into the farmhouse where Angie collapsed on the wood with Jack and Jenny who had already sprawled onto the floor clutching each other’s arms and necks and shirt collars wailing and rocking, and Lars stomped fast as he could to the trailer’s edge where he flung open cabinets, pulled out all the guns all the hunting guns and shotguns and rifles and pistols, tucked them beneath his flannel jacket, flew out the back door and locked them in the workbox of his truck bed.
Then he went inside and joined his friends on the floor.
Jack and Jenny’s only two children, born together, taken at once, together.
There’s nothing fair in this world. There’s nothing safe in this world. There’s nothing pure in this world—I knew this because Danny knew this. Danny’s dad had been the one to fish them from the canal. He’d been the one to grab a hammer from his toolbox, shatter the sunken Jeep’s driver’s side window, unhook Anna’s belt, and pull her body from the ditchwater. The one to go back in for Shawn, peel his body like an oyster from the ache of the embankment. The one to lay them on the weeds and dirt and rocks beside the ditch, listen for sounds of life, any sounds, any life. To push one chest, then the other. To cry out to God. To call the sheriff.
Danny with your smell of fish, grime, cigarettes, and old feet, I hated when you came down. You got mean. The last time I saw you, I let you shower at my place; I washed your clothes for you. I held my breath because you were barefoot in your shoes. You took them off, and I sprayed Lysol in them and left them outside on the front porch.
I found you once in San Diego and stayed; there on the beach for a couple of weeks in a cubby hole in the living room wall, we loved each other. Your friends all used my little white Cavalier because no one had a car. I drove Marlene to work at the beauty shop before she was fired. I smoked marijuana. On your eighteenth birthday, you inherited the social security money from your mama’s death (she died and died when you were a little boy); then you used most of it on a drug spree. You bought a truck you totaled. You bought me a short black red-cherried dress. We lived those months in a dead end.
Danny you held me at the twins’ funeral.
You used to walk to my house, your big backpack making you look like a turtle in glasses; every summer after summer school our freshman year you’d lie on my couch a few minutes and drink the iced tea I made you before you’d have to get home to your mean daddy and bed-ridden step-mama and five siblings (the sixth, oldest brother had split a long time before and was somewhere in Colorado, you thought).
That last day, I made you a leftover plate of enchiladas, red rice, and beans and fed you after you’d showered and smelled human again.
I asked Do you need money? I only have twenty bucks.
How many times I went to the ATM for you. Picked up Jack-n-the-Box or bought packs of cigarettes for you. You paid me back once by giving me all the Brad Pitt movies you owned: Legends of the Fall, Ocean’s Eleven, A River Runs Through It, Meet Joe Black, The Devil’s Own, and Twelve Monkeys. My little brother confiscated most of them. He also took the long-sleeved, black thermal with a blue dragon etched across that you’d left in my bedroom.
My little brother adored you. You taught him bike tricks, more than just popping wheelies. You could ride on only the back wheel with no hands on the handles halfway down the street. You could spin round and round on one tire without falling.
I folded the twenty-dollar bill in your palm, squeezed it shut.
I covered you with a blanket on my couch and you reminded me of your fifteen-year-old self. Before anyone drowned. Before we made ourselves sick on purpose. Before you were homeless and I was living in an empty house. But even before we chose the lives we were living, your daddy beat your sister and screamed at you and your brothers and got high in the shed in the backyard. You didn’t choose that.
I never saw you again, but I heard you had a kid. I hope you got clean. I hope you didn’t become the father who beats his daughter and screams at his son and locks himself in the shed in the backyard. That your child didn’t become a turtle on someone’s couch, passing the time in iced tea before he has to go home. Danny, your dad fished the twins from the ditchwater, two sticks who never chose to stop breathing.
The water did that all by itself.
Jennifer Suzanne Givhan is the author of the poetry collection Red Sun Mother and the novel manuscript In The Time of Jubilee. She’s at work on a second novel and a second poetry collection. A National Latino Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient, she received a grant to attend the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, parents, and two young children.