This is part of an ongoing series of journal entry stories about my experiences on the road away or to Fargo.
A few months ago my cousin, who works installing Solar Panels along North Carolina, told me that his company would pay for my ticket if I wanted to go visit him. He and I grew up together and have had a long and tumultuous relationship having to deal with the echoes of the poverty we grew up in, the abuse we encountered, and the utter loss we tend to navigate as we make our way through life. Things now, however, have seemed to change for the better. He is on his way to becoming a dad and I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the southern eastern coast and reconnect with a lost brother.
The Fargo airport is hilariously small. As I made my way through TSA I came upon the faint smell of stale air and varnish that sat anxiously together, embedded deeply into the walls. The boarding area was relatively empty – no more than 10 people were sitting peppered across the seats and I made my way over to the section with the least amount of sour faces sitting in them. In the dining area next to me a table full of women were getting drunk and hooping and hollering as they waited for their flight to Vegas. I sat down and pulled out my book and tried to read when I noticed an old man making his way over to me. The man was tall and slender, wearing an ill fitted golf polo tucked into his tan pleated pants and he obsessively patted down his white hair making sure any cowlick had been tamed. He sat right next to me and I couldn’t believe it. I looked around once more and counted the open seats around me. We made eye contact and he nervously grinned and darted his eyes away, patting down his hair once more. When he sat, he pulled out his phone and had a stern argument with someone on the other end. I tried to mind my own business but the man insisted I hear every detail. He nervously tapped on his knees and breathed out heavily.
"Goddamnit," he said, "I don’t care what you have to say about it but he poisoned my horse. I’ll have my revenge...you’re right, Jerry. I know, I know."
In the air I oversaw the brown fields spattered with snow as the endless prairie grew smaller and smaller with every climb. The rivers, lakes, and ponds were pale as bone and the stiff wind seemed to stop any heat from melting away the ice.
At one point, I looked up and a moon faced woman with dark skin turned around and smiled at me. She shifted her laptop so I could see and went through the settings and turned on the closed captioning. I smiled back at her and together we watched an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
As we headed further east, the night drew closer with every increment. I looked out of my window as we crossed over Charlotte and stared at the spots of light lining the hills that seemed to stretch forever, like dots on an x-ray-ed lung.
When I landed, my cousin parked on the wrong side of the terminal and I had to rush to meet him outside. A security guard was harassing him to move along when I came into view and he greeted me with a hug. He told me he needed a drink and I agreed so we headed downtown and parked near a row of lights that pointed us towards a market.
The market square was dead this time of night, understandable for a Thursday. We walked and talked and caught up with pleasantries. He wasn’t too familiar with the area so he just pointed in general directions in the hope that we’d find some alcohol on the other end. At one point we found what looked like a nicely lit wooded garage with stained windows on either side. We walked over there and were greeted with the thick haze of North Carolina skunk rolling out of a curated ramshackle. We thought we had stumbled unto someone’s house but quickly realized it was just the smoking house of the local medicinal marijuana shop.
We found a bar with a neon green sign that just said “Restaurant” with the E burnt out. We walked in and had a couple beers and we reminisced about childhood memories.
With the cooler full of beer we made the trek North East for sixty miles. On the way there we slammed a couple beers and stopped to piss in the woods underneath a big water-tower painted like a baseball. I wondered what a sight it would be if a storm swept it away and had it crash into a glass building.
The next morning my cousin kicked at the air mattress and woke me up in a shock, hungover and reeling from the plane ride in. We had stayed up until four in the morning the night before and I wondered what the hell we were doing up at eight. He had to take his dog for a walk so I obliged, got up, and went for a jaunt down to a grassy park across from his home. I was surprised to see how wooded the area was. The skinny pines stood twelve feet stiff amongst the brambles and mossy rocks near the stream where the dog played. I sat and caught my breath for a few moments and tried my best not to let me nausea get the best of me. I learned a trick (I don’t remember where) where, if you’re feeling sick, you should put your foot down on a flat surface so that your brain will realize you are grounded and not actually spinning. I took my shoe off and ran it along the dewy grass and my cousin stared at me. The trick helped but didn’t work entirely.
We made our way back home and decided to go check out a couple breweries in Rocky Mount that were supposedly a hot spot for the sleepy town. The area had recently seen the polishing hand of gentrification sweep over it and turn a few mills located on the Tar River into a thriving mixture of small businesses, office spaces, and renovated apartments and homes. Historic houses that were deemed workable were converted into small micro-breweries that sat across the one hundred and fifty acres of land. Across the street sat a dilapidated neighborhood of rotting houses being taken over by nature and poor kids playing through the weeds with wooden toys.
We sat at the restaurant to order food but couldn’t help but be aware of the looks we were getting or, I should say, my cousin was getting. My cousin, sporting a thick black beard and dark skin looked too close to someone dangerous for the people to feel comfortable. As I looked around the bar, I realized that we were the only minorities in the bar and all the white women sipping on their wines had pearl necklaces and gold bracelets. We ate our food and moved on from the restaurant to get some beers down the lot.
As the night fell, the north wind blew through the open space where the performer sang her songs and everyone clung to their fall coats as they waited for the alcohol to warm them further. My cousin and I joked about the situation earlier and he brushed it off.
"I’m used to it, man. I’ve been doing this my whole life."
We posed and joked that if we ever took over this area we’d let all the rich whites know that we were the Mexicans Donald Trump warned them about. It’s painfully obvious that had he not been there I probably would not have noticed the thin tension in the air.
Mestizo -That's a term that's plagued me my entire life. I grew up in a Mexican household with fair skin and this was the term brandied about whenever peopled would question my ethnicity. In Mexico, this is how you identify someone as being directly descended of a Spaniard and a Native Woman and with that, the pall of quiet unease. Somewhere in that definition, there is the uneasy accusation that your existence is non-consensual. Those type of wounds will never heal and the generational weight hangs over me like a fog.
The next morning, we decided to head up North towards Halifax where we heard was rich in history. We made our way through thickets of Sugar Maple and Flowering dogwoods. As we rode silently we heard “Wagon Wheel” covered by Old Crow Medicine Show and smiled as we heard the lyrics.
Heading down south to the land of the pines
I’m thumbing my way into North Caroline
Staring up the road and pray to God I see headlights
I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Picking me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight
We rolled through a small town that had several houses consumed by the forest and shirtless men chopping through dead grass with sickles. We came upon an empty town with abandoned houses that had museum plaques placed out front and a single sign telling the public that George Washington had walked through the land like Jesus of Nazareth sauntering through Galilee.
We stopped at an abandoned elementary school named after Andrew Jackson and spotted two young boys playing basketball. They turned and looked at us as we stepped out of the truck and they sheepishly approached us and waved. I smiled and walked toward one of the placards and noticed that one of the boys came up to me and said hello. I pulled out my tin full of mints and he look up at me curiously. His face was ashen, his eyes large and brown, and the corners of his mouth were covered in spittle.
"What’s that?," he said
"Just some mints," I replied
"What’s that taste like?"
"It tastes like mint. Do you want some?"
He reached into my tin and pulled out the mint and put it in his mouth and stared at me like a dog who wants to play with a stick. He bit into the mint and looked up at me like he was surprised at the taste. I smiled and walked away. Behind him, his brother started following us as well and I looked at my cousin and we both exchanged knowing looks. There was a sense of eeriness to the entire thing. Here we are, alone, and two children are following us through a ghost town. What did they want?
We walked toward an abandoned amphitheater where the Roanoke river curled behind the woods. The boy that took the mint was named Johnny and he claimed to be 13. He had some sort of learning disability which I came to understand was what made him so eager to follow us. His younger brother followed at a distance and was carrying a knife and seemed more responsibly suspicious. We were disarming, however. We quietly observed the area and marveled at how the old grave site that laid bereft near the road. The grave yard was blemished with an abundance of milk thistle and dandelions and Johnny came up to us and shook his head.
"Somebody got to come up here and mow this here grass ‘fore the weeds take it all up. Last year my friend was walkin’ around these parts and got bit by big ‘ol copperhead and that boy don’t speak right no more," said the young boy.
I laughed and shook my head.
"Are there a lot of snakes around here?," I replied.
"mhm, yes sir."
His brother was walking around and staring aimlessly at the grass and bent over and plucked something out with his knife. It was a small wild onion and he looked at it inquisitively.
"You gonna eat that onion?," I asked.
"Maybe," he uttered. "If I can fix myself a fire and fry it up."
We got closer to the grave yard and I read the tombstones. I couldn’t believe how many of the people there didn’t make it past the 1900’s. Johnny’s younger brother asked if we thought the grave yard was haunted and we shrugged.
"You should know, you live here," I said.
"Yes, sir but I don’t do graveyards. Uh uh. I ain’t afraid of haunted houses though. That jail house over there is haunted at least that’s what folks been sayin’," said Johnny
I looked across the road and saw the old jail house and walked over. On the right side of the jail was a standing wooden stock still fully functional. Johnny followed and broke the silence when we were reading the info on the stand.
"I wanna be a police officer when I grow up," said Johnny.
"You do?," I replied.
"Uh huh. My cousin seen the back of a cop car once."
"How did he get back there?"
"The policeman made him get in the back when he wouldn’t stop cussin’ at mama."
In the middle of the exhibit town there is a small informational center with bathrooms and a guide that maintains all the proper documents and pamphlets. We walked inside and the two brothers followed. My cousin and I absentmindedly walked passed the thin man with curly hair and he greeted the boys like he has done so for years.
"Hey, guys. How are you doing today?," said the museum host.
The boys were quiet and shrugged, wandering around the glass displays that had old Victorian era suits and dresses of the people that used to cross in and out of the town.
"Two keys went missing the other day for the jail house. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that right boys?," inquired the host.
The boys shook their head and the guide sighed.
"Well, we can’t open the house anymore without those keys so if you find them will you bring them back?"
The boys nodded.
"Do you kids want to see a movie?"
We left the tiny museum and watched as the boys wandered up a road and started carving words into the pavement with rocks. Johnny looked up and waved back at me. At first I thought the kids were trying to hustle us down and check us out to see if we had anything to offer them and, in a way, we did. Those two lonesome boys are constantly searching, pleading with the nature around them to give them something to do. When I was a boy, I remember staring at raindrops collecting on my windowsill and imagined great ships crashing at sea inside of them. One day a lightning bolt struck a field and I watched as the dead grass grew with fiery embers while the rain settled it down. I wonder if the boys will remember us talking to them like I will remember them.
The next morning, we decided it would be fun to go see the coast, something I had never done before. We drove on an empty stomach and kept the windows down as we passed through the countryside and enjoyed the warm sun biting away at the melanin on my arms. We followed a navigation point that was leading us to a kayak rental place somewhere near the ocean. When we arrived, we found out it was just a house in the suburbs and a random guy selling his time to show you how to ride the ocean safely. We decided to carve our own path and found the beach.
The air was salty and the trade winds were whipping at the sand. I could taste the water in my mouth as we ambled down to the beach and a rush of joy came over me when I saw the tide. The only other large body of water I’ve seen is the gulf of Mexico and that seemed considerably lower than the Atlantic. The Atlantic seemed taller, angrier, and the most beautiful shade of blue I’ve seen. I curled up my pants and stepped into the cold water and stood there as the tide lapped at my legs. My feet sank into the beach and I felt myself lose the tension on my shoulders, the general weight of my daily mind. Later, we walked the pier and stood around craggy men with knotted beards as they stood over the concrete ledges with their fishing poles. In the curve of the endless distance I saw two sail boats cruising the edge of my vision. A seagull swept down and picked up a fish and one of the fishermen cursed the trash bird for stealing his day’s work.
We headed toward a dive bar near the coast and grabbed some beers and caught a buzz as we strained to hear the songs we paid for on the jukebox. I asked the bartender if he could turn it up and he informed us that he couldn’t during lunch time.
"The songs you picked are too dirty for the people in here," said the bartender.
I heard a child crying near the back of the bar where people ate burgers and watched a hockey game. I shrugged off the social parameters and motioned to my cousin to follow me near the end of the bar. We played a game of pool and kept the drinks coming.
The afternoon was coming to an end and a storm was approaching fast over our heads as the sky grew an ashy grey and the wind picked up. We decided it was time to go home and as we drove home “See the Sky About To Rain” by Neil Young started playing and I smiled and we drove off a little too buzzed for comfort.
When we got home we were a bit restless and we decided that if it were my last night in town we better go out with a bang. We downed some more beers at home and found the shittiest dive bar we could find.
The bar was at the end of a strip mall near a Wal-Mart and we looked at each other suspiciously as we noticed a Confederate flag sticker peeling away on the steel door that was being propped open by a slab of granite. When we walked inside we found a local deputy, dressed in uniform, drinking a beer and having a good laugh with the locals who were playing pool. We sat at the sticky bar and ordered our beers. The waitress smiled and winked at us.
"Y’all come at a good time," she said.
"Oh yeah, why’s that?," I replied.
"Beers are just a buck right now until the end of the night."
We ordered half a dozen each and we drank and got drunk and played some more tunes on the jukebox. This time, though, they were just loud enough.
Things get fuzzy from this point on but I remember we had a touching heart to heart about what it meant to be a man and how proud we were of each other. No matter our past transgressions we were still family and we were happy that through trial and tribulations, new life and new opportunities where on the way.
We got another ride home and at some point I got on my phone and called my girlfriend and lay spinning in my bed with every possible future unfurling through my head. This is normal for me when I get this drunk. Some people get angry, some people get sad, and I tend to be all those things but it’s not because of something in particular it’s simply because I know all of this, everything we do, everything we touch, everything we see, everything we taste, feel, hope, and dream will eventually fade away when the lights turn out. I don’t want any of this to end, for better or worse.
We got up at six am the next day and I was dying of thirst and still spinning from the night before. I splashed some cold water on my face and we made our way back to the airport, silently, as we went in and out of the Monday morning traffic leading back to the big city. The sky was sad, a bitter shade of charcoal. As we slowed down on the interstate, I noticed a family of deer sitting on the edge of the road eating the grass and staring past the cars. On the other side of the highway, there sat a single wild coyote staring back at them.
At the airport we said our goodbyes and hugged each other stiffly.
"Next time I see you I’ll be a dad," my cousin said softly.
"I know, you’re going to do great," I said back.
I nursed my hangover and tried to nap as often as I could during my waiting times. When I boarded the flight to Chicago I sat in my seat near the window and heard a man choking. The attendants rushed to his aid and it turns out he had choked on a chicken bone from the Popeye’s he had smuggled onto the plane. The fiasco was dramatic enough that the flight attendants had to remind people to refrain from eating anything they could easily choke on.
On the flight back to Fargo I thought about those two boys that followed us and how cold the Atlantic was on my feet. I thought about the old man and his poisoned horse and I wondered if he ever got his revenge. I didn’t know the man personally but I hope he did, for his sake at least. As the plane descended over the endless prairie I noticed the ice from before had partially thawed and the pale milk-glass over the top of the lakes had given way to a pearlescent sapphire. In the distance, a square patch of brown grass was burning and the smoke grew into a plume which merged with the clouds. Springtime had arrived.