Jake’s house wasn’t much to look at. He rented a weather-blasted two bedroom on the edge of town for a couple hundred bucks a month. The roof was caving in and the exterior scraped clean of its white paint by winter winds and too little attention. What remained was gray lumber streaked white by curling chips. It looked mean. Haunted, almost.
He was my best friend growing up, but I didn’t know where we stood now. I’d left for university, moved around, ended up working in China and never really looked back. It was rural America. A tiny town in the hills of Northeast Iowa. My home, but no place I wanted to stay.
I pulled my car into his driveway and parked next to a shed filled with split wood. It was my first extended time back in three years, and I was stunned by the raw beauty after the blurry sameness of Beijing. Unlike the rest of the state, this corner of Iowa wasn’t covered by glaciers in the last ice age. Because of this, the terrain remained unpolished, rugged and hilly; laced with trout streams, soaring bluffs, and deep hollows. The culture in the area developed accordingly. In these hills, generations lived off the same land, raising huge families and forming blood bonds and clan extensions that wouldn’t be out of place in the back woods of Appalachia.
Jake’s house was settled onto an old-growth prairie hill, and behind it, stretching for miles, was rolling forest cut by small acreage corn fields. As I walked to his side door carrying a case of Coors Light, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the scenery. In Beijing, for so long, I’d hungered for this wildness.
I walked in without knocking. His porch was flooded with crushed beer cans andempty whiskey bottles. I saw him sitting at his kitchen table sipping a beer and tapping on his smart phone.
“Niiick,” he said, getting up to shake my hand. “How you been, bud?” He cracked the same smile he had when we were 12.
“Hey man,” I said, shaking his hand and smiling. “Been good, brought you some more silver bullets.”
He laughed. “Well good. That’s the only shit I drink now, can you set it by the fridge?”
Earlier, I’d stood in a grocery store beer aisle for 10 minutes trying to decide what to bring. Finally, I looked at his Facebook page and saw pictures of him drinking a Coors Light. I decided it was a safe bet.
I popped open a can as I set down the case and took a good look at him. Aside from a few added piercings and a tattoo of something that looked like an eagle on his neck, he hadn’t changed. I’d always envied his eyes, which seemed to have the magical quality of melting a girl clear down to her panties in a matter of minutes. Even when he was drunk they were bright brown and sturdy. The eyes of a man you could trust.
I pulled out a chair at the table across from him and we both sat in silence for a few seconds. His kitchen was dark and humid, empty pizza boxes strewn across the room and his counters stacked with dirty plates. He didn’t have an air conditioner and the early summer air was already heavy and stale. The smell reminded me of my high school wrestling room.
“You had dinner?” I said, pulling for conversation.
“Yeah, mom dropped off a casserole,” he said. When we were kids, his parents were still together, but as we drifted apart in high school, they got divorced and his dad remarried. His mom gained a wild streak, multiple boyfriends and a near permanent stool at the town tavern. I could tell it hurt him, but she was good about things like this. Dropping off leftovers and helping out with bar tabs.
“God it’s probably been four years since we seen each other, ain’t it?” He said, shaking his head at the notion. “What’s it like over there, you got a girlfriend?”
I thought for a second. “It ain’t like here, man,” I said, incapable, somehow, of explaining. “I do have a girlfriend. Met her in school in Beijing. She’s from the Philippines.”
He nodded his head, taking it in.
“How about you?” I asked, “Girlfriend? You still welding?”
“Na, I’m through with that shit, man,” he said. “Been single going on a year, but it’s been bad. Pretty much a non-stop party.”
I understood. “What about a job?”
Jake, like most people back home, graduated from high school and found work with his hands. He learned to weld and last I knew he was commuting 30 miles every day to a company that worked with sheet metal.
“Had to quit,” he said. “Coming back from Manchester smoked one night and flipped my car. I snuck away and called your dad, but the cops found it the next morning and took my license.”
My dad was the town lawyer, and I respected him for not telling me things like this.
“Christ. You were drunk?”
“God I was smoked,” he said, laughing. “Started drinking at 10 that morning and road tripped to Cedar Rapids. From there I don’t remember what happened, but I knew my car was fucked.”
I asked him where he worked now, and he said he was doing part time installing car stereos in a dumpy little building behind a shuttered gas station.
“Stuffy as hell in here.” He said. “Wanna sit outside, got a side stoop that’s alright.”
We grabbed the case and moved to the stoop. The sun was beginning to sink, and the sky was streaked pink and purple. The horizon stretched on forever and I could smell blade-cut grass.
“Man I missed this,” I said as we sat down and popped fresh cans. “I been a lot of places, but there aren’t many prettier than this.”
Jake smiled and took a loud gulp of beer. “Yeah, it’s pretty out here, but goddamn there ain’t shit to do.”
“I hear that.” I said, “What about crystal? Still all over?”
In the mid-90’s when I was just a kid, meth roared into our community with the force of an F-5 tornado. The farm economy was on the downspin and many locals had lost their hats to giant ag processers gobbling up their land at cut-rate prices. We were rural and poor and desperate for something. For as long as I could remember, an ocean of Busch Light filled up those holes, but when meth came, it was different. It tore up families and shattered good people. We all had neighbors, brothers, friends or colleagues who were involved.
It was a stain on our community, and with our Midwest sensibilities, we winced at the thought of talking about it head on. When we had to, we talked sideways, in low tones. It was a problem, we knew, but it was our problem. We would fix it. When a big city reporter came to write a book called Methland about the situation in our area , he couldn’t score an interview in Strawberry Point. He wasn’t one of us. We weren’t talking.
“Aw hell, that ain’t changed,” Jake said. “You wouldn’t believe how much of it is out there. It’s only getting worse.”
In college, I’d caught rumors floating around that Jake blew smoke. In a sense, I couldn’t blame him. If you were single and young, with no prospects or way out, the isolation and monotony of Middle America had a way of crushing you. You looked for something, anything, to break the depression.
“I seen a helluva lot of it, but I never touched the stuff,” he said, maybe a little too defensively.
I peered at the horizon and nodded solemnly. We threw our drained cans next to a cooler and popped our next ones. Since I was in high school, the dri nking habits I’d known at home had carried a breathable sense of destruction. Here, you drank enormously and quickly with the singular dark goal of getting fucked up. We satat the bar or in our cars cruising the gravel roads, pounding cans of cheap beer to crush the boredom and chase away whatever demons we couldn’t name and didn’t dare speak out loud.
For a stretch, neither of us said anything. In a field below, we could see a big orange doe and two young fawns lazily eating corn shoots. The cicadas and crickets chirped in a frenzied pitch.
“How about your family?” Jake asked. I answered politely, sugarcoating the drama and fuck-ups like we all do, and asked about his. He told me his dad was still married, two more kids. His younger brother, forever five in my mind, had knocked up a 20 year old when he was 15. He was raising the kid and working construction. His sister cut hair on the highway and lived with a soybean farmer.
We continued to drink and make small talk about mutual friends and college sports. Jake pulled out a pouch of plug tobacco and asked me if I wanted a dip. I declined, he said suit yourself and grabbed a fat three-fingered pinch for his cheek.
Just as the sun had sunk completely and darkness was starting to settle in, he looked at me with a new sense of urgency in his eyes.
“Nick,” he said, “I gotta make it out of here. I’m thinking of moving to Robins, down by Cedar Rapids. I mean there just ain’t shit here. I’m almost thirty. ”
I asked him what he’d do there.
“They got plenty of welding jobs down there,” he said. “I just need to find someone to introduce me.”
“That’d be great,” I said forcing a smile. “I’m sure you can find something, I think it’s a great idea.”
“I mean this ain’t much of a life,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the broken house and spitting a long stream of brown juice on the dirt.
“You’re lucky to get out of here, you know that,” he said.
I looked at him. “Sometimes I think I am, but other times all I want is the peace and quiet. “ I said. “Big cities are so busy, man. It’s no place to raise a kid or settle down.”
“Shit you remember when we were kids?” He said. “Playing catch, riding bikes, little league. All that.” He smiled.
When we were about eight, we’d buried a time capsule deep in my yard. Inside were some baseball cards, Nerds candy, and a sheet of paper. On it, we wrote “Jake and Nick, Best Friends Forever.” We dated it and both signed it in red ink. For many years after, we’d quiz each other about the date we buried it. Jake was always better at remembering than me. By our senior year in high school, we’d both forgotten.
“Hell yeah,” I said, sipping beer, “I don’t think a kid could do better than we did.”
Darkness had now almost completely engulfed the fields below his house, and we could just barely see the outline of oaks in the distance.
“I know you’ll find something in Cedar Rapids,” I said, turning the conversation again in hopes of convincing myself as much as him. “I wish you the best, man. I really do.”
He smiled. “I know you do, man. Thanks….”it sounded like he wanted to add more, but instead he let loose another strand of tobacco juice.
“I better get going,” I said. “Don’t wanna keep you too late, know you probably have to work early tomorrow.”
“Great seeing you bud,” he said, shaking my hand goodbye. “Next time you’re back give me a holler. Who knows, maybe I’ll be in Cedar Rapids.”
“I know you will be.” I said. “Take care, man.”
Backing my car out of the driveway, I stole one last look at the house and at Jake, still on the stoop, starting on a new beer and staring at the ground in front of him. I was resigned to the truth that when I came back, these hills, and Jake, would still be here.
China Timeline? Have been in China on-and-off since 2007, in Beijing steady since 2011. Have been a student, journalist, and communications professional here.
Three words to describe your time in China so far? Promise, doubt, demolition
Most memorable moment from my first year in China? Realizing that there was a huge and fantastically foreign world outside of Iowa
Moment I realized China was an important part of my life? Volunteering for the news service at the Beijing Olympics
My writing history? More inconsistent than I'd like, but something close to my heart.
Favorite word to use in writing? said (h/t to the previous Loreli writer)
One word to describe the process of writing? Courageous