Swear on This Life
From All the Roads Between
By the time our school bus would get to El Monte Road, Jax and I would be the only kids left. We’d bounce along past the open fields, past Carter’s egg ranch, past a whole lot of run-down houses, dust clouds, and weeds. We lived right off El Monte, at the five–point-five-mile marker, at the end of a long, rutted, dirt road, our houses preceded by two battered mailboxes askew on their dilapidated wood posts. It was a bone-shaking journey by car and almost impossible by bus, so Ms. Beels would pick us up and drop us off at the mailboxes every school day, rain or shine. Those mailboxes were where Jax and I would start and end our long journey.
Ms. Beels, a short, plump woman who wore mismatched socks and silly sweaters, was our bus driver from the time we were in first grade all the way until high school. She was the only constant and reliable person in my life. That is, besides Jax.
Every morning she would greet me with a smile and every afternoon, just before closing the doors and pulling away, she’d say, “Get on home, kids, and eat your veggies,” as if our parents could afford such luxuries. Her life was exactly the same, day in and day out, but she still put a smile on and did her job well.
When your family is reduced to nothing, you look at people like Ms. Beels with envy. Even though driving a bus in a rural, crackpot town isn’t exactly reaching for the stars, at the age of ten I still looked up to her. She had more than most people I knew back then. She had a job.
We lived in Neeble, Ohio, population eight thousand on a good day, home to ex-employees of the American Paper Mill
factory, based in New Clayton. Most of the workers moved out of New Clayton just after the factory closed and brought their families to the rural, less populated towns where rent was cheap and the odd job less scarce.
My family had always lived in Neeble. My dad had grown up there, and his dad too. They would commute to New Clayton together when the factory was still running, starting and ending their days together the same as Jax and me. They were good friends and good men—at least that’s how I remember them. And we had a nice life for a while. My father called what we had at the end of that road a little slice of heaven. And it was . . . for a long time. But if there’s a real heaven here on earth, then there has to be a hell too. Jax and I learned that the hard way.
He and I weren’t always friends. In the beginning he was just a smelly boy with dirty fingernails and shaggy hair covering his eyes. In the early years, I barely heard him utter a word except for “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” He’d shuffle behind me all the way down that dusty road to where Ms. Beels would greet us. We’d climb onto the yellow Fern County school bus and hunker down for the long hour-and-a-half drive to school. I always sat in the very first seat, and he’d walk straight to the back.
As we passed through town, we’d pick up a whole bunch of kids, at least thirty of all ages, but the two I remember well, besides Jax, were world-class assholes. I was convinced that Mikey McDonald, with his blond crew cut and baggy pants, wanted to make my life hell.
“Emerson? What kind of name is that? Isn’t that a boy’s name?”
I would roll my eyes and try to ignore him. I never got a
chance to ask my parents what kind of crack they were smoking when they named me.
By the third grade, Mikey had a crony: Alex Duncan. Whatever I was carrying, they would walk by and try to slap it out of my hands, and then they would sit in the seat behind me on the bus and torture me all the way home. “Maybe you can marry a book someday, Emerson Booknerd. Haha, Booknerd. That could be your last name.”
Alex had a big birthmark right on the end of his nose, like he had been sniffing shit. For so long I kept my insults to myself, but everything changed in the fourth grade. The factory had been closed for almost a year, the money was running out, and my father wasn’t doing anything but drinking and listening to talk radio. Rush Limbaugh’s Oxy-laced voice was more familiar to me than my own father’s. He was shutting down. He had stopped talking. He got mean and so . . . my mom left. She left me alone with him, without even a brother or sister to help shoulder the burden.
Everything changes when a man can’t afford to put food on the table. Some men rise to the occasion and find a way to make ends meet, no matter what it takes. Other men have too much pride to see that their life is crumbling down around them. My dad was a third-generation American Paper Mill worker, and Jax’s dad was the same. It was all they knew.
After years of torment from Mikey and Alex, I hit my breaking point when quiet, reserved Jax decided to join in on their juvenile idiocy.
I always took care to make sure my clothes were clean and my face washed. After my mom left, my dad started hanging around with Susan, a woman who worked as a maid at a nearby motel. She didn’t dress like a maid, but she always
brought us those little soaps from the motel bathroom, so I guessed she was probably a maid. I had to use cheap motel soap for everything, including washing my hair, so naturally, after a few weeks of that, my bouncy brown curls became a frizzy mess. The kids on the bus called me Medusa. If only I had been that scary.
On a typically humid day in June, Jax followed me down the road and took his usual seat at the back. Halfway through the route, Mikey and Alex called Jax to come up and sit with them. They started giggling behind me.
“What, did you stick your finger in a light socket, Medusa?” Alex said.
“If I touch it, will it bite me?” Mikey taunted.
“Yeah, cool hair,” Jax said.
I turned and shot daggers into his eyes. “Oh, nice one, Fisher. Real original. You better watch it or I’ll tell your father.” I didn’t care about the other boys, but I wasn’t about to take that shit from the neighbor kid. He didn’t respond—he just stared right at me and then squinted slightly. He didn’t come back with another insult; it even seemed like he felt bad. He wouldn’t take his eyes off of mine, which was quite the statement for a fourth grader.
“Take a picture; it’ll last longer,” I said. He blushed and then looked away.
I heard Mikey say to Jax, “Will she really tell your father?”
Jax shrugged. “I don’t care.”
Alex turned his attention back to me. “We’re so scared—Poodle Head is going to tattle on us. Ruff, ruff.”
The boys continued their taunting without Jax’s help. He just kept his head down and waited until it was just the two of us on the bus and we were speeding past the mile markers on
El Monte once again. I wasn’t sure if Jax was frightened of my threat or if he realized what a bunch of twerps they were being, so I turned in my seat and peered over the bus bench at him. He was looking out the window. “I wasn’t kidding, Jackson Fisher, I will tell your father.”
“That might be kind of hard, Emerson. My dad’s gone. He left.” It was the first time I had ever heard him speak my name. He enunciated it so clearly, like an adult would do.
“Where’d he go?”
“Who knows? Where’d your mom go?”
I didn’t think he even knew about my mom—I thought it was the big family secret. But then again, there’s no such thing in a small town.
“They’re not . . . you don’t think . . .” I hesitated, embarrassed. Jesus, did my mother take off with Jackson’s dad?
“No, they’re not together. I just meant they went to the same place: away from us.” He looked back out the window and stared straight ahead.
I felt sad and confused. I wanted to pinch his nose and tug on his ears for making fun of me, but I also wanted to hug him. I knew what he was feeling, and it hurt so bad it made my teeth ache. At least Jax had an older brother at home. I had no one but my books.
We didn’t talk for the rest of the ride, but we did walk shoulder to shoulder in our amiable silence down the long dirt road. Something felt different, like a truce had been made. At the end of the road, I went into my dark house and he into his. I walked past my snoring father on the couch, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I went into my room, found a pair of scissors, plopped down in front of the mirror, and slowly and methodically cut off all of my hair. I dozed off without eating dinner and woke up at
three a.m. to the sound of my father’s drunken babbling. He was crashing into walls and cursing at no one. I cowered under the covers until he came stumbling through my bedroom door, my dark room filling with light from the hallway. I was terrified.
“What are you doing, Emerson?”
“I was sleeping. It’s late, Dad. I have school tomorrow.” I tried to make my voice sound small and penitent. He had food bits stuck in his mustache, and I wondered what he’d been eating. My fear was strong, but I was hungry enough in that moment to zero in on that detail.
His eyes narrowed as they adjusted to the darkness. “What in the hell did you do to your hair?”
“Nothing . . .” I reached up automatically to twirl my hair, but there wasn’t much left of it. I cursed myself for destroying the one thing I used as a coping mechanism.
“Nothing?” he screamed. “Doesn’t look like nothing!” He towered over me like a cartoonish, belligerent giant. I stood up weakly in his shadow and combed my fingers through my boyish cut. “I . . . I . . .”
“Shut up, you stupid, stupid girl. You’re just like your stupid mother.” He shook his head with such disappointment and disgust. “Get to bed.”
I didn’t know what version of my father I would get from one day to the next. At that age, it was hard for me to understand what he had gone through, losing the only job he knew how to do, and then his wife, all in rapid succession. Still, his alcoholism and rage couldn’t be justified by his bad luck.
Curling up in a pile of blankets on the floor, I closed my eyes and prayed that one of us would disappear. Him or me—it didn’t matter. When I heard him in the kitchen pouring another drink, I relaxed. He would drink until he passed out, I
knew that. It was his routine, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be there when he woke up with the mother of all hangovers. I stayed awake for a while longer and listened to make sure he wasn’t coming back. Before I dozed off, I put a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the back of my pajama pants and fell asleep with my face buried in a pillow. Sometimes he would come in to spank me in the middle of the night, oftentimes for no reason. I wondered if all parents did that. I was ten, after all. I didn’t exactly go around asking people these things.
By morning, I was so tired that my bones felt dense and my brain hazy. I didn’t know how I would get through a whole school day. But the fear was too much to keep me home. School was my refuge, and books were my friends, so I got ready and headed toward the door. I tiptoed out of the house and went to sit on the short, brown fence in the front yard until Jax came out. I cried as I waited, sad that I didn’t have a mother and that I didn’t have any friends.
He came up behind me and flicked my hair. “We were joking. You shouldn’t have cut it all off.” I looked up at Jax and watched as understanding spread over his face. He knew I had been crying. That moment of sympathy was the exact moment that Jackson Fisher became my one and only friend.
“What’s wrong, Emerson?”
“I got in trouble for cutting my hair. My dad was really mean about it.”
“So you’re crying because of your dad, not what I said to you, right?”
I nodded. “I don’t want to cry anymore.” My voice was hoarse.
“I’m really sorry.” He said the words like he meant it:
pained, remorseful . . . gentle. His eyes were sincere. There was unfeigned honesty in his expression, even at that age. It was a look I would never forget. “It’s not your fault your dad’s an asshole,” he said. He dug into his backpack and pulled out a Pop-Tart package. He took one pastry out for himself and then held out the other one toward me. “Hungry?” I grabbed at it like a feral animal and began chomping away. “Geez, slow down, Emerson. You’re going to make yourself sick.”
“I know, I know.”
“Come on, we better get going.”
Once we boarded the bus, Jax took the seat right behind me. When Mikey got on board, Jax said to him, “Sorry, this seat’s taken. Find somewhere else to sit.”
Ms. Williams, our fourth-grade teacher, could barely see past the first row of kids, let alone to me in the back of the classroom, so no one ever asked why I didn’t have a lunch to carry out when the bell rang. We didn’t ever have much food at home. My dad would give me a dollar here or there, and I would buy the cafeteria lunch, but most days I would just find stuff other kids threw out. That day, Jackson found me in the library as I was coming out at the end of our lunch period. He didn’t say anything, just handed me half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I said, “Thank you,” went into the bathroom, and devoured it before the bell rang.
Later that afternoon, before we parted ways at the end of the road, Jax said, “Meet me behind the shed in an hour?”
The shed housed a bunch of old tools that no one used anymore, and it was just beyond a small patch of trees where our property line met the Fishers’. You couldn’t see the shed from either one of our houses.
“Just do it.”
“No, you’re scaring me.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be scared. I cleaned it out. I go back there all the time.”
My eyes widened. “I’m not scared of the shed . . .”
“You’re scared of me?” He put his hand to his chest. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Why?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“How are you helping me?”
“I was going to bring you a plate of food. My mom leaves us casserole on the nights she has to work. I just didn’t want Brian to know.”
Brian was Jax’s older brother by ten years. Whenever their mom had to work, Brian was in charge. He was in a band and would play his guitar in the garage at all hours of the night. My dad called him a druggie. Back then I didn’t understand what that meant.
“Never mind, geez.”
“No, I appreciate it, Jax. I just don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“I won’t get in trouble. Meet me out there in an hour. If it’s dark, there’s a lantern right inside of the door on the left. Take a flashlight.”
He walked away toward his house, so I went inside mine. My father was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, holding a glass of brown liquid. The beige curtains were blowing delicately over the kitchen sink.
“It’s windy today.” I walked to the window and shut it. “It’ll get all dusty in here if we leave the windows open.”
He didn’t respond. I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, and scanned the contents. There was a jar of pickle relish, some expired salad dressing, and an open aluminum can of olives. I took the can and went to the trash to dump them out. My father glared at me as I crossed the kitchen. He waited until I dropped them in the trash can, and then he stood abruptly, scraping the chair legs over the dirty linoleum floor. Two long strides were all it took before he was towering over me.
“You got money to replace those?”
“You’re not supposed to store food in an open aluminum can.”
“Mom said it can make you sick.”
“Your mother’s dead. And what I say goes.” He seethed, a drop of saliva springing onto my cheek.
I wiped it away slowly and then felt my eyes well up. “What do you mean she’s dead?”
“She’s dead to us now.” His eyes were molten, full of anger and rage, and he was gripping the refrigerator door so hard I thought it would break apart inside of his hand.
“Okay, Dad.” Very timidly I said, “Is it okay if I go next door for casserole?”
“Do whatever you want.” He slammed the refrigerator and walked away.
I went to my room and grabbed a sweatshirt and then headed out into the fading light of dusk. The shed was about a football field’s length away, and I had to walk through knee-high weeds to get there. Sticker bushes clung to my socks and
pant legs, but it was worth it for a warm meal. As I walked, I thought about where my mother had gone. She was dead to my father but to me she was still alive somewhere living a better life. I didn’t hate her. I didn’t understand her, but I didn’t hate her. I just wished she would’ve taken me with her.
When I got to the shed, the narrow wooden door swung open. “Come in, hurry!” Jax whispered.
He wasn’t lying; he’d cleaned the shed out and made it into quite the pleasant little fort. There was a small table with two chairs and an old camping cot in the corner. Jax reached behind me and lifted a butane lamp onto the table. He turned the dial, opening the valve, and pressed a button to click the flint until the lamp was on. There was one window that looked out of the back of the shed to the tree line in the distance. The sky was getting dark fast.
Jax sat down and pushed a tinfoil-covered plate toward me. “There’s a fork in there too.”
I removed the tinfoil to reveal a giant mound of slop. “What . . . is this?”
“It’s tuna and noodles and soup and stuff. There’s, like, potato chips on the top. It doesn’t look good, but it is. Go ahead, before it gets cold.”
My mouth was already watering from the smell. He was right; it was delicious. In just the few months since my mom had left, I had already forgotten what homemade food tasted like. I had been living on cereal and the occasional McDonald’s cheeseburger. When my dad would bring one home for me, usually after he went to cash his unemployment check and see Susan, he would act like he’d had to battle dragons for it. Every first Wednesday of the month he would come home drunk, with a paper bag full of hotel soaps in one hand and a
McDonald’s cheeseburger in the other. He’d throw them on the table and say, “Look what your dad brought you! Look how lucky you are.” If I didn’t indulge him with enthusiastic prostrations of gratitude, he would call me a selfish, spoiled little bitch.
I was more grateful for the day-old casserole inside of Jax’s tiny toolshed than a cold cheeseburger and harsh soap from the whiskey monster. It was only the beginning, though. Over the next couple of years, Jax continued walking with me to the bus stop, sitting in the seat behind me, finding me at lunch, and sharing his food. Occasionally, he’d sneak out to the shed to bring me a plate of whatever had been reheated for him and his brother. I yearned to go inside of their house but didn’t for a long time. Not until Brian’s accident. That’s when things on the long dirt road changed once again.