by Kristin Troyer
The tour was meant to deter us grade-schoolers, I guess, from slipping checkout-aisle candy bars in our pockets or from letting our friends drive drunk or from doing something truly terrible like joining the Mafia. Or maybe it was just to instill in us that cooperative attitude known to teachers as “appreciation” for our local law enforcement. A policeman (maybe his actual role was different, but I remember a uniform) let us peer through the unbreakable glass to the small colorless cement room with a toilet where arrestees stayed initially. Maybe there was a cot or a board in the wall for a bed, or maybe my memory is confusing the school tour with pictures I’ve seen of torture chambers.
No one is in the cell now, but my memory has juxtaposed this dull chamber with an image of my brother that I have never seen—bruised, stumbling, confused, belligerent, ratty t-shirt, ripped jeans slung low on his pelvis, laughing, arguing, shoulder-length curls matted together in a rubber band—a lot of detail for a scene conjured from imagination. I must imagine because no one ever told me, and I need the details. I wondered whether he was still unable to see straight when they shoved him in here to wait out the first night, or if the impact had shaken some of the alcohol from his brain. Did anyone watch behind the wide window as he stumbled up against the naked toilet and there vomited (or maybe it was already out of his system by that point)? What a terrible place for a hangover, with the gray cement converging on an already spinning head.
Funny how gray is a mixture of black and white, and yet its monotony bears no witness to the harsh contrast between light and dark. If white is all colors and black, the absence of color, then is gray a color? It can’t be. Colors spark and bite and whisper and mew and protest. Gray simply drones on in endless blah.
On days that my shirt is black or white or gray I usually add a colorful headband or a flower in my hair. Somehow a touch of red makes me feel more alive.
All Mom and Dad told us was that we had to pick up Stevan’s truck in town. I thought then that I hadn’t seen him in several days, but that was hardly unusual since he was often out late. My six-year-old sister and I rode along to the courthouse, curious as to our mission but sensing the need for silence with a childish intuition. Like any courthouse, ours has imposing stone steps and carved letters with U’s that look like V’s, imprinting on my mind words such as eqvvs, eqvitas, and vnitas, probably none of which were actually etched in stone marquee around the basilica that held my brother.
Dad got out of the van, and when I thought Mom’s forehead crease had lightened, I quietly asked why we were picking up Stevan’s truck. I took her answer in stride, as I’ve taken most news since then, because I could think of no other response. “Oh. Okay. Is he okay?” Since we were uptown, we probably ate at Kewpee for lunch, the squashed greasy burgers and thick salty chili that had been the forerunner to Wendy’s sloshing indigestibly in disillusioned stomachs.
I vacillated between which of my brothers was my favorite. Brent, nine years older than me, was closest to my age and let me play with his Micro Machines and would swing me by my arms through dizzying circles. Stevan and Seth were twins twelve years my elder. Stevan was funnier, but Seth taught me wrestling moves. Both let me play their Nintendo on occasion.
The truck, if I remember correctly, was peeling navy, with a band of skinny multi-colored stripes, dilapidated to begin with and completely mutilated after its rendezvous with an oak tree.
Everyone knows the old joke that goes, “What is black and white and red all over?” Children are quite young when they first hear it, and when they confess their ignorance, the time has come for the wiser child or capricious adult to crow, “A newspaper! Get it? It’s read all over!” And the child blushes and wonders how she has missed such an obvious answer, secretly considering it unfair that the joke must be heard rather than seen. In ink the solution presents itself plainly, with stamped-out letters. Out loud, anyone could have made the same mistake.
In time I would learn to associate black-white-red with pleasanter things, like music. The ebony and ivory of piano keys, the crimson roses or carnations from my family, the satin sheen of concert black, the warmth of faces under hot stage lights: cool elegance and sharp contrast to stimulate the eye as well as the ear. The black and white are sensible, the red, exotic. For my high school senior recital, my outfit was red and white, and my sister left some of my curls in dark ringlets around my face. It was my time, my show, and I was beautiful. My brothers, of course, wouldn’t notice.
Stevan’s six months were marked for us by “pay to stay” bills from the jail, white envelopes with cobalt writing that I handed to Dad without comment. This is the only incarceration I remember, though I have since gathered that he was in and out of jail for DUIs and drug possession for several years. My older sister mentions this casually, as if our brother’s record is common knowledge. It is not. Sometimes at family dinners I can hear Seth or Brent toss out a suggestion of past trouble from the other end of the twelve-foot table, but a glower from Stevan usually terminates the sentiment. My sister’s nonchalance sends a crawling, wormy sensation into my stomach.
I don’t remember any doors clanging behind us, like in the movies, but there was a small waiting room with black padded chairs, where we bounced until the guards finally escorted us through even though my sister and I were technically too young. Aren’t jumpsuits orange? Maybe Stevan actually wore orange when he appeared at the window booth, his sandy hair tangled into a snarling tight ponytail, but I remember stripes. Black and white. Good and bad. But now just bad. No crisp, clean distinction between colors, just dirty smudges where white faded into black and back into light again, over and over, numbing in its repetition.
Recently Stevan asked if I remembered coming to visit him in jail. “Of course.” He was really mad at Dad, he said, for bringing his kid sisters to see him in jail. If the goal was to shame him, it worked. I was eight, I think, and Megan was six, and it was summer because I told Stevan over the echoing phone about my birthday. Between awkward pauses we made polite conversation, ignoring the black plastic wood of the cubicle and the muffled metallic clink of voices across the phone and the cigarette smoke wafting from the visitors flanking us, the families of actual criminals. The phone was black. The walls were white. My pale arms glowed against the dark cubicle. The stripes on his suit went black-white-whack-blite, like a straight-line version of those spiraling optical illusions. Strawberries. I had just turned eight. Was it a strawberry pie I had for my birthday, or chocolate cake with strawberries?
Strawberries were my favorite fruit and they seemed safe to talk about. Sun-burnt skins, miniscule hairy seeds that lodged in your molars, their oozing sugary juice would have contrasted richly against the white of the pie crust or the almost-black of chocolate cake, redeeming the bland non-colors into rich vibrant taste. Stevan said my birthday dessert sounded delicious, and I envisioned myself rolling the pin over the wax paper and dough, lifting the round into its shallow dish and crimping the edges, stirring the mashed berries and cornstarch over medium heat until the mixture was clear, at last sliding the glowing pastry into the fridge to cool. One glance at its ruddy radiance and the grumpy officers would wave it on through in dazed silence, mindless of any opiates it may contain. My pie’s presence would vivify this entire dingy institution, and return my family to normal.