“The Same Country” by Carole Burns


On my first morning back in Newfield, I drove to Aggie’s old house again, drawn like a woman to her secret lover’s grave, as if this were the sole purpose of returning to live in my hometown. It was Joe who compelled me to go—not Aggie—Joe who appeared to me that morning as just a flash, my waking dream, his face wavering near mine as I stirred, closer to me than he ever was in life. I heard him, next, as I made coffee alone, his voice rumbling into the still empty rooms of my still empty condo, disappearing into my gasp. Why had I thought Aggie might haunt me here? Aggie wasn’t dead.

And now Joe was sitting next to me in my car and talking, talking as I drove down the leafy streets of Newfield, revisiting old haunts—the Palace movie theatre, the Friendly’s where we used to linger for hours—then turning to head toward Aggie’s. The houses became smaller, older, closer to the road, as we approached the city line with Bridgeton, yet I barely noticed with Joe beside me, animated, though I couldn’t hear him this time, the same way I couldn’t remember what we all talked about twenty years ago at late-night diners, at our lockers, on Aggie’s back porch no matter the time or weather, night after night that I couldn’t remember. And maybe that’s why his words weren’t coming through, just his lips moving, his head nodding and tilting, his quick smile between words, his swerving shoulders as he swivelled to glance at Aggie then back at me, though Aggie wasn’t there either.

We were just a few blocks away from the house. So quick! This clutch of streets that led from our little town of Newfield to the more urban Bridgeton had seemed to me like an entrance to another world back then. I passed her road in hope of first finding the feminist bookstore and café where we’d sometimes browse the shelves and sip lattes like we were college students, or, across the street, the tiny gallery that once held an exhibition of portraits made from old radio parts—art, we learned. I braced myself for this world—once so alluring, so sophisticated—to look small, dowdy. This was just Connecticut, after all. I crossed the city line into Bridgeton.

The neighborhood had changed drastically. Lawns were untended, houses had not been painted in years, the blinds and curtains in windows were tattered and faded. Here was the Connecticut divide, sharper than I’d remembered. The shell of a car lay strewn in rusting pieces in someone’s yard. At a light, I spotted the short block of shops where the Readers’ Feast used to be. It was now a pizza joint. The gallery? A “checks cashed” store. A couple of teenaged boys swaggered by in high tops and baseball caps worn backwards and looked my way as if I didn’t belong. Rich and poor, this divide. Also white and black. I avoided their gaze and the light changed and I pulled into the old gallery’s parking lot to turn around and head back to Aggie’s. “But I used to live here!” I said to no one, to Joe, though it wasn’t even true.

And Joe had disappeared.

I took a left at the next corner and parked outside Aggie’s old house. How many times as a teenager had I pulled in to pick her up, or drop her off, or stay for dinner with her magical parents in that once magical world where, if there wasn’t school the next day, I’d spend the night and practically the entire weekend? If I were expecting to find some clue about what happened that night twenty years ago, I would be disappointed. Nothing was the same. The stone steps that made a wiggly line from the street to the front door—Mr. Whitcombe’s doing, not his more conservative wife’s—were cracked and overrun with weeds. The wraparound porch was empty of the wicker patio chairs where we used to sit playing Rummy 500 and listening to REM or some indie band Aggie had discovered. Just the chair swing remained, its vinyl cushions ripped, the foam yellowed and mildewed.

I stepped out of the car and stood at the edge of the yard, as if I was going to walk up the stone path and knock on the door as I had so often as a teenager I couldn’t possibly count the times, and then again, in vain, on at least a dozen days in the weeks after Joe died, determined to gain admittance once more, to see Aggie.

But I was shut out then, as I was shut out now. It looked like a place I’d never been—like I’d never opened its colonial blue door, never eaten at its table off the huge, ramshackle kitchen, never slept in its rooms with their wood floors and curtains thick as tapestries, never looked out its windows onto the street where I was now mutely standing, staring back at myself from twenty years ago. Of course that world was gone—I’d known that for years—but no one else had taken our place. No other girls, white or black, were flinging their school books on the porch so they could flop into the chair swing on the first warm spring day. To see it so abandoned almost implied that it had never existed at all, that the promise that we felt in our young lives, Aggie’s and Joe’s and Jess’s and mine, had been an empty promise, that such a world could never exist. That was worse than our lives being destroyed.

As if Joe had died yet again.

* * *

But I was desperate to begin my new life. At least that’s what I told myself as I dressed for my first day of work at the state-wide newspaper in Bridgeton—my ostensible reason for moving back—donning my new slim-cut black pants that looked exactly like the older pair in the closet, the slightly dressy t-shirt that was as close as I could manage to work wear. Long ago, I’d decided that the plainer my clothes, the less plain I looked. And wasn’t my compact, slightly boxy frame lengthened, softened, under boxier attire? Only my hair style was new, cut on a whim on my last afternoon in Raleigh—asymmetrical, a longer strand on the right side curving under my chin. I’d been trying to convince myself that it rounded my angular face, made my mouse-blond hair seem blonder, but yesterday afternoon, I almost slipped into a hairdresser to have the longer side chopped off.

Soon I was driving down busy Newfield Avenue toward downtown Bridgeton, passing the squat, brick building that housed the local paper where I’d worked in the Classified section that awful summer that Joe died. At least I wasn’t working there. And then I was walking into yet another newspaper office in yet another decrepit area of yet another decrepit downtown, not unlike Raleigh’s. I gave my name at reception and waited for the Human Resources person to arrive. I had insurance plans to choose and tax forms to fill out—sure signs this was a new job in a new life.

If this was my old life, I’d be going home to Maria.

A few hours later, Alex. Black straight hair over a pale boy’s face, oxford-blue oxford shirt, sitting stiffly in a faux leather cafe chair designed to look like comfort. My new colleague taking me out to lunch. Not my boss, just acting like it. In a few days I’d find out the newsroom called him Smart Alex.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said when I explained how editing the home page, as well as being a copy editor, was the main reason I’d changed jobs. “No one relies on the dead-tree edition anymore. That’s so, you know, 1998.” And he laughed a high-pitched, raucous laugh that rang out across the deli. A few customers looked over.

I left my girlfriend because I loved her too much. The truth sounded in my head, and I flinched. In secret, it’d come out blunter, balder, than I usually allowed.

“And this place is a good stepping stone,” he went on. “I mean, who wants to stay in Bridgeton?”

Though I’d fled my hometown as soon as I could, I felt defensive. “Well, I grew up here.”

He tried not to register his surprise. “Yeah.” He was reassessing me. “You want to stay here.”

“No—” I felt flummoxed. Did I? I’d thought only of fleeing Maria.

“Where you’d go to school?”

“Northwestern.” I felt like I was being interviewed again. “You?” I asked.

Alex coughed. “Uh, New Haven.”

It took me a moment to realize he meant Yale, like he was a character in The Great Gatsby. I laughed, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“I was wondering why you left Raleigh,” he said, “but it makes more sense now.”

“Does it?” I said, not meaning to say it aloud.

* * *

The next night, another ghost. A slight, dark-haired woman was humming to herself as she shopped in the supermarket. Aggie? Her back was to me, but the way she moved, jumpy, animated even while merely sifting through red peppers, then garlic bulbs, was unmistakeable. I was stilled by her movement—the light stepping back as she thought, the brief rise of her shoulders and a little “huh!” as she decided and popped the best pepper into her cart. Her quick steps to the mushrooms were like sparks of fast motion amid the slovenly mesh of other shoppers. Should I go up to her? What was she doing here? Then I was pushing my cart in her direction, the wheels as noisy and jangly as my breath.

“Isn’t it—Aggie Whitcombe?” I said too loudly. Several shoppers glanced my way but it was only Aggie I could see, as she kept her back to me for another moment, stiff, before turning to me with her face pale and composed. I know she had composed it because it was expressionless in the way Aggie never looked—she’d always worn her heart on her face.

“Cassandra Trent.” Both carts were between us, which meant we couldn’t embrace, or even shake hands. “Of all the supermarkets in all the cities in all the world… who’d expect we’d end up back where we started?”

“The scene of the crime,” I said.

She blanched, and looked down, and I could see then how she had aged—her pale skin was subtly creased with wrinkles, her hair thinning like an old woman’s. A spectre from the past she was, not the girl herself.

I had an instinct to put my hand over hers to soothe her. “I didn’t mean—”

“You never did. Cassie.”

That’s when I found out she had moved back as well. We’d both arrived that week, we discovered as we chatted awkwardly, she from Chicago, me from Raleigh. If it weren’t for coming from different directions we might have passed each other on the highway coming in, or at the pizza place that night where I imagined we’d both gotten take-out, or at the hardware store the next day where she, too, must have gone to purchase picture hooks and a hammer. At least that’s what I told myself as I drove away from the supermarket, making up stories about how we might have bumped into each other on our first day back in Newfield.

“Jess is back, too,” she said.

I hadn’t known Joe’s sister had returned as well, and we stood, silent, taking in the coincidence.

“She came back last year. Working at the high school. I’m at the junior high, but I saw her at the staff day before school started.”

I wouldn’t have thought either of them would end up teaching, of all things. Weren’t they more ambitious than that? For once I didn’t blurt it out.

“Well,” Aggie said. “My mother will be wondering where I am. She likes my cooking all of a sudden. Or pretends to. Dad was master of the kitchen.”

Was. I wondered what had happened. I remembered Mr. Whitcombe in his final epicurean flourishes as we came down for dinner, his hair askew as he whisked together salad dressing, arranged the main course—pasta, maybe with sun-dried tomatoes—on warmed plates just out of the oven, his apron tied twice around and knotted in front, so it caused a fold on his stomach. I’d only heard “pasta” referred to as “spaghetti” in my house, and it was only ever served with meatballs.

“He’s got Alzheimer’s.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I always loved your dad.”

She nodded quickly, then gazed at me, tilting her head to one side. “I’m not sure I would have recognized you. Miss Stylish.” She smiled.

Stylish? Then I remembered my hair, and clutched at the longer strand. “I want to hack this off with scissors every time I look in the mirror.”

Aggie laughed. “Don’t. It looks good.”

“Can I —” Can I see you again? I’d almost asked, like I was a long-lost flame rather than an old friend. “Why don’t I call your cell phone? So you’ll have my number.”

How could she say no? I composed several texts to her that night—Great to see you. Wonderful to see a familiar face. Want to meet for coffee? I could cook on a Friday night—but I didn’t send any of them because I couldn’t write what I wanted to write. Are you okay? Somehow, I knew she wasn’t.

None of us would have come back if we were okay.

Occasionally in these small cities and towns that stretch along Long Island Sound, just occasionally, you can tell you’re near the sea. If you’re far enough from the highway and the malls, the sky above the warm, dark asphalt of a Stop & Shop in Bridgeton will tint a clear, pale blue; the air in the fresh-cut grassiness of a baseball field in Newfield take on the slightest hint of a salty breeze. It was one of those days at my condo complex when a tall, elegant woman in a gorgeous yellow dress and large sunglasses was standing at the suite of mailboxes, tilting her face up to the sun before opening a box with the slightest flick of her wrist. Had she taken in the light, too, breathed in the scent of sea?

She didn’t look like the usual hipster crowd that was beginning to populate this possibly up-and-coming but not yet expensive neighborhood of urban-distressed Bridgeton: the young women in wispy florals from vintage shops, the men in carefully distressed jeans and neat beards. Was this someone’s sister visiting from New York City? Then I saw it was Jess.

Jess! I hesitated, not sure she’d want to see me after all these years, but this gorgeous, clear day—wasn’t that a good omen? I walked up and said hello.

If her emotions were mixed when she realized who I was, she was too polite to let them show. As we spoke, I remembered the last time I’d seen her: Joe’s funeral.

Everything shy and awkward about her in high school had become quietly confident and graceful. Her once sweet, slightly pimply face looked wider somehow, her cheekbones bolder, her mouth fuller. Her skin, erased of its teenage imperfections, was smoother and darker. Her hair was not only longer but appeared thicker, too; she wore it pulled back with a ‘50s-style headband that made it seem she was only barely controlling its wildness. She was thin but curvy and soft, not skinny like Aggie. She looked beautiful.

But I could sense the old reserve in her. She talked about the high school in Bridgeton where she was working, instead of Newfield High where we’d gone—“Newfield’s so pricey now,” she said. “Those kids don’t need any more help.” I told her about my job at the Bridgeton newspaper (“Not the Newfield Bugle! Or Bungle, as we used to say,” I quickly added.) But while I cracked jokes about my paper not exactly being The Washington Post (“I’m editing All the First Alderman’s Men,” I said) she spoke vaguely how much she loved working with the kids. She remained formal, and on script.

We fell silent, and I wondered, after all these years, how to go about mentioning Joe. “Is it strange living here again?”

She adjusted her purse—a narrow rectangle the same burnt yellow of her dress—and took out her house keys. She was ready to go. “I was back a lot anyway. For my parents.”

“How are they?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, fine. Healthy.”

Mr. and Mrs. Willis had seemed like the most old-fashioned parents in all of Newfield. The few times Aggie and I had picked up Joe and Jess before going out, we were told not to beep for them as we did with other friends; we always went into the house and sat in the living room for a few minutes talking very politely with Mr. and Mrs. Willis. Mr. Willis would be dressed like the minister he was, in a long-sleeved shirt and dress pants, a loosened tie his only concession to it being Friday night, and Mrs. Willis in a slightly shapeless wool dress, offering us cups of coffee which we always refused, wanting to get out.

 “They were always so sweet when we picked you up,” I said.

“More like embarrassing! Why my mother kept offering you coffee…”

“We should have just said yes. I regretted that so much after—” I hesitated. “After Joe died.”

“After Joe was killed.” Jess said it softly but firmly.

Murdered. The thought whispered in my head, or had I spoken aloud? But it wasn’t true. Everyone had agreed it was an accident, Mr. and Mrs. Willis included. But Jess was right. Joe hadn’t just died; he’d been killed. “Yes,” I said quietly.

She jingled her keys in her hand for a moment, shifted them to the other hand, shifted them back. “Honestly? I don’t think they’ve ever recovered.”

Jess stood before me in her slim-fitting saffron-colored dress, a thick saffron-colored hairband with a silk black strip on either edge. Even her shoes—flats, but shiny patent leather—were saffron. She was everything her parents hadn’t been, and trying very hard at it, too.

“And you?” I asked.

She turned her gaze to me, steady, clear, then looked away. I wondered if she would answer. Why should she?

“I keep thinking I see him,” she finally said. “On the street. In Marshall’s, yesterday. In the hallways at school.”

Me, too, but I didn’t say it aloud.

“The other day? A kid walked into the principal’s office, carrying himself straight and tall. You know… how Joe used to cup his books in one hand by his hip, casual? Like he’d forgotten he was even carrying books?” She shook her head. “So cool. This boy did that, too, then looked at me with that expression Joe’d had, not guarded, the way kids are with teachers, but curious. Open.”

For a moment, I could see Joe again, too—his artless, easy manner. He hadn’t been cool as in hip—I knew what Jess meant. He’d been cool the same way Aggie had been cool. He was just himself.

“Then—” Jess let her yellow purse dangling off her elbow fall to the ground as she made a clap with her hands. “Crash! I dropped my coffee cup. Black liquid swimming across the floor, the secretary rushing over with paper towels, and this boy who wasn’t Joe slowly picking up each piece of the broken mug, calm, methodical, and then holding all these pieces up to me. He says—he says, I didn’t mean to startle you, Ma’am, in a voice so like Joe’s, I…” She stopped, picked up her purse and hugged it to her torso protectively. “Why are you back, Cassie.”

I felt accused. I needed to answer honestly, though I hadn’t told anyone about Maria. Why I’d really left Raleigh. So I uttered Maria’s name aloud to someone here, in Bridgeton, told Jess the bare bones of my breakup. “This was the first interview I had. The first job I was offered. And. I had to take it.”

Carefully, she opened her purse and took out her keys and snapped it shut again. Too Much Info, I thought. From me. Maybe from her.

“I’m adopting,” she said. “A young child.”

“How wonderful!”

“Thanks.” A smile lit up her face, and she looked sweeter, less polished. “I haven’t told many people. But I thought, I didn’t want to be a single Black mother in America without my family nearby to help.”

I was surprised, briefly, but of course it would be more difficult as a Black woman—even for someone like Jess. I wondered if it would be a boy.

“You’ll be a fabulous mother,” I said. “Lucky kid. And how wonderful for your parents to have you back. And with a child!”

“That’s exactly what they say. And then they add, If only we could have Joe, too.”

She looked away for a moment, and I wondered if she was trying to compose herself, but when she turned back she was dry-eyed. “And I have to admit.” She put her sunglasses on again. “I feel the same way.”

* * *

How long and subtly loss lingers. I went back to my little condo with my lunch from the farmers’ market in Newfield, imagining Mr. and Mrs. Willis sitting stiffly in their living room, Mrs. Willis holding a cup of coffee herself as if to entice us to stay, but older now, thinner, leaning back as Joe wavers into their vision again the way Maria appeared now to me. I unlocked my door, and she was waiting for me in all her vibrant softness, as if I’d let her in, too—coming out to greet me in a favorite red dress which hugged her plump frame, her hair black against her olive skin. She spoke my name but I couldn’t hear her, could only see her lips shaping the sound. Then she disappeared.

But Maria was alive. I could call her, if I wanted to. I wanted to. But I didn’t call.

Maybe one day, I could tell Jess all about her.

As I continued into the kitchen to find a plate for my lunch, it struck me that Jess and I had spoken to each other in those ten minutes in a more personal way than we ever had in all our hours together at Friendly’s and at parties and at Aggie’s house. Why hadn’t the two of us been better friends? We were similar, Jess and I—quiet, smart, slightly nerdy. In the shadows. Aggie and Joe had held the best actress and actor roles, and I’m not sure we even were supporting roles—we were the backdrop, the mise en scène, of their story. Yet maybe we had a bond that I’d never recognized. Our own friendship.

And then I felt hopeful. Unlike Aggie and me, who would have to paper over the years and years of non-contact, the hurt I felt which she was likely completely unaware of—Aggie hadn’t done anything wrong to me, had she?—Jess and I could start afresh. Our shared history was not about our friendship; it was merely shared. She wouldn’t have to explain her brother, tell me that he was shot, where he was shot—in Aggie’s bedroom. She wouldn’t have to explain the horror of knowing the kid who’d shot him in the dark, the idiot friend of Aggie’s idiot brother Hector, too drunk or high to recognize it was Joe and not some intruder he hadn’t meant to shoot anyway, just to scare. All in the very house where we’d spent so much time.

We shared that, too.

I began washing the lettuce from the market (trying not to grimace as I removed a slug—it’s organic!), cutting the tomatoes, making a dressing from scratch the way Maria had taught me, slicing off a hunk of bread from the rich, dark loaf. I should have invited Jess over! She lived just two floors above me, we’d discovered as we walked back, surprised and not surprised we were living in the same complex—it was exactly the kind of place affordable to a single woman in Connecticut. So I decided I would invite her to lunch next time, if I ran into her at the mailboxes after the farmers’ market next week, or I could even leave a note under her door. I put on Lucinda Williams’s new CD and unpacked one of the boxes I’d left in the hallway for the past month, when I was wondering why I’d ever moved back. Maybe this was why. I knew people. It wasn’t like we would go hanging out in Friendly’s again on a Friday night. But maybe I could recover something of what we’d lost so many years ago.

Blue-gray orangey light cast an eerie sheen across my hands, the keyboard, my face. Just the flickering shadows of three television screens, hovering over the news desk like a triumvirate of unreasonable gods demanding we pay them attention, heed their warnings. I didn’t want to be a follower, yet tonight, I could not ignore their signs. Five police cruisers on a residential city block, two ambulance drivers and, its irregular shape drawn with yellow police tape, the amoeba of a crime scene.

“Is it up yet?” Alex at my shoulder.

I hit send. “It’s up.”

The headline first—we were still waiting for a story, from the wire, or from our own cops reporter, who’d been sent out about twenty minutes before— so at first just the headline: Male Shot In NE Bridgeton.

* * *

“OK, so Stacy is at the scene,” Alex told the night team a few minutes later, “and all the residents are saying the cops shot the kid.”

There were six of us at the late news meeting, held around nine each night to make sure breaking news shouldn’t change the front page. Ray was the night editor, in charge of making such decisions. He looked like a friendly bear, shambling around the newsroom with his rounded face and plump stomach that shook when he told jokes, but he was blunt, precise and exacting. I’m not sure I would have taken a job in Bridgeton if he hadn’t been the one interviewing me.

“Shit,” Ray finally said. “What do the cops say?”

“No comment yet.”

Ray’s face stayed calm, but his gaze darted left then right as if the factors he had to consider were being scrolled in front of him.

“He’s Black?”

“Looks like it.”

“His condition?”

“We don’t even know his name yet.”

Ray sighed. The news wasn’t adhering to our deadlines. We didn’t even have enough to justify a story, let alone a front-page story. Yet if we put nothing in, we risked looking completely out of touch if the news evolved in the wrong way.

These days such partial stories were underlaid with dread as well. It was a particularly American dread. A shooting by a husband. A shooting by a lone gunman at a movie theater. This time, possibly, another shooting of a man by a cop, on Thanksgiving weekend. What type of fatal shooting was this one? Was it a Black man? A white cop? Ray drummed his fingers on his knee, looking across the newsroom. I imagined it would be especially important to Ray, as an African American, to make the right call.

“OK.” He stood, ending the meeting. “Just a headline on the front page for now. Keep on it.”

Alex’s phone rang. We all watched, stilled from closing our notebooks, clicking our pens shut, getting out of our seats, as he answered. “Shit,” he said into the phone. “I’ll send someone else out.” We waited after he hung up. “The kid’s dead.”

* * *

We went to work. I updated the headline, scanned the wire to see if the AP reporter had information we didn’t, listened to the TVs, prepared a new layout to reflect the story’s growing importance. “Don’t mention yet that a cop might have shot him,” Ray said. “Not ‘til we know what we’re deciding for the paper.”

As I sorted through the swirl of information and rumors and rumors-turned-facts to write my headlines, the gods of the TV screens drew my gaze. The images looked like scenes from any troubled city in any troubled region in the troubled United States of America and, at the same time, this was Bridgeton. Behind the women thrust into the glare of the cameras to talk about their friend, brother, son, who’d just died was the menacing darkness of urban night, the sometimes rundown, sometimes perfectly kept homes and shops of any American city. And then, from that murky darkness, a quick light revealed the corner store where Aggie and I had once bought wine as underaged teenagers. As cameras panned a clutch of neighbors who had come out of their houses to see what had happened, the Puerto Rican bakery where Aggie’s father would sometimes send us for empanadas came into view.

We were in Bridgeton again.

A few minutes later, large on the TV, the inevitable photograph of the victim flashed up: a snapshot of the man now identified as William Alan Haley at a barbecue the summer before. He was indeed a Black man, with a medium complexion and a face that was long, thin, and stubbled at the chin, older than we thought—twenty-three—yet young enough to have a few pimples. He had a sideways grin that looked like it would appear with little prompting.

Someone had taken that photograph—his father, a sister, a friend—and his death would now be contained in this photograph, taken when no one could know how he would die.

“Do we have that damned photo?” someone yelled out.

Joe’s photo, the one that had run in all the papers, was his senior portrait: Joseph Thomas Willis, the promising young college-bound high school graduate. Never felt like Joe to me when I saw it.

We obtained the “damned” photo. I added it to the homepage. I hoped friends and family would think it looked like Will Haley. I checked the live page for errors but found instead the reflection of my own face superimposed over the face of this boy I’d never known.

I felt Ray’s presence before I realized he was standing behind me. “It’s fine,” he said. I didn’t know how long he’d been there. I was glad he didn’t say it was good.

We looked up to see Alex rushing over.

“Cops confirmed it,” Alex said. “One of their officers shot him.”

* * *

I woke early the next morning with the sense that I had been shocked awake—by a noise, by a dream, I wasn’t sure. I felt exhausted and hyper-alert at once. The scenes from the TV the night before, the photos we’d put up, even the layout of the homepage with my over-large headlines, the letters black like beetles creeping across sand, kept flashing in my head. The room itself felt heavy, humid, as if the young man who’d died was taking up a physical presence in the space. Cam’s. I’d get coffee at Cam’s. I had to get out. I wondered if I wanted to see Veronica, to share what we had seen last night, as if I had been at her side rather than behind the news desk, watching on a screen.

As I reached the foyer to our building, Jess was trying to push open the door while carrying three boxes of what I imagined were school materials, and I realized, with the kerplunk of the obvious, why I felt so upset. It was Joe’s absence I’d felt upon waking, like a physical, humming presence in the room—like a haunting. His death had little similarity to last night’s shooting—he was nothing like the young man killed, and he hadn’t been shot by a cop. But his image now wavered before me as if I’d just needed to focus on him to see again the softness of his features, the way his face seemed to form a question, as if he was open to any answers.

I rushed to get the door for Jess, and she allowed me to relieve her of one of the boxes—“Lazy man’s load,” she said apologetically—and carry it outside. We paused together at her car. I’d seen Jess a few times, once at the mailboxes, another time in the parking lot. Each time we fell into conversations more serious than the circumstances should have allowed, yet when I’d blurted out a lunch invitation, she demurred with quiet words about the weeks ahead being a little busy.

“You’ve heard the news?” I asked.

She nodded. The boxes were tilted awkwardly against her hip as she began to unlock the trunk, almost catching her chocolate brown and black coat, a kind of wool that might snag, so I took them from her. Key turned, trunk opened, boxes inside. Though she was dressed as exquisitely as usual, she looked tired, as if she’d been hauling those boxes around for miles.

“You okay?”

She shrugged, a gesture I’d begun to recognize though I still wasn’t sure how to interpret it. If she was trying to shake something off, it never seemed to work. “I should be used to it,” she said. “I am used to it. But today, my students will be asking me what I think. And what they’re really asking me is, What should they think? And I don’t know how to answer that.” She unlocked and opened her car door. “And then, there’s my parents.”

I remembered Jess saying that Mr. and Mrs. Willis always brought up, in passing, every Black man or woman or child shot or otherwise dispatched from this country in an untimely manner, at least those who made the news—“And there are a lot of them,” Jess had pointed out. They wouldn’t start a separate conversation, but in the course of talking about an event at the church, a trip to the mall, a relative visiting, they’d mention the latest African American wrongfully killed—Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Russell Davis—as if each one deserved his name to be voiced by them. I’d been embarrassed not to recognize every one.

“So tonight, I’ll have to call them, too. Tell them what not to think.”

I was glad I hadn’t mentioned why I was awake so early. To tell her would feel like burdening her further. Like asking her what I should think.

* * *

How would Joe have turned out? I sometimes wondered. When I visited Florence a few years ago, I visited the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, but it was a series of half-finished sculptures nearby that captured my attention—half-formed men caught in transition, as if unable to become who they wanted to be. Made of unbending stone, their hands are not coming free, their thighs not running off into their future. An unfinished painting can seem mystical, can hold promise—it’s teasing in an appealing way, the colors, the hints of shapes, a face barely sketched. It’s like it’s there, but you just can’t see it. But these figures seem stopped mid-stride as if struck by lightning, then frozen.

This is the state of us all—how many of us emerge from our blocks of stone to become our best selves without being trapped in some way, caught by the foot, the arm, and held back? But ours are psychological blocks. Joe was cut down. I wish I could see him fully formed, moving in the world, now more than ever.

The Same Country is Carole Burns’s debut novel, and will be published in Autumn 2023 in the UK by Legend Press. This opening was shortlisted in The Masters Review‘s Novel Excerpt Contest.

The winner of Ploughshares’s 2015 John C. Zacharis Award for her collection, The Missing Woman and Other Stories, Burns has seen her work appear in the Washington Post, LitHub, and Mslexia, which shortlisted her story, “The Mother I Never Knew,” in their 2021 Short Fiction competition. Her book Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between, published by W.W. Norton, was based on interviews with forty-three authors including Edward P. Jones, Anthony Doerr and Jhumpa Lahiri. She continues interviewing writers as well as journalists for “Writers in Conversation,” the reading series she runs at the University of Southampton in the UK, where she teaches creative writing as associate professor of English. www.caroleburns.com


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