By Stephanie Rosevear
“Momma always says, ‘life is a blank page’,” Dylan told me once. It was a warm evening and fireflies danced around the porch. “She says. ‘you’d better start writing before it’s too late’.” His statement hung in the air in front of us. We stared and wondered; neither of us knew why he said it. He just did. Even now, years later, I remember that vague enticement, it sticks to me.
Life is a blank page.
Summer contains my best memories of Dylan–swinging off ropes and into lakes, violently shaking Coke bottles and spraying each other with their contents, trying to out-sing the radio. Sometimes we’d gather up more kids and have pretend wars. We’d flip a coin to see which group was American and which was Vietnamese. The American side always won, the Vietnamese side willingly lost after a couple minutes. I liked to think it was a tribute to our fathers, fighting for their country in some place we didn’t even know the location of.
These were the kind of days where you’d wake up smiling and fall asleep smiling. And, though it may sound funny, there were plenty of adventures to be had in our small town in Mississippi. Compared to the world outside, Fulton was tiny–but at the time it was our world, and was just as big as anyone else’s. I loved it while I was there. Somehow, I saw beauty in the crops and fields, looked past the dirt roads and slightly ramshackle homes, the families just barely scraping by. Life was hard most of the time, everyone juggled work with home, some found it tougher than others. It always surprised me how little and how much you could get to know people in a town with a population of 3,882.
I met Dylan by pure chance in the gas station on the other side of Fulton. I’d gone to buy Momma a pack of cigarettes and a Coke for myself. I was reaching for the last bottle when someone behind me said, “You’d better not take that there Coke. It’s mine.” I turned around, and standing there was a scruffy boy my age, wearing faded jeans and a shirt that, underneath the layers of dust, I guessed to be white. His eyes were blue and unblinking, his mouth set in a line of grim determination.
“Well I don’t see your name on it,” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah, it’s on there somewhere. I’ve been workin’ for over two hours and I’m mighty thirsty–it’s mah Coke.” His accent was thicker than mine.
“I walked here from the other side of town and I’m mighty thirsty too. And I got here first.” I took the bottle and set it on the counter. Dylan followed me.
“Can I have some after you’ve bought it?”
“Hell no,” I exclaimed, looking incredulously at him. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“Howabout we make a deal then?” He sure was persistent.
“Like what?” I reached for a pack of cigarettes. Dylan hesitated, and then shoved his hand into a pocket.
“I’ll give you this sucker.” He produced a green apple lollipop. My eyes lit up–candy was mighty tempting at that moment. Then again, maybe Dylan was willing to trade more for my Coke. I pretended to be unimpressed.
“Umm–and we share the Coke. I’ll pay fer half.” Dylan pulled out a quarter, looked at me pleadingly. I paused in thought. I hadn’t had a sucker in forever; Momma was dead set against them and anything else that would supposedly rot my teeth.
“Alright, fine.” I gave in, grabbed the candy and paid my share. “Dammit, you must be thirsty! All that, for a lousy bottle of Coke?” We walked outside, passing the drink to each other and taking long sips.
“I don’t have Coke that often–I saved up.” He shrugged. “So, what’s yer name anyway?” He took too long a sip and I grabbed it from him, wiping the mouth of the bottle with my shirt.
“I’m Dylan Calhoun. It’s mighty nice to meet you, Sandra.” He extended a hand and wouldn’t put it down until I begrudgingly shook it.
“Can I call you Sandy?”
“Man, you’re unfriendly,” He said, frowning.
“I’m only friendly to people I like.” Dylan raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Well, I’m gonna make you like me.” And so began our friendship.
It was the summer of ‘71 and my daddy had been gone two years. He left with eighty-six other men from our town. The last time I saw my dad, he was smiling and eager. He said goodbye and climbed into the back of a flatbed truck with the other men. Momma put her hand on my shoulder reassuringly, smiled down at me. I would see she was crying. The truck began driving away slowly, the men on the back of it waving and whistling and calling out goodbyes. They left in a blaze of glory, proud to venture into an uncertain future for their country. I didn’t wave at the men as they left.
Sometimes I’d forget what my dad looked like. At school his face would become just a smudge in my memory and I’d panic and race home to the living room, where his picture stood on the mantelpiece. He was a handsome man, with smiling eyes, high cheekbones and straight, white teeth. He looked strong and brave, like someone to hug when dreams got too scary at night. I wished he could be back with me and my momma again, back at the repair shop fixing cars, back at the breakfast table reading the daily paper. But at the same time I knew wishing wasn’t gonna to bring him back anytime soon, all I could do was just wait it out.
I learned that Dylan’s daddy was in Vietnam, too. Dylan rarely talked about him–in fact, he didn’t seem to miss his daddy all that much. He was fine with it just being him and his mom in the house. Dylan showed me a picture of his dad once–they resembled each other; had the same welcoming eyes, sharp features and tight-lipped mouth.
“He’s handsome,” I said quietly when I saw the photograph.
“Just like me,” Dylan winked coyly, placed the photo back on the shelf.
“Hell no, you’re not even half as good lookin’ as your daddy!” I punched his arm and raced out the front door laughing. I had lied.
The following summer was one of the hottest I have ever experienced. Rivers and streams quickly dried up and dirt turned to dust. But despite the soaring temperatures, us kids continued to spend long hours outside. Parents retreated to the comforting shade of porches and living rooms, and we explored wild jungles and killed as many Vietnamese soldiers as we could manage.
“I’m gonna leave Fulton one day.” Like most boys growing up in small towns, Dylan had big dreams.
“Where’re you gonna go?” I attempted to fan myself with a leaf I found on the ground.
“I dunno. Anywhere.”
“Why? What’s wrong with Fulton?”
“Don’t you ever wonder what’s beyond Mississippi?”
“Sometimes,” I shrugged.
“My momma gave me a atlas for my birthday. Sandy, the world is huge! I mean–there are continents and then countries and then states and cities and towns...there’s so much out there!” Dylan’s eyes lit up whenever he talked about the world. It was something bigger than him, something waiting to be conquered.
Dylan stayed quiet for a couple of minutes. He stared up at the slowly darkening sky above the trees. It was getting late, we had to go home for dinner soon.
“Sandy, can I ask you a question?”
“Do you ever...” Dylan paused, staring at his feet. “Forget what your daddy looks like?” I rolled over to look at him, glanced into his big blue eyes. For a moment I saw a flicker of sadness behind them.
“Sometimes,” I said quietly. Dylan nodded.
“Do you miss your daddy, Dylan?” I searched his face. He chewed on a hangnail.
“Yeah,” he took his time with the answer, drawing it out, as if he was about to change his mind in the middle of it. “I miss him.”
In that moment, I saw what I had never seen in Dylan before. I saw grief and anger and need. I’d always admired him for being so carefree, so content with life. That day I saw Dylan Calhoun for everything he was, and wasn’t.
“Come on, let’s get goin’. Momma will get to worryin’ soon.” We stood up.
It’s funny what helps us break down the walls that we build around ourselves.
As seasons changed and months dragged on, Dylan and I became the best of friends. We went to school and did homework together. Sometimes he’d get words mixed up He’d write them out of order in sentences, like they’d get jumbled up along the way from his brain to his pen. Dylan was a weird kid, for sure–the only way he could get a proper idea onto paper would be to write it backwards, from right to left across the page. He’d start writing at the end of the sentence and fill in the words from there, slowly forming a coherent line of thought. It worked every time. Our teacher disapproved, but Dylan shrugged it off, said he was just wired that way.
We went through a lot together as kids. I was there when he fell out of a tree and broke his collarbone; he was there the first time I painted my nails. Once during a manic game of tag, he tripped me up and twisted my ankle. A couple months after that I threw a football at his face and gave him a black eye. He gave me one of his momma’s old necklaces for my birthday; I gave him my bottle top collection. Everything we received was returned in any way, shape or form, as if through some unspoken pact. Our friendship had its flaws and its rough spots, but every time all was forgotten by the next day. I got to know Dylan very well in the short year that he was in Fulton. He’d become such a permanent fixture in my life that I thought it would be impossible to live without him.
Dylan left one day in late June. It was completely unexpected–he’d mentioned leaving Fulton so many times before that it had somehow lost its significance. But sure enough, I entered his house to find it deserted, save some dust bunnies and the kitchen table, worn from years of service. Dylan had left me a letter, as well as his old atlas. His father had been found dead in ‘Nam, his mother wanted to move back to Florida to stay with her parents. He wouldn’t be coming back any time soon. “I’m finally writing my page. I’m finally out of Fulton!” he had written. He promised to visit sometime, but never did. I kept the letter, put it in the atlas between two pages depicting the entire world. It stayed under my bed for years–I’d pull it out when times got hard and tell myself someday I’d be out there, too.
Life carried on without Dylan. My daddy came home from the war, I made more friends, continued schooling, grew up. But sometimes go to the road leading out of Fulton, and peer through the heat waves in the distance. I’d seek out even the slightest glimmer of a car heading in our direction, hoping, wishing. I’d remember Dylan and his mouth set in a line of grim determination. I’d remember the way his eyes would crinkle at the corners when he grinned, flashed a set of white teeth. And, with a quiet sigh and a smile I’d walk back to town.
I had my own page to write.
Stephanie Rosevear is a Nineth grade student at the American School in Tokyo, Japan.