The Howling

Alysha Hoffa

The sharp crack of an opened Coors Light inside the car and I see my brother Danny cringe. He watches Rooster take a sip and I know he wants one—that communal beer.

“Hey, Hot Pockets!” Danny teases, talking to Rooster’s wife in the front seat, who earned that nickname in a way I can’t remember.

Rooster’s the only one drinking, which makes him nervous. No beer makes you stuck up. I just met him today and I know he thinks I’m no fun from the way he keeps apologizing. For the beer. For the cussing. For the way I bite my tongue when he tells me a story about accidentally killing a cat, laughing the whole time.

An open beer in the car is illegal in Indiana and you do not want to break the law where we are. Especially if you, like Danny, are just out of jail and living in Attica—a town not worth talking about if you aren’t a Hoffa. If you are, it is its own kind of prison. The cops who know Danny would love to arrest him again, for something like the tenth time. No beer. Not until we reach our destination—Sugar Mill—where we can drink by the lake.

The heat leaches through the van’s closed windows and I regret my pants, then decide I don’t. It will get colder by sundown. This entire summer has been cold for Indiana. The climate is shifting in on itself, changing so dramatically that nothing feels the same.

“Knee high by the fourth of July, my ass,” Rooster says.

It’s the corn. Even it has changed, growing far too tall for this time of year.

Simple Man plays too loudly for a song I think is soft. My brother’s only half mine and this song is his and his mother’s. When I saw him in December, his mother was healthy and I wasn’t moving across the country for grad school. None of that is true seven months later, by Independence Day.

Danny nudges me a little, whispers: “They’re the good ones.”

His way of reassuring me because his friends have always made me nervous, never the kind of friends I would choose myself.

Finally we reach the lake, looking for a campsite and a man named Bacon.

“I know exactly where we’re going,” Rooster tell us, already drunk.

Then, when we’re lost: “Like I said, I don’t know exactly where his spot is at.”

We find it. We settle. Soon, spigot water splashes dust, now mud, across my toes, dulling the polish. Red, white, and blue because I love a theme. The ground water tastes of copper and that country trap I want to leave behind. With my brother, though, it feels natural. I’m drinking from a spigot because of course I am, no water fountains here.

Well-water tasted better back when I was growing up I think. The green remains the same. That deep country emerald, when moisture in the air so thick it swims inside the lungs makes the whole world bloom. For every flower, each bit of herb, there is stinging nettle, poison ivy, sharp grass and itchy blades. The world goes wild, so much room to grow that we cut the nuisance down to favor pretty things.

Where I’m heading, though, there is drought. All dry and desert sands to California. A land so mythical in the Midwest I get wide eyes when I say the word, even if it’s Fresno—a less glorious place than San Francisco, San Diego, or L.A. But I have picked the worst time for my escape to dying lands. His mother, too, is dying.

Lou Gehrig’s. Diagnosed after too many tests and a painful treatment that didn’t work. Knowing she won’t have long before she loses the ability to ride, her husband Dick took her away on a motorcycle trip cross-country. Out East, where she has never been.

My confession: I haven’t always been there. Not for him. Not because I didn’t love him, but no time to write, distance, my own life, and all those old excuses. So, I want to stay for him this time.

And I don’t want to stay.

Night falls and we walk drunkenly to the only open spot on hard ground, just as the fireworks start. I have just sipped some purple drink I cannot name from a cup six other people sip from. Because Danny asked. He smiled a smile that showed so little pain, I drink the germs. Tell myself it’s not so different from all those beers a dirty ping pong ball has been thrown into at college parties. We sit, me in front of him, his legs spread out around me. When my back stands straight, uncomfortable, he pulls me against his chest. I have a moment, wondering what other people think of this intimate embrace.

We look nothing alike. He is tall and tan with dark cropped hair. I am my mother’s daughter—short and blonde, freckled and pale. No one ever thinks we’re related.

I feel his chest expand against my back and I relax, wanting to be close to him.

The show starts slowly, a few sparks light up the sky.

My brother howls.

It is a wolf’s cry into the dark, full moon now hiding behind the smoke and ash of fire.

I think of the way he explained his past mistakes to me one night during dinner at his favorite restaurant—Chili’s.

“Dick used to breed Brittany hunting dogs that he kept locked up most the day,” he says. “Every time he’d let them outta the cage, they would just book it. Take off and run and run and run, fast as they can.” He raised his glass then, a shocking lightness to his eyes that are usually our father’s deep brown.

“That’s how I felt. Let out of my cage, running wild like I was never gonna be outside again.”

And, for the first time, I understand. Understand that he was overcompensating for growing up in prison, his first stint at seventeen. Trapped in the place that saw him gang raped, with guards who did nothing to stop it. The place he had to shank someone to prove he was a man again—a man who wouldn’t be raped by other men. The violence of sharpening some plastic, of stabbing the gang leader who started it, the only way to take your masculinity back in a culture like that. When he told me what he did to survive, I said I was proud of him and meant it and I mean it still.

So, when he would violate his parole with drinking and drugs and fighting—often all three—he would run until they caught him. I imagine him now, driving down the open road, desperate for one last taste of a world he didn’t feel like he could live in. Not with any kind of permanence.

So, here out by this lake, he howls. Delighted children, sitting just in front of us, howl with him as the finale starts.

The sky explodes. Dogs and children yip.

And I realize I am running too. Away from here. From the person I have been lately. The drinking and the misery and the trying to forget. I want to tell Danny just how alike we really are but he has enough trouble living with his own pain. I can’t stand to give him mine.

“Sometimes, you’ve gotta call to the moon,” he says.

This I can do.

His chest vibrates against my back, the sound fills my ears louder than the fireworks lighting up the sky. I lean into him like I might never see him again after I move. Worry that it might be true. My chest expands in time with his and I breathe in.

We make the noise together.


Alysha Hoffa’s personal essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art, Southern Indiana Review, Atticus Review, and Sliver of Stone, among others. Her essay “Colorless Life: An Essay in Grayscale” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2014. She is a recent graduate of Fresno State’s MFA program, where she was the President of the San Joaquin Literary Association and the Senior Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School.

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