The last time I see Big Dipper alive, he is mounted behind a wall of glass, peering at me with the frenzied look of something captured. I watch him closely, waiting for the guard to nod me over toward the Plexiglas, where he is already waiting, impatiently palming the bulky, yellow phone that we will soon be speaking through between his hands. From where I am standing, Big Dipper looks like a different man, bent and hefty, cut and divided by muscle I do not recognize. At a distance, the details of his face blur, faded between the harsh fluorescent lighting and his ugly orange jumpsuit so that his head seems like nothing more than a black depth with two floating eyes. I search my mind for an image of Big Dipper that I can recognize, a memory to plaster over whoever he is now. For a moment he is ten years old again, his smile widened by a large gap between his two front teeth. Next, he is a teenager, coy and smart with narrow eyes and smooth dark-brown skin that would peek out from under his wife-beaters and gym shorts. Quietly, I shuffle through all the Big Dippers I have accumulated — the serious ones, the smiling ones, the grumpy ones just waking up with sleep still in their eyes. Big Dippers whirl around my head. I discard them quickly. None of them belong here.
The drive from Detroit to Chauncey Harold Correctional Facility is peaceful once you make it out of the city: blanketed in green and khaki wheat fields, spotted by lonely farmhouses and the metallic glitter of man-made swimming holes. The low roar of the summer's last cicadas weaves in and out, humming between the fuzz of a few croaking radio stations, creating a comforting static. Growing up, Sir would drive Big Dipper and me out this way, just a few miles north of the prison into Tecumseh, to the small Ford plastics plant where he worked molding glove boxes and step rails. During the summers, when Big Dipper and I were out of school, Sir made it a point to take us to the plant every other week. He had struck up a deal with his boss, an arrangement he liked to incorrectly refer to as an "internship." For $20 a day, Big Dipper and I would work at the plant with Sir, piecing together parts for license-plate lights or rearview mirrors. When we got older, Sir let us explore beyond the plant and into the town.
"Be careful, now," he'd say, handing us $20 each, the money we had earned for that day. "Don't do anything stupid. This ain't the place."
Big Dipper and I always thought Tecumseh smelled funny, like plastic and horse and chocolate brownies. "This must be what every small-ass town smells like,"he said to me one afternoon after we had ditched the Plant. We were sitting at a small table inside of the Chocolate Vault drinking milkshakes. I snickered loudly. "Yeah," I agreed, "like shit!" A white couple sitting next to us turned down their mouths disapprovingly. Big Dipper erupted in laughter, smiling hard in my direction. I had just started cursing, and Big Dipper was proud of me. Sometimes, while we sat together at the workstation we shared, he would teach me new curse words or slang under his breath. We whispered back and forth to each other until the words became so common that we no longer considered them words, until we no longer considered them bad.
We whispered back and forth to each other until the words became so common that we no longer considered them words, until we no longer considered them bad.
When he sees me walking toward him, Big Dipper breaks into a smile so wide it makes my heart stop. He has stopped juggling the phone, and now it rests lazily on his right shoulder, bright and graceful like the yellow warblers Ma'am and I used to feed bread-butts to in the backyard. Now, seated before him, unwarped by distance and glare, Big Dipper does not look so unknown. We sit in silence for a few moments, eyeing each other, until Big Dipper playfully nudges his head toward the phone and winks. I pick up the receiver on my end of the Plexiglass and return his smile with my own. When he finally speaks, it is just like I remember it: smooth and twangy with a slight lisp resting at the back of his tongue, a result of Ma'am and Sir's impregnable Southern dialects amalgamated with our Midwestern tongues. My body relaxes, recognizing the home in his sound. I imagine his voice slinking through the wires, coiling toward me; I imagine it vibrating throughout the ugly yellow receiver and into my ear, where it sings, bouncing and glowing along the maze of my eardrums like a pinball machine, its cadence a victorious chime.
"What's good, Ro? It's been a minute." The sound of my name in my brother's mouth catches me off guard. His eyes are small slivers from smiling, but his words prickle me with guilt. It has been three years since I last came to visit him here.
"I'm sorry, Dip. I really am." My voice is small, not sorry enough.
"I know you are. Don't worry about it. I'm just glad you're all right. After you stopped visiting, I just figured you needed some space, you know? Makes sense for a girl your age, but after you stopped calling, too ..."
Big Dipper lowers his gaze for a moment. Beyond our silence, I can hear the guard in the distance humming some sad Motown ballad, his only musical accompaniment the droll sound of the large steel fans that spin overhead, attempting to create airflow in this windowless place.
"I just mean I didn't know when I might see you again."
It was easy to ignore Big Dipper at first. Sir and Ma'am had both already stopped talking about him, though I still caught Ma'am whispering his name under her breath during her evening prayers when she thought she was alone and only God was listening. His room had been sealed off, too, piled high with Sir's junk and forgotten. Five years ago, when Big Dipper was first locked up, I used to sneak into his room in the middle of the night to sleep in his bed with his dog, a chocolate pit named Skillet. It had been Skillet's idea to sleep in Big Dipper's room, a fact that Sir scoffed at when he found us in his bed, our brown bodies twisted around each other, and asked what the hell I was doing letting the dog up on the furniture. Skillet had spent a whole week whining in front of Big Dipper's door, moaning and trilling until he exhausted himself and retreated to his worn dog mat by the front door, where he would hopelessly wait. "He's not coming back, stupid," I whispered to Skillet through the crack of my bedroom door after being kept up for the fourth night in a row. "Shut up!" But Skillet only stared at me with big eyes, pawing at the door.
When I finally opened Big Dipper's door for Skillet, he rushed in leaping and bounding, feverishly running his nose across any object it could reach. The room smelled like Big Dipper — his cheap, smoky teenage cologne, Big Red chewing gum, cigarettes, and something soft and clean that reminded me of not just him, but of Sir too. Skillet scurried around frantically, as if he were trying to inhale the answer to what had happened to his master.
The room smelled like Big Dipper — his cheap, smoky teenage cologne, Big Red chewing gum, cigarettes, and something soft and clean that reminded me of not just him, but of Sir too.
"You see any skydivers?" Big Dipper asks, leaning forward on his elbows, hopeful, his nose almost hitting the glass. Years ago, on our drives to the plant, we would sometimes see men falling from the sky. At first, Big Dipper and I mistook them for hawks diving toward prey concealed deep in the cornfields, until Sir corrected us.
"Those are people?!" Big Dipper had commented, eyes widened with disbelief. Curious, we rolled down our windows and stuck out our necks, craning our heads to the sky. Above us the dots seemed to fall slowly, twirling in the wind like the maple seeds Dip and I used as confetti during the bright Michigan autumns. As they got closer to us, to the quilt-like expanse of land beneath them, I began to make out clothing: bright-orange jumpsuits, thick black helmets.
"Nah," I say, eyeing Big Dipper's jumpsuit. It looks so much like the ones we had seen floating above us all those years ago. "No skydivers today."
"Shit," he mumbles into the phone. He moves one hand to his face and rubs his eyes sheepishly. "I thought maybe you might have. I've been dreaming about them a lot lately. I always thought that shit was so wild — jumpin' out of planes."
"You been dreaming about 'em?"
"Yeah," he says, nodding. "I dream about people falling from the sky and making shapes and shit. You know, holdin' hands so that they're all in a circle, or stretching out wide so that they look like a flower or a heart. I'm in there, too, falling — excuse me, diving. It's kinda fun."
"What happens at the end?" I ask, curious.
Big Dipper takes a second to think. I watch as his eyes wander upward, as if the skydivers were above us, falling once again. He hums a bit, sticks his thumb in his mouth and chews a bit at the nail, a habit he picked up from Ma'am.
"Everyone keeps falling, but before we hit the ground, we all let each other go."
Big Dipper laughs. "We couldn't all land holdin' on to each other like that. I mean, shit, we'd die that way, right? We need our hands to pull the parachute open."
"I guess," I say, imagining a star of people holding hands, falling toward Earth, crashing into a cornfield. "Does everybody make it down all right? I mean, do you see them land?"
"Everyone but me," he says plainly. "I get stuck in the sky somehow."
"I get stuck in the sky somehow."
I imagine my brother's death like this: a slow and steady departure, a fizzing out — the total of his life bubbling upward to a height it could not sustain, until finally each of his memories, each of his cells, everything that made him himself, faded out, leaving nothing behind but a flat existence. Three weeks after my visit with Big Dipper, he hurled himself headfirst over the three-story drop at the center of Chauncey Harold and into the communal area below.
When Sir told me what happened, I screamed and locked myself in Big Dipper's room. I began to rip out everything that didn't belong to him, expelling it into the hallway. I threw out Sir's discarded workout equipment, Ma'am's hoarded cooking appliances, stacks of Oprah magazines and tarnished golf clubs. Feverishly, I emptied the room of the junk and garbage that had come to replace him. I barred Sir and Ma'am from the door, allowing only Skillet to pass. I continued to curse the house, my grandparents, myself. I cursed my abandoned, dead brother. I cursed the fear that drove me from him, the shame that kept his name out of our grandparents' mouths. I cursed my selfishness, my greed and guilt. I cursed the loneliness I cast above him. I cursed my own name for the sake of my brother who now resided elsewhere, somewhere beyond me, where he hovered, finally stuck in the air he dreamed of all those nights.
Instinctively, I curled onto my brother's bed like I had done those first few months of his sentence. Worried, Skillet paced the bottom of the bed, nudging at my feet and whining until he finally jumped in with me. Paralyzed by sadness, I quietly observed the room. It was smaller than I remembered, grayer, too, from years of uninterrupted sunlight and no drapery. Dust had collected thick on every surface; it made everything blur like a memory I couldn't put into focus.
Dust had collected thick on every surface; it made everything blur like a memory I couldn't put into focus.
I began to think back on our childhoods and the early devotions we assigned to each other. How from infancy he had been my best friend, and for so long my only friend. I think back to our summers at the plant together, how he used to fight me on the dead grass outside so I could learn how to protect myself and become strong. One day, after we had finished our work and spent our money, we wrestled among the weeds. Big Dipper was being rougher than usual, pushing me down hard, pinning me under his full weight. Fed up, I finally kicked him hard, once in the ankle and again in the groin. Big Dipper doubled over, collapsing onto the dirt. I left him there like that for a moment, squirming. He eyes looked red and wet, like he wanted to cry, while he cradled his lower gut.
"What the fuck was that for?" he spat, a touch of amusement in his voice.
"You hurt me. What did you expect me to do?" As I spoke, Big Dipper stood, rising himself to his full height.
"So because I hurt you, it's OK to kick me in the dick?"
"If you hurt me, anything's fair," I said simply.
"And if you hurt me?" he asked, staring at the loading dock, where a small freight of new bumpers was being unpacked.
"Same thing. Whatever you got to do, do it. It's all fair. I'll know you were just trying to protect yourself. Besides, you can't stay mad at me for long anyway."
Big Dipper erupted with laughter.
"You're right," he said. "I can't."
Gabrielle Octavia Rucker is a writer from the Great Lakes. Currently she lives in Brooklyn, where she can often be found on the subway aggressively cursing under her breath.