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.
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.