#BryantStrong by Brandon J. Johnson
I remember where I was when I got the call that Bryant Philyaw died. I was waiting in line for afternoon Starbucks. It was Shelby on the other end and she offered me a place to stay if I could make it home for the funeral. I never really hesitated on whether I should go or not, but I didn’t want to.
It was all weird because death is weird, but because of Bryant, too. He was someone I had been almost sibling-tight with when we were young. That tightness loosened before he died. When you lose someone like that, whether it’s a sharp, clean cut or a slow erosion over time, you have to regenerate the part of yourself that person occupied.
I remember the day that Bryant broke away. It was in high school after he started doing drugs. He was supposed to take me home from school like he did every day. We lived next door to one another. The bell rang and I walked with Shelby until she got to her car and I headed for Bryant’s truck. He was at least standing there waiting on me. His eyes were red and he couldn’t focus on anything. He did register some surprise when I walked up, but after that he seemed disconnected and said,
“I ain’t takin’ you home today, Mariah. I ain’t, okay.”
That moment made Shelby’s call something I always expected. What they knew was that he’d been on a dirt bike. He took off on a jump, and he came down wrong and broke his neck. Instantaneous. That was a little tough to process. Such a sudden death was a cognitive disconnect for me because I saw his death start that day in my sophomore year when he left me with no ride home. I didn’t tell my parents. But I did tell them that I knew it was him when our weed eater disappeared. My dad caught Bryant snooping around outside our garage one night and took him out for a ride. He never told me what was said, but nothing else ever disappeared. They never said it, but it had to hurt them to see this boy that grew up with their daughter, that they had fed, housed, and chauffeured, stealing from them to buy drugs.
He was always spoiled. He got a big, obnoxious truck the day he turned sixteen, and he always had the newest clothes from Abercrombie or Hollister. All of us had to go to Hickory even to get those. His mom would take him weekly. But when she found out the money they gave him was going up his nose or down his throat or into his veins, they cut him off. That was a few years after high school. I was in college and my mom told me. They kicked him out of the house for a while, but that didn’t last long. From there he entered the cycle of better, worse, better, worse, better, worse.
Now he was dead. He didn’t know it was going to happen. He took a jump on a dirt bike like he’d done thousands of times, thinking he was going to stick the landing and keep on going. I don’t know what he saw or what his friends saw when they came up on his lifeless body. What are our bodies if we’re no longer inside?
Shelby picked me up from the airport in Charlotte.
“You’re probably the only person flying in for this funeral,” she said as we got on 85.
“It wouldn’t surprise me. How big do you think it will be?”
“I don’t know. The way folks are talking on Facebook, they’re trying to have a Ride for Bryant on the way to the funeral.”
“Yup, one of those. Carson told me his aunt had already come in looking to have #BryantStrong bracelets made up.”
“That sounds like something they would do. When did you see him last?”
“A week or two ago, I guess. I walked by him in Walmart. He looked worn out, but his eyes were clear. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘Hey, Shelby,’ which was a lot more than other times.”
“Did anybody still like him enough anymore to do all this ride and bracelet stuff?”
“Not our old group of friends, but he had a crew that he rode with. They had some kind of silly sticker they all put on their trucks. Wonder what it would be like if he’d just fallen down the stairs and hit his head.”
“We could have a hashtag stairmaster party for Bryant!”
“I know. Mama would be ashamed. So what all’s up with you?” I said and felt Sutton County sliding back into my speech.
“We’re just getting into the Rube Goldberg machines. Remember doing those in Mrs. Swanson’s class?”
“I do. I made a 98 on mine because I used a special theorem.”
“That sounds like you,” Shelby said and slapped at my arm in a way that was thirty years too old for her, but her smile made it feel right. Riding with Shelby felt as much like home as anything else about Lowground could anymore. We laughed the rest of the drive home.
Somehow, Shelby dragged me out to an informal dinner at El Ranchero that night. The funeral was the next day, but a group of folks we mostly knew decided to go eat Mexican as some kind of tribute. Shelby felt that she had to tell me that Theo wouldn’t be there, but I knew that. It wasn’t even necessary for her to say it. My mom always gave me reports on Theo before they moved. We’d been a thing on-and-off in high school. It apparently still mattered to everyone but me, and probably him. Most of the people there were Bryant’s newer friends. You have those friends that are still friends because they were once friends, and then you have those current, actual friends As friends of Bryant went, I was in the former grouping, and the folks loaded up with tattoos, chinstraps, and studded jeans were in the latter.
Bud Lights and margaritas ringed the table. The wine list at El Ranchero was red or white, so I went with the flow. Most everyone ordered without looking at a menu. We all ate and acted kind of like it was a normal occasion, but it wasn’t in any way. I would have hung out with a few of these folks in high school, but only Shelby now. Finally, the whole thing devolved into everybody saying something about Bryant. It was an embarrassing, cliché-ridden charade full of “I just can’t believe he’s gone,” “We lost a good one,” “I love you, brother,” and, my personal favorite, “God gained another angel.” I walked out on that one.
It was humid in a familiar way outside in the dark. I was content there. Then Shelby came after me.
“What was that about, Mariah?” she said a little more fiercely than I would have preferred.
“I just couldn’t listen to that anymore. None of it is real or true. We both know he was an asshole, and he died from doing stupid shit. And he’s really dead, and that is total performance garbage. A good reason to drop three kids off at grandma’s and go drink beer and eat Mexican.”
“Yeah, we both know that, but they know what they’re feeling and saying. You can’t judge that, Mariah. People here can still feel.”
“Those aren’t feelings, Shelby. They’re reality TV and country music. It’s the pot calling the kettle twenty-four-karat gold. It’s horseshit, and it’s exactly why I didn’t want to come.”
“Well, why did you?”
“That’s a good question.”
She turned around and walked back in. I hung out for a second and savored the rotten smell of the mulch piles in the next lot over, and then I went back in against my better judgement. When I got back in Hannah Burnett walked up and bear-hugged me. I could feel her wet cheeks as she rubbed my back and said, “I know, I know.”
They made sure to give me my chance to speak. All eyes were on me and I didn’t have a plan. It just kind of happened. I said he’d been like a brother to me, past tense intentional. They could do what they wanted to with that. I didn’t tell a whole truth, but I didn’t lie.
When we got in the car to head back to Shelby’s she asked how badly it hurt me to do that.
“Just shy of a kidney stone.”
“You made a difference in doing that. I don’t know if you can know that anymore, but it meant a hell of a lot to them for you to say that.”
“Why does what I say matter to them?”
“Why? Because they all know they got sucked in. You got out and this was enough to bring you back. And you brought back something good to say about Bryant. Whether they admit to themselves how much of an asshole he was or not, you saying what you said made him something different.”
“I think you’re exaggerating, but if you say so.”
“You’re enough from here to know exactly what I mean.”
The next morning I woke up before Shelby. She got up and started cooking breakfast right away. Mornings with another person were weird. We were both thirty, single, and far behind Lowground’s expected domestic curve.
“Did you hear that they sold Plant Six?” she asked.
“No! Who bought it?”
“Shane Lewis’ dad. He moved Lewis Hardwoods in there.”
We didn’t have to say what this meant. We’d both had parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles work in Edwards Plant Six. Stories about that plant were part of the way we talked and part of the way we thought. We knew it without knowing it. Neither of us had worked there, but it was still a part of us. As long as Edwards still owned it, even if it just sat there, there was hope that something might come back, but now they didn’t.
“Do you remember old Sampson Thomas that used to come up and drink coffee at The Turn?” I asked.
“Of course I do. That man spent more time at a golf course to never play golf than anyone I’ve ever seen. But I guess a restaurant at a golf course is still a restaurant. It worked for you and me to make some beach trip money,” Shelby said.
“It did. One day when we were close to graduating, he pulled me back to his table and actually looked at me seriously for once. He told me that he was proud of me for graduating.”
“I remember you telling me about that when it happened.”
“It was such a weird feeling. It was like being congratulated for tying my shoe.”
“That’s about all the effort it would have taken if you hadn’t had to sacrifice life and limb and society to be valedictorian.”
“See, that’s the thing. I was never not going to graduate. What he said seemed so unnecessary.”
“But it was a big thing for him to say. Sampson’s world and yours are two different things, or were. He grew up when the plants were running and worked there his whole career. His folks didn’t graduate or ever hardly leave town. Plenty of people dropped out as quick as they turned sixteen.”
“And what got me was that it was a real, live thing he was saying. People our age were dropping out hoping for the jobs that their parents got back in the day, but those jobs were long gone. It was a living embodiment of generational lag.”
“You really do sound like a city planner now. What are you wearing to the funeral?”
“A navy peplum-style dress with cap sleeves and camel wedges. You?”
“An eggplant A-line dress that falls above the knee with an Empire waist and black stilettos.”
“Remember that Spirit Week that they let the crazy art teacher run? She had primary color day and crazy pattern day and the ‘day of elegance’!”
“Ha! We’re back to the standard hat day, camo day, tacky day, and spirit day now.”
“Well, some things stay the same I guess.”
Bryant and I would always go to each other’s Vacation Bible Schools. He went to the Methodist Church downtown, and I went to the Baptist church across from our elementary school. I remember drinking red slushies in the cool air conditioning of the Methodist Church fellowship hall. I looked forward to those things every year. Our parents would often co-opt childcare in the summers. One grandparent would take me and Bryant swimming or to the library or to the movies or VBS. Those were the memories I thought of when we walked into the funeral. Bryant’s church sits on the high end of downtown and looks out onto Donal Mountain. You can survey a lot of property from there, but the grandeur drops off as you walk inside.
Normal funeral music was playing as we walked in and said somber hellos and chose seats not too close, and not too far away. The family was at the front. Plenty of folks from high school were scattered around along with plenty of old folks from the church. There were more elderly and middle age folks than I imagined would be there, and I guess they were connected to Bryant’s mom and his grandmother.
Attire varied greatly. There were polos tucked into pleated khakis, polyester pants with earth toned blouses, standard suits, and cowboy boots. Shelby and I had kept in shape, something that made us distinctly different from many Lowground girls our age. I could feel the eyes on us as soon as we got through the door and still yet as we sat down and waited.
I remembered one time riding on the back of the bike with Bryant, the show-off. I wrenched on him harder and harder each time he revved it, because I knew he was about to do something stupid. My fear was his fuel.
The funeral started on time with the sound of motorcycles outside. Some kind of ride had materialized, but from our Facebook searches the night before, we knew it didn’t live up to the rumors. The sound disappeared and then everyone stood. I looked back like I would at a bride cresting the aisle and instead of the casket I saw a fucking dirt bike. They led the fucking casket in with a dirt bike and parked the bike just off to the side. I could think of nothing but whether it was the bike that killed him or not. The pallbearers came in wearing dirt bike garb. At least they’d washed it.
I remembered one time riding on the back of the bike with Bryant, the show-off. I wrenched on him harder and harder each time he revved it, because I knew he was about to do something stupid. My fear was his fuel. He laughed like a maniac and did demonic things on the bike against my permission. Eventually, we fishtailed. I could feel the surprise in his body that the bike had disobeyed him. I wasn’t any more scared than I had been with each vicious turn or jump we took until I saw that we were heading sideways toward a big, fat pine tree with no helmets on. That moment lingered and I saw that which was about to play out on that tree play out in my head. I saw the ambulance come and the look on the paramedics’ faces, I heard my mom get the call, I saw the assembly at school, I saw my obituary in the paper, and I heard “How Great Thou Art.” Then suddenly Bryant gassed it and the tire caught. We shot forward and the tree got sucked away behind us.
Things proceeded as normal. A standard minister gave a standard funeral. It was almost like he offered one package and just plugged in the name of the latest victim. It was the same old ashes to ashes and Psalm 23 kind of stuff. I wondered if Bryant had been around church enough for this guy to even know him. As option A of the package Becky had selected for her son, some woman sang “Amazing Grace.” I told myself that Bryant didn’t know this woman, but I realized then that I didn’t know who or what Bryant knew anymore, and that fact had nothing to do with death. What was a death supposed to make happen? The intolerable alter call I was expecting didn’t happen, and I remembered with thanks that I was in the company of Methodists. The package rolled on right to “Amen,” but then there was a surprise.
“As a special tribute to Bryant, the family has chosen to play his favorite song during the recessional. All are encouraged to sing along.”
Shelby looked at me and our eyes got big. There was a lag there, before the music started, when everything seemed like it would be fine. We didn’t know what the music was, the funeral was almost over.
“And don’t forget the meal in the fellowship directly following the service.”
When he said that, I could taste the slushies. And then “Wagon Wheel” started playing and the dirt bike rolled out and young men in fluorescent colors carried Bryant out. The fiddle lead into the verse, and of course, each member of the dinner party the night before started belting out “Headed down South to the land of the pines…”
I got the topical nature of the whole thing, but as I sat there and the song progressed and the motorcycle made it out into the vestibule something started clawing at the back of my throat, and I had to sit down while the crowd around me stood and sang about a nice long toke. Whatever it was inside me was a new, familiar thing. It coursed up from my thighs into my chest and then into my tear ducts which started leaking. And then I felt myself heaving with a sob, and I realized the physiology of what sorrow can do to a body.
I had cover while folks around me were standing and singing. A lot of people were there. It was a big story in the Lowground Times, and Bryant lived his whole life in this place. That whole-life-lived kind of thing engenders a certain kind of fame, or maybe infamy in Bryant’s case. People who had known him in all the phases of his life came to see what had come of him, what was waiting for the rest of us.
But all those people started clearing out as the song finished and the recessional recessed, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. Bryant kept running through my mind, all the Bryant’s I’d known and, more hauntingly, all the Bryant’s I hadn’t. And it was all in this place that was so much who I was, but not. I sobbed. I realized we were the last ones in the sanctuary when Shelby lifted a hand to stoke my hair. She had started holding me somewhere along throughout the process.
Everyone that walked by and saw me crying had to feel like they knew the reason. I didn’t, though. It had come on without warning and induced crying in a way that I couldn’t ever remember crying. I didn’t know I was going to cry, and even when I stopped, I couldn’t put my finger on what started it. It couldn’t have been Bryant, at least not just Bryant. I hadn’t cried about him in a decade at least.
Then it eased. I had that euphoric feeling like when you stub your toe and it hurts like hell and then the pain stopping is wonderful. Shelby and I were alone in a quiet sanctuary. She looked at me like she was going to say something but stopped. We both looked around the inside of the sanctuary, and it seemed more ordinary with no one in it. We both stood up without a word and walked out the back. When we were almost to the outside door, Shelby finally spoke.
“Do you feel up to going down for the meal?”
“We don’t have to go,” she kept on.
“We don’t, but I do. Let’s go see what they’ve got whipped up.”
I pushed the bar to open the door and looked out over all of downtown. It was beautiful and impressive. I looked from one side of town to the other, and at the end of the scan, my eyes landed on, as I live and breathe, Theo Jarvis. He was dressed in funeral clothes, but I hadn’t seen him before or during the service. His suit fit him well, it wasn’t baggy and it wasn’t too unfamiliar. His haircut was fresh and his tie looked new. He had a deliberate beard across a sharp-edged jaw, and his blue, blue eyes glowed in the sunlight. He wasn’t on a phone, his hands were in his pockets, and he seemed content to stand there forever. When Shelby and I both got out of the door he said,
“Hey, Mariah. Hey, Shelby.”
“Hey, Theo,” we said in unison.
“I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he said and looked at me.
And I wished he wouldn’t have said that. If he hadn’t, I could have gone on like normal. If he hadn’t said that, I could have said “Good to see you,” and gone on down to eat fried chicken, and put the whole thing behind me. But, no.
“I guess you saw that,” I said.
“I did. It wasn’t what I expected, so I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m gettin’ hungry. I’ll see y’all down there,” Shelby said, her smile only showing just as she turned to walk away.
“You been doing well?” Theo asked.
“I have. I’m about to finish a big project revitalizing an old rail depot, and then I’ve got another one lined up that I can’t officially talk about yet. How about you?”
“Doing pretty good. Mamaw is slowing down. They sold Plant Six.”
“I’m sorry about your Mamaw. Shelby just told me about Plant Six. But you’re working?”
“Yeah. I’ve started selling insurance.”
“That’s great! How’s that going?”
“It’s going real well. I’ve been doing it for almost nine months now. Tim Garner took me in and is talking about making me a bigger part of the business.”
“Do you like it?”
“I do. I get to get out and talk to people and help them sometimes. And it pays pretty well.”
“That’s so great, Theo!”
“Thanks. I think so… Can I ask what got you so upset in there?”
“You’re one of the only people that would know to ask and maybe the only one that actually would,” I said.
“Well, I know the history, and crying like that has something else behind it.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know what it is. I’ve had more memories of him in the past forty-eight hours than I have in the last eight years.”
“Has it been that long?”
“It’s been longer. And in some ways that makes it worse. And, I mean, you and I both know it would have been different if he’d had cancer or something.”
“Yeah, you mean like a death that didn’t happen because he was high on pain pills and jumping a dirt bike?”
“Precisely. And he was an asshole. It wasn’t as bad before the drugs, but he was an asshole even when we were kids.”
“But he meant something to you, asshole or not.”
“Yeah… and I guess I’m trying to figure out what that says about me.”
“Nothing,” Theo said plainly.
“It doesn’t say anything about you. Bryant was your friend, then he wasn’t, now he’s dead. That’s all it says.”
I couldn’t really respond, so I just looked at downtown. I couldn’t stop myself from running through what used to be what.
“I guess that’s right,” I said, “I’ve been having flashbacks since I’ve been back home. They just keep coming. Some are good some are bad. I feel like I’ve written him off for the last part of his life and forgotten too much of the first part.”
“That sounds like a better way to look at it.”
“It was fucking ‘Wagon Wheel,’ though. I was fine until that started,” I said putting one hand on my hip and wagging the other pointer at him.
“What’s wrong with “Wagon Wheel’? Well, other than being played to death.”
“It’s completely meaningless by now. Bryant deserves something better.”
“Everyone does. Everyone deserves meaning.”
“Do you think that song ever had meaning for Bryant?”
“If he was with friends at some bar, and that song came on and they could all sing it together and forget about everything else for three minutes, doesn’t that mean something?”
“Not in much in the way of art…”
“Not everyone’s an artist, Rye.”
And that got me, too. Rye was a nickname that he called me. I hadn’t heard it in five years at least. It got me, also, because he was right, and I told him so.
“I’m not trying to call you out,” he said.
“But you did without trying. What does that say about me… or, why should I care? That’s a better question.”
“I think it is.”
“Why were you here?” I asked him, finally. I wondered from the time I saw him, but he’d gotten me off track.
“I owed it to him.”
“Did y’all make up and get drunk together and sing ‘Wagon Wheel’ together in the time that I’ve been gone?”
“Why did you owe him, then?”
“Because I knew him. I have memories that he lives in. It’s important for the people still here. His mom doesn’t need to deal with the living Bryant anymore. She’s done that long enough. Why did you come? I just drove across town. You had to fly from St. Louis.”
“I guess it’s because I have memories he lives in, too. Actually, they seem more alive now than I do.”
“Why weren’t your folks here?”
“They’re hosting a couple’s weekend at the beach.”’
“Ah. Don’t blame ’em. How long are you in for?”
“I’m flying back Monday.”
“Cool. You’ll have a little extra time.”
“Yeah. Are you going down to eat?”
“Nah. The service was enough. I thought you’d really appreciate that dirt bike…”
“What was that?!”
“Nevermind! I didn’t mean to get you started.”
“Terrible, Theo! I guess I should probably head down.”
“You do that, Rye. It was really good to see you. I’ll be around.”
“Ok, Theo. Good to see you.”
I walked around the church because I didn’t know my way through it to the fellowship hall. Shelby and I caught each other’s eyes, and I saw she had a seat for me. I went through the line and fished out turkey, mashed potatoes, and green beans from well-worn dishes. I got sweet tea out of a jug and some coconut cake. Shelby still had a little food left when I got there.
“Becky asked about you,” she said when I sat down.
“Okay. I better talk to her.”
“Probably should. It wouldn’t hurt you to eat first, though.”
I did. Shelby had picked a table with same folks we had Mexican with the night before. The conversation meandered in and out of sadness and contemporariness. It was like no one could decide how long it was appropriate to overtly mourn. I got all the way down to the last half of my cake and put my fork down. I saw Becky alone for a second, so I got up and went over to her.
“Oh Mariah, honey! It’s so good to see you. Thank you for coming.”
“I had to be here, Becky. I’m so sorry.”
She took me in a hug like she always did. She was a small woman with incredible energy that made her hugs seem huge. She started to choke up while we hugged, and I had to look at the cheap paintings on the wall to hold it together. When she came up out of the hug her eyes were red and tears were starting, but she raised her eyebrows and wiped the tears from her bottom eyelids. With a fake smile she was back with us.
“I can’t tell you how hard it’s been, Mariah. Your parents called. I was so sorry they couldn’t make it. But it means so much to me that you came.”
“I know that things changed between you and Bryant, but you can’t ever forget those early years.”
“He really had started to turn a corner. Lord, he was a mess for so long, but things were starting to get better. But now he’s in the best place of all, at the foot of the Savior.”
“Yes. The service seemed to fit him.”
“Do you think, honey?! I’m so glad to hear that. It’s one thing to plan a funeral for an old person, but for… I just wanted to… get it right for him.”
She started full-on crying and I hugged her. I felt separate from my body. I was separate enough that I could avoid another round of crying. She’d done what she could with what she had, and it was something she shouldn’t have ever had to do. She wiped more tears. Each swipe left more black streaks behind.
“Lord, I’m a mess, Mariah.”
“I think you’re doing great, considering.”
“Well, I’ve just got to do what I can.”
“Don’t we all,” I said, feeling sixty instead of thirty.
“I’m happy with how this turned out for Bryant. I think he would have liked it, as much as he would ever say he liked anything like this. He’d have been nervous as a whore in church,” she put her hand over her own surprised mouth, “Listen at me. Lord forgive me.”
I kept it to a giggle and she slapped at my shoulder playfully. She felt like an old sweatshirt. And when she fished out a bright orange bracelet that had #BryantStrong on it, I unwrapped it and put it on.