When I was fourteen years old, right before my freshman year in high school, my brother Carrie killed himself. That’s not the saddest part, though.
The saddest part is the day before. We went to the Piggly Wiggly strip mall, just me and him, sloshing through the roadside ditch in our two-dollar flip-flops. He hummed a song about a girl named Caroline and I listened. Occasionally I’d ask him something, usually along the lines of please-stop-humming-the-same-damn-song. And occasionally he’d respond, usually along the lines of fuck-off.
If you ask me about the next day, though, and I mean the day he killed himself, I won’t be able to tell you anything. I don’t remember. But if you ask me about the day before, I can tell you how Carrie looked in the muggy evening light, how the tips of his hair curled with sweat, how a cluster of pimples settled above his left eyebrow like a constellation. I can tell you about the middle school VBS shirt he was wearing ironically, how it didn’t cover his stomach and how he was sweating right through the back and how much I hated him whenever he wore it. I can tell you about the bug bites on the backs of his calves. I can tell you about the bug bites on the backs of my hands.
I can tell you everything.
But the Piggly Wiggly. Right. So we were going to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up groceries because Mama never would. She never did the shopping or cooking or cleaning or anything like that. According to Shannon, our oldest brother, she wasn’t lying about being sick, but Carrie maintained that it was all bullshit and she just couldn’t stand to exist so poorly. (“God forbid you have both off-brand chips and a son in the closet, right?” he said once. “You sinner,” I said back. But he laughed anyway.) So we were tasked with grocery shopping that evening in June, which was humid even for the South, and the sun melted into lavender around us and the moon floated above the trees and everything seemed so nice until a truck waving the Confederate flag rushed by. But it was still nice. Everything was nice. Carrie’s ramblings were nothing but a buzz beneath the cicadas in the trees and I felt very peaceful and still.
Which is saying something, when you come from a place like ours.
We got there around, say, eight o’clock. Carrie told me we couldn’t use any of the shopping carts outside because they were ancient Mesopotamian relics, which made him laugh more than it made me laugh. But just wait for it to get sad.
Piggly Wiggly is already sad to begin with. The cashiers have oily foreheads and missing teeth and they never smile. The tiled floors are yellow even though you know they’re supposed to be white. There are always dead bugs swept until the shelves, and the fluorescent lighting gives everybody jaundice, which Carrie never failed to point out. But the thing—the striking thing, the eye-opening thing—was that Carrie didn’t care. Which is messed-up. Public opinion overwhelmingly agrees that Piggly Wiggly is an awful, hellish place—people want Wal-Mart, people want Publix. But not Carrie, apparently.
He picked the loud cart as soon as we got through the automatic doors. Which is okay if it’s the only one available, but he checked at least six carts, compared them, and then picked the loudest. The one with the messed-up wheel. We went on like this for a while, disrupting the peace of Piggly Wiggly, which apparently wasn’t a rarity because none of the cashiers blinked twice, and he talked about everything he wanted to do. He was about to be a senior in high school. Really smart but really bad grades. He talked about how much calculus makes him want to kill himself. He said number theory made his mind go white and blank and that there was nothing worse than a white and blank mind. He talked about his ballet class and how he wanted to start taking salsa lessons. Then he got started on college.
You know how I said I remember everything about this day? From my bug-bites to the creases in his shirt? I remember that we were in the international food aisle when Carrie said this next bit, with about three or four bags of jumbo rice in his arms. I was going to tell him we didn’t need that much, but then he opened his mouth, and he didn’t even sound like himself.
“Cassie,” he told me, “I’m going to go to Harvard. Or Princeton. Or any of the others. I’m not really sure what the rest are.”
“Okay,” I said. I took the bags of rice from him and put them in the cart. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by the others.
“But you don’t understand,” he continued, standing in front of the cart so that I couldn’t rattle away from him. “I’m actually going to go.”
“I’m going to be a lawyer.”
“I’m going to be president.”
“Good for you.”
Carrie laughed. He always found my lack of interest hilarious. Then he paused.
“But seriously, Cassie. Do you think I could actually do it?”
“Good. That’s what I wanted to hear. Because I’m going to do it anyway.”
That was the thing about Carrie. He always did anything anyway. He started smoking weed after a life skills class in middle school. He took ballet classes at the YMCA because Mama told him it was gay for boys to dance. He drank the whole goblet of wine during communion because Shannon was sitting in the front pew and giving him a very particular look. He wore a middle school VBS shirt ironically because Mama told him to get rid of it.
(Maybe he killed himself because people kept telling him not to.)
“I think you could do it,” I burst out suddenly.
He stopped, surprised, with a can of beans in each hand. His mouth opened but nothing came out, which was unusual for him, and then he just turned around and started pulling the cart after him like nothing had happened. He ignored what I said, which was probably best. I mean, I didn’t know why the hell I’d said it in the first place.
For the rest of our Piggly Wiggly excursion, we didn’t talk about it. We joked about the off-brand cereal bags and a can of Spam that expired in 2012. He told me what to expect out of freshman year. I talked about how I wasn’t planning on doing any extracurriculars ever, which he said was probably best for somebody like me. Then he gave me a list of classes to skip.
The entire time, though, he seemed—a little different. And it was all because of what I said, even if I only half-meant it.
No, I didn’t half-mean it. I whole-meant it.
I think you could do it. Those were my exact words, right? Six of them, to be precise, and they weren’t said with any special fervor or passion. Everything that comes out of my mouth is flat. They were just words I said because I looked at him and figured he was annoying enough to harass Princeton or whatever into accepting him. And the worst part is I really thought he could. I really thought he could make it for some reason in that moment, surrounded by international foods in an abandoned Piggly Wiggly aisle.
But you’re still waiting for the sad part, aren’t you?
Here’s the thing. The sad part isn’t a sad part. We just got our groceries and went to the check-out line and waited behind a guy in camouflage overalls. We just stood in silence as the cashier scanned our bags of rice and we never talked about what I said again. Because in stories like these, there are no such things as technicalities. There are no turning-points; there are no clear progressions from happiness into sadness. There’s just a Piggly Wiggly strip mall and my older brother. There’s just the phrase I think you could do it and a body found on a bathroom floor the following evening.
So when I think about Carrie being dead, and lying in a casket, and no longer laughing, I think about that June night. Beneath the awful fluorescent lights. His constellation of pimples is pretty noticeable and I hate his shirt, too. But it still ruins me—absolutely destroys me—to think about the day before he killed himself, because for a brief second I sort of believed in him, and I thought he could go to Princeton, and he was happy.
Yeah. The saddest part is that he was happy.