Briar, Blackberry, and Brian
by Patrick J. Higgins, Jr.

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award -- Upper Division


Brian was a childhood friend of mine, but he was one among a group of many neighborhood kids. We were rural children who spent most of our days in the woods and fields. He was always the one person who I knew I could never be. Through his acts of perversion, however, he gave me the limits of behavior and emotion that helped me establish who I am today. He was my childhood "other."


I slipped into the field, past the construction workers on their lunch break. They were building the school I would go to next year. Construction debris lay in the way of the trail. It was an old path that had been there for what seemed like a thousand years, probably since the "olden days" when my grandma was young. They were constructing the gym where I would play kick-ball; it cut right across the trail. That wasn't right.

Brian and I had made it past the "guards" and crossed the brook into the old grazing field, now overgrown with sumac and timothy grass. We pretended not to see the neon-orange "Private Property" signs when we scaled the first of several rock walls. Each sign was loosely hinged and dimpled with bird shit from moonshine-sipping farmers. We didn't really like each other, Brian and I. He was a future hoodlum, always causing some kind of trouble for the neighborhood. He would shoot kids with his BB gun, stick firecrackers in frogs, and exhibit the traits of a future sado-masochist. But he knew the whereabouts of the forbidden place the older kids never used to take me to. He'd been to the old junkyard, and I had no choice but to put up with him until we were there.

I could tell the path wasn't as well worn as it had been in the past; the brush shrouded areas of small refuse deposits where the original boundaries had once been. It must have been a superhighway for trash disposers in past years. As I smiled at the thought of the demolition derby cars that I might find there, and the possibility that one of them might work, my pace quickened.

Brian ran ahead to chase the cows lounging under a shade tree in the middle of the next alfalfa field, and I walked in the early afternoon sauna of northern New Jersey. As a seven-year old, nothing excited me more than to throw rocks at junk-car windows, or forage through age-old refuse, hopefully finding that old chest with the hidden treasure map. The world was a place of hopeful trap doors, and I could only wish that I would enter one of them like in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I fully expected the junkyard to be filled with such treasures as the Sword Excalibur, or the Powers of Grayskull, the Ark of the Covenant, or at least some old beer bottles to smash on the rock walls.

Poor, lost Brian was still chasing cows. I silently hoped that one would turn on him and kick him. I had seen cows kick people before and send them crashing to the ground with welts the size of small cats on their shins.

I stopped to pick some blackberries, which was always on the agenda of any trek though the woods and fields around my house in this time of year. In the summertime, if I was going to be gone all day, I would never think of packing a lunch. Patches of the savory berries crawled over the trails and brushed at my elbows: a painful reminder that it was my duty to eat their bounty at this time of year. The violet stains bruised my face in those summers, and my mom would throw up her arms in mock horror when I walked in the door every afternoon.

"Oh, no! You got into fighting again today! You're grounded."

"Ma, I was just eating blackberries!" I thought she was serious every time that happened. My mom was quite an actress.

Plucking the berries required little skill, but it was finding the berries that separated me, the Juan Valdez of the blackberry fields, from the rest of the neighborhood. The underside of the leaves, far removed from the external briars and obvious berries, contained the largest, most jet black nuggets of flavor. To get there you had to be wily and scar-friendly. By crawling on the ground or stepping on the outer branches, I could maneuver my way into the body of the prickly mammoth, and grab the prizes others couldn't. My arms and legs were testaments to my dominance of this craft.

I heard Brian scream and cackle like the ghoul at the Six Flags Haunted House that made Timmy Kowalski pee his pants the year before. He apparently had backed a cow into a corner between a rock wall and a barbed-wire fence, and attempted to lasso it with a grape vine he had fashioned into his best Roy Rogers. It charged. He fled.

I found the junkyard without him; it was right on the path, just a little farther down that I had been brave enough to travel previously. It fell down into a steep ravine that was absent of overgrowth. It seemed small. Where were all the things that I knew were there? I was sure that there was a portal to another dimension, or at least Luke Skywalker's Light Saber. Yes, there were cars: an Edsel, a VW, and some flatbeds with moss-laden planks warping up to the sky. Someone had already broken out all the windows of the cars, and the VW had been severely mangled from an accident before being pushed into the ravine.

I could imagine its demise. Its two front eyes were pushed up into the middle of the hood. The rust stains turned into blood, and the rips in the interior became slashes made by panicking hands in the moment before sudden impact. They had been zooming around Statesville Quarry Road at daring speeds when they met up with one of those big Earth Movers that have twenty-foot tires. The head on collision left all four passengers dead. The bodies were painfully identified by distraught and tear-laden mothers and fathers. The families, grieving irreparably, couldn't stand to look at the wreck as they passed it in town, so they put it here. A cemetery of sorts for both the memory and the Bug.

Brian showed up and immediately went to the refrigerator section to bust open some of the old coils and smell the gas that came out. It came as no surprise to me when, five years ago, I found out that Brian was serving 8-10 years for possession of LSD with intent to sell.

Somehow I felt that I needed to be there, that something colossal would happen and Brian, the bastard, would get to do it and not me. Brian exemplified for me the maxim that nice guys finish last. He would cheat. He would loosen my hand brakes and then ask me to race bikes down the hill, or always put his thumb up in "Seven-Up" even if no one had picked him. He also had a dangerously strange way of acting as he had much more fun than anyone else. Getting thrown out of class was funny for him. I never understood exactly why people in school would laugh at him for torturing substitute teachers, scaring the little kids on the bus, and not doing his homework. Maybe it was maniacal. Brian was something that I definitely wasn't at age seven, and there was no way in hell that he was going to find something here without me finding it first.

A picture of my Mom appeared in my mind, and I could hear her warning me to stay away from here. She said I would get tetanus. What did tetanus mean to me at this point? Telling me about diseases I'd catch while chasing after the unknown in a junkyard was like telling me that if I didn't clean my ears I would have a potato grow out of it; I didn't believe it, and I didn't care. After scouting the immediate area for the objects that I was secretly hunting for, I jumped off the ledge and landed in the middle of the waste oil section. There was a black mucous of earth and crude up to my ankles. Suddenly, I was J.R. Ewing and had just discovered my newest oil well among the 100 or so I owned. What would I buy first? Maybe my own dog, or maybe my Mom would get a new car and my Dad a new truck? We'd move to Indiana where all the really big catfish ponds were. How would I hide this from my sisters?

Brian called me over to see the slugs he was stabbing with his pocketknife. They looked like sausage links or hot dog dimes. That reminded me that I had to go home for soccer practice and then dinner. The things that I had been hoping would be there, the things that would have met my grandiose expectations, were not. There was no way that I would ever get to hold a real sword, or find my own Holy Grail, at least not today anyway. Seeing Brian mutilate the slugs with his full array of sound effects provided a gruesome end to my interest in this place.

All the way home Brian was trying to push me into cow patties. I finally got sick of it, pushed him into a briar patch and laughed for a second while he tore at his entanglements and swore. Then I remembered that the last time we wrestled, he won. I ducked out of there quickly to avoid retribution. He lived right across the street from me and would have little trouble either telling my parents or finding me, but the former never even crossed my mind; a scolding from my parents was better than getting beat on by older kids. My house was little more than "base" in the giant game of tag or hide-and-seek; he couldn't catch me there.

The very next time I saw Brian, he asked me to go fishing with him, and I went. As if straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting or a Van Morrison mellow ballad, we set off with tackle on our backs for the stream. There were more important things to do at this moment than to remember what had happened even a few days before.

Brian had this great idea that if you could catch fish with worms in the water, you could catch birds with worms by casting into trees. It took us quite a while to unhook the sparrow's wing, the poor creature. Even Brian, after five minutes of falling over with sheer joy and bursting into that insane laugh of his, was a little bit remorseful.

Since it was summer, the river was not the same as it had been when we were here in April. It was calm. We had so much fun playing games in the water that April. Fully clothed, my entire neighborhood bought plastic machine guns and played Vietnam in the raging waters. Except today, I could walk up to my waist and not worry about anything, anything other that what Brian might try to do to me. It's not that I was afraid of Brian, it was more of an annoyance, the kind of annoyance I could depend on happening. After cooling off in the water, I moved to the shore and caught sunnies for a while. Brian threw rocks at bass upstream and perfected his crayfish scaring techniques. I just smiled and fell asleep on the bank.

I have since figured out why all the kids used to laugh at Brian in class, and why he was always such an enigma to me. I am sure that at some point we all became Brian for a few moments: we once threw the chalk at the teacher when her back was turned to the board, or did something to catch the attention of the entire crowd. However, at this time, when I was seven, I was pre-cool. Things I would learn about much later, like acceptance into new crowds and public opinion, always seem to relate back to the Brian situations. He was most obnoxious in the public sphere, and he lived on the laugh. At age seven there were things that I knew I couldn't do, someone I knew that I couldn't be. My limits. I look back and thank myself for thinking in situations when he acted, or keeping my mouth shut when there was nothing to say.

The idea of myself at age seven exploring my metaphysical and emotional being is funny. I could not possibly have known all of this was going on then, but I like to think that the unconscious choices I made then were reflections of the limits I had. I enjoyed myself. My experiences with Brian were a form of church, or philosophy, or just an opportunity to get out and wander.


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