The Volvo was parked at the bottom of the hill. I saw it from far off when I was driving on the highway. It stood out. Most people park in their driveways. Usually a car like that is either abandoned or has a for sale sign on it somewhere. I parked my own car next to the Volvo and walked around it. It was clean, no damage. Jo had even fixed the broken side mirror, I noticed. Had it replaced with a mirror that didn’t quite match. But that was the only off thing about it.
“The keys are missing.”
The old man scared the shit out of me. It was like he came from the ditches. I hadn’t seen or heard him approach.
“It’s the darndest thing. There were some keys in the trunk. It was unlocked. The trunk had this set of keys and a little note attached. Are you Samantha?”
He reached into the front pocket of his denim overalls and pulled out a set of keys. They were too small for a car. He brushed some dirt and lint off of them before handing them off to me. Sure enough, a little slip of paper wrapped around the chain had Jo’s trademark chicken scratch on it.
I’ll meet you there.
My stomach felt the sick syrup of dread flood in. The there could be any there. But the understanding of where “there” referenced was terrifying. My hands almost started to tremble as much as the old man’s did naturally. It was too cryptic to rule out my worst fear. That Jo had decided to end it all. And the cruelest thing you could do to your sibling, ask them to recover your body. If he was dead, surely the police or someone would have found him by now. It had been three weeks since Aunt June had called me to tell me about his flying off the deep end. He cleared out the old house, not just the upstairs, the basement too.
He disappeared two days ago.
The police were lazy. Told me that he probably went on a trip. But then Aunt June had gotten a call about his car being dumped. She was too distraught to look at it herself. I drove the six hours from Savannah. Left at three in the morning. By the time the old man was explaining to me everything he knew about the car, I was hyper aware of my exhaustion. I felt the urge to get inside of the Volvo and take a nap in the back seat. Still covered with that indigo shaded faux fur Jo had insisted on installing.
“So I figure that if that’s where he was headed, he could have walked. I sit out on the porch most mornings, and in the evenings too. But I didn’t hear anything or see anything. The car kinda appeared. Like magic.”
He pointed to his front porch. His house was on the other side of the highway. A blue flat topped brick box with a single white rocking chair on the porch. A sleeping mut next to it.
The little key chain said, RON’S YARD UNIT 9.
The faded billboard for Ron’s in the distance indicated it was two more miles up Highway 60. I told the old man I’d be back for Jo’s car and took off. The highway itself was smooth. Then I turned down Hardscrabble Road, potholes abounded, and it turned into dirt.
Even outside the entrance I could tell the condition of the units were about the same as the billboard ad. It turned out that I didn’t need the key, the front gate was unlocked. And looking around the space, I spotted one single camera. I doubt it was on.
No one was in the little central office. In fact, I spied through the glass that there was a calendar hanging on the wall from May of 2017. The units were laid out in a square with the office in the middle. Only a few of them had locks, it was obvious that there were few clients. But there were also so few people in the area generally that vandalism hadn’t wafted over it all yet. No broken windows or crude spray paint. A lot of kudzu.
I walked around looking for 9. The numbers were all out of order. And for some reason, several units were labeled with letters instead of numbers. In my third loop around, I found it. The door of unit 9 looked cleaner than the others. And it was freshly painted. A dark sapphire color that contrasted the ugly mustard color of all the others.
I paused before I reached down to open it up. Terrified of what I would find on the other side. It occurred to me that it would have been a lot smarter to call the police instead of coming out and uncovering his body myself. I pulled the door up and audibly gasped.
Instead of my brother’s lifeless body, I found the color blue, from wall to wall and up to the ceiling. If I had been looking through a black and white lens, it would have looked like any normal hoarders den. Pillars of junk; old furniture, clothes, outdated electronics. It made the ten by ten cell seem even tinier. But it was all blue. Different shades but all the same root color.
The paint on the concrete floor was still wet. When I lifted my shoes, the bottoms were the color of a midnight sky.
I thought Jo's voice was coming from outside. I turned to leave, overly excited that he was talking.
“I’m back here.”
I faced the mountain of junk again. I looked at the painted wall of objects in my face. I could make out through the thick layers of blue the cover art of one of the old video tapes. Veronika Lake's face, an old copy of Sullivan’s Travels, Mom’s treasured favorite.
I found a gap in the tapes and a ripped up sofa piled high with lamps and stacks of books. I wedged myself through to find my brother sitting on a painted pillow on the floor. From head to toe he was the color blue. There was a single lamp next to him. The lightbulb was blue too, I wondered where he had found it. In front of him was a canvas and next to it a painter’s palette. Very many shades of blue paint dabbed on top.
He had crafted in this little midnight collection of garbage, a cave. It was like an igloo, blocks of old newspaper, cassette tapes and DVDs sealing him in.
On the canvas in front of him, a half done painting. I could see the outline of a familiar face, our mother.
“If you were some wealthy art student, we could put this whole thing in the Guggenheim or the Tate. People would peer in at you from one of the openings in the trash over there. Call it, A Life in Blue. Too on the nose?”
He reached over with his paintbrush and blotted my nose. Thick turquoise oil paint.
I wasn’t going to ask him why. I sat down on a pillow next to him. I could feel a cold wetness that let me know the paint hadn’t yet dried on that either.
I could already hear Aunt June squawking. Telling me he needed to be on some kind of medication. Something to dull his eccentricity. The quality I saw as his best asset.
“If art occurs in a storage unit and no one is around to see it, is it still art?”
After he spoke, he changed the color on his brush. He didn’t look up at me, kept painting the detail into mom’s hair. Her favorite color, azure. His question a good one for an era in which documentation rules over all else. Whole lives swallowed in it. Other lives forgotten completely.
I answered him.
“We see it.”
He closed his eyes. Behind him, I saw the outline of a stack of ribbon bound notebooks. Mom’s journals.
Jo’s face became a cerulean void. I wasn’t going to tell him, not yet, that we had to leave. I pretended we were in a museum. I let my eyes close too. We sat in the crowded blue container in silence until the afternoon. I thought about Mom a lot. He did too.