Rebecca Makkai Recommends a New Story by JM Holmes
“Toll for the Passengers” follows a hold-up in a Rhode Island neighborhood, and a young man reckoning with family, race, and class
AN INTRODUCTION BY REBECCA MAKKAI
I sometimes visualize the tension within stories as a maze of elastic bands stretching from character to character. At any moment, someone might step backwards, pulling a band tighter, making everything more fraught. And at any moment, another might let go. Or the band, unable to stretch any farther, might simply snap in the middle. One of JM Holmes’s many gifts is his ability to pull these bands in subtle steps tighter than we’d think possible, and then — with impeccable timing — SNAP!
His stories, as a result, crackle with constant danger. Sometimes that danger is literal and physical, and sometimes it’s more psychological: the danger of exposure, of excommunication, of humiliation.
With Holmes’s writing, the reader is rarely let up up for air. “Toll for the Passengers” is no exception. It’s a study in escalation, in a situation getting worse and worse, never losing sight of the lingering threat of worst. But the tension isn’t just in the action of the moment — it’s been simmering in the story’s preexisting relationships as well: the ones between cousins, between neighborhoods, between worlds.
It’s a study in escalation, in a situation getting worse and worse, never losing sight of the lingering threat of worst.
Holmes writes here, as elsewhere, with remarkable compassion and intelligence about characters whose own compassion and intelligence betray them. Whenever I encounter his work, though, I am struck only in the aftermath of reading by the deeper resonance of character, and by the story’s craftsmanship. That’s not because they aren’t evident in every sentence; it’s because until the last word, I’ve been too busy holding my breath.
Author of The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai Recommends a New Story by JM Holmes
“Toll for the Passengers”
by JM Holmes
. . . hereditary
All of my cousins
Dying of thirst
— Kendrick Lamar
On the stretch of pavement in front of my boy Dub’s house, the RV hit a car and stuck like a beached whale. With cars parked on both sides, the road was too narrow for it to back out or continue moving forward. My cousins Isaac and Z looked into the spring dusk that stretched fingers of light onto the porch, bearing witness to the failed escape. Maybe that’s what vexed Isaac. Maybe he wouldn’t have pressed the issue if the boys inside had just acted like men and approached us about it, anyone about it. Isaac was only twenty-six, but he’d been a man almost as far back as I could remember. His face turned to stone as the RV tried to flee the block and drive off into the sunset.
Dub stayed put in the faded green plastic chair. We were all on his downstairs neighbor’s porch, where we burned Blacks and drank during the day. In return, Dub let his neighbor crash the house parties we threw even though the dude was in his forties.
A few neighborhoods over, on my street, someone would have come out, exchanged insurance info, and sent them on their way. Here, they were too far north off Main. We sat around, talked shit, and drank cheap whiskey with ice, just waiting for some drama like this.
Isaac had turned in the years since I’d last kicked it with him. He leaned over the railing chewing ice. I watched him boil, same way our uncle Paul used to before my pops would calm his brother down with that fathead smile and Paul would cool out. I knew better than to try to calm Isaac down. He’s the biggest-man-in-the-room type character. I waited to see if my pops’ blood would come out of Z. But Z drained his drink and watched Isaac, who swirled the ice in his cup and pressed his stomach over the edge of the railing. Isaac put his cup down slow, pulled his pants to his hips, and bounced into the road. Dub and I didn’t really know what was going down, but he followed quick off the porch into the soft, sunlit street. Dub was a world-class instigator, could turn peanut butter against jelly. Z followed them out and stopped in front of the RV. The kin on my pops’ side were all giants, and Z was one of the biggest. He waved his baseball-mitt hands and stood like a roadblock, big as a house. My steps were slower. Isaac knocked on the side door and the driver finally put the RV in park and got out. One after the other, six boys emptied out. Girls’ voices came from the open windows. The boys wore green pinnies. Some had shamrock glasses on. They looked around at the neighborhood, their necks twisting again and again to take it all in. The sun was beautiful at that hour, but it was falling.
At some point, the church and the bars must have gotten all mixed up. Saint Patrick probably never brewed green beer, and Christians most likely shouldn’t get smashed during Lent. My cousins didn’t keep Lent ’cause they kept only Christ, and I didn’t keep Lent ’cause I had lost Him. Since I’d moved out east with my mom after the split, little by little we let the church go. We were a long way from space and mountains, where I was born, where our family had been whole. We were even further from the house of God.
When my cousins had first turned up on my mom’s doorstep, a week before, it felt like they’d brought the church with them. They reminded me of when my mom used to make Bisquick pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse, with the butter, syrup, and all. Even back then, when we were little, they still ate her out of house and home.
In the time since, we’d all grown the same, so they were monsters too. Z bear-hugged me like he used to and I felt my feet leave the ground, which I’d thought was impossible. When he set me down, Isaac looked at me with his hat broke off, his lips grinning at the corners. Isaac had more tattoos than me, and right before he wrapped me up, all the initials and dates stretched along his forearms. My mom and auntie Gina, their mom, went way back. Gina was the only one of my aunts who kept in touch, the only one of my pops’ sisters who liked my mom. Gina had left the hate somewhere back in Georgia, when her and Pops were coming up, and filled the cavern with breath. She stood big as all of us, but filled with air. When she sang, she emptied it all into her voice and loosed it on the church. I’d go back to sermon just to hear her sing.
The last time I heard her voice, at my pops’ funeral, she pulled notes from a room of tears. Her boys picked up and sang on too. I sat and cried like a child listening to them belt out “Amazing Grace.” They had fixed my pops’ dead face into a smile — just at the corners, like he kept a secret. That was the end of the Campbell men, the men who sat my ass in church and laughed when I called it Mass.
After my pops’ funeral, Gina couldn’t fill herself up anymore. Both her brothers had been taken by her God inside of two years, and still, she didn’t pick the hate back up. She took the reins. Big Momma laid the weight of the family on Gina’s head the same way she’d laid it on her boys and it was too late for her to change and stop laying it. Last time I heard, Gina was fresh off heart surgery, but her voice still sounded strong.
Isaac was wild even before Paul and Pops died, but afterward I think he felt the pressure. He fucked around at a juco, down in the California desert, had to repeat a few semesters of school, and ended up graduating the same year as young Z. Together they booked it out of that San Bernardino heat with thirty Mexican girls’ numbers, two diplomas, a proud mother, and lives half in motion.
When they came to see me, it was near the end of a long year and I was visiting with my mom before Easter. They were in exodus. They weren’t getting good work back west, felt stuck, so they’d packed up to give themselves a shot out east. Gina was splintering under the weight of Big Momma, and Big Daddy had been funeral-quiet for fifty years. Without Paul and Pop’s money, my cousins had to make it happen out here before Gina’s load got too heavy and she went the way of her brothers.
Their eyes were fixed on the RV. When I was little, Isaac told me everyone either builds or destroys. When you get your fingers on something good, you hold on tight. He wasn’t in the business of taking things apart. I still remembered him, the night before my pops’ service, wide-eyed at 2:00 a.m., scrubbing the church sinks with me because Gina said they weren’t fit for a memorial. The RV was sleek beige-brown — my color. It shined like it had just come off the lot.
In the warm weather, things began to melt and unravel. Images trapped in blocks, dragged through from my childhood, came apart in the thaw. I wished that RV had wings. I wanted those frozen memories of my cousins to wait there as they were — Z sitting on Isaac when they wrestled, ants all over our feet in the kitchen ’cause we dropped beans and cold cuts and spilled too-sweet tea and never cleaned up, northwestern summer hail stinging our backs as we booked it out of the park after playing ball. No lost boys. But there was just the beached RV, the narrow street, and dirty water from the spring thaw running into drains.
We stood, the three of us, facing the six. Dub stepped up next to us.
“You hit my car,” Isaac said.
“It was an accident,” the driver started.
“No shit,” Isaac said.
The driver paused. “We’re headed to Boston for the parade tomorrow, just looking for a gas station.”
Isaac remained silent and sized the kid up.
In the warm spring air, I looked down the length of West Ave., watching time sit on the porches with heavy bodies, pushing them into the small yards that swallowed the refuse of our lives.
“The RV is rented,” the driver said.
Z and Isaac turned to each other without words.
“I don’t give a shit. Look at my fucking car!” Isaac said.
A stranger’s black Camry stood on the street, barely nicked. “C’mon, Isaac,” I said. He shot me a look like when we were young.
“It honestly doesn’t seem that bad,” the driver said.
“You believe this shit?” Isaac asked Z.
Z shook his head all mournful-like. I clocked the strangers’ faces. They started to bunch together. One light-skinned with dreads came to stand next to the driver. A group of kids Dub and I recognized from the Manor started walking down the street — Dub nodded to a few and they broke out in grins. The RV boys watched the crowd forming. The block was swelling.
My cousins had been staying with my mom for about a week before the accident. We’d wandered Division in sweats and hoods and white Nikes — camouflaged with the bricks and parks. Since I’d landed a solid job bartending back in Ithaca, I hadn’t been coming around much. I missed the way the spring wind teased the laundry swinging from tired ropes below Dominican banners that caught the breeze and slowly pulled apart like Tibetan prayer flags.
Since my cousins had arrived, Dub had bounced around introducing them to folks like he was the mayor. He had us kicking it with all his boys, some who weren’t welcome in my mom’s house. Each night, after we danced on walls outside the Manor with white girls who didn’t know they were white, my cousins and I would come home and they would heat up my mom’s cooking — pasta with meat gravy, hamburgers, pork chops. They didn’t touch the salad. Unlike my boys, they cleaned up after themselves. Isaac even tried to take the trash out one night but got shook when he saw a raccoon, and yelled, “Oh, shit,” so loud that my mom crept down the stairs, creaky as a motherfucker, to look in our eyes and see if we were high. Isaac ushered her back to bed, Mom’s spine bent more than I wanted, telling jokes because I think he wanted to protect us all. Back downstairs, he called me a suburb baby ’cause Mom had moved to Rumford, but I called him a punk for being scared of a damn raccoon.
I didn’t know what my cousins had done in those lost years, but as the block filled, the mass of faces rose out to claim them.
The frat boys formed an island in the sea — sleeveless jerseys and green sunglasses. They were already wasted but sobering quick.
“You want our insurance, then?” the driver said.
“I don’t trust your insurance,” Isaac said.
He took a step toward the kid. At the end of the street, the last rays of sun caught pieces of tombstones in Mineral Spring Cemetery, sparkling off the granite. The kid didn’t back up. Isaac’s face was reflected in his sunglasses. I inched closer to my cousin.
“How bad you think the damage is?” Isaac asked.
The driver turned his head toward the car. “I don’t see any damage,” he said.
Isaac walked to the car and squatted down to run his hand over a small dent. He paused. “It’s bad,” he said.
Before anyone could speak, he stood up and turned fast for the RV. Z pushed aside the driver and was through the group to the door, just behind Isaac. They boarded the RV one after the other. The girls remained fixed in the back. Z filled up the entire walkway.
The frat boys, in their shades and jerseys, piled in behind Gina’s boys. “What the fuck!” one of them said. “This is trespassing,” another kid said.
Z spun around fast and I thought he was going to swing, but he just stared the kid down until he dropped his eyes.
The dudes from the Manor gathered around the door and in front, blocking them in.
“Relax!” Isaac said to them.
They all started to panic. Isaac stood closest to the girls in back. They looked my cousins over, then locked their eyes on the boys behind, and we all froze a bit, the nine of us packed in with me all the way in the front.
The driver squeezed around Z to reach Isaac. “Can we please go outside?” he said. “Let’s talk outside.” He was trying to be calm. His voice was low and I could hardly hear him.
“Listen to him, Isaac,” I said from behind the group.
“I’m just saying hi,” Isaac said, and sat down next to the girls. There were four of them, all wearing lacrosse jerseys and leggings. They were pretty, or at least three were. The fourth one could’ve used some sunglasses. Her face was cramped like God had pinched the dough too tight.
Isaac turned to the girls and smiled. “Where y’all headed?” “I told you — ” the driver started.
Isaac paused and pulled that Try me look, the one where he clenched his jaw, and his face became lean; then leaned back toward the girls. “Where you coming from?”
Z clocked the small crowd behind him in the RV, arms loose at his sides. They stared past him to the girls.
“What’s going on?” one of the girls said.
“You remind me of Jersey girls,” Isaac said.
“You mean trashy?” another said.
“I like Jersey girls,” Isaac said. “They don’t take any shit.” The scoff girl even smiled a bit. Z still stood facing the crowd and no one else tried squeezing through. My cousin was built like two bouncers.
“You guys don’t have enough makeup on to be from Jersey, though,” Isaac said.
“All right, what do you want?” the driver asked. He edged closer to Z, trying to get to the girls.
“Calm down, Kevin,” Scoff Girl said.
Isaac looked her over and I prayed he’d abandon it all. He smiled. I waited for him to ask her name. I pressed into the frat boys until I was next to Z. Then Isaac slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up, surveying the RV, all the alcohol-red faces and dark shades. He sighed and tilted his head toward the ceiling. He pulled his hat off for a minute and massaged his forehead, then pulled his cap down low across his brow and broke it off to the side again like he was deep in thought.
“Body work is expensive,” he said.
“What?” the driver said.
“Compensation,” he said. “Two stacks.” He looked over the driver at me. “G, tell — ”
“They know what it means,” I cut him off, then tried to make a joke. “These damn kids and their internet,” I said and shook my head like Cosby would’ve.
Isaac stared at me for a while like he wanted to laugh at my corniness. I wished he would have, wished I were funnier. His real smile was beautiful and soft and would’ve broke the moment into a thousand pieces.
The driver glanced at his friends.
Isaac finally turned back to the boys and said — “My car’s gotta get fixed.”
Dub pushed through the whispering boys to stand next to Z and me. With so many people in the RV, nobody could move without hitting somebody else. One of the frat boys turned a light on inside. Night had fallen — the RV still surrounded.
When we were teenagers, I felt like Z would’ve stopped him. He would have balanced Isaac out before he laid into those boys. Isaac didn’t have more spirit than Z, but Isaac had always been volatile. Still, when we were young, Z would challenge Isaac because they were brothers and because Isaac needed it when he got all worked up inside.
A day before my pops’ funeral, Isaac was cussing out the owner of the megachurch for leaving the place trashed, but really because his momma was sad her brother would be eulogized in a place so dirty, or maybe just because my pops was gone and they were close. At some point during the yelling, Z wrapped his brother up before the cussing could turn to swinging, and the rawness inside of Isaac melted away.
Z was more like me. He cooked and sang a lot. He and Gina would be two mountains in the kitchen by the stove, pouring the molasses and cutting the ham hocks into the pan of beans, humming hymns together with gentle voices.
Isaac would sit at the table behind a bowl of some sweet cereal and watch. That was years before he began to mark memories on his neck and forearms alongside Bible verses he had known since birth and before. I’d always thought he was made in the image of his namesake — “laugh” in Hebrew, the one waited for, the official son. But a lot had changed since we were kids. Now, that rented laughter had expired and the energy inside him had changed. It had even changed since the funeral. Or maybe it had been changing always and I never noticed.
Back on that cool northwest night when I must’ve been about eleven, under the stars and sirens, with Isaac’s face knotted from his father’s blows, he rested in Gina’s soft arms while she hummed something so sad that I wondered if we’d feel it forever. That’s my memory, his body slung against the rotten wood stairs, draped in his mother’s arms, clear-eyed and harmonizing with her voice. I wondered then if whatever had happened to Uncle Bull that made him try and beat the life out of Isaac would happen to us. I wondered if the water that strengthened our roots would dry up, and we’d be like Big Daddy, crossing the country searching for whatever work, only to find that we’d lost Sundays and home. I wanted to remember my cousins as they were before, when they were smaller and the world was smaller and hadn’t yet reached through to crack their armor.
Dreads came forward next, took off his sunglasses to show sunken, red-rimmed eyes. His blond-brown dreads looked well kept. Even in the dim yellow glow of the RV, I could tell his eyes were light enough to change in the sun. Our complexion always needs the sun — it eliminates questions. My stomach sank.
“Two thousand is a lot,” he said. He stressed the words like he had come to terms with the King’s English.
Isaac grinned and Dub smirked, getting excited. “Not for you,” Isaac said.
The kid clenched his fists, flexing his long arms all the way up to his shoulders. He was younger than Isaac — forty pounds lighter too.
“We don’t have it,” Dreads said.
“You got it.” Isaac paused. “Show me your wallet.” Dreads froze. “That’s what I thought,” Isaac said.
“Somebody call the cops,” the driver said.
Dreads looked at the driver like he’d just yelled “Bomb!” on an airplane.
“Where they at?” Isaac asked.
Dub laughed and the kids from the Manor who’d crept to the door of the RV laughed too.
“Look around you, son,” one said. They laughed more.
To his credit, the driver did look around. He shifted his weight a few times, feeling how many layers of people stood trapped behind him.
The RV grew silent and the sound of more voices from the street rose. Cars honked and people yelled and laughed.
“We might have a couple hundred,” Dreads said.
Isaac was silent for a while. I got nervous staring at him. He widened his stance. Dreads glanced at me, but I looked away. I knew he’d appeal to me. I got closer to my cousins to avoid it. People shouted from outside, asking what was happening, trying to get in.
Dub yelled — “This is pay-per-view, nigga.”
Dreads stared Isaac down and tilted his chin up. With no words he crossed the space to swing, but Isaac had quicker hands. The contact happened in an instant. Dreads stumbled back into his friends. They held him up. The driver reached for Isaac, who leaned away. Before the driver could swing too, Z had put him in a body lock. “Bad move,” he said.
Dreads got to his feet to square up again but faltered and almost fell down. He had heart, but he was giving up near fifty pounds to Isaac. People pushed and shoved. I grabbed Dub ’cause I saw him cock his fist back. Dreads’ friends held him under his arms to keep him from slumping.
Isaac stood with one fist clenched and drew one hand behind his back. “You ain’t want it,” he said, lifting his shirt slow. “Don’t be dumb.”
The people from outside were now trying to force their way onto the RV. “He hit him with the one shot,” someone said.
The girls reached for their phones and Isaac turned to them. “Don’t,” he threatened. “You’re cute, not stupid. Don’t be stupid.” His voice had no shake in it.
I let Dub go and we looked around waiting for someone to leap. The air inside the RV was wet with beer and sweat, and the spring night couldn’t press its way to us. We were caged in.
In the bed of Uncle Bull’s pickup, heading back from cleaning office buildings on a cold night, I sat under the tarp next to Z, where the heat came from. Pops was alive and fat in the front and Bull was okay. In those moments, I was black, or maybe it didn’t matter because we were all black and I was my pops’ son. Or maybe it didn’t matter because we were together and headed to Crack in the Box, all hungry. Or maybe we had just gone and were all full. It didn’t matter ’cause Isaac was cracking jokes while our laughter drowned in the jackhammer rumble of the wind against the tarp and our closeness kept us warm.
Now my cousins were scrambling for scraps. Maybe they just didn’t know how to ease themselves into a world that kept denting their pride. Dreads and I might’ve shared some shallow college stories about waking up one morning dehydrated with some dumb shit drawn on our faces, when we stole our friends’ Pedialyte and knocked back out, but I didn’t know what stories my cousins had. Too much had passed. We couldn’t pick up where we’d left things.
“How much do you have?” I asked Dreads.
Isaac was startled out of his focus. The RV stared at me. The frat boys talked. I avoided looking at my cousins.
“We have to count,” the driver said.
“I know you got two,” Dub said.
“Two.” Isaac nodded and stared at me for a minute, daring me to interrupt again. I wanted the block to push off my family, and these boys to leave my city, and my cousins to find space somewhere and something cool and sweet to drink.
The RV boys turned in toward one another and took out their wallets slow. I saw some kids try to leave money in there. I checked Isaac to see if he noticed. Some kids pulled it all out, even the crumpled singles. Isaac and Z were talking low and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I snatched the stack from the driver. Isaac reached to grab it from me, but I turned my back to him and counted it out. The scent of money pulled Dub up close to me. I could smell his hair grease as I straightened the bills. My fingers were cold.
“A little over nine hundred,” I said.
“Not good enough,” Isaac said.
He reached for his belt again and the driver broke out to hit him. This time Z grabbed him in a choke hold. Everyone watched as he squeezed. The kids tried to pry him off and he started swinging his elbows. I caught the glow from the porch lights along the street outside the RV. I had my phone in my hands. I pressed nine, then one. I looked at my cousins — Isaac ready to swing if anyone touched his brother — then put my phone away. Dub stared me down like he’d seen. It was my mom in me that pressed the numbers to begin with, that’s what I told myself. I wanted to stand next to my cousins.
I threw my arms around Z’s neck. “Z, stop!” I said.
He let go and the driver fell into his friends, who sat him in a seat next to the kitchenette table. For a moment the group pushed and shoved some more, dangerous close to a brawl. But the next moment they realized, again, what that’d mean. One of the kids shook the driver’s arms to help the blood flow back to his head. He must’ve been a wrestler.
“We don’t have any more,” the driver said real weak. I knew they did but said nothing.
Isaac turned to the girls. “You too,” he said.
“What?” Scoff Girl said.
“Take out your money,” Isaac said.
They weren’t shocked and reached for their purses and wallets. One mumbled under her breath and the others were too shook to speak. I came up next to Isaac and held the money out. He watched the four girls fidget for a long time. As Scoff Girl handed him the money, she stared him straight in the eye like he was clear glass.
Z watched Dreads’ blood drip onto his shirt from his busted lip. In the dim light of the RV, I could see the gash in Isaac’s knuckle pool red and snake down his fingers. Dreads said something through his swelling mouth. I heard only gentle waves, or water, or maybe it was just the hum of the city turning on lights in the night — currents of electricity burning to get away. The narrow street glowed orange. I held the money out to Isaac once more, but he acted like he didn’t see, stayed still. Scoff Girl pulled out her phone on the sly and he slapped it out of her hand. She stopped talking. The frat boys slunk into themselves. Z’s stone face had broken at last. He looked tired and sad. The money clammed a little in my hands.
Finally I stepped toward Isaac. “Cuz, you took this shit far enough,” I whispered.
Our eyes locked for a minute. He smiled, but with something sinister to it. Not the way he smiled when we used to sneak into the fridge and eat pinches of coleslaw on Saturday nights before the church cookout.
“Money’s money” was all he offered.
I wanted to rip the bills and scatter them around the RV. Instead, I held the wad at shoulder height and dropped it. The bills started to fall to the ground. Some caught the air and wobbled.
“You crazy?” Dub said like the money was his.
When they reached the floor, Isaac stooped suddenly, began scooping up the bills in a frenzy, making sure none got lost behind feet or in the dimness. Just as quick, he stood up, straightening himself again. He patted his hand on my face. “You’re lucky you family,” he said.
I stood between the kids and my cousins. Dreads’ mouth was swelling awful. His eyes averted. I went to speak but froze. The drama washed over. I started pushing my way through the RV. Z reached out to grab me, but I was gone. Outside, I made my way through the Manor crowd. More people had gathered. They asked me questions, but I ignored them.
The night was gentle. I walked Lorraine until it met Mineral Spring and kept walking. Under the streetlights, a boy with soft hair and brown skin pushed a plastic car down one of the cracked driveways. I wondered who his parents were. What world of stories they spun around him. Maybe his aunt told him, like mine told me, One drop makes you colored, child, and don’t forget it. He wasn’t old enough to disbelieve it. He wasn’t old enough to believe it wasn’t about that or be convinced that it was. He probably just laughed and smiled while his aunt dragged her long red nails through his mane, turning his hair into braids. But that was my aunt, and my hair was too fine to hold the braid for long. Maybe he had never heard those words. Maybe he wouldn’t need them. The breeze blew and I felt the cool air coming with stories mixed up in it. It was earlier back west and I hoped that Gina was singing —
Hop in that water
and pray that it works.