FEATURED STORY: “THE BOY IN THE HIGH-TOP CONVERSES” BY DAVON LOEB
The Boy in the High-Top Converses
There are a pair of high-top Converses at Four-Points intersection dangling off the telephone wires. The sneakers were white once but aren’t anymore, just a washed-out gray, heavier from soaking up however many rains that came through since they first landed there. The sneakers don’t even swing because of those rains, but rest, a bit lopsided. The tops are tattered, and the eyelets and the logo patches are missing, and the rubber soles barely hold onto what’s left of the stitching, and the sneakers sort of look like birds hanging from off the wires.
The kids younger than me believed those birds watched them when they passed by on their bikes—and these kids, who didn’t know the real story of the boy who supposedly put them there, said how the shadow of the sneakers was the bird’s body. The Murder Bird, they called it. The Murder Bird’s beak, which was really the break in the soles and the sneakers, was open, and they thought the bird was hungry and would follow them home and eat them in their sleep if they rode underneath it. They called it the Murder Bird because they learned in school about a murder of crows, and it sounded scary, so it stuck. And so, when they rode their bikes by Four-Points, they avoided the sneakers like avoiding a black cat, or the underside of a ladder, or a broken mirror. But the older kids and me, who knew the real story, were not afraid and always rode underneath those sneakers, even if we couldn’t recall who threw the high-top Converses up there. Maybe the kid’s brother, maybe his parents, maybe—the biggest speculation—was that it was him, the boy, who lost his sneakers some time ago.
Four-Points was the place in our town where something happened in a place where nothing happened. An intersection comprised of four of the busiest roads met at four traffic lights and four stop signs. Alongside the road were few houses and mostly what was left of the Pine Barrens, what was yet to be suburbanized. Driving through the traffic light was easy when it was green but gauging the red light that switched too fast even if a car was almost through the intersection and speeding at fifty miles per hour, was the danger. The yellow caution light never switched, just from green to red, in an instant. Not noticing a left-hand or right-hand turn was common so was the slam of a horn or skid of brakes that routinely disrupted the silence in our small town where nothing ever seemed to happen.
But what happened here was like any other day, an autumn day, when we got out of school at three and did what we always did and arrived home from the bus stop and rushed inside and threw our bookbags in the mud room and grabbed our favorites snacks and, before leaving, told our moms and dads and grandparents and whatever might have been home that we’d be back before dark, and our whoever was home would say to return before the street light turned on, and we agreed and left the way we came, back out of the mouths of our garages, and we walked our bikes and got on our bikes and then rode our bikes—pumping our adolescent legs with jubilation—with ease, with an ordinariness.
We met where we always met, at the Wawa convenience store, which was the only convenience store in town and was located between and in front of two farms—and when approaching the Wawa, the overarching irrigation systems could be heard because they were running later in the day. When we got there and had caught our breath from whatever different direction we came, a couple of us went in and bought Gatorades, Warhead candies, bags of Doritos, soft pretzels, and that one kid who was thin but ate a damn lot, would get a jumbo hot dog. Then, we paraded out, parked ourselves on our bikes in the back of the parking lot and watched the lazy farmland do nothing, and we passed around whatever we had to share, and we talked some, about what—it never mattered, but we talked freely—eff this and eff that and it’s all good, dudes.
But one kid was missing, and since we always met after school at the Wawa, we worried about him some, but since our parents had cell phones and we didn’t, we just sat there—taking in the brisk autumn afternoon—the breeze that smelled like cider but also like mulch and manure—like what it smelled like when the county farm came to town, and we ate apple cider donuts and rode miniature horses. We thought about the homework that we knew we had to complete later, the packet our old math teacher assigned and some book about an old man in the sea. And while we sat there and took on the day, the sun watched us; it peered over the corn husks in the distance; it warmed the peach fuzz hairs on our black, brown, and pale arms, and we stuck around, waiting for that boy who was missing from the bunch.
He had a farther ride than the rest of us. He lived on a five-acre property about three miles from the Wawa, but still, he was always the first at the Wawa—still catching his breath and kneading the knots out his thighs by the time the rest of us got there. He’d smirk, showing the glint of his braces and say, “If you’re not first, your last,” his favorite line from his favorite movie. He had to ride through Four-Points, which, sometimes kids would often do, but our parents didn’t prefer it because the road was busy and all the car collisions. It was the shorter route and riding through the neighborhoods was safer, but he never minded and liked pedaling against the quickly moving vehicles.
Before he left, his mom would have reminded him to wear his helmet, and he would have told her he was going to wear it and would have given her a kiss, and he would have left out of the garage, grabbed his helmet that still had the consolation of star stickers stuck to it, the ones his parents awarded him every time he rode down their long meandering driveway without his training wheels. He would have held his helmet in both hands and really thought about putting it on, that it was the right thing to do, and he was the right-thing-to-do kind of kid, but he knew he wasn’t going to wear it because kids his age didn’t wear helmets anymore. So he straddled his bike like one of those wranglers mounting a horse—like the ones he remembered watching with his mom on Turner Classics and looped and snapped his helmet on one of the bike’s handlebars.
At Four-Points, he would have rested his legs at one of the four stop signs. The sun would have cooled some sweat that stuck to his dark-colored hair. He would have heard the trills of birds calling each other from the far reaches of some high pine trees, and the trucks and cars would have whizzed by because the traffic light in front of him would have been green. He would have smiled big and tasted that sweat on his lip. He would probably be thinking of his friends that were waiting for him at the Wawa and would be excited to beat us there again. He would have a list of snacks he’d buy, even though he snagged a cheese stick from the fridge in the garage before leaving and wasn’t really hungry. Just something about being at the Wawa with his friends made him hungry, like the Pavlov’s dog study he learned about in school.
He liked being present and would have taken in the moment before the traffic light turned red—would have noticed everything around him, the way he was surrounded by nature, which he loved—loved how he grew up in a place that always felt like being lost in wilderness but always found. He could ride these roads at night with his eyes closed and know where he was going, even Four-Points, which he sometimes did but didn’t tell anyone, especially his mother. She didn’t like when he took Four-Points, and he struggled to lie to her because his lip would quiver. He loved his mom, but he was a kid and wasn’t afraid of a little danger.
He would have pushed one high-top Converse sneaker against one pedal and began to drive the other sneaker and continue this with complete muscle memory. He would have had no second thought about traversing across the busy road because he’d done it a hundred times before, and he would have looked both ways, like his parents told him when he was first learning to ride his bike—but by the time he did look both ways before crossing that busy intersection, by the time the traffic light was turning from green to red, that when his bike began to gain momentum from the churning of his legs—that then is when the truck landed on him.
We were still at the Wawa when we heard the wail of sirens and saw the parade of emergency vehicles soar past us. In the foreground, the sun was shrinking and sinking behind the cornfields, and we thought about our friend, who wasn’t there—that maybe he was grounded, and his mom wouldn’t let him out—maybe he was sick from kissing that girl, caught Mono or something—whatever the reason, we didn’t linger on the thought too long because we were more worried about the streetlights coming on soon, and our parents would be pissed, and the one by the Wawa was flickering, and zapping of some bugs that flew near it.
It seemed the smells of cider, mulch, and manure were dissipating now and something else, like fire, was taking over the brisk autumn air. The sun was being pulled down below the pine tree line and looked like a cracked egg in the sky—that sky that was turning colors, that sky that was enveloping the light, that sky that was a blot of dark paint and was absorbing the other saturated colors, that sky that held on to those birds but had just let them go, and those birds that were once trilling, stopped and flew away. Only sirens could be heard, and the buzz of the Wawa’s streetlight that stretched above us as if some mighty scythe, and so we rode our bikes without coasting, just pumping our legs like pistons.
* * *
The high-top Converses were not the Murder Bird, were not even birds, and were more than just shoes dangling there on the right-hand side of Four-Points intersection by the stop sign where our friend was hit by a truck. Those sneakers were a memorial and rested above the actual memorial, where the kid’s family and friends left flowers in front of small wooden crucifix. We didn’t know if those were the sneakers he wore when he died, but we assumed it—that his sneakers landed up there after the truck struck him—that if we could actually pull them down, get a look inside, that we’d have the evidence—that there is something still in there—but we also thought that maybe we were wrong, that maybe if those didn’t land up there then who could have been the one to toss his sneakers over the telephone wire, and what if it was him—what if he was the one who threw his high-top Converses over the telephone wire as if to tell us to remember him, his ghost, that’s what twelve-year-old kids speculated—and though we were almost teenagers and weren’t afraid of things like ghosts or the Murder Bird, we were afraid of what happened to him—that it could happen to us—that his high-top Converses were a message, a warning.
Davon Loeb is the author of the memoir The In-Betweens (West Virginia University Press, 2023). He earned an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University-Camden. Davon is an assistant features editor at The Rumpus. His work is featured at The Sun Magazine, Joyland Magazine, The Rumpus, Catapult, Ploughshares