Brevity Fifteen

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Mineral Spirits

By David Bernardy

We pushed up mounds in the ground where we would have been, the dirt a darker gray for being turned. Three boy graves under three boymade grave crosses, all of us in short sleeves waiting beneath a flat white sky shot through by water oaks. Me, my brother, Kirk, our cousin, Jason. This was back in Florida, in Vero Beach, in Granddaddy’s weedy yard full of sandspurs and black-eyed susans and bright orange Mexican hats. Across the street, the Old Hospital looked back at us through its shadowy busted out windows and glowed like conch in the late afternoon sun. It may have been October, getting on toward Halloween, but who can say? No boy needs a season for dying.

Our graves were castoff lumber; our epitaphs scratched on yellow legal paper and pounded in with carpet tacks. Granddaddy was a sign painter, and we robbed his scraps and stole his tools. Even his hammer smelled like minerals spirits, speckled with drips from his blunt brushes. His pants where the same way and his shoes. He sat on the cool concrete steps working the caps off acorns and watching us knock around in the yard.

“You’re choking that damn chicken,” he told us, meaning we were holding the hammer too close to its head, and he grabbed hold of it right to show us. His thumbnail was purple from where he busted it working. He’d punctured his thumbnail with a tack and squeezed out the blood. When he slammed the hammer, the nail fell through true. One, two whacks, and it was flush. We all looked down and kicked dirt.

He flipped the hammer back to us and went back to the steps to wad balls of white bread for the squirrels. Since Jason wanted to be killed with a gun, he drew a gun on his paper with one of Granddaddy’s good pens. The barrel was a perfect rectangle, and I envied the way he crosshatched the grip. Kirk drew a beautiful knife with leather straps wound round the hilt and a spark off to one side so that you knew it was sharp.

I wasn’t but five and couldn’t draw much yet. I scratched out a lightening bolt without really thinking about what it would be like to be hit by a lightening bolt. I didn’t think about the flash or the color, didn’t wonder if you’d be able to hear yourself die. Later I would use the same trick when it was my turn to be the corpse playing Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. I imagined myself on a hill somewhere, in tall grass with rain falling all around. I am sure I got it from a movie, because sometimes I would imagine it as though it was happening to a dark-haired lady in a long, wet, white dress. The crack in the sky and then the flash. The neighborhood kids would pick me up off the lawn, two fingers apiece tucked under me.

We took our grave crosses and tamped them into place. I remember playing tic-tac-toe in the sand with my shoe. After that, who can say? I imagine the sun went down in the usual way, the drapes in the Old Hospital kicked up in the breeze off the beach. Did we go back inside? Did we climb the alcoholic’s tree? Granddaddy is dead now; he almost made a hundred. The night he died he said he saw his brother, Claude, walking
down an old dirt road. Granddaddy died of pneumonia, drowned in his hospital bed, telling his son he was thirsty. I’d like to think heaven is a long dirt road.

Jason lives in Orlando, now, and does alright making commercials and selling cocaine. I see him at funerals, but even then just barely, Kirk is in Atlanta, and I’m in Minneapolis. I’ve moved twelve times since that day in Granddaddy’s yard, sometimes across town, sometimes across the country.

I called Kirk as I tried to finish this up, but he couldn’t help. “I don’t know, Dave,” he said. “Are you sure that was me?’ I told him goodnight and put the phone back on its cradle. Outside, it’s late October, and the trees all know it. They’re putting color in their leaves before they lose them. It’s not cold yet, but it’s getting there.


David Bernardy was born in Vero Beach, Florida and grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. He studied at the University of Houston and currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, Joni.

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