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
“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
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.
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.