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Dumber Than

By Lee Martin

A box of rocks. That boy—oh, you know the one. Dropped his cat from that second-story sleeping porch just to see if it was true, what they said about cats always landing on their feet. Bawled when that tabby hit and bounced, lay dead on the cement walk.

Dumber than dirt.

One day in school, the teacher asked him to name the capitol of Illinois. “I,” he said, and don’t think that one didn’t get around—how those kids howled until the windows shook, how even the teacher couldn’t stop herself from laughing.

Dumber than a post.

E.T.—that’s what folks started calling him. This was way before the movie about the cutesy extra-terrestrial. E.T.—for “elapsed time.” Whatever went in one ear shot out the other like a laser beam, nothing to stop it. He wasn’t all there. He was on a fast road to somewhere no one could see. Wherever it was, when he was dropping that cat, or answering that teacher’s question, he was zipping ahead. He was already gone.

Once at Halloween, I caught him soaping the windshield of my ’73 Plymouth Duster. It was broad daylight, for Pete’s sake, and the car was right there along the street where anyone could see him. He didn’t care. He was this big, goofy kid with a bar of Lifebuoy. In a few years, he’d shed his baby fat and become a muscle man. I grabbed him by the arm, asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. He couldn’t stop laughing—amused, I like to think, by his own stupidity and how pissed off he could make me. He laughed until he was crying and spitting and his nose was running, and that just pissed me off more. I dragged him into the house, clamped onto him while I used my free hand to rustle up a rag and a pail and fill it with water. “You’re hurting my arm,” he kept saying. “Hurting my arm.” But he couldn’t stop laughing. He laughed like an idiot even when I dragged him back outside and told him to by-God clean that soap off that windshield. It was the most joyous sound. He laughed like the Judgment had come and any minute he’d lift up to Heaven.

How was I to know, when I grabbed him by his arm, that one day when he was a grown man, he’d take a golf-club—a five iron—and beat his wife until she was dead? I ask you. Seriously now. How could any of us have known that he’d kill women across three states—at least that’s what he told the law. Then, when they asked him for the particulars—how many women, where, what had he done with the bodies—he wouldn’t talk. Just dummied up. Wouldn’t say a goddamn word.

That’s when we got all righteous. Don’t act like it’s not true. Dumber than a bagful of hammers, we said. Now that’s one thing we always knew for sure.


Lee Martin is the author of two memoirs, Turning Bones (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), and From Our House (Dutton 2000). His creative nonfiction has appeared in such places as Harpers, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Georgia Review, and Prairie Schooner. His new novel, The Bright Forever, will be published by Shaye Areheart Books in May, 2005. He teaches in the creative writing program at The Ohio State University.

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