By Kyle Torke
My friend Angus wanted to die in the worst way. A skinny, pimply kid who never wanted to bring order to his disordered life, he tried all kinds of strategies, from rope hanging to sticking his head in the oven, from slitting his wrists to downing combinations of pills he discovered in his mother’s purse. Nothing worked. Someone was always saving him or calling in someone else to save him. He walked with a slump and had the unfortunate habit of answering every criticism with a wry, “I’ll bullet that for later attention.”
I had another friend, Sarah Beth, the loveliest girl imaginable, with deep green eyes that refracted in sunlight. She died while sitting on her porch, drinking iced tea, at night, listening to the crickets make love in the grass and her mother knit. Sarah had packed to leave for college in a few days and was trying to say goodbye to her mother, but only the clicking of the knitting needles interrupted the back and forth squeak of the rocking chairs. It wasn’t a rough neighborhood, but a bullet dropped into the top of her head, plop, just like that. Sarah Beth slumped out of her chair, as if bending over to get another spool of yarn. Her mother didn't notice at first, and she claims now that the wound left no blood on the porch.
Angus sat with me at the funeral. Despite my wishes and my expectations, the sun shone brilliantly as the mahogany casket teetered on two card tables near the fresh hole in Parkside Cemetery. We huddled beneath a small tent, waiting for the priest, who was late, fumbling with our tears, bending the grass beneath our shoes.
“You can’t see the bottom of it,” Angus said. The dark suit fit him poorly, and it bagged around his shoulders and waist; he must have borrowed the suit from his father. He had been crying, but the wetness did little to temper the brown of his eyes, a brown as dingy as the mud at the top of a can of worms.
“What?” I said.
“The bottom, the bottom of the hole. Unless you get very close.” Angus stared at me as if his words were prophetic.
“Angus,” I began. I looked at my feet, noticed the scuff marks along the toe of my right shoe and a lady bug struggling from beneath the sole. “Nothing.”
“You don’t have a lesson to teach me?”
Finally, he looked away and began to cry again. “It shouldn’t have been her,” he whispered.
“No,” I said.
I am able to wonder now, who should it have been? Standing ten feet from Sarah’s coffin, smelling faintly the opened earth as it began to heat in the sun, I had agreed with Angus—if only someone else had died. But now I know death plays no favorites. A limited good defines the universe and we are allowed only a portion of happiness, each of us a small lot. If we have too much good fortune, too much happiness, someone else suffers. If Sarah had bent to scratch their cat that night, and if the bullet had dropped harmlessly through the wood of their porch, someone else would have died, would have been electrocuted or drowned in their own bathtub, and someone else would have grieved the sudden, inexplicable absence, the voided presence.
When the priest arrived, sweat marking his collar, the heat filled the tent like bees. Angus squirmed beside me, shoulders slumped, and fidgeted with a Band-Aid on his wrist. He wore the Band-Aids to disguise his scars, but they only accentuated his failure.
The world felt intensely vibrant to me. The sound of Angus scratching at his wrist came crisp and harsh like the sound of a grader moving dirt. The color of the grass separated itself from the blades, moved toward me as if a mist, and I could taste and smell the brass handles on the coffin. The priest’s voice receded, and the leaves of an elm, the fingers of a breeze turning them toward the sun, replaced his cadence. The grating crush of a car tire on gravel echoed from across the cemetery, and a tapping I couldn’t distinguish, like the sound of a robin probing tree bark, filled my senses.
With the tapping came a repeated thump and scrape, thump and scrape, that I first thought was my heart, but soon realized was the sound of a shovel working somewhere in the graveyard. The shovel swarmed my consciousness, became larger to me than the tent or the sky, and diminished only when I clearly heard the tapping again, the connection of metal to stone as a name is carved.
I remembered one of my dates with Sarah. Near the end of the school year, just before summer, after we had been an item for three months, the three of us—Angus never had a girlfriend—went to the museum to see a special display of dinosaurs. Sarah and I held hands, kissed in front of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the massive head and teeth lingering above us as if waiting for us to finish. Angus disapproved of our affection, and so we made a game of irritating him: we nudged each others’ hips beneath the Pterodactyl, enfolded boldly in the darkness of a small room where illuminated Triceratops eggs, eerily lit from below, floated like a city suspended in nothingness. We held tightly to each other, steeled ourselves against his presence, determined to keep ourselves pure.
Angus seemed as cold to me as all the bones, curved and sharp and held together by small wires. The dinosaurs paraded about the museum as if still alive and magnificent, but we knew, Sarah and I understood, that if we severed only one wire, the one holding the wrist hinge, all the bones would slide to the floor, and the figures that science and belief inflated would return to dust. But we did not want to cut the wire.
“Rocks and stars and chemicals,” Angus had said, watching the Foucault Pendulum slice between crystal pegs: it would knock one down before we left the museum. “We are a cheap bag of chemicals.”
Rocks and bones, I thought. A room full of skeletons. Angus could commiserate in this graveyard, could probably find solace among all these fleshless, once-living things. Perhaps he envied their staid grace, their ossified fierceness, trapped in a permanent snarl or poised eternally to mate or feed or hunt.
What did a dinosaur—or a body in a coffin—have to fear?
Nothing, not these, forever protected from their predators and themselves.
Kyle Torke publishes poetry, fiction, and, recently, nonfiction - and his screenplays have
won awards. When not commiserating with students over Nick Adams' inability to fish the swamp, he teaches his sons to scan Miltonic verses and wrestle alligators. Gorsky Press released his first collection of poetry, Archeology of Bones, and he hopes his second finds a publisher soon
Top photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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