Eric Boehling Lewis
Issue No. 7 – March 2015
One thing about being a grownup, you forget how mean some kids are. The principal at Jeremy’s school calls and says, Your son has been suspended for stabbing Martin Rooney in the shoulder with a pencil, and I’m like, My son? Are you sure?
I go pick him up from the dean’s office because apparently he’s not even allowed to finish out the day, and Jeremy’s left eye is swollen and I ask, What in the Christ happened? And the dean says, all official, like a lawyer, Allegedly some bullying transpired in the locker room when they were changing for P.E. This is the public school system with their ridiculous blanket policies, and any fighting is an automatic suspension even if it was in self-defense. I flip the dean the bird on our way out, and he just sits there shaking his head.
On the way home, I stop at 7-11 and buy us a couple Slurpees to show I’m not pissed. Poor Jeremy is still in full-on mope mode, so I tell him he can have anything he wants from the magazine rack and without even browsing he springs for Guns & Ammo. Immediately, I think, Oh shit, potential Columbine kid in the works, redirect, redirect. So very casually I ask if he noticed the video game mags, the muscle mags, even the Maxim-type mags that Lydia would definitely not approve of. He’s like, Nope, this one, final answer.
The drive home is silent and ranks as one of the more awkward car rides of my life, right up there with the time I pulled my wang out for Tammy Delrico and she was like, No, Kyle, I seriously just needed a lift from work.
When we get home, I nuke some Easy Mac for the J-man and then am like, J-man, guard the castle while I go pick up your moms. Except I don’t pick her up. Lydia knows to take the bus if I’m not at the hospital by four-fifteen, so I head over to Tom Rooney’s place.
Tommy and I went to school together. He was always Mr. Popular and a real smug dickhole. I’m guessing the apple didn’t fall far. His house is this enormous tri-level in Wellesley with concrete lions out guarding the stoop as if it were a museum or something. I park my truck on his immaculate lawn and sit there revving the engine, which creates all this rank smoke on account of my bad muffler.
Tom rushes out of the house waving both arms and yelling to stop it, so I cut the engine and ask him where his son gets off picking on a kid half his size. At which point, Martin comes out on the porch and is wearing a sling and looks like he’s been crying. I’m about to say something like, Geez, kid, tough break, but then Tom’s on his cellphone saying, Hello? Henrico County police?, and I’m like, Point taken, dillhole. I leave some pretty deep ruts in his sod on my way out.
Coming home, I make a slight detour and pop in at Melito’s. Brenda is behind the bar on a step ladder chalking through the specials they’re out of, and for a minute I get this choice view of her can as she’s reaching up to futz with the chalk board, then I catch myself and I’m like, Married married married married. Even though Brenda is a total MILF, I was hoping for Ronnie because I’m looking for a little advice. But I order a whiskey sour and float my troubles past her anyways. Brenda, God love her, is no help. I polish another whiskey sour for good measure and step out for a smoke.
So I’m moseying down past the other stores in the shopping center — cigar store, music store, a yoga studio in the cursed slot where nothing makes it over a year — when lo and behold I find myself in front of the Disco Sports window display, half of which is regular sports and half of which is paintball. I’m like, Eureka! I go in and through the magic of credit cards I walk out with two factory-refurbished Tippmann 98s and a three-gallon bag of purple paintballs.
Driving home, I strategize. On the surface, this purchase looks perhaps a tad foolhardy, what with three out of our five credit cards already maxed out, what with my not-at-the-present-moment being gainfully employed — the things that I know Lydia will rather screechingly point out, her being the more frugal, the more level-headed, the more employed one of us. This last point she never fails to mention.
But I concoct a plan. Before going into the house, I stash the goodies in the shed, then present them to Jeremy the next day while the moms is at work. Ergo it is not just me but the bruised-up J-man she’ll be forced to say no to. Which of course she won’t, she can’t.
She gets home looking all frumpy in her scrubs and Jeremy’s like Mom! Thanks! Best early birthday ever!, and she looks confused but then sees the gear and gives me this look like, You are so dead meat, hombre, to which I return this feeble grin of like, Yes, I am.
Lydia has this ability that I don’t, which is the ability to bottle up rage and wait as long as it takes until the exact right moment and then whoosh, armageddon. So once Jeremy is in bed and I’m watching Leno, she comes in and stands in front of the TV, and I say to myself OK, time to pay the piper. And I do. Boy do I.
Next day is pure bliss. The best part about paintball isn’t even the paintball itself, it’s building the range. Luckily, there’s nothing but woods behind our backyard, plus we’re well stocked with building materials.
Back when I was still working maintenance at Champions Pointe Economy Apartments, we had this like swimming pool-size trash compactor that the residents chucked all their garbage into. Well, Champions Pointe being what we call a high-turnover complex, you can imagine what all got thrown out on a weekly basis. And seeing as running the compactor fell under my jurisdiction, I had the pick of the litter, so to speak. Whenever I’d spot something too good to crush, I’d rope up and rappel down to help myself.
You wouldn’t believe the loot folks toss. In my backyard, I’ve got an RV-port full of nearly perfect coffee tables, statuettes, nightstands, curtain rods, refrigerator doors, pet carriers, you name it. So me and the J-man have plenty to work with is what I’m saying.
We have our best day ever. I sling a rug over the back fence so we can climb without getting snagged, and we set about building barricades and forts and obstacles. You know, dig a little trough and set a coffee table end-up in the trough with two legs against a tree, with a few leg-to-tree nails for good measure — stuff like that. Talk about father-son bonding! Him home from school and me between jobs, this is living. And when we’re taking a breather and Jeremy gives me this combo nod-smile of like, Pops, this is just what I needed, I want to video that nod and play it for Lydia and shout, See? See what I did for our poor, depressed son! But I just savor the moment and sip my Gatorade.
We head back over the fence and start some serious digging for the coup de grass: the bunker. It’s going to be this bathroom-sized hole with little dug-out steps, covered by this old sheet metal sign for Seredni Re-Tread Tires that we found out in the woods.
And then it happens. You know the saying, “a blessing in disguise”? Well this is whatever the opposite of that is. Greeks bearing gifts? Something along those lines.
We get about two feet down, past the soil and into the clay, when Jeremy spots it. The arrowhead. He snatches it up and runs around with his fists in the air like Rocky at the art museum and I’m like, Hold on bub, let’s take a gander at that thing, see whether it’s a fake or not. He brings it over and it sure looks real enough, though, all honesty, I have no clue as to what gives away a phony arrowhead. What I notice are these fingernail-shaped contours where the stone was chipped away. I test the edge against my thumb and it’s still surprisingly sharp.
Jeremy suggests we put it on eBay right then and there, dirt and all, but I’ve seen Antiques Roadshow enough to know you got to get an appraisal first. Although I do admittedly start counting my chickens, recalling how Jody Zachariah found an arrowhead back in ’88 and got sixty bucks for it from this somethingologist, and so figuring for inflation I could be looking at a cool hundred, easy. Which of course I’d split halvsies with the J-man.
I’m about to call the university and then a light bulb goes on like, Hello, college visit for little Indiana Jones here? Never too early to start the ol’ short list? So off we go.
I swing us by the golden arches first for a couple dollar menu cheeseburgers, which is very much a Thing We Do Not Tell the Moms, processed beef being verboten ever since Lydia saw a “Dateline” where they’d found like pig taints and rat fur in some of the processing vats.
Universities are weird. They’re not like schools, where there is an easy-to-find main office. Universities are just a buttload of buildings with names like McIntyre Hall, and since when is a building a hall? Point being it takes us forever to figure out where we need to get to, which ends up being the department of anthropology, in this awesome ‘hall’ that looks like an old-timey courthouse.
In the anthro building, we talk to this total poindexter who’s wearing a cardigan on top of a sweater vest, with tufts of gray hair coming out of his ears and an honest-to-god rat-tail. I dig the arrowhead out of my pocket and he takes it and is like, Oh my! Oh, oh.
That’s all he says for a good five minutes. Dude pulls a magnifying glass out of his cardigan pocket and just goes to town looking the thing over, making little grunts and whinnies and occasionally coughing like frigging Aqualung into his armpit.
First thing he says, and I find this odd, is he says, What’s your address? I need you to write it down. To which I go, Beg pardon? Then he goes into this longwinded bunch of jargon of which I understand precisely zilch, so he gives up and has his little goon or gopher or whoever re-explain.
The long and short of it being this arrowhead was made with a rare pressure flaking technique, said style being specific to the Nottoway Indian tribe. I cut him off, go — Pressure flanking? — and he makes a show of sighing and being put out, and explains how it’s this method of pressing the rock slow but firm with a sharp point, until a little stone shaving pops off, and that’s done hundreds of times until the dull old rock transforms into a lethal implement (his word, implement). And so again, this style of pressure flaking was specific to the Nottoway tribe, or so they’d thought, and if I’d really found this arrowhead in my neck of the woods then this was big doings because it meant either A: the Nottaways covered a lot more territory than previously thought, or B: a local tribe had peaceably hung with the Nottoways and aped their style, or C: wild card.
To which I am like, OK, and you need my address because?
Because we need to set up an archaeological dig of the entire area, says goon.
Jeremy and I look at each other like, What the fug? And I go, Sorry man, no can do. That’s where me and my son play paintball. So if you could just give me the cash for the arrowhead…
No dice, explains goon. Apparently when you find historical junk in the ground, you basically have to forfeit that area, lest you be prepared to weather quite the legal shitstorm. (I’m paraphrasing here.)
Guess how Lydia takes this news. Calmly? Please. She nearly bursts her spleen she flips out so hard. You know that scene at the end of Total Recall where Schwarzenegger goes outside the space-lock without his space helmet? And his eyes bug out of his head and he turns bright pink and his veins swell up like sausages? That’s Lydia’s face when I try cutting the tension with a little humor, telling her there is Nottoway around this dig.
Guess where I sleep that night. Just guess.
By the time I wake up next morning the house is empty and the backyard looks like the first five minutes of Jurassic Park, when all those nerds in khaki shorts were brushing dust off the dinosaur bones. I waste the whole day trying to return the paintball guns, then trying to sell them to Play-It-Again Sports, then going to the driving range and shooting at the golf ball picker-upper-cart until the manager comes over and cordially invites me to get the fuck out of his establishment before he calls the fuzz.
When I get home Lydia and Jeremy are at the dinette eating flounder and cauliflower casserole, and without looking up Lydia goes, Your plate’s in the oven. Then she asks the J-man how his first day back at school went, and he mumbles like two words, and they keep eating, not looking up. It’s pretty clear that the Paternal Unit, a.k.a. moi, is contributing basically nada to Team Nelson. I take my plate into the computer room and sit there without turning the light on, kind of fishing for pity but at the same time knowing I don’t deserve it.
That night I can’t sleep. I’m on the couch, staring at the ceiling fan, and Sarge, the neighbor’s dog, starts barking his head off. I open the sliding back door and Sarge is standing right up against our fence barking like a metronome. He doesn’t stop when he sees me, if he even sees me. He does this whenever coons get into my trash cans. When Sarge gets like this the only solution is to pop him with the BB gun, just on like one pump, to scare him back into his kennel.
I go into the laundry room for the gun, and when I come back outside Sarge stops barking. He goes downward-dog and does this little whimper, staring at some spot in my backyard. Then I see it. Him. I see him. Out near where my back fence used to be, some guy in an Indian costume is standing in the middle of the dig site. He’s hard to make out at first, then my eyes adjust, and I can see every detail of him in the moonlight.
He’s wearing tan leather pants and no shirt and a really gaudy necklace made of little bones or beads or something whitish. He doesn’t have any face paint or head decorations, just long, luxurious black hair. I ask him where the rest of the Village People are at, and he just looks at me. I stare back for probably a good twenty seconds, then I snap to and raise the barrel of the BB gun. He laughs, and his laugh comes off as a threat or maybe a dare, and I feel my pecker shrivel right up into my balls.
I sight down the barrel and call out, This is my yard, Chief.
No response. I repeat myself. He grunts something in a language I’ve never heard. I take several steps forward and am like, Yo! Spreken ze English? You know, Een-glish? He looks me in the eye and then nods toward the dug-up ground. He speaks that gibberish again, sounding upset this time. Then he starts stomping around in circles, working himself up into like a grown-man tantrum. A mantrum. He stops and says something to me, stamping his foot and gesturing toward the ground like, Can’t you see?
Then I notice the blood. At first I think it’s some sort of Indian body paint, but I inch a little closer and nope, blood. Streaming down his right side from a gnarly gash under his armpit. You know how in paintings Jesus has this big wound in his side? This one is gorier.
It doesn’t seem to bother him, though. He is way more wigged out by this tarp on the ground. He keeps trying to kick it or drag it away, but he keeps missing it or losing his grip or something. I ditch the BB gun and walk over and lift the tarp myself. Even though I am half expecting there to be a skeleton underneath, I still am royally surprised when the thing under the tarp is indeed a skeleton.
I look back over at Chief, who is pointing at the bones and making quite a ruckus, and I am like, Oh, duh, ghost.
He crouches down by me, slaps his chest and then slaps the bones — or rather, he slaps at and through the bones, and I’m like, Yes, you. You, bones. Bones equal Chief. Roger. And he mimes putting armloads of things on top of the bones, as in I guess burying the skeleton? Piling rocks on it? Something in that ballpark.
Negatory, I say. Fraid not, Chief. I mime un-piling the imaginary rock pile, shaking my head like Stevie Wonder. The Indian clams up and stomps off into the woods.
I look around and it’s like the whole thing never happened. Sarge is nowhere in sight. Except for my back porch light, the whole neighborhood is dark, and the shy whining of nocturnal insects is the only sound.
I go back in the house thinking I oughta tell Lydia. She always knows what to do. She’ll tell me I was sleepwalking, and I’ll believe her. But I pause outside our bedroom door — she’s crying. Crying in that painful way where she’s basically sobbing but is also suppressing her sobs, hoping nobody will hear. So I head back to the couch and stare up at a crack in the plaster.
At some point I guess I fall asleep, because I wake up and it’s almost noon and the house is quiet save the faint sounds trickling in from the excavation out back. Lydia has left me a note on the dinette. Next to the note are our credit card statements and a letter from the bank. She’s highlighted the credit card statements, my purchases in pink and hers in yellow. Her purchases are things like groceries, a monthly bus pass, copays for Jeremy’s orthodontist and an eyeglasses repair kit. My purchases? Star Wars memorabilia off eBay, a handle of Evan Williams and sour mix, custom bowling shoes, two video games… It keeps going but you get the point. The letter from the bank is more bad news re: our mortgage.
Her note says:
Look what you’re doing to our family. Where is the Kyle Nelson I fell in love with? You haven’t been on a job interview in months, you spend money like an 8-year-old, and you haven’t touched me in so long I’ve forgotten what it feels like. You’re not a man anymore. If you can’t forgive yourself, we’ll never be whole again. Consider this goodbye.
Lydia and I used to be a team. When we were in twelfth grade, she came to every one of my games, always sitting right on the fifty-yard line, hollering my name and clanging a cowbell. When she was in nursing school and I was a nighttime security guard, I’d call her from work and quiz her for hours on the flash cards she’d packed in my lunchbox. And when Jeremy was born preemie, we’d propped each other up for those six hellish weeks when we couldn’t bring him home from the hospital.
I know where she’ll go — to stay with her sister and her husband out in Powhatan County. She’ll have them swing by Tuckahoe Middle and pick up Jeremy. But I won’t go after them, at least not yet, because Lydia is right. I’m not the man I was. Not since the incident.
The incident involves the jumbo trash compactor at Champions Pointe and me accidentally crushing a newborn that had been left in there in a shoebox. It sounds weird, I know, and I don’t want to go into the details.
But then here come the fucking details, parading through my mind like a goddamn fumble-in-review. The strange sound I heard just as I pressed the green button. Or was it just before I pressed the green button? How when I heard the shriek, I froze for three seconds before hitting the red button. How those three seconds probably meant everything. How the cop had to borrow my dustpan to scoop up the little bits that had squished out of the shoebox. And how the great big evidence bag just had to be see-through.
On top of the fridge, there’s a good bit left of the handle of Evan Williams, but not enough for the way I’m feeling. So I open up the medicine cabinet and scan the orange pill bottles. Mercifully, there’s a half dozen Flexeril left from when Lydia threw her back out last year. I chew a couple so they’ll hit faster, then I sit in the bathtub with Evan and turn the shower on full blast. I get the water going painfully hot. I’ve still got my clothes on, and they start to feel like those steaming towels you might get at a fancy Oriental restaurant, like P. F. Chang’s.
It feels sort of good, giving in to all the badness of my life, letting it whittle me down to almost nothing. I can see how suicide must feel nice, when there’s nothing else you can do right. It’s like looking the awfulness square in the eye and saying, Agreed! My eyes shut.
I wake up freezing. All the hot water is used up and the showerhead is spraying pure cold. Getting out of the tub takes a while because the muscle relaxer has really kicked in.
The living room is obscenely bright. Out through the sliding glass door I can see the dig team clinking away, and I realize it’s not even two in the afternoon. I mosey on out there, toying with the idea of telling them about the Indian ghost.
At first nobody will make eye contact, even though they obviously see me. Hard to miss the soaking wet, handle of bourbon-carrying guy wearing a ‘WHO FARTED?’ t-shirt. Then I’ve got the rat-tailed professor racing over to me, dressed like he’s on safari, a big fake grin on his mug, asking me how I’m “getting on.”
I ask him loudly whether he knows this place is haunted by an Injun. He replies that no, he was not aware of any Native American apparitions in the area. I tell him I can prove it, I know that the skeleton they dug up died of a massive wound to the right side of the torso. To which Professor Rat-tail replies they could tell that from the skeleton, and why have I been snooping around the dig site, and don’t I know how sensitive the site is?
He makes some pretty good points, so my only response is to stand there staring at him and finish the Evan in one long tilt. I got nothing against this old nerd, but I am not in the frame of mind to stand a browbeating. Instead of being irate and telling me to get lost, which I know he has the right to do, he tries the old nice-guy routine. He asks if I’d like to see the new stuff they’ve dug up, so I don’t feel compelled to come poking around later.
Turns out there’s another skeleton, this one with its skull bashed in. The pelvis tells them it’s a lady skeleton. I say, This is all very interesting but do you think maybe y’all could show a little fucking respect and re-bury these poor dead Injuns and give me back my paintball course? So then he tells me to beat it, only in that way that pompous brainiacs say things.
The whole thing feels like one big joke I’m not in on.
Apparently there are some scientists who are looking into whether infants feel pain the same as older kids and adults. Their line of thinking is that the brain and nerves are still learning how to work together, so maybe pain isn’t felt as intensly when you’re a baby. Take for example how when an infant smacks his forehead into the edge of a coffee table, it takes several seconds for it to register that he’s hurt. You know how a baby’s face will crumple up like a tissue before he starts crying? That. So it’s not that infants can’t feel pain, but they might not feel it as bad as we’d assume.
My grief counselor told me about this hypothesis back when I was on suicide watch. Sounds like a crock of shit.
Tonight Sarge is at it again. This time I don’t bother fetching the BB gun. Whistling “YMCA,” I nuke some water in a ‘World’s Greatest Mom’ mug, stir in a packet of instant coffee and stroll on out to chat with the Chief. What surprises me isn’t that there’s a new ghost standing alongside Chief. That part I expected. What catches me off guard, and sends coffee shooting out my nose, is that she’s topless. None of that demure Land O’Lakes shit.
I play it cool. I just nod like, Wassup, Pocahontas. The lady Indian has this serene almost-smile, like the cartoon Buddha logo of this one hippy-dippy incense shop at the mall.
Chief is another story. Dude is flipping. He’s even more keyed up than last night, as in tonight he’s not just angry, he’s like tormented, as if he just stepped on a yellow jacket nest. Pocahontas watches him try to lift the tarp, which the diggers have pinned to the ground with tent stakes. Chief moves slow, with the tense concentration of a Jenga champ. For a second the tarp starts to rustle, but then his fingers slip through and he’s yelling again. The woman gives me that self-conscious, apologetic smile that a mom makes when her toddler is going nuts in the cereal aisle.
Chief doesn’t even notice me until I step in and pull up the stakes and toss the tarp aside, at which point he drops to his knees, wailing over Pocahontas’s skeleton. He grabs fistfuls of his beautiful hair, yanking it out. He pounds his chest until his huge necklace breaks apart, shards lodging in his flesh. Pocahontas kneels behind him, wraps her arms around his middle and leans her head on his shoulder. She nuzzles the side of his face and sings something quiet and repetitive. As she rocks him back and forth, moonlight glistens off a wet, softball-size crater in the back of her head. After a minute he turns to her, collapses in her thin arms, and they quiver softly, snorting and snotting and weeping, her still trying to sing.
They’re young. They remind me of myself and Lydia, years, many years ago. She would never cry like this with me now, seeing as I’m the cause of her crying these days. After the incident, she tried to comfort me, but I wouldn’t let her. The grief counselor warned that if I kept telling Lydia to leave me be, eventually she would. And she did.
I go back inside. I’d like to help, but they are being so intimate I feel like a perv sticking around.
It’s after three, but I haven’t eaten all day, so I make Jeremy’s favorite: mac ‘n’ cheese with cut-up hotdogs. I watch late-night infomercials and eat straight out of the saucepan, trying to stay awake. The nightmares were bad enough back when I only had the incident on my conscience. Now this.
Some excited Brit is telling me how miserable I am slicing tomahtoes with my outdated kitchen knife. I sip my cocktail of Robitussin and Pepsi, and say, Mm, quite right old chap. I’m not watching him, I’m watching the wall. It’s flashing bluely, the TV’s light fading down the hallway into blackness.
At the end of the hall, a yellow glow appears in the gap under Jeremy’s door. I mute the tube and stealth-crawl toward the door, listening. At first I don’t hear anything. Then I get the distinct sound of someone turning pages. I enter the room and there’s Jeremy, sitting cross-legged on the floor, Guns & Ammo open in his lap.
He looks up and says, Hey Pops, we gonna play paintball or what?
How’d you get in here? I ask. Does your mother know where you are? But he doesn’t answer. He just leafs through the magazine, stopping on a two-page spread of some high-tech assault rifle. Hubba hubba, Jeremy says.
I crawl closer. I bend down and try to catch his eye. I tell him, Son, I screwed up. I’ve had some rotten luck. But I’ll fix everything, I swear.
Mom told me you didn’t even do it, he says without looking up.
Mom says the coroner said the baby was already dead, and you know it.
Jeremy flips the page of his magazine and goes, Hello, nurse! Hubba hubba times infinity.
Sometimes this thing happens where my eardrums start throbbing and my lungs shut off and the only thing I can do is put my forehead on the carpet and try really hard to breathe.
God only knows what I’ve been dreaming when out of nowhere an army tank appears, blasting its giant cannon or turret or whatever. I try to ignore it but it just gets louder. Then it isn’t a tank at all, it’s a fist banging on the front door. And I’m not wherever I just was, I’m on the sofa. I pop up to get the door, except my right leg is tingly and dead so I collapse on the floor along with the saucepan of uneaten mac ‘n’ cheese and cut-up hotdogs.
I open the door, and even though I see one of Henrico County’s finest, my first thought is that it’s been ages since anyone has used the front door. The whole stoop is overrun with waist-high weeds I don’t even know the names of. When did it get this bad? Has my house become that house, the one everybody else is ashamed of?
It must be a while that I’m standing there thinking these things, because the first thing the cop says is Mr. Nelson? Sir? You all right?
I say Yes, of course, and ask him how long the front stoop has looked so shitty.
The cop, whose glinting chrome nametag says Tangard, asks if I want to put some clothes on, and I take stock and realize I’m sporting some long-expired tighty-whities, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and one tube sock. I say Nah, I’m good, and invite Officer Tangard inside. A few people I hadn’t noticed before trail in behind him — the rat-tail professor, a couple be-khakied goons and a fat man in a sharp suit.
The cop eyes the spilled macaroni in the living room, then squints down the hallway and asks, Is anybody else home? You tell me, I say. We all listen for a few seconds and then Officer Tangard goes, Hello? Guess not.
He explains that the diggers were none too pleased to find their archaeological whatnots tampered with, and he shows me some papers that I gather are a special kind of restraining order — special because it’s not a person but a dig site I’m not allowed to go near. He paperclips his card to my copy of the restraining order and sticks it on my fridge with a Century21 magnet. Then he leads our little powwow out through the sliding glass door and directs my attention to a line of orange nylon ribbon, the kind you see around construction sites, that cuts my backyard in half. Fortunately, the yard goes back quite a ways, so both sheds and the RV-port are still in my domain. If I’m caught going past that line, he’ll have no choice but to come back and arrest me.
The suit, who I reckon is the university’s lawyer, chimes in and says they won’t hesitate to sue me for all I’ve got. I laugh at the notion of all I’ve got, and so does Officer Tangard.
Glenda is the name I gave to the baby I killed. It’s the name Lydia and I would have given our daughter if we’d been able to conceive again. We wanted Jeremy to have a companion. I’m an only child and I never wanted that for him. All the only children I’ve known carry around a hint of sadness which I figure comes from childhood, from being lonesome all the time. I played catch by throwing a baseball as high as I could, then scrambling to get under it. For Monopoly I played as the hat, the shoe, and the racecar all at once. I sent myself to jail and charged myself fines for landing on Park Place.
Lydia and I tried for another. Lord, we tried. When Jeremy was eighteen months we went off birth control, hoping it would just happen again. When it didn’t just happen, we tried the rhythm method. Lydia took her temperature at the same time each morning and followed a whole damn pamphlet full of rules. No dice. Then we took the money that we’d saved up for a second car and blew it on in-vitro. It sort of worked a couple times, but she miscarried and the second one happened late second trimester, which was far enough along that they had to do a DNC surgery to clean her out.
As soon as she recovered from the DNC, our gynecologist suggested exploratory surgery to poke around and see what the fug was up with her baby-maker. The surgery didn’t show anything unusual, except that Lydia’s uterus was slightly off-center and tilted back at a weird angle, which our doctor admitted wasn’t all that uncommon. You’d like it to be all symmetrical in there, but no big wup if it isn’t.
We decided to try one last time, even though we were scared. It ended badly. Another conception, good vitals all the way up until third trimester, then some minor complications, then bed rest. We kept saying optimistic things to each other even though we both knew what was coming. You get so accustomed to bad luck that you can read the future. Lydia’s water broke nine weeks early. It was stillborn. It was a girl.
Jeremy was young and moldable and we tried to shield him from our mourning. No little sister after all, ho-hum; onward and upward! Me and Lydia were good pretenders. Sometimes we pretended so good we actually tricked ourselves into believing we were happy again.
Then the incident.
Bad idea calling it Glenda, my grief counselor said. Better to call it ‘it.’ Which was easy to say if you hadn’t heard her scream as you crushed her to death.
What a way to go — terrified and alone in a cardboard coffin in some smelly, dark pit. No matter how I die, it can’t make up for the way I killed her.
This time I don’t wait for Sarge to start barking. At dusk, I go sit in the grass just barely on the kosher side of the ribbon. Chief shows up in under two cigarettes. He kind of fades in, like something out of Star Trek. He looks exhausted. His hair is still ripped out, his necklace splintered, his chest bloody. I was hoping he’d like reboot each day, but apparently even the dead can’t catch a break.
He sees me and nods. Then he’s staring at my Marlboro. I duck under the ribbon and hold out the cigarette and go Smokum peace pipe? and he reaches out and grabs it on the second try. He holds it more like a joint, which I probably would too if I’d never seen a cigarette, but when he goes to take a drag the light goes out. He hands it back and I re-light it, making sure there’s a nice glowing cherry in the end, but then he tries again and the same thing happens.
Kind of a dick move on God’s part, you ask me. So you can be dug up out of eternal rest and have your soul tormented, yet you can’t enjoy a smoke break? What kind of asshole rules are these?
I give him the ‘I’m sorry’ shrug and flick the butt back over into friendly territory, and then Pocahontas arrives and Chief starts wigging out all over again.
Now that’s love. His own soul being cast into never-ending restlessness is one thing, but his lady? Whole nother ballgame.
Just like last night, Pocahontas is looking finer than a frog hair, except tonight she’s not so mellow. More like worried, is how I’d describe her expression.
Now Chief is royally pissed. He goes to this big pile of dirt and picks out the rocks and hurls them everywhere. Every now and then he muffs a throw, as in the rock drops through his hand, but for the most part he’s got the whole physical manipulation thing down. He grabs the biggest rock in the pile and starts whaling on the dig team’s generator. Then Pocahontas starts screaming. Then I see why.
We are now a party of four. We are plus one baby, and it ain’t pretty. The poor thing was cut damn near clean in two. Its insides drag the dirt as it crawls around blubbering.
Pocahontas stoops and picks him up by the armpits. The little guy starts to peel in half, but she catches his bottom and accordions him back together. She fusses over these little smudges on his face, licking her thumb and rubbing away the dirt. She bounces him and shushes him and kisses his nose, and he goes right on screaming.
You haven’t seen worry until you’ve seen the face of a mother who can’t stop her baby crying. She reminds me so much of Lydia, how when we first brought Jeremy home from the hospital and he was colicky for three months, and we’d both have given a major appendage to stop his shrieking.
My brain kicks into gear. I’m the only person who knows about these guys, ergo their continued suffering is on my bar tab, so to speak. Which is just what I need, even more bad karma. But we can’t just grab shovels and re-bury the remains. All that would achieve is me getting locked up and them getting promptly re-unburied.
I could steal the skeletons — tarp up all the bone fragments and hightail it over to maybe Louisa County and plunk them in a hole someplace and hope nobody notices. Nope, that dog won’t hunt either. The only thing to do is somehow convince old Professor Rat-tail to move on to greener paintball courses.
I run back inside and snatch the restraining order off the fridge. His name’s got to be in there somewhere. The print is small and there are lots of Latiny words like “pursuant,” but finally I find the guy’s name. Malcolm Brinkley. There’s two of them in the white pages but one’s listed out in Goochland County and one’s on University Drive. Guess which one I call first.
He lets the answering machine pick up and once it beeps I start shouting that crazy shit is going down at the dig site and he’d better hurry over here if he wants to save his precious skeletons. Then I hear a clatter and his voice and he wants to know what’s the meaning of all this. I tell him, No details over the phone, just come quick and come alone. Click.
Not fifteen minutes later he screeches up my driveway and barrels around the side of the house hollering to leave his specimens alone. Then he drops to his knees, trembling. There’s enough light from the back porch light that even without his eyes adjusting to the dark, he can see what all is happening.
I hadn’t meant to scare him. I walk over gingerly and help him up, explaining in my library voice that it gets worse and worse the more his team digs them up. How at the rate they’re going, by the end of the week we’ll have some Poltergeist meets The Shining shit on our hands.
When I lead the professor down into the dig area, Pocahontas shrinks away, covering the baby’s eyes, but Chief stalks him, taunting and slapping himself in the chest. Let’s have a look at those bones, I say.
Right as I bend over to pull up the tarp, I hear a sound like if you were to drop a cantaloupe from a building. There’s this almost simultaneous high-pitched whinny, and I whip around in time to hear the professor’s pitiful little parting sounds. Chief has that big rock in both hands. He whoops and sprawls onto his knees and keeps going to town on the professor’s noggin, busting it to smithereens.
I race over and steal the rock just as Chief’s raising it up above his head. I shout something at him, I don’t know what. I’m too upset to process.
There’s a scurrying sound from back toward the house. Then a voice yells What in the name of—? I know that voice. It’s Tangard’s voice. Of course. What’s the first thing you do when some wack-job tells you to come alone? You call the fugging cops.
I’m standing in the muck of the fresh corpse. Officer Tangard barks at me to turn around and put my hands behind my head. I turn around.
Hands behind your head! He screams again. The bloody rock is in my hands. But I can explain. If only the Chief — I look around. Chief is gone. Pocahontas, the baby, gone.
I walk toward him. He’s got to understand.
Get down! he shouts.
I keep walking. Let me show you, I say.
He shoots twice. Wouldn’t you? A crack shot. The second bullet is a waste of perfectly good lead.
Once, when I was maybe eight or nine, I spent the summer with my grandparents back in east Tennessee. One day I was way out in the cow pasture, climbing a lone tree. I went to change branches, reached for a limb and put all my weight onto it. The limb was dead rotten. It snapped, and when I hit the ground I got the wind knocked out of me. The broken arm was nothing compared to that feeling of not being able to suck wind.
That’s what it felt like, getting shot in the chest. It was more a sensation of limitless dread than it was a pain. The dying part, which happened in the same instant, was like a big flash of those trippy patterns you see when you rub your eyes hard.
The cosmic joke is on me. Wouldn’t you know it — ages ago, Lydia and I got talked into agreeing to donate our bodies to science when we died. As in, no burial, no cremation, and, you guessed it, an indefinite sentence of earth-wandering, a sentence that ends when — if — you’re eventually given a restful burial.
So, what happens to a donated body? In my case, I’m a semester-long anatomy lesson at the medical school downtown. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, me and a couple dozen other cadavers get vivisected by sleep-deprived future doctors.
It’s not a bad gig. Sure, my dissectors, Viv and Nathan, made fun of my tiny pecker on day one. They even lopped it off and tried to play hacky sack with it. But those poor kids get put through the academic ringer. They got to blow off steam some whichaway.
At night all us cadavers hang out, swap stories. Honestly, there’s far lonesomer ways to spend an afterlife. I’m making friends. We’ve got this running joke where everybody greets everybody else as John Doe or Jane Doe. Makes me laugh every time.
Plus, rumor has it when the med students are done, we all get cremated and given back to our next of kin. Phalanges crossed!
I visit the former chez Nelson some nights. The dig was put on hiatus, of course, what with it being a crime scene. For a week the yard was lousy with local news crews and police tape, then there was a triple murder over in the Museum District and the place cleared out.
Professor Brinkley’s team tried to resume the dig some weeks later, but by then the mortgage had been in default for over six months and the property had reverted back to Wells Fargo. Lydia didn’t fight to keep it. Who can blame her? Wells Fargo wanting to flip the house and recoup some of their loss, they bulldozed a few truckloads of dirt over the dig and listed the property as a short sale. The university fought to re-open the dig, but you know who’s got the slicker lawyers.
They hired an efficient middle-aged redhead from Keller Williams to sell the place, and it went for less than half of what Lydia and I owed.
Some nights I go all the way out to Powhatan and visit my family. I never appear to them — it would be selfish. Hard enough moving on without Dad’s ghost popping by. Lydia and her sister Naomi and her husband Randy have rallied together to help Jeremy make the transition. It’s a little painful seeing them three parent my kid better than I ever did, but mostly it’s a relief. If they’re better off without me then I have less to feel guilty about.
Lydia has been kind to me. She tells Naomi and Randy and the J-man that the trash compactor incident messed me up way more than I let on, and I wasn’t myself those last seven months, including when I murdered Professor Brinkley. Which I didn’t do, but how could they know that?
There’s so much to tell.
One thing that struck me as weird: I never got this like flash of wisdom, or universal understanding, or however you might describe it. That’s one thing I always expected about death: some sort of mind-blowing revelation that puts you at peace with everything.
Maybe that does still happen, but not until you’re planted for good. Maybe you can’t access the wisdom so long as your soul is still restless. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the Indians were so tortured. Maybe they’d been dragged back down a level. I want to believe that they’re splendidly happy now.
I’m still waiting for my wisdom. I’m waiting to meet Chief and Pocahontas and their baby and baby Glenda, and learn their real names. And I’m waiting to see Jeremy transform into a man, waiting to see Lydia in the afterlife, so I can explain everything to her, including how sorry I am for falling off the map and leaving her to clean up my mess. I do a lot of waiting.
Eric Boehling Lewis, a native Southerner, has lived in Brooklyn for a few years now, teaching high school English and coaching wrestling. He is currently an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College, and this is his first publication. Photo by Jonathan Nesteruk.