Day of Mourning

15 Sep


1 Jul

The Resurrection of Billy Cahill: Part IV

16 Feb

The Bruno kitchen.  Suppertime.

Shiny copper-bottomed pots and pans hung languidly from a wrought-iron rack and glinted with the soft amber glow of the gauche chandelier.  Who hangs a chandelier in their kitchen, anyway, Sarah thought to herself.  Mrs. Alessandra Bruno pulled open the oven to check the meat thermometer in a rubbed chicken she was roasting.  The aroma of butter and garlic hung thickly in the room.  She carefully reinserted the thermometer and added ten minutes to the timer as Mike closed the back door behind him.  Sarah stood between the grizzled, somber man and his sparkling, startled wife.

“Um, hi,” Sarah offered.

“Who’s your friend?” Alessandra directed at her husband, unaccustomed to having female visitors who weren’t related by blood or by allegiance to the family business.

“Alessandra, this is Sarah Reynolds.  Sarah, my charming bride, Mrs. Alessandra Marzella-Bruno.”

“Call me Sandra.”

“Dinner ready?” Mike pushed.

Aspett’un po’.” said Alessandra, in her best Naples accent.  She liked to speak Italian when visitors were around.  So did Mike.  “Have a seat, ten minutes.  Call the kids down.”

Mike took Sarah by the arm and gently guided her out of the kitchen, through the den, and into a lavishly decorated dining room.  Porcelain dinner plates were positioned perfectly, precisely, around the big table, draped with an embroidered silk tablecloth.  Candles flickered low around a centerpiece depicting a miniature version of La Pieta, the famous marble sculpture by Michelangelo.  

“Ah, I know that sculpture,” said Sarah, feeling more comfortable.  “It always makes me so sad.  A mother holding her lifeless dead baby boy.  I don’t care if he’s thirty or whatever.  That’s her boy.”

“Yes,” agreed Mike.  “It is sad.  But we all know how the story ends, don’t we?  He gets his life back.  They’ll meet again.”

The Bruno children bounded down the carpeted staircase like a low distant thunder.  They appeared one by one, all chattering, all five kids.  They instinctively took their seats at the grand table and waited patiently while Sandra brought out an enormous serving dish of pasta.

Bucatini alla Vongole,” she grinned.  “A family recipe.  Quanna mann’a ca, mann’a bona.  That’s a promise.”  The noodles tumbled and tangled around buttery shelled clams which lay like eggs in a birds nest of pasta.  Sarah’s mouth saturated in anticipation.

“Alessandra, kids,” Mike said, as he poured himself a glass of Chianti.  “Miss Reynolds here is our guest tonight.  I want you to show her respect and true Bruno hospitality.  She’s had a pretty bad day.  Her research was lost in that building fire everybody’s talking about.  I want to talk with her after dinner, see what we can do.  I think John might be able to help us figure this one out, as well.”  He flashed a loaded look at his wife.  She knew what he meant.  

“Yeah, well, alright,” said Sandra, nervously batting back a stray bangle of her curly black hair.  “Matthew, would you like to lead us in prayer.”

The youngest boy at the table, probably eight years old in Sarah’s estimation, clasped his chubby hands together and lowered his head.  His hair was exquisitely parted from one side.  He was darling in a navy blue sweater and khaki dress chinos.  “Bless us, O Lord, for these gifts we are about to receive…”

* * *

The Resurrection of Billy Cahill: Part III

8 Feb

Late August, 2005

Billy Cahill sat outside the South Irvington Mariners Society clubhouse and spit sunflower seeds in the gushing stream of rainwater racing along the curb.  It had been raining for hours and he had been sitting there for as long, spitting his seeds, in the driving rain.  Years ago, he had been a deck seaman aboard the USS Sylvester, hence the neck tattoo, and had spent a staggering thirty-six months at sea.  The Sea rode him like a pack mule.  He reenlisted after that saltwater soaked first tour, though he never quite became the model sailor the Navy wanted him to be.  After twenty years, and with red stripes down his sleeves, he retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer, and a salty one at that.

The Mariner’s Club was not what you’re thinking.  With no water nearby, other than a few shallow reservoirs, the Club itself had become a bit of a hometown joke.  A squat cinder-block cube, sinking on its foundation, with a scree-strewn back lot lined out with a rusty chain link fence. It was a far seagull’s cry from Fort Lauderdale, where Billy had pictured himself in his forties.  A bucket of cigarette butts filled beneath the overflowing and sagging gutters.  The front doors stood propped open with a brick, contrary to the weather.  The clack of billiard balls snapped Billy from his daydreaming.  He was more lost at sea nowadays than ever before.

Of the few benefits of membership in the club, Billy was able to park his sailboat in the back lot during the long winter months.  When the ice thawed in the spring, the sailors of the Mariner’s Club would ease their boats out from their gravel berthing and tow them God knows where all over the state.  

On the windiest days, when the weather turned really sour and the rain hit the skin of your face with a mean little sting, those were the days Billy Cahill would sail.  If, however, the sun was shining and the southwind blew a steady seven or eight knots – ideal conditions for a small sailing vessel like he had – Billy would just keep racking pool balls, clack, clack, clack.  He seemed lost without mayhem and spray.  People in town, not known for their proprietary discretion when it came to local gossip, said he wanted to die at sea and was still begging Neptune for a chance at a watery grave.

Sitting there in the rain, his flannel shirt drenched through to the skin, Billy Cahill weighed his options.  Finally, he stood with his shoulders pinched against the chill and trudged through the gravel parking lot to his boat, Le Beau Vent, a little sloop-rigged Sirocco.  Le Beau Vent was built for speed and, as such, when the wind blew, she felt it.  So did anyone crazy enough to sail her.  Billy lifted the tongue of the trailer onto his tow hitch, pitched out his cigarette, and drove off out of the lot without even doffing his ballcap.  

These were the kind of days he liked to sail.  Days when he could almost feel the crusty tines of Neptune’s trident pressing at his throat.  People said he just wanted to die, but what people didn’t understand was that he wasn’t afraid of anything.

The Resurrection of Billy Cahill: Part II

6 Feb

“Due to the levels of toxicity that have seeped into the ground there for decades, developers won’t be able to build houses on that land for a hundred years, at least.  It’s just gonna be a barrens, a wasteland.  We’ll see.  Prolly full up with coyotes at this point already.”

The foundry is gone now. 

All through the spring and to the end of summer the trucks drove away with steel and aluminum.  The bulldozers pushed up big heaps of rubble, corrugated rusty metal, glass, bricks and cinder blocks.  The trees are turning now, the color of maize and of scarlet.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen the treeline.

You could push the gate open just enough to squeeze through, if you wanted to. 

The wind blows the gate out and in, like lungs.  The gate creaks on its hinges.  High school kids host beer-drinking parties around bonfires on Saturday nights.  You can hear their revelry from my house, when the Speedrome’s not running cars.

The foundry is gone now. 

All that remain are chunks of brick and concrete strewn about.   It’s a wasteland.  Maples and redbuds and young spindly oaks slowly tear at what pavement remains, scrubby brush and littered refuse lay in forgotten murky heaps and wildflowers thicken from the hips down, slowing your cocklebur walk.  The fence is tackled with kudzu vines and a heavy chain with padlock bars the gate.

You can hear the creature sometimes, too. 

The ruined factory grounds, grumbling and groaning in the dark.  Crashing metal sounds, like a head-on collision at a stop light, but more drawn out and it goes on over and over and over.  All night.  Monstrous scraping metal.  The torment of molten rock, twisted steel, in sound.

Crashing.  Smashing.  

You’ll smell carbon burning in the air.  Or your nostrils will singe with the sharp sensation of steam.  If the beast is nearby, you’ll start to sweat.

Yeah, it’s out there, alright.  Past the wasteland.  Past the gate and padlock.  Back there, across The Pits.

The kids call it the Concreature.  On a walk last Tuesday evening, just a casual stroll around the block to watch the turning leaves, Phillip looked up to me and said:

“Daddy, you see that really deep chuckhole out there in the road?”

“Why, yes, son.  I do.”

“That’s what happens when the Concreature gets hungry.”

“Oh, really?” I said. “And what else can he do?”

“He eats anything made of stone.  Roads.  Statues.  Graves.”

“Wait, you’ve seen him?”

“I’ve seen him chewing on the curb.”


“Last night I did.  And he was in the backyard eating the bricks from our patio.”

When we got home, I grabbed a flashlight and darted out the back door, descending the deck steps with a single bound.  I hustled out to the back fence, the fire pit.  Last summer, I had constructed an ornate patio of multicolored bricks around the circle of cinders.

My beautiful patio, with its swirling curlicues and central Fleur-de-Lis pattern, a 40th birthday gift to my wife, lay in ruin.  Bricks were hurled up in helter-skelter heaps.  Most were shattered.  Bursting blossoms of brick dust crushed into what remained of the pavement.  An enormous trench had been scooped out from the side of the patio and more than half the bricks were missing entirely.

A scraping of metal tinned in the darkening sky.  

“…A Lord of Steel and Iron am I,
A Monster in the Land,
And puny men, of bone and blood,
Are slaves at my command…”


Photo Prompt #2

4 Feb

Photo Prompt #1

2 Feb

The Resurrection of Billy Cahill: Part I

1 Feb

“We need to do something,” an exasperated Sarah exclaimed.  

She kneeled in the scattered wreckage, gingerly picking out bits and pieces that were not yet scorched entirely.  She was reminded that it was Monday, but furrowed her brow as she remembered one of Billy’s tired old maxims, Well, it’s Monday for everybody.  Surrounded by what was once the culmination of her life’s work, now strewn and singed in raggle-taggle heaps still smoldering from the explosion, she couldn’t help but to feel that it just didn’t apply, appropriately, to her Monday.

She had hit rock bottom.

Mike Bruno looked up from his cell phone.  He knew she was in pain, knew he didn’t have any answers, knew that he had places to be and people to see, but he didn’t want to rush her.  All you can do, when you witness someone experiencing total loss, is to wait and be quiet.  He thought about telling her of Donna Tonina, but shook off the silly notion.  He was a serious man, he had spent his adulthood trying to prove that point.  Now was not the time to go traipsing after some fantasy, some folklore.

“Come on up to the house,” he said.  “I’ll get Sandra to fix you something.”

He extended his hand to raise her up from the ashes, from the cinders, from the sizzling bits that were once her life.  She took his hand, got in the car, and bit down on her bottom lip until it bled.  She would not cry in front of him.  For all she knew, and for as much as she did not trust him, he could’ve been the one who lit the fuse.  She would need to stay strong.

Keep it together, she kept telling herself, between sniffles. 

The Interrupted Italian Vacation of Frank and Jocelyn Scatterday

31 Jan

Siobhan Walsh left important work, overdue, on her desk in Chicago.

Shepherd Jensen couldn’t remember if he had turned off his gas stove before he left his place in Birdseye.

Ruth Ann Jensen was running late and had neglected to eat breakfast, causing her blood sugar levels to fluctuate wildly as she motored down Indiana-37.

Ben Phipps left a wife in Boston, and girlfriends in several Midwestern cities.

Seth Mooney and Libby Myers were married now, driving a Volkswagen.  They still attended the homecoming football game each fall.  Their son, Austin, had just entered his freshman year at Eastside High.

Juan Diego Luna, coaching high school soccer now, threw his duffel bag in his Jeep and rifled through the glove compartment for his last nicotine patch.

L’Shaun Washington was calling around, looking for a ride.

* * *

Birdseye, Indiana.  Present day.

Shepherd was washing dishes by hand, late, when he got the call and dropped the phone on the kitchen tiles.  He nearly never washed dishes, hated it, and ate out as often as his meager income would allow.  The wrinkly fingers, the calcified mud in the bottom of a coffee mug, an errant broccoli.  These, and others, formed an invisible exo-web of his central nervous system.  If any of them were plucked, or harried in even the most genteel of fashions, like a feather duster, he grew irritable and tetchy.  He unsuccessfully flicked his fingers three times, before shaking his hands, frenzied, to rid his index fingernail of a slender sliver of shaved carrot.  Sweating, his hands now rid of carrot sliver, he reached for the blue cell phone sparking with the staticky voice of his sister, Ruth Ann.

“Sorry, I dropped the phone.”

“Will you be there?” she asked.

“I will.  I loved him like a brother.”

* * *

86th and Ditch stoplight, June 2020.

Derek Scatterday no longer smoked cigarettes.  He had given them up, after countless failures, a year ago.  He did not see the point in furthering his torment with jumping jacks or 5Ks.  He did not drink enough water.  He stayed up late and rose too early.  He had put on seven pounds since quitting and always chose the triple-fat-fucker-with-cheese when idling in line at a drive-thru.  

As a result of his smoking cessation, he had revived an old habit of belting out the lyrics to songs he alone liked whenever he found himself unfriended, which was often.  He sang in the shower, in the car, and while he dressed himself each morning.  It was not uncommon for neighbors to witness stunning performances of Queen and Green Day whenever he mowed the lawn or cleared gutters out of doors.  He liked to sing Al Green songs when he pumped gas, though he did not know why gas stations prompted his crooning renditions of the Reverend of 70s Soul music.  Once, while watching his nephew’s baseball game from hot chrome bleachers, he led the entire Christian Park Peewee Tigers-faithful in a stirring rendition of “Little Green Apples” by the legendary O.C. Smith.

“…And if God didn’t make little green apples, then it don’t rain in Indianapolis…”

Derek Scatterday was a man whom others found very easy to like, though he liked practically no one in return.  He was singing on the day he died.  No one knows the name of his final song, his vocative death knell.  The words, cooed in his sweet usual way, hang in the atmosphere somewhere over South Irvington still. 

The coroner reckoned, scratching his head at the crash site, that Derek probably died at the moment of impact.  A 20-ton Mack truck gobbled him up in his lime-green Prius.  The scraping of steel against asphalt pavement, the shattering of glass, the crunch – no mercy, no personality – a fitting orchestral arrangement.  

* * *

When they were kids, Derek and Shepherd would spend hours together hiding beneath the front porch.  Shepherd was usually hiding from Ruth Ann, who had been tasked with keeping an eye on her kid brother through the summer.  She was a relentless shepherd and as organized as a filing cabinet full of Belgian waffles.  She regulated Shepherd’s playtime, to the minute, and ran the day like a tour guide with her hot printed agenda ever present in her hand.  Shepherd preferred a larger degree of freedom and routinely ran off across the baseball diamond whenever Ruthie’s head was turned.  Beyond the baseball diamond, through the trees, glittered the winding hollows of Pleasant Run Creek.  The creek stunk to high heavens through the humidity of a central Indiana summer on account of human sewage runoff whenever it would rain.  South Irvington suffered from century-old sewage lines, constructed before the town’s population exploded after World War II.  It was inadequate.  It reeked, even on a breezy day, and it was possibly the most lethal public health concern in miles.

Nevertheless, it provided Shepherd plenty of cover from his pursuant big sister.  His head would rise, like a bullfrog, from behind felled tree trunks when she would crunch by on the sun dried leaves of the forest floor.  Large sewer tunnels provided Plan B escapes whenever she’d spot him, or if he gave himself away with an uncontrolled sneeze.  It was Shepherd’s hiding down there, one long day in June, that led him and his sister to Derek Scatterday.  Derek was the new kid in town.  Shepherd and Ruth Ann had seen him at school but no one had spent any significant amount of time with the kid yet.  He seemed strange, which is natural, being new and all, and he didn’t care for platitudes or niceties at all.  He lacked the basic small talk skills that most kids their age possessed.  Derek just didn’t care.

* * *

Eastside High School Cafeteria, 1998.

School cafeterias, with all of their chaos and noise, their potential for violence, their unpredictable volatility, are very ordered things.  Schoolchildren, like wild animals in congregation on some saturated African savannah, group themselves efficiently.  Some, curiously positioned near the salad bar or the water fountain, nibble coquettishly like striped, agile gazelles.  Others, rippled with brawn and protein, yowl and gnash huddling muscular around a centrally located table in the metaphorical sunshine.  The lesser beasts, as the voles and meerkats of this sophomoric savannah, cling to the fringe with their French fries and shakes, ducking eye contact and snivelling quietly amongst themselves.  Derek found himself surrounded by a bevy of brightly painted flamingos, students who, though defenseless, would indiscreetly squawk or flutter their eccentric plumage if the feeling moved them so.

In other words, Derek sat with the weirdos.

He really didn’t mind too much.  Like I said, Derek really didn’t care for many people at all.  He liked watching movies.  He liked listening to music.  Heck, he even liked playing soccer from time to time, depending on his mood.  People, though, he did not like.  He didn’t understand why he had to come to school each day, or to be dragged along to Mass on Sundays with his pious mother, always preaching the benefits of belonging, of community.  To Derek, islands lasted longest.

The weirdos at his table, mostly self-centered, but battered and fried by the subjugation of judgmental classmates for years ad nauseum, didn’t take much notice.  They liked Derek.  They found him stoic and rugged.  Strong.  A dependable rock you could tie a boat to.  Ruth Ann thought she loved him.  Shepherd admired him for his muscled silence.

Siobhan was twirling her cropped purple hair around her fingers and chewing gum.  She painted dark circles under her eyes with mascara each morning.  She pinched the gum from her teeth and pressed it down on the edge of her lunch tray.  For a moment, her jaw hung slack as she gazed across the table at Derek, lost in his notebooks.  She looked like a swirling bruise.

“What are you writing?” she asked.  

It was a question, normally, he would have appreciated.  Normally, people don’t ask questions like that.  Normally, bruises just keep chewing their Trident gum.  The trouble was, however, that at that precise moment, pouring over his notebooks for a particular page from years back, he hadn’t been writing anything.  How could he answer?  He thought her question was pointless and arbitrary.  Just like a bruise.

He ignored her and went on thumbing through rumpled pages with abandon.  He couldn’t find it, the page.

Siobhan kicked out her chair and stomped off across the lunch room in her trendy Doc Marten boots.  Big jungle cats yowled from a table of football players.  A few of them thought Siobhan was hot, but they’d never admit it to anyone at school.  A few pretty blond girls, they could have been twins, snickered as she stomped past.  Siobhan flipped them off without so much as a sideways glance.  Derek didn’t even notice.  He kept his head in his pages and would have been pleased to know she had left.  Ruth Ann bristled.

“Why are you always such a dick to her?”

Derek kept to his notebooks, ambivalent to any ongoing conversation.

“Hey Derek,” the fragile voice of Ben, a freshman, said.

“Huh? What?” said Derek.

“I said, ‘Why are you always such a dick to her?’ To Siobhan?  I think she likes you, man.”

Derek did not possess pity in his heart.  And very little patience.  It was hard to be hard with Ben though.  A skinny fourteen-year-old, he creaked around the school with braces strapped to his arms.  His left foot was permanently turned inward and his spine, early in his childhood, had bent as crooked as the letter S.  He lisped and stuttered, he collected Pokemon cards with a vigilance unparalleled by even the most devoted Gen-Con devotee, and he was perpetually dabbing a tissue at his ever leaking nose.

“Not my type, alright?  Leave me alone.”

“Just sayin’.”

Again, once more, Derek turned back to his pages.  Siobhan was striding back from the bathroom, her face dripping with sink water.  Her mascara streamed in ghastly rivulets down both sides of her face.  Ruth Ann looked up.  Shepherd looked up.  Ben looked up.  Derek did not.  Ben’s eyes followed her across the cafeteria, the whole thing smelling of ketchup.  She dramatically yanked out a chair at an empty table adjacent to the weirdo table, flipped it around backward, and plopped down.  

“What do you want when you die?” she asked, her eyes trained on Derek.

Ben started to answer her question, making the assumption that it was open to anyone, but she shushed him with a swishing of her hand, long slender pale fingers and gaudy rings.  She kept her eyes on Derek, allowing the silence to become abrasive and discomforting.  He sensed her glare and looked up over his notebook, the green one.

“Huh?  Me?”

“Yeah, you,” she said.

“What was the question?”

“When you die,” she repeated.  “What do you want?”

She was bold.  He thought he’d given enough silent physical clues, his scowling brow, that she should know not to continue pestering him.  Still, he could not find his page.  Derek slid the green notebook in front of him on the table.  He had no lunch tray to push aside.  He rarely, if ever, ate at school.  At least not in front of others.

“If you must know,” he began, “I am not one who believes.”

Siobhan expected his dodge.  “Not saying you do.  I just want to know.  Burial?  Cremation?  Deep six?  What do you want?”

This made Derek smile.  He, at this point, appreciated her persistence.  Her morbidity was, equally, delightful.  

Weekend at Bernie’s,” he replied.

“What?” said Ben, joining in.

“Yeah,” said Siobhan.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Derek did not watch many films.  He found them an absurd depiction of life, which he had no time for.  When he did, occasionally, sit down for a movie, he did it in the basement, alone, and never cracked a smile nor shed a tear.  He opted, usually, for the most absurd films.  Hell Comes to Frogtown, Krull, Knights of Badassdom.  If he had a favorite genre, which he did not, these would be counted among their number.  The night before, he had sat through Weekend at Bernie’s and found it to be every bit as disappointing as he had hoped it would be.

It was a comedy film, but he did not find it funny.  He found it ghastly.  The premise revolved around two party animals, Richard and Larry, who throw a raging fiesta in a posh beach house owned by Bernie.  Bernie, however, is deceased.  The film follows Larry and Richard’s antics as they pretend that Bernie is still alive.  Derek, try as he might, could not relate, though he appreciated the absurdity of the plot.

Derek Scatterday went on to explain the film’s flimsy plotline, a few particularly humorous scenes and, finally, that his dying wish would be to have his high school lunch mates reassemble, after years and miles of distance, to parade his dead body around at a farewell party to top all others.  This was a rare disclosure from Derek, and his friends, if they could be called friends, flashed amused eyes around the round table at each other.  They coveted his rare words like uncut gems plucked from the walls of hidden African caves.  Then the bell rang.

* * *

Birdseye, Present Day.

The screen door squealed on its hinges, swaying open lazily to the front plank porch.  The porch was partially shaded by a drooping red maple over the steps, and bolstered all around by Rose of Sharon in full lavender blossom.  Each blossom opened gaping to floury yellow stamen and a blood red fingerprint smack dab in the center.  Bumblebees hung, with good fortune, to the dainty petals.  

A cat lounged in a wicker chair with dirty pink pillows.  A soup can held snubbed cigarette butts.  The sun hung low, sending brilliance through the ruby red leaves of the big maple.  Shepherd Jensen stepped out onto the dusty porch from the house.  He was barefoot, though he was wearing his best pair of black dress slacks.  He scratched his hairy belly and breathed in the morning, deep, through his nose.  Several errant mustache hairs tickled his nostrils and he let loose an echoing sneeze across the dew heavy meadow on the other side of State Road 145.  A covey of mourning doves, or partridges, flushed out from the overgrown field and scattered across the dim blue sky.

His sister Ruth Ann had called last night with the bad news and Shepherd cancelled all of his appointments for the next three weeks.  Shepherd’s appointments were not of an entirely professional sort.  He had never quite been able to hold down a job, not in the conventional sense, and so, he managed to keep the lights on with a variety of incomes.  His food was paid in full by his EBT card.  Food stamps.  He had been able to, over the course of the past ten years, convince the county into paying nearly a thousand dollars monthly in food benefits.  Though Ruth Ann technically owned his house, he was able to provide rental receipts that proved he was paying an exorbitant $800 per month.  Being a 10 percent Disabled Veteran, his healthcare was free of charge at the VA hospital in Indianapolis, a good two-hour drive away.  He had registered his name with a local storyteller’s guild and gigs at libraries and elementary schools around the state provided a decent (if untaxed) income for his life as the perennial bachelor.  He listed his services in regional hunting and fishing magazines as an expert guide.  Bucks and Bass, Guaranteed!  Some high rolling Eli Lilly execs once paid him over twenty-five grand for a weekend out on a jon boat in the rain so, there was good money in it sometimes.  Shepherd made most of his money, however, in the artisan crafting of ornate birdhouses, all sourced from local trees in the Hoosier National Forest.  Shepherd even made his own dyes and paints from various roots and berries gathered on his afternoon tromps through the forest.  He sold ginseng, when he could find it, and morels when they were in season.  In August, he’d comb the hills and valleys for the custardy Paw-Paw, the Indiana Banana as it was nicknamed, and sold them to the IGA in downtown Birdseye.  He liked to paint, sculpt, whittle, and draw.  From time to time, he’d load up his pickup and head north for an evening of charcoal sketching along the central canal in downtown Indianapolis.

It was Friday.  Shepherd could tell simply by the sound of the road outside.  Big F-350s towing trailers and sleek bass boats coasted down the hill toward Patoka Lake, the largest reservoir in the state.  Sadly, the birdsong of Birdseye quieted of a weekend due to the influx of loud campers and fishermen from Bloomington, from Bedford, from Indianapolis, from Louisville and beyond.  Rabbits, munching golden clover around the base of the porch, at the seeming behest of the lazy pillow cat, sat unbothered from Monday through Friday morning.  When the road rumbled as the Friday grew longer, however, the rabbits would warren and vanish.  Shepherd liked his woodsy respite.  Liked the quiet of it.  The serenity.  He never knew what he was missing when he was growing up in urban Indianapolis.

In his backwoods bachelor pad, he was at liberty to write whenever the feeling struck him, to read whatever trashy novel or magazine he might pick up (several of which were strewn through every room of the house:  Wes Jessop cowboy pulps, mostly), he never had to wear a shirt or shoes if he didn’t want to and he never had to ask about bringing in a new animal.  Shepherd had his horse, Cisco, tied up to the back porch for short trips into the nearby towns of English and Floyd’s Knobs , and half a dozen dogs slept the long days beneath an old oil tank back by the treeline behind the house.  He had been known to nurse the occasional raccoon or possum baby back to health, and a few of them still made regular nightly visits for the little saucer of cut fruit Shepherd would leave at the base of the big maple.

Inside the swinging screen door, still whining on its hinges with each warm summer breeze, the little RCA television fizzled and flipped.  The picture had never been very good on the set, but it hadn’t cost him much in the first place.  He was reviewing the film, Weekend at Bernie’s, which he had not watched in years.  Since high school, probably.

* * *

Indianapolis, modern day.

Frank and Jocelyn Scatterday cut short their long-awaited Italian holiday when they arrived in the seaside town of Castellamare di Stabia, south of Naples, and were informed by a kindly old gentleman at the desk of the Lions Hotel that their only son had been killed in a car accident in America.  Frank bit his lip and allowed his shoulders to quaver.  Jocelyn collapsed in the lobby clinging to her husband’s pant legs.  

After a few phone calls, they arranged for a private driver to take them directly back to Fiumicino Airport in Rome.  The drive took three hours and no words were spoken.  The only break in the oppressive silence came from the windows being mildly cracked so the driver could occasionally smoke.  His name was Massimo.  He had asked them if it would be okay.  They hadn’t answered.  He lit his first cigarette when they left Campagna and no one said a word.

Frank and Jocelyn sat in opposite corners of the back row of coach seating once they had boarded.  It was the result of the last minute reservation alteration.  They didn’t seem to mind.  Grief is personal, even if you’ve been married for thirty years.  Frank’s grief came in waves of anger, irritation.  Jocelyn just whimpered and crumpled against the oval window in the concave wall of the plane.  They landed in Boston or Minneapolis, not that they noticed, and were soon sitting next to each other again on a little puddle-jumper back to Indianapolis.  After an hour of rigid silence, Frank took Jocelyn’s hand in his own and squeezed three pumps.

“Once everything is arranged,” she said, looking up at her husband with heavily-watered eyes, “we should see if maybe we could contact his co-workers and friends.  They might want to come say their last respects.”

“Derek didn’t have any friends, hon.”

“Oh, don’t say that, Frank.  He must’ve had someone.”

“What do we do about his Facebook page?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“They just stay up forever, don’t they?  Or…goddamit, who do we contact to get it removed?  I don’t want it up, saying he’s alive, we’ll get calls.  It will hurt forever.”

* * *

Chicago, present day.

Siobhan Walsh strode into the office breakroom, slid into a plush armchair, unbuttoned her stone-washed jeans jacket, and let out a long sigh.  Brian and Rex, the gay couple with whom she worked in the Marketing department at Adventure Logistics were holding hands while they shared a bowl of kimchi noodles.  They were disgustingly cute and they knew it.

“You fuckers are disgustingly cute,” said Siobhan from her slump.  “And you know it.”

“OMG, Sibby,” whined Rex, “get over it.”

“Yeah,” giggled Brian and then, in song, “Get over it, get over it!”

“How’d your date go the other night?” asked Rex.  “He was hot.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied.  Siobhan rarely wanted to talk about her miserable failure of a love life.  She was beautiful, thin, smart, funny.  Courageous, outgoing, confident.  Maybe too confident.  She scared men away, well, at least that’s what she thought.  Rex and Brian agreed.  They both thought she tended to come on too strong.  

“Like,” Brian once explained, “it’s like a tiger, right.  Tigers are amazingly beautiful creatures, yes, everyone agrees.  Yes.  But when you get to the zoo, you’re pretty happy about the three feet of tiger-proof glass between you and a messy slashy death at the hands of a blood-thirsty carnivore.”

“Is that how you guys view women?  Blood-thirsty carnivores?”

“Well, I mean, basically,” said Rex.  “But especially you.”

“Wow.  Just wow.”

“Nothing personal or anything.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Got it.”

Ever since that enlightening conversation with her two obnoxious co-workers, whom she actually loved sincerely – they were great friends to have in a cold-hearted city like Chicago – Siobhan couldn’t shake the image she imagined men had of her.  A blood-thirsty man eater.  It kept her up nights.  

* * *

South Irvington, 1994

Derek clawed in the walled sandbox beneath the treehouse his father had built for him.  To be precise, it wasn’t a treehouse at all, semantically, as it was attached to no tree.  The fort was constructed on a foundation of eight 6x6s, and stapled together with pine planks.  A plank ladder climbed one side up to a narrow bridge.  The bridge, if you fought your way through the castle guards, led to the clubhouse, with its cable spool table and milk crate seats.

The treehouse was placed at the farthest most reach of the backyard; Frank Scatterday liked a lawn free of impediments for when he saddled his riding lawn mower Saturday mornings.  The only thing past the treehouse was a rusty blue chain link fence.  The fence’s height was extended to nearly eight feet by an enormous blue plastic tarp.  The tarp formed the left field wall of Jensen Stadium, the Jensen family’s attempt to legitimize their backyard Wiffle Ball field.  Shepherd was up to bat.  In the Jensen league, which attracted all the neighborhood kids, especially the boys, batters were required to bat opposite-handed, that is to say, righties had to bat left and vice versa.  Shepherd twirled the thin yellow bat toward the pitcher and prepared himself for the windup.  The pitcher, a kid from down the block by the name of Jason, hurled the white plastic ball with an exaggerated flourish.  He nearly fell off balance but had no time to.  The ball sizzled off of Shepherd’s bat and rolled all the way to the base of the left field wall, the Big Blue Monster, as it was so dubbed.  Derek could only see the lower two-and-a-half feet of the game due to an overlapping of the blue tarp.  The white plastic ball nested among tobacco dark oak leaves piled in the gutter of the fence.  The ball was so close, Derek thought he could touch it, which he had never done before.  His parents never bought him toys with sports themes.  He reached out his hand, but a dirty pair of Converse sneakers, the Chuck Taylor sort, slapped quickly to the ball and sent a skidding for gravel through the spaces in the fence and pelted Derek across his face and neck.  He recoiled from the stinging gravel.

He continued to claw, pointlessly, in the sandbox.

* * *

Siobhan Walsh was twelve years old when she attended her first family funeral.  It was her Great Grandma O’Neal, born in 1904, who died.  She was 89-years-old and a cold snap in September had done the trick.  The old woman gasped for air and was denied.  The air rejected her lungs.

It was a cloudy memory save for one iconic scene.  Grandma Walsh, Great Grandma O’Neal’s oldest living daughter, had to be dragged up the aisle on faltering ankles by Aunt Karen and Aunt Linda, and Great Aunt Mary Jean.  The trio of women struggled with Grandma Walsh, who pitched and bucked like a green-broke horse in the rodeo stalls and, when within six feet of the open casket, hurled herself weightless through the stuffy air of the funeral parlor and collapsed on her mother’s preserved bodily remains.  Her knees buckled.  Her fingers splayed.  Grandma Walsh slipped helplessly, an orphan for the first time in her life, to the carpeted floor and wailed.  Her shrieks set the hair of Siobhan’s little arms on end.  A chill fell upon the parlor.  The lights flickered, spookily with Grandma Walsh’s screams of torment, and dimmed for the duration of the service, quiet but for muffled sobs.  

Siobhan stood in the adjacent room of the parlor and looked on.  Someone came up to her and said she looked just like her dad.  The whole scene was horrific.

* * *

  They were not his friends.  They never had been, not really.  They sat with him at lunch, all the way through high school, the same motley assortment of rejects, unwelcomed at other, more socially mobile tables.  The sitters at those tables had all gone on to make a big difference.  The weirdos from the Table of Derek clung to the hide of life in relative obscurity.  Their mediocrity, their translucent invisibility, the tie that bound them to each other.  Nothing else.

Some of them actually remembered him saying it, the others couldn’t recall the day.  Another dusky memory of overgreased french fries in a drab windowless basement cafeteria lit by fluorescent bulbs and dim minds.  Something he said once.  He didn’t speak often so it seemed meaningful to those who actually remembered.  Siobhan was one.  And Shepherd.

“He died alone.  It’s the least we can do.  It’s the right thing to do.  I know none of us were close.  It doesn’t really matter, does it?  Can you make it?  Saturday night.”

Much to Frank Scatterday’s satisfaction at having raised a son with a good head on his shoulders, unfazed by current trends, Derek did not have a Facebook.  He did not have Twitter.  He had no photos saved in either his phone or on Google Drive.  He had not made a phone call, a personal phone call, in eight months when he called his mother to wish her a Happy Birthday.  Like a pebble, perhaps greased with bacon fat, that slips beneath the water and offers no ripples, Derek Scatterday was prepared to leave life behind as a passing cloud, spurned on by steady winds, is noticed by the ground but has no affect.  In his life, he had clawed at the sand in the walled sandbox.  He had wished for many things, but never actually wanted them.  The Sun offered light, the night gave him darkness.  There was nothing else to say.  There was nothing to leave behind.  There was nothing left to do.

The peculiar thing about the human heart is how much toxic guilt it is willing to adopt, for no other reason than to reacquaint itself with its tetanus edge.  Hearts, even warm ones, are not immune to suffering, and will in fact seek it if it does not readily present itself for the hunter to take a shot.  Eight human hearts assembled outside of Frank and Jocelyn Scatterday’s Brown County cabin in the woods.  They owned a regal Dutch Colonial style house along the parkway in Irvington, but chose instead to say goodbye to their son at their vacation rental in Hoosier National Forest.  The only invitations, the only notice, were given to the eight hearts who ate overgreased french fries in a drab windowless basement cafeteria for four years.  These, pathetic paper strips of relationship, were the closest thing Derek ever had to real friendship.

* * *

A dusty peach-colored leaf, nervy with spider webbing plum rust coffee brown, spilled, and running the path along epigrammed epaulets and florets of diner napkin, leaf, stilled and stiffened in a final cast of life, what it was, still is, won’t be.  The leaf lands at the feet of Frank, slippered, reading the Sunday Times in his deck rocker, outside.  

He always blew his leaves in the street, this time of year.  Big backpack blower, orange and black.  Loud.  He liked to pile them up, pretty high, in a long row down the middle of the street.  He’d watch from the front porch, smoking and smiling, contented, as loud angry pickup trucks scuttled them north and south.  Bikers quieted and slowed.  Everyone was safe.

His neighbor, the hypocrite, the greedy minister, bagged his and set them along the sidewalk for bimonthly municipal pick-up.  Like an ordination ceremony for seminarians, a glum line of portly black sacks.  Gleaming plastic.

“Says here they’ll take up to forty bags with your regular trash,” hollered Frank, into the kitchen to his wife Jocelyn, who had just swallowed another handful of pills.

“If I was gonna do it, bag ‘em, which I’m not,” continued Frank, though no one was listening, “I’d use paper bags, recycled.  The preacher uses plastic bags.  No good.  Won’t biodegrade back into the Earth.  Plastic lasts forever.”

Jocelyn opened the front door of the wilderness cabin to faces she had never before known.  They had come to say goodbye.

* * *

They cluttered around the plank porch in the afternoon sun and waited for someone to answer the door.  Footsteps could be heard from inside, thumping down the hallway to the door.  It sounded like the house had a heartbeat.

“Sounds like the house has a heartbeat,” someone said, clutching a weekend bag.

“More heartbeat than old Derek has now,” said someone else.

“More heartbeat than old Derek ever had,” said another.

The door swung open.  A delightful woman, clad in a creamy white pantsuit with pearls, stood looking at them, bewildered.  A square-headed older gentleman could be seen beyond in the kitchenette, wrenching the neck of a liquor bottle.  

* * *

Juan Diego Luna was born in Tala, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico in 1978.  He was born into a family with a long proud tradition of generational poverty and love.  At the age of seven, without any English, he swam the Rio Grande with his pregnant mother and came to America.  For his first two weeks north of the border, he hunched into the darkest corner of a cramped sweaty bedroom, separated from his mother.  No one would help him.  His tears dried quickly.

On Tuesday, El Dia de los Muertos, Juan Diego reverently placed a blue-glass bottle of tequila on his family ofrena, lit by tealights and marigolds, outside his mother’s bedroom in the dusky hallway of their ranch-style suburban home.  The mezcal was for his late Tio Nacho, who always took a special liking to Juan Diego when Nacho was alive.  Juan Diego hated death rituals like funerals, especially funerals in the lifeless flavorless United States of America.  He thought the ofrena, however, that little death shrine in the corner of the home, the ofrena was a thing of sheer beauty.

* * *

“Miss Jensen?” A round-faced kindergartener, zipped tight and swollen in a plush purple winter coat, stood by the door to Classroom 6.  The bell for dismissal was ringing.  Hundreds of sneakers thumped down the hallways of the old school.  Original wood tongue-and-groove floors.  The sneakers chirped on the slick polyurethane sealant.  

It was Friday, and the school was closing for fall break, one week.  Ruth Ann Jensen looked up from the bulbous canvas bag she was packing for a week away from her desk and recognized the child at once.  

“Charity!  What are you doing here?  Are you transferring to our school?”  Ruth Ann was sincere.  She had been Charity’s nanny for the first two years of her life.  At first, it was just a way to make ends meet, working her way through college, but after a while, Ruth Ann and Charity became touchingly close.  Ruth Ann smiled wide at the thought of little Charity calling her “Miss Jensen”.  She had always called her Roo Roo.  My Roo Roo, she used to coo from the Pack ‘n Play each morning when Ruth Ann would arrive.

“Yes, I am!” said Charity, racing across the room to embrace Ruth Ann.  “I’m so happy.  We’ll get to see each other everyday!”

* * *

L’Shaun Washington had an uncle who used to be a fall-down drunk.  Uncle Rosco.  Rosco started drinking at an early age, trying to prove his manliness among the blues musicians he palled around with down at the East 10th Street Blues Club.  Rosco played lead and rhythm guitar in a band called Grease Sandwich Surprise.  He was good, so long as he wasn’t drinking.  

After his wife and kids left him, Rosco plunged into a deep sadness that took four years to swim out of.  He was drunk almost the entire time.  He had been arrested six times in those four years (DUI, aggravated assault, vagrancy, etc.), and had lost everything.  When the kids left, it broke his heart permanently.  First he had to sell the cars but, inevitably, he lost the house too.  A girlfriend, Rosco always had a girlfriend, took pity and put in the work to rehabilitate him.  She, Angel, got Rosco signed up for an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, and Rosco regularly attended meetings.  After a few months, Rosco stopped drinking entirely.

A little over a year later, Rosco awoke one morning to a hand-written note on his bedside table.  Angel was gone.  She said she would always love him but the thought, the fear, of him falling apart one unavoidable day and drinking himself to death was simply too much for her to bear.  At least, from this close.  She needed distance.  In closing, she asked him not to attempt to contact her further.

The next day, his dog Billy ran out into traffic and was run over by some asshole in a pickup truck who didn’t even pump the brakes in half-hearted remorse.  It all happened before Rosco’s sad thirsty eyes.

He started drinking immediately.  It took him three weeks to kill himself.

At the funeral, attended by musicians and family from around the country, L’Shaun was disgusted by the fact that almost every well-wisher was himself or herself intoxicated.  Salt on a fresh cut.  Seemed silly.  Absurd.  Grotesque, even.  L’Shaun pledged right then and there to never consume a drop of alcohol for the rest of his life.  It kills.

* * *

After awkward introductions, Jocelyn showed each of the guests to their private rooms in the expansive chalet.  The Scatterday Cabin, read a rustic sign above the door to the bathroom near the billiards table.  A full wall of windows looked out on a tranquil pond dotted with lily pads.  The hills, the deep green hills, ascended all around.  The sun vanished early.  With nothing much to discuss, everyone went to bed early, or thumbed the touchscreens of their blue-glow cellphones until drowsiness washed them away.

Seth Mooney came home on Thursday with a wolfish leer plastered across his face.  He needed to grab his cell phone charger and was hoping to get back out to the car before his wife, Libby, could catch him.  He was an attorney, did very well with injury law, and on Monday would be named the senior partner at Luther and Mooney, his own firm.  Jeremy Luther, his partner, was retiring to a bucolic sailing lifestyle in the islands around St. Thomas.  

The guys at the office were throwing a going-away party for Luther after work.  Seth wanted to go, badly.  They were all meeting first at a trendy new Brazilian restaurant he’d been wanting to try out.  Libby didn’t care for “weird food” as she called anything left of pizza.  A cute brunette intern, Sandy, had asked him if she might see him there.

Seth loved his wife, but he also loved to flirt.  He may have trusted himself, but no one else could.  He had a wandering eye and a loose set of ethics that occasionally baffled judges and juries when he defended clients in the courtroom.  Libby came into the foyer from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel, just as Seth was dabbing Old Spice aftershave around his collar.

“Hey, hun,” said Libby, “I’m glad you’re home early.  I thought you would forget about Austin’s driver’s ed class tonight.”

“Aw, shit,” he said, glaring at her in disbelief.  He had forgotten.  

* * *

Ben Phipps had attended twenty-four funerals by the time he was, himself, twenty-four years of age.  He had been assigned the duties of pallbearer five times.  He had had to make phone calls from a list informing family members three times.  Once, he spoke slowly over the phone while an employee at the Indianapolis Star copied down each word of a thoughtful obituary Ben had written for his father.  

He had spent years crafting that obituary in his head, even as his father transitioned into his twilight years with a mind for wellness – quitting smoking, eating right, exercise.  Ben was morbid, like his mother, and had anticipated the knee-buckling phone call for years.  When it happened, however, his knees did not buckle.  He was roused in the middle of an April night by his ringing cell phone on the bedside table.  His eyes creased shut in agony and his head fell back into the pocket of the big down pillow.  No knee buckling, like he had envisioned.

Likewise, despite his precision and enunciation over the phone line, the newspaper still managed to mangle the obituary, misspelling his father’s middle name (Jean, instead of Gene).  Ben remembered spelling it out, slowly, over the phone.  It upset him greatly.  He did not clip the obit from the paper, just tossed it in the recycling bin at work and moved on.

Friends often sought out Ben’s advice, as if it would be a comfort, someone who had attended that many funerals, after all, must have some supportive insight.  These friends found only the bitterness of a young man, old before his time, who had lost and lost and lost.

* * *

The next morning was the funeral.  Jocelyn was up early, buzzing around the kitchen in a hokey old apron that read, “No kisses, I’m cooking.”  Nobody knew if it was meant to be funny so nobody pointed it out, and nobody laughed.  She cut the tip of her index finger when her blade slipped over the contour of a carrot and dug in deep with its burn, with its sting.  She didn’t know these people.  Frank was never a comforting husband.  It stung and burned worse because of this.  She just stood there, leaning against the counter with her back to the guests, and bled.

“If you’re all finished, or, my manners, when you’re all finished,” she said, “Frank will take you out to the clearing in the woods.  It’s pretty back in there.  I think Derek would have liked it up there.  He never left the cabin when he did come to visit, which was only after we first bought the place, just that one time, but if.  If.  If he had gone up there, it’s a hike now, if he’d gone up there, I think he might have liked it.

The guests nodded at her, then nodded at each other.  Let’s get this thing over with, each of them seemed to be trying to telepathically communicate. 

* * * 

Disgusting, abhorrent, despicable.  The words just won’t reach, no matter how you stretch them.  Stretching a word to cover over a filthy thing is no peach pie picnic.  I’ll just tell it to you straight, the way it happened.

Derek’s limp body was hauled out of the rear passenger side door of his mother’s PT Cruiser, in the driveway of their cabin retreat, under yellow tulip tree leaves all a-flutter in the happy breeze.  Macabre leaves dancing, the dead man was dragged irreverently from the car with his sleeved arms flopping from the tight jam between the seats.  His head hit the pavement, someone muttered an “Oops”, they dragged him.  Rigor mortis had abated by the time they were ready to wake him, the wake of Derek Scatterday, friendless wretch.  His limp, lifeless frame hung wet and low.  At Jocelyn’s wine-glass gesturing from the coziness of the log cabin, L’Shaun and Ben slung Derek’s arms over their shoulders and carried him, like a drunk, around the back of the house.  Cars probably would have slowed down to rubberneck the situation, if there had been any cars.  It was lonely on the mountain.

Around the back of the house, Frank Scatterday thanked everyone for coming and explained, falsely, that his son would have beamed with pride that his old school chums had assembled in his honor.  He went on, falsely, to make several irascible claims about what a nice guy Derek had been, what a big heart he had, and how he had raised his boy to value friendship and to always look for the good in each and every person.  

“It’s in there,” he bellowed from his perch atop the picnic table, “if you’re willing to look close enough.  That’s something I always wanted Derek to know.  I always said it to him.  Practically every time we saw each other.”

Frank invited Siobhan up to say a few words.  She was kind of shocked and didn’t want to say anything, initially.  Frank prodded her, reminding her of the email she had sent right after Derek’s accident.

“What email?” asked Shepherd.

“It was just stupid, nothing.” Siobhan said.  Everyone could tell she was ashamed she hadn’t mentioned it before to them.  Why were they all here?  That was the big question everyone kept wondering, everyone kept asking, the question that maybe Siobhan had an answer to.

“Like I said,” she continued, pacing across the soft bed of rusty red pine needles strewn in all directions, “It was just something stupid.  I shouldn’t have meddled.  It’s just, I don’t fucking know, I was having an emotional kind of a day.  Saw the obit.  Took me back to our days in high school.  Shit, I hated high school.  Shit was already fucked up for me.  It’s a time of innocence for so many, not me.

“Anyway, I wrote to Mr. Scatterday about how we all used to sit together at lunch.  He thought it would be a nice token of goodness, on our part, if we were to show up down here.  He didn’t know his son as well as he likes to claim, he didn’t know who else to call.”

There was a general mulling of her words among the old friends.  It was not right that she hadn’t told them but no one could see how that mattered anyway.  Where was the coffin?  Where was the preacher?  Priest?  Derek wasn’t a Catholic, was he?

Frank looped his arm under the arms of his dead son and walked his body down to the lakeshore, a distance of fifty yards or so, down a mild slope of mossy limestone boulders, pine needles, and hard-packed path.  The others followed, instinctively, grotesquely desiring the full arc of this macabre story playing out before them.  Jocelyn stumbled behind the pack, her brimming glass of Merlot held casually in her fingers, her white valais wrapped loose around her shoulders.

The others, Sib, Shepherd, all of them.  Jocelyn stopped short of her husband, Frank, who waltzed with his dead boy along the lakeshore.  Ducks metered down and angled in on a landing, just beyond, on the glassy waters.  The brown reflection of the maples, the cogent blue of the evening sky, the skittering ducks, all spun in the background, the corpse kaleidoscopic with his heartdead father in the foreground.  Jocelyn cried.

“Yo, this is fucking sick.”

“It’s like Weekend at Bernie’s.”

“No, no it is not.  This is not anything like that.  That movie made me laugh.  I only now want to crawl up into a ball of blankets and forget I was ever here.”

It was Shepherd who spoke first.  Others echoed.  Jocelyn backed away, stumbling with her wine, away.  Frank held his boy, slumped, his eyes begged them all for forgiveness and he screamed, his knees collapsed, the corpse fell forward and its lips pulled against Frank’s sweater vest as he fell bearing his dead grey teeth.    

“Was this supposed to be fun?”

“I feel worse now than when I replied to the invitation to come here.  I didn’t want to feel guilt.  I’m not now sure if I have ever been guilty until this very moment.  I cannot abide this.  We are all a part of this horror.  Nightmare.”

“Wake us, dear God.”

“Oh, fucking what have I done?!” sobbed Frank, from the sopping ground near the lake.  He was delirious with grief, delirious with sadness, delirious with guilt, with pride, with love.  He was not alone, but he did not know that.  He was delirious with the loneliness of his pain, a father’s pain, the parent orphaned by the child.  He dragged Derek’s dirty body along the muddy shore, a quarter of the way around the small lake to a stable where a chestnut brown horse stood on all four legs, monumental and somber, the hooved angel of death, nostrils flaring and steaming in the evening chill.  The others gaped, some had followed Frank most of the way, they gaped like skulls.  Frank was no longer gentle.  He was angry.  He shoved his son’s dead body astride the horse like he was loading a duffel bag.  Derek, he was still Derek to the others, his old mates, if he ever had one, the bastard, tumbled to and fro as his father struggled to balance him.

“For the picture.” Frank grinned, mad and angry.

The body again slumped forward and slid down along the left flank of the regal dark horse.  Frank swigged from a nickel flask in his corduroy jacket and slapped the horse down hard along the blaze whitening its long snout.  The chestnut brown reared back against the yanking of the reins menaced in Frank’s tightening grip, and the body slid to the ground.  The horse kicked the body, several times stamping its big hooves on the  back of the head, beating the skull in as the father yanked the reins even harder.  Pulling the horse down and stroking its neck, Frank tied the animal off on a nearby fence post.  He and the horse were wheezing for breath.

Derek’s body was crushed, stamped into the mud by the horse’s hooves.

Frank dug his boy out of the mud.  The others turned their faces away when the father pulled the son’s face up from the slop.  His skull had been kicked in like an old cardboard box, Derek’s eyes bulged from their sockets, blood dribbled and ran down his grey face.  Frank got the body back up on its feet and lowered his shoulder under the rib cage to lift it once more upon the waiting horse, expectantly stamping its front left hoof in the mud.  Bits of Derek’s auburn hair stuck, crosshatched, on the bloody hoof.  Little bits of white bone clung to the gunky hair.

“That’s enough, Frank,” sobbed Jocelyn, standing behind him as he struggled to keep his boy’s lifeless puppet body in the saddle atop the horse. “End this disturbing nightmare of a day.  It’s over.  It’s all over.  End it.”

“Now, Joss,” he started.

“No!  Don’t you ‘Now, Joss’ me one more time.” she screamed.  “This is sick.  This is wrong.  I feel nauseous.  He was our son.”

Jocelyn Scatterday gagged and turned her head away.  When she looked back at them again, these people she never knew, she was dabbing her lips for vomitous flotsam.

“You?” she pointed at Ben.  “Were you his friend?”

Ben, uncertain how to answer her question, noting her emotional state, just mumbled something under his breath.  It sounded like a ‘No’.

“What about you?” she turned to Sibby, pointing.  Sibby’s eyes watered up a little before she turned away shaking her head.

“Were any one of you his friend?  Did you actually care for our son?”

Silence.  Long faces.  Everyone at once wanted to shrink and disappear.

“None of you.” Jocelyn looked pale, looked like she might collapse.  She found a lawn chair and slumped into it, her mink coat bunching around her face.  She bawled like a baby.

“None of you,” she continued, “none of you cared enough to call once in a while.  None of you even knew his phone number.  I checked his contacts, none of you are listed.  None of you should be here.  He should be surrounded by friends and by family.  Where are his real friends?”

“I don’t think he ever made any.”

It was Shepherd.  If anyone had gotten close to sealing a true friendship with Derek it would have been him.  He had tried.  He had put in the time.  He had remembered the birthday, remembered it for years, before he stopped trying to get close.

“Derek had a way, you know,” he explained.  “He had a way of making you like him, or want to like him rather, but he wouldn’t ever let anyone get close.  It made things hard.  He never said thank you to anyone in his life, so far as I know.  He’d stab you in the back if it benefitted him.  He just didn’t care about anyone.  Didn’t need anyone.  The man was an island.”

“How dare you…” gasped Jocelyn.  Frank bristled behind her, rubbing her shoulders.

“No, ma’am, no,” said Shepherd.  “I showed up.  I didn’t have to.”

“But, why?” she asked, leaning forward with her martini glass held loosely in her bejeweled fingers.  “Why did you all come?  He didn’t give a fiddler’s fart about you, nor you for him.  Why did you come all this way?”

“I guess it says something about the human condition,” said Siobhan, finishing her bottle of Rolling Rock.  “We all feel guilty.”

“You didn’t kill him,” gruffed Frank.

“No, but we may as well have.  You’re right, we don’t really care that he’s now dead and sitting on that horse.  I didn’t come here to memorialize him.  He’s dead and I don’t care.  There, now, I said it.  Feels good to finally come clean.”

“Sib!” protested Libby.  L’Shaun shook his head and stared down at his shoes.

“What, Libby?  You actually showed up for the photo op with the dead guy?  Some kid who survived the sadistic dullness of high school with us?”

“I just think you could use a bit of tact, you know, with his parents standing right here.”

“Well, I think it’s probably good that they hear it, honestly.  Your kid was an asshole who never cared about anything.  We’re probably ruining his dying wish just by being here.  With his last breath he probably begged the gods to make sure no one showed up at the funeral, no one offered a flower to his mother, no one told his father the world is missing a fine man.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Ben.

“That’s real fucked up, Sib.” said L’Shaun.

“Yeah, well,” said Shepherd.  “I think she’s got a point.  Let’s just strip this thing bare, alright.  We’ve all had an exasperating and depressing afternoon, trying to get this dude’s dead body to stay on this horse so we can take a picture of this whole macabre spectacle.  For what?  What the fuck are we all doing?  If you ask me, ain’t none of us actually wanna be here.  And that goes for his parents, too.  Y’all having fun?”

“Thank you, Shep,” said Siobhan, smiling thinly.

“Facts are facts.”

“What’s in the Scatterday Evening Post?”

Jocelyn Scatterday arose from her lawn chair and wandered to the end of the mowed area of the campsite, looked up into the bare limbs of the shuddering trees and sighed.  She laughed.  She sobbed.  She turned and looked at them all, standing there helpless with their arms to their sides.  Her dead son slumped atop the horse.

“It doesn’t make any sense that any one you are here,” she said.  “You came, though, and for that I want to say I am sorry and I want to say thank you.  What does it say about us?  Our busy lives?  Our separate lives?  The paths we take.  You came at a moment’s notice, probably left your lives unattended, and probably to your own detriment.  Why?  Who knows?  I like to think it’s because our hearts are like that.  We get the call, doesn’t matter, relationship doesn’t matter.  You knew his name, once, long ago.  Now that name we bury.  You came.

“This has been a hard day for my husband and I.  I think, sometimes, that we knew Derek just about as well as any of you did.  Distant.  Cold.  An unperson.  Why even am I here other than I am the woman who gave birth, someone else’s lifetime ago, to the boy who became plastic.  I tried to love him, I suppose I do.  I’m really not sure.

“Thank you for coming.  My deepest apologies to you and your families.  Derek really wasn’t worth it, was he?  I wonder if I’ll ever reconcile that in my heart.  And Frank, you can tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself, but I know, now, I know, Derek wasn’t worth it.

“What is truly remarkable,” she sniffled, “is that these people came anyway.  Call it guilt, call it loneliness, call it altruism, call it whatever you need to call it.  Derek would have been lucky to have called these his friends.  Maybe he can see us all now?  Maybe he dies with regret?  Then again, who doesn’t?  

“Maybe he doesn’t.”

* * *

“What did you mean when you said you loved him like a brother?” 

Ruth Ann’s face scrutinized that of her brother, Shepherd, for any of the ticks she had learned about him, growing up.  He could no longer lie to her as he had, on occasion, when they were children, playing cards.  She could no longer lie to him.

“Honestly,” he smiled, sad still, “honestly, I guess I was just saying it.”

* * *

Derek Scatterday was buried a few days later, in Indianapolis, in a run-of-the-mill cemetery beneath a fluttering tulip tree.  It did not rain.  It wasn’t cold.  No one came.  Not Frank.  Not Jocelyn.  No one.  The only persons standing above his open hole in the dark ground were a couple of gravediggers with a backhoe, breaking for lunch and cigarettes, making fifteen dollars an hour.

Siobhan returned to Chicago, Shepherd to his shack in rural Birdseye, Indiana, and all the others to all their other places.  Frank and Jocelyn were able to use refunded travel credits, along with Frank’s Frequent Flyer miles, to rebook their vacation in southern Italy and try again.  The smiles on their faces when the plane touched tarmac in Naples said it all. 

Derek’s grave bears no marker, and weeds grow tall where no footsteps come to tramp them back down.  Still, no one visits there.  Sometimes there are birds, crows, clawing at the dirt on his grave, pointlessly.  

But that’s it.

The Bruno-Boyle Gang

31 Jan

You might say Mike Bruno got really lucky when friends had pushed him and Alessandra together in the middle of the disco-ball illumined parish gym during the annual Valentine’s Day dance.  It was a fundraiser, of course – everything with the Catholics is a fundraiser – and Papa Joe had donated a Hollywood caliber light/sound system, and about a thousand wandering balloons.  Both Mike and Alessandra were by nature very shy.  Both had clenched their eyes shut as their giggling buddies drove them out into the dance floor.  It was the last song of the night.  Both Mike and Alessandra opened their clenched eyes when they collided, with Mike extending his strong arm to keep Alessandra from falling.  The mood was set, the moon was right.  He never knew another girl.

John Boyle followed in his old man’s footsteps.  He ran Boyle’s Bar Exam, an Irish-themed tavern that had been in operation since the repeal of Prohibition.  It was a favored watering hole of attorneys, judges, and various figures in city government.  Due to the far-reaching tentacles of the Boyle clan, a reach that had determinedly extended over the generations, the family (and tavern) made a lot of friends in local politics, often publicly supporting the Democrats despite hearkening to conservative ideals in their personal lives.  John’s father, Big John Boyle, had attempted to groom his son for a life of influence in municipal politics, even urging the younger Boyle to attempt law school.  John had never in his life been the model student and, after Big John discovered that his son had been siphoning off his tuition payments to bankroll a prodigal life of booze and babes, the dream of a lawyer in the family was abandoned.  Big John remained maladjusted to the fact that his golden boy would remain merely a publican like the generations of Boyles before for the rest of his life.  After his passing – a rather undignified death, really, the result of a heart attack after accidentally locking himself in the tavern’s walk-in cooler – Boyle’s Bar Exam and several rental properties were bequeathed to the younger Boyle, much to the chagrin of his many cousins.

John supplemented his income, naturally, by selling weed and pills to a few regular patrons of the tavern.  Everybody knew.  John had such a big head about his family name and fame that he’d do a deal right in front of his straightlaced lunch crowd, on recess from the courts downtown.  He didn’t care.  In truth, he felt invincible.  His father had raised him as an anointed prince.  Now that daddy was dead, John Boyle wore the crown of a king.  His bravado – and lightning quick temper – built a reputation that was as far-reaching as the family influence.  Wise men knew he was his father’s greatest disappointment, but they also knew he wasn’t to be messed around with.  A force all to his own.  A lone wolf, he fit the mold for the two-bit Irish American street thugs he admired:  Legs Diamond, Whitey Bulger, Hells Kitchen types.  He had been bred for higher stations, had all the know-how, possessed the capital, and the sphere of influence necessary for climbing the fabled ladder of American success.  

He just liked being bad.

Against his nagging better judgment, Mike gave John complete control over The Irvington Arms apartment complex, the gang’s freshest acquisition.  The building’s late former owner met an untimely – and obscenely accidental – fate on a canoe trip in remote Brown County.  He was an avid boating enthusiast, but canoes were his favorite way to wile away the long hours of a Friday or Saturday afternoon.  His preferred spot was a secluded stretch of the Salt Creek backwaters in the wild hinterlands of the county.  It was a secret only entrusted to a few close friends and his wife.  He didn’t want it overrun with Bloomington hippies or Martinsville rednecks.  It was his stretch alone, ten meandering miles of it, with swampy marshland rimming the banks on either side.  It was impossible to see without a canoe.  He loved it that way.

The forest rangers found him, actually.  They’d been called about a growing committee of turkey vultures circling the wooded area.  The birds seemed more aggressive and more excitable than normal, a couple bold enough to even swoop down at the two rangers.

A gaffe-hooked trot line was wrenched from Dave’s eyesocket with an EMT’s field pliers.  He had to, the body was still being pulled downstream.  The canoe was nowhere in sight.  The official cause of death was ruled to be cardiac arrest – fright – from the hook gouging out his eye.  There was also some evidence suggesting that the vultures hadn’t waited until he had completely died before snatching a few chunks from his neck and abdomen with their steely beaks.  

The canoe, a pampered Old Town, was recovered a mile downstream, near Elkinsville, with the oars carefully placed across the basketweave seats.  The dockline was neatly looped over a stump, with its excess primly coiled off to the side.  

Strange, yes, said the official story.  Bizarre, even, sure, I’ll give it to you.  A homicide?  Oh, don’t be silly, sugar…this is Brown County!  Accidents happen all the time, more’s the pity.

His name was Dave Anderson and he owned The Irvington Arms, and then, he didn’t.

John Boyle did.

“This is just the beginning, baby,” John said as he pulled a comb through his hair and flashed his weasel teeth at the man in the mirror.

The authorities did their due diligence, no one could argue that they didn’t.  In their view, however, he was just another reckless weekend warrior in a long line of weekend warriors who had gone and gotten themselves killed in the Brown County wilderness.  They were usually spelunkers, sometimes kayakers, but canoe deaths were certainly not unheard of.  And for anyone to have puddlestomped their way through two miles of spongy marshland – a veritable swamp which had kept the stretch a secret from so many outdoorsmen for so many years – for someone to have managed such a maddening hike, undetected, with malintent in mind was, frankly, preposterous.