We all sail down the river of time that flows within/without us as eons flee toward bright eternity and twilight empires crumble to dust and the old gods laugh yet again. Both coffins are closed at my request. Mattie had looked awful with those streaks of blue they couldn’t get out and there isn’t enough left of Mom to be subjected to a viewing by these ghouls.
As I pass Mom’s coffin I think. You never loved nor even liked this fool who now stands over your bones but what happened to you mustve happened so quickly you never knew dying before you ceased to exist. Did you have time for the epiphany that life is so fragile it is little more than a dream? I remember you from childhood when your hair was loose and long and red like a wall of living flame.
This Sunday it hits 97 degrees. Graveside funeral. As I walk I feel like i’m walking on pillows, an early sign of nervous exhaustion. I sit on a folding lawnchair between Aunt Lavada and my vicious Aunt Marie. I have looked in a mirror and know my face is blank with shock.
the funeral hasn’t started yet and no one pays me any attention when I wander off. Over to the mausoleums. One has been busted all but wide open by tree roots in this very old part of Greenwood Cemetary. Rows of boxy tombs. Limestones and ornamental gratings.
I see a smashed grating, sawdust on the mausoleum floor. Evidently something gnawed its way into the coffin. His flesh is dust, whoever he was, and rats use his bones for a nest. The marble is stained with pigeon droppings.
Over here an infant’s tomb. Infant’s ossature, thin and brindled bones along whose sulfate facets clove old shreds of flesh and cerements of tattered swaddle. Bones that would no more than fill a shoebox. From old seamy throats of elders and musty books I have salvaged not a word. In a dream I walked by a dark lake with my grandfather and the old man’s voice was filled with incertitude and I see how all things false fall from the dead.
I go back and sit between my aunts in the lawnchair. Some leaves fall in the dappled light. Diffuse light on the gravestones and people and hearses and the two coffins poised for their finally journey into the ground. Everything looks to have been painted over a canvas of black and the human figures seem ready to catch fire in the hot wind blown up from the trees along the Dog River.
The preacher’s pious canting. Someone hands me a big paper cup of icewater. as soon as I drink it I am throwing it up on the grass in front of me and when my stomach is empty I am still retching and I see I have soaked the pants of the cheap suit they bought me for the funeral.
My recollections of this time are spotty to this day for I am still in shock but I become strangely passive and tractable. I know it is Monday, the day after the funeral only by my digital watch. I have no cell phone, having dropped mine in front of a car weeks ago. I have no money, not a cent, and there is no food in the house.
I shouldn’t even be walking around in this state. In shock and dehydrated in this heat. I am so confused I cant remember to drink water. I ask them to buy me food but they wont. I cant exactly remember when I last ate but it was at least a week ago. Aunt Marie tells me that the hunger is in my head and that such hunger is “good motivation” whatever that means.
This day after the funeral Aunt Marie has me take a job unloading trucks in a warehouse where it’s 120 degrees inside when it’s ninety outside. She insists I go to work that day. This uncharacteristic passiveness gets worse. At one point I remember I am 16 years old and need to be in high school where I was last week. But I cant focus enough to follow up on that thought or do anything about it.
This job I have let myself be bulldogged into taking is heavy longshoreman class work but it’s been two weeks and I have yet to see a paycheck. It’s been two weeks since I ate and I am getting too weak to work. My mind is almost gone when I collapse at work from the heat and end up in the hospital getting fluids. I remember them asking me questions and I am just coherent enough to tell them I haven’t eaten for two weeks.
I hear Aunt Marie in the next room arguing with a doctor who has a heavy southern accent. As the argument progresses it gets louder and the doctor threatens Marie with the police.
He’s sixteen years old, the doctor says. Why isn’t he in school?
He dropped out, Marie says.
This is a lie.
He collapsed from heat exhaustion. He hasn’t had any food for two weeks and his kidneys are failing from dehydration. Why aren’t you helping him? Why doesn’t he have food? Before I let you anywhere near him I want you to promise to take him to a grocery store and buy him food.
I’m his aunt, not his mother, Marie says coldly. Food is wasted on that brat anyway. He’ll be in prison by the time he’s twenty. I’m not responsible for him.
You’re listed as the emergency contact where he works so I guess you are responsible. If this goes on much longer he’ll die and if that happens I will personally press charges against you.
How dare you talk to me that way, Marie spits at him.
How dare I? I’ll tell you how I dare! I’m going to give him my personal phone number and if he calls me and tells me he doesn’t have food or that they wont let him back in school i’ll have you and them in jail. Why, why, he sputters, I’ve never seen a white boy mistreated like this. How dare you!
I hear a door slam and wonder with oceanic detachment if this was staged somehow for my benefit. I think my jaw is hanging open. A nurse is trying to feed me juice and crackers. She squeezes my hand and says, Honey eat this slow so you don’t throw it up, heah?
The doctor comes in and the nurse leaves. He sits in front of me, a middle aged guy with a lot of white hair. I cant quite make out the name on his ID tag.
He says, Michael, why aren’t you in school?
I don’t know.
Do you want to be in school?
Then why aren’t you there?
I don’t know.
Think you can find your way back?
I want you to eat, he says. A lot of everything. Much as you can keep down. And drink a lot of water, heah?
Miss your folks?
How long since they died?
I don’t know.
He gets a card and writes a number on it and gives it to me. This is my private number, he says. If you have trouble with your aunt or getting back into school or anything else call me. Don’t wait.
Those fluids make you feel better?
I should keep you here a while but you’d have to answer too many questions from the wrong people. You’re a little young to be on your own but you’ll be alright. Just eat and drink a lot of water. And go to school. I’m having your aunt take you home, okay?
He still seems to be in a rage.
I really feel a lot better from fluids but I’m still weak and confused. I have to listen to a lecture from Marie about how my trouble is that i’m weak like my mother was. Marie buys me a pound of potato salad and a bottle of coke. Those are my groceries. And I wonder if she wants me dead.
I eat the potato salad in five minutes and it just makes me hungrier. I drink the coke and watch the first football game I’ve seen all year. It’s the end of September and it isn’t any cooler. I have trouble remembering what school I go to.
I quit the job. I still don’t have food or money and I’m dazed. I lose a lot of weight fast. I try to keep drinking water but it’s hard to stay hydrated in this heat in a house without air conditioning. I find a five dollar bill someone had hidden away and walk three miles to MacDonald’s and eat what it will buy. I could’ve walked three blocks to the grocery store and gotten enough hamburger to feed me for a couple of days but I’m not thinking straight.
Weeks go by in the blistering heat and the Gas Company turns off the gas for non payment. I have a gas water heater so when the water comes out it is too cold to take a bath. I stop bathing and shaving. I look sick like a wino about to die.
I try to find the card with the doctor’s number on it but I cant. I don’t remember which hospital I was in or even if it was here in town. I know my name and what day it is and where I am but not much more.
Since Marie is an executive at the Gas Company I call her and ask her if she’ll at least have them turn the gas back on so I can take a bath. She tells me to get a job and that cold baths are good motivation. I have not heard from my school and have no idea what’s going on there. I’m afraid to even call them.
Finally I look in the mirror one day and realize that I am dying.
Finally it rains. It rains all day and will rain well into the night. By afternoon the scorched grass is standing in pools of water beside the road. When I leave the house in late afternoon the rain has slacked off and I walk, slowly. My shoes are old and have holes and the water seeps in and soaks my socks. I keep walking.
On the tracks next to the road the train comes on and its dopplered harpyhorn wails down the lonely wet afternoon as it cries for the crossing. Wheel shucking along the rails and the ground shaking and the hiss of the air brakes of the trucks at the traffic light. Finally the low moan of the train moving down the weary land and the last car clicking its final silence. At night the trains roar through here, light blazing as though searching the track for blood and offal, a famished one eyes undertaker blowing a funeral horn.
When Sherry opens the door I see recognition and then horror on her face.
Michael, I heard about what happened, she says, I’m…
She is staring at me.
What happened to you? She says, her face white.
Sherry pulls me inside and muscles me into a chair and says, How long since you ate anything?
She gets food from the stove, something that I think is meatloaf and puts it in front of me with a glass of Pepsi. The foodis so rich the smell of it makes me heave.
I croak the words, I need money.
She doesn’t say anything but gets her purse and and puts a wad of twenties on the table in front of me by the food. She says, That’s all the cash I have but I can take you to an ATM.
In the living room people are talking and laughing and watching TV.
Michael, she says, Stay right here. You’re in no shape to go anywhere. You look sick…
She looks around desperately.
Stay right here, she says again. I gotta get my keys. I’ll be right back.
Before she can leave the kitchen I say, Sherry, I’ve come here for a handout. Please don’t make this any harder than it already is.
I put my head down on the kitchen table and cry in angry humiliation and self-loathing, knowing I stink.
She puts her hand on my shoulder and says softly, Stay here. I’ll be right back.
I sniffle and stuff the money in my pocket and leave.
It’s pouring again and my shoes squish as I walk through the torrent to the quick mart. They are out of plastic bags and the paper ones disintegrate in the downpour. My flabby arm muscles burn and shake and I lose some food on the way home. I barely have the strength to make it through the front door. A whippoorwhill begins to call. Mosquitos swarm and nearly eat me alive. I collapse on the sofa and eat something slowly so I don’t throw it up. Then I take off my wet socks and go to sleep on the sofa.