They said he came out of the wide, open sky like an eagle, and they said he screamed low and flat and fast over the scrubby hills of Wyoming. Before he crashed and became all rubble and smoke and faint fire, etched against a tall mountain of dark clouds. Like mourning at dusk.
The coyotes found him first.
Then the ranchers in their Ford Broncos and their four wheelers.
The Air Force shipped him home across the great land-locked spaces of prairie, of Kansas and Iowa. In Air Force regulation issue, eight feet by three feet of burnished, ornamental gray metal. His lips stapled into a half smile. At the jokes the train men told the honor guard named Delbert who sat in the corner reading HUSTLER.
No one present knew about the thin blue scar on his upper lip. Where I hit him with a piece of brick in an old summer, over an old girl, named Linda Sue or Julianna..
* * *
We stood in the station, three A.M. Sunday morning.
No Savior in sight.
They brought down the box, and his mother said, “My boy is home.” And I said, “Wild Man.” And my brother said, “Jackyo.” And the train man said, “Watch them sharp corners. You’ll lose a finger.”
We took him to Cates Funeral Emporium where “Dignity Is Our Business.”
Luther Cates said, “That make up job is a botch.”
I said , “Maybe he don’t care.”
We put him in the Oriental Room where never an Oriental had walked , spoken or lain . The Air Force bars were on fire, reflecting the candles set in sixes.
* * *
The next day the town came. The cloying smell of toilet water and sweet talcum. Women in print dresses from Penney’s, the men stiff and pinch- faced in twice a year suits, collars tight around red necks.
They watched him being dead, and they mostly talked about the tobacco firing yellow in the late summer fields. How them new Buicks were death traps, how Jimmy Loney got no visitors at the La Grange Reformatory after he stole that Catholic poor box.
Old lady Pritchett and her mother Ladonna went to the baskets of flowers and read the cards, oohing and aahing in soft exclamations.
“This one is from Freida and Eddie. I thought they was dead,” said Ladonna, pulling at a raveling on her mother’s green dress.
* * *
I smiled at my brother. He shook his head.
The people sitting there in rows were not there the night we got drunk at the Star Light Drive In on Sterling long necks. When Jacky barfed on the windshield of a Methodist boy named Marvin, who locked his doors and told his date he did not like to hurt drunks. Or the next day when we played touch football in the park with brain rot hangovers, where we jumped and screamed and danced like fools on the edge of a vast abyss. For we were young and golden, and we thought the signs which said, “JESUS WILL COME, LET’S BE READY!” meant somebody else.
Now the organist tested the pedals. Then played sappy and dreadful. “Going Down the Valley” and “Where the Roses Never Fade.”
Brother Hurt Murphy , his jowls hanging fat and heavy , moving in a cloud of Aqua Velva, said, “Let us bury our brother in Christ.”
And my brother smiled again , as we remembered the careless girls and wild hearts, fleeing before any moon, peeing off bridges, daring the gods that be to fish or cut bait.
We knew everything and suspected nothing, Mr. Dylan Thomas’ “young princes of the apple towns.”
* * *
Then out into the dense, humid air, we carried him to the hearse. Eight slow miles toward the cemetery and that grave like a muddy mouth. My brother chewed Juicy Fruit and popped his knuckles. I watched two nine-year-olds seining for crawdads where the creek breaks under the County Line Bridge. I saw the stripper pits where we
jumped off cliffs into the green cold water and yelled “Don’t let a turtles bite your dick.”
The road slipped by which led to Wimpy Carson’s river cabin, where we fried frog legs at midnight. Where we watched two water moccasins , coiled in a ball, bite themselves to death. Where we dreamed wild, extravagant dreams, sweet like peaches on the tongue.
At the Mount Hopewell cemetery, we stood under the brooding shadow of an old water oak. Stood over the gaudy, fake grass. We looked into the deep darkness of the grave, where your jump shot does you no good and the worms eat you up like Christmas.
The honor guard fired into the air.
His mother fainted, and two women caught her and they used smelling salts. They talked in hushed whispers and told her, “that she would understand it better by and by.”
* * *
The coffin went away, and we compressed ourselves forward momentarily, as though the last view of a cheap coffin might make something very clear.
From another part of the cemetery, a sixteen year old rode a Toro, and the music from his radio drifted on the air in wind swept tinklets.
“Wi-i-l-l-d Hor-r-r-s-ses couldn-n-t drag-g me-e aw-a-ay,” Mick Jagger told us all. All of the doubters, all of the weepers, all the lost losers.
The mourners swarmed among each other like large, whispering insects, consoling and declaring.
“Now we see through a glass darkly.”
“It is a part of God’s plan.”
“He’s gone from this veil of tears.”
Then they went off down the hill. Back to the line of cars.
His mother went back to her house, where the tables were loaded with fried chicken and meat loaf, pickled beets and potato salad, to a cabinet covered with jam cakes and apple pies. Went home to his picture there on the mantle with his sideways smile: Captain Jack Barrett, U.S. Air Force.
The sun declined toward the west. My brother and I walked in empty circles, gave each other half grunts and sighs. We watched Willie Bumpus, the cemetery custodian, who drank from an unsecretive bottle , as he pressed the last shovelful of dark loam into the symmetrical mound. Then he crawled onto his old red belly Ford tractor and took the backhoe to the utility shed in the woods over the hill.
I sat on a tombstone addressed to DARCY YATES, OUR LITTLE LAMB, HOME IN THE FOLD.
* * *
My brother threw walnuts at a ground squirrel.
It was almost dark. I decided to tell him.
He shook his head once, and then , “Yeah. Jesus. Sweet Jesus”
We walked back to the car in the shadow of a newly risen moon.
Jim Gish has been a Greyhound bus driver, a farm hand, a law student, a college instructor and a counselor in his strange life. His oldest daughter has a PhD from Harvard, and his youngest is finishing her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. Jim began writing when he was twelve years old and found out that little girls would sit with him on the bus. Gish lives in Arcanum, Ohio, and he is married to a retired computer programmer. He has won national awards from Phoebe, The Whiskey Review and Lunchtime Stories.