Location: Swampscott MA
Pushlished In: Rosebud, Red Hen Press' Blue Cathedral, Short Fiction for the New Millennium anthology, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog-The Southeast Review, Southern Indiana Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge
Book: Banjo Grease
Awards: First Place in The Alsop Review's 1999, Taproot Literary Journal's 1998, and The Oval's 1996 fiction contests
My brother gatecrashed Arlington National Cemetery. It was Jeremiah's penultimate prank. The three-rifle volley, bugled "Taps," his casket draped by the American flag ceremoniously folded like an heirloom bedspread then handed off to his wife by a patent-leather-shod Marine. Even the tears. But there was no jumping out of the dirt cake this time, yelling, "Surprise!"
"Are you driving back with the undertaker?" she asked.
"I want to linger. I'll hitch a ride later," I said, watching the black cortege move formally toward Memorial Gate.
I tossed a pebble onto his embossed casket. "All right now, Houdini, time to cut the shit and climb out of there. Everybody's gone home." The afternoon sun puddled his grave. If we had been kids and come upon the box in a meadow, we would have jury-rigged cart wheels to its sides and fashioned a steering wheel at its prow. It was a handsome rig.
"Jeremiah, now don't be playing tricks on me. Why, Christ, you ain't even been in the military. (He'd been Sunday-soldiering in the Marine Reserves.)
"The grave tenders be here soon to pile a ton of dirt on your bloody ass. Now come on out!"
Jeremiah wasn't stirring.
"Shit, man--what's a joke if you ain't around to laugh about it?"
A clique of men in white coveralls crested the ridge and marched straight toward us, shovels resting like M-1 rifles on their right shoulders. With military precision they pitched the black earth into his hole. The first spadefuls rained onto the copper roof in metronome time. If he was listening, he could hear it, too. Soon I no longer heard the
pinging. Just soft earth raining upon itself--muffled like his voice.
"I warned you, didn't I? One day you'd take this business of shilling laughs too damn far. Who will ever give a shit that Jeremiah Daugherty slid his way under the gates of Arlington, singing, ‘I got plenty of nothin', and nothin's got plenty of me'?"
At the coda, the lead worker tossed the soil higher than usual. The earth retained the shape of a black spade--it floated in the half-light fugitively, then splat on the ground.
"It may be Arlington to you, Brother, but it's marble city to them." Patching the wound with sod, the grave men tamped it down in a macabre line dance. As the formation marched back up the hill, I returned to the site. Jeremiah was down there deeper than one man could stand on another man's shoulders. Waves of sooty light rolled progressively across the ridge. I lay on the sod listening for a heartbeat, but heard only cicadas from out beyond the spear-topped gate.
Lying down there a sacrilege. Bad enough when Jeremiah set Josiah Cringle's hay field on fire. Burned a swatch right through it from the shoulder on Countyline road straight out into the middle where he collapsed--his pant legs burning like cattails soaked in benzene.
A charred scar down the center of the pasture.
Got called that Sunday afternoon to the hospital and met Jeremiah lying on a gurney in the emergency room, smoking. Mother fainted because she thought he was dead. His legs were swathed in gauze, as were his hands and arms. The orderly arced the cigarette to and away from his mouth mechanically.
My brother, as always, wearing a big shit-eatin' grin, "Now don't be alarmed, Ma. Ain't nothing more than a severe sunburn. Be out of here in a couple of days. Just lucky that old Ben here (he gestured to a dour stranger in a Marine uniform) saw me on fire, jumped out of his car 'n' rolled me into his overcoat and stamped the flame right out of my legs. Damndest thing. I didn't feel a thing. Still don't, for that matter."
Ben muttered something to the effect that he had to stamp on Jeremiah to save him. Seems my brother's car had run out of gas, and he'd borrowed a can from a neighboring farm house, then carelessly poured some onto his clothes while priming Pap's carburetor. When he got the car going good again, he lit a cigarette. That's when the show opened.
"Sonofabitch, flames leapt like fire ants to my hands and arms. So I got outta of the car and began running through a field. The damn meadow's attacked by the ants, too. Christ, we were all burning."
"Why did you run, Jeremiah?" Pap asked.
"Don't know. Why'd I do it, Ben?"
The orderly gave Jeremiah another drag.
A week later we were again summoned to Harmony Memorial. In our dining room, a roll-away cot sat alongside the old Kimball upright awaiting his arrival. The mood was grim outside the ward's door. "Your son may not be coming home, Mr. Daugherty," the doctor said. "He's gone into shock. Third-degree burns. We're doing all we can to save him."
Instead of gladioli, Jeremiah's body was surrounded by a mass of tubes and wires, causing him to look like he was some kind of gauzed bird caught in a tangle of rural electric lines. Mother gripped the rail at the foot of his bed. His eyes were shut, but his face had a yellow cast to it that old stew chickens do.
Pap leaned down and whispered something in his ear.
Mother began keening. I stood over in the corner of the hospital room, trying to act grief-stricken like the others, but knew something about Jeremiah none of them fully understood.
"You got to learn to treat death like a woman," he said one night as we lay in bed.
"What do you mean?"
"You can't be afraid of them, Westley."
"I ain't afraid of women."
"The real ones, you are," he said. "The kind that chew your balls off, huh? Not Jeremiah Daugherty. I grab their headlights and yank them right to me. Laugh in their cold faces. That's when they begin to bend. Well, let me tell you a secret, Brother . . . it's how you treat Mr. Taps, too. Blow smoke right back into his hairy face."
"How can you be sure?" I said.
"'Cause Mr. Taps smells like a woman. Do you think men hang themselves because they want to die? No, they do it because they smell cunt."
"You're full of shit, Jeremiah. Go to sleep."
"Listen to me. I'm trying to teach you something."
"How do you know?"
"I've smelled both. Ain't no difference."
"That death smells like a woman?"
"Under the armpits. Between the legs."
"You got a big imagination, too."
"Remember when you and me found Mama bent over the canning stove in the cellar with the Maytag cozy over her head?"
Headlights of passing cars flitted across our bedroom walls.
"And you carried her up the stairs into the living room crying for her to come alive--me, bawling like a ninny, running alongside, holding her hand like I wanted her to take me with her? And how you hollered for me to open the living room window so she could get air, then threw the damn glass figurine of some fairy through it . . . and the window crashed all over the living room floor like ice while you pumped on Mama's body?"
"Well, I ain't told you this, Westley, but when the stench of her dying began to fill the living room that Sunday afternoon--I knew. Death don't just creep through the walls. Maybe no footprints behind, maybe no notes, or pieces of raggedly clothing, but he does leave his perfume.
"Smells just like a woman. God's word."
I sat up in bed and stared at Jeremiah. His moon-lit face, like General Grant's on town common, was one of intense determination.
"You sure?" I said.
"Mama's alive, ain't she?"
"In the next room."
"Probably in Pap's arms. Same thing, Westley."
Arlington by now had succumbed to night. No moisture wicking up through the toupee on my brother's grave.
"You got it all wrong, Jeremiah," I cried. "Wasn't Mr. Tap's fragrance you smelled. You just got a toxic whiff of Mama's lusting to die. She was in the heat of the act when we cut it short. Remember what she said when she came to? ‘Why did you do that?' Like she were scolding us, huh?
"But you, intoxicated by Mama's rutting, kept flying against her like a moth to a light bulb. Until Mama got her wish. Except it's you, Jeremiah! Not her.
"Out here among all these decorated stiffs. All eternity having to lie, pretending you were shot down over Cringle's farm. That your P-38 strafed the Union Trust Bank in downtown Harmony before it suddenly caught fire and you parachuted out of the sky, a torch. Wearing all those bottle caps on your chest . . . you think these people won't be
able to see through this?"
I began to roll the sod back off Jeremiah's grave.
"You're coming home with me! ‘It was just a big goddamn foolish joke of my brother's, sir.' That's what I'll say. ‘Please excuse us. I'll just put a dolly under this oversized fancy copper box here and wheel him back to Harmony where the fuck he belongs.'
Following Jeremiah's immolation, the surgeons peeled skin with a newfangled machine off his buttocks to patch his legs. Soon his ass looked like it'd been strafed. Then they took to the chest and stomach. Kept harvesting good skin to replace the decaying grafts. Nobody allowed to look, to take a peek to see if the patches were taking. But neither of us needed to wait for the unveiling.
We could smell.
Jeremiah began potting his shoes with hyacinths and tulips visitors brought him. He folded each page in the Gideon Bible, causing it to fan out like farmers do with the Montgomery-Ward catalogue in outhouses. Any object of affection he'd transform into a device of mockery.
Days after the seventh operation--he had me run my nose down over his bandaged legs. I couldn't smell a thing.
"Doc, don't bullshit me. What do they smell like to you?" he pestered.
Two months later, we walk out of the hospital together. His right leg, which had burned hotter than the other, was now barely more than a bone with a thin layer of bird flesh. But it did have a cordovan loafer on the end of it, all shined and supple with a brand new dime.
"Hold on, brother. I'll be there soon." But the digging was tedious. A fog had crept over the burial grounds, veiling a gibbous moon. I had to feel the edges of the great lawn's lesion.
"Don't let your ass get too comfortable now." I dug throughout the night, striking copper by dawn. At the first sign of sun slowly rising over Arlington's crest, it flooded onto Jeremiah's casket like fire. Just as I had imagined--as I had worked above him through the night, he had labored below me.
The catafalque didn't have spoked cart wheels . . . instead Jeremiah had stretched a kind of parchment, or goat skin, over a skeleton of wings--a Fokker--and added a tail to its rear. They were fragile appendages. Sunlit gossamer, locusts' wings almost, about to flap this coffin out of Arlington.
"No, Jeremiah, I don't smell a goddamn thing! I swear." To the nose of the bier I attached a propeller . . . not of a common sort, but fabricated out of two shovels, yoked end to end. Two giant spoons. Their black blades ready to scoop the air into a wind that would lift us heavenward.
"Jeremiah, we're going to do it!"
And I climbed out of the grave. The box lay glinting in the sun. Its parchment wings and tail, translucent.
"Hurry," I cried. "Before the squad returns."
Like a locust, the bier's wings began to pulsate. The fuselage of humanity lifting, levitating the copper box out of Arlington's hole.
"Jeremiah! Where are you?"
The box hovered inches above the earth's massive wound, the sun Blakian on its body, its locust-chattering deafening. Slowly the lid began to open to the morning, the scent of gladioli and roses wafting out of its interior.
"Climb in," he calmly said. "We're going home."
I peered into the hovering contraption. He lay there, smirking, as I would have been disappointed if he hadn't. Outfitted in Marine dress sporting a shiny visored officer's cap. He had gold stripes on his coat sleeves and a legion of combat ribbons on his breast. But the satin blanket still covered his legs.
"Come on, dammit. We can't hover indefinitely," he barked.
I climbed in and the contraption began to lift off. Up over the crest of the hill. Then we started to go down the other side. "Slow down!" I cried.
But Jeremiah was having none of it.
"Jesus Christ, Jeremiah, we're going too fast!"
A gleam in his eye like the day I saw him following the scarring of Cringle's grassland. About to yank her headlights to him. Like he was going to fuck her. I put my feet out of the bottom of the contraption's fuselage, skidding the macadam.
"God almighty, Jeremiah, we're going to crash!"
Jeremiah was now laughing, yanking on one side of the car's wheels with Mother's clothesline, then tugging on the other. The spoked wheels we'd purloined off a neighbor's baby buggy were twisting, wobbling like they'd lost their strength, too. Now both my feet were dragging on the tar, smoking the leather right off them.
I shoved my head into Jeremiah's lap, holding onto him for dear life, the Death-smells-like-a-woman pilot, and squeezed hard. But, Jesus be my witness, squeezed air--for there was no Jeremiah. All dress uniform. Weren't a soul inside. Just medals, stripes and golden epaulets.
The fuselage on the contraption's wings and tail his own. Glinting in the sun like bird skin over bone. Blue veins its tracery. A bag of bile its heart.
When the soapbox went headlong through the plate glass window, Jeremiah yelled:
"Do you smell her yet, Westley? Now are you afraid?"