Shoshana Sumrall |
TIME OF DEATH
My body was still warm.
No one knows this but you.
The drone of the tractor drifted through the small window over the sink. Something closed overhead and froze in place, and you left my body where you found it, lying on the floor of the trailer your father set up for hired men.
Your father won’t be in from the field ‘til sundown. Your mother is down in the pasture, patching fence. Your older sister is still in town, volleyball practice. Now, behind the wheel of the ’79 Ford pickup they call Old Yeller, you feel the chill of this gray evening, your cheeks are clammy, the fireweeds growing in the ditch on either side of the gravel road fade and darken after a few feet, shifting shape in the mist.
If your father had known, he would have gotten the shotgun. You’ve heard on more than one occasion the speech about the hillbilly queers that come sniffing around for work; work on family farms with young boys ripe for harvesting. I never touched you, or gave any sign. But (you felt this) when I thought you weren’t paying attention, I looked.
The fields slide past, the cane and alfalfa cut and baled for the coming winter, naked stalks leaning drunkenly against one another, milo and wheat heads the combine missed, sagging toward the ground. A draft blows up through the floorboards, numbing your feet, and despite the squeaking of springs, the rattle of the rust-eaten exhaust pipe held in place with fence wire, you drift forward in immense silence. Power lines waver in the dying light between shrouded creosote crosses. You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know how I died.
You are so young.
Could I be somewhere else right now—a newborn again? At this moment as you drive on, my dead eyes, half open, staring up from the rippled linoleum, maybe a doctor is clearing the membrane and mucus from my nose and mouth, maybe I’m ripping off my first great lungful of air in preparation for that first life-affirming shriek.
Am I sitting beside you on this bald, sprung seat, or are you alone?
Are you afraid?
The headlights flicker on when you pull the black knob by the steering column. Fog twists in the yellow glow, a slow, ceremonial dance. Will you ever tell anyone what I was to you? Your children? Your grandchildren? Will you be a real man, or will you remain as you are now, moist and delicate, as yet unopened, easily crushed?
What do I mean to you? Am I the summer? Am I already fading, or are you afraid to look back? Back, perhaps, to a game of tag on the hay bales, before your folks came home. How the alfalfa chaff got into your nose and you fell off a giant bale with the force of your sneezes. How we laughed, side by side in the shade of the bales, dead stems poking our backs, itching from the crumbled, dry leaves down our shirt collars, the scents of parched hay and manure like a blanket, the sky a blinding, laughing blue. Did I look at you as anyone other than the funny, suntanned hired man?
Lifeless, I still smelled the same: of farm, of sweat, of tobacco. Just like the last time I clomped into your kitchen and accepted a plate of chops from your mother with a thank-you-ma’am and a hearty wink that made her laugh. At any moment my eyes might have suddenly twinkled, clear as the sky; my mouth might have curved into that ornery grin as I sat up, boot heels scraping the floor, reaching for your hand. Reaching for your hand.
But though my neck was still warm (the first and only time you touched my skin), you couldn’t find my pulse. You didn’t know how, where to press your fingers, your own blood pounding against the tight skin of your face, moving your ears up and down, the whir of the old, greasy clock over the stove a stealthy undertow, carrying nearer the shapes that are suspended in murk. Dad's hardened hands. Your sister's room. Her team uniform. Your mother, hurrying to bolt the windows against the coming storm.
Old Yeller sways as you jump a rut, the suspension nonexistent. You yank your foot off the gas, aware that you have been driving faster and faster, cold hanks of fog catching and tearing in the open windows, your ears now wholly numb. The fields are velvet shadow, the horizon the sunken red of old blood. The roads ahead spill into black infinity while those behind are a maze of wasted veins, crumbling and empty.
This is what you are seeing in your mind when a bristle of white, crisscrossing road signs spring out of the dark pointing left, right, skyward. Your foot slams into the floorboards before finding the brake pedal, the truck bed fishtailing, gravel flying. The engine shudders and dies. Dust rolls in through the windows as you sit trembling, the damp cold finally sinking in, turning your chapped hands into a pair of claws clamped to the wheel. You’ve driven twenty miles unaware, and now you are here—at the North T, west of the abandoned schoolhouse. Another few yards and Old Yeller would have slammed nose-first into the weed-choked ditch.
All around, the tumbleweeds sing in the hissing wind as your heart gradually slows. You switch off the ignition and, like an old man full of pain, lean across me to paw at the window crank. My big, callused hand would close over your own, gently warming you, if I were really here, easing the window up and leaving the night outside.
With the windows closed at last, we are truly alone. I lay my hand on your cheek, wiping away tears and grit. No man has touched you in this way. You dream about it. My grin. My knowing of you. “Let’s swing home, how ‘bout it, bud?”
White moonlight spilling across an empty vinyl seat. The hand, your own, falls from your face, turns the key, shifts into first. The roads carry you back around in a slow, crooked loop, until an alien glow leaps up, dancing at the bottom of South Hill. The trees surrounding the farmyard are awash in red and white pulsing lights, turning them into violent shapes that grow and shrink. The ambulance flies north toward the highway with one ripping shriek from the siren.
Are we given an official time of death when we die alone, or is it only when someone is there with us, to mark it precisely, like punching a stopwatch?
Old Yeller crawls up the driveway and you stop next to the corral gate. Your claws uncurl from the wheel and you kill the engine. As cold silence fills the cab…as you stare into the blackness beneath the dashboard…seeing my grease-marked boots…my sweat-soaked shirt…my sunburned neck…my eyes… fly open.
The siren. The white and red pulsing. The ambulance racing away.
Your mother gently breaks the news: Looks like a massive stroke, but we won’t know for sure 'til they call. If he lives, he might not be himself. He might not talk right. Might not remember things.
Will I have any memory of you, standing there looking down at me as I lay on the floor—more than an hour before your mother found me? After all you were permitted to feel when I was still dead, could you ever look into my face again? Will you ever look at yourself without this terror?
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