Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2
The Art of Dying
Robert Bateman (Ed.D., Rutgers U) teaches at Concord College. His recent articles on Latin American and Caribbean poetry, and the work of William Meredith are forthcoming from Salem Press.
"Haven't had snapper soup," he paused, gazing at the outline of her shoulders, noticing the gentle shift of her muscles as she swung the ladle from the battered soup pot to a white bowl beside it, "since I drowned him in the cedar swamp."
She leaned the spoon against the inside wall of the pot and lifted the bowl from the cluttered counter.
"What Jack?" A strand of brown hair was caught in the corner of her mouth. "I'm sorry." She had been coaxing the cat at her feet to move, nudging it with her foot. She hadn't heard him enter the kitchen and sit at the table behind her.
"I can't eat that," he said, shaking his head, as she placed the bowl in front of him. "I can't."
"Because of him."
She wiped her hands on the yellow cloth apron that hung from her neck and said, "What are you talking about? Are you feeling all right?" She stood over him, catching his glance for a second.
He looked away from her eyes. They seemed so blue and impartial in the fluorescent light. Second guessing her had always been impossible. He never could be certain what she was thinking by looking into her eyes even though he had known her since childhood. Instead he tried to distinguish the outlines of the green scrub pines that stood in the black yard beyond the kitchen door.
"I never told you because I didn't know what you would think. Hell, you don't even like me killing bugs in the house," he said clumsily, running his fingers through his fine hair. He hesitated. "You cared about him." For a moment he thought that he could find a more eloquent way of explaining it, but now knew he couldn't. He wanted desperately for her to be receptive. "I left Pap back there, Marge." Then he realized it, as if he hadn't thought about it a thousand times. He looked away from the kitchen door. It wasn't her acceptance he wanted, but her approval. His eyes followed her as she dropped into the chair. She appeared to be testing its strength, its ability to support her.
"But you told me he disappeared, that you went to his house to take him to the hospital and he was gone." She repeated the exact words that he had spoken to her and everyone else over six months ago.
He felt an unpleasant surge of blood rush up his neck to his thin face. His temples began to ache.
"I thought he'd be dead by the time I got to his place, but he wasn't. I don't know why I thought that. Maybe I wanted him to be dead. I know I wanted his misery to end. I just couldn't take him to the county hospital. He was past that." Jack waited for a response but her face was blank, unyielding. "I left him in the cripple and he drowned."
Jack had claimed that his grandfather vanished. The young man even helped the county sheriff organize a search party. But his grandfather was never found. Someone in the old man's condition could have easily become disoriented in the dense stands of pines and hardwoods or the soft bottoms of the cedar swamps that surrounded his house. Everyone accepted what appeared to be the dreadful conclusion.
A few seconds passed. Dripping water beat a steady but short-lived rhythm in the sink. She reached for the bowl in front of him and stood, not thinking about what she was doing, only running the single word through her mind. Drowned . . . . Drowned! Her eyes fell to the grooved linoleum floor as she turned toward the stove. Drowned! She stopped, her back rigid. The dead man rose before her. Jack's voice continued in the background—starting, hesitating—as he tried to decipher her reaction to his confession. But she didn't hear.
"And I don't want to be wedged into some goddamned four-by-eight piece of cemetery dirt surrounded by a lot of people that I couldn't stand when they was alive." Pap stopped and moved his fingers along the chest buttons of his grey shirt. "They were so damned petty when the blood was pumpin' through them, just think how irritatin' they'll be after a dozen or so years in the ground. You know I just want to rot in peace, that's all Marge." He was still for a minute. "And I understand that," he finally said. "Yes, sir."
The coffee wasn't hot yet but I could smell it. He liked a little chicory in it.
"That—whatever you call it." He pointed outside in the direction of the back field. "Those cedar logs fixed in the sand . . . that sculpture . . . . Number Eighteen. Isn't that what you named it?"
"Yes." I handed him a tin coffee cup. "Number Eighteen."
Pap's fingers were stained and burned from smoking his cigarettes until he couldn't hold them. The olive blanket slipped from his bony shoulders and fell onto the cot. Since the cancer came he couldn't get warm at night so he pulled his cot closer and closer to the wood stove. It wasn't far. There were only two rooms and an outhouse. I thought that he looked like a bad photograph of someone that day. He hardly resembled his old self. He rose cautiously and walked to the door, his unlaced boots sliding on the bare plank floor. He bent over once from the pain.
"Jesus kill me," he mumbled to himself, then pushed open the door and faced the neat, bushy rows of blueberries and Number Eighteen. "All those years. All that money and the work you did at that college. I didn't know nothin' except what those bitches made at church meetings: them tiny square pot holders and those damned plaster cats painted yellow with big orange eyes."
I could see Number Eighteen over his shoulder—the light brown logs standing aslant, lifting above the green, orderly rows of blue- berries, set against the pines and blackjacks, and only washed evening sky behind the top few convergent feet. I had asked him two summers before if I could use the wood that was stacked behind his place to build something, although I think I used the word create. I don't think Pap was impressed with the idea, but he said that he had no objections. Jack was his namesake, his favorite grandchild, and I knew that's why he said yes.
"It means everything in a way. Isn't that it?" He looked at me with a dying effervescence on his face.
He would be gone in three short weeks.
"But if you ain't lookin' at it right it don't mean nothin'."
"Took one hell of a long time to figure it. Practically my whole life, I guess. And that there is only one part of the picture. I was sittin' out back day before yesterday and it hit me. Sent a shudder through me and all of a sudden I knew, knew what you've been saying' Marge to Jack and your parents and my daughter and even her husband when he was still livin' and anybody else who'd give you a minute to spare." A trace of a smile touched his mouth. "Now I suppose you're doin' the same over at that high school, tryin' to tell them kids about all this and how important it is." He coughed, mucus thick in his throat. "It's beyond words nearly. The difference," he looked through the doorway again, "between that and some boat-model made of popsicle sticks, is that Number Eighteen will git inside you, do somethin' to your spirit, make you squirm a little and maybe even make you think about life and death and what in the hell we're doin' here and where we're goin' too."
I nodded again, but he didn't notice.
"Yes sir. You jest can't say, man that's nice. Maybe it took me a lifetime, but you know Marge, I've never been the schooled type. I've been workin' these woods here since I was a boy. I never had the time for much else. But it's better now than never, I'd say." He was quiet for a minute as his chest rattled. "You got to take some time and study it. Try 'n feel it like when you're trackin' a buck and you know that he'll be able to smell you in a flash. You got to think ahead of him, see where that buck's gonna go." He coughed again, wincing from the pain. "It's like a beautiful day, a summer mornin', I think. The world's alive. You step outside and smell the air, look at the sky. You hear the birds. Then you git this feelin' inside. And you can hardly explain it because it comes and goes so fast. But somethin' is happenin' inside you—way down deep inside. And if you grab it, you're part of that mornin' too, jest not someone lookin' at it. All of a sudden you're bigger than you, if that makes any sense." He lifted his arm, searching for support. "Surprised?"
"No, Pap. I'm not surprised." I reached for his hand. "You're right," I said quietly.
He was tired. I helped him back to his cot, and I put the coffee cup on the table next to him. I watched him lean back exhausted from the talk and movement. He stared at the ceiling, a phantom drifting away from me. Then I covered him with the blanket. His eyes were closed before I left the house. It was getting dark, and I could hear the peepers as I drove along the sand road between the head-high blueberries. When the truck hit the tar, everything dissolved into the cool, nighttime swish of spring air.
"It's the turtles, Marge." Jack had waited patiently for her to say something, anything. "They're probably from the bog that's fed by the cripple when it rains. That's where Wescoat gets them."
The bowl slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor, throwing soup across the kitchen.
"Hell," she said as she automatically fell to her knees and began to wipe the liquid with her apron, gingerly piling the pieces of the white bowl to one side. The cat rushed eagerly to her.
He know that she didn't want to hear anymore, but he continued to justify the drowning by explaining why he couldn't eat the soup.
"They eat red meat. The big ones—the alligators—even pull ducks down." He listened to the insects hurling themselves against the screen door then bouncing away repeatedly as if they could only sense the bright light in the room and not the physical barrier that prevented them from reaching it. He saw that he would have to tell her, that merely recalling the final act wouldn't be enough. Slowly his mouth started to move, forming the fragile sounds that would hopefully convince her that he had done the right thing, that his grandfather had wanted it that way.
"I stopped the pickup where the road dipped and curved to the left. For almost two hundred yards before that I could see the cedars up above the other trees. The day was over but the air hadn't cooled much. It was probably the first real warm day that spring. The sand was almost hot. Every few minutes I looked through the rear window at him on the thin mattress that I pulled from his cot. With the gate closed no one could see him. I had carried him in my arms from the house. I don't imagine that he weighed more than eighty pounds by then. Ma said to take him to the hospital, but she wouldn't come with me. She couldn't stand seeing him that way. He was delirious, lost in what Aunt Dell used to call the shadowland—not here but not delivered—struggling with his worn hands, trying to grab hold of anything that would anchor him here and keep him away from the emptiness. He opened his eyes just as I put him down on the truck bed and he looked right at me. For a second I thought he was coming round even though his eyes were still filmy and yellow. He opened his mouth. His false teeth were out and his gums were dry and shriveled. He groaned hoarsely as he tried to say something. I moved my ear closer to his lips. 'Dead,' he said without a breath. 'Dead.'
"It got darker when the truck entered the swamp. The road firmed up and mixed with some gravel. The trees were tight in against us, growing a foot or two apart for half a mile. Water sat in pockets surrounded by mounds of peat and ferns. The bugs were bunched in clusters here and there. I could hear the cripple running hard, and them damn frogs were banging like mad back in there. He shrieked once behind me. I glanced back at him, the outline of his skull showing blue-grey under his skin, and knew that I couldn't take him to the hospital, couldn't let them hook him up to some goddamned machine and fill him with drugs that he refused to take in the first place, just for a couple of more days of lifeless breathing.
"I turned the engine off and got out. By the time I reached his feet, the gnats and early skeeters had already started to light on him. I lifted him and stepped off the road into the swamp, threading my way between the tall cedars toward the sound of the water. Pap was quiet then. No more moaning, almost as if he knew that it would be over soon. The ground was soft and my feet sank beneath the water. I looked up once. A white moth floated down out of the branches, but it was a splinter of light that caught my attention. It creased the top. The branches were so dense and tangled up above me that it looked like a gigantic dome or something, all hollow and still. But that bit of light made it through the tangle and hung there, just above us.
"Then I reached the cripple. It had swelled to about twenty feet across from the rain. I stepped in. It was only knee deep. I cradled him against me and wondered why he hadn't been taken without the pain and suffering. I stepped farther into the water. It was cool and the color of light molasses. When it was waist deep I stopped, knowing that it wouldn't get any higher. The water wet his backside and feet. I wanted to get it over with. I looked down at him and started to sing for some reason, the same hymn that grandma used to sing to us when we were little. My voice got clogged and I started to cry. I raised my pitch, letting the notes rise out of my stomach. I went through it once, then again, the tears still coming. Right at the end I lowered him until he was free of my arms. He seemed to stay up over the water for a second then he spun once, ending with his face down. He butted against a stump and disappeared. I waited there for five or ten minutes, thinking that he might come up but he didn't. Then I walked out to the pickup, drove home and reported him missing." Jack exhaled, letting the air escape resolutely through his nostrils.
"What have you told your mom?" she said with a low voice as she carried the pieces of the soup bowl toward the counter.
"Just what I told you before. Nothing more."
"She has no idea?" Marge extended her arms, her hands still clutching pieces of the broken bowl. "Christ, Jack. He was her father."
"I know that." He paused, lowering his eyes for a second. "I'm not sure it makes a difference now. Not that she wouldn't care."
"But you . . . ." She grimaced, her arms falling to her sides. "God."
They faced each other, not speaking now. A long time passed, and it was punctuated by nothing except the incessant ping of the insects on the screen. Marge dropped the jagged pieces of the soup bowl on the counter then returned to the table. She mirrored her husband's anxious gaze, thinking, for an instant, that she understood. But she still heard the same interminable word over and over.