by Chris Armentano
Carl, my eight-year-old grandson, skims around this place like a little redheaded water bug. Being he’s a McKinley he’s a curious little critter, interested in everything he sees, and I’m challenged to answer his questions about what something is, what it does, who made it, how’s it work. I was like that as a kid growing up on this farm, where I tortured my dad with questions about everything: whether it was a rusty piece of machinery left out behind the barn or the knife he used to nip horn buds on young steers. When he was about six, Carl asked me how some cows are steers and some are bulls. Some are going to be making more cows, I said, while some were going to end up slow roasting on the barbecue. I could see him wince when I told him about the process of slicing across a young bull’s scrotum, yanking out a pair of hot testicles and throwing them in a bucket. “Don’t it hurt?” he said. I laughed and told him I never felt a thing. That old joke I probably heard on the farm when I was about his age.
Carl stays with us from time to time so my son and his wife can have a little alone time, which works out good for everybody, especially for me and Carl. You’re two peas in a pod, his grandma is likely to say, when she catches us up to something around this old place. We do seem to like most of the same things, even though we’re at opposite ends of the calendar. About the farm, I’d say there’s not much we don’t like, except maybe the hayseed that can torment a burning back when we’re dragging the hay rake around with the Massey Ferguson or loading bails on the wagon for the trip to the barn. I bet if you asked him, he’d tell you that even standing in the highest part of the hay loft, which under a tin roof in July and August must be the hottest place on earth, beats standing with your finger up your nose in the outfield at Little League. It don’t hurt neither that there’s nothing we like better than watching horses any time of day. Best time though is the golden time about a half hour before the sun slips behind the greenish black scuff of trees on our western flank; between here and tomorrow. When the light coming in at a low angle turns grass the jeweled green that all other green things wish they was. And ends with us struck silent by the molten copper that rims the silhouettes of our grazing chestnuts. I always wondered how poor other people might be for not getting to see such a thing and how rich we are to see it night after night.
One difference between us, though, is that Carl likes to make friends with everything, which is a problem when he’s taken to a steer that’s going to end up in our freezer. On the other side of things, I learned pretty early that where there’s live cows there’s going to be dead ones, and that’s the way it is.
When all’s said, I can’t say he’s happier than most kids; it just seems he’s wrapped life in a big grin, which, of course is a wonderful sight for someone like me, who knows a little about the pain and disappointments waiting for him up the road.
Then came the other day. Out of nowhere, while we’re driving home in the truck after I’d picked him up from school, he asked me about the new cross: the one that’s a smaller version of the cross of Jesus, standing against a fence post about twenty feet off State Route 31. It’s a cross like a lot of others around here that mark where car crashes took a life or two. This one though was close to home at the intersection of our road and the highway that runs straight south to Dunncannon.
“Grandpa,” he says, “I dreamt about it.” More than once it turns out. Then he turns to me with a pleading look in his brown eyes and says, “That cross scares me.” When I’m a bit slow to respond, he adds, “I don’t want to be scared no more.” Here we go, I thought.
The new cross was put up three days after a fatal crash that stunned us awake late one Saturday night. What I’d heard, dead in my sleep, was like a rolling thunder: tons of steel, that I knew right away was vehicles carrying people, being compressed and torn apart out on the main road. It was something that scared the hell out of me and probably every living thing in earshot, including Carl, who’s parents left him with us for the weekend while they did some adult things over in Jackson. He’d been asleep safe and sound in his dad’s old room when we heard what I knew was death coming near our doorstep.
In about no time after the crash, the sirens came bursting across the two miles of pasture and livestock fences between us and 31. First comes the screaming wup wup of the Sheriff’s car. Then the ambulance. Both barreling like hell down the eight miles of highway from the center of our little town. That set our horses running: four sets of hooves under tremendous weight pounding back and forth. Our handful of dogs, along with every hound and mutt in the neighborhood, announced the world’s on fire. I went outside to get closer to the sound. Carl came out too. Barefoot in his pajamas, and he’d grabbed hold of my wife’s hand. As I was figuring whether to drive up there to get a look, I noticed his eyes had gotten big as saucers. No doubt his fear hormones had taken charge so I moved over to drop my arm around his little shoulders to let him know that what ever was going on, nothing was going to hurt him. We wouldn’t let it.
I ended up staying with the family. No need I thought going up there. I was just curious; which wasn’t enough of a reason to leave them in the yard staring at the pulsing red glow off in the distance. Truth be told, I didn’t really want to see the bloody mess I knew was out there. So we went back inside. Marge tucked Carl in, and I got to bed knowing it was bad. I guess that’s why I didn’t get much sleep and swore a little at the eastern sky when dawn started to show her face, and I knew I had to get up. I don’t think Carl slept much the rest of the night since he was tough to rouse for his pancake breakfast. Later, I supposed we should have gotten him to sleep in our room because eight isn’t old enough to handle the fear from the terrible noise we heard.
That was a Saturday. The cross was put up on a Tuesday, by Tom Jr, the dead man’s son, who I figure carved “Tommy L. RIP” into the plain wooden cross, painted it the color of dirt, and planted some yellow flowers nearby. Plastic flowers, maybe. What I know about the accident is that Tommy was turning right onto Southwest Second Street when some redneck hit him. A drunk, I’d guess, too smashed to catch Tommy’s signal or see the brake lights flare when he slowed enough to make the turn. He was almost home to Betty who like always was waiting up until he got home from playing cards at the VFW. It was something he did every Saturday night with a few Vietnam vets like himself. That damn drunk did Satan’s work.
I used to be part of the same card game at the VFW. Started in with those boys when I got back from Viet Nam at the tail end of the 60s. We were seven: Irish Mike, Will Cady, Tommy, me and a few farm boys whose names it hurts too much to mention. Cards wasn’t the point. Was never the point for us. Couldn’t be because cards was a normal thing to do and none of us was normal. How could we be coming back from where what passed for normal was as thin as cigarette paper? There was nothing normal in what we saw, what we did, or who we were. Nobody except those vets understood that.
I got out of my drinking career at the VFW when the Lord, or somebody less important, told me my life in this little town was only about to change if I did something about my sorry state. If I didn’t, that bar stool was going to be a permanent part of my ass and end up being what I was known for. When Dad took me aside one time to say God intended me to do better, I looked at him dumb struck, but I knew he was right. That woke me up some, and it wasn’t but a minute later Marge came along. More accurate to say I came around. That little red head’d been in my life the whole time. I’d see her at church and around town but I was too busy trying to undress girls with racing stripes on their jeans to pay her any mind. When the time was right I asked her out. She said “no.” But would I mind sitting with her at coffee after church? We dated a handful of times, and when I saw how good she was with the old timers, and how she and the farm got on so well, I started thinking of possibilities. It took a while before one thing led to another and now, after almost five decades, I’m still grateful she ended my tour at the VFW by wrangling me off the junk heap where I’d been stewing in my own rust water. That’s about true, but I’d been getting ready for it for some time. I just needed a push or some suction. Not sure which.
If you ask Marge, she’ll say we lasted this long because we love each other. I’d say the key was adjusting our expectations about money, passion and whether or not I was listening.
When I was about Carl’s age, back in the 50s, I heard my Dad explain the crosses on the side of the road: how they’re mostly monuments for the dumb, drunk unfortunates of our dirt-in-your-ears town. That’s when I first heard him say they were markers for red-neck road kill. No offense meant by it. Dad said we were proud red-necks, which was what we were: church regulars who was rough working, patriotic farm folks since the day in the 1880s when great grand pa found this place.
I figured with crosses about as common as the telephone poles lining 31 that sooner or later I had to see the aftermath of a crash. I did too. One time out on the four lane we were about the first to come upon two bodies thrown from a rolled over convertible. In the middle of the black top we saw two rag dolls, still as posts that had been crushed in blood. The car, still running, had tumbled a few hundred feet up the road and was resting bottom up like a dead cockroach. Mom told us to look away. I did as fast as I could, but not before my stomach lurched and my head started buzzing like a summer’s worth of cicadas at vespers.
Afterwards, in my dark bedroom I feared dead people were coming to get me. Maybe I’d hear them on the stairs or when I got up to pee or get a drink of water I’d see their smashed and bloody faces looking in the window. I was living in a horror movie that just kept playing.
In those days the crosses scared me stupid. Dad said I’d get used to seeing them, but the more I saw, the more I thought about the crashes and the more dangerous the world seemed to be. Sometimes I’d see the crosses in my sleep. Stuck in the ground but swaying and bent over like frost kill, with arms and faces made of smoke coming up out of them. Then the smoke would chase our car and I’d be hunkered on the floor in the back seat afraid to look out the window. Dad would just keep driving. Always too slow to get away. Then I’d be fighting the door handle, fearing the smoke would pull me out and fling me on the road where I’d tumble every which way like so much trash. I’d always wake up shaking– afraid and cold from having kicked off the covers while I was trying to run.
Those nightmares shamed and terrified me for a good part of my childhood until I was almost twelve. I was about too old to be such a scaredy cat and felt real ashamed for it. It was then, when I couldn’t take the fear anymore, that I told myself I wouldn’t dream those dreams ever again and I never did. God must have helped me.
Now my eight-year-old grandson says he’s having nightmares the way I did, and he’s come up with the idea that the man, Tommy, will never leave the site of the crash that killed him. The cross, he says, marks about where the man’s soul left his body, which could’ve been in the nearby woods where his car ended up, or where the two roads come together. No son, I tell him. That can’t be.
I’m sad to know he’s so sure about this that he puts his little body in a twist and won’t look at the cross as we drive by. I guess he’s scared he might see Tommy’s ghost and it breaks my heart that I’m so helpless, other than to say what my folks told me, how there’s no such thing as ghosts. I can’t tell him what they said made me less afraid. It didn’t. So I wonder if I should tell him that all of us who live on this green earth are frightened deep down. All of us are, because, with good reason, we think this place can’t be fully trusted: that something like what happened to Tommy could happen any minute to any of us. That somebody else could be startled awake in the middle of the night by some awful thing that was happening to us out on the highway. I could tell him that but I think that’d hurt more than help. So I tell him that ghosts is useful: how imagining ghosts is something people do all the time; cause pinning one fear on a spirit helps us face other things that scare us. Which is how for a while, at least, those ghosts, even Tommy’s, can help us get by.
When I’m done I see his face pinched up, mouth puckered, like he’s trying to keep what I said from slipping away before he’s done thinking about it. A few minutes pass and he doesn’t say anything but I can tell from how his eyes are moving side to side, that he’s looking for anything in what I said that rings true. After a little while, when he’s done thinking, he sits back in the seat and lets his shoulders drop like mine do when I relax. “Grandpa,” he says, “maybe you’re right.”
Maybe I am. But tell me, after all these years how good’s the chance I’ve learned to tame anybody’s terrors: either an old man’s or an eight-year-old boy’s? If you asked me, I’d say hardly better than a hole in the floor casting a shadow. In my heart I hope it’s more than that, but we’ll see.