Saturday, November 1, 2008

A great din.

The boy was eleven years old when his father took him out to The Strippings on the outskirts of town to teach him how to shoot a gun. The gun was a twelve gauge hunting rifle which used to belong to his grandfather. His father had his thirty-ot-six: a wedding present from a previous marriage, also from the boy's grandfather. Both rifles had matching brown leather straps with THOMAS engraved in them, surrounded by other decorative engravings of acorns and leaves and feathers, and smelling of neatsfoot, and autumn.

Standing where he was, the boy could see his entire town glowering with saturnine dejection and moated by an abysmal slough. The father, standing abreast to the boy (already quite tall for his age), pointed vaguely into the autumnal expanse and asked his son if he could see the cliffs hanging over the Susquehana in the distance. The boy couldn't make out where his father was pointing, but nodded just the same and his father began to recall a time when he was around the same age as the boy.

"You're about twelve now, huh, bud?"

"That's right, dad," the boy answered. And so - in between long, thoughtful pauses - the boy's father told him: "It was me, the Corney twins, a couple of the Deyarmin boys, Jimmy Sunderland, and my best friend, Randy, and we were all swimmin' down there at those cliffs. Now, you see that road right there, bud? The dirt one that cuts through the woods? Well, that road'll actually bring you right up to where we are now. They used to haul coal out of here and trucks'd be runnin' back and forth all the time on that road. They'd have up to a dozen trucks runnin' all day long carryin' tons and tons of coal out of this place. But, shit - that was probably thirty years ago. Now you're as likely to find a dinosaur egg in The Strippings as you are a piece of coal. But . . . that's just the way things work, I suppose . . .

"Anyway, we were swimmin' in the river down there at the cliffs and I remember being underwater and hearing this huge explosion. I can still hear it, even. Sometimes when your mom slams a cupboard door or I hear a loud bang at work - it takes me right back to that moment. Gives me chills, ya know? So, anyway, I swam to the top of the water and looked around, half-expecting to see doomsday, but there was nothing. And all of the guys were standin' around just as dumbfounded as me." Listening to his father, the boy imagined himself and several of his own friends with matted, wet hair and awe-struck faces, shivering in anxious consternation despite the summer heat. His father then pulled a cigarette from his flannel shirt pocket, lit it, and took a long, pensive drag; lost in his own recollection, staring straight ahead as if peering through a window into the past no one else could see. His face had become even more stolid than usual; his expressions entirely withdrawn and hidden as if protecting the boy from something. The boy watched his father fastidiously, watched his protuberant jaw muscles undulating with deep thought as the horrors of some forgotten nightmare roused in his mind.

"What happened, dad?" the boy asked, almost too afraid to hear the rest of his father's story.

"This smoke botherin' your asthma, bud?" the man asked his son without looking at him.

"No, it's fine. What made the noise?"

"Well, " the man continued, "you remember your Bup's friend, Griff?" The boy told his father he did remember Griff, but not very well, and so the man explained: "Well, Griff used to be the town constable - which is like being the sheriff - and he used to drive around in this beat up, old, red pick-up truck with a broken muffler and no matter where you were in the town, you could hear him if he was drivin' somewhere. It didn't matter if you were up at Harmony Circle and he was down at the railroad tracks comin' into town, you could hear that truck. And, like I said, whenever I came out of the water, everyone was frozen, but we heard Griff's truck start up somewhere and heard it coming our way, and it seemed to bring us out if it, ya know? And I don't know how or why, but it seemed like there was a sudden drop in the temperature; middle of the summer and there was an undeniable chill in the air. So, when we heard Griff's truck comin' we started running out towards the road. And I'll tell you, bud, we weren't even out of the woods before we heard the screaming. We all started running as fast as we could and all the while the sound of Griff's truck was getting louder and closer, too, ya know?

"What I saw that day, son, I don't think I'll ever, ever be able to forget. Not for as long as I live. I still have nightmares about it and I'm sorry I even brought it up, but you're gettin' to be a man now, so I'll tell you: apparently one of the coal truck drivers had been working all night and he fell asleep behind the wheel on his last load out and hit another truck comin' in empty. When we got to the road we saw the two trucks, both on fire and smashed to hell. The guy who had fallen asleep must've been thrown from his truck because was lying on the edge of the woods, probably a good thirty feet from the accident, and just screaming uncontrollably. Not screaming for help, not screaming out of pain, but just screaming like he was possessed by a goddamn demon or somethin'. The other guy - the one who'd been driving the empty load - was trapped inside his truck being burned alive. I'll tell you, that is a smell you will never forget, not as long as you live. One never forgets the smell of burning human flesh . . .

"We weren't there for longer than a second before Griff showed up and, by God, he looked just as scared and confused as we were. I mean, sure, he was the constable, but he was the constable of this town for Christ's sake! I'd be surprised if that poor sonofabitch even knew CPR! He didn't know what to do. There was no way to help the man being burned alive in his truck without getting burned up yourself and the guy who'd been thrown from his truck was bleeding like a stuck pig and - with what little breath he could muster after his screamin' fit - started begging Griff to shoot him. Griff didn't even carry a gun, ya know? But, incidentally, I was getting drunk with Griff a couple years back (this was before you were born, bud) and he told me that if he'd had a gun on him at the time he would've fulfilled that man's request for him." The boy's father took another drag and held it for a long time before releasing it beneath a sigh.

"So, what happened to those men, dad?" the boy asked his father, trying in vain to suppress his imagination from reenacting the scenes his father's story was fecundating in his mind, but also too enthralled to not hear the conclusion.

"Well, the guy in the truck burned to death and Griff and us loaded the other guy in the bed of Griff's truck and he drove him out to the hospital."

"Did he live?" the boy asked with cautious optimism.

"He did. But one night - 'bout a year later, I'd say - he went to Freno's and had a few beers and then went out to his truck and shot himself." Hearing this, the boy stared at the ground, trying to confide in the unyielding indifference of the dirt. His father asked him if he was feeling well and the boy said he was fine in a shaky, but mostly calm voice. His father said: "I'm sorry, bud. I shouldn't have told you that story. How about we go get some burgers at the Dairy Queen? I'll show you where me and the Corney boys and Randy all got drunk and flipped Randy's little Austin Healy and almost killed Bozo Bartlebaugh."

"Okay, dad. But first can I just ask you one more question?" the boy asked, looking in his father's eyes.

"Sure, bud. What's up?"

"Why didn't the man being burned alive in his truck scream, too?"

His father thought for a moment and then - in a quiescent tone, almost to himself - offered: "He must not have been able to feel any pain, bud."

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