It will be a damn fine day, you said, and so Paul rallied the gear: droopy fishing poles, night crawlers, nickel-shiny lures with foil tails, a Remington 12-gauge rifle with the safety on, all rattling in the rusted truck bed, bouncing (“the suspension’s shot,” you’d told Nana as she signed another check). To hell with the overnight rain turned oil-slick morning mud; you and Paul took the dirt road through the dark, downhill to the good fishing spot. With some blessing from the Holy Ghost, your tires evaded every ditch. You cracked the Millers open at dawn and watched everything rise. You cast a lure for the last time, humming Wayward Son. Sunrise dripping over everything, trout scales shining on the line and the low thrum of your baritone (God, could you sing). This is how Paul tells the story of your last morning on earth.
We all think, is Paul a murderer? “There is something not right about that boy,” Aunt Constance murmurs in coffee breath at the wake, bits of stuffed mushroom under her red-heart fingernails, matching lipstick on her teeth, plastic freezer bags in her Canal Street purse. Dad doesn’t lower his voice as Paul shuffles between memorial photos of you, fidgeting in a formal shirt far too large for him (yours, I think, from Christmas last year). “It was two hours before anybody got to them,” Dad says, “In July! Blood boiling on the rocks. His roommate, some old army buddy, doin’ nothin’, and those Chowan County cops ain’t good for shit. That police report is a fuckin’ mess.”
You were hustling, as Paul puts it, anything for a penny. Paint a house here, rotate some tires there. Odd jobs for odd people—the kind of people you find in Gates that are willing to work with an uninsured veteran. Mostly, you answered Craigslist ads from the mothers, wives, and widows of the deployed, cleaned gutters and mowed lawns separated from their stewards by oceans, countries, and graves. You would never take their money; instead you would accept their offers of coffee and share a story about a buddy, and everyone would feel less alone. You put on The Brave Face. I don’t know these things about you, until Paul tells me.
You and Paul were renting the attic in a barn on a peanut farm, sleeping unsoundly over tillers, waking sharply at the start of their engines each morning before sunrise. “No electricity,” Paul says, “No WiFi. No Netflix. Sometimes we could get cell service if we leaned real far out the window.” Maybe this explains why you never called. “We lit oil lanterns, like it was the 1700s or something, and your brother would sing. The Beatles. The Stones. You know, the classics. There were these old books we found under one of the beds. We would read them sometimes. The Iliad, poetry. He liked the poetry.” Paul says, “Do you want to hear his favorite?”
Paul may have killed you. He has the same tattoo as you, an infantry number and two crossed rifles on his forearm, the American flag waving under the X. He is peeling lead paint off the banister of this sixth-generation funeral home, sucking a vape and blowing smoke to the street. The McDonald’s marquee across the street brags: Billions and Billions Served. “Your brother tried to work at the McDonalds in Gates,” he says, “but he couldn’t make it to work on time when it was trash day. A trash bag on the side of the road in Iraq was, well, you had better start praying if you believe that sort of thing.”
You did not believe in that sort of thing. Do you remember your first communion? Mom loves to tell this story: You walking down the church aisle in a tiny suit and bow tie, looking like a little man, and after the grape juice and wafers and fanfare you pulled on mom’s sleeve and whispered, “What was that all about?” We went through the motions at the only church in town: Episcopal. She was as clueless as any other relapsed Southern Baptist living in the Connecticut suburbs might be. We stopped going for a while, then Christmas and Easter only. At Pop’s funeral, the last time we saw each other, you whispered in my ear: “Ain’t it a comfort, to know that one day we will be forgotten? One day, no one’s going to know who I was, the things I’ve done or the things I haven’t.”
Paul shakes perpetually. Tremors like a giant stuck him in a tin can and shook. To be fair, that’s exactly what Uncle Sam did with him; first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, Kuwait, and back to Iraq again. They put him in the tank, he says. Paul doesn’t look you in the eye when he talks, either. He mostly looks at his shoes; scuffed, with an unstitched sole flapping as he walks. Nana and I are the only ones talking to him. She offers him a real menthol — “none of that vape bullcrap,” she says — and they watch cars pass from the porch. She holds one of his shaking hands and he presses his tear ducts with the other. “He looks guilty,” Aunt Constance says. “Shaking like he’s coming off something,” Dad says. “That poor fellow,” Nana says when Paul is out of earshot, “I fear that boy is next.”
Paul may have killed you. You may have wanted him to. The official story, the one the police told us, is that you took that Remington 12-gauge rifle (like the one we used when Dad took us hunting, when you killed your first buck and cried). You propped that rifle on the steering wheel. You pulled the seat back as far as it would go. You positioned the barrel directly over your heart—center chest, a little left. You fired the gun. Paul heard the shot and came running from the truck bed, where he was loading the day away. He yanked open the driver’s side door and you came spilling out on the ground, just rolled right out because your body had been leaning on the truck door. The coroner said that the shock would have left you unconscious—dead in 30 to 180 seconds. “Not the first time I’ve seen this,” he said to us, “Always soldiers. They know exactly where to shoot.” Is it true? I’ve tried to recreate the moment of your death; holding yard sticks, copper pipes, tent rods to my chest in my Jeep’s front seat. I don’t want to believe that rifle could fit, that you could have done what they say you did, but my proxies all fit by a millimeter maybe, or less.
Paul probably did not kill you, even if that is what our family would like to believe. He knows you, parts we didn’t see—the part that was molded in desert storms, rapid fire, mess tents and wet socks (how many new pairs had I sent you over the years?). Paul, perhaps your only friend, wearing your too-big Christmas button-up with his hands in the pockets, looking away from the world and at his one broken shoe—now half of a whole secret, parts of him unseen.
I’m expected to eulogize you at the funeral tomorrow, but I don’t know which you to remember:
Seventeen — You make me a mix CD of your favorite metal songs and tell me to stop being such a pussy.
“Your brother was a hell of a shot,” Paul says, “Saved my life more than once.”
Four — you pinch my cheeks when mom isn’t looking, until I cry.
“There are so many mornings we went fishing,” Paul says, “because if we didn’t catch something, we wouldn’t eat that day.”
Eight — you and I, weaving through the woods, storing “treasures” in the rotting hole of an old stump: marbles, red rocks, arrowheads, sticks that look like magic wands, the found bones of small animals, secrets written in lemon juice, baby teeth.
“He packed everything he owned in a suitcase,” Paul tells us, “Always the orderly one. Everything he owned, so I wouldn’t have to do anything. He left this dress shirt on top and a Greyhound ticket to Bridgeport. I think he wanted me to give the suitcase to your mom.”
Six — you shove me under the water in Nana’s swimming pool, push me to the very bottom, and you stand on me. Your weight is crushing me. I can’t breathe. Looking up at the rippling sky, the light glares from the top of the water and I think, this is what it’s like to die.
“He loved poetry,” Paul says, “Do you want to hear his favorite? It’s by John Woods. The first line is a little weird. I never understand these metaphors and things.”
Now his body is a uniform.