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I’m still not sure it’s legal. A young cop stopped us once, asked what we were doing, and when I told him, he apologized. Some people act like tragedy is contagious. They back away from you muttering euphemisms. They look down. They let you do whatever you want.
We go on the anniversary, around the holidays. Sometimes, I load up at the dollar store – comic books and CDs, this energy drink called “Jaguar” – things Jeff liked. I always bring extra nails and wood.
You don’t realize how fast the cars move until you’re standing on the shoulder. Most drivers look down at their phones. A few yards up the highway, a blue metal sign reads: IT CAN WAIT. Some drivers slow down and glance at us like we’re crazy.
The grass is up to our knees. Crystal is worried about ticks. She’s always worried about ticks. Or bees in the attic. Mice in the basement. After Jeff died, she went nuts. Just completely nuts. Pacing the house. Leaving burners on. Falling down the stairs in the middle of the night. Doctor says she bruised her brain. Do inside bruises look the same as outside ones, the purple-black welts on Jeff’s arms and legs and neck? A few months after he died, Crystal walked onto the deck, down the driveway, and up the road in nothing but a bath towel. Our neighbor had to bring her back, his oversized slicker draped across her shoulders. The slicker flapped in the wind, revealed flashes of purple terrycloth and pale skin. He hesitated for a moment as if wanting to leave me with a piece of advice or a word of caution. Instead, he pressed his lips together, nodded, and walked back down the driveway.
We step around the sign for Exit 62 – MONROE/LANGFORD – toward Jeff’s tree. It’s not very big, and it’s the only one for miles. A solitary Christmas tree. I used to wonder if someone planted it or if there were ever plans to plant more. Otherwise, there was no reason for it to be here. It would’ve made more sense if we had planted it ourselves—a living tombstone. In my early grief, I saw the tree as the murder weapon, a half-loaded gun or bloody knife displayed on the victim’s grave. Then, I blamed the car. Then Crystal. Then I moved on to myself and have been there ever since.
Jeff’s cross is in surprisingly good shape. By this time last year, the wind and snow had nearly torn it from the tree. I straighten it, reinforce it with a few new nails. Crystal digs through the dollar store bags as I begin repainting. His name on the vertical stake, his dates on the crossbar. She plucks wet, pink tissue paper from the grass, replaces the tea lights in the glass votives. She wipes grass and dirt from his laminated photo. His sophomore class picture. He’s on the verge – the skin under his eyes darkening, the round-eyed boy who once smiled generously before a blue and magenta backdrop now gazes narrowly at the camera, his top lip slightly curled. The same posturing I did when I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted to be. The photo is a recrimination, a reminder of all the clues we missed or ignored. If he had gone on to live a happy life, gotten married, and started a family, we would’ve shown this photo to his kids, and they would’ve said, “That’s Dad?! No waaay.” Jeff would’ve leaned back on the couch and laughed, refilled our drinks, then checked the turkey in the oven. Our memories would not have become evidence.
Two of his teeth were never found. His blood and hair are in the dirt. This is as much a grave as his plot in Oak Grove, which I rarely visit. I feel closer to him here, the place where he lay for fifteen minutes alone, and hopefully delirious enough not to understand what was happening to him. I remember our school trips to Civil War battlegrounds. Empty fields that meant nothing until the guide told us what happened there until she points out the places where the grass still won’t grow.
“I always think the tree is bigger,” Crystal says. She smooths out the plastic bags, folds them, and puts them in her coat pocket.
Crystal does that, spits out empty thoughts that leave you obligated to respond. I used to nod, say something noncommittal like, “Uh-huh” or “That’s interesting,” but not anymore. By responding to her thoughts, I was welcoming them into my head, and I didn’t want to think like her. I don’t.
I had overheard one of the cops saying to another that the kid couldn’t have hit the tree if he tried. I suppose if my job involved dead kids, I’d say things like that, too. Some part of me now appreciates his bluntness. For the same reasons, I prefer the tree to the gravestone: No pretense. The tree is not a façade in a manicured, fenced-in property reserved for mourning. The tree is closer to death, lives in plain sight, passed by at 70/80 miles per hour with your favorite song on the radio. But it’s here if you look for it. I’ve counted half a dozen roadside memorials in a twenty-mile stretch of highway.
Crystal kneels and talks to him. I look away. She could be talking to him on the phone, catching up on mundane details – school, work, food. She talks about Melissa, a new receptionist at the dental office. She tells Jeff he would like her, that she likes comic books, too, and is even trying to make her own. Crystal says this like it’s inconceivable that a person who answers phones could also draw cartoons, that one person has enough brain space for two different personalities, maybe more. This seems to comfort her, reassure her that the world is still full of possibilities, that the road before her isn’t as narrow as she thought. She tells him to take care, that she’ll talk to him again soon.
When it’s my turn, she steps away. My prayers are simple and silent. Come back. Just please come back.
Before Jeff, before Crystal became what she is now, before I mutated into a paunchy, sheepdog of a man propped up by coffee and pills, we lived just outside Boston in an apartment we loved only after we left. We wondered what it would have been like to raise Jeff there, to watch him become one of the kids in the neighborhood, the feral ones who seemed like they could stay out for days and be just fine. When he died, “what if” became “if only.” If only we had stayed. If only I didn’t get the job. If only things like school districts and property taxes hadn’t become so important.
Crystal lingers in that kind of thinking longer than I do. I always think, sure, if only this, if only that, but in the romanticized version of our lives, we don’t remember the bad stuff. Bombs mangling marathon runners. The string of violent robberies on our street, victims tied and beaten. The asbestos lawsuit against the elementary school. But maybe it doesn’t matter if we remember these things or not. They seem to happen everywhere now.
People say things like, “You’re more likely to die in an accident on your way to the airport than in a plane crash,” and maybe that’s true, but after Jeff died, flippant phrases like this stole space in my brain. I’d read a news article, and a certain sentence, sometimes just a word, would glow like filament. The rest of the article, the newspaper, faded away, leaving me with a jumble of white-hot words that held no meaning.
Nobody, including Crystal and Jeff, could ever remember exactly what I did for a living. I don’t blame them. Somedays, I can’t quite describe it either. Sometimes I tell people a job that’s close to what I do – financial advisor – just so they understand me. Like using an easy name at the coffee shop, so you don’t have to hear them mangle your real name. I always feel like I’m surrendering a piece of myself when I do stuff like that, as if the fake name, the fake job, leaves a stain. As if we only get so many chances to lie about our identity before we lose it.
“Forensic accountant” might sound like I spend my days pouring over blood-splattered tax documents and, in a way, I do, but, like everything else, it’s much more boring in reality. When I was a kid, I used to get pissed off at grownups who couldn’t tell me how they chose their careers, but I get it now. Things happen. You make a small choice. You shift your coordinates a degree or two. You drift. Then you make another choice. Shift. Drift. You go from a bottle floating on the ocean to a dull piece of glass stranded in the sand. And that’s if a tree doesn’t kill you first.
“I don’t think I want to go there for a while,” Crystal says. She looks straight out the windshield.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like being so close to the road. It makes me nervous.”
“I like going. I feel closer to Jeff there more than anywhere else.”
I don’t know how to stop going. Part of me feels like we’ve been indulging in a bad habit for too long and stopping now would shock our systems, maybe make things worse. I think about the squirrel in our backyard I fed peanuts for months. Every few days he crept closer to the sliding door until eventually I’d come downstairs in the morning and he’d be on his hind legs, paws pressed against the glass. Then, one morning I heard Crystal scream and something shatter on the kitchen floor. She said the squirrel had been sitting on the counter. I didn’t feed him after that. He stopped coming around. Then, when I was mowing the lawn, I found him dead behind the garage, eyes rolled, belly distended.
Sometimes in the obituaries, they run these garish memorials. About the size of a Post-It note. Usually a photo, a thin black border, and a cryptic message or shitty poem. Photos of a Marine in dress blues. A smoky headshot of an unknown actress. Sometimes a child in a little league hat. Date ranges remarkably expansive, impossibly narrow. The letters and numbers bleeding at the edges. I felt no need to announce the anniversary of Jeff’s death. I knew that’s all that mattered. And if Crystal didn’t want to go to the tree anymore, I’d go alone.
“I’ll still come with you,” she said. “But maybe I’ll wait in the car. Or stand back from the road a bit.”
A cool drink of silence. Then she started humming one of her songs. Whimsical and cheap. Judy-Garland-selling-laundry-detergent jingle. A side effect of Jeff’s death. WARNING: May Cause Humming. I’m not a violent man, but I could punch her in the mouth when she hummed.
When Jeff was alive, Crystal worked. She worked all the time. She sold homemade hair clips at the craft fair, cleaned houses, waitressed. She said she liked the variety, liked meeting new people. When Jeff was a baby, she basically raised him by herself – her choice, though a year or so into it, she acted as if she were serving a sentence for a crime she didn’t commit. I know I had it easier then. It was easy to swoop in at the end of the day, eat dinner, read a book, and be the hero. She soaked in the tub most nights and I’d often have to come into the bathroom and wake her up for bed.
Some women never recover from childbirth. And I don’t mean that supermarket magazine “reclaim your pre-baby bod” crap. That’s part of it. But, not for reasons you might think. When you go through that kind of physical transformation – that growth, that trauma – you become unrecognizable to yourself. And that can be exciting or frightening, but for Crystal, it was both at the same time. As her body changed, so did her mind. She forgot things. Minor things like her ATM PIN or her mother’s zip code. Then she started putting the milk in the cabinet, the cereal box in the refrigerator. After cleaning a customer’s house, she left the backdoor open and the woman’s cat ran away. She did stuff like that at a few houses until word got around, and she lost her customers. Her hair clips fell apart in people’s hands before they could buy them. She dropped so many plates at the restaurant, the owner docked her last paycheck. She splintered. Broke apart. And when Jeff died, he took the rest.
When I found out Jeff was using again, I kicked him out. He stood in the driveway, screaming, fists clenched at his sides. I held open the screen door and let his fit run its course. He kicked gravel into the grass, ripped up tulips from the flowerbed. He stopped beside my truck and turned. I stepped out onto the stoop. He held my stare for a moment, then kicked a dent into the driver’s side door and ran off, his sneakers slapping the asphalt. He ran in the same direction Crystal would later wander in her towel.
I’d gone to a couple of meetings with him and Crystal. A circle of fucked-up paren