Praying for Boston right now.
“‘She was always such a jellyfish . . . look how easy she went to bed with me when we weren’t married.’
Harper said, ‘On the other hand, look how easily you went to bed with her.'”
Today, I’m going to do something different. I’m just going to put that quote there. Let it marinate a little without comment.
“The human animal had a built-in urge to view the remains.”
I was a teenager when I saw my first dead body. Well, the first dead body not in a casket. Well, the first one that I can remember anyways. Well, the first time I saw something and recognized it as being a dead body.
Every Summer, my hometown hosts the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union State Softball Championships at Harlan (& now Hazel – when did that happen?) Rogers Park on the northern outskirts of town. There are several dusty baseball and softball fields that the high school kids play on. The park is a point of pride for local Dodgers, as well it should be. It’s a really nice place to catch a game, then mosey over to catch another one that’s playing right next door. Great for ballgame enthusiasts (&, I would imagine, sports writers).
Up until late Summer 1990, my most visceral memories of Harlan Rogers was playing on the swings beyond the outfield as kids while our dads played softball. I had a small crush on one of the boys there, the kind of crush that you’re only aware of briefly as a child of one-digit age. I’d catch myself stopping what I was doing to look at him, but only for a second until a foul ball or homerun would come pummeling through the thick summer sky and us kids would scatter away from our best guess as to where it would land. It was the kind of crush you had before you realized what a crush was.
After the games, our moms, all sitting on the bleachers (if we were on a field that had them) or lawn chairs, would fold up their blankets, twist the caps back on their thermoses, crane their necks this way and that in search of their brood, and commence with the shouting for us to quit teasing our siblings and get to the car. Our dads, cleats grabbing the dirt, fresh from last night’s thunderstorm, would brush off their upper thighs and with the same hand that removed their baseball caps, wipe their tanned foreheads as they headed in from the diamond or the dugout.
We all convened in the parking lot; nothing but gravel and weeds, it was. Our vehicles, various models of automobiles finely crafted in Motor City, waited with unlocked doors and hot interior leathers. Our fathers popped open the creaky hinged trunks and tossed canvas bags full of bats, grass-stained balls, and softly worn gloves into them. We could tell whether aluminum or wood was our dad’s preference by the sound the bats made when they knocked against one another. Once and again, a rogue ball would escape only to find itself taken prisoner by the son of the man who owned it.
Depending on who was assigned on which week, one or more of our dads would have made extra space in their trunk for a large cooler, full of ice and brews that hailed from Midwestern towns like Milwaukee or St. Louis. There were a few Pepsis in there as well, for us kids. We opened those bottles and felt it in our hands when the cold pop moved from the glass over our chapped lips and down our throats. Sometimes my dad would hand me his can. I had loved beer from an early age and one sip wouldn’t hurt.
The wives would talk card club and hairstyles and school. The husbands would talk the post office and sports and debate about the fairness of someone’s line drive in the bottom of the third. The kids would run around. We’d just run around. Christ, is there anything more pure than kids having fun by just running around?
But the innocence of childhood doesn’t last, does it? The fond, naïve memories fade and brutal realities push their way into our lives, uninvited and unwelcome.
So it happened to me at Harlan Rogers at the tail end of the Summer of 1990.
It was just over a year since my sister died. Life was slowly starting to get back to normal. We had survived that year of firsts somehow and were beginning to acclimate into the world of those not in mourning. For me, though, the pain had enveloped me again, albeit in a different way.
My boyfriend had just broken up with me.
He had met another girl. She was his age but went to the public high school. As her family lived at the Country Club, she was an avid golfer – the best at her school. She was decidedly the anti-Niki: white-blond hair, quiet, athletic. He met her at the softball tournament one evening after his last night pitching. Apparently, they sat together on the bleachers and talked the duration of the game. He was interested in pursuing something with her. But he had to come clean with me first.
I, as most fifteen year olds are when broken up with, was devastated. Although he did the honorable thing by telling me instead of cheating, I was still crushed. For a couple of days, I joined a detasseling crew just to take my mind off of it. But walking rows and rows of corn in the sweltering heat, slicing my arms with corn stalks, and losing shoes in the mud didn’t exactly lend itself to making a broken-hearted teenager feel better. The other days, I laid in the sun on the concrete patio in my backyard, listening to Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love tape ad nauseum. Play. Eject. Flip. Play. Repeat. Cry. Cry. Cry. Drink lemonade. Talk on the phone. Cry.
(cue “I Don’t Wanna Cry” – rewind – play – rewind – play – weep – cue “Someday” – wipe tears from cheeks – get all righteous and badass – cry some more)
Finally, I was convinced by well-meaning girlfriends that I needed to get out into the world, that I should put myself out there, that I absolutely must go to the state softball championship. Part sick desire on the off-chance I would sneak a peek at the girl who had shifted my boyfriend’s attention from me, part desperate for companionship, I agreed.
A group of us girls, one newly presented with her driver’s license, took to the town. We watched most of the game, but were distracted by the promise of freedom that a driver’s license and a car held, so we left to do what most teens did in my hometown at that time.
We drove around.
We just drove around. Christ, is there anything more pure than teenagers having fun by just driving around?
We drove around until we figured the game would be over, then doubled back to the park. As we did, there was traffic. Well, traffic in terms of small town, Iowa, which means it took us four minutes to pass from the airport to the softball fields instead of thirty seconds. Flashing red and blue lights. There had been an accident. And, true to human nature, we became, as my great-aunt would say, “a bunch of looky-loos.”
I was in the backseat. I saw the scene through the windshield as we approached it. My eyes were fixated from that point, through the right passenger side, out the rear. Paramedics, a car twisted and mangled, and a sheet. A simple white sheet on the pavement. Except that sheet was a little off, wasn’t it? It had a form, it had a shape. The firefighters and police officers scrambled all around it, but no one touched it. The visitors from neighboring towns stood on the curb, behind the fence, whispering behind their hands and pointing. But I barely noticed them. I noticed the sheet.
It had a form. It had a shape. It had –
Tangled up in myself, in one fluid moment, I gasped and threw my hand against my mouth as my eyes widened and I quickly faced forward.
That sheet had a form and a shape because it wasn’t just a sheet.
It was a dead body.
Trying not to draw further attention to myself than the drama of the night’s plans and circumstances dictated (as I was fairly certain I was the only one in the vehicle who made the connection), I spoke casually.
“Hey, ugh, I’m kinda over this and my folks are gonna expect me home soon. Can you drop me off?” I asked.
Within moments, taking back roads to avoid the scene, my driver friend stopped. We folded the front seat so I could crawl out of the car. I stood waving as they drove away, blaring the local radio station and narrowly avoiding a tree branch in the middle of the street. As soon as they were out of sight, I sat. I sat right there in the middle of my parents’ driveway.
I sat for what seemed like hours, but in a situation like that, who can know for sure? After the shock of it and enormity of being faced with the mortality of life for the first time since Death had so rudely interrupted my childhood faded, I collected myself and made a beeline straight for my bedroom, where I proceeded to write horrible poetry between heavy sobs and nose-blows.
Oh yes, we have a built-in urge to view the remains. On that night, I was pulled to that image. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did I have to look, but I had to look at one thing in particular – a seemingly innocuous thing like a sheet positioned in a curious location like a street – had to look at that thing until my mind worked out the connection and forced me to see it for what it truly was.
It’s like what Mr. King writes at the beginning of Night Shift, in his foreword:
“Only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. He’s telling you that you do want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right – you do … he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.”
“We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear – an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We’re afraid of the body under the sheet. It’s our body.”
(and that, constant readers, is why you should always read the introduction to a book)
I knew this when I started reading Stephen King back when I was a kid. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to the shiny silver book named The Shining. Perhaps that’s why I finished it. Perhaps that’s why from then on, I sought out books with that author’s name emblazoned on the spine. Perhaps that’s why I find myself drawn to stories of the macabre all these years later. Because I do want to put my hands on the shape. I have put my hands on the shape. I have an acquaintance with the shape. I am the shape.