To whom it may concern,
It used to be that when your reason left you, or rather, when your children or executors or what have you decided that was the case, you were run to an asylum and laid in a white bed until your eyes rolled back in your head and your soul rolled up to the clouds, or down, to someplace less respectable. Now, in this, the 21st century, wonder of wonders, they bring the asylum to you. It’s called hospice. I’m laying on a white bed in the living room, crisp hospital covers up past my waist, writing this on a bunion-yellow legal pad. In the next room the nurse is reading some Harlequin romance novel with a cover to make Venus squirm in her clam. She’s waiting for a little amber light to flash on the monitor by my bed, which will mean I’ve passed on and she can pack up her things and go wait for some other old fool to quit burdening society.
It’s an odd thing, watching someone watch you die, or rather, watching someone grow increasingly exasperated that you haven’t died yet. She’s been here over a month and brooded her way through a couple dozen of those books and a few others, less trashy, which she seemed to be reading out of obligation. I’ve been reading myself — old philosophy mostly. Started with a survey of the pre-Socratics and just finished The Republic yesterday. I kid myself that I’m a late-to-the-game intellectual, but I’m also reading these books because I know it makes my nurse embarrassed of her glossy, Thor-covered drivel. Her name is Quintessa, which is an awful name.
I’ve tried telling her she needs to get used to being here, that I’m a stubborn bastard and my body’s no different. But her exasperation only grows, as if after 30-some years of living she’s seen every manner of dying man and I’m just another character pulled from the stock. When I told her about the farm burning in ’39, and what happened to me, she rolled her eyes and snorted, even called me a liar under her breath. But the farm did burn (it was my fault, actually, butted a cigarette near some spilt diesel — I was only 15) and I was out fooling around in the field when it happened. The flames came on pretty quick and ate the field from the outside in, exploding cornstalks like matchsticks. I was trapped in the center, like a little cherry bull’s-eye, with nothing to do but roast or walk out through the flames, which is just what I did. I came away with little more than a healthy tan. To Quintessa it’s just a crock stewed up by an old codger. She hasn’t noticed the scar on my wrist — my only enduring souvenir, the farm having been rebuilt, replanted.
But how can I hold it against her? It’s a damn law of nature: A man spends the first 71years of his life gradually building respect, becoming that wizened sage, and then pisses it all away in less than a decade. This has nothing to do with the mind losing its moorings, but has everything to do with honesty, and a little with the loss of inhibition. Old men say crazy things not because they’re crazy but because some fool door has been opened in their mind which gives them the freedom to say all those things they were too uncomfortable to say earlier. Too uncomfortable or too damn fearful. I’ll admit that I tend to the latter category, which is why I’m writing this now. I’ll not bother you with an apologetic for my own rationality. Whether or not you believe what I have to tell means precisely squat to me, unless of course your name is George Prince.
This is for him, so that he’ll no longer question his sanity, so that he’ll know someone else was there and saw Him too. I know why he never spoke to the investigators, why he withdrew into himself in silence. I’d have done the same thing had I been 8 years old at the time and not 60. I’m writing this so that someday, when he’s an old man in a hospice bed discovering this same freedom — the freedom to remember, and to vent — he might know that he wasn’t alone. Most people will read this and think it’s a sick joke, not the least of which will be my brother’s family, those who cared about Kevin. So be it. George was always my favorite. Falling out of esteem with the rest of the family is nothing if it means he’ll have even a little peace of mind.
And doubtless, there are people out there still curious about the disappearance of Kevin Prince. In all my years of relative geographical seclusion, my grandnephew’s disappearance is the only thing to have happened in Grant County which made the national news: a locked-room-mystery without the lock or the room.
After all alibis and what-have-you were cleared, the state police had very little to go on. Once the extraneous footprints (those of Kevin’s father and his wife, the paramedics, etc.) were taken out of the equation, what remained were two pairs: Kevin’s size-10 Nikes (monstrous for a 10-year-old) and George’s size-7 Keds. The footprints ended in the broad stretch of mud near the barn. George was discovered unconscious, on his side in the muck under the noonday sun. Kevin was never found. The investigators deemed it impossible that he just walked off, or even that someone came and took him — either scenario would have meant prints in the soft mud. It was as if Kevin had been simply lifted out of existence.
George never spoke a word to the investigators, despite many hours of interrogation. Even at the age of eight he had the sense to know that there are some things people will never believe, whether coming from an eight-year-old or a member of Congress. Had the whole occurrence been videotaped, and the tape confirmed as legitimate by every specialist in this country, still no one would believe it. The mind reels at such things. I’ve been stuffing down the memory for these twenty years because I just don’t want to deal with the implications. And trust me, sitting around feigning ignorance when your family is grieving is no easy thing.
Before I recount what took place, I must explain a little about what sort of boy Kevin Prince was. In my experience I’ve found that there are really only two sorts of bullies: First there are those who have been abused, neglected, or in some other way had their self-esteem busted, and try to fill up that need by dominating others; then there are the sociopaths, who have no such need, yet thrive on the suffering of others. Kevin was the latter sort. Even at the age of 10 his life was a charade. Adults loved him. He was courteous, helpful, respectful, and, above all, friendly. Yet, behind all that there was something else. I saw it even before the first time I caught him bullying another child — a strange coldness behind his eyes. If my theology would permit it, I’d call him soulless. He treated other children as insects; but only when he believed he could get away with it. He was careful. If he learned that any of his cousins, or even siblings, had a special fear, Kevin did everything in his power to exploit it.
To my knowledge, the worst thing he ever did was dump a jarful of spiders on George. It used to be that in the summers the whole family (Michael, my brother’s son, with his family, and even my two boys with theirs) would come to the old farm, where I still live, and stay for a few weeks. The adults enjoyed the country air and the quiet; the kids, well, what don’t kids enjoy on a farm? Anyways, it was about a week into their stay when I found Kevin plucking spiders from webs and drainpipes on a Saturday afternoon. I didn’t give it any thought. Boys love bugs, and if Kevin was going to pull their legs off, great. I hate spiders. Later that night, George’s screams woke up the whole house. The spiders were still in the room when we opened the door, scurrying under rugs and into cracks. And they were huge — mostly wolf spiders and funnel-web bastards — several dozen in all. What caught my attention though was what George had crushed against his neck and wiped on the bedside table: a thick, shiny thing with a red splotch on its black belly. George didn’t know what a black widow was or that it had bitten him when he crushed it. All George knew was that he was arachnophobic and got panic attacks. He was shuddering on the bed, knees to his chest, rocking back and forth, his eyes spinning. We rushed him to the hospital where they administered antivenin. Later, I told Michael what his son had done. Kevin has despised me ever since.
That is the sort of boy Kevin Prince was. Nasty, calculating, and in my estimation, irredeemable. His disappearance occurred during an act of bullying.
It was late morning and I was out working in the garden. The sky was cloudless and the air was warm, but far from humid, which is surprising the day after a summer thunderstorm in Indiana. I had stopped growing crops several years back, just after my wife’s death, and began renting out most of the acreage. There was still the plot the house was on and the large red barn, rebuilt after the fire, and the small wood and my garden. I grew all my own vegetables back then; all I bought was meat. I had made breakfast earlier that morning: red-pepper eggs, hot sausage, and bacon. Now red-pepper-anything is a terrific recipe for gas. Kevin loved my breakfasts, despite hating me, because it gave him an opportunity to blow a little steam at his siblings and cousins. The boy passed the foulest wind of any 10-year-old to have walked God’s earth. It was as if all his sociopathic evil were somehow concentrated in his large intestine. The kid was noxious.
The storm had blown away the looser soil around my onions and beets and I was shoveling in some fertilizer to cover the bulbs. I happened to look up and see Kevin chasing George out of the house and out towards the barn. Kevin was a full head taller than George — who was not short for his age, but a little skinny — and had no problem catching him up about 30 feet from the barn. Kevin caught the collar of George’s shirt and yanked him back. George’s feet slid out from under him and he crashed into the mud. Kevin immediately sat down on George’s face and began farting. He taunted, “Eat it, slut! Suck it in, fill up your lungs!” I was about 80 yards away and could have shouted, but instead I just watched, wanting to let George sort it out for himself. Having emptied himself, Kevin stood up and turned around, then sat down again on George’s chest. He started smacking George’s cheeks as if he needed reviving. “It’s not so bad, is it? Are you passed out?” His voice had an odd quality, rebounding off the barn in a brief echo. George struggled and cursed at Kevin. But every time he cursed, Kevin smacked him on the lips. Finally, Kevin began to scoop up mud and try to put it in George’s mouth. George cried out for help, and I finally dropped my shovel and made for the barn. He yelled out to every power he could think of: his mom and dad, Uncle Mike, grandpa, God.
And then, well, his cry, his prayer, was answered. I stopped running and just stood, mouth hanging, dumb.
God rounded the corner of the barn, stooped down real low so that the top of His head was below the crest. He was wearing a white robe, not the blinding white I would have expected, but off-white, sort of a cream color. His hair was long, down to the middle of His back, and shone such a brilliant white it made His robe look filthy. His beard bounced like a windsock. And He had a runny nose, God had a runny nose. The stream of fluid glimmered in the sunlight over the thicket of His beard. Kevin turned to look at Him, and even from that distance I saw all the color leave his face. God reached out His great hand and seized him by the back of the shirt and lifted him off of George. Having been freed, George scuttled back and gaped.
Pinched between the thumb and forefinger of Almighty God, Kevin looked rather helpless. Nonetheless, he tried to look defiant and spat a few nasty words at his maker. God held him near to His face and studied him with eyes that were at once deeply wise, sad, and amused. Then He opened His mouth so wide I expected Him to swallow Kevin whole. The boy flinched and kicked his feet pathetically in the air. Then,
If Plato, in all his dreaming of Forms, dreamt of the essence of a belch, it could not have been richer, more flavorful, nastier, or louder than what issued from the mouth of God. Kevin could not scream. He could not kick. He just hung limply, his face bloodless, in awe. It was as if all thought had been wiped from his mind. God held him out a little farther and then flicked him with the middle finger of His other hand. Kevin soared eastward through the air and disappeared beyond the horizon.
It didn’t take me long to give up on rationalizing what happened. It would require a thorough reworking of my Methodism and I just haven’t been up to the task. Probably, that is foolish, but I suppose it is how most people deal with traumatic experiences. It’s what’s easy.
Writing this has been good. Already a weight has been lifted off me. But I don’t intend to dwell on it much more. I’ve achieved a fairly delicate balancing of my condition. Some days I feel healthy enough to ditch hospice altogether. Other days I expect I’ll just die outright. And I’m not ready to go just yet. I’ve only touched the surface of Plato, and there are plenty of other books I’d like to taunt Quintessa with. And, if I’m to be entirely honest, she is a rather attractive woman to have changing your tubes.
I have no idea where Kevin is today, and, frankly, don’t really care. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s drifting in the Atlantic somewhere, bullying fish. George is currently finishing law school, and I am very proud of him. If he hasn’t repressed everything that happened that day, I hope he finds this encouraging. I hope he remembers what was said to him: After sending his cousin only He knows where, God looked at George and grinned. His lips moved and comprehension shone on George’s face, but I heard nothing. Then He turned and strode off into the woods.
I haven’t seen Him since.
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