To Bury
A Friend
Clete guided us up a difficult makeshift path in the hazy light of dawn. We switchbacked through an aspen grove and found an actual trail, which guided us up above the trees. We left the path and scrambled to Clete's mushroom patch. He had a shovel stashed there, and while he retrieved it we set Val down carefully. It seemed almost inconceivable that this unpleasant-smelling lump was our friend.

We took our time picking a spot with a good view of town and the rim of mountains on the other side of the box canyon. Clete had each of us lie there to get a feel for it. We huddled together on the ground and stared at the cloudless sky, the entire world busily getting on with creation all about us.

Perhaps, here, I should mention that our burying Val without an official ceremony or license or even a coffin is a crime I have not, technically speaking, confessed to. I'm leaning on your (legally binding) pledge of confidentiality, and acting on your encouragement to be frank. The truth is, none of us even considered calling the authorities. A heroin overdose encourages questions and inquiries and search warrants, which would have opened our lives up to a form of scrutiny we did not covet.

The digging was hard. At one point, I threw the shovel back like an ax to swing it down against the unforgiving earth, and I hit Clete in the forehead. He staggered backward.

"Sister Christ," he said. A moment later, he added, "I'm all right."

I apologized and kept digging. The hole did not look like a grave. Its sides were jagged, the walls far from perpendicular. But Val's body was small and fit nicely. We filled in around the body and patted down the dirt. She didn't make much of a mound. We dug up some plugs of grass and tossed them on the grave to combat erosion.

"One of us should say a few words," Lila suggested.

The job fell to Clete. "Val," he began and hesitated. None of us knew her last name. He was bleeding. The shovel blade had opened a wound directly above his nose. Blood and black earth marked it. "Dog sitter, landlady to the lost, junkie, snorer, a former honor student. A woman who fed dogs. Who gave them their heartworm pills."

The list was long. Spread out beneath us lay one of the wealthiest small towns in America, peaked roofs covered in real shingles, rambling condominium compounds, satellite dishes, green lawns, and the shining windows of Main Street, which looked like forgotten pockets of brilliance, the spare change of some lazy god glistening in dawn's slanting light. Those windows radiated intelligence, a careless and irreplaceable genius among the ordinary stucco and frame. They made me think of the discontinuous luster of Clete's splendid brain.

"Lover of sadness," he was saying, "keeper of the damned."

I was so grateful to have him with us.

Thunder sounded, which seemed appropriate but didn't please us. The rain began. We stalled, feeling we ought to say or do more and yet eager to make our way down the mountain. We were united in the essential embarrassment of needing to go on living.

"I can't believe this is happening," Lila said, weeping. "Who dies?"

The sky rippled with light and split open like a walnut.

A few weeks later, after a flood of guilt and worry and actual rain, I returned to Val's grave, which was now covered with mushrooms. I ate them. I'd consumed enough to know the ones to avoid. Sitting by her grave site, recalling her generosity with me from the moment I met her, I thought maybe I should have done a little better by Val. I felt sick about it, and then I understood that I was actually sick. I'd eaten poison mushrooms and was dying.

I lay down over the grave. We, Val and I, were neighbors again. I rocked against the moss and earth to get comfortable, the two of us together, lying as if in bunks, shipmates in the hold of a great vessel. My body would melt into this ground and sink down through the soil and through the bones of Val and on down to the rock, where it would pool and be reabsorbed into the planet. And it meant nothing. All we thought about and did, whether we behaved well or badly, the hard days when we could barely stand up straight and the good days when every sound and shade of light seemed a gift --- none of it mattered. Val and I were the waste any kind of life leaves behind, the proof of imperfection that everywhere marks this world like the wounds on this very mountain left from the mining days. I had done not one thing with my life that had real consequence for anyone but the many people I'd disappointed and the one person I'd killed. I lay there, knowing that for a few minutes more I would see the sky, hear the minor havoc created by the breeze, smell my own rank and dying body, and the world would not take any notice. I meant nothing.

"Feeling morbid?"

Clete appeared above me, huge as the sky. He had that talent you can't teach --- how to be wherever it is you're needed most. He'd come to harvest the mountainside but saved my life instead.

"I ate poisonous mushrooms," I told him.

He slipped his hand behind my neck and made me sit. He inserted his other hand in my mouth, which made me gag and vomit.

"You're fine now," he said, and he was right. I'd taken a short journey in the direction of death, and I'd come back.

--- From The Heyday of the
Insensitive Bastards

Robert Boswell
©2010 Graywolf Press
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