Her face was as yellow as chicken skin fresh from the freezer. Circus clown bright red circles stamped on each protruding cheekbone, tarnished silver eyes beneath nervous penciled-in eyebrows, thin pinkish lips and crayon gray hair, photocopied off center on dull white twenty pound paper and Scotch-taped to the inside of the post office door. She was my best and only friend, and she was dead.
That's the way it's done in Sycamore. If you die, Mildred, the funeral home lady, goes over to Gigot's Drugstore in Crawly and uses the only color Xerox machine around to run off a few dozen copies of the announcement. Mildred types up all the words and picks out the picture. Anyway, the machine is old, and it exaggerates the colors and textures in unpredictable ways. Nobody wants to drive all the way into Omaha to the Kinko's where they have newer technology. The obituary has to be up on the door by 9:30 in the morning so that folks going in for their mail will know. That's why the picture looked like that. I've been around here long enough to know that.
Even if the colors had been right, Helen's face wouldn't have been the face that I knew. Nobody saw things like I did. Even fancy cameras miss the truth. When a storm comes, photos only show the dust. They always miss the wind.
Helen looked old, and that was wrong. Just because people said she was in her eighties didn't make it so. Maybe people just don't like looking at things the way they really are. It's easy to get scared by pain and fooled by time. I knew the picture would be wrong. Like when they posted my mother's announcement; her face looked peaceful. The pictures were always wrong.
I think I blamed myself. Helen was my friend, and I was responsible. I couldn't blame the funeral home lady. Mildred's really good at what she does.
Not long ago when Mildred taped Dickie Thornbruner's face on the door, he looked sober. Everybody in town who saw the notice kind of smiled when they saw it. Some even laughed a little. Dickie was never sober. Everyday, blizzard, tornado, or sunshine, he sat on the same stool at the Old Bridge Tavern right under the poster of the girl with the big boobs in the leprechaun costume.
Nobody who saw Dickie's picture thought he looked like himself. We all knew he was a drunk. We all knew about the ex-wives and the three slutty daughters. There aren't many secrets in a small town like Sycamore. Like my grandpa used to tell me, "Herbert, if you want to keep a secret, go to church. If you want the truth to come out, go to the bar."
Dickie was always at the tavern. It was just one of the givens. The town siren sounds at seven every morning and six every evening except on Sundays. The grain elevator makes a whooshing sound when the dryer fans are running. The Newton kid's car needs a new muffler and he drives too fast down School Street. The city council meets every Tuesday night. Girls behind the counter at the Kum & Go wear different silly logo neckties every month - like the bright blue ones emblazoned with red bratwursts. And Herbert Spencer - that's me - well, he's loony.
Dickie always ordered two or three beers ahead. I've run a few errands into the Old Bridge, and I'd never seen him with fewer than two brews on the bar in front of him. Dickie remembered the bad times back in the dark year when the beer had run out. "Not a drop to be found from Des Moines to Sioux City," he'd mutter, hunched over, one hand holding a brew, the other protecting two more sweating glasses. "Not a drop."
Nobody else remembered that happening. But everyone knew Dickie. Besides, memories are sacred things and holy visions, not to be casually challenged by some thoughtless or rude reliance on history.
So, of course, his picture at the post office didn't look like him. I expected him to look wrong in his casket, too. But like I said, Mildred was very good at what she did. The afternoon before Dickie's visitation, I heard her talking on Antique Street to a couple of her friends.
"We put old Dickie in the coffin and arranged things. He just didn't look like himself. Jeeze, nobody woulda' recognized him." Mildred sucked on her Styrofoam coffee cup.
"Did you sprinkle some Budweiser on him? That might help," said one of the other ladies.
"No, I looked at him all serene there, and I figured it out." Mildred kind of puffed up. She had a lot of professional pride. "I got a couple towels and tucked them under Dickie's shoulders. Then I pushed his chin down and used my thumb to kind of mold his left eyebrow lower. Just kind of put pressure on it until it stuck. Dickie looks like it's about seven o'clock and he's just hit that plateau he was so fond of."
"You could of pushed down both eyebrows and made one of his hands into a fist. You know, the eleven o'clock look?" All the ladies laughed.
I went to the visitation and sure enough, there was Dickie, laying in the coffin and looking hunched over like he was sitting at the bar. Every single person said the same thing to Mildred. "He looks just like himself." What they meant was, "He looks drunk." But of course he wasn't. Dickie was dead.
So I don't blame Mildred for the awful color of the photograph on the death announcement. Mildred's very good at what she does. Like I said, when somebody dies in Sycamore, you've got to get the news out and taped to the post office door. The photocopier in Crawly is outdated; nothing can be done about that. The announcement had to be there by 9:30 a.m.
I think having a friend is the hardest thing in the world, especially when you know her picture is up on the post office door. Especially when you know you're going to hell. I watched myself walk uptown that morning, knowing that I'd have to look at Helen's picture, knowing it would be wrong, and knowing I was to blame.
I wanted to just float away.
A wispy orange cloud swirled in the air.
The cloud had wings and moved like a school of tiny tropical fish in the currents of the September breeze, darting left, right, up and down on the sunny concrete reef of the curb at the corner of Antique Street and First. Hundreds of little round beetles swarmed in one oscillating curve that mutated into a spiral wave around and through the sidewalk bench, the fire hydrant, the stop sign and, sweeping into a helix, swam around my head.
I watched myself walk into the cloud. If one of the bugs landed on your arm, you'd think it was a ladybug. "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home." But they're not. They will land on your arms, and on your shirt and pant leg, on your socks, and they get in your hair. "Bean beetle, bean beetle, bite to the bone." That's what they are, sixteen spots on their back -- Mexican bean beetles.
All summer, the beetle population happily chews away on the soybean leaves turning them into useless green lace. They lay their eggs and raise up their generations in the rolling prairie that surrounds Sycamore. Then comes the harvest, and the beetles give up their vegetarian ways. Something happens in their big group think brain in the fall, and they start thinking us people are food. Maybe humans start looking like leaves turned color for autumn. I don't know.
In the fall, when the farmers move through the fields with their big machines - "choppin' the beans" they call it -- all the bean beetle world gets cut down. All the trucks and wagons haul the beans into the grain elevator south of First Street. The bean beetles follow. In September they bite like hell. In October they plaster the sunny sides of buildings, sucking the last heat of the year out of the air. In November they crunch when you walk over their bodies.
They look like ladybugs, but they're not.
The kids used to say I looked like a freak.
If I reach up and put my hands on my head, I can feel how lopsided my skull still is. But when I look in a mirror, I look normal. I see things different. Maybe that does make me a freak. Take that morning after Helen's picture went up on the door.
It was about quarter to ten when anyone who bothered to look saw a slightly overweight, fifty-five-year-old man walk into the swarm of bean beetles. They all saw old Looney-Herbert turn the corner at Antique Street and First. I've been called worse names. Whatever they thought of me, or whatever they thought they saw, old man or ladybugs -- they were wrong.
In my eyes, a typical twelve-year-old boy wearing jeans, a white t-shirt, and dirty K-Swiss sneakers walked around the corner, through the bugs, past the derelict Sycamore Opera House, towards the post office. That's what I saw, floating up in the air, looking down on the scene -- a kid walking uptown.
A therapist I saw on TV said that we freeze our emotional age at whatever point we were when trauma hit. That seems about right. I've been told that I'm well into late middle age. But that doesn't change the truth that I'm exactly twelve years, six months, and two days old. The clock stopped the day Jill Haberdorff drove the tractor over my head.
I won't go into too much detail. For one thing, I have absolutely no memory of the accident. Jill moved off to California for college, and she works for some quiz show out there now, so there's no one left in town that really knows how it happened. I only know what I was told afterwards.
It hadn't been a dry spell, or else my head would have popped like a mulberry between the tire and the baked ground. It hadn't been too wet a summer, or else my face would have been pushed into the mushy mud, and I'd have suffocated. It was just a few days after a good soaker, and the dirt was just soft enough that -- combined with the fat tractor tire -- my head just got bent a bit and only slightly cracked. I still laugh when I think about it. It just seems so funny to me. Like it was a cartoon or something.
I always giggled at the doctor's office whenever he checked my head or talked about what happened. Years later, and I still can't help myself. I think it's funny. My mother used to scold me for being immature when I still broke up over it in my twenties and my thirties. I think I embarrassed her in every waiting room we ever sat in. After my mom died, just before I turned forty, there was no one left to scold me about acting my age.
So when people see a chubby, fifty-five-year-old guy walking down the street, I see someone else. I don't even need a mirror. Ever since my head got crushed, I actually can kind of float up and look down on myself. I told all the kids at school, like it was a funny trick. Most of them thought it was spooky cool, because I could tell them how many fingers they were holding up behind their backs and which kid was on the other side of the big plank fence next to the Opera House alley. Parents found out, and people started talking about me and acting scared of me. My mother was horrified. I got a good talking to from Father Cathcart. The old priest sprinkled holy water on me. I don't usually talk about the way I float anymore. But I still float.
Anyway, when I look down on myself, I see a twelve-year-old kid. Everybody and everything else looks pretty much like everyone else sees it. Leaves turn colors. Old trees get cut down or toppled by wind. Houses get repainted. People go bald. Dogs die. I stay the same. I'm always a blond freckled kid except for those occasional scary moments when I first wake up and go into the bathroom. I see my old face in the mirror if I'm not quite awake. Usually I just jump into the shower and steam everything up. Then I can brush my teeth and watch the fog clear off the glass. Then everything is normal again. My face is freckled and smooth.
After the accident and the upset over my trick, I didn't have any friends anymore. A few of the meaner boys teased me about how different I was for a few years. Sometimes they hit me. Then one of the meanest got killed in Vietnam. Another one ended up as a vegetable in a nursing home after a drug overdose, and the last of those boys got married and took over a farm south of town. He's hasn't punched me since. So that all changed, even though I didn't.
Don't start thinking I'm stupid. The doctors said that when my head got squeezed my brain healed up O.K. Eventually, they decided it was my mind that got damaged. There's a difference, brain and mind, that is. None of them ever figured out why I am the way I am, not really.
I read books, more than most people. Melville and Twain are my favorites. Those guys treat words like toys. That appeals to me. I have a big Grant Wood landscape painting in the living room. I like it because it looks so real. I listen to lots of symphonies and stuff, mostly Mozart. I think he sounds like a kid playing a prank.
When my mom got real sick, I played the Mozart real loud. She seemed to like it, too. It was hard to tell, since the pain was so bad the last few months that she couldn't talk much. She told me stuff like, "I love you, Herbert." And one day she said, "You need friends your own age." That was the best advice she ever gave me.
I gave her pills and made her soup. She liked cream of chicken soup. The pills were tiny and white, like her old thyroid medicine. The visiting nurse told me they were morphine. I looked it up in our old dictionary. Morphine was named after Morpheus. He was the god of dreams.
After a while her pain got really bad, and mother asked me to give her a lot of the little dream pills. I didn't. Father Cathcart told me that would be the same as murder. I didn't really understand how that could be. Mom hurt so bad that she almost never slept. But I didn't want the priest to throw holy water at me again, and I didn't want to go to hell, so I only gave my mother one pill at a time.
At the end, my mother couldn't swallow the pills or the broth. After she died, there were bottles and bottles full of pain medication left and more canned cream of chicken soup in the pantry than I could ever eat. All the cans except for one are still there.
I tried Mahler's music once. He sounded like a guy who might have floated, too. That was the day my mother stopped hurting. I called the emergency number. I remember the town siren stared to howl. The black disc on the turntable began skipping - a flock of Mahler's violin notes stuck in a loop. It was kind of funny. The rescue unit came in about ten minutes. One of the paramedics, named Tiffany, was the daughter of a girl who had teased me once or twice in high school. I think Tiffany is a silly name.
The ambulance left empty, and the hearse showed up mid-afternoon. Mildred, who was younger then, had a helper with her. His name was Tommy something; never saw him again, so I guess he's not important -- except that Tommy helped Mildred move my mother out of her bed onto the stretcher. I didn't want to touch her, so I'm glad he was there. Mildred and Tommy carried her out of the house.
The record kept skipping all the rest of that day and all that night. I sat in the recliner listening in the dark, smelling the leather and the old lilac perfume. It was my mother's chair, and I'd never sat in it before that day. When the sun came up, I lifted the needle off the Mahler. I went into the kitchen and made myself some raisin bread toast.
The melted margarine tasted like butter and made my hands sticky, so I went into the bathroom to wash my hands with anti-bacterial soap. There was a bottle of my mother's leftover morphine on the counter.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw a thirty-nine year old face. I started spinning around and around until I got dizzier and dizzier, until my twelve-year-old face was looking back at me instead. Then all of a sudden, I had a really bad headache and everything smelled like cinnamon for a month. Maybe I shouldn't have eaten the toast.
I laughed at the funeral.
It's hard to be different in a small town. I didn't really graduate high school. I got a certificate, not a diploma. And even though I was a "graduate" I kept hanging around the school. I wanted to be with the other kids. About ten years after I got my certificate, I met Mary-Michelle. She was thirteen. She didn't even laugh at my squashed head. I thought she was the perfect friend. We used to talk a lot, and it was fun.
But around town there was gossip about "twenty-nine-year-old Looney-Herbert" and other dirty stuff. Her father didn't understand, and he yelled at me and almost hit me, and a lot of other people were mad, too. I had to stay in my house all the time for almost two years, until folks didn't seem so angry. I didn't have another friend until my mother died ten years, two months, and six days later.
I thought a lot about the advice she gave me on her deathbed. I started looking around town real hard when I was floating, and I started to see some people differently. So I tried to make some friends my own age.
My first friend was Glynnis. She had a lot of dolls and was very nice. But she didn't see me the way I saw her, and I think she let me be her friend because I mowed her lawn and did some chores for her. Glynnis broke her hip, and her son from Chicago came and moved her into a home up in Illinois.
Then Louise and I were friends. She was a tomboy. I met her by the pond in Pioneer Park, and she looked like she wanted to skip stones across the water. One day I told her about how I could float and about how pretty her hair was. That made her feel funny or something, and she started acting older and older, until that was how she looked -- old. Louise died in her sleep. I had stopped seeing her by then. But I did go to her funeral, and that's where I met Helen, my best, longest time friend of all. The first time she invited me over was in November.
I walked all the way across town, crunching bean beetle corpses on the sidewalks with almost every step. There was a drifted pile of the bugs, the bright orange fading to dull brown, piled up by the wind against the front steps of Helen's house. That's how I remember it was November.
We ate some cookies. Then she played ragtime music on her old spinet piano. Her tiny fingers moved in the pattern -- a delicate left hand stride established itself, and then from her right hand, the notes moved in, through, and around the rhythm.
"Louise told me what you told her, Herbert." Her voice was quiet and in time with the piece.
"She was pretty," I said.
A key change turned the music in a new direction. Helen didn't miss a note. "Yes, she was pretty a long time ago," she said.
"She got scared when I told her what I saw."
"Yes." The rag paused just a beat. "She got scared."
"That made her old." That seemed true to me.
The music stopped. Everything in the room was quiet. I noticed a bean beetle's black silhouette, dead, in the frosted glass light fixture centered in the ceiling. Her left hand moved. The stride resumed, and her right hand rejoined mid-measure.
"I'm not scared." She laughed just a little.
I laughed just a little, too. Helen looked prettier than any girl I'd ever met, and I told her so. She giggled. The music was perfect. Helen played, and I listened. Then I asked her. "Am I old?"
She made a small mistake but went past it. "Old?"
"Sometimes I have trouble seeing myself."
"Don't you worry, Herbert Spencer." Without stopping the music, Helen half turned on the piano bench and looked straight into my eyes. "I can see you just fine, and you are not old."
"Good." I took the last cookie off the plate.
She turned back to the keys. The ragtime got a little louder, or maybe her voice just got a little softer. "Can you really see me?" she asked.
I looked at her. "Yes, I can really see you."
"And you will be my friend?"
"Sure. My mother told me to have friends my own age."
She laughed. So did I, even though I didn't get the joke.
We didn't talk after that for a long time. She played the piano, and I just sat there. The ragtime notes looked fast on the sheet music, but Helen Isabel Waldenschmidt saw the truth and played Scott Joplin the way he should be played.
In a million years the bean bugs will drive big cars.
That's the way things work. That's evolution I think. The beetles turn the leaves into lace, and another picture goes up on the post office door. Pretty soon there will be none of us left, and someone will have to drive the cars.
That morning when I saw the announcement, a bean beetle was sunning itself on the outside of the window, an orange spotted carapace sitting on Helen's crayon gray hair like a crown. I didn't recognize my friend from the picture, but I could read her name.
Passed away Sunday, September 12, 2004
Visitation 7pm Wednesday the 15th
Hogarth's Funeral Home, Sycamore
Burial Thursday 10am at Memorial Field.
Miss Waldenshcmidt taught music in her home.
There are no survivors.
I read the words. I stared at the yellow face. Mahler's violins started skipping in my head. I remember I stepped back and sat down on the bumper of Ted Severin's half ton. The little photo got smaller and became an indistinct smudge of colors on the door ten feet away. I scrunched up my eyes and looked at the image harder. The distance helped me. I saw Helen's true face at last. A girl became real again.
The last words on the announcement seemed wrong. "No survivors." I thought about that as people came and went in and out of the post office. They'd open the door and Helen's face would swing out of sight. Then the door closed again, and I could see her. Every third or fourth person would stop for just a heartbeat or two, their hands on the door handle, reading the announcement. Then they'd swing the door open and go in to get their mail. Folks came and went. I sat there on Ted's muddy bumper and looked at the writing under Helen's tiny face. "No survivors."
A few years ago, right after my mom died, there was a big blizzard, and we got about two feet of snow. After the wind died down, the sun came out and turned the top of the snow drifts, some of them seven feet deep, into a thick icy crust. Then the night after that it got real cold, like twenty below, and the mud under the snow froze up and heaved up in spots like frozen stuff does. I stood out on my front porch and heard all the cracking.
I was standing out there on the old creaking boards. I had my warmest parka on, the same kind they use on Everest. I always went out on the porch in the winter. The air gets so clear when it's dry and frigid. You can see heaven. The stars are so bright and in focus. All the dimensions and the depth of the Milky Way are right in front of me on nights like that. It curls around like a swirl of dust on a puff of vacuum. I couldn't live where there weren't any stars. I like to look at heaven.
Anyway I was standing out on my porch. I could actually hear the snaps and creaks as the ground under the snow crystallized and shifted. Noises like that aren't unusual when it gets that cold. I was looking at the Big Dipper when I heard the icy crunch of George Broom's boots coming down the road.
My house is the next to the last house before the road turns from paved to gravel. The lane turns east out of town, leads up a little hill, then down into a valley, and up again past the cemetery. George lived just across from the graveyard.
"Evening, Herbert," he said. His voice was a bit muffled by his scarf, and I could see the moist puff of his words leaking out into the night.
"Awful cold," he said. He was not too steady on his feet.
"Yep." George half tripped over nothing.
I watched him walk down the street and follow the lane around the corner and start up the little hill until he was out of sight. I could hear the crunch of his boots fade and the snap of some distant mud turning into ice beneath the ice.
It was half a mile to George's house, and they found him the next morning. He was still being thawed out a couple days later when his picture went up on the post office door. The announcement said that he was survived by a wife, Doris, and five kids: Leo, Thomas, Giselle, Georgina, and Frederick. They all died in a house fire six weeks later. The cold had moved the earth and cracked the gas main that led into their cellar. Tiffany, the paramedic, and another volunteer firefighter burnt their hands up pretty bad trying to save them, but nothing could be done. I'd never seen so many pictures all at once when they posted them. Sycamore was sad for a whole year.
I spent some time wondering if I should have walked George home. That's what a friend would have done. I've tried to see people like George as friends, but I can't. Maybe it's because they are afraid of me, or afraid of something inside themselves. Fear seems to change everything.
It was a very cold winter. The beetle eggs under the snow knew the pattern. The earth made noises all the way until late March. Then the spring thaw finally came, and farmers started planting. Soon the Mexican bean beetles were back. They waited for the leaves to spread. They waited for the beans to get chopped again. The bean beetles never seem to get scared. Old bugs look like young bugs as far as I can tell. Time is different to them. Maybe I'm a bean bug.
George had frozen. His family had burned, and years later they put Helen's picture on the door, and a beetle landed on her crayon gray hair. Fred Morton stopped to read the announcement and absentmindedly took his big thumb and crushed the insect right there on the glass. It left a little yellow smear. Then he swung the door open and went in to get his mail. I watched the whole thing from the truck bumper. Before the door was completely shut behind him, another beetle looped through the air and landed exactly where the other had been. The words under Helen's face were wrong.
The bean bugs survived her.
Reflections are everywhere.
Sitting there on that muddy truck, my head sank, and I looked down between my shoes. My feet were in a puddle. It was as still as the holy water in the font at the back of the church. It was a bright cloudless day without a thought of wind. The liquid surface had a prismed rainbow thread of old oil curling lazily across it, and a face looked back at me. The face looked blurry. I picked up my right foot and stomped it down. The stirred up sediment clouded everything.
I looked up and saw the same out of focus face reflected in a hubcap. I tried to float up out of myself, but I couldn't. Maybe I was afraid of what I had done. I stood up, and I kept my eyes on the concrete sidewalk. The pavement was gray. It was solid. There was no face looking back at me. I kept my eyes on my feet. I knew the way. It wasn't far.
The Old Bridge Tavern was exactly forty-two steps from the post office. I walked in just as the noon siren went off. There were six people inside. Two of them, Ed and Frank, were at a table playing gin rummy. They looked up but didn't say anything. The Lelinick kid was playing the lottery machine in the far corner. He didn't look up at all. Marla was cleaning the floor. Her hair was as dirty and stringy as the yarn on her mop.
Marian Tokey was bartending, and Jim Dewey sat at the bar with a can of Bud Lite in front of him. There was a huge mirror behind Marian that stretched the length of the bar. I looked back down at my feet and kept them moving. Jim was puffing on a cigarette and blowing rings out from under the bill of his Cargill hat, trying to impress Marian. Word around town was that Marian had been impressed frequently over the years by various men and various kinds of smoke. I hurried over to Dickie's old seat. I got on the stool and spun it around halfway, away from the images in the silver glass behind the bar. I looked up and fixed my eyes on the girl with the big boobs dressed like a leprechaun. The poster was rattier than I remembered.
"Herbert, what're you doing in here?" Marian had a bartender's voice, kind of like dirty brass.
"I want a beer." I didn't want a conversation.
"How you doing, Herbert?" asked Jim. He was an O.K. guy. I didn't dislike him.
"That's good," he said. I could smell his smoke, Chesterfields, non-filter, same as my dad. He died when I was three.
"Here's your beer." Marian set the glass down on the bar. A little foam slopped over the edge and ran down the side.
"Thanks." I half turned without looking up and put a five-dollar bill down on the bar. "Two more."
"Well," she laughed, "What's got into you?"
I didn't answer. I just picked up my beer and drank half of it in one gulp. I looked back up at the girl with the big boobs.
"O.K., two more then."
I heard Jim whispering to Marian over by the taps. "She died."
"Who died?" Marian whispered as best she could.
"Old lady Walden whatever."
"Jeeze, I thought she was already dead."
"Nope, just died Sunday. They found her dead in her chair."
"How'd they know to look?"
"There was some really loud music coming from her place." Jim coughed.
"Like some Lynnard Skynnard?" Marian laughed.
"Nah, some violins or something, and the record was skipping. Mildred from the funeral home lives next door. She heard it and went over to see what was what."
"Ain't that funny. The funeral home lady."
Jim blew a smoke ring. "That's when she saw the old thing. They say she was already starting to brown up from the sun through the picture window. She had half a bowl of chicken soup in her lap and bean bugs all over her face. That's what Mildred said."
Marian shuddered. "That's more than I wanted to know." She put a head on the second beer and brought the two full glasses over to where I was sitting. I kept my eyes on the leprechaun, such bright green satin. "Here you go, Herbert. Sorry to hear the news."
"Yeah. Sorry." I was finished with my first beer and started in on the second. I put another five-dollar bill down on the bar. "Two more."
"But..." Marian stopped. "Sure, kid."
As I drank my third beer, I started thinking about Helen. There were no mirrors in the front room of her little house. That was where the piano was, and that's the only room I was ever in. I never even used the bathroom when I was over there. I just listened to her play ragtime and Gershwin. I just watched her slender small fingers on the keys and her soft red hair and the way she could stretch her too short legs to reach the pedals.
We talked about stuff and drank Kool-Aid. Sometimes we played games like Go Fish. And every once in a great while we sat out on he front stoop and looked at the stars. One night she told me.
"I have a tumor, Herbert."
The sky was especially black -- no moon at all that night. The stars were all in 3-D and that strand of cosmic dust was visible down to the last tendril, stretching all the way from heaven to the horizon.
"Does it hurt much?"
Helen took a raspy deep breath. "Yes. It hurts a lot."
"Are you afraid?" I asked.
"A little. Mostly I'm afraid of being more afraid."
"It will hurt more, won't it?"
"Yes, I think so."
I thought about what she had said for a little bit. We never worried about silences. When I'd thought it through, I said, "Don't worry. I'm your friend."
She didn't say anything back. We just sat there. After a while, I moved my hand across the cool concrete step, slowly, until I was touching her.
"You want another beer, Herbert?" Marian's voice startled me, and I spun around towards her without thinking.
There in the mirror behind her was a fifty-five-year-old man in a white t-shirt. His hair was thinning, and his face was puffy and pale. Looking back at me were two eyes that seemed faded. Blue had become gray.
"You want another, Herbert?"
I couldn't stop staring at the old man in the mirror. My bones started to hurt. That's why I don't drink. It makes me afraid -- afraid the reflection might become true.
I almost fell on the floor trying to get off that barstool. Old men look so stupid when they run. But I didn't care what anybody thought they saw. I ran home and jumped into the shower with all my clothes on and the water as hot as it would go until the room filled with steam.
Sitting there by the drain, I thought about my old parakeet. I got him when I was eight. I set up the best cage for him with every toy a pet could ever want.
That bird went crazy attacking himself in the little mirror.
Two days later, they buried Helen.
A couple guys from the funeral home's Crawly location carried the casket. I don't know what their names were. The Mexican beetles were swarming out at the cemetery, and both of the pallbearers fled back to the hearse as soon as they could after they set Helen's coffin down on the stand over the grave. Mildred did a good job of making sure there was a little tent put up, and Reverend Joplin from the Baptist church was there. I don't like him much. He never smiles. They say he's a religious man, but it seems to me that if he knows Jesus, he should be a whole lot happier. Still, it was nice that he came to say a few words.
The preacher had a strong deep voice, even when a bean beetle flew down his throat. He almost choked for a second, but managed to carry on with only the loss of a beat or two. He waved his hand, shooing away the swirling little funnel of bugs that were trying to eat us all. The good reverend gave his best shot.
"From the Gospel of Matthew... and Jesus said, 'Go away. The girl is not dead, but asleep.' But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, Jesus went in and took the girl by the hand and she got up." He choked on another bug, raised his hand in a silent blessing, and hurried back to his car without another word.
I might have quoted Leviticus to him: "All flying insects are unclean to you; do not eat them." But I didn't.
Mildred came over to me to do her last duty. "Sorry, Herbert. Helen was a very nice woman."
I didn't correct her. People see what they see. Instead, I just gave her a smile and said, "Thanks, Mildred."
She scurried back to the hearse through the bean bugs and hustled the two men back out to finish the ceremony. They cranked Helen down into the earth pretty quickly, but they didn't tip anything over, so that was fine. Then they took down the green canvas tent and started shoveling the dirt back into the hole. It didn't take them too long at all to finish. The biting insects gave them a lot of encouragement. Funny, but I don't recall any of the beetles biting me.
That was one of those times when I kind of pushed myself out of myself and floated up into the group mind of the flying bean bugs. I glided up into the school or the flock or the cloud, whatever it was, and I started to move with them. It seemed like I finally understood their random choreography, and I caught the rhythm of the dance in the quiet air. It seemed to me that the bugs were laughing. That seemed right.
I looked down on myself standing there by the freshly filled grave. I was kind of pathetic in the oversized black jacket. Twelve-year-old boys always look a little awkward in a suit, I guess. I also noticed that I was smiling. That seemed right, too. I looked down on the mound that covered Helen. The dirt was very black, Iowa soil. I hoped it was warm and that she was deep enough so that the ground didn't crack her on a really cold night.
I was glad I came to the funeral, and I was just as glad I didn't go to the visitation at the funeral home the night before. I didn't need to see Helen. I knew what she looked like.
Helen Isabel Waldenschmidt had little spindly bird legs and a skinned right knee, sunburned shoulders, and red hair that got brighter in the summer. She had a dimple on her left cheek and exactly thirty-one freckles in an arch across her upturned nose. Her arms were delicate with an almost invisible down of light blond hair that you'd only notice if she got the goose bumps or if you ran your hand across it, barely touching. Her lips were naturally red, and her neck was like a piece of warm sculpture. Her eyes were a bright green. I especially remember her eyes. She was the nicest girl I ever met.
I liked Glynnis and Louise, too. It was sad that they never saw me the way I saw them. But I was the best kind of friend I could be, until they got afraid. When people get old, it's easy to be scared.
Helen was different. We saw each other just the same way. Like we had the same mirror or something. She never got scared -- of me, anyway. When her pain got so bad, I helped her like a friend should. I put my mother's dream pills in the chicken soup, and made sure that it wasn't too hot or too cold. I really liked her, and I didn't want her to get old. I hope I don't go to hell. And maybe I hope that I never have another friend.
I floated up in the air surrounded by bean bugs and watched the kid reach into his pocket and pull out an amber prescription bottle. I watched him empty what was left of my mother's pills out onto the mound of Helen's grave. Little bright white morphine tablets scattered across the deep black dirt.
They looked like stars.