He was just a bird, perched on the long cold metal of the electricity wire, strung along the overhead poles that ran along the road, watching over us, presiding over the burial, like it was his own to supervise. You could hear the electricity buzz through the metal wire and disappear into the long white prairie distance. It was the only sound in the cold still air, except when the priest talked. I wondered how the crow didn’t get electrocuted. I wondered if the crow was even real or if he was Uncle Dan, a black angel watching himself about to get put into that hole.
The hole was bad. Thin roots grew out of the sides of it, like wooden snaky fingers that could grab you and pull you down inside and wrap around you and never let you up and only let go after they shoveled all the dirt over you and you were already trapped. What if you were buried alive? What if Uncle Dan wasn’t really dead? What if he woke up inside his coffin box and was trapped all alone in that dark tiny space under the earth. Who would hear him yelling for help. Maybe he was the crow watching us to see if anyone would just open the coffin box and check one last time before putting him in the hole.
But nobody opened the box. No one did anything except the priest, moaning and chanting over the hole. I wanted him to go quicker, it was cold, and my nose was running, and I had to pee bad. I looked at the crow, he looked back, right at me. When I turned back to the hole, all the ladies dressed in their black dresses and veils looked like frozen solid crows, though some now wore winter coats that weren’t black or fancy.
Two men came and put a brass frame all around the hole with cloth straps that went across. The priest gave them heck for being late for something, then the men that carried the coffin box from the church lifted it and laid it on the cloth straps. It was like a picture on the ground with a shiny frame around it. I felt embarrassed for him, for Uncle Dan, that he was dead. That he had to be dead in the winter, out in the country, laying down when everyone else was standing up. I wanted him to sit up and tell me to set up the checkerboard.
I wanted it to be summer, holding Uncle Dan’s hand as we crossed the street to the bus depot to buy candy from the little store inside. I wanted to sit on the sidewalk bench with him as bus depot people walked by and he told me about them. Their names, their jobs, what their voices sounded like when they talked. Where they came from and where they were going. He knew all about them, even though he didn’t know them at all.
“That guy calls his wife a stupid old hag and then she chases him with a broom,” he said. “That lady had eggs for breakfast and that little boy pees the bed.”
I confessed to him that when I was little, I had to pee the bed once because there was an evil monster chicken hiding under my bed in the night and if I put my feet on the floor it would peck them to shreds. So, I had to stay in the bed and the pee happened.
He nodded, said it was okay and not to worry about it because Aunt Mary fried up that chicken and we ate it last Sunday. Then he said, “Look at that man’s fat stomach. I wonder if he is having a baby.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Uncle, I was only scared like that when I was little, and I don’t pee the bed now.”
He said “I know that. If you peed the bed, we would have cut your poopon off and you still have it, don’t you?”
When I was old enough, he showed me how to play poker and he took me to Eatons and showed me where he sold linoleum. And best of all he took me to Roy’s Barbershop and paid for my real haircut and told Roy to rub my whole head with the fancy smelling hair cream. He bought me a box of pink Jumbo Elephant popcorn, with a prize inside. A little plastic parachute guy that I dropped from the balcony on the second floor and he stayed below and threw it back up to me after each time so I wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs to fetch it. We must have done it fifty times, he never got tired. He taught me how to fart right. “Don’t push too hard,” he said.
I thought I felt him beside me, holding my hand at his grave hole. “I’m going to be in that hole,” he said. “It reminds me of the young twins that got the pox and died together. They buried them together in one box. Then the mother had a dream that they were still alive and she made them dig them up to check. But they were dead.”
I thought that was pretty scary. Two young boys buried together under the ground with a little flat gravestone that had both their names. Young, like me, and dead.
Then he said, “but one had been alive and he had to eat part of his brother because he got starving after a while. But then he died too. When they dug them up one had his arm half eaten away.”
I couldn’t tell if it was true or if he was just making up a story. He just laughed. He laughed hard until he coughed that smokers cough that happens when you laugh and smoke cigarettes.
His belly always jiggled up and down when he laughed. But he wasn’t really there. He wasn’t really holding my hand. When I turned and looked at the crow, it lifted itself off the electricity wire. It flew right over my head and I pretended that it said, “It’s okay. I’m just going to have a snooze for a little while. Get the checkerboard ready for when I wake up.”
Afterwards Aunt Mary went home alone, without Uncle Dan.
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