Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Killing Jar

Davey keeps the jar under his bed, where it's dark. The killing jar. Grasshoppers are the best. He keeps the jar beneath where his head rests on the pillow so he can hear them struggle. Grasshoppers fight the longest. Sometimes they'll hold out for more than a day. In the mornings he'll lay on the wooden floor of his room, flat against his stomach, and pull up the bed skirt that blocks the light from outside. He'll check to see if the grasshopper--or whatever it is--is still alive. Early morning, when the whole world is quiet. When his father is not yet home.

It is surprising what can be endured.

The morning air is cool as he leaves the house, guiding the screen door with one hand to close with a gentle, unnoticed click. The jar is in his other hand, open end turned downward. It is a comforting, familiar shape. Behind the house there is a stream, dry now from the heat of August afternoons, the heat that's coming, that will wrap him up like a Mother's too-tight embrace. Like the day has had one too many and needs to pull you close, so close you almost drown. This is preferable, of course, to other things.

He carries the jar though he's not sure he will use it. Th last one had been a disappointment. Davey thinks he remembers the first grasshopper taking ages to die. This one had barely lasted the night. He wakes up now, sometimes, at the silence.

Davey follows the dry stream past the clearing where the older kids come to neck and to break bottles against the old felled tree. He treads carefully and quickly by, his eyes on the ground though he knows no one is there to watch him. He follows the streambed to the creek.

I dreamt of him last night. Dreamt I was him, down by that creek where we found him, almost a week before the school year began. This was 1992, I think. I awoke this morning to a dull pain in my right temple and the sound of a cat howling outside my window. I live on the third floor; the howl must have been something. I sat in the dark there, listening to the sound and trying to remember why I'd dreamt of Davey Caldwell.

You learn a lot of things in school. You learn whose parents are poor, you learn who can be dumped on. You learn just how far you can push a thing before the adults force themselves to intervene. I learned those lessons. So did Davey Caldwell.

I gotto feeling guilty about the cat, mainly about how, really, when I looked to inward, I felt nothing. No distress at the thing's state. Not sorrow, nor even guilt, really. The guilt I was feeling was second-hand, guilt at not feeling guilt. I decided to go down to check on the thing, bring it some cat food, if only to shut it up.

We found Davey by the creek. He'd captured a frog in that jar of his he carried everywhere. I think in the years between then and now, I'd convinced myself I told Roger to leave it, to let the poor kid alone. Waking up this morning, I knew that wasn't true. Just one of those things we tell ourselves.

So there we were and there he was. For a long time he didn't see us.

I got about half-way down the last flight of stairs and I saw him. Homeless guy. He was sleeping in the foyer of my building, against the radiator. Stopped me cold. For a second, I had the absurd thought it must be Davey, lying there. Of course, it couldn't be. Davey died, years ago.

"Hey, Davey," Roger said, and I knew this would end badly. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Collectin' frogs." His eyes down. The little frog struggling against the side of the jar.

"Oh yeah? Int'ris'ted in the flora?"

"Fauna" I remember correcting him, but I didn't. I never would have.

"Can I see it?" Roger asked. Smirking.

"No, it's mine."

That act of defiance, that denial...we probably would have gone after him anyway, but that "no" sealed his fate. We rushed him, Jim and I only a half-step behind Roger, who had Davey pinned with next to no effort. We knew our roles. I pinned his right arm. Jim got his feet. Roger sat on Davey's back and pushed his face into the mud. The jar tipped over; the frog got out.

If I went out, I'd probably wake him up. I don't know how long I'd been standing there. If I went outside to tend to the cat, I would have to talk to this guy. I didn't want to talk to him, I didn't want to tell him I'd only come down because of the cat, I didn't want him to ask me for something. So I just stood there, dumbly, for a little while longer, there on the steps at three in the morning, in my bathrobe.

Davey was twisting, writhing to get free. Roger was inching down his back. "Get his other arm!" he shouted at me, his hand on the belt of Davey's pants. "You like that, faggot?" He was saying. "This is what your Dad likes, isn't it?"

"What are you doing?" I finally asked. My attention wavered. I didn't see Davey's fingers find the upturned jar. he jerked his arm free, then brought it up. I was right where I definitely shouldn't have been. There was a terrible crash as the thing broke on my temple, all the lights went on at once, a blinding white-hot flash and I blacked out.

When I came to, Davey was sitting a little ways away from me. he had a frog in his hands. I don't know if it was the same frog. The world swam in and out, I remember that much. And there was blood. A lot of it. Mine.

"Where'd they go?" I managed after a while.

"To get help, I guess," Davey mumbled. "I think they're scared."

"Why are you so fucked up, Davey?"

And he told me. Bits of it, anyway. The rest I think we all worked out years later. He must have been gratified, I suppose, to have me as a captive audience. After a while I sat up. He told me the story of his life; maybe he thought I'd tell someone, maybe he thought I'd never believe him, I don't know. We never talked to each other again. After a while, there were sounds, adults coming, calling after Davey and me.

Davey stood up. He let the little frog go, almost as an afterthought, I think, and he disappeared in to the woods. Roger and the others happened on me a minute or two later.

"Little faggot ran off," I told them. Things got worse in Davey's life after that.

I stared at the middle distance around the homeless guy for a little bit after I made my decision. I wish I could say Roger got what was coming to him. I wish I could say it was him in that foyer. He's a broker. Fortune 500. I didn't do too badly, either, all things considered.

After a little while longer, I went up.

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