It was about this time of year that it happened. I had been working at Old Man Keffer’s garage when he dropped dead. That old piece of dried meat didn’t leave a damn thing in order, and the bank shut it all down a week later. I was flat broke with Patty and the baby to care for — I couldn’t even afford the medicine for her asthma. Anyone who knows me could probably guess I hit the bottle pretty hard.
I was friendly with Ned Cossack back then. I think it was more because Patty and Judith were friends than I was with him, but misery loves company and I suppose Ned and I gravitated towards each other for a while there to drown in bitterness and whisky.
That man calls himself a Christian, but I’ve never known less of one. I don’t say that just because he roughed up Judy sometimes. I’m sure the Lord would frown on giving your wife a black eye, but then any man who knows will tell you a woman can get the best of you in a marriage. Ned was downright mean, though. He’d go out of his way to be mean to anyone who didn’t catch his favor. I don’t know why I caught it – probably because we drank and shot pool more than we spoke.
I’m carrying on. Here it is: I helped kill a man.
It was that artist boy who used to live by himself on the creek by I-50. He was a quiet kid. He always put on a tight lipped smile like a stupid person when you’d catch his eye in town. Kept his hair in a pony-tail like a girl. I remember him putting those statues he made out on his lawn to sell to passers-by. I don’t know how he even made enough to pay the tax on that shack he lived in, let alone buy a meal. I never liked the statues much; Ned said they looked like devils. But I didn’t mind the boy.
One night with everyone liquored up at Callihan’s, some thing or other happened that I barely remember. I think the artist boy said something about not believing in God. Ned got upset with him and dragged him out into the lot by his pony-tail and started walloping him good. There were about six or seven others besides myself, Ned, and the boy. Mostly they just watched. A couple of them joined in for a moment to beat on him. He didn’t fight back.
At first I just stood there watching and feeling nervous, but then I felt this anger welling up in me. Suddenly my blood was boiling, and I wanted to break him.
I don’t know where it came from exactly, or why it took that form just then. I felt all my hate coming up my throat; hate for everyone I knew, hate for myself and hate for my life. And worse still, love. Love for those same things; a helpless love that brought me no peace.
The bitterness was so hot it made me tremble, and looking at the damaged boy I gave in and focused my hate on him. I’m not a mean man, and I’d never hurt anyone who didn’t hurt me before, but I despised him in that moment for his very being. How dare he be so different and free? Who was he to be at peace when I couldn’t be?
I kicked him. I kicked him again and again. I hurt my toe I kicked him so hard. Every once in a while I remember what it felt like to put my shoe into his gut and I feel like I’m going to retch. I really don’t know why I did it. I guess I knew we were going to kill him, so it didn’t seem much like it mattered if I helped.
He didn’t make much fuss through the whole thing, but I could hear each gasping breath as he got hit. It’s funny how after all this time it’s those simple little sounds that stick with me; much more so than all the screaming at me that Patty’s done.
When I just about thought he must be dead, Ned took off. I didn’t watch where he went to. I just watched that boy, dying on the ground there. He was motionless, all busted up, laying face down in an uncomfortable looking heap, still breathing. Nobody touched him, and a couple guys took off. I was numb and just about to leave when he started moving again.
I was surprised he could move in his condition, but he slowly pulled himself up onto his knees and sat back on his feet. He managed to straighten his back up, and tilted his head just slightly up to the side like he was listening for God. I thought that was a bit funny at the time and I smiled in spite of myself. His arms hung by his side.
I wondered what he was doing then. His eyes were swollen closed, making his face look alien. If he’d had his hands up I would’ve thought he was praying. Now that I think of it, maybe he just wanted to face death with some dignity, since it had found him. The group – four or five now, watched silently.
Ned came back then. Turned out he had just gone around back to his truck to get a tire iron.
He walked up behind the boy nonchalantly and swung the iron down in a quick overhead arc. It hit the back of the his head with such force it went right through his skull. The loud crack of bone as it gave way was bright enough to make me flinch.
The iron went in deep, cleaving a clean line that started between his eyes, went over the crown, and all the way down back to his flannel collar. My gut jumped up into my throat at the sight of it. Ned pulled the tire iron out and stepped back, as if waiting for some reaction from the boy. But the boy just stayed there on his knees, upright, motionless, like one of his own statues.
His head was split open, and it was dark inside.
I stepped closer and looked with curiosity and horror at the wide bloodless gash running the length of his skull. It was blacker than the night, giving an impression of great depth. The blackness in there seemed to be a living thing of its own, like a mouth or eye into some other world.
I felt a strange pull in my chest towards the boy. I gave him a little shove with my foot, and he wobbled but remained upright on his knees.
I inched toward him cautiously and tried to peer into his head, into that awful emptiness. There was something electric in the air that made the hairs on my neck stand up. I felt as though at any second I might experience a massive static shock. Still I was drawn further in.
When I got closer than I could stand, with my cringing, twitching nose only inches from that horrid opening, I swear it opened up to me, his skull.
Slowly, the light from the street lamp caught some dash of color in that gaping wound. Something orange and gold, then a glimmer of emerald green and then royal blue.
His head opened wider now, with the steady pace of a morning glory, and I could see clearly inside. I tried to back away but couldn’t. My heart was in a fist and my eyes were locked open.
His head was completely hollow, but my god the colors. It was like splitting open one of those geode rocks with the inner walls covered in crystals. It was even richer than that, with details I could hardly focus on that seemed to be alive and changing. My eyes struggled to register what they were seeing; I caught patterns of mosaic, glazed clay, and crushed colored glass.
The more detail I saw the smaller I felt. I was stiff with fear as if falling towards a bottomless pit. The light played across that curved inner surface of his head to show a new work of art.
The dark grip on my heart released just a bit and was replaced with wonder. I suddenly realized I could blink again, and I looked over at the other men. Ned was frozen with his mouth hanging open like a fish. He stood at a strange angle, like he was about to tip over, swaying ever so slightly like a poplar tree in the breeze.
All the men were like that: unbalanced, still, staring, awake. Everything in my life was forgotten; I was completely in the moment.
I turned back to look into the magic head. It had grown much larger and opened wider, as if reality was taking on the consistency of a fun-house mirror. The patterns inside the head were changing, blending seamlessly with each other: natural patterns became mixed with the work of man — cave drawings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and bits of the Sistine chapel. Anything I wanted to see was there. My eyes were like powerful telescopes. I could focus in on any detail to discover more.
The images started bleeding out of his head and into the world around us. The borders between he and everything else began to melt away. I felt a rush of fear as it leaked out and across the dirty back lot like fog, blotting out our surroundings, becoming part of them. The stars and clouds in the sky blended into the patterns like they were always meant to be there; painting a new heaven and earth.
I felt the beauty of it wrap around me, and I lost track of who and where I was. My skin became like milk in coffee, the boundaries blurred, tiny whirlpools of me mingling with all that was not me. I thought I might cease to exist, but the idea didn’t frighten me. In fact I felt a longing to die, without malice or regret, to become one with the endless flow.
And then I realized that I had always been a part: a ripple so small and brief as to be at best forgotten. But here nonetheless.
My mind touched the universe, and I found it to be completely unknowing. I was shaken with emptiness, but in that same moment by awe as I saw myself, my own being, standing alongside earth, water, air, and fire: another element that did not waver despite the lack of purpose. I remained.
Awareness. Will. Idea. Aether. Void.
In that moment, I knew the boy. I knew what magic had lay inside his head. Something beautiful, unique, and condemned. A desperate child of an unknowing universe as it tried to create the divine.
Time slowed and stopped, then reversed. The vision was pulled away from me and back into the head with the sudden completeness of a black hole.
Still standing in the lot, the boy now fallen face down and dead, his blood and brains steeping in a greasy mud puddle where he lay, we were all frozen on our feet.
There was an absolute silence for several seconds and then sound returned to us slowly, first the buzz of the streetlamp overhead, then the thrumming of the bar’s dying AC unit, and then the distant trucks on I-50 off to the east.
Without a word the group scattered. I got into my car and stared blankly at the clock for a full twenty minutes before starting up and driving slowly home. I didn’t wake Patty.
The murder was never solved. It was never properly looked into with nobody to call for it. The obituary said it was transient truck drivers.
Ned put his pickup into a tree that night on the way home and lost a leg. I didn’t visit him or talk to him. Still haven’t. Patty left a few weeks later, to go live with her mother upstate. She took the baby.
I’ve never talked about it with any of the guys who were there. I don’t know if they saw what I saw, but if I see them in town I avoid them, and them me.
Since then I took up sculpture, though I’m no good at it. Still I find it relaxes me on my days off to be alone and work with stone. Applying my will, my element, to another element over time. I find the borders between elements fascinating.
And I wonder sometimes what it is like to be a temporary god, in a world full of temporary gods.
I guess this is what it is like.