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Post Road Magazine #35

Night Crawlers

Michael Gracey

When my brother’s ex-wife Caitlin called a few months ago, I knew from the way she rushed past my greeting that she was delivering bad news. Dan was dead, she told me. The guy who helped him with his cows had found him on the floor of his den, his head bloody from having fallen out of his wheelchair after an aneurysm took him. 

After sputtering a bit, I asked Caitlin about my niece and nephews, wrote down numbers for the police and funeral home, and told her I’d go to Connecticut the next day. Then I called family and friends to pass on the news, and their shock made me spin more than I already was. So later that night, unable to sleep, I jotted some thoughts about Dan, hoping to slow the swirl and figuring I might be asked to speak at the funeral. But every time I came close to a clear observation that night, a stray memory popped up to muddy it. It was too soon.

What I wrote the next night was no better, though it did settle more neatly into a eulogy, with all the formulas that present themselves when you try to encapsulate a person’s life. I commented broadly on the mark he left behind and joked lamely about marks he left on me, sketching accounts of scars on my forehead and on the bridge of my nose. I feigned gratitude, thanking him for improving my quickness with all the hockey pucks and arrows he shot at me over the years, and for lowering the bar of Mom and Dad’s expectations: if I made it through the night without burning down a barn or crashing a Monte Carlo, they left me alone. Thinking I could cover a lot of ground quickly, I wrote about the “Two Dans”: the guy who grilled his steaks over charcoal once asked for an easy-bake oven; the man who swigged beer with builders sipped tea with grandparents; the boy who gave one babysitter a plastic ring as a token of affection for her knocked another unconscious with a two-by-four when he tried to storm Dan’s snow fort. 

The problem was that these oppositions weren’t going to capture the guy who lived between them, so I tried combining the traces to see if something dynamic might emerge. Some incarnations mixed easily, “Dangerous Dan” blending with “Inquisitive Dan,” long-time fan of the Curious Georgebooks. Like a cartoon monkey, Dan loved to explore, to see how things worked. The difference was that Dan’s investigations had the potential to get someone killed—usually him, occasionally me. 

At six he almost cut his own ear off when his hatchet bounced off a branch and spun back at him. At ten he disappeared for hours near our Maine vacation house to explore hunter’s trails in deer season, clad in a brown coat that Mom was sure would make him look like prey to men toting rifles. Dan made it home that afternoon, but the coat figured in a more dangerous situation the following fall when he took down an old tobacco barn with a fire that spread from an adjacent hay field. He’d been playing match games with a neighbor whose last named happened to be “Arson” when a sudden wind swept the flame through dry grass. Later, the fire chief noticed Dan shivering in the absence of a jacket as the volunteers finished their work, so he explored the charred field on a hunch. When he approached us later, he offered my father a glowing orange zipper on the end of a stick as evidence of Dan’s participation in the crime. Technically, the zipper only proved Dan’s failed attempt to extinguish the blaze, the jacket having fanned the flames he was trying to put out. 

A couple years later on the coast of Maine, Dan took me fishing without mentioning that the Coast Guard had issued small craft warnings to keep recreational boaters off the water. We spent a couple hours out there, watching the rhythmic disappearance of the land on one side of the swells and feeling the boat slam down on the other. The trip left me with a healthy respect for the power of the open ocean, along with an enduring fear of the deep water Dan might drop me into.

A couple winters later, the bay froze over one frigid night, leaving a flat sheet for us to play hockey on the next day. The salt water ice was too soft for us to skate hard, but we had fun until the wind drove us inside. That night, the tides broke ice near the shore and at the outer margins a few hundred yards out, so by the following afternoon, the bay was rimmed with a jigsaw of icebergs, and the water lifting them threatened to drag down any boy daring enough to risk falling between. But Dan still thought it was a good idea to take our dogs out at high tide. Once we climbed over fractured pieces near the shore, there was no immediate problem. We used puck-sized chunks of ice to play keep-away with spaniels, turning tight on the soft ice to avoid their cartoonish slides. Later, though, Dan got bored and converted it to a game of fetch, each time shooting further away and closer to the side of the floe until, inevitably, Maya went over the edge.

Dan ordered me to hold Anda, and he skated as far as he could before going the remaining distance on his belly to distribute his weight. He tried lifting her with the blade of his stick, but he couldn’t give much of a boost with his arms extended, so he inched forward to get more leverage.

“Stupid dog,” he said. “Get up.”

Maya tried, but her paws kept slipping off the ice right when she was starting to rise. Her mother strained at the leash and whimpered, and I felt a lump in my throat when I heard a rippling crack beneath Dan.

All of a sudden, Dan yanked the stick from under Maya, put the blade of it around her hind legs, and pulled. Her back side supported, she put all of her effort into her forepaws and finally got enough traction to claw her way up and scurry to her mother, who gave her a bunch of corrective barks and nipped at her ears. Dan grabbed Maya’s collar, and we all went toward the house, moving gingerly over icebergs by the shore, careful not to slide between them again.

This is where my pen stopped. I wanted the end of the anecdote to emphasize the solidity of the ground and the gratitude of fawning dogs and the warmth of the fire waiting for us—but it all seemed untrue. Not that any of it was actually false, but the quick transition glossed over the real danger at edge of the ice, not to mention the cold of the water and of the wind that whipped over the bay, tightening our faces and making toes and fingers ache. He could have died then and there.

By writing about the experience, I’d reduced it, making it less threatening than it actually was. I wasn’t going to capture the brittleness of it all, let alone clarify anything about the guy who sent the dog toward danger in the first place, and then followed her. Even less clear was what I thought this would add to a funeral, and the platitudes I’d written earlier that day were worse, bad enough for me to imagine Dan tossing the pages back at me and saying, “This is crap.” So, after another false start a couple days after his death, I was fine with having my oldest brother Jocko, our friend Jon, and two of Dan’s kids deliver the “Words of Remembrance.” I could opt out in the name of brevity—a lie for the sake of the truth.

***

Though I’d been relieved of eulogy duty, I kept writing about Dan that week, figuring I might have something to give his kids if I stumbled over some true things the way I tripped over debris in his poorly lit office as I cleaned it. But the clichés kept coming, floating up like balloons until pointed phrases darted out of my conscience to puncture them. It would have been easy to bundle the remnants in vignettes between white spaces, but that would have reduced him right when I was trying to keep him from shrinking away. At the same time, I was watching out for the exaggerations that pop up after people die, moments we inflate to keep them from sifting out of memory, but this editing was hard because Dan sometimes lived bigger than he was. 

I recalled pitching with him behind me in center field, especially when I was a high school sophomore and he was a senior. In one game, I gave up a long drive to a behemoth and watched Dan disappear over a center field knoll in pursuit of it. Surprised as I was by his effort on my behalf, I was sure it wouldn’t amount to anything; the ball was gone. No sooner had I thought this than it shot back over the bushes like a retort, flying all the way to our shortstop, who wheeled and fired to the plate on a bounce to get the guy by a step. Happy to make it through the inning unscathed, I tried shaking Dan’s hand after he ran in from the outfield, but he blocked me with a forearm and tossed his glove under the bench. “You’re going to get your ass kicked if you keep throwing that puss,” he said. With that, he went to the bat rack, leaving me with a mix of gratitude for his effort, anger for embarrassing me in front of teammates, and the question of whether Dan himself would give me the ass-kicking he alluded to. I was scathed after all.

The confusion I remembered hinted that I was onto something with this kind of story, because true ones about Dan ended up layered with indeterminacy or split by ambivalence, even when they started off looking like parables. Or fables.

During a fall weekend in Maine, Anda sniffed too close to a porcupine as she explored the woods with Dan, so she got a nose full of quills. While Mom and Dad sped her to the vet, Dan treed the assailant and fired BBs at it, some of the pellets embedding themselves, the rest pattering like rain on fallen leaves. Though the shots became more powerful after he replaced the CO2 cartridge, they had no effect unless it was to make the animal heavier on the thin branch.

I pretended not to notice his voice cracking when he asked why it wouldn’t die, but as he changed his line of fire, I could see he was crying. What to make of that? He wasn’t still upset about Anda; he’d already told me our neighbor’s dog had been through this and ended up fine. Maybe he was identifying with the porcupine. Neither of them could help their prickliness; they were born that way. In fairness to porcupines, though, they only give you a snootful if you make contact with them, whereas Dan launched barbs whenever you got too close for too long.

In other ways, Dan was more like an injured dog. I always knew I had to approach him cautiously and wait for a sign that he’d allow the proximity. But whereas dogs will lick an outstretched hand when they care to be friendly, Dan’s signals were subtler, and longer in coming.

From an early age, he liked building forts in the ravine on the side of our yard, and I lingered nearby as he did it. When he was almost done, he’d let me help him, sending me out on scouting missions for logs and strips of bark to cover holes in the walls and roof. I was happy to oblige, and for a couple days after the fort’s completion, he actually let me play with him, the two of us resisting sieges from imaginary enemies. 

Before long, though, he’d get bored because the real play for him was in the construction. So as soon as he discovered an instability or a tree that had fallen at an interesting angle down the ravine, he’d sell me his fort for a Sugar Daddy and move on. Invariably, I’d notice after a week that my new property was admitting more light than it had earlier, and I realized he’d come back to cannibalize useful parts of it. He had no qualms about tearing down for the sake of building up, and he hinted that if I complained, he would find a time to cast stones. I didn’t see how this would profit me, so I quit the strict accounting and took from him the time he would give me. Which wasn’t enough.

My father’s depression and drinking started to spiral when my brothers and I were teenagers, and Dan, who detected this before the rest of us, became even more dangerous. He once threw a party at the top of a cliff and ended up scrambling down its face after a girl fell and broke her back. Another time, he slammed into a friend’s bumper, wrinkling the front of my Dad’s Monte Carlo. Not wanting him to get into more trouble, I neglected to point out the star in the windshield that was left by my head. 

He settled down a bit during college and came close to earning straight A’s, though he took some semesters off along the way. Then, having proven my parents right about what he could do in school, he returned to the carpentry he loved as a kid, building on Block Island during the off-season and returning for chunks of the summer to my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Meanwhile, I started a novel, imagining what would have happened if he hadn’t caught himself. Like Dad, the main character’s father built a vacation escape in Maine with no true foundation, and the posts beneath it shifted until it was on the verge of collapse. Fictional Dan made new footings for them, but he fell and injured himself when he was fixing the railing at the corner of the deck, where his father’s spilled drinks had rotted the wood. It was all symbolic in a forced way, autobiographical in a thinly veiled way, and nearly prophetic in a creepy way.

Actual Dan had no problems securing footings under Dad’s house, but he left it behind when the job was done. He moved into my grandparents’ home after they passed away, pulling its spreading walls together with a turnbuckle in the attic as he started his own family. The carpentry jobs dried up one winter when his third child was on the way, so he joined a friend’s logging crew for a job in a nearby state forest. One day in January, he turned his back on a widow-maker—a tree that had fallen into a couple others and hung there. A wind jostled it and it fell on Dan, fracturing his skull and shoulder and injuring his spinal cord. His head swelled far beyond its normal size, so we feared brain damage as we waited out the induced coma in the ICU. Fortunately, there were none of the cognitive deficits that doctors feared, but he’d lost the use of his legs.

I felt guilty, as if I’d seen the danger hanging over him and failed to warn him. After all, I was in the middle of a chapter about his fictional character’s injury when all of this happened. But it wasn’t guilt that made me stop writing; it was the recognition that I couldn’t imagine the pain or regret he would feel in the wake of it.

***

Dan’s anger about the accident drove his wife away in less than a year, and at this point it would have been natural for him to let despair shrink his life to a size he could manage from a wheelchair. Instead, he expanded it, using insurance money to build a new barn and buy adapted equipment, which he used to re-shape the landscape and eventually start a herd of beef cattle down the valley. The energy he spent on these projects didn’t always leave him enough when he came back to his house and family, and I saw him explode a couple times when he became overwhelmed. He followed these meltdowns with spectacular gestures to show his kids that he loved them, probably thinking it was the best he could do and knowing it wasn’t enough.

He couldn’t play hockey on the pond with them, couldn’t even let them go out on the ice for fear of their falling through as Anda had, but he did build a floor hockey rink in the upstairs of his barn, complete with goals, angled boards, and stadium lighting. He played with them from his wheelchair using shortened sticks, and he put visitors like me into his extra chairs and peppered our legs with slapshots, knowing he wouldn’t feel it if we returned the favor.

Though Dan’s daughter Madden joined her brothers up there, she was less interested in hockey than Jed and Angus were, so he built her a playhouse. Not a toy with miniature furniture, but as close to a full-size cabin as he could make from a wheelchair. I held the rafters together as he secured them from below with a nail gun, at one point shooting so close to my ear that I reviewed a list of grievances against me to make sure none of them warranted settling the score. I made it through that afternoon without any bolts in my neck, and once I relaxed enough to understand what he was doing, I enjoyed the rhythm of the work, and the beer we had in the driveway afterward. But his growing silence as dusk thickened made it seem like he’d gone back into himself, and soon he went back into his house.

Fresh out of teaching a ninth grade English class, I thought of the speaker in Frost’s “Tuft of Flowers” who looks in vain for the worker who leveled the grass before his own arrival and initially decides that all men labor alone, “whether they work together or apart.” Then he sees a butterfly fluttering as erratically as his thought, watches it make its way to a tuft of flowers the mower had spared, and concludes that this man must have been a kindred spirit after all. So he changes his verdict by the end of the poem: “Men work together…Whether they work together or apart.” Part of this felt true to my time with Dan: the quiet rhythm of work could produce understanding that was richer for being unspoken. But I wasn’t going to share my Frost moment with him, partly because it smacked too much of ninth grade, partly because I thought he’d turn the nail gun on me the way he’d gone after a porcupine with a CO2 pistol. 

Still, there was something to that rhythm, and we fell into it again when we built a wheelchair ramp for the Maine house. Though we talked as he told me where to place reference nails or hold his level or walk with a length of string over rocks and roots, we didn’t say much once we started assembling it, sometimes working a couple feet apart for twenty minutes at a time without uttering a word. And the silence was good.

Mom cried when I carried Dan up the stairs into the house after the first day of work, the image of dependence too much for her without having seen him order me around earlier. We weren’t equipped for tears, so Dan whispered into my ear a question, in graphic terms, about whether now would be a bad time to ask Mom for help changing his catheter. I laughed so hard I nearly dropped him on the wood floor. 

We worked long hours and ate big meals and laughed over beers for the next couple days, and as we finished the ramp, I started to think his injury had created an opportunity for us, leveling the ground with a mutual need. He needed me for what he couldn’t get to, and I needed him to tell me what to do when I got there. But he left the morning after it was built, and afterwards he didn’t use it to join us. He only went to Maine by himself or with his kids.

Dan had turned Frost upside down, deciding he was alone whether or not we came to be with him. Aside from helpful gestures we made during visits, he was right, at least as far as his daily struggles went. He was the one hauling himself in and out of the chair, the shower, the toilet seat; he was the one tending bed sores and cracked feet and wheel-callused hands; he was the one watching his kids leave twice a week. And he didn’t have the luxury of taking a day off. Once he stopped pushing, he’d roll backwards down the mountain. If anger was a reliable source of the energy he needed to make the climb, he’d keep stoking it, even if it burned some of the family and friends who came close enough to help.

At the same time, we were intrigued by his plans to restore our grandparents’ house and our great grandfather’s idyll. In the valley between Coltsfoot Mountain and the stand of virgin pines leveled by a tornado fifteen years earlier, Dan would raise beef cattle where our great uncle once pastured dairy cows. The scheme was impressive, inspiring, and financially unsustainable. On top of the contracting and landscaping he did to bring money in, the fencing for the project was an enormous undertaking from a wheelchair. Something had to give, and the first thing he sacrificed was some pride when he asked the family for loans. The money itself wasn’t a problem; my parents had enough to lend him, Jocko and I had enough to get by, and any old notions of fairness went out the window when he was hit by a tree. But we did object to the way he picked fights to distract himself from debt, skipped meals with us when we gathered with cousins down the valley, and locked his doors when we swung by afterward to say hello.

I eventually realized he didn’t want us to see the house turning into a dump now that he was putting all of his energy into the cows—its floors littered with old bills, bandages, beer cans, cigarette butts, vodka bottles, clothes, shoes, sanitary wipes. One frigid night, his living room even served as a barn when he hosted a sickly calf. He had to know the mess would make it harder for his kids to visit, but part of me wondered whether this wasn’t by design, and the combination of tenderness and exhaustion I saw when he was with them made this an open question. It was also an ongoing frustration since I doubted that he conveyed to them all of the paternal pride he shared with me in his late-night phone calls.

More vexing than the clutter and more confusing than his relationship with his kids was the way he tidied up family history, adopting a strangely generous view of my father’s life after his passing made it harder for recent facts to contradict it. Dad’s decline made Dan so miserable that for years he’d done what he could to avoid him. Jocko and I helped Mom clean up after Dad and brought him to doctors and paid his bills when he was in the hospital and came to a sort of peace with his depression and drinking, but Dan, who wouldn’t stop for a sandwich with him, now saw himself as the loyal son. He wanted to focus only on what made Dad a great father when we were kids, and he was willing to skim over thirty years of shared history to do it. Perhaps knowing he’d have to justify Dad’s withdrawal in order to rationalize his own, he looked at moments of solipsism as independence and avoided a closeness he couldn’t sustain. The trash that filled his house kept invaders at a distance, like porcupine quills, and if we kept coming, he’d retreat into a back room like a prickly animal scurrying up a tree. This frustrated everybody. And we loved him anyway.

Loving Jocko had always been an easier proposition. He made me feel safe and confident where Dan made me feel threatened or lacking. Plus, Jocko put me in touch early on with certain eternal verities: Carl Yastrzemski was the best player on the Red Sox, Bobby Orr was the best player in hockey, and nothing beat home-made beef stew after an afternoon of skating on our home-made rink. Dan always seemed to have a different take, preferring Petrocelli to Yastrzemski, Esposito to Orr, and Chef Boyardee in a can to anything Mom cooked in a pot—choices I could only attribute to a perverse desire to be Italian. But Dan occasionally delivered me from Waspy detachment to something more visceral, physical, and real. He was the one who built the rink we skated on, and if I joined him in that work or on a field of play, he would warm up, calling me by my middle name—Bacon—and sharing an inside joke or a smile that suggested I was almost tolerable. One time he even said as much. 

My parents often went to Maine on weekends, leaving the house to Dan and me. One summer night during my college years, I was roused by a banging screen door at two in the morning, so I went I went down to the kitchen, where I found my cousin Chuck broiling hotdogs for our brothers. He’d spent the evening taking them to a Grateful Dead show in New York, and now he was going to silence them with food before neighbors called the police. Meanwhile, the two of them were playing wiffleball under floodlights mounted on the center field oak, Dan’s play-by-play voice soaring with the flight of his first shot into the darkness beyond it.

“They drunk?” I asked.

“A little,” Chuck said. “And they’ve had something stronger, too.”

That didn’t sound like Dan, but I’d never pictured him as a Dead fan either. The sprawling improvisations of a jam band didn’t match the crisp way he moved or spoke, and the affability of their followers would have made them a target for his sense of humor. Some things were different that night, though: he corkscrewed and flopped in the dirt after missing a pitch. Others weren’t: he called me a pecker-head when I complimented his swing. Then he grinned as he lifted himself. “Give me a minute, David,” he said to my other cousin. “I’m going to damage my brother.”

I ran back towards the house and curled around Chuck, who’d just come down from the porch. Ten years earlier, when Chuck led the five cousins into adolescence, we’d dubbed him “Andre the Giant” after the professional wrestler who stood a foot taller than his opponents and often took on three bad guys at a time. Chuck couldn’t fend off this one, though, because Dan was almost as big now and much quicker. He tracked me down near the driveway and held my head and shoulders in a Greco-Roman grip.

Keeping my legs safely away from his so that he couldn’t scissor me, I leaned in and held him firmly, inhaling a mixture of sweat and vicarious patchouli. I moved with him when he shifted his weight, but he still managed to throw me off balance.

“I love you, Bacon,” he said.

As I weighed whether his confession was the result of heightened understanding, lowered inhibitions, or diabolical calculation, Dan tilted his shoulders and I mirrored him again, alternating forward, lateral and backward steps until my feet were coated with wet grass. It must have looked like we were dancing. Guessing he wouldn’t tolerate the proximity for long before remembering himself, I searched for a place to redirect his attention; and there, silhouetted by the porch light, was Andre the Giant.

“You know,” I said, “we could mess with Chuck if we pretended to get in a real fight right now.”

Dan backed up and started swinging like Ali emerging from a clench, elbows close to his sides as he let loose a flurry. He hadn’t confirmed he was going along with my plan, and I was worried that he might be mad at me for suggesting it. But he was just cuffing the top of my head, not really connecting. Still, I was glad when Chuck came over to break it up. I wrapped myself around his legs while Dan straddled him, crawled to kneel on his arms, and stuck blades of grass up his nose. 

“You’re both evil,” Chuck said, laughing too hard to fight back.

I was pleased with myself. Not so much for turning the tables on Chuck, who was always too trusting for his own good, but for getting myself out of a headlock and letting Dan escape a vulnerable moment all at once. Better to be in league with his mild villainy than to wait for the next turn of his capricious heart. Later, though, I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t helped him lose his momentary affection. That was the last time I heard him speak with such warmth, or saw him under the influence of a mind-altering drug. I think there was a connection.

***

When I went to Dan’s house in the week before the funeral to help his family clean up, I resolved to go after the worst of it first so that his kids wouldn’t have to—as if they hadn’t been in the middle of it, as if they didn’t already know what had become of his place, and of him. They probably understood I was cleaning my own guilt for allowing it to go this far, but they let me do it—something to keep Uncle Mike busy while they made arrangements. I scrubbed grime out of bathrooms, scraped dog droppings off hallway floors he couldn’t get to when his stair climber broke, and dug out garbage from the office that had become his bedroom. Mixed in were odds and ends I thought his kids might want to save, but they were more inclined to let it all go, along with any complaints they might have had against him.

In her eulogy, Madden forgave Dan for any ways he came up short, and she expressed a wish that the world he fashioned for himself brought him some peace. Jed lauded and laughed at Dan’s goal of adding a calf to his herd for every human who moved to the village, and he hinted that he would step into Dan’s world to fulfill his pledge. Jocko and our friend Jon mixed funny and poignant stories, and the piped in version of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” brought me back to the night when, for one chemically-altered moment, Dan expressed as much affection for me as I felt for him. The song cut me slack for failing to convey my share of that at the funeral, and it freed me to try again later, even if the thoughts were still broken.

After the service, we went back to the house to drink beer and watch kids play wiffleball in the rain, adults joining in occasionally until a slip on the grass tugged a tight hamstring or an ambitious swing seized up a back. With cousins I hadn’t seen in a decade, I moved in and out of conversations as if we’d visited the day before. Meanwhile, people from town shared condolences, one of them confessing her shock upon seeing me; it took her off guard to see someone who looked like Dan not only alive, but upright, as if the tree that hit him twenty years earlier were just a bad dream.

In the late afternoon, a smaller group of us went to the cemetery up the hill to bury Dan’s ashes near our grandparents, whose graves straddle that of an infant son—my uncle—who died sixty years before they did, death skipping a generation before coming back for more. We said a few words about Dan and put a baseball, a fishing lure, and a handful of Block Island sand into a small hole in the ground. When I lifted my eyes again, the spruces at the top of the hill looked taller, the angle of the slope and the mystery of the moment seeming to raise them toward something higher. But as we took turns pouring Dan’s ashes, my perspective shifted again, and I felt in my own breath a heft of finality. At first the grains came out smoothly, but they clumped when I did it, sticking together because of some residual moisture. I passed on the urn, and it hit me that this really was Dan’s blood and bone. He was gone.

I’d heard myself think this before, and felt the same tightness in my throat, so I filed through times he’d abandoned me in the past—a morning after Christmas when he left without waking anybody to say goodbye, the time he stranded me at a baseball field without a ride home, times he moved downstream from a fishing spot without telling me. The last one was closest, but none of them were quite right, and it wasn’t until I got back to my Mom’s house later in the evening that it came to me.

Not wanting to contend with Mom’s Alzheimer’s to tell her for the tenth time what had happened to Dan, I took a walk around the yard instead of going right in to explain where I’d been all day. The rain had stopped, but it was still muggy, the grass soaking my shoes in a familiar way. On summer nights like this, Dan and I used to go out to the darkest part of the back yard with a flashlight and a coffee can to grab nightcrawlers for fishing. Earlier in the spring we’d rely on whatever Dad found as he turned over dirt in the garden, but in the summer these lolling big boys were easy to come by if we did it right. One of us would scan patches with a flashlight, and when he came to one airing itself on the periphery of the glow, he’d freeze, knowing that direct light would scare it away. The other guy grabbed the crawler where it entered the ground, waited for it to stop stretching away, and tugged it out slowly, because it would break itself in two if we pulled too hard or too soon.

On some nights, we had batteries for two flashlights, so we’d split up, working forty yards apart and shutting off the light when we had a worm in hand so that one search didn’t undermine the other. When harvesting was good, the intervals of searching and grabbing, of light and dark, were about the same length. When it was too cool or dry, periods of scrolling light would run longer than darkness, but there was no reason for it to go the other way. So I became anxious one night when his darkness stretched, the night sky providing the only relief above the black outline of hemlocks near the barn. Then I was afraid, suspecting Dan would sneak up and grab my ankle the way he did late at night after hiding under my bed. Bastard. When I was most scared, most certain of an impending attack, I pointed my flashlight higher, panned it around me, and saw nothing but grass, flower beds, and crabapple trees. He was gone again.

Just as this memory from childhood conjured what I’d felt at the cemetery, it slithered away. And the odd thing was that I wanted the forsaken feeling to stay; a pain I had to wrestle with was better than nothing at all. Same goes for brothers. But I couldn’t get either one back, even after I got down on my hands and knees in the wet grass, my face toward the ground. 

Dan never had patience for drama, so he won’t be coaxed from the vapor by play-acting. But I do think I’ll try writing about him again, something truer this time. Going back in memory the way I used to search the far reaches of a dark ravine for the sticks and bark he requested, I’ll look for parts I can piece together. I’ll find the right starting place, clear away flimsy clichés, and wait quietly for words. Then I’ll assemble it slowly, working with the faith that he isn’t far away, that he’ll build with me somehow, as if it’s a fort or a playhouse or a ramp to some place I’ll join him again.



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