“Got a little more work to do,
Before I’m on my way.
Tyin’ all of my loose ends,
Still got debt to pay.”
—Bronze Radio Return, ‘Before I Get There,’ Light Me Up (2015)
It was almost dawn when Karl pulled the car into an inlet road that ran alongside a corn field. After a few hundred yards, we came up to Zevon’s car, a shit-brown 1984 Olds Cutlass Supreme. It was one of those old G-Body cars with the massive trunks, as it turns out, the perfect vehicle for transporting a corpse.
I stepped out of the car and looked up into the sky. So far outside of town, the night sky was crisp and clear, almost as beautiful as the night sky back home. In fact, it was the first time in the year that I had been away from home that I had witnessed a sky like that. A beautiful reminder of home on the single worst night of my life.
If there is anything that my experience has taught me, it was that life is a series of contrasts. I suppose it’s what the Chinese philosophers meant when they described the yin and the yang. When I was five, I stopped at a gas station with my father during a thunderstorm. Halfway through pumping gas, the storm picked up drastically. Before I knew it, he was jerking me out of my seat, and dragging me through sheets of pelting rain.
As he pulled me into the station, I could see a cornfield behind the gas station, maybe a mile and a half away. A funnel cloud was dropping down to the ground, whipping corn stalks up and twirling them around in violent circles. We walked into the station and hid in back cooler as the tornado passed directly overhead. I remember clinging to his leg in the cold air of the walk-in cooler as the storm passed.
There is a public pool in the middle of Drury, and between the ages of nine and thirteen, I visited the pool on almost a daily basis during the summer. My favorite activity at the pool was diving into the bottom of the deep pool, expelling the air from my lungs and sitting for a few seconds and the very bottom.
In the seconds before the storm hit, the air rushed out of the building, and my chest felt tight and constricted, surrounded by compression. It felt exactly like sitting at the bottom of the pool, feeling the tightness on your chest as you struggled against the pressure.
I remember the whole experience as a series of vivid, individual four-dimensional pictures. I can still feel the water pelting my face as my father tugged me towards the building. I remember three men struggling to open the front door in order to let in a Terminex man. I remember the Terminex man’s broken arm, the jagged bone sticking out through his skin. The pounding thuds of debris getting thrown against the back of the building, and the ripping and crackling of the roof as it pulled off the frame.
So many snippets and snapshots of near total destruction. Yet, despite our proximity to the action, all six people who wound up huddled in that cooler wound up walking out unscathed, other than the Terminex man and his arm. It is one of the very first formative memories that I can recall, the signpost that marks the beginning of my functional memory.
Of all of those snapshots, though, the one image I remember most was the sky, in the moments after we walked out of that store. The front of the building was gone, along with half the roof, and my father’s truck was buried in a twisted wreck of aluminum and shattered lumber.
As I walked through the parking lot, nearly twisting my ankle on a pile of half-broken bricks, I looked to the sky. In the aftermath of a storm that had just left a clear and total path of destruction, the sky was a brilliant, clear shade of blue. In a matter of minutes, the storm had cleared out the clouds, leaving us standing directly below a clear, baby-blue sky, complete with chirping birds and a soft, easy breeze.
I’ll never forget that moment, standing in the complete and total calm after the storm. The moments before the town was filled with screeching police cars and ambulances. Yin and yang. The most destructive storm I would ever witness in my life, followed by complete and utter calm.
I thought about that sky a lot over the years that followed. When my cousin Kirk made me laugh at Tommy’s visitation, looking into Aimee’s deeply caring eyes in the hospital waiting room after Mom’s accident—the beauty and repulsion, kindness and hatred. It all seems to come in pairs.
I was standing five feet away from the man whose skull I had crushed with a Derek Jeter signature baseball bat, and I was looking at the most painfully beautiful sky I had witnessed in years.
“Come on,” Zevon said, hoisting the tarp-wrapped body from the trunk. “Over here.”
In addition to Karl and Zevon, Bonnie had volunteered to help with the final disposal of the body. We walked through a thick patch of timber that bordered the corn field and worked in pairs, switching the body back and forth as we traversed the rough terrane. A few hundred yards into the timber, we came to a dry creek bed.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“It’s the very back of the Audubon Society grounds,” Zevon said with a grunt as he laid the body down on the bank. “Nobody ever comes back here.”
I had seen posters from the Audubon Society hanging around campus. They were asking for volunteers, help manicuring the paths that crisscrossed their reserve. An entire society dedicated to the preservation of birds. How very sweet.
“Are we sure about this spot?” Karl asked.
“It’ll be good, he said. As long as we bury him deep and cover him with rocks,” Zevon replied.
“The water won’t wash him up?”
“Not if we bury him deep enough and weight him down. The bigger worry is keeping him away from the coyotes.”
I thought about the old Looney Tunes cartoons I had watched as a kid. Wile E. Coyote trying to capture that elusive bird. I went camping once with my grandfather, and heard the coyotes running and howling all around us in the middle of the night.
“Don’t be scared,” he said. “They’re more afraid of us than we are of them. You’ll probably never even see one in the flesh. Not clearly anyway.”
If only our fears always stayed as simple as they were when we were young.
We started digging a hole in the bottom of the creek bed. Slowly displacing the dirt, one shovelful at a time. It’s the kind of thing you see in the movies all of the time, a man out on his own digging a grave. It always seems like such a simple and straightforward process.
After digging that hole, I now understand the amount of effort a man would have to produce to dig a grave on his own. At the end, you would be absolutely exhausted. It would take hours. As it was, with four of us digging together, it took every bit of an hour.
When we were just about done, deep enough that I couldn’t climb back out of the hole without help, Zevon sent Bonnie back to the car. “They’re in the trunk,” he said, “two of them.”
Exhausted and covered in a thick layer of dirt, we rolled the body off the bank and down into the hole, then sat down and waited for Bonnie’s return. He came back carrying two red gasoline cans. Zevon frowned when he saw them.
“Diesel fuel would have been better, but these will have to do,” he said. He poured both gallons of gas down into the hole on top of the tarp-wrapped body. “Best stand back,” he said.
We all scurried up the bank, and Zevon snapped his fingers at Bonnie. “Lighter,” he said.
Bonnie began fishing in his pockets. “That’s not gonna be good, though,” he said. “It’s my zippo.”
A look of disgust flashed over Zevon’s face. “I’ll buy you a new fucking zippo, ok?”
“It’s not that,” Bonnie protested. “It’s engraved. Somebody finds it, they might be able to track it, right?”
Zevon crinkled his nose and thought for a moment. He pulled a four inch pocket knife from his pocket and flipped open the blade with his thumb. He walked towards me and grabbed the tail of my shirt. “Hold still,” he said, cutting a swath of fabric from the bottom of my shirt. He bent down and wrapped the cotton fabric around a stick. “Gather up some dry grass,” he said.
After stuffing the fabric with dried grass, Zevon lit the torch and ordered us, once again, to stand back. As he threw the torch into the hole, I heard a quiet woosh as the gasoline fumes caught fire. A searing ball of flame billowed up out of the hole, brushing us back a few steps further. Dawn had already broken over the horizon, casting shadows off the elms and giant sycamore trees around us.
“Do you think anybody will see the smoke?” I asked.
“I doubt it,” Karl said. “This time of day, it’s going to be tough to spot, from the east anyway. And there isn’t much out there to the west. We should be fine.”
Zevon fed the flames with sticks and dried brush, and we all sat on the bank, watching our morbid bonfire. More than anything, I remember the smell. Gasoline fumes mixed with the pungent odor of burning hair. I had always loved the smell of gas stations and freshly mowed grass. A few moments of smelling that body, burning in the depths of that hole, and I knew that I’d never smell a lawnmower again without getting sick to my stomach.
As the fire burnt, we scoured the creek bed for rocks. After an hour, we covered the charred corpse with the rocks, then proceeded to replace the displaced dirt. By the time we were done, you could barely tell that the earth had been displaced, our grisly secret secured under several feet of pebbles, sand, and dirt.
I could feel bile rising in the back of my throat again, but I was too exhausted to throw up again. “We’d better get going,” Karl said. “The highway traffic will pick up soon, and we don’t want anyone to spot us pulling away, if we can avoid it.”
“Should we stop at BJ’s Diner for some breakfast?” Bonnie asked. I looked around, and we were all disgusting, sweaty and nearly black from the thick layer of mud.
In spite of the situation, and the caustic odor that was stuck in my nose, I started to laugh.
Soon we were all laughing, leaning on our shovels and giggling as the dirt slowly settled on top of the grave.