The creek beside old Bay Colony was dead and so was the man laying in its dry bed, our little tire swing making the tree branch it was attached to creak as the tire swung lazily and cast little curved shadows over the man’s face, this way and that. This way and that.
Joey got there first and poked the man’s chest with his walking stick, making it rise and fall in a way the man’s lungs could no longer do.
As I looked at the man, all I could think was that all that talk of dead people looking so peaceful or else like they’re sleeping and all that is a bunch of bullshit. He wasn’t there. There was no one home. His open eyes might as well have been marbles plugged into a mannequin’s head.
Joey started laughing at him, like his death was some knee slapper that Joey came up with himself. Everybody else laughed with him in nervous titters that echoed across the banks of that muddy creek. I’ll say everybody even though I didn’t laugh too, because once I saw that body it was like I wasn’t inside myself anymore. I was no more present than the man was, and he wasn’t home. His marbles for eyes said as much.
“Touch his face.”
Joey glared at Danny with that look he reserved for keeping people in line. He brandished his walking stick.
“Don’t be a pussy. Touch his face.”
I guess the last thing Danny wanted to be thought of as was a pussy, because he did just exactly what Joey told him to do, with his bare hands even. And right when he was going to stand back up, Joey kicked him in the ass, made him fall over on top of the body.
There were titters and belly laughs from the everybody that didn’t include me. The mannequin’s marble eyes were passive.
Joey turned around then as Danny scampered to his feet. He saw I wasn’t laughing.
“Whatsamatter? You bitching out?”
I guess the urge to laugh was just a little late for me, because I did it just then, alone, right in Joey’s face. I don’t know why. He jabbed me hard in the stomach with his walking stick, tip first. I fell to my knees, couldn’t breathe any more than the marble-eyed mannequin could.
Joey rose with the chorus of laughter. He fished around in his pockets for something. Finally found what he was looking for.
He jammed a firecracker into each of the body’s nostrils and pulled out the lighter he stole from his mom, the one she used to light her spoons with.
Sparks, but nothing else.
A momentary flame, but the wind blew it out.
Joey was on the ground and I was on top of him. I don’t know how. My fist came up and I watched it come back down again, collapse Joey’s nose and retract. The everybody that didn’t include me made noise again, but it wasn’t laughter this time. It was quiet and surprised, and it ebbed and flowed in the air all around us. It sounded like this:
The oh made me get back to my feet and off of Joey. The oh made Joey’s nose start to run with a dark red stream. The oh made Joey run back home and kept the everyone that didn’t include me frozen where they stood. The oh made me remove the firecrackers from the man’s nostrils. The oh made me sit and guard his body until the sirens arrived.
I never saw Joey again. I guess the oh made that happen, too.
The creek came alive after that day, and it’s never died again since.