My old dog Sweet Pea loves to sniff around the graves, like she’s checking who’s been there to pay respects. Probably she’s just looking for chicken bones tossed down by crows, but I like to think she knows about the dead, the way I do since I died. Really, I died, this past August, but I got brought right back. I kind of wish they’d let me stay, tell you the God’s honest truth, because dying was so far beyond better than any living I’ve yet known. Coming back felt like forcing swollen feet into wet boots, only it was all of me too big to climb back into my skin. I still don’t quite fit, and it’s been almost three months. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice being back here alive, just not as.
Pea and I came here to the cemetery after my best friend Bud Dell and I parted ways earlier tonight at the Ledges, the bar his family owns and the place we spend most evenings. I needed to breathe some wide and quiet air and that’s when I figured it out about the mourning doves. I thought they were called morning – like the start of the day – because Pea and I never walk the cemetery after dark; we only go just past dawn. That’s when I see them – plumped on the low branches, cooing away. It never occurred to me to speculate where they were the rest of the time, but tonight there they were, a pair of them, sitting atop Baby Fergusen’s pink granite headstone. Baby was a legend in our town, lived to be a hundred and one and still they called him Baby. Carved it right into his stone, like he never had a proper name. No one even knew his name but Mama Fergusen, or so I’m told. She’s lying right there next to him, buried way back almost eighty years ago.
I was at the Ledges with Bud the night Baby died, about four years back. John Stolz, who’d just started a new job over at Wallpack Hospital, was with Baby when he passed on. John came into the bar needing a stiff drink and told us the story the whole town of Harper now knows.
“It was the strangest thing,” he said. “Baby was lying in his bed, all of us working on him, trying to keep him with us, when he opened his eyes and stabilized, just like that. He started smiling at the ceiling, focused enough that I couldn’t help but look up there myself. Most of us did. And then he called out in a loud, clear voice: You makin’ all that light, Mama? Well, I’ll be! That’s exactly what he said, and then he started to laugh. I mean, he was laughing like he did right here at the Ledges. We all started in, couldn’t help ourselves. Baby never even noticed us, just kept laughing at the ceiling. Then he was gone, just like that.”
Well, I’ll be, I thought, the two doves blinking at me from Baby’s headstone. The bright moon hit them just so, and I swear they were blessed. I sat down right there on the grave, close as could be; they were that pretty. Their small heads were round and smooth, their quiet bodies feathered in gray, as soft and seamless as fine ash from burned cedar. They purred deep inside, were so peaceful and innocent that I wanted to cry. No good reason, I know, but it struck me how I’d never bothered to study them before, and I started thinking about how much had changed with me and Bud since this morning and about how sad I felt when Bud left the Ledges an hour ago, and that’s when it occurred to me: mourning. I wondered, have those doves always hung around the dead? Is that how they got their name? Mostly I just lay in the grass and thought about my own dying and all that’s gone on since.
What happened was, this past August, while Bud and I were out fishing, I got shot by Ted Carver. We’d stopped at Billow’s Pond after our day of work at Pop’s Texaco, and Bud was looking forward to trying out a new fly. He told me he’d stayed up real late, tying it just right, a thing he’s loved doing since he learned there were fish in water. I don’t have the same patience; I use live bait, or whatever Bud gives me. Mostly I go along for the company and the excuse to sit someplace pretty. Once in awhile I catch a trout or two, nowhere near the number Bud’s nabbed in the twenty odd years we’ve been fishing together.
So that August evening, there I was, leaning against the fallen tree on the far shore, Bud right near to me. We heard the pop of a rifle and suddenly I was face down on the grass. Bud asked Ernest, are you hit? I didn’t feel any pain so I said I’m okay, but then I started chilling down. My body got all clammy and I asked Bud if I could borrow his coat – I’m so cold I told him – and that’s when Bud started hollering and Ted Carver came running out of the woods and screamed oh my god, oh my god and Bud yelled back at him to shut up, Teddy as he ran to the truck to get on the radio for help, kicking over his tackle box on the way. It seemed but a minute before the EMTs were there, a long needle in my chest. What Bud remembers is I was looking all pale and roll-eyed and he couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more blood.
What I remember is I never felt better. It was like coming home to the wide arms of a well-built fire on a cold night, when your body’s all tired from working in the sun. Only it felt much better than that; there was no ache of muscle or hollow of hunger. I was right outside my body, watching from above. The EMTs kept working and I wanted to tell them to stop, that I wasn’t there anymore to rouse, and it was then I realized I had died. I yelled down to Bud, I’m up here, but he didn’t even look my way. I felt pulled in two directions: up into that amazing feeling of fireplace comfort, back down to my best friend and my dog. Sweet Pea, I hollered. She didn’t respond, only whined and paced and tried to get to my body. It’s okay, girl, I called, I’m alright. Bud pulled her back by her collar, kneeled with his arm around her neck, and they watched the EMTs work, tackle box toppled nearby, flies spilled onto the sand.
I’ve known Bud Dell for as long as I can remember. We were kids together here in Harper, a small town hidden between the foothills of the Kittatinny Mountains and the Delaware River, so far in our minds from the infamous Jersey turnpike that we might as well have grown up in Idaho. In fact, as if to remind us all that we weren’t in Idaho, that Jersey was more than a string of exits, Bud’s father penned a thick red border around Harper on a state map and hung it in the Ledges, the place I mostly grew up. The Ledges was a family kind of bar, where Harper regulars mixed with strong and soiled hikers who wandered down from the Appalachian Trail, where men in wrinkled shirtsleeves came looking for directions to Port Jervis or East Stroudsburg. Bud and I spent our time at the jukebox, flipping the metal-rimmed pages, hoping for a quarter from Mr. Dell so we could play Thunder Road.
It was at the Ledges we drank our first beer, when I was nine and Bud was closing in on ten.
“Come on to the bar, lads,” said Mr. Dell, pointing his wet rag to a couple of stools at the thick oak bar. We clambered up. Bud was always bigger than me, but not big enough yet; all four of our legs were dangling far above the iron footrest, our skinny arms stretched in a futile attempt to lean our elbows on the bar, the way the men did. Even though I was pretty small, I was strong and quick, the way a good infielder should be. I played second to Bud’s shortstop for the Harper Lions and we turned a mean double play at least once a game.
Something was up. Bud’s father looked more serious than I’d ever seen him. I shivered, like I’d been too long in the pond, but Bud sat calm as could be, his gray eyes confident, his long fingers folded loosely and comfortably together, like an old man accustomed to prayer.
“Tools of the trade,” said Mr. Dell as he pulled the tap and quickly filled two juice glasses with blonde beer. The foam rose up and spilled over as he set them down before us. Bud carefully touched the glass with his pale hand, gave me a wide smile, and drank the beer down in three short swallows, like he’d been doing it every day of his life.