Portraits of the Dead and Dying by William R. Soldan

typewriter
Dwight had just torn open the pack of Lucky Strikes he’d stolen from Mort’s Little Shopper when we saw the plane going down. We were in the patch of woods behind St. John’s, where we liked to horse around on those long summer afternoons when our mothers were working and our fathers were either slouched in front of the TV or down at Miller’s Tap tying one on.

“Holy Shit!” Dwight said. “You see that?”

The plane was one of those Cessna puddle jumper deals, looked like the piece-together toys they had over at the discount drugstore where my mom bought her make-up and my old man’s stomach medicine. It came arcing across the sky in a spiraling nosedive. Dwight jammed the pack of smokes into the pocket of his Rustlers and shouted, “Come on!”

Our bikes were lying in the grass behind the church pavilion, and as we started down the hill toward the road, the plane disappeared behind a barn at the old Anders dairy farm on the outskirts of town. A moment after it dropped out of sight, we heard the crash, such a faint sound, you probably wouldn’t hear it at all if you didn’t know it was coming.

Pedaling out Main Street, to where it was no longer Main but a numbered highway leading into Pennsylvania, I did my best to keep up with Dwight. He was more excited than I’d ever seen him. We were twelve and thirteen years old, Dwight being the older, and the most excitement we knew besides setting fire to anthills, pissing from the turnpike overpass onto passing cars, and smoking behind the church came from the small wall of VHS tapes at the corner store.

“Maybe it’s bank robbers,” Dwight said, out of breath.

“Really?” I asked.

“Or maybe it’s the Russians.”

“You really think so?”

The previous weekend, Dwight and I had watched this movie where Communists invaded a small town out west somewhere, and though I knew it wasn’t real, I was nervous as we skidded to a stop at the crest of the rutted dirt road, stirring up dust.

“Could be,” he said.

We were on the far edge of the old farm, which I’d overheard my old man say had gone under, something to do with the bank coming in and making everybody leave. The land had been empty for a couple of years, fields overgrown with nettle and choked with briar. We sat there on our bikes, looking down into a grassy hollow. Just us for at least two miles in any direction. Nothing else around but rolling, scrubby fields and sun-parched dirt.

Before I knew it, Dwight was at the bottom of the hollow, off his bike and running toward the downed plane. Close up, it reminded me even more of a broken toy, perhaps thrown to the ground by God. Seeing it made me feel small, and as I coasted down to join him and the land rose around me, I began to think the earth might swallow me whole.

The tail of the plane had busted off along with one of its wings. They were strewn across the ground with a bunch of smaller pieces. We discovered the pilot was the only one inside, still strapped in to his seat with a piece of crooked metal poking out of his chest. He wasn’t moving.

Dwight’s face was alight with joy. “This is the greatest thing’s ever happened to us, Jesse. Don’t you think so?”

I wasn’t sure, but I agreed that it was. “Is he dead?” I asked.

“Sure looks like it,” he said.

“Maybe we should touch his neck.”

Dwight looked at me sideways. “Why the hell would we wanna do that?”

“I don’t know. That’s what they always do in the movies. You know, to check and see if they’re still alive?”

“I ain’t touching his neck. You touch his neck.”

“But I don’t know how to do it,” I said.

“Me neither.” Dwight picked up a small rod that had detached from somewhere on the plane and poked the pilot in the neck instead. “How’s that?”

The man didn’t budge, so he poked him some more, all the while repeating, “This is the greatest thing’s ever happened to us.”

#

There was nothing inside the plane besides a tool box, some parachute packs and helmets, and a Styrofoam cooler that had broken apart, spilling empty beer cans all over the small cabin.

“Damn,” Dwight said, looking disappointed. “I was really hoping it’d be bank robbers.”

Picking up one of the packs, I said, “These parachutes are pretty neat, though.”

“Yeah, but what are we gonna do with those, dumb-ass? It’s not like we can use them or nothin’.”

He climbed back toward the front and began going through the dead pilot’s pockets.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He found the man’s wallet and removed a sheaf of bills. “The hell’s it look like? He don’t need it no more.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” I said, and wondered what the punishment might be for stealing from the dead.

He went through the rest of the wallet, tossing bits of paper and plastic cards over his shoulder. “Woo hoo, check it out,” Dwight said. He handed me a faded photograph with ragged edges. It was of a dark-skinned woman with narrow eyes, lying on a mattress in skimpy red underwear and nothing else. She was young and pretty like the women in the magazines I’d found stashed in my old man’s tool shed, but I thought she also looked a little sad.

Dwight snatched back the photo and grinned, exposing a mouthful of crooked teeth. “Man, I’d lay some serious pipe in that,” he said. I was pretty sure he didn’t know what laying pipe meant any more than I did, only that his older brother, Josh, was always saying it about girls on the TV, but I nodded just the same and said, “Hell yeah.”

After staring at the woman for another minute or so, Dwight pulled out the pack of Luckies, tucked the photo inside, and put it back in his pocket. “Maybe I’ll let you borrow her sometime,” he said, and slugged me in the arm. Then he started going through the pilot’s pockets again.

There was a chrome flask in the man’s inside jacket pocket. Dwight unscrewed the cap, sniffed it, and took a small swig. His face went a little funny after that, but he managed to swallow. He winced and coughed. “Damn, that’s good stuff,” he said. “Wanna try some?”

I smelled that flammable smell coming off Dwight and thought about my old man sitting at home, probably already half in the bag. “No thanks,” I said.

Whatever was in it must not have been as good as he claimed, because Dwight put the flask back and continued searching the man’s jacket.

“We should probably get out of here,” I said.

Dwight ignored me. “Aw cool,” he said, holding up a Zippo lighter with an eagle and an American flag engraved on the side of it. He took out the pack of Luckies again and lit one. After a few drags, he said, “Here,” and counted out twenty dollars. “You get half. But I get to keep the lighter.”

#

Though I wasn’t sure just how long we’d been there, by the time we climbed out of the plane, I noticed that the sun had begun inching toward the horizon. It was probably almost six o’clock by then, but it was July, so it would still be hours before dark. As we stood there among the wreckage, I was even more eager to get the hell out of there. Dwight finally agreed, and we were getting ready to ride back home when we heard something, a low moaning coming from about a hundred yards off.

“Shh,” Dwight said. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know. It’s coming from over that way.”

We crept in the direction of the sound and found a man laid out in a clump of tall weeds. His body was tangled up in the lines of his parachute. He wore a helmet and goggles, but his head seemed screwed on wrong. One of his arms was bent in a way it shouldn’t have been, and a fractured bone stuck out through one of his legs just above the knee.

“Whoa,” I said, unable to think of anything else.

“Yeah,” Dwight said. “Maybe you should touch his neck.” He laughed. His excitement restored.

The man’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets, and the sounds he was making reminded me of the ones my old man made between heaves as he wretched over the porch rail after too much of the hard stuff.

“We should probably call for help,” I said.

“You see a goddamn phone anywhere?”

“We could go back to town, tell somebody.”

“No way,” Dwight said, shaking his head.

“But he’s still alive.”

“Not for much longer, it don’t look like.” He slugged me in the shoulder again, hard. “Check his pockets.”

I looked at him. “You serious?”

“Go on,” he said, “I did the last one.”

I hesitated, not much liking the idea, but went ahead with it anyway.

All the man had on him was a wallet. Inside was about fifty bucks, which, added to the forty we’d already split, was a rather small fortune to us at the time. The man’s Ohio State driver’s license read Carl Brenton. It occurred to me that in Dwight’s eagerness, he’d probably tossed the pilot’s ID somewhere in the plane without even noticing what his name was. If he had noticed, he never said, and I didn’t bother to ask. But this man, the man on the ground before me, was Carl Brenton. And I wished I didn’t know that.

In his wallet, Carl Brenton also had some business cards, a book of matches, and a photograph in a plastic sleeve. Only this photo was different from the one Dwight had found on the pilot. It was a picture of a man, a woman, and two young kids, a boy and a girl. A family portrait. Though the resemblance between the man on the ground and the man in the picture was difficult to see just then, it was nevertheless the same person. The woman must have been Carl Brenton’s wife, the kids his son and daughter. It seemed strange to me, the way they were posed there together, wearing nice clothes and smiling. Why it was strange I didn’t quite know, just that it was.

The man’s moaning had quieted, but he was still struggling to breathe. His chest, which looked sunken on one side, hitched and fell several times, settled, then hitched some more.

Dwight had returned to his bike and was already halfway up the hill when I knelt down beside the man. “I’m real sorry, mister. I bet help will come real soon, though.”

Carl Brenton sucked in a ragged breath and let it out in a stuttering wheeze.

“Let’s go, shitbird!” Dwight called.

Standing up, I slid the photo in my pocket and looked at the man one more time. He’d gone silent and still. For a moment, as I pedaled out of the grassy hollow, I thought I heard him moaning again. But I told myself it was probably just the wind blowing through the hills.

#

Later that night, Dwight called, told me to turn on the eleven o’clock news.

My mother had come home from work with a migraine and gone straight to bed. Fortunately for us both, my old man had drunk himself stupid by eight and was out cold on the couch by nine-thirty.

When I flipped on the news, there was a shot showing several ambulances and police cars lined up on the dirt road, and men in uniforms picking through the debris of the shattered plane. The caption at the bottom of the screen read: TWO DEAD IN LORNFIELD TOWNSHIP PLANE CRASH. They must have got there not long after we left, I thought, because it was still daylight.

“They were a couple of old army guys,” Dwight said over the line.

According to the news, the men were retired U.S. military. No family members had yet been reached for comment, so no names or other details were disclosed, but an investigation was underway as to the cause of the crash. I thought about the Styrofoam cooler, all those beer cans inside the plane. The report didn’t mention those.

“You didn’t tell no one, did you?” Dwight asked.

I hadn’t, but since coming home, it was all I’d been able to think about — the man’s twisted neck, his sick moans, the way his chest seemed to rattle when he breathed.

“No,” I said. “Did you?”

“Hell no I didn’t.”

“Are we gonna?”

“What do you think?” he said. “First thing they’ll want to know is why we didn’t say somethin’ sooner, why we didn’t tell nobody.”

“I wanted to go for help, remember?”

“Look, forget it,” he said. “No use in sayin’ anything now, right?” Several seconds of silence and he said it again: “Right?”

Dwight thought just because he was a year older, he got to make the decisions. And although I didn’t like the idea of keeping it all inside, and wanted to push back for once, now didn’t seem like the time. If we talked, I might say too much, might spill everything. He knew that and so did I. No, he didn’t need to worry. I’d picked the pockets of a dying man, a man by the name of Carl Brenton, and I was in no hurry to slip up and share that shame.

“Right,” I said.

After I hung up the phone, I walked down the hall to my bedroom, passing by framed photos as I went. For the first time, I noticed there were none of us as a family. One was of my old man in a boat, holding up the record-breaking trout he’d had mounted and hung above the couch. That fish was his proudest accomplishment, but that still wasn’t enough to put a smile on his face. One was of my mother when she was maybe eighteen, a large smile, beautiful. Next to it was another one of her, this one taken years later, her expression one of strained contentment and hidden regrets. Another featured my parents at their slapdash wedding, my mother pregnant with me. My old man looking trapped. There were pictures of me as a baby, me as a boy, me in school. We were all there, up on the wall. But we weren’t together.

That’s when I understood without fully understanding the strangeness I’d felt earlier in the field.

In my room, I closed the door and lay in the dark. I took out the picture of Carl Brenton and his family, held it up in the moonlight spilling through the window above my bed.

My old man had woken up, and I could hear him banging around in the kitchen, muttering about being out of beer. A few minutes later my mother was up and the muttering became arguing. Then shouting.

For a while I just stared at the smiling people in the photo, wondering what the rest of the Brentons’ names were as they stared back at me. After a while, I closed my eyes and buried my head beneath my pillow. The wind picked up outside, and as it moaned across the rolling hills, I imagined myself there with them. Happy.

 

William R. Soldan

 

Header photograph: By bomberpilot (DSC_1914 Uploaded by High Contrast) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Portraits of the Dead and Dying by William R. Soldan

  1. Hi William, the jealousy of the photograph was perfectly pitched. For all that they did wrong was overshadowed by his wanting to be part of a ‘real’ family.
    This was a very entertaining and poignant read.
    All the best.
    Hugh

    Like

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