How he killed himself was a cliché, and I never forgave him for it. The killing part, yeah, but I was just as mad about the clichéd part because I hated somebody dying in such a stupid way. Clint had been drinking and had a pistol in the belt of his pants. I just remember it was hot that night, late in July, and I had to keep slapping at my head because mosquitoes were buzzing my ears. We were at Sam Meeks’s fishing cabin on the river and everybody was drinking. Somebody said Clint was gonna hurt somebody with that thing, but Clint said, “It’s not loaded. See?” And then he put the gun to his head just to prove that it was okay and pulled the trigger. Sam Meeks ran out of the room yelling, “Clint Jack shot hisself.” And all I could think was what a stupid way for a stupid guy to die, just like every other moron who says, “It’s not loaded.”
Even his name was stupid, Clint Jack Hoffman. His mama, my aunt, named him after Clint Eastwood and Billy Jack, but I don’t think Billy Jack was a real person. I know it was a movie and all, but there probably wasn’t a real Billy Jack just like there isn’t a real Batman or a real Spiderman. They’re just heroes who come around saving people, but they only do it in the movies because if they were real heroes then one of them might have come around here to save a dumbass like my cousin Clint Jack who killed himself just from being stupid. But I guess even Batman or Spiderman or even Clint Eastwood couldn’t stop stupid when there’s just so much of it.
I know I shouldn’t blame my cousin Clint for killing Bone either, but I do. Clint didn’t mean to do it because he was dead when it happened, and how could a dead man be responsible for killing a live man? But he is responsible. Clint killed Bone just as sure as if he’d taken that gun he shot himself with and shot Bone, too, even though Bone didn’t die from a gunshot. His was worse. It took Bone longer to die, and I resent Clint for that because it just seemed so damned unfair. The coroner said Bone laid there for something like ten minutes before he finally “expired,” like he was a package of hamburger meat or a gallon of buttermilk somebody forgot about in the back of the refrigerator.
I wore the navy funeral dress Mama had bought for me when my uncle died the year before because she kept yelling at me to “put that dress on so we can get to the funeral!” The dress was polyester, a fabric that I was sure had been invented for old ladies who hated to iron. And it was hot, damned hot in that polyester dress, standing out there on a blistering day in July at the Merry Memorial Park, a place with a name that sounded like we were going to an amusement park with rides and hot dogs and shit, not a place where people are buried under the ground in caskets that cost more than my car because they’re so stupid they get drunk and shoot themselves with unloaded guns.
Bone had been Clint’s best friend. They did everything together, even the same women, just not at the same time. They grew up not more than three miles apart. Bone hung out at Clint’s house more than he did at his own. They had knife throwing contests in Clint’s backyard and just about tore up one side of Clint’s mama’s pink dogwood tree because they threw their knives at it like a thousand times. Later they went to the vocational school together to learn diesel mechanics, and when Clint decided to quit because he said he “knew enough to get a job,” Bone quit too just because Clint did. When Clint applied for work at the forest ranger’s station because he hadn’t been able to get on at any of the diesel garages around town, Bone tried to get on, but neither one of them got hired. Later, when they were hanging out at Sam’s cabin and bitching about how there were no jobs because all the jobs got sent over to Mexico and China and India and how guys like them couldn’t catch a break anywhere, they were just as broke as when they quit school. When Clint pulled the trigger of the gun with no bullets, he had no more than a dollar in his pocket. Some people started saying Clint committed suicide because he couldn’t find work and some other people said Bone did the same, but I know better. It was just death by stupid.
I was sweating in that navy funeral dress and wishing the preacher would hurry up and finish telling us how much everybody loved Clint and how he was a good-hearted young man who struggled with life’s frustrations just as any young man, but he was surely bowing at the golden gates with a heart trembling with love for his Lord and Savior as he waited for entry into the Heavenly kingdom, yes, yes, where God’s healing love and forgiveness was there for Clint who had given his heart to Jesus, yes, yes, he did, when he was only a tender boy of ten years old. I had never heard that stuff before about Clint having any religious faith, but it seemed to make Mama feel better, and if Clint’s mama had been alive she’d have been waving her little handkerchief to the rhythm of the preacher’s words just like my mama was doing.
I didn’t see Bone slip off from the group, though later a few people said they noticed him walking away off to the right behind a row of spent yellow bells. It was clear he’d been drinking before he got to the funeral. That was easy enough to tell when he hugged me before the service began with his beer breath in my face and his red eyes staring down at me that were probably just as red from smoking weed as from crying over stupid Clint shooting himself. I did feel sorry for Bone. He’d been saying for days that he was to blame for Clint shooting himself because he hadn’t been there to stop him.
You don’t ever point a gun at nobody. You don’t point at nothing you don’t mean to kill. Never. Never.
Bone had left the cabin around 7:30 and gone over to Bobby Gerard’s to see about buying a Mustang transmission. He hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when it happened, so he’d been crying ever since. Should have insisted that Clint come with me to look at the transmission. Should have made him get in the car. Should have. Never point a gun. Never. He was still saying that when he started crying on my shoulder at the funeral, so I told him some stuff about how it wasn’t his fault because how could anybody know a thing like that could happen and nobody blamed him, but the truth is I was just saying all that so he would get off my shoulder. Clint’s death was nobody’s fault but Clint’s. I wanted to say that to him, but I figured telling him it was Clint’s fault would upset him just as much. I sat down on the front row with Mama and two of my little cousins, and I didn’t see Bone alive again.
The preacher had finally got around to finishing all the good and mostly untrue things about Clint. When we got home I intended to ask Mama about the part the preacher said about Clint being saved when he was ten. If Clint did turn his life over to Jesus then he must have forgotten all about it by the time I was old enough to tag along behind him and get smacked on the head every time I asked him question. If I had known then that he was one of Jesus’ own, I’d have made sure Jesus knew how Clint was behaving in the hopes that some punishment would be coming his way. Looking at that closed casket mounted high with daisies, chrysanthemums, dahlias, and roses, and my twenty-three year old cousin laying dead down underneath with a bullet hole in his head, I figured that maybe that was exactly what had happened, even though it was a good ten years too late. I even said a little prayer for Jesus to forgive Clint for at least some of that stuff he did when he was a kid because I was feeling sort of scared for Clint and wondering if maybe the preacher had made some mistake about him giving his heart to Jesus when he was a kid. Maybe the preacher got him mixed up with some other ten year old boy because that was thirteen years ago when he said it happened. I was staring hard at Clint’s casket and figuring up just that number in my head when the first scream started.
I didn’t even turn to look back the first time the woman screamed because I was sure somebody screamed just because some fool had fainted in the heat. I was actually a little irritated that somebody would scream like that just because a person passed out. After all, it was a funeral, and it wasn’t as if anybody died on the back row. Suddenly somebody else joined in, and this time it was a man. “Oh my God!” Then one by one everybody started running out from under the funeral tent toward an enormous oak about thirty yards off. I felt Mama grab my arm and pull me to my feet and in a second we were both running toward the tree, too.
I saw his legs before I saw anything else. All the funeral party had made a wide circle around his body because a few bees were still swarming and nobody wanted to get stung. One of the women from our church covered her eyes and turned away. “We shouldn’t be looking,” she said and pulled another woman away with her. I pushed past the two of them and broke through the crowd until I was inside the circle. Bone lay there on the grass beneath the tree, his face puffed up and even redder than he had been only twenty minutes earlier. No one knew he was allergic to bees, and at that moment there was no way to tell how many times he had been stung. His eyes were swelled shut and you could hardly tell it was Bone. His arms were streaked with smeared blood where he must have tried to scratch the bees off while he was still conscious. It took me a second to see the other part, and then I understood why that woman was so squeamish about not looking. Bone had gone behind that oak tree to pee because there it was, the tip still hanging out of his pants, and it was red as the rest of him, as if the bees had determined that not one part of his exposed skin would be spared.
People started grabbing phones and calling 9-1-1, and some people shuffled around the grass, holding their hands over hearts and mouths, not knowing what it was they were to do when somebody died at a funeral. Mac Vane and a guy I didn’t know bent down over him and tried to give him CPR. In a few minutes an ambulance came screaming up over the rise and around the curve where Clint lay forgotten and alone in his gold-trimmed casket underneath the green tent. I kept thinking that Bone was just passed out from being stung so many times and maybe Mac and that other guy were going to bring him right back to life any second. The EMT’s rushed over with all kinds of medical kits and started checking him over. One of them gave him some kind of shot like maybe he was going to pull through. They must not have had any bee allergies because they continued working even though a handful of bees was making its displeasure known by buzzing around Bone’s feet. I wondered if one of the guys was going to tuck Bone back in because it seemed awfully undignified to have your penis hanging out at a funeral. That was what was going through my head, and I guess it wasn’t the most appropriate thing for a person to be concerned about when you have one dead person behind you and another one who looked like he could be dead right in front of you. The problem was solved then they put him on a stretcher and it turtled itself right back inside his open zipper. I was more relieved about that than considering any real possibility that Bone could be dead. He would be okay. It was a yellow jacket’s nest. He had stepped into a yellow jacket’s nest on the ground and they attacked him. That was all. He’d be back at the cemetery the next day paying his respects at Clint’s burial site. He might even get treated at the hospital and make it in time for the meal the ladies had cooked at the church, the undisputed best part of Alabama funerals. He would eat chicken and cake with the rest of us, and he would cry over Clint and probably start in again about how he should have been there to keep Clint from being stupid with a gun, and everyone would come around and tease him for running off behind a tree to pee because he’d shown up drunk and been so stupid as to step into a nest of yellow jackets. In a few days when the swelling went down he’d be laughing about it with the rest of us.
Clint was buried on a Tuesday, and by Saturday we were all back at the cemetery to bury Bone. This time most of the crying and blubbering was from Bone’s mother who kept saying nobody knew he was allergic to bees because Bone had never been to a doctor a day in his life, as if that was some kind of thing a mother should be proud of.
The gun that killed Clint had been taken away by his older brother, and the cemetery got sprayed for bees. “Thirty-one times,” I kept hearing people repeat at the second church funeral meal that week. And then they would whisper “four times” and point downward with a grimace. I thought that bringing up a thing like that at a funeral dinner was in poor taste, so I put my biscuit down on my plate long enough to say so. When a man died, it was just plain bad manners to talk about a thing like that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture Journal, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, Portland Review, and thirty-two other publications from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.