Sleeping on Paul's Mattress
From my crouching position under the house, I watch a hearse back into the yard and stop right short of the front porch. It’s late in the day, and the sun is bleeding red across the sky for as far as I can see. Four men with fleshy faces climb out of the hearse, straightening their ties, flipping imaginary hairs from their dark suits. They look like white sugar frosting on a shit-pile if you ask me. You can’t dress up poverty like ours. No, you can’t color our house anything but ugly no matter how many polished shoes walk up its decaying steps.
As August breathes the god-awful stench of the outhouse up the noses of the funeral attendants, they scowl and exchange glances. One of the men breathes from his mouth and exhales through his nose, trying to filter the odor. Another stifles a gag, his mouth and throat moving spastically like he’d never smelled shit before. If Paul could see these highfalutin men with their nostrils puckered up, lugging his coffin from a deluxe black car spiffed up with goddamn curtains in the windows, he’d scream with laughter until it hurt like hell.
By the time the men heave the casket from the hearse, sweat is popping out all over their faces. Heat smothers the South in the summer and, down here, we sweat like a bunch of sinners with the hottest seats in hell for three or four months of the year. Even the air leaks with humidity. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear southern Georgia was nothing but a giant pressure cooker.
They move in unison, their feet shuffling in rhythm over dirt and rocks, aiming for the steps. I watch and count their paces. The rotting porch-steps moan and sag in pain under their weight, but the wood holds. Before we moved in, this piece of shit we call home had been used as a pack house for cured tobacco, and, until yesterday, a nicotine scent loomed in every corner. Today, the rooms reek with the sweetness of decay. I smell it from down here. A mixture of decay and shit with the faintest hint of unanswered prayers taking up residence in my nose.
The ushers take exactly thirty-three steps moving the coffin from the hearse to the front door, but they pant like they’ve carried the load all the way to Golgotha. They wouldn’t last an hour working beside Paul and me in the tobacco fields.
Through the gaps between the floorboards I could see straight up the preacher’s wife’s dress if I wanted to. If Paul was still alive, I’d be straining to see what color panties she chose to wear out to our shack and searching for pubic hair poking from the elastic around the crotch. I’ve got no stomach for it now, though. The ache in my groin has moved up to my heart. All I want is my brother with his hair shining copper and blond under the summer sun. I want to inhale his familiar earthy scent and touch his calloused hands. But he’s lying dead in the pine box that’s just arrived special delivery from the goddamn funeral home. Blew his own brains out with a shotgun while the rest of us were out in the fields working. My old man sent him home to refill the water jug and he never came back. Stuck the barrel in his mouth and squeezed the trigger while sitting on the bed we shared. The old man dragged the mattress out behind the house yesterday and told me to clean it. Said we couldn’t throw it away because we don’t have the money to buy another one. I washed that blood-soaked mattress until my hands were raw, sore, and shriveled, but Paul’s bloodstains remained. You can’t imagine what it’s like to watch your twin brother’s blood streaming like water through your hands, knowing it’s the last of him you’ll ever see. I counted into the thousands while I scrubbed. Twice, I lost count and had to start over at the number one. The mattress is leaned against the back fence, drying. I expect it’ll be good and dry by tomorrow night if the weather holds.
The Baptist preacher, who never laid eyes on us white trash until yesterday, hears the men from the funeral home arrive and moves to the door while my old man sits in a chair in the corner with his head in his hands, most likely dreaming of a drink, and Mama stands like a zombie in the opposite corner waiting for the dead body of her son, the oldest by ten minutes. All four of the attendants, soaked and steaming from the workout of carrying the coffin up the steps, are waiting for somebody to hold the door open and let them in. The preacher takes his sweet time getting to the door, and then he invites the wilted men inside like a damn fool. “Won’t you please come in?”
Of course they’re coming in—they’ve got a dead body to deliver.
This scream stuck inside my throat is growing by the minute. If it keeps swelling, it’ll choke me dead. I know like I know my own name that if God played fair it would be my old man in that pine box. But nothing’s fair in life. Not a damn thing. It should have been him who swallowed the barrel of that shotgun. Of course he’d have to own a conscience to do that. If he ever had one, he strangled it in whisky before I was born. If I ever find my old man dead like I found Paul, don’t you believe for a second that I’ll waste my tears crying over him. Hell no. I’ll cram his intoxicated body in a coffin and toss as many whisky bottles as I can find on top of him. Then I’ll pour a pint over his corpse and stuff the empty bottleneck in his mouth like a pacifier. Marinate the old man in his own whisky before we bury him. But I don’t waste my time wishing for these fantasies to come true. I learned a long time ago that wishes are nothing but weeds of hope and hope grows out of whisky-soaked lies.
I crawl on my knees in the dirt, following the coffin through the gaps in the floors. Somebody has moved the couch across the room. They replace it with a dolly on casters where they place the coffin. It’s about waist-high. My mama moans and I try not to hear her. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Shut the fuck up, Mama! Shut the fuck up!
The numbers come, swallowing me whole. I count, chanting numbers, filling my thoughts with numerals because that’s what you learn to do when your old man beats you with a strap until blood seeps through your skin; that’s what you learn to do when he comes home with his breath reeking of whisky and the devil flapping on his back; that’s what you learn to do when your mama’s colorblind to the purple bruises on her boys’ bodies and the scars carved in their young hearts. And that’s likely what my mama’s doing as she watches the men from the funeral home deliver her 13-year old son in a coffin. I bet she’s bleeding digits, maybe in multiples: two, four, six, eight, ten, and on and on, burying herself in a cemetery of numbers, digging that grave deeper and deeper.
I watch family and folks from the community arrive carrying dishes of food, as if anybody in this dump feels like eating red velvet cake and fried chicken. We’ve got four rooms in this pathetic house, and my brother blew his head off in one of them—nobody in his right mind will want to sit at our table, bite into our food and taste our misery.
As car doors slam, I count the footsteps of legs moving toward the house. So far, my old man hasn’t hit the bottle, but I doubt he’ll be able to hold out much longer. If he stays sober all night and through the funeral tomorrow, it will be a goddamn miracle. And we sure as hell don’t get many miracles out here. For once in his life, the old man can claim a good reason to dilute his memories with alcohol. His eyes, dark and hard as nails in a coffin, are parched and thirsty, and his hands tremble with urgency. It won’t be long. Lord knows it won’t be long.
For as far back as I can remember, I’ve been submerged in numerals like a drunk trying to swim his way through life inside a moonshine still. When my father swaggers through the door with a bottle of liquor in his hands, his lethal eyes slashing everything in his path, numbers bleed from me. I count silently when he whips me with a strap, tallying the slaps to my legs, later totaling the marks on my body. I count when I walk, counting my steps, keeping score with a rhythm, my speechless tongue marching to the beat of a steady drum: a-one-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four-and-a-five-and-a-six. I can’t stop counting; I tried a few times, but the numbers gush from me, oozing like a wound that won’t stop bleeding. I’m a continuous hemorrhage of numbers.
Me and my old man scraped Paul’s brains from the walls yesterday and washed the blood and gore from the headboard. He said it was our place to do it. The preacher told my old man that he’d find some good Christian members of the church to clean the room for us, but he said no; we’d do it. The sheriff said he’d hire somebody to do it. The old man refused; it was our responsibility. As I cleaned my identical brother’s brains from the bedroom, I counted the beats of my heart, pounding like a savage drum inside my chest. The year is 1954, and I counted 1,954 beats. Talk about coincidences.
Paul wanted to be something when he grew up, but he didn’t know what. You can’t plan for the future when you’re living in a battlefield, and the enemy is your own deadbeat father whose love for liquor is only one of the most lethal things about him. He’d kill his own wife and children for a drink. Some might think I’m padding the truth, but slip into my scarred skin and try dreaming under the weight of a man who won’t let you speak an opinion born from your own head—a man who beats his children to a pulp for slamming a door and drags his wife to the bedroom when he comes home drunk—and see how much time’s left for deciding what you want to be when you grow up. Shit. All you know is you want to be free. You throb all the way down to your bones with the desire to wake up without fear and dread knotted tight in your belly. You long to sleep a full night without nightmares screaming at you. That’s all you know. Like a prisoner of war, you spend every minute counting down to freedom.
You might not believe this, but Paul loved poetry. Maybe you think a poor white boy has no reverence for matters of the heart, but I tell you that poverty is the mother who gave birth to the words of poets. Paul idolized Walt Whitman. He liked Keats and Frost and some of the others, too, but he flat-out worshipped Whitman. You should have heard him recite, “Oh Captain! My Captain!” He didn’t just quote it; the words cried from his tongue and dropped like salty tears around him. I can hear him still: “My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still. My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.”
Paul didn’t tell me his plans. If I’d known he was going to kill himself, I’d have told him to turn the gun on me too. Don’t leave me in this hell with no way out. But Paul didn’t confide the details of his escape to me. He mapped out a plan and made a dash for it without even looking back at me, his twin brother, his mirror image. He ripped my heart out by the roots and left me screaming on the battlefield. Goddamn him. Goddamn him.
One night, not long ago, I asked Paul if his head bulged with numbers like mine. He told me of course it did. “We came from the same womb on the same day with the same parents and were split from the same egg. Of course we both have numbers running through our heads, Peter.” Until then, I thought I was the only one counting to sleep with a steady lullaby of numbers. I live by the beat of the digits in my head. If I clean out the numbers, I don’t know what ghosts I might find hiding there. I’m too yellow to open that box. Maybe that’s what Paul did. Maybe he stopped counting, and the demons of the future rose up from that graveyard in his mind, screaming from every corner. God knows, he didn’t want to turn out like our old man.
Mosquitoes buzz around my ears, warning like a rattlesnake right before they drill into my flesh and feast on my blood. I count eight mosquitoes squatting on my arms and legs, and there’s more swarming around my head. I can’t feel them biting me. Nothing penetrates me other than this ache pounding out numbers in my head.
That coffin holds not only my brother, but his laughter and his anger and his tears and his memories and his love of poetry and his voice and all the numbers that once filled his head. How can a simple pine coffin hold so much without splitting wide open? It overflows with a life lived, and tomorrow we’re going to put it in a hole and cover it with dirt. And my old man will go back to drinking if he’s not already drunk by then, and my mama will go back to her colorblind lie of a life, and I’ll count and count and count.
By tomorrow night, the mattress should be dry. I’ve got to believe the numbers won’t let me down.