Triage

by Nickolas Butler


His lover had been gone just two weeks when they found him in the cemetery, slumped over the new and shining tombstone, the rubble of nearly a dozen aluminum cans scattered here and there like profane offerings.  His lipstick was smeared and he was dressed in what appeared to be a dingy, secondhand wedding gown.  He was sobbing and Officer Novak could do nothing for the mourning man who wept violently and swatted the policeman away every time he touched the man’s back in comfort.  It was Eugene and Novak knew Eugene as did everyone else in town.  Novak walked down the hill away from the cemetery and radioed the station before remembering that he was the only one on duty.  He sat in the cruiser for some time thinking.  Then he used his personal cellular telephone and called Paul Gully, the owner of the IGA grocery market in town.  Paul was not in the store but a cashier listened to Novak’s quandary and told him to call Lyle, Paul’s brother, who lived in the city.

“Lyle went to school with him,” said the cashier.  “Most of the Gully boys did.”

She read Lyle’s number to the officer.  It was taped to her cash register, along with the rest of the family’s numbers.

“I suppose I could arrest him,” Novak said, “but I can’t see the use.”  Inside the cruiser he shook his head, then peered back to confirm that Eugene was still holding the tombstone to the earth.  It was early in the morning, and the grass of the cemetery held the light of the sun in its particles of dew.  Won’t be long until it’s snow, thought Novak.  Then he dialed Lyle’s number.  Lyle answered and told Novak he would be out to the cemetery in a half hour.  He told Novak not to let Eugene leave.

“I’ll get his keys,” said Novak, “if you can get him down to the cruiser, I’ll drive him home or to the jail.  I don’t want to make a deal of it all, I just want the poor guy to dry out.”

“No need,” said Lyle, “I’ll drive his car to his place and then you can drive me back to the cemetery for my truck.  I’ve known Eugene since we were kids.”

“Must be hard,” said Novak, “all of it I mean.  He got dealt a rough hand of it.”

“I’ll be right there,” said Lyle.

Novak walked back to the cemetery with a thermos of coffee.  He could hear Eugene sobbing from a distance.  He poured some of the coffee from the thermos into a plastic cup and held it out for the man.

“Here,” said Novak, “come on now.  You got to sober up.  Sober up and we can talk.”

Eugene’s shoulders wracked.  His hair was thinning on top but long enough everywhere else to trail over his shoulders and to stick to his stubbly face.  No grass had yet grown on his lover’s grave.  Novak had never had to bury anyone.

“I am sorry about Jeremy,” said Novak at last.  “I am very sorry.  For your loss.”

He set his hand on the man’s shoulder but this time it was allowed to rest there, and through the gauzy fabric of Eugene’s dress, he felt the grief surge through the man’s body; all of his muscles were tense and trembling and it reminded Novak of a terrified animal and he was sorry once more.  He squeezed Eugene’s shoulder and for a time they were that way, connected in the tiny countryside cemetery, two semi-strangers in the morning light.

Then Novak said, “I didn’t know, I did not know that Jeremy was gay.”  He had taken a chance.

Eugene looked up at him and his mascara was ruined and all over his face like the paint of a broken clown.  He said to the policeman, “When you’re gay in a small town, you don’t worry about dying.  You worry about being found out.”

“He wasn’t found out,” said Novak, removing his hand.

“Not before.  But I went to the funeral,” said Eugene, running the back of his hand over his wet face.  His hands were thin, hairy, the nails of his fingers overly long.  They were not the hands of a farmer or a carpenter or construction worker.

Novak shrugged.  “So?”

“I was drunk,” Eugene stammered, “I couldn’t stay away.  Couldn’t not see him again.  So I watched from the road.  But then I couldn’t hear, so I walked up and everyone turned to look.”

Novak kicked a stone near the grave and accidentally sent it towards the marker where it pinged off into the short distance.  Eugene looked at him.  Novak looked at him and then laughed quietly, he could not contain himself.  He muffled his mouth with his hands.

“What?” Eugene asked, “What?”

Novak reassembled himself, said, “That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do Eugene.  Don’t get angry at me.  You were drunk then and you’re drunk now.”

“How many funerals you been to Officer?” Eugene said, angrily, holding again to the tombstone.  “How many friends you buried?”

Novak shook his head, said, “None.”

“It ain’t an uncommon thing to see people drunk at a funeral,” Eugene said.  Then, “People get sad.”

“Eugene,” said Novak, “do you want any of my coffee?”

Eugene shook his head and went back to hugging the white marble stone.  Soon, he was crying again.  Novak moved away from him to the base of a large white pine where he sat in the shade and drank the hot coffee and looked out over the fields to where a red pickup truck was coming towards the cemetery.  On the margins of the fields the autumn leaves were rusting beautifully.  Novak removed his hat and wiped his sweating brow.  Despite the season, the day was growing warm.  He walked down the slope of the graveyard to the road and Lyle pulled his truck behind Novak’s cruiser.  The two men shook hands.

“He’s pretty distraught,” Novak said.

“You try to get him in your car?” asked Lyle.

“No,” said Novak, “we’ve just been talking.”

Lyle nodded and the two men walked back to Eugene.  Eugene was sitting in the grass, leaning his back against the un-carved side of Jeremy Olson’s tombstone.  He was noisily drinking another can of beer, the yellow fluid occasionally dripping down his chin.  His shoulders were not covered by the silky gown and there was hair on them.  Lyle reached the graveside and extended his hand to Eugene.

“It’s been awhile,” said Lyle.  “I’m sorry about Jeremy.  He was a good man.”

Eugene slugged the beer down and eyed Lyle, tears in his eyes.  His throat pumped the beer into his stomach.  “Hey Lyle,” he said finally.

Lyle sat down in the grass, pulled a long green blade from the earth and rolled it in his fingers.  The wind was in his hair and from the tops boughs of the white pines long needles fell to earth.  It was strange for him to be in the cemetery for any other reason than to be with his two boys, but he was happy that they were near him now, watching him, observing this trio of unlikely visitors, and he knew that before he left the yard he would touch their stones and feel happy for it.

“My boys are buried here,” said Lyle, after some time.  He did not know what else to say.  “They’re over there.  My wife and I have plots already bought up.  Right next to them.  Some people, most people don’t like cemeteries I suppose.  But I like this one.  This view.  The pine trees and the prairie grasses.  I even like the smell of manure in the spring.  I don’t know.  It’s a good place here, isn’t it?”

“I never felt at home here,” Eugene said to Lyle and Lyle knew that he was not talking about the cemetery but rather the town, the land, all of it.

“I was always surprised you stayed,” said Lyle.

“I was afraid to go anywhere else,” said Eugene, and he finished the beer and crumpled its metal can.  “You know how it is Lyle.  We weren’t prepared to go off to the city.  I tried once.  Tried out Minneapolis.  But people move fast there.  I don’t know.  I never caught onto it.  At least here you know everybody, even if they don’t like you or understand you, they’re familiar.  Over time, people like me, we find each other.  Sometimes we didn’t even like each other, but we were all we had.  I loved him but I don’t think he ever loved me.  He loved his wife.  He loved…”  Eugene looked at the grass.  “I never faulted him for that.  It broke my heart but I never faulted him for that.”

There was a silence between them and Lyle saw that Novak was still beneath the white pine and there were newly fallen needles in his short hair.  The policeman’s eyes were closed and his arms were crossed over his chest.

Eugene sniffled.  “I didn’t know you’d lost two children.”

Lyle nodded.  “Neither of them lived very long.  One died right away and the other was sick for close to a year.  I used to carry pictures in my wallet but that was a long time ago and now I just come here to visit them.”  He paused and wanted to say something more but let it go.

“I can’t come here all the time,” Eugene said.  “I don’t want to embarrass her.  Or the kids.”

Lyle nodded.  It was a hard thing that Eugene said but it was true.  Lyle said, “Maybe the best thing is to move on.”

Lyle rose from the grass and reached for Eugene’s hand.  “Come on,” he said, “let me drive you home.”

Lyle pulled Eugene to his feet where the man wobbled for a moment before gaining his balance.  “Give me your keys,” said Lyle.

“Left them in the car.”

Beneath the canopy of the white pine Lyle kicked Novak’s boots and the policeman rose quickly and brushed the needles from his crew-cut.  “I’ll follow you,” he told Lyle, and the three men slowly moved out of the cemetery.

It was not a long drive back into town and they rode beside the Beef River, low between its banks.  Fields of corn, harvested and now just stubble.  A few passing trucks.  Everyone waved.

Eugene lived above the hardware store, downtown, and so Lyle pulled into the back alley behind the building.  “Which one is your apartment key?” he asked Eugene.  Eugene touched a key with a poorly painted fingernail.  Novak had pulled behind them in his patrol-car and had gotten out and walked to the driver side of Eugene’s car.  Lyle rolled down the window, handed Novak the keys and said, “You open up the door so we can come right up.  I don’t want to make a scene.”

They waited a beat for the police officer to walk up a back set of stairs and then Lyle pulled Eugene from his own car and carried the man up to his little apartment and put him in bed.  He was already snoring loudly.  Lyle pulled a blanket over him.  There was a picture of Jeremy on the bed-side table and in the picture Jeremy was kneeling over a trophy deer, its basket of antlers tall and wide.  He was dressed all in bright orange.  They left the keys on a Formica kitchen table and left the apartment.  Lyle crawled into the police cruiser with Novak.

“Nobody ever drives with me,” said Novak.  “My first job in Chicago, I had a partner there.  But there’s no need up here.”

“You must see some things,” said Lyle.  “You must see some things doing this work.”

They drove through town, back towards the cemetery.  “I’ve never seen anything like today.  In a big city, shoot.  People like Eugene either get ignored or arrested.  But he wasn’t causing any harm I suppose.  Long as he wasn’t driving.”

They rode in silence through the harvested cornfields and brightly colored forests.  Novak’s police radio was quiet all the way.  He pulled the cruiser to the side of the road at the base of the cemetery.  The two men shook hands again.

“I’ll get those beer cans,” said Lyle.

Novak shook his head and smiled.  “Poor guy had finished half a case of beer and it wasn’t even noon yet.”

“Take it easy Officer Novak,” said Lyle.

Novak waved a hand and was gone, driving down a valley and over the Beef River which shone blue and silver under the towering sun.

Lyle collected the beer cans in a plastic bag which he found behind the bench seat of his truck and then walked over to the graves of his two sons and rested his hands on their markers.  There had been one time in his entire life when he had felt loneliness and it was after Benjamin had died, their second, and before their two other children were born.  He and Bea would lay in bed every night and she would cry herself to sleep and there was nothing for him to do but to wrap himself around her and when he realized that was no use he would hold her hand until she squeezed his hand white and the bones inside hurt.  Other nights he would sit on the edge of the bed and think about the moments he had held the babies, each in their brief time, so small and warm and looking so perfect and he was filled with a kind of anger that seethed inside him and he would want to waste something or waste himself but all that he might do was cry but there were never any tears.  He and Bea had almost separated.  A woman had approached her in church one Sunday and said, “Why do you keep doing this to yourselves?”  And it had broken her apart in a manner that Lyle was unable to reconstruct.  They went a year without making love, drifting around the house like two ghosts.  When he touched her, sometimes she shuddered.  And then, one day, it was gone, and they were healed and there was no explanation for it except time.

Beneath his callused hands, the headstones were warm with the day’s sun.  He went down to his knees and pulled some weeds around their markers, ran his fingers in their etched names to wipe away what blown dirt had come to rest there.  He was not sad there, before them.

He walked back to the truck and threw the empty beer cans in the bed of the vehicle and then drove home.


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