They peeled Dirk Larner off the inside of his windshield. His car sat in the tree branches, cradled like a robin’s egg. Bare dry pavement and broad daylight seemed like an incongruous background for a vehicular catastrophe.
Dirk had a habit for dope, and a thing for mixing his habit with the accelerator of his two door, battleship gray sedan. He thought he was a real hot shot, even in his parents’ hand-me-down car.
Dirk had three older brothers. One lost a few fingers to a homemade pipe-bomb, the other lost his head. The last one, the eldest, made it to the Navy, and moved down south to a double wide, a golden retriever and her fat bitch.
I doubt I had much sympathy for Dirk’s scattered skull, because to be honest there was only bone inside that head. Rather, I felt a passing prayer for his poor parents, dragged again through the pig sty of grief for what may have been their most promising son.
He had agreed to attend community college after graduation. Though he didn’t aim high, he did better than his kin by aiming at all.
I drove slow by the scene, rubbernecking like the yokel I was. A fire truck ladder reached up into the tree. Two fire fighters ascended it with grim resolve. I seem to remember imagining one of them carrying a squeegee to clean the cracked windshield.
I recognized Dirk’s car, but didn’t register his passing. I wondered at how terribly perfect the stage must have been to end on this frame.
There was a rise with a bridge that spanned over a single railroad track. The rise was the beginning of the highway and the 50 mph zone.
Flimsy guardrails were the only thing that stood between those trees and Dirk’s hundred mile an hour headlong dive.
The state trooper waved me by and I went home to see the story on the six o’clock news. Dirk dead, drug investigation under way. Another Larner laid to rest. Those poor parents.
I had a vague knowledge of Dick and Irene Larner. They appeared in memories and photographs of little league games, and school functions.
They were lumpy and old in my mind’s eye and on the news broadcast.
Dick, Mr. Larner, may not have ever told any of his boys a kind word, but he blubbered blessings into that tear-and-spit-stained microphone and God damn it he deserved to.
Irene could speak little but kept dabbing her eyes dramatically. I’m sure she thought herself a sudden celebrity, and wanted to play coy now, so she could come clean on the People Magazine cover and in the TV memoriam with those awful old and faded photos of her poor boys in their budding days. She thought there’d be a hundred more cameras to confess to, and was biding her time.
Mr. Larner looked into that one camera like it was a visiting booth to heaven, and sobbed into that mike like it was God and Dirk’s ear.
He had no one to say all this to: Irene was wrapped up in herself, and Dennis, the pipe bomb survivor, had lost most of his hearing.
There probably wasn’t another person who listened to him that night besides me. I knew, felt, that when something you love dies, it leaves a little hole in your chest.
Some people might fill the hole with food or booze, or drugs or religion. But Mr. Larner had nothing to plug the hole with, no tar to stop the leaking in his heart and his eyes, and I took it all in, not because I believe in Heaven or hope, but because I couldn’t let him spill onto the pavement.
I had no bucket to catch it with, so I put out my hands and tried to keep my fingers from fumbling and letting him hit the ground.
He said, “I wish you were back so I could tell you how proud I was of your grades, of your girlfriend, and that letter you got from the community college, and the binders your mother bought, and your promise to keep clean, and the way you looked at me when you were born and I swore you were my son.”
Next up was the weather, and the lottery numbers for the night.
I don’t know what the funeral looked like, or who cared. I don’t know if Mr. Larner cried anymore, or if Irene wore sunglasses to hide her stricken face.
I know they fixed the guardrail in a week, and I know that they left the tree standing, I went to it later.
I climbed it without thinking, and sat myself down on a limb. It held me fast, just as it held Dirk.
I tried just to hang, to just perch, to just rest on the boughs like that Subaru had, to be weightless for a cold moment, to forget if I was damaged and just how bad. I wanted to feel the monument of the memory.
I imagined tire marks on the tree trunk, a headlight hanging by a wire, stuck in the crook of a branch: a new birdhouse.
I didn’t know whether the tree should stand or fall. If when the Larner’s drove by would the absence of the tree remind them of the absence of their son. I didn’t know. I didn’t think of it myself.
Some years later someone bought the property, who knows why they wanted to live right by the tracks. But they built their house far out into the field. They cut every tree down except one.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Whether it was the bark or the patch of new guard railing that told the Larner Legend and let the tree live, I’ll never know.
But what the new owners did next has never left me; again I don’t know what possessed them. They hung a tire swing from the tree. It sways in the breeze, and their only son loves to sit in it.
It cradles him just like a robin’s egg.