By Tom Lakin
First, we found out what had happened. “Did you hear?” we asked, across marble countertops and in oak-paneled studies and through the open windows of cars, morning cold pouring in and turning our breath to steam. “Can you believe it?” we said as we pushed piled carts across the grocery store parking lot, voices raised to be heard over the tinny jangling of the small black wheels. “How awful,” we whispered into telephones, lips wet, our breath hot on the mouthpiece.
At the dry cleaners, our pressed, plastic-wrapped suits swaying like headless ghosts on the conveyor, we shook when we heard and coughed into nervous hands. Passing beneath the fluttering awnings of Main Street, we clutched arms and traded soft, sorrowful looks. In the dens and living rooms of our fine cherished homes—Victorians and Tudors, Dutch Colonials with broad gambrel roofs—we wondered how such a thing could happen, could possibly have come to pass, in a good town like ours. This is a bright, pleasant place—a family town. Our children ride bicycles down safe, shaded streets; most mornings they walk to school. To pass through our town is to hear the whirr of polished cars, shouted greetings, collars jingling around the glossy necks of Labrador retrievers: happy sounds, safe sounds. In spring, handsome flags snap from porches and we wash our cars in the drive. Holidays are taken seriously here: on Halloween, jack-o-lanterns guard our doorways and cardboard skeletons dance from the branches of our trees, thrilling costumed children and startling neighborhood dogs. At Christmas, we gather before bay windows and watch the snow fall like bits of torn paper onto the lawn.
And yet there we were, receiving this news on playing fields and in church, outside coffee shops and in line at Brown’s Sporting Goods, sneakers and brand new footballs in paper bags at our sides. We heard it from neighbors hurrying uneasily up our long, curving drives. Some of us were out of town when we heard it, and the distance—the miles of unfamiliar road or the roar of the city or all that sky beneath the steel belly of the plane—dulled the news and made it feel somehow less than real, vague and disembodied, and yet all the more horrible for being so plainly, so coldly, a matter, now, of permanent town record: that young Billy Wilson was dead.
THAT EVENING, we held a vigil at the football field. It was cold, and we huddled in tight clusters by the goalposts, blowing into our hands and stamping our feet in the snowcrust. Beneath our boots the frost crunched and popped, and our breath was like steam in the darkness. Nearby, a streetlamp gave off an eerie glow, and the air was clear and bright with the smell of snow. Behind the old wooden bleachers thin threads of ice tinseled the heavy branches of the trees. Someone had brought candles, and we lit them and passed them carefully along rows of shaking hands. Their flames danced and threw strange shadows on our reddened cheeks.
When the silence became too much to bear, we began to talk—about the cold, about Billy. “I remember last fall, against Oldham, when Billy scored five touchdowns in the game’s first half,” we said. “We’ll never see anything like that again.” “And the Landry scrimmage!” we whooped. “Billy threw that damn ball fifty yards in the air and the Landry kids were looking up as it sailed past like it was some kind of UFO, and then down it came, gentle as a balloon, into Harper’s outstretched hands. Touchdown, game won. Boy, that was some kind of pass.” No one mentioned what we all knew: that they’d found Billy’s body in the high school locker room, hanging from a ceiling pipe near the showers. Being a captain he’d been given a key to the gym, and we were told he’d snuck in after hours and done it, but not before returning his helmet to the equipment closet and hanging his uniform neatly in his locker. An assistant coach, come to collect a late student activities fee, had discovered him swinging there in the dark.
We all knew Billy—we’d watched him soar down the field, our cheerleaders had designed special dances for him, the paper had acclaimed his name—but few had spent much time with him, it seemed. He was seventeen but appeared much older in uniform, his face slim and unlined beneath his helmet, the cloth chinstrap biting into the dimpled flesh of his chin. Off the field he wore glasses and played classical piano. He did well in school, though he sat in the back of the classroom and hardly ever raised his hand. It was said that he enjoyed woodcarving, would spend hours at it long into the night after practice and games, and that his bedroom, which few had seen, was dotted with little figurines: soldiers and cowboys and tiny fisherman casting matchstick poles. He lived in a small brick house on the north side of town, facing a busy street, and he had a younger brother named Mike. His father worked as a football coach at a local college and his mother, a tall, cheerful woman with long reddish hair, stayed home.
On weekends, though Billy would appear now and again at parties, floating quietly among pockets of indulgent classmates, he was never wild, and nobody ever saw him drink much more than a beer. He existed for us, then, primarily in box scores and in the block text of headlined feats: the Lincoln game—three rushing touchdowns and two more in the air—or the time he intercepted a pass thrown by the legendary Whiz Ellington and ran it ninety-three yards for a score. Whiz threw his helmet to the ground as Billy sped past, and the photo in the paper that week showed Whiz standing there with his mouth wrenched open and his eyes aimed at the sky, and Billy just a streaking gray blur at the edge of the frame. The photo hung on the wall at Center Deli, by the register, its corners going curled and yellow with humidity, and its image is the one we carried of him in our minds: a comet-tail flashing unknowably through our town.
It was strange then, we thought, that photos of his familiar, inscrutable face should now decorate the snow at our feet, where we’d placed them at the base of the goalpost among other tokens of Billy: flowers and footballs and piano-shaped key chains and a tiny peewee football jersey, number nineteen—Billy’s number. Someone had fashioned a cross out of branches and stuck it in the snow, and a piled shrine had grown around it. There were candles and balloons, flags and small football figurines. A framed picture of Billy—his senior photo, a posed shot in which he grinned at the camera with his broad chin resting on folded hands—lay at the base of the cross, and beside it a pair of white sneakers glowed like unblinking eyes amid the snow-light and the brilliant glitter of crushed ice. As we stood there, surrounded by these Billy-things, our hands joined and our skin scorched with cold, already we could feel the face in the pictures hardening into something symbolic. From the snow Billy stared back at us, and behind the glasses we saw the stone eyes of a statue, and on his face a monument’s frozen grin.
After a while, someone began to sing: a hushed “Amazing Grace” that seemed to emerge out of the cold itself, out of the wind and the hard-packed snow. Quickly we took up the song, the words rising like smoke from our mouths before vanishing above the pointed tops of the pines. For what felt like hours we stood there singing, the candles flickering in our hands, though probably it only lasted a minute or two, or even just a handful of seconds—it was impossible to tell. At some point in the night, time had excused itself, had disappeared into the darkness and the cold, and there was no way to know how long we’d been standing there or when it would be time to leave. Finally, after the song’s last note had been sung, the first of us drifted quietly away, and, taking that as a kind of permission, the rest soon followed. We blew out our candles and took a last hard look at the boyish face in the pictures, and then we moved in a line past the goalpost and up the small rise of a hill, away from the trees and the still-burning candles, back toward the lights of town.
THAT NIGHT we dreamt about Billy. We saw him barking out commands in the backfield, eyes wide behind his facemask. We felt the slap of the snapped ball. We saw him flash past the line of scrimmage, dart around a tackle and hurdle a fallen linebacker, his feet throwing up chunks of sod. We saw the painted white lines of the field strobing by beneath his cleats. Then we saw Billy in a blazer and slacks up on the broad high school stage, seated behind a shining black piano, his head bowed over the instrument and those long fingers spidery on the keys and his pant cuffs rising now and again to reveal a seam of white sock. We saw him at his desk in an imagined bedroom, bent over a wooden figurine, his knife sending crescents of shaved wood into the half-light. Then abruptly those scenes vanished, the tinkling piano replaced by dark and cold, and we saw Billy swaying from a damp pipe in the locker room, a folding chair toppled beneath him, no helmet or blazer now and his neck bent at an unnatural angle and his arms hanging limp at his sides, the life gone out of him and on his face not the glasses or the old familiar grin but rather the faces of our own sons and daughters, the bright open faces of our children who we realized then were no longer safe here, in town, on the bus, behind their desks at school. They could be taken from us, run down by a madman in a speeding car, yanked sleeping from their beds. They were vulnerable here, now, because of Billy, because of what he’d done. We woke then, sheets soaked through with sweat, to the knowledge that our lives, our town, our very idea of ourselves had been altered in some vital, unrecoverable way.
THE NEXT MORNING, a Monday, arrived listlessly and cold—normal enough for the season, but with the sense that something had been knocked askew. In town, cars crept along Main Street toward the high school, their exhaust like the foggy breath of horses in the cold wintertime air, and shop owners shoveled crusted snow from brick sidewalks and wiped ice from their tall glass doors. Lights were coming on at Center Deli, and the mailman could be seen hurrying in and out of his small square truck. Overhead, the sky was scribbled with gray clouds. Along the roadside, wind shook ice from heavy pine branches and scattered it like diamonds across the hoods of our cars.
Sluggishly we went about our errands, fumbling change and dropping letters into the wrong mail slots, so fervent were our thoughts about Billy. There was fear in our voices now, a sinister quality that seemed to have crept in overnight. Had Billy been depressed? we wondered in low tones. Was he on some kind of drugs? It didn’t fit with our image of him, but neither did his suicide fit with the safe, solid idea we had of our town. At first we’d accepted it as a freak, unexplainable thing, but now, in line at Chip’s Bakery, we theorized that maybe he had been fighting with his girlfriend recently—hadn’t there been a girl there, last night at the vigil? A slim blonde in a pea coat crying loudly into her mittens? Or maybe he’d been rejected from a favorite college, Middlebury, perhaps, or Tufts, somewhere the coach had assured him he’d get in. We knew how horrible that could be, such a blow. Our town took such care with our children’s applications. We hired essay consultants and SAT tutors, paid slim men in spectacles hundreds of dollars to coach our kids through algebra and analogies. To be kept from a college of one’s choice was a shameful, intimate thing, rarely talked about directly, though of course there were always rumors. Still, though, Billy was a smart kid, we knew, and moreover he was talented. We’d all seen him out there on the field, flashing past tacklers and somersaulting into the end zone for a score. We’d sung his praises, cheered his young name! His picture hung on shop walls; we saw his face each time we ordered sandwiches at the deli. Old men sat in shirtsleeves at Demos Diner and told stories about his feats, their sour breath like a gas in the brown half-lit gloom. He’d been somebody here, Billy had, a great glittering fixture of the town. His greatness reflected our own, and for that we loved him, and he us. Hadn’t that been enough?
IN THE AFTERNOON, we drove furtively past Billy’s house, slowing down as we approached the small brick colonial with its black shutters and gabled roof. The blinds were drawn over the windows, and there were several unfamiliar cars in the driveway. We saw no sign of the parents or of Billy’s brother Mike, but we could imagine them huddled inside, dressed in black, rocking in armchairs or crying softly into balled tissues. We wondered about Billy’s father, Brian, a large, stoic man with broad hairy arms and his son’s dimpled chin. We remembered him pacing the sidelines at football games, a rolled program stuffed into the back pocket of his jeans and his hands pounding like gunfire when Billy dropped back to pass. “Good play,” he would bark after first downs. “Good play now. Okay, here we go.” It was all we ever heard him say. Did a man like that cry? Did he weep, there in the darkened house? We tried, but couldn’t picture it.
And what about Maryanne, his wife? How had she gotten the news? We imagined a young police officer coming timidly up the drive, hat in hand, his legs heavy with what felt like sand. At the door he’d collect himself before giving it a firm knock. “Mrs. Wilson?” he’d say when it swung open, and the small robed woman behind the door would look at him with sleepy, fearful eyes and say, in a soft voice, “Yes? I’m Mrs. Wilson,” and when the young man spoke again her face would go gray with shock. What had she done then? we wondered, driving past the shuttered house with its drawn windows and snow-covered hedge. What would we have done, given the same terrible news? We couldn’t fathom it, and so we drove on, sped up and turned onto Route 9 and joined the course of our town’s other fine cars toward home.
THE WHOLE TOWN turned out that night for Billy’s wake. The line to get in snaked all the way down the block, past the police station and St. John’s school and right up to the entrance of our old town hall, the last of us cast in shadow beneath its spired, gothic frame. The weather had warmed during the day, and we stood coatless in blazers and black dresses, chatting softly and kicking slush from the toes of uncomfortable shoes. Snowmelt fell from the leaves of trees lining the sidewalk and glistened in our hair. From time to time a good friend of Billy’s would drift past our line, and we regarded them with a kind of wonder, their nearness to tragedy having elevated them in our eyes to an almost supernatural esteem. There was something thrilling about their wretchedness, something attractive and singular, and quietly, standing there in our neckties and heels, we envied it. They had been touched by this monumental thing that had dealt us only a glancing blow, and we wished that we too could participate in the glamor of their grief.
Inside, the funeral home resembled a series of Victorian sitting rooms. Flowered armchairs lined the walls, interspersed with poster-sized photos of Billy that had been backed with foam and mounted on plastic easels. His smiling eyes appraised us as we shuffled past. The windows were hung with heavy cream drapes, their tops curved and pleated like bunting, and hunting scenes in gilt frames loomed above the fireplace. Light blazed from table lamps and from fine brass sconces perched at intervals along the walls, all of it washing the room in a hot, overbright gleam. Passing through the foyer and into the large main room, we could feel sweat beginning to gather in our collars and in the creases behind our knees.
The Wilsons stood in a line along one wall, Mr. Wilson wearing a blocky black suit and his wife beside him in a small cap with a fluttery mesh veil. Mike stood to their left, browned wrists visible below his sport coat sleeves, and next to him was a row of unfamiliar black-clad relatives, clasping hands and snuffling into handkerchiefs. Beyond them all, at the head of the room, hard against the wall and between two enormous bouquets of red and white roses, we saw the coffin, a black shining box with silver struts laid upon a broad wooden pedestal. Its lid had been opened halfway to reveal a silk-lined underside and another row of roses along its hinge, their faces like bright fists of blood against the field of sparkling white. Inside, propped against a silk pillow, lay Billy, his head back and his arms crossed at the waist.
They’d dressed him in a crisp white shirt and blazer, and around his neck was a tie dotted with little pianos. A small silver cross on a beaded chain had been laid over his shoulder, and a wooden ornament—a tiny, unpainted solider—nestled at his side. His face was not the one we’d just seen on the posters. It was a waxen thing, pale and strangely smooth, his skin the texture of crayon. His eyes were closed and his hair had been neatly combed, and where it parted the skin of his scalp was perfectly white. He wore a high collar and you couldn’t see much of his neck. We had trouble looking at him: the sickly sweet smell of the flowers was overwhelming, and the glare of the lamps brought beads of sweat to the soft skin above our lips. Quickly, we coughed into our hands and moved along, joining the line waiting to speak with the Wilsons.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Mr. Wilson muttered in a flat voice, his eyes aimed at the empty wall. “It means so much to all of us to have you here.” His hand was clammy and cold. Mrs. Wilson had vanished, leaving behind her hat and a litter of tissues, and Mike filled her place beside his father. He was somber but composed—dignified, we thought, as we watched him give firm handshakes and offer thanks for supporting his family. We knew him primarily as Billy’s little brother, a freshman to Billy’s senior, and we never envied him the task of following his brother in school—certainly not now, after what had happened. Mike was a good football player in his own right, perhaps even faster than Billy, but small in stature and possessing none of Billy’s strangely adult elegance. They were different people, we knew. Mike was a fixture in houses across town, and for three years running he’d sold the most tickets for our town’s famed pancake breakfast, held each spring on behalf of the rotary club. You could count on seeing him behind a card table outside Fred’s Grocery on Saturday mornings, calling out greetings and waving fistfuls of red stubs like a fine ladies’ fan. Mothers were fond of him. He was a nice kid, we all said, and as we shook his offered palm there beneath the glare of the funeral home lamps, we wondered what would become of him now that his brother was gone. It was the kind of thing that could send a boy’s train off the rails, we knew, and, even now we realized we’d begun viewing him differently, tracking his grief from a safe, kindly remove. This year we would buy too many tickets at his table and laugh too heartily at his jokes. He would move among us like a well-liked leper, kept at arm’s length by the stink of his tragedy, and soon, quietly, almost imperceptibly, he would be cast from the everyday life of the town.
Knowing this, and believing in its rightness, in the naturalness of its truth, we patted Mike on his slender shoulder, bade Mr. Wilson goodbye, and hurried down the sidewalk to our cars.
WE ARRIVED EARLY the next morning for Billy’s funeral, the ladies in long dresses and the men in trim black suits. The high school had offered to hold the service in the gymnasium because of the expected turnout, and our footfalls rang like small explosions as we tracked across the court’s parquet floor. Neat rows of folding chairs stretched from baseline to baseline, and wooden bleachers had been pulled from the walls and raised to provide seating for the overflow. There was a makeshift altar on a portable stage beneath one basket, with a podium for speakers and an enormous video screen hanging from the ceiling behind it. A large white cloth lay on the floor in front of the stage, and atop it was Billy’s closed coffin, its black sides gleaming like the painted hull of a fine sloop. Light streamed from high windows and made brilliant white squares on the hardwood. Everywhere was the smell of talcum powder and perfume.
We took our seats beside neighbors and friends, dabbing our faces with tissues and sweating into the waistbands of our underwear. Soon the Wilsons appeared and processed in a long black line toward the altar. We strained forward to watch their faces as they came. Mr. Wilson’s was pale and dry; Mike’s long lashes were pearled with tears. Mrs. Wilson came last, and we held our breath as she moved up the row of chairs, for it was her we most wanted to see. She wore a floor-length coat, belted at the waist, and her eyes were hidden by large black sunglasses. Her face—strangely, we thought—was utterly void of expression. She seemed to glide across the hardwood floor, touching nothing, making no audible sound. It was as if she had resolved not to offer us the satisfaction of her visible grief, and, disappointed, we sagged back in our seats and turned our eyes to the altar, where the pastor, a silver-haired man in a heavy black robe, was clearing his throat to speak.
“As we gather here today,” he began, “we are shocked and angered by the senselessness—the unfairness—of our beloved Billy’s death. Why has this happened, we wonder? What possible reason could there be for such an awful thing as this?”
In a lilting voice he went on, imploring us to remember Billy not with fury or rage, but with empathy for his struggles and wonder at the magnificent burst of his short life. The pastor closed with the Lord’s Prayer, then he gently shut his Bible and swept down from the stage.
In the brief silence, the gym rang with the sounds of sniffling and sharp echoing coughs. Near the front a blonde—the one we’d taken to be Billy’s girlfriend—sobbed loudly, nearly pornographic in her grief, her keening like the glittering screech of an out-of-tune trombone. Only when Mr. Wilson stepped to the podium did she quiet down.
His tie was loose at the neck, and he gripped the altar with two large hands. Flanking him on the stage were the same easled photos from Billy’s wake: Billy in his football jersey, smiling up at something just outside the frame; a plump toddler Billy dressed as an astronaut on Halloween; Billy at prom, arms wrapped around the gowned waist of the blonde. “I look at these pictures, the recent ones,” Mr. Wilson began in a hoarse voice, gesturing at the easels, “and when Billy should have been smiling I see only a half-smile. I wish I had noticed it sooner. I wish he had told me that something was wrong. I wish—” He broke down then, his voice dissolving into sobs, and Mike rushed to the podium and held out an arm and guided him down from the stage.
We heard little of Mike’s speech, for the podium’s microphone started sparking with static and someone scurried up to switch it off. He seemed solemn and serene, collected—the Mike we remembered from the ticket booth and the wake. He said he looked forward to playing in Billy’s honor the following season—he would wear his brother’s number nineteen. When he said this, his mother shifted in her seat and coughed into a black-gloved hand.
AFTER a piano-led hymn, Mrs. Wilson stood and walked deliberately toward the stage. Her steps were firm, her heels clacking loudly on the gleaming floor. A gasp rose from our seats: we hadn’t expected her to speak. She stopped before she reached the stage steps, turned, and went to stand beside the coffin.
“None of you knew my Billy,” she said, hands curled into fists at her sides. We snapped back in our chairs, faces flushed with disbelief. She used no microphone, yet her voice rang like a struck gong clear to the top rows of the stands. “Not one of you knew him. Not really. You clipped his photos from the paper and shouted his name, but you didn’t know him. He hated football. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? He was sick of it—football this, football that, my husband’s football playbooks all over the house. He hated it, but he played it for all of you. Every day he wanted to quit, but how could he? How could he stop?” The words rushed out of her in a tumbling stream, each one a tiny detonation in the silent gym.
“He liked to read,” she went on, crying now, black streaks on her face. “He wrote stories and funny little poems. He was good to his brother, he was Mikey’s best friend. Isn’t that right, honey? He loved Mike. He loved playing his piano and carving those little wooden figurines. He loved school, and he loved watching the seasons change, how the snow looked in winter and all the new smells in spring. He loved this town. He truly did.”
She paused then, and her face grew hard. She’d stopped crying. “He loved it,” she said, her eyes passing over the bleachers and the folded metal seats, “but this town took him from me. It stole him. You stole my precious boy.”
With that she turned and laid a soft hand upon the coffin, then she gathered herself to full height, strode down the court’s baseline, pushed through the double doors, and vanished out into the day.
IN THE DAYS and weeks after the funeral, we hardly saw the Wilsons around town. When we did encounter them, at the grocery store or coming out of church, we lowered our eyes and hurried quickly past. Forced to speak to them, we did so in soft, distant tones. Their tragedy seemed to trail them like a fog, and we did our best to stay clear of it. Nobody had any idea what to make of Mrs. Wilson’s wild speech. She’d gone mad with grief, it was said; Billy’s death had sunk her. The gist of it we ignored—she hadn’t made any sense, after all. Billy hated football? Impossible. He was a hero, an idol. We’d loved him, and in turn he’d loved us. They buried him in a cemetery in town, beneath a maple tree at the crest of a gentle hill. From time to time we visited, and placed toy footballs at the base of his stone.
In time, our town healed itself like the sea after a storm. By summer, people once again smiled and waved from porches, and hydrangeas decorated our lawns. In the fall, new stars emerged to race downfield for touchdowns, and at Center Deli, new photos were taped up on the walls. The high school band played loud as ever on the sidelines, and our old men found other things to talk about in their red booth at Demos Diner.
At some point we heard that the Wilsons had moved. Nobody saw them go; one day their house was simply empty, the curtains drawn and a For Sale sign posted in the yard. A few weeks later another family moved in, a young couple with shiny new cars and their own small children, two towheaded boys, who were soon seen scampering across the grass.
Sometimes now, on fragrant fall days, when the air is clear and a breeze sends leaves sailing from the trees, we’ll think of the Wilsons and wonder where they’ve gone. To the city perhaps, or to the sea. Are they happy there? we’ll ask ourselves. Have they found something we lack? But of course this cannot be, and so we’ll shake our heads, bemused, and drift back down the streets of our fine, treasured town, its windows incandescent, our lawns like quilts of finest silk, all of it shining and unblemished and washed in golden light.
About the Author:
Tom Lakin is a graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where he was a full-tuition fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Noble / Gas Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, Pleiades, Pembroke Magazine, and The Adroit Journal. He is the recipient of the 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2014 Story Contest. He lives with his wife, daughter, and Boston terrier in Boston’s South End.