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Small Spade

Did you know sometimes I take little Joel to your graves? I weed. He runs whooping through the stones, over bodies. He scalps Indians, beheads terrorists. Remember I used to do that when we visited Uncle Eckert at the old cemetery? There were no terrorists, back then, but I killed probably 100 Nazis before you told me if I didn’t quiet down you’d bury me alive. I don’t say that to Joel. But I tell him, “Hey, this old guy down here needs a hero, too.”

Joel jogs over, panting like a little dog, and I give him the small spade and he kneels beside me. His shirt and cheeks are smeared orange with mud. For a moment I mistake it for blood but it is only some camouflage. When we get home his mom will yell at him for ruining his clothes. Don’t feel bad, I will tell him. She yells at me for ruining my things too.

“Why does grandpa need a hero?” Joel asks me.

“To keep him safe,” I say.

Joel is only six, still believes in heaven, and he says, with an astonishing optimism, “I think grandpa’s safe up there.”

We pull weeds in silence. There is something immensely satisfying in destroying them, the brief tension and then the give, the little snap and release, when they surrender and come up out of the soil in our hands. I hope Joel doesn’t share this joy, but he probably does: little boys love destruction. This was a phase you never grew out of, Dad. Now we toss the weeds into a mound on top of you, and, I don’t know, I really do feel we are keeping you safe. I imagine we are cutting your unruly hair and sweeping it into a pile. When you are clean and manicured like you’ve never been before, when your stone is spotless, Joel starts on Mom, knocking away dirt obscuring her birth.

“What about Grandma Hailey?” Joel finally asks. “What about her?”

“Does she need a hero?”

I think: No, kiddo, she’s past saving. Or: Yes. A thousand times yes, but you’re too late. I point out to him, “Why would she need a hero? I thought you said they were safe.”

“Well,” he says. “I said Grandpa was safe up in heaven.”


“So Grandma Hailey’s not in heaven, is she?”

“Did someone tell you that?”

He rubs some mud onto nose.

“Why wouldn’t she be in heaven?” I ask.

“Because of what she did to herself?”

“Oh, Mr. Know-It-All? Tell me, exactly what did she do to herself?”

He doesn’t say anything, and I feel triumphant. He looks at the dates on her stone, he’s good at numbers and I can see him subtracting in his head, but the simple math of it doesn’t begin to tell Mom’s story, does it? I decide that Joel will never know. I will never let him hear anything true about the world. Maybe he will be one of those bizarre old people who still believe in heaven and hell. Maybe he will be old.

“It’s not nice to talk bad about people who are dead,” I tell Joel. “Or about people who are your family, even if you never got to meet them. It’s not nice to gossip about anyone, ever. Whether they are dead or alive or your family or anyone else. You shouldn’t do it.”

“I won’t,” he tells me, and I almost believe him.

In the car, he puts on his seatbelt and, with hopes of a McDonald’s pit stop, he tells me, “I just want you to know, Dad, that if Grandma Hailey did need a hero, it would be me, I would save her.”

The seatbelt isn’t enough, it’s a like a piece of floss. Last week he weighed 48 pounds. He tells me he wants to eat a spoonful of peanut butter before bed every night. He tells me in Switzerland or Sweden—he can’t remember which is which and I tell him neither can I—they’re building an underground science machine that will either save the world or destroy it. He reorganizes his baseball cards each week: alphabetically, by height, by RBIs. It’s chicken nugget time, but I want to make like an Egyptian, I want to take his little body and cover it in salts, wrap it in linens, and put it in a coffin, with his cards and mismatched socks, to preserve him, keep him safe there from the world, so that it can never touch him.

Award-winning fiction writer. Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award winner. Recognized in Pushcart Prize, Best American anthologies. NEA Literature Fellow.