Burying Jeremy Green.
The fifth graders were the last to enjoy recess at Sojourner Elementary. Our school had three fifth-grade classes, and on the playground we divided: the soccer kids ran up and down the center and everyone else scattered around the edges. Before Jeremy came, we played jump rope or cat's cradle. We sat along the fence and told fortunes with paper we folded into cootie catchers. We chewed gum, forbidden in classrooms and held contests to see who could blow the biggest bubble. On the playground, we played drinking games with extra cartons of chocolate milk, the rules for which we'd learned from our older siblings. We forced each other to tell secrets and made lists of things we had to do before we died. We learned to wrap our lips around cuss words and wrote our names in the ground with broken glass. This was how Jeremy Green found us.
WE PLAYED IN a lot surfaced with gravel and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Several of the rocks were the size of our fifth-grade fists. They were dark and iridescent, glittering like they'd exploded in outer space, caught on fire and cooled among the candy wrappers and empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts. Smaller pieces slipped into our sneakers and cut into the soles of our feet. Each September--and Jeremy came during this time--prickly weeds grew over the north side, over the baseball field, and we'd spend the rest of the day picking burrs out of our socks and sticking them on each other's backs so that when we leaned into a chair, they'd dig into our skin. We had no play equipment, just a slab of cement for four-square, a backstop and a bench we never used for baseball. Our funerals took place in front of one of those backstops. The kid playing Jeremy would lie down on the bench with his arms folded on his chest like he was some kind of a vampire. His family would sit off to the right, his lover waited behind the backstop for her cue, and the preacher would start us off with a couple of phrases he'd picked up from television eulogies:
"We are gathered here to remember the life of Jeremy Green."
His mother and sister would wail, his father would cough and we'd hum Amazing Grace in the background.
"We're shocked by his death, and though we grieve, we are here to remember the good things about the life of Jeremy Green."
His sister walked slowly to Jeremy with a bundle of dandelions and laid them on his chest. He sneezed and brushed them off. Then she turned to us, her eyes on her Velcro tennis shoes, and begged us to remember Jeremy for his intelligence, his sense of humor and his ability to take apart electronic devices and put them back together. "He always wanted to be an inventor," she'd say. "But he just didn't apply himself." Then she'd kneel down by his head, pull out a wad of Kleenex and dab her dry eyes. "It was my fault," she'd confess. "I always made him go away when my friends came over. I never let him play with us." The preacher would then put his arm around her and tell her it was all right, that we all played a part in the death of Jeremy Green.
"Jeremy never wanted to harm nobody." Jeremy's best friend spoke next. "But if anyone tried to mess with me, I could always count on Jeremy to back me up."
At this point, his mother would fling her arms in the air and shout at Jeremy's friend, falling over her husband: "It's because of you that my baby is dead! If it weren't for you, he never would've been arrested!" His father would calm her, telling her to hush. She'd yell: "He never would've gone to prison!"
"Don't try to blame Jeremy on me!" his friend would snap back. "Maybe if you hadn't dropped him on his head so many times he would have actually been somebody when he grew up."
The preacher would urge them to sit back down. They listened to him, and we waited for his aunt.
"Jeremy did my grocery shopping for me. I always asked him to pick me up a bag of cheese puffs. I love those." We laughed. "Then one night he just ran off with my money. I waited all night for those cheese puffs." The preacher tried to interrupt her, to tell her we were just there to remember the good things, but she'd go on, wailing that Jeremy was her favorite nephew, that she loved him like her own son. She loved to bake him his favorite cookies, snickerdoodles, and she loved to take him to hockey games. "I just don't know what happened to him."
His brother would get up and tell us that Jeremy used to be handsome, that he was the prom king and that he made all the other guys jealous. His grade-school teacher would get up and apologize for always picking on him and giving him a hard time, and his wife would get up and say that he wasn't very dependable, but he sure was funny. His daughter would stay seated and suck her thumb.
The preacher would then call on Jeremy's father to speak last. He'd stand with his hands in his blue jean pockets and shake his head. "I don't know what to say."
The preacher would beckon him, "Go on, let's hear what's on your mind."
"He was my son."
"He was my baby boy."
"Jeremy was a son," the preacher reminded us, raising his voice in a dramatic lilt. This was his favorite part of the service. "He was a brother, a cousin, a nephew, a friend." His mother wailed. "He was a husband and a father." This was the cue for Jeremy's lover to jump out from the behind the backstop and announce that she was pregnant with his second child. We'd gasp. His wife would run at her, and the preacher would hold her back. We'd shriek and egg them on by clapping our hands and chanting for them to fight.
We did this pretty much every afternoon, until one time when Jeremy's lover missed her cue. We found her behind the backstop, clutching the chain-link and listening to a distant siren from the main road. We, too, noticed the sound and filed along the fence beside her. The cry grew into a roar, shaking the air and the cool metal beneath our palms. When the sirens diminished, we didn't move. We peered at the now silent neighborhood through wiry frames in the shapes of diamonds. Cardboard cutouts of skeletons and reindeer hung lopsided in curtain-less windows, deflated snowmen slumped in white piles on untended lawns. Nobody ever went in or out of those houses while we played during recess, and before Jeremy came, it was as though we were the only living creatures for miles; just us on that gravel pit of a playground.
THE PRINCIPAL HELD an all-school assembly in place of recess the day after Jeremy came. Not one of our wooden seats creaked while she spoke to us in strained tones. She said we needed to be careful about what we say, but we should maintain a sense of pride because, on that day, we could all think of ourselves as survivors. She said all of this with her weight pressed into the piano at the bottom of the stage. Behind her, the dusty red curtains were pulled to the side, revealing Woody Guthrie's wheat fields and redwoods painted in loose, bold strokes, left over from last year's all-school music review. With her arms folded, unless she was pushing up her glasses, she told us she knew we wanted to talk about it, but begged us, while we were in our classes, not to distract each other with disturbing conversations. Then she walked up the aisle, to address the fifth grade. She spoke just above a whisper when she told us psychiatric doctors would be coming in that afternoon and would be available all week if we needed to talk. Some topics needed special attention, she told us. It would take us a long time to forget, but she urged us, please don't remind each other.
Some of us did talk to the doctors. We thought we'd be in a closed room, in private, like our visits to the school counselor. Instead, we lined up outside the library. The doctors sat in the corners at wooden tables. They spoke to us in a tense hush and asked us questions: Did we talk to our parents about it? Were we having nightmares? Was this the first time we ever saw someone die?
But when we asked questions, they had no answers for us. We wanted more information about Jeremy Green. All we knew for certain came from the five o'clock news: Jeremy had escaped early that morning from the County Correctional Facility, on the other side of town, and ran all the way to our school, just in time for recess. He was twenty-three years old. The stations filled our television screens with his photograph alongside footage of our now empty playground. We'd studied his faded portrait: the thin dark scar across his left cheekbone, his flat, greasy hair parted to the side, his sunken eyes, his pimply forehead and lanky arms, his crooked teeth. We'd gathered bits of his biography: his life-sentence in prison, his wife and his three-year-old daughter, his parents clutching each other on their dilapidated porch, refusing to comment. Though we watched all of this, some of us multiple times because they repeated it on every news station and then they repeated it again at eleven, the story ended before we understood what we had seen.
WE WERE ALLOWED outside again a couple days later. Some kids weren't ready to face the playground yet, so they optioned to stay in the gym and watch a cartoon version of The Incredible Journey. The rest of us searched the gravel for left-over bullets and whispered our survival stories.
"I didn't even know he had a gun until he was already dead."
"He pushed me to the ground."
"He shot at me, but I jumped out of the way, just in time."
"I swear to God."
"I saw him smile every time he pulled the trigger."
"He wanted to die."
"Nobody wants to die."
"Then why didn't he just shoot himself?"
We didn't find any left over bullets or pieces of his shirt that'd snagged and tore on the fence when he tumbled onto the playground. We didn't find any pieces of gravel encrusted with Jeremy's dried blood. We spoke with no evidence. It was as if he'd never come.
WHEN THE FUNERALS got old, we played Jeremy's escape from prison. This time, we broke into two teams: prisoners versus guards. The prisoners had to strategize how they would help Jeremy get out of his cell before he got caught, but before he could leave, we had to figure out how he had gotten the gun.
At first we figured he might have grabbed a weapon from his friend's house on the way to our playground, after he'd left the prison. After all, we had no idea how long Jeremy had been on the run. Then someone came up with the idea that Jeremy had stolen it from a prison guard on his way out. This brought the game to a whole different level. We made it so some of the guards carried pencils in their back pockets, which we used for the guns, but the rest of us didn't know which ones had them. We could get shot at any time, and several of our failed strategies ended in a pretend bloodbath.
Each day, the prisoners created a new plan and code word like "rabbit," "Napoleon," "caterpillar" and "Pluto." But those codes were too random to be effective. The guards knew to take action as soon as we started talking about something crazy. Then we started using terms which were harder to detect, words we used all the time, like "glass," "grandma" or "grilled-cheese sandwich." As soon as someone said one of these, we'd attempt to execute our plan of attack.
We marked the barriers for cells along the fence by digging lines in the gravel with our heels. We always started in the evening. The head guard would shout "Okay, lights out!" and we'd hit the fence behind us to make the sound of heavy levers coming down to switch us into total darkness. We indicated our inability to see by waving our hands in front of our faces. Then we'd start to whisper to each other. Sometimes Jeremy got out because two of us would pretend to be in a fist fight, and the rest of us would shout at each other, distracting the guards. Sometimes he got out because we'd pretend that his cellmate had stolen the key. Sometimes our plans would fail, and the guards would shove Jeremy back into his cell. If one of us got caught trying to steal the gun, a guard would pull out his pencil and shoot us right there on the spot. That's how it worked. We didn't have to shoot anyone to get shot. We just had to show the threat. But sometimes we did succeed, and Jeremy would burst across the field, the pencil in his fist and the game would be over.
ON THE DAY he came, we'd just returned to school after Labor Day weekend. The ground was still damp from a morning thunderstorm. We almost didn't go out. The monitor told us to stay away from the north side because it was full of puddles. All over the playground, the gravel was too wet to sit on. Those of us who weren't playing soccer walked laps around the perimeter.
The fence rattled when Jeremy leaped onto it. At first we thought he was one of us. We thought the soccer ball had gotten over the fence and somebody was just taking a short cut after tossing it back into the lot. We were supposed to wait for the playground monitor to go and get the ball for us. But she never paid attention. She just sat near the door reading fashion magazines, which is probably why she didn't notice Jeremy right away, either.
He climbed the chain-link in a fury before he dove forward. His white T-shirt snagged on the top of the fence, and he came down, head first, landing not two feet from the baseball bench. He rolled to his feet in one sweeping movement, and when we saw his height, we knew he was an outsider. He rushed out into the center of the soccer game, and we stopped at the sound of nearing sirens. Jeremy whipped out a pistol from his back pocket, cocked it and stretched his arm up straight in the air like he was going to initiate a race. Then we started to run.
He fired a shot into the clouds, and our playground shrieks turned to deep-throated screams. Some of us ran directly to the steps of the school, but most of us just ran in every other direction away from him. He fired more shots, and we sped up with each one. Some of us ran straight to the north side because it was empty, and it seemed like there was nowhere else for us to go. We doused ourselves in the puddles, sending streams of water into the air and adding to the confusion. We were soaked with mud and sweat, clutching each other's damp hands and bodies, but we kept running around in circles. Four police officers darted onto the playground from the parking-lot entrance, shouting for Jeremy to freeze. He put up his hands and they pumped bullet after bullet into him, even after he had collapsed to the ground.
By then the janitor was out, and a few of our teachers. They shouted our names and pulled us into the school. We tried to crowd by the door to watch them take Jeremy's body away, but we were ushered into the gym, where we'd wait for our parents. Some of us were crying. The rest were too bewildered to show any kind of reaction. At that time we had no idea how to put what we saw into words. We were told Jeremy came to our playground because he wanted to die a dramatic death. This was to comfort us, to assure us that he never intended to hurt us.
IN OUR LAST game, we acted out the murder Jeremy committed, the one that got him sentenced to life in prison. This time, we were all Jeremy. We'd hop out from behind the backstop and barge across the playground to the slab of cement we designated as his victim's home. The reason for the shooting varied--sometimes the man had beaten him in a game of a pool, assaulted his wife or stolen his child--but in the end, Jeremy was always justified. We played this game until the day we got a new playground monitor. She heard us shouting Jeremy's name and firing his pistols. She didn't tell us to stop, but as soon as we got back into our classrooms, our teachers brought us into the auditorium for another assembly, just for us fifth graders.
The principal walked up and down the aisles and leaned into our seats. She told us how shocked she was at our behavior; that we were the big kids acting like kindergartners. She said kindergartners don't know the difference between what's appropriate to joke about and what's not. Fifth graders were expected to be more sensitive. Then she reminded us that some topics weren't to be discussed without care, that guns weren't funny and that death wasn't a game. In her ultimate act of persuasion, she threatened to take away our recess if she ever heard about us doing this sort of thing again. That was enough for us to do our best to pretend that it never happened.
After a while, Jeremy's name fell from our lips, and we returned to our old playground games. He seemed to be pushed out of our minds with the cold winds that prevented our recesses. He was almost forgotten until, sometime in the following spring, we found his name etched deep into the bench, near the spot where he'd hopped over the fence. We let it sit there for the rest of the school year, until we left, careful never to touch it.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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