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After old man Tucker’s house burned down, folks around town liked to say that his place had been burning with sin long before it was burning with flames. And as small-town gossip is apt to do, the whispered accusations filled the air with a suspicion so stifling, it suffocated innocent and idle minds alike. Somehow, the wagging tongues of porch stoop biddies always managed to churn the slightest seed of a story into a full-blown tale by noon, and it was not uncommon for the malleable minds of our entire town to fall victim to their fabrications.
What exactly they had against Tucker, I never could put my finger on. He was aloof, he didn’t mix well among others, he just wasn’t right, I’d hear people hiss maliciously. In their eyes, his silence was enough to breed wickedness. Their sheer inability to understand the man rendered him an object of suspicion, of fear. Although I was still young then, I learned quickly that narrow minds habitually, though unknowingly, feared the things they could not understand.
Still, intrigue got the best of me, and every morning I’d pass by his house on my way to school, studying the old man for signs of this latent wickedness. His daily routine was untouched by change; every day he sat there on his front porch, reading a book and attempting to ignore the world. Sometimes I’d see a gust of wind, like a phantom fingertip, turn the pages of his book, and he’d glance up as though waiting for something or someone to appear. I always thought his sunken eyes and sallow skin formed the haggard mask of someone perpetually grieving. What exactly he grieved, I hadn’t grasped at that point, but as it always does, the story soon unraveled.
These brief morning encounters with Tucker had only mildly diffused that wide-eyed curiosity which characterizes youth, so I thought it would be a good idea to start tracking the old man, just to make sure he wasn’t up to anything too “evil” or “sinister” as I’d heard two old hags snarling about at church last Sunday.
On my way home from a neighborhood baseball game one night, the perfect opportunity arose. I saw Tucker leaving his house and heading off towards the woods, all bundled up for a long walk I supposed, so naturally, I decided to follow him. We were clipping through the stillness at a steady pace there for a while when, in a deliberate deviation of trajectory, Tucker veered off to the left and started fiddling in his pocket for something I couldn’t quite discern. The next thing I knew, out popped a flashlight and he was shining it on this pile of brush not so far off in the clearing.
As soon as he reached the illuminated spot, he hunkered down on that pile of brush and began rummaging through the leaves and dirt in search of something, something I sensed he had sought on previous occasions. Peering around a stooped oak tree, I prayed Tucker’s hearing wasn’t too keen. Even a deaf old man could have heard the erratic cadence of my heart in the dense silence.
It was the hush of night that lent an element of grotesque tenderness to the scene that unfurled next. I closed my eyes and opened them again, asking myself if I were truly seeing old Tucker there, burly and stoic as he was, stroking the mangy fur of a dog carcass.
Yes, with an almost paternal touch, he picked each stray twig from the dog’s coat and patted its lolling head, whispering through a devastated smile, “Now, that’s a good boy.” Tucker seemed to have no perception of the dog’s being dead, only that the thing must have been lonely and looking for someone, with those frozen eyes glued on some unfathomable point in the distance.
That’s when I knew for sure that he couldn’t be the fire-breathing dragon they all portrayed him as. No, he was just a wistful, lonely old man who, like the rotting dog carcass, was being steadily eroded by time and earth, and as Tucker reluctantly arose to leave, it struck me that everything, even a fur-lined sack of canine bones, should belong to someone.
And as it turns out, that dog did belong to someone – the Wilsons from across the street, in fact – and old Tucker caught hell the moment they decided he must have stolen their lovable mutt, because after all, who else would be hateful enough to commit such an act? Of course it was rash to assume the dog had been stolen at all, seeing as the evidence was nonexistent, but to automatically dump the heap of blame on poor Tucker was plain unfair. The way people talked, you would have thought he was being accused of ripping a fetus from its mother’s womb instead of stealing a dog from its owner’s yard.
“That man hasn’t been to church in years,” proclaimed my grandmother with a flourish one Sunday at the dinner table. “He just assumes he’s right with the Lord and the Lord’s right with him, I guess. It’s a mighty ignorant assumption, if you ask me, mighty ignorant. He probably killed that dog just to smite us all in his small way.”
Clearing my throat, I ventured in Tucker’s defense, “Don’t old dogs sometimes just wander away to die? So they’re not, you know, a burden?” A bit of phlegm was dislodged in my throat as I nervously choked out this last bit: “You don’t know for sure that Tucker even had anything to do with it, um, do you?”
Apparently, flawless logic like mine was not the type to elicit a hearty response, because the adults just laughed and clucked me on the head with an authoritative pat, saying in a tone of dismissal, “You don’t have a clue, boy.” Adults always seemed so quick to entertain their own slanderous thoughts rather than listen to my young voice of reason, which was a “mighty ignorant” way of living if you had asked my opinion, but of course no one ever did.
For a four-month span, Tucker and I waded through those woods and watched with detached curiosity the decomposition of the dog’s body – a process that oddly reminded me of seasonal change. As late fall lapsed into early winter, the empty wind stole leaves from tree branches and greedy vultures plucked what little fur remained from the carcass until its bony form merged with the snow that had begun to veil the soil.
In my mind, Tucker and the carcass became one somewhere along the way. The bony, vacant sockets where I imagined the dog’s eyes had once darted were reminiscent of Tucker’s own stony, faraway gaze that longed to look up and see a world he no longer inhabited; the flocking vultures that fed on the carcass were no different from the gossiping townsfolk who preyed on Tucker’s reputation with unrelenting rapacity. Left in the wake of vultures and decay, a sour air had settled on the surrounding foliage; the stench was as gripping as loneliness and as enduring as death. Little did I know, I would soon discover how loneliness could grow so putrid it ebbed into death.
It seems naïve to me now, but back then I was more than content to be seduced by the night. The thing I relished most about it was its ebony veil that, once it had descended, managed to cloak all in its stronghold of silent eloquence. There was not even a fleeting trace of silence, however, as a formidable cacophony of thunder cast a spell over the neighborhood and lulled it into inactivity one night.
Forced to forego his usual plans because of the torrential downpour, Tucker stood on the upper balcony of his house, eager to be as close as possible to the chaos wrought by the storm. A thin band of lightning slapped the unruly sky like an emblazoned horsewhip, setting the scene for a peculiar sight.
I must have blinked, for when I opened my eyes, two blond-headed girls had traipsed out of nowhere and were sitting on the edge of Tucker’s balcony, with their stocking feet swinging like striped pendulums in midair. I thought the three of them could have been statuettes, mere pieces of life caught in the solidifying grasp of stalled time. The girls were akin to antique dolls that had been chiseled from the finest china. Their billowing calico dresses, starched by antiquity, did not feel obliged to dance with the wind as it writhed and howled, and the luster of their coiled, golden braids gave the appearance of plaited halos.
Amid the tangle of thunder and lightning, here sat two little angels who had seemingly wandered out of heaven and into hell, and they were now staring up at Tucker as if he were a falling star, capable of molding their fervid dreams into reality.
They reached out as if to catch him – this star, this ball of old light – and reeled back suddenly, as though they had been scorched. Their angelic faces, formerly ruddy from chill and excitement, ignited with horror, and then they were falling, toppling in a frenzied dive over the balcony ledge and into the dark nothingness that had lured them there.
I am dreaming, I thought when, after a moment flew, the scene went fuzzy, then vanished altogether. Gone were the girls and Tucker, seemingly swallowed up by the violent weather or perhaps by my voracious imagination. My erratic musings hung me upside down and bound me by the feet, rendering me their confused captive. Blood began rushing to my head in a slow intoxication of thought, and since rest is the only remedy for such an onslaught, I offered myself as sleep’s victim that night, but what awaited me in the waking hours was no dream; it was an actuality I could hear and smell and see in frightening magnitude.
Hear, smell, see. One, two, three. So it went, in this startling succession. I heard the ambulance first, smelled the smoke second, and saw the body third.
In the early morning, a blaring ambulance siren wrenched me from slumber and forced me to hastily slip on consciousness like a discarded, rumpled pair of blue jeans. With one look out the window, I was able to trace the dwelling-place of the ensuing chaos: Tucker’s house, or the fire-ravaged remnants of it.
As soon as I approached, I was engulfed by a mob of nosey neighbors, policemen, and firemen who had roused themselves from pretty dreams in time to witness this inconvenient pull of fate.
Oh, you couldn’t escape the scent of the smoke, that heady breath of hate, and, coaxed by the desire to learn its origin, I decided to skirt around the yellow labyrinth of crime scene tape and get the story firsthand, rather than wait for its lackluster debut in the dumpy local newspaper. If I were going to spend my life as a spectator, then by God, I was at least going to make sure I had a front row seat to the show.
The crumbling and charred infrastructure of the house smelled like a massive blown-out candle, a candle that had been extinguished by diligent firefighters, but lit by whom, or by what? After waiting for activity to decline within the house, my hesitant and purposeful footsteps pattered a sooty trail to the room I had seen a throng of paramedics and policemen tramping in and out of.
I decided to take refuge in a dilapidated closet over to the left of the room, in hopes that there I would go unseen by the scurrying ant-like adults who managed to appear busy while doing a whole lot of nothing. Cracking open the rickety closet door, I peered out at the wreckage of the room until my eyes fell upon Tucker’s body in its blackened and eternal state of repose. He lay in the middle of his partially burned mattress, blanketed by what appeared to be smoldered old photographs and dank cloth sheets. It made for one heck of a deathbed; that’s for sure.
Outside the house, I could hear the sheriff quelling the suspicions of all who had gathered: “Yes, we found the body. He’s…gone. It’ll be best if yall just go home. You’ll find out the rest in good time.” But of course this wasn’t enough to squelch the quacking and questioning of those who wanted, no, deserved the cold hard facts, not just some sugarcoated explanation meant to placate their wandering minds.
I was still in the house, glad to be on the inside looking out for once, and I knew I’d only have Tucker to myself for a brief period. The inquisitive and meddlesome neighbors could only provide a diversion for so long, but at least they were good for something.
I crept out of the closet and next to a tall, scarred chest of drawers that had been pushed against the wall for further inspection. It was the one object in the room that leapt out at you upon entry because of its immense size and the thick encasement of crime scene tape that snaked a square-shaped boundary around it. Crawling between the interstices, I grabbed the single glass frame that had been placed on top; it was the only object in the room that had entirely managed to escape the flame’s wrath.
Scanning the yellowed paper, I inhaled sharply.
My attempt to unveil Tucker’s mystery had been thwarted. Instant aggravation swelled as I realized that the policemen and firefighters, mere intruders, had been frolicking through the house prior to my arrival and glimpsed the truth before I managed to do so. It seemed pointless to have put so much effort into tracking the old codger all these months just to have my thunder stolen right out from under me.
Because there it all was, strewn in plain sight, not under some unflappable opaque veil as I’d imagined. His life story, right there in the framed newspaper article I held in my shaking hands, a keepsake that Tucker must have preserved all these years, and that the fire had decided to preserve as well. It told the story of another fire, a fire years ago that had licked and devoured, not just the house, but the members of an entire family, except for the eldest child, a boy.
Printed next to the antiquated text was a picture of the happy family: a mom with bouffant hair, a dad with wide-rimmed glasses, two twin sisters with matching calico dresses, and a son with a book clenched at his side. At the time, the paper had probably run the photo to depict the family as it had been prior to the catastrophe, but, if I knew Tucker – and I like to think I did – he had kept it around all these years as a testament of his abandonment and as a reminder of the slap of solitude that fate had dealt him.
As I took in the image of Tucker’s lifeless form, it was impossible to miss the metal lighter that remained nestled in his dangling, blackened palm, the very lighter that had undoubtedly ignited the flames of his self-made hell.
I thought old Tucker probably hadn’t wanted to burden anyone with his death, since he figured his existence had been burden enough. So, I waited there with him, just as he had waited with that lonesome dog carcass all those months ago, because if there was one pigment of truth I had glimpsed through the mosaic of lies life had shown me, it was that everything, even the corpse of a man whose life had expired long before his last breath, should belong to someone.