The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Kelly Jones “24 Going On Nothing”



The car I used to race Lance in is gone, broken into and caught on fire by someone trying to get out of the rain. Whoever was in there tried to put it out with the sweater strewn on the floorboard. They took the warmer winter jacket and all the CDs but left the copy of Moby Dick. My back seat is ten shades lighter where the book had been. The cops said I was lucky they shut the door when they fled, that if they hadn’t it could have turned into a full-fledged fire and spread to other cars or nearby flammables. This college town is safe, but seedy in areas. Drug deals go down on our corner in the middle of the day while a few houses up a stay-at-home dad parks his Prius and gets ready to take the kids to the sustainable farming camp a few miles away.

I last heard from Lance via MySpace. He sent me this message:
“hahah some how I knew this was kelly!! how the have have you been / WTF have u been up 2???? I havent seen u in like 2 yrs. Damn Lets see right now i’m in Iraq finishing up my 2nd and final tour I got 9 fucking days to not die and I get to go home 🙂 and i’m getting out when we get back soo Yea for ME!!! How a shit ton has happened ….Got a DUI, Got Arrested for Assult got Engaged got un- Engaged….still doing the whole fighting thing …still wanting to be a profighter…I plan on moving to Thailand in Feb of next year 🙂 and since I’ll be out of the Army I’ll be able to….IDK I’m sure there was alot more than that has happened, but mostly fighting , fucking , and ocasionally geting fucked as hell…..And being forced to Play Army 🙁 so what about you?? Hope all is well
I responded, but didn’t hear back. Then I got a message from his cousin letting me know that he’d been killed by an IED in Baghdad.

I met Lance when I was seven. His cousins were my best friends and he often stayed with them. His Aunt and my mom led the Brownie troop; they were sitting in the kitchen discussing the crafts for us girls. Lance was in the bathroom crushing up chewable Flintstone vitamins to spike Kool-Aid with. He was nine and had been told by some other fifth graders that overdosing on vitamins was like being high, so he was trying it. His cousins and I were in the hallway, knocking on the bathroom door, threatening to tell on him. Eventually he let us in, and we helped him sort the Flintstones out by color, popping one in our mouths every once in a while.

So many people were at his funeral that I didn’t know. The rural Baptist church was full, stifling hot and ripe with sweat, tobacco, and flowers. Speeches were given by men in Army uniforms about how great a loss Lance’s death was, but how it was not in vain. As this was happening a group of southern bikers stood outside and made sure that anti-war protesters didn’t disturb the service.

Before his second tour in Iraq we met up and walked in silence around the rock quarry while smoking cigarettes, not worrying about our ashes and the dry leaves that covered the ground. Little things like droughts and wildfires weren’t worth worrying about. Besides, the coastal plains were already burning. Another fire in the Carolinas and maybe they’d declare it a state of emergency, get some sympathy flowing our way from the rest of America. There were signs around the quarry saying “Danger, Deep Water. Swim at your own Risk.” There was an inflated raft floating in the middle of the water, I swam out to it. Lying with my feet in the water, my skin getting sun-burnt, trees limited my view so that all I could see was the lake and sky. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, woke up scared because I dreamed he was gone.

The first concert we went to together was The Black Crowes. We stashed his bowl in my corduroy bag. I was seventeen, cute enough to just get a pat down from the security guard before being told to have a good time. We smoked up while singing along about talking to angels. He was right behind me, swaying his way through the show. At the end of the night we fumbled around by our cars as we tried to quickly decide if we were just friends or if it was more than that.

I moved back to North Carolina from Seattle to get away from miserable grey days full of rain. It’s been cold and rainy here all week, like Seattle but without all the bodies of water, big buildings, and things to do. I’ve been job hunting and rearranging the new apartment, trying to not run off again, calling up credit card companies and student loan officers, changing my address and getting repayments postponed. Buying thrift store furniture and trying to make this place feel like home, doing everything I can to make myself stay here.

The last time I drove by his parents’ trailer Lance’s old VW bug was still parked in the yard. The grass had grown tall around it and I wondered if they were going to sell it or keep it there forever. We used to race our old hunks of metal down NC-64, late at night or early in the morning, on the way to or from some house party or concert.

I’ve sent him a few emails since he died. Can wireless signals carry things to the dead? Hopefully they can. There are things I need Lance to know, things I need to apologize for. Maybe he knows already, maybe once someone dies the whole world opens up to them and they get a bird’s eye view of everything they were involved in. If so, now he knows that I never wrote because I didn’t know how to write to someone that far away, that I didn’t ask questions while he was gone not because I didn’t care, but because I was scared to know the answers. And when I die I’ll find out if he really forgot saying “I love you” one night, or if he was pretending the next morning, too.

We ran into each other once in Asheville unexpectedly, right before he redeployed. I was outside on a smoke break and he was shitfaced in the afternoon and stumbled into me as he exited the bar next door. Later that night I met up with him at his hotel’s bar; I got too drunk to bike home so went with him to his room. He kissed me once I closed the door and I froze. All I could think about were the Iraqis he may have killed. Lance picked me up and tossed me onto the bed and kissed me again. I caught my breath and told him I couldn’t, because his hair was gone and his muscles grown so much that I could barely recognize him. He nodded and then wrapped his arms tightly around me and we slept until his commanding officer pounded on the door a few hours later. Lance began suiting up and I left the room alone, noticing the eyes of other soldiers following me down the hall and away from him.

Recently I watched a documentary about the resistance fighters in Iraq. There was a scene at sunset with a mosque in the background. Birds were flying around it. They looked the same as the ones here, except they were flying around mosques instead of bell towers, floating around God instead of time. Whenever there was a young American soldier in a scene I squinted my eyes to see if it was him. I was trying to catch a glimpse of Lance still moving, still smiling.

Lance wasn’t lowered into the ground right after the funeral. They waited until the mourners went away. So I came back that night with prayer candles and a bottle of whiskey. I drank some and poured some on the dirt where I thought his head might be. People had already left things at his grave. Dog tags and little American flags, flowers and a small cheap wooden cross. After a while it began to rain, so I returned to my car, leaving behind the half drained bottle by the headstone.

Spring is coming on now, which means it will feel like summer soon. The rain will only come in the form of quick thunderstorms. By June the grass will be turning brown and the lakes will be drying up. People will keep watering their lawns and washing their cars. I’ll empty the rain barrel outside my apartment so that my flowers survive and continue attracting butterflies. I’ll take daytrips to the beach to get sunburned and float away for a while in the ocean.

My uncle had a heart attack yesterday. He’s thirty-seven and in good shape. Too young and too healthy to have his heart give up already. The doctors are putting a stint in right now. They say he’ll be fine. But what is fine? Maybe fine is falling apart and then paying someone you don’t know a lot of money to piece you back together.

Lance, what are the birds like in Iraq? I assume there are birds there. There are cities and things that shine in that country, two things that birds are attracted to. I used to think that I would see a bird as I was dying, that however I went, a bird would be there, near me, waiting to lead me somewhere. Maybe that’s why I take pictures of all the dead birds that I see. I know that they will carry me away one day, so for now I carry them with me.

If you climb the correct hill in Joshua Tree, California, you can look over the Coachella Valley and to the Salton Sea. Millions of birds migrate to that area every year, seeking out the only large body of water within hundreds of miles of desert. The Salton Sea was a manmade mistake. It doesn’t belong there, and won’t always be. Each year it gets smaller. Every few years the salinity changes enough to kill off the fish and birds. Skeletons of animals wash up on shore and people with boats stop going there for vacation. Without the boats and the trash and our chemicals, things get back to normal.

When I lived in Seattle I saw so many dead birds. I’d take artsy pictures of them, paying attention to their angles and scale. Once I watched a bird fly into a window repeatedly. Was it determined to die or just attracted to something on the inside? Since being back in North Carolina I haven’t seen any, but at the beach last week I found a bird’s wing in some sea grass on the dunes. I took it with me and strung its bones into a wind catcher that I have hung by my window. It never makes noise, but spins around beautifully whenever it’s windy.

Sometimes I’ll read something and believe it wholeheartedly, not because it seems that it is true but because I fear that it is. I learned from one of my all-time favorite books that hummingbirds are attracted to the color blue. They will scavenge for it in nature, taking it in their beaks to weave into nests. Bodies have been found with pulpy eyes because hummingbirds have pecked the irises out. I’ve never researched this, but I like hummingbirds less because of it. If only I could find something written saying that Lance is here hiding out on an island, I’d believe it and send him postcards religiously.

A bird almost shat on me this morning. It was perched on an electrical wire a few yards ahead of me. I was watching it as I walked, wishing I had a hat on, convinced that this bird would be the sixth one to get me. It missed though, unloaded itself two paces too soon. I laughed at it and continued home.

Last night I woke up from a dream about high school and friends I haven’t seen in years. I tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. It seemed that I had forgotten how to breathe. I stayed awake awhile, trying to retrain my body to inhale and exhale. Strange things like this get the best of me. Sometimes my legs get tingly and I become convinced that my veins aren’t working. I’ll kick my legs around until the tingling stops. I’m afraid of blood clots, of dying from an aneurism in my sleep, like a kindergarten classmate almost did. That boy was paralyzed from the waist down, wheelchair bound from the age of five. The thought of collapsing lungs also frightens me, so sometimes I breathe purposefully, trying to figure out how my lungs pull in and release the oxygen that keeps me moving. My blue eyes get bigger as I do this; I watch them grow wide in the mirror as I try to find where this life is coming from and where it is going.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I said “Nothing.”
He said “Something…” and then we laughed and headed home.

Deserts are for dying. No water, no shade, just sand and sun, stretched out and running off into the horizon. I love them, though. The ones I have seen are otherworldly. No buildings, no cars, no strip malls, no people. Nature wins there and it always will. Things don’t sound the same there, either. Sounds seem to last longer, fading away slowly. And colors are different. Blue is more blue, green is greener, and blood spilled on sand may not look red. It might just look wet and out of place.

Doves are for peace and crows are for death. The day after Lance died there was a crow on my porch. We stared each other down until I began to think it was him. The crow flew at the screen door. I asked what it wanted and it cawed out a reply. I told it I didn’t understand, that I was sorry but there was nothing I could do.

I’m living at a cooperative now, about half an hour from where we grew up. It’s called the Bolin Creek Co-op, though the creek is miles away. We call it The Bog because it turns into one whenever it rains or snows. The garden between the two hills our buildings are perched on becomes a marsh in inclement weather. One hundred years ago the area was a landfill. Before that it may have been a cemetery, but the town didn’t keep precise records back then, so no one is sure about that. Thirty years ago it was Section 8 housing, until the area attracted too many affluent college kids and graduate students and the poor residents got pushed to different towns. Five years ago a group of activists bought the abandoned property from the county and fixed it up. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough.