On the appointed day, eight years before Todd Niskey would have to register for the draft, his mother packed him an olive-loaf sandwich, an apple, a pack of peanut butter crackers, and a can of Dr. Pepper. He wanted a peach instead of an apple but she said a peach would get smashed. He put his lunch in the individual pockets of an ammo belt, the sandwich in a large pocket for machine-gun clips, the peanut butter crackers wedged in what he assumed was a jackknife sheath, the can of soda in the pocket of his button-front shirt, and walked with his mother, his father, and the family dog to a massive sycamore tree that stood at the end of a long row of scrub that dipped from the hill where he ran his reconnaissance missions into the plain where a broad field of golden heavy-tipped grasses swooped to the empty road. Despite the complications of the halter, which had six buckles and fourteen straps, Todd knew how to put it on. He hadn’t figured it out by himself, but with help from his father he’d learned how it fit on a grown man and with his mother’s patient fingers he had tightened the various straps as far as possible. Since two padded straps passed under his legs, there was no chance he’d fall out the bottom.
After four unsuccessful tries, his father threw the coil of heavy rope over the lowest branch of the sycamore and it unraveled until it hit Todd’s back. He felt like an astronaut, the halter surrounding him, buoying him up, helping him breathe. And he began to picture his parents much older and very far away, anxiously watching the evening news for any sign that their boy was still alive. He would have liked a flak jacket for his collection, but even without one he felt invincible, bulletproof. And he had a long rifle, almost a musket, that he’d found in the neighborhood last year. Cut from a one-by-four, it was flat and shapeless when seen from the top, a long piece of lumber, but from the side it looked like what it was: a jigsawed reproduction of the long rifles used at Verdun and Dunkirk and Iwo Jima and Gettysburg and the Battle of Sycamore Hill, in which Private First Class Todd Niskey had bravely jumped but gotten snagged on the lowest branch of one of the hill’s fabled trees. Low but frustratingly high, too, for as his father raised him with “Here we go!” and a series of make-believe grunts, Todd realized he’d gotten stuck—
“Is that high enough?”
“Two more tugs, okay?”
“Two more, that was one!”
—fifteen feet off the ground and much too far to jump. Something was burning in the distance. He could hear antiaircraft fire, Tommy guns, grenades. A paratrooper was running toward a distant farm, just where his platoon had been ordered to regroup, but Todd couldn’t call out to him, he had to wait.
“Mom, you leave too.”
“Let him go,” Todd’s father said. “We’ll check back in half an hour.”
“I just want to make sure you don’t change your mind.”
“I won’t change my mind—an hour, not a half hour! Leave! Go away!”
Whenever his mother crossed her arms, he knew she was holding back tears.
“You know how to make me feel miserable for trying to help you.”
The inside of the plane had smelled like motor oil, and PFC Niskey assumed his jumpsuit had rubbed against a patch of it on his way out. Motor oil perfumed everything. The field was awash in it. A plague of shot-up jeeps and drained oil pans, and even though Todd was supposed to like motor oil—the tacky grip of dried motor oil, the greasy gloss of motor oil spilled on a mower deck, the mapley reluctance of fresh motor oil, the rotted-bone smell of oil-soaked dirt, the butteriness of rags used to wipe dipsticks—he detested it. He looked for black stains on his clothes while a horsefly pestered his face. A gray-striped, bulge-eyed, overgrown horsefly. He swatted the air, and the back of his head hit the taut rope, and he remembered where the smell was coming from: his father had found the rope in the shed, with the collection of antique lawnmowers and bags of lime and peat moss. Again as the fly landed Todd smacked his neck and his head hit the rope and a thicker cloud of oil smell enveloped him, musty and dead.
Todd’s greatest experiments in consciousness, his great mind-puzzles, involved taking the legs and wings off a house- or firefly, taking off everything that moved, without doing anything that would cause immediate death, then asking himself whether the insect was still alive. What was life? If the bug couldn’t do what it usually did, what was it doing? If it was doing nothing, could it really be alive? Could it see? Could it chew? Todd removed the firefly’s antennae, the fly’s proboscis. Nothing moved. And yet somehow the fly must still be alive. Which proved, as far as he could tell, that flies had thoughts like people did. Otherwise, what would alive mean in a case like this? Which made pulling off their legs a kind of torture. Which made Todd, once again, hope he’d be able to handle it if that’s what his country asked him to face after he registered for the draft.
He tried to return to the war, the farmland in Normandy, the crash of bombs in the distance, light interrupting darkness. But the afternoon was hot, and his legs felt itchy where they’d touched the golden, seed-heavy grasses. They’d touched everywhere, front and back, behind his knees, along both sides of his shins, even under his tube socks, striped red and blue, which seemed to collect the miniscule bits of dust, whose only antidote was water.
His sandwich was caught under a buckle. He tickled the corner of the plastic bag, tried to work it free, but the bag stretched and tore. He wished he’d worn a uniform. All his uniforms from the flea market came with long pants.
The main road was empty. The field around him was empty, the three houses and one barn he could see were empty, and the cows chewing their cuds across the road were far away. Even the ones that might have been looking at him noticed nothing unusual. He’d begun to sweat because the sun had moved into his eyes, and he tried to reach around his back to unclip the canteen to pour water over his itchy legs but the parachute halter seemed bulkier now that he was hanging from it, and he couldn’t get his hand around far enough to touch the canteen. His arms were tired and cramped as if he’d pulled the rope himself, arm over arm, and tied it around the sycamore. The itchy tingling increased, shooting from his legs into the rest of the body as if the tiny bits of grass dust were electrified. He tried to hold still, squinted against the sun, which was not directly in his eyes but had moved out from behind the densest leaves overhead. And suddenly Todd became gelatinous, as flexible as a bat. He curled his shoulder, folded his back, and grabbed hold of the canteen and quickly emptied the water on his legs, slapping and shaking them as if gripped by a seizure.
Dripping, Todd hung. The peanut butter crackers came free and he ate them, swinging from the effort of releasing them, and pumped his legs to swing higher until he heard the branch creak.
He’d been told not to look down. When you climb, don’t look down. When you walk, don’t look down. When you’re standing on a high balcony overlooking a street or river or a dizzying chasm, don’t look down, look where you’re headed. But he’d never been told not to look up. The rope cured in motor oil wound straight over his head, a spiral of woven hairs that seemed to go nowhere, seemed a foot long like a javelin coming straight for him. He barely noticed the branch. Clouds and leaves and cawing birds whirled toward him. He looked down as fast as he could, a salty desert of peanut butter crackers burping into his mouth.
His voice didn’t reach far enough to disturb the robins playing leapfrog on the shoulder of the road.
“Dad? Mom? I can’t get my sandwich out!”
He tugged at the bag again. A flattened crust peered over the parachute strap like the nose of a mole, then retreated. His parents had forgotten him, he thought. Half an hour must have passed. He was sure his mother should have returned by now. But the broad field, the long path, the far-off yard with its tiny shed and tiny trees higher than the house were abandoned, as if a nuclear bomb had fallen and the whole world had died and he just didn’t know yet. He undid the main front buckle of the parachute harness, his heart racing, and held the chest straps together with his elbows while he reached into the carbine pocket and freed the mangled sandwich. Survival! He ate it.
But then couldn’t get the buckle closed again. His mother had drawn the straps so snug that when he released them and took a normal breath his lungs became too big to stuff back into the halter. Even when he wheezed every bit of air out of them and pushed at the buckle with all ten fingers, he couldn’t refasten the latch. The padded straps were drawing his legs apart, pulling his pants taut against his crotch, and making him hard. He practiced swinging the rifle, bringing it down on somebody’s head.
Instead of war, his head replayed an old episode of FBI, which he watched with his father whenever he hadn’t already used up his hour of TV. He shifted to make the image go away, but it wouldn’t. A rough-talking criminal who’d attracted girls in just the way Todd wanted to, telling a girlfriend that he didn’t want to see her anymore. She wasn’t his wife or even his main girlfriend, she was someone else. But she clung to him in a small, nearly bare room, crying piteously, asking him not to give her up, she’d do anything, and Todd wished she was clinging to him. She had a beautiful face and dark waves of hair, more hair than his mother, more hair than he could imagine holding, and he’d wished, when he first saw it, that Lori Phelps would hold on to him that way and care about him like that. This was maybe two years ago when he still exchanged coded notes with her and she still wore a red stretchy shirt with golden stars on it, not just red but fiery. Lori wouldn’t talk to him anymore. No one at school could talk to him without being laughed at and losing friends. But on the show, the rough-talker shoved the girlfriend or she tripped over his foot, in any case hit her head on the corner of the only furniture in the room, a large black coffee table as Todd remembered it, and she was dead.
A dead body seemed like an exciting thing. Back then, he’d never seen a real one. So when he rode the piano bench the next time, diagonally, with its corner against the soft flesh that would eventually grow hair, his mother doing laundry and his brother watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he pictured the actress’s beautiful hair and cleft-tipped nose and the way he wanted to hold her and throw her down when he didn’t know what else to do to match the feeling shaking through him. Her head would hit the table corner and simple as that, tingly as that, she’d be dead. When Todd released the piano bench, his underwear was sticky for the first time in his life. He’d killed someone. He rushed upstairs to hide the evidence.
The ground seemed closer than he’d thought. Maybe only three yards down, the crushed swirl of grasses like a haystack waiting for him. Cicadas buzzed in the sycamores, in the oaks, in the sassafras.
But he wished his parents would come back. He held on to the rope over his head, without looking up, because he thought for sure his parents had forgotten about him. He spent so much time collecting things that his skin stayed white all summer. The sun was burning him and gnats were eating the wax from his ears and he was thirsty. A sweat bee strafed him, pretending to want to sting.
The more times he killed her, the older he became. In his father’s research lab he’d seen sheep’s legs wedged in garbage cans, calves’ heads among them, wide eyed. In a funeral home he’d seen his great grandfather’s body, his tendons dusty with pancake makeup. But even now he couldn’t erase the image of the actress. She held him, she beseeched him, she fell. She held him, she wanted him, he pushed her. Whenever he came, though, he suddenly couldn’t picture her anymore, dead or alive, naked or dressed. He could only see a pile of naked Jews being bulldozed like compost, the driver smoking a cigarette. Todd lurched every time as if he’d been kicked, his penis shrinking quickly, gobbing and dripping, and he felt that he’d done it himself, he’d killed those people, he was responsible for all murder, all death, all cigarettes hanging from bulldozing lips. The image came from a war book in his collection.
He untangled himself from the halter so that he was standing on one of its padded leg straps, holding the oil-soaked rope. He couldn’t survive long enough for his parents to get him, much less the day or two or several days it might take for a soldier to notice him and find a way to get him down. What if the main point of Todd’s training, once he learned how to leap from a plane, open a parachute, save up his saliva for wetting a dusty brick of rations, was to teach him how to climb the ropes of the parachute, crawl along a branch, and shimmy down the tree trunk? What if the main point was to teach him how to kill the farm girl who might happen along, so that she couldn’t run home and tell? What else could he do? He’d have to follow orders.
He flexed his knees and jumped.
He’d smelled death lots of times by now. Death had several smells and he’d smelled them shading one into the other, from the sweet rusty twang of an electric fencepost in the rain, fresh death like wet liver and familiar breath, to the gathered punch that returned to him, dripping from the skull of a moldering raccoon, when he saw or pictured those naked bodies being shoved into their pit. He thought of swimming pools, and they emptied and cracked. He thought of swim lessons and the smell on his skin afterward and he hated to swim. He thought of chlorine because his father had taught him to remove the last putrefaction from animal bones with Hefty bags full of bleach. He wanted to clean himself with it, scald himself with it, douse it over the regret that would last for years. Because he should have been able to wait longer, until his parents came for him. He could see his mother now. Breaking into an awkward run.
He sat in the crushed grasses, his ankles burning, and watched an ant drag something to its hill.