My brother planted the pine trees a few years before he was murdered. When I was a kid I came here to die my own deaths. Inside the little forest on top of the hill, I met my end thousands of times, always at my own hand. Now some 30 years later I've come back to reclaim my dead.
Only children are many children. Without a sibling to serve as supporting cast, the only child must play both hero and villain. My favorite childhood fantasy involved Old West gunfights, with me acting as both lawman and outlaw. In the lawman role, I stood in the middle of the forest (in my mind, the dusty main street of an Old West town) and stared down a distant tree (the outlaw). My right hand hovered above a holstered Colt six-shooter with an engraved pearl handle (a plastic cap gun from the toy aisle at Kroger's). When I shifted my weight from one little Western boot to the other, the bed of orange pine needles crackled. My forehead itched under a stiff felt cowboy hat. With each measured breath, my belly pressed against the shearling lining of a denim Wrangler vest with trademark W's stitched on the front pockets.
A breeze came through the forest. Young, slender trees at the edges of the Ohio hilltop swayed and creaked in the wind. Meanwhile, tumbleweeds bounced across the Old West main street, where spectators crammed the wooden sidewalks. All the onlookers were silent, and when one of them nervously shifted from foot to foot, the wooden walkway planks audibly creaked. These noises would have made a lesser shootist flinch. But I remained steadfast, waiting for the breeze to reach the center of the forest.
When it did, the branches of the tree moved ever so slightly.
My opponent reached for his gun.
My own gun leapt into my hand and roared. My right index finger pinned back the trigger. I flattened my left hand and fanned it repeatedly over the gun hammer. The chamber of my Colt spun nonstop.
A red strip of paper caps curled out of my plastic gun, like tickets from a skeeball machine paying off big.
Bullets filled the air.
But I wasn't an only child.
I've already mentioned that my brother planted the pine trees. That was Joey Gavilan Jarvis, who died 11 months before I was born. (Dad had two gifts waiting for me when I came into the world: my grandfather's 20-gauge shotgun, and my dead brother's name.) There was also my brother Bobby, but he hung himself before Joey died. There was also my sister Patty, but she was gunned down in a trailer park when I was three. I don't remember her at all, nor do I recall anything about my sister Sharon, who was in her thirties and long gone by the time I was in kindergarten. Sharon claims that the last time she saw my father, he threatened her with a shotgun. If that's true, I wonder if Dad borrowed my 20-gauge for the occasion.
My half-sister Grace was older than my mother. I met her a few times before she died from cancer. There were also my brothers Ed, Mark, and Dick, but they joined the Army, Air Force, and Navy, respectively, as soon as they could. Mark and Ed are still alive. After a long-fought victory over drug addiction and in the first stable relationship of his life, Dick was accidentally killed by a motorist while bicycling in Denver. Finally, there was Jason, the closest to me in age (at seven years older). Jason was the only sibling who spent any time with me growing up, but he got kicked out of the house when he was still a teenager, after he threatened Dad with his bare fists in the living room.
In the family tree, I am one of many branches. But growing up, I lived alone―except inside the pine forest.
Having meted out justice as the lawman, I took my punishment as the outlaw.
Each bullet from the marshall's gun sank into my pulpy flesh with a wet thwack―the precise sound of a spit wad hitting a fifth-grade classroom wall. I lost my grip on the outlaw's six shooter, which fell harmlessly to the ground. Clutching his chest, I staggered forward a few steps, raised up onto my tiptoes, and slightly bent forward. I froze in place, striking an epic death pose. Then I fell to my knees and rolled over onto my back. The outlaw's arms stretched out on the dusty frontier street. My legs spread wide across pine needles.
The sidewalks buzzed with commotion. A few children carrying sticks ran out and poked at my cooling body. As I bled out and death set in, the outlaw's arms and legs spasmed, and the children ran away screaming. The crowd eventually dispersed and everything went quiet, leaving the outlaw alone to the stillness of the Ohio forest. There might be a rustle as pine combs rolled across needles, but the breeze would die down. A distant tractor might hum, but the machine would pass and fade away. The trees narrowed from trunks to pine tops, where green fir gave way to blue sky. The town preacher placed two fingertips on the outlaw's eyelids and shut them. The trees and sky disappeared, but sunlight pressed through. Orange blotches morphed and floated like hot wax inside a lava lamp. Within a minute these phantom shapes eased into pitch blackness. Amid the cool air, deep quiet, and stoic trees, the great peace returned to him, just like it always did. This feeling―this place―was one of the few things he could count on.
I was myself again.
If you struggled to keep it all straight―who died from what―remember that you had everything written out in front of you. Imagine being a kid and no one explaining any of it. I didn't learn my family history. I gradually sniffed it out, the way a police dog discovers bombs.
We went to Graham Chapel Hill every Memorial Day. Why on that day, I don't know. No Jarvis in the graveyard had served in the military, although a poet might say they all died waging war. During these visits, Dad's behavior was highly instructive. He always started at the headstone marked MOTHER Mrytle Frances Jarvis. Pulling a pocket knife from his jeans, he took a knee and slid the knife inside each engraved letter―M-O-T-H-E-R-F ...―digging grass and dirt out onto the marble. He then leaned forward and with a birthday-candle blow cleared the debris. Then, pinching crabgrass between the edge of the blade and his thumb, Dad expertly rolled his wrist and clipped weeds away from the stone. The entire time, he slowly shook his head and muttered to himself―and presumably to Frances as well. His blue eyes were as sharp as the knife blade. It was easy to imagine sparks around his moving lips.
I don't know if anyone ever told me, "Your dad was married to a woman named Frances. She was the mother of seven of your brothers and sisters. She committed suicide." After a few visits to Graham Chapel, I'm not sure anyone needed to.
Immediately to Frances' left, my siblings Bobby, Joey, and Patricia are laid to rest, in that order. The graves all have identical rose-granite headstones. Patty actually has two stones: the granite headstrone, which declares her DAUGHTER Patricia Jarvis, and a smaller stone toward her feet that insists she is MOTHER Patricia Blevins. At some point, I heard about the strife between the Jarvises and Jerry Blevins' side of the family. These details merely confirmed what the stones had already told me.
One by one, Dad went down the row. Kneeling over Joey, his eyes softened. His jaw unclenched while talking to Bobby. At the same time, my mother, Linda (Dad's third or fourth wife), arranged flowers at each grave. I looked at the headstones, studying names and working out the math of paired calendar dates, gathering clues.
As I got older, I asked Mom plenty of questions. She answered honestly while sparing me the gruesome details. Once in awhile Dad commented out of nowhere about the dubious moral character of Frances' family, or he might randomly remind me that Bobby had a daughter named Stacie. But the world of departed Jarvises largely remained a mystery. Even today, no one in my family can agree on the details of each death. Some say that Joey, straddling his parked motorcycle, was run down by a bested romantic rival, who was driving a car. Others say that the assailant was only a friend of Joey's rival, that instead of a car he also rode a motorcyle, and that he steered into my brother while the two men drag-raced the wrong way down an on-ramp, sacrificing his own life to kill Joey.
We all have built our own stories, as a bird might build a nest.
When I was 12, we moved 20 minutes away to a miserable village called Albany, Ohio. I didn't see my childhood home for several years. Immediately after receiving my driver's license and getting my first car, I started taking long drives back down into the country. These excursions in my 1990 Chevy Cavalier became therapy. They lasted throughout college, which I spent at Ohio University in nearby Athens. Rounding the bend by the Keirns place and crossing the bridge over Shade River (a glorified creek), I watched my home change. Soccer goals went up in the field below the house. In the summers we had always painted the long fence around the field with used motor oil (Dad's version of insecticide), making the wood drip black and shimmer in the heat. But now the sun gradually bleached the wood and the fence sagged. On the side of the house where Mom kept her clothesline, a garden sprang up―not corn and tomatoes like we had grown, but decorative bushes and flowers―and got bigger every time I drove by.
One thing stayed the same. Past the field and house, above the barn and tool shed, up the ever-rising hill, as far as your vision would allow, the forest held steady. It floated above everything else on the 20 acres. The same green trees rose into the same blue sky. And inside the forest, I imagined, there was the same all-embracing peace.
Every year I go back to Ohio in late September. It's the only week of the year that I drive, and I drive everywhere. I pride myself on finding the longest way from my hotel to mom's house, criss-crossing state highways, township roads, and the occasional abandoned drilling trail. Inevitably at some point I find myself on Long Run Road, driving slowly past a soccer field with an impoverished fence. This year I worked up the courage and actually stopped. When I pulled into the driveway, it seemed unsually short. The concrete walk that once stretched out like a runway had become a plank. Knocking on the door of the shrunken house, I was greeted by the current owners. As it turns out, these were the same folks who bought the farm from Dad. After a short visit, they gave me the run of the place. I strolled around the garage, the demolished fruit cellar, and the empty garden where I once picked potato bugs for fish bait. All of that was nice enough, but there was only one place I felt compelled to see again.
Unlike the rest of the property, the forest has retained its size. It has the same broad dimensions, or dimensionlessness, as when I was a boy.
When I stepped under the tree canopy, my skin cooled. I didn't know I had been squinting until my eyes relaxed in the shade. Crisp air smelled of oozing pine sap. I inhaled deeply and slowly, the kind of breath that my big-city yoga instructors are always recommending. I walked to the center of the pines and surveyed the place. All those years that I drove past looking up here, I had been right. The peace had always been waiting.
I showed Jason the photos from my visit, and he said there are too many trees in the forest. The pines have been allowed to reproduce unchecked for 30 years, apparently. The tight proximity stunts limbs. By all rights, Jason said, someone should cut down every other tree. I understood his point, but I didn't mind the overgrowth. The tops of the trees are still lush and overlapping, and the outermost trees form a thick blind of green. Besides, now that I'm grown I actually find it comforting, all this excessive life.