By Kim Drew Wright
My name is Maxwell Anderson. My friends call me Max. Leo Williams is my best friend. He lives down the street, a couple blocks closer to the stack, which gives him an unfair advantage. When I told him that’s why he’s won the past three days he just grinned and yelled, “King of the Heap!” then shoved me off the stack. I plan on winning today.
Aunt Clara’s hawk eyes caught me at the front door and I had to stand in the dining room while Ma hung camphor balls around my neck and made me put two sugar cubes burnin’ of kerosene under my tongue. One thing’s for sure, I stink to high heaven. There goes my sneak attack on Leo. Thanks to Aunt Clara. When she came to live with us she brought three things to decorate our house, a photo of Uncle Robert dead in his casket, a permanent frown under hawk eyes, and a vase of peacock feathers which Leo told me was bad luck but Ma says looks pretty and makes Aunt Clara happy. How she knows that I have no idea, the only time I’ve ever seen Aunt Clara’s mouth move into any semblance of a smile was when she was quoting Billy Sunday about praying down sin to get rid of sickness. At least Uncle Robert died with honors, buried in his army blues.
I bang the front door behind me, cutting off Ma’s warning to, “Stay off those caskets, there’s sick peo…,” and I’m off running down the street. My baby sister, Evie, is jumping rope with her little friend Harriett and I stop to give a pull on both pigtails and a pinch on her nose. I don’t pull too hard and she smiles at me but keeps on singing and twirling the rope for Harriett, the other end tied to a fence post, “I had a little bird. Its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in flew Enza.”
I run past the Johnston’s house. There’s a grey crepe on the front door and I wonder if Mr. or Mrs. Johnston is the one that died. My money’s on Mr. Johnston, he was always too pale looking and bunched up like a frightened chick when the Mrs. hollered at him to come in for supper. Could go either way though, they were both older than Christmas. I wished I had time to run down Edwards Street to see the crepes there, maybe Leo has the news.
Leo’s always bragging about how his Pa got picked to lead an army combat troop overseas. I guess he doesn’t stop to think how I feel stuck with a Pa with a bum leg still in town. My Pa got chosen health officer for Blithesville, which just means he sits at his desk and looks worried. He posted, THIS TOWN IS QUARANTINED. DO NOT STOP, on the population sign on Main St., but I guess the flu can’t read, or doesn’t mind nobody’s signs, because it came anyways.
Leo said yesterday that there’d been a telegraph from his Pa saying he was coming home. He’s all excited to see his Pa since he’s been gone since Leo’s last birthday when he turned ten, and his next birthday’s only a few weeks away. I tried to act excited for Leo, and I guess I was a little bit, but it’s kind of hard to be excited about a Pa coming home when yours never left. Leo said his Ma looked bluish when she read the telegram, but I didn’t ask if he meant sad or sick. I overheard Aunt Clara and Pa talking about how near the end the sick turn black and blue like storm clouds, and rain red out their ears and eyes and mouth. Ma said, “Keep your words to yourself,” to Pa when I woke up with nightmares. I was sorry I got him in trouble, but I couldn’t help it.
I trip to a stop in front of Leo’s house, skin my knee. There’s a black crepe on his door. That means he meant sick blue. I look at the cracked sidewalk I tripped on and finally find my excitement about his Pa coming back. I walk slower now, running my hand along the fence slats, toward the stack. The street is empty except for the open truck stopped in front of the stack, adding five more boxes to the pyramid. The worker’s masked face turns to take me in and then shoves the pine box firmly on top.
Mr. Wallace, the undertaker, steps outside to give instructions to the man to add the rest to the base so it doesn’t topple over. He sees me and spits out under his breath, “Don’t know why they call it the Spanish flu when it’s those goddamn Germans that grew those germs,” like I’m a man, and goes back inside. Through the glass pane I watch him counting caskets. He must lose count cause he slams his palm against pine and goes back to where he started and starts again. The masked man is already driving down the street, looking for more boxes on porches to collect.
The stack is larger than ever and I stand and admire it for a minute, but don’t bother climbing to the top. Without Leo here, I guess I’m King of the Heap, but it doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like loss.
I want to see my friend and tell him the news, even if his Ma is dead. When I get to his gate I glance up the walk, consider knocking on his door. A white crepe hangs beside the black one for his Ma. It stands there like a ghost sneaking out of the shadows and I stare with eyes frozen. My heart refuses to beat, until the air rushes out of my lungs with a whoosh, pushing me along toward my home. I start to run and get flattened by a broad chest in army blue, a suitcase knocked to the ground. Leo’s Pa catches me by one arm and says something I can’t hear over the blood roaring in my ears. He gives me a little shake and my gaze travels from his nose to the splatter of blood on my arm. He follows my gaze and lets me go.
My legs pump hard as I run past the Whitman’s black crepe, and the white one next to them at the Hickson’s. So many more crepes since yesterday. It’s like the crepes are contagion themselves. Could there be one on my door waiting for my arrival to spread its message – white for Evie, black for Ma or Pa? I see the front gate, our door is empty. I run up the path and swing the door open, glad to find Pa at his desk signing death notices.
Kim Drew Wright graduated from the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Her career in advertising has encompassed the positions of media buyer, account representative, and brand manager. She currently resides in Richmond, Virginia. She is a member of James River Writers and the Poetry Society of Virginia. Three young children, two crazy Westies, and one husband in retail, occupy her time when she is not writing short stories or working on a novel. Her poetry captures the madness and keeps her sane.