Saddam Hussein’s eyes glinted, rocking back and forth on the dark screen as he swung by the neck while voices shrieked, furious, triumphant, but unintelligible to Alvin, who had watched almost daily the grainy video of Saddam’s execution posted on YouTube just before New Year’s 2007.
That was over a year ago now, yet those shouted foreign words still made no sense to Alvin. Those voices, those eyes, the moment of still-animation before the floor gave way, the swinging after—all these things engrossed him. He knew the order of events in the video so well he could have repeated and described each of them perfectly, but they’d long since rearranged themselves kaleidoscopically into seamless paradoxical nonsequitur.
He backed away from the computer and turned to Jeremy, his son, who lay on their torn and dirty yellow couch, his once-huge arms emaciated, body collapsed, mouth hung open. The left canine tooth was missing, and the gap glared in menace of what could be in its place: a fang, a dagger, a razor blade.
Alvin had only a few of his own teeth, his skin close-pressed to the skull. Looking at the couch, his retinas gathered the form of his son, which drew into itself the images of Jeremy’s lifetime, from his infancy’s miniature flailing hands to awkward teenage arms and legs to a man’s powerful shoulders.
—Hey, J. Hey, Alvin said.
Jeremy lay motionless. Alvin got up unsteadily, his hand sweeping over the table top, brushing off several Pyrex glass tubes that shattered on the floor. He grunted at the sound, but Jeremy still didn’t move as Alvin walked over to the couch and shook his slack, tattooed bicep.
—Come on Jeremy. Get on up—come on!
Alvin’s voice ripped sharp, wry, vicious. He shook Jeremy’s arm harder until his entire body was lurching. Still no response. Alvin stopped.
No movement. Alvin’s eyes began to glint; he seemed about to cry. Then they hardened, and he bent over and pulled Jeremy’s feet off the couch.
—Whuu ... the younger man said.
Alvin grabbed Jeremy’s right arm and jerked in short bursts, trying to get him sitting upright.
Jeremy blinked open his eyes but they did not focus, as Alvin managed to get his body akimbo on the couch so that now his weight rested on his left arm, his head hanging, a glistening line of drool stringing from his mouth.
—If you about ready to be waking up, J, we got to get going.
Jeremy didn’t lift his head. Alvin leaned down and grabbed his arm, straining as he pulled him upright, although Jeremy was no more conscious than before. Then Alvin yanked, bringing Jeremy to a wavering stand. Lifting that arm, Alvin ducked under it and started dragging Jeremy toward the front door of the house.
When Alvin opened the door, the sunlight, even muted by the woods that barely cleared their front yard, shocked his eyes. Jeremy’s listed open, still unfocused. The fresh air pulled on Alvin’s lungs with an alien gust that wrankled sharp against the heavy ammonia smell inside. He carried his son carefully down the steps and onto a faint path of beaten grass running uphill through the forest.
* * *
Twenty-six years ago Alvin made the down payment on this land with money his wife, Sarah, had saved over two decades of teaching before she met him, living the whole time in her parents’ house and funneling the money into CDs and savings accounts. He’d come into contact with her when he went to the small church out in the country along Route 28 because his job working for the asphalt company resurfacing that road kept him too late on Wednesday nights to drive back to church in town.
She was no homecoming queen, already at age 43 with her hair gray-swirled, and her shanks lengthened into middle age. She wore the blouses and skirts of high school math teachers. He didn’t even notice her at first where she sat in the second pew beside her mother and father, the latter an elder in the tiny congregation of 32, whose neck and arms bulged about a bald head, his face hardly wrinkled in skin drawn by fat and muscle, the nape of his neck prominent and massive over the thin collar of his plaid button-downs. Sarah and her mother were so identical they could have been sisters, the mother’s grayer hair and deeper wrinkling the only distinguishing feature between the two.
It didn’t take Sarah long to latch onto Alvin. She was talking to him by the second Wednesday night, inviting him to come on Sunday and have dinner afterwards. No woman had ever pursued Alvin this way. He started driving his blue Ford Ranger out to the little congregation on Sundays, too, which thrilled his own mother and pleased his father until they realized Sarah was 22 years older than her son.
—Alvin, son, his mother said. Don’t you think it would be a little odd if I was as old as Mamaw?
But Sarah’s pull on Alvin made him feel that the naturalness of everyday was real, and it occurred to him that his parents wouldn’t live forever. Here was someone who wanted to be with him and could take care of him, which she did in many ways when they married, including that down payment on land where he could live and hunt. Then they had Jeremy, who had no defects even though Sarah was well past 40, and Alvin felt the deep pride of helping bring a new being into the world who seemed to him far more perfect than himself. Alvin marveled at the way he could shut out everything else and focus on Jeremy’s learning so many things about the world around him every day.
As Jeremy grew into his teenage years, Alvin became a road manager and then an office manager of the asphalt company, and Sarah taught from fall to spring, bringing home stacks of math exams to grade, spending her evenings perched on one end of the increasingly worn yellow couch, her long shanks curled up, the sound of her sipping coffee sliding against the crinkle and whisper of papers. In the summers under Sarah’s direction the family gardened and canned, cut and sold hay from a field they cleared, kept several dogs, chickens, some hogs they let run in the woods, and half a dozen goats. Alvin loved the animals, especially the goats, with their strange square-pupiled eyes and long soft ears. He loved to watch them playing with Jeremy as equals, the young goats butting him to the ground where he would look up at them, smiling a funny mix of shame and pride.
Year after year, their lives ran along in a groove of work, church, football, baseball, hunting, fishing, working on cars, celebrating holidays, and family fights generally resolved before going to bed so the sun wouldn’t go down on their wrath.
Then on a morning in Sarah’s final year of teaching and Jeremy’s junior year in the same country high school where she taught, Alvin looked on the screen of the small television in the asphalt company office to see the World Trade Center bellowing smoke, an airplane rammed into one of its towers. He watched with straining comprehension, trying to formulate meaning around the images. No sooner did he start watching than Sarah called and said she and Jeremy were watching at school, and they stayed in touch during the day for hours after the towers collapsed.
After the collapses people started trying to understand and explain. At first, Alvin didn’t think much of it. New York City was a place of sin, the preacher claimed in the following days, comparing the World Trade Center to the Tower of Babel. Sarah said she suspected the same, but she was also sad to think of the people dying. Regular folks. They’re not regular folks, Alvin said, they’re New York nuts. But Sarah said she was sad anyway because once she’d gone to New York as a chaperone on the high school’s annual field trips, and she’d met some nice people up there. They might talk funny and move fast, but they had the same kinds of plans, children like Jeremy, and parents like her own.
Her parents had died recently in succession, her father after three years of sickness during which Sarah cared for him, then her mother quickly after of, Sarah said, a broken heart. Watching the towers fall, Sarah said, she thought how terrible it was for young children to lose their parents. She couldn’t understand how someone could give his life to do so terrible a thing as kill others; she heard people saying that Muslim men believed they would go to heaven and have a harem of virgins if they died killing the enemies of Allah, and that sounded horrible to her.
Alvin watched and listened to Jeremy as he worked to make meaning of that day. New York seemed far away to Jeremy; he’d never been on one of the field trips there even when his mother had gone, and he’d been raised to think the city was the habitat of “Yankees,” whom he vaguely understood to be pushy people who talked fast and wore black socks with tan sandals. But he now knew more than ever that New York was part of the same America he lived in, and the planes had not just gone there but also toward the nation’s capital, with one crashing into a Pennsylvania farm that looked an awful lot like where he lived.
It was the last thing that had hit him. There could be a plane coming to crash into his own house. And there was no defense against it, no way to know which commercial airplane would become a weapon. The whole thing scared him at first, but that gave way to anger and then determination to do what he could to keep such a thing from happening again. Over and over he told Alvin he was going to do something.
By the spring Jeremy had changed his career plans. He’d been offered a scholarship to play baseball at Delta State, but he declined and entered the army in order to fight the War on Terror President Bush had declared. He worked through the requisite levels of training, selection, and weeding out to become a Ranger, and he went to the Middle East to destroy all enemies of America in the Bible lands.
Alvin was very proud, and in church he would pray for the “soldiers fighting overseas for our freedoms,” and he enjoyed every time people asked how Jeremy was doing and if he was safe. His boy—big, strong, smart, good-looking. A hero.
Then pancreatic cancer struck Sarah. She died in three and a half weeks. A month later his own parents died in a car wreck, leaving him alone in his quiet house and surrounding woods. He quit going to work. His boss, who had known him all his life, put him on paid leave, so Alvin stayed home grappling with the contours and angles of bodily animation and its end.
He’d been taught his entire life to focus more on the soul than the body, but now harried by the immense absence of bodies he struggled for a new understanding, thinking how maybe consciousness was the body. The preacher’s sermons on the life hereafter began to feel oddly uncomforting. There seemed to be something more the preacher never did quite describe. Going to church began to seem less meaningful. Alvin started missing some services; then he quit altogether.
He quit going much of anywhere other than the grocery store when he absolutely had to and where he spoke to no one. Most of his time he spent at Sarah’s computer, searching YouTube for what people were saying about death and God and what the soul exactly might be. Watching videos late into the nights, his eyes burning, he felt a new swell of Providence beneath him and labored to understand the nature and will of the Being who wielded it.
Then something amazing happened: after intense hunting, American soldiers captured Saddam Hussein. Alvin believed Jeremy was one of the soldiers who found the hated Iraqi president hidden in a pit like a dog. Not that Jeremy had sent any communication saying so; Alvin had heard nothing from him in months, not even a reply when Alvin sent word that Sarah had died.
Alvin watched TV and searched the Internet to follow Saddam’s trial for crimes against humanity. But when he saw the photographs and then footage of Saddam, something inside him stood up and turned around and glared into the backs of his eyeballs. Scraggly and ugly as Saddam had looked in the pictures just after his capture, now he looked good, his features chiseled, his beard trim. And there was something else—a charisma of some kind. Alvin felt a strange sympathy for him. Some people online were calling the trial a kangaroo court, a fiasco controlled by the U.S., or maybe even the Bush family. Could that be? Looking at the man who was not much older than himself, Alvin felt an unsettling kinship.
Jeremy returned home toward the end of the trial with no fanfare. He gave no explanation of how or why he was back. He said little at all, made no effort to contact his friends. He spent the money he had buying bottles of whiskey, which he brought right into a house where no alcohol had ever been, and he drank them. He smoked weed, too, right there in the house.
At first Alvin tried to straighten him out, but everything seemed so different now. Soon he too started drinking whiskey. Then he started smoking and learned about ways of feeling that brought the world back into a place he wanted to understand and be in. Whenever he tumbled out of highs, it nearly killed him, so he learned to become like Jeremy and always be in that easy place in his head. It was Alvin who first did meth and he who learned to cook it. Then he and Jeremy together made and sold it, not in camaraderie but in cooperating purposeful silence.
Then Alvin saw Saddam’s hanging on the computer screen, the eyes glinting in the dark, swinging and staring upward, vacant, unintentioned, impotent. Alvin thought he could see finally in the video that thing the preacher always left out, and as it brought into immediacy the ancient whelming life of Babylon itself he realized where that thing had been all along, not only in the world but also in the scripture. As he watched those eyes swinging back and forth, all that Alvin had heard or read about Saddam Hussein slowly accumulated in a revolving mass, from photographs of the man’s family, now in ruins, to the words of his final letter declaring himself a martyr. And those blended into Alvin’s Sunday-school images not of Stephen stoned or Christ on the cross but of the leaders of the children of Israel slaughtering the people in Canaan-land, of Moses’s striking the rock, of Samson bringing the pillars crashing down on the Philistines and himself.
* * *
Saddam’s eyes swung in Alvin’s mind now as he guided his son up the hill and out of the woods into a small fenced pasture where stood the goats that even in his worst state he still tended to. The higher ranking of them—two exactly, one just submissive to the leader of the herd—came to the fence and followed the two men as they passed by.
But Alvin and Jeremy did not stop, stumbling on amid the soft bleats and goat-hide and manure stench, back into the woods, where Alvin laid his son on the ground. The young man looked even worse in the sunlight, the thin skin of his lips drawn back like a mummy’s. Alvin knelt beside him trying to catch his breath, his eyes closed. He didn’t hurry. When he felt better he moved Jeremy’s unresisting arms over his head.
—OK, J, he said, looking down at his son’s face.
He drew out of his belt a long knife he’d ground himself from a file, its edge uneven from the crude craftsmanship and repeated sharpenings, and lifted it in both hands above his head. The expression on his face was placid, thoughtful. He held the position for a moment, then plunged it into his son’s stomach, just below the solar plexus.
Blood slashed across Alvin’s face. Jeremy’s body cringed, but he showed no awareness of what was happening. Digging the blade in more, Alvin twisted and lifted it toward the heart and jabbed. Then he twisted the knife down and sliced the stomach open with a sawing motion. The smell was rank and heavy. When he’d made a slit down almost to the groin, he used his hands to force the torso open and grab the intestines, pulling them out. They were slippery, making it difficult, but it didn’t make him queasy. He’d done this to rabbits, squirrels, and deer plenty of times. He took out the liver and reached up and wrangled out the heart, placing them all on the pine-needle-covered ground around him.
Then he turned to a pile of wood inside a ring of stones he and Jeremy had built fires in when Jeremy was little and would have friends up here for camp-outs. Alvin had brought this stack of wood up here two days ago along with kindling he now fluffed against a backlog, his hands spreading blood on the tiny sticks and paper. He reached a blood-sticky hand into his breast pocket and brought out a cigarette lighter and started the fire, blowing the flame higher as he propped the bigger dry logs against the thick backlog and over the burning kindling. Soon the flame crackled, sending soft fragrance up through the trees in a plume of blue smoke. It was a fine day to be outside.
Carefully Alvin put Jeremy’s liver, the intestines, the heart on the flame, smelling them cook into the stink of burn. The sound of the goats bleating down the hill wafted about the woods along with the desultory chirping of birds.
Alvin did not look at Jeremy’s body but at the sky as the smoke lifted in the air. He thought about what the words “a sweet savor” meant and tried to understand the aroma he smelled. He felt very good now, like when he was a child sitting with his mother and father in the big church in town listening to a sermon about Numbers or Deuteronomy. All those details from those books bored him then, but now they seemed deeply familiar, natural, and full of a logic he’d never grasped before. In those passages he thought now he saw the strong guidance of structure he believed rooted the earth in God’s massive grip.
It was no matter. He turned away from the flame and his son’s body and walked to a nearby tree where hung the rope he’d carefully tied into a noose several weeks ago. That was when he decided he must know once and for all what it was like to be that person swinging, what those eyes were glaring upward at that he’d seen so many times in the video. He climbed unsteadily onto the tiny stool he’d set below the noose and struggled to hold his balance as he stood upright and placed it over his head. He imagined voices yelling at him and his hurling insults back at them in a language he didn’t even understand. Just as Saddam Hussein had done, just as he could do.