We dug a grave for her Uncle Page near the Apalachicola River. Me and Wallis, with two shovels taken from her uncle’s shed.
The river was nearly dried up after the summer droughts. It’s must’ve been 95 degrees out there. It’d been in the 90s all week. The type of heat that makes you feel like you’re moving through an actual substance—heavier than air. About four feet down in the earth we started hitting nothing but roots and stones.
Wallis got a splinter in his palm and spent more time picking at it than he did digging. He cursed under his breath and bit at it with his crooked, yellowed teeth. Something about this guy’s mouth. Like he had a condition that made it always move. It made me worry.
“You know the Seminoles,” Wallis said. “What they used to do was put the deceased’s body in a chickee.” He pronounced it slowly, chick-hee, like it was the biggest word he knew. “Which is sorta like a gazebo thing with a thatched roof, made of cypress branches and mud and shit. Then you’d think they’d burn the damn thing up, like a funeral pyre. But no, the family would just pull stakes and leave the body to the animals. How bout that?”
I gave a grunt of acknowledgement and shoveled more dirt on top of Uncle Page’s grave.
“And they’d take the dead guy’s personal belongings, his feathers and pelts or whatever, and toss them into a swamp. Did you know that? About the swamp?”
I told him I didn’t. Something small and white caught my eye. I stuck the shovel in the dirt and picked it up. It was a jawbone, with little jagged teeth running down it.
“What you got there?” Wallis asked.
“Dunno,” I said. “Looks like a jawbone.”
“It human? Lemme see.”
“Ain’t human. Keep on packing that dirt down, will ya.”
I stepped down into the bank and dipped the jawbone in a brown puddle of the river’s remains. Drops of mud and clay hung on when I shook it off, so I polished it off on my jeans.
Years ago, I found a ’38 buffalo nickel out here in the woods. Guy who owns the thrift store off of main valued it at about $500. Easy, he said. I still got it in the cigar box on top of my dresser. Since then, I keep just about everything I find in the woods.
Parked outside his apartment, I thanked Wallis for his help and braced for a talk. He took a sip from my silver flask and said, “No problemo.” He sipped again, and after a hybrid burp/hiccup he continued, “Margie gonna be pissed, ain’t she? It’s all…ain’t she something? Margie?”
“Sure is,” I said. I took the flask away and repeated my thanks.
Wallis sat there, staring at the dashboard. His dirty forehead was sprinkled with droplets of sweat and his eyes were large, like he was expecting something bad at any moment. It’s a look he had frequently. A child in a man’s frame.
“She gonna ask about him,” he said, saying it to the dashboard as much as me. “Ain’t she?”
“Some things, Wallis,” I said. “There are some things in this world a husband and wife don’t ask each other about.”
“This one of those things?”
“Yes it is.”
“Helluva thing. I’ve never seen nothing like…goddamn.”
I helped Wallis into bed and locked his door behind me. Five minutes later, I pulled into my gravel drive. The living room light was on. Margie’s probably watching her singing shows.
She muted the volume on the TV and said, “Was he home?”
“He wasn’t there, sorry,” I said. I hung my hat over a dining room chair. Walked up and kissed her on the forehead. “We waited around a bit but he never came home.”
“He’s a real son of a bitch, that Page.”
I put the jawbone on top of my dresser next to the cigar box and hopped in the shower. When I got out, Margie was standing in front of the dresser, turning the jawbone over in her hands. She looked at it for a few seconds then put it down on the dresser and went back to her show.
She never asked me where the jawbone came from.