That Dead People’s Song

I was getting smoke in my eyes around the campfire when Jeremy and his crew walked past. They were like the lost boys. They stayed in whatever hideout they had, drank stolen beers, and groped willing subjects. That night, they walked past in full view. Heads down in a single file, quiet and respectful. I sneaked away and followed without anyone noticing. They were heading for the beach.

We sounded like a junkyard xylophone as we plunked down the rusted stairs that led from the top of the cliff down to the river. The water was like obsidian reflecting the lights of a yacht harbor a mile across from the other side.

When we reached the sand, Jeremy and the others noticed me. Before they could protest the little kid tagging along, Jeremy put his arm around my shoulder to walk with him. After, Bill, who was older than Jeremy, stopped, looked around.

“Here, this looks good. I think I’ll do it here.”

The other boys were holding things, preparing things, but it was too dark to tell what was happening. A kid with a rat-tailed mullet handed Jeremy a white towel wrapped around something.

Bill was at the water’s edge, looking across the Elk River. I fell into ranks as the others formed a semi-circle behind him. Then, as if they’d been rehearsing this moment, the boys unfurled an American flag as Jeremy unwrapped a trumpet from the towel. He stepped forward, handed it to Bill and stepped back into the fold.

The still black water gave way to a ripple as Bill waded up to his knees. No breeze, no boats on the water, just the pencil thin beam of Turkey Point lighthouse sweeping across the river at intervals.

Bill pressed the trumpet to his lips and stood there breathing through the sides of his mouth.

We waited.

One long, tentative note started, then another.

I knew the song. They played that song in war movies when people die.

He played that dead people’s song, fell to his knees and cried.

Jeremy went into the water and brought Bill up and hugged him.

“I tried my best.”

Bill sounded like me when I wanted my mom.

Jeremy assured him, “you did great, brother,” and handed me the trumpet as he walked Bill to the sand. He held Bill and whispered something to him. Bill was really crying now and kept saying how he fucked it up, he missed a note.

The other boys were looking at their shoes, the sand. These were the tough kids. They beat each other’s asses and talked shit and called each other faggot for going home for dinner on time. But none of them could look at Bill, except Jeremy.

He held Bill. He whispered things into Bill’s ear and held him some more and let him slobber on his shoulder and cry an ugly cry.

I wrapped the trumpet up while the other boys put the flag away. We walked off the beach and let Bill disappear because he said that’s what he wanted.

Jeremy let me hang around for a little while before he said to leave so I didn’t get in trouble. I asked him what happened to Bill––why did he do the dead person’s song? He said Bill’s uncle went to Vietnam before we were born and never really came back. He said Vietnam finally killed him.


Rob Kaniuk has been described as a good for nothin dropout junkie and a washed up tradesman. He likes sitting on the porch, telling stories to his niece and nephew. You can find his writing in a few places.