The night was clear and cool a thousand miles from the barn as an old Chevy moved steadily down the gravel road just outside of Memphis. The radio was blaring out the sounds of a local station, complete with scratchy bass, and fading in and out. The driver, intent on being home for Christmas, ignored the exhaustion creeping into his mind. All he could focus on was being home with his little girl that next morning. It had been a big week; big month actually and tonight’s party wound down the events leading up to his older brother’s departure for sea duty. They drank a lot of beer, ate a lot of bar-b-que and now all that was left to do was be home when the little girl opened her presents on Christmas morning. He would be cutting it close, and would arrive most likely as the child rose to greet the biggest day of the year. Sherman Road was like all rural roads in Tennessee in that it wound, and wound like a snake through the trees; a snake with a bite for the unwary traveler who didn’t pay attention to its winding ways. Its rough gravel complained beneath the tires as the car lumbered on through the darkness. The head lights frequently glaring off into nothingness, causing the driver to slow down and check out the turn. Then the road seemed to go straight for a little while, so he picked up speed. Any time he could gain would be valuable. He simply could not let the little girl get out of bed and he was not there. Then, suddenly the form of an old man, with long gray hair with black streaks ambled across the road with a stick in his hand appeared before his lights. Stopping in the middle of the road, the old man stood there, and stared at him as if he didn’t care if the car struck him or not. The driver swerved to miss the old man, and the car lost its grip on the loose gravel, plunged through an intersection and through a fence surrounding a local equipment rental business, coming to rest against a telephone pole. His head smashed against the windshield, and he lost consciousness amid the blare of the radio, and the hissing of the escaping steam from the radiator. The old man who had been walking across the road came over to inspect the car. Looking inside at the unconscious driver, he reached into a bag slung across his shoulder and retrieved some sand. Taking one of the driver’s hands, and then the other he placed the sand into them. Bending over he whispered into his ear, “You are now Dreamwalker. You stay here! Someone is coming. You will be my eyes, my ears, and my will. You will see that my will is carried out. And you will not leave this place until I tell you to go. Your soul is bound by my magic, and by my will. The driver’s hands clenched the sand. The old man stepped back, inspected his handiwork, turned and walked down Sherman Road, disappearing into the darkness.
It was hours before they found the driver, and by then the injury to the brain was too massive to be reversed. Paramedics noticed that his hands were clenched tightly, but didn’t bother about it because of all the other injuries he had suffered that night.
His mother was summoned to the hospital and was told of the condition of her son. She was a simple woman of good Baptist roots who didn’t want to hear that her son was gone, but the body was still here. It was like some macabre scene from an old horror movie. A true night of the living dead. The doctors explained in detail how the brain stem had been damaged, but she took that to mean that he was still “there” but just couldn’t communicate with anyone. Then, one of the doctors took the breather off the man in the bed.
“See?” he reasoned, “He doesn’t breath without the respirator. The brain stem no longer has the capacity to demand oxygen. There’s nothing left. Let me explain it this way, the brain, as you know it, can actually be dead, and yet this area beneath that we know as the stem will still make the reflex actions work. Breathing is one of these actions. You son’s brain stem no longer works. Your son is dead. I’m sorry.”
“Could I be alone with him a moment?”
The doctors all nodded and left the room. She pulled a chair over to the bed and looked at her son. All the promise, and all the hope was still there for her, but the doctors said that it was gone. She wasn’t a great theologian. She was a simple woman from Tennessee who believed that a person was alive until their heart stopped beating. The doctors thought differently though, and after all, she was just one old woman from Tennessee. Her family, such as it was, sat outside in the hallway without the intelligence or conviction to even come into the room. It had been this way all of her life. Ever since she was a little girl she’d had choices put on her that no one wanted, and this was just one more.
“Mike,” she began, “I know you can hear me, son. I can’t do nothing about this. They say you ain’t here.
Inside I know you are, but I don’t know if even you would want to stay here like this. They told me that you are paralyzed now and that you’ll never be the same. They even told me that you would be an idiot if you ever come out of this. Son, I’m gonna have to let you go. I’m gonna do it, ‘cause I’m the only one with the strength to do it. It’s better to be with our Lord than to be here like this. I know you’ll understand. Please forgive me, son. I gotta do what I gotta do.”
She looked up at the ceiling but her eyes peered beyond it, and into the heavens beyond human sight, or understanding. “Lord, let this sin be upon me, and not my other children or my husband. I do this on my own. Lord, please take my Mike to your bosom and take care of him ‘till we all get there. He’s a good boy, Lord, and I know he’d done a bit of drinking, but that don’t make him bad. You use my boy Lord, and I think you’ll see that he has a use. He’ll come in right handy if you let him. He’s got a quick mind, Lord, and I’m sure that you’ll find something for him to do that he can make you proud of.”
She got up and went to open the door. “I think ya’ll need to come in and say good bye to your brother now.”
One by one, the brothers and sisters filed in and talked to the unconscious man. Each one had some heart felt statement to tell him, and none of them could tell if he could hear them. All except Claudette, a thin girl with a persistent pained look on her face. She stood there with her husband, Ed; a fat man with a red face who breathed in short labored gasps. As each person leaned over she watched her brother lying on the bed, but she would not draw near to him, when just then she thought she noticed something.
“His hand moved!”
They all looked intently at the man’s hands, but could not discern any movement. The hands were still clenched just as they had been since the ambulance brought him in that morning.
“It did move. I saw it,” she insisted.
Claudette was a tall, Tennessee woman who only owned two dresses and about five pairs of jeans. Her black, stringy hair hung unkempt to her shoulders, and her teeth needed work. To be honest she was the mirror image of her mother at her age, but she had other issues her mother did not have. Dyslexia clouded her reason and in this back woods community that was equal to retardation. Her mother had been glad to see her married, even to Ed, because an “idiot girl” was hard to marry off. Back in school she’d been given to fits, and fainting, and the family had grown used to her outbursts.
“Nervous reaction, that’s all,” one of the attending doctors said. “His hands are still as they have been all along. The reaction has given his hands that grip you see.”
Claudette looked back at her brother lying in the bed. She could sense a struggle going on within him. He was trying to open his hands; she saw it! He was trying to show everyone in the room something that was in his hands as if that had something to do with his condition. It was then she realized that he could hear her! He could! “Mike, I ain’t no part of this. You know that! I saw it!” She looked at the people in the room, “You do this and I’m leaving. I’m leaving forever, and I ain’t ever coming back here to this trash!”
Her red-faced husband told her, “Just pipe down Claudette! No body wants to hear your retarded nonsense today.”
She turned on him, “I put up with you all these years. Had two boys by you, and all you can do is make fun of me. Well, if you’re a part of this I’m gonna put you in the pot with the rest of them. I’ll just leave you here with them!”
The fat man shrugged his shoulders and looked at the others, “Hey, ya’ll know how she is. Heck, she can’t even read! Just a retard, that’s all.”
Claudette leaned over, kissed her brother, and left the room. One by one they all left and the old woman was finally alone with one doctor in the room.
“She said he moved. You sure there ain’t nothing can be done?”
The doctor looked at his feet. “The man is brain dead. What your daughter saw was a nervous reaction. His hands have been clenched like that since they brought him in. It doesn’t mean anything. Only that the brain is damaged. He can go on like this for years. You don’t need to put yourself, or your family through this.”
“All that drinking. That’s what done it. Partying all them nights, but he never hurt nobody. He always made people laugh. You would have loved him. He learned to walk on stilts, and ride one of them one- wheeled bicycles just to make us all laugh. Will he suffer?”
“No ma’am. He’s already gone. He doesn’t know anything right now.”
The old woman sadly shook her head, “Yeah he does, Doc. Yeah he does.” She looked one last time at her son and said, “Just do it.”
The doctor leaned over and disconnected the life support, and as he did the man’s hands unclenched, letting a small bit of sand fall to the hospital floor.
The Butcher Shop