This morning, we buried a true son of Paskaloochee. His name was (is?) Earnest Hetman, but everyone knew him as Het. Everyone loved him as well, which explains why a particular incident of primary importance to the latter half of his life was curiously unmentioned by his official eulogizers. As expected, each in their turn – Het’s friends, two sons, and sole surviving sister – merely regaled us with the little, endearing moments that supposedly defined him.
There was, I suspect, some unspoken agreement among those in attendance, that the story was a cause for embarrassment and that dignity in death was paramount. I cannot say for certain, as this opinion was shared neither with nor by myself. In the end, it was of no great consequence; all present had been there to witness the event in question and excising it from the biographical portion of Het’s funeral did not rob his remembrance of any glory. Still, its conspicuous absence did provide his death with a context it would not otherwise have had. And as I was not asked by my peers to verbally send off my dear friend and drinking buddy, I feel it my duty to record the particulars of the unmentionable happening, if only for the sake of posterity.
Put simply, it had to do with Het’s preparations for his death. They began well before there was anything wrong with him and this surprised no one. Due to Het’s rare gift of the gab, everyone in Muddburough County (and a more than a few folks beyond) knew that his father had died at age 49, as had his father’s father. In fact, Hetman family tradition had long held that the men-folk were destined to die sometime during or before their 49th year. Whether this fate was manufactured by curse or some genetic disposition was no clearer to those in the family than those outside it. Comprehension was irrelevant, for Het believed it fully and the moment he turned 49, took to ‘putting his house in order’.
He made no futile attempts to prolong his life. His four food groups had long consisted of cheap cigarettes, aged whiskey, canned whatever, and the various and sundry wriggling things he could pull out of the swamp. In spite of all of this, his was in good health and was told as much during the many visits he made that year to his family practitioner. Such visits, by the way, were not in the interest of prevention, merely prediction; when you have a project you must complete, a deadline can be an effective motivator.
So it was that Het was as surprised as anyone to find his 50th birthday drawing close enough to consider its celebration. It was to fall on a Monday and when the preceding Friday rolled around (without so much as a heart palpitation or sniffle) Het decided to send himself off with a bang. Driving his trademark, rust-pocked, hybrid Chevy/Ford with the wooden flatbed into downtown proper, he proceeded to invite every soul he could find to his “going-away party”. I found out about the “blesséd bonfire of bon voyage” when I overheard him selling the idea to Martha Ballyhoo and the Cleeve sisters. Naturally, my family and I were invited right along with the rest.
Though I had known about Het’s impending demise for quite sometime, I had never quite been able to wrap my head around it. Yet, I could hardly think of anything else, the fault of which lies with my Aunt Caprice. She has long occupied the upper-west wing of our familial estate. For a much longer time, she has nursed an unrequited love for Het. So she spent much of his 49th year rehearsing her remorse at the passing of such a fine testament to manhood. If you have ever lived with a natural-born dramatist bereft of a stage, then you are familiar with my predicament. I refer to that year as “My Time in the Field”, for I spent much of it away from home and out of doors, surfacing only for sleep and meals, both of which I took in my bedroom; merciful grace saw fit to house me in the east wing.
Sunday could not arrive quickly enough. That morning, Pastor Whitely gave a rather clipped sermon and church let out early – so early, in fact, that the finger paint and paste was barely dry on the hands of the Sunday school children before their mothers whisked them home. As Christians have never labored under quite so austere a sabbatical restriction as those of the more conservative Jewish faiths, there was no need to grant special dispensation for the weekly prohibition against work; in modern Christian reckoning, if action does not result in money, then it is not work. So plenty of effort went into Het’s party, though not in the ways one might expect.
With little exception, the attendees got ready for the macabre shindig in the following manner:
- Sunday morning finery was eschewed for the most drab, dingy, stained, wrinkly, moth-eaten vestment one could find rotting quietly in the far corner of the least used closet of the house.
- Small meals were cooked quickly and consumed even more quickly, with scarcely a nod to leftovers. With the exception of soda, punch, and typical camping fair like marshmallows, hotdogs, or shish kabob fixings, no food was prepared for the party. This was mighty odd, for while death and feasting are simpatico companions in most societies, they are conjoined with nigh religious fervor among American Southerners. Should the curious vocation of sin-eating ever be resurrected, it is certain to first arise in the South.
- When possible, younger children were left in the care of their older sisters or, when necessary, their mothers. There was much strenuous, manual labor ahead and since males are considered by many to be specifically designed for this work, there was hardly a female present under the age of eighteen. There were plenty of teenaged boys, though. Do not judge this archaic classification too harshly, as Paskaloochians can be quite progressive on gender issues, so long as it is convenient.
This uncharacteristic laxness and oddness in preparation was the result of a poor assumption. Common wisdom held that Het either had a load of money or its material equivalent and from the moment he announced he would give away what he could and burn the rest, the greasy wheels of greed began to turn. Though not an overly private man, Het was somewhat of a loner who, spending most of his time in the wilderness, kept small and humble lodgings. Not being the most outwardly welcoming of homes, there were few who had actually ventured into it. These facts alone were sufficient to birth the unsubstantiated rumor about the modicum of treasure holed up beneath the floorboards or hidden away behind the drafty walls. However, Het having sent his sons to Ivy League schools did not help matters any. All Hetman men loved to spin tales, but they were neither boastful nor arrogant. So beyond a couple of kindly confidential high-school teachers, few knew that the boys had achieved their advanced educations on the backs of smarts, hard work, grants, and loans.
None expected his sons to mind the loss of the old homestead. The boys were grown by then and moved out with families of their own. Their father had already delivered on the keepsakes they had long coveted – worthless items rendered priceless by memory and its attendant emotion. Besides, though the land on which it sat was fine enough, the cabin itself was not the kind of place one inherits. Of course, it was not the cabin but what might lay within that brought the well-wishers running.
Armed with such faulty premises, it was reasonable to conclude that arriving at the party with nice clothes, piles of food, gleeful broods of rosy-cheeked youths, and spit-n-shined automobiles might give off an air of wealth. On the other hand, the absence of laughter amid the slim pickings of meager morsels and ancient rags rendered rougher in appearance by a day’s toil might imply that those in attendance were in need of charity. To these hopeful mourners, Het’s last hoorah was a game of chance in which the most desperate antes stood to gain the most.
The generations-old plank-cabin itself was to be the soirée’s chief burnt offering to the gods of family tradition. Since Het planned to simply burn the emptied structure right upon its earthen foundation, there was much work to be done in gutting and securing the cabin for the sake of safety. That this might provide a chance to snoop and clandestinely pocket what they could was lost on no one. To that end, nearly every invitee arrived early, doing so in the humblest vehicle they owned. The interiors, like the exteriors, had not been cleaned in the least – only emptied to allow maximum storage space for passengers and implements of destruction, i.e. sledges, claw-hammers, crowbars, saws, etc.
A rough assemblage of volunteers from the four local fire-stations were also on hand, as much to manage the inferno as to watch the fireworks. The usual permits had been waived by Mayor Shep Furman; there simply wasn’t time to file and he still owed Het on a legendary poker game from when they were young men. Despite my instinctual distrust of politicians, Furman is known to be an honest and fair man. The debt was substantial, but he had paid toward it regularly and, as I understand it, Het himself suggested forgiving the debt in exchange for cutting of the red tape.
By the time my family arrived, there was already an impressive pile of warped planks, worn-out furniture, and tools in various states of disrepair. They overflowed an old fire-pit that had seen its fair share of abuse. We arrived later than most because the women of my family – and a few others – were decent enough to bring food and refreshments. These were half-consumed before the party even commenced; the sweating masses had not thought to bring nourishment and hydration as compensation for exhaustion. Fortunately, there remained ample amounts to serve as hors d’oeuvres, if not an outright feast.
As the last sliver of sun rolled behind the piney forests west of town, the backwoods hecatomb to Het’s well-lived life was lit by his own hand. The accelerant was his prized store of 80+ proof whiskey, which was poured over the sacrifice with as liberal a generosity as any Abraham. Much of this fuel was moonshine, but the present officers of the law turned a blind eye. Maybe it was because they were off-duty and the culprit would be dead before they next took up the badge. Maybe it was because Het never sold it, keeping it only for personal consumption (Lord, but that man had a liver!). Maybe it was because he had reserved the best of his stash for the partygoers’ throats. Maybe it was all of the above, but I wager it was simply because this was Het’s party and everyone loved Het.
It was safe to say the party was in full force, the early part of the evening consisted of the many beneficiaries-in-waiting vying for Het’s favor. Reminiscence was the topic of the day and tended, with hardly an exception, to showcase those sentimental times when the one bringing it up had aided Het in some manner. There was a lot of “Remember that time” or “Can you believe it’s been almost 15 years since”, not to mention plenty of “I sure wish there was something I could do for you now”. Het, being neither cruel nor naïve, humored them all, giving to each their time to fawn. After all, many of these people had honestly and earnestly helped him in the past, if only with a kind word or extra shoulder for his burdens. That they thought of reward now did not mean they had thought of it then.
Besides a few odds-and-ends, Het put only his own hand into those of his supplicants. That sturdy, respectful handshake and the unwavering, wistful look that followed were all it took for folks to get the picture: there were no riches to be had here. Knowing Het as I do, I imagine he was genuinely disappointed that he had little to actually give them. But he had time. Yes, he had that and it was a gift rendered all the more precious because it was quickly running out for the man.
With the line of petitioners, like the first ritual fire, now calmed to a slow and steady burn, Het turned his attention to the rickety structure that had so faithfully kept the seasonal heat and precipitants from his balding head. The crazy son-of-a-bitch snatched up a full bottle of 17-year single malt and splashed it liberally over the floor and walls before tossing his Zippo to the floor. Light and heat obscured the view and a few, tense moments passed before Het erupted from a window already thick with flame and smoke, wearing a wide, shit-eating grin. In joyous return, the crowd erupted in applause.
Outwardly, the party was in full swing. In the hearts of the celebrants, however, it was all over but the waiting. It was no secret that Het had been born at midnight, on the dot – just missing sharing a birthday with his mother. Knowing this and having paid their respects, most began gathered their belongings and headed home. Having come (in part) to celebrate the man’s life, no one was anxious to witness his death. Certainly there were some who hung around to rubberneck the train-wreck that was sure to constitute Het’s last few moments, but whether through impatience or some latent sense of dignity, even they left before midnight. Aunt Caprice, to her credit, had managed a soft keening throughout most of the festivities. Then sometime after 10 o’clock, she suddenly burst into wailing and threw her arms around a gently accommodating Het before being dragged off and home by some of our neighbors. Only his kindest acquaintances and closest friends stayed until the bitter end. It was no coincidence that this remainder consisted almost mainly of my family and those few others who had come late, dishes in hand.
The closer midnight approached, the more I could actually feel it, like a taut fishing line tugging my gut toward the molten center of the earth. Wandering away from the others, I found Het sitting silent and alone on a log beside the fire. He looked at, through, beyond the flames devouring the first 50 years of his life and there was something sacredly dangerous in his face, in the sag of his broad but bony shoulders bent like a branch ready to snap. None would approach him, choosing instead to clean up what would not burn. But I sensed something in his posture that did not insist on solitude so much as invite silence and I sat down beside him.
The log beneath us was smooth and clean of bark and the muck of the swamp from which it had been salvaged. It was a good seat, excepting the deep cool and damp that had long gathered in its length. To guard my new jeans, I pulled off my windbreaker and folded it into a makeshift cushion. Still unsure as to what to say or do, I decided to scoot beside him and throw my arm around his tense frame. I cannot say I felt him relax, though I did hear an exhalation that might have been a sigh and reflexively turned my face toward him. (Was that a grin I saw or just a play of light and shadow?). As I did so, I caught site of Het’s old, tarnished watch. It clung to his thick wrists by a band of leather thongs, braided with an eye solely toward function. In that far from diminished wash of firelight, I saw that it was five past midnight.
I was barely 10 years old at that time and have not only lived to see Het live another 24 years, but have become his very good friend. Faithful to his character, Het wasted no time in rebuilding his cabin or his life. The fire was out by noon, its embers sufficiently cooled to permit a comb through with a sturdy branch. In no time at all, Het found the iron remains of the many implements he had sacrificed to that preemptive pyre. Enough nails were recovered for him to refashion a hammer and an axe. In a fine example of recursive ingenuity, he used the axe head to first shape a handle from a sturdy piece of oak, into which he then pounded the nails, securing the hammerhead to the wood. That hammer was then used to assemble the axe, both of which served him well for the rest of the labor. Some years back, the axe handle broke halfway up the shaft. What remains of it hangs above the bar at McTeague’s Spirits. It is a testament to tenacity, for Het was the most tenacious son of a bitch I am ever likely to meet and I, along with the other regulars, will miss him like the dickens.
Not once in those ensuing days did he ask for assistance, though plenty of it arrived over the next week – first in sympathetic trickles, then in shamed droves. His sons pitched in the most, with nary a comment or condemnation. Het had done a stand-up job caring for them when their mother had died and they were happy to pay toward a debt they could never erase. Some of the money Het had given away was returned and some was not. I never inquired toward an accounting of it and he never offered, but the occasional shy looks given him by some of townsfolk over the years have made me wonder. I do know that Mayor Furman went right back to paying off that famous poker bet, eventually paying it in full before he finally retired from office after his eighth consecutive term. I have no doubt that he simply resumed the payments without discussing the matter with Het. It is also certain that Het accepted the money without question. The knew that when not necessary, charity can easily turn to insult and like most politicians, Shep Furman was good for it.
After that, life did as it always does and went rolling right along, like the whole, mad affair had never occurred. When I next sat beside Het, I was a teenager fishing upon the banks of Lake Ginny, whose ever cold, ever dark waters were once fed to flooding by the tapering extremity of long-vanished Red Wolf River. A few years later would see me sitting next to him at McTeague’s (This was back before it moved to Begley St., of course.). Indeed, I often sat there with him, right up until his death earlier this week.
I got the news from Matthew Lindle’s son, Marty, who had only just heard it from his father. He rode his skateboard up to the edge of my yard and yelled the news across my leaf-strewn lawn. According to Matthew, who finds gross exaggeration as repellent as his father, Het passed quietly by the banks of Lake Ginny, perched upon his favorite log. This was the successor of the very one we shared the night of his party, which has long since rotted back to the soil. He was found by a couple of fisherman from a neighboring county. He had been there at least a day and might have continued to go unnoticed if not for the hard lean of his posture and his utter obliviousness to the downpour which set the other men packing. Fortunately, the cool night air had saved him the indecent treatment of warmer months and allowed for an open casket. I was glad to see his handsome face one last time.
As my young harbinger remounted his skateboard, I thanked him and told him to give my best to his daddy. Then I held my composure until I could retreat into my too quiet home, of which I am now the sole occupant; my mother and her eldest sister passed nearly a decade ago and Aunt Caprice moved out around the same time, having forgotten all about Het after finding love late in life. Once inside, I cried a little and drank a lot. I am not, if you would believe it, prone to the deep, prolonged drunkenness of my father before me. I merely love the taste of whiskey, among other things, and could think of no better way to begin celebrating the passing of my admired friend.
If one day, you should come to Paskaloochee, come by the east road. There is only one, but take care not to traverse it during the spring. That is when the wetlands flex their dusky muscle, barring the way until summer flexes back. It is a pleasant enough drive in any other season and will afford you the view of a small, piney rise on your right, just as you pass the shotgun-freckled sign welcoming you to town. If you eye the hill too long, you will miss the entrance to the narrow, dirt road that leads to its summit. Take it, all the way to the plank-cabin up top.
You may enter, for the door is unlocked and Het has vacated the premises for good; were haunting possible, he is of too polite a nature do so. Before you go in, however, be sure to grab the tire-iron from your trunk. You will need it for the small work ahead. There are not so many pines on that hill that the place is well shaded, nor are the windows so grimy that they greatly obscure a clear day’s light. So any of the four rooms of the cabin should be bright enough to the task at hand.
Having picked a room, take up thy tire-iron and pry loose a floorboard or two. Het’s kin will not mind, as they are content to let the old place return, like its maker, to the dust. Having now widened a gap in an already gap-ridden floor, reach down and grab a handful of the dirt beneath. But move quickly, because the fangs on some of the many-legged and no-legged critters around these parts can pack a nasty punch. Drawing your hand back into the dim light, you will open it to find damp, dark soil rendered darker by old ash and chunks of charcoal. Pick out the largest, blackest piece you can find and pocket it. Keep it with you. When you get home, put it in that special drawer you reserve for emotional memorabilia or display it prominently on a shelf, perhaps in a fine, glass bottle. Let it, in all its asymmetrical and undifferentiated blackness, be a reminder that nothing is so written that it cannot be erased. Like the man who produced it, let it proclaim that while there is life, there is hope.