Keith Lee Morris
The Children of Dead State Troopers
The Amazon frogs were confusing. A hundred-piece puzzle, and it looked simple enough in the picture on the box, but there was little variation in the size or the shape of the pieces, and several of the frogs looked alike, black with green stripes, black with green spots, predominantly yellow with black spots, predominantly black with yellow spots, red legs with yellow stripes on a black body, red back with black legs, and often the legs or little bulbous toes overlapped, so that when you thought you were looking for a piece with a red leg you really weren't, but would discover the right piece was the black hindquarters of a frog with green stripes or yellow spots. Randall Moon sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor with his three-year-old son Brandon, the puzzle piece of a frog with a blue head in one hand, a coffee mug in the other. It was 10:00 on a sunny Friday morning in the Moons' new home in South Carolina, and Randall Moon and his son Brandon had already had two Pop-Tarts apiece and watched an animated movie with lions in it, though the plot was difficult for Randall to follow because he was thinking about his wife, Connie, who had finally gone to the doctor two hours ago. If nothing were wrong, she should be home by now.
"And this frog goes here," Brandon said, trying to work the head of a red frog onto the toes of a green one.
"Maybe," said Randall Moon.
Brandon was wearing a T-shirt but no pants. His little wiener dangled on the floor as he shifted back and forth gathering puzzle pieces. Randall thought that he should do something about the dangling wiener situation, and it was the third time he'd thought that since Brandon shed his skivvies to run and take a pee-pee on the pot, and he decided that the third time was a charm and that he was going to get around to doing something about it, so he set his coffee mug on the floor far away from Brandon and pointed at it and said, "Don't touch that, Brandon, it's hot," the way Connie had taught him to say the word when referring to the stove, with steady but not angry emphasis, and he walked down the hall past the kitchen to his left with all the dirty dishes Connie hadn't had the energy to clean and he himself had not gotten around to, and when he had given up on finding the discarded skivvies, he rummaged through Brandon's top drawer without finding a clean pair there, either, and then the phone rang.
Turning the corner into the living room he saw Brandon holding the receiver. "Who is that?" Brandon said. "Who is that?"
Randall Moon grabbed the phone and Brandon did a little stomping dance and furrowed his little eyebrows and opened his mouth wide. Randall reached down and tickled him under his arm to keep him from crying. "Hello?" he said, the receiver slipping down onto his shoulder. He got it back to his ear in time to hear his name. "Randall Moon? Yes. That's me."
"This is Officer Joe Butter Rentals calling on behalf of the State Troopers Association. Mr. Moon, you may not know this but in the state of South Carolina 3.7 state troopers are killed each year in the line of duty."
Joe Butter Rentals wanted money, that much was clear, and although Joe Butter Rentals, despite his strange name and perhaps even because of it, possessed an admirable voice, a commanding voice, pitched low, resonant, precise, with a nearly theatrical tonal gradation, a voice that said very clearly Listen to me, Randall Moon wouldn't, because although he was a salesman himself, of pharmaceuticals, he had no patience with phone solicitations. He hung up immediately. He resumed his place on the floor, retrieving his coffee mug with an outstretched arm, forgetting his son's dangling wiener.
He picked up a red rear-end piece and found where it attached over a yellow leg and let Brandon do it. "That's right, turn it this way, that's right, just like that." Brandon giggled and grabbed another puzzle piece, what appeared to be a black knee overlaid with another frog's yellow toes, and Randall had no idea where it might fit in the whole bewildering scheme. A sticky chunk of cherry Pop-Tart clung to Brandon's hair, and this reminded Randall Moon somehow about the boy's lack of pants, and he sighed and stared out the front window at the huge beech tree, yellow leaves fluttering from the branches to the ground. Connie should be home by now. Last week she had stood in the bedroom late at night and bent over in her bra and panties, her yellow hair hanging toward the floor, and said, "Here. Right here. Feel." Randall Moon felt the spot on the top of his wife's head and told her that he didn't feel anything, and she asked him to look, and he did, and he said he didn't see anything, either. "When I bend over," she said, bent over, her fingers on her scalp, "it hurts right here."
Within days it hurt all over her head, and the pain was so incapacitating, she said, that she was soon incapacitated, gone from nominate to predicate in no time flat. She had wallowed through the days, dizzy, pained, discombobulated, tired, while Randall Moon worked, but when he arrived home in the evening she could do nothing but collapse on the couch, and today he had finally called in sick so she could go to the doctor, and she should be home by now. The pain in his wife's head worried Randall Moon.
"Where does this one go? Where does this one go? Where does this one go? Where does this one go?" Brandon said it four times before Randall Moon heard and said that he guessed right here maybe, guiding his son's hand, but the piece wouldn't fit, a yellow frog with a green head that he thought might fit with a pair of yellow legs, but no, it did not.
The phone rang. It made Randall remember that he had forgotten Brandon's pants. "Mr. Moon, Joe Butter Rentals."
Joe Butter Rentals said no more for the moment, and Randall didn't hang up. He heard a great breath over the line, an insuck that seemed to pull a flurry of leaves from the beech tree. "Three-point-seven state troopers per year, Mr. Moon, so that if one were to do the math, so to say, multiply by thirty, let us say, the number thirty representing the years of a single generation, the number of dead state troopers would total over one hundred, one hundred and eleven to be precise."
Randall heard the great breath over the phone, saw the beech leaves fall in another spasmed swirl. "And?" he asked.
"'And?' I said. I'm here. I said, 'And?'"
The breath again, followed by the low, measured, almost musical tones. "And these 3.7 troopers, Mr. Moon, annually, one hundred and eleven over a thirty-year period if you should choose to do the math, die horrible deaths. They are shot along the roadside, Mr. Moon, bleeding in ditches, they are run over, their bones crushed, or struck by vehicles traveling at--"
Randall Moon hung up. He went to his son's bedroom to get a pair of skivvies and a pair of pants. The phone rang.
"--traveling at indecent rates of speed, killed by speeders, sir, in fact, or held at gunpoint before they could draw their own weapons, sacks over their heads, marched into the bushes and shot execution-style, if you only think of what--"
"What do you want?" Randall Moon said, his hand to his forehead, looking around the room for his coffee cup, which had inexplicably disappeared, Brandon looking up at him now, his rear end grazing the cold floor, not wearing any pants. "What do you want, exactly," Randall Moon said. "I'm busy today." As if to prove this point he sat back down at the puzzle, handling a squarish piece with part of a red frog with black spots and part of a black frog with green ones.
"As are the state troopers, Mr. Moon, busy, sir, like you, except that they are busy on the roadways of your state--"
"I'm from Idaho," said Randall Moon.
"--on the roadways of your adopted state, protecting you, Mr. Moon, and your loved ones, and your friends and neighbors and colleagues, subjecting themselves all the time to the whims of an unpredictable populace, a populace primarily populated with good citizens like you, Mr. Moon, but occasionally populated with the kind of person that shoots one, crushes one, drags one into the bushes by the side of the roadway--"
Randall Moon dropped the receiver to its cradle, quickly, as if his arm could not respond rapidly enough to the powerful force of gravity, but he caught a few last words from the baritone voice of Joe Butter Rentals: "--and think of the children, Mr. Moon."
Randall Moon thought of his own child, Brandon, and how he didn't have on pants, and how he might forget and have an accident and pee-pee on the floor. Once again, he set off in the direction of his son's bedroom, down the hallway strewn with toys that he hadn't had the energy to transport to their proper places today, and, curiously, he felt as if he were being followed by the voice of Joe Butter Rentals, and he heard for the first time that Joe Butter Rentals had a southern accent, which he somehow hadn't noticed before, not a thick country drawl and not a broad genteel tincture of an accent, but one of the in-between kinds he heard sometimes when he talked to doctors or pharmacists in the small towns or the outskirts of Columbia, one of the kinds he couldn't place in terms of class or education because he didn't understand, didn't know the South, because he and Connie had come from Idaho just three months before because of the job. He was standing with one hand in his son's pajama drawer, and he snapped to, stopped hearing the voice of Joe Butter Rentals, and he rummaged the drawer until his hand found a pair of Tarzan skivvies, but in the pants drawer there were no pants, and so he found an almost clean pair in the laundry hamper, stacked to the top with dirty shirts and dirty pants and dirty bras and dirty towels they hadn't had the time or energy to clean lately, he and Connie, he with his job and she with the pain in her head, and where was Connie now? She should be home already.
The phone rang. Randall Moon picked up the receiver but did not press the answer button until he had seated himself next to Brandon on the floor, Brandon's butt on the cold wood floor and what were they coming to, anyway, the house a wreck and their son partially unclothed half the morning and that distinct smell he smelled each time he walked through the door, sweat and dirt and old food, and Connie not home yet, maybe looking right now at an x-ray of a brain tumor, and where was his coffee cup, maybe behind that towering stack of newspapers and unopened mail on the table, and where did the piece of the red frog with the yellow spots go, did it fit right there next to the back of the black and yellow striped one? He laid out the pants and skivvies on the floor and answered the phone.
"Joe Butter Rentals?" Randall Moon said.
"Butter Rentals," Joe Butter Rentals said. "Mr. Moon."
Brandon stood, his wiener dangling. "Who is that?" he said. "Who is that?"
Randall moved the receiver from his mouth just slightly. "It's Joe Butter Rentals," he said, and as he said it he realized with some embarrassment that the man's name was not Joe Butter Rentals, but that this was just the way he heard it, a product of the accent he didn't understand, its deep bassoonish smoothness, and that the man's name was probably Joe Butler Ennis or Joe Ben Raines or even Allen Cooper for all he knew. So Randall Moon tried very hard, his lips pressed close to the receiver, to say the words exactly as he heard them, going over them slowly in his head and letting them come out as they seemed to have been spoken: "Officer Rentals?"
"Rentals," Joe Butter Rentals said.
"Officer Joe," Randall Moon said. "What children?"
"What children should I think of?"
For a moment there was silence, and then Randall Moon heard the breathing, and he looked out the window at the beech tree to see if the leaves fell, and they did. "I assumed it was clear, Mr. Moon, that we were speaking of the children of dead state troopers."
"Oh," Randall Moon said. Outside the window the beech leaves blew and the South Carolina sun, which seemed to Randall Moon an entirely different sun than the one he had grown up with and felt he knew, a violent sun, this one, in summer like a hot stove coil, and not the one like a pleasant underwater light he used to know during summer in Idaho, and now this one in the fall like a pleasant warm light bulb when it should have been a rattling space heater trying hard to keep out the chill, this sun spun its way to the tops of the swaying pine trees across the road and threw a dancing light in Randall Moon's eyes and on the green and red and yellow and black frog puzzle on the floor. Randall Moon hung up the phone.
He had, apparently, been having a conversation with Joe Butter Rentals about the children of dead state troopers, but he had not been aware of it, and now he tried, as Joe Butter Rentals had suggested, to think of the children of dead state troopers, but he couldn't, only his own child without any pants, back on the floor now trying to fit the wrong piece of a blue frog into a slot that clearly called for a red one with yellow spots, or possibly green. Randall Moon picked up the skivvies and the phone rang.
It was an unusual method of phone solicitation, no two ways about it, this method of Joe Butter Rentals's, and effective in a sense, though Randall Moon wondered when the part about money would come around, and as he let the phone ring twice, three times, he compared briefly this temporary job of Officer Joe Butter Rentals's, who must surely be out there on the roadways himself most days, to his own job, picking out a suit in the near dark of the bedroom, driving, gliding by the kudzu, the train tracks, the old abandoned railroad depots, general stores, into the little towns, the main streets lined with once-proud homes, dilapidated now, plywood on the windows, rotten porches, peeling paint, and then the doctors' offices, striding in head up, shoulders square, gripping the briefcase tight, then waiting for the doctors, for the breaks between patients, the lunch breaks, and the noises from the rooms in the meantime while he made sure his samples were straight, his tie straight, the coughing, the complaints, the shuffle of feet down a hallway, and then the doctor's handshake and the touting of decongestants, antihistamines, antibiotics, analgesics, pimple creams, none of which would be of much assistance if one were, say, crushed, struck, shot in the head, or if one had a brain tumor like his wife, Connie, thought she had, and she should be home by now, and it occurred to Randall Moon as he prepared to answer on the fifth ring that it might be better if he did not tie up the line, and that if Joe Butter Rentals had something to sell he'd better sell it quick.
"If you only think of what, Mr. Moon, the children of the dead state troopers must abide. Please allow me to tell you that it is not an easy thing. Please imagine a scene, sir, perhaps in the afternoon, and the children of the state troopers have arrived home from school. They are seated in front of the television, let's say, perhaps a cartoon is showing, and maybe there is a bowl of popcorn, maybe the sun shines brightly and colorful leaves fall from the trees, and then comes the phone call . . . are you there, Mr. Moon?"
"The phone call, the communication, the knowledge that one's father, or, in .2 cases annually, one's mother, a state trooper, has been crushed, struck, shot execution-style, or garroted, Mr. Moon, if you know the meaning of the word, the children of the dead state troopers are given to understand that the father, the mother, the former state trooper, has been exploded with dynamite, Mr. Moon, which did in fact occur once, in Kentucky, in 1973."
Then came a pause, the breathing. Randall Moon looked at the beech tree and said, "What is the point?" He ran his thumb over a puzzle piece, a black frog with yellow stripes and tiny black eyes, bulbous, expressionless, and looked at Brandon, who had miraculously found the spot where the left side of a green frog's head fit. "What is the point about the children of the dead state troopers?"
There was a heavy breath, a sigh, and a gust of wind outside set the wind chimes on the porch clinking. "Would you allow me, Mr. Moon, to continue, please? A few more moments, and then I promise not to take up any more of your valuable time." The breathing again.
"We come into this world naked, sir," and the voice seemed even more sonorous, resonant, deeper, if that was possible. "We are all naked in the womb, we arrive that way, naked, trusting, unafraid. You have a child of your own, Mr. Moon."
"I do. He's naked now," Randall Moon said, although he couldn't imagine why. "Or almost."
"I said he's naked now. My son, Brandon. He's sitting right here, and his little wiener is dangling on the floor."
Brandon looked at Randall Moon and laughed, looked down at himself and laughed again.
"That's your prerogative, Mr. Moon," Joe Butter Rentals said. "Mine is not to question why. If you are comfortable allowing your son's wiener to dangle, then, by all means, let it dangle away. But let me tell you that the children of the dead state troopers are not naked, Mr. Moon, the children of the dead state troopers are, indeed, now fully clothed, and they are out there, in the world, and they possess the knowledge that out there also is a man, or on occasion, such cases amounting to the death of less than one tenth of one state trooper annually, a woman, a man or woman who is out there also, if he or she has not already been electrocuted, gassed, lethally injected, shot, hung for the crime he or she has committed, the crushing, striking, shooting, garroting, exploding, in one case beheading, in Nevada, in 1984, of a state trooper, this one person is out there, whether locked in a correctional facility or still wandering the streets, but in either case sharing the same air, observing the same celestial phenomena, the seasons in their passing. And imagine the effect, Mr. Moon, on the children of the dead state troopers. For even if they are not, have never been, never will be, the victims of such atrocities as were committed against the dead state troopers themselves, they are singularly marked, affected, by the atrocities, and by the perpetrators of the atrocities, as if the perpetrators had, through their acts, left an indelible print upon the foreheads of the children of the dead state troopers. On the one hand innocence, goodness, health, on the other corruption, evil, sickness, like twinning strands, like a bad marriage of opposites. I assume you're married yourself, Mr. Moon?"
"I am," Randall Moon said. "I am. My wife, Connie, she's at the doctor's now. She may have a brain tumor."
"She may," said Joe Butter Rentals. "She very well may. Your wife, Connie, may very well have a brain tumor, Mr. Moon, and if that is in fact the case you can certainly empathize with, understand, grieve for, the children of the dead state troopers and their terrible plight. For in that case, it would be, would it not, Mr. Moon, as if you had a brain tumor yourself, and so it is with the children of the dead state troopers, that they feel as if the atrocities have been committed against them, the crushings, the strikings, the shootings, garrotings, beheadings, and in some instances, Mr. Moon, when the foulness seeps way down, when the rottenness has its way, the children of the dead state troopers may come to feel that they have in fact committed the atrocities, that they are indeed the murderers of their own fathers and mothers, the murderers of the dead state troopers, and in one particular case, in Massachusetts, in 1992, the child of a dead state trooper did in fact become--but you don't need to hear that, do you, Mr. Moon? You've already guessed."
Randall Moon wanted to hang up the phone. He had arrived at the conclusion that Joe Butter Rentals was not selling anything, and the house felt cold to him, and the frog puzzle and the cherry Pop-Tart in his son's hair and his son's unclothed state and the silent fall of leaves out there in the sunlight weighed on him suddenly, pressed him down, but he held onto the receiver and listened to the low, steady breathing of Joe Butter Rentals.
"Do you see now, Mr. Moon, how it is with the children of the dead state troopers? How it is that they have, in effect, been shot, crushed, struck, exploded, beheaded? How it is true that, in so many, many cases, the children of the dead state troopers may just as well be dead?"
Randall Moon hung up the phone. He had heard enough, heard enough now to understand the terrible plight of the children of the dead state troopers. And for a few moments he did empathize. But his thoughts turned, as they always did, and he wondered at the sinking feeling, the feeling of being pressed down, the feeling, as he watched his son Brandon attach the very last puzzle piece, the head of a red frog with black spots, to the body of the same red frog with black spots, of being pulled under, as if he saw his half-naked son looming there over the pieces, saw the newspapers and the bills, the toys strewn around the room, the shining sun, the falling leaves, as if he were holding his breath deep down somewhere, beneath the surface of his life, beneath the circumstance, and he wondered why he should smell the dirty laundry, the old food, the sweat and decay so dully, as if his nose were plugged, and he wondered how it was that now, as he seemed to sink beneath the surface, he felt suddenly crushed by the weight of his life, struck blindside by circumstance, blown up to bursting with his own troubles, a hole in the middle of his head, or a tumor, if he did in fact have a head at all, of which he was no longer certain, and he reached his hand slowly, as if it were rising through water or earth, to the top of his head to make sure. The phone rang.
"Have I brought you to an understanding now, Mr. Moon," said the low, smooth voice of Joe Bud Reynolds, because of course that was his name, Randall Moon decided, simple, plain, nothing unusual about it at all, and the voice seemed even lower, smoother, as if it were attempting to soothe a wound, "of the children of the dead state troopers?"
"Yes," Randall Moon said, fingering his scalp. "Yes, you have."
"Then it is time I asked you for a small contribution, Mr. Moon, a small gesture on behalf of the children of the dead state troopers, fifty dollars, say, for which you will receive the official State Troopers Association bumper sticker, the official State Troopers Association copper belt buckle, and the official State Troopers Association ballpoint pen. May I put you down for a fifty-dollar contribution, Mr. Moon?"
"Yes," Randall Moon said. "Yes, you may."
"Thank you," said the deep voice of Officer Joe Bud Reynolds. "We will contact you by mail." And Joe Bud Reynolds hung up the phone.
And as Randall Moon hung up the phone himself he felt a lightening, an airy feel, because Joe Bud Reynolds had provided him with an opportunity to relieve the pressing burden associated with the children of the dead state troopers, a chance to unweigh himself, rise back to the surface, where he could see his son's nakedness and the strewn toys and the stack of newspapers and bills and the dirty clothes and dirty dishes for what they were, the circumstances of his life, the moment-by-moment progression, the moments forming a trail like the strewn toys or the dishes expanding away from the sink or the roads he drove down every day, a trail that consisted of the inability to put on Brandon's pants, the frustration, x-rays and brain tumors and violent headaches and the possibility of violent death, guilt, abandonment, headless bodies, blood and brains, the yellow frog with the blue head that didn't seem to fit anywhere no matter how hard one tried, the dirty house leaning so fast toward decrepitude that one couldn't keep up, and all the things one couldn't keep up with and the things one couldn't understand, the chance that one's wife might die and that this would in fact be like one's own death, and Randall Moon wished his wife were home by now, and that her head no longer hurt, and he wished that he could take his fifty dollars and fling it at the sky, a tribute, a testament to the dead and the dying and the ones who felt dead and dying, and looking out at the beech tree, its branches twisting now in an urgent wind, Randall Moon imagined his money and the money of all the other Mr. Moons, as many as Joe Bud Reynolds could contact in a day or week, or a whole host of Joe Bud Reynoldses, imagined all this money falling from the sky like leaves, and while his son, Brandon, stood there with his wiener dangling, in his trusting nakedness, his eyes and mouth open wide, Randall Moon flung the pieces of the Amazon frog puzzle into the air, returning them to their proper disorder, the disorder of days and weeks and months and years, and the colors fell with the money too, the greens and reds and yellows and blacks and blues, all the colors of the world, and empathy fell, and grief fell, enough for everyone, enough empathy and grief for every melancholy soul, falling like rain out of a clear blue sky underneath the strange sun that kept on climbing, unaffected by our gravity, and the children of the dead state troopers would have their share, as would Randall Moon, who realized, now, that he had been the child of a dead state trooper all this time.