"James Bone", a new story by Harvey Sutlive.
June's apartment is pretty drafty. Last fall we stapled clear plastic inside
the windows. Her house, overall, is not in good shape. It's divided into
small apartments, and mostly students live in the other rooms.
Downstairs everybody shares a big kitchen. The landlord is this energetic
hopeful guy, with no money. He works on the place on weekends. He trades
rent for maintenance or repair jobs, and everybody in the house does work on
it one way or another.
For warmth, June has a small gas space heater. The plastic we stapled over
the windows helped a lot. Unfortunately we couldn't see very much outside,
except for a glow. And, the plastic stretched after a couple of weeks, and
it flapped on the window sashes and made noise whenever the wind blew.
But spring finally came, and the weather changed. In fact, the night Smith
died, we had our first warm rain. The wind started blowing early in the
evening. The sound of the plastic on the windows woke me a couple of times.
Then the rain fell, pretty hard, but it stopped before morning.
The sun was up when Mom called me about Smith. My phone was in my jeans
pocket. I dug it out fast before the ringing bothered June. The sun was
shining on the back of the house. I talked to Mom in a low voice. Sunlight
was glowing on the plastic on the windows. I yanked away the plastic on one
of the windows while I talked to Mom. I raised the window sash, and a warm
breeze blew straight into the room.
"No that's no problem," I said softly to Mom. I was looking at the tree
branches in the back yard.
"...if not — it's probably OK," she was saying.
Smith, her father, wasn't answering his phone. Smith my grandfather in other
words. Mom was worried about him. He lived in June's neighborhood. Mom was
already at work, and she wanted me to see if he was OK. He was probably
really drunk, so he wasn't answering his phone.
"I'll go in a couple of minutes," I told her. "I'll call you from his place."
June moved on the bed, and I leaned down and kissed her. Except for some
boxes, and the bed, there was no furniture in June's room. Eight other
people lived in the house. Her windows needed work and her walls needed
painting. Paint and plaster falling from the walls made a band on the floor
round the edges of the room
I put on some jeans and a flannel shirt and grabbed my phone. I decided to
skip coffee. I thought I would make coffee at Smith's place when I checked
on him. On the way downstairs I let my hand slide on the heavy staircase
banister — it was sanded down — it was really smooth — somebody was
refinishing it. June was doing that, or maybe somebody else that lived in
James Bone lived straight across the street from June's house. He was
already outside — he was sitting in his rocker in his usual spot in the
center of his front yard. The air was damp from the rain the night before. I
waved from June's porch. James waved back and looked away.
Marais is a small town, with a college, and some old neighborhoods, and
three pretty good-sized factories, all closed. We're in the mountains, and
we get quite a few whitewater rafters and trail hikers in the summer and
fall. That's about it. James and I knew each other pretty well. We didn't
have too much in common, except he was Mom's boyfriend for several years
when I was a kid.
"Morning," I said in a pretty loud voice. I crossed the street.
"Morning," said James. He was drinking a mug of coffee and smoking a
cigarette. He looked at an empty aluminum lawn chair near his wicker rocker.
"Get that one for you," he said. Aluminum lawn chairs surrounded James Bone
James' yard was in the shade. For him, June's house blocked the sun in the
early morning. I shook the water off my chair and sat down.
It was too early in the spring for any trees to leaf out. All the trees in
James' yard, all the trees in the neighborhood, were bare. But crocuses and
jonquils bloomed in most of the yards. Banks of azalea and forsythia bushes
bloomed round all the house underpinnings. The houses were settled deep in
their lots. The street was roofed over with heavy tree limbs and leafless
branches and thick masses of twigs. The sidewalk was heaved and cracked from
"How's the garden," I asked James. I was trying to wake up. James was
drinking his coffee. The armrests on my chair were clammy. I wished I had
some regular coffee — James drank shitty decaffeinated instant coffee.
James was one of these ex-hellraisers that get middle-aged, then they turn
into gardening fanatics. He'd cut down a couple of pretty nice trees in his
side yard just to establish a garden space. He'd already set out a dozen
tomato plants. The soil was too cold, but he ran plumber's heat tape in rows
under the plant roots. He switched the tape on at night, and he covered the
plant tops with plastic buckets.
I stared back across the street at June's house. The floor of the front
porch needed painting. Tony, downstairs on the right, when you first went in
the door, was supposed to take care of that. James was telling me something
about his tomato plants. I realized I should have put on socks.
James noticed I wasn't listening — he stopped talking right away. I wished I
had a jacket.
"Have you been for a walk this morning?" I asked.
"Yes I have," said James. He sucked on his cigarette. He and Mom were
together for five or six years, but he could never commit to the whole child
thing, me in other words, and Mom finally dumped him.
"You didn't see Smith anywhere did you? Mom wants me to check on him."
Smith was well known in our town. As a younger man he was a professional
musician. His instrument was the cello. He came to Marais because they gave
him a teaching job at the college.
Before Marais he played with a symphony orchestra, but he had a back injury,
so he couldn't work on that level any more. His back got worse in Marais, so
he gave up teaching too. After that he started going downhill. A lot of rough years
passed before he finally leveled off, at bottom basically. Anyway that's where he
was by the time I knew him.
His name was Smith Hunt, but nobody called him by his full name. Nobody
called him Professor Hunt, or Mister Hunt, or Dad, or Grandfather. When
people saw Smith they smiled and nodded and kept walking.
"Why doesn't Polly drive over herself," said James belligerently. He was
still uncomfortable with the reality that Mom dumped him.
"Last time this happened I talked to him and made him some coffee," I said.
"He wasn't really that drunk."
"He doesn't eat enough," said James.
Thin metal noises drifted across the street. On the porch of the big blue
house next door to June, a red-headed guy and a short bald guy were
grappling with a heavy three-wheeler cycle. This cycle had a huge wire
basket bolted to its back wheels. The men were tipping the cycle upside down
and balancing it on the heavy basket.
The bald guy stooped over and spun the back wheels. He kept the wheels
turning at a moderate speed.
The redhead rummaged in a grocery bag. He pulled out a quart bottle of motor
oil. He studied the bottle, then he unscrewed its cap. He dumped the whole
bottle over the cycle chain and back and across the back axle.
"Look at those assholes," said James. He bit a hangnail on his index finger.
He pitched his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it.
The old lady in the blue house had a bad fall, and broke her hip, then she
moved to the country to live with her sister. She died after that, and her
children sold her house to the town council. It was converted to a halfway
shelter for transitioning mental patients.
I remember hearing James vent about it to Mom. She defended the town
council. She and James had an argument. James grew up in the neighborhood,
and his house meant a lot to him — he was protective about it. The shelter
really bugged him.
The redhead flipped his empty oil bottle over the porch railing into some
forsythia bushes. He knelt down and set his hands on the pedals of the cycle
and gave them a full turn. The chain with a crisp wet crunch jumped straight
off its sprockets.
"Jesus Christ," said James. He and a couple of other property owners on the
street had formed a neighborhood group, and they were trying to buy the blue
house back from the town council. So far they weren't having any luck with it.
The sun cleared June's roof — it shined on James' side yard. He turned in
his rocker to watch the light strike his garden space — he was out early
precisely for that moment. A few seconds passed.
"Tell Smith I said hi," said James politely. He was ready to go uncover his
"OK," I said.
"If he acts crazy you come get me."
"All right I will."
I walked the five doors down to Smith's house, which was cut into
apartments, something like June's house, but nobody was trying to work on
any of the rooms. Some of the windows were missing glass panes. Tenants
parked their cars in the front yard. I climbed the steps on the porch.
The front door was open and I walked upstairs to the second floor. I tapped
on Smith's door. Light floated up the staircase and splashed on the hallway
ceiling. There was a light fixture in the ceiling, but it didn't have a
bulb. The other doors in the hallway were closed. I tried Smith's door but
it was locked.
One of the hallway doors opened to a bathroom, and inside that bathroom
there was a door that connected to Smith's apartment. I went in the
bathroom — the light didn't work in there either — the close dimensions of
the room and the gleaming sink in the dark little room bothered me. The
interior door was open, and I was able to get to Smith's apartment without
making a fuss.
He had a pretty big living room, then a narrow hallway to a kitchen, and at
the end of the hallway, a little bedroom. I looked around for a second. The
kitchen was clean. A cello was propped in a corner in the living room.
Mom had convinced Smith to start seeing this doctor that specialized in
well-care. Smith was supposed to be learning a healthier lifestyle. The
doctor had heard Smith play cello on old recordings — he sort of believed in
Smith, and he convinced Mom to put up the money to buy a second-hand
practice instrument. The doctor believed that if Smith started playing
again, he wouldn't drink so much.
There was no one in the kitchen. The floor in the hallway was swept. A broom
and a dustpan were leaning against the wall in a corner in the hallway. I
knocked on the bedroom door.
Nobody answered, so I opened the door. That was such a small room — maybe it
was a servants room at one time. It didn't have a window. Smith was in
there. He was on his back, on his bed. His eyes were wide open and his mouth
was open. He was glaring at the ceiling.
A gas space heater by the foot of the bed ran full blast. Thick hot air fell
out of the bedroom door when I opened it.
I put my hand on his shoulder and his body didn't move at all. In a jerky
way I wondered if I should try something: CPR, or mouth to mouth
resuscitation. I stared at Smith. Heat came off the gas heater. I thought
the air in the tiny room might make me sick if I stayed any longer.
The two cyclists from the blue house had crossed the street and they were
talking to James Bone — they were pointing to the three wheeler on the porch
of the blue house
"What," James said to me.
I sat in a lawn chair. "I checked on Smith and I think he's dead," I said. I
gave James the details. I looked around the yard. I scuffed my feet on the
ground in front of my chair.
I played in James' yard all the time when I was a kid. The old lady in the
blue house was still living then. In the evenings Mom and James would sit
outside and talk and drink for hours. Their friends would come over. In a
lot of ways Mom and James got along really well.
James squinted at the two guys from across the street. Their names were Bill
and Ellis — James and I knew both of them. The three-wheeler belonged to
Bill, the redhead, who was fat and he usually wore short pants, even in cold
weather. Ellis, the other guy, was bald and he had a speech impediment. They
always hung out together. "Go check the wheels like I told you, the back
axle," James told them. "That's your trouble. Make sure the axle's on
straight. Measure it. Do that first."
They nodded like they didn't really get what he was saying — he pointed to
the blue house and told them to check the axle and figure it out.
"I'll call Mom," I said. I took my phone out of my pocket.
"She'll just rush over here," said James. He looked at me. "She'll make
herself feel like shit."
"What should we do," I said.
"Call the hospital. I'll go with you to meet the ambulance." He leaned
forward and pushed himself out of his chair.
James went in his house and washed his face and got some cigarettes, and I
called 911. We walked down the sidewalk together to Smith's place.
When we got upstairs I realized I'd forgotten to unlock the front door. I
pointed to the bathroom door and we went inside the apartment. "He's in his
bedroom," I said. We walked down the hallway to Smith's room.
We opened the door and checked on Smith. James got this drained expression
on his face right away and he closed the door and walked back to the living
room, and I followed him. He pointed to the sofa in the living room.
We sat on the sofa. The furniture in the living room was second-hand thrift
store stuff, but not too bad-looking. There was a heavy old bureau, against
the wall near the window, that was in our house when I was growing up. Mom
gave it to Smith when he started seeing the well-care doctor and it seemed
possible he was settling down a little.
The bureau had a glass top. Several family pictures in little frames were
propped up on the glass, and a couple of pictures that showed Smith when he
was playing music. I was in some of the family pictures. I walked around the
room and looked out the window, and I looked at the pictures on the bureau.
There was a spoon and a bottle of preludin, which Smith's doctor prescribed
for him, on the bureau next to the pictures. There was white powder on the
glass all around the bottle.
Smith and the well-care doctor were making progress with healing on the old
back injury. Smith was practicing regularly on the cheap cello. He still
drank at bars all afternoon and into the night though. He came home at
closing time. With the preludin prescription he could drink coffee and crush
some pills with the bottom of a spoon, and snort them, and play till six in
the morning. Then the newspaper came, and he read that, and slept till one or
two in the afternoon. The pills were supposed to be therapeutic, but they
didn't work as directed if you came home late from a bar and used them the
way Smith did.
James sat on the sofa. He found a newspaper and opened it — in the street
downstairs we heard the ambulance.
I ran downstairs. A police car stopped behind the ambulance. The 911 guys
hustled a stretcher upstairs to Smith's apartment. A young-looking
policeman, with a scraped place on his cheekbone, climbed out of the patrol
car behind the ambulance and followed the crew inside.
I let them in the apartment and the crew rolled the stretcher down the
little hallway to the bedroom. A few minutes later they came back, without
One of the guys explained that Smith wasn't eligible for transport in a
hospital ambulance. The coroner's office transported deceased people — that
was a regulation. He would notify the coroner's office. He got on his cell
phone and called the coroner's office, then they left.
The young policeman stayed. James made room for him on the sofa. He gave the
policeman some of the newspaper to read.
They waited. The policeman was turning the pages of the paper. He was
looking at pictures mainly. He showed me an advertisement with a picture of
a curly-haired, somewhat misshapen retriever puppy eating dog food from a
big bowl. "Here's the dog from Timothy Milling," he said.
"I saw that too," said James. "I thought about picking up a number."
"I did get a number," said the policeman. He looked at the picture.
"What are you talking about," I said.
"A feed company is givin' away this dog in a raffle," said the policeman. He
pointed to the paper.
"Not that exact dog," said James. He bent towards the policeman and looked
at the picture. "I wouldn't mind having a good bird dog, for a pet," he
"Me too," said the policeman. "But I'd want to hunt him too."
"Is that breed pretty good," I asked the policeman.
"Lord," he said animatedly. There was an extra loud noise outside — the
coroner's ambulance was in the street downstairs — they must have turned on
their siren at the last minute. I ran downstairs.
"The best dog in the world for shooting duck out of a small..." the
policeman was telling James as I went out the door. James was nodding
The two coroner guys rambled upstairs and into the apartment. They were
dragging a stretcher behind them. James sketched out the basic facts and
they hauled the stretcher down the little hallway.
Soon they too were back again, without Smith. They were both punching
numbers into cell phones.
They were interested in their job now. The smaller of the two guys got
through to the coroner's office first. He asked to speak to a particular
person. He looked at the policeman sitting on the sofa.
"The old man's got a heartbeat," he yelped quietly. "Can't take him to the
coroner in that condition." He started talking into his phone.
"A heartbeat!" said James.
I felt sick. The other crewman sat on the sofa and stretched out his legs.
"He's stiff as this sofa we're sitting on," he said sympathetically.
The small crewman got off the phone. He looked at us and squinted. "The old
gas heater," he said loudly. "His heart's beating..." He raised both his
hands in front of his body in a fist and squeezed in, then relaxed. ".like
this," he said kneading his hands. "Running on nerves."
"Just like a frog," agreed the other crewman.
"Not checking for a heartbeat," said the small crewman. His eyes were set
pretty close together. "Lucy Regional made a error — skippin' that."
"Can't claim they checked, now," said the other crewman quietly and
"Have you got the door open?" I asked. "Is the heat off?"
"Nooo, uh-uh," the two said together.
Then the 911 ambulance was back. The 911 guys stomped though the living room
fast with mad looks on their faces.
There were footsteps down the hall, and some shuffling noises, then Smith
came out on a stretcher. 911 drove away with him. The coroner's crew watched
that, then they drove away too. Later we heard that Smith's heart stopped on
the way to the hospital.
James gave his phone number to the policeman. I found a plastic grocery bag
in a drawer in Smith's little kitchen, and I collected all the pictures on
the bureau in the living room and slipped them in the grocery bag. We left
the policeman at the house.
A crowd was gathered in the yard to watch the ambulances. A red-nosed old
man with phony concern like grease on his face asked James what was
happening. James was lighting a cigarette. We walked back to his yard.
"If you need me, I'll be over here," said James. We were standing on the
sidewalk in front of his yard. He swatted me on the shoulder, which made the
pictures in the grocery bag rattle. "Want me to call Polly?" he asked. He
inhaled and blew out cigarette smoke.
"No thanks," I said. I wasn't looking forward to telling Mom.
James half-waved good by and turned toward his house. He walked up the
sidewalk, but almost immediately he veered and detoured sideways to his
vegetable garden. Carefully, with the edge of his foot only, he tipped over
two rows of upside-down black buckets — one after another, fresh green baby
tomato plants appeared in the damp garden soil. Then he went in his house.
There was movement at the far end of the block — Bill and Ellis from the
blue house were riding their three wheeler. Bill had his fat self wedged
sideways in the basket in back, and his friend Ellis was at the handlebars
pedaling efficiently. They were happy to have the cycle working again. It
was easy to see that from a block away. They looped twice round the end of
the street and turned and headed for downtown.
I punched Mom's number into the phone. The street pavement was drying in the
sun. While I was talking to Mom and telling her about Smith I crossed to
June's house and went straight to the kitchen.
Mom said she was coming to get me so we could go to the hospital. I turned
on the stove to boil some water for coffee. She couldn't help reprising
Smith's life a little — she was his kid after all — she had believed in him,
on a certain level, similar to the well-care doctor I guess. I set up
Smith's pictures on the kitchen table while we were talking.
June was probably still sleeping. Nobody else was in the kitchen yet. I
listened to Mom. I told her I had the pictures, and she was glad about that.
Eventually we did get off the phone — she was already on her way to pick me
up. I made the coffee and poured a cup. I sat down at the kitchen table. I
felt a little trickle in the chest of — happiness — or relief from
pressure — a little localized shiver. There was no expression for it. I
smelled the coffee because it was too hot to drink. And Marais is so small
that Mom was there, in her car, in front of June's place, tapping the horn —
before I could finish just that one cup.
Harvey Sutlive's fiction has appeared in Offcourse Issues #20, #18, #17, #16 and #25, as well as in many other print and online publications.
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