I Am Awake
Alice McDermott July 13, 2009 - 9:10am
Finally, in late June, the village sent a patrol car to sit at the cemetery gate and keep the kids away. Until then, there had been parties at Jake Barry’s grave. Empty beer cans and cigarette butts littered the grass every morning, and every morning, the rumor went, there was a bottle of Heineken, opened but still full, leaning against the stone.
The stunned, childish grief of those initial days (at his funeral, the kids all wore the look small children wear in that first, astonished encounter with pain) had given way to a wild defiance (some of them climbed a wrought-iron fence to get into the cemetery; warnings were issued all through the closing weeks of school that such incursions were considered trespassing and could be prosecuted by law), but the hope was that now, with school over and summer jobs and summer trips and summer college visits beginning—with a patrol car standing vigil—the kids would stay home at night, settle down, move on.
He had been a small, thin, handsome boy. “He looked like trouble,” one of his teachers said in her eulogy. And then quickly added, “Not that he was, really.”
“A real leader,” his high-school principal said, although Jake Barry had played no sport, belonged to no clubs, was known as an indifferent student, quiet in class but with a dry wit. “The pebble in the still pond,” an uncle told them. “If you were ever at his house on a Saturday afternoon, you saw it. His cell phone ringing. The other kids wanting Jake to tell them what they were going to do that night. To have fun.” It had always been this way, his preschool teacher added. She was an old friend of Jake Barry’s mother. She told of the extraordinary way the other children were drawn to wherever Jake was busy doing his solitary thing: the table where he colored or the corner where he played. They would watch from over his shoulder. They would seem content, so many of them, just to be in his orbit.
The teenagers, in their grief, could hardly have been listening. But the parents understood these stories for what they really were: only a part of the morning’s effort to shape a full biography out of the ordinary scraps of a very short life.
He was small and thin, physically unassuming, but good-looking. A wild head of pale brown hair and large, deep-set eyes. There were two dozen photographs in the slide show before the service, mostly Jake as a grinning little boy or at some distance in a vacation panorama, but three or four of the most recent pictures caught something the other kids must have seen. A smolder, a brooding, a beauty—the parents could think only of these old-fashioned words. Smirking in a black-and-white informal yearbook portrait, channeling, one of the mothers whispered, James Dean. His own parents had divorced when Jake was eight and they sat with their respective families and looked up at the photos of their boy with a strange indifference, born, perhaps, of utter disbelief. He had died of a swiftly moving infection on the third day of what they had thought was only a precautionary hospital stay. In their remarks, both of them mentioned that they hadn’t seen much of Jake lately, what with the busyness of junior year, and all his friends.
There was only a single piece of music in the service: a mournful, a cappella tune sung in Irish by a woman with a high, haunting voice. Not what Jake would have chosen, his father admitted before it was played. His father said he’d gone through the boy’s iPod: not a single track, he said, suitable for church. “But a buddy of mine sent me this. I don’t understand a word of it. It could be about a frigging goose, for all I know.” And he laughed with the congregation and then looked around him, as if he expected someone to take the microphone away. He was a large man himself, nothing like his son, with a large, flushed face that was both haggard and boyish. “Anyway,” he said. “This sounds like I feel.”
In the spring sunlight after the service, the kids, boys and girls, once again fell into each others arms, as they’d been doing since the morning they learned the news at school. But now that the limos and the hearse had pulled away, they broke out of each long embrace—one after the other—with some sudden furious gesture, a pounded fist, a palm cut through the air, an angry turning on the heel, a curse. That was the first night they entered the cemetery after dark and sat with him, on the grass beside the mounded earth.
When the e-mail went around to the parents at the school—it would be considered trespassing and students could be fined and prosecuted—Adele climbed the stairs to her daughter’s bedroom and asked, gently, if the girl had been there. She hadn’t much concern. Her daughter had gone to Jake’s funeral and sobbed with the others—it was for her, after all, for most of them, the first experience of a young person’s death—but Laura had been, in truth, on the far periphery of Jake Barry’s crowd. She was a quiet kid, a reader—she was propped up on her bed on this Saturday morning, reading now—and although she was pretty enough, especially in the washed morning sunlight of her bedroom, she still had an immaturity about her, physically at least, a boniness of arms and legs and chest, a roundness of face-braces, still, and freckles-that while it was no guarantee of good behavior was, nevertheless, reassuring to her mother who had herself, in the parlance of the era, “developed” early and run a little wild. Laura went out with her friends one night each weekend—the house rule—and more often than not came home before curfew. When there was drinking at a party, or pot, she mentioned it to her parents matter-of-factly, refusing to name names but pointing out instead that she was not naive, that she knew more about the world in which she lived than they did, and—her real point—that she could be trusted.
With elaborate patience, Laura closed the book on her knees and slowly shook her head. She had not been to Jake Barry’s grave, she said, but she knew who went, and she understood why. “They don’t want to give him up yet,” she said.
The simple clarity of the remark brought her mother from the doorway of the room to the edge of her daughter’s bed. She placed her hand on the girl’s thin thigh. In April, the counselor at school had encouraged the parents to talk to their kids about Jake. He had warned them not to be surprised by the vehemence of their children’s grief—first death of a peer and all—but also not to be complacent if their child seemed to accept the death too calmly, an indication, certainly, of something suppressed. “They will move on,” he had said. “But in their own time.” Although Laura had sobbed with the others at the service (how fragile they all had seemed, the girls especially, in their short skirts and their bare legs), she’d hardly mentioned Jake since, and in the face of this reticence, if that’s what it was, in the face of the remarkable clarity with which she had said “yet,” her mother could now think of nothing more original to ask than “Do you want to talk?”
Much to Adele’s surprise, Laura turned to the sunlight coming through the wide window. “We all wish it had been a car accident,” she said. “Drunk driving or something. A big crash. Everybody feels that way.” She turned back to her mother, buoyed, it seemed, by the invocation of that collective noun. “We hate the way he just disappeared.”
“He was popular, wasn’t he?” Adele said, but even as she said it, she knew this was the wrong word, the wrong language entirely. It was the fluff of ordinary high-school days; the very trivia the adults in Jake’s life had scraped together at his funeral. Her daughter’s shrug, impatient, dismissive, confirmed it. These kids wanted something else-a big crash.
At the service, the two families had sat in the front row, the two sets of small children—Jake’s half brothers and sisters—knocking their little legs against the sides of the pews. They were solemn under the weight of their parents’ sadness, but bored as well. They squirmed through the many eulogies, craned their necks to look around. It may have been their first time inside the church.
Adele had gone through grammar school with Kevin, Jake Barry’s father. She’d known him through high school as well: a big, loud, confident kid, a roaring, laughing drunk at parties. Handsome in a way he hadn’t been able to sustain through his thirties, when he grew heavy, had some trouble with drugs. Jake’s mother was small and fine-boned. There were three children in each of their second marriages. Only Jake in the first. Adele recalled thinking at the funeral that this, then, was the last thing the parents would share.
“Was he kind of lost?” she asked her daughter now. “The way he had to shuttle back and forth between his two families?”
Laura frowned, just the slightest contraction of lip and brow. She ran her thumb along the edge of the book on her knees. “No,” she said, as if the answer should be obvious. “He had friends.”
For three nights in a row, the crouched shadows of kids hunched over their twelve-packs approached the cemetery gate, and then scattered when the siren and the headlights caught them. The two village policemen in the patrol car didn’t bother to give chase. No one wanted to see anybody arrested. But there were other ways into the cemetery, and even in that first week the patrol car sat out front, there were mornings when the bottle of beer once again appeared. During the second week, the car moved into the cemetery itself, to the edge of the road that was closest to the boy’s grave. The nights were heating up by then and the mosquitoes growing rampant. The two officers sat there for half an hour, the engine idling to keep the air conditioner going, and then spent the next half an hour on the winding roads that ran through the cemetery, windows rolled down. Midnight to 4 a.m.
It was eerie enough: a sixty-acre cemetery in the still humidity of midsummer, the luminescence, even during a moonless week, of the monuments and the headstones against the darker shadows (as their eyes grew accustomed to the place) of trees and shrubs. Inside the patrol car, there was some discussion, inevitably, about the benefits of cremation, the costs of funerals these days. Good, scary movies. And those kids, since April, stepping over these graves in the middle of the night to get to their friend. Sitting on the grass beside his marker, working through their beers. Recollections, it couldn’t be helped, of what summer once meant when you were a high school kid, sneaking beer, sneaking pot, finding a place to make out, backyards and dark lawns and under the cover of trees. Funny stories about mosquito bites you wouldn’t believe where, about parents flipping on the floodlights, or the sprinklers. At the end of the shift, one of the officers would walk up to Jake Barry’s grave with a flashlight, just to be sure. Shine it along the base of the stone. Poor kid.
There was an incident in mid-August. It was late, the last pass of the night. The officer with the flashlight heard the voices before he saw the silhouettes of six or seven kids crouched on the grass. He played the flashlight over them. Four guys and two girls, the girls sitting together, holding each other, the guys leaning over their own knees like children studying a stream. “OK, my friends,” the officer said. He moved the light around their feet—flip-flops and worn, summer sneakers, the flash of a silver ring on one of the girls’ toes, the bare and childishly thin ankles and knees of these teenagers that made him think of his own six-year-old, asleep at home, a bare leg thrust out from under the sheet. The opened bottle of Heineken was there at the base of the stone, but there were no packs of beer on the ground, no scent of marijuana in the air. No need to make a fuss. “It’s late,” he told them. “Why don’t you go home?” He watched as they shifted on their haunches, hung their heads a little lower. He waited. All around them in the darkness were the low stones, the low hedges that were placed among the graves, the deeper darkness of the distant trees. He felt, for a moment, too tall to be here, outsized, clumsy. He felt the impulse to kneel. But then, one by one and without a word, the kids stirred themselves and stood. They moved, one by one, to touch the edge of the headstone and then turned away. Going down the slight incline that led to the road, he guided them with his light, speaking as kindly as he could, in hushed tones, about not doing this anymore.
It hadn’t been a big party, thirty kids or so, and it was still cold enough, mid-March, that only a handful of them had wandered outside to the backyard. The parents were home. They had greeted everyone at the door, checking for beer, but now they were mostly staying out of the way, maybe peeking out of a darkened upstairs window. The patio furniture was still covered in heavy, shapeless canvas. There were maybe ten of them, coatless all, but huddled into their sweatshirts or sweaters. Laura had pulled her sleeves down over her hands and had perched herself on another girl’s knee. Jake Barry had his hands squeezed into his jeans, his sneakers on the low wrought-iron coffee table between them. They were all talking about how unbelievable it seemed that no one, on this particular night, had smuggled any vodka into the party, or stashed any beer in the bushes. It wasn’t a decision any one of them had made, they discovered, it just hadn’t happened. An oversight. Kind of unbelievable. They were talking about this, mostly making jokes, making plans. Jake had his head tipped back against the pale canvas that covered the lounge where he sat, two other kids on either side of him. They were leaning forward, but Jake was stretched back, his thin body made narrower still by the way he’d squeezed his hands into his pockets. He was looking at the sky, which was as dark as the suburban sky ever got, studded with stars. He wasn’t smiling, but when Laura glanced at him she saw-how easily she could have missed it-that there was tremendous contentment in his pose, in his body and his face. He was happy. Not high, not even buzzed, just happy to be there, among them. When he suddenly raised his head, it was too late for her to look away. His eyes were large and deep-set and his thick hair kind of crazy. She couldn’t say if he’d ever looked at her so directly before. He grinned. She dropped her eyes. That was all. But it was like the passing of a joint or a cigarette or a bottle of beer. In an instant she felt what he’d felt: she was aware of the texture of her sweater pulled over her hands, the warmth of her friend’s plump knee beneath her thigh, the sting of the March air on her cheeks, the laughter around her. She was aware of being happy—a rising, swinging, briefly dizzying, zooming to the stars kind of happiness. The happiness of not, for this instant, being at all alone.
Later, when everybody—as they always did—hugged each other good-bye, Jake Barry wrapped his arms around her. Briefly, she bowed her head and pressed her brow into his shoulder. There was the boy warmth of his skin, the sweet smell of the cold night on his clothes. She supposed herself to be, from then on, among the girls who loved him.
The song Kevin Barry played at his son’s funeral had been sent to him by an old college pal who had once been a roadie for a rock band. Now he called himself an ethnomusicologist and lived in Dublin. He had lost a child himself some years ago, an infant just hours old, and this tune, he said in his e-mail to Jake’s father, was the only thing that seemed to take the measure of his grief. Never mind the words, he said. He said that what had mattered to him at the time was the sound of it: human and beautiful and full of sorrow.
His father posted it on Jake’s MySpace page late one night during that long, difficult summer when it seemed to everyone who knew him that Kevin Barry’s second marriage was going to fall apart as well.
By the fall, most of the kids had the song on their iPods or their computers. Adele heard it now and then when Laura was doing homework in her room. It was, the parents agreed, a better way for the kids to remember poor Jake than by hanging out at his grave.
That phase seemed to be pretty much over by the start of senior year. There was a Sunday morning or two, between September and October, when the beer bottle was once again discovered against the stone, but the police vigil ended when the nights grew cold and the kids, at last, grew less adamant about holding on. They had, after all, so much to do, with college applications and AP courses and the forty hours of community service required for graduation. The football team had a good season that fall, and there was an ambitious spring play. In February, one of the quieter seniors surprised everyone by being cast in a Hollywood movie and moving to L.A. There were parties for every “last” occasion of senior year, and big news every day about who got accepted into what university and who got turned away.
The yearbook was dedicated to Jake Barry. The dedication page showed only the smirking black-and-white photo that the kids were surprised to discover had become the photo of someone much younger than they. Beneath it was a translation of the song Jake Barry’s father had played. Turned out it was a simple love song about wakefulness and longing and a broken heart.
“Who knew?” Laura said. It was late May. She had just come in from a Friday night with her friends. She leaned over her mother’s chair to read the page. She smelled of coffee and perfume and maybe cigarettes. Adele had found the yearbook earlier in the evening, tossed on the dining room table with Laura’s backpack and sweatshirt and clarinet case-the Friday night rush to get in and get out. “I haven’t really looked at it yet,” Laura said.
In the last six months, her braces had come off and she had cut her hair; she had begun to move with the easy confidence of a bright child newly freed from adolescence. She’d be studying English at Columbia in the fall. “I was going to read it in bed.”
Adele handed the yearbook to her daughter. “Don’t stay up,” she said. “You’ve been a bear every morning.”
The lyrics of the translated song were mawkish enough, of course: mouth, eyebrows, and cheeks, the lonely moon rising and the heart pierced. In Irish, at the funeral last year, the music had been unburdened by such cliché. Although they’d all bent their heads to listen, the woman’s lovely keening had evoked no equal response from the mourners, who seemed only to wait politely for the lonesome sound to end. Perhaps, Adele thought now, turning off lights, it had something to do with Kevin Barry’s joke that the song, for all he knew, was about a frigging goose. Perhaps it was the relief, after all those mundane eulogies, of words without meaning.
She climbed the stairs. Peeked into Laura’s room to say goodnight. Laura, in bed, looked up from the yearbook and said with a laugh, “These are some of the lamest senior quotes I’ve ever read.”
Kevin Barry had been a large, loud party guy, all of his own Irish heritage reduced to merely an excuse for being drunk and crazy. Adele had had a few encounters with him, in her own wild days. They had fallen together, collided, it seemed, maybe half a dozen times over the course of a summer. She remembered that he’d left her breathless, a little frightened. Overwhelmed. He was funny, but also manic, kind of desperate, as if he knew (she realized she could say this only now, in long retrospect) that a sorrow like no other waited for him in his future. There were nights—how long had it been since she’d thought of this—when he bruised her skin with his grip.
She got into bed beside her husband, who was already sleeping. A few minutes later, the hallway outside their room dimmed to full darkness as Laura turned out her bedside light. There was the thud of the yearbook as it dropped to the floor, and then, rising to fill the silence of the house, the sound of rain at the window.
According to the yearbook translation, at the end of the song a banshee tells the young man his heart will never heal now that love has pierced it. “In soft simple language,” the lyrics said, she tells him, “When love enters the heart, it will never be driven from it.”
Adele wondered what the kids at last year’s service, had they been given the translation, would have made of such a “never”—what with Jake Barry’s parents and his two separate families there among them. She wondered what they made of it now that they had, in their own time, moved on. Before Jake, their first death, they had some notion of what time could do to even the most ardent avowals of never-ending love; now they knew that it could also dismantle sorrow.
There was rain through the night that ended well before morning. Well before morning, Laura made her way down the stairs in the familiar darkness. As was her routine, she put her shoes on at the door, and then threw her coat over her head. The wet streets reflected in starbursts and long white ribbons the streetlights and houselights above her. The drum of rain on her coat made her think of the sound of fingertips softly tapping. The rhythm was broken, indistinct, but persistent. She walked quickly, four short blocks, and the car pulled to the curb just as she arrived at the appointed place. The wipers were going and the side windows were fogged, but even as she reached for the door she could tell there was movement inside; they were making room for her.
About the Author
Alice McDermott is the author of six novels, including Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1998, and After This, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.