Two big things happened that fall. Fellow Arkansan Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton became president of these United States and one week earlier on Halloween, my friend, Bobby Baxter, dressed as an angel and fell from heaven. Bobby didn’t deserve none of what he got that year, and me and Kurt also died that night on that mountain in Alpena, the one with the four trees and nothin’ else, least that’s what my older brother Kurt says, and ‘bout this time every year on the anniversary of that evenin’, I’m inclined to believe him.
That summer, right before school started, Bobby’s daddy up and left him, his momma, and a table full of bills. Bobby’d been bummed ‘bout two months when Kurt got his bright idea. He’d told Bobby that Halloween mornin’ on the bus that if he’d crawl up that tallest tree at Four Trees, he might be able to see his daddy, and that his daddy might just be able to see him, and if so, he could get his daddy back. To this day, I still ain’t exactly sure what good Kurt thought could come of it, and hell, he likely didn’t either, but Kurt was older and smoked Marlboro Reds, so I listened, and Bobby listened too.
The plan was devised on the bus to and from school that day. We’d attend the Halloween carnival at church and then make the hike up to Four Trees where Bobby’d scale the tallest one, and with some luck, under that harvest moon, his daddy could see him far away as Little Rock.
As the three of us walked to church, all the leaves on the sidewalk was the color of burnt pumpkin seeds and red Kool-Aid. I’d gone as a mummy. Kurt was Billy Ray Cyrus, but he just looked like our fat aunt Sally. Bobby’d gone as an angel. We knew good n’well it was his Christmas pageant costume from the previous year when we was in the fifth grade, but none of us said nothin’ because, well, his daddy had left and all.
At the carnival, we’d bobbed for apples and ate enough candy corn and cotton candy to piss sugar, and for a good bit it seemed all was right and that Bobby’s dad had never left him. But right after Kurt had been shot down by a tenth-grader named Amber, he grabbed me and Bobby by our costumes and said we was outta there.
We’d walked pretty quiet to Four Trees. Kurt brought along a pint of Wild Turkey, a six pack of Bud, and some cheap walkie talkies he’d lifted from the Piggly Wiggly. He gave me and Bobby a beer to share, and he kept the other five and the whiskey for himself. Kurt had the tolerance of our daddy.
So we get up there to Four Trees and the night was so clear and the moon was so big, it seemed we was lookin’ at that sky through a telescope. The three of us stood there at the base of the tallest pine starin’ straight up. Kurt tore into them walkie talkies and handed one to Bobby and told him that with this he could keep us informed as to what he was seein’. Bobby’d looked down at the walkie talkie and then up at the tallest tree and said he wadn’t sure this was gonna work. Kurt told him it would, and he told him that if he were scared, we’d turn ‘round. That maybe he shoulda dressed as a chicken or a girl for Halloween. Bobby looked at the walkie talkie, foolin’ with the volume. At that moment, that static from the walkie was the only noise in all of Alpena. But Kurt and me knew Bobby wadn’t no chicken, and we also knew we was scared shitless to go up that tree up on that hill at night, but thinkin’ back, the only reason we tried to get Bobby to do it was ‘cause we knew he would.
Bobby said he wadn’t sure ‘bout goin’ up that tree, chicken or girl, or whatever the shit we wanted to call ‘em. So Kurt said he’d give him a whole Bud and a Marlboro Red and let him think on it. So that’s what Bobby done. He stood there doin’ his best to sip that beer and smoke that cigarette, and I reckon he figured climbin’ that tree might be easier than finishin’ that drink and smoke. I’d told Kurt we should leave, so Kurt told Bobby to shit or get off the pot, and just as we started to walk away, Bobby started to climb that tree.
He’d made it halfway up before we realized he was actually doin’ it, and he looked kinda beautiful and graceful in that white angel costume. I remembered the walkie talkies and tested ‘em. I spoke into the walkie and asked Bobby to come back down once he was halfway up. Halfway up was far enough and I told Bobby if he ain’t seen his daddy then maybe his daddy’d gotten down to Louisiana, and no matter how high up you got, there was just no way no how that it was ever gonna work, that everyone knew you could not see as far as no Louisiana from up in that tree. I’d waited for a response, but nothin’, just static as we watched Bobby climb that pine.
I remember thinkin’ for the first time this is what grown folk meant by needin’ a drink, so I took one of Kurt’s beers when he wadn’t lookin’. By the time I was three sips in, Bobby was at the top and looked like some small white flag wavin’ at the top of the tallest flagpole you ever seen. The static on them walkies was too much, so I talked into it and asked what Bobby was seein’ up there.
We couldn’t hear Bobby too good, but we was pretty sure he’d said somethin’. Then Kurt grabbed the walkie and asked if Bobby could see his daddy, and I punched Kurt in the arm harder than I’d ever punched him to that day and ever since. Kurt returned the favor and knocked the breath plum outta me. He tossed the walkie to the ground, and when I got my breath, I picked it up and told Bobby to come back down now, but Bobby didn’t say nothin’ back.
So we just stood there starin’ up at Bobby, and Bobby just clung up there starin’ out at whatever, starin’ for so long we was sure when we headed back to town it’d be Thanksgivin’. But we didn’t say nothin’ else ‘bout hurryin’ or the like, and Kurt and me just sat down lookin’ silent up at Bobby and listenin’ to the static on the walkie.
When Bobby finally started down that tree, Kurt stood and said thank Jesus, and I stood and said thank Jesus, and I said that I hope Bobby ain’t too mad at us. I talked into the walkie as Bobby started down that tree, and he talked back into his, but I couldn’t make out what the hell he was tryin’ to say, and then the static started up again.
I’d asked Kurt if he thought Bobby was gonna feel better or not ‘bout not seein’ his daddy up there, and I asked Kurt if he figured my Louisiana-thing would work. He asked me if it would work on me, and I said probably not, and he said there you go. I walked in circles kickin’ grass and watchin’ Bobby come down and feelin’ the wind pick up.
Then a gust came blowin’ across that hill so hard our empty Bud cans shot across the grass end over end sparklin’ in the moonlight, like the stars was reflectin’ in the grass. I watched Kurt, tipsy as hell, scurryin’ to gather ‘em up. Then I watched Bobby comin’ down fast. I talked into the walkie askin’ Bobby if he’d seen what a fool Kurt looked like chasin’ them cans, but Bobby didn’t respond. Just static. It was then that I realized Bobby was comin’ down too fast. And that’s when everything seemed to slow down. Kurt chasin’ them cans slow as molasses and Bobby floatin’ down to earth like a white bed sheet.
I work as a police officer now, and Kurt's an alcoholic over here in Alpena. I see Bobby's momma from time to time. His daddy, too. He came back to town after he got word of Bobby. The papers never made much of Bobby's death, just some little blurbs on the back pages behind all the hoopla ‘bout Clinton winnin' and inauguration balls.
My wife told me somethin' she'd learned once at her night class in psychology over at the community college in Harrison. She said couples split most times when they lose a child. That despite bein' the only two people who know what it's like to lose their child, they simply can't take it, and they blame each other and that, as they say, is that. Bobby's folks got back together after his death. I ain't sure what to make of that.
The hardest thing to forget about that night, what I can't shake, what I can't seem to shake one bit, is the fact there was no static on that walkie as Bobby came down. No static until he hit and his little finger let go that button. And the thing that I really can't shake, the thing that keeps me up nights this time of year, the thing I'll never know, is if Bobby was holdin' on to that button tryin’ to tell me somethin' or because, that year, on that night, at that moment, that goddamn button was the only goddamn thing he had to hold on to.
Them four trees was cut down not too long after that night. These days, I guard that hill every Halloween. I sit there in my cruiser with my walkie on, static and all, and every time a voice comes over it, I get a mean chill. I flash my cruiser lights to run off them school kids comin' up there hopin' to see Bobby's ghost, but I'd be lyin' if I didn't say that like them kids, I was half hopin' to see Bobby too.
About the author:
Christopher S. Beaumont is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA in writing program. He wrote for both the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. He currently teaches English for Northwest Arkansas Community College where he serves as fiction co-editor for the The Low Valley Review, a literary magazine of community college writing and art.