I once took a voyeuristic pleasure in reading the newspaper obituaries on Sunday mornings. My wife asks me pointedly on occasion if I still read the paper because she wants to cancel the subscription. The truth is I barely glance at it anymore. I drink my coffee as rapidly as possible to fend off the headache I woke up with as the children clamor with one demand after another. I used to pick out articles to read to my son to provide him some context for understanding the world. I need to get back to that. We just seem to get busier and busier. I miss the leisure provided by the two naps my son took every day when he was just a baby. I have two sons now, and most days I need a nap more than either of them.
The obituaries are not that interesting, nor are they meant to be. They are a formal notification of a person’s passing. The time and location of the funeral will be mentioned along with the date of birth, how long the individual was married, the names of their children if they were so blessed (grandchildren are usually assigned only a number), and the house of worship they may have attended. The paragraph might mention where they worked and, if the deceased was a veteran, their rank and dates of service in whichever war they happened to be a participant. Sometimes the men have a nickname in quotation marks. Something endearing like “Rocky” or “Buddy.” Maybe “Dick” if their name happened to be Richard. A photograph frequently accompanies the notice of death–old folks smiling or looking gruff. Generic as babies, age strips them of their individuality as it pulls them down into the grave. Occasionally, a wedding picture accompanies the more recent one like a before and after. It is hard to believe the transformation, how hot and handsome some used to be in spite of their hornrims.
Sometimes, though, it is a younger person that goes, someone my wife’s age, for example, who dies of cancer. Obituaries tend to tease us with their lack of revelation, a certain chasteness when it comes to death. But in the case of those taken prematurely they are more likely to mention the cause of death, unless of course it is something shameful like suicide. With cancer it is always a “courageous battle.” I will show my wife the article, or at least I used to, as an acknowledgement of our good fortune and her will to live. Occasionally, you see that a baby or a teenager has died. With these you feel an especially momentous sense of loss. I was particularly bothered by the obituary of a nineteen-year-old girl who had been struck by a car while bicycling with a group around Lake Superior, an adventure I’ve fantasized about undertaking myself. Sometimes it overwhelms the mind to contemplate so many souls alive and breathing in the world, each one a protagonist in their own movie. Such a sea of humanity. . .
I was crappie fishing recently with my son from a small bridge, but nothing was biting. Below us, a vast school of minnows struggled in the current, fluttering in place then disappearing into the greenish water. We kept dropping our bobbers and drifting them downstream. With so much free food, why should the fish pay our hooks any attention? We were both getting frustrated by the lack of action. The countless baitfish reminded me of our vacation to Florida over the winter when we visited a spring to see manatees. There were crevalle jacks by the hundreds orbiting where the water burbled out of the rocks in the deep pool of a river. They appeared carved out of bone with their protruding jaws and hollow eyes. I felt mesmerized by their presence as they rotated together endlessly in the crystalline water. A park ranger told me they were cleaning their gills, but I was disinclined to believe her. The haunting sea creatures appeared to have some spiritual motivation, like Hajj pilgrims in Mecca circling the Kaaba.
Back in the land of 10,000 lakes, I asked my son if he wanted to try fishing from the storm drain down river. He was enthusiastic about the idea so I closed the tackle box and reeled in my line. We were fishing where Minnehaha Creek enters the Mississippi River, about a mile below Minnehaha Falls. The day before I had taken him and two of his friends fishing off one of the Lake Nokomis docks in celebration of his eighth birthday. I had been rather apprehensive about the outing, dreading it actually. But the kids started catching bluegills and everything seemed great. I became a whirlwind of activity as I baited hooks and unsnarled lines. “I can only help one of you at a time,” I declared, struggling to remove a hook from a perch’s gullet as they pelted me simultaneously with demands.
One of the boys, a precocious child named Simon, had never been fishing before. But he took instruction well and was casting competently immediately. With his lack of experience, he had been the kid I most worried about. He was a ridiculously gifted child, a motor-mouth of facts, reading chapter-books and able to spell by age four. He and my son had tent-camped in the backyard last summer. I remember him telling me I wasn’t holding a rubber mallet properly as I pounded a tent stake into the ground. My masculinity offended, I brusquely assured him that, while not exactly a carpenter, I knew how to hold a hammer. He started arguing with me, explaining in a condescending tone how a teacher at a workshop he attended told them to extend their index fingers along the handle so they wouldn’t hit themselves in the face. Getting a bit angry as the late-afternoon sun cooked the back of my neck, I handed the “mallet of justice,” as he called it, over so he could have a go at it himself. After a couple of errant swipes I grabbed the tool back from him. I actually tried grasping it in the manner he suggested and, yes, it was safer and more accurate, but it made for a rather weak grip. “Listen, Simon,” I said, “I’m just trying to get this done. No one likes a know-it-all.” I immediately regretted saying the words as he walked away pouting with his arms crossed.
He asked if he could cast off the end of the dock. Impressed with the physical prowess he had displayed catching bluegills, I told him to go for it. I was digging for something in the tacklebox when I heard a splash. My mental calculation was that it was too big for a carp and too small for a child. I rose and turned. Simon was not there . . . just a vacant space on the dock where the boy should have been and a circle of foam on the water’s surface. Stupefied, I screamed his name and ran over. This was that moment as a parent, when disaster strikes, that I had always rehearsed in my mind. I peered over the dock and there he was shaking in terror, drenched and crying. I grabbed onto his hyperventilating body, grateful he wasn’t drowning and that I didn’t have to jump into the water. The Spiderman rod I had given him to use dangled from him ignominiously with the hook stuck in his shirt. A guard rail extended around the T-shaped dock like you might find on a deck, but indeed there was a gap where he had plunged into the lake. He grasped the vertical slats of wood so rigidly that I could hardly budge him. He shouted something about his good fortune at not getting bit by a fish as I implored him rather frantically to let go of the dock so I could extract him from the water.
“I’ve got you!” I yelled emphatically.
At last on the dock, a puddle formed under him as I yanked at the hook, worm still on it, embedded in the fabric of his shirt. I informed the other boys who had become rather silent that we were going to have to take him home. “I can’t believe he fell in,” I kept saying to myself. “The first rule of fishing,” I had told him, “was not to fall in.” And there it had happened. I handed him the small towel I had brought for wiping off fish slime and dashed to the car for a blanket. I wrapped the red fleece throw around him and led him back to the car so he could warm up. I reassured him that he would be ok and that I would take him home to change clothes. He kept expressing concern that the dirty water would make him sick.
“You’ve swam in that lake before,” I said, reminding him of the beach he had swam at many times. “This is Lake Nokomis, remember?”
I tried calling his parents but couldn’t get an answer. I told him to sit tight while I retrieved my son, his friend and the gear from the dock.
“I caught two bluegills and a parasitic infection,” he announced to his stunned father as I led him inside his house. He rejoined us later, clean and dry as if it had never happened, and caught more fish than anyone.
With this incident in mind, I cautioned Miles for perhaps the fourth time, not to fall into the river as I followed him along the path to the storm drain. It was a goliath structure of concrete built into the slope of the steep gorge. We climbed the hill and then carefully descended into the drain on oversized steps. The walls around us were emblazoned with graffiti, the fluorescent letters a striking contrast to the natural hues of the tree-lined river. I put the lines out again with a sense of pessimism, feeling like we had angered the fishing gods by going out again when the fishing had been so good the day before. I regretted not simply returning to the same spot, but the Mississippi was home to some big “slabs” and I longed to keep a few. Perennially busy with Mother’s Day and the boys’ birthdays, I always seemed to miss the Spring crappie fishing. Now here I was in the right place, at the right time, with live minnows, but the fish weren’t cooperating. It hardly seemed fair. Behind us, a four-foot hole caged with rebar loomed like the dark entrance to a cave. There were always caves in the dragon books I read to my son. I imagined a scaled monster inside asleep with folded wings . . . the rise and fall of his hot breath on the treasure piled around him.
There was a calm area in front of the drain where my kids had caught a stringer of bluegills the year before by dangling worms off the lip of concrete. I could see a heron flying low along the opposite shore while upstream a wall of foaming water spilled over the dam under the span of the Ford bridge. It was a scene I had always wanted to paint–a forested panorama with the locks on one side and a brick hydroelectric station on the other. Just below the dam, the river flowed around a small gravel island with grass and a few trees. I had written two other stories set in this location. In one, I reminisced about sprinkling my father’s ashes under the Veteran’s Bridge as my son and I hiked down to the river from the falls. In the other, our bikes were stolen as my son hunted for lures. This was a borderland between nature and city, a trinity of Earth, river and sky with us at its center–a father and son trying to create our own Mayberry together.
My son was arranging rocks in a rivulet of brown water when I noticed the cardboard board box. The label from a distance immediately reminded me of a billboard along the freeway I passed daily at work. I walked over and sure enough the shape I had recognized was an urn, beside it the words “Cremation Society of Minnesota.” Obviously, some individual had recently sprinkled a loved one’s ashes at the spot where my son and I now fished. It amused and disgusted me that someone would choose the location for its natural beauty and then carelessly defile it by littering. There were some papers inside the box that I stooped over to investigate. I quickly thumbed through a pamphlet that advertised keepsakes—lockets, urn pendants, dog tags and rings with a reproduction of the dead person’s fingerprint. Toward the back of the pamphlet, Legacy Touch offered several more masculine items: a Zippo lighter, money clip, cigar cutter and even a pocket knife. I tossed the pamphlet back in the box and picked up a 6×8 inch slip of paper. It was shocked to find that it was a certificate of cremation with the name, birthday and age of the departed printed along with the date and location of death. I read the name. Jeremy Allen Mathews. He was born the same year I graduated from college and died about a year ago on May 24th in Edina, Minnesota. At the Fairview Southdale Hospital, I ventured to guess. He was only twenty-one.
“What is it, Dad?” my boy called out to me.
“Nothing, son.” I said, slipping the certificate into my pocket. “Just some garbage someone left.”
The only other item in the box was a small pouch made out of purple netting. I removed the paper inside. Under the heading Angel Number 333 was a spiritual message that seemed to me rather nonsensical and verbose. I quit reading after the first paragraph, folded the paper and placed it back inside the pouch which I pocketed as well. I looked guiltily toward my son who was busy dragging a log over to the edge of the drain.
“I’m getting ready to launch my boat,” he announced happily.
“Please don’t,” I implored. “It’s just going to tangle up the lines.”
He groaned in protest so I relented. He pushed it over the edge with a splash and I watched it bob downstream in the sun-sparkled water. I felt an enormous sense of waste as I fingered the certificate beside my leg. Who was Jeremy Allen Mathews? And how did he die? I looked back down at the discarded box. What a sad way to end things, packaged like something someone might buy from Amazon. Not far from the cardboard I noticed an empty plastic bag that probably held the ashes. It lay in a puddle next to another plastic bag containing three dead sucker minnows–great catfish bait if a person were so inclined. I had just been thinking to myself how I wanted to stop writing about these sorts of father and son adventures. In part, because I did not have time, but also because I worried about their publication and my son’s privacy being violated. Was I robbing him of his own memories by making them my own? Now I found myself with another story to tell and a name—Jeremy Allen Mathews—that I had no business knowing.
We changed spots again. I wanted desperately to catch at least one fish. The boy climbed on a fallen tree that rested in the sand. I rigged his line with a worm on the bottom while I casted with a chrome and blue Little Cleo spoon. I had given up on trying to imitate the natural bait the fish were eating and wanted to trick them into hitting something flashy out of reflex. After a few casts I had a fish on that while not that large put up a fair fight in the current. I yelled to the boy who came running.
“Take your time,” I instructed, “don’t just horse it.”
Soon a fourteen-inch smallmouth bass was flopping onshore. I quickly removed the treble hook from inside its mouth with a pair of pliers and held it aloft for my son to admire. The fish’s body was a dark, mottled camouflage of olive and brown, perfect for concealment as it hunted for minnows and crayfish among the rocks.
“This is a nice fish,” I told the boy. “It’s not a trophy, but it’s a good fish. I’m sorry it was so slow today. We really had to work for this one.” I slipped the fish back into the river and watched it swim out of sight into the murk.
We gathered up our things and began the hike back to the car, trudging up the long staircase out of the gorge. I could tell he was tired so I left him with the gear at a picnic bench while I crossed Hiawatha Avenue to retrieve the car. It was a Sunday morning and I had trouble finding anywhere closer to park because half the city was biking on the trails or at the dog park. I walked quickly, feeling a bit anxious about leaving him by himself. Yellow dandelions dotted the wayside by the hundreds, like little gravestones I thought to myself. I started the car, performed a U-turn and waited impatiently for the light to change at the busy intersection.
I was relieved to see the boy again. He sat in the grass flailing his arms.
“These bugs keep bugging me!” he whined. “Why won’t they get out of here?”
“Well, get off the ground!” I barked. “Sometimes you have to get away from them.”
He was always getting bit by insects. They would leave these horrible welts. We were never sure what did it. Sometimes he would just wake up with them and we would wash all his blankets. “Why aren’t you sitting at the picnic table where I left you?”
“I wanted to be in the shady spot.”
“It’s shady everywhere. What are you talking about?”
“But it’s more shady over here,” he insisted.
Shaking my head, I ordered him into the car. When we got home I showed the cremation certificate to my wife who was bemused as me about the discovery. Later, while the kids were playing at the neighbors, I did a Google search of Jeremy Allen Mathews and found his obituary on the Pioneer Press website. He looked to be about five in the photograph, a cute kid with a thick mop of brown hair. He was described as “a creative and loving soul who was loved by everyone.” The obituary listed the schools he had attended in his short life as well as his affection for skateboarding, music and scary movies. When I looked for him on Facebook I was startled to see the recognizable graffiti of the place I had just been fishing with my son. All this research took a matter of seconds. A sizable crowd of mostly young people were gathered on the drain holding candles.
The boy died of a heroin overdose. On his mother’s page I found a snapshot of the dealer who sold him the drug at the Mall of America. He was a rather sinister looking twenty-something with a pencil mustache, attired completely in black with a Jumpman cap and Beats headphones. I found photographs of Jeremy’s cohorts who emptied his pockets and left him to die on a light-rail train without calling 911. I read his mother’s outrage over their plea agreements, how she was interrupted by the judge (also pictured) for calling them “Neanderthals” in her victim-impact statement. I watched clips of her sobbing uncontrollably over the loss of her son. And I watched videos of him rapping in her kitchen and eating a plate of waffles at a restaurant near my home. He seemed like a charismatic young man who wouldn’t have trouble finding a date. He had an unruly head of rockstar hair and he reminded me a bit of Chris Cornell, someone else who left this world too soon.
Jeremy Allen Mathews is not the actual name of the boy who died. I changed his name as I do all the characters I write about without their permission. I don’t want to cause his mother any further suffering. Also, I don’t particularly want the cast of Trainspotting banging on my door either. I’ve thought about contacting Jeremy’s mother, maybe offering to mail her the certificate. But I can’t help but think it is a bad idea. Frankly, she seems crazy and if she gave a shit I wouldn’t have it next to my laptop computer as I write this story. If I am honest with myself, I am angry at her—for her son dying, but mostly for littering, which places me in the company of so many assholes who overpopulate this planet.
In the age of social media we are all memoirists, our lives an open book. And, if there is a lesson to be learned in the short, happy life of Jeremy Allen Mathews, it is that we are all mortal. All of us just dandelions in the sunshine, mistaking the roar of the mower for our own laughter. I keep the certificate of cremation with the real name of Jeremy Allen Mathews in a drawer, his secret now my own. I mean to show it to my son as a lesson not to use drugs, but something holds me back. I leave it with the pile of so many other things I mean to do. Any child can fall off the dock in this world fraught with dangers and who knows where showing him a few guitar chords could lead? I could teach him a new word. Heroin. But I can’t. Instead we read about dragons. I leave it to the world to corrupt him. I have other tasks at hand. It is not for me to take away his innocence.