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Dog Star Blues
So, today my grandad is getting a new septic tank. A crew of about twenty guys will roll up sod, dig up the clay dirt yard with a backhoe. All kinds of trucks will swarm and the strange thing of it is, my whole family has decided to drive to Grandad’s place outside Canterbury to watch the whole spectacle unfold as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday than hang out at Grandad’s and watch a bunch of strangers break their backs on their way to a paycheck.
Everyone’s out here. We’re just sitting, watching these guys in their orange vests and hard hats sweat, like each bead is a minute and if you sopped it off their bodies, you’d bottle up time. Meanwhile, we drink Old Milwaukee and the kids—Kimmy and Ben—have pink lemonade.
This is all a few months after Grandad buckled down and decided to put grass out back rather than the mucky clay pit he’s called a lawn since before my mom was a kid. He’s got a thicket of luxurious grass blooming in that back yard now.
Or at least, he did. All I know is it looks like rolls of swamp carpet or maybe like a swiss cake roll you’ve drop on the ground but you refuse to throw away and you gobble up that turf-cake grass and all.
With all that beautiful grass out there now, I’ve had to come to grips with Grandad being less of a man. I’d always thought real men didn’t take care of their lawns, like the more your lawn looked like a mangy scruff of land, the more virile you must be. Yet before the old septic tank busted, Grandad would be out there trying to figure out what kind of grass seed he was going to put down; wonder whether or not he needed one of those old-timey grass mowers that turn blades as you push and I just wondered, what the hell’s going on with Grandad?
Uncle Darren bought one of those little charcoal grills and while we watch the truck with the septic tank drive up, he throws an eighty-nine-cent pack of chicken-part hot dogs on the grill for the kids. If you’re grown up and patient enough to wait for two patties at a time to cook—then you get a frozen burger patty right off the grill. Grandad brings out the chips and buns Ma brought, then carries out a kettle full of baked beans he whipped up from scratch and announces he’s not putting on the chef’s cap for anyone anymore.
Just so you know, I really depend on cheeseburgers. When I have a cheeseburger, it’s like driving up in a Rolls Royce, window down and blowing smoke at the plebs, you know? Like, a cheeseburger is flashy. It makes me think of how Indians used to worship corn, except I don’t worship corn. Maybe ground beef. Or maybe it’s like how the other Indians—from India, I’m saying—look at cows as holy beasts. And I look at them and think the same thing—but they’re only divine while I’m consuming them. Anyway, I just think cheeseburgers are classy.
When the crew breaks for lunch around one, we’d all finished up eating. So, Grandad fetches his acoustic guitar and starts picking on it. Back outside, the kids holler and play freeze tag while Aunt Jenny’s husband, Dale, pulls into the driveway, drives right around the flat-bed with the septic tank on it.
Grandad starts playing Do Lord, O do Lord, O do remember me and when he warbles out the words, he sounds just like Mississippi John Hurt. But the ole Delta blues just isn’t really my thing; me, I love thrash metal. Love it. Fast, heavy riffs are the coolest thing in the world. A great riff makes me want to eat nachos and work on monster trucks. One day I think the power of the riff will unite humanity and everyone will realize that we live only one life and the purpose of that life is to make up vicious riffs. Then we’ll go on a grand holy crusade and the power of the almighty riff will restore the world to its former glory. This was a motif I used when we played Dungeons & Dragons in jail.
See, in jail the hardest thing is passing the time and D&D ended up being how we whiled away most days because each of us got one sheet of paper per day and we’d modify the rules to fit our situation and we’d take turns being dungeon master and use a deck of cards instead of dice and take out all the face cards and then the whole damn game is based on the four cities is a reflection of the current conflicts and royal intrigue I make up. And there was a wizard-minstrel who would riff magic licks against the group, sometimes good, sometimes evil.
I’d always start my game in the town without any jacks and just make everything branch off from there. It was kind of a rush re-writing reality like that from a jail cell. It helped get me past the post-withdrawal symptoms I’d had since they let me out of the infirmary.
Plus, when the other guys didn’t want their paper, they’d give it to me to write stories and I’d trade the stories around for extra sandwiches.
I’ve been to jail a few times lately. Last time was six months back when Britney Spears shaved her head and all the inmates were hooting at her, demeaning her while NBC News’ Brian Williams narrated her breakdown. I just felt really bad for her, even though I didn’t know any of her songs or follow her career or anything.
Another thing—every time I get out of jail, Ma will give me some money to move into a new place. I’ll get settled in and as a tradition, I get as stoned as financially possible and watch a Cheech & Chong movie. Then I wake up and look for a job; I’ll look for things to do, but mostly I end up riding my bike around Canterbury or Burgess or River Junction or some points in-between. Anyhow, each time I watch Corsican Brothers or Next Movie or Up in Smoke, I think about how much better I am than the last time I made myself watch a Cheech & Chong movie and then I think how much better off I am than the time before that.
Meanwhile, Grandad moves onto another ditty: Death Letter Blues as sung by Son House. I got a letter this mornin’, Grandad sings and beats the side of his guitar between picks. How do ye reckon it read? It said, “Hurry, hurry, ye gal, yeah, your love is dead.”
Grandad loves the Blues. Which is funny, because he moved here from Wales when he was four. He lost his accent, mostly, by the time he went to high school. But he could still speak some Welsh, which sounded like something he’d made up right there on the spot, all whistley-wash mouth and push-broom tongue. The long and short of it is, his accent only comes out when he gets angry—though I’ve never seen it happen. Ma has. She says he sounds like a backwoods hick and gets nigh impossible to understand. But, she thinks that’s why he digs the Delta Blues, because in a way, it kind of reminds him of home.
Grandad stops playing when the backhoe starts beeping again. Uncle Dale cracks open a forty he brought with him.
The crew starts taking out the old tank with a small crane brought in on another flatbed and when it’s out and up in the air, it stinks to high heaven. Ben, age twelve, asks me if that’s what hell smells like because the crew dug so deep into the earth, they must be getting real close to the devil.
I tell him yeah. And if he gets too close to the pit, the shit-demon Korezeloth might grab him and pull him down down down. It’s metal, what I tell him. So fucking thrash metal. And I laugh to myself and hope he won’t tell Aunty Jenny. At twenty-eight, I should be finding some other way to amuse myself, but here we all are at Grandad’s watching the crew lower in the tank.
The kids stop playing to ooh and ahh and Kimmy, my six-year-old cousin gets so close that Uncle Dale yells at her to come on back from the pit.
Just then Aunt Jenny gets in my face and pours beer on my jeans for telling her kid the devil is going to get him. Sometimes, I wonder if my family is both why I ended up smoking crystal and why I love playing D&D: always dragons to chase and dragons to slay.
When I need to be calm, though, or if I just need advice I know I won’t get anywhere else, I think to myself in an Andy Griffith-voice and it practically solves everything.
I swallow hard like I’m clearing a walnut out of my throat and tell Aunt Jenny sorry and I love her. She seems pacified.
After Grandad beats Uncle Dale and Ma in both cornhole and Michigan Rummy, Uncle Dale and Uncle Darren start dragging scraps of wood out of the tree line to build a bonfire well away from the trucks as the crew finishes burying the tank. It’s funny because Uncle Darren shuffles, lumbers when he walks. So a lumberer grabbing lumber, right?
The fire is going strong and flames lick high by the time trucks start pulling out of Grandad’s driveway and the last six guys and the foreman roll out the sod like so many turf-cakes.
By the time the sky goes gray, I’m pretty loaded. So is Uncle Dale who sits across from me on a lawn chair with a can of Old Milwaukee balanced on his paunch.
Uncle Darren asks me to help get his telescope down from his S-10 pickup. It’s a massive hunk of metal and plastic and what I can only otherwise call gizmos and it has to weigh more than Kimmy and Ben put together. It’s like a miniature version of something you’d see on a mountaintop in Hawaii or that Placebo observatory in Puerto Rico. This telescope is a homemade or home-assembled rig, based on a slick box of wood and wheels. We push it through the grass to the corner of Grandad’s yard and call Kimmy and Ben over to stargaze.
Uncle Darren fiddles with some knobs and levers, adjusting it, and tells us that looking at the stars is what separates beasts from man. I tell him so does eating cheeseburgers, but he doesn’t listen. He clears his throat and lofts Kimmy up to the eyepiece to look at the moon.
She oohs, but she doesn’t ah, and in a way, I can tell she thinks the moon is way cooler than staring down the abyss of a septic tank hole. Ben looks and asks if it’s really the moon he’s looking at, like he’s never seen a telescope before in his life.
Uncle Darren turns the cart around and starts telling all three of us about something called sidereal time and how it’s a calculation astronomers use to tell us how and where to point a telescope at the sky based on date and longitude and time of night. He says it’s a constant and it’s beautiful, because if we know sidereal time, we’ll always know where to point our telescopes.
I want to take what he said and turn it into a vicious, slick riff.
Uncle Darren is gay and it makes me feel bad for him to be gay in the middle of nowhere where we live; and a nerd to boot. It makes me wonder if he’ll ever find someone to love him and that makes me even more sad.
Kimmy wanders back toward the bonfire, to her mom and dad. Ben stays and soaks in what he’s spying. I hope he might not be as dumb as he seems.
Uncle Darren tells us about a waxing gibbous moon and how the telescope is pointed at the Pleiades—the Seven Sisters—and he lets Ben adjust the mechanism nearest the eyepiece to gaze out into the heavens.
And it all makes me feel so small, though not in terms of insignificance, but like, in literal size. So as Ben sits there looking up, I wonder how infinitesimally small I am in relation to the galaxies and universe and I realize I’m so small, the universe wouldn’t even call me a flea or a speck or even an atom. I am subatomic.
I step over to look through. I ask Uncle Darren if I’m still looking at the Seven Sisters. He says no, I’m looking at Orion and Sirius, the Dog Star.
I ask him if there’s anything smaller than atoms. He says yeah, that there’s stuff even beyond electrons and protons and neutrons, there’s stuff happening on a quantum scale. And I suppose I’m that—I’m on the quantum scale somewhere, I guess.
On the subject of constellations, it makes me wish I was an ancient Greek or something so when I die, they’d make me into a constellation: go right up in the sky as the Thrash-Guitarist and just bypass the whole heaven and hell thing entirely.
But when you boil it all down, the afterlife iss all just one kind of prison or another. Like, heaven people get to be God zombies in white diapers and hell people just get tortured, so even if you were a constellation, you were stuck, man. Stuck there for all eternity.
Grandad starts picking on the guitar again and he’s wailing something we’re too far away to tell and he really does sound like one of those Delta Blues greats and I hear Aunt Jenny and Ma and Kimmy singing along after a second. I realize it’s You Are My Sunshine and they’re on a second verse that I don’t even know.
When I turn around, I smash my eye up against the eyepiece again and catch something falling in the heavens. I tell Uncle Darren I think I see a falling star and he says meteorite and I don’t have to follow it much, because it seems like it’s coming right for us in such a way that I think it’s a lightning bug, but before I check again Uncle Darren says sure as hell and he nudges me out of the way as he follows it, follows it. By now I can see it cascading through the sky with my own eyes. Uncle Darren is off the telescope, tracing its descent with his finger until it lands in the Deans’ cow pasture across the road.
Uncle Darren tells me to come on, but I have to piss real bad from the Old Milwaukee and I’m pretty sure if I run I’m just going to piss all over myself, so I just go at a steady gallop and follow him across Canterbury-Troia Road and through the rows and rows of beans. Because of how out of shape he is, Uncle Darren hunches over with his hands on his knees, wheezing, breathing so hard his coughs are dry and tight.
He scans around the dark, looking for where it landed, whatever that’d look like.
I start walking the rows, but it’s hard keeping my balance in the rows between the mounds of plants and I trip and fall face-first into the dirt. I gather myself up on all fours, look ahead and see a hunk of steaming rock.
I yell for Uncle Darren to come over and he squats on his haunches in front of the meteorite and he is mesmerized like something out of a comic book. I stand over his shoulders and try to understand what about it had him so transfixed.
Just then, Ma walks over with a flashlight and starts hollering at us both for scaring the kids and trying to give Grandad a heart attack.
Uncle Darren tells her to shine the light on the spot where the meteorite sits like a temple idol. He takes off his flannel and wraps the baseball-sized hunk in his shirt and we all walk over under Grandad’s porch. Uncle Darren says it’s the damnedest thing, because the rock is blue, says it looks like lapis lazuli and he doesn’t think that’s normal.
Ma asks him if it’s worth any money and he just sighs and says yeah, but we’re not going to sell it and for the first time, he holds it up to the light with his bare hand, turns it back and forth.
It is blue and black and with little rivers of dull gold. It’s marvelous—and that’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever used.
Aaron Buchanan lives in the Tampa Bay area, though he is a Michigan native—a land he considers mystical, incongruous and features prominently in his work. He teaches Latin and philosophy to pay the bills, collects photos of restroom graffiti and is a self-proclaimed master of mix tapes. His writing was most recently featured in The Bookend Review, The Main Street Rag and Sanskrit Literary Arts.