I know I was 83 years old at the time, but my senses were still in peak condition. I could hear well enough to notice if a plane or helicopter had flown by overhead and knocked a loose branch from a tree. It hadn’t, nothing had….”
by j.l. hepler
It really does happen you know, random objects do simply fall from the sky. It could happen at any time, at any place, and to anybody. Or at least I believe so. I have to unless I want to admit to myself that I’m a delusional old man who never knew reality.
Once, in 1958, in the small town of Borger, Texas, it was recorded by local police that a shell casing from a World War II army tank missile plunged through Patty Lawrence’s roof, crushing her as she dreamed in her bed. The military was called in to investigate, after all the casing was theirs, but no official inquiry and therefore reason was ever submitted.
November 23, 1876. A farmer named Joseph Cantery was walking through his corn field in central Kansas when a fully matured bull slammed into the center of his acreage. The bull was not his, but it did have a scorched brand on its hind quarters. After word spread across the local farming community, it was revealed that the brand-an upside down triangle with an arrow dissecting it- came from a cattle farmer in neighboring Oklahoma. A cattle farmer who had been deceased for more than thirty years at the time.
On another occasion, an Olympic hopeful, downhill skier Gill Koller, died while training in Taos, New Mexico. He was doing a downhill run around 9:30 in the morning when his coaches watched him tumble to his death after rolling end over end down more than three hundred meters of steep incline. When he came to a stop, he was found to have a tattered17th century French military coat covering his face. It was authentic too. The lift attendant claimed to have seen something wafting through the air around the time of the incident. Skeptics of the sky vomit theory say that the coat was lying on the ground and swept into the air when a gust of wind blew across the slope. How did it get there? They didn’t know.
So you see, according to a few others out there I’m not totally insane, not the crazy old man that many would label me as. Stuff does just fall from the sky from time to time. Now don’t ask me why, because I haven’t the slightest clue. But it does. Of course what fell out of the sky onto my doorstep two days before Christmas 2002 didn’t seem as mysterious at first as an antique cow or a time traveling coat. It was only a stick. A big stick mind you, but just a stick. Just the amputated arm of a tree.
That morning was a regular southern Texas one. It was a bit chilly when facing the western wind, but not cold. It never felt cold that far south if you’d ever been farther north than Austin.
I was sitting in the grey haze of predawn, swatting at flies on my wrap around porch, when out of no where something plunged down onto the dirt road directly in front of my porch. I saw it fall directly from the sky. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was at first due to the cloud of dust swelling around it, but I knew it didn’t belong there.
I live about 50 to 60 miles northwest of McAllen, out in a rural area. Only two other houses, one a trailer, could be seen from my porch, and they were both around half a mile away. The trailer north and the house due east. I knew that no one could have thrown whatever it was that landed there. And I know I was 83 years old at the time, but my senses were still in peak condition. I could hear well enough to notice if a plane or helicopter had flown by overhead and knocked a loose branch from a tree. It hadn’t, nothing had.
A little curious, I slowly pulled myself upright and made my way down the steps to see what it was. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, the dust had settled and lying on the ground was, like I said, a big gnarled stick.
The stick seemed oddly light for how bulky and long it was. It had a mahogany finish to it and was about four and a half feet long. Had it been straightened out on an English wheel, then it could’ve been closer to five feet even. It wasn’t exactly curvy, but it had slight curves in it, and at the top it seemed to have tried to twist too sharply and knotted itself right together into an oblong shaped knob.
I propped it up in the eastern corner of my porch and sat back down in my chair. I finished my coffee and waited for Earl. Every morning for the past 32 years he had walked down from his house and chatted with me about this and that, you know, old man gibberish. He was the calm one. I was the temperamental one. My mom said that I had a problem with negativity since I had learned how to talk.
That morning Earl showed up precisely on time.
He was four years younger than me so his knees were a little more pliable than mine though his back was noticeably more hunched. That’s why he always walked down to my house to visit instead of vice versa. Besides, I had the nice covered porch, and he had a three foot by three foot sun bleached crumbling concrete slab. There was one time when I went down to his place though. I had to be driven home in the back of a truck due to my arthritis. Doris, that’s my wife, and Earl made fun of me for days, the way people make jokes about things they dislike but can’t escape.
When Earl approached he did so with a new look sprawled across his face. He wore a smile that reminded me of a broken mirror, a smile exposing all four of his remaining teeth.
“Morning Earl,” I said wiping off my glasses with my handkerchief. “Looks like you lost another tooth huh?”
“Sure did,” he replied, “it fell right out when I was brushing my teeth this morning. Damndest thing but oh well. Can’t digest much nowadays anyhow. I’ll complete the circle soon and be right back to baby food, and if only a nice tit could come after that, huh?”
Earl threw me a wink. I chuckled as he sat down. He always had a way to try and make things seem positive or at least not that important.
“Speaking of damndest things,” I said. “Look what fell out of the sky this morning.”
I reached back and grabbed the stick and handed it to him.
“Fell out of the sky did it. I wonder what for. Look’s like a nice walking stick though don’t it.”
I watched him examine the stick. He twisted it around, rubbed the palm of his hand along the knobbed top, tested it’s durability over his knee, and then whacked it against the railing around the porch.
“Sturdy one,” he said smiling, showing all four remaining teeth.
It didn’t seem overwhelmingly shocking at the time, but old timers are hard to shock. Well, harder anyway. It’s not that things don’t seem astounding anymore; it’s just that our brains, like our bodies, don’t react as fast or as, what shall I say, accurately as it used to. The older people get, the easier it is to just accept things as they are. I’ve learned that God has a quirky sense of humor. He likes to bend nature at times for no other reason than just to see what we’ll do.
“Wander where it came from?” Earl added.
“Don’t know, but I guess I’ll use it. I have trouble walking anyways, so maybe this’ll help. Maybe it’s a sign.”
“Yeah. Maybe you can walk down to my place now.” I could see his inner thought wheel churning. “Oh wait. Scratch that. I don’t have any gas in the truck.”
Earl let out a rusty laugh.
“Very funny Earl. You just wait, I’m gonna walk over tomorrow.” I could see the wheels starting up again. “And yes Earl, I’m gonna walk back too.”
He laughed again and so did I though I really didn’t feel the humor in it. We sat on the porch for the first few morning hours as usual. I totally forgot about the stick. Earl talked about simple pleasures. I griped about unfortunate events. He was eagerly awaiting the fruits of his newly planted lemon trees. I was bitching abut the wasp nest in the corner of the porch that was growing out of control. We both agreed that the flies were too much to bear, and that the weather for this time of the year was good. After an hour of silence Earl headed home, and I headed in. I left the stick out on the porch for the night.
The following morning started out about the same as all the others. Earl showed up around 7:30 when the sun was just starting to peak over the horizon and we had our cup of Folger’s instant coffee. We engaged in normal elderly banter once again. He was happy to be sleeping on one of those new orthopedic mattresses he had gotten as a gift for his birthday. It helped his back. I was frustrated from the drafts of air seeping in through the hole in the roof at night and making it hard for me to sleep. We were sitting in silence for a moment when it hit me. I hadn’t used my fly swatter all morning.
“Have you noticed that there haven’t been any flies circling about today Earl?”
“Didn’t notice until now. Wouldn’t like to let’m know either. They might come back just to spite an old man. After all, they only have about a month to live, they gotta get on with the gett’in done.”
Typical Earl answer I thought. Trying to make a joke out of everything. Annoyingly optimistic.
“Must be the wind,” I said.
“Must be,” he agreed.
“Well, I’m gonna get home and tend to my tree pups. See ya later.”
As he ambled down the dirt road he paused and turned back.
“You still gonna come by today?” He asked trying not to giggle though I know he wanted to more than anything.
I answered without thinking. “I am. Be there this afternoon.”
“Alrighty.” Earl waved and slunk his way back to his house.
After he left I noticed another odd situation had developed on the porch overnight. The wasps were gone. And they hadn’t gone on a brief vacation or anything, they had packed up their nest and fled town. In the corner of the porch where they had made their home the cobwebs were gone, and the paint was one or two shades brighter blue than the rest of the house.
Looks like Doris’s broom did those buggers in, I thought. She finally did something good around here. God knows her cooking isn’t. A mild chuckle escaped my lips as I headed in for a mid-morning nap. I was going to need it if I was going to make the round trip journey out to Earl’s and back in the afternoon.
I woke up around 1:00 and left the house around 1:25 that afternoon. Scurried out of the house once Doris began nagging me to wear some sun block. Like I had time left after 83 years of existence to develop some kind of skin cancer, or the ability to fight it if I did for that matter. Besides, I had on a pair of khaki coveralls, they covered my whole body except my shiny bald head, and she knew that even when I was under the shade of the porch I always wore my Dallas Cowboys fishing hat. I grabbed the stick from the corner, hobbled down the three unbalanced stairs onto the dirt road, and headed for Earl’s place.
When I first spun around in the center of the road toward Earl’s house I caught a glimpse of Mr. Doyle’s trailer house up to the north. He was a widower like Earl, and he was a pack rat. I couldn’t stand the sight of his trailer. He had two old washers out front, one circa 1956, the other a newer model, two and a half dryers, two refrigerators, one with doors one without, a couple of swamp coolers without the mesh filters on the side, four unmovable cars that had been used as scrap metal and storage facilities, and if you got close, there was no dirt or grass, just enough loose nails and screws to bolt hell’s door shut. I don’t know why I let it get to me, but like I said I do like to bitch, and I bitch about everything. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the last time I said one thing positive about Doyle. I tried to think of one all the way to Earl’s.
He wasn’t overly surprised at my arrival. He knew my stubbornness all too well. He immediately took me around the back side of his house and showed me his two lemon trees. He was damn proud of those stupid trees. And after a few minutes of “yea, yea, nice, nice” we went inside and sat down in his living room. I leaned the stick against the back of the sofa.
“Here’s you some lemonade,” Earl said coming from the kitchen. “And if you live long enough, I’ll be making it fresh for you.” He grinned.
I honestly don’t know why Earl and I had become friends. I guess it was because with the exception of Doyle and Doris we were the only two around, and I sure didn’t want to spend any time with them. And much to my disliking, I was human and in accordance with the laws of human nature I guess I desired some form of companionship.
I was cordial as usual.
We sat in silence sipping ice chilled lemonade for a few minutes before I opened up the conversation with some griping.
“Man, Doyle’s yard looks terrible. And did you see how he patched the hole in his roof with one of the doors off of that old El Camino. Horrendous.”
“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do,” replied Earl.
“I understand that, but damn Earl. He’s making our street look like a damn junkyard.”
“Our street is a dirt road 20 miles from nowhere Norman.”
“I know. I know. I just wish he would move away. God knows I wouldn’t mind if he croaked. He’s gotta be close to 90 by now.”
Earl was getting upset. A goal I now realize I had subconsciencously tried to achieve for years. It would make me feel less like a horse’s ass if he got mad every now and then too.
“Come on. Don’t say that. You shouldn’t want anyone to die.”
“I know. I’m just bitchin’ as usual. Although you must admit that it would be nice to see his stuff gone.”
“Oh it would, it would. But I’m not gonna fret over it like you.”
We sat in silence for another brief period. I guzzled my glass of lemonade. Stood up and grabbed the stick.
“I better be going if I want to make it home before sundown.”
“It’s only 2:30.”
“I know Earl, but I’m slow.”
He smiled. Seemingly now relieved from tension he felt from my uneasy comments.
“Need a ride?” He threw out the question with a wicked grin. I was waiting for it.
“No. I’ll manage.”
I walked home the whole time glancing up toward old man Doyle’s junkyard in disgust. I guess my blood was boiling. By the time I arrived home I was exhausted. I couldn’t quite feel my knees. They were numb with pain. Doris and I had are usual silent dinner, and I went straight off to bed. I left the stick out on the porch again that night.
I woke the next morning, Christmas day, to find the best Christmas present that I had received since I’d gotten a Lou Gherig baseball card on my fourteenth birthday.
Doris and I hadn’t exchanged gifts in over thirty years, and we had no immediate family to speak of, worth speaking to that is, so we simply greeted each other with a “Merry Christmas.” I put on one of my seven identical pairs of khaki coveralls, comfortable as hell I might add, and headed out to my pulpit, my lime green rocking chair on the porch. Which if I haven’t mentioned, I built myself. Looking through the screen door, I saw Earl sitting on the porch wearing a Santa Claus hat. Ugh!
“Merry Christmas Norm.”
“Christmas,” I half grudgingly answered walking out.
“Brought these for Doris. I’m gonna go in and give them to her.”
Bastard brought her flowers. No wonder she always called me thoughtless. It was because he was there to show her that I might be. Despite my complacent disgust, I knew it was a trite gesture on his part. He was just nice. He couldn’t help it. Plus, I think he had forgotten the incivility of women when it comes to treatment of their own husbands since his wife Gloria had passed.
“Sure, I think she’s in the kitchen.”
Earl galloped in through the dangling wooden screen door. I stood to stretch. My legs were agonizing over the mile hike I’d forced them through. I leaned over the porch railing which gave a little with my 140 pounds resting upon it. Raising my arms into a victory stretch, I looked left, saw Earl’s house—blowup Santa Claus out front and all—looked north and saw a wide open field. If I was ever going to have succumbed to a heart attack it would’ve been then.
What the hell? I thought. I was a bit more shocked than usual. But damn, an entire house had vanished this time, not a wasp’s nest.
I sat back down in my rocker looking out at the vast expanse of plains that had significantly expanded since nightfall. Doyle’s house was gone. No more rusty torn up cars, no more foodless refrigerators, no more mold-growing swamp coolers. There was nothing. Now don’t mistake my shock for unhappiness. I had gotten what I had bitched about the day before, I was just a little put back at how fast it happened.
There wasn’t a logical answer, there couldn’t be a logical answer, and as I’ve said I’m too old to ponder over such things anyway. So I accepted it, with a smidge of dismay of course, but I accepted it. Sometimes God just does things we’ll never understand. I wasn’t going to gripe because I liked this one. About the time I had come to that conclusion Earl strolled back out onto the porch. He hunched into the lawn chair he kept on my porch with a mischievous grin across his face.
“She like the flowers Earl?”
“Oh she did. She invited me over for lunch this afternoon too.”
He was giddy.
“Good,” I said. He hadn’t noticed Doyle’s yet.
I pointed. “Hey look over at Doyle’s place.”
Earl slowly stood up and put his hands over his eyes to shield the sun.
“Well I’ll be buggered. Everything’s gone.” He turned and stared his deep set brown eyes at mine. I think he overlooked my glow.
“Right. Isn’t it odd,” I said. “It just vanished.”
I paused and he craned his neck back toward the vacant lot.
“For one I’m glad,” I admitted.
“But what if something bad happened to him. What in tarnation could’ve happened to him?”
“I don’t know Earl. I guess it’s like the stick. Things just happen; you know that.”
“I guess,” he stammered, “but this is a little bigger than a stupid stick falling from the sky.”
“Not bigger Earl. Better.”
Earl wasn’t happy with my answer. He finally noticed a little gloating behind the tone of my voice. We sat in silence peering out across the open field.
I think that he went through scenarios in his head where I was involved in what had happened, but he soon realized I’m too old for anything of that magnitude. Besides, I had no friends or relatives who could’ve secretly pulled off erasing the evidence of a man’s life in one night.
“You think we should go over there and check it out?” I asked him.
“I’ll go. Doris told me your legs are worn out today.”
He took off in a hurry. It’s like going to see the aftermath of a twister or hurricane. Tempting and exciting for even the most broken human body.
I motioned forward and back, my chair creaking as it rocked, watching him walk toward the new spot of beauty in our neighborhood. If you can call our dirt road a neighborhood that is.
As I rocked I caught a sidelong glance of the stick standing in the corner. I hadn’t thought about it all morning. I abruptly had an epiphany: ever since it’s arrival my luck had gone from dormant to out of this world. I reached for my new good luck charm and laid it across my lap. I stroked it as I watched Earl pace around in circles on Doyle’s lot. After a few blank looks and curious scratches of his head, he headed back.
He called out from the dirt road. “Nothing’s left. Not even the load of nails and screws and what not scattered about. It was like he was never there.”
Earl stood, back curved like a candycane, with his hands on his hips. His Santa hat was in his hand. The sun reflecting off his wire rimmed glasses.
“I’m gonna go home for awhile. Tell Doris I’ll be back later for lunch.”
“Will do,” I said smiling while petting my lucky stick.
Lunch was as unamusing for me that day as any other regular non-holiday. I ate my thinly sliced turkey in silence while Earl and Doris cut jokes back and forth about everything from Christmas trees to dandelions.
Earl eagerly told her about Doyle’s disappearance. That was the only interesting aspect of the meal for me. But like Earl usually does, Doris hoped for the best for Doyle and explained it off as him simply moving back to Georgia where he had grown up. I knew why they hoped for the best, but I was also smart enough to realize it was wrong. I listened the whole time, glad to be the only one to know that my stick had to be involved. How? I didn’t know, but I knew it was. I had brought the stick inside for the first time that day. It was leaning against the back of my chair at the dinner table.
Earl left around 3:30 that afternoon and I sat at the table while Doris cleaned up.
“What are you smiling at?” she asked while clearing the dishes from the table.
“Whatever Norm. You’re happy about Doyle’s disappearance aren’t you?”
“You have to admit it looks better out there.”
“If I didn’t know how ragged and imobile your legs were I’d swear that you had something to do with it Norman Green.”
She was getting angry. She could get there fast.
Just like Earl I thought. Always wanting the best and expecting me for the worse.
“Well I don’t know what happened, but I am glad it did.”
I got up and walked out onto the porch with the help of my new friend, the stick. I sat on the porch for the remainder of the afternoon and most of the early evening mumbling to myself.
“I wish Doris would just vanish too. Besides cleaning up she’s a hassle. Her Christmas dinner sucked too. I felt sick. Her and Earl should’ve joined Doyle if they’re so worried. Be the best Christmas ever I think. I hate Christmas. Earl’s ridiculous. Why couldn’t some former mob boss or model have moved in around here to fulfill my need for companionship?”
I mumbled myself to sleep in my rocker. I guess Doris was still angry or she would’ve woken me up to go inside. It was that night on the porch that I either witnessed the most unexplainable occurance ever, or I did become—or realized I was—senile.
I awoke to Doris’s screams from inside the house probably sometime around midnight, but before I could even get my bearings and realize where I had fallen asleep the screams stopped. I’ll admit I was scared. Not of dying, I was too old for that. No, I was actually more scared of the why rather than the what.
I heard a very faint marching sound approaching from the other side of the front screen door. A light galumphing sound coming from the wooden floor in the living room. I closed my eyes. I’d rather die not watching I thought. I heard the squeak of the screen door cracking open, and the marching sound went right on past me and down the steps to the dirt road.
Earl. Has to be Earl my inner voice said.
I opened my eyes just enough to see through the tiny slit at the bottom, but saw nothing. No Earl, but I did still hear a light patter fading away on the dirt road. I opened my eyes a little farther and saw a black line of what appeared to be ants marching east toward Earl’s house with a two or three inch high trail of smoke drifting behind.
It’s one of those times when you don’t understand what’s going on, but you do. I knew Doris was gone like the wasps, and Earl would be soon though I had no clue how. I decided to grab my stick and follow the trail of tiny insects down the road. When I stood and turned to grab the sick I noticed that the knurl on the top of it was hinged off to the side like an open door. In the distance I heard a few sleepy yelps and then silence. Without the slightest hesitation I lunged back into my chair and closed my eyes.
The sound of the ants approaching could be heard coming back down the road again. There must have been millions of them. I opened my eyes just enough to see the ground. The line of black creatures went right past my feet, each carrying a tiny speck of what I assumed to be Earl and Doris in their pinchers, climbed up the stick, and then once inside, the knurl eased itself shut. I didn’t sleep or move for the rest of the night.
The following morning I began to go numb from sitting there in the wooden rocker all night. I had to get up. My arthritis was pricking at my joints like shards of fiberglass. I eventually made my way into the house, and like I had figured, Doris was gone. No blood, nothing knocked over, just gone. A part of me felt sad. We had been married for forty some odd years, but to be brutally honest, I felt more relieved.
I knew that Earl was gone too. I didn’t bother wasting what could be my knees’ last journey on walking down there to his house just to have to walk back with no more answers than I already had. I went to my chair on the porch and sat there watching the stick all day.
For the first time since I was fifty years old I found my self trying to answer something that deep down I knew couldn’t be answered. Where had the stick come from? What was in it? I couldn’t answer any of these questions. The only question I did know the answer to was what happened when I bitched about something in its presence. It was like having the codes to unleash a nuclear attack. Whatever was the topic of my disgust was placed in the stick by those ants. Or was eaten by them I really don’t know. I had also learned one other thing: I could never bitch about myself, ever, or else.
Deciding to make the best of my situation—Earl would’ve been proud—I held the stick in my hands and started griping about how Earl’s house and all his possessions were useless since he had disappeared. Even his two lemon trees, they’d die without him anyway because it didn’t rain enough around here to last them through the summer droughts. Besides, there would be fewer questions from anyone that might happen to come visit if there was no evidence at all. Sure enough the next morning his house, truck, the lemon trees, and everything else was gone.
Over the next few years due to my innate nature to bitch, and the lack of anything else to do since I had deleted all options, I had managed to eliminate almost every tree around my house, the dirt road, the rocks, the roaches, my Dallas Cowboys hat which ripped, even the birds. I told myself that they weren’t good enough anyway. I had to. I couldn’t bring them back. I had also slipped and gotten rid of my ragged roof one morning when I wasn’t watching my mouth. After that when it rained I had to sleep under the bed or the dining room table.
The past three days in particular have brought the end of it all. It’s the middle of summer now, and I no longer have any house, food, water, or shelter. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I just kept right on bitching, and for some idiotic reason I refused to get rid of the stick. All I have now is one pair of coveralls, my lime green rocker, an ink pen that was in one of my coverall pockets, and a handful of tissues I’m writing this on.
The sun’s been getting the best of me. At 85 years old I’m almost out of time. I don’t know maybe I griped about that one day and the little ants are slowly eating it up too. My current situation is why I have decided to write this account out for you. No one would ever have any evidence of our existence here without it. Hopefully someone will be metal detecting or hiking and find the folded up story buried under the ruins of my faithful chair and my bones. Or maybe the wind will catch it on a breezy day and it’ll fall from the sky and into someone’s hands like the stick did mine.
Lying here in the barren Texas heat, dehydrating, dying, I’m still not scared, but I don’t have any answers either. I sat under a mesquite tree all day yesterday and expressed my wish that the deliciously terrifying stick would vanish and it did. I don’t know where it came from or where it took itself to and I don’t think I need to know. No one will ever know why it fell here. Maybe to teach me a lesson. Maybe not.
It seems unbelievable I know. What fell onto the dirt road in front of my house was a bit more fantastical and magical than an antique coat or regular cow for those of you who believe in the sky vomit theory, but as far as this old man’s memory is concerned it did happen. Though a state of delirium has begun to set in on me over the past few hours, and I’ve been wondering perhaps if maybe it never happened at all. Maybe I was never married and have been homeless and delusional forever. I’ve heard stories of that happening too. Or maybe I just don’t want to deal with it. All I do know now, whether true or not, is that like most people that have had the sky vomit on them, my life was changed from that day on.
(illustration: lisa kinsley)
Amarillo, Texas resident J.L. Hepler is presently unemployed due to injury. Healing time has been spent editing a role-playing novella for Australian author Simon Taylor; having two poems published in A Far Off Place, an annual poetry anthology; and having short stories accepted at the Harrow and 31 Eyes websites.