Emily Grandy

Follow the Killdeer

The dead boy’s father sat across from Jayme in an upholstered chair, elbows against his knees. Shattered, she thought. That’s how he looked. Jayme waited for him to speak, thinking she should’ve worn something more formal, something other than the ripped jeans and leather jacket in which she was often photographed.

“Good of you to drive back for…you know, the funeral,” he said.

“I flew,” she explained, which was true, but not the correct response. “If I’d known…” she tried again but stopped because maybe she should have known. She and this man’s son, Marcus, they had always considered themselves artists, sensitive spirits with eccentric interests. It had seemed only natural, then, to dive down into the pits of despair from time to time to probe those curious depths. The playacting had led to experimentation, not only in artistic forms but also in illegal substances, means of sexual gratification, and forms of dress. In Jayme’s case, these experiments had shaped a modestly lucrative career as a singer-songwriter.

Because her grades and absence record at UIC told a less impressive tale, she had recently pressed pause on her academic pursuits to focus her attention more entirely on music. She had been living alone in a studio above a Mexican bakery on the dodgy side of Humboldt Park when she heard through social media that her friend had taken his own life. Hung by a necktie in a closet, they said. Jayme did not know which closet, nor who had found him there, whether Marcus had been living alone, as she had, or whether he’d remained all this time in his parents’ house. She looked up at the ceiling, in the direction of his old bedroom, wondering.

Marcus’s father sat back, nodding, then shaking his head, as if to loosen thoughts he could not articulate. Finally, a few fragments tumbled out. “That’s what I’ve been telling myself. But you were closer to him,” he acknowledged, as if placing blame.

Jayme crossed her ankles, feeling the heft of her boots. In crowds or on stage, they served as a sort of anchor tethering her to the earth, but here their obscene weight sent vibrations through the old wooden floorboards, rattling tables, tinkling crystal on its shelves.

“My wife would’ve liked to see you, but she’s not feeling well,” he said. “She’s asleep upstairs.”

“It’s fine.” She wanted to get to the point, but carefully. Then again, why should she be afraid of causing offense now after the worst had already happened? “So…”

He inhaled deeply. On the exhale he repeated the word back to her. “So,” he said. “The thing is, we’d really like you to sing. At the funeral. You were his closest friend.”

Jayme felt no gratification to be recognized in this capacity, not by this man with whom she’d exchanged hardly two full sentences strung together until now. The exception, she recalled, had been at Marcus’s sixteenth birthday celebration. She still remembered the occasion because Marcus had invited her, and only her, to have dinner with him and his parents at a restaurant of his choosing. Somehow in the course of things, the conversation had veered carelessly in the direction of habitat conservation. Jayme, a year ahead of Marcus, had given a speech on the topic in debate class. Suddenly, she had found herself defending her position again, against this man who preferred suburban golf courses and the company of men who invested time and resources to redistrict land so they could replace protected habitat with a monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass and white sand bunkers. Even now, she felt unbalanced in his company. 

“We’d pay you, of course,” Marcus’s father said, as if the fee were at the root of her hesitancy.

“You wouldn’t have to,” she said, though she was sure he could afford it, her time, what it would cost. “I’m glad you thought to ask me.”

“If you have time, we could go over music.” Then without waiting for confirmation, he said, “My wife would like you to sing this one.” He passed her a booklet marked with a pink tab. She knew the piece Marcus’s mother had chosen. She’d attended a few church services at Marcus’s request, an invitation she suspected may have originated with his parents.

“Do you want acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment?” Jayme asked.

“Whatever you think,” he said. “I’ve got a few more here. They’re all on CD’s. I hope that’s okay.”