Grandmothers, we allowed, taken individually, don’t die every day. It would be a perversion of the whole natural order and Deb told Geoff as much. We understood that Geoff’s grandmother, who had died this morning, was not an exception. But Geoff conceded that grandmothers, taken as category, do certainly die with a greater reliability than other demographics, like auto mechanics or elephants, maybe. What about poachers? said Eugene, but nobody responded. We’re just talking strict statistics here, man, Bob explained, reaching an arm around Geoff. On the scale, which I drew hastily in the dirt with the end of my croquet mallet, it could be seen that grandmothers fell somewhere between burn victims and goldfish, and given those odds couldn’t a person be forgiven for thinking of this whole affair of Geoff’s grandmother departing the earthly realm as entirely ordinary, maybe even fitting? Certainly it seemed we could agree that death was nothing to get worked up about when the whole croquet tournament was hanging in the balance.
So we thought we’d settled things, put death in its place as it were, said Bob. He had his thumb in the air, testing windshear, and Eugene began to ladle more rum punch into everybody’s cup. Amy, handing out the balls, had just given Geoff orange because we couldn’t very well give him black now, I said.
But I guess logic is always countermanded by the course of actual events because right then Geoff’s dog died. The dog—Harold—was sitting in the sun between the 3rd and 4th hoops. He yawned and then he sneezed. Then he looked thoughtful for a second and concentrated on a daffodil in front of him, and then he fell over. We did CPR and shook the box of treats but we knew from that look, which none of us wanted to name, that there was no calling him back this time.
So then we were sad. Harry was, or I guess had been, a good dog, and we were no longer sure we even wanted to play croquet today. We felt Harry would have wanted us to play, but we couldn’t very well dignify his death having just passed over the grandmother’s. The problem was compounded, as was increasingly evident, by the fact that we were drunk. We felt we could hardly be expected in this state to reason the afternoon into a satisfying conclusion, and this made us sadder and one by one we returned to Eugene, who stood with the ladle in hand, by the bowl of rum punch. Deb, sitting on the steps, rolled her ball from one open palm to the other and back again, and the croquet lawn, dazzling now in the afternoon sun, seemed just out of mallet’s length. We buried our faces in our sleeves.
It wasn’t that we had no respect for human life. We all felt that human life was an important thing, probably sacred, but it seemed that you had to allow for certain mitigating circumstances. And anyway, said Eugene, steadying himself against the grill, shouldn’t human life always come second to human ideas, which are the closest we can get to immortality? Then he threw up a little bit and we all had to lie down.
When you laid down and began to think about it—to really consider it, said Deb—in a lot of ways you could make sense, total sense, out of feelings. She took the scoresheets out of Eugene’s shirtpocket and began to scribble down a few things that no one else could see, and after a minute or two she passed the notes to Bob, who had a reputation for math. He looked at the paper and said her figures seemed accurate. You hated to calculate actual percentages, but when you considered it, really considered it, with all the variables, Harry’s death did seem sadder, significantly so, and therefore more deserving of our attentions. Assuming that you wanted to solve for the grief of those surviving and that this grief correlated directly with the proximity at time of death, both emotionally and geographically, of the living to the deceased, Harry’s death was definitely sadder in that he had died right in front of us and we had liked him more. More importantly, though, we felt, too, that grief must exhibit an inverse relationship to that quantity of joy which the deceased might have created had he or she not—
Out of tact, we didn’t feel we needed to push the arguments any further. There wasn’t much room for debate any more. The grandmother, Geoff acknowledged, accepting his mallet, had been something of a husk of her former self and would not have had much to offer tomorrow if she’d reached it. Meanwhile Harry—a dog through no fault of his own, said Amy—had been taken in that much-vaunted prime of his life, and could have been expected to bring us joy during not just this croquet season but those many verdant seasons of tomorrow (we had reached that elegiac station of drunkenness).
So Amy got a security blanket from her trunk, and while Deb and I helped Geoff out of his rocking chair, Eugene began to roll up Harry. Bob intervened. There was, he said, something terribly informal about the act of rolling the deceased up, something too ad hoc, dare he say too accurate, about that approach to death. We agreed and Eugene sheepishly returned to the punch bowl. Bob laid Harry in the center of the blanket and proceeded to fold the fabric, one side at a time, neatly around him, the way you might wrap a Christmas present, and I had to say that this approach was, if not perfect, at least an improvement. While Bob finished up, we were all beginning to practice our strokes again, making sure the movement was fluid, graceful, without hitch or interruption. Then in one of those small acts of genius that Bob is always demonstrating, he drew the ribbon out of Amy’s hair at the last second, ran it under the folded blanket, looped it around, and tied up the package with a plain square knot.
was born in Pennsylvania, but now he lives in Kentucky where he’s the visiting scholar in creative nonfiction at the University of Louisville. He’s currently working on a book about fires.