HomeSouthern VoiceThe Boy on the Hill

The Boy on the Hill

by Kirker Butler 

The hill at the top of Oakwood cemetery had stayed relatively vacant. Years ago, a child had been buried up there, and since then everyone in town had kept their own dead at least a hundred feet away out of respect. The boy, Casey Dickerson, drowned at a church pool party: dove into the shallow end and hit his head on the bottom. There were forty-eight kids being overseen by two teenage youth group chaperones who had just realized they liked each other. They discovered Casey two hours later when his pruned, grey body floated to the surface.

The parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dickerson were prominent, an attorney and his wife, so the community acted as if they cared more, which made everything much harder on Mr. and Mrs. Dickerson. People in small towns are drawn to misfortune like mosquitoes to a bug zapper. Everywhere they went people gave them that polite, closed-mouth smile and nod that the giver thinks relays sympathy, but the receiver recognizes as pity. From the moment Casey’s body was laid to rest, no one gave them a quiet second to think about anything other than their dead son. It defined them as a family, hung over them like a cloud, followed them like a ghost. It was the town’s biggest tragedy in years, and people were desperate to get close to it.

The funeral was moved to the high school gym once the flood of flowers, wreathes, and other offers of respect overran the viewing parlor of the Candy-Parker funeral home. Typically stoic business leaders: insurance salesmen, attorneys, pharmacists, wept openly and loudly. Sobbing teenage girls clung to each other for support and appearances. The teenage youth group chaperones sat with their respective families, but still close enough to hear each other cry-praying for Casey’s (and their) soul. It was an orgy of grief.

For weeks after, families would stop by the Dickerson’s house unannounced “just to look in on them,” toting heavy, cheese infused casseroles, or several pounds fried chicken, their names scribbled on masking tape and stuck to the bottom of their containers, saddling Mrs. Dickerson with food she wasn’t going to eat and someone else’s dishes she now had to wash. “The line between sympathy and harassment is a fine one,” Mrs. Dickinson wrote in her Sympathy Journal, a gift from her pastor’s wife’s sister. It was the only entry.

Women Mrs. Dickerson had never met would stop her at the IGA and ask, “How you getting along since Casey passed?”

Mrs. Dickerson always nodded as if to say, I’m fine, it’s difficult as I’m sure you can imagine, thank you for asking, and continued on with her near empty cart. She’d pass the concerned citizen who would put one hand over their heart, and the other on Mrs. Dickinson’s shoulder as if to say, I’m so sorry for you, and I’m so thankful I’m not you.

It wasn’t the asking that bothered Mrs. Dickerson, it was how effortlessly they said her dead son’s name, “Casey.” Mrs. Dickerson herself hadn’t been able to say it since the accident, but it was as if other people relished saying it in front of her, got some kind of perverse thrill from it like when her father — the social studies teacher out at the high school — would freely and without consequence use the n-word in front of his black students.

The onslaught of sympathy continued throughout the summer culminating at the Labor Day Street Fair when Mrs. Dickerson saw a woman she knew, not well, but their children were, or rather had been, friends. Delores was a mother of one of the kids who had been at the pool party. She was sitting at a card table with a poster-sized picture of Casey on an easel next to her. It was the same image that was propped up beside Casey’s coffin at his funeral, the same smile Mrs. Dickerson daydreamed about when the boy was alive and out in the world: safe at school, or Boy Scouts, or church pool parties. The same smile she prayed one day to see again in Heaven. But this photo was a black and white, washed out Xerox copy blown up from last year’s yearbook. The process made the image soft, like it was being viewed through someone else’s smudged glasses. It looked like a missing child milk carton picture, or the cover of a gruesome true crime novel.

“Delores … what are you doing?”

Delores’ eyes opened to perfect circles, cracking her cheap, caked-on concealer. “Oh, my goodness! I didn’t think you’d be here! But it’s so good to see you out and about.” Delores locked Mrs. Dickerson in a hug that tried to both convey sympathy and imprint a meaningful friendship that hadn’t existed before.

Mrs. Dickerson stayed stiff as a corpse.

“Why do you have a picture of … what the hell are you doing?”

Startled by Mrs. Dickerson’s tone, Delores picked up a homemade spiral-bound booklet with a clear plastic cover, and placed it in her hands. “I wrote a book … about what happened. About Casey.”

The cover art was an amateurish oil painting of a pool at sundown, no doubt painted by Delores’ retarded son, Jeremy. Casey, adorned with a halo and golden wings, hovered over the water, a serene smile on his slightly exaggerated face that made him look also slightly retarded. The title, written in childlike scrawl, was “God’s Newest Angel: The Casey Dickerson Story. An Inspirational Tale of Grief and Faith by M. Delores Elkin-Gee, RN.”

“Who —“ Mrs. Dickerson struggled to form words, “who said you could do this?”

Delores took a deep breath and covered Mrs. Dickerson’s hands in her own. Her sympathetic smile turned to one of self-righteousness humility. “God did. He asked me to.” She then leaned in and whispered, “Casey says he misses you.”

Mrs. Dickerson’s face fell blank, her eyes as inactive as a teddy bear’s. She was a wax figure, a costume of a human body being held upright by nothing more than force of habit. Her brain just flipped a switch, or more likely, blew a fuse.

“I’m charging ten dollars, but you can take that one for free,” Delores said, folding Mrs. Dickerson’s fingers around the autographed copy, oblivious to the complete unraveling of a woman’s emotional core happening right in front of her. “Well …” Delores said once the air between them had become stagnant and weird, “it sure was good seeing you. Tell Mr. Dickerson I said hello.” Grabbing Mrs. Dickerson for another hug, she spoke in her ear, “I’m praying for you. Let me know how you like the book.”

Mrs. Dickerson stood motionless, then very softly shook her head; and never stopped shaking it as she walked the seven miles back to her home.

For nearly a decade, people left Casey’s grave alone on the top of the hill. But time passed: two football players were killed in a drunk driving accident, a homecoming queen got leukemia, a gay kid committed suicide, and Casey’s death didn’t hold the caché it once did. Eventually, people started buying plots on the hill. Eyebrows were raised with every new grave that inched closer to the boy’s — it was still a bit scandalous to a certain faction of church-going busybodies—but enough time had passed for it to become more of something people shook their head about over coffee than whisper about over tea.

A month after Delores gave Mrs. Dickerson a copy of her book, Mrs. Dickerson moved to a “ranch” in Savannah, Georgia. Mr. Dickerson stayed in town and continued practicing law. They never divorced, and Mr. Dickerson was never seen with another woman. Mr. and Mrs. Dickerson died within eight months of each other, thirty-five years after Casey, but by then there were no plots left near their son.

Kirker Butler grew up in Kentucky but currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is a two-time Emmy-nominated writer and producer. He has written for Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, Galavant and the upcoming Life in Pieces on CBS. His debut novel, Pretty Ugly, was published in March by St. Martin’s and is currently on our Summer Reading List. Read an excerpt here

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Literary Friday, Edi