That summer, all the mothers got drunk together and lip-synched along with Croce's "The Way We Used to Be." The fathers rode up to the Boca Chica Bar, did big lines of pure-flake cocaine, and pumped their fists to "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," swaggering as if they had meant to fail at their marriages all along. We kids spent our days back at home in the neighborhood park, listening to Croce sing, "Nature is calling, no one's listening to her."
But again Croce was wrong. We wasted long hours listening to nature, which slowly presented itself as being as crazed and suicidal as any of our parents. The tadpoles that had been teeming in the salt ponds exploded into a wave of tiny, perfect green frogs who swarmed out of the ponds only to be crushed under foot, or just poached on the broiling asphalt. We watched land crabs pop like grapes beneath the weight of passing cars, and stray cats dive under the wheels of delivery trucks. And we were always first at the scene of death, armed with a favorite stick to be used in poking, prodding, and flipping the carcasses. We carried handkerchiefs with us in case we came upon a body that had already begun decomposing. We were like the grim excavators of mass graves. Jim Croce was selling sadness, but what we wanted was morbidity.
Jim Croce's plane had clipped a tree at the end of the runway in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and eyewitnesses can still recall the concussion they heard as it hit the ground. The worst part, people said, was that he was supposed to have taken a bus. There was just no reason for what happened.
As the summer wore on, we became more aggressive with nature. We wanted to become the agents of some of this death. So many of god's creatures were at our mercy. Somebody had taken a three-inch lizard and impaled it on the spikes of a Spanish bayonet plant. Someone else had climbed a tree and thrown three dove eggs onto the pavement. There were rumors that a boy down the street had begun microwaving lizards, roaches, and anything else that popped when radiated. In previous summers, these things would have been revolting, but this summer it thrilled us. Death was permanent; it felt safe. One day, while hanging over the sea wall near our neighborhood, five of us eyed the fat, round sea urchins clinging to the wall beneath the water. Within a half-hour, we had a baseball bat and a bucket of sea urchins in the park and proceeded to bunt, slap, and hit for power every last urchin, marveling at the dazzling splotches of purples, yellows, and oranges where the urchins splattered like a Jackson Pollock on the dusty infield. "Somehow it just can't be true. That's all I have left of you," sang Jim Croce from a nearby radio. Again Croce was selling sadness, but what we wanted was cruelty.
One day at the end of summer, a week before I was to leave for California, I sat alone on the porch with my crush-neighbor Heather. I had recently turned 11 and I felt like a triumphant veteran. The street was clean and the grass was empty: For the first time in a long summer, nature was reporting no casualties of any kind. At that moment, a car drove by with Jim Croce's "Walkin' Back to Georgia" humming softly out of its speakers, and just as I was about to catalogue it as another stupid, sad song that was clearly wrong for the occasion, I felt like someone hit me in the stomach. It was Croce, telling me that I was about to lose everything and that nothing could be retrieved. Everything I ever knew was slipping through my fingers.
I realized that Croce was selling sadness because that is all there is after you get past the first layer of pain: Once there are no more little creatures to kill, only sadness remains. Divorce is nobody's fault. Plane crashes happen. Anger, cruelty, and morbidity are all just different forms of sadness, and in the end you just have to grieve until you're done, whenever that is. "Time in a Bottle" plinked forth from every radio in town, and Jim Croce's soft, sentimental voice drew everyone out to their own sweltering porches, where they too sat down beside their kids. We all started to cry. The sweat on our brows dropped and mixed with the tears on our cheeks, and together the droplets fell onto the condensation on the adults' cold cans of beer. That water ran off each porch in little salty rivulets, which met the neighbors' rivulets until a stream formed and met other streams among puddles of coolant on the asphalt. Those waters formed a huge, warm river that rushed ahead toward the Atlantic to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. A great wall of water slowly moved cars and trees, houses and soil, lifting all of us and everything else gently off our foundations and sending us out to sea, leaving nothing but the coral stone beneath. From above, Key West looked white and naked, like an exposed molar breaching the gum line of the ocean. A small, mangled twin-prop airplane flew overhead and a lone voice was heard to sing: "And of all of the things that we knew, not a dream survived."