UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2012
In loving memory of Donald Hammond
Donald Hammond suffered from an invisible something. Growing up, he lived with his family on a farm outside of Clay Center, a dot on the map in northeastern Kansas with currently just under five thousand people, most of whom had sprouted gray hair. His room was off the kitchen. A double bed. A chest of drawers. Clothes on the floor. A window.
Hammond pitched summer league baseball in high school. The early sixties. The diamond stretched between the public pool and the park. Packed stands climbed from the dirt as the sun struck the crowd. Chatter. Roaring. Clapping. The announcer buzzed. Balls slapped into gloves. "Steeeerriiike!" blasted the ears of the crowd frequently when Donald Hammond pitched. Scouts observed from the stands. His lifetime goal: to play Major League Baseball.
Hammond mostly avoided people. He went to prom without a date, as he never dated in high school. When tugged into conversation, he'd struggle for words. He once told his sister's boyfriend, now husband, John that he didn't know what to say when talking to people, so he said nothing.
After high school, Hammond attended a trade school in Beloit for shop classes. His pitfall was that his mind wandered when he performed tasks. He once crashed a tractor into a light post. While burning brush on the farm, the flames ripped out of control and consumed the barn. At trade school, a fiber blade sliced through the tendons in his right arm. He couldn't grip a baseball anymore.
Schizophrenia is a form of psychosis, a lost sense of reality. Schizo is split. Phrenia is mind. Both derive from Greek. Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia include delusions of persecution and hallucinations of voices, smells, tastes, sexual touching, and visualizations on rare occasions. The cause is unknown, but prenatal illness may increase the chance of contracting schizophrenia. The illness tends to run in families and can be set off by the spurt of puberty or outside stresses.
On a global scale, one million people commit suicide every year, one person every forty seconds. In his mid twenties, Hammond snapped after an argument with his parents. Screaming about suicide, he stormed out of the farmhouse and into his car. He sped to a pasture off Highway Eighty Two, west of Wakefield, and his parents followed him. His father jumped out of his car and into his son's, while his mother drove home. Hammond muttered more about killing himself to his father, and once back on the highway, he veered into the left lane and floored it toward an oncoming car. His father struggled for the wheel, but he was in his late fifties and recovering from an illness. At the last moment, the oncoming car swerved into the other lane to miss them. Days later, Hammond was institutionalized in Topeka for several months. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
A fuzzy photograph of Donald Hammond taken in his mid to late thirties displayed a squinting face with a thick black mustache covering the top of an unwavering mouth. Brush and dead trees reached out of the ground behind him. Sturdy legs, hidden by dark blue jeans, rose from his black boots to a light leather belt with an elaborate design and a huge, oval buckle. A solid body filled a blue button up shirt with a collar. He leaned to his left, putting his weight on a rifle as if it were a cane, his hand around the barrel and the butt in the grass.
Hammond had once been a date with a slender woman with shoulder length brown hair. For several weeks he courted her, buying gifts and taking her on dates. Then, for no reason, he delivered a break up speech, and all was done. Hammond's mother also tried to set him up with a young woman, whom she had over for dinner. He behaved as if she were invisible.
After Hammond was released from the institution, his father retired from the farm, and he brought his wife and son to a house in Clay Center. Hammond lived in the basement. At night, he would pace the house, and the only way he could sleep was if his father sat in bed next to him with a hand on his chest to hold him down, which led to sleepless nights for them both, but when Hammond did sleep, he was capable of being out for up to fourteen hours.
Donald Hammond was thought to be a possible threat after his parents died, when he quit his job and stopped taking his medication. He lived alone in a house in Clay Center, never cleaning anything and only leaving to eat at Wendy's or go to the grocery store.
After pledging money toward the sheriff's department, Hammond received an honorary deputy card from the sheriff, which he thought gave him the right to carry a concealed weapon. He found a waitress he liked at a bar in town, and he opened his jacket toward her, flashing the gun as he told her that he was an honorary deputy and was here to protect her. He followed her home on his motorcycle, and she called the police. On a chase, he led the police back to the farm where he grew up, owned at the time by his sister, Shirley, in Wichita. After the arrest, a psychological evaluation determined that Hammond was not a threat to anyone, so the police released him.
Neighbors once spotted Hammond in his yard, in the snow, dressed in white underwear, rubber boots, and a Mickey Mouse hat with earflaps. He wielded a double-bladed axe over his shoulder while searching for brush to remove.
Years later, Donald Hammond's neighbors reported a foul stench resonating from his house. No one had seen him for four days. His legal guardian and former high school classmate found him on the floor, sitting against the wall and decomposing in a mess of bodily fluids. The mortician covered Hammond with embalming powder and zipped him inside a body bag. The spot on the wooden floor where he died was several shades darker than the rest of the room, and in the days following, the house would smell of bleach, but the effort to eliminate the deathly odor failed, and the house had to be torn down. Due to decay, the cause of death could not be identified. It was summer, 2000.
A few days later, clouds spread over Clay Center. Forty to fifty showed at the cemetery. White gravel roads traveled about the graves, which were grouped by family and covered by dark grass. Warm and humid air engulfed them. Six or seven rows of metal fold out chairs spread back from the closed coffin, but most had to stand.
John and Shirley Browning sat directly before the coffin in the front row. They had driven from Wichita, almost three hours to the southwest, while most of the others were from Clay Center and knew, or knew of, Donald Hammond. A minister from the First United Methodist Church of Clay Center, the church John and Shirley were married in, began the service.
Less than a minute later, a pink and black butterfly landed on the coffin directly in front of Shirley. Facing her, it folded its wings, unfolded and folded again. She noticed. John noticed. It remained in the same spot for the entire eulogy, folding and unfolding its wings. The minister summarized Donald Hammond's life. Shirley dropped her head but didn't cry, the same reaction as everyone.
The Greek word for butterfly is psyche, meaning soul. Aztecs also believed the dead return as butterflies or sometimes humming birds. While butterflies spend the summer in the United States and Canada, they travel south to Mexico in the autumn, and the locals believe they carry the spirits of lost relatives honored on El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). For Christians, the butterfly symbolizes resurrection. The caterpillar cocoons itself, appearing dead, and the butterfly rises.
John and Shirley remained at the site for a half-hour and exchanged pleasantries. The butterfly returned. It hovered in front of John's face. He remarked that the butterfly was a pest. Then someone noted it had been on his shoulder since the sermon had ended.Douglas Browning earned his MFA in creative writing at Wichita State University in Wichita, KS in 2011. His work has appeared at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in 2008. It has also appeared in *Occasional Papers III. *He was nominated by Wichita State for the AWP Intros award for his work in nonfiction. He currently teaches English at Cowley College in Mulvane, KS.
© 2004-2012 Underground Voices