Abraham, Martin, and John


I moved the nozzle along the baseboard, soaking each crevice with a clear spray of liquid. The brand name was D-Con, but Dad said the main ingredient was pyrethrin. In Latin, I’d learned, the root word ‘pyra’ meant ‘funeral fire.’

The colored family that had lived in the two-bedroom cottage flat had moved out. A grease-covered stove sat detached in the middle of the kitchen, waiting for the trash haulers. There were piles of clothes on the floor in the bedroom, and Dad stuffed them into Glad bags and took them outside in the yard.

Dad’s radio played softly, perched on the kitchen sink. He liked the Big Band sound, but I switched it to my Top 40 station while working on the baseboards and under the sink. A song was beginning. I was startled to hear an oboe. It sounded as if it was in mourning. I stopped to listen, hearing Dion. His voice, too, was mournful. Not like it used to be when he sang ‘Runaround Sue’. Dion, the teen idol, was calling for the dead.

Anybody here, seen my old friend Abraham?

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young

You know I just looked around and he’s gone

Byron was out of town with his family this weekend, and Allen had a job pumping gas, so I had to do Saturday’s exterminations with Dad. I sprayed the pipe joints under the sink, holding my breath when I had to crouch. It was a scorching August Saturday, already 84 degrees at ten a.m. and on its way up to 90.

Dad called to me from the outside porch. He was slipping his exterminator’s mask over his head. “Cover the kitchen floor with those tarps, too, and then come on out.” He was about to fog the place. It was a bad infestation; I’d noticed roach crap around the counter’s plug plate, even saw a couple crawling in bold daylight in the bathroom.

The Dion song moved me. It was sad because it was in a minor key, and Dion’s voice—so unlike the voice I’d come to know as his—was plaintive and sorrowful in a way that transported me beyond this mundane moment of prepping a room for a fogging.

Anybody here, seen my old friend John?

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young

You know I just looked around and he’s gone

Abraham. Now John. He was talking about presidents. Dead presidents. Presidents killed by assassins. I thought back to the morning that President Kennedy was shot. The radio announced it over lunch. We all wondered if he’d live. Then Diane, a girl in my 4th grade class, told me on the playground that his brains had been blown out and he was dead. I didn’t believe her then, but it turned out it was true. By that evening, we all knew about his brains. Even so, adults didn’t speak it the way kids on the playground did. My mom and dad—even though they hadn’t voted for him—felt sympathy for Jackie and the kids.

I spread out the tarp. A few dead hornets from a previous job fell onto the floor. I lined the tarp side up with the walls.

 Anybody here, seen my old friend Martin?

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young

You know I just looked around and he’s gone

Martin Luther King. They’d killed him too, in April. The people of Memphis, colored and white alike, had lined the streets for his funeral procession. He’d preached peace through our summers of siege, prayed for our country at war. He’d spoken ugly truths. A white man was charged with it, and Mom said she didn’t think he did it alone. As I wondered why Mom had said that, Dion changed his refrain, moved into a new melody, a bridge. His voice rose higher, more optimistic, saying things that I knew to be true. At least for me. I did love the things they stood for. They did try and find the good in you and me.

And we’ll be free
Someday soon, it’s gonna be one day

And suddenly Dion’s weepy timbre nailed me.

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walking up over the hill with Abraham, Martin, and John

I dropped the corner of the tarp and begin to cry. They’d killed Bobby Kennedy two months ago. And Martin Luther King two months before that. I cried full stop, standing alone in the hull of the infested house. My heart hurt as I pictured the newspaper photo of Bobby lying there, dying. Just like John. And Martin. And Abe Lincoln. They’d killed the people who gave us all the most hope.

Dad carried in the large fogger and looked at my face. “What’s the matter?”

I couldn’t explain my sorrow so I shrugged and said I heard a sad song. I wiped my face and straightened the edge of the last tarp. Dad plugged the machine into one of the three outlets in the room.

“Go wait outside while I start this,” he said.

I walked outside into the yard. There were sparse tufts of grass among the dirt mounds. Bags of kitchen garbage overran tops of the full metal cans, and several bags of move-out trash lay on the ground split open, as if someone or something had sifted through them for nuggets of gold. An old bureau, it’s drawers long gone, rested on its side against a broken fence, and a stained mattress lay partially in a puddle.

Dad came out and shut and locked the door. “We’ll go home and wash up while this thing does its business. We’ll come back to clean up in a few hours.”

Inside the van, I asked Dad if I could choose a radio station. “Go ahead.” I dialed the knob up and down the numbers, searching for that song. Dion’s song. Abraham, Martin and John. I longed to hear it again. And again. I longed to hear it a thousand times, because it made me feel as if I knew myself. As if I was part of something larger than me, my family, my school, my small world in a middle-sized town in Illinois. I dialed through static and weather reports and polkas and newscasts and ballads, searching for my destiny. I didn’t want to grow up to work as an exterminator. Or be a housewife. I wanted to make our world better, the world Dion was singing about. One where leaders with good hearts weren’t murdered and where young men didn’t die in Vietnam. A world that gave us hope. I fiddled with the dial in a crazy search for the song, for the feeling I longed for, until Dad reached out and pressed on my hand.

“Stop right there,” Dad said. “That station. Keep that station on. It’s Sinatra. Let’s listen to some Sinatra for a while, okay?”

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