The Great Depression. The orphaned family is riding in a Model-T. The oldest boy is driving, the boys are in back with their sisters.
To say life is hard doesn’t even scratch the surface. Food is hard to come by. Money is a myth. Their parents are dead. No honest work can be found within five counties.
Only last night, they stole gas and cigarettes from a filling station. Now they’re thieves, too.
Sometimes, it feels like they’re breathing borrowed air. They run from town to town, digging ditches, framing barns, loading mill trucks for pennies.
Today, the boys have been hired as roofers. A jobsite is where they are now. The bossman will pay them forty cents for a workday.
Forty cents. It’s highway robbery. Welcome to 1935, nobody’s getting rich in Alabama.
It’s a hot day. They’re weak from malnutrition. The boys are wearing homemade tool belts their sisters made. They haven’t eaten in days.
They stand in the shade. The workers are passing around breakfast—a bottle of milk spiked with liquor. It goes straight to the boys’ heads and makes them dizzy.
The three brothers crawl on a three-story roof, pounding hammers. They’re dehydrated. Clumsy. They are inexperienced. Especially the youngest boy. He’s fourteen. He is awkward on his feet.
He slips. It all happens so fast.
He hits the ground so hard he bounces. The workmen all see it. The boy is face-down. Blood trickles from his mouth. His chest quits moving. No pulse.
The bossman comes running. There’s no doubt. The kid is gone.
They cover him with a tarp. The world has stopped spinning. The oldest brother is white with shock. His sisters are screaming.
Life is hell, the oldest thinks to himself. Childbirth took their mother. Pneumonia took their father. The bank took their home. Now tragedy owns their youngest brother.
The workers place the child’s body into the rear of a truck.
“It’s my fault,” says one brother. “The milk was my idea.”
“No, it’s my fault,” says another. “I shoulda never let him up there.”
“Maybe someone should say a few words,” says the bossman, removing his hat.
Workers bow heads. The oldest tries to give a eulogy you’d expect. Something reverent. But what comes out of his mouth is not.
He begins begging. Then crying. Nobody knows who he’s talking to. He’s losing his mind, that’s what he’s doing.
“Please!” he shouts to the clouds. “Don’t do us like this!”
His brothers and sisters begin to cry. The last four years of death, poverty, and near-starvation are dripping out of their faces.
The oldest collapses onto the ground. He’s pleading now. That’s what he’s doing.
He’s delirious. Hungry. Traumatized. His eyes are closed. He’s on all fours, forehead to the dirt.
They all heard him yell it. Every man there saw him pound his fists against dirt. They all watched him shout until his vocal chords were blood raw.
They all saw it, and they all would retell it for the rest of their natural lives. Even while wheeling down nursing home hallways with grandkids.
Those who saw it tell it their own way. I’m only telling it the way I heard it. Truth be told, I don’t know what I think about it.
But they remember. How brothers and sisters sniffed noses and wiped eyes. They recall how the body beneath the tarp started to move.
And nobody can forget how a fallen fourteen-year-old sat up straight and breathed again.
Do not stop believing.