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Killing Pirates
by John Griswold
reading time


Jack’s nursery had blue skies and a mural with a smiling monkey and an elephant he named Peanut. But now he was three and wanted cars and trucks and monsters and policemen for his new bedroom. And and and.


We compromised on pirates, but then he saw the Wyeth illustrations for Treasure Island, which bring to life “heavy, nut-brown” men with “dirty, livid white” scars, hands “ragged with black, broken nails,” greasy hair, pistols, a cutlass, and a gold tooth glinting in a sneer.


Jack said, “Pirates might be a little scary. Maybe when I get older.” He still wanted boats, maps, and the swelling sea. Treasure Island, that is, minus Long John Silver and Captain Flint. His world was no longer only additive conjunctions.


My mother died that spring, and we wondered what to do with our little boy. Mrs. Churm regretted that her mother sheltered her from death. She didn’t attend a funeral until she was 15. But I recalled being a child in the stench of lilies, a dank room with the cold focus up front and an audience of strange faces. The director crept along the walls like a rat.


We compromised, took him to the visitation to meet all the estranged kin and old ladies who read of it in the paper. He was to stay at the back of the room but wailed and stomped and demanded to see for himself.


I picked him up, and together we went forward to gaze at the frail corpse and the casket saddle made of Stargazers, wood ferns, roses, and Stargrass the color of unbleached muslin. He was interested, solemn and asked the proper questions: Is that Grandma Helen’s body, is there a heaven, is Maggie the Golden Retriever with Grandma Helen and Grandpa Fred? Can we drive to heaven? Please? Will Grandma float in the air, will you die, will I die? Why?


The day was long—grandma but not Grandma, family but sadness, intense but boring. Jack butterflied around, fell down steps—twice—ate his hamburger and mine, and yelled that a Memorial Day parade was passing.


Rest easy, my mother loved collage: Pallbearers watching baton-twirlers; Catholic friends arriving late with leftover Mardi Gras beads from their float and a pair of Groucho glasses for Jack. He put them on and insisted we admire him. The flag of death, so jolly with its eyelids and lips glued shut, hung stiffly on the mast.


At the cemetery, the little flirt sat in back with my nieces. We called him forward at the end, and he obeyed.


“Goodbye, Grandma,” he said and waved to the coffin. He looked concerned that my shaking might not be laughter but was afraid to ask.


Then, as we drove away through the graveyard, he wanted to know if there were bones under all those stones. “I want to see them,” he demanded. “Can I see them? Please?”


The unspeakable courage of a three-year old boy slingshotting Blackbeard Death.

John Griswold has published in Ninth Letter, Natural Bridge, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 3 (WW Norton). His novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, came out this year. As Oronte Churm, John is also a contributing writer for Inside Higher Ed and a columnist for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Read more at
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Bob Schenck 9.24.2009
When I was too young to know how old I was, my Grandmother Vera carried me in her arms to the front of the room where her Uncle Oscar lay dead in his casket. We looked down at him. "Do you want to kiss Uncle Oscar goodbye?" Grandma asked me. I began screaming. That's all I remember.
Daniel Russo 9.27.2009
I read this story on the day it was published and found myself today, a few days later, wanting to visit Jack's world again. That is inspired writing.
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