Croft is watching the train pass by as he sits in the passenger seat of his grandmother’s sedan. He is thinking about the people who die beneath the crushing heft of the cars, which grind their bodies into the tracks. These tracks being near his grandmother’s house, where Croft lives, he marks them down on a mental list of nearby places to die.
Croft is depressed. Last week Croft decided to kill himself soon. Having once been told by his father that things worth doing should be done right, he waits patiently to arrive at the best plan. Every day when he gets home from school he rescues the daily news from the recycle bin in his grandmother’s garage and slips it in his backpack before he enters the house. After his chores, and after he and grandmother eat supper, he retires to his room for homework. This week, though, Croft has done no homework. Instead, he has spent all his free hours reading the newspaper and recording the ways that people have died.
In his journal, Croft keeps a page for each death. Headed with the name of the departed and footed by their particular means of exit, the rest of the page details any information Croft can glean about their life, along with an analysis of how they ought best to have died and what they seem to have mishandled in the events leading to their demise. The more he reads and the more he writes, the less connection Croft feels to the subjects of his study. His analyses become more calculated as he feels himself coming closer to the formula for a perfect death.
As the gates rise up to allow cars to cross the train tracks, Croft is thinking about the sermon he and his grandmother just heard at church. The preacher had described a life of sin as a runaway train. Once on board, he had said, it seems that all is still and the sinner is blind to the world rushing past them. Salvation, said the preacher, is as easy as turning to the side and realizing that you can simply step off the train and land firmly in the arms of Jesus. Croft wonders if Jesus, waiting by the tracks, will try to stop him from placing his 12-year-old body beneath the train. Such interference could complicate the attempt and ruin the chance for an uneventful death. Croft thinks hard about this for the rest of the ride home so that he will remember to write it down when he is left alone in his room.
Grandmother pulls the car into the gravel driveway and Croft is simultaneously unbuckling his seatbelt for a speedy escape. The radio has kept grandmother quiet all the way home as she has listened intently to callers from all over the country describe miraculous religious experiences. But at this moment Croft is snapped quickly out of his mortal preoccupation by grandmother’s first break in silence. “You clean out that shed today, Croft. Before you can go out and play.”
Croft feigns disappointment with a sigh and an “okay.”
As soon as the car stops Croft rushes into the house and up the stairs, slipping the newspaper from the countertop as he passes by and tucking it under his shirt. He had noted distinctly that grandmother said nothing of doing chores before he could go to his room, and he has no intentions of going out to play today, or any other day. There is too much work to be done.
In the Sunday paper Croft reads about a baby who is left in a closed car while its mother goes into the utility company building to pay a bill. While waiting in line, the woman has a heart attack and nobody finds the baby in the car until several hours later, after the woman has died in the hospital. By the time the baby is taken from its car seat, no life is left. Croft skips a page in his journal so that he may place the mother and baby next to each other and illustrate their connection more visually. Upon finishing the two pages, he presses his lips together and sits back hard against the wall, crossing his arms in discontent.
All of the deaths that Croft has documented have lacked a certain poetic quality that has kept them from meeting his settled upon ideals of the perfect death. Many of the deaths have come close, including this most recently discussed infant. But even the baby’s death seems to reach too far into the realm of unprecedented tragedy which Croft fears will scar his grandmother too greatly in his own death, she being the only person he imagines will care. If only his death could embody some sort of beautiful aesthetic quality or romanticism then perhaps her pain would be softened by an increased ability to view her loss as some unfortunate but unavoidable act of God.
Hoping to squeeze as much research into the day as possible, Croft picks the paper up off the floor and sets it on his thighs, pulling his knees up to bring it closer to his face. Pouring over the obituaries, which appear to be abundant in the Sunday edition with many people waiting for this holy day to honor loved ones, Croft comes across the first mention of a suicide that he has found all week. Having already noticed that many of the blurbs gave no cause of death, this makes him wonder how many of the dead folks’ families chose not to mention that the person had killed themselves. The obituary he has just found does not mention the means of the suicide and this does not surprise Croft. He has already accepted that the obituaries never give the level of detail found in the grisly articles that accompany news headlines.
Closing his eyes momentarily, Croft imagines how this death could have gone and then opens his eyes again to record the musing in the suicide’s journal entry. In his mind Croft can see the man, 43 years old according to the birth and death dates, standing in front of his bathroom sink and looking at himself in the mirror. The man has a large kitchen knife in his hands and without breaking his eye contact he raises it up and cuts across his throat from left to right. As he drops the knife it grazes his leg and then clanks to its resting place on the tile floor. Slowly the man’s eyes close and eventually he collapses to the side, hitting his head on the nearby toilet and losing consciousness. He dies soon thereafter.
Just then Croft hears his grandmother calling for him from the backyard. He stands up and turns around to open the window behind him, sticking his head out. He calls back to her. “I’m here!”
“Have you been up there all day? You haven’t even cleaned the shed yet!” She gestures to the open doors of the shed, which Croft has forgotten all about. He says nothing to her and after a moment she walks into the house. “It’s time for supper,” she shouts up at him after she closes the back door. He sets down his pencil and heads downstairs.
Reaching the bottom step Croft looks up and sees his grandmother setting out one plate of food on the table. “I’m going to the bingo potluck tonight, Croft,” she says. “Now eat your supper, and I expect you to clean that shed before it gets dark out. And be sure to get to bed at a reasonable time, now. I won’t be home until late.”
Croft says goodbye to his grandmother as she walks out the door with a green-bean casserole. Relishing the opportunity to eat alone, he runs up the stairs to retrieve his journal. With periodic breaks to shovel in mouthfuls of leftover chicken and rice, Croft writes about suicide. Given the way in which such deaths go so largely undescribed in the paper, he imagines that this is possibly one of the most difficult kinds of death for a family to accept. He knows that if grandmother thought he had taken his own life, she would somehow blame herself. It is essential, he determines, that his death appear to be a complete accident.
Some time has gone by when Croft finally looks up from his journal. His eyes finding the window over the kitchen sink, he realizes that it is already dark outside. He stands up from his chair, walks his plate to the counter, and heads out the back door. The shed is still open from when grandmother discovered earlier that it had not been cleaned. Past the doorframe Croft can see silhouettes of tall piles of boxes amongst various yard equipment and power tools. To the right he sees a very large crate that seems to block the path to the one light bulb in the shed.
Croft bends over and grabs the sides of the crate, which he can barely get his arms around. Pulling as hard as he can, he cannot get the crate to move. He sees a space just barely large enough for his body and smushes himself between the side of the crate and wall of the shed. If he cannot pull it, he reasons, then perhaps he can push the crate aside to free it from whatever blocks its path. He puts his hands up against the side of the crate and begins to push. It seems at first that the crate will remain an insurmountable challenge, but giving one final heave with all his might Croft pushes the crate over onto its side. Not prepared for such a move, Croft stumbles and falls on top of the crate as a new pair of garden shears are ripped hard off the wall and plant themselves firmly in the wood, just near his face. He stares at them without moving for several seconds. Finally he stands and returns to the house without finishing his work.