Our town’s ordinance—passed in 1862—named the first-born son of each family Zebulon. In the late sixties, long after the measure had been abandoned, my father worked at the Green Hill Manor for the Elderly and Infirm, where the last three Zebulons lived.
Zebulon Amole and Zebulon Barnes shared a room. My father’s supervisor warned him they were an odd pair. Amole was seventy-seven, thin from twitchiness, open palms of white hair sprouting above his ears. He would not meet my father’s eyes, and shook hands with a fist. He used to suffer walking nightmares, the supervisor said. She, Martha, had once found him passed out in the dining hall with his pants around his ankles. Another time, he broke his nose; he’d tripped in the dark, she guessed.
Amole’s misfortunes had abated when Zebulon Barnes took up the room’s other bed. Obese and rheumatic, Barnes assured my father, “Zeb doesn’t wander anymore. I’m here all the time. I watch him.”
The third Zebulon, Smith, had his own room, on account of his insomnia. On mosquito dense summer nights, he and my father took walks around the man-made pond at the base of the Manor’s hill. The moon hung in the center of the glassy black water, wavering.
Smith’s bald head was freckled, his eyes light green between folds of chalky skin. He never spoke of the other Zebulons; the rift between them had gone unspoken for so long, my father said, no one could recall the details anymore.
Instead, Smith talked of the menagerie of carp and goldies that had lived in the pond years before. Now algae laced green along the pond’s edges, and the fish did not show themselves. Smith said he’d once caught a mackerel the size of a newborn: a whiskered, fighting beast.
Oh, but the feel of a live thing in your hands, Smith said. You ever seen it try to breathe the air?
My father showed me the Manor when I was fifteen. The place had been closed for years, and I was in no mood to hear his story about the Zebulons. Itchy with adolescence, I’d outgrown his words. I already ached to leave this town, so backward as to pass the Zebulon ordinance. This corner of Ohio my father and mother called home would be a joke in my past, trivia from where I’d come.
We stood at the top of the hill and looked down on the drained pond. The Manor was an empty dollhouse; the windowpanes had long ago shattered or been rock-broke. My father asked me to imagine the fish that had once swam in that empty space, to imagine the world under the water’s surface.
He said, One of the Zebulons drowned in that pond.
He said, I watched him do it. I let him.
When my father had worked at the Manor for less than a month, Zebulon Barnes took ill. He vomited all night into the toilet; the skin at the back of his neck was damp and his fingertips had swollen to purple. His removal to the county hospital was a big to-do: ambulances screaming up the hill, Martha’s hair loose under her white tri-cornered hat, the residents watchful like owls from the windows. Zebulon Smith, my father noticed, was nowhere to be found—for the best, as he might have smirked, might have begun rooting in Barnes’ belonging for items to take after the man’s death.
Zebulon Amole had followed the medics out to the front lawn, and now he alone remained there, beside the space where Barnes’ wheelchair had dug furrows into the grass, sending up waves of mud. The morning sky held patchy clouds. The pines circling the pond quivered in the wind.
Zebulon Amole, my father said, folded his face into his hands and cried.
I tried to picture what my father described: first, the man’s legs broke the water’s surface; the water circling his waist; how his chest and his shoulders disappeared until only his head remained.
My father told me Zebulon was whispering as a lip of water closed over his head.
The evening after Barnes’ removal, my father made his rounds. Once an hour, he passed through the Manor’s tiled front entrance, shadowed and still. The hallways hummed with silence. The moon refracted blue light through paneled windows, and threw oblongs on the wall.
Outside the dining room, my father heard grunts, sighs. He stepped into the room, and blinked, blinked, separating the vaulted ceiling from darkness, the rows of moon-slicked table tops, the stout legged benches.
A man was spread flat on his stomach across a table, his head twisted to the right. Zebulon Amole—twitching in pain. Atop him, pants unbuckled at his heels, socks gathered in rings of cotton as the white of his ass thrust in and out, was Zebulon Smith. His hand clenched into a fist. He was a man whose mouth turned down at the corners, even as he was smiling.
Martha ran down the hill to the pond. Coming in for her shift, she’d seen a man floating face-down with his arms extended, his body in the shape of a cross. She lunged past my father, into the water, her white uniform clinging like second skin.
She pulled him to shore, mud churning. Martha cradled Zebulon Amole’s body. She repeated his name as though praying: Zebulon, Zebulon, Zebulon.
My father didn’t tell Martha what he’d seen between Smith and Amole that night. He told me he didn’t understand it, or understood enough to be troubled into silence. At fifteen, I only half-comprehended myself; only felt the oblique stirrings that would make leaving easier, that made me feel that I was not of this place, that I had to go to be a different sort.
A few mornings later, Martha told my father that Zebulon Amole had blooms of purple and blue bruises along his ribs; he complained about breathing. He told her he’d gotten up in the night, miscalculated the steps of the stairs.
Lucky he didn’t break his neck, Martha said.
That night, my father found Zebulon Amole’s bed empty. Smith was reading in his room, a cone of light glowing the pages of a French novel. He looked up at my father, asked, “Time for our walk, pal?”
My father said he sometimes wondered if it would have all ended differently, had they gone then on their walk.
Of course, nothing would have changed. Just been delayed.
The police and the ambulance came twice the next morning. First for Zebulon Amole. The paperwork declared that he had committed suicide by drowning.
Then for Zebulon Smith, found in his bed, dead—paperwork again—of natural causes.
Martha said to my father, It’s easier that way, I suppose. We don’t need an investigation. Of course, they know he was suffocated, but there’s no reason to cause a stir. He was a nasty one, wasn’t he?
Her hands shuffled papers. The Manor’s business would proceed ahead, the day just starting. By noon, she’d fire my father for some petty reason, negligence, spite. Zebulon Barnes would not return from the hospital. Within two weeks, all the Zebulons of our town had died away.
Looked to me, Martha said, before she dismissed my father, looks to me like someone stole the breath right out of him. I hope it hurt. I hope he cried out in pain.
My father had found Zebulon Amole standing on the pond’s shore: his shoulders dark against dawn brimming on the water’s surface. His hands curling and loosening as gnats clouded the shallows.
Amole spoke to my father as if picking back up a thread of well-worn conversation. He said he’d held the pillow tight over Smith’s face, those hands marked with constellations of freckles finding no purchase in the empty air. Amole spoke of a body’s stillness.
He’d been a fool, he said, to think Barnes’ presence meant protection. All deeds return over time; habits do not break. Three young men with a common name, brought together in old age. Vicious, inhuman acts more about power than lust. About owning a body and what you can take from it.
And now you know, Zebulon Amole said. His feet were already half in the water. So you won’t stop me, will you.
Not a question, my father remembered. No permission asked.