#249: R.E.M., "Automatic for the People" (1992)

When Monty’s dad didn’t die right away, not even with a few tons of tractor on him, Garrick’s mom said we needed to visit. Monty needs friends right now, she said.

Garrick and I were playing chess and didn’t look up. “He’s needed friends for years,” I said, “but that’s not our fault.” You could talk like that to Garrick’s mom and she wouldn’t get upset. Not like my parents. They said I had a fast mouth, which was why I’d ridden my bike over to Garrick’s instead of driving their car.

But Garrick’s mom just leaned on the kitchen table and studied a strand of her hair. “Take your sister, too,” she said to Garrick. “Your sister can be very comforting.”

Garrick’s sister was nine and a genius. She looked up from her maps. “It’s true,” she said. “I can be.” She smiled and I smiled back. A few months before she’d given me a spoon she’d bent into a corkscrew. Besides my Walkman, it was the only thing I kept on my nightstand.

Since they’d run out of things to teach her at school, they let her do what she wanted. She read through the whole encyclopedia, then got interested in spoons. I watched her do it once, one Saturday when I was over and Garrick and I played Risk for three hours at the table. Andi sat with us, a table spoon in front of her, didn’t move or say a thing the whole time, and when we finally stood up, the spoon had a little twist in its handle. So Garrick’s mom bought her a bunch of spoons and Andi spent a month bending one for each kid in her homeroom. She got really good at it, and I said she ought to sell them.

Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. Topographic maps all over the place. The explorers weren’t crazy, she said. The Passage was still there, just different from what they expected.

We took some games along. Life, Monopoly, checkers, things we’d played with Monty in grade school when everybody was still friends. God knows we didn’t want to just sit in the house with him while his dad was out there in a field underneath a tractor.

Garrick drove. “Just an hour,” he said. “Then it’ll be time for dinner and we can leave.”

Monty answered the door. He didn’t look good. He never had, but now he looked worse. Terrible acne, and under his shirt was the plastic scoliosis brace that always made it look like he was wearing body armor. He’d worn one for years and had to buy shirts that were too big and made his head look small. He looked at us warily. “Yeah?” he said.

“We came to see you,” Andi said. She smiled at him. “We thought you might like some company.”

“Oh,” Monty said. He looked past us, like maybe there was someone better back there.

Andi asked if we could come in.

“Okay,” Monty said, and it was like going back in time, the same dark hall I remembered as a kid, the same smell of lemon furniture polish. A few feet in we stopped at the living room. There was a beam of late afternoon sunlight coming in.

“We brought some games,” I said. I’d almost forgotten the bag in my hand.

“Games?”  Monty said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Monopoly, that kind of thing.”

Andi asked where his mom was. It was like she was way older than any of us and knew all the secret rules.

“Out there,” Monty said, and gestured toward the back of the house.

“With him?”

Monty nodded.

“That’s good,” Andi said. “That’s good for both of them.”

Monty nodded again.

Footsteps, and a woman appeared in the hallway. She introduced herself as Monty’s aunt. She’d been crying, but she got herself together and when she understood who we were, thanked us again and again for coming to see Monty. It was so kind, so thoughtful. She told Monty to go get us some Cokes from the fridge, and when he was gone she dropped her voice and said just between us, she thought it was getting close. It’d been a day and a half now, and wasn’t that too long to suffer so much? They couldn’t do anything for him except painkillers, but he wouldn’t take them, and that was terrible for everyone.

When Monty came back, she tried to smile at him, but it didn’t last, and she started to cry again somewhere down the hall.

“Jesus,” Garrick said. I looked at Garrick, and he looked as bad as Monty. It was terrible standing there in that dark hallway with just one sunbeam coming in.

Andi got us into the living room and we sat down and opened our Cokes. She asked Monty a couple questions, but I didn’t hear them and Monty didn’t answer. Then we just sat there for a bit without saying anything at all.

When the sun got low enough to make Monty squint, he asked if we wanted to see him.

“Your dad?” I said.

Monty nodded.

I started to say was he kidding, but Andi said of course we did, and I sort of hated and loved her for it.

So we went down the hallway and then out the back door and it shocked me it was still spring and a nice evening. A bunch of adults were standing around in the backyard. When they saw Monty they got quiet, and the aunt came up and asked if she could do anything for him.

“Nope,” he said, and we walked past them all and out into the field.

It was quiet for a while until finally Garrick said he couldn’t believe none of the adults had stopped us.  That wasn’t right, was it? I asked if we were getting close. We couldn’t see the house anymore.

Monty pointed ahead at a little rise. “Over there,” he said.

Garrick stopped and threw up. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it, too, an arm here, a leg there. Andi stopped and patted him on the back.

Monty didn’t stop, so I followed him. From the top of the rise, we saw the tractor right below us, and below that was Monty’s dad. His mother and someone else sat in the dirt near him.

We startled his mother. “Oh,” she said, “Monty. Where did you come from?”

The other person was a man. Near him was a little leather bag like doctors carried in old TV shows. He said hi to Monty, but Monty just stood off to the side a bit and didn’t answer.

“That’s Monty?” It was Monty’s dad now, and he wasn’t anything I’d imagined. I thought dying people were always on their backs, but Monty’s dad was flat on his stomach, the side of his face in the dirt. There wasn’t any blood, not any I could see, anyway. When I got closer I saw he was under the tractor up to his shoulder blades. There was a blanket covering what wasn’t under the tractor. He still had his wire-rimmed glasses on.

“That’s Monty?” he said again, and the man said yes. Monty and a friend.

“A friend? Which friend?”

Since there wasn’t any blood I felt a little better. I came around so he could see me. “It’s me,” I said. I said my name.

Monty’s dad said all he could see was my feet. I knelt and tilted my head. His glasses were bent and he was about my dad’s age. I got dizzy for a moment.

Monty’s dad squinted and said he remembered me, it’d been a long time. “You look uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s easier if you lay on the ground.” So I flattened some cornstalks and lay down a few feet away facing him. “Better?” he asked.

“Better,” I said.

“I’m Andi,” Andi said. She was suddenly lying on the ground, too, stretched out the other direction so the top of her head was almost touching mine.

“You I don’t know,” Monty’s dad said.

I asked what happened to Garrick, and she said she’d sent him back to the house.

“And where’s Monty?” Monty’s dad asked.

“Over there,” I said and pointed. “Want me to get him?” Monty’s dad closed his eyes for a moment and said, no, it was fine. Then he opened them. “Jim,” he said, and the man with Monty’s mom came over. “Get her out of here for a bit,” he said. “I want to talk to these kids.”

“I’m not leaving,” Monty’s mom said.

“Just the other side of the rise,” Monty’s dad said. “Take a little break. You’ll be close. And they’ll yell if anything happens, right?”

“Right,” Andi said.

Monty’s mom really didn’t want to go, but Jim got her to stand up. They went slowly up the rise and at the top she started shaking and Jim had to steady her for a second. Then they vanished over the side.

“Hard to watch,” Monty’s dad said.

“Hey,” I said to Andi. “Maybe you can help.” I told Monty’s dad that she could bend spoons.


I told him how she bent spoons for everyone in her homeroom and also one for me. Maybe a tractor wasn’t that different from a spoon?

No, Andi said, it was pretty different, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway.

“That’s true,” Monty’s dad said. He had his eyes closed again. “But what a trick.”

I said she was a genius. Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. “She’s getting close,” I said.

Monty’s dad didn’t answer for a bit. Then he asked what Monty was doing.

“Monty,” I said, “what’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. I raised my head and saw him looking across the field. The moon was rising.

“Nothing,” I said. “He’s watching the moonrise.”

Monty’s dad opened his eyes. “There it is,” he said after a moment.

We heard a flicking sound and then there was cigarette smoke. “Now he’s smoking a cigarette,” I said.

Monty’s dad had his eyes closed again. “I guess that’s about right,” he said.

“He’s allowed to smoke?” Andi asked.

“Nope,” Monty’s dad said.

It cooled off as the sun went down.

“I don’t think you’re going to find the Northwest Passage,” he finally said.

“No, she will,” I said.

Andi agreed.

I saw him shiver and asked if he was cold. He nodded as much as he could with his cheek in the dirt like that.

“Hey, Monty,” I said, “you got another blanket over there?”

“Yeah,” Monty said after a bit.

“We need it over here.”

“All right,” Monty said.  Maybe ten seconds passed and I asked what the problem was. Monty said he didn’t think he could come over there.

“Well, just throw it here,” I said.

“It’s coming,” Andi said.

“Monty,” I said, and finally a balled-up blanket landed near me. When I stood my ears roared like a plane was right above and I thought, Oh, Jesus, I popped an eardrum, until I realized it wasn’t in my head at all. Monty was also looking up, but nothing was in the sky except the moon and some early stars.

“What is that?” I said, and just like that the sound was so loud you had to yell, like tons of water now, a big wall of it racing at us. Jim and Monty’s mom appeared at the top of the rise and I tried to yell to them, but even I couldn’t hear me. I saw Monty running towards them, and I was about to follow when Andi grabbed my sleeve. Inside the noise was suddenly the smell of salt water and fish and warm rocks.

I clutched the blanket like a little kid and looked at Andi. She smiled and her eyes were brighter than the sky.  They told me, impossibly, what came next.

—Jeff Martin