Installment #11 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

It didn’t help that we had Mrs. Fischer for a teacher that year. She was new and she was beautiful, statuesque, with shoulder-length dark hair, pinkish-white skin, green eyes, and a nice smile. She dressed in tight dresses or skirts with frilly blouses and wore high heels, not the sensible blocky black shoes the other female teachers favored. Many a time I watched her walk, her hips swaying, her legs firm, imagining all sorts of things I’d never admit to anyonenot even Rory. Every once in a while, when her heels scuffed the waxed floor ever so slightly, I heard the resultant squeak, and knowing she’d bend down sometimes and touch the heel of the offending shoe, I’d be on the alert for the slightest glimpse of cleavage. She reminded me a lot of Mrs. Kennedy. She was no pushover, though, her green eyes flashing when she was angry, but since most of the boys in class were half in love with her, she had very few problems.

Unbeknownst to us right away was that her husband, also new to the school, taught 7th grade and was the boys and girls 6th grade basketball coach, having been quite a player himself at a Lutheran college (an All-American it was rumored), another reason we were on our best behavior. Of course Richard and Paul, the two best players, thought she favored them, as her husband probably told her all about them. The rest of us were content to worship her from afar, and hoped he also would notice us when we tried out for the basketball team.

It was going to be an exciting year, as the regular boys’ team, comprised of 7th (rarely) and 8th graders, looked unbeatable. They’d made it to the Lutheran School Basketball League Championship finals the year before, losing to St. Peter’s Sanborn, and were determined to win it that year. They had Frank Caldwell, a real jumping jack, at center, Art Dio, an overweight lefty who was lights out from the corners, Gary Fick, a pale quick point guard who sweated profusely and was so nearsighted wore glasses attached to his head with an athletic band, Howie Reitz, a tall reed-thin forward, a defensive wizard who usually guarded the opposing team’s best player, Hank Appel (Richard’s brother), the captain and all-around star of the team, and last but not least feisty little Eddie Drollinger, sixth man par excellent, and non-stop human buzz saw. Their coach was Mr.  Braun, Dodie’s father, a former boxer who owned a large nursery on the East side and was also a basketball referee in leagues around the city.

We hardly got to see them play at all as our games and practices were on separate days, and we weren’t allowed to stay after on the days they did (we were already putting Mrs. Barnes out by staying late for ours as it was), but we heard plenty about their exploits via the PA system, as well as through Mr. Hellman, who buttonholed anyone he could get his hands on to brag about their accomplishments. He was so proud of them, they were his boys. Martin Luther had never won anything in their albeit short existence but he was certain it was about to happen and he wasn’t going to miss a moment’s enjoyment watching it unfold.

Meanwhile, we had other things on our minds. Tryouts were being held soon for the 6th grade team, and, though we were pretty certain of making it, we were still pretty nervous about it, until something happened that made it all seem pretty insignificant.                                                                                                                                                                                                —–o—–

As I suppose with most people I’ll never forget the moment it was announced over the PA system President Kennedy had been shot. The whole classroom was stunned of course, including Mrs. Fischer, who immediately left the room with her hand to her mouth, telling us to put our heads on our desks until she got back. We all sat in stunned silence, not looking at anything, our heads bowed as she’d requested. It wasn’t Mrs. Fischer who came back soon after it was Mr. Fischer, wheeling the television cart into our classroom and turning it on immediately. I’ll never forget the bleary picture on the screen, the sound fading in and out, all of us watching in rapt attention, trying to follow what was going on.

Suddenly it seemed the picture came in focus and the sound became clear as Walter Cronkite took off his glasses, swallowed, and made the announcement that the president was dead. I remember the sorrow in his voice, his struggle to get the words out before he lost it, and then it seemed the bottom dropped out from under all of us. The girls were crying and I remember the boys were silent at first then sporadic individual outbursts began, the consensus of which was who did it and I hope they find the guy soon.

Mr. Fischer had been attempting to quiet us down but we hadn’t noticed until he came down the aisle and summoned Richard, Paul Barr, Rory and I to come to over to him. When we got there he told us quietly that an assembly was being held in an hour to inform everyone what had just taken place, and would we go to the gym and set up chairs for it.

Being chosen to leave class to go set up chairs for the assembly made us feel proud, which we needed at a time like this. We said little on the way there and as soon as we got to the gym grimly dragged the racks of chairs out from their storage space under the stage and dutifully began setting them up in straight rows, twenty rows in all, ten chairs per row.  We did this by rote, having done it many times before, the only sounds being the occasional grunt or clatter of chairs as we pulled them out of the racks or banged them on the floor to open them.

Suddenly there was a resounding crash and we all looked over to see Paul slamming a chair against the remaining chairs in the rack which dominoed in all different directions, causing quite a clatter. It was eerily silent for a moment as we all looked at Paul to see what he’d do next and didn’t have to wait long. EFF this he screamed, this time slamming a chair against the gym floor, denting it, then broke down sobbing, and it was all the rest of us could do not to join him .

We said nothing but listened to see if anyone outside the gym had noticed the noise, expecting an adult to come bursting through the double-barred doors to demand what was going on. When we heard nothing we all began to chime in our own way- Yeah EFF this, if I only knew who did it I’d fix them, just let me alone with him I’ll make him  pay, who could have done something like this, I can’t believe this happened here, in our country, what’s going to happen now? Once we got it out of our system it wasn’t long after we continued on and completed the job.

In addition to setting up the chairs we were also the color guard and even though we weren’t dressed for it (Paul and Richard usually wore their Scouting uniforms while Rory and I wore a suitcoat and tie) went up in the back of the stage and got the flags out and went to the back of the gym waiting for everyone to file in for the assembly.

We watched each class come in with the gamut of expressions on their faces- shock, worry, stunned disbelief, anger, horror- and when our class came in second to last we looked especially carefully at them, trying to catch someone’s eye but we didn’t. As usual Rory and I were in the front, escorting Paul and Richard as the flagbearers behind us, waiting for Mr. Hellman’s nod for us to march up the center aisle.

Usually we weren’t so attentive, often looking down each row as we passed by, but that solemn occasion we were, or at least started out to be. Things began smoothly with each of us in step when suddenly I felt a commotion behind us and heard Richard yell BARR and saw him fall to the ground, having apparently been accidentally tripped by Paul’s flagpole. I grabbed the flag as he went down, horrified lest it hit the ground. Richard of course was mortified, his face sunburn red, blaming Paul, who had a sheepish look on his face and shrugged his shoulders as if to say it wasn’t my fault, while Rory and I had to try mightily to not bust a gut or even crack a smile, knowing in the meantime Mr. Hellman was witnessing the misfortune of his fair-haired boy Richard, barely managing it as Richard and Paul placed their respective flag pole in its holder.

Our duty finished, we walked back down one of the side aisles to sit with our class, Paul and Richard sniping at each other as we did so, Richard not looking as cocky as he usually did, which somehow made me like him a little more. Rory and I, once our backs were turned to Mr. Hellman, allowed ourselves a grin as we made our way back, but dared not look at one another, or at Paul or Richard- not anyone actually- because we knew that would be the end of it, we’d probably be rolling on the floor as soon as we did.

We all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an opening prayer, led by the pastor of our church (Amherst Lutheran), Pastor Brandt, who’d been called in specially, then Mr. Hellman took the microphone and announced that the buses were here and we were dismissed from school, and that there might possibly be no school on Monday, finally ending with a closing prayer, after which we filed soberly out of the gymnasium.

Strangely there was an admixture of excitement and anger as we went back to class to gather our things for our early dismissal. For myself I couldn’t wait to get home and follow the news if Mrs. Barnes would let us. Rory wasn’t taking it very well, though as usual he didn’t say much.

I needn’t have worried because the television was on when we get home and Mrs. Barnes was in a state I’d never seen her in, her eyes red, cursing at the television, That she’d already begun drinking was evident, she didn’t even try to hide it. She told us we could watch if we didn’t make a sound.

We saw they’d caught a suspect, an angry looking man in a tee shirt and a fresh bruise above his left eye, his lips tightly sealed, scowling, along with a photo of his surprisingly beautiful wife. When I first saw him I immediately assumed he had done it, but didn’t feel anger, I was just trying to fathom how and why anyone would do that and how he’d screwed up his life for good. They kept showing the motorcade in Dallas over and over and began calling it an assassination, a sinister-sounding word, then photos of the killer’s perch among the boxes in the Texas Book Depository. Even though everything had taken place in the bright sunshine the black and white television made everything seem dark. You could sense the chaos, the agony of the bystanders, everyone crying into handkerchiefs, the photos of the policeman who’d been killed trying to apprehend the assassin, the movie theatre (another assassin in a theatre) where he’d been caught, sitting there pretending to watch a movie after what he’d just done, I just couldn’t imagine it, but worst of all, President Kennedy was dead.

I felt like something had been wrenched from life forever and it would never be the same again. And beautiful Mrs. Kennedy looking so uncharacteristically disheveled, grief permanently etched in her face, crawling frantically over the back of the limousine to tell somebody what had happened, the hospital where he’d been taken, the names, the places, the underpasses, the knoll, the Texas Book Depository, the Texas governor, the secret service, rifle with scope, all so horrible and final.

Mrs. Barnes was cursed every time they showed the killer. You little man, you insignificant piece of s***, know one will ever remember you, you bastard, sonofabitch, practically spitting, wiping her nose and eyes with her daintily flowered handkerchief. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to when she was angry with us.

She told us to get ready for dinner, that Mr. Barnes would be home soon, which was a surprise, him coming home early, but after what had happened he felt he must be with his family, but she made no move to go to the kitchen, rather remained there in front of the television crying unashamedly, swearing, glued to it, not wanting to miss a thing, though they were showing the same things over and over and over again.

It was a gloomy solemn weekend that seemed to drag on like a funeral dirge. All our activities were subdued, curtailed, we were barely allowed to go outside to play, which, despite the circumstances, we still wanted to do, anything to get our minds off of what had happened, though admittedly there was even a pall over that. It was the same throughout the neighborhood, very little activity, an eerie silence pervading it. Before we started running our pass patterns with Dick we talked about it. He felt the same way we did, shocked and sad. In the end it was a half-hearted effort and we soon went back into our respective houses.

The thing that worried me most was the way the adults were reacting, all normal activity practically ceasing while they stared at the TV screen uncomprehendingly. It was difficult to know what to think or do, so we followed their lead, saying nothing, acting all serious, as though we were at church.

Even at church that Sunday the traditional service was different, with Pastor Brandt giving a much longer sermon than normal, most of which was devoted to how to frame the terrible events taking place; there were very few hymns and a lot of prayers, the atmosphere very similar to our Good Friday service. There was very little talking afterwards, everyone left quickly and quietly, I supposed to get back to their televisions.

And it proved to be a fortuitous thing as everyone got home in plenty of time to see the assassin himself gut shot on live television and the chaos that ensued. It didn’t seem real, and despite all the cowboy hats the men surrounding Oswald were wearing, it definitely wasn’t a western either; I couldn’t get the sound of the groan Oswald made as he was being shot or the television commentator’s (I believe it was still Walter Cronkite, who never seemed to leave the anchor desk all that weekend) announcement, He’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot, nor unlike Russ Hodge’s call of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Around the World; or the grimace on his face and the look of surprise on the tall marshal’s face nearest him, though I couldn’t help thinking later that it looked like they’d let Ruby through to get a clear shot.

But nothing was more solemn and grave than the funeral cortege bearing the body of President Kennedy that Monday in the rain, throngs of people lining the streets to say goodbye, the grief on their faces palpable, and many more standing in line on the sidewalk of the Rotunda to see him lying in state, to pay their last respects, the lighting of the eternal flame, and the heartbreaking sight of John-John, prodded slightly by his mother, salute his father one last time.

The long ordeal was over, everyone was obliged to resume their normal lives, but something had ineffably changed the country for good, the dream of Camelot had been shattered forever. I went up to our room and sobbed uncontrollably for a long time.

—–o—–

As with all things, though especially for kids, life went on, and now our most pressing matter was the 6th grade basketball tryouts. We needn’t have worried, though, as it became obvious Rory and I worked together like a well-oiled machine, a natural tandem, he the point, me the shooting guard, having played together so much we knew each one’s moves and tendencies and everything became pretty much second nature between us.

I envied Rory a bit because he got to handle the ball the most while I mostly stood around like an outfielder waiting for the ball to come my way, but deep down I was grateful I didn’t have to do it, because I couldn’t have withstood the pressure. He broke presses and was a one-man full court press demon himself in perpetual motion, stealing the ball or harassing the other team’s point guard so he often caused a turnover.

We discovered we had a pretty fair team ourselves, if a bit callow in that we all had a tendency to hog the ball (especially Paul Barr), or hold it too long, not knowing what to do next, and were disorganized on both offense and defense, committing many forced and unforced turnovers. In addition to us at the guard spots, Richard Appel was the center, Paul Barr one forward, the other forward position being a rotation of guys, among them my friend Tom Drollinger, the wispy towhead, tenacious but easily overpowered, with a decent lefty shot. It continued to be a problem position until a new kid in school named George Birch arrived and capably filled that role. Not only was George a new kid, he was black, the first black kid I’d ever met and the first one in our class. He was stocky and affable, with a sparkling smile and glasses, but with an edge, as I found out when for some unfathomable reason I referred to him as a monkey, in what context I don’t remember, something I’m ashamed of to this day. The withering look he gave me was enough to put me in my place, and, to his credit (and my relief) that was the extent of it. His nickname was “Bull,” because he was impossible to bring down in rough and tumble, in addition to being one of the fastest kids in our class despite his size, and the newest member of our four-man relay team.

Mr. Fischer was a taskmaster, fond of drills and basic offensive plays (give and go, post ups, setting screens, rotations) I found boring but which Rory mastered quickly and often, becoming the quarterback of the team, calling out the offensive plays and defensive assignments. We won more than we lost and by the end of the year became a real team, with high hopes for the next year.

Mrs. Barnes wasn’t real happy with us staying after school for practice and games because it disrupted the dinner hour and she very rarely had to pick us up. Most times we walked up to Main Street after practice and caught the city bus, which dropped us off near St. Peter and Paul church a half hour later. One night, though, it was snowing very badly, so badly that, unbeknownst to us, either the buses weren’t running or were very behind schedule.

After we’d waited a half hour or so in the dark and the driving snow, it dawned on us that the bus might not come and we began to panic, never having been in this kind of situation before. We were hesitant to call Mrs. Barnes because we knew she’d be angry and besides we didn’t have any money, but we had to reach her somehow despite the consequences, what else could we do? We even thought briefly about hitchhiking though we’d been warned never to do that, and there was absolutely no traffic anyhow.

As we stood there under the streetlight trying to decide what to do, wet, our toes and fingers numb, lost in the middle of nowhere, feeling like we were alone in the world, the street rapidly filling up with snow, the trees laden with it, barely able to see around the bend where Main Street pointed to the suburbs, we knew calling her was our only hope. There was a large department store across the street called Hengerer’s and we decide to go in there and ask to make a telephone call and if they wouldn’t let us, at least we could get warm before we had to go back out in the storm.

I asked the first person I saw who looked like they worked there if I could make a phone call, explaining our situation, and we were led immediately to a back storeroom where there was a phone they thankfully let us use. Surprisingly, and a tremendous relief, Mrs. Barnes admitted she’d been worried and would come and get us right away. She had told us to stay where we were but after we waited another hour decided to start walking, thinking she had gotten stuck in the snow. Besides, the store was closing soon, what other choice did we have?

As you might imagine by then it was pretty bleak out. We were forced to walk in the street and into the wind so the heavy snow was right in our faces, as the sidewalks had been obliterated long before. The snow was furrowed deeply in the street, the street lights (although you could barely see them), were on (if you looked up at them you could see how thickly the snow was falling), everything was encased in a muffled silence, Cold, wet, our fingers and toes numb, the pelting snow caking our faces, it seemed hopeless, we’d never be rescued, but we had to keep forging ahead even if we had to walk all the way.

About halfway there (as far as we could tell) it suddenly seemed to clear slightly, enough that we could hear and gradually see a car approaching, headlights dimmed in the slanting snow. When it emerged we saw that it was Mrs. Barnes in her old 1949 Mercury heap! We’d never been so glad to see her and both piled into the back, sodden, close to exhausted, our extremities numb then tingling as they gradually thawed, the smell of wet wool permeating the atmosphere. Mrs. Barnes said she’d gotten stuck several times but luckily she’d been pushed out each time (Buffalo people were good like that), but it made her very late. She asked if we were okay and could tell by the look on her face she’d been worried, although it could also have been because of the rough driving, as she strove like a ship’s captain to keep the wheels straight so as not to get stuck again.

The wet-wool smell reminded me of the aforementioned time I’d fallen through the ice but also of when Rory had gotten into the toboggan accident in the woods at the end of our street. Late one winter afternoon a bunch of us were sledding down a hill there on all sorts of purveyances- sleds, a toboggan (that was us), snow shields, snow shoes, even ice skates. We’d built an ice hump in the middle of the run and kept polishing it with our gloves until it became glacier hard. Rory, ever the impetuous one, suddenly jumped on the toboggan and propelled it down the slope while standing up inside. The toboggan hit the hump and immediately veered off course, stopping when it smashed into a tree. When we saw he wasn’t moving a couple of us ran down to see if he was okay. When we got there he still wasn’t moving but then he seemed to suddenly wake up and tried to talk but his speech was all garbled. Then I saw the blood and immediately noticed he had a bad gash above his left eyebrow and his hair was matted with blood. I told the other guys to stay with him while I ran to get help.

I took off for home, not stopping once, lifting my knees high through the deep snow of backyards, over and around fences and boundaries. I can still remember vividly the white chimney smoke from the houses trailing slowly against the implausibly blue sky as I ran.

Arriving there breathless, I found Mrs. Barnes and blurted out what had happened to Rory. She called the doctor, who said to get to the hospital right away. She told me to stay home and answer the phone and she would call me from the hospital and that everything would be all right. She grabbed her coat and took off running through the deep snow along the path I had just made. I had never seen Mrs. Barnes come close to running before; I stuck my head out the door and could hear her stockings swishing against each other as she did. In her green coat she looked like an evergreen tree receding into the distance. The doctor said he’d had a slight concussion and stitched the cut and eventually Rory was as good as new but it was a bad scare I wouldn’t soon forget.

—–o—–

6th grade went quickly which was a relief as we no longer had to feel guilty about having lustful thoughts every day about Coach Fischer’s wife, which wouldn’t be possible any longer anyway because over the summer we’d heard she was pregnant and wouldn’t be back to teach any time soon, if ever.

Before we knew it we were in 7th grade and Mr. Fischer was our teacher and what with basketball and everything we saw a lot of him, which was okay because he was a nice guy, and although the guys on the team had to be on their best behavior at all times,  we liked to think he favored us in class, even if it wasn’t necessarily borne out in our grades.

The whole starting five from last year’s championship team had graduated, and we were now responsible for carrying the torch which meant defending the championship they’d won. We had the same team we’d had in 6th grade and in our youthful enthusiasm were confident we were up to the challenge.

We weren’t.

We got absolutely massacred in our first game by a team that had come in dead last the year before. Perhaps we were just overconfident, we thought, but after we lost three out of our next four we had no confidence at all, and began constantly bickering with each other, even during games, blaming one another for mistakes and bad play. It got so bad Mr. Fischer benched the starters for a game, playing the inexperienced and woefully undermanned second string if for nothing more than to teach us a lesson. We improved slightly the next few games and had a good showing in the Lutheran School Tournament, but all in all it was a big disappointment, and 7th grade itself was something we couldn’t get through soon enough and hopefully forget.

—–o—-

Our chances took a big hit even before our 8th grade season started when we heard the news that Paul Barr’s father had been transferred to another church out in the sticks, and they’d already left, so he wouldn’t be our basketball team but on that of one of our chief rivals, the aforementioned Saint Peter’s of Sanborn, which meant they’d be instant contenders, something else we hadn’t anticipated.

Once we got over the shock, however, we decided this might be a good thing after all as Paul had a tendency to hog the ball. We still had a solid nucleus with Rory and I and Richard, but Tom Drollinger was going to have to pick up the slack and we weren’t sure he was up to it. There would be time to worry about that, though, when it got closer to the start of the season. In the meantime 8th grade was proving to be such exciting year for many different reasons we no longer had the time or inclination to worry or even think about it for that matter.

The first significant event that fall was the second wave of the British invasion, which had our undivided attention. Not so much the Beatles, who had descended from their Pan Am walkway earlier in the year, though I watched raptly when they made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t quite grasp all the female histrionics but followed the phenomenon in all the media, which you couldn’t avoid, it was everywhere.

The first wave over the preceding winter was the Dave Clark Five, then the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, Chad and Jeremy, Freddy and the Dreamers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, among others I’m probably forgetting. I knew it was something big, and, though we didn’t fully realize it at the time, would engender a great awakening in our generation.

As we always had Rory and I would sit at the long table in our bedroom and listen to our leather-encased Philco portable radio, our constant companion. There were a lot of rock stations in Buffalo, and we also had Canadian stations, and we used to keep track of which ones played the best songs, literally making a list of them and putting hash marks in their column every time they played a song we liked. And then there was CKEY’s (Toronto) countdown of the top 100 songs of the year on New Year’s Day- that was the motherlode, and something we looked forward to each year, arguing with each other and with the list, trying to guess which song would come next.  Of course we had our favorites, for Rory it was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, mine being Gerry and the Pacemakers, though we both liked the Searchers.

Rory used to laugh at me because I cried each time they played “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” at the very same place in the song, right after the break when he sings, “It may be hard to discover, That you’ve been left for another.” While Rory laughed I cried unashamedly unabashedly unwaveringly.

One embarrassing (thankfully just one) result of this, was Mrs. Barnes insisting Rory and I do a duet of “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” (why she chose that I don’t know, I guess she liked it or heard us singing a bit of it once) while she taped it on a tape recorder. She thought it was great but we cringed every time we heard it, though we were secretly glad we’d been able to please her.

Ultimately, though, for Rory and me music meant freedom, if only for a little while, and only in our room. But that was enough to get us through. This really took off when the second wave of the British Invasion came through that fall, with much edgier music from the Zombies, the Animals, and The Who, reaching a crescendo at its apex (as far as I was concerned) in the Rolling Stones! “House of the Rising Son” and “She’s Not There” became the soundtrack of my life, listening to my transistor radio on my paper route, which coincided or even caused in a way my first love, Samantha of “Bewitched.” New clothes, the World Series, those particular songs, my paper route, and Samantha- quite a potent cocktail to stimulate an adolescent’s imagination.

—–o—–

But that freedom came at a price, especially over the years, as our musical tastes became more eclectic and psychedelic and, as far as Mr. Barnes was concerned, loud. He definitely didn’t understand the long hair, offbeat clothes, and Mick Jagger’s androgony was an extremely sore point, not to mention that none of them could carry a tune in a bucket. It’s all noise, he said, and that thumping bass, it pounds in my head. I swear it will give me a heart attack. He began to think we did this on purpose, when all we were doing was something we enjoyed. It got even worse when we eventually got a record player and began to buy and play our own records. Still, they did allow us to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show,” even if we had to endure the epithets Mr. Barnes hurled at the TV screen.

Of course he didn’t think it was going to last, but he’d said the same thing about rock and roll. Give him Benny Goodman and the Mills Brothers any day. Mrs. Banes had a bit more sophistication (though she was corny about it, using words like “camp,” snapping her fingers to the beat and the like), liking Billy Eckstein, Peggy Lee, Earl Hines, and, of course, Old Blue Eyes.

Wouldn’t you know that the station that played the best music by far was the smallest, so small we wouldn’t have gotten its signal if we hadn’t lived fairly close by. Seemingly hokey, with DJs named Mike Melody and Gerry Jack, and a Saturday night dance show, they played not only the consistently best music (and believe me we had the figures to back it up), but songs you’d never heard before or would never hear on other stations, songs like “Little Black Egg,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Live,” and “Good Guys Don’t Wear White.”

Then there were the clothes, Carnaby Street being all the rage now: British Walkers, Princeton shirts, blades (very tight pants, like Eric Burdon wore, best worn with Cuban heels), madras everywhere. We made list of what we wanted for Christmas and out of those got only the British Walkers, but that was enough for us, we were thrilled, and couldn’t wait to show them off when we went back to school.

In the spring, around Easter, for some reason I still can’t fathom we were both allowed to get the madras suitcoats we’d had our eyes on, and never dared dream we’d get. The coats were very well made, which was the saving grace in Mr. Barnes’ eyes, they both fit each of us like a glove, and were very comfortable, but the most important thing, the only thing he really cared about was that it was high quality, he was a stickler for that, it even trumped cost. To this day I don’t remember for certain if we were allowed to choose the coat we wanted, though it was more likely Mr. Barnes chose them for us. Which made it even stranger because I got a bright coat comprised of small patches of all different colors, blue being the background, while Rory got a very drab (in my eyes) coat, muted brown and white, with a light blue background. I don’t remember if Rory liked his jacket (I didn’t see how he could it was so drab) but I think he did, while I loved mine so much I wore it every chance I got when before I’d never worn a suitcoat except for church or going out to dinner.

It was perfect timing too, because the Lutheran School basketball tournament was coming up and I wanted to show it off, I was sure no one else had a coat like that. Even Mrs. Barnes remarking that it looked like a horse blanket didn’t dim my enthusiasm one bit.

—–o—–

As for the Lutheran School Basketball Tournament it was time to put up or shut up and we were growing increasingly nervous as that weekend approached. We were putting our undefeated season on the line and deep down we knew we weren’t as good as St. Mark’s, who’d only lost two games- to us, although both were very close. While on the surface this looked good, we knew that each time they were missing one or two of their best players, who would be back and well rested for the title game.

They were bigger and stronger than us, and, though we matched up well in most areas, the two missing players, one of whom we hadn’t seen at all that year, were the wildcards, and we knew how we played them would decide the final outcome. This unknown aspect didn’t inspire confidence in us that we would win. We would have to play our very best to have a chance, and knew keeping our undefeated record intact would motivate us to do that, but would it be enough? Either way, it wouldn’t be a blowout, it would be close in every way.

The kid we hadn’t seen since last season, Gary Hanes, was a ‘tweener, a swingman who could play forward or shooting guard and was a demon on defense. I heard he was going to guard me, which made sense, as I’d been the leading scorer in both of our victories. The other returning player was the center, Mark Carpenter, and although Dick Apple usually played him to a standoff, he did have four inches on Dick, and was leading the league in scoring and rebounds.

Not helping the matter any was the fact that Dick, Rory, and I were sweet on three of their cheerleaders, Jean, Melissa, and Nora, and probably wore ourselves out preening as we walked around the court during the early games wearing only our madras coats- in the middle of winter and at a basketball tournament mind you (we’d had to sneak them out of the house knowing full well Mr. Barnes would have killed us had he known)- pretending we were looking for seats, when all we wanted was for the girls to see us in our new duds. For some reason I remember “Game of Love” playing over and over, so much so that it seemed to be the soundtrack for the day or at least the only song I remember, and have the sneaking suspicion (though I hope to god not) I had brought my transistor Philco with me.

It got so bad that during both our games we were glancing and waving at them and almost lost the first one to a much inferior team. It was almost like that was part of St. Marks’ strategy, having these sirens so near the field of battle. Mr. Fischer saw what was going on and berated us on the sidelines. You’ve got to pay attention to the game, for goodness sake, you’re undefeated, don’t let all your hard work go to waste. Do you think St. Mark’s is going to automatically lay down for you? You’ll get slaughtered if you play this way. You’ve got to get your heads into the game!

That was the best part of the weekend for us.

Alas, we never quite did come around, and as Coach Fischer predicted, the championship game was probably over from the moment we tipped off.  Gary Hanes did indeed guard me and, while I scored 14 he scored 21, which was the main reason we lost. He was too big for me to handle but there was no one else besides Dick to cover him and he had more than his hands full with Mark Carpenter, who had 18 points and at least as many boards himself. In spite of everything it was still a close game, but in the end we lost by 4 points, not only our perfect season down the drain, but with no championship to show for it.

As a team we were inconsolable despite the fact that Coach Fischer told us he was proud we’d played such a fine game, we just got beat by the better team that day, that’s the way life was. We’d been so cocky all year and it was a complete embarrassment. I know it was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced and I blamed myself for the loss though no one else did. Looking back I ascribe some of it to puberty, but there was no excuse for my mind not being in the game and by the time I realized it, it was too late. Small consolation that second-place trophy, or that I made slight headway with Melissa (a girl who was almost a head taller than me, the star of her basketball team, who in my darkest moments I imagined could have guarded Gary Hanes more effectively than I), and afterwards I slunk out of there and back to the school bus.

And then just like that it was all over and we were going home.

—–o—–

It was near Easter, we were to be confirmed the next day, which meant Uncle Clyde and Aunt Johnnie and my cousins would be there with the hay-am and everything else that attended their visits, but we had determined not to say a word throughout the ordeal, maybe not even go downstairs for dinner at all.

Luckily for us Mr. Barnes set us straight. He understood how bad we were feeling and he felt for us, but we still needed to come down for dinner as getting confirmed was a big deal and our in-laws had come a long way to be there, and there would be hell to pay, Mrs. Barnes would see to that. We acquiesced as we really had no other choice, but it was a miserable feeling to realize we’d lost, we tried not to think about it but couldn’t help it, it was constantly there reminding us, and each time we did had a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. It took a long time to get over it but eventually we did. Unfortunately more pressing concerns developed.

Advertisements

Installment #9 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

After Mrs. Barnes’s warning I knew something bad was bound to happen, and when it did it was a doozy. While we were playing out in the back yard with my cousins on Saturday afternoon an unfortunate incident occurred that marred the trip somewhat. My cousins, Penny, and Rory and I were playing a spirited game of croquet, and I wasn’t doing very well when my oldest cousin Candy sent my ball all the way across the yard. When I got to my ball I was angry, and when I went to smash it as hard as I could, missed it, instead hitting my foot. All the while my cousins were laughing at me, and I was growing angrier by the minute. Finally, I spun around like a hammer thrower, flung my mallet in the air, and it landed in the next-door neighbor’s patch of sunflowers. I only nicked one of the stalks, but Candy (her real name was Carol), was furious and yelled then came at me, cornered me, and continued to berate me until I broke free and moved some distance away from her. More embarrassed than ever by now, my face on fire, blurted out, You’re fat at her, which was absolutely the wrong thing to do because then she went ballistic, retorting, Don’t you dare call me that, who do you think you are, who taught you to behave like that, you don’t even know me. I hadn’t meant anything by it, she wasn’t even fat though maybe a bit chunky, I was angry, that’s all, she was in my face, and it just came out, I didn’t know from where. All the while I was growing sorrier and sorrier I had said it, wishing more than anything I could take it back. I was frantically apologizing and signaling to her to please quiet down, while nervously watching the kitchen window, hoping against hope Mrs. Barnes hadn’t seen or wouldn’t hear the commotion.

No such luck. Mrs. Barnes and Aunt Johnnie had already come outside to investigate when they saw what was going on. Candy naturally got her oar in first, before I even had a chance to explain my side, even managing to work up a few tears for effect. I knew I was done for. I didn’t dare look at Rory for sympathy, afraid Mrs. Barnes would see me and implicate him somehow when he had nothing to do with it. Mrs. Barnes, who was already livid, her face screwed up into a snarl, yanked me aside and said so they could all hear, Why would you embarrass me like that in front of your relatives?

She took me by the arm and marched me straight indoors into the kitchen, where she squeezed what seemed like a healthy dose of dishwashing detergent into a glass, filled it with water, and told me to drink it. I was about to cry, looking at Mrs. Barnes in disbelief, though steadfastly avoiding eye contact with my cousins, Penny, and Aunt Johnnie, but especially Rory, who were gathered in the kitchen watching it all. I was hoping someone- anyone- would intercede in my behalf, but when no one did and there didn’t seem to be any other choice, I took a deep breath and chugged it all down. Besides the awful, gut-wrenching taste, it burned my throat all the way down, my eyes teared up, and then a large spume of soap bubbles began to froth out of my nose, burning my nostrils, so much froth I thought I might suffocate.

There was total silence as I ran out of the kitchen to the bathroom sink and sluiced water on my face and into my mouth, all the while retching as the bubbles kept coming, repeating this until the frothing finally ceased and I’d cleared every vestige of it from my nose and mouth. I still couldn’t get the taste of the dishwashing detergent out of my mouth, though, and my nose and eyes still burned, but by far the worst part was that everyone had seen it and the immense embarrassment I felt.

I didn’t see how I could even face my relatives again, but luckily was sent to “bed” without supper, so I avoided that. I was even a little embarrassed to face Rory that night but, as usual, he was okay about it, asking me how it felt and wincing as I described it, and later, just before we fell asleep, we even managed a slight if rueful laugh about it.

—–o—–

I had a restless night, tossing and turning, fretting about what the fallout from my actions would be. When Mrs. Barnes came into our room first thing Sunday morning she was unusually nice to me and, as though anticipating how I felt, explained that this was how it was with families, that these things happened every now and again, but then were forgotten, and no one would say another word about it, and to let her know if they did. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was just another day, as though nothing had happened. When we left at noon with Mr. Barnes and Uncle Clyde to go to the July 4th doubleheader the Indians were playing against the Washington Senators, I had no idea if they knew ( having been golfing at the time) what had taken place last night or not, and if they did weren’t letting on, which was fine with me.

Almost my favorite part about going to a ballgame was before I even got inside the stadium, just standing around outside waiting in line to get tickets, the air of anticipation permeating the crowd, the sense that right then there was no place they’d rather be. That feeling became one of urgency once that ticket was in my hot little hand, and then I wanted to start running to find my seat as soon as I got through the turnstile, I couldn’t wait to see the field and finally, there it was!                                                                                                                                                                      The contrast while standing under the grandstand of the cavernous stadium in the cool and dark, then looking out and getting my first glimpse of the yawning emerald green field and its infield like a dirt racetrack all awash in golden sunlight. A pastoral enclosure in the midst of a city’s chaos, as here, on the waterfront- a panoply with endless combinations of scenarios at your fingertips, limited only by your imagination.

Once we were all settled in our seats Mr. Barnes and Uncle Clyde talked and laughed animatedly, the most carefree I would ever see them, smoking cigars and drinking beer, watching us soak up the sights and sounds while they discussed player statistics, talked about past games they had been to: gems Bob Feller had pitched, lightning-smooth double plays Lou Boudreau had started, the catch Willie Mays had made off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, Rocky Colavito’s 4-home run game, lastly pointing out to us the red seat in the second last row of the right center field pavilion where the prodigious shot Luke Easter had launched landed, the longest ball ever hit in the monstrous stadium, well over 500 hundred feet away.

They got acquainted with the people around them, helped us fill out our scorecards, reminding us not to just watch the pitcher and catcher or the flight of the ball, but to also try to watch the fielders as they positioned themselves then set into motion as the ball was pitched, anticipating where it might go or covering the bag for a possible force play, the base runners as they took off when the pitcher went into his windup, as that was the only way to learn the intricacies of the game, its perpetual motion, enabling us also to anticipate and see what might happen next, though even then we might be surprised by the outcome once the play was over.

All of these things were part of the tapestry of the game, and with all of it as a background, along with its history and tradition, I could not help but love it. Baseball was the ultimate ritual and I was a rapt initiate. Together Rory and I pored over the program, each player’s picture and bio, marveling at the clear black and white photos of each player, one a close up and one an action pose, all their statistics, marveling that we would be seeing the very same players on the field shortly even if it was from afar and they were minute figures from where we were sitting. Ultimately the action on the field was the main focus of our attention once the game started. Each game had its own ebb and flow. You had to be ready.

It all began when the team lineup came blaring over the PA system. There was a palpable lull after batting and infield practice, and the individual warm-ups the players did to get loose, after which the teams returned to their respective dugouts while the groundskeepers put the finishing touches on the field. Then suddenly the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, your Cleveland Indians”, and the players poured out of the dugout resplendent in clean white uniforms, wearing blue caps with a red bill and Chief Wahoo on the crest…Leading off, playing second base…JOHNNIE TEMPLE…batting second and playing center field…JIMMY PIIEERSALL…batting third, the left fielder…TITO FRANCONA…batting in the cleanup spot, (you could barely hear now above the crescendo) the right fielder…ROCKY COLAVITOOO…hitting fifth, the first baseman…VIC POWER…at shortstop, batting sixth…WOOODYYYY HELD…catching and hitting seventh…JOHN ROMAAANOO…batting eighth, playing third base…BUBBA PHILLIPS…and batting ninth, the pitcher in the opening game…GARYY BELLL…

We loved the names of the players on this team, and verified each black and white photograph of them in the program as they were announced, though we already knew exactly what they looked like as well as their statistics, from all their baseball cards and team’s yearbooks from past years we’d collected. We loved every player on the Indians, grieved when one was traded, still kept track of him though he was on another team, yet immediately accepted his replacement.

The Indians won both games of the doubleheader, and it seemed as though everyone made a contribution. Johnnie Temple left the crowd gasping when he made a leaping catch of a bullet hit towards second, hanging in the air for an impossibly long time to snag it and hang on, though it seemed it would tear his glove off; Jimmy Piersall climbing the center field fence to snare a tremendous drive hit by lanky Jim Lemon that had home run written all over it; Woody Held, Vic Power, and Colavito all hitting home runs; Tito Francona continuing his hot hitting, getting three hits in each game; Johnnie Klippstein coming on in the ninth inning of the opener and saving it by setting the Senators down in order; Jim Perry whitewashing the Senators in the second game, pitching a three-hit shutout to best Camilio Pascual, though the outcome was still in doubt in the ninth, when little-used Mike de la Hoz made two big plays, going deep in the hole at short to take a base hit away and firing a seed to first to nip the runner in a bang-bang play, and laying down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth to score Temple with  the game’s lone run.

We all walked out of the stadium happy, chattering about the exploits we had just witnessed, yet simultaneously drained from the excitement of the second game of the twin bill, hopeful again of the Indians chances this year, even though the doubleheader sweep was courtesy of the lowly Senators. Before we turned the corner, I snuck one last look at the field, already wondering when and if we would be back again that season. It had been a perfect day, the two games having all the elements one could ask for- plenty of hitting, several fielding gems, and stellar pitching. The only thing missing was the most exciting play in baseball, the triple, but there would be other games for that. Rory and I were utterly satisfied with the exhibition of baseball prowess we had just witnessed and could and would only aspire to.

—–o—–

We left for home early the next day. No sooner had we pulled away from the curb in front of my aunt and uncle’s house that I recommenced thinking about the still unsolved kidnapping and death of the little boy back home, and found I was both dreading going back to it and eager to find that they had solved it by the time we got there. The trip, as it always did, seemed to go by much quicker on the way back. I felt a little better when I spotted a favorite landmark, the white steeple of our church, from the thruway, so much that I was ready to face whatever was coming.

My resolve was tested the very next day and proved to be wanting when it was suddenly announced over the radio they had found the killer.

Instead of the middle-aged woman they had been looking for, a 15-year-old Northside girl was identified as the prime suspect in the kidnapping and death of the little boy after being picked out of a police lineup by several witnesses. While not exactly admitting they were wrong, the police acknowledged that although they had been looking for a woman in her mid-thirties, they were now confident this was the break they were waiting for, describing the girl as a ‘very logical and prime suspect’.”

—–o—–

Strange stirrings occurred inside me after learning the kidnapper was a young girl. I laid in bed churning inside when I thought about what had just transpired. How could a young girl, a teenager, do something like that, and why?

The next day I began to get some insights into those very same questions when a myriad of details about the girl’s past life appeared in the paper and I devoured them, wanting to learn as much as I could. The girl, whose name hadn’t been released at that point, had a 92 IQ and was three years behind her age group in school at the time of the crime. She was one of seven children, three of whom had been placed in foster homes. The father was 51, an unemployed electrician with a history of alcoholism, who had been physically abusive to the wife and children in the past, especially when drunk, which he frequently was. He was on parole from another state facility at the time, where he had been committed intermittently over the last five years, with a diagnosis of paromania. He had been unemployed for several years because of his illness.

The mother was a waitress in her mid-40s, overwrought and overprotective, a religious woman with little, if any, awareness of the needs and feelings of a growing youngster. She was heard to remark to her sister when the police came to pick up her daughter for questioning, “I’ve said there was something wrong with her for years.” The mother attempted suicide several years before (drug overdose), and had been institutionalized off and on for mental illness.

The girl had been in and out of foster homes since childhood due to parental neglect, and had also been institutionalized for unspecified mental problems, at most of which she had further difficulties, including setting fire to one. She had also lived off and on with a sympathetic aunt and uncle, who had tried to give her the supportive, stable home environment they knew she was missing, and who recognized she had real emotional problems, manifesting themselves when she appeared tense and withdrawn, accompanied by violent hand-wringing, then crying, and seeking constant reassurance by repeatedly asking, Do you love me, Are you sure you love me? The uncle claimed he had tried to get psychiatric help for her, what little they could afford, but nothing ever came of it, and they despaired, feeling they were powerless to do anything except be there for her, knowing it was only going to get worse and not knowing where else to turn.

Lying in bed that night I thought about how similar in some ways her childhood had been to ours, even imagining she could have even been at one of our foster homes the same time we were, which might partly explain why I was so obsessed with the case, though I know that wasn’t the case, at least as far as I knew.

She was the first juvenile ever tried as an adult in Erie County but in the end a mistrial was declared because so much of her personal information had been leaked in the newspapers, that, even as it begged the question that her constitutional rights had been trampled it, it was thought she could never get a fair trial. She had a staunch advocate in the psychiatrist (an expert in the field of child psychiatry) who treated her and documented the egregious violation of doctor and patient privilege by the authorities the ACLU. After she had been declared incompetent to stand trial she was remanded to the Matawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York, over the extreme objections of all those in the least concerned for her welfare, who wanted her in a medical facility.

—–o—–

After all that I still didn’t know why she had committed the crime, though I was at least pretty sure she had. It would never quite leave my mind completely, I would remember it always, the little boy’s name, where he had lived, where it had happened, what it had felt like to me. When I got older and began taking the bus downtown to music and sporting events we would pass by the street where the boy had lived and I paid my respects every time, though for some reason I never remembered the girl, and gradually she faded from my consciousness. I’m certain what had happened altered my view of the world permanently from that time on, although the particulars became fuzzy and it would be years later until I ferreted out the details of the case.

—–o—–

Once school began again in the fall, I actually found myself so busy that my attention necessarily turned to more mundane things. Rory and I signed up for Little League football for the first time that fall at Glen’s insistence, which proved to be a little more exertion than I, at least, was prepared for. Practices had begun in earnest the week before school started, during very hot weather, and the coach, a former Marine, ran the practices like a boot camp. I found myself physically and mentally drained at the end of the day, which would have been worth it if I had felt I was getting somewhere. I had expected, as one of the faster runners on the team, and being slight of frame, to vie for one of the skill positions- quarterback, running back, or, preferably, wide receiver. This was not to be, however, as the coach, not knowing me, put me with a group of other unfortunate leftovers who were considered prospective linemen (cannon fodder, really, live blocking and tackling dummies), despite the obvious disparity in our size, athletic ability, or positional aspirations.

There was one particularly excruciating drill the coach was fond of (which meant we did it every day), where a running back and a defensive lineman stood ten yards apart, with the rest of the players forming gauntlet-like lines along the surrounding hash marks. Each player would then get down in a three-point stance and, at the coach’s whistle, come out of their stance and barrel down the line toward each other, the running back attempting to run over or through the tackler, and the lineman aiming to flatten the ball carrier. No veering off course was allowed, head-on collisions only, and the ball carriers only had to go once, while the linemen were made to stay in there until they had performed the drill to the coach’s satisfaction, which was rarely on the first try. The object of the drill was to teach the defense how to tackle the “proper” (coach’s) way, to keep your head in there and drive your helmet right into the middle of the ball carrier’s chest.

I came to hate the drill so much I dreaded every day of practice. Having to go one on one like that with everybody right there to see you get trampled and the coach yelling when it was over, Keep your head in there! was not my idea of fun. And I just couldn’t get the hang of it, my natural inclination being to turn my head before impact, I much preferred going low at the last second, wrapping my arms around the ball carrier’s legs to bring him to the ground, a sure tackle, and painless. Besides, I wanted to catch or throw passes anyway and couldn’t have cared less about tackling.

On one extremely hot day the coach was making an example of me, so I was on my third running back, and when I looked down the line I recognized the ball carrier was Jack Connor, a kid I’d had a tiff with not more than a month ago but who really wasn’t a bad guy at all. I braced myself for the jarring collision I knew was inevitable and soon. The whistle blew and we charged at each other like two bulls. Determined to get it right this time moments before the collision I lowered my helmet and hit Jack right in the chest where I was supposed to clean as a whistle, like when the ball hits the sweet spot on a bat, before he could even get his helmet down, and my forward momentum tumbled us both into the turf, with the coach yelling That’s the way it’s done, me not quite believing what happened and my head still ringing.                                                                                                                                                     But before I could bask in my moment of glory, he said, One more time! All the steam went out of me as I slogged back to my spot, helmet still on, my head drenched with sweat. I felt like quitting right there, and when I turned around who should be opposite me but Gary Garber, the toughest, coolest player on the team, impossible for one player to bring down alone. I’d once seen him break a teammate’s helmet in this very same drill, and now it was my turn. The whistle blew, and we charged, and I turned my head at the very last second and Gary’s helmet hit me flush on the chin…

…It was all dark at first, then I saw stars, my head jerked back, and I found I was flat on my back looking out of the ear hole of my helmet. An assistant coach, the father of one of my teammates, came over and helped me get slowly to my feet. My helmet was cracked, my chin bruised, and I felt a little woozy, so I was allowed to sit out the rest of the practice. Gary seemed to show no ill effects, flashing his white teeth and breaking off several long runs during the scrimmage while I watched, relieved that I wasn’t the one he was making look foolish any longer.

Rory, in the same bunch of miscast linemen as I was, had shown a facility as a long snapper, at least, so he avoided those drills, practicing on another field the long snaps he would be making under center to the punter. I was glad for him, at least he was of some value to the team.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            As we were riding our bikes home that night my head still throbbing and my neck sore I swore I was quitting. Rory and Glen tried to talk me out of it, saying at least wait until the games start, that’s the fun part, and I replied, That’s fine for you both to say, you’re playing where you want (Glen was at wide receiver), but I had already decided, as I figured that although the games would probably be fun to watch, and I’d miss the camradarie, I’d be watching the whole thing, as I doubted I would ever set foot on the field in a real game. It wasn’t worth it after all the grueling practices, with nothing to look forward to but linemen drills and violent collisions. I had no qualms about quitting and did so shortly after. Rory tried to get me to tag along to practices and games but I’d had enough of football, at least the organized kind.

——o——

That fall was when the Kennedy-Nixon election and the Pirate-Yankees World Series took place, which I equated together in my mind because it was the first time I had a rooting interest in either event, Kennedy because Mr. and Mrs. Barnes were for him, had even put up an election poster with his picture on it in their front window, and the Pirates because I had been following them since I got Roberto Clemente’s baseball card earlier that summer. What a pennant race it had been, with the Pirates’ acquisition of Vinegar Bend Mizell from the Cardinals being the turning point in a tight race unlike any other sport, a long, protracted siege beginning in chilly spring, then the stifling summer heat, rife with tension and intrigue, culminating in the two best teams competing in the World Series. Their cut-off jerseys, hard fuzzy batting helmets, and the names: Vern Law Bob Friend Elroy Face Gino Cimoli Harvey Haddix Bob Skinner Don Hoak Bill Virdon Dick Groat Smokey Burgess Rocky Nelson Hal Smith- the Battlin’ Bucs!!!! Even better they were playing the Yankees, Rory’s favorite team and perennial favorites, making the Pirates a huge underdog, which Rory never tired of pointing out.

In addition, Mr. Barnes, a Yankee fan, just happened to be on a business trip in Pennsylvania at the time, and decided to go to the first game of the Series on the spur of the moment, managing to get a ticket from a scalper in front of Forbes Field for a pretty reasonable price, as the game had already started. Just as he was entering the stadium he saw Roger Maris rounding the bases after hitting a home run. He told us later all he could think was the Pirates had no chance, and it had gotten pretty quiet, but the Pirates went on to take the lead and win the game.

They had won me over long before Bill Mazeroski hit the Series winning home run at 3:18 PM in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game, but when he did I knew I had finally found my team. Everyone claims to remember where they were when Maz hit that historic home run, but I knew exactly where I was: Rory and I were watching the game in the living room on our television after school (I don’t remember where Mrs. Barnes was, I doubt she would have let us watch if she was home) until the home run, after which I was so busy jumping up and down in celebration I didn’t even realize Rory had left the room.

Figuring where he’d, I called up to him several times and got no response. Listening carefully for a moment I thought I heard him crying, and briefly felt bad, although not for long, because I knew the Yankees would be back plenty of times, and who knew if the Pirates would ever repeat? Rory couldn’t even talk about it for a long time, and I understood and never rubbed it in, unless we were with a bunch of guys in school or on a ballfield arguing about it. Everyone knows the Yankees are the better team, the argument was, they killed them, the Pirates were just lucky;                                                                                                                                                                                         I was so happy they had won and that I’d finally found a team I really didn’t care what they said. I didn’t say a thing, I just took a big swing at the air with my imaginary bat, and shaded my eyes as I watched it go soaring over the fence, just as Mazeroski’s had.

——-o——-

Less than a month later was the Kennedy-Nixon election. We went to bed that night not knowing who had won, but someone must have disagreed with the outcome, because later that night a rock came through the window displaying our Kennedy poster. I heard it first, waking up from a sound sleep to the noise of crashing glass, then Mr. Barnes heard it, and uttered a sharp uncharacteristic expletive, telling us to stay in our room while he went to see what had happened.

By then even Rory was awake and wanted to know what was going on. Mr. Barnes was still pretty angry when he called the police, but by the time they arrived and began talking quietly to him in the downstairs vestibule he had calmed down a little. They ascribed it to some crackpot, and assured Mr. Barnes they would patrol the neighborhood for a few hours and see if they spotted anything suspicious and to make sure whoever did it didn’t come back.

I felt proud and defiant, even a kind of bond with the Barnes’s when we got up the next morning and witnessed the broken window and the Kennedy poster lying among the shards of broken glass. Believe it or not we did try to get in the Barnes’s good graces whenever we could, which wasn’t often because, as you’re probably aware by now, Mrs. Barnes ran a pretty tight ship.

It was very unusual for this sort of thing to happen in Wilsonville, an extremely homogeneous community, but feelings had run high during this particular election, with a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment (the pope would be running the White House was one of the popular arguments against a Catholic president). All too ironically, we experienced the other side, as Protestants living in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood who were all for Nixon and wanted no part of Kennedy. It was just another thing for the Catholic kids to mock us for, though nothing had ever come of it, until now. Mr. Barnes said he didn’t think it was anyone from the neighborhood, but Mrs. Barnes strongly disagreed, muttering under her breath about “those dirty Catholics” and even suggesting a few people she thought could have done it. Mr. Barnes replied that he doubted it then added (if only to mollify Mrs. Barnes), but it sure makes you wonder.

Later that day over at Glen’s house, I was telling Glen and his mother what had happened and they couldn’t believe it, especially Mrs. Cook, who was always saying that nothing controversial ever happened in Wilsonville. I didn’t mention what Mrs. Barnes had said because Glen and his mother were Catholic, but just then Mrs. Cook volunteered that she had voted for Kennedy not because he was Catholic but because he was a Democrat, and handsome, and she just didn’t trust Nixon.

Glen, Rory, and I went in the living room to play Strat-o-Matic baseball, Glen and I playing the first game with Rory getting winners. I wanted to try to recreate the World Series but very few of the players were in the set, which was produced practically the year I was born, and it would have been too time-consuming to try to match similar players from each time period, although I would have loved to try but Rory and Glen couldn’t wait that long.

As it was, I was doing very well with my American League team despite my light-hitting lineup. Virgil Trucks was pitching a shutout against Glen’s National League hitters while Ferris Fain was tearing it up at bat. Not known as a power hitter, (I had never even heard of him before) he was a good player to have because he had won back-to-back batting championships around the time the version of the game we were playing was made, so there were lots of hits on his card. That particular day I kept landing on the number “2”, even though it was one of the thinner spaces on the card, and he had 2 home runs and a triple so far with it. Even Virgil Trucks hit a home run, and struck out fifteen batters.

—–o—–

Though my life up to this point was certainly no bed of roses, I had known no other, and no better. Now, for the first time, I finally saw it for what it was, and still felt pretty badly, but I could at least put it in some kind of perspective, even at my young age. All I needed do was think about the little boy who had been murdered, and what agony his last hours must have been, though he was beyond all that now, and at the same time about the girl who had murdered him, who would now have to live with the horror of what she had done (if she should even get better enough to realize it) and I felt, here I am, kind of right in the middle of them.                                                 In addition, when I thought about them, and then about my own life, and about what everyone always said you should say to yourself when bad things happened to someone else: See, you could have it worse, or, there but for the grace of God go I, which was supposed to make you feel better, but it didn’t, if anything it made me feel worse because now I knew someone else was suffering, which made me feel bad for everyone concerned, including myself. I was very thankful I had Rory, though, I don’t think I could have gone through all this alone, and I thanked God every day for him

I was also just beginning to find out that many things in life went unresolved and this just drove me nuts. I needed answers and I was not getting any, especially to the most pressing questions in my life. Who am I? What could be more fundamental than that? I didn’t even know that most basic of things, which everyone else took for granted, never even had to think about- where had I come from, who my mother was, my father, even their real names (as well as my own), and no one was going to tell me, I knew that, surely not the Barnes’s. It was in their best interest not to. Maybe Mr. Barnes might at least listen, but Mrs. Barnes would do everything in her power to further obfuscate things or deliberately withhold it from me even if she knew (and she would be the one most likely to know), and on top of that, she would make sure I knew she knew if she did and still not tell me.

No, the great lesson I had learned from all this is that nobody really cares about you or what important to you, that you had to find the answers yourself, if there were any, and I would, someday. But for now I had to put all this out of my mind for a while, I had enough going on in my life, and, unbeknownst to me, things were about to get much worse.

—–o—–

One day late that fall Mr. Barnes came home from a business trip during the mid-week, set his briefcase down next to his desk, hung up his overcoat and hat, and all his traveling ceased. Things became very hush-hush in our household, and then it became gradually known that Mr. Barnes was very sick, several tumors having been discovered on his adrenal gland. He went to his doctor, was referred to a local specialist, where the tumors were biopsied and found to be malignant. All we knew was that it was cancer, a very ominous sounding word, and something which, since I’d never heard of it before, I thought was some new disease that everyone seemed to be talking about at the time.

Mrs. Barnes was surprisingly strong when she got the news. She needed to be because the physical changes wrought on Mr. Barnes were sudden and shocking. He initially lost a great deal of weight, began to sweat profusely, and seemed a shadow of his formerly robust self- no appetite, listless, his voice feeble.                                         It soon became evident he couldn’t tolerate the chemotherapy regimen he was put on shortly after his diagnosis when he collapsed several times after these sessions, so the chemotherapy was halted. Instead, it was recommended that he undergo exploratory surgery, which essentially meant at the time that they didn’t have any idea what they were going to find once they got in there, and was very risky.                                                                                                                                                                        Though Rory and I were extremely worried and anxious about Mr. Barnes, we were also very happy to have him home all the time now, even under these circumstances. We could hear Mr. and Mrs. Barnes talking in their bedroom at night, so we pretty much knew what was going on, though we didn’t understand a lot of it, and they actually told us very little. Mostly they talked about the impending surgery, finances, and the future, because, while they had no immediate financial worries, there were no guarantees Mr. Barnes was going to make it through the surgery, and he was intent on making contingency plans with Mrs. Barnes, who was at first loathe to discuss it. Nevertheless, he made sure his will was in order and that Mrs. Barnes was briefed on the state of their finances, the house, and his business.

Naturally Rory and I were thinking all kinds of things, given our past, with major changes seemingly imminent, and our fate in the balance, though we dared not voice them, even to each other.

Mrs. Barnes actually seemed to thrive during the crisis, becoming very adept at handling all Mr. Barnes’ business calls and doctor’s appointments, along with the housework, and as far as we knew didn’t drink a drop. It brought me back to the time our dog Wingsy had been sick a couple of years ago, with a large, inflamed growth on his leg, and Mrs. Barnes had not panicked, even though Mr. Barnes was away.                                                                                                                                                  With our help she took him to the vet and immediately began following the treatment he had prescribed the minute we got home, bathing the tumor and putting the ointment the vet gave her on it and bandaging it each night. She hand fed Wingsy and made him comfortable as possible, sitting with him on the ratty old chaise lounge in the basement at night for hours on end, not asking us for any help, but I pitched in anyway, I wanted to, and would stay down there with him after my homework was finished, spelling Mrs. Barnes while she did the dishes, until it was time for bed.

It seemed like Wingsy was getting better and the tumor had healed, but when I came home from school one day and asked how he was first thing like I always did, Mrs. Barnes looked at me, shook her head and said “He’s in doggy heaven now.” Perhaps because of the shock I didn’t quite get what she meant at first but when I did I ran upstairs into our room and cried my eyes out. I was disconsolate, having thought he was getting better and looking forward to everything getting back to normal and spending many more years with him, only to have him taken suddenly away, I didn’t think I could bear it.

Mrs. Barnes came upstairs a little while later and explained that Wingsy was in a much better place now, without any pain, that they had done all they could, had been with him when he needed them (and how proud she was of me for helping out and being her little man), that they had made his last days as comfortable as possible, that I should take solace in that and be happy for him.

In time (it was my first experience with death after all) I saw that she was right (except maybe for the happiness part), but it was pretty rough for a few days afterward, and I missed Wingsy for a long time after that. We eventually got Rocky, who was much higher strung than the mellow Wingsy we were used to, but we grew to love him just as much.

Installment #8 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

Saturday mornings we usually got up before Mr. and Mrs. Barnes and went downstairs to work on a model airplane, a paint-by-numbers picture, put together a puzzle at the kitchen table, or watch cartoons on television. It was a brief moment of autonomy and we took full advantage of it.

One of our daily tasks was to get the paper that was wedged in the screen door in the back hall and bring put it on the kitchen table so it was ready for the Barnes’s when they eventually came downstairs for breakfast. When I took the paper into the kitchen I usually didn’t open it (in fact I believe our instructions were not to open it) but left it folded together. However, when I tossed the paper on the table that morning, it must have fallen open because to this day I remember the headline emblazoned on it blaring out to me its lurid message: PARKEDGE BOY, 4, STILL MISSING.

The hopes I had the night before that he might be found were gone and my pounding heart sank as I realized it. There was a slightly blurred picture of the missing boy on the front page: smiling, full-cheeked, the picture of health, his broad forehead topped with a blonde brush-cut, dressed in his Sunday best.

Firemen, police, neighbors and friends had performed an intensive search of the Olmstead Park and the Zoo, which was right across the street from where the missing boy lived, the night before and would be resume it that day, but so far, no sign of his whereabouts had been found. In addition to the search, police were also going to conduct a door-to-door canvass of the entire neighborhood and surrounding areas.

Soon I heard Mr. and Mrs. Barnes stirring upstairs, so I put the paper neatly back together again, left it on the kitchen table, and halfheartedly went into the living room to watch cartoons with Rory.

When we were called in for breakfast, both Mr. and Mrs. Barnes were in the kitchen having coffee, which was a relief, as this wasn’t always the case after a night like last night. Mr. Barnes was a great short order cook and often on weekends, after having been away all week, enjoyed cooking breakfast and lunch, concocting dishes from whatever was on hand.

Breakfast was pretty straightforward: pancakes, which he would make in all different shapes and sizes and name them after countries, cities, even continents, calling out, Who wants Cuba, or Here’s Texas- who’s got a big appetite? Or it might be an omelet, bacon and eggs, or waffles- whatever it was the portions were hearty, and it was a delicious change from our usual cold cereal or hot cereal, depending on the time of year.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes acted as though nothing had happened the night before, which both relieved and perplexed me at the same time. While we were eating Mr. Barnes bragged on our performance in last night’s game while Mrs. Barnes clearly evinced little interest. Then they talked about what they were going to do that day, besides grocery shopping, of course, which they got out of the way before noon every Saturday morning. After lunch, Mr. Barnes thought he might mow the lawn and wash the car, which really needed it (with our help, of course), and maybe he would cook hamburgers on the grill for dinner, if Mrs. Barnes promised to make her world famous potato salad.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes soon moved on to adult things, and I asked if we could be excused to be excused to go in the living room to watch television. Mrs. Barnes said we could not, that we should sit there until breakfast was over. They went on talking and I discovered that it was Uncle Bobby’s birthday the next day and we had been invited over to their house for a barbecue. Mr. Barnes thought he would see about playing an early round of golf with him first thing in the morning, but Mrs. Barnes reminded him that it was Sunday and they had to go to church, which he grudgingly realized was true.

When we were finally excused, I turned on the television (Saturday was the only day this was allowed) and “Lassie” was on. Timmy was in trouble again, having gone off by himself and gotten his foot wedged in some rocks housing a nest of rattlesnakes. Great, I thought, having seen it before, this one is almost as good as the one where Lassie rescues Timmy from quicksand! Somehow Lassie sensed Timmy was in trouble and managed to find him, this time killing a rattlesnake that was all set to strike him; then, never leaving Timmy’s side, she barked for help until his dad came and everything turned out all right, as it had to, Mr. Barnes was fond of saying, because they had to be on next week.

I suppose I was thinking about the missing boy at that point, and might have prayed that he, too, had a dog like Lassie to help him, but I doubted it. Lassie was one of a kind, I realized, and must be pretty special, or he wouldn’t be on TV. As Rory and I watched The Lone Ranger, Sky King, and My Friend Flicka, I gradually began to feel better, even allowing myself to believe once more that somehow the boy might be found safe and sound after all.

—–o—–

We had just returned from church on Sunday morning. We were in the living room, lying on the floor perusing the comics, while Mr. and Mrs. Barnes were in the kitchen making lunch. Lunches, specifically sandwiches, were Mr. Barnes’s specialty, and he put together some interesting combinations: bacon and peanut butter, cream cheese and green olives on toasted bread, fried bologna and relish, Welsh rarebit laced with his beloved Ballantine Ale, peanut butter and bananas, hot ham drenched with tomato soup and relish, cream-chipped beef on toast (shit on a shingle he called it, a dish he grew fond of in the service because he had it every day so he had to like it), chip steak sandwiches on toast with plenty of butter and A-1 sauce, BLTs made with Canadian bacon and the beefsteak tomatoes from his garden, and fried egg sandwiches- all delicious and he always made plenty.

The radio in the living room stereo console was on, tuned to a program Mr. and Mrs. Barnes listened to every Sunday called “Sinatra and Strings,” which was piped out into the kitchen through some speakers above the breakfast nook. Suddenly, the program was interrupted by a special news bulletin that said the body of the missing boy had been found floating in Casino Lake in Olmsted Park that morning. I looked up from the comics (as I recall it was There Oughta Be a Law I was reading) in disbelief. In my wildest imagination I had never thought it could end like this, despite the feeling of foreboding I’d had all weekend.

I knew what lake they were talking about, too, because the Barnes’s had taken us into the city several times to ice-skate on it. I shivered inwardly as I remembered the time I had fallen through the ice there and gone under, sinking like a stone in my heavy winter clothes, until suddenly strong hands grabbed me, and Mr. Barnes hoisted me out of the freezing water and over the ice to safety. I could still smell the wet-wool smell my water-logged winter clothes had that day, which ever after I associated with the feeling of terror I had experienced when I went under the ice. For the first time I realized I might have drowned in that very same lake if it hadn’t been for Mr. Barnes. That knowledge somehow made me feel even worse for the little boy, who had nobody to rescue him.

The news bulletin ended as suddenly as it began and “Sinatra and Strings” resumed as if nothing had happened. Mr. Barnes called us in to lunch, and when I sat down at the table, I studied the Barnes’s faces carefully to see if they had any reaction to the news bulletin, but couldn’t tell. Though I wanted to, I would never ask them about it, children were to be seen and not heard, as they often said, and I wouldn’t ever initiate a discussion, though I wondered if they would mention it.

Although it was a beautiful summer day and we normally would have gone out to play, instead I went immediately up to my room afterwards and closed the door behind me, confusing the hell out of Rory. I heard him come upstairs and stand by the door for a minute, then go back downstairs. I went over and stood in front of the mirror above my dresser and stared at myself, watching a frown appear on my face as I asked, Who could have done this? I whispered this several times, watching my lips frame the question in the mirror, Who could have done it? Who could have done it? A thought flashed abruptly through my mind: I wish I could be the one to find whoever did it. As ridiculous as that might seem, I meant it and it made me feel slightly better.

I knew if I thought about it any longer, I would cry, and I didn’t want to do that, so I went into my top dresser drawer and took out several pairs of rolled up socks and began tossing them into a wicker waste basket across the room, keeping track of the makes and misses on a piece of paper, a game I often played to take my mind off things. Tiring of this after a while, I flopped on my bed to rest, glancing at the books that lined the shelves next to it, books that had been given to me since I had arrived there: Huckleberry Finn, Robin Hood, Hans Brinker, Black Beauty, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, Yankee Doodle’s Cousins, Pilgrim’s Progress, a Red-Letter Edition of the Bible. I reached over and pulled off a bluish gray, gilt-edged book, one volume of a multi-volume history of the Spanish Conquests. Leafing through the book, whose pages smelled like licked stamps, I imagined the Seven Cities of Cibola, and the conquistadors Cadiz, Coronado, and Cortez. Eventually I came to my very favorite picture in it, one that frightened but compelled me to return to it again and again. Many times, as now, I had gazed at it in fascination, attempting to inure myself to the horror depicted in the full-page black and white plate of one of the Pizarros being pierced through the neck by an Incan spear, his eyes bulging in surprise, his beard bedraggled, his face aghast.

I laid the book down at last, fell back on the pillow, and looked up at the ceiling, thinking, it hadn’t taken very long, really, for events to reach a disastrous conclusion, in spite of what I had hoped, even prayed for. Hope, I thought bitterly to myself, that’s a laugh. What a fool I was to hope for anything. I immediately regretted thinking this, in spite of admitting to myself it was the way I really felt.

Just then I heard Mr. Barnes call up to me: Wesley, are you getting ready to go, we are leaving in ten minutes. Suddenly remembering the barbecue I groaned, rolled over on my bed, and covered my head with my pillow. I wanted to sleep, not go to a barbecue and be around a lot of people. I had been looking forward to it up until then, but no longer. After five minutes or so Mr. Barnes called up again: Wesley, did you hear me? It’s time to go. Let’s get a move on. I pretended I hadn’t heard, and stayed a moment or two longer collecting my thoughts until I was ready to go.

——o——

When we arrived, our aunt, uncle, and cousins were all outside waiting for us. Their stately stone house, originally built in the 1800s, was surrounded by a well-manicured lawn, with flower beds in the front, and an extensive vegetable garden in the back.

As everyone headed inside, Rory and I, who had always been fascinated by the concrete hitching posts lining the circular driveway in front of the house, hung back. You could tell they were ancient, and we got the biggest kick out of flipping the weathered cumbrous iron rings on top of them back and forth, as though we didn’t quite believe they were real, merely decorative. We imagined each one hitched to a horse at a long ago family gathering similar to this one, tugging on them as hard as we could to test their strength, to see if they really could restrain a horse. Lastly, as was our custom, we played leapfrog on them, vaulting over them one by one.

Just as we were finishing our cousin Ricky came outside to see what we were doing. Neither of my cousins could understand our fascination with the hitching posts- they just get in the way when we play, they said. He invited us to come out back where everyone else was. I tried hard not to stare too hard at him, as Mrs. Barnes had often warned me against doing, but it was difficult not to. He had needed a tracheotomy shortly after he was born, which left him with a very noticeable stutter and a purple indentation where his Adam’s apple should have been. He was a big, mainly happy kid, though prone to sudden tantrums, and extremely sensitive. I was always very nervous about being alone with him, and because of Mrs. Barnes’s strictures was afraid of saying the wrong thing or being caught staring at him, or if, worst of all, he might have one of his outbursts and I would be blamed.

Happily, he simply turned around and we followed him out back to their patio, dreading the moment we’d be noticed by everybody, but as soon as Aunt Annie, whom I thought the spitting image of Dale Evans, saw us, she came over and gave us each a big hug. Uncle Bobby, a career Navy officer, a slighter, younger version of Mr. Barnes with wavy brown hair, was standing on the back lawn with him, taking practice swings with the new driver and irons we had given him for his birthday.

Aunt Annie was her usual jaunty self during dinner, which consisted of steaks on the grill, Mrs. Barnes’s potato salad, Mr. Barnes’s tomatoes, and corn on the cob. She was a gracious hostess, with Uncle Bobby constantly by her side.

After dinner the adults went inside to the living room, and we went with our cousins to play hide and seek in the back yard while it was still light out. After I had been “it” several times in a row, I was determined to find a hiding place where they would never look. It wasn’t fair, after all, it was their yard, and they knew every nook and cranny, while I didn’t. Besides, I was growing tired of playing the game anyway.

As I was looking for a good place to hide, I saw what looked like the faint outline of a path underneath the bushes at the boundary of their yard. Looking around to make certain that no one saw me, I managed to push my way through the dense foliage and, sure enough, there was a path running through the fringe of undergrowth, beyond which were some high hedges bordering the back yard of a house on the next street over. It was a lane that ran between the adjacent back yards of the two streets and I followed it until I came to a wooded area, and then headed slightly downhill a ways until I came to a creek. This must be Elliott Creek, I deduced, because my aunt and uncle lived on Elliott Street, and I’d heard it mentioned before.

I knew I was way out of bounds but thought I might as well look around now that I was there. It was very peaceful and quiet along the path, and secluded, so much so you wouldn’t even know there were houses nearby. The creek, which was only about ten feet wide and very shallow where I was, meandered sluggishly along as I looked for minnows or fish, but saw none.

There was a large boulder nearby, which I sat on for a while, and suddenly found myself thinking about the little boy and how they had lain him down on the bank after they had pulled him from the lake. I went down by the creek side and found a grassy spot in the midst of the sandy shore, and laid down there myself, not really intending to or knowing why, and thought some more about the little boy who had died. Every now and then I heard a bird call, and looked up at the blue sky, watching the fleecy white clouds crawl across it, one of my favorite things to do, wishing I could be up there among them.

Not long after I was startled to hear my name being called in the distance. I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from, but I heard Ricky and Uncle Bobby and Mr. Barnes call my name, and decided I’d better get back before they got any closer.

We went home shortly after that, and, if the furtive glances Rory was giving me and the fact that Mrs. Barnes glared at me most of the ride home were any indication, sensed that my disappearance, brief as it was, had put a damper on the evening. I understood why everyone was upset. They were worried I had gotten lost. I realized it was a probably a foolish thing to do, now that I thought about it, but it had started out as part of the game, one that I was trying to win, and I couldn’t help it (or explain) that I had gotten sidetracked by thinking about the little boy’s death.

During the ride home, I discovered that Uncle Bobby had told Mr. and Mrs. Barnes that he had gotten a transfer to the main naval base in San Diego. The first thing I thought was that Aunt Annie would be a natural out there, what with her palomino hair and looking so much like Dale Evans, the second being that maybe I was off the hook now that this was the main topic of conversation. Still, Mrs. Barnes kept trying to bring the focus back to the stunt I had pulled (as she put it) until Mr. Barnes finally told her to drop it. I was relieved to hear that. It had been a long day and I just wanted to get some sleep if I could.

—–o—–

On Monday, the official first day of summer vacation, I was raring to go, seemingly haven forgotten about the little boy, at least for the moment. We got on our bikes and rode over to our friend Glen’s house, a couple of blocks away, first thing that morning. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but Glen was the one friend whose house Mrs. Barnes, who was usually very restrictive when it came to friends, would let us go over to whenever we wanted. She’d never even met Glen or his family and we no longer went to the same school, hadn’t for years, but whatever the reason it was fine with us, because we really liked it there.

Glen’s parents were divorced, which was not all that common in those days, so it was just Glen, his mother, his younger brother Danny, and his sister Betsy. Glen was the only friend we had without a father, which was a distinction of sorts, at least in our eyes. In addition to this, he also didn’t live in a house, but an upper flat, also quite rare in our affluent village. Glen was very sensitive about all this; as far as he was concerned, he did have a father, he just didn’t see him that all much or talk about him.

I thought it was neat the way they lived, with Glen often left on his own because his brother and sister were young enough to need a regular sitter while his mother was at work. There was plenty of freedom over at his house, though with it came a lot of responsibility too, which I guess evened things out. He could mostly come and go where and when he pleased, eat lunch whenever or whatever he wanted, and watch TV when he wished. In exchange, he was expected to do his chores (empty the garbage, mow the lawn, wash his mother’s car), keep an eye on his siblings when something unexpected came up, be home on time for meals, and always let his mother know where she could reach him.

So different from our house, I thought ruefully, where we couldn’t even sit on the living room furniture, much less go into the fridge or turn on the TV without permission. I often caught myself envying Glen’s freedom, even though not too long ago I had been more than glad to have been rescued from a dysfunctional situation, however different they might be.

Glen had fiery red hair and a fierce temper, and was well known for both. He even yelled at his mother on occasion, which we found totally impossible to comprehend when he first told us, but she didn’t seem to mind, she would yell right back, and then calm him down. I couldn’t help but shudder to think what Mrs. Barnes would do if we ever dared to even talk back to her, much less yell. There was a lot of give and take between them, as with a married couple- after all, he was the man of the house, it was their way of getting things out in the open, keeping the important things in focus, and I found their relationship endlessly fascinating.

As I said before, though we didn’t go to the same school as Glen, we were still best friends, having met a couple of years ago in our first year of Little League, during tryouts. Glen was trying out for catcher, and, as it turned out, so was Rory. He was a year younger than us and this was also his first year in Little League. I was standing opposite him in the pitcher’s line, which I was trying out for, so when the time came for us to show our skill level, we were paired off together. Initially I was pretty upset about it, as I had never thrown to anyone but Rory, but Glen got down in a sturdy crouch and presented a steady target, and I felt relatively comfortable throwing to him, and threw very well, mostly strikes, no wild pitches, natural and easy.

So after that we hit it off right away, even if (though I didn’t say so), I still wanted Rory to be my catcher. I introduced him to Rory and soon they were talking trade, so to speak, concerning the tools of ignorance, what kind of glove they used (Glen a round olive green Dom Chiti model, Rory a Mike Roarke Rawlings), what kind of pitches I had (there were only two, a fastball and a natural screwball). As luck would have it, we were chosen by the Athletics, Glen by the Tigers, but we started hanging around together anyway, going over to Glen’s house as often as we could. We played sports together (always at his house) all year round, baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, basketball and rough and tumble in the winter, as close as brothers.

It being a Monday, we went up to Black’s 5 & 10 to get our weekly supply of baseball cards. We each broke open our new packs, and were chewing the fresh powdered bubble gum, which didn’t stay chewy long and lost its flavor pretty quickly, but of course it was the baseball cards we wanted. Ironically Glen got a Mike Roarke card and traded it with Rory because Rory had his glove. Roarke was a rookie catcher for the Tigers that year, so Rory decided to be him for the summer. I got a Bob Friend card, a player I wasn’t familiar with at all, nor the team he played for, the Pittsburgh Pirates, for that matter, but I loved their cut-off uniforms and fuzzy batting helmets (they looked like they were made of iron), and I liked his name, so I decided then and there to follow Friend and his team for the rest of the season.

Next, we rode over to North Forest Elementary, our gloves on our handlebars, me holding the one scuffed grass-stained baseball we had between us braced against my handlebar until I dropped it (several times) and had to go back and retrieve it as it rolled down the street, until finally I just jammed it into my jeans pocket. Glen had the Mickey Mantle 32-inch bat we had all chipped in to buy across his handlebar, holding the thin, whip-like handle with his thumb until it, too, slipped off and dragged on the sidewalk several times, pissing Glen off royally.

There was a baseball diamond in back of the school, the very same one we played our Little League games on. When we arrived, the diamond was empty, so we took our time, playing three-cornered catch to warm up, waiting to see if anyone would show up so we could play a game. We took turns hitting grounders to each other in the infield and fungoes in the outfield, but had to skip our favorite- batting practice- because there was no one to shag flies, much less blue darters that could roll forever on the sunbaked field.

It was hot out there with the sun beating down on us, but it felt wonderful. After a couple of hours in it, we were hot and sweaty; we took a break and got a drink of lukewarm water at a drinking fountain by the school, then sat around in the shade nearby, still waiting to see if anyone would show up. After a time, when no one did, and we were pretty certain no one would, we reluctantly headed back to Glen’s house, where we hung around for a while and had a cold drink, and played some Strat-O-Matic baseball, then eventually headed home.

No one was home when we got there and we were tempted for an instant to turn right around and go back to Glen’s, but decided we’d better not in case Mrs. Barnes suddenly arrived and we weren’t there. Having decided this we went in the house immediately, but once we were inside had trouble deciding what to do with this rare opportunity to be there by ourselves.

We thought hard but came up with nothing, but took our sweet time rifling the refrigerator, normally strictly prohibited, saw nothing that looked good, and, after taking a few swigs from a cold quart bottle of milk we passed around (which we would have gotten killed for had Mrs. Barnes seen us), recapped it. Rocky (our new Irish setter) wandered at that moment and came up to sniff us. We petted him and asked where Mrs. Barnes was, but he just wagged his tail, nuzzled our hands to pet him again, and padded off with that perennial smile dogs have after we did so.

Suddenly I got the urge to do something I had secretly wanted to do in Mr. and Mrs. Barnes’s bedroom almost from the moment I first arrived there- look for a document in a drawer, maybe even a letter or some pictures, something that would reveal the secret of our paternity, tell me at least something about where we came from and who we were. Surely it had to be in their room, if anywhere.

Before I ventured into this forbidden territory I told Rory, who had gone in our bedroom, to stand watch outside, and alert me at the slightest sound indicating Mrs. Barnes had arrived home. When Rory wanted to know what I was going to do in there and why couldn’t he come too, I told him I didn’t have time to explain but would later, and reiterated how important it was for him to alert me of any sign of Mrs. Barnes’ imminent return.

Where to start, I wondered, looking around. I hadn’t even been in their room but a handful of times since coming to live here, as it had been made very clear to us that it was off limits, mostly just barely crossing the threshold to ask for a glass of water, or to say I wasn’t feeling well, or had had a bad dream, or needed to go to the bathroom. That was about it.

I would just have to be very careful not to misplace anything, put everything back exactly the way it was, and hurry. I began with Mr. Barnes’ dresser, it being close by. It was taller than I, with a linen cloth covering the top, on which his toiletries lay: comb, brush, talc, aftershave, Kreml hair tonic, shoehorn, electric shaver, a paisley tin canister in which he kept loose change, and a black and white photo of a much younger Mrs. Barnes. I could hardly bring myself to open the drawers, not only because they were top heavy and stuck because of the humidity, but also because I felt so duplicitous.

Still, I had gotten this far and who knew when I might get another chance again. After quite a struggle I managed to open all six of the drawers, finding everything that might normally be found in a drawer- clothes, socks, and underwear. I did find a couple of books tucked away in Mr. Barnes’s sock drawer, one called Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the other, Tropic of Cancer, both having the word “Unexpurgated” on their covers. I had no idea what the word meant but figured it must be important because it was on both books and filed it away to look it up later.

I hoped I would have better luck with Mrs. Barnes’ dresser, which I was dreading opening even more. Her dresser was long and low, with a large mirror of equal length on the wall behind it. The cover on the dresser was lace, and her toiletries, which I studiously avoided looking at, were also on top of it, as well as a jewelry box, and the aforementioned colorized Air Force picture of Mr. Barnes.   Even though I was well aware I was already invading Mrs. Barnes’ privacy, I decided I wouldn’t stoop so low as to go through her unmentionables, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I opened the drawers quickly and felt around, sight unseen and being careful not to disturb anything. Just as in Mr. Barnes’ drawers, there were only clothes, nothing more.

I was about to give up when I spotted one very small drawer in the middle of two larger drawers in the top row I hadn’t noticed the first time around. It had a lock on it, which I hoped against hope wasn’t locked. There must be something in there important or valuable, I thought, but it wasn’t locked and when I opened it I was disappointed to find it was only another book. This one had possibilities, though, with a title like Catcher in the Rye, it must be about baseball, I thought, but when I opened it and began skimming, I could tell right away it wasn’t, there being nothing in there about a catcher that I could readily see, so who the catcher in the title was, I had no idea. It looked interesting, though, and the bits I had read were unlike anything I had ever read before- hilarious, vulgar, audacious, and, most of all, interesting. My first thought was to “borrow” it but I realized it was too risky and shuddered to think what would happen if I was found out. Instead I made another mental note of the title to check out next time I went to the library. I had difficulty tearing myself away from it, in fact, even as I was flipping through it until Rory suddenly gave me the heads about Mrs. Barnes’ potential arrival.

Regretfully, I made haste to put the book ever so carefully back in the drawer where I had found it, but in so doing wouldn’t you know I dropped it, and, as it fell, something that must have been stuck in it also fell to the floor. I had to hurry now, so I placed the book back in the drawer and bent over to pick up what had fallen, which I discovered was actually a photograph. I glanced at it quickly, then stuck it in my back pocket and tiptoed out of the room as quickly and quietly as I could.

Once in my room I stuck the picture under my mattress just as Mrs. Barnes called up, Wesley! Rory! Are you here? You’d better be! We answered yes and then she asked us what we were doing. Oh nothing, we said simultaneously, just reading. That seemed to satisfy her because she replied, That’s fine but make sure you get cleaned up and dressed for dinner. Yes ma’am, we intoned in unison as we heard her walk out to the kitchen.

I reached under my mattress and took out the picture and stared at it a good long time, with Rory clamoring to see what it was as I did so. The picture confirmed what I could not quite believe but knew just the same to be true even from the very brief glimpse I gotten of it earlier. It was what I had always been searching for, but now that I had, my worst suspicions were verified.

Looking back at me was a younger version of ourselves, taken when we were four or so at one of the foster homes, probably the last, though the background was so nondescript it was difficult to tell. I almost began to cry we looked so pitiful, barely recognizable, but it was us nevertheless, from the looks of it scared, hungry, with sunken eyes and wizened faces making desperate attempts to smile, my hair the color of yellow clay, where it was dark now, and Rory’s the same.

We looked like the Okie children I had seen in books about the Great Depression. I had on a dingy tee shirt, white, with thick red, yellow, blue, and green stripes. Rory’s was pretty much the same, although the stripes were lighter and the shirt had holes in it. I was mesmerized by the picture, shaken to my foundation as I realized we were indeed real, this was tangible evidence we had lived in another time and place under much different circumstances, that it hadn’t all been a dream or made up in our heads, that we hadn’t just suddenly dropped out of the sky or washed ashore like some evolutionary slime.

I would never give it back, either, it was all I had of my past, a precious reminder of who and what I had been, which I never wanted to forget. Reluctant even to let Rory see it, I didn’t care if this made me the worst kind of thief in the world. The Barnes’ must never find out I had it, though-what a disaster that would be. If they missed it and asked me about it I would lie as much as I had to, they wouldn’t get a thing out of me, not a thing, ever.

—–o—–

All the rest of that week we marked time. It began to rain on Tuesday and didn’t stop until Friday. I thought we would go crazy, cooped up as we were, wasting all those precious summer days. There was nothing to do but read, or watch television, which Mrs. Barnes didn’t allow us to do during the day anyway. Glen called one day and asked if we could come over but Mrs. Barnes said no.

I kept up with Anthony Ashford’s case (I’d finally found out his name) although not much progress had been made on that front. Much to my consternation the boy was already being buried at the cemetery in the town he’d originally been born about forty miles away. They sure didn’t waste any time did they? The accounts of the ceremony were very sad. I wished I could have been there and decided I’d go there some day to visit the grave and pay my respects. That’s the least I could do.

Several women had been detained for questioning but were quickly released. Each night in bed I tried to imagine what the murderer looked like but all I could come up with was what I much later realized was a composite of most the females I’d ever known, including Mrs. Barnes, Malificent (we’d seen “Sleeping Beauty” recently), and the fifty-foot woman from the movie “Attack of the Fifty-foot Woman” another movie I’d seen recently, who I suppose was the original prototype of the devouring female I often imagined and was terrified of and who continued to scare me senseless every time I thought of her.

—–o—–

Rumors of an impending trip had been in the air for some time now, and that very week the Barnes’s decided on the spur of the moment to do it over the upcoming 4th of July weekend. It was perfect timing for us, finally we were getting outside, and better yet, away from home.

When Mr. Barnes broke the news early on Friday morning, (Let’s get going boys, we’re going to Cleveland), we were ecstatic, knowing we’d finally be seeing at least one Indians game, and because it was the holiday weekend, wouldn’t miss any of our Little League games. Going to Cleveland was always so much fun (any respite from Mrs. Barnes’ close scrutiny was), and she even tended to relax her vigil somewhat on these trips. As a matter of fact, Rory and I were pretty much left to our own devices on these visits, as Aunt Johnnie and Mrs. Barnes had a lot of catching up to do, or were out doing girly things with our one cousin Cathy and Penny, our other one, Candy, getting to be boy crazy, and constantly on the phone with her friends, while Uncle Clyde and Mr. Barnes spent much of the time on the golf course. The only drawback that I could see was that I wouldn’t be able to follow case, but I was actually glad to take a break from it and would be able catch up quickly as soon as I came back.

We left early that afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes in the front, Rory and I in the back with Rocky, which was fine with us. Once we got past the city limits we began to look for the familiar landmarks from past trips: a decrepit red barn with a faded white MAIL POUCH TOBACCO advertisement on its only remaining wall, the white cross on a makeshift sign just before the New York-Pennsylvania border that read REPENT OR PERISH; the many creeks and man-made lakes; the odd sheep, goat, or horse interspersed among the myriad, barely sentient cows grazing oh so methodically in pastures along the roadside, then the seemingly endless rows of grapevines that meant we were in the wine country. Before we knew it we’d passed over the state line into the rolling Pennsylvania countryside.

If we got bored with the scenery we counted license plates on cars passing in the opposite direction, keeping track of the various states we saw and how many of each, or calculated the mileage on the thruway markers, how far we had gone and how much further there was to go.

Although it was a very sultry day Mr. Barnes couldn’t put the top down because Mrs. Barnes didn’t want to muss her hair, even though she had a scarf on for that very same purpose. Rocky was panting heavily, and when he would put his wet muzzle in one of our laps (we were wearing shorts), we jumped a mile. Inevitably he would become restless and begin pacing back and forth across the back seat to stick his muzzle out of each window to flap in the breeze, stepping on us in the process when he got to our side, which hurt if he stepped on us in just the right spot, or hadn’t had his nails clipped in a while. It could be very annoying and we’d get angry, but you couldn’t stay mad at him for long. Besides Mrs. Barnes didn’t brook the slightest criticism of him, which we actually admired her for.

Soon we were in Ohio and entering the Cleveland city limits, with its phalanx of factories, then the huge looming billboard with a Stroh’s bottle being lowered into a cauldron of fire- AMERICA’S ONLY FIRE BREWED BEER. When we reached Eddy Road, as usual Mrs. Barnes called out “Eddy Road” and Mr. Barnes laughed. I was never sure what that was all about, some kind of private joke between them, but they did it every time they passed it.

Just before the heart of downtown was Municipal Stadium, sitting right on the shore of Lake Erie, looking for all the world (just as those monolithic ancient structures in Greece and Rome must have) like it had just dropped out of the sky and landed on just that spot as if by design. The sign on its façade always sent a thrill through us- HOME OF THE CLEVELAND BROWNS, with its incongruous brownie elf, football in hand, arms outspread in welcome to the now empty place, though we would be inside there soon. Buffalo didn’t have anything comparable, and having both a pro football and baseball team made it a real city.

I imagine every city has its own smell and Cleveland did, too. It smelled just like my aunt and uncle’s house, a combination of the Avon perfume she wore on Easter Sunday, his cigarettes, toothpaste, Dial soap, and the slate on their brand new Brunswick pool table.

We always stopped to have dinner downtown before going on to their house, usually at Cavoli’s, an Italian restaurant not far from the stadium. The ball players often went there (Mr. Barnes said that was a sure sign it was a good place), and as soon as we sat down we would crane our necks to better scan the dining room, because you were sure to see some there when the Indians were in town. You could spot them right away by their tans, sport coats, and open-necked shirts, and because every now and then someone would rudely interrupt their dinner to ask for an autograph.

The star players never seemed to be there, though, at least I had never seen one. Ordinarily it was a manager, coach, or a marginal player near the end of the line. That day it was Joe Gordon, the current manager who wouldn’t last the season out, soon to be replaced by Jimmy Dykes, whom I’d also seen there before- both great players in their day, Mr. Barnes pointed out- over there with Chuck Tanner and George Strickland. On other occasions we had seen, among others, granite-jawed Joe Adcock, who had slugged four home runs in a game once, Del Crandall, one of the best catchers of his day, and Jimmy Dudley, the honey-throated voice of the Indians.

What a thrill to be so near these mythical beings, names we had only heard clear as a bell out of the night through our radios, no matter where they were playing, or through heavy static during weekend day games, when they seemed so far away even when they were home. And here they were now, right before our very eyes! Even when they were out of town, or no ball players happened to be there, which was not often, just the thrill of anticipation we had gotten at merely imagining who we might see this time was more than enough to tide us over until our next visit.

Rory, ever adventurous, ordered exotic sounding dishes like red snapper, sweetbreads, calf or chicken livers, and frog legs, while I ordered my usual, spaghetti Napoli well-done under the broiler, just like Mr. Barnes. I would invariably burn my mouth on it because I couldn’t wait long enough for it to cool off before I bolted it down in order to excuse myself from the table to make a visit to the men’s room, while Mr. and Mrs. Barnes awaited coffee and after-dinner drinks.

We would be in there for at least a half-hour, keeping the automatic hand-drier running all the while as a diversionary tactic while we pored over the bathroom wallpaper, which consisted of hundreds of baseballs, many of which had been autographed. Some of the signatures had come with the wallpaper, you could tell, because they were in black ink and didn’t smudge when you touched them, while the “real” ones were written in blue ink. It was these I was interested in, and I somehow managed to find new ones each time.

There was Dick Drott Kent Hadley Ed Fitzgerald (Indians) Marty Keough Bud Daley Dutch Dotterer Leo Kiely Gus Bell Dick Stigman (Indians) Bennie Daniels Pete Daley Gary Geiger Glen Hobbie Don Demeter Gerry Lumpe Ike Delock Harry Chiti Barry Latman (Indians) Bill Tuttle Bob Shaw George Crowe Gerry Staley Marv Breeding Don Landrum Lu Clinton Roy McMillan Jack Fisher Bobby Locke (Indians) John Roseboro Jim Donahue Gail Harris J.C. Martin Don Dillard (Indians)- players who were on the baseball cards we exchanged weekly- and there seemed to be a lot of new ones since we’d been there last!

As I stared at them, I wondered how they managed to sign them with such a flourish and write so steadily. They’ve had a lot of practice I guessed, and I too constantly practiced my signature (even though Rory rolled his eyes every time I did) so I would be ready when my time came.

The older I grew I couldn’t help but speculate on how many of them were real, realizing that anyone coming in there could have signed them, though when I was younger I thought they all were genuine. The ones in pencil could be rejected right away, no ballplayer would sign in pencil, and probably all of the National Leaguers too, like Roy McMillan, Glen Hobbie, and John Roseboro. Growing more skeptical the older I got I even brought along some of my own baseball cards to compare the signatures (Kent Hadley, Bud Daley, Don Landrum, Dutch Dotterer, and Leo Kiley) and these looked exactly the same, so I knew they must be real. I had to believe that Minnie Minoso’s was, the same for Yogi Berra and Nellie Fox, in fact, I could imagine them coming in there just like regular guys to sign their names on the wall. I also realized that all the black pre-printed ones that came with original wallpaper were superstars: Mickey Mantle, Carl Yazstremski, Rocky Colavito (Indians), Frank Robinson, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, and Harmon Killebrew. That last one disappointed me, because, while I could see the big stars not deigning to sign a bathroom’s wallpaper, or even be in the restaurant for that matter, Harmon seemed like a nice guy who definitely would.

When we finally got back to the table Mr. Barnes would say, What happened, did you guys fall in, then grin and wink at us. I wondered if he knew what had taken us so long, and figured he probably did, though he would never say, at least not in front of Mrs. Barnes.

Our aunt and uncle’s house was a brand-new brick split level in a new development in a suburb just outside Cleveland and they always seemed glad to see us when we arrived.

Rory and I wanted to stay up with the grownups this time, as did my younger cousin Kathy, our older cousin Candy having just left on a date shortly after we arrived. Barring that, we would have liked to have gone down to their basement and play pool or listen to our cousin’s Beatles albums. Mrs. Barnes nixed both, suggesting instead that since we must be tired from the trip, we should get ready for bed.

Aunt Johnnie showed us where we were going to sleep, which was really unnecessary, as it was the same place we always slept, on a pull-out sofa in the den, just past the downstairs bathroom and down the hall from our aunt and uncle’s bedroom. She bustled about fixing up our bed and fluffing our pillows before she handed them to us, then pecked us each on the cheek before she left, closing the door behind her.

Soon after Mrs. Barnes came in, ostensibly to say goodnight, but in reality just taking another opportunity to get us alone and threaten us with the grave consequences should we misbehave just once while we were there.

Rory and I laid there side by side in the in strange makeshift bed after she left, commiserating about how neither of us were tired but had been made to go to bed before anybody, even Penny, who was upstairs with Cathy but certainly not asleep, because both Aunt Johnnie and Mrs. Barnes had to call up to them more than once to settle down and go to sleep.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Rory soon fell sound asleep, but I laid there and stared up at the ceiling, not really very comfortable, but not complaining because it was an exciting change, as from my vantage point I could hear what was going on with the adults in the living room, listening to the sounds of laughter, snatches of conversation, and ice clinking around in glasses.

After a while I noticed that it seemed to have gotten a lot quieter. I could still hear them if I strained, not wanting to get out of bed and disturb Rory and more so Mrs. Barnes. As I did I could make out Mrs. Barnes’s voice talking about the Anthony Ashford case, how he’d been drowned in the park lake, and how the person who had done it had not only not been found yet, they didn’t even have a suspect. I was surprised and chagrined to hear her talking about it, she had hardly seemed to notice when it happened. It was my story to tell, and how I wished right then I could have been in there with the grownups telling it, though I probably wouldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise even if I’d gotten the chance. Nobody listened to kids in those days, much less us.

How awful, Aunt Johnnie exclaimed, and immediately reminded them (as she did every time they came) about their doctor, Sam Shepard, who had been accused of murdering his wife and sent to prison, and how the case was being reopened. The case had caused a nationwide sensation, an extremely popular television show “The Fugitive,” was loosely based on it a couple years later.

Uncle Clyde spoke up gruffly and said, It’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money, everyone knows they got the right guy when they locked up that adulterer five years ago.

They splashed it all over the papers, Aunt Johnnie interrupted, every detail of their lives, of the murder, all over the country. I thought they made it that much more frightening with all their speculation about a mysterious, bushy-haired intruder still being on the loose she said, people around here were pretty scared, I remember. I felt terribly sad for Doctor Sam, she continued, knowing him and all, not believing for one minute he did it or was even capable of doing it, in spite of his philandering. And still wondering what really happened that night. The really sad thing was the more they blew him up, tried to make him into a monster, the more ordinary and human he seemed to me, much more so than before. And his little boy, the poor child, it goes without saying, to be deprived of both his mother and father. It’s beyond belief. It makes all the difference when something so terrible happens to someone you know. I, for one, hope he gets out this time, she finished.

It was silent for a while after that, until I heard Mr. Barnes clear his throat and say, It’s a helluva thing. I love a good murder mystery, read ‘em all the time, but I’ll be damned if they don’t wrap everything up in a neat little bow in those, and life’s just not like that. Take this Shepard case, I would give anything to have been a fly on the wall that night, to have seen what really happened and be done with it, but we’ll probably never know, especially once the lawyers become involved. And a family has been destroyed because of it. The same with that case back home. No one knows the why or wherefore as to what happened, though there are all kinds of speculation going on. It’ll be enough if they can just find the person responsible, much less trying to understand it. No one in the city will feel their children are safe until they do. You could drive yourself crazy if you dwell on it too long.

I was fascinated listening to this. I identified completely with what Mr. Barnes said, I felt the same way. It seemed the grownups were just as perplexed as I was. It was an awful thing, murder. Who could do such things and why? Why couldn’t they get to the bottom of it? I hoped they did soon, and quickly.

Installment #7 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir/ by Tom Evans

The next day we were off to our new school, where we would remain for the next seven years. It would become a haven for us, with the hours spent there being the happiest of our young lives. The bus ride was much longer, as we were among the first to be picked up and the last to get off, but that was fine, as it gave us a chance to get a good seat and settle in. There were kids from several different schools, a Catholic girl’s high school and a Catholic school for disabled children, with everyone segregated into their own group. I’d never seen retarded (that’s what they were known as back then) kids before, and found myself staring at them, poking Rory to see if he had noticed them, fascinated and repelled at the same time. One, named Bobby, was a big kid, impossible to tell what age, who sat scrunched against the bus window, his lips plastered against it licking it (in the winter his tongue once froze to it and boy did he set out a howl), moaning unintelligibly over and again, hisk adair, hisk adair. There was a manic blind boy named Billy, who, when he got excited would go into a fit, frustrated at not being able to express himself, gesticulating wildly until it finally subsided. Another, a girl named Candace, was seemingly normal mentally, but very physically disabled, with stunted growth, hunchbacked, missing fingers, and simian features. She was extremely well-adjusted, though, and took it upon herself to mother the others whether they wanted her to or not. I would find out later she was the sister of George, our paper boy, and lived just a couple streets away. Perfectly normal, he was very protective of her and, as a result, exceedingly mature for his age.

When we arrived we were told to wait for Mr. Hellman, who would take us to our class. In a few moments he came and escorted us to a classroom next to the kitchen that opened out to the gym. I was confused because this wasn’t Mrs. Wyatt’s class, where we were told we would be. I didn’t question it, being my first day and all, and when I saw it was Mrs. Bell’s class I didn’t mind a bit. She immediately came over to the door smiling and said, Thank you, Mr. Hellman, I’ll take it from here. Mr. Hellman gripped each of our shoulders firmly and said, You’re in good hands, boys, don’t disappoint me, and departed. It turned out it had been decided to put us in second grade, with (unbeknownst to us) the Barnes’ approval, because of our age (we would now be at the young end of our class), our test scores, and the fact (which we didn’t find out until much later) that Mrs. Bell had put in a special request for us, promising to work especially haard with us to make sure we didn’t fall behind, which she didn’t think we would anyway.

Mrs. Bell quietly said good morning to us and told us to take seats at the nearest empty desks. I found one at the beginning of the second row, Rory in the back, and put my things in it, holding up my lunch for Mrs. Bell to see.

Mrs. Bell said, Class, I want you to meet Wesley and Rory, twins who are new to our school, please welcome them on their first day. Hello Wesley, hello Rory, the whole class said perfunctorily but in unison. Very good, said Mrs. Bell, now Tom, could you show Wesley and Rory where to put their lunches? A tow- headed rail-thin boy came up to me and stuck his arm out, ushering me toward the back, where Rory joined us, through a door into the kitchen and up to a gleaming chrome refrigerator. That’s where we put our lunches first thing when we get here in the morning, he said.

As I settled in at my desk and surveyed the classroom I knew I was definitely not in the suburbs anymore. There everyone looked pretty much the same, here most of the kids were from the city and obviously not as well off as we were, many of them wearing clothes that looked like hand-me-downs- ill-fitting, frayed, and literally washed out. Each was peculiar in their own way, but that didn’t matter one bit, I somehow felt comfortable already, much more so than I ever had at the other school.

That being said, there were (it can’t be put otherwise) some strange ones: a boy named David with green teeth; another, Judy, was overweight and looked tough, but had a shy, sweet smile; Caroline looked like Brumhilda and smelled like she came from Dogpatch USA; then Paul Zuck, his father a pastor at one of the member churches, a tall nervous math whiz who got constant nosebleeds; there were also several kids who were obviously slow, with learning disabilities and speech impediments. I know it sounds cruel but that’s the way it was, and some of them were mocked, ostracized, or just ignored, yet somehow were still part of the group. We were only in second grade remember, and most of us remained together for the next seven years, so they were (had to be) accepted, and Mr. Hellman wouldn’t have it any other way.

Most gravitated to their own group of friends, except for David and Caroline, who never seemed to fit in, had it the worst, though each never backed down, and often gave as good as they got, which they had to do to survive. Looking back on it now, I shudder and am ashamed to think how it must have been for them, and how we all contributed to their misery. The only consolation I got was realizing deep down that it would have been much worse for them at our previous school; in fact, I can’t even imagine anyone like them being there. It was an early lesson in survival of the fittest: the kids who were attractive or had a special talent such as athletics or music or just were intelligent had it the best; then there was the majority group of the “normal” kids, none standing out in any particular way (there was even a pecking order in this group), and lastly, David and Caroline on the bottom rung.

I was never to see or experience anything quite like it again. Each had his own story (ours, of course, was being twins and being from the suburbs, though we never told anyone about being adopted).

There was Paul (Barr), the fastest runner in our class, double-jointed, the best looking (according to the girls), the best athlete, but also the biggest baby. His father, a Lutheran minister at one of the member churches, was the school’s pastor, which gave him the lion’s share of officiating at the Wednesday morning services, as well as at other school functions. They had a passel of kids (nine altogether) and Paul, the oldest, wore threadbare clothing and was always grimy, but nobody seemed to mind because he was still handsome and charismatic, with pearly white teeth, a great smile, and sparkling blue eyes.

Dorothea (Dodie) Brown, was a big blonde girl, who was a real tomboy. She was bigger, faster, and stronger than most of the boys, and could outplay the majority of us in any sport. She seemed puzzled that many of the boys shied away from her, unaware that she intimidated them. She didn’t like being the only girl playing with the boys so mostly played with the other girls, unless someone challenged her. She came from a large German family, her father was a florist and refereed our basketball games, and as such, as well as being a former boxer, his word was law.

Penultimately there was Richard Appel, who went to the same church as Mr. Hellman, who called him Dick, though no one else did. He was the biggest, strongest, and brightest kid in the class, not easy to warm up to as he knew he was superior, and had to live up to his brother Hank, who had been a big deal before him.

Lastly among the relevant kids there was Jimmy Wornick, the class cut-up, a boy already plagued by the skin problems of a teenagers; it was he who doled out class nicknames such as Smelligan Nelligan and Nork of Knowledge, made weird noises (arm farts, catcalls, and such), provided running commentary during any disputes, and, though not big on sports, was a preternaturally fast runner.

There were others in the class (Ruth, John, Artie, Mike, Linda, Scott, and Wendy are the only ones I can remember), but they mostly played supporting roles, and will only be mentioned as their part arises.

Every few years or so a new kid would appear (one was George, our first black student, and the first black kid I had ever met), but the new ones didn’t tend to stay, for one reason or another, usually leaving after a couple of years, and so our core group remained the same, except for Tom Rollins and his brother Ed, who moved to Texas for a couple of years, but in the end came back to stay.

The classes were small and, since there was little turnover from year to year, meant that the same core of children were together for our entire elementary school years. This continuity was just what we needed after the frequent displacements in our early life. I relished the role ritual played in the little school and quickly felt a part of it all, beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer each morning; the Wednesday morning church service held in the gym, led by a different pastor from the member churches each week; the Friday morning gym assemblies; the annual Christmas pageant and the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, when we exchanged presents with a student whose name we had drawn (we also did this for Valentine’s Day) , and the school cook made her delicious goulash; talent shows, occasional musicals, fall paper drives; the outdoor recesses in good weather and sometimes bad, when we played kickball with a passion later reserved for baseball and basketball; rough and tumble (our form of rugby) in the winter when we would come in freezing and full of snow to dry off by the furnace in the boiler room; the Lutheran Field Days near the end of the school year when the weather was fine.

In hindsight, when I went on to public school I realized most of these kids would have been cut to ribbons there, which made me all the more glad we had had those innocent years together.

—– o —–

At home things had settled in, too, now that we were finally established at a school, although Mr. Barnes was away on his weekly business trips, which was troublesome to both Rory and me. Every now and then, just when things seemed to be going smoothly, we would hit a little bump in the road, and Mrs. Barnes let us have it. Certainly we did as much as we could to avoid the lash whenever possible, but it grew more difficult as time went on. I’m pretty certain we didn’t get any worse, it just seemed that Mrs. Barnes was always on the warpath, constantly looking to catch us at something, anything. Most times we weren’t even aware we had done anything wrong, at least nothing that we worried she would find out about, so we were usually caught unaware when she sprung it on us and thus couldn’t defend ourselves.

One such incident involved Mrs. Wilcox, a neighbor who lived up the street. She had several children around our age, and one day we were all playing when I asked the youngest girl if her mother had cancer. I didn’t even know what the word meant, didn’t even know where I’d heard it, hardly knew Mrs. Wilcox at all, but had heard it somewhere, and it had stuck in my mind. Ever inquisitive, when I suddenly remembered it I asked her, mostly to see if she knew what it was. She immediately burst out crying and ran into her house, and I didn’t know why.

I thought no more about the incident until Mrs. Barnes called us in from play late one afternoon. I knew from the tone of her voice she was angry and wondered why. I soon found out. Which one of you told the little Wilcox girl her mother had cancer, she demanded. Rory and I stood there in the kitchen and when I looked at him I could tell he was thinking the same thing as I: what should we do? Should we lie and pretend we knew nothing about it? I knew Rory wouldn’t tell on me, so it was up to me to own up to it but I just couldn’t, besides I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong except make the little girl cry. That must be it, I realized, I’d made her cry, but I still said nothing and Rory didn’t either, we just stood there mute in the middle of the kitchen. I tried to gather my thoughts and realized the reason I was confused was because it hadn’t happened quite that way.

Thinking it might mitigate things a little I finally spoke, pointing out that I hadn’t told the Wilcox girl her mother had cancer, I’d asked her if she did. Mrs. Barnes didn’t say anything for a moment then she exploded, pulling us both by the ear upstairs to the bathroom, hardly able to contain herself. Once we reached the bathroom she told Rory to stand there then she grabbed me by my tee shirt and began pummeling me in earnest, shouting Don’t you raise your hand to me, I’ll teach you ingrates how to behave, by god, if it’s the last thing I do. Embarrassing me like that! How dare you?

She kept at it for a while and then crammed a bar of soap into my mouth, then did the same to Rory (minus the pummeling), telling him he was getting the same punishment because he hadn’t told her who was responsible. I gagged on the soap, which burned my tongue with its awful taste, as a thick lather developed that I was desperately trying not to swallow. Then she forced her hand into my mouth and raked the roof of it with her fingernails, all the time holding me tightly to her. The lather from the soap foamed up until it was coming out of my mouth, even through my nose, and I was gagging, yet still she was cuffing me in the head with her other hand and shouting, I’ll teach you, you little bastard. Her face was so red I hardly recognized her, then she finally stopped and left the bathroom for a moment. Shreds of skin were hanging off the roof of my mouth, my tongue was burning, and the taste was awful, so overpowering I got the dry heaves, but even then Mrs. Barnes wasn’t quite finished, not by a long shot.

When she returned she was carrying a box of salt and a tea kettle. She poured some of the salt into her hand and told me to open my mouth, and when I did she sifted it into my mouth, which both itched and burned, and then made me drink from a glass of some boiling water from the tea kettle, which I immediately spit out it was so hot, tearing myself away from her so I could spit it in the sink. The hot salt water had initially cauterized my mouth which actually soothed the pain, which I’m certain wasn’t her intent. Finally, she pushed us both out of the bathroom and sent us to bed.

My mouth still had the taste of soap in it, and along with the pain I was parched from the salt water, but the worst thing was the blister on my tongue and the shreds of skin hanging down from the roof of my mouth, which was both excruciating and nauseating. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t have dinner; I wasn’t hungry nor would I be able to put much of anything in my mouth for several days. I felt bad for Rory about not having dinner but was thankful he’d only had the bar of soap treatment and been spared the rest.

A few days later, Mrs. Barnes asked me nice as you please if I had learned anything from that day; I said yes, but when she asked what I I really didn’t know what to say, so I replied in the most obvious way, Not to ask if someone had cancer? She said that’s partly right, but mostly you have to learn to watch what you say and whom you say it to. Little Kathy was devastated when you asked her that, she didn’t know her mother had cancer or even what it was, and then to find out from you, a stranger, you just can’t do things like that. Think before you speak, and, when in doubt, don’t say anything. Children should be seen and not heard.

Of course, I felt even worse when Mrs. Wilcox died not a month later, though, unbelievably, Mrs. Barnes didn’t throw it in my face. I avoided going anywhere near their house after that and they moved away shortly afterward. And I still didn’t know what cancer was, just that it killed you.

—–o—–

One day after school Mrs. Barnes showed us a colorized picture of Mr. Barnes taken when he was in the Air Force during World War II. While I looked at it, she began to reminisce, as was her wont, about those bygone days (I realized later this was a sign she had begun drinking early), how handsome Mr. Barnes looked with his Don Ameche mustache, which he had shaved off immediately upon his discharge from the service and never grew again, and how brave in his leather flight jacket and pilot’s cap with the gold wings!

They had met in Cleveland during the Depression, when Mr. Barnes had supported both his family and hers during those stark days by driving a bakery truck during the day, and when he was finished with his deliveries, working in the bakery until midnight. We grew to dread it when she did this reminiscing, as she made us sit close to her despite our protests that we had homework to do or that we wanted to go outside and play, but she quickly nipped that in the bud, hissing that we’d do what we were told and like it, by god, or she’d know the reason for it. She talked and acted funny, too, as though we weren’t there, although we knew she would notice the minute we moved a hair. This was in contrast to the way most days would be, when she pretty much ignored us when we got home from school which for some reason began shortly after we entered Martin Luther School.

She had been a bright, talented student in high school, she would continue, skipping two grades and graduating when she was just sixteen. Her ambition was to become an actress, and she had actually won a drama scholarship to a top school for that purpose, but her family still couldn’t afford it. So she worked menial jobs, just enough to have spending money, then met Mr. Barnes, and before she knew it, was married. Soon after, the war came. She got a job at an airplane factory near Niagara Falls when Mr. Barnes went into the Air Force, and they settled down near Buffalo after he got his discharge three years later.

Time slipped by, as did all thoughts of an acting career, which seemed such a frivolous thing, what with all they had been through during the war years, and she’d had no regrets. Lately, though, it seemed she had nothing but regrets, she thought about it constantly, how she had wanted so badly to go to college and study acting, it seemed like a lifetime ago, and hadn’t Mr. Barnes promised her she could do it once the war was over? But then they began planning for a family, tried for several years to have children, and when they found out they couldn’t, would never be able to have children, it had been devastating for her.  By the time we arrived they slept in separate beds. We would hear these things incrementally on a nightly basis, sometimes more sometimes less, depending on how much she drank.

—–o—–

We went out to eat a lot for special occasions, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, which was her time to shine, and she usually made the most of it. Although we enjoyed this very much, the ambience of those fifties restaurants, trying all the different dishes (sweetbreads and frog legs being my particular favorites), the hot bread and relish trays, these dinners could be interminable, again depending on how much she drank. Two martinis before dinner, just wave the (vermouth) bottle over it she would say, another with dinner, and then an after dinner aperitif (Drambouie or Irish Mist) with dessert, and finally brandy with her coffee. Mr. Barnes didn’t try to keep up with her, nursing his Manhattan on the rocks through dinner, then joining her for the after dinner drinks and coffee. Naturally we would get fidgety eventually, being mere spectators at that point, having finished our dinner and dessert, and Mrs. Barnes, who had been smiling blissfully throughout dinner, would suddenly kick us under the table, or, if Mr. Barnes went to the men’s room, whisper in a harsh stage voice, Don’t you two ruin this for me or wait until I get you home! We didn’t worry, however, because we knew that by the time we got home she would barely be able to get upstairs on her own power, and the times she couldn’t Mr. Barnes wouldn’t even bother but pour her (his phrase) on the living room couch.

At home, if she ran out of gin before the week was out (which was rare, the liquor cabinet being usually well-stocked), Mr. Barnes being away, she made do with straight vermouth, from a Gallo gallon jug. She never drank in front of us, but we could smell it on her, hear it in her voice, and see it in her blotchy face. We later found out she had drinks stashed in hiding places throughout the house.

—–o—–

The longer these nightly sessions lasted the more likely the subject would eventually come around to us. We certainly weren’t normal children by any means, but I’m also pretty certain we weren’t as bad as she portrayed us, little cretins who didn’t know what the word love meant, both smart as a whip but crude as could be, soiling our underwear on a regular basis (she would hang them up on the chalkboard in the kitchen for everyone to see, keeping track of it on a weekly basis, drawing two circles on the chalkboard, put our names under them, and put various numbers of dots inside, indicating who had soiled theirs the worst), couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak properly, showed little or no emotion, didn’t want to be held, had horrible table manners, and blurted out whatever we felt like. We weren’t even her own flesh and blood for God’s sake- no wonder. No one knew what she had to put up with, and no one would ever know, because anything that occurred in the house stayed there. Her good name was at stake, and two ungrateful little strangers would not shame her- ever.

She continued to reiterate how much she had wanted to adopt us when no one else had, but no matter how many times she said it, it just didn’t ring true. Why did she treat us the way she did then? She even began to tell us things about our real parents and how we came to be given up for adoption. Strangely, I felt nothing when she told me these things because I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t believe for a moment that we had been found at a year and a half old in an attic crawl space, battered and starving, bruises and sores all over our bodies, so that the County had had to step in and take us away from my parents, I just couldn’t. Instead I decided she was telling me this so I would be grateful we had been adopted by them, which I already was anyway, I had no other choice. We no longer trusted her, knowing she could turn on us at any time, sure that she would leave the room on these nights thinking she had won us over, but what we really felt was anger, frustration, and helplessness, wondering what we had done to make her hate us so.

—–o—–

The fact that I loved school made the days fly by. I rarely looked back then on those dark earlier days, things were sailing along pretty smoothly, except for those aforementioned bumps in the road at home, though I never thought about them at school, and Mr. Barnes was home on the weekends, so things were better then. I can’t say I liked the learning part of school all that much, such as it was, I found it boring. The part I enjoyed the most was seeing how the other half lived, so to speak, in a world vastly different from ours, which was so isolated and circumscribed, while theirs, as far as I could tell, was much freer, with sleepovers, movie going, neither of which we were ever allowed to do. It was strange, because I loved books, couldn’t get enough from the library, read voraciously, it was just school books I abhorred. I hated all the different subjects except reading, doing just enough to ensure I could be a part of the daily routine, excluding recess, when I gave it all I had on the playground and which ended all too soon.

And I continued to shoot myself in the foot too many times for my own good. In fourth grade we had the strictest teacher in the school, Mrs. Egbert (“Eggy,” as former and more rash current students called her), short and stout; when she got angry she went white in the face instead of red, her eyes got squinty, her voice terse and strained, and the object of her wrath knew they had better immediately cease and desist or it was straight to the storeroom for them. As there was already only a narrow margin for error, Mrs. Egbert had the unofficial record for storeroom banishments, in addition to her already being a martinet who meted out her own severe punishments in the form of a slap of the ruler, a strident dressing down in front of the entire class, detention, loss of privileges such as recess, or cleaning her chalkboards after she made you write interminably long sentences of her prescribing over and over again until the fresh piece of chalk was a nub in your hand. With the odds of being punished as high as they were it was no surprise that I took my first slow walk to the storeroom that year.

Ironically it happened on a day Mrs. Egbert was out sick and Mr. Hellman’s wife was substituting for her. For some unknown reason (I’ve never been a joiner) I joined in on an ink war one kid started and, giving it my all as I did with most things, I inadvertently splashed some on Mrs. Hellman in the process. There was a sudden hush in the classroom as we watched Mrs. Hellman inspect the damage to her clothes. I was instantly mortified by what I had done, and knew I was in big trouble. Mrs. Hellman remained quite calm about it all, I have to say, merely asking in a quiet voice that someone get her a wet paper towel from the lavatory. I immediately jumped up and did so, being closest to it and wanting to atone for my lapse in judgement. When she was finished carefully dabbing out what ink she could (which was not very much and created a wide Rorschach blot that foretold my doom) she spoke to us, saying in a calm voice, I’m very disappointed with all of you that this happened, I hope that nothing like this will ever occur again, I’ll say no more about it. That was it, no reprisals, but that somehow made me feel even worse. I couldn’t be getting away with it could I? Maybe she hadn’t seen who splashed the ink on her, maybe no one had. I couldn’t believe it was true and of course it wasn’t. After a night of tossing and turning, constant questions to Rory if anyone knew I had done it or if anyone would find out, apparently someone told Mrs. Egbert the next day and I was summoned to Mr. Hellman’s office immediately. I went with mixed feelings, on the one hand knowing I deserved to be punished and at the same time indignant I had been ratted out and was being punished after the fact, and, worst of all, figuring Mrs. Barnes would probably find out.

First I had to go to the principal’s office, which was a surprise as I hadn’t known that was part of the process and annoying because I just wanted to get it over with. I wondered if I had to do this because it was Mr. Hellman’s wife who was involved, and, if so, if it would be worse for me.

Mr. Hellman sat back in his chair smoking a cigarette, saying, I’ll be right with you Wes. I couldn’t believe he called me Wes, something I’d never been called before. Whether it was good or bad I didn’t know but what I did know was it was strange. First timer, eh? My wife and I disagree on the principle of corporal punishment but it wasn’t from her that I found out about what you had done, in fact she begged me not to punish you. Be that as it may, you know I have to punish you, so let’s get on with it, he said, stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray with a serious grimace and frown on his face, the hair on his head and in his nose bristling.

I hoped we wouldn’t run into anyone in the hallway as he marched me down, gripping my shoulder firmly with his strong trembling hands. No one saw me except the janitor, Mr. Bunn, a strange old German with wavy silver hair and a mouth full of gold teeth, who smiled and with a gleam in his eye shook his finger at me. Mr. Hellman didn’t acknowledge his presence and he beat a hasty retreat, leaving Mr. Hellman and I alone in the storeroom.

It was damp and drafty in the cement room, which was dominated by a gigantic boiler, and redolent with sour mop, cigarette, and cleaning solution smells. Mr. Hellman stopped me in the center of the room and said, Here’s how it goes. You will take your pants down and I will give you three whacks with my belt. Crying is optional, though you’ll feel better if you don’t. Trust me on that. What happens in this room stays in this room, even your parents won’t be informed of what happened today. This will be the end of it, we’ll move on from there, and hopefully it won’t happen again. Are you ready? I nodded my head and he had me lean over a nearby box and it was over before I knew it. Three thwacks that definitely stung but nothing like other punishments I’d received before, it was more the embarrassment if anything. He was actually kind afterwards. Looking me in the eye with approval, he ushered me out and sent me back to class. When I looked back he had his finger to his lips and I nodded slightly.

When I returned to class I could tell everyone knew I’d gotten the store room but that no longer bothered me. I had weathered the ordeal and felt stronger for it. Mrs. Egbert acknowledged me with her gimlet eyes as I sat down gingerly in my chair, and all was back to normal. Some of the guys (especially Rory) clamored around me at recess, some wanting to know what happened and how it was, others who were iniates already comparing notes, but I didn’t give them much, preferring to keep the code of silence Mr. Hellman had invoked. I sensed the slightest jealousy on the part of those who hadn’t gotten it yet, an eagerness to join the fraternity of the initiated and know what I now knew. What made it even better was the fact that supposedly Mrs. Barnes would never know, though I couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical about that from past experience. She’d find out somehow.

—–o—–

Like every child in the early sixties (or at any time for that matter), I lived for the summer, which in suburbia meant untrammeled warm days, baseball, swimming, backyard barbecues, ice cream, pop, vacations in the family car, neighborhood games of tag, pies, hide and seek, television re-runs (most of which I was seeing for the first time), camp, and, of course, no school. For me, it also meant afternoons spent reading the books I wanted to read at the backyard picnic table, late-night baseball games on the west coast that came in clearly on the transistor radio hidden under my pillow, even going to Cleveland once or twice to see the Indians play. In fact, almost anything seemed possible as I lay in my bed on a hot summer evening with a little bit of light still left in the sky, listening to the sound of a convertible cruising down our street with the top down and the radio blasting “I Get Around”, dogs barking, screen doors slamming, disembodied voices on porches, and the smell of newly mown grass, flowers, and forecasted rain wafting through my bedroom window.

I trembled with anticipation as I imagined it all so vividly: I was driving that red convertible cranking the Beach Boys, it was my arm around the girl wearing the white sweater. I ached as the music receded into the distance and I realized how far into the future this all seemed. Who knew what was in the stars, what could happen in the meantime?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    As we walked home on that first day of summer and last day of school, I thought how it also meant that when Mr. Barnes got home that evening he would be home for the summer, too, just like us, and could start coming to our Little League games, one of which was that very night. We suddenly decided to hurry home and wait for Mr. Barnes’ arrival at the top of the street, and set off running. We reached our corner and headed down our street, but as I neared the house, saw a car parked in the driveway with Mrs. Barnes sitting in the front seat, which tempered my enthusiasm a bit because it could only mean she had been out with her friend Mrs.Tabor, and that never ended well.

As we approached the car gingerly on the passenger side, Mrs. Barnes didn’t notice us right away but when she finally did she seemed to be taken aback, her face flushed, though she recovered quickly, grinned and said, Hello boys, aren’t you home a little early? She turned to Mrs. Tabor and said, Jeanie, here’s Wesley and Rory. We said hello, although we couldn’t see inside the car very well, then I asked Mrs. Barnes if we could wait for Mr. Barnes at the top of the street after we washed up and changed our clothes. Of course, she said, be my guest, then waved us away and turned back to her friend.

We heard Mrs. Barnes come in the house as we were changing our clothes, but didn’t see her on our way out the door, so I yelled out, I’m going and Rory said, Me too. We went up the street to wait for Mr. Barnes at our bus stop, and when we didn’t see him right away, grew impatient and began to walk down to the next block. Halfway there I spotted his big blue Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight as it was about to turn the corner by the Bell Telephone Company building. Almost at the same time Mr. Barnes saw us and tapped on the horn, took the chronic cigar out of his mouth, flashed us a big grin, then waved in his breezy way. The cream convertible top was down and the radio was playing. He had the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, the left arm tanned from being out the window all those hours on the road, the right arm pale and seemingly thinner. He pulled up alongside us, turned down the radio to offer us a ride, but we ran ahead, shouting behind us, We’ll race you home!

When we all three got there, Mrs. Barnes wasn’t in the kitchen as she normally would be, fixing Mr. Barnes a welcome-home dinner. Mr. Barnes called upstairs, and when he got no answer, went up. As he did so, I reminded him about our Little League game, and Mr. Barnes replied, Don’t worry, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I just want to see what’s cooking. Why don’t you fellas go down to the basement and put your uniforms on?

Donning my uniform was a ritual I loved, a very precise sequence of movements I never altered, for fear of being jinxed. I immediately got the most unpleasant part out of the way, gingerly putting on my athletic supporter and cup  after shaking a liberal amount of talcum powder inside, avoiding looking at Rory the whole time. Next I pulled on my long-sleeved baseball undershirt, the ones where only the sleeves were colored, in this case royal blue, which I wore until the weather got its hottest because I loved to sweat when I was on the mound. After that I put on my sanitary hose, smoothing them over my calves much like a woman would stockings, and over those, my uniform’s stirrups, which were the same color as my shirt sleeves. Then it was my uniform pants, threading the wide black or brown belt through the loops on them and I was almost finished, with just my neatly creased uniform top with the elephant logo (my team was the Athletics) over my heart, left to put on. I buttoned each button carefully, top to bottom, then tucked it into my pants and, finally, cinched my belt, making sure the silver or gold buckle was square, and centered against the outer edge of my zipper flap.

Just as I finished and was reaching for my glove, spikes, and hat, I heard Mr. Barnes say in a loud angry voice, BULLSHIT. I looked at Rory and saw that he’d heard it too. It shocked me because I wasn’t used to hearing Mr. Barnes swear or sound that angry. I couldn’t make out what Mrs. Barnes was saying, though I could hear her voice, but Mr. Barnes replied to whatever it was by saying, Oh Sal, go on, don’t try to kid me. You’re sloshed. Every time you and Jean get together you come home this way. A fine welcome home this is. Ah nuts, he finished, we’ll go out to eat.

We hung back until we heard Mr. Barnes downstairs, then quickly grabbed the rest of our gear, then rushed up the basement steps to meet him in the back hall. When we got there, Mr. Barnes didn’t say much, except, Let’s get a burger, would you like that? I think we have time. We were all mutually eager to get away, and, except for my ambivalence at being so happy under the circumstances, made a convivial crew. I loved baseball, and had been waiting all season for Mr. Barnes to come to a game to show him how much I had improved since he had last seen me, and wasn’t going to let anything spoil it.

As usual I was nervous before the game so not very hungry, although I hoped we might go to Carol’s, a new hamburger place that had just opened up and was all the rage, it being the first fast-food joint in Wilsonville, and I wanted to say I’d been there. It was just up the street from our Little League field and sure enough Mr. Barnes pulled into the brand new parking lot and ordered us burgers, fries, and shakes, which we ate (devoured) in the car, as we were all suddenly ravenous.

If anything was bothering Mr. Barnes he didn’t show it, and that made me feel much better. As if to prove it, I hit a bases-loaded triple in the game, and pitched our team to victory, winning 13-2 and striking out 10, getting my league-leading 10th victory; Rory, my catcher, chipped in with a home run, adding to his league-best total of six.

As we drove to the custard stand afterwards I could tell Mr. Barnes was proud of us, and not a little surprised to find out we were the stars of the team. When we got there, the whole team was gathered around in the parking lot, milling around excitedly, and eager to get in line for a custard, waiting for the coach (who was buying) to arrive. When he did, Mr. Barnes insisted on paying for everyone, which made me proud and a little embarrassed at the same time. We got in line with the rest of our teammates while Mr. Barnes talked to Coach Kunz.

Although happy and flushed with victory, my mind was elsewhere, thinking about what had transpired earlier that afternoon and evening, wondering if it was going to be like that the whole summer, so much so that when a teammate suggested I smell my ice cream I did and he smashed it in my face. I was mad at first as he was the most obnoxious kid on the team and everyone had noticed, but I wasn’t going to let it spoil my accomplishments, and soon forgot all about it as I became mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and smells of the magical summer evening. To top it off he had the nerve to ask us soon after for a ride home (which was way out of the way) later. Mr. Barnes was annoyed but he said yes, although I could tell when he dropped him off he hoped he wouldn’t see him again any time soon.

Later that evening, we watched “The Flintstones,” a new television program whose popularity was sweeping the country, in the living room while Mrs. Barnes, who by this time had managed to rally and come downstairs, watched her television by herself in the den, which was often the case anyway, as she and Mr. Barnes didn’t have the same taste in television programs, but even more so after they had an argument. Suddenly the program was interrupted by a news bulletin: a little boy was missing in the city, and there was a search underway to find him. I don’t remember anyone’s reaction to it, but I found myself not only scared but also fascinated by it.

The glow I’d felt at our Little League exploits dissipated rapidly. I’m sure Rory and I discussed it that night because I remember him being unmoved and uninterested, which confounded me, as heretofore we’d always been in agreement about most things. I lay awake thinking about it, mostly keeping my thoughts to myself, which was a new experience as prior to this Rory and I had shared most everything. Evan then I realized it was a momentous event, one that would have a profound impact on my life from that time forward.

Installment #6 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

Once I became adjusted to the routine of school, I began to enjoy it, even looked forward to it each day, and I believed it was the same with Rory, though of course he never said. You did what you were told, sat in your assigned seat, ate, played, and went home at prescribed times. After the chaos of my early life, this was just what I needed, a regular schedule to fill my days. All in all, I would have to say things were progressing smoothly for me.

It’s not like there weren’t a few bumps in the road, there were, but even those were manageable, at least at first. I continued to have trouble reading, which was strange, seeing I’d taken to it so readily before. I don’t know, the letters seemed to get jumbled, sometimes whole words looked different to me than they were on the page when I read aloud. For instance, one day I saw the word “neighbor” in the Dick and Jane Reader, and, seeing it was probably the longest word we’d yet encountered and therefore the most difficult, kept pronouncing it to myself until I had it down. I was pretty confident so that one day when we got to it in class and Mrs. Cameron paused to ask if anybody knew what the word was and what it meant, nobody responded. I eagerly shot my hand up and when Mrs. Cameron acknowledged me proudly blurted out, nightbore.

I could tell immediately I had it wrong by the look on Mrs. Cameron’s face. I was shocked as I was so certain I was right, and felt like I was sitting naked at my desk with nowhere to hide. My face grew red hot when Mrs. Cameron said, Nice try Wesley, but the word is neighbor, and it means ‘someone who lives near you.’ Meanwhile I wanted to crawl into a hole. That’s what I got for trying to impress the teacher (as well as Fay), and I swore right then and there I’d never volunteer an answer again.

In spite of everything Mrs. Cameron somehow decided that I was bright enough, that I read very well, that the words I had tripped on were words she could tell I was not familiar with, and that I only needed to read a little slower so I would be ready when I came to them and could then sound them out. As for the speech problems I continued to experience, Mrs. Cameron thought they were minor, mainly with words containing the letter ‘r’, which she figured could be gradually corrected the more I read. She told Mrs. Barnes as much in a note she sent in response she had received from her wondering what kind of progress I was making.

It must have worked because after a while I no longer made mistakes, although I was somewhat proud of this, and was no longer as nervous when it was my turn to read, I kept my vow not to blurt out an answer for quite some time after.

—–o—–

I was nicely settled in at school, making headway with my reading and speech defects, and had Mrs. Cameron, and Fay as advocates. But, as in the past, if anything went well for any length of time, I began waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rory and I both had tales to tell about strange classmates we encountered. There was a girl in the cafeteria everyone called “the kissing girl.” She was our age but she wasn’t in either of our classes. I’d heard of but had never seen her, until I encountered her in the lunchroom one day, going from table to table and swooping down on a boy of her choosing, first wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, then planting one on his unsuspecting (and most likely virgin) cheek. The fact that she often did this with her mouth full repulsed me even more than the act of kissing. I always made sure I knew when she was in the vicinity, and watched her from afar, ready to bolt if she ever headed my way.

Then there was Mike Tedesci, a kid in Rory’s class, who was a real piece of work. He was a short and stocky kid, an inveterate nose picker using fingernails bitten to the quick, belligerent, and a bully, constantly in his classmate’s faces, pinching them, flicking boogers at them, and pulling chairs out from under them.

Naturally he sat right next to Rory so he couldn’t avoid him. It was rumored he was repeating first grade after having been suspended from school the year before. The entire year! Everyone wondered what he could have done to deserve that and generally stayed away from him as much as possible.

Then one day out on the playground, Rory related, Mike stabbed a girl in class with his pencil, then blamed it on him, and until things were sorted out, he couldn’t go back to school. Beside the outrage he felt at being falsely accused (he had seen Mike do it), he was scared silly about what Mrs. Barnes would do when she found out. If she’d whipped him for not rolling up the toothpaste how would she react to this?

I was worried enough for the both of us. We’d have rather gone any place but home. Rory had a sealed note from his teacher in his pocket, though, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, probably informing them what had taken place, and he had to give it to them didn’t he? There was no way out of it.

You believe me that I didn’t do it, don’t you? Rory beseeched me, and I said of course I do, and I really did, there was not a bit of doubt in my mind, but how were we going to explain it to Mrs. Barnes?

Soon enough we arrived at our street, and walked as slowly as we could manage down it, trying not to think at all, dreading giving Mrs. Barnes the note but at the same time dying to know what was in it.

Arriving at home, we were relieved to find Mrs. Barnes wasn’t in the kitchen, and hurried through there as quickly and quietly as we could, acting as if nothing was up, saying a quick hello to Mrs. Barnes before we went up to our room. That seemed to have worked momentarily but just as we hit the stairs we heard Mrs. Barnes call out, Just a minute you two, what kind of a greeting is that? We froze, not knowing what to say or do next. I-I have to go to the bathroom, Rory managed to say, I’ll be right back. Wesley, you stay down here, Mrs. Barnes said, and Rory, you come down the minute you’re finished. I had an interesting phone call today from your principal I want to talk to both of you about. Yes ma’am, Rory called back weakly. Too late, we’d already been pre-empted.

I went downstairs and Mrs. Barnes ordered me into the kitchen. What do you know about this? she said. What? I said, I feigning ignorance, in addition employing Rory’s tactic of shrugging my shoulders but she was on to me. Don’t give me that malarkey, she said, you know very well what I’m talking about, and it’ll go better for your brother if you say something now, before he gets here. He didn’t do, it! I said, the other kid did, and he’s blaming Rory for it, Rory would never do anything like that.

We’ll see about that, Mrs. Barnes said. When Rory came into the kitchen, his eyes filled with dread, he handed Mrs. Barnes the note from his teacher. She read it, pursing her lips as she did so, then laid it on the kitchen table. Well, what have you to say for yourself, she asked him, I want your version of it before I decide what to do. Well, Rory began, gulping, There’s this kid in our class, Mike Tedesci, and he sits next to me, and today he went over to Cindy Eckert’s desk- she’s the kissing girl- and stabbed her in the shoulder with a pencil. I saw the whole thing, he concluded, and now he’s saying I did it, but I didn’t, and no one believes me. Wow, was that a mouthful for Rory; I was proud of him for getting it out.

The kissing girl? What kissing girl? Mrs. Barnes said, You expect me to believe that? And, supposing she does exist, what does she say about this? She’s not talking, Rory answered, she was down at the nurse’s office all afternoon.

Well, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it- for now, Mrs. Barnes said. I want you to go up to your room and think about what you’re going to say to your teacher and the principal, we have a meeting with them first thing tomorrow. It’s a real pain in the ass, I must say.

I felt for Rory and wished I could be up there with him. This would be the first time I had dinner without him though thankfully I sat in my normal place at the table, across from her, while Penny sat in hers, smirking the entire time. She spent most of the dinner railing about the incident and how she’d had to change her hair appointment in order to go to that meeting in the morning. I nodded whenever she finished but said nothing. She grilled me about Rory’s explanation, trying to trip me up, but since I’d been truthful all along, that didn’t bother me. I was more worried about secreting some dinner for Rory, managing to swipe a pork chop from the platter and wrap it in a wad of napkins when she wasn’t looking.

—–o—–

On the way to the meeting the next morning Mrs. Barnes shocked Rory (he related this to me later as I was made to take the bus that day) by saying that no matter the outcome she had already made up her mind to do what she should have done in the first place, send us to a private school. Further, she was convinced Rory was telling the truth and became his staunchest ally, making her feelings crystal clear and insisting they get to the bottom of it and be quick about it.

Meanwhile Rory was in limbo. While he could come to school he was required to sit in the detention room with any other miscreants who happened to be there, Mrs. Barnes first ensuring that the hooligan who had done this wouldn’t be in there with him. They were assured this was being taken care of, that they were gradually coming to the conclusion Mike Tedesci was guilty and wouldn’t be allowed on the school grounds. Then what are we here for? Mrs. Barnes demanded.

While a decision is in the process of being reached, the principal said in a well-modulated tone, it is the policy that all parties involved should have a cooling off period, usually only one day.

Don’t bother, Mrs. Barnes said, I’m not waiting for you people to muddle your way to a conclusion I know should have already been made, I’m getting my sons and pulling them out of here.

The principal tried to dissuade her, feeling it was unwise to do this in the middle of the school year, just when Rory and Wesley were getting established, that it was unfortunate all around that this incident had occurred, and wouldn’t she reconsider? Mrs. Barnes was adamant and wasn’t going to change her mind; she had wanted them to be in a private school in the first place but there hadn’t been time to accomplish that before the school year began.

In the meantime I had been sitting in class worrying about what was transpiring at the principal’s office, not paying attention to anything that had been said, when there was a knock on the classroom door. It was the truant officer, and when Mrs. Cameron had finished her brief conversation with her, I was called out of the classroom which, although I didn’t know it then, I would be seeing for the last time.

On the way home Mrs. Barnes told us not to worry (not that we were) we wouldn’t miss any school because as soon as they got home she would start looking for another school for us, a private school. All I could think about while she was talking was that I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Fay, but supposed it was probably better that way.

It was Mr. Barnes who had first suggested that they send us to the Lutheran school affiliated with their church, Martin Luther School. Mrs. Barnes had pooh-poohed it at the time, but the more she thought about it, it seemed like it might be the best possible solution, perhaps the only solution, as time was of the essence. Boy, won’t the neighbors love this, she said, as they happened to be one of the few Protestant families in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood where most of the children attended St. Peter and Paul, the Catholic school run by the church of the same name at the top of their street.

She got on the phone immediately, calling several people from the congregation whose children attended the school. They were all very enthusiastic, saying their children loved it, the class size was small and the teachers excellent. That was enough for her. She decided then and there this was the school for us. She didn’t even know if they had any openings or if they would accept us this late in the school year, but before the day was out she had scheduled an interview for the very next day.

In the car on the way to the interview I got the bright idea of asking Mrs. Barnes if I should pray to God to help me do well, thinking she would be pleased to hear this. She surprised me by replying without hesitation that the Lord helps those who help themselves. When she said that somehow a light went on in my head and I began to see things much more clearly. I knew it was up to me to get us into the school. I was used to interviews wasn’t I, I’d gone through enough of them. I was actually looking forward to it now.

We drove through a quiet middle class neighborhood in a suburb just outside the city and shortly after arrived at the school, a new one-story L-shaped brick building, with a crescent-shaped driveway in front for buses and a small parking lot on the other side of the building.

I liked it immediately upon going inside, including the smell of the foyer, a mixture of linoleum, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke. It was clean, had natural light, and was furnished with large chairs, ashtrays, and potted plants. Mrs. Barnes told us to sit down while she went to the office to notify them we had arrived. She soon returned accompanied by the school secretary and a silver-haired woman with a ready smile, who was introduced to us as the second grade teacher, Mrs. Bell. It was she who would be conducting the interview while Mrs. Barnes waited in the foyer.

This turned out to be a stroke of good fortune as she was also the music teacher and was always looking for new voices, so one of the first things she asked us to do was sing while she accompanied us on the piano. She led us into the nearby gym then up the steps onto the highly polished hardwood stage, where she sat down at the piano. We had no idea what to sing but as she began playing I found I recognized the tune and most of the words, I don’t know how, and began singing right along, Rory joining in: Jesus loves me this I know/for the Bible tells me so/little ones to him belong/they are weak, but He is strong/Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves/The Bible tells me so.

When we finished Mrs. Bell was ecstatic, grinning from ear to ear, not quite believing what she had just witnessed, even taking the next verse herself when we didn’t know any more words, belting it out solo in a strong contralto voice. Then she moved on to a more difficult hymn, but again both of us somehow knew it, and sang: I know that my Redeemer lives/what comfort this sweet sentence gives/ He lives, he lives, who once was dead/He lives my ever-living head.

It sounded even better that time, and, what’s more, after some initial nervousness, I found I enjoyed singing as much as anything I’d ever done and Rory seemed to also. Mrs. Bell must have concurred, for when she finished she applauded and called out, Very good, Wesley, Rory, bravo, very good indeed, get ready for some duets this year! I wasn’t sure I was quite up to that yet but it was a good feeling when she went to the door and called Mrs. Barnes in, shaking hands with her and asking, Did you know your boys have lovely voices, relating how well we had done- both with perfect pitch, Rory a natural alto (which was very rare) and Wesley a natural tenor, how easily we’d found our range, how beautifully our voices blended together.

Mrs. Bell took us around the corner and down the hall to the principal’s office for what would be the final hurdle, and to finish filling out the paper work. On the way she stepped into a classroom and beckoned the teacher out into the hall to introduce her to us. That was another thing I liked, this school was small enough to have only one teacher per grade so I was assured of being in the same class as Rory from then on.

This is Mrs. Wyatt, our first grade teacher, Mrs. Bell said. This is Wesley and Rory and their mother, Mrs. Barnes. It looks like you’ll have two more students tomorrow, but I’m sure there’s more than enough room. Mrs. Wyatt, petite and nervous, seemed nice, and welcomed us, saying that she was looking forward to having us in her class, which was an excellent one this year. We’ll see you tomorrow then, she said, and excused herself and went back inside.

Then it was time to meet the principal, Mr. Hellman, a short man with a brush cut and visible nose hair, but a looming presence nevertheless, who smelled of cigarettes and had a vice-like grip when we shook hands. Welcome to Martin Luther, Rory, Wesley, he said. Mrs. Bell tells me you passed the interview with flying colors. You must have a pretty good singing voices, he added, with a nod and wink toward Mrs. Bell. We then said goodbye to Mrs. Bell and the principal ushered us into his office to fill out the requisite paperwork, a mere formality, he assured us. Before he began filling out the paperwork on his desk Mrs. Barnes said, If you don’t mind, Mr. Hellman, I have one question for you. Certainly, Mrs. Barnes, said Mr. Hellman, fire away. I want to know how you handle disciplinary problems at your school, Mrs. Barnes asked. Mr. Hellman looked at us briefly, grimaced (ubiquitous we’d come to find) then smiled and replied, I’m glad you asked me that, Mrs. Barnes, it’s obviously a concern all new parents have. First off, let me assure you, you needn’t have any worries on that score. For the most part, and I emphasize for the most part, the children at our school have been very well brought up between home and church and behave in an exemplary manner, and there is rarely a need for discipline. Our teachers are very vigilant, and most problems are taken care of in the classroom. But, as I’m sure you know Mrs. Barnes, kids are kids, and when the occasion arises and further measures become necessary, we are very well prepared to handle it. He said the last part with relish, rubbing his hands briskly together and looking at us with a gleam in his eye and that same grimace on his face. You see, he said, we have a little tradition here we call “getting the storeroom,” which we have found to be very effective in these situations. When a student commits an offense serious enough to merit this (and I make the final decision on that, after consultation with the teacher, of course), the child is summoned to my office over the loud speaker. We then take a walk together to the storeroom, an anteroom to the boiler room where the custodian keeps his cleaning supplies. The routine is well known, so no discussion is needed, once you have been summoned the sentence has been passed, the offender drops his trousers and I give him three hard whacks on the rear end with a thick leather belt I wear expressly for that purpose. Not all parents approve, which is their prerogative, and they are free to remove their children from school at any time. This is a small school, as you have seen, and news travels pretty fast, often before the pain has subsided. But I’m sure it will never come to this with you, right boys? he said as he reached over and tousled our hair, in the process gripping our heads like melons. You seem like pretty good kids, certainly from a good family, am I right? I smelled the strong odor of tobacco on the principal’s hands and noticed how they trembled, and knew instinctively he was not someone to cross. I grinned sheepishly and said shyly, I guess so. Mrs. Barnes seemed very satisfied with his answer, nodding her head vigorously in approval to everything and saying, Where do we sign? You already have, Mr. Helman replied.

Before we left, Mr. Hellman took us on a tour of the school, first through some of the classrooms, then to the brand new gymnasium, which also served as a cafeteria and assembly hall, and the adjacent kitchen, and finally outside to the large playground consisting of two baseball fields and playground equipment, and plenty of wide open field bordered by maple and poplar trees in residential back yards. Everything seemed okay to me, except for that last part, which seemed a bit ominous to me, but then what did I know?

Lying in bed that night I tossed and turned for some time, thinking about our new school, but was already warming up to it. Rory said he liked it, which was a good sign. And what about the store room? We both agreed that would never happen to us if only because Mrs. Barnes had already warned us that if it did we shouldn’t even bother coming home. And what about the kids I wondered, I hadn’t really seen much of them. But that wouldn’t deter me I decided, after all we’d been through this should be a piece of cake. Before I had quite fallen asleep I felt overwhelmingly certain this school was going to be perfect for us and we would both love it there.

Installment #5 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

—–o—–

Not long after our baptism Mr. Barnes took us to his office on the city’s east side for the first time. He was a candy salesman (broker, he called it), representing many candy manufacturers along the east coast. There were several other small local companies that shared the building, though I never once in all the times I went there over the years heard or saw anybody else. His office wasn’t elaborate, just a desk, a phone, and his files in the middle of a spacious room on the first level. His real office was his car, which was always loaded with boxes of samples and brochures, as he spent most of his time on the road. Business trips he called them, and they’d come to play an important part in our lives, as you’ll see.

When we went outside the door of his office into the connecting warehouse for the first time, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Here was the real life Candy Land! The warehouse was huge, easily the length of a football field, cool and dark, stacked end to end, row upon row, six feet high with boxes on wooden pallets containing of all kinds of candy we had no idea even existed: cherry cordials, assorted chocolates, wafer-thin peanut brittle, pralines, hard candy, suckers in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, turtles, sponge candy, maple sugar candy, taffy, mints, fudge (chocolate, vanilla, and maple), ribbon candy, nonpareils, and novelties.

This is the good stuff, Mr. Barnes, ever the salesman said, as he watched us survey the warehouse in disbelief. You won’t see any of the commercial brands you’re used to, these candies were made by small candy makers in small quantities using only the finest ingredients. Mr. Barnes kept many local stores supplied with his merchandise, as well their counterparts throughout the east.

His biggest times of the year were Christmas and Easter (the boxes are stacked to the rafters then, he said, I kid you not), when area schools sold his candy for fund-raising. When it got close to the holidays people clamored for Mr. Barnes’s candy, it became a status symbol to serve it to guests, and you had to get it early or you were out of luck.

The rest of the year was spent calling on his regular customers, independent candy stores all over his sales territory, which stretched from Vermont to Virginia, making sure they were well-supplied with all his merchandise lines, showing them new products, and pursuing leads for new customers.

When you get older, Mr. Barnes said, I’ll show you the ropes. I’ll need you to help me around here at busy times, getting orders ready. It’s hard to get good help these days, and I can’t do it by myself anymore. Think you’d like that? All the candy you can eat.

We nodded our heads eagerly, taking it all in, struggling to comprehend this vast universe of candy, that this could be work, and that Mr. Barnes was in charge of it all. It all seemed too good to be true.

Mr. Barnes starting opening cartons, asking us what we wanted. I chose peanut brittle, Rory several kinds of suckers, and Mr. Barnes took a box of assorted chocolates for Mrs. Barnes and Penny. That about does it, he said, now how about some lunch?

We went back inside to the office, where Mr. Barnes checked the mail on his desk and made a couple of brief phone calls. Summertime was his off-season, when he could relax from all those weeks on the road, getting ready for the big push again in the fall. He spent mornings in the office and most afternoons played golf.

On most of these office visits he’d stop in at a bar directly across the street called Jim Captain’s to get a bite to eat, as he put it, and if we didn’t mind he’d appreciate it if we didn’t mention it to Mrs. Barnes, make this our little secret shall we?

We’d never been in such a place before, as far as I knew, when I was finally able to make out where we were, blinking furiously as I struggled to get my bearings after being out in the bright sunlight and entering the cool, dark interior. The minute we walked in, all heads turned to look at us, a row of mostly black men sitting on or standing by barstools in front of the immense burnished bar. Delicious aromas emanated from the kitchen, which was through a set of swinging doors opposite the entrance, if my nose was any guide.

The men at the bar, who seemed to know Mr. Barnes, smiled and nodded at him. One man who had a gold front tooth and snap-brim hat on looked at me and said, These your boys we’ve heard so much about, Mr. Barnes?

Why yes, Henry, Mr. Barnes replied, introducing us all around, this is Wesley, Rory. The men raised their glasses and saluted us, while we mostly looked at the ground, embarrassed at being the center of attention. Wesley and Rory, Henry said, now those are fine name, fine names, names you don’t hear that often, make them easy to remember.

The bartender stood in the center of the bar in front of the cash register, his broad back reflected in the bar-length mirror behind him, watching the proceedings and wiping his hands on a bar towel. Mr. Barnes went up to him, reached across the bar to shake hands, and said, Boys, this is the captain himself, Mr. Jim Captain, sole owner and proprietor of this fine eating and drinking emporium.

Well, I don’t know about the fine part or the emporium for that matter, Jack, but you are surely welcome to my humble abode boys, the large bluff man, who engulfed our hands with his, said. Glad to finally meet you both, I’ve certainly heard enough about you. I think I may eventually even be able to tell you apart. Turning to Mr. Barnes, he said, what’ll it be, Jack, the usual? Well, I don’t know what the usual is, Mr. Barnes said, winking, but I’ll have a Ballantine Ale to start out with, and we’ll have beef on weck, some french fries with gravy, and sodas for the boys. And get the fellas a round too.

We sat at a small table in front of the bar. So what do you think, boys, Mr. Barnes asked. Wait till you taste the food, he said, rubbing his hands together, best roast beef sandwiches in the city.

I looked at all the brightly labeled bottles lined up in a row on the shelf behind the bar, and the signs advertising pickled eggs and pigs knuckles, beer nuts, and drink specials. It was a cozy place, clean, cool, with everything polished and in order.

I spotted a baseball mounted like a trophy by the cash register and asked Mr. Barnes about them. Mr. Captain’s a big baseball fan, he said, especially of the Bisons (the local AAA team), in fact it’s a tradition around here. This place is packed on Opening Day every April. We eat lunch here, a huge spread put out by Mr. Captain (paid for by Mr. Barnes we later found out), and then all head to the ballpark afterwards. That ball is very special, signed by Luke Easter, a former major leaguer, and one of the most popular players ever to play here. He hit it out of the stadium a couple of years back; there’s a big scuff mark on the ball where it landed on a sidewalk three streets away. Mr. Barnes was right, it was so big I could see it from where I was sittng.

When the food came it was delicious and there was plenty. We took our time eating, Mr. Barnes going up to the bar to get another Ballantine Ale, talking to some of the men there, and returning with packs of beer nuts for dessert. When it was time to leave, he paid at the bar, and said, as he waved goodbye, See you again, Jim, fellas.

On the way home I decided this was the most fun I’d had so far, and that I liked being with Mr. Barnes very much. I would come to find that he had the rare quality of making things seem pleasurable no matter what you were doing. He obviously relished life and drew people to him. He made me feel very secure and wanted, not an easy thing to do in my (our) case.

In spite of this warm feeling, and though there had been no further repercussions from our silence when Mrs. Barnes asked if we loved her, for the first time I had the vaguest sense of foreboding at having to go home. Rory did too.

—–o—–

I shocked Mrs. Barnes one afternoon when, bringing the paper in for her I managed to puzzle out its headline, CHESSMAN GRANTED STAY. She hadn’t the slightest inkling I could read, nor did I. As far as I knew I had never been taught, I think I would have remembered something like that. Mrs. Barnes was sure I must be “special,” how else to explain it, and got very excited. She gave the paper to Rory, who looked at me with pleading eyes when she asked him to read, and I jumped in quickly and said he’s too shy to. Folderol, she said, and insisted he at least try. We have to see if you can, she explained, because we have to get you ready for school. Rory squirmed like a trapped animal and shook his head, then pushed the paper away. Mrs. Barnes bristled, and said in a tight voice, We’ll try again later. Even so, it didn’t dampen her enthusiasm, she couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Barnes. I, for one, wasn’t so sure what all the fuss was about, I hadn’t meant to read in the first place, all I knew was that when I saw the name “Chessman” there was an instant shock of recognition. Maybe the name meant something to me, though I didn’t know what. Even more surprising to me was the fact that I had been able to continue on and read the rest of the article, whose contents also seemed vaguely familiar.

Before I knew it we were enrolled in the first grade at North Forest Elementary and would take the school bus there. We’d had to take some aptitude tests first to decide where to place us as we were on the cusp of being old enough for first grade but had never been to school before, yet seemingly too old for kindergarten. We were put in separate classrooms, which dismayed Rory and worried me as we’d never been apart. Mrs. Barnes was having none of it; this is what they decided, she said, and that’s what you’ll do. Besides, it’s about time you were split up and it’s only for a few hours anyway. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

I wasn’t so sure about that.

We already had a list of the school supplies we needed and I enjoyed going up to the Leader Drug Store on Main Street to get them, it was something I would look forward to every year. Pencils, pad, notebook, erasers, ruler, compass, protractor, crayons, and book covers, new school clothes and shoes as well.  Everything brand new, spiffy, for our first time in school. When the first day of school arrived Mrs. Barnes gave us our lunch bags, then dutifully walked us to the top of the street, which was our bus stop. Across the street, flanking the Catholic church parking lot, sat two large chestnut trees; the nuts were beginning to fall and squirrels scampered back and forth among them; every so often a squirrel would grab one, sit on its haunches, holding the nut in its paws like an ear of corn, nibble at it, nervously turn it over and over to inspect it, then scurry away with the nut in its mouth, presumably to secrete it away for the winter. I watched the whole process carefully almost every morning, finding it somewhat comforting.

Suddenly out of nowhere the bus appeared, rounding the corner by the telephone company building, creaking and jouncing along. Watching it my heart sank like a stone as it screeched to a halt in front of us. I looked at Rory, who didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon, so I got on, looking back as Rory hesitated for an instant before boarding, Mrs. Barnes behind him, shooing him forward. It seemed as though the bus had been sitting there forever as I looked out over the sea of faces in front of me. I saw a very pretty girl whose face stood out in the crowd, sitting in the third row from the back, and seeing no one was sitting next to her began the trek through the gauntlet of faces staring up at me, uncharacteristically leaving Rory to fend for himself. When I reached her I nodded at the vacant seat next to her and she looked at it and smiled so I sat down quickly and nodded soberly to her, though I snuck a peek at her whenever I got the chance. She was pretty, with dark brown chestnut hair parted in the middle into braids, her face spattered with dark brown freckles, her teeth very white, and wearing a pale blue and white checked dress with black and white saddle shoes, although that may be a pretty Judy Hensler I was picturing.

By now the bus was moving, and I realized I’d completely forgotten about Mrs. Barnes and Rory. I looked out the window and quickly saw Mrs. Barnes’ retreating figure halfway down the street. I looked over rows of heads until I spotted Rory up front in the seat behind the bus driver.

Thankfully the bus ride wasn’t far, so I wasn’t required to be debonair, which I never was or could ever be, but despite this, just as we were standing up to get off, the girl looked at me, smiled, and said, Hi, my name is Fay, and you can sit next to me tomorrow, too, if you want. I’ll save a seat for you. I was instantly eternally grateful to her for her kindness and would never forget it, though I blurted out my name so unintelligibly I had to repeat it. Glad to meet you Wesley, she said, and I melted.

Rory waited for me until I got off the bus and we walked together into the school; my classroom was right before his so we said goodbye in front of it. As I entered I tried not to look at any of the kids already seated at their desks, not that I would have known anyone anyway, instead concentrated on finding an empty desk. The only one was right in front of the teacher in the first row, but my good fortune continued as Fay turned out to be in my class, and when I went to sit the only empty seat her desk was right next to mine.

I kept my head down, eyes peeled to the desk as the teacher introduced herself as Mrs. Cameron, told us what she expected of us, and went over our school supply list most of which I already had. As she called off the roll I was dreading hearing my name called and when she read “Wesley Barnes” I hesitated for a fraction of a second then blurted out “here,” my face flushed with embarrassment.

Mrs. Cameron then had us stand up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance which I didn’t know at all, but I managed to fake it with the rest of the class. Then she had passed out our Dick and Jane reading books and picked out kids randomly to read, putting a mark in a notebook after each one was finished. I was terrified she was going to call on me but thankfully she didn’t.

When it was time for lunch we had to get in line and march single file down the hallway to the cafeteria. I had brought my lunch and wished I could just stay in the classroom and eat it, but it wasn’t allowed, so I was dreading having to go to the cafeteria, hating to eat in front of other people. The cafeteria was packed and noisy, in spite of several monitors patrolling it, but I managed to find an empty table over in a corner and sat down there, hoping I would spot Rory and we could sit together.

I waited for him several minutes to no avail then opened my lunch bag and inside and found what would be my basic lunch (with slight variations in the sandwiches) the remainder of my grade school days: a ham sandwich with lettuce, a hardboiled egg with salt and pepper wrapped in wax paper, and an apple. I was disappointed I hadn’t seen Rory yet, wondering where he could be, but that didn’t spoil my appetite any. When I finished I got up and threw my trash into the nearest waste container, trying not to look at anyone in the process, then went back to my seat and waited until it was time to line up and go back to class.

When we got there Mrs. Cameron announced it was quiet time, and we were to put our heads on our desk, close our eyes, and rest, with absolutely no talking. Since it was the first day everyone cooperated and when it was over we went outside for recess.

While it was nice be away from the stuffy classroom I didn’t know anyone on the playground and everyone who did had already split up into groups I walked around by myself until I eventually gravitated to a kickball game that was being played on one of the baseball diamonds. I wanted to play but everyone seemed to know each other and had already picked teams, so I just stood around and watched until it was time to go in. I looked for Rory, a little worried when I still didn’t see him, until I found out later his class had lunch and recess at a different time.

Mrs. Cameron had the reputation of being one of the best teachers in the school, strict but fair and completely dedicated to her students. She was short and heavy-set, in her early fifties, with black hair, and wore black glasses with silver rims. When we came back in we picked up where we left off, everyone in the class reading when called on. When it was finally my turn I was so nervous I faltered several times, and Mrs. Cameron corrected me each time I mispronounced or misread a word. Although she did it as encouragingly as possible, when several of the kids laughed, my face burned red and I could barely see, but Mrs. Cameron interposed firmly and said, Please do NOT laugh, none of you are anywhere near perfect, then intoned so only I could hear, That was very good Wesley, we’ll work on it together.

After class I waited in the hallway for Rory, even though being warned by the hall monitor that I wasn’t supposed to loiter there, but I was determined to wait for him. Thankfully his class spilled out of their room shortly after and I spotted him. Boy am I glad to see you, I said, and Rory nodded. How was school? I asked him and he looked at me and rolled his eyes.

—–o—–

Of course Mrs. Barnes wanted us to know how school went as soon as we got home, starting with Rory. Rory began with his usual shoulder shrug but Mrs. Barnes ignored him, pressing him to say something and finally he grudgingly said, It’s all right, the teacher’s mean. I’m sure you just mean she’s strict, Mrs. Barnes said, I think that’s a good thing, don’t you? Once again Rory began to shrug his shoulders and Mrs. Barnes lit into him. Stop shrugging your shoulders she commanded him. Answer me when I ask you a question, do you hear me? Rory began to nod his head out of habit but quickly thought the better of it. Yes, he said.

Yes ma’am! Mrs. Barnes said vehemently. You are to refer to your father and me as “sir” and “ma’am” from here on out, do you understand?  I quickly interjected and said, Yes ma’am, though it felt funny to do so. Not you, Wesley, Mrs. Barnes said. Rory, you say it. He hesitated and she repeated, Say it! Rory finally said it but I determined then and there that since I had to call them that I’d keep thinking of them as that or Mr. and Mrs. Barnes and not father or mother as long as I could without being found out.

As if to confirm this Mrs. Barnes said, I don’t care if you like me or not, but you’ll respect me or I’ll beat it into you, by God. Then she turned to me and asked how my day went and I replied how nice Mrs. Cameron was and I thought I’d like it a lot. By then, however, the mood had changed, Mrs. Barnes was barely listening, and when I finished she said, That’s fine and told us tersely to go upstairs to our room until she called us for dinner. As young as I was, I wondered why she’d changed so suddenly, going over and over it, wondering if we’d done something she’d found out about but could think of nothing.

discussion of the writing process; contributions of all kinds welcome