Danny came to live with my mother and me in the summer of ’76 because of the Negro problem. Or so that’s how Aunt Sharon had described it.
According to her, Massachusetts was forcing schools in her beloved Southie to accept black students from nearby Roxbury, which had led to rioting. There was a famous picture I remembered seeing in which a man was being jousted by a flag pole. It had made all the papers.
On a Sunday morning in March, my aunt stood in our kitchen with Mom and asked if Danny could summer with us, and of course Mom said yes.
But I knew she wasn’t there because of rioting, or black people, or even for Danny. She had come to lay flowers at the grave of my father - her brother - who had died in a car accident a year before. I entered the kitchen and eyed the wreath of flowers - a ring of roses and gardenias standing against the kitchen cabinets. The women’s voices suddenly fell quiet.
Grownups refused to discuss with me the details of my father’s death. I suppose they thought they were protecting me from further emotional distress by being withholding.
Their voices would plunge whenever I entered the room, but what they failed to realize was that the snippets I was able to pick up were far more horrendous than if they had just told me the truth.
In the silence of moments alone, I was able to drop these overheard words into a running narrative, which then became a motion picture projected in an endless loop whenever I slept at night. My very own horror movie.
In it I saw his blue ’68 Mustang speeding down the Bed, a furrowed, single-lane dirt road that used to be a railroad. I pictured the right tire catching a bit of sand; the crack of the fender against a tree that sounded like a cannon; the thrust of his body being ejected through the windshield, making a soundless arc. I watched him descend like a rag doll before landing 30 yards into the woods with a grotesque thud that no one heard.
I didn't like the idea that perhaps he screamed for my mother as he lay in the woods, alone. I preferred instead to believe that he died before he hit the windshield, but nobody ever said that, so I was naturally left to believe the worst. It’s all I had because all I was given were hushed snippets.
“… speeding …”
“… along the Bed …”
“… never had a chance …”
I knew that Sunday morning in March, when Aunt Sharon stood with Mom in the kitchen and her voice suddenly fell out of range of my ears, that Danny wasn’t coming to Springlight to escape riots with flagpoles. He was coming to help me forget.
He arrived Memorial Day weekend and he looked like a city kid, a foot taller than me, blond hair styled to match the hip new fashion of the day, his skin already bronzing to a mid-summer burnish. In stark contract, I was pasty from avoiding the outside as much as possible.
That first week Danny and I skulked around each other, miserable for the same reasons. I didn’t want a babysitter and he didn’t want to be away from his beloved Southie where he could play basketball whenever he wanted to. In his new Converse sneakers. And flashing his beautiful blonde hair for the local girls.
He spent the first week out in the sun, kicking stones up and down our dead end street or tooling around on the 10-speed I got for my birthday that spring. I stayed inside and read.
At the end of the week, Mom announced at supper that she had signed both of us up for swimming lessons, to begin in the morning. Danny clapped and hooted. I groaned.
“We have to?” I asked.
“Yup. I gotta go back to work, Champ. You’ll walk into town, catch the bus at the post office, and spend the day at the lake,” she said.
“Yes!” Danny shouted and laughed. “Come on, man! It’ll be cool. Swimmin’, kickin’ around the beach. Hangin’ with some girls.” He nudged me with his elbow.
I looked to my mother, who only smirked. She and Danny and Aunt Sharon had entered this twisted conspiracy against me, I was now convinced. I went to bed without eating.
“I’ll pack some lunch. It’ll be good for you. I’ve always wanted you to take lessons anyway,” Mom called after me as I left the table.
The next morning the air was heavy with the promise of a thunderstorm as we set out down our road toward town. It was a three-mile walk and before we had gone a hundred yards our shirts already stuck to our skin and pesky bugs dive-bombed us incessantly.
We didn’t speak. Danny walked swiftly and I watched the brand-new whiteness of his heels, wondering what he would be doing if he wasn’t in Springlight, Maine. Before long he stopped suddenly and I looked up.
“Let’s take it,” he said and pointed to the side of the road.
The entrance to the railroad bed was an ominous arch of trees and brambles, a yawning gape of darkness. The bed itself - an abandoned railroad passage whose tracks had been torn up years before - looked like a tired tongue leading into the throat of a pensive beast. Danny crossed his bronze arms and looked at me, raised his eyebrows.
He stepped off toward the opening when I didn’t say anything.
“I’m not going in there,” I said and had already continued walking.
“Man, you’re not serious. It’s 20 minutes faster. We’re gonna miss the bus.”
“It’s only a dirt road, Kevin,” He said, pushing into the woods.
“Forget it. No. I’ll meet you in town,” I said over my shoulder.
He was right about the railroad bed being quicker. It looped around a small hill and into town, cutting through the dense woods cleanly and efficiently, whereas the road passed up over the hill, adding 20 minutes to our walk.
I heard him curse behind me and then the swift thump of his Converses.
“You won’t find anything,” Danny said and his tone was a mix of anger and frustration.
“Just shut up, alright?”
“I’m just saying you don’t have to be afraid. You’re not going to see anything -“
“Shut the hell up!”
I didn’t turn. I quickened my pace instead and felt a surge of emotion swell through me. Obviously he had been briefed on the Bed from my mother, and I was sickened by the thought that she had probably shared a lot more - more than she would with me - about Dad’s crash.
He had been right. We missed the bus to the lake by a half hour and stood in the empty post office parking lot deliberately avoiding each other.
After a moment he shifted the back pack to his opposite shoulder.
“Well, I guess we start walking,” he said bitterly.
“Kevin, come on. Please? I’m not walking all the way into town, then all the way back without at least doing something. I’m bored at your house. I don’t care if you don’t like me or hate me or whatever, man. I’m not spending my summer in East Nowhere moping around your house just because you’re afraid of your own shadow.”
He then stepped off toward the lake and I watched him for a moment, stung and feeling a pang of self-pity.
Aware that his pace was swift, I hurried to catch up. I didn’t say anything and fiercely swallowed my feelings, forcing down an urge to cry and lash out at the same time.
“I didn’t mean it,” Danny said once we made it to the end of Main Street.
I shrugged behind him.
“Huh?” he asked and stopped quickly, turning on his heels to look at me.
“You get it? I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. It’s okay,” I said, but couldn’t look at him for very long.
“Man, I didn’t know Uncle John much. I mean, I knew him. We just never come up here so I really didn’t get to know your dad. I don’t mean disrespect, but you never talk about what happened. You never, like, you know, talk, man. I’d be talking about it. Wondering about stuff, you know?”
I nodded dismissively and by his look I knew he was frustrated. He was eliciting something. He wanted to reach me, as Mom would say whenever she tried to pry from me my feelings about Dad’s death.
“Forget it,” I said. “It happened. I don’t know much. He’s dead. What’s to talk about? He’s dead.”
I walked past him without giving him a chance to respond.
Elm Ridge Road passed over a set of giant culverts at the end of the lake nearest the town. Danny suddenly wanted to stop here because it was just a few hundred yards away, whereas the public beach was at least another mile. I couldn't blame him for not wanting to walk that far. The heat was bearing down on our shoulders and the backs of our legs. We walked with our heads bowed and our tempers rising.
Swimming was prohibited at the culverts, however, because it served as a passage for boats between the lake proper and a smaller pond.
"I don't like the culverts," I said. "They’re dangerous."
We had stopped at the end of Elm Ridge and looked down the road to where we could make out the area of the culverts. Heat undulated off the tar like a pitching sea.
"You're just afraid of getting caught.”
"I'm not allowed," I said, but it was a lie and Danny knew it. My mom would never have known, and besides, she would have forgiven an act of minor truancy if she knew it had allowed Danny to reach me; that we had bonded and that I had perhaps come out of my shell.
He started down Elm Ridge and my stomach pinched. I followed him, concentrating on his heels.
Danny took off his Converse sneakers when we arrived at the culverts and immediately jumped into the blue-green water below us. I sat on the edge of a metal safety railing and watched a car pass by.
“Get in,” he shouted. His voice echoed around the inside of the culvert. I grimaced, glanced around again.
Danny got out and sat next to me for a moment, huffing from the exertion. The wetness of his swim trunks graced my leg, a feeling of ice on burnt skin.
“You know, I have more of a reason to be afraid than you. I live in a very dangerous place. What could you be afraid of out here? Thunderstorms and stray cattle?”
I didn’t find him funny. His sarcasm, his peculiar, condescending Massachusetts dialect grated on me. After a few moments he looked over his shoulder.
“We’ll go over to the boat landing. We can cross here and swim out around the reeds instead. Screw the culverts,” he said and stood up. A sensation of relief and appreciation filled me but I didn’t say anything.
The tar was a brand on the soles of my feet as we shuffled madly across the road. I traced Danny closely, watching just ahead of myself for those nasty pebbles that always got stuck underfoot and made my knees buckle. The bottoms of Danny's feet flashed at me as he ran and I could see that they were the color of garden soil.
"Ooh, ahh, eeh," I shouted with each torturous step. Danny seemed unfazed.
The boat landing was another hundred yards back up the road and neither of us wanted to continue walking. In front of us was a shallow inlet of swaying reeds abutting a nub of land filled with rocks and thin bushes that separated us from the landing.
I warned him of the slicing reeds and the mushy bottom, the mussels that were opened and ready to carve into your foot. He didn’t mind. He jumped in hungrily and swam out 20 yards, holding the beloved Converses over his head.
“Don’t be so afraid of everything,” he shouted and then began to wade across the bad area. I stumbled instead over the rocks and skinned my knees. I twisted my right ankle twice. I didn't curse but I wanted to.
We met at the boat landing, but before I could jump into the water, a spike of lightening flashed somewhere overhead. We threw on our sneakers and hurried back toward town.
Twenty minutes later we stood at the corner of Main and Maple and rested. Dark gray clouds had banked overhead and the distant rumble of thunder had become more frequent.
“The Bed is shorter. We could miss the storm,” Danny said, squinting at the clouds.
I shook my head. Danny shrugged and looked sharply away, but he said nothing and I knew there was another smart comment lurking at the back of his throat. He began to jog up Maple Street.
A few yards away stood an idling Ford pick up truck, once probably fire red but now so weathered it was the color of gray neglect. I recognized it as being Hal Trumbill’s.
“He’s the town drunk. He’s absolutely crazy,” I told Danny as we continued moving. I injected just enough matter-of-factness in my voice in the hopes that it would lighten the mood between us.
We walked along side the truck, which sat empty, its engine gurgling.
“Probably off in the woods peeing,” Danny said.
“Passed out leaning against a tree with his thing still in his hand,” I offered and he spun around sharply. He burst out laughing and I joined him.
He reached out and gave the truck’s antenna a slap, which made a funny twang on its kick-back.
I reached out to do the same. Instead of whipping back, however, the entire antenna snapped off in my fist.
“Holy crap!” I shouted, stalled on the sidewalk looking at the broken antenna.
Danny whipped around.
“Don’t sweat it. Just drop it there - ”
Ten yards away Hal Trumbill emerged from around the corner of a house, swaying and fiddling with his fly.
“Run!” Danny shouted and bolted away. I looked at the antenna in my fist, then up at the man stumbling toward me.
“Hey there!” he shouted, a slow-motion slur. I ran at once.
Behind me I heard the slam of the truck door, the angry rev of its motor and then a squeal of tires. Danny cut suddenly across someone’s lawn, and I followed him until we came to an adjoining street. In my ears, in my mind, I heard the growl of the truck nearby, prowling the narrow streets as we continued our delirious cut-throughs; jumping over lawn ornaments and stomping through flower gardens.
In time, out of breath, we stopped behind Jackson’s General Store and rested our hands on our knees. Danny let the back pack fall to the ground and he spit into the sand. We both continually checked the roads for the truck, like a couple of spooked cats. After awhile, we stood and Danny pointed at me and began laughing.
“Man, you should have seen the look on your face!” he said, and he doubled over again. I smiled and began to laugh with him. We wiped our eyes.
“You keeping that as a souvenir?” he said, pointing to my hand. I looked down. I was still clutching the antenna. I tossed it into a patch of overgrown grass and weeds that sprouted from the brick foundation of Jackson’s.
Certain now that Hal had given up and was now foraging for returnables so that he could get another bottle of liquor, Danny and I resumed our trek home. The clouds were now a darker gray and the thunder had a thick bass to it that told us the storm was closer. Eventually we walked past the entrance to the Bed and neither of us looked in.
Just as we had made it beyond the entrance, the red Ford burst through its dark archway and shot out onto the road ahead of us.
The truck floated from one side of the road to the other, tossing up a cloud of dust from the right shoulder before it stopped with a shriek of its tires. It rested there for a moment, kitty corner in the road, its engine still sputtering, before we heard the door pop open.
"Dear Jesus," I heard Danny mutter, and it wasn't a curse. His arm was up, bracing across my chest.
Sweat hung to my shirt between the shoulder blades. My hair tingled. Hal was hidden from us but I could tell this would go badly, because all sound had been vacuumed off the street. The birds, the whir of the tree frogs, the breeze high up in the maples, and the faraway buzz of a lawnmower were all now muted for this moment. It was that way in the movies when the bad things happened. It was that way now, as the two of us stood 10 yards from the gray Ford.
"He's got a gun," Danny whispered.
Instinctively, we both shot for the opening to the Bed and our footfalls sounded like the patter of heavy rain. A flash of lightening lit up the tree-lined path and a crack of thunder answered. It sounded like gunshot and we both ducked as we ran.
Merely fifty yards down the path we both slowed and turned around in time to see the Ford nose into the entrance. Hal gunned the accelerator. Danny grabbed me by the arm and hurled us both into the woods. Branches snapped against our rush, the ground became soft and mushy. Our sneakers made sucking noises and I could feel the cold water seeping into my socks.
Behind us the Ford braked on the dirt and Danny stopped us behind an elm. We looked out around the tree and saw Hal standing outside his opened door, swaying, holding the butt of his rifle on his hip, the barrel facing the clouds.
He called out, his voice a smear of obscenities and name-calling. He pulled the trigger and the discharge boomed in our chests. We ducked back quickly behind the elm and sat hard on the moss at its base. We were certain, in that moment, that we heard Hal’s feet on the dusty gravel of the Bed, and then in the muck of the lowland wetness we had just crossed. I pictured our footprints betraying us to the drunken mad man.
Instead, the door to his truck slammed shut and the motor revved hard. The tires grabbed onto dirt and we heard the Ford speed away.
We sat still, holding our breath, listening for the truck to return. When it didn’t, 15 minutes had passed. The moss at the base of the tree had soaked water into my swim shorts.
“I live in South Boston and I’ve never been chased by someone with a gun,” Danny said. He shook his head. I stood over him and looked up at the Bed, which was a thin line cutting across the trees and marsh.
Rain began to find us there in the woods and I urged Danny to get up. Eventually he did and we made our way back to the Bed, but not before checking for signs of the truck.
The rain was more insistent here, with no real cover to protect us. I turned with Danny to go but was stopped by something - a flash of color out of the corner of my left eye. I looked down the Bed. Twenty yards away, and three yards from the edge of the packed dirt, stood a small cross made of fence stakes. Resting against it was a wreath of gray roses and brittle gardenias.
I approached with a sickening swell in my stomach.
“Man, we don’t have to go there,” Danny said. He tugged gently at my t-shirt sleeve. I snapped away and continued forward.
The site of where my father died was as insignificant and average as a piece of lawn or patch of moss. I had imagined, all this time, a large, dark place filled with omen and dread. It had had, up to this point, a monster-in-my-closet feel to it: an unseen menace that spooked me whenever I closed my eyes.
Instead, it was just a side of a dirt road, spotted with dead leaves, and lined with thin trees.
I stopped at my aunt’s flowers and looked up until I found the tree my father’s car had struck a year ago: a fat, aging birch among a stand of thinner elms. Gouged from its skin was a wound that only a piece of heavy metal could inflict. I shivered. I went to the tree and traced my fingers inside the gaping lesion. After a moment, my eyes naturally looked beyond it, out into the shallow woods, where his body had come to rest after a lifeless, violent flight.
There was no sign of impact out there, but why would there be, I asked myself. The rain was beginning to tap heavily and the sound on the leaves had an erratic, snare-drum sound to it. The water was cool and raised goose bumps.
“You’re right. I’m afraid of everything,” I muttered.
“I’ve been wondering if he cried, but I’ll never know. I have to face it. I thought people wouldn’t tell me the truth, but they don’t know the truth. I can either believe he cried, or I can believe he didn’t. Either way, I have to stop being afraid of thinking about it.”
Danny said nothing, but I felt him just behind me. For that I was appreciative. I looked at him finally.
“Let’s go back to the culverts. Right now. Let’s go swimming. And then tomorrow. And the next day. I don’t like the public beach anymore. I want to swim at the culverts. And in the reeds.”
Years later I found myself treading a familiar dusty passage; an uneven road of dirt and sand. The railroad bed was awash in a brilliant sun, and all the ruts and grooves, the leaves of the trees, the stoic arches of limbs were in perfect relief. No shadow crept here and I squinted against it. There was the taste of fine grit mixed with the smell of mid-summer heat.
I walked alone without holding my breath, and when I smiled, I knew it was time to turn back, never to return.