Three Rivers: What happened to Danny

This is the next part of the story in progress about Smitty and Katina. The story turns dark.

I suppose I should tell you what happened to Dan.
We hadn’t seen much of each other that summer. It was the first time that had happened because Danny and me were the best of friends since either of us could remember, not doing big things, just palling around. We’d hang out along the river and try to catch fish with our bare hands and wave to the barge captains, or throw rocks at the snapping turtles.
Mostly, we hung out. We’d grab a soda and a handful of penny candy from Petrocelli’s store and head out to the gravel pit.
We fixed up the lean-to a lot. Exploring the edges of the pit where the woods grew in close we found busted doors and planks and made a floor and covered the roof better so it didn’t leak as much in the rain. With the spade part of a shovel we found, we dug a small trench around the lean-to and jammed the ends of the planks into the ground and then buried them with dirt. Made the whole thing stronger and drier.
To goof off, we used a couple of pieces of plywood like surf boards and would slide down the steep sand banks of the pit, mostly sitting, but once in a while standing, waving our arms for balance and yelling like crazy and the board would twist sideways and pitch us off and we’d roll down the hill until we were half-buried in sand. And then we’d just laugh, me and Danny.
But that was the summer he got a real job at a landscaping company. He was fourteen but his family needed the money. He said they paid him “under the table,” which made it sound shady and illegal, but he said it was okay, because they paid him in cash, about a hundred bucks a week.
Boy, a hundred bucks. I was lucky if I made thirty doing my paper route.
We needed the money, too, but Danny’s family always seemed to need it more.
One day, when we were sitting on the riverbank watching some kids water skiing, Danny asked me, “You ever think about running away?”
I was like, “What?”
“You know, running away from home.”
“No, never have.”
He was quiet a minute, then sat and hunched his knees up to his chin.
“I have.” Then he looked at me and screwed up his mouth and raised one eyebrow. “Almost did.”
“Aw, man.”
I flopped back on the grass and stared into the bright blue sky till my eyes hurt.
“When?”
He stood up, picked up a handful of rocks and pitched them one by one into the river.
“Couple months ago. My old man was drunker than usual and I had to step in to stop him from beating my mom. We’d chased him out of the house and he’d driven off with the car fish-tailing all over the road and I thought at that moment the best thing that could happen was for him to hit a tree and die.
That got me sitting up. “Jeez, Danny.”
He waved his hand like it was nothing. “I told him once that if he hit Mom again I was going to call the cops, and he smacked me so hard I had a black-eye for a week. My boss asked what happened, and I lied, but he knew my Dad, too, and said he’d talk to him. I had the feeling that I got this job as a favor to my old man, and that sort of proved it.”
Danny sat on the grass again, then leaned back folding his fingers together as he laid back and closed his eyes.
The flies hummed around and the motor boats on the river buzzed softly past.
“Spent that night at the lean-to,” Danny said. “Just slept on the floor. Didn’t have a blanket or nothing. It was freezing! In the morning my Mom was so sad. It’s just so hard for her, Smitty. We’d be better off without my old man, but it would be awful for her.” He shrugged. “So I stay.”
I wanted to go and beat up Dan’s dad. Everyone in town knew he was a bad drunk, but they all covered for him. I was there sometimes when the cops would bring him home and drop him on the couch and tell her she had to take care of him, and her face would just collapse and she’d wring her hands in her apron and say she would. Then she’d find a blanket and cover him up, take off his shoes and we’d roll him onto the couch so he wouldn’t fall and let him sleep it off. Danny would hug his mom and nod at me to say it was okay, and I’d go home.
I would have had my mother talk to her, but she was always at work. I’d sit on the back roof of the house and stare at the big, dark sky and wonder what was going to happen, afraid it would always be bad.

****

It was also the summer that Katina was given permission to leave her house.
That’s what it seemed like, or maybe she and her Grandmother negotiated a deal.
Or maybe she went outside on her own.
I really didn’t know, but one day, after me asking maybe a thousand times, Katina said, Yes, and we walked around the block. Then we walked around the block twice. And then downtown where I took her to Petrocelli’s and bought her MaryJanes, Dots, little Tootsie Rolls, even a couple Jawbreakers.
It seemed that even Grandma Swartz was warming up to me. On Saturdays when I finished my paper route, she’d let me sit in the kitchen with Katina and served me a big slice of chocolate cake with strawberry jam and white icing. She even called me James and asked how I doing once or twice.
Katina would sit across the wide oak kitchen table, half close her eyes and grin slyly and I would stare at her until the room started spinning and then I’d snap my head and it would stop. Katina would put her head down and laugh softly.
She was still practicing piano three hours a day, sometimes with an instructor and sometimes not. She varied the times so we always had some time to hang out, but she said, the practice time was important because she was preparing for an audition or presentation that was a really big deal, although at the time I didn’t pay it much mind.
One day we finally got down to the river. The water was flat and still and the air thick with heat that stuck to your clothes and dropped sweat between your shoulder blades.
She leaned over the bank and ran her fingers through the water like she had never seen it before. She’d lift a handful and let it dribble through her fingers and stare at a drop that that clung to a finger before shaking it off. She as so thin, but her arms and hands were tense and strong, the muscles bulging slightly as she pushed herself back up. All that piano playing.
We didn’t talk much when we were together; guess we didn’t need to. Sometimes I wanted to tell her everything, like the funny stories from the paper route or about the baseball team and the home run the new kid hit that seemed like it went a mile and how a couple of guys and me started a band.
Or about me and Danny, or just maybe Danny and why I was worried about him.
Mostly we just walked. And it was okay.
Just being with Katina was worth everything and the more it happened, the less strange I felt, like a gate had been opened and me, this street kid, had been offered a way into the rest of the world.
And I wanted to tell her how grateful I was because I could never take her into my world. I don’t think she’d understand the shabbiness or the emptiness.
It was like stepping from darkness to light, from cold to warmth, from want to peace.
We had found a spot under a couple of trees and out of the hot sun. Katina stood on the river bank and stretched her arms up and rolled head from side to side over her shoulders. The sunlight played off her light brown hair flashing yellow and red in the changing light.
I watched her move as I laid on the bank on my back. So elegant and electric. She turned, her sweet face framed in the light and smiled, and then came beside me and sat cross-legged at my side.
She brushed the hair from my forehead so lightly, so sweetly, and then ran one finger down my jaw to my cheek and across my lips and I kissed it.
The touch was like liquid melting through the invisible screen, like feeling rain for the first time, wind; love.
“I fell in love with you before I ever met you,” Katina said softly as she rolled sideways, laid on her back and placed her head on my chest. “I would watch you deliver the paper and hear you speaking with my grandmother. You were so polite and friendly. One day she just said out of the blue, ‘That’s a nice boy.’ “
I laughed. She fell in love with me.
“I thought she didn’t like me.”
That was stupid. I needed to tell her that I loved her, too. She needed to know that.
Katina smiled to the sky.
“Grandmama is a funny old bird, James. She seems so old-fashioned and strict, but she’s seen so much of the world, she lets a lot of things slide. She was like that with my mother, before she went away.”
She turned her head to me and I saw the trouble that had settled in her eyes.
I was about to ask what that meant, when she rolled to face me and said, smiling, “Never mind that,” and she touched my cheek. “I used to walk from bay window to bay window and watch you on the sidewalk. I hid behind the curtains so you wouldn’t see me. You seemed so nice. And you are.”
So this is what it’s like, I thought, what it’s like to be loved. There was no reason for her to love me, no thing that I had done to earn her affection. It just was, and though I didn’t understand, I wasn’t about to argue.
Katina said she loved me. There was nothing else I needed to know.
I rose to my elbows and Katina sat up and rested on her knees. I pulled my legs back and was on my knees as well when we kissed.
Oh, those lips and tongue. Sweet mouth and soft face. And Katina laughed while we kissed and wrapped her arms around my neck and I fell backward to the ground and held her.
And we kissed. And we kissed. And we kissed.
Then we stopped and she put her chin on my chest and just stared at me, deep dark eyes, soft and open, then smiled and kissed my chin.
I wasn’t afraid; I wasn’t alone.
And I sensed that something in Katina had changed as well. This was Katina at the piano, fierce, letting it all fly. Me and Katina, two shy kids together kissing on the river bank.
I just said, “Wow.” And then, “Thank you.” She smiled and closed her eyes, her face at peace.

****

It was raining the day I told Katina about Danny.
It was also the day I first took her to the gravel pit; I hadn’t been there in a while.
We had planned a picnic along the river, but when the sky boiled with clouds and darkened I said we should probably head back to her house.
Katina frowned comically.
“I don’t want to go home,” she said. “I’d have to practice, and today I am tired of practicing.”
She took my arm. “How far is the gravel pit?”
“You’re kidding. It’s maybe a mile or so, at the edge of town.”
“Oooh,” she laughed. “The spooky edge of town.”
“You really want to go?”
“Yes, I want to see this famous lean-to.”
The sky had lowered and the rain began to spit by the time we reached the pit. The lean-to was still there, so all that work Dan and me had done paid off.
Katina smiled when she saw it and threw her arms around my neck. “It’s perfect,” she said and then kissed me.
We arranged the blanket we brought around the center pole that held up the roof just as the rain got heavier.
We both looked at the rain and the dark sky and then at each other, and then laughed.
“I hope the roof doesn’t leak,” I said, scanning the boards overhead.
“I don’t care,” Katina said. “I’m here with you and I don’t have to practice the damn piano.”
“Why are you practicing so much?”
She shifted next to me and put her head on my shoulder. She sighed. “It’s for a competitive audition for a fancy music school in Paris.” She glanced up at me to seek how I’d react to the word.
Jeez. “Paris?” You’d….
She reached up and touched my face. “It’s a year away, the competition. I have to be sixteen to enter the school, so that’s two years away.” She sat up, pulled her knees up and laid her head on her arms and looked into the rain. “That’s where my mother is, teaching,” she said softly. “It’s two years away,” she whispered.
I shifted against the center pole and Katina rolled over and straddled my legs.
“I love you James Smith, Mr. Smitty, and nothing would change that, not even being in Paris.”
She leaned into me and we kissed, hard, urgently, tongues probing, fingers grasping. I pushed her hair back and kissed her ears and neck and then along the rim of the zipper on her sweatshirt. I slipped the zipper tab between two fingers, hesitated and looked at Katina, who nodded.
The shirt opened and she said, “Touch me.”
My hand circled her breasts, so warm and so hard in the cold air. I kissed her neck and her shoulders as she rocked against me, and then tounged her nipple, then her flat belly.
Oh, man. What was going on?
Finally Katina leaned into me again and we held each other in the cold air, held each other tightly, held each other against the loneliness that we knew, against Paris, against the piano, against the world; just we two.
Then, finally I told her. “I love you, Katina, piano playing, crazy, mysterious Katina, Paris or no Paris.”
Her face was calm and her eyes deeply dark. Softly she said, “My Smitty.”
After we ate lunch, Katina said it was time for me to tell her about Danny.
“I’ve told you my secret, now it is your turn.”
I leaned against the center pole, closed my eyes and held my head in my hands.
“It’s not good, not good at all.”
She shifted to my side and wrapped an arm around me. “Then I’ll listen well.”
My head was spinning. Where to start? His father, the drunk? His mother, the fights and beatings? The threat to run away? The pistol?
Then I started and wanted to get it over as fast as possible.
“Danny’s father was a bad drunk, always was. He worked for a construction company driving equipment but he was so bad they put him in an office. He would run around the house crazy drunk and knock stuff over, breaking dishes and lamps and then blame Dan’s mom for everything. They never had anything nice because his old man would smash it. Sometimes the cops would come and they’d calm him down and once in a while took him to the city jail to sleep it off, just to get him out of the house …”
Katina touched my face. “Oh, James how awful. Couldn’t anyone help? His employer? The school?”
I sighed. “I guess they tried, but nothing worked. Dan started hanging out at my house and that’s how we became such good friends. He’d stay and eat dinner, but he was so worried about his mother getting hurt, he’d have to go home.”
I kissed Katina on the forehead. Just talking about it after all the time it was bottled up, felt better. But the worst part was yet to come.
“Danny used to confront his father about the drinking and try to get him to stop hitting his mother. So Danny got whacked, sometimes really hard. His old man was smart. He’s hit him in the stomach or the ribs and maybe across the legs, places that didn’t show. Once and a while in the face when he was really out of control. Danny would skip school until the bruises went away. I felt helpless. I knew about all this and couldn’t help. Who could I tell?”
I closed my eyes when the tears spilled out. “He was my best friend and I couldn’t help him.”
Katina moved closer and held me tighter. “Was? What’s that mean?”
Then I faced it.
“They found Danny hanging from that tree.” I pointed to the tree I had climbed before to break off branches for fire wood. Stumps of branches grew out of the side like stubby fingers. “He had climbed up a few of the lower branches, tossed the rope over the next biggest branch, slipped the noose over his head and jumped. That’s how bad it got.”
Katina rolled away horrified and screamed, “No!. Oh, James.” Then she asked, “Why? Was there no other choice?”
My voice was dark and icy. “He had shot and killed his father. One time we found an old pistol in the cellar of his house with a couple of bullets. I wanted him to throw it away but he wouldn’t. He came home from school one day and the house had been torn to shreds. His old man had gone on a real rampage. Dan found his mother unconscious on the floor of the kitchen. I guess Dan thought she was dead, because he snapped. He found his father in the living room and just stared hitting him. His father was a so drunk he couldn’t fight back. I guess Dan yelled and screamed but then went to the cellar and got the pistol. Shot his old man twice. Then he came here.”
My head was pounding and my gut was churning. Do I tell her the rest?
“The cops came to my house asking if I knew where Dan was, and I knew it was bad. I told them about the gravel pit, but one of them said it was a big place and they could use my help finding where he might be. God, I didn’t want to do that, but they put in a patrol car and we came here.
Katina’s face was white and drawn and wet with tears. “So you saw….?
“Yeah. Saw my best friend…”
We fell into each others’ arms sobbing uncontrollably. I was crying for Katina who had to hear that horrible tale and I was crying for Danny, my best friend whose life had been wasted. I was not crying for myself.
We fell asleep. Sometime later with bright lights in our eyes we saw the local cops and Katina’s grandmother standing in the dark gravel pit.
The cops were rough and shouting, but Katina’s grandmother calmed them.
“They’re fine, I see,” she said. “Good.”
Katina rubbed her eyes and looked back at me. I knew she wanted to smile, and was working hard to suppress one.
“It’s okay,” she mouthed.
Mrs. Swartz just said, “We will talk, James.
They took us home in separate police cars. My house was dark; once again I was the loneliest kid in the world. The rain had stopped. I laid back on the roof and stared at the murky changing sky, feeling small and lost.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I have written at least three complete novels, have three others started and on my website michaelstephendaigle.com is the draft chapter of the latest effort,"The Swamps of Jersey."
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