Smitty’s tale is coming together faster than I could have imagined…
Time dragged with the sameness of a bad painting, the full colors of summer dully washed out; hot cloudless days when the grass fields behind the house turned yellow, then burned stiff and white as the life was sucked out of the plants. Fire flies gave way to cicadas whose scratching chorus echoed through the woods.
Something odd or bad happened in our town nearly every year during this time. One year an empty factory complex caught fire and burned for three days. The place was so big, about six buildings covering several city blocks that were connected by narrow alleys and elevated walkways, and so filled with junk, that the fire crews could not get to all the hot spots……
The events seemed like an annual curse and local preachers never missed a beat, hauling out the Bible stories about the plagues of Egypt, expecting, I guess, that we would gather our goods in reed baskets and wander through the desert for forty years, and when we came back the old factory would be standing untouched, a reward for having faith.
But nothing would ever untouched, I decided.
Danny was gone.
Instead of playing catch with a football, or exploring the woods at the gravel pit and finding new stuff for the lean-to, or just sitting on the front porch talking, I walked past his house every other day or so. Then one day, the lights were out and shades drawn and the placed looked locked up. The grass was taller and a couple of soggy newspapers rotted on the front steps, and when I knocked on the door, it sounded hollow and empty.
I didn’t know his mom that well, just what Danny had told me, but I guessed that it was all too much for her and she left. I remember Dan said she had family in the Midwest, so maybe that’s where she had gone, back home.
After that I stopped walking past his house. The sadness weighed me down like you couldn’t believe. It was a final thing, the most final thing ever.
And maybe it would have been easier if Katina had been around, but her family had gone on their annual two-week vacation and stopped the paper.
She left me a note, tucked into the side door. The envelope had two red lips pressed into one corner.
“My Dear James,” she wrote.
I smiled. No one had ever written me a note that began My Dear James.
“Everything was hectic before we closed up the house and left. I’m sorry we did not have a chance for one more walk. I wanted so much to go back to the lean-to and lay with you on the blanket listening to the rain on the roof, to be holding you, kissing you and letting you touch me.
“I spoke with Grandmama about that night and she was understanding, and shocked at what had happened to your friend Dan. She scolded me, mildly, but said to tell you she was sorry for your misfortune.
“We will be in Paris for two weeks, and then will return. The weather won’t be too cold and we will resume our walks. And when the weather turns, we will sit at the kitchen table with hot chocolate and talk and share, my sweet James.
“You give me courage and I can not wait to see you again.
“Hold me in your dreams, as I will hold you.
“I love you, Smitty. Katina.”
Her handwriting flowed across the pink paper, with the “K” of Katina oversized and the “a” detached from the “n.”
I don’t know why I noticed that, but I examined the letter again and again for any clues about my sweet Katina.
I gave her courage!
Oh, Katina, the things I should have told you. But my words were always jumbled and my mind running a million miles an hour. If you only knew what you did to me.
I kept the letter folded in a pocket and read it often.
I suppose I should have paid more attention to their destination – Paris – but I was so caught up in loving Katina, absent Katina, that it barely registered.
Still, when I walked past her house as I delivered the Herald on her street, the old home, with its metal gate out front and tall, imposing façade, seemed darker and more silent than I could have imagined…..
So there I was as the city moved into the weird season, alone.
I should have expected anything to happen.
And then it did.
I came home from my paper route one afternoon just as a dump truck hauling a front-end loader on a trailer pulled out of our driveway and drove away.
Out back on the only flat part of the yard was a rectangular hole about ten feet long and six feet wide. Next to the hole and the pile of dirt that was once in that hole was a stack of cinderblocks and taped to them a magazine article entitled, “How to build your own backyard swimming pool.”
Who was my mother kidding? I couldn’t even make one of those two-part book shelves in shop class and I was supposed to build a swimming pool?
I read the instructions on the bags of cement next to the cinderblocks.
Add water. I can do that.
I thought, how hard could it be? …..
I looked at the pile of blocks in the yard and figured out there were a hundred blocks on the pallet
I was gonna need more blocks and more cement and maybe ten friends to get this done before winter, and then I thought – For what?
Why did we need a half-assed swimming pool in our back yard?
I threw my hands up and yelled “Why me?”
I imagined the pool after (if) I finished it. Weren’t pools supposed to have some kind of smooth surface that surrounded them so swimmers could sit on the edge and dangle their legs in the water and a fence and filters and … and all this was going to be was a big dumb blue hole in the ground. …..
Anyway, I started the next day.
I had found a shovel, a level, like four feet long, a short ladder, a garden hose, a couple of buckets and a plastic tub I could mix the cement in, and a little garden shovel I could use because I did not have a cement trowel. I don’t know where all this stuff came from or who bought it; maybe it was here when we moved in, like the push mower. I was probably the only kid in the neighborhood who had to use a push mower. It was never sharp enough and the handle wiggled a lot and in the spring it took two days to mow the whole lawn.
It took me half a day to unpack the cinder blocks and lay them in rows around the outside of the hole. The ragged dirt edge of the rim announcing loudly with each clump that fell into the hole how radically, immensely, confoundedly and universally stupid this whole project was.
I stood in the center of the hole and screamed to the heavens.
“What do you want from me? What have I done to deserve this indignation? Who did I tick off? Is this some joke? I hope you are having fun with this because I don’t understand it. Explain it to me.”
I sat on the third rung of the ladder, leaned over and rested my head on the knuckles of my folded hands. I wanted to be on the river waving at barge captains with Danny or at the lean-to holding and kissing Katina and having her tell me she loved me.
I tried to settle the rattling thoughts in my head, but they only rattled louder.
Then from the noise emerged the nasal, whiny voice of the preacher who led Danny’s funeral service. He spoke softly about forgiveness, but spent more time talking about penance, as if someone, maybe Dan’s mom, or maybe someone like me, was going to have to account for the error of our ways that led Dan to commit the act he did, as if it was the fault of a fourteen-year-old kid, like some twisted luck of the draw, that allowed him to shoot his father, the breadwinner, the patriarch, when anyone who knew his old man was aware what a pathetic, stupid drunk the man was and how he beat his wife and wrecked their home and rejected all efforts by friends and employers to help him, and how he drove his son into a corner from which Dan could one see only one way out, and so he took it.
Is that so hard to see, preacher man?
It’s not about sin and evil and reaching out to God.
“It’s about my friend,” I said out loud to the empty pool. “A kid who never had a chance.”
I picked up the shovel and threw it at the opposite wall, where it momentarily stuck, and then fell, gouging out a six-inch hole in the dirt.
I wanted to cry but the sight of the new hole in the wall made me laugh because it all became clear how ridiculous and meaningless my life had become, standing as I was, in a ten-by-six-foot hole in the center of the earth while above me the expanding universe ran away; sound left silence and light fled darkness…..
The hundred cinder blocks did not go very far. When I ran out I had about forty of them on the end wall and the rest in two staggered half-walls running partway down the long side of the hole.
I didn’t look bad and was straight, level and flush. Wow.
I wasn’t sure that to do with the bottom of the hole. I mean I couldn’t lay cinder blocks there and I couldn’t leave it bare dirt because the water would eventually seep into the ground.
So, lacking any more blocks, and no means of sealing the bottom, I decided to paint the wall. Along with the cinder blocks were three gallons of blue water-resistant paint. I read the directions, which said to prime the surface, and of course I had no primer, so I guessed that two or three coats of blue paint would work.
It was a nice color blue, and I imagined that filled with water the pool would shimmer prettily in the sun, disguising all the flaws.
Sweating, exhausted and done, I overturned one of the buckets and sat eyes closed in the middle of the blue partly-build wall and smiled. Not even Katina could find a reason for this thing. “Oh, James,” she would say and laugh. “Oh, James.” Then she’d wrap her arms around my neck and kiss me and the absurdity of all this would fade.
I wondered how she could to it, keep moving forward even when she was carrying all that stuff of her own. Missing parents, piano practice and what was clearly great musical skill, the anticipation of success and that sadness that crept into her eyes at times when she thought I wasn’t looking, only to be replaced by a sneaky wink when she realized I was.
She seemed to roll on and all the apparent troubles washed off her like water off a duck’s back. Was it that simple, was she that confident and untroubled, or was she like me, alone, scared and worried, but managed to hide it better than I did?
While I pondered this, and missed Katina even more, I heard someone walking through the dry grass. Crap, someone found this hole. I imaged it was a city official who would want to know if I had a permit, or failing that, would stand above me scratching his head and asking just what the hell I thought I was doing.
But it was only Randy. He lived on the other side of the woods and I’d see him meandering through the field with a long stick, like an old settler making his way across the Great Plains.
Randy was known for bringing an end to most conversations by quoting a line from an old rock song. We could be taking about anything – English class, the new teachers, football, music, girls, the Russians, anything – and Randy would screw up his face and solemnly say, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”
The first few times he did it , we’d all go, “What?” But after the next hundred times he did it, we’d think, whatever, Randy and go on with the conversation.
Randy emerged from the waist-tall grass and leaned over the hole with his hands on his knees.
“Whatcha got here?” he asked suspiciously.
“Um, a hole.” I stood up and stretched. “A hole with part of wall that is painted blue.”
“What’s it gonna be? Root cellar? Bomb shelter?”
I smiled. “A swimming pool.”
Randy stood to his full height and walked around to the partially constructed wall and reached down to touch the blue paint.
“No shit,” he said as serious as God.
I started laughing. “Yeah, no shit.”
Randy sat and dangled his feet into the hole. “A swimming pool.” Then he grinned. “Damn it. A swimming pool. It’s, well, lovely.”
“No, it’s not,” I laughed. “It’s crap. It’s a stupid blue hole. And it’s not even done and it will never be done. It will be this half-built stupid blue wall forever.”
He closed his eyes. “Yeah, man, this is just crap. Unbelievable!” He turned away, laughing.
“Thank you,” I said. “Someone agreed with me. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
Neither of us had an answer and we sat and laughed until we stopped because it hurt to laugh more.
Turned out Randy had wanted to see my collection of plastic World War II model air planes. The kid was a war buff and knew his family’s service history back to the Civil War. He could cite battlefield strategies from Bull Run and Richmond, Gettysburg, or The Battle of the Bulge and quote statistics about killed and wounded like they were a shopping list.
For years I had carefully assembled the plastic models from Revell, Monogram or Lindberg kits. Mustangs, Lightnings, Thunderbolts, Dauntless dive bombers, ME-109s, Zeros, B-17s. Everything I could find at the downtown stores. ….
Then one day I took them all down, except for a P-47 and a Mustang, and stored them in the garage. I had moved onto other things, like baseball and rock music, and as much as I appreciated the stories that those planes represented, and the lives of the brave pilots who flew them, I guess I just got tired of dusting them.
Funny how things change.
I hauled myself out of the pool-hole and got the box from the garage. Randy removed a P-38 and a Zero and began to swoop them through the air in half-barrel rolls and loops, making plane engine sounds and rat-a-tats of gun fire; then the Zero would flop over into a dive to the ground, pilot dead and plane afire as another American pilot saved the day.
“Wait a minute,” I said and then ran into the garage and emerged with six or seven tubes of model glue and some matches.
“No way,” Randy said, immediately catching on.
“Yes way,” I replied.
I picked out a German bomber and spread glue along the wings and lighted it. Blue flame flickered to life and then wisps of black smoke rose. I wiggled the plane back and forth a couple of times to fan the flames and they erupted. The air became filled with dark, plastic smelling smoke and I tossed the plane toward the blue wall, where it smacked in a glorious flaming mess.
“Never liked that one,” I said, as I reached for another model.
“Cool,” Randy said, and pulled out the Zero and spread glue on the wings and set it on fire. “Die, you Zero, die!” And he threw it toward the wall.
One by one, the planes flew flaming into the wall, crashed ingloriously into the bricks and crumbled to the ground joining the growing pile of burning plastic.
A Mustang. “You served well,” I said before throwing it to the pile. A dive bomber. “Take that, Imperial Japan!” A B-17, a B-24, B-25, Messerschmitts, Spitfires, Hurricanes. Sometimes we threw two at once, one American, one German and the planes engaged in brief fiery combat before both met their fate. A B-29 missed the wall and sailed into the tall, dry grass which caught fire until I poured water on it.
“Seems fitting, Randy said. “The biggest bomber did the most damage in the war and now it does the most damage in our air war.”
Then the last, a P-40 and a Corsair. We lighted the wings and tossed the planes directly into the smoldering pile at the base of the wall. The air stung with acrid smoke and flecks of black ash landed on our arms and hair as we watched the wreckage of childhood burn.
“Amazing, man,” Randy said and then headed back home through the withered fields. “Out in a blaze of glory.”
I filled a bucket with water and climbed into the pool-hole. The magic blue water-resistant paint was scratched and smeared with black soot and flaming bits of glue. A wing or tail stuck out from the smoking pile, which fizzed when I poured on the water. I stirred it around and poured on more water.
So easy, I thought. So easy to destroy.
I wanted to feel lighter because our little air war had been fun and I’m not sure I had laughed as much in weeks. But I also wanted to feel transformed that somehow blowing up the toys of earlier childhood would have been satisfying.
Instead it felt incomplete, as if it was the start of a journey, not the end of one. If I’d only known what was coming.