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First Responder


ISSUE:  Fall 2013

In just about every instance, the boy doted on his older brother, and rarely questioned what he considered his expertise, but this time, with the mallard plan, he wasn’t so sure.

He knew that gaining entry to this special club of older, tougher boys was important to his brother, even if he didn’t know why. But was it really necessary to spend Marathon Monday, or any Monday, hunting mallards in the city? His brother had to tell him four times over that it was his assignment to find a duck and kill it so that he could clip off a foot and join the other older, tougher boys, who had once done the same thing, amazingly. 

This was scary stuff indeed, and while the boy knew he was supposed to be brave, especially with his brother, especially when they went out alone into Boston together—​which was both a treat and a compliment—​he knew that his brother knew when he was scared, as he was now. But he dutifully packed half a dozen Hebrew National hot dogs from the fridge into a Ziploc bag as his brother laced up his work boots at the kitchen table. His brother laughed when he said that ducks probably prefer worms, or even acorns. 

“Of course they don’t, stupid,” the older boy said. “They can get that shit any time they want. They’ll only come up close for something special.”

And so the matter was settled. 

They left the Brookline Village apartment and got a Green Line subway car into the city and ended up behind the Museum of Fine Arts, which the boy’s brother had staked out as his first hunting spot. The boy loved visiting the MFA with his parents—​they let him wander the American Wing by himself, where he would pretend he was a curator giving tours, not saying the words aloud as he rehearsed them in his head, thinking he had a particular skill for describing the battle scenes. But the banks of the Muddy River were nothing like the insides of the museum. There was a thick bed of rotting leaves moving ever upward from the depths to the surface, so that the top and bottom portions of the water seemed coated in a kind of vegetal rug.

Despite the clotted water, the mallards swam with their usual grace and only looked ridiculous or put out when they hopped up on the banks, shook themselves off, and began to waddle. Yet they kept their distance from the boy and his brother, ignoring the hot dogs that had been placed upon a low-​cut stump, which was supposed to serve as a table: a new and tempting experience for the mallards, the boy thought.

“Fuck,” the boy’s brother announced after an hour. “This isn’t working. We should try some rocks.” The boy knew what a star pitcher his brother was. Everyone did. He wondered what a rock hitting against a mallard’s head would sound like. But the more his brother threw, the more he missed and the angrier he got, until one wild pitch hit a squirrel in the face, causing the boy to scream before he knew he had done so. The mallards scattered, and the boy felt his brother glaring at him. 

“Maybe you should just go home. This is man stuff.”

The boy looked imploringly, but the directive remained the same.

“Go.”

He began heading back to the T. He was allowed to ride home on his own, sometimes, but now he felt himself rallying, wishing to prove himself to his brother just as his brother was proving himself to those mysterious boys who were older still. Maybe he could get a duck foot of his own and become the youngest-​ever member of that strange club. He didn’t know how it worked. But he patted the breast pocket of his flannel shirt and felt his standard packet of sour-​cream-​and-​onion potato chips there, so he had provisions for an extended journey. He turned around and made his way toward Copley Square, a journey that he figured would take several hours but required a mere twenty minutes. It was good to be feeling older. 

The boy liked the excitement of Marathon Monday. Usually his father took him and his brother to Cleveland Circle, near Boston College, because that’s where his father had first gone to school. The boy was proud of that. He felt his excitement growing as he encountered more and more groups of people, many of them drinking beers like his dad did, which was okay since the day was a kind of celebration. Otherwise he would have been in school. 

No one stopped him as he walked along, threading his way through an ever-​thickening crowd, with everyone looking everywhere save toward the ground, which he was quite low to. He heard two explosions, close together, like cannons, or maybe really old-​fashioned guns, and looked around for the Foxborough Minutemen, who fired their rifles when the Patriots scored a touchdown at home games. The boy was glad the Foxborough Minutemen had been imported here—​that was a word he had just learned in school—but as he kept walking, he saw that maybe they hadn’t been imported after all, and that something very different had happened. 

He was surprised by how different real blood looked than TV blood. Perhaps it was on account of the sun. People were running, but not in the way he had expected. Large men were running, and then they were carrying other large men, and smaller men, and women, first racing in one direction and then the other. Every-one looked to the ground, to see either what had spilled out of them, or whom, instead, they should pick up and run off with. He, too, thought he should pick up something. Then he could head in the direction of the Public Garden, where he had fed the mallards many times, and which was his brother’s back-​up plan in terms of his assignment for the club.

The object resembled the hot dogs he had earlier loaded into the Ziploc bag. It was browner, though, ruddy, and for some reason it made him think of autumn. He had never held a finger like this, not even his little brother’s when it was extended toward him in a baby’s version of a handshake. It didn’t seem right to leave it there, alone and unattended. And as the theme of the day had clearly shifted to one of scooping up and retreating, he scooped up this portion of a person that he thought would otherwise go unnoticed, put it in his left pants pocket, and began to sprint to the Public Garden. Maybe his brother would be there as well.

The Public Garden was mostly empty, something he had never seen before. He pressed on to the Common, where the soldiers were now marching. They moved in units and reminded him of the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, but these troopers were not encased in white plastic, but rather mottled garments comprised of swampy light blues, copperhead reds, and milky greens. He was scared of the soldiers. They moved rapidly, unstoppably, it seemed, and he did not wish to be caught underfoot. His brother was nowhere in sight, and the idea came to him to climb to the top of the hill at the center of the Common, where the obelisk was. 

He had done so many times, and enjoyed the view of the city, imagining himself a mapmaker from the olden days. Now the air smelled acrid, and he saw smoke back in the direction from which he had come. It was a smell he normally enjoyed, as it made him think of the time he and his father had gone to the North Shore for a picnic, just the two of them, where they sat out on a sloping cliff above the Atlantic, watching the lobstermen pull up their traps, the boy enjoying the smell of the sea and the smoke that drifted in from a nearby brush fire. He asked his father why someone would burn the trees and vegetation in his yard, and his father had an answer that confused the boy, but one which he mulled over from time to time. “Sometimes things can only grow because something else isn’t there anymore.”

The boy asked his father if the same was true of people. 

“No. Not like that. But other things can grow that way. Just different than we expect.” 

He patted the packet of chips in his shirt pocket, unsure if he should pat his pants in the same way to make sure the finger was still there. The obelisk stretched into the sky above him, like it was trying to escape its present location, and more and more men in their blotchy uniforms streamed through the Common in the direction of Copley Square. They took up so much room that the boy figured they would soon need the space by the obelisk where he now stood, so he set off in the direction of the Charles River, hoping he might find his brother there. He wanted to ask his advice as to what he should do with the object in his pocket. He paused just as he entered Beacon Hill, a quick break in his run to gather his breath and take stock. His jeans were slick and damp at the pocket. He felt moisture on the top of his thigh, so the stain was leaking that way, too. 

At the Charles, his brother was nowhere to be seen, at least not by the boathouse where they had played for years. Maybe he had already completed his mission, or perhaps he was already undertaking another one. The boy wished he was old enough to have a cell phone of his own, so he could call his parents. But then again, this was his mission, and though he admitted to being scared, he felt more like an adult than he ever had before. Even more than the time his mother took him and his brother to a McDonald’s way out in Attle-borough, and, clutching the biggest book he had ever seen under his arm—​a library book on coin collecting and numismatics, which he had resolved to become an expert on—​he had remarked that it was most important to get a good education. That his brother laughed and gave him a charley-​horse punch in the thigh did not matter. 

He sat on the edge of the dock behind the boathouse and summoned all of his courage to reach into his pocket and retrieve the object that had been leaking there. It felt congealed in his hand, like wet Silly Putty, and looked more gray and smoky than before, as though it had been living in an ashtray. He placed it on the planking of the deck and looked out hopefully to the nearby mallards, trying to cajole them closer with his eyes and this most singular of offerings. If hot dogs had the effect on mallards that his brother so ardently desired, there was no telling what would occur now. 

The drake who finally came over almost moved him to tears. Tears had been close for a while, but when the boy was running, the force of the air against his face seemed to drive them back into his head, and he knew it would soon be time to run again. The drake looked at him, not even uttering its signature quack. And the boy, retrieving the finger and returning it to its stronghold, offered the duck some of the chips from his breast pocket, scattering them into the Charles. And he began to run again, with the silvery Mylar heat blankets that were normally draped over the shoulders of the runners blowing down Charles Street like spastic tumbleweeds. 

The last time he had been at Mass General, a five-​minute run from the boathouse, was when he had a temperature of 105. On that occasion his father, who was normally placid in medical matters, had an alarmed look on his face, which frightened the boy, even as he felt no pain, almost as if he had gotten so sick as to go to a place beyond it. Which is maybe why his father looked the way he did.

He wandered down to the same emergency room. There was blood on the linoleum tiles like the blood on the street where he had expected to find the pretend Minutemen imported from Foxborough. He waited for hours, no one paying any attention to him, as doctors and hospital staff yelled, raced, and people in tatters screamed, howled—​those who could, at least. Ordinarily, he would have been sleepy, but he knew this was not a place where sleep would come, not intentional sleep, for a very long time. 

When the emergency room finally began to look like a regular emergency room, the boy made his move over to the nurses’ station, feeling more scared than ever. The nurse looked down, surprised to find him there, having managed not to see him for even a single moment during all of those hours. She asked him who he was looking for. He reached into his pocket, which was now quite dry, its insides feeling like limestone, and put the object he had been guarding on top of the desk before him. 

“What is this, dear?” the nurse asked. He told her it was a finger that he had come to give to the person who was missing it. He had done his best. The nurse picked up the object and poked at it. She arose and walked around to the front of the nurses’ station, crouching down before the boy. She looked him firmly in the eyes. The boy believed that the eyes made all of the difference in serious matters, and he tried to look into the nurse’s now. 

“This is a cigar, sweetie. It’s just a cigar. Can you see that now? See? I promise. Come here. You poor thing.”

She put her arms around him, and he began to cry now that the wind wasn’t in his face. He didn’t notice her smell of stale coffee, only that he felt both older and younger at once, and very confused because he knew that this was not something his brother or his father would be able to explain to him, and nothing had ever seemed like that before. He had his own club now, he figured. He always liked mallards, though, so maybe the older, tougher boys who wished to gain entry would have to set out in search of geese instead. The issue of bylaws could probably keep for the time being. 

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