That was the summer my cousin Harry came to live with us. We weren’t going anywhere that summer because the war was on. Harry’s father had to have a serious operation and go all the way to Baltimore to have it. He would be in the hospital a long time. Aunt Jean would have to go and take a room near the hospital to be with him. So Harry came to stay with us.
Harry was just my age, but I didn’t know him at all. They seldom came to any of the family gatherings. Except, of course, the funerals. Everybody, cousins and uncles and aunts and pets, people you never heard of, showed up for funerals. A goodsize family funeral was pure delight for the children, I remember. We ran free underfoot. There would be too many grownups around, and they’d be too stiff and sad and softfooted to bother about scolding children. The only thing you had to do was to behave in the church. The rest of the time, the days before and after, was all yours. And I vaguely remember Harry from those times, dark, about my size, shabby, because his branch of the family was poor, quicktempered, apt to throw a tantrum, but shy, too, as a wild animal is shy. Not timid, that is. Just not tame. I had a strange idea about him even then, the kind of notion a child will pick up and hold like a coin in the palm and flip, heads or tails, just for the fun of it. As I say, Harry and I were about the same age and size, but he had dark hair and I was redheaded; and in temperament and interests we were from the beginning just the opposite. So I used to think (if you can call the flow, the torment and joy, the visionary dance of a child’s mind thinking) that we were really the same person somehow and that when I looked at him I was really looking at myself, changed and different, strange and wonderful, the way your own face and body comes back to you as a stranger from one of the crazy mirrors in the Funhouse at the Fair.
It was just a child’s notion, and by the summer that Harry came to be with us I wasn’t a child any more and not a man either. If I remembered that idea at all it was something to laugh at. Still, like all the other cockeyed, crosseyed visions from the kneehigh world of children, it had some truth in its distortion.
Not a child any more and not yet a man. In the fall I would be sent back, according to the family custom still followed by those who could afford it, to military school. In that curious cold greenhouse the flowering from boy to man was supposed to be accomplished. I wasn’t happy about it. I had been there. Suffered and survived. Conformed and thus gained some freedom. At least that was one lesson from the world of men, though you either learned it by accident, tripped over the truth as you might bump into and fall over a piece of furniture in a dark, but known room, or you were hurt and broken. What happened was that you stifled your impulse to rebel and followed an urge to conform. Very slowly it dawned on you that you were now anonymous. Nobody knew who you really were. You were just another pale-faced, gray-uniformed body passing up and down the cold stone halls of the barracks named for an Episcopal bishop, standing in ranks, marching on the parade ground, or sitting in a classroom with your compass and sharp pencil trying to prove that Euclid was right. Meanwhile you, the real you, were far away and somewhere else. You pushed the flesh and bones that bore your name through a thousand motions and activities every day. In a while these became routine and habit, and you could prod yourself along, all the separate and integral parts, careless and thoughtless as a shepherd with a flock of calm sheep grazing. You were free as a bird or a beast. The rebels charged windmills, battered at closed doors and high walls with their bare heads and were always bloodied and always finally bowed. You never had to bow. Of course your body did obeisance to custom and ceremony. But while your flesh knelt before some honored institution your spirit was dancing jigs and hornpipes and thumbing its nose at everything under the sun.
There was another lesson to be learned, not yet but soon after, as inevitable and abstract as those theorems and corollaries of Euclid: that the other survivors were doing exactly the same thing. That would be a chilly realization when you knew that all the others, like yourself, were ghosts in the flesh, countries and counties and continents populated by gray ghosts while, invisible, the world of spirits was a tumultuous chaos. Then you’d have to learn to live with that too.
But none of these things was much on my mind when Harry came to stay with us. I just thought that it would be good to have him around and show him things. I envied and admired him by that time. He had grown tall and slender and handsome. Everyone said he looked Spanish (the last of the Spanish blood in the family) and all agreed he was the best looking one in the whole family. He had his own car he had put together out of old parts from a junk yard, and he drove it down. (I still had a bike.) He brought guns and all kinds of fishing tackle with him. Up in his part of the state there was still lots of wild, wide open country, and he had spent most of his spare time in the woods. When he arrived I helped him unload the car and carry all the stuff in the house and up to his room on the second floor. My father greeted him on the front porch and saw the rifles and the shotgun, and he didn’t say anything but welcome.
When we got everything up to his room, Harry piled it all in a corner and flopped down on the big double bed and smoked. (I wasn’t allowed to smoke yet.)
“Daddy must like you a lot,” I said.
“How come? Why do you say that?”
“He doesn’t allow any guns in the house. But he didn’t say a word when he saw yours.”
Harry laughed. “He doesn’t care. He just feels superior and doesn’t care.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s it.”
“Or,” Harry went on, ignoring my idea, “maybe he just feels sorry for me. That makes me sick. It’s exactly the same thing as feeling superior.”
“I just think he wants you to feel at home.”
“Well, it’s a damn good thing,” Harry said. “If he said anything about my guns I would’ve turned right around and hopped in the car and left.”
“Where would you go to?”
Everything I said seemed to tickle Harry. He laughed at that too.
“Somewhere. Oh, I’d go somewhere,” he said. He bounced up and down on the bed and then turned over on his stomach. “You know? I think I’m going to like it here. This has got my room at home beat a mile.”
We were off for a summer of it, it seemed. Harry bad lots of tales and plots and plans and ideas. Harry was bored and restless, fidgety and as calm as a stone in the sun at the same time. Harry had caught tarpon all by himself off the east coast, and he had killed more than one buck in the woods. He was a strange and wonderful kind of blood kin to have. He could make you want to show him everything you cared about in the whole county, and as you were showing it to him you knew all the time he’d be scornful and either by laughter or silence make you ashamed of every bit of it and yourself. Beautiful things could turn shoddy and cheap from one of his skeptical glances. He could laugh about anything. He even got the giggles when we went to St. Luke’s Cathedral for Holy Communion. He held it all back while we were still kneeling at the altar, but when we went out the side door to go back to our pew, he ducked in the dark little room where they keep the vestments for the acolytes and started to laugh.
“What’s the matter?”
“I can’t help it,” he said. “I got to thinking that’s probably the only way I’ll get a drink the whole time I’m here.”
“Don’t you care?”
“Listen,” he said. “If God was to walk in this room right now, I’d thumb my nose at Him.”
Harry was brave, there was no doubt about that. He would take any kind of a dare my friends and I could come up with. He dived off the top of a high light pole at Rock Springs and he didn’t break his neck. He drove his car wide open up and down the main drag through all the red lights and the cops couldn’t catch him. (Not then, anyway. They knew whose car it was all right.) He did whatever he felt like whenever he felt like it.
He used to talk a lot about wanting to be in the Army. (The real Army. He scorned military school.)
“I’ll be glad when I can get in,” he said. “I know everything there is about guns and I can really shoot a rifle.”
The proof of that was that whenever he felt cranky and like being alone, he’d go down to the lake at the end of the street and shoot at snapping turtles. When they poked their little black heads above the surface he’d fire one shot and hit one most every time.
I thought it was fun to have him around.
That same summer Joe Childs came back from reform school. He was a lot older than we were, but he had been in the same grade with me all through the public schools until I went away to military school and he got sent off to the reform school at Raiford for trying to set fire to somebody’s house. He was one of the barefooted, shambling, overage, shaggy-haired, snaggletoothed, dulleyed cracker boys who always came to school in overalls and never took a bath. They brought their lunch in paper bags and ate outside under the trees by themselves instead of in the lunchroom where everybody else ate. Cornbread usually. They bullied everybody else, carried knives, were cruel to Negroes, cripples, stray dogs, and old maids. They smoked in the latrines. When they got caught at it the Principal beat them on the bare skin with a piece of rubber hose. But they were famous for never hollering or breaking into tears.
“Him? I don’t pay him no never mind. My old man draws blood when he swings a strap.”
Joe Childs was big and ugly and slow-witted. He bad a lazy yellow smile all the time, but he could be cruel. When we were still in grammar school and his age and size made a lot more difference, he used to make some of us bring him a meat sandwich every day. If we didn’t he beat us up. I used to beg my mother and Edna, the cook, for a meat sandwich. If they wouldn’t make one for me I’d either have to play hookey that day or take a beating. I’d go dragging to school with my heart in my throat like a wad of sour grease and my feet like two heavy lead weights. It was hard to go ahead and go when you knew you were bound to take a beating.
Finally, after a long time of it, I broke down and told them why I had to have a meat sandwich every day.
My mother was really angry and all for telling the Principal, but the funny thing was that my father didn’t get mad at all.
“That poor boy hasn’t got anybody looking after him,” he said. “Tell Edna to fix a meat sandwich every morning.”
I’ll never know, I guess, whether that was the right thing or not, or whether that was just feeling superior and sorry at the same time the way Harry said. At the time, anyway, it was a great relief. My father carefully explained to me that Joe Child’s father was a veteran of the First World War. He had been gassed and he couldn’t do much work any more. His wife had run away and disappeared when Joe was still a baby. He drank a lot.
When Joe Childs got back from reform school, or anyway the first we knew about it was the day when some of us were out at the Old Fairgrounds playing ball. (Harry didn’t come with us. He couldn’t see any point in games.) Joe Childs came running up out of a pit they had dug there years before, before the Depression, to put in a big municipal swimming pool. All they did was dig a hole in the ground. There were two other guys running along with Joe Childs, There were five of us, and I was standing with my back to the bushes around the pit knocking flies out to the others. I heard somebody or something thrashing in the bushes behind me and I twisted around to see what it was. And there stood Joe Childs, smiling that lazy yellow smile, and there were the two others, strangers to the town, on either side of him.
“Chuck me the ball.” That was the first thing he said.
I threw it to him and he bounced it in his palm a few times and then put it in his pocket.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take the bat too.”
I wasn’t going to give him the bat even if it meant a fight. He was big, but we had them five to three, and the other guys had run in from field and gathered around me.
“Don’t you hear me, boy?”
I put the bat in my hands like a club.
“You’ll have to take it if you want it.”
All three of them reached in their pockets at one time and came up with big, long-bladed jack knives. I had had knives pulled on me before, and I was scared as soon as the sunlight bit the open blades and glanced off them brightly. All of them grinned at our surprise.
“Go on and give him the bat.”
I handed it to him and he pushed me down.
“We don’t want no kids from town coming out here and playing ball,” he said. “You come out here again and we’ll cut you wide open. Get!”
We turned around and started to walk across the field to where our bikes were parked, downcast and mad.
“Run, godamn you! Run!”
And we ran all the way to our bikes, hopped on and pedaled away for all we were worth until we were out of sight.
I told Harry all about it that evening.
“You just let them walk over you like that?”
“What else could we do?”
“I’ll tell you what you can do,” he said. “You get another bat and a ball from somewhere and go back out there tomorrow afternoon.”
“We couldn’t do that.”
“Don’t worry,” Harry said, laughing. “I’ll come along too. Let’s see if they’ll try and pull a knife on me.”
The next afternoon we piled in Harry’s car and drove out to the lonely Old Fairgrounds. We started to play ball in the same spot. We played a little while, so tense and waiting for what we knew was going to happen we could hardly catch or hit the ball. Pretty soon, sure enough, the three of them came running out of the pit, blundering through the bushes like runaway animals. This time they had their knives out already.
“I thought I done told youall,” Joe Childs said. He was red in the face he was so mad.
Harry came walking straight toward the three of them.
“What’s the matter with you, waterhead?”
That made Joe Childs even madder. He did have a big head. He started for Harry, but before he could even move a couple of steps Harry calmly reached in his pocket and took out a little pistol. I didn’t even know he had it with him. No wonder he was so sure of himself! He didn’t wait or just wave it around either. When he pulled it out he shot— WHAM! Every one of us jumped—about an inch or so in front of Joe Childs’ bare foot. The three of them stopped like somebody had jerked them backwards on a leash. Joe Childs turned as pale as the belly of a catfish. One of his buddies broke out in a sweat all over and the other one wet his pants.
“Throw down them knives.”
They dropped them in the grass.
“Okay,” Harry said. “Let’s all go down in the pit.”
We picked up the knives and followed behind him. He marched them down in the pit and made them line up in a row with their hands up in the air. Just like the movies. We saw that they had built themselves a lean-to shack down there, and there were cans and bottles all around. They must have been living there. “You know what you are?” Harry said. They didn’t say anything. The one who had wet his pants shook his head, but none of them said a thing.
“You’re trash, white trash,” he said. “I’d just as soon shoot you as not. Understand that?” They all nodded.
“Now,” he said. “All together: We’re trash! We’re trash! We’re trash!”
They stood in front of him with their hands in the air and shouted over and over again that they were trash until Harry got tired of laughing and listening to them. He grabbed hold of my arm and pushed me right in front of Joe Childs, “All right,” he said. “Hit him.”
I had been raised never to hit anyone first and especially somebody who couldn’t hit you back. I couldn’t do it. But Harry kept yelling in my ear until I finally hit him in the face. “Hit him! I didn’t say tap him. Hit him!” I hit him a little harder. Joe Childs shook his head and had to spit on the ground. Harry kept on nagging at me until I hit the other two. The last one I really teed-off on and he sat down. One by one we had to hit them, and after the first go around we began to get in the mood for it. We were possessed by it. Round and around we went, hitting them until their faces were all cut and bruised and bloody, and they were begging us to quit. When they wouldn’t get up off the ground to be hit again we kicked them until they would. We hit them until our hands hurt. When their faces got too bad we hit them in the stomach and the ribs. They got sick all over the ground and cried like babies.
In the end, once we had really got going, Harry had a hard time stopping us. They just lay on the ground and moaned. The strange thing was that all of us, who hadn’t even dreamed of doing anything like that before, felt wild and exhilarated and good about it.
Harry kicked the lean-to over and we jumped up and down on it and smashed it to pieces. Then we piled everything they had on top of it and stuffed magazines and paper in wads underneath.
“You,” Harry said to Joe Childs, prodding him with the point of his shoe. “Get up.”
He struggled to his feet and moaned. He staggered and looked like a bear or a dog trying to walk on its hind legs, and we laughed at him.
“You’re the one that plays with fire, ain’t you?”
He kept both hands over his face and mumbled something.
Harry gave him a pack of matches and told him to start a fire. He knelt with trembling fingers and touched a match to the wadded paper. It caught and the dry wood caught too, and then there was a good crackling fire. After everything was burning good we made them empty their pockets and throw everything on the fire. Then we took them out of the pit and mode them run, across the fairgrounds and away from town. They were weak, running and falling down. We yelled and hooted after them, and Harry shot at them a couple of times, over their heads. They picked up a great burst of speed when he did that, and we got to laughing so hard we fell on the ground and rolled over and over.
Then we climbed in Harry’s car and drove it as fast as it would go, wildly, out in the country and all over the county. We laughed and sang and joked. It was just like being drunk.
It was only late that night when I was alone in my room trying to get to sleep that I started to feel real bad about it. I got up and went down the hall to Harry’s room and woke him up to talk about it. He sat right up when I touched him, switched on the bedside light and smoked and listened to me. He laughed at my doubts and shame.
“They asked for it, didn’t they, pulling knives like that?”
“Sure,” I said. “It isn’t that simple, though. It isn’t that I feel sorry for them or anything, They probably would do the same to us if they could. It’s just I didn’t know I had it in me to act like that. We all went kind of crazy. I didn’t know I could do like that. I didn’t know I could enjoy it.”
The answer he gave me has stuck, because, in a curious way, in the next years the whole world seemed to be asking itself the same question and getting the same answer. And once tasted, that doubt and shame is with you, on your tongue always. Harry puffed on his cigarette and looked at me. For once he wasn’t smiling.
“Now you know,” he said.
That ought to be the end of it, but isn’t. I don’t know how I would have ended up feeling about Harry and myself if he had stayed on for the rest of the summer. I never found out. A few days later he got a telegram that his father was in a bad way, and he had to go to Baltimore. My father bought him a ticket on the plane and he left. And I didn’t see him again. His father lived on through the summer and didn’t die until I was already back at military school and couldn’t come back for the funeral. I wrote to him that I was sorry to hear about that, but I didn’t get any answer.
Of course I thought about him and that one terrible thing we had done a lot. Since he wasn’t there any more except as I chose to remember him, I usually made him the villain of the story, the one who had put us up to it, rather than simply the one who had made me see the potential of evil and violence in myself. For which, I guess, I should have been grateful.
Then along towards Christmas, not too long before vacation, I got a letter from home which said that Harry had accidentally killed himself on a hunting trip. That seemed strange because he knew so much about guns and how to take care of himself. And I knew that the truth must be that he had killed himself, though I couldn’t have said why. Except that maybe he knew too much about himself and other people too early.
But the strangest thing of all was how I felt when I surmised this. At first I was just plain numb, the way you always are about confronting a brute and sudden fact. But then one night after taps and the midnight bedcheck, the beam of the flashlight crisscrossing our tranquil faces, I sat up in the cold dark and cried silently. It was a great deep loss to me all of a sudden. As much as I hated the memory of what had happened in the summer and still burned with shame at the injustice of his scorn and laughter, I felt that something had been taken away, stolen from me, that in some wordless way he had cheated me. I wept like a woman deceived and forsaken by a lover.
Then I felt better and turned over and went to sleep.