All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota. His name was Bobby Cole. He was a sweet-looking kid and by that I mean he had eyes that seemed full of dreaming and he wore a half smile as if he was just about to understand something you’d spent an hour trying to explain. I should have known him better, been a better friend. He lived not far from my house and we were the same age. But he was two years behind me in school and might have been held back even more except for the kindness of certain teachers. He was a small kid, a simple child, no match at all for the diesel-fed drive of a Union Pacific locomotive.
It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus. He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end maybe that’s what the summer was about. I was no older than Bobby and didn’t understand such things then. I’ve come four decades since but I’m not sure that even now I fully understand. I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God.
Moonlight pooled on the bedroom floor. Outside the chirr of crickets and other night bugs gave life to the dark. It was not yet July but already hot as blazes. That may have been why I was awake. In 1961 no one but the rich in New Bremen had air conditioning. During the day most folks battled the heat by closing their curtains against the sun and at night fans drew in the promise of cooler air. In our house there were only two fans and neither was in the bedroom I shared with my brother.
As I tossed about on top of the sheet trying to get comfortable in the heat the telephone rang. My father often said that nothing good came of phone calls in the middle of the night. He answered them anyway. I figured it was simply another part of his job, another part of all the things my mother hated about what he did. The telephone sat on a small table in the hallway outside my room. I stared at the ceiling and listened to the brittle ring until the hall light came on.
Across the room Jake shifted in his bed and I heard the frame squeak.
My father said, “Any damage?” Then he said, tired and polite, “I’ll be there in a few minutes. Thank you, Cleve.”
I was out of bed and trotting into the hallway before he hung up. His hair was wild from sleep, his cheeks shadowed blue with stubble. His eyes were weary and sad. He wore a T-shirt and striped boxer shorts.
“Go back to sleep, Frank,” he told me.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s too hot and I’m already awake. Who was it?”
“A police officer.”
“Is somebody hurt?”
“No.” He closed his eyes and put the tips of his fingers against his lids and rubbed. “It’s Gus.”
He nodded and yawned.
“Go back to bed.”
“Can I go with you?”
“I told you, go back to bed.”
“Please. I won’t be in the way. And I can’t sleep now anyway.”
“Keep your voice down. You’ll wake everybody.”
He had energy enough to rise and meet his duty but not the strength to blunt the assault of a thirteen-year-old looking for adventure in the middle of an oppressive summer night. He said, “Get dressed.”
Jake was sitting on the edge of his bed. He already had his shorts on and was pulling up his socks.
I said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“With you and Dad.” He knelt and in the dark under his bed dug for his sneakers.
“You said hell,” he said, still digging.
“You’re not going, Howdy Doody.”
He was younger than me by two years and two heads shorter. Because he had red hair and freckles and freakish ears that stood out like the handles on a sugar bowl people in New Bremen sometimes called him Howdy Doody. When I was pissed at him I called him Howdy Doody too.
“You’re not the b-b-b-boss of me,” he said.
Jake almost always stuttered in public but around me he only stuttered when he was mad or scared.
“No,” I replied, “but I can p-p-p-pound the crap out of you any time I want.”
He found his sneakers and began to put them on.
Night was the dark of the soul and being up in an hour when the rest of the world was dead with sleep gave me a sinful thrill. My father often ventured out like this on some lonely mission but I’d never been allowed to go. This was special and I didn’t want to share it with Jake. I’d already wasted precious time however so I left off arguing and got myself dressed.
My brother was waiting in the hall when I came out. I intended to argue with him some more but my father slipped from his bedroom and shut the door behind him. He looked at Jake as if about to say something unpleasant. Instead he sighed and signaled us both to go before him down the stairs.
Outside the crickets were kicking up a frenzy. Fireflies hung in the still black air flickering on and off like the slow blink of dreamy eyes. As we walked to the garage our shadows glided before us, black boats on a silver sea of moonlight.
“Shotgun,” Jake said.
“Ah, come on. You’re not even supposed to be here.”
“I called it.”
Which was the rule. In New Bremen, a town platted and populated by Germans, rules were abided by. Even so I complained until my father broke in. “Jake called it,” he said. “End of discussion, Frank.”
We piled into the car, a 1955 Packard Clipper the color of canned peas that my mother had named Lizzie. She christened every automobile we ever owned. A Studebaker she called Zelda. A Pontiac Star Chief was Little Lulu after the comic book character. There were others but her favorite—the favorite of us all except my father—was that Packard. It was huge and powerful and elegant. It had been a gift from my grandfather and was a source of contention between my parents. Though he never came right out and said so I believe it hurt my father’s pride to accept such an extravagant gift from a man he didn’t particularly like and whose values he openly challenged. I understood even then that my grandfather considered my father a failure and not good enough for my mother. Dinner when these two sat at the same table was usually a storm about to break.
We pulled out and drove through the Flats which was what we called the part of New Bremen where we lived. It lay along the Minnesota River below the Heights where the wealthy families resided. There were a lot of people living above us who weren’t rich but no one with money lived on the Flats. We drove past Bobby Cole’s house. Like all the others we passed it was totally dark. I tried to wrap my thinking around the fact of his death which had occurred the day before. I’d never known a kid who died and it felt unnatural and sinister, as if Bobby Cole had been snatched by a monster.
“Is Gus in t-t-trouble?” Jake asked.
“Some but not serious,” my father replied.
“He didn’t bust up anything?”
“Not this time. He got into a fight with another fellow.”
“He does that a lot.”
“Only when he’s drunk,” I said from the backseat. Making excuses for Gus was usually a responsibility that fell to my father but he was noticeably silent.
“He’s drunk a lot then,” Jake said.
“Enough.” My father held up a hand and we shut up.
We drove Tyler Street and turned onto Main. The town was dark and full of delicious possibility. I knew New Bremen as well as I knew my own face but at night things were different. The town wore another face. The city jail sat on the town square. It was the second oldest building in New Bremen after the First Evangelical Lutheran Church. Both were built of the same granite quarried just outside town. My father parked diagonally in front of the jail.
“You two stay here,” he said.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
He shot me a killing look.
“Sorry. I can’t hold it.”
He gave in so easily I knew he must have been dead tired. “Come on, then. You too, Jake.”
I’d never been inside the jail but it was a place that had always appealed greatly to my imagination. What I found was a small drab room lit by fluorescent tubes and not much different in most respects from my grandfather’s real estate office. There were a couple of desks and a file cabinet and a bulletin board with posters. But there was also along the east wall a holding cell with bars and the cell held a prisoner.
“Thanks for coming, Mr. Drum,” the officer said.
They shook hands. Dad introduced us. Officer Cleve Blake appeared to be younger than my father and wore gold wire-rim glasses and behind them were blue eyes that had an unsettling frankness. Even though it was the middle of a night humid as hell he looked clean and neat in his uniform.
“A little late for you boys to be out, isn’t it?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” I said to the officer. “Too hot.”
Jake said nothing, which was his usual strategy when he was concerned that he might stutter in public.
I recognized the guy in the cell. Morris Engdahl. A bad sort. Black hair slicked in a ducktail and fond of black leather jackets. He was a year older than my sister who’d just graduated from high school. Engdahl didn’t finish school. The story I’d heard was that he was kicked out for crapping in the locker of a girl who’d turned him down for a date. He drove the coolest set of wheels I’d ever seen. A black 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe with suicide doors and a shiny chrome grille and chrome exhaust and big whitewall tires and flames painted along its sides so that fire ran the length of the car.
“Well, if it ain’t Frankfarter and Howdy D-D-D-Doody,” he said. He had a shiner and when he talked his words came out slurred through a fat lip. From behind the bars he settled his mean eyes on Jake. “How’s it g-g-going, retard?”
Jake had been called all sorts of things because of his stutter. I figured it had to get to him but usually all he did was clam up and stare.
“Jake’s not retarded, Mr. Engdahl,” my father said quietly. “He simply stutters.”
I was surprised Dad knew Morris Engdahl. They didn’t exactly run in the same circles.
“No sh-sh-sh-shit,” Engdahl said.
“That’s enough, Morris,” Officer Blake said.
My father gave Engdahl no more notice and asked the officer what it was all about.
The officer shrugged. “Two drunks, a wrong word. Like putting a match to gasoline.”
“I ain’t no drunk.” Engdahl sat hunched over on the edge of a long metal bench and stared at the floor as if contemplating the advisability of puking there.
“And he’s not old enough to be drinking in a bar, Cleve,” my father pointed out.
“I’ll be talking to the folks at Rosie’s about that,” the officer replied.
Behind a door in the back wall a toilet flushed.
“Much damage?” my father asked.
“Mostly to Morris. They took it out to the parking lot.”
The door in the back wall opened and a man walked out still working at the zipper on his pants.
“Doyle, I was just telling these folks how you came to bring in Engdahl and Gus.”
The other man sat down and put his feet on the desk. He wasn’t dressed in a uniform but from his look of comfort in that jailhouse I understood he was a policeman too. He said, “Yeah I was off duty at Rosie’s. Watched ’em going at it in the bar, mouthing off to each other. When they took it outside, I figured it was time to break up the party.”
My father spoke to Officer Blake: “All right if I take Gus home now?”
“Sure. He’s in back.” The policeman reached into the desk drawer for keys. “Crying shame about the Cole kid. I heard you spent most of yesterday with his folks.”
“Yes,” my father told him.
“I’ve got to say I’d much rather have my job than yours.”
“You know that whole thing’s got me wondering,” Doyle, the off-duty officer, said. “I’ve seen that kid on those tracks hundreds of times. He loved trains, I guess. Can’t figure how he came to get himself killed by one.”
Officer Blake said, “What do you mean?”
“I talked to Jim Gant. He was the first deputy on the scene. Gant said it looked like the kid had just been sitting on the tracks. Didn’t move at all when the train came. Real strange, you know? He wasn’t deaf.”
“Maybe he was retarded like Howdy Doody there,” Engdahl said from his cell. “Didn’t know enough to get his butt off that rail.”
Doyle said, “One more word out of you and I’m coming in there and kick your ass.”
Officer Blake found the keys he was searching for and shut the drawer. “Are they pursuing it?”
“Far as I know, nope. Officially an accident. No witnesses to say otherwise.”
Officer Blake said, “You boys stay out here. And, Morris, you behave yourself.”
My father asked, “Is it okay if my son uses your bathroom, Cleve?”
“Sure,” the officer answered. He unlocked the metal door in the back wall and led my father through.
I didn’t have to use the bathroom. It had simply been a ruse to get inside the jail. I was afraid Doyle might make a point of it, but he didn’t seem at all interested.
Jake stood staring hard at Engdahl. Staring knives.
“What are you looking at, retard?”
“He’s not retarded,” I said.
“Yeah and your sister’s not a harelip and your old man’s not a friggin’ pussy.” He laid his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
I asked Doyle, “What did you mean about Bobby?”
He was tall and lean and looked tough as jerky. He wore his hair in a crew cut and his head was shiny with sweat from the heat of the night. He had ears every bit as big as Jake’s but he wasn’t the kind of guy anybody in their right mind would dare call Howdy Doody. He said, “You know him?”
“Nice kid, right? But slow.”
“Slow enough he couldn’t get out of the way of that train,” Engdahl said.
“Shut up, Engdahl.” Doyle looked back at me. “You play on the tracks?”
“No,” I lied.
He looked at Jake. “You?”
“No,” I answered for Jake.
“Good thing. Because there are bums down there. Men not like the decent folks in New Bremen. You ever get approached by one of them men you come straight here and tell me. Ask for Officer Doyle.”
“You think that’s what happened to Bobby?” I was thunderstruck. It would never have occurred to me that his death wasn’t an accident. But then I wasn’t a trained policeman like Officer Doyle.
He began popping the knuckles of his fingers one by one. “I’m just saying you watch out for guys drifting along those tracks. Understand?”
“Goblins’ll get you if you don’t watch out,” Engdahl said. “They love tender meat like you and Retard.”
Doyle stood up. He walked to the cell and motioned Morris Engdahl to come to the bars. Engdahl drew his whole self onto the bench and pressed to the wall.
“That’s what I thought,” Doyle said.
The metal door opened and Officer Blake came out. My father followed. He supported Gus who was stumbling. Gus seemed drunker than Engdahl but there wasn’t a mark on him.
“You’re really letting him go?” Engdahl said. “That’s friggin’ unfair.”
“I called your father,” the officer said. “He told me a night in jail would do you good. Take it up with him.”
“Get the door, Frank,” my father said and then looked at the officer. “Thank you, Cleve. I appreciate this.”
“Keeps things around here simpler. But, Gus, you’ve got to watch yourself. The chief’s at the end of his rope with you.”
Gus grinned drunkenly. “He wantsa talk to me, tell him I’ll be happy to discuss it over a beer.”
I held the door and my father hauled Gus out. I looked back where Morris Engdahl sat on the hard bench. Now, forty years later, I realize that what I saw was a kid not all that much older than me. Thin and angry and blind and lost and shut up behind iron bars not for the first time or the last. I probably should have felt for him something other than I did, which was hatred. I closed the door.
At the car Gus straightened up suddenly and turned to my father. “Thanks, Captain.”
“Get in the car.”
Gus said, “What about my motorcycle?”
“Where is it?”
“You can get it tomorrow when you’re sober. Get in the car.”
Gus swayed a little. He looked up at the moon. His face was bloodless in the pale light. “Why does he do it, Captain?”
“God. Why does he take the sweet ones?”
“He takes us all in the end, Gus.”
“But a kid?”
“Is that what the fight was about? Bobby Cole?”
“Engdahl called him a retard, Captain. Said he was better off dead. I couldn’t let it pass.” Gus shook his head in a bewildered way. “So how come, Captain?”
“I don’t know, Gus.”
“Isn’t that your job? Knowing the why of all this crap?” Gus seemed disappointed. Then he said, “Dead. What’s that mean?”
Jake spoke up. “It means he won’t have to w-w-worry about everybody making f-f-f-fun of him.”
Gus eyed Jake and blinked. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s the reason. What do you think, Captain?”
Gus nodded as if that had satisfied him. He bent toward the open car door to get into the back seat but instead stood there making awful retching sounds.
“Ah, Gus. All over the upholstery,” my father said.
Gus straightened up and pulled his shirttail from his pants and wiped his mouth. “Sorry, Captain. Didn’t see it coming.”
“Get in front,” my father said. He turned to me. “Frank, you and Jake are going to have to walk home. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, sir. We’ll be fine. But could we have the tire iron from the trunk? For protection?”
New Bremen wasn’t at all the kind of town where you’d need a tire iron for protection but I nodded toward Jake, whose face had gone a little white at the prospect of walking home in all that dark, and my father understood. He popped the trunk and handed me the iron. “Don’t dawdle,” he said.
He climbed into the driver’s side. “You have to puke again, Gus, puke out the window. Understand?”
“I read you loud and clear, Captain.” He smiled gamely and lifted a hand to us as my father drove away.
Under the moon we stood on the empty square. The city jail was the only lit building we could see. On the opposite side of the green the courthouse clock bonged four times.
“It’ll be light in an hour,” I said.
“I don’t want to walk home,” Jake said. “I’m tired.”
“Then stay here.”
I started away. After a moment Jake came too.
We didn’t go home. Not directly. At Sandstone Street I turned off Main.
Jake said, “Where are you going?”
“I want to go home.”
“Fine. Go home.”
“I don’t want to go home alone.”
“Then come on. You’ll like this, I swear.”
A block off Main on the corner of Walnut was a bar with a sign over the door. Rosie’s. A ’53 Indian Chief with a sidecar was in the lot. Gus’s motorcycle. Only one automobile was still parked there. A black Deuce Coupe with fire painted along its sides. I approached that beauty and spent a moment running my hand admiringly over the slope of the front wheel well where a silver snake of moonlight shot along the black enamel. Then I set myself and swung the tire iron and smashed the left headlight.
“What are you doing?” Jake cried.
I walked to the other headlight and once again the sound of shattering glass broke the stillness of the night.
“Here,” I said and offered the tire iron to my brother. “The rear lights are all yours.”
“No,” he said.
“This guy called you a retard. You and Bobby Cole. And he called Ariel a harelip and Dad a pussy. You don’t want to break something on his car?”
“No.” He looked at me then at the tire iron then at the car. “Well, maybe.”
I handed that magic wand of revenge to Jake. He walked to the back of Morris Engdahl’s precious set of wheels. He glanced at me once for reassurance then swung. He missed and banged metal and the tire iron bounced out of his hands.
“Jeez,” I said. “What a spaz.”
“Let me try again.”
I picked up the tire iron and handed it to him. This time he did the deed and danced back from the spray of red glass. “Can I do the other one?” he pleaded.
When he’d finished we stood back and admired our work until we heard the screen door of the house across the street squeak open and a guy shout, “Hey, what’s going on over there?”
We tore down Sandstone back to Main and down Main toward Tyler. We didn’t stop until we hit the Flats.
Jake bent over and held his ribs. “I got a stitch in my side,” he gasped.
I was breathing hard too. I put my arm around my brother. “You were great back there. A regular Mickey Mantle.”
“Think we’ll get in trouble?”
“Who cares? Didn’t that feel good?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “It felt real good.”
The Packard was parked in the church lot across the street from our house. The light over the side door was on and I figured Dad was still inside putting Gus to bed. I set the tire iron on the Packard’s hood and we walked to the door, which opened onto a set of stairs that led to the church basement where Gus had a room next to the boiler.
Gus wasn’t related to us by blood but in a strange way he was family. He’d fought beside my father in the Second World War, an experience, my father contended, that made them closer than brothers. They stayed in touch and whenever Dad updated us on his old friend it was usually to report another in a long litany of missteps. Then one day just after we’d moved to New Bremen, Gus had shown up at our doorstep, a little drunk and out of work and with everything he owned stuffed in a pack in the sidecar of his motorcycle. My father had taken him in, given him a place to live, found him work, and Gus had been with us ever since. He was a source of great disagreement between my parents but only one of many. Jake and I liked him immensely. Maybe it was because he talked to us as if we weren’t just kids. Or because he didn’t have much and didn’t seem to want more and didn’t appear to be bothered by his questionable circumstances. Or because on occasion he drank to excess and got himself into trouble from which my father would predictably extricate him, which made him seem more like an errant older brother than an adult.
His room in the church basement wasn’t much. A bed. A chest of drawers. A night stand and lamp. A mirror. A squat three-shelf case full of books. He’d put a little red rug on the cement floor of his room that added a dash of color. There was a window at ground level but not much light came through. On the other side of the basement was a small bathroom which Dad and Gus had put in themselves. That’s where we found them. While Gus knelt at the toilet stool and puked my father stood behind him and waited patiently. Jake and I lingered under the bare bulb in the middle of the basement. My father didn’t seem to notice us.
“Still ralfing,” I whispered to Jake.
“You know. R-a-l-f,” I said and drew out the word as if I was vomiting.
“That’s it, Captain.” With some difficulty Gus stood and my father handed him a wet cloth to wipe his face.
My father flushed the toilet and walked Gus to his room. He helped Gus out of his soiled shirt and pants. Gus lay down on his bed. He wore only his undershirt and shorts. It was cooler in the basement than outside and my father drew the top sheet over his friend.
“Thanks, Captain,” Gus murmured as his eyes drifted closed.
“Go to sleep.”
Then Gus said something I’d never heard him say before. He said, “Captain, you’re still a son of a bitch. Always will be.”
“I know, Gus.”
“They’re all dead because of you, Captain. Always will be.”
Gus was snoring almost immediately. My father turned to where we stood in the middle of the basement. “Go on back to bed,” he said. “I’m going to stay and pray for a while.”
“The car’s full of puke,” I said. “Mom’ll go berserk.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
My father went up to the sanctuary. Jake and I went out the side door. I still wasn’t ready to call it a night. I sat on the front steps of the church and Jake sat there too. He was tired and leaned against me.
“What did Gus mean?” he said. “Dad killed them all. What did he mean?”
I was wondering about that too. I said, “I don’t know.”
The birds had started to chatter in the trees. Above the hills that rimmed the valley of the Minnesota River I could see a thin line of vermilion in the sky that was the approach of dawn. And I saw something else. On the other side of the street a familiar figure separated itself from the cover of the lilac bushes that edged our yard. I watched my older sister sneak across the lawn and slip into our house through the back door. Oh the secrets of the night.
I sat on the steps of my father’s church thinking how much I loved the dark. The taste of what it offered sweet on the tongue of my imagination. The delicious burn of trespass on my conscience. I was a sinner. I knew that without a doubt. But I was not alone. And the night was the accomplice of us all.
I said, “Jake?” But he didn’t answer. He was asleep.
My father would pray for a long time. It was too late for him to go back to bed and too early to fix breakfast. He was a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent and a daughter with a harelip who sneaked in at night from God knew where and a wife who resented his profession. Yet I knew it was not for himself or for any of us that he was praying. More likely it was for the parents of Bobby Cole. And for Gus. And probably for an asshole named Morris Engdahl. Praying on their behalf. Praying I suppose for the awful grace of God.