Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Age of Yearning 

 

May 25, 1987

 

I am finally putting all of this to paper because I am furious at myself. You, reader, and the rest of the community affected by the tragedy, have a right to know how and why it all went down. Poor Larry Gordon, he deserved better. But above all, I need to expunge the guilt I feel for lying about the most important friendship in my life. I lied, yes indeed, and said that my best friend is Hans Reiniger, that handsome, popular kid, and I still can’t forgive myself for that whopper.

Sorry to get so far ahead of myself.  

One afternoon a few weeks into the year, Mr. Sanders was having a hell of a time trying to get a certain sixteen-year-old to make sense out of the War of 1812.  

“Why did we go to war with Great Britain?” the teacher asked Larry Gordon, an unkempt, slightly chubby kid who seemed rarely to come to class prepared and never opened his mouth unless called upon. From my seat, I watched in growing horror as Larry fidgeted in his chair, chewing the edge of his blue ball-point pen.

“Uh . . . I guess our independence was in danger.”

“Our what? Our political independence? Our economic independence?” the teacher prodded.

“Uh . . . yeah.”

“‘Yeah’ what? Please elaborate, Larry.”

“Both!”

“And why did we feel either forms of independence threatened by the British?”

“Uh . . . ’cause they would have made us un-independent!”

Larry sat there fidgeting with the pen, and the teacher considered it a good day insofar as no ink had leaked onto the boy’s chin.

“Larry, have you done any of the reading for this class?” Mr. Sanders began to say, but then he noticed a raised hand at the other side of the room, near the radiator, which hummed mightily in the bitter winter of northeastern Massachusetts.

“Yes, Hans?” Mr. Sanders called out.

Hans Reiniger spoke.

“Well look, England and France were trading partners of the U.S. England was getting eighty percent of the cotton, and was by far the biggest partner. So from the U.S. point of view, what makes sense? We can keep selling to England at a steep markup, and threaten to move the bulk of the trade to France if they say no. England couldn’t allow that.”

“You’re absolutely right they couldn’t allow it. They imposed trade restrictions, interdicted our ships, and tensions rose!” said the teacher, striding back and forth before the class.  

Hans Reiniger, the tall, blond boy from Hamburg, Germany, grinned as he leaned back in his chair, not acknowledging the appreciative looks from girls seated near him. Hans was a handsome, quick-witted guy whose father worked as an executive for a corporation in Germany making electronic equipment, everything from the consoles for snowmobiles to cables and circuit boxes for railroads. The senior Reiniger had come to America on business, family in tow, in the December before spring semester at our high school in Wakefield. It did not take long at all for Hans to “break the ice” socially or to begin getting invitations to parties, expanding his circle far beyond the kids of his father’s American partners, boys like Paul Waddell, Curt Tipton, and yours truly—John Bela.  

I was one of the only kids who wanted anything to do with Larry Gordon, who ambled through the halls of Wakefield High in second-hand Levis, t-shirts, and checkered flannel shirts that looked like findings from a Salvation Army dive. At least Larry had made marginal improvements in his looks since the days when his habit of slicking back his dirty blond hair with gobs of Dippity-Do had earned him the nickname “Birdshit Head.” He no longer did it, but the name stuck.

My father, Richard Bela, stood around at after-work functions and cocktail parties being jovial, displaying his élan at making highballs, cracking jokes about the “trans-Atlantic partnership” the guests were celebrating until Lars Reiniger or Max Waddell clapped him on the arm and proposed that their boys should get together. My father’s position as a mid-level executive at the local subsidiary of the German giant gave me a certain stature and, by proximity, opened doors for Larry, whether the in-crowd liked it or not.  

So on a Friday night in the second week of March, when the air was still frigid enough to freeze your hair if it was a bit damp, Larry Gordon and I trundled through the mounds of snow and up the walk leading to the Waddells’ front door. On the pristine white of the yard, the red and yellow light from the windows played merrily in a rotating pattern, as the laughs and titters of kids tipsy on wine coolers or beers made Larry recall scenes, occasions when he’d been the butt of someone’s idea of humor—Hey Birdshit Head, you gonna follow the cranes south for the winter? Hey there Larry, time to change the oil in your hair. Just go down to the gas station . . .

Although he told himself it showed weakness on his part—moral weakness, was that the phrase he’d once heard?—Larry felt confident around me. My sarcasm had earned me a bit of wary respect at Wakefield High.  

Larry rang the bell. In moments, Paul Waddell’s girlfriend, Ellen Hughes, opened the door, betraying her distaste when she saw Larry there in his denim jacket a cut too large, over a ratty red sweater and dungarees. She smiled briefly at me before moving aside. To Ellen, we were like winos who’d found Saks Fifth Avenue gift certificates in the gutter.

We wandered into the living room furnished in elegant deco manner by Paul’s parents, who were in Florida for the weekend. All around were kids from Wakefield High in polo shirts, Land’s End sweaters, and khaki trousers, kids who were easy on the eyes, especially two girls whom Larry noticed immediately, chatting with Marlin Edwards, who had the cheekbones of a teenaged Peter Weller, and not a milligram of fat on his swimmer’s body. Marlin was drinking a Coors, the girls sipping wine coolers. He made no eye contact with Larry or me, did not acknowledge us as we passed to the back of the house which had been converted to a bar, where Larry recognized Curt Tipton passing beers and wine coolers over the counter. Larry pressed up as close against it as he could, but couldn’t get Curt’s attention. His annoyance shaded into anger as Curt leaned over from his side to talk with Mary Ross the moment she approached the counter. Curt handed draft beers to other kids while Larry stood there awkwardly, until finally Marlin’s swim team colleague Tom Thorne noticed his gaping and asked what Larry and I wanted.

“Hey Curt, two Buds for Four-Eyes and Birdshit Head,” Tom called across the counter with a grin.

Drinks in hand, Larry and I wandered back to the living room, then turned left into the annex where the lights were a bit dimmer. As I looked on, Larry spotted a girl with long reddish hair and a trim figure enclosed nicely within a light green sweater and a pair of faded jeans, standing apart from three bodies reclining on a couch and a cluster of kids laughing and raising plastic cups to their lips before the front window. This girl seemed shy and sensitive like Larry, uncertain about what she should be doing, and Larry wondered whom she knew here. Larry felt something like compassion as he took a few steps in the direction of the girl, who did not ignore him, but did not confer her unguarded attention either. I later heard about their exchange in detail.

“I sure envy Paul’s parents right about now. They’re drinking daiquiris and walking barefoot on the beach,” he said.

She smiled ever so faintly.

“I wonder what it’s like to be on a vacation with Paul’s dad,” the girl said.

“No kidding! What’s the term—blowhard? It’s a family of blowhards,” Larry replied.

“Just please don’t repeat that to Paul,” the girl said, looking furtively around the room.

“Hey, I’m sure nobody knows it better than Paul.”

Now she really smiled.

“Lifestyles of the rich and famous!” she said.

“Yeah, no kidding. But I wonder what kinds of tips they give to the waiters who bring them their drinks at the resorts down there. Pretty stingy, from what I’ve heard.”

The girl nodded. It was probably clear that Larry watched every penny he spent, a habit alien to the Waddell dynasty.

“You don’t go to Wakefield High, do you?”  

“No. Stephens,” she replied, referring to a school just across the state line in New Hampshire.

“I go to Wakefield and my friend’s dad knows Mr. Waddell,” he proclaimed, groping for a tangent worth pursuing as he gazed into the depths of her lucid brown eyes.

“Yes, but who are you friends with here?”

Only now did Larry realize that in the context of the earlier part of their conversation, it might be tricky to explain his presence here without sounding foolish.

“I think Marlin’s a great swimmer—have you ever watched him?”

“I told you I go to Stephens.”

“Right, I mean, like, in a meet?”

“We don’t have a swim team.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. We got an endowment for that.”

“Too bad we don’t have more blowhards sending their kids to Stephens,” she said, then without another word, turned and walked over to the cluster of kids by the window. Among them stood a tall blonde, older than the thin redhead, wearing a white shirt onto which somebody had spilled wine cooler. This guest had a wide grin with no mirth in it. Larry’s former interlocutor turned and spoke to the tall blonde, but since her back was to him, all Larry caught was part of the blonde’s answer: “So you had a [something] conversation.” The slender redhead nodded. What was the missing word? Circular? Boring? Idiotic?

Looking around the room for yours truly, Larry saw more of Marlin’s swim team pals or pretty females who ignored him altogether. Larry sauntered deeper into the annex toward where Paul Waddell was causing tsunamis of laughter. He wandered over to this cluster and gazed at Paul, smiling to indicate he was in and he was cool, but the four other kids kept laughing without a look at Larry. Realizing he might as well have been a plant for all his interaction with them, he returned to the center of the room.

“—and you’ll have to teach remedial next year!” came the conclusion to Paul’s joke, at which point his pals erupted again, drowning out Larry’s words: “Fine, ignore me. Jesus, you guys.”

Now he spotted yours truly, over in a corner, where I was smoking and drinking while trying to explain Dostoyevsky to a swimmer on a bench next to me. Closer to where Larry stood, yet another attractive girl on a couch gazed at him, a brunette with a face where a couple of stray dimples accentuated the lovely creaminess of her cheeks.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Larry,” he said, forcing a grin.

“Why are you just standing around, Larry?”

“Uh, I’m not, I’m talking to people.”

He looked at her, at the smooth femininity of those features, and thought it unfair that a girl could say whatever she liked and you couldn’t react the way you would towards a guy who insulted you.

“About what?”

“I was talking to someone about vacations and income brackets.”

“Oh really? What’s your income bracket?”

“Uh . . . I don’t know.”  

“If you don’t know your family’s income bracket, I suggest you find out,” came a voice near her on the couch.

Hans Reiniger.

Yet another enticing girl was on the German boy’s left, gazing at Larry.

At once Hans changed the topic. He said that he had witnessed an exchange, if that was the word, between Larry and a girl at Wakefield High named Sarah Metcalf, who had written a one-act play with sufficient élan to get it produced in the school’s auditorium one day in February. The entire upper school watched the play, which dealt with racial attitudes among the suburban white folk of northeastern Massachusetts, exploring the issue through a dinner conversation at the home of a girl who is dating a young black man. The girl’s parents, siblings, and a visiting uncle bring diverse attitudes to the table, as it were. In general, the play went over well, but Larry confronted Sarah in a hallway, told her his opinion of it, then took off, leaving her standing there dumfounded.

“You were pretty nasty to Sarah, you know that, Larry?”

“I really didn’t like the play. It almost seemed to be making fun of my relatives,” Larry explained.

“Yes, Larry, but don’t you think it was kind of cheap to say what you said to her and then take off like that?” the boy from Hamburg asked in his calm, carefully modulated voice.

Larry didn’t seem to get it. The eyes of the girls flanking Hans fixed on him.

“If you have something to say, you should say it and stand your ground. You shouldn’t do what you did,” Hans added.

Now Larry really had no idea what to say.

“Well I had to tell her what I thought of that play.”

“Yes, but you weren’t brave enough to give her a chance to respond. You had to do this hit-and-run thing,” Hans continued, the final word slurring ever so faintly into sing.

“Well, maybe I should write a play then,” Larry muttered before finding his way back to the counter in the hope of getting another beer, feeling those hostile looks follow him like angry bees. The three on the couch laughed hard.

 

On the outskirts of Wakefield lay a predominantly Methodist community known as Hamilton Grove, a cluster of about 300 wood-and-mortar houses, with not a single retail or wholesale business in its boundaries, a place neither urban nor in any sense rustic, just bland and claustrophobic for visitors not used to feeling caught in the gaze of all the houses whose façades faced inward toward the center of the place. Nonetheless, the good Christian folk here looked beyond their community. In true Methodist fashion, they got busy raising money through bake sales and church dinners to back relief efforts in Liberia or Haiti. Everyone knew everyone. When a local lout named Eddie Fortunato said something dumb—“Say that in a language we can all understand!”—it became the subject of knee-slapping conversation for weeks. And when Carl Bocci came shooting around a curve in his decrepit ’79 Chevy, brushing the curb where kids from the Wright and Green households were playing, it blackened that ne’er-do-well’s name in the community even further.

The young people of Hamilton Grove organized their social activities though an association directed by a thirty-year-old guy named Chuck Hart who lived in a house smack in the Grove’s center. Chuck arranged car pools to the multiplex ten miles away, dinners, camping trips. In general, he had few disciplinary problems to deal with, these were mature kids on the whole. But crises did arise.

When Larry Gordon visited the Grove, he slept over at the house of Nathan Green, whose father vaguely knew Larry’s father in the days before Parkinson’s disease had reduced the latter to a murmuring, clinically depressed wreck who spent most waking moments in front of a TV. Larry found a few of the girls cute, and he needed something to do on weekends when I declined to hang out with him, so he was often present despite his objections to the choice of a film—“Labyrinth? We’re going to see a kids’ movie?”—he exclaimed on one occasion. (The other possibilities were Aliens and Legal Eagles, deemed inappropriate by certain of the adults in Hamilton Grove.)

On a night in the middle of April, Larry was walking up a hill near Chuck’s house, the wind toying with his unruly locks while carrying the echoes of teens’ chatter and laughter. The noises drew nearer, and in a moment, he was gazing at a car, Heather Wright’s car, rolling down the hill at three or four miles an hour with kids riding on the outside—Kim Fairbanks, Steve Rawls, and Nathan Green. Without thinking, Larry called out a greeting and deposited himself on the hood of the car next to Steve, prompting the others to scream for him to get off at once because Heather couldn’t see. Hurt and embarrassed, he got down and followed the car to the bottom of the hill, where it turned and made a right in the direction of Chuck’s little house. Kids sat on the porch, refraining from smoking in deference to Chuck, and Larry saw that Carl Bocci was here, though Carl should have realized what the chances were of any of the girls talking to him. Larry ambled over and reclined on the steps as  the four from the car came over, and it was at this point that he noticed faces peering from a couple of the windows in the larger house across the driveway. According to Heather, they were children visiting Hamilton Grove under the auspices of Camp Glendale.

“Would you keep it down out there? We can’t sleep,” came the voice of one of the little girls at the window nearest Chuck’s house. Faces at another window watched silently, giving Larry a flash of continuity with other situations in his life. Without answering the girl, he got up off the porch and began pacing before the driveway.

“Leave us alone,” said Kim, from her position near the top of the steps of Chuck’s house.

“This isn’t your personal campsite, you got that?” Larry shouted.

“We can’t sleep! Why don’t you all go home?” the girl cried.

Shut up!

Within moments, a pair of women in their late twenties emerged from the larger house, speaking to one another about the transgressions of the four- and five-year-olds in their charge.

“One of them said ‘hell’!”

“One of them said ‘damn’!”

“No, don’t worry, I think it was ‘darn’.”

Faces still gazed down from the windows of the long brown building.

“You made a little girl cry,” one of them admonished the teens on Chuck’s steps.

Kim Fairbanks, a plump girl known to act with an authority beyond her years, descended from the porch and told the two counselors that this was not the first time Hamilton Grove had had to deal with Glendalers. After exchanging whispers and casting vicious looks at the teens, the counselors retreated into the building, where the girls’ faces vanished and the lights went out.

The next day, Larry rose early and had several bowls of cereal in the humble kitchen of Nathan Green’s house before ambling along the dirt road toward Chuck’s place, where he found three kids lolling on the porch in the sun, along with Chuck. Though they were all staring at Larry, no one spoke. He stood there bewildered in the strong light until Chuck got up, approached, and asked Larry to follow him. He walked with the balding thin man away from the porch, and then the youth leader turned and faced him, and all was still and quiet in Hamilton Grove as Chuck said:

“We heard there was an incident with the Glendalers last night, and rocks were thrown at their building, and you and Carl were the ones doing it.”

Larry gazed into the organizer’s face, weathered like a Nantucket fisherman’s.

“That’s outrageous,” he heard himself say. “Who told you that?”

“That’s what we heard,” Chuck repeated.

“Heard from who?”

Chuck’s look said That part doesn’t concern me.

The kids on the porch were staring and Larry found nothing more to say.

 

The following weekend, Larry took up my invitation to come over to my house and get drunk. Imagine Larry’s surprise at finding that Hans Reiniger and Paul Waddell were with me, drinking Budweisers while watching a basketball game in the dim light of the living room. I’d had a hunch that one or both of the latter guests might not be cool with my decision to invite Larry, whom I pitied, particularly after hearing in detail about what happened at the Grove. But if there were objections, they didn’t reach my ears.

“Larry’s coming over. Cool, man. Here’s to a month and a half to freedom!” Paul said.  

When Larry walked into the living room, he accepted a beer before sliding into the round bean bag chair beside the couch where the tall, attractive boy from Hamburg viewed the frantic motions on the court.

“What do you think, Larry? You think Detroit is going to crush the Celtics?” Hans asked.

“No way, not with Bird tearing up the court like that,” Larry said.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Hans agreed, then extended his bottle far enough for Larry to clink it in a toast.

From the chair across the room, Paul added:  

“My dad bought him a beer once. Met him in Quincy Market after a game. Hell of a guy.”

We watched the game, putting away a few more Budweisers, until Hans mentioned that Nathan Green had related what went down at Hamilton Grove.

“That’s not right, Larry. Not right at all. You’ve got a right to face your accusers over something like that,” said Hans shaking his head.

“Did you throw rocks at the Glendalers?” Paul asked.

“Hell. I wish I had,” Larry answered.

“I would have put one right up their ass,” Paul proclaimed, before getting up to fetch another Budweiser as Hans made witty remarks about the game.

“Larry, they’re a bunch of idiots. I can’t believe you’d let that bother you,” Hans added.

“How do you know what they’re like in the Grove, anyway?” Larry asked.

“Oh, the Greens had me over to dinner, and I met Chuck Hart. I guess he liked me well enough—especially some of my ideas about humanitarian aid. I told him one of my father’s friends is on a UN committee involved with things like that.”

So the Greens were taken with Hans. Well, we all liked him. He was so totally unflappable, so undeniably smart, so effortlessly cool.  

Paul had resumed his position in the big chair by the window. His eyes followed the frantic motions on the screen.

“You’re wasted, Paul,” Hans said.

After the game, whose outcome gave us all satisfaction, Hans and Paul played computer games as Larry and I shot the bull and I smoked cigarette after cigarette. Then Larry wondered aloud whether Ellen Hughes would be snooty to him if he got tough with the bitch. That was what all this “heritage” shit was about, wasn’t it?  

“No, Larry. You’re a coward for making a mean remark to Sarah Metcalf and running away, and you’re a coward for even thinking of hitting Ellen. A coward,” Hans chastised him.

Larry began to tear up a bit.  

“I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry, Hans,” he sniveled.

When Hans saw how hurt Larry looked, his tone changed completely.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. Just try to be strong in the ways that matter. Don’t humiliate yourself in class. Be smart. Don’t ever make people regret having you as a friend and classmate.”

Larry nodded, wiping his eyes with a sleeve.  

I can’t speak for the others, but I thought Maybe, just maybe.

Finally, I agreed to give Paul a ride home, leaving Hans and Larry alone. I later heard that Hans asked what Larry planned to do in the summer, leading Larry into visions of a strip of beach that had been the scene of so much humiliation, so much gawking from boys and girls alike at his ungainly figure like that of a bloated Biafran kid on TV, as Larry wandered back and forth, hoping to spy the back of a woman who’d untied her top. Some of the women sunning themselves knew exactly what he was doing. Invariably, Larry’s legs got exhausted turning the sand up and down as the sun exacted fluid from every pore and he breathed heavily and tried to suck his gut.

None of this occurred to Hans, who proposed that they should both hit the beach come June, making summer sound like a dream of which Hans and Paul and Larry would partake, the three of them like lifeguards, firm abs and biceps and white cream on their noses, babes’ heads turning to check them out.  

The beach was only the beginning. There was a secret place north of here, a tunnel carved through the side of a mountain, where linked heaps of metal screamed too fast for the eye to follow over tracks above a tiny technicians’ alcove. You can hang out there, smoke a bag or two. As Larry sat there nodding, the vista of the months to come loomed like a newly discovered planet.

 

If there was one thing Mr. Sanders disliked about his job at Wakefield High, it was the moniker of “social studies,” whose meaning was so amorphous that he’d lobbied without success to have it altered. The poor man appeared from his job description to lack any specialized knowledge at all. When it came time to teach The Great Gatsby, how gratifying he found it that a few students seemed at least partly to get the novel—some of it anyway.

“What did you feel when you read about Gatsby’s funeral?” Mr. Sanders asked Ellen Hughes, looking lovely in a white sweater cascading down to the belt that kept her Levis taut around her waist. The pretty girl did not reply right away, but when she did, it was clear that she had at least done what he expected of her, she could recall details of the scene.

“I don’t know . . . those people standing around the grave . . . it was sad.”

“Well, funerals in general aren’t festive occasions. Was there something about this one in particular that struck a chord?”

“There were, I don’t know, like six people at the funeral? That’s not a lot. I hope more than six people come to my funeral,” Ellen replied.

“A good observation,” said Mr. Sanders.

I raised my hand.

“Mr. Bela?”  

“Well, sir, one thing that occurred to me right away was the contrast with earlier scenes in the book—especially the party at Gatsby’s estate, where people are falling drunk from the windows,” I offered.

“And why did that scene make an impression? Do you fall drunk out of windows?” Mr. Sanders asked, evoking laughs from almost everyone in the class.

“No, that’s not what I meant. I meant that time has a way of winnowing out the unreal from the real. Compare the roaring party with its hundreds of guests to the funeral, and ask yourself how many people at the party had any sort of real attachment to Gatsby,” I said.

“Interesting point, Mr. Bela.”

“Intelligence is not just compassion or being social. I’m sure Ellen knows exactly what I’m talking about,” I said.

After class, I noticed Ellen lingering in the hall with a sort of diffident air, not making eye contact, but soliciting my attention on some level. Yes, I was certain of it.

I looked at her. She looked at me then looked away. Finally she asked:

“Why did you interrupt me, John? I understood the book pretty well.”

“I’m sure you did, Ellen. I’m just not sure if you’ve drawn the right lessons from it.”

“Are you suggesting there’s something between me and Paul that I don’t get?”

“Of course not, Ellen. I don’t know how well you know Paul, or how well he knows you. And I wish we had Harold Bloom here to correct my silly ideas about the book.”

“Had who?

“I’m sure he wouldn’t infer anything about hangers-on and social parasites and rich corpulent swine.”

“John, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Far be it from me to infer anything about you and Paul. Excuse me, Ellen.”

“Wait a minute, John. I want to know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t want to express an opinion about a relationship I know so little about. And I’m certainly not suggesting you’d be considered a trophy wife if you and Paul were older.”

Ellen Hughes slapped me in the face.

“You pig. I have had a rough fucking couple of days already. You know what happened? Larry Gordon asked me out.

She stormed off.

I pushed my glasses a few millimeters further up my nose before sauntering off to Ms. Emery’s physical ed class on the fourth floor, thinking of how defiantly, unanswerably, pretty Ellen Hughes looked.

When he arrived at Wakefield High the following Monday morning, the principal summoned me to his office, where a Detective Clark showed me his badge and informed me that Larry Gordon had thrown himself in front of a train.

The reaction came fast. Larry’s father was slow—Parkinson’s Disease had reduced him to a routine of lying in front of the television and occasionally getting up to urinate in a plastic pitcher—so it was his Uncle Eustis who responded to the news that the pressures and ostracism had finally driven Larry to do what no man, in the uncle’s eyes, would do. He did more than meet with the principal of Wakefield High. He went to the police and pursued the investigators relentlessly, like a family member in a murder rather than a suicide investigation. Here was rage, and ardor for retribution. In his meetings with the principal, Uncle Eustis demanded to know who Larry’s best friend was at Wakefield High, and so I became a best friend by default.

Detective Clark was pressing me about the social climate for Larry in recent times.  

“What was school like for Larry these past few months?”

“What makes you think I’d know?” I asked.

“Weren’t you his best friend?”

“Maybe to him. That doesn’t answer my question. I hardly knew Larry.”

“We’re asking the questions. Was Larry getting along with everyone o.k.?”

“On the whole, yes.”

“We heard he wasn’t one of the popular kids. Some of them were on his case a lot.”

“No, not recently—in fact, I can’t think of any incident of outright ostracism in the last two years.”

“One of the students here told us about a party where some things were said. I got the sense that Larry wasn’t really welcome there.”

“Well, I guess I was sort of responsible for that. I was invited, he wasn’t.”

The detective seemed to be trying to read something in the depths of my eyes. I wasn’t going to back down, no, I refused to yield an inch to this pompous fascistic creep.

“So what happened, exactly? Who criticized him?”

“Hans Reiniger.”

“The kid from Germany?”

“The kid from Germany.”

“Why?”

“Didn’t like what Larry said to Sarah Metcalf about her play, or the way he said it.”

“I thought Hans and Larry were friends.”

“Yes, they were starting to like each other, and I believe they were even planning to do things this summer.”

“They were friends?”

“I just said yes.”

“Tell me—why were you friends with Larry?”

“As I said, I didn’t really know him at all. We had an acquaintance, that was it.”  

“Based on what?”

“I couldn’t tell you why except to say that Larry wouldn’t ever have to act if you put him in a movie. You’d have a character, right there.”

“That’s not much of an answer.”

“No, I guess to you isn’t.”

“Is that all you’re going to say?”

“It is a substantive answer.”

“But I don’t get it.”

“I don’t see that that’s my problem.”

“Had anyone been speaking to him in a way that might encourage suicidal thoughts?”

“No one I know. I can’t vouch for Larry’s relatives, of course.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think they—certain of them—were pushing Larry hard in a direction he knew he couldn’t go. He needed friends. He admired people who were smart and cool and that’s the direction he was so pathetically eager to go in.”

At this point, I am fairly certain that in the observation area behind the one-way window, Uncle Eustis and Detective Gibbs traded looks.

“What happened on the afternoon of April 28?” asked Detective Clark.

“We were hanging out at the Wakefield Diner and Paul said, ‘Let’s go to John’s house and get wasted.’”

“Paul and Hans and yourself were at the diner?”

“That’s right.”

“That can be verified, you know.”

“Verify it.”

“Why didn’t you invite your friend Larry over?”

“Oh, I tried. I couldn’t get through to him.”

 

The official story was this. Larry had wandered through the windy landscape in the tentative spring sunlight until he got to the tunnel through which the freight trains passed on their way east, then north, wending through the outer suburbs, the tunnel a serviceable piece of work carved out of a great hill, a space so tight you couldn’t sidestep the train if you were thin, which Larry was not. He’d just wandered along the track and waited for the train to deliver him from his private hell. The details were not in doubt, but the investigation began to take a different course now.

“I have some questions of my own to ask you,” Detective Clark said as soon as he and Uncle Eustis were alone.  

 I found myself spending more and more time with Hans and Paul, as if Larry’s death had freed up valuable time. I hate to see the matter that way, but I don’t like to lie. Paul showed solicitude toward me in the midst of all the questioning, which I think Paul realized was taking a toll no sarcasm could mask.  

“They said something about going in for a polygraph test,” I muttered as the three of us lay in a dark room with smoke rising and escaping through a window, which let in air with just a hint of summer in it.

“Maybe I should preempt them and volunteer to do it, you know what I mean?” I continued.

“No, John. Don’t do that,” Paul said.

“What are you worried about? I know you didn’t say anything to the guy before he died. You didn’t directly cause it.”

“Yeah, but don’t. I really wouldn’t like it, you understand?”

I began to sense what the consequences might be should I disregard my friend’s request.

“Nobody’s charged with anything and nobody has to take a polygraph,” Hans put in.

“Well, what if I don’t? They’re going to wonder.”

“It’s not called for. If necessary, I’ll get my father’s input into this matter,” Paul stated, evoking for the other two an image of the awesome legal machinery at Charles Waddell’s disposal.

“Well, I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m fucked whatever happens.”

“And why do you feel that way?” Paul asked.

“I’ll stand by you,” said Hans.

It was no easier a time for Detective Mike Clark, who had received a couple of calls from Larry’s father, barely audible or coherent, and a barrage from Uncle Eustis. The uncle seemed to expect the detective to prosecute the weather if it might have had an effect on Larry’s mood the day he died. When the detective finally stopped answering the phone in his office, the angry ring said We both know you’re sitting there by the phone.

“They won’t make you take a polygraph. And if they try, my father will stick his foot in,” Paul assured me again, handing me another Budweiser.

“Believe me, he’s good enough friends with your dad, he wouldn’t think twice about it,” Paul added.

In yet another meeting with Detective Clark, I had to recount what Hans and Paul and I had done on the afternoon of April 28. The detective seemed most interested in why I hadn’t said initially that we’d gone to my house to get drunk.

“Why do you think? I didn’t want to admit to buying booze illegally.”

“Which you now admit you did.”

“There’s no other way we could have gotten it.”

“That doesn’t interest me in the slightest. You say you would have invited Larry but you couldn’t get through to him.”

“I would have invited Larry if I could get through. Probably.”

The detective rolled his eyes.

After this meeting, I was soon once again in the company of Hans and Paul, who both assured me that the meeting’s brevity meant this whole inquiry was winding down, would be ancient history soon enough.

“I still think I should go in for a polygraph. I didn’t like that detective’s tone when we met today.”

“No, John. The detective can go fuck himself. He’s harassing you. Look, it’s not even like you and Larry were good friends or anything—”

“We were sort of friends.”

“Well, the friends you’ve got now are the most important thing in your life.”

“What are you worried about? I can truthfully say that you and Hans did not say or do anything to encourage Larry to kill himself. Right or wrong?”

“Yes, that’s right, but I’ve told you my decision on this one, John. Not another word about it.”

Paul Waddell had made a decision, and it stuck. Ever so gradually, the scenes that I had imagined, in my idle moments, over the past couple of weeks began to fade from my mind, like debris viewed through the glass bottom of a ship as it sank, and I made no effort to retain them.

An image of Paul, Hans, and Larry wandering through the quiet afternoon in the woods just north of Wakefield, Larry talking with animation about what the land and its history were coming to mean to him, the other two exchanging looks behind his back—

smirks, and occasionally a wink.  

An image of the boys nearing the mouth of the tunnel, and, at Paul’s urging, slipping inside the dark space, where Paul took out a bag of weed. The boys wandering along the track, joking and laughing, until the noise came, the dread terrible noise they never expected to hear this time of day, then turning around in panic and realizing just how far they’d advanced from the tunnel’s mouth while engaged in their blithe talk of girls and summer afternoons.

Paul and Hans descending into the little technician’s alcove just underneath the tracks, a space barely big enough for two boys no matter how tightly they squeezed themselves in. Larry looking around, knowing he was at a great remove from the tunnel’s mouth and the train was drawing nearer. Growing desperate in a hot second, murmuring “Ohhhhhhhh!”, pissing himself. Whirling around. Crying. Running. RUNNING. An ungainly slob pursued by so many tons of electronically orchestrated steel. Larry taking off, dashing, charging for the mouth, adrenaline shooting through him and making him strain his limbs as he screamed and yelled and wailed and the train overtook him.

“Just don’t worry about it, all right, John?”

But I was, I am, furious at myself.

In what proved to be my final meeting with the detective, hounded so futilely by Uncle Eustis, I downplayed even further my social relations with the dead boy. I talked as if I had a greater claim on a certain other youngster’s attentions than most people had. I assured the detective that I knew, I knew, what makes a true friend.

“My best friend is Hans Reiniger.”

 

 

  

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of the short story collections Scenes from the Catastrophe (2016) and The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018). His fiction has appeared recently in Rosebud, The Long Story, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, The Tishman Review, The Montreal Review, The Weird Fiction Review, Raven Chronicles, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Lakeview Journal, and other publications.