Three days after I turned twelve, my father announced that Bud Collins was in trouble. He was talking to my mother on our back porch, but I was in the kitchen eating the last leftover slice of my birthday cake, and the window was open.Bud Collins was my father’s best friend from when he was in high school, nobody I much cared about except he had a daughter named Susan, who was in my class because she’d been held back the year before.
I swallowed the last lick of chocolate frosting from my fingers, but when I heard my mother’s answer, I didn’t move. “I bet he thought she couldn’t get pregnant,” she said. “I bet it’s been going on for a while.”
“Bud Collins is a friend of mine.”
“Don’t you go blaming that girl. There’s no excuse for being such a scum.”
“Scum?” My father sounded like he was testing the word, like he’d been asked to spell it.
“That girl is what, twelve? Thirteen at the most? Scum is too good a word. I’m surprised he would tell you something like that. I’d expect somebody to lie about it until forever came and went.”
“I wish he hadn’t told me. I wish I didn’t know this about him.”
When the door opened, I moved to the refrigerator like I was busy scrounging. My father looked at me, deciding something, and then he said, “Hey, Frankie, the Collins girl is in your class, isn’t she?”
“Susan?” I said, as if there were several Collins girls to pick from.
“I don’t know why I asked,” he said. “I know there’s only one room of sixth graders at your school.”
“Jack,” my mother said, and my father nodded.
“Don’t hold that door open so long,” he said.
Susan Collins was tall enough to stand in the back row for our class picture with me and four other boys. None of us had talked to her while we lined up in November, and there was so much space between Bill Dankmeyer and Susan in the picture that it looked as if somebody standing between them was invisible.
Susan had a round face and black hair cut into bangs. The only reason I’d noticed her in September was because she had breasts. She looked like she was in the wrong class, the only girl who wore a bra until three girls came back from Christmas vacation wearing them.
Because my father had Bud Collins work on his car, I knew where she lived in one of the small houses that lined the street from the Aspen Grove trailer court out to where Bass Creek crossed the highway and ran along the side of the steep hill all the way to where there was nothing but farms. “Flood plain shacks,” my mother called those houses. It didn’t matter that they were all made of brick. She said they had water in their cellars every spring and worse when the rain was hard enough to send Bass Creek over its banks, flash flooding nearly every summer so even the ground floor took water and cars floated away and somebody drowned.
We lived half a mile up that hill, close enough that I’d walked in that creek bed with Paul Keller, who was a year older and lived on my street. We looked for salamanders and frogs in the shallow pools and under the nearly dry rocks when it hadn’t rained for a week or two. Most of the time the banks on either side were waist high, like the part of the township swimming pool where I could stand and not worry about drowning after I failed my beginner’s swim test for the second time. But some places were as high as my shoulders, high enough they looked like they could keep any storm water inside even though my mother insisted that every time it even looked like rain I needed to get the hell out of the creek bed. “Not only that,” she’d say, “get the hell away from the creek. You think water not even up to your knees is something to play in, but if it’s moving fast, you won’t be playing. And all those trailers right down the street, always the worst for them. You know how awful a place is by how close it sits to what nobody wants a part of.”
“Whatever you say, Mom,” my older sister Jolene would mutter when she was around to hear our mother analyze. She was fourteen, and for the past two years, my mother had described her to friends by saying, “She keeps her distance.”
“Thank God we all live up high. Now it’s only the leukemia to worry about for all of you kids.”
“The only thing any of us has is Sarah’s asthma,” Jolene would say. “Nobody’s dying.”
My mother wouldn’t say it, but what she really worried about was being poor. Like it was a disease you could catch. Like it made you behave in a terrible way.
Every time we drove along Bass Creek my mother reminded me why anyone would live in a tiny house or a trailer where there were floods. “They’re just like your Dad’s friend Bud Collins. Just look at what he does all day,” my mother said. “A drug store clerk. He stands there with all the pills, but he doesn’t do anything more than the checkout girl at the grocery store when he rings up your little sister’s asthma medicine.”
A trailer would be better than a small house, I thought. It wouldn’t have a cellar full of water, and you weren’t stuck if you decided you were in the wrong place. You could be somewhere else really soon.
My mother, when I told her my idea, said, “Just you wait, you’ll see,” meaning me to understand that living in a house was a sign that things weren’t so bad, that families in trailers were in nothing but trouble. “You stay away from those boys,” she said. “And in a few years, the girls, too, God help us.” She didn’t have to worry. The only trailer court boy in my sixth-grade class had never said a word to me. Fine by me, since he’d punched all three boys he’d ever talked to, calling them pussies right before he knocked them down. A month after school started, when the teacher announced that boy had moved, half the class had clapped. If that boy had stayed until November, he would have stood in the back row for the picture, right between Bill and Susan.
When I told Paul Keller what I’d heard my father say, I left out the part about Bud Collins being the father. Bud was my father’s friend, but Susan was somebody I barely knew.
“I remember her,” Paul said. “She flunked.”
“The first day of school last year it was like she’d just moved here, like she was new even though she always lived here.”
“She’s thirteen by now maybe. What a whore. She’s so dumb she probably doesn’t know how babies are made.”
I had to admit Susan Collins was the dumbest girl in our class. “Maybe somebody made her do it,” I let myself say.
“If she was raped, it would be in the newspaper, Frankie. Girls like it as much as boys do, more sometimes. They want to be fucked except they have to worry about getting knocked up.”
“Not all of them.”
He shook his head. “You need to open your eyes. It’s like you’re ten years old or something. You ever look at your sister Jolene? I bet she wants it all the time.”
An hour later, when I told Jolene about Susan Collins, she said, “Sixth grade? That sounds like a story somebody made up so all your little friends can play with themselves while they think about how it happened.”
“How would you know?” I said.
“Aren’t you down there every chance you get?”
I felt my face getting hot, but I managed to say “No.”
“If that’s true, then there’s something wrong with you.”
Almost every day my father drove past where Susan lived because he managed the furniture store in the same shopping center where Bud Collins worked. Just across the footbridge from the trailer court, the shopping center was on higher ground than the road. Those three or four feet uphill made all the difference, my father said, unless there’s a storm that calls for an ark.
My father never said a word about the houses and trailers by Bass Creek. He’d grown up along the river in the 1960s near the mill when it was still going full blast, and so had Bud Collins. They’d been in the same class, and so had Bud’s wife Carly. It was my mother who lived a mile up the hill above where the creek emptied into the Ohio River. She’d been two years behind all of them.
My father still had some pictures of him and Bud and Carly hanging out together right after high school. Each time he showed them to me, he said Carly was perky and full of life.
In the pictures, Bud and my father have no shirts on but are wearing long pants. Carly is wearing shorts, and in one photo she is sitting in a chair made with their arms, her long legs extended toward the camera. My father was muscular, but Bud was skinny. He didn’t look like anybody who would end up married to Carly. His black hair was still slicked back the way it was in the old photos, but now it helped cover a bald spot.
“A regular Jack Sprat,” my mother said once. “Makes a pig of himself and never shows it. His wife too.”
“They’re just tall,” my father said.
“And I’m just short,” my mother said, an edge in her voice. My mother wasn’t in any of the pictures taken in 1970. Twenty years later, she didn’t look at all like Carly.
The first time I saw Bud Collins after I knew what he’d done, I was with my father when he stopped to have Bud listen to something that didn’t sound right when our car was idling. The garage where Bud worked on cars wasn’t connected to the house like ours was. Bud had built it himself. All the other houses had cars parked on driveways that were worn into the tiny lawns in front of the houses.
“When it comes to cars, Bud knows his business,” my father said while Bud listened to the motor, bent over so far I could see his bald spot was growing. “He’s a regular magician with motors. Always has been.”
Bud wasn’t smiling when he pulled himself upright. “The wife don’t see it that way. She likes seeing you off in a shirt and tie. No greasy hands for that one.” He nodded toward the house, and when I turned, his wife was outside.
Carly Collins was wearing a blouse that she’d tied off just below her breasts so her whole stomach showed. It was as flat as Jolene’s, and she was tan everywhere I could see, her legs smooth and brown right up to her pink shorts.“Mrs. Collins likes to keep cool,” Bud said, and when I snapped my head around, he laughed. But when Susan stepped outside a moment later, Bud turned back toward our car as if he needed to look under the hood for something he’d forgotten.
Susan looked just the same as she had two months ago on the last day of school, but I stared at her loose blouse to see if I could tell whether her stomach was bigger. My father looked at Susan a good long time and then at Bud. “Susan’s growing up fast,” he said. Bud nodded, but he kept his face under the hood.
“Shame is a terrible thing,” my father said on the way home. “I want you to remember that.”
“I will,” I said.
“It’s a mirror,” he said, and then he paused, quiet so long I kept my eyes straight ahead until we pulled into our driveway. “Not a word to your mother,” he said. “Get me?”
My mother was smoking on the back porch, a drink beside her on a metal table. “Enjoy your little trip?” she said.
“Bess,” my father said like he was about to ask her a question, but she didn’t say anything else. My father looked at me like I was about to describe Susan Collins in her oversized blouse. “I had Bud take a gander under the hood. He started in, like always, about Carly being the reason he wasn’t still working at the Preger’s.”
My mother didn’t turn, but her voice went up loud. “Bud worked part-time at that garage. When the shopping center came in, all Carly did was what any wife would if her husband was working twenty hours a week—push him right out the door to apply for full-time.”
“See, Frankie, there’s always another way of looking at things,” my father said.
“Word’s out about that other thing down that way,” my mother said. She took a sip of her drink as if she was getting ready for a long speech. “A boy from Aspen Grove has his name being spread around, and you can bet who’s doing the spreading.” She took another sip, finishing the drink, the ice cubes clinking against the thick glass of the tumbler. “But we know better, don’t we, Jack?”
“That’s enough, Bess,” my father said.
My mother stood up then, wobbling slightly, then catching herself. “A man like that deserves something terrible to happen to him.”
“Maybe so,” my father said, glancing my way, “but now’s not the time.”
“The man who made that happen would be a hero.” She rattled the ice in her glass and smiled at me. “Isn’t that right, Frankie?”
“Bess,” my father said, but she was already walking past us into the kitchen where I could hear Jolene and Sarah chattering before they ran the blender.
“Don’t kid yourself,” my mother called through the open window. “Your boy knows what’s up.”
“There’s no way Frankie knows what’s up about anything,” Jolene shouted just as the blender shut off. “What are you talking about?”
“Not now,” my mother said.
“Not ever,” my father called through the window, and I heard Sarah stomp her foot. “The subject always gets changed when I’m around. And then somebody asks me how I’m doing like they haven’t seen me in a year.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” my father said, but he was looking at me.
“Enjoy what? I’m almost eleven.” My father’s mouth worked. He was chewing his lip so hard I thought he’d draw blood.
“Everybody settle down,” my mother said. “Those who know what I mean completely agree, so there’s no use anybody arguing or asking.”
Paul and I saw Carly Collins just once more before summer ended. She was outside watering the row of rose bushes that wove in and out of trellises Bud had put up along one side of their back yard. “For a Mom, she’s a real piece of ass,” Paul said.
“It’s because she only had one kid,” I said.
“All it takes is one. Maybe Susan is adopted. That dumb cow doesn’t look anything like her.”
I knew Carly and Bud were Catholics like we were, and it made me wonder. The mothers on our street were almost all Catholics with four or five or even six kids. Having all those kids seemed to ruin their looks. Only Mrs. Rollo, who had one boy two years younger than me, had a body that I tried to imagine naked. My mother might have kept her figure better if my little sister hadn’t been born. And maybe me too.
Like always, we were walking in the creek bed, but all summer Paul had made fun of me when I looked under rocks. “Leave those lizards for the babies,” he said every time until I’d stopped bending down to peek. But we still walked there instead of using the road. It was our sidewalk to the shopping center, brushing past the sumac trees that always grew higher than the bank until the township sent somebody to take them down in the fall. We climbed up and out on the parking lot side by the bridge so we didn’t have to run into anybody from the Aspen Grove trailers.
There were stores we walked around in, the K-Mart and even the drug store, but we always ended up at the Smoke Shop, where there was a wall of cigarettes and pipe tobacco and ten different newspapers. They sold candy bars, but Paul always bought a men’s magazine, standing in front of the rack that said, “Adult Entertainment” and picking one of the magazines that was wrapped in cellophane. The clerk smiled every time. “I should charge you more because I could lose my job,” he’d say as he rang up the sale. Then he’d laugh.
Paul never threw any of the magazines away. He kept them hidden in his cellar and garage. Every old one he ever showed me smelled musty and felt damp from being jammed behind bags of peat moss or rolled up inside a tool box nobody used. You could see every part of the women except one piece. Paul said that made them sexier because that made them mysterious. “They’re all whores,” he said.
All summer Paul had kept asking me to buy his oldest magazines. “Fifty cents each,” he said. After I’d said “No” a few times, he’d said, “What are you, some kind of faggot,” so that afternoon, with school almost ready to start, I finally gave him a dollar for three of them. “A bargain,” he said. “Enjoy.”
And I did. The women all looked like they’d never had a baby. They looked like Jolene’s friends.
I had the magazines three days before my mother, while she was scooping up laundry I’d heaved down the basement stairs, found where I’d stuffed them under the old couch we kept down there. She held them out as if they gave off the smell of something dead. “Paul Keller gave these to you, am I right?”
“You give them right back and this will be our secret. Right this minute, you understand me? It’s fixing to pour so get going, and from now on, you keep this filth out of the house or there’ll be hell to pay.”
My mother was right about the weather. The sky to the west was ugly with clouds that looked green around the edges. I jogged past Paul’s house to where there was a vacant lot because the hillside was too steep to build. I found the biggest rock I could lift and stuffed the magazines under it, putting the best one in the middle. Maybe they’d get ruined if it rained hard, but maybe not, and there was no way I was giving them back to Paul.
I took my time walking back. The storm was behind me, but I knew it was close, and by the time I reached our house, there were spatters of rain. I stopped to look back just as lightning struck so close I cringed, the rain sweeping over me as I took the last four steps to the front door.
It was Labor Day, summer vacation’s end, and my mother had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “We’re in for it,” she said. “And your father goes out like a fool on his day off to have Bud Collins change the oil on our car. At least he’ll know enough to take the roundabout way home because that road down there will surely flood if this keeps up.”
She took a drag on her cigarette, the menthol kind that was supposed to make smoke taste cool. “Your father is a good man,” she said, and though I knew I was supposed to agree, I didn’t speak. She lit a new cigarette off the butt end of the old one, coughed quietly and inhaled, leaning back the way I’d seen women do in movies when they wanted men to look at them. “Remember that,” she said, “when the time comes.” She turned away like somebody who’d just left a secret message, like a spy who was ashamed of her betrayal.
I tried to think of something to say that didn’t sound as phony as “I know he is,” but nothing came to me. She put the cigarette in her mouth and pushed herself up from the kitchen table with her free hand. “Leave me alone for a while,” she said, walking past and turning down the hall toward her bedroom. I waited a few seconds to give her time to disappear, but by then Jolene was standing in front of me.
“Listen to Mom go on like that,” she said. “She gets loud when she’s had a few.”
“You’ve been counting?”
“She starts early on holidays. You just don’t notice because she keeps the first glass hidden.”
I looked around the kitchen and through the doorway past Jolene where I could see Sarah sitting on the living room floor in front of the television. For a moment, I thought Jolene was going to show me her own drink hidden in a kitchen cupboard behind a dozen coffee mugs or the big blue baking pan that only came out at Thanksgiving. “You know why Dad’s down there, don’t you?” Jolene said. “I bet his old friend isn’t even home.” She reached out and grabbed my arm. “Dad’s cheating with his best buddy’s wife.”
“How would you know?” I said, lowering my voice as if that would get Jolene to whisper.
“You’re so dense,” she said, her voice so loud I wanted to put my hand over her mouth.
“Mom found out?”
“Women know these things,” Jolene said. “Anyway, Dad hasn’t been careful.”
“Does he know she knows?”
“No. She’s the one with the secret now.”
“Oh,” I said, and Jolene shook her head.
“You look like that guy on those Perry Mason reruns who always loses the case.”
“Jesus, you know his name, but it takes you forever to know Dad is carrying on with Mrs. Collins.” Which was when I knew my mother had actually told my sister because “carrying on” was her old-fashioned phrase, nothing Jolene would say unless she was quoting.
She slipped a cigarette out of the pack my mother had left behind. “For later,” she said, and before I could ask her anything else, she went back to where Sarah was sitting and flopped onto the floor beside her.
I picked up my mother’s lighter and looked at where BESS was etched into the silver case. Her name inscribed there made touching the lighter seem wrong, but I flicked it with my thumb the way I’d seen her do, and it sparked but didn’t catch. I flicked again, and a flame flared and steadied. I closed the lighter, wanting to put it down, but then I flicked it open again and held the flame while I counted slowly to ten, long enough, maybe, to be seen by somebody before I closed it and laid it down exactly where my mother had left it, the angle just right because the letters of her name had been upside down from where I’d stood.
The rain, though it let up, didn’t stop, and all four of us ended up sitting in front of the television watching The Fog, my mother joining us half way through and asking, “What’s going on here?” Sarah told her something bad was coming out of the fog, and she sat back, lighting a cigarette and letting her drink turn watery as the ice melted. She never said another word, even when Sarah whimpered when the scary parts came on. But when my father knocked on the open screen door without coming inside, calling “Bess, Bess,” my mother sat up, stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray, and almost ran to the door while we followed.
“Something happened,” my father said. He was soaked. Like he’d stood outside the whole time it was pouring.
“You get yourself out of those clothes,” my mother said. “You look like something the cat dragged in.”
He took off his shirt, and for a second I thought he was going to take off his pants right there on the front porch, but he stood still then, like he was listening for what was coming next. The porch was puddled, but the sun was out and there were wisps of steam coming up. My mother reached for the shirt, but she didn’t say anything.
“A boy drowned in the creek,” he said.
My mother pulled her hand back. “You were down there?”
“I was in the creek, Bess.”
“Oh, my God,” my mother said. “Frankie, go get your father a dry t-shirt. Now, right this minute.”
By the time I got back, my father was in the middle of his story. “The boys in the creek were brothers,” he was saying. “The creek was running so fast I could barely keep my balance. I picked the one who looked weaker to start with. That was the only way to choose.”
“Here, put this on,” my mother said, taking the t-shirt from me. “You don’t have to say anything else right now.”
My father shook his head, but he took the shirt and pulled it over his head. “Bess,” he started back in, but just then a car pulled up and parked along the curb. “There was a reporter,” my father said. “He showed up ten minutes after the EMTs. I told him who I was and where I lived and then shut up. When he wouldn’t let it go, I said, ‘Give me ten minutes’ and left.”
My mother looked at me. “You tell that man he has to wait for your father to get decent. You hear me? My god, they’re probably trying to talk to that poor boy’s mother. They probably took her picture standing over his dead body.”
She guided my father into the house and left me to watch the reporter come up the sidewalk. “My Dad’s putting on some dry clothes,” I said straight out. The reporter looked way younger than my parents, like maybe this was his first story to cover.
“Your Dad saved a boy’s life today,” he said. “He took a big chance doing what he did. Water running like that could carry away a full-grown man.”
I didn’t say anything. I was standing in a puddle, but I didn’t move. The reporter had a camera hanging around his neck. There were sweat stains under his arms, and his tie was loosened like he might have thought that would help cool him off.
My father stepped outside in his white t-shirt and dry blue jeans. His hair was slicked back. My mother stood beside him while he answered questions.
“I started with the smaller boy,” my father said. “He looked like he was about to give out. It was all I could do just getting to where they were hanging on to those damn sumacs. That water was barely above my knees, but it was moving, that’s for sure.”
The reporter was scribbling in a notebook, not looking up until my father stopped talking. “Then what?” he said, and my father set his lips so tight I thought he might spit.
“Go on Jack,” my mother said. “Get this over with so we can go inside.”
“There were two men running toward me from the trailer park, but when I turned around, the other boy was gone. He never made a sound, and neither did the smaller boy. For a second I thought somebody else had taken him, that maybe somebody had waded in from the other side, and then I knew. The little boy just sat there. He never said a word until one of those men went down to the nearest trailer and made a phone call. The other man put his shirt on the boy. He told me the boys were brothers. That other boy must have been gone before I reached the bank. He must have tried to follow me. Otherwise those men would have seen him.”
“What a thing to have to live with,” the reporter said, and my father narrowed his eyes and took a step forward, his hands opening and closing at his sides.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said. “I thought I had time to get both boys. Those sumacs would have held unless the water came up over the banks.”
“But then you knew you couldn’t,” the reporter said, and if my father formed an answer, he didn’t say it.
We all stood there for a few seconds until the reporter backed up a few steps and said, “Listen, I was told I had to get a photo.”
There was a moment when I expected my father to say “No” or just go back inside and disappear, but all that happened was my mother gathered my sisters and me together and herded us to the side, leaving him alone. The reporter snapped three times and seemed so relieved he said he wanted to take one of all of us together. “It’s not for the paper,” he said. “Just something good, for once. I’ll send you an 8X10.”
All my father had to do was slide a few steps to the side. He put his arms around my sisters; my mother wrapped an arm around me. “Smile,” the reporter said twice, but then he said, “Ok, it’s all right” and snapped.
The school bus stop was different the next morning. I was the youngest instead of the oldest because the bus made an earlier trip for grades seven through twelve. Nobody talked to me, not even Paul Keller, who stood beside a ninth grader from the next street over. And nobody said a word about my father and the dead boy.
After school, Jolene walked beside me from the bus stop, so we were together when, from four houses away, we saw our mother standing at the end of our driveway. She was waiting like she had when I was in first and second grade, watching the street, only this time we could see there was a police car parked parallel to our front yard hedges. “They said they’d be finished long ago,” she said, practically whispering as the rest of our bus stop group walked past us, every one of them slowing and staring. “I didn’t want you coming home to this.” I saw there were a few neighbors outside like they had business with their shrubbery in the middle of the afternoon.
Paul stopped to look into the patrol car like maybe he expected to see my father in the back seat, but just then two policemen walked down the driveway, and my father wasn’t with them. “Good afternoon,” one of them said. His fat face was sweaty. We didn’t have air conditioning, and it was over eighty degrees outside, hotter, I knew, in our tiny living room or kitchen with no cross ventilation to speak of.
“Good day to you,” my mother said, but she was already walking toward the house. Inside, I noticed a copy of the afternoon paper open on the living room coffee table. My mother sat down beside my father on the living room couch and put her arm around his shoulders, and I started to worry.
“We were going to tell the two of you before your sister gets home,” my mother said. “But then the police went on and on with your father until the whole neighborhood got a good long look.”
“I thought they did that yesterday,” I said, but Jolene was scanning the newspaper as if there was something she needed to see.
“There’s more than those boys to all of this,” my mother said. “Mr. Collins died yesterday. He was crushed under a car he was working on, and your father was with him a few minutes before everything else happened down there.”
“Inside the garage?” I said. “He would have had to move another one in there after he was finished with ours.”
“That’s it exactly,” my mother said, “but your father was right by the creek after he left the garage. That’s why he saw those boys. A neighbor told the police it was an act of God that your father was coming out of the garage right when those boys needed help, and the police have to follow up on every loose end.” I thought of Susan Collins and what my father knew. I thought of Susan’s mother saying way worse things about Bud than my mother had. If the police knew all that, no wonder they’d been here to talk to my father. It was all I could do not to reach for the newspaper.
“Bud was a fool working under a car with the rain teeming down,” my mother said. “He’s lived half his life there and knew better. I bet he heard the sirens all of a sudden coming way up close and forgot himself for a second, just long enough to bump his jack.”
She paused, but my father didn’t say anything. “And those boys should have known better, too,” she went on, “but there they were.”
“Don’t start in on that,” Jolene said.
“Just read for yourself then,” my mother said.
My father finally spoke. “The water never came up over the banks, but Bud was a flash flood victim just like that boy was, and all he gets is a little story like nothing happened.”
“Except he’s dead,” Jolene said.
“It’s the rescue of a child,” my mother said. “People don’t forget something like that.”
“Yes, they do. You’ll see if you just hang on a minute or two,” my father said, but I was thinking that if Bud Collins had followed my father outside like he always did when they were done fooling with our car, he would have saved the other boy. Bud would have seen the boys too. He would have run through the puddles in his yard to reach where those boys were almost at the same time my father arrived. Which meant that if my father had kicked that jack like I was thinking he did, he’d killed the dead boy too.
And then I wondered whether I was the only one who thought things had happened that way, and why I believed my father could kick a jack out and kill his friend because he trusted Carly Collins when she said Bud had gotten Susan pregnant. Or why I believed maybe he’d done it for love of my mother who’d wished so hard for Bud to die. For sure, she was talking as if she wanted her version of the story to be the one everybody remembered. Love could be a reason for keeping secrets, I told myself, right before I thought maybe it was just about keeping everybody safe, that love and selfishness might be almost exactly the same.
What I decided right then was an accident could never be the whole truth. Somebody was always guilty. It was like Perry Mason except this was real and nobody was going to stand up and confess, certainly not a man who’d been having sex with his friend’s wife, the kind of thing that would make people begin to consider what else he might be capable of—that he hadn’t kicked that jack out for my mother, that he’d done it for Carly Collins, a secret I wished I’d never told myself.
The next day everybody at school knew about my father saving a boy and Susan Collins being pregnant. My father said he didn’t want to talk about either of those things anymore. “Your father was half a hero, which is a lot more than most ever are,” my mother said that night while he was outside in the yard. “He saved one at least. You should learn how these things are. Everybody will talk about the one that got away.”
Jolene didn’t ride the bus home. We were the next-to-last stop, a half hour trip, but when I walked up the street, there was a boy I didn’t know standing beside my sister, who was leaning against a car. That made him sixteen or maybe even older, and my sister looked young beside him. I wondered where my mother and Sarah were because it seemed like Jolene wanted to be seen with that boy.
“Hey,” I said. I wanted to sound nonchalant, but even that short word came out in two syllables, cracking from high to low, and the boy smiled in an unfriendly way, and I knew that if my sister hadn’t been there, he would have called me a pussy and told me to shut up. But when the boy put his arm around Jolene and drew her close, I thought of my father and how he’d see this, how he might want to smack that boy hard and wait for whatever came next.
My sister wasn’t waiting to leave. She was just getting back, and she wanted somebody besides me to know—my mother, for sure, even my little sister, but not my father.
Susan didn’t return to school. She’d moved to live with her aunt and uncle was the story we heard, but for a few days the girls in my class at the junior high, even the ones from the other four grade schools, all talked and talked about having a baby at thirteen, something they could all do now if they were raped or stupid.
Paul Keller brought a rubber to the bus stop and showed it to me, talking as if he was he going to need it until a tenth grader told him to put it back in his old man’s drawer, making the nearest high school girls laugh.
My father, I knew, had a box of rubbers he kept in the tool kit in his car. I’d found them when I was looking for a place to hide my three old magazines before I stuffed them under the old couch. I knew he used the rhythm method like a good Catholic, making my mother keep track of herself, because Jolene, a few weeks earlier, had told me our mother had warned her about having sex by admitting it was what she did. “It’s so stupid,” Jolene had said. “Mom barely even goes to Mass, and there’s still a chance she could get pregnant again.”
All the next week nobody said a word about Susan until Paul, when I drifted toward where he stood close to the older boys, said, “You look like somebody who would be happy if he fucked a fat, dumb whore like Susan Collins.”
“You don’t know anything,” I said.
“You liked her?” The bus pulled up and the door opened. Paul looked around at everybody at the bus stop and said, “Your little dick get a stiffy for that stupid slut?”
I swung hard and caught Paul square in the chest. He went pale and staggered, and then his legs buckled and he fell. For a moment, I thought I might have killed him by stopping his heart. The bus was still there, the door open, and Red, the driver, said, “You sit right there, pointing to the first seat where the Lambert twins, who got on at the next stop, always sat. “Don’t you take another step.” Then he waited for almost a minute until Paul stood, turned around, and walked back toward his house.
An hour after school began, Mrs. Sowers, the principal, called me in. She asked why I’d hurt Paul, and I said I didn’t know. “You’ve only been with us for a few days, but your records from the elementary school say you’ve never been in trouble before. I’m willing to forget this if you apologize.”
“No,” I said.
“Your father was just in all the papers. He’s such a good man. You should be ashamed. What would he think if he knew about this?”
I stayed quiet. Her saying that meant she was about to give me only a warning. I hadn’t hurt Paul, just surprised him by luck. He didn’t say anything about Susan and neither did anyone else after another couple of days. She’d been a stranger in our room for just that one year. It was like she’d moved. Nobody but me had ever been inside her house or even seen her parents, and I would never mention that or anything else I thought I knew.
“Such a short fuse to have,” she said. “It’s not a good thing to know about yourself.”
She thought she was giving me a special secret to keep, something to worry would be found out. But she didn’t know what she was talking about. I already knew things I could never tell anyone. They were like a vaccine for things you couldn’t live with if other people knew them.
Paul never challenged me, and by Halloween, Carly Collins had moved away and somebody else moved in with little kids I’d never know. And though I sometimes woke up sweating and afraid, I learned to get past it, calming myself down, knowing that after a while I could live with somebody who terrified me and call it happiness.
Gary Fincke is the recipient of multiple awards for his poetry, including the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine and the Rose Lefcowitz Prize from Poet Lore. His collection Writing Letters for the Blind (2003) won the 2003 Ohio State University Press/The Journal poetry prize. His prose work has also earned him various honors, including the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2003, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize, a George Garrett Fiction Prize, a Lewis Prize for Nonfiction, and two Pushcart Prizes, among others. Fincke is a professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where he is also the director of the Writers Institute. He lives with his wife in Selinsgrove.