A Colony of Mutant Flamingos

In Issue 60 by Thomas Small

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Photo by Tom Moser on Unsplash

Jeremy Wilkins died the summer I was fourteen. Accident was noted as the official cause of death. That was more a testament of his father’s ability to control the situation, by keeping the word suicide off the death certificate. I spent a lot of time with Jeremy that last summer and was overwhelmed with the enormity of what he’d done. Mostly, I was surprised by people’s reactions to it.

That summer, as all the summers before and most of them since, I spent at Eaglescroft, a mountain lake community more than one hundred miles north and west of Roanoke, beyond White Sulphur Springs. My mother, my sister and I lived in our cottage there from the end of June to Labor Day; my father commuted up from the city for weekends, as did most of the other men.

Polly, my sister was five years older than me and spent most of her time with kids her own age at the lake’s edge, talking, sunbathing and horsing around. There was no television reception at Eaglescroft at that time, and no one was afraid to walk home after dark. After supper, they would gather on someone’s porch to continue to talk and to drink Coca Cola. I was too young to spend any time with them. Jeremy, who was their age, had never really been part of the group.

It was a mystery to me why girls avoided him. He was tall and good looking in a very square-jawed way. Blond and athletically built from summers playing tennis and golf, he often found tennis and golf partners amongst the older men. He had even played golf with me on more than one occasion.

Yet, on Friday and Saturday evenings, he was at home with his mother and father. Not infrequently his mother tried to arrange dates for him with Polly, using my mother as the intermediary. There were raised voices as my sister tried to avoid having to spend an evening with Jeremy.

“When I was your age, I would have been thrilled to go out with a boy that handsome” my mother would say to Polly. When she said this, she used her exasperated tone of voice, intended to apply even more pressure on Polly.

“Then you go out with him.”

“He drives a gorgeous convertible. The family has been spending summers here forever.”

“Last summer you made me go out with him when he took me to dinner at The Red Fox Inn. Mrs. Wilkins called twice and made them bring a telephone to the table. She wanted to know if he had gotten there safely. Mother, The Red Fox is only seven miles away! He was on the phone with her for five minutes, ‘yes, Mommy, no Mommy, I won’t Mommy.’ Everyone could hear. I wanted to die from embarrassment.”

At this point in the argument Polly would have her hands on her hips in frustration. “She should have just come with us. Then she could have been sure I didn’t touch her precious baby.”

“Polly, what are you talking about?”

My mother and father had the first cocktail party of that last summer. By then Jeremy had already been hospitalized. The Wilkins were late to arrive. Mr. Wilkins pulled his Continental into the driveway behind Dr. Towle’s Oldsmobile. I saw Mrs. Wilkins getting out as her husband held the door for her. She stood ramrod straight, waiting for Mr. Wilkins to come around to take her arm. There they were, standing side by side in the driveway. Mrs. Wilkins took his arm with both her hands. She was wearing white gloves, and you could see she was gripping his biceps tightly. Despite that, there was something practiced about her fragility.

“My God, she looks awful,” someone murmured.

“It looks like she’s the patient, not Jeremy,” another whispered in return.

My mother swung the door open before the Wilkins even had a chance to knock. She put her arms around Mrs. Wilkins, hugging her. When she stepped back, the room could see Mrs. Wilkins’s tears. She seemed small and defenseless, and her husband made a move to get between Mother and Mrs. Wilkins.

“You look like you could use a drink,” Mother said, tucking her arm under Mrs. Wilkins’s.

“Oh God, Millie, could I ever, and a strong one.” She scanned the faces of those standing inside the living room. “Really strong.”

They stepped through the door and the conversation stopped. The tiny crowd resembled a small colony of mutant flamingos. The women, wearing sleeveless dresses in pastel colors, turned to look, holding their drinks in one hand their cigarettes in the other. Ice clinked in glasses as an occasional hand shook. The bouffant hairdos quivered slightly as filter-tipped cigarettes were raised and inhaled deeply. The men were dressed in the loud-colored golf pants topped with the requisite Brooks Brothers blazer and repp tie.

“James, more gin than tonic, please,” she said to James, an old local man who had been tending bar at Eaglescroft cocktail parties for decades. Mrs. Wilkins’s voice was tiny, like a little girls. “On second thought, forget the tonic, it’s been a rough week.” She opened her handbag and withdrew a wrinkled package of Lark cigarettes. “Oh God, I left my lighter at home,” she mumbled, raising a hand to her forehead.

Half a dozen handbags were opened, and the respective lighters withdrawn, as though lighting the way through a darkened wood.

Mother went to the hi-fi. I heard the disc fall to the turntable and the needle swing into place with a metallic snake’s hiss, before segueing into Henry Mancini’s Latin Hits.

The music masked much of the conversation, the sound of bongo drums and trumpets flowing out over the room, through the French doors and out to the terrace. Nevertheless, I was standing close enough to the bar to overhear James, as he handed Mrs. Wilkins her gin and tonic.

“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Jeremy and I’m praying for him.” She took the drink from him. I knew he had ventured into uncharted territory. That he should even intimate that he knew of Jeremy’s problems was a transgression of enormous proportions. She took a deep drought of her drink, and as she took the glass from her lips, James poured more gin into it.

“Thank you, James.” I didn’t know if she was thanking him for the gin or his kind remarks. She lingered a moment, as if there was something else she was waiting for him to say, or perhaps something she was going to add. But I knew there wasn’t. She just wouldn’t turn around to face the room.

I carried a plate of cheese cubes with toothpicks around the room on a small tray, stopping to offer them to the party goers. Perhaps, because I was younger than most of the kids that summer, the adults didn’t think I would understand what I was overhearing. As I stood waiting for people to recognize that I was offering something to them, conversations continued as though I weren’t there.

“How could you possibly agree to that treatment?”

“I’m used to making difficult decisions,” Mr. Wilkins said raising his glass to his lips. “That’s what I get paid for.”

“Still, your own son?” asked Dr. Towle, wincing as he spoke as though he had just eaten spicy chili. “He’s over eighteen years old. Who’s to benefit from this decision anyway?”

“He has to learn that as his parents, we know what’s best for him.”

“He’s in Delaware Memorial?” Pauline Toner asked in a hushed voice. The group where she stood looked at one another. “It’s a brain tumor, isn’t it?” Silence hung like a leaden rain cloud.

Later, three couples remained, my parents, Dr. and Mrs. Towle and the Toners. The others, including the Wilkins, had left for dinner at The Lake House. Mrs. Toner sat down on the sofa and took from her purse the small brocade case with a gold clasp that contained her package of Herbert Tareyton cigarettes and sterling silver lighter. Mrs. Toner always wore several bangle bracelets on her left wrist. She jangled and clanked as she moved, and I often thought that Mr. Toner would always know where she was, like a cat with a bell on its collar.

“Did you get a chance to talk about it?” Jane Towle looked up at her husband as she raised her glass. Mrs. Towle never wore lipstick or nail polish. Occasionally, if things weren’t going right, one could hear her saying “damn it” under her breath.

The doctor nodded.

“Well?” Pauline asked, smoke flowing from her nose as she spoke.

The doctor paused before responding. “Jeremy’s at Cedar Vale.” He stood swirling the gin and melting ice cubes in the bottom of his glass.

“Andy, you’re kidding, aren’t you?” my mother asked, looking in the doctor’s direction.

He turned from James with a fresh drink in hand. His thinning, silver hair was oiled with Vitalis and combed across his tanned scalp. He had an air of deep dignity with his straight posture and tanned features, like a lion that has stepped into the open where it pauses momentarily, before retreating to cover.

“What’s Cedar Vale?” Pauline turned from one to the other.

Jane Towle, the doctor’s wife, perched on the edge of a wing chair aside the fireplace. “It’s a dreadful place.” She looked down into the drink balanced on her knee. “A snake pit.”

“My God. Poor Cynthia,” my mother murmured.

Dr Towle frowned. “Poor Cynthia?”

“Having to put your only son in a place like that.”

“Will you please just tell me, what is Cedar Vale?” Pauline Toner asked. She paused to sip her drink. “It sounds like a golf club, just not one in River Oaks.” She forced a small laugh. “Is that so awful?” Pauline crossed and recrossed her legs, her stockings making a slight rasping sound as they rubbed together.

“It’s not the place itself. It’s what happens there.” Doctor Towle cleared his throat. “Jeremy’s having shock therapy.”

The group was quiet for a prolonged moment before Pauline spoke. “What in hell is that?”

“Three times a week they attach electrodes to his temples and run an electric current through his head.”

The women flinched as he said this and turned away.

“Cripes almighty.” Pauline stood up, the bangle bracelets at her wrists clanging like wind chimes in a stiff breeze. “What in blazes is that supposed to do?”

He shrugged. “I wouldn’t let it happen to anyone in my family. They must be desperate beyond imagination.” The doctor paused and looked down at his shoes. “Or punishing him for something.”

Pauline put her glass in front of James and with a quick flip of her hand signaled that she didn’t want another. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” She shivered visibly; her hand shook as she raised her cigarette to her lips.

“They have to get three big orderlies to hold the patient in place.”

“Andy stop.” Jane Towle stood up, leaving her drink in front of James, making the same small wave of the hand as Pauline had a moment before.

“The convulsing is gruesome. They thrash all around.”

“I think that’s enough, Andy.” His wife’s voice was loud and sharp, the same tone one used to keep a dog off the sofa.

“They’re unconscious for hours.”

“Andrew, I asked you to stop!” Her tone was more strident than I had ever heard at one of these parties, where voices were only raised in laughter. No one else in the room spoke.

“Afterwards, they have no idea what the hell hit them. They’re terrified, they just don’t know of what.”

Mrs. Toner’s hand continued to shake, her bangles tinkling as she raised her cigarette to her lips once again. She kept her hand close to her mouth, where she repeatedly blew out grey blue plumes of smoke. “This must be so hard on them.”

The doctor shot Pauline a look that I could not understand. “Sometimes the memory is permanently impaired.”

“Andrew, I asked you!”

The grandfather clock in the entry hall chimed eight o’clock. Jane looked in its direction. “Shouldn’t we be leaving? We all have reservations at The Red Fox.” She took the doctor’s glass and put it in front of James. “Meet us there.” She stepped up to my mother and they pressed their cheeks to one another. “Thanks for having us.” When she turned, I could see her face drop as she watched the doctor turning from James with a fresh drink in his hand. “Andy, what are you doing?”

He paused a moment, pursing his lips together, and shook his head slightly. “I’ve played some golf with Jeremy. There’s nothing wrong with that young man.” He took a long sip of his drink. “We all know what’s going on here.” His eyes appeared moist as he looked around at the faces in the room. “I’m an ophthalmologist, not a psychiatrist. But I’ve raised two boys.” He looked again at the silent group. “If they don’t loosen their grip on Jeremy, this won’t end well.”

“Oh sweetheart.” Jane stepped over to him and put her hand under his arm close to his shoulder. “Let’s take that with you. I’ll bring the glass back tomorrow.”

I watched as Mrs. Towle slid behind the steering wheel of their car. She moved the seat forward and tilted the rearview mirror. The door closed with the firm “chunk” of a bank safe. Mrs. Towle took a gossamer scarf from her purse, covered her hair and tied it under her chin. With a button on the dashboard, she raised the convertible roof, then put the car in gear. I saw the doctor raise the glass to his lips as the gravel crunched under the slow-moving wheels. Although sometimes a whole day went by without a car passing the front of the house, Mrs. Towle stopped the car cautiously at the edge of the driveway, looking in both directions. The turn signal flickered in the gathering darkness as she turned, and the cornering light dimmed as the car passed out of sight, the sound of its powerful engine echoing in the night air across the empty fairway.

“My God, the shame of having to put your only son in a place like that,” Mitch Toner said.

My mother looked at me, her brow furrowed, and I could tell she was trying to decide whether to ask me to leave the room. I picked up an ashtray from the coffee table and carried it to the butler’s pantry. “Without telling them,” she said, “Jeremy enlisted in the Army. It would have been a first-class ticket to Vietnam. His father pulled all sorts of strings to undo it. George, would you be a good boy and fetch me a fresh package of cigarettes? You know where they are.” She smiled at me, but I knew she just wanted me out of earshot.

“The day it happened, Mr. Wilkins got home early and found him. Five more minutes and it would have been too late. He was admitted through the emergency room.”

“The emergency room?” Pauline’s voice was so high it seemed hoarse.

From the kitchen where she kept her carton of cigarettes in a drawer with the dish towels, I could hear my mother speaking more quietly to Pauline. “Razor blade. The cuts were vertical, and they were deep. He wasn’t fooling around.”

I waited in the kitchen with the package of cigarettes in hand, trying to hear more of their conversation.

“Razor blades?” Pauline’s bangle bracelets rattled, and I knew she was raising her cigarette to her lips. There was a pause and I heard her bracelets rattling again. “What is it, dear? What are you so upset about?”

I returned to the living room and handed over the package of Parliaments. My mother didn’t turn to face me, just took the package and put it in her purse. Pauline had moved closer to her, and I knew without seeing that my mother had started to weep.

“Oh! I should have asked you to bring matches too. Would you do me the favor and go get a box?” Her voice was high and nasal. I could see her arms, tanned from the summer sun. Her hands were clasped in her lap. Probably she thought I couldn’t hear anything from the kitchen, but she was wrong.

“The water was running over the edge of the tub in the master bath, leaking through the living room ceiling.” My mother choked before adding in a lowered voice, “Floating in the bathtub, bleeding from both arms.” There was a pause and I imagined the two of them looking at one another.

I heard Pauline’s bangle bracelets clanging. “Oh my god! His poor father finding that.”

“Cynthia was at the garden club that afternoon.” She took the box of matches that I proffered without looking at me. “They tried for so many years. Her first and only child, born when she was thirty-nine. This is what happens.”

“They can’t be blaming themselves. There isn’t a thing they haven’t done for him.”

“Jeremy’s doctor was able to convince his parents that Jeremy should be out-patient. He hired a male nurse to stay here at the cottage with Jeremy over the summer. Andy said the nurse is top-notch, a former military man. He said that if things were different, he would have gone to medical school rather than nursing school. Apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins will only be permitted to visit for one night and one day on the weekend.”

My father and Mitch Toner were standing at the door, the Toner’s Buick idling outside. Mr. Toner, although muscularly built, came up to my father’s shoulder, and I wondered if, as I had once heard my mother whisper to my father, he really did wear elevator shoes.

“Ladies?” Mr. Toner said.

As the two women passed through the doorway, my father made eye contact with me. He was wearing his no-nonsense face, the one I usually saw before I knew I was in trouble. He pointed his index finger at me and then drew it across his lips, swearing me to deepest secrecy.

It was an awkward age. Too old to go to day camp with the little kids and too young to hang around at the beach with my sister Polly and the older kids, I was supposed to be working my way through the summer reading list. Often the golf pro would let me play in the middle of the day if I didn’t take a caddy. The Wilkins cottage faced one of the fairways. I was on the green late one morning a week after my parents’ cocktail party when I saw Jeremy’s car pull up in front.

The top was down in the late morning sun. Jeremy was in the front passenger seat, slumped against the door. A stocky man dressed in white shirt and trousers got out from behind the steering wheel. He had powerfully built shoulders and arms; his black hair was closely cut.

My golf clubs rattled in the bag as I approached the car. Jeremy’s eyes were closed; he was slack-jawed, expressionless. It was frightening; he was so still I wasn’t even sure I could see him breathing.

“Is Jeremy going to be okay?”

“In a couple hours,” the man said. He opened the car door and picked Jeremy up, throwing him over his shoulder, fireman style. This was no small feat. Jeremy was tall and husky.

His head and arms hung down along the man’s back, flaccid, moving languidly as the man walked, as river grass moves with the water’s flow. Leaving my clubs at the front door, I followed them into the Wilkins cottage, up the stairs, where the man put Jeremy down on a bed.

“You just walk into people’s houses?” His voice was deep. It came from somewhere far below other peoples. He looked at me with a stare that scared me more than my father’s.

I just shook my head.

He tossed his head in Jeremy’s direction. “You his friend?”

I nodded.

“He can use one. Do you have a name?”

“George Pierce.” I extended a hand in his direction.

“Okay, George. I’m Frank Walsh, you want to give me a hand here?” With one knee on the bed, he held Jeremy in a sitting position and began to pull his shirt over his head. I went to the other side of the bed and did everything I saw Frank doing.

“Get his shoes.”

I went to the foot of the bed and pulled Jeremy’s loafers from his feet, leaving them on the floor. Frank left the room.

Bright, summer sunlight poured into the bedroom from windows on two sides. Its walls were painted a muted blue, almost gray. Jeremy was my sister Polly’s age. I didn’t consider her to be grown up, but as he lay there, Jeremy looked grown up to me with hair on his chest and abdomen. I lifted Jeremy’s left arm. On the inside I could see three hideous red lines that went from his wrist almost up to his elbow and a series of shorter red lines that crisscrossed one another closer to his wrist. A chill passed through me.

“Is that what you came to see?” Frank was standing in the doorway.

I shook my head. It was impossible to turn away from him as he looked at me, and I was afraid he could read my mind.

He sat at the edge of the bed and held Jeremy’s head up with one hand. He had a wet cloth in his other hand and was washing Jeremy’s face, scraping some goo from the hair at his temples. I saw Jeremy’s jaw move as though he were talking although he made no noise and his eyes remained closed.

“Just sleep. I’ll be here when you come around, son,” Frank said. His voice was so low I almost couldn’t hear him. He pulled the sheet up to Jeremy’s neck, drew the drapes and we left the room.

“So, you’re Jeremy’s friend, huh?” Frank was sitting backwards on one of the kitchen chairs, resting his arms on its back. The yellow kitchen wallpaper was patterned with little tea kettles that sprouted flowers from the spout. “A bit young, aren’t you?”

“We play golf sometimes. My sister knows him better than I do.” I didn’t tell him that whenever Jeremy called on Polly and she refused to see him, he’d ask, “What about you? Want to go drive a bucket of balls?”

“She his girlfriend?” Frank asked.

I shook my head.

“I didn’t think so.” He looked at me with eyes that were very dark and shiny. “Can you tell me, what is wrong with the women around here, that a boy who looks like that,” here he paused to throw his head in the direction of Jeremy’s bedroom, “can’t get a little female companionship?”

His black eyes held mine. I shrugged. “They don’t want me either.”

His face split into a grin. “Time,” he said. “All you’ll have to do is wait. Him?” Here he paused again, nodding in the direction of the staircase. “I’m going to have to take him to Old Town some night to grow him up.”

I sat across the table from him, not having any idea what he meant. He had a thin black mustache that ran along the bottom of his upper lip. Never before had I seen anyone who had a mustache like that. His thick upper arms filled the sleeves of his white tee shirt. Being this close to him made me feel puny.

“Look, today isn’t a good day. I’ve already made a round trip to Roanoke taking him to his therapy. So, I’m meaner than a snake. He’s going to sleep for several hours. This afternoon when he wakes up, he’s going to have a granddaddy of a headache. Come by tomorrow.” He raised his eyebrows, and I knew the conversation was finished.

I picked up my clubs and started towards the tenth tee box. Halfway across the fairway I turned and looked back. Jeremy’s convertible was still in front of the house, sunshine filling its red leather interior, its blue paintwork glimmering. The drapes were drawn in the windows of the upstairs bedroom. Behind them, I knew Jeremy lay senseless, with his grown-up’s body, frightening red marks on his arms and his head that didn’t work right.

Frank had played golf all over the world wherever he’d been stationed. With his irons he could drive the ball down the fairway over two hundred yards. With his woods he could send it to the moon. He was good about helping us improve our game, offering advice about grip or stance. Jeremy’s game was way off that summer. Often, he’d shank it into the woods, three-putt or worse once he got to the greens. Usually, by the time we were on the back nine, he was glum.

He never lied about his score and Frank or I dutifully wrote it down. Several times I lied about my score, adding strokes that put Jeremy second for the hole. The last time I did it, I looked up to see Frank looking at me, his eyes unblinking, boring two holes through my head.

Occasionally, Frank would take him to the side, and they would stand face to face. I could hear fragments of what he was saying. “Temporary, it comes back.” Other times, I could tell it was not his game that was on Jeremy’s mind. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt when we played and often stood nervously pulling the cuffs to his wrists.

We had a twelve-thirty tee time one afternoon in early August. I walked over to Wilkins on my way to the golf house. It had been two weeks since Frank had to take Jeremy to Roanoke. His mood had been consistently upbeat, and his golf swing was improving as Frank said it would.

In the kitchen, Frank was scrambling eggs in a cast-iron skillet as he spoke. “Why don’t you tell George what you did yesterday?” He was smiling.

Jeremy was sitting backwards on a kitchen chair, his arms resting on its back. He looked at me sheepishly before averting his eyes. He was barefoot, dressed in Madras Bermuda shorts and a short-sleeved yellow golf shirt. As I sat looking at him, he seemed healthy, tanned and fit, like any of his age. I didn’t understand what he and Frank were joking about, but it was obvious its memory pleased him. The red scars on his arm now seemed unimportant.

“She seemed pretty happy, didn’t she?” Frank stepped away from the stove and messed up Jeremy’s hair with one hand. “Frank, you bring your young friend back here any time, you hear me?” Frank said, smiling broadly at Jeremy. “She wouldn’t say that to just anyone.”

Jeremy was smiling widely, looking at me from the corner of his eye, not realizing I still didn’t know what they were talking about.

“Come on Frank, lighten up,” Jeremy said.

“That can’t be undone.” Frank laughed heartily. He punched Jeremy in the upper arm. “She really wants to see you again.”

I laughed with him, still I didn’t know who the butt of the joke was.

While we were playing the eighteenth later that afternoon, a thunderstorm came up unexpectedly. Jeremy had several good holes during that round and had gotten a good drive off the tee, straight down the fairway ending with a good lie for the green. Frank ended near the rough and my drive ended in a water hazard.

“We don’t run until we hear thunder, do we men?” Frank said.

We finished the hole in the rain, our shirts stuck to our backs, hair plastered to our heads, feet squishing in our shoes. Jeremy chipped over a bunker and onto the green where the ball rolled towards the pin. Tapping it gently with his putter, it wobbled on the lip before falling into the cup. He had come in a legitimate first for that hole, with an eagle, having shaved two strokes off par. This was the best round Jeremy had played all summer. Frank held him in a headlock, and I jumped on his back. The three of us hooted and hollered as the rain pelted down. It was the only time I heard him laugh that summer. Thunder came up with a sharp clap; lightening flared just back at the tee box.

“Run for cover,” Frank announced. He picked up his bag and loped off for the golf house. We followed him, catching up to him on the porch. “Just an afternoon squall,” he said looking up at the clouds.

Under the awning, we three sat on the bench, shoulder to shoulder, Jeremy between Frank and me, pouring water out of our golf shoes, peeling off sodden socks.

I think Jeremy was the first to see the car approaching; he became quiet. I followed his gaze and saw Mrs. Wilkins pulling up in the convertible. The window on the passenger side disappeared, like ice at spring melt out.

“Jeremy,” she called, “Jeremy, thank God, I’ve found you!” Her arm was outstretched and with her fingers she motioned for him to get in the car.

“She’s not supposed to be here until after five on Friday,” I heard Frank mutter. “What the hell is going on here?”

I felt my heartbeat increase. I didn’t know what I was afraid of, but I could tell just by the way Jeremy looked at Frank, who looked back at Jeremy and raised his eyebrows, that something was seriously wrong.

“Jeremy,” she called again from inside the car. “Bring the others too.”

No one said anything. The window slid up silently, obscuring our view of her. The umbrella she took from the back seat was light green with a ruffled edge and a pattern of breaking waves on it. She left the car running, the windshield wipers slapping, and ran over to us in little squirrel steps.

“Look at you.” She put a hand on Jeremy’s shirt. “You’re drenched through, get in the car immediately. Oh my God, you’re barefoot.” She lifted the umbrella over his head. “I’ve got to get you home before you take a chill.” She was so tiny next to him that it looked as if he might pick her up and carry her to the car himself.

The look on his face scared me. He had been talking about his score on the eighteenth hole and smiling as the three of us sat barefoot on the porch wringing out our socks. I hardly recognized him now; his eyes were narrowed and his mouth was drawn as though he might begin to cry.

“You two, in the car, I’ll take you also.”

Frank stood up. “Thank you very much, ma’am, but I’ve got to clean my clubs. This should blow over quickly.” His voice was deep water and the way his words were inflected, anyone would realize that there was no compromise position.

“You didn’t hear me. I said, I’ll take you.” I had never seen her smile as she did when she said this.

“Thanks anyway, ma’am.” Frank picked up his golf bag and slung it over his shoulder. “It’s a very kind offer. Another day.” His saturated golf shoes hung from the fingers of his left hand. Barefoot, he walked over to the door of the golf house.

“Georgie, in the back seat, scoot.”

No one called me Georgie. Jeremy’s face was crumpling. There was no evidence of the pleasure this last round of golf had brought him. Neither was there any indication that he had been laughing with us just moments ago, as we took off our waterlogged golf shoes. His shoulders were sinking visibly, his hands at his sides. She was still smiling at me as she held the umbrella over Jeremy’s head while she stood in the rain.

“I can’t,” I said.

She pursed her lips, her lipstick disappearing altogether. From her expression I realized few ever defied her.

“My mother’s coming to get me.” My face burned as I said this and I looked away from her quickly. I picked up my clubs and followed Frank to the door of the golf house.

Frank and I watched while she held the umbrella over Jeremy’s head. He pulled his hand away from her. There was nothing insolent in how he stood back, it was just deliberate.

“Jeremy, I want you in the car now.” She took him by the elbow, holding the door open for him as he got in. As she tip-toed around to the driver’s side, Jeremy lowered the window and looked over at us. It seemed like the tan he had gotten had been wiped away, taking with it the fun we had playing golf in the sun.

Although I didn’t know why, I had a terrible feeling that things would never be the same. I was on the verge of tears but wouldn’t give in. Frank would never see me cry.

“I lied. My mother isn’t coming.” My voice sounded like the chirpings of a canary. There was a very long pause before I heard him say, “I know.”

“Why did I do that?” My voice cracked, but I had no idea what I was afraid of.

“Someday, you’ll figure it out.”

Outside, Mrs. Wilkins put the car in gear. Jeremy’s window was down; he was still looking over at us. I wanted to run to the car and shout at him, “Get out!” as though I could have saved a drowning swimmer. I imagined opening the car door and pulling him out, my arm around his neck as I had learned in swim class. It didn’t happen. She made a U-turn and I couldn’t see his face anymore. I remembered the day, earlier that summer, when I saw Frank bring him home. Jeremy was lying on his bed, with his grown up-body, dead to the world.

Frank and I cleaned our clubs as we waited for the thunder shower to pass. Neither of us had much to say. When it cleared, we walked home in silence, barefoot, carrying our golf shoes. Vapor rose like poltergeists from the hot pavement as the water dried. At the point where we were to head in different directions, he extended his hand. “You did well,” he said.

I thought he was talking about golf.

“I had a call from the golf pro today,” my mother said into the receiver. At this time of evening, I knew she was talking to my father. “They told me George has been getting tee times and playing with Jeremy Wilkins and that male nurse who’s there for the summer.”

I stood stock-still outside her bedroom.

“He’s a former Marine, named Frank Walsh. Medical Corp probably. I assume it was an honorable discharge. He was recommended by Andy Towles. That’s not it. He’s a Negro. Several times a week George has been playing golf with Jeremy and this Negro. How would I have seen him? They live on the other side of the fairway, for cripes sake.” Her voice was rising, and I could tell she was having trouble maintaining composure. “That’s not the end of it. The pro took George aside and told him that Negroes don’t play here, not to bring Frank back. He told me to tell George what he’d said, which I haven’t done yet. I wanted to talk to you first.”

I pushed the door open. She was sitting on a chaise near the windows, having stretched and crossed her legs in front of her. The yellow summer shoes which she had pushed off lay on the floor. I saw her take the receiver away from her ear as she turned to see me standing in the doorway.

“I told him up his nose with a rubber hose,” I said, my voice steady.

There was a look of surprise on her face as though she had just witnessed an auto wreck. She put the receiver back up to her ear. “This is something we have to talk to him about together. You’d better get here early this Friday.”

I remained in the doorway watching as she slowly returned the receiver to its cradle.

For the next couple days, I played alone. I was on the fairway late one morning when the convertible pulled up in front of the Wilkins cottage. Frank got out of the car but didn’t acknowledge me, although I knew he saw me. At the passenger side, he opened the door and threw Jeremy over his shoulder as he had that first day earlier in the summer.

After that, Jeremy’s game was way off and Frank didn’t talk much. Together, we all walked part of the way home. When we parted ways, I extended my hand to both. When Jeremy took it, his felt like something that’s spent too much time underwater. He looked at the ground. In his face, I saw the hurt eyes of a dog that just skulked along at the perimeter of human activity.

That last day, I was at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. All the windows were open, leaves rustled in the morning breeze. The sound of sirens carried inside. Although it was an unusual occurrence, they meant nothing to me. I thought it was just the local police after a speeder on the county road. A little later, I was sitting on the terrace in the late August sunshine reading a book from my summer reading list. The phone rang twice, so I knew my mother had gotten it.

After a few moments she stepped through the French doors. “There you are, I’m so glad to find you here.” She was wearing sunglasses.

“Why?”

“I thought you may have gone off to the links.” She sat on the edge of the lounge where I sat reading and put her hand on my ankle. “All the golf you’ve played this summer, how tanned you are.” She ran her hand up my leg towards my knee and squeezed it. “You’ve had a good time this summer, haven’t you.” I nodded.

She sat looking at me without speaking for such a long time it began to make me uneasy. “Look, I have to go over to Jane’s.”

“What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?”

She hadn’t put on any lipstick and wasn’t carrying a handbag. I shrugged.

“Will you stay here until I return, in case the phone rings?”

I nodded.

“George,” she was part way through the French doors into the living room, “what are you reading?”

Of Mice and Men.

“Is it a happy book?”

“I guess so.”

The station wagon started with a lion’s roar. Gravel sprayed as she accelerated out of the driveway. During the course of the afternoon, she called several times asking if she had gotten a call. Each time I told her no she asked that I wait a little longer. I asked whose call she was expecting, but I never got a real answer.

The distinctive crunch of tires in the gravel driveway as a car came to an abrupt halt carried through to the den where I was working on a jigsaw puzzle. From the window I could see my mother and father getting out of the station wagon. It was Wednesday afternoon and he wasn’t carrying a briefcase.

“Look,” I shouted, pointing my index finger at him when he entered the room, “they’re just pissed cause he’s a better golfer than they are, and there’s not a friggin’ thing they can do about it.” I was backed into a corner and shouting as loud as I could.

He didn’t even stop to take off his suit coat, crossing the room in four long strides. I expected to be shaken by the shoulders when he got to me. Instead, he took me in his arms, pulling me so close I could smell the remnants of his aftershave and feel his roughened face against my head. “George, something awful has happened.”

Behind him I saw my mother. She had taken off her sunglasses, revealing a reddened, swollen face, her eyes sunken into her head. Leaning against the doorjamb, she covered her mouth and continued crying.

I went to the memorial service with my parents. When we walked in, Frank was sitting alone, in a pew at the rear. He didn’t look up. All my parents’ friends, whom I recognized, were gathered in the pews at the front. That’s where we sat, behind the Toners and the Towles. At one point Mrs. Toner turned to look at me. She was wearing sunglasses indoors.

His parents came down the aisle slowly, Jeremy’s father wearing a double-breasted suit. Mrs. Wilkins was holding a handkerchief to her face, appearing limp, a foot dragging, her husband holding her up. I became infuriated watching her and looked away.

Before the funeral attendants wheeled the casket into the church, I kept turning my head to look at Frank. Each time I did this, my mother shoved her elbow into my ribs. My agitation continued to grow, my legs were bouncing as I sat, and it was impossible to keep my hands in one place. My father continually put a hand on my leg to still it, with little success.

Finally, he leaned over and said, loud enough for my mother to hear, “Would you feel better if you went to sit with your friend?”

As I was leaving the pew, I kept expecting to feel a hand on my arm holding me back, as had happened to Jeremy.

Walking to the back of the church, I returned the stares of all who watched me enter the pew where Frank sat by himself. I had hoped that there would be some greeting from him, a handshake, or a raised eyebrow. There was nothing, he just moved aside to make room for me. We sat silently for several moments before he spoke, his voice so low I barely heard him.

“He waited until I was in the shower.”

Outside in the late summer sunshine, Frank and I stood to the side as the casket was loaded into the hearse. A small crowd had formed. It was a startling contrast to the other crowds of summer. The men now wore sober dark suits and stood silently, staring at the ground; the women wore black dresses and dark hosiery, gathered around Mrs. Wilkins.

Occasional snippets of conversation drifted over to us. “...the best any of us could...”

Frank stood silently, clenching and unclenching his fists. I didn’t dare say anything.

Before the hearse left for the cemetery, my father walked over to us. He looked Frank in the eye and they shook hands, nodding at one another, saying nothing.

My mother stood holding a handkerchief to her face in a vain effort to prevent people from seeing her cry. She extended her other hand to Frank, composed herself and then asked in a hoarse whisper, “Would you like to ride with us?”

He shook his head. “Thank you for thinking of me.” His closely cropped black hair glistened in the sun; his shoes were better polished than my father’s.

“George, it’s time to get in the car.” She had taken the handkerchief away from her mouth.

A wave of terror came over me. The funeral attendants were getting into the hearse. Mrs. Wilkins appeared limp, as several people helped her into a limousine. My father stood poised to slide behind the steering wheel of the station wagon. My heart beat rapidly as the panic rose to my mouth, leaving a metallic taste over my palate.

“No,” I said loud enough for those around us to hear.

“George, please don’t make us hold up the procession.”

“No,” this time I shouted. Several heads turned to look our way. I took a step back in anticipation of running. Where I would run to, I didn’t know. I just knew that I could not stay there, with my mother waiting for me to get in the car. My father stood with his hands on the frame of the driver’s door; he and Frank were looking directly at one another.

In that split second when I turned to run, Frank put his hand on my collar and pulled me close. “It’s not the same,” he whispered.

He took his hand from my collar and gave me a little push in my parent’s direction. I felt betrayed. Over the summer I had watched carefully and promised myself I would learn from the mistakes I’d seen. Now it seemed, he was pushing me into the biggest one of all.

“Not even close,” his voice was rock steady. He fixed me with the look I had seen the morning he caught me looking at the scars on Jeremy’s left arm. He lifted his chin in the direction of the station wagon.

For a long time after Jeremy died, I kept waiting to hear one of Polly’s friends, someone Jeremy’s age, mention him in conjunction with something other than a razor blade or a length of rope.

“He eagled the eighteenth, didn’t he?” Something like that. But it never happened.

My parents never mentioned Jeremy. On the very rare occasions that Jeremy’s name came up at one of the summer cocktail parties, it was in terms of what he had done to his parents, rather than the other way around.

Polly never said his name. For her, and all her friends, Jeremy had ceased to exist long before he kicked the chair out from under himself. None of them ever wondered if things could have been different for him. His name should have come up when Polly and her girlfriends gathered to drink Coca-Cola and to talk about their boyfriends. Jeremy had been better looking than any of them. Yet, he had just disappeared, like the flame on a birthday candle.

One August evening, the following summer, I stood with the garden hose in hand as one of the young men who didn’t wear socks with his loafers stopped by to pick Polly up. I was watering the garden, my back was to them, when I heard him ask, “Is he the one who played golf with that lunatic and the ...”

He never got to say the last word. My father was sitting on the terrace looking over to where the three of us stood. I turned the hose on the young man, drenching him from the neck down, pursuing him as he tried to avoid me and the stream of water. Polly stood next to the young man’s sports car, screaming.

My father turned the water off at the spigot. “George, why don’t you put the hose away,” he said.

About the Author

Thomas Small

Mr. Small earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Newark. His fiction has been published in The Cooweescoowee, The Santa Fe Literary Review and Passages North among others. His creative non-fiction has been published in Amoskeag. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. He and his wife live in northeastern Pennsylvania with their dog Frankie, who is obsessed with chipmunks.