Pete and I grew up together. I mean, o’ course not totally together, he an’ his family didn’t move to our town til we was both in second grade. I was even on the playground the time his sister Ann knocked out Buzz’s front teeth fer makin fun o’ him. Lotsa’ people round here’ll tell ya they was there that day, it’s become a bit o’ a legen round here, but me, I really was. We was all wrapped up in scarves n sweaters, round little balls of home-knit warmth and red, windburned faces, but that Ann tore through us all w steam whistlin’ outta her ears and hit Buzz like we’d never seen anyone get hit – ‘specially not by a girl. Embarrassed the hell outta Pete, but we all respected em both a bit more after that. Made em part of us, like. Less like city-slickers n more like brawlers who won’ take shit, like we were. Pete an’ I got to be like brothers pretty quick after that, you know how boys are at that age, an’ we been best friends ever since. We played baseball together every night after school with the other guys from school, and damn if we didn’t get our asses handed to us by those cock-suckers from Moriah every Saturday. Course Pete’s dad was always a little off, bein’ headmaster at the high school n all. One week, we musta’ been in sixth or seventh grade, when we all thought if we just got a little better we’d be playing for the Yankees in a coupla’ years, his dad wouldn’ even let him come to the game because he hadn’t finished some bullshit homework assignment. Even our teachers thought the game was more important, but not Pete’s dad. He always seemed like a nice enough guy to me, but I guess it’s no wonder Pete was always hangin out at my house every day after school and all through the summers instead of at his own place.
He was always too smart fer his own good, too. I remember that all through school. Once we’d all accepted him and let him hang around with us, before long it got to feelin like he was the one lettin’ us hang around with him. He always had this way with trippin’ up the teachers, but he stopped once we got to high school and they were sendin’ him to his daddy’s office instead of that principal we had in grade school. He was sharp as a tack, Pete. Musta’ been miles aheada’ the resta’ us, specially in math. He could do things with numbers the teachers couldna’ dreamed of. One day in algebra, this musta’ been eighth grade, we had this young hotshot teacher straight outta’ some fancy college down the east coast walk in an’ write this long problem on the chalkboard looked more like a sentence, had more letters than numbers in it.
I can still remember his chalk screeching crost that blackboard, didn’ say a word to us, sitting at our shabby wooden desks all in rows with those damn wooden chairs’d put splinter all down yer’ legs. This guy just walks in and scratches this problem across the board and turns round and smirks at us with this look like “welcome to algebra, ya little shits.” Course he didn’t say that, what he said was somethin like “you all do your best and whoever’s closest to figurin’ this out by the end of class gets highest marks.” So we were all twistin’ round on those thousand-year-old chairs, lookin’ at each other like “is this fool serious?”
All of us except Pete. He was bent double over his desk, running his pencil smooth as ya like crost his notebook, and by the time the rest of us figured we might as well try to look like we were writin’ something down, we heard him tear a page out of his notebook, all neat n careful, and push his chair back from his desk. The only person more surprised by this precociousness than the kids in that room must have been the teacher himself, who looked up from his desk quicker than any o’ the rest of us. But Pete didn’t let any of us starin slackjawed at him make him nervous. He just walked between the rows of desks, easy and bold, and laid that sheet of notebook paper right down on the teacher’s desk. I was wearin’ a grin wider n my whole face, but Pete was solemn as ever. Just walked back to his seat and sat there the rest of the class while the teacher went over his paper line by line, over n over, just dyin’ to find something wrong.
Me an’ my sister Em an’ my brother Howard were close to Pete and Ann since that first summer they moved up to Port Henry, though I guess now Howard’s closer to Ann than Emily ever was. But that first summer is when we all started running aroun’ together. Ann’d bring Pete on over in the mornings and she an’ Emily’d lay out on the grass talkin’ bout whatever girls talk about an’ tryin’ to see how dark they could get. Our mama always told Emily she oughtta be ashamed wearing her two-piece out where Howard and his friends could see her, but she never yelled at us in front of Ann or Pete bc she always said they had enough troubles of their own. I didn’t know what that meant for a lotta years, though I guess Ann wearin’ that two-piece in front of Howard worked out just fine for her.
Pete and I were too young to notice those first couple summers. Once in awhile we’d see some of the boys from our school hidin’ in the trees by the creek lookin’, but as those were our sisters they was looking at we chased em off with potato guns and spit-darts. When we weren’t playin’ baseball or standing’ guard over our sisters, we were givin’ em hell, just for bein’ our sisters, which now I think about it is the same reason we gave the other boys hell for lookin at em. Pete was always our mastermind, and I was his loyal soldier. He stood guard round the side of the house while I filled up dozens of water balloons at the hose tap, then we’d load em into our backpacks and hike miles down the road, loop back around through the cornfields, and follow the crick back around to the yard the girls were in. I remember havin to step oh-so-gentle through the corn, not just for fear of poppin’ all those water balloons, but Farmer John or any of the boys he had working those fields wouldn’t hesitate to take the broad side of a shovel to the backside of any boy he found sneakin’ round in there. Plus the snakes. Snakes every couple feet between those cornstalks. Then we’d get down to the crick and smear our faces with mud like injun braves, crouched real low below the banks of the crick so’s not to get ourselves spotted, silty crick mud squelchin between our toes and cool clear water rushin past our ankles. We climbed the bank when Pete reckoned we were about close to my house, usin’ the tree roots pokin’ out the mud like ladders, and once we cleared the top we’d be off runnin, hootin’ and hollering like warriors, reaching’ behind us into our bags to launch volley after volley of water balloons at our sisters. You shoulda’ heard em screechin’ an’ screaming! like cats when you grab em by the tail. They’d jump up, their coiffed hair hanging flat and dripping in front of their faces, and suddenly those little ladies could swear and run faster even than we could. Mama didn’t like to yell at us in front of Ann an’ Pete, so she did her best to ignore our hell-raisin. Only Howard pullin up in his old truck had any kind of power over ’em, cuz once he and his friends set foot on our driveway our sisters were transformed into dainty girls once again, just a bit soggier than they’d’ve liked. Once we heard that truck pullin’ up the gravel Pete and I always ran back into the cover of the woods. I think Howard knew where we hidin’ cuz after a few defensive shouts in our direction he always let us be.
Pete an’ I got more good memories b’tween us ‘an I could count. We only really stopped spending’ every damn day together once he went off to school and I started workin’ the farms, waitin’ for my number to get called up. He missed all of that, the waitin. Watchin’ every boy in town get picked off one by one, shipped off to some place nobody’d ever heard of to fight people we’d never met for reasons we still can’t explain. Those coupla’ years while Pete was off at school were tough on the town, tough on all of us. Ann was already with Howard then, expectin’ their first, prayin’ every night Howard wouldn’t get that letter til after the baby. Every day I’d show up to work and see one more guy I’d gone to school with, bitin’ his lip and holding his letter, talkin’ bout reporting the next day and how not-scared he was. The town Pete had left was all kids growin up like we figured we all would, but the town he’d be coming back to was all kids barely old enough to be called adults, waiting for the letters that would call them to war, all parents and young wives tryin to be more proud than scared. Emily’s beau had already been called up, he’d been sendin her letters less and less often with more and more lines blacked out of ’em.
It was in the air, the anticipation and the fear and the not-wanting-to-give-into-the-fear, that day I was out on the tractor, tilling’ rows in the field, when I saw Pete’s dad comin’ down the road and I’ll be damned if I didn’ see Pete starin’ at me out the passenger side window. It took everything in me to finish that day o’ work, but I drove straight over to his place, still grimy, sweaty and dirt-covered, as soon as I hopped off that tractor.
His dad let me in and pulled me in for a hug, pulled me into his house and stepped out beside me, leaving me alone with Pete in their kitchen. He looked completely different and exactly the same. Same too-smart-for-his-own-good smile, brand new shiny hair, same bright eyes, new lines around the edges of ’em.
“Bill. Thank god.” He grabbed me and held me like we was girls, like we was little boys. I held him out at arms length and looked him up and down. It’d been four years since we finished high school, since I’d last seen him.
“They turn you into some kinda fag out there, or what?” I asked him, smilin fit to cry.
He just laughed. “Nah, they did teach me about washin’ up a bit though.”
He sat down and offered me a beer, I sat and took it and didn’t know where to start.
“God I missed you brother. You finally come back to do some honest work?”
And we were off again, teasin’ each other and laughin. He told me about the girls down in Connecticut, about his professors, about the war and how people our age were gonna stop it.
His face kept shifting while I listened to him, he was nine years old on the playground at school, he was 18 and headin’ off to see the world, he was 14 and shown’ up our teachers, he was 11 and mud streaked, hollering like a brave and launching water balloons. He was sitting across the table, 22 years old and talking about ending a war all by himself, with his negro friends and some easy women.
I hated myself for it, but I put my beer down after about half an hour and told him I had to get home, see to my mama.
He looked broken then, more like the little boy who’d just moved here and couldn’t talk to anybody, than I think he ever did at nine when we met. He said something about seein’ me over at Ann and Howard’s.
We saw each other a few more times before I got called up. Everybody else in the town told me to kill as many gooks as I could, and he told me he’d have the war over before I ever left boot camp. We just shook hands when I left.