This a brief excerpt from the author’s forthcoming novel, Cargill Falls
My heart went down even before we saw him that afternoon, Crawford standing on the steps of the apartments where he lived, Brownie saying, “Hey, look, there’s Crawf!”
He’d not seen us yet, and I pulled Brownie back, held his arm, his hands in his pockets.
“We’ll just go say hi,” he said—and Crawf was still only a kid in front of his house, unaware of anything bad approaching him like this—and I said, “Let’s just leave him.”
“We’ll be nice,” said Brownie, “I promise.”
We were already halfway across the street when Crawford saw and called to us from the front steps. He was in our class at school and looked young and dumb as a puppy as he waved, like we were his best friends in the world, like we were going to come and play with him, Crawford so glad to see us that I almost burst into tears. No accounting for this sudden swell of emotion inside, but I almost yelled to him right there, almost yanked Brownie’s hand from his pocket. It was as if the phone poles and sagging houses were using me to feel, as if the world itself was trying to say something through me, the clouds and maples and cars and curbs all wanting to warn him away through me somehow.
As always, I had to work to be smarter than my feelings—and I had to swallow whatever urges I had—Crawford with that big grin on his face in front of us, those brave white teeth, his skin the color of a paper bag, face dark and oiled smooth, everything concrete and brick around him. The stairway, the apartment house, the sky, all of it just so heart-breakingly gray with Crawford there.
He was happy, polite, and a little too eager to have friends like us. He’d be easy to do anything with—real child’s play, classic stealing-candy-from-a-baby stuff—and even this close we should have turned and left him safe and untouched as he was. We could have just run in the other direction, hurt his feelings in a way he’d never understand.
But we continued across the street, obviously. We seemed to slow down as we approached, the two of us milking our arrival for everything it was worth, Crawford tentative at the pipe railing of the steps, Brownie leaning over and whispering for me to watch this.
“Hey, Breeze,” he called, his voice large and friendly, Brownie saying we’d been looking for him, asking where’d he been all this time anyway?
Crawford said that he came home from school just normal, adding that he always did this. He held the railing like it was the side of a pool as we got to him, Brownie saying we were heading to his house, and was he up for coming with us?
We were on the sidewalk with him now—and Crawf seemed to step back a little—and it had to be that bullshit tone from Brownie that made him wary, Brownie all fake and salesman as he shifted his feet, saying, “So, Breeze, you in?”
I forget why we called him Breeze—except it seemed no one was allowed to have just one name in this place—and it didn’t much matter at the time, because more important was Brownie not taking no for an answer. It felt like we’d already agreed upon the fact that Crawford would join us, Brownie ignoring any hesitation, saying what else was he going to do?
I asked Crawford if his mother was home.
He said, “No, but she should be any minute.”
“Blah, blah,” said Brownie. “What time is it, anyway? Do you know, Crawdad?”
Crawford waited to see if Brownie was serious—and this all seemed to move in slow-motion now—and Crawford started scratching at the cuff of his coat for the watch that he always wore. He was famous for that big aviator, which his father had sent as a gift from Michigan, Brownie leaning into my shoulder as Crawford dug to get the face of it unburied, Brownie giving me this look, like was I getting all this? Was I in on the joke of Crawfman all shaky and nervous?
Brownie went devilish—and he flashed the gun to me, quick and black as a bird in his pocket—and maybe all we needed to do was get Crawf to suffer and scrounge for that precious watch of his, Brownie pursing his lips, like should we give him a head start?
I tried not to look at Brownie anymore, Crawford’s ear a tiny teacup, his cheek dark, his hands flustered with Brownie leering in over him now, that palsy of fingers, this tisk-tisk from Brownie, Crawford getting the watch uncovered.
“Four on the nose,” he announced—and he held out the dial in case we didn’t believe—and all I could think was we should make it look like he had done it to himself, Crawford’s body out in the scrap fields behind the mills for someone to find, aviator watch still there on his wrist, not a robbery.
Brownie said he thought it’d be much later than that. He seemed confused almost—and he looked up as if trying to figure where the sun might be—one of those afternoons after Daylight Savings, when the light seemed to last forever, day never-ending.
Crawford and I glanced to each other. I tried to signal for him to go upstairs to his house. With my eyes I tried telling him to go to the lobby, keep away from us, Brownie already on his way, turning like were we coming or not?
“Have you got better things to do?” said Brownie.
“No,” said Crawford, “but I should stay.”
Brownie shook his head as if in mock disgust.
“My mom’ll be home any minute,” said Crawford.
“Your choice,” Brownie told him—and it was as easy as that—Brownie a couple of steps away before stopping. He asked me did we want to show Crawford what we found in the woods?
I told him no, definitely no—and again the vehemence was my undoing—and Brownie motioned for my pocket, my hands cold and shaking as I worked to get the bullet out. He had the same grim press of lips, the same lording over me as we’d had over Crawford a minute ago.
I took the cartridge to the steps.
“There,” I said, “now you’ve seen it.”
“Okay,” said Crawford.
“It’s a bullet,” said Brownie.
“Okay,” said Crawford—and he leaned over my hand to look a little more—and it might have been just a coin or pebble, for how impressed Crawford didn’t seem to be.
“We found it,” said Brownie.
Crawford shrugged and repeated okay again—and we stood like this, my hand with the bullet big and fat and warm and heavy on my palm—and it was clear that only me and Brownie were under the influence of the gun. It was clear in Crawford’s eyes how you could see the bullet meaning less than a knickknack to him, just a dead slug of metal, as dull as a penny in every way.
Actually, it would take a lifetime for this to get through to me, if it ever did make it through entirely: I might covet something like this cartridge, I might promise that, if I ever put an end to myself, it would be with this bullet, I might hold tight to this object like it was a sacred relic, one of my most valuable possessions, but no one else would have to care at all. Crawford could shrug like what was the big stinking deal, anyway?
In other words, you could reach down into your throat and pull your heart out raw and warm and still-beating to show the world, but the world would probably just shrug like it was nothing. The world had its own problems. The world didn’t want your heart. It had more than enough hearts already.
“Catch you later, Breeze,” said Brownie—and just like that we were walking, Brownie and I down the street—and this time it was me who was a step ahead along the sidewalk. This time it was me who felt ready to be shot in the back by his friend. Now it was me pulling for us to be gone, before anyone could change their minds again, practically skipping. No way did I want Brownie showing the gun. No way did I want to share any more of this with anyone. No way would we be any good for somebody like Crawford.
We’d be different kinds of bad—Brownie a good person who had to be somehow made to be bad, and me a bad person who always had to keep guard to be good—and because I wanted so much for Crawford to stay away from us here, how long before we heard him calling for us to wait up for him? How far before we felt him jogging along from behind?
Maybe they called him Breeze because he ran fast. He played center field in Little League, which meant Crawford must have gotten a good jump on the ball. Maybe it was something as simple as that. Maybe a teacher gave him the name for doing well on a test—as in, that math quiz must have been a real breeze for you, Crawf—and the name stuck in the way that some just do. Maybe his father called him Breeze. Maybe there was a meaning to the name that he wanted to keep private. Maybe it was something like Kevin becoming Buzza—can of soda, bee stinging lip, and thus a Buzza was born—maybe Breeze had some kind of story like that for him.
Whatever the reason, there also seemed an edge to the name sometimes, a sharpness in calling him Breeze, a slight pause, as if there might be something more. It meant to move quickly and confidently, of course; and it meant to succeed at something; but the word breeze also meant the residue from the making of charcoal. (Somehow the name must have bothered me. It must have made me wonder enough to look up the word later.) In any event, I think we knew or sensed something extra to calling him that, Crawford asking us not to call him that anymore, which only turned him more into Breeze.
“Fucken Breeze,” said Brownie—and Crawford was right behind us on the street—and Brownie was saying, “Long time, no see, Crawf.”
“I’m joining you guys,” said Crawford.
“We had a feeling,” I said—and Brownie and I moved so that he could take his place between us—and as we walked Brownie gave me this nod behind Crawford’s back, like we were on top of things again now, like he and I were part of the same mission here. Side by side along the sidewalk, just a normal everyday stroll, Brownie scuffing along with his hands plunged deep in his pockets, me keeping Crawford in the middle like a shield as we went.
In my mind, I could see Brownie’s arms getting stronger with the weight of the gun—could almost forget the pistol was even there—his finger nowhere to go but the trigger. So vivid could I envision the gun going off that it seemed a thing somehow long since accomplished, Crawford skipping along clueless, asking what we were thinking of doing at Brownie’s. I stepped off the curb to the gutter and kicked along like a thousand times before, Brownie singing and talking like every other afternoon in the world, and anyone seeing us would have thought what?
Well, there went the most typical kids in America—look at them—these middle school kids heading home from their day all young and happy. Little juvenile delinquents in the making, we could have been some kind of soft-focus ad for small-town friendship, the three of us stepping out of Happy Days or Little House on the Prairie (the boy version, set in a dumpy old mill town). We were the orphans in The Boxcar Children. We were straight from the pages of some old Life Magazine, little ragamuffins coming back from the swimming canal, marching along like soldiers, like we’d just been out clubbing foxes to death.
It wasn’t far to Brownie’s house from here. Not even a mile, and we went along singing snippets of The Who and The Cars and The Police. We sang Cheap Trick. We sang Earth, Wind, and Fire. We kicked a flattened soda can. We sang sad eyes, turn the other way, I don’t want to see you cry. We cross-country skied along the sand and salt left in the gutter from winter. We sang the Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal, he was in a bind, he was way behind, he was willing to make a deal. We tried not to look over our shoulders for some miracle of Cutlass or Chevelle to swoop down, me and Brownie hoping to be caught before we could get away with anything, wishing some last gasp utility truck would arrive with its moody rattle around the corner, some teacher or coach or neighbor calling after us, Crawford in the middle, the three of us singing la la la la Lola…
We didn’t want to arrive. We dawdled. We straggled. We tried to run out the clock, Brownie asking who would we have babies with in our grade. Our new word was fornicate, none of us quite sure how it worked, the definition in the dictionary only deepening the mystery.
Brownie pressed us—we had to want someone—Crawford saying he didn’t need any babies, Brownie informing us that we most certainly did want babies. He made a scoreboard out of it, saying he’d lead off with a half dozen offspring with Maureen Rodgers. She’d be his girlfriend, if he had one, he said, Brownie suggesting Ginny Markowitz for us to get on the board, a little confidence builder, saying who’d not want to make a family with her?
Hard to disagree with him on Ginny—pretty, blonde, smart, nice—and Crawford said he’d take six with the Lusby twins, three for Donna, three for Dawn, important to keep it all even, no use having the sisters fight over his affections. It was my turn, my move now, so I suggested Michelle would be good for me, Brownie and Crawford oohing and aahing, saying how swell Michelle would be—and swell would be such a jerky word—Brownie saying how we should all sign up for a couple of babies with Michelle.
I’d feel that carbonation of nerves in my throat—and they’d dig on me about her waiting in the hall to walk to class—and I’d say it was no big deal, Brownie saying then he wouldn’t mind starting a few babies with her. I’d go along, like it was nothing to me, because anything else would have only made it worse, the three of us adding up our haul with Liz and Marla and Patty and Jen and Laura and all the others as we walked.
There’d be a kind of joy in this. Don’t forget that. We had good times like this, too. We could be silly and stupid with the best of them. We could seem so normal it would pain us at times, the way we had to squelch ourselves. To see us on the street walking would have been to barely notice anything special—cars drove by without even a second glance—yet it’d be fair to say that each house we passed also felt like some last-chance to grab at the shore. We were getting carried beyond where anyone could save us, streets rivering us away toward Brownie’s.
We walked parallel to each other until the sidewalks petered out on Brownie’s street, the fancier yards with lawns and long driveways, the houses standing back all proper and reserved, and the three of us merging near the crest down to Brownie’s house. Before we even saw the roofline, Brownie was asking us to be a little quieter. He didn’t want the dog to hear us. She’d been cooped up all day, and he didn’t want her to have an accident before he could get the key and let her out. I scraped my way next to Crawford—and I watched myself doing things I didn’t want to be doing—and even then I wondered why did I need to make Brownie’s life any harder?
No Cutlass in the drive, no utility truck in the turnaround, no lights in any of the rooms, and I dragged my feet through the sand, his house below in its little froth of shrubs, a kind of rock outcropping to the left, yard sloping away toward the river to the right, air open and bright over the spread of water beyond. The house was big—one-story, rectangular, chocolate brown, lots of windows—and off to the side was the woodpile, the low green fencing, all of it the same as every other time.
You could almost forget there was a gun. You could almost stop looking for it hanging in his pocket. You could almost become innocent—be like Crawford here, just a kid without any concept of what might happen as we got to the yard—and Brownie’d be motioning for you to hang back. He’d want you to stay where you were, just quiet as you waited, Brownie going across the grass to the shrubs, where they kept a key hooked to the gas meter on the side of the house.
All bets were off with Brownie gone. Alone in the driveway with Crawford, you could trade glances, as if to ask what should you do now? Do you make a run for it? Do you try to hide somewhere? You could sense Brownie coming back any moment now—and there’d be that jumble of feelings—but then some part of you would turn and start up the front steps of the house, like you owned the place. That long pneumatic pull of storm door as you opened it. The big heavy door painted bright red—and you’d watch yourself doing all of this—you’d be there looking back at Crawford, him standing in the driveway, and you starting to tap at the door for the dog.
She’d be right on the other side. She’d be there with these long loud sniffs at the bottom gap, and you’d whisper to her, your temple to the cool gloss of the paint, that lemon cookie smell of Brownie’s house, and your fingernails tapping lightly. You’d start asking into the door what she was doing in there, saying who’s that pretty puppy in the house all alone?
You would coo to her, “And why isn’t she out here playing?”
And the dog would dig at the back of the door, start scratching and barking, just a yip or two, these half-desperate cries in the dark. And all of a sudden this feeling would pull you down, this sinking fear that someone would hurt the dog today. How wrong you hoped you were about this. How mistaken you hoped was this premonition.
Brownie would be halfway back when he saw you at the door, Crawford staring from the driveway, and you hitting the door with the heel of your hand, dog in the house with her nails rapid-fire, her barks loud and sharp, Brownie cutting across the lawn to you with disbelief on his face, eyes more confusion than violence and anger. You’d pound on the door—and at the bottom of everything you must have been a terrible person—and now you were proving it to everyone, teasing the dog, taunting Brownie.
It’d be cruel and dumb and not anything you’d want to be—and you’d feel like a passenger riding along in this boyhood self of yours—but you’d teach them a lesson for making the mistake of being your friends, dog crying as you tried the handle, Brownie closing the distance, Crawford watching just kind of stunned. If you’d had more time, if the lawn was bigger and longer, you’d have gotten Brownie to cry. Or gotten him to put that gun to your ribs. Or gotten him to both breakdown and cry as he shot you.
He’d close the last few yards, key in hand, and you’d go small and slide out of the way, you waiting to be hit as he took the steps. No need to push you aside. No need to get in your face. He’d not even need to shove you away—in fact, he’d just seem to accept who you were—and that’d be even worse, Brownie unmoved by whatever you were doing, Brownie not troubled by you at all, Crawford horrified by this little snit of yours, this little tantrum at the expense of the dog.
You had tried to do to the meanest thing you could think to Brownie, and it turned out weak and pathetic in the end. Even your worst wouldn’t be so bad for anyone. Your best try not even half as cruel as you hoped, not even half as significant as you imagined. It’d not even appear that interesting to him, Brownie turning almost as an after-thought with the key to you.
“You can just go home, you know,” he’d say—and there’d not even be a snag in his voice—and instead of bringing him down a notch, you’d let Brownie stand all the more above you now. He’d seem years ahead of you. He’d be calm and lording over everything.
“Really,” Brownie would say, “Crawf and I can take it from here just fine.”