(continued from Bob Moose)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice stops, chopped at the first word. That word, wouldn’t, echoes sharp and short like if you clapped once in an empty room. I’m somewhere bright and cold, the sky the color of old sidewalk ice. The overgrown dirt road I’m walking slopes and curves, another downward spiral. I’m taller now, older, just past my baseball card years. This place is familiar, but I don’t know why. Thin bare trees to the right, a graveyard to the left. No sign of Richie Hebner, but Jupiter’s still with me. He keeps his head down, doesn’t bound ahead like he always used to. In fact he keeps lagging every few feet and glancing over at me as if to see if I’ll lag, too. But I keep going. I know this place.
I know this place. And those aren’t grave markers. They’re stumpy posts with electrical outlets, hookups for RVs, one post for each empty rectangular lot. The lots stretch into the distance, all of them empty except one nearby, where someone has parked a dune buggy. The dune buggy confuses me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. There are a few things on the front seat. A baseball glove, a brown and yellow baseball cap, a white uniform with brown and yellow piping. The shirt has the word Frisella on the back.
I don’t know what the dune buggy is doing in the empty RV lot but other than that this place is familiar. We used to come here. It was a town away. This is Lake Champagne, shut down for the season.
First the whole family came, then just my brother and me, then when I got old enough, just past my baseball card years, just me, hitchhiking the few miles to get here. There was a rec room with pinball machines and air hockey and a jukebox with a lot of songs by bands named after places. But that’s back up the dirt road, behind us, and since I first followed Richie Hebner away from the world I haven’t been able to go backward, only forward and down, forward and down.
The thin dirt road empties out to the small grassy area that everyone pretended was a beach. There’s a sagging volleyball net, a basketball hoop nailed to an old telephone pole. Past that the beach slopes down to the small manmade pond with a wooden dock anchored in the middle of it. There was never any place to go but Lake Champagne, and once you were there the only thing to do was swim out to the wooden dock.
As I start moving toward the lake I see something out of the corner of my eye. Beyond the basketball hoop, near some picnic tables, a boy is throwing a frisbee up into the air and trying to catch it. Jupiter has already started trotting toward the boy. I follow him. The boy isn’t very good at throwing a frisbee. He throws and chases, throws and chases, the disc thudding down beyond him each time. He notices Jupiter first, then looks past him to me. He was about to make another solitaire throw but instead he tries to toss it to me. The disc wobbles and dives to the ground before I can reach it, but in trying to get to it I get closer to the boy.
He looks familiar. I’m just past the baseball card years and so is he. Twelve, maybe thirteen. He’s got short hair and is wearing jeans and a too-small blue Cub Scout shirt with the yellow kerchief knotted in front. He’s barefoot.
I pick up the frisbee. It’s one of the small cheap kinds, with spaceship contours and no thin grooves at the edges. It’s the color of lemonade and looks like if you held it up to the light for a while then took it into a closet it would glow. I throw it back to the kid. Jupiter chases it. The throw slips through the boy’s hands and hits him in the chest.
He picks it up off the ground and I edge a little closer so he can reach me. This try is a little better. Jupiter chases it. I can’t quite get to it but I snap it up before Jupiter can grab it. I’m even closer to the boy now. He has pale skin, a few freckles. I just stand there holding the frisbee. Jupiter stares at me, waiting. He makes a little sound. Hrf.
The boy claps his hands once and the sound of it echoes sharp and short like we’re in an empty room. He wants me to throw it. I throw it as gently as I can and it dies halfway. I remember this boy now. Brian is his name. Jupiter chomps up the frisbee and starts to dart off with it, but Brian claps his hands once and the sound again echoes short and sharp. Jupiter stops. He looks over at Brian, then trots toward him and drops the frisbee at his feet. He sits, leans into Brian’s legs. Brian picks up the Frisbee and stares at me. I’ve been edging a little closer but his stare stops me.
I didn’t really know him. He was just this other kid in seventh grade. He didn’t play little league. One day here at Lake Champagne we shot baskets together at the hoop nailed to the old telephone pole. I wasn’t that good but he was so bad I felt sorry for him. The way he dribbled with both hands was the first thing I thought of, some time later, when my mom told me why he hadn’t been in school for a while (I hadn’t noticed his absence). He was sick. Really sick. The same sick my friend Glenn’s mother had, the lady who always wore hats or kerchiefs on her head.
Now Brian is staring past me. He twists his body to throw the frisbee again and I edge closer but this time the throw blasts straight and high, way over my head and beyond. The surprising show of strength reminds me of the day Glenn got mad at me for razzing him about something and he started strangling me. I’d always been sure Glenn was a bigger weakling than I was, but I couldn’t budge his arms until a teacher yelled his name.
I chase after Brian’s throw for a few steps but then just watch it sail against the darkening sky and out over the still brown water of Lake Champagne. An impossible throw, a perfect throw. It arcs toward the wooden dock anchored in the middle of the pond and clatters down with a faraway echo. As it wobbles to a stop it seems to be glowing, making it seem as if a tiny spiral of light is boring down into the dock.
I turn back to Brian. He and Jupiter are walking away, back in the direction I’d come, toward the dirt road.
Hey, I try to say. Jupey. Hey
They can’t hear me. I turn back toward the dock. Evening has come on. Richie Hebner is standing on the dock now, smoking his silver one-hitter, glowing.
(to be continued)