Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eddie Justine

(this story was published by Bare Root Review, the on-line literary magazine of Southeastern Minnesota State University)

Tom Salois, the loudmouthed leader of the School Street gang, comprised of five boys aged ten to twelve, would ask Eddie Justine to do just about anything. Tom was always the spokesperson for the gang. He was never at a loss for words. He got things done by talking, usually louder than anyone else. He was irrepressibly cocky. He loved, more than TV or sports, getting Eddie Justine to do pranks, pranks he was way too smart to ever try himself. At Tom's urging, Eddie could and would do stupid pranks, anytime, anywhere, because Eddie wanted to belong, to prove himself to Tom and the others, blind to Tom's innate cruelty. Tom's last words to get Eddie to consent were always "it'll be all right."

Whenever the gang thought up a new stupid prank, they would go by Eddie's house and there he'd be, more often than not, playing with his yoyo, the deluxe championship-caliber yoyo his Aunt Florine bought for him. She was a spinster and could afford to lavish such things upon her sole nephew. Unlike the other School Street boys who had paternal and maternal grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins around very corner of Melanville, Eddie had only Aunt Florin. Eddie's father abandoned him and his mother and sister before he could even walk. His paternal and maternal grandparents were all dead.

Eddie couldn't actually do any tricks with the deluxe yoyo, but he kept trying. He'd lay out the little poorly-illustrated instruction booklet written in battered English by someone at the Japanese yoyo factory, and struggle to learn such classic tricks as walking the dog or rocking the baby that he saw demonstrated so easily on TV. Whenever the gang approached, he'd say enthusiastically, with his severe lisp "Look at thith one guyth." Then he'd botch the yoyo trick and say, with unflagged enthusiasm: "Thtill workin' on it fellath, thtill workin' on it."

Tom talked Eddie into detonating a bullfrog with ten boxes of cap-gun caps taped to its belly. The plan was for Eddie to drop a huge round stone on a hapless, semi-conscious bullfrog the gang caught at one of the golf source water hazards by whacking it over the head with a stick. The gang convinced him it would blow the frog to smithereens and leave a crater in the ground just like a hand grenade in a war movie. As Eddie struggled to raise a stone the size of a football above his head, each of the gang backed out range of the frog guts that exploded when Eddie dropped the rock. There was no big bang of caps. It sounded like a small balloon bursting. Frog guts sprayed onto Eddie's bare white shins while the gang rocked back and forth laughing uncontrollably, pointing at Eddie. Usually, when the gang pulled a prank, after a brief moment of dismay, Eddie too would laugh.

Once Eddie was invited to ride ponies at Tom Salois' grandfather's farm. It was the coolest thing he had ever been invited to do with the gang. Eddie was on top of the world after mounting the pony, lost in his cowboy fantasies, until George Gervais whipped the pony's hindquarters with a switch and Eddie was thrown head over heels into the pasture muck, landing flat on his face. Tom and George felt the tiniest prick of fear while Eddie lay face down, motionless in the mud, for a few seconds. Finally, Eddie lifted his muddied face and spat out: "That wath awthum!" Tom and George laughed.

Eddie's craving to belong made him immune to embarrassment. He always dusted himself off and came back for more. But something unusual happened that summer when the pranks were the best ever. Eddie became good at something. He became an unbeatable mumblety peg player. Mumblety peg is a game in which you play baseball by flipping a jack knife and trying to stick it on a wooden table. Depending on how the knife sticks in, you get a single, double, triple, or homerun. If it doesn't stick in, you get an out.

Eddie's rise from perennial loser to mumblety peg master began when his Aunt Florine bought him, for his eleventh birthday in July, a jackknife, because in the fall, Eddie would be joining the Boy Scouts. The knife came with a burgundy leather carrying pouch with a little drawstring and had a smooth, rosewood handle with his initials "EJ" inlaid. This wasn't a knife you could buy at Boucher's Hardware. This knife was only available by mail order catalog. Eddie's mother knew he would take it to the playground. She knew the other kids would convince Eddie to let them use his new knife and leave him out of the mumblety peg games.

"I don't want you playing mumblety peg with unless you get to play", she told him.

The first few times Eddie took his knife to the playground, he was afraid to take it out of the left front pocket of his shorts. He was afraid that what his mother feared would happen. Kids would talk him into borrowing his knife, and leave him out. On the day he finally unveiled his knife, there were only a few kids at the mumblety peg picnic table, Tom Salois and the gang among them.

"Who wants to go first?", Salois asked.

"I do," said Eddie, standing up straight on the picnic table bench and quickly wrenching the leather pouch from the pocket of his shorts. He loosened the draw string and pulled out the rosewood-handled, monogrammed knife.

There was a moment of silence, like the silence before the derisive, convulsive, abusive laughter that had often been directed at Eddie Justine when he was conned into doing a stupid prank. This time no laughter followed the silent pause.

"Holy shit," said Tom Salois, "let me see that," as he reached towards Eddie, expecting Eddie to hand it over to him for inspection.

Eddie drew the knife towards himself.

"My mother said I could only use it in games I play in," announced Eddie with a confidence that surprised himself and everyone there.

Eddie Justine played in more mumblety peg games that summer than anyone. He became very good at it. By the end of the summer, he was magnificent and peerless at mumblety peg, playing game after game after game. Kids would actually wait for him to show up in the morning so they could play against him and get to use his knife. After a while, Eddie even felt genuinely liked, not just for his knife, but for himself. He belonged.

Prior to that summer, the best mumblety peg player around had been Tom Salois. Eddie's prowess at the game, eventually left him little time to pursue pranks offered up by the gang. By summer's end Tom Salois thought a nice, humiliating prank just before going back to school would be just the thing to put Eddie in his proper place. Plus they'd have the usual good belly laughs.

Tom humbled himself to walk home alone with Eddie from the playground the day after the finals of the mumblety peg tournament, which Eddie won. He would never want to be seen walking alone with Eddie Justine as if he and Eddie were friends. As long as Eddie was on the periphery, the butt of jokes, the world was in order for Tom.

"Eddie, wait up!", yelled Tom as Eddie was leaving the playground.

Eddie turned and was surprised to see Tom running after him. When Tom caught up with him, they walked together, Tom jealously eyeing the bulge in Eddie's pocket where the knife and pouch were and judging how stupid and futile it was for Eddie to still be carrying his yoyo and trying to do tricks he would never master.

"Eddie, I've got an idea." This was Salois' code to Eddie that Tom had cooked up a prank for him to try. Eddie found it odd that Tom alone, and not the whole gang was asking him about a prank. His first reaction, which he didn't dare speak to Tom, and which surprised Eddie, was that he had no interest. "Have you ever gone water skiing?", Tom asked Eddie.

Eddie's momentary resistance to considering a prank disappeared. Eddie always wanted to try water skiing. At his Aunt Florine's camp, he watched his well-to-do neighbors motor around Lake Tautog. He never got up the nerve to ask if he could try. It was too scary. This frustrated Eddie, since he was, after all, the one who never feared stupid pranks. Buoyed by the confidence his mumblety peg success got him, Eddie agreed to listen to Tom.


The next day, the last weekday of summer vacation, the gang spent most of the day making the water skis. The prank was to make an old pair of work boots nailed to two-by-fours into water skis. As Tom explained it to Eddie and the gang, at Clair Quarry, Eddie would use the rope swing above the quarry water, let go, and ski across the surface. The gang made the water skis in George Gervais' cellar, using his old man's table saw and carpenter's glue and nails and screws to fashion an old pair of George's dad's work boots.

When they got to the cliff it was close to supper time. Most of the other kids who swim at Clair Quarry had gone home. The long, thick rope that hung from a massive oak tree overhanging the quarry, was free.

Tom Salois did the honors of fitting Eddie with his new water ski boots. Tom triple-knotted the leather laces, while telling George Gervais to climb the huge oak that hung out over the quarry water to unfasten the rope swing. It was an unwritten rule that when done with the rope, the users would catch it on the backswing and tie it around the tree when finished. If the older kids came to use the rope swing and they found it untied from the tree and hanging over the water, they would threaten to throw the younger kids off the cliff until somebody fessed up about leaving the rope untied. George once falsely confessed to leaving the rope untied to save his younger brother from being tossed off the cliff.

Tom and the gang couldn't wait to see Eddie fly out over the pond and land on the water. Tom believed the homemade water skis might actually work. It would be a good laugh to see Eddie skim across the water.

Tom coached Eddie. "Now when you let go of the rope, make sure you land with your feet first and your feet flat. Bend your knees a little. You won't sink." This was going to be good.

After George retrieved the rope, Tom and George had to boost Eddie up so he could shimmy his way to a knot in the rope that was about seven feet off the ground. As Eddie grabbed the knot and struggled to hold on, the rest of the gang labored like they were in a tug of war pulling the sagging rope and Eddie as far up away from the edge of the cliff as possible to give Eddie the biggest swing. They sweated, panted, groaned, and spit and kicked their way through the low brush to get the end of the rope as far as they could. While they labored, Eddie looked back and forth from the gang just below him to the quarry water which kept getting farther and farther away. Eddie crossed his legs to stop from peeing.

"No, don't cross your legs!" Tom shouted at Eddie. "Keep them straight and apart!"

"Hold it! Hold it!" Tom barked to the rope pullers.

"Ready?" Tom asked Eddie

"Yeth." lisped Eddie, quickly turning from the rope crew to the water way below as his urine unleashed down his leg and the breeze carried a few drops of it toward the rope gang.

"Gross!" they yelled just as Tom commanded "Let go!" Eddie's flight reminded the boys of a circus trapeze artist. They were transfixed as he sped in long pendulum arc, pee dripping down his skinny legs, his legs straight and knees slightly bent, the work boots already chafing his bare ankles, his sweaty palms losing their grip on the big knot. When he let go at the crest of the swing, he wasn't sure if he did it on his own or if the echo off the quarry rocks of Tom Salois' voice screaming "Now!" made him do it. Eddie felt a brief, tremendous sensation of speed as the two-by-fours slapped the water.

Eddie did not ski at all. He immediately began to sink, gently at first, the way water skiers do when they let go of a tow rope, except Eddie had no rope and he had no life jacket. Then he disappeared beneath the surface just as the rope swung made its return to the cliff, and Tom Salois failed, by inches, to grab the rope and it swung back toward the spot where Eddie went down. Tom knew the rope would not come back. The quick burst of laughter that came form the boys on the cliff dissipated as quickly as Eddie sunk. The younger boys ran home, to escape this awful, final prank of the summer.

"He'll be all right", said Tom turning to George Gervais, the only other boy left on the cliff. George was already running for an inner tube he noticed someone had left behind in the low shrubs.

"We've got to save him", barked George, running toward the cliff and then over the edge, his fat belly and cheeks bouncing like jello as he ran towards the cliff holding the inner tube with both arms pressed to his chest. George smashed into the surface of the water, the sting making him yelp and a second later Tom Salois jumped in beside him. They were as panicked as passengers from a sinking ship.

About twenty yards away, Eddie sank slowly and dreamily, thinking of a TV show he saw once about astronauts, weightless in a special gravity-free chamber. Then he realized he wasn't floating. He was sinking and the light from the surface faded as he headed down into the dark. He jammed his right hand into the hip pocket of his shorts. He yanked out his knife pouch, kicked his weighted legs to try to keep from sinking. His legs barely moved, like he was in a bad dream unable to run away from a monster. He flailed his arms, clutching the knife pouch. He continued to sink. It got darker. He pulled his knife from the bag and stabbed and sliced at the laces of George Gervais' father's old work books, cutting himself on the shins and above his ankles. Between each lunge at the laces, he stroked his arms and kicked his legs to try to stop the sinking.

Eddie finally freed one foot from its boot. He focused for a moment on the blood from his leg rising in the darkening water like smoke from a cigarette. He lashed out at the other boot to free his second leg, but the effort took all he had left. When he was ready to head for the surface, it was pitch dark, he was in slow motion, his exhausted arms and legs stopped moving, and open-mouthed, he swallowed water as if refreshing himself on a hot summer day. His last thought was the idea of freeing himself. 'Am I free now?' he asked himself. His knife fell from his open palm. It hit the dark bottom, followed by his body.


It took two days for the Melanville Fire Department and state police divers to recover Eddie's body. His burgundy leather pouch and rosewood handle knife remained at the bottom of the quarry with stolen cars and other things that would never be retrieved. Not by conspiracy, but from fear of telling the terrible truth, the gang all told the same story to their parents and the grief counselors who were sent to their school that fall: Eddie Justine drowned after he swung into the quarry with the rope. It was just an awful accident. Eddie was foolish. Nobody mentioned homemade water skis. There was some mystery about the number of cuts on Eddie's legs. The medical examiner attributed those to Eddie's body landing among the stolen cars and other sharp debris at the bottom of the quarry and left it at that. The parents scolded their boys: 'I hope that teaches you a lesson'.

So Eddie Justine died a lesson in recklessness, foolishness, danger. The School Street gang would never again go swimming at the quarry, even years later when they were all in high school, when friends outside their circle insisted and called them pansies. They felt that they, unlike Eddie, had escaped something awful and at the same time remained prisoners of some monstrous truth they were still defining. The reassuring phrase "it'll be all right" disappeared from their vocabulary as permanently as Eddie, and their childhoods.

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