Yesterday, Tommy Gray Drowned (preview)

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PROLOGUE  

     “There outta be a law against makin’ kids go to school on such a nifty day,” I grunted while tramping up the macadam driveway to the white five-room schoolhouse that overlooked the village of Echo Lake.  On that Monday morning in April 1959, it was the last bell that squelched my spring-fever and bullied me to put my dawdling rear in gear and take up my usual spot in the fourth-grade line - last. 

     Anne Ford and Mary Mason, nose-to-nose at the front of the line, were whispering nasty secrets to each other.  Their hands covered the sides of their mouths so the rest of us peons could not hear. 

     “Dirty birds,” I snickered under breath.  “They’re    always ripping at some unsuspecting slob.  My insides curdled.  “Hope that poor sucker ain’t me.”

     Like everyone else, I gave myself the once-over.  Gee whiz.  My biggest flaw was not to be denied - my clothes.  By this time in the school year, every one of the three outfits Mother had bought for me last Fall was in pretty sad shape.  The one I had on today was as ratty as last week’s hobo.  It’s not fair.  Anne and Mary always wore the prettiest dresses, a different one every day.  Needless to say, fancy lace slips were underneath.  I pouted.  I could just see my arms stretched up towards the ceiling and all that silky material slithering down my naked body.  Gooseflesh prickled.  The smell of sugar starch wafted up my nostrils as a pink gingham frock sheeted over my face.  My hands smoothed out the crispness while Mother happily tied the wide satin ribbon into an opulent bow behind my back, then adjusted the white lace collar.  Patting my butt, she smiled at me and sent me on my way.   Oh well, I sighed.  That ain’t about to happen. 

     I gnawed the inside of my cheek and ogled Anne.  She really was quite pretty.  Too bad she was such a witch.  Gosh, look at her hair, so clean and shiny in the sunlight.  Bet a dollar to a donut it smelled like her mother’s perfume.  I pictured Anne chattering incessantly while Mrs. Ford artfully braided the girl’s brunette spirals, a different style and ribbon for each day of the week.  My fingers explored my own sheered locks.  Mother had recently taken upon herself for the umpteenth time to chop at it.  Some rare form of page boy had evolved that all the kids poked fun at, much to my consternation.

I fidgeted.  Eternal moments passed.  Finally the fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. King, opened the big blue door.  Her chestnut hair, short and curly and combed just so, accented her chocolaty eyes that were drawn slightly into her temples.  Her lips were only scantily tinted because she was not supposed to promote makeup.  The mother of two always looked so neat and composed.  Yet she was not the classic schoolmarm either.  Slim and athletic, she played dodgeball quite often with the kids during recess.  The popular teacher related well to her students and always found ways to motivate even the rowdy ones in a strong but kindly manner.  Yet she did not dote.  She made us do what we were there for without any ifs, ands, or buts.    

As twenty-eight fourth graders filed into the classroom illuminated by towering cathedral windows on three sides, hard-soled oxfords and buckle shoes shuffled noisily across oak planking.  Some imparted black scuff marks that made the janitor mad.  The sun-streaked room filled with energetic adolescent activity where moments before only silence had reigned.  In unison, voices recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.  Then Mrs. King read the 23rd Psalm.  Every day she recited a different Bible verse; that was before such things were against the law.  The twenty-third psalm was one of my favorites - especially the part about lying down in green pastures beside the still water.  Wait a minute.  Mrs. King had read those very same words just the other day.  Psalms were supposed to be recited in sequence until completed; whereupon, they were read from the beginning once again.  Well, maybe it’s one of her favorites, too.  I nodded.  I’ll have to ask her about it at recess. 

I joined in with the class already reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  Getting that over and done with usually signaled the start of daily lessons.  Not on this sunny Monday morning.  Mrs. King just stood there.  Something was wrong.  She was not at all the self-assured person I was used to. Pain-filled eyes wandered the faces of all her young charges.  When she came to mine, I quickly looked down at my hands, still folded from prayer.

Then I heard her take a deep, labored breath.  I looked up to see what was the matter.  She was straightening herself.  Her voice came out somber, reflective.  “Many of you have already heard,” she faltered.  Her eyes rolled just barely to suppress welling moisture.  “But there may be some of you who may not know as yet.”  The room had never been so quiet.  Complete attention was upon her.  And then...then Like red-hot grease in a frying pan, dreadful words spattered out her mouth.  “Yesterday, Tommy Gray drowned.  Let us bow our heads for a moment of silence.”

My mouth dropped as my ten-year-old body recoiled.  My brain grappled with her words.  What in the world is she talking about?  Dead?  What’s dead?  Death was something I had never experienced before this — well, except the times when Father killed a chicken for supper and he didn’t like me to watch, but sometimes I did anyway.  But a dead person?  I didn’t know any dead people.  Especially Tommy Gr...  My breath ceased as my eyes darted to the opposite side of the classroom.  The second desk in the row next to the massive windows...I gasped.  Empty!  Tommy’s not there!  

No.  It couldn’t be, for golden sunbeams reflected off the shellacked pine surface of his desk, making black dots that floated in my eyes long after I turned away and lowered my head.  The silence was ghastly.  A shoe scuffed the floor, the hair on the back of my neck bristled.  Someone choked back a cough.  Shallow breaths dizzied me as I gawked out of the corner of my eye at his desk.  It was still empty.

I tried to justify Tommy Gray’s absence.  Any moment now, his head would poke through the big blue door and his pudgy body would squeeze through.  Careful not to attract attention, he would tiptoe to his desk.  Yeah, any moment now, I just know it.  This is all just one big mistake, someone’s mean joke.  Wait a second, Tommy’s got the measles.  That’s it.  They’re going around, y’know.

     “All right now, class,” Mrs. King sucked in a deep breath and straightened herself again.  “When I find out what the arrangements are, I’ll let you all know at once.  Principal Cole has informed me that she will allow us to go to the wake and funeral together as a class.  However, if any of your parents don’t want you to go, you may stay with Miss Carter’s class until the rest of us return to school.”

     OK, I knew what funeral meant.  I had seen cars lined up outside the church on weekdays.  I had heard the drone of the steeple bell as cars with headlights on passed slowly through town.  But wake?  Well, that was entirely new to my ten-year-old vocabulary.  I thought wake was what a person did after a long night’s sleep. 

At recess, I discreetly wormed my way through the assemblage of kids that surrounded Anne Ford and Mary Mason at the monkey bars.  For sure those two know-it-alls were babbling on and on about Tommy.  I’d find out from them what all this wake and funeral stuff was all about.  Then I heard some other poor fool spout out my own burning question.  Thank God, it wasn’t me who asked.

     “You’re so-o-o stupid.”  Anne stood there, hands on hips, sanctimoniously ridiculing that poor ignorant bastard.  Her nose scrunched-up right smack in that drooly-mouth’s face.  “Don’t you know anything, dummy?  A wake is when the undertaker man washes up the dead body and puts clean underwear on it and Sunday best, too.  He even paints make-up on it — doesn’t matter a particle if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“Then,” Mary chimed in while dangling by one arm from the bar over Anne’s head, “the undertaker squashes the dead body into a gasket ‘cause it’s stiff and won’t bend ‘cause o’ rigamutus.”

“And then...” said Anne while giving Mary the evil eye for having the audacity to interrupt.  “Then, everybody prays over the dead body for three days.  A-n-d as you a-l-l know, a dead body is never never left alone at night.  After that, everybody gets in their cars and follows the hearsh to the cemetery and they keep their cars’ lights on even though it’s daytime; and of course, everyone knows it’s against the law for anyone else to cut off the funeral possession.  And then when the whole bunch of ‘em finally gets to the cemetery - cuz they drive so slow - the priest reads some words outta the Bible ‘n sprinkles holy water all over the casket.  An’ then, the pole bears lower the casket into a big hole in the ground with ropes and everyone throws dirt on it.  And that’s the end of it!”  Anne slapped her hands together as if she were brushing off dirt.

I was going to puke.  Such things were beyond all comprehension.  I could not imagine a thing like that happening to me.  My body shuddered like the last leaf clinging to an oak tree in a blizzard.  No one was ever going to put me in a hole in the ground like that!  No way.  No how. 

Though all this newly acquired knowledge scared me to no end, curiosity took over and decided for me that I was going to the wake and funeral with my classmates.  This wake and funeral business was big stuff. 

     Mother and Father made no objections to the excursion, merely indicating that I had to find out what it’s all about sooner or later.  Of course neither one of them went.  If they had, it might have helped me to make sense of Tommy’s death.  If only Mother or Father had talked to me about it, plus the many other growing-up experiences that had not set right and continually reverberated in my immature brain during sleepless nights.  My parents kept everything to themselves.  I had no right to question.  I had no right to know.  A sense of isolation took root in me, spreading like crabgrass, strangling me even as an adult.

     That afternoon I hastily delivered my newspapers, taking the shortcut between Echo Lake and the backwash where high water accumulated every spring.  I usually did not risk taking this route so early in the year.  Sometimes water covered the dip in the trail and I had to turn back.  Luck was with me.  The path was clear.  Or so it seemed.       Last year’s leaves concealed slick muck and much to my chagrin, the back wheel of my bike promptly mired.  It was all my fault.  I should not have ridden through there.  Well, I couldn’t just leave my bike there, so I straddled the front tire and after several teeth-gnarling tugs, the rear tire unexpectedly freed itself.  Before I got the chance to catch myself, I landed on my butt.  “Aargh, what a stupid dumb mess!”

     “Dumb mess,” riddled the lake.

After smearing the wet muck off the seat of my threadbare corduroys, I swished my hands in the lake which immediately froze my fingers.  I made tight fists and shoved them into my pockets.  That did little good, but there was no other way to warm them since I had left my only mitten at home.  The other one had come up missing a while back.  So instead I shrieked.  “To heck with it!” 

“Heck with it.  With it,” taunted Echo Lake.

I scrunched up my face and stuck my tongue out at the water.  Grabbing my filthy bike, I continued my quest.  With every step I took, muck-soaked pants rode up the crack of my butt and waterlogged boots farted.  At the edge of the clearing, I crept up behind a stand of budding maples.  A chilled breeze swept dirty blond strands into my eyes as I peeked out at the lake.  I brushed them away quickly.  Wispy clouds streaked across the robin’s egg sky, shadowing the water’s surface like spirits.  Careful.  A dead body might float up any second now and get me.  For the first time in my whole life, I felt my heart throbbing in my throat and thunder booming in my ears at the same time as liquid terror coursed through my veins.  I inched out into the clearing, wary of anything and everything that might be lurking about the deserted beach.  But nothing was there.  I let my bike drop to the ground and jammed my hands into my hip bones. 

I surveyed the recreational area that citizens of Echo Lake had constructed years ago.  White sand had been broadcast across the bulldozed shoreline and into the lake about twenty feet.  Through the years, it had gradually crept farther out.  Beyond, the depths were freezing dark, no matter what time of year.  Off to the side of the sandy area, a narrow dock made of oak logs dipped in tar jutted out into the water.  Many a lethargic summer day, I lay across the roughly hewn planks of that dock.  Once in a while I got slivers; but that didn’t matter, for hundreds of silvery minnows schooled in the crystal water below and nibbled my fingertips.  It tickled and I tried not to giggle.  What if somebody heard me laugh?  Sometimes I didn’t care and forgetting about everything, hummed.  Not too loud though.  My voice sounded really dumb.

     I snuck up to the sandy shoreline.  Humph.  No dead bodies.  Only the water, barely ruffled by an early springtime breeze, making lapping noises on the shore.  This gentle water had actually killed somebody?  Somebody I knew?  Tommy Gray?  My friend?  Gee, that wasn’t right.  I squinted at the water.  Well, that water had certainly betrayed my trust.  Hmph.  Wonder what it felt like to drown?  Maybe that water wanted to kill me, too.  But I didn’t know why.  After all, I loved the water and practically lived in it the whole summer long.  I considered it my friend as much as Tommy Gray.

 


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