As the afternoon air cools and darkness falls earlier in Autumn, a restive energy creeps into me. I feel hyper-aware yet almost muddled. The air carries a particular vitality. The whiff of winter on its way. I feel a twinge of shame for basking in this mood because it was in October that Blake died.
He and I had much in common, not the least of which was the fact that our fathers were transformed by alcohol. Our homes were neither safe nor comfortable. Drunk was bad but hung over was worse and sober often equaled rage. Gauging mood and emotion on the air like others might gauge temperature by tilting their cheeks to the breeze. Better to be out running the neighborhood, protected by the chill dark of October evenings. A shared if unspoken understanding that a beating was preferable to the rabbit punches of words. You’re such a baby. You little dumbass. Why are you so worthless.
Blake lived a block away in a clapboard house that his father maintained with a military precision. I met Blake the summer before third grade, right after they’d moved into the house. He sat splay-legged at the gutter burning ants with a magnifying glass. I hadn’t known such a thing was possible. He handed over the glass without my asking.
That fall we discovered our birthdays were only thirteen days apart. He gave me a genuine arrowhead attached to a silver chain. By fourth grade Blake and I were inseparable. Blake bloodied Scott Douglas’ nose for pushing me down and yelling at me for missing a goal on the soccer field at recess. His father was condescending with the principal, and at home he slapped Blake on the back and told him he’d done the right thing, to never take shit from anyone. Where my father was cautious with his blows around others Blake’s was defiant, often clapping Blake in the back of his head and looking at me as if daring me to speak.
His mother was small, even from a child’s perspective, and she was all but silent. A ghost cooking in the kitchen, ironing her husband’s work shirts in the spare bedroom. She stood as antithesis to my own mother, who was larger than life, talkative, humming a tune more often than not. For the most part, when my mother spoke to me about it at all she defended my father and his drinking, saying he hadn’t always been like this, that he would someday be the man she’d married again. Other times she’d threaten to leave him if the drinking didn’t stop. I could not imagine Blake’s mother either defending or defying her husband. She shrank even smaller, became even more silent in his over-bearing presence.
Our real lives were lived outdoors. Summers spent playing games in the grass under the elms and oaks, swinging from handfuls of weeping willow. Cowboys and Indians with sticks for weapons and our favorite, a hybrid of freeze tag and hide-and-go-seek. Playing kickball in the street. Tormenting dogs that had harassed us through chain link fences. Stealing fruit from neighborhood trees, their limbs hanging heavy over alley fences. We both turned eleven near the end of our last September together.
We gained a new power that fall as summer slipped off one night at a time. That October was darkness and make-believe evil. We were mighty and untouchable out of doors in the darkness, traveling unseen over fences, behind trees and bushes, through backyards and alleys. Pound on a door cast in dull porch light and run to darkness behind a border of bushes and lie on our bellies to watch the fun with the tingling possibility of getting caught alive and wriggling in our chests. It’s that same sort of excitement I still feel each October.
In the week leading up to Halloween, we became destructive. Maybe we were mad with the autumnal energy borne on the cool night air. We let the air out of car tires, threw eggs at windows, stole Bic lighters and lit paper bags filled with fresh dog shit.
Blake was chased down and cornered by a man whose shit smeared slipper flapped on the asphalt as he ran. Blake yelled and squirmed and twisted free, leaving a twisted handful of fabric from his windbreaker behind and the rest of it hanging ragged, Alley Oop style, from one shoulder. His shoulder displayed the drag marks of the man’s fingernails on top of the fading bruises of his father’s fists. Blake muttered every obscenity he knew as we surveyed the damage in the jaundiced glow of the streetlight in front of the Harding’s lilac bushes.
I know Blake took a beating for that ruined windbreaker, because few things were worse than wasting our father’s hard-earned money. Blake and I never talked about these things, but we recognized the commonalities in our fathers in the moments when we stood in the other’s kitchen staring at the faded linoleum while enduring another booze slurred lecture before being granted permission to leave the house. We recognized the way the other sat rigid at his desk and shifted and winced while our sixth grade teacher explained homonyms, synonyms, antonyms.
That Monday after Blake’s father discovered the ruined windbreaker was a day like that. But it was different too. Something else must have happened that night at his house. Maybe a verbal body blow taken at a different angle. After that day Blake turned inward to some darker place.
He became quiet where before he’d been loud, joking about other kids on the playground, singing cheesy Partridge Family songs in falsetto, describing plans for he and I to run away and live in the mountains, Jeremiah Johnson style. He had been the vocal leader, and now he walked along the streets with me, still willing to execute any sort of mischief, but the meaner and more violent it was the more he liked it. Some nights, he didn’t care if he got caught, and would refuse to run and hide with me. Instead, he stood defiantly in the yards of angry adults and flipped them the bird while they ranted and raved. He ran only if they came close enough to get ahold of him.
He began carrying a length of wooden dowel an inch and a half in diameter, which he’d stolen from the hardware store by limping it out down his pant leg. We walked down Starlight Avenue past Mr. Sullivan’s yard on the week before Halloween and Mr. Sullivan’s terrier charged the four foot high chain-link fence. Blake stayed silent. He stopped and stared at the dog for a long moment before tossing the length of dowel over the fence. The dog’s yapping ramped up a notch and it jerked its head back and forth and backed away from the dowel. Blake placed his hands on top of the rail against the protruding twists of metal and hopped over.
He snatched the dowel from the dying lawn and stalked the dog. I backed further into shadow, expecting the back porch light to come on and Mr. Sullivan to come out any moment, but he must not have been home. Blake kept after the dog relentlessly until he trapped it at the corner of the house between the wooden gate and the window well. He beat the dog silent with that dowel and he beat the dog immobile with that dowel, and if he heard me begging him to stop, he never showed it.
Two nights later he woke me up tapping at my bedroom window. He’d stolen a rubber demon mask from Kmart. Its ears were pointed like an elf. Its rubber skin was a green tinged gray. Its too long mouth lay open in a wide and drooping grin from which jabbed yellow shards of teeth . The mask perched atop his shoulders, contrasted against the rainbow colored logo of his KC and the Sunshine Band t-shirt.
This was the first time he’d come and woken me to sneak out, though I suspect that it wasn’t the first time he had snuck out. I sometimes get an image of Blake, alone in the dark, a child without ally against whatever black things creep in the long moon shadows.
Blake’s plan was to go to a neighbor’s house we had egged the previous week. The man who lived there had hit his front door hollering and on a dead run. He’d called us chicken-shit worthless little bastards. We knew on some level that we were chicken-shit, and if we were bastards we had no choice, but to be called worthless hit too close to a reality from which we cowered.
I agreed to go. There was no real choice about it. He and I were connected. Like warriors, survivors of the same conflicts, witnesses to the same destruction. Blake didn’t have the dowel that night. Instead, he’d brought a thick paring knife which he pulled from the sleeve of his thrift store sweatshirt to show me. Thrift store was all he was worth after tearing his new windbreaker.
We marched along the sidewalks like warrior kings, like Conan the Barbarian, the only ones awake and moving in the moonlight. There were few cars to duck and hide from and these only fed our excitement, our sense of invincibility. Blake wore the demon mask the whole way.
When we got to the man’s house Blake plunged the paring knife two fisted into the tire of the car in the driveway and the tire exploded with a window rattling concussion. Then the man was there, standing on the concrete porch. He said, “Don’t you little fuckers move.” Silhouetted by the dim porch light I could see a rifle cradled in his hands.
Blake and I didn’t speak or so much as glance at each other. We just ran. I waited for the blast of the rifle and the impact of the bullet in my the back. The blast sounded, but the impact did not.
The sound of the gun torched off a new wave of fear and adrenaline in me. My toes barely touched the ground. We leapt the hedge in a yard kitty-corner from the man’s house, but Blake misjudged it and tripped. He fell in the rock garden on the other side and slipped and slid his way to his feet. I glanced back and saw it happen but kept running, expecting another shot at any moment.
I made it around the corner and across the street and stopped, panting in the dark on my belly beneath a large row of bushes. I watched Blake come around the corner, his arms pistoning and the demon mask turned down and to the left, as if it were an indifferent participant, somehow disappointed with these developments.
Then Blake was lit up by headlights and brakes squealed and the car hit him, hit the freeze framed image of his body and the disinterested demons head, sent him spinning in Slow-Mo through the air while the demon head spun the other direction in real speed. Which maybe isn’t possible, but it’s the image I carry.
Later I would wonder what went through the drunk driver’s mind in that instant. In what way would one sort such a sight? A suicidal demon in a boy’s body sprinting out of the night.
I lay humped in the bushes wanting to go to him, but I could not make myself go. I lay there on my belly instead and watched as the car’s door opened and the driver crouched over Blake like some guardian gargoyle. The man with the rifle ran up and he put the rifle in the street and he stood and stared. He’d fired it into the air, though I didn’t know that until later. Blake never moved. I recall no sound. It could not have been so quiet, but I remember it like that. I slunk away, afraid of being caught. A crying coward exposed in unprotective darkness.
The man with the rifle was a boy, really. Far younger that night than I am today. A nineteen-year-old in his parent’s house. He knew there were two boys who had been in his yard. It wasn’t difficult for Blake’s father to point the police in my direction and to come to my doorstep two nights later, drunk, angry, and hurting. Needing to assign blame. Blame I already owned, blame which far outweighed what he carried to give to me. Soon my mother was shrieking and pushing him out the door.
I could have done so many things different that October. Not the things Blake’s father berated me with, but other things. I could have snatched the dowel from Blake’s hand. I could have made him stay there at my house that night. I could have tried anyway. I could have acknowledged his pain in class that day or any other day, the way he sat rigid at the edge of the seat. I could have talked to him, just once, about his father, about mine.
They buried Blake’s father yesterday. Cirrhosis of the liver, so predictable, so cliché.
I’d never been to Blake’s grave. No one offered to take me, no one suggested it as an option, and after a little time went by I didn’t think I was worthy to go there. Now, I stand in the cemetery at the foot of his grave, sunken with time, next to his father’s, mounded and new.
And I miss him. I miss him sharply in a way I’ve never missed him in all these years gone past.
I know that time is over and gone. Yet, in this moment, I want nothing so much as to go back out in the October night amongst the evil, both the real and the pretend, and walk like a warrior king, invincible by his side.
I can’t get it straight just who is responsible and for what. I drape an arrowhead necklace across Blake’s headstone, the original misplaced long ago. As I walk out under the trees against the cold October breeze the image of a slowly spinning demon’s head flashes in my mind. I suppose there’s blame enough for us all.
Mike L. Nichols is a graduate of Idaho State University and a recipient of the Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize. Look for his poetry in Rogue Agent, Tattoo Highway, Ink&Nebula, Plainsongs Magazine, and elsewhere.