There wasn’t much daylight left after football practice. I rode home on my bicycle. The streetlights were coming on. My helmet hung on the handlebars making red reflections. We finally had Little League football in Celeryville–not Pop Warner or anything big like that. It was just a program organized by some dads because the Celeryville High Sabers had no junior varsity. Freshmen had to play and the dads were tired of always getting our butts kicked by North Branch and Almont. They didn’t say butts, you know, when we weren’t around. How were the Sabers ever going to compete if kids didn’t learn the basics early? And now there were enough 7th and 8th graders to make three teams–red, navy blue, and yellow.
I swung onto the sidewalk for the last few blocks. Traffic in the village picked up after five o’clock. On Fifth Street there were cars crowding the curb, even in front of our house. Something was sure going on. I turned into the drive-way.
Out in the back room, I pulled off my shoulder pads, the red jersey and all. I didn’t have cleats yet, but I kicked out of the high-top sneakers. I had painted them with black shoe polish so they didn’t look too dumb. No shoes were allowed in the house because my parents said the carpet cost an arm-and-a-leg.
“Have we got company?” I asked my mother’s back. She stood at the stove, browning something in the biggest black skillet–something that sizzled like a tap running hard. She turned. Her eyes were red. So maybe there was onion in there? She touched the corner of her eye with the back of a wrist. “No. No, Ladd. Mr. Milner died.”
My mouth fell open, waiting for that next breath you have to take sometimes after a surprise. Finally, I said, “I thought he was getting better.”
Maybe the news shouldn’t have been a shock. Wilbur Milner was in a car crash just after Labor Day. He and his wife were our middle-aged neighbors since we moved to Celeryville two years ago. I never saw him much because he worked night shift. Maybe a few times out in the yard with his little grandkids. I saw him when he hired me to mow their lawn last summer. He said never to fire it up until his car left for work and to have Mrs. Milner pay me.
“It was always touch and go,” Mom croaked. “Pneumonia got in.”
So then I thought about the scary stories that were a month old. After a few weeks, I had quit thinking about what it would be like to have a crushed chest. And how some drunk guy was passing in those hills by Metamora and slammed straight into the car-pool headed down to Pontiac Motors. One of Mr. Milner’s friends was dead-on-arrival. At the hospital, I guessed. At the time, my Dad said he was glad his company put seat-belts in all their service cars.
“Stir this for me, would you,” Ma said. “Now I’ve got make-up in my eye.” She turned a knob down and handed me the spatula, a dark tear trailing down her cheek. “Stand back. It’s still popping.” There was onion in with the ground-beef.
When she came back, I went into the den to do homework with Bowery Boys showing on the black-and-white TV. I saw Dad’s car pull in the drive. My little brother, Chick, rushed in just at dark from wherever he was playing. It got quiet back in the kitchen, like they were both getting the news. Chick came out whimpering and clomped up the stairs to our room. Supper seemed later and later. I heard my parents voices, even talking low, and then the plates and silverware dealt onto the kitchen table. They finally called us to eat.
There was goulash, one of my favorites because it was an excuse for me to use Frank’s Louisiana Red-Hot Sauce. They put the bottle right in front of my place-mat. There was a tossed salad that I hadn’t been ordered to cut up. Probably so they could talk, because after we sat down, Ma dropped the other shoe:
“We think you boys should go to the visitation for Mr. Milner,” she announced. “We think you’re old enough now.”
Right away, my brain panicked for how this might mess up my weekend. It was a fact that I’d never been to a funeral yet, or seen a dead body in person. They thought I was too little five years ago when great-grandma Callander passed away. But I had plans for Friday night and the red team was supposed to play a game on Saturday.
“What’s a visitation?” Chick asked.
“Sweetie, all you have to do is go into the funeral parlor and sit for awhile. You pay your respects, share memories, and tell Mrs. Milner how sorry you are.”
My dad scooped and passed the goulash. “It’s part of growing up,” he said. “You fellows are mature enough to handle it.”
“The dead guy’s there and you can see him?” Chick continued. He didn’t sound scared though. “What if I don’t got any memories?”
“Of course he’s in there, Chicky,” Ma said. “You walk up to the casket to say good-bye and think about how nice he was. If you guys go in with us and act like gentlemen, there may even be a little reward.”
I shook the red sauce onto my goulash, that peppery smell making my mouth water. “When do we have to do this?”
Dad finished chewing some lettuce. “We’ll get ‘er done tomorrow evening after I get home and have a shower. Free up my Saturday. I’ve gotta hang storm windows.”
“But I was going to the Saber’s game,” I groaned. “Aren’t you coming to watch me Saturday? They made me second-string center.”
Dad spiked up some noodles. “Well, sure. So I need to get my chores out of the way. Tomorrow night is the time for us to be good neighbors.”
“And I still don’t know about those high-school games,” Ma worked in. She had the frown that meant privileges might be lost at any time. “I think the younger kids just run all over the place and don’t really watch. Some of ’em, their parents aren’t very responsible.”
I chewed slowly, taking my time to decide what she might want to hear. “I haven’t got in any trouble yet, have I?”
“Nothing that’s gotten back to me,” she admitted.
“And, plus, Coach said red team should all sit together and watch to see how it’s done.”
My Dad quit stuffing his face. He raised a finger, finally swallowed, touched a napkin to his lips. “How’s this sound? You ride your bike to the funeral parlor. You do your duty and then you can probably make it to the field by halftime.”
That was probably the best I could hope for. Ma would make me wear a goofy, light-colored jacket and I’d have to ride on the sidewalk. But there was also that reward she mentioned and now I wondered what it would be.
“How long do I have to stay?”
“We’ll let you know,” she said. “But it’ll be a polite time and you better not act all impatient.”
I said it sounded OK and asked Dad to pass the goulash.
It wasn’t such a big deal, I didn’t think. Chick started bawling, though, almost when we came in the door. Ma and Mrs. Milner were both hugging on him. He went up to the casket and then they plunked him down in the folding chairs with a Chip ‘n’ Dale comic book. I hung back. More people came in like the dinner hour was over and now they had to do this. The Milner’s son and daughter arrived but without the grandkids. The place was muggy with flowers. I inched over to the big poster of family pictures: Mr. Milner as a young guy in his GI uniform; vacations and Christmas; a nice string of bass by a lake. I kept the body kinda in the corner of my eye.
Dad angled up beside me for a minute to look, too. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and steered me toward the casket. “Let’s get this done,” he whispered.
It was on some kind of table, roped off with those red ropes like in movie theaters. To give people a path through the flowers, I figured. I couldn’t think of anything to say out loud, and not very much in my head. Seemed like all I could remember was just the thing about not waking him up with the mower. He seemed like a decent guy–kinda serious, like most older guys from the war. God probably appreciated that, though. That was about it. There was a line behind us so we moved along. Dad prodded me toward Mrs. Milner. She was talking to another older lady. I waited my turn, minutes flying now on a clock at the back of the room. Probably near the end of the first quarter already.
After more hugs, the woman ducked away, sniffling into a hankie. I stepped up and held out my hand. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Milner.” I’d heard other people use that one but my voice came out raspy. All the sadness in the room decided go through me even after telling myself all day that I didn’t really know the man very well.
“Oh, Ladd. Thank you sweet boys so much for coming.” She wasn’t letting me off without more hugging. She smelled like more flowers but kinda sour underneath, and with mothballs. “Wilbur admired your ambition. He used to say ‘that boy is either reading on the front porch or flying off somewheres on his bike.’ He said no kid ever did a better job with our lawn.”
I eased away a little but she kept an arm around my shoulder. More visitors were waiting to have a word.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “Sorry I never got a chance to talk to him much.”
She started dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Well, he worked so many hours. Thank you again, Ladd. I’ll be counting on you even more. I can never get our mower started.”
“Any time, Mrs. Milner.” And, like that, I was released back into the crowd. I went back to sit next to Chick.
Dad let me loose pretty soon after that. He looked anxious to wrap it up himself. “Shouldn’t you get moving, buddy?” He poked some bills in my face–the usual dollar of allowance plus a five. “Good job. Don’t spend it all in one place.”
I folded the cash into a front pocket and headed for the door.
“You behave yourself,” Mom called. It was not so hushed in there anymore, people getting used to the body and the idea of Mr. Milner being gone. I waved without looking back.
My bike still leaned against the brick front of the funeral parlor. I never worried about somebody cobbing it. It was a junker without fenders. I looked for cars then walked it across the street. You weren’t supposed to ride on the sidewalk in front of the stores. Kids were always being chewed out by the constable and the one village deputy in his patrol car. Sometimes they’d even take your ride away for a few days if old people made a big deal out of it.
I lifted mine up the opposite curb, right in front of the Ben Franklin store. I was surprised they were still open. But it was Friday night and it looked like a sale going on. The Halloween costumes were in. The display on one side of the entrance had dummies dressed like Superman and Davy Crockett; Jackie Kennedy, I think the one with long hair was supposed to be.
Before I could leave, the showcase on the other side of the door grabbed my attention. It was still lit up. They had skates, hockey sticks and basketballs, for kids to think about with winter coming. And, against the back wall, a pyramid of scale models was set up–hot rods and fighter planes. I heard drums and a tiny drift of horns on the breeze. It must be half-time already. The unfamiliar money was suddenly burning a hole in my pocket. The B-26 Intruder skimmed over a deep green jungle, just like the ones Cuban exiles were supposed to be flying against Castro. I saw they had tagged the models Marked Down!! I laid my bike carefully against the glass.
Mr. Day was just cashing out at the front register, a spool of white paper draped over the glass counter.
“I’m closing, Ladd.” He peered over his glasses. He was the Assistant Scout Master so he knew me, plus he and my Gramps were volunteer firemen.
“Oh, sure. I won’t take but a second.” I hustled down one aisle, past the candy counter. The buffed floor planks always squeaked like a welcome, or to let the clerks know there were kids in the place. The popcorn machine was already emptied out.
I ignored the dragster jalopies with too many tiny parts that never turned out. It was hard to use just a little glue and then they got all crusted up. The bomber I wanted was right in front. Chick already had the B-25 Mitchell and a Liberator flying over his bed, hanging on some nearly invisible fishing line. They looked pretty cool because Dad did most of the work for a little kid. The decals were on smooth and in the right places. I grabbed a tube of airplane glue.
Mr. Day made change out of an open band pouch. “I’ll have to ring this up in the morning,” he reminded me, or himself. “How come you’re not at the game?”
He handed me more than a dollar left. I could still make it but after chips and a soda, I’d be broke. “I went to Mr. Milner’s visitation. I guess I’ll just go work on this.”
“Oh, that’s right. What a terrible thing.” He fit the model into a brown bag. “That guy should never drive again.” He dropped the glue in on top.
“Does Dad help you with these?”
“Nah, I can do ’em OK,” I told him. It seemed like a funny thing to ask. What did he care?
“Well, you be careful handling that epoxy. Some kids back east are sniffing it to have hallucinations. Crazy business. Some of ’em ended up vegetables.”
I looked into the bag. It didn’t make sense. I knew about hallucinations from Indian lore we learned in Scouts–the young men fasting on their vision quests. But I started to imagine the head-ache I’d get from that chemical smell.
“Chief Wheeler wants me to keep a list of who buys the stuff,” Mr. Day added. “I need to think about that.”
Now being a drooling idiot was something else awful that could happen, probably even worse than getting your chest crushed. I guess I had seen a newspaper clipping on the bulletin board in Science. It was next to some government suggestions about food groups nobody read. There was a picture of a kid holding a paper bag up to his face.
“I’ll be careful,” I told Mr. Day. Then I shivered, for real and not just faking it. “Makes me wanta barf just thinkin’ about it.”
When I went back out the door, he was right behind me to lock up. The Saber Marching Band was done and you could hear a ref’s whistle and the seashore noise of the crowd blocks away. Must be already in the third quarter anyway, so I mounted up for home.
I brought the model up to my room. If I spread the parts on the big den coffee-table, Ma would just make me clear it off before bedtime. There was no one else home yet. I forgot we hadn’t eaten supper. They probably went out for burgers.
I opened the box and unfolded the instructions on my study desk. I intended to follow them to the letter, and in order. I intended to spread the glue with a toothpick like Dad did, and to use as little as possible.
Always count ten to let it get tacky first and then leave it alone, not handle it and admire it into a cobwebby mess.
I punctured the applicator tip with a pin. The glue bubbled slowly out the top. I put a bit of cardboard under it. For Step 1, I stuck the pilot to his seat. I set him aside to dry before fitting the seat into the slot provided in the cockpit. I tested the two fuselage halves together, studs into holes but without glue. Same plan with the halves of the two big engine cowlings. I broke the clear cockpit canopy away from the plastic frame most of the small parts were attached to. I scraped the edges with my scout knife to smooth off the little nubs. It had to fit right and you sure didn’t want fingerprints of glue hampering the pilot’s view.
After trimming the top and bottom of the left wing, I reached for the epoxy. A little scab of glue had formed on the metal tip. I picked it off and laid a fine bead around the edge of the wing bottom. The glue clot stuck to my finger. I don’t know why I held it to my nostril, except I was killing time to do it right. The smell wasn’t that bad, like car exhaust that’s kinda pleasant but you know it’ll turn your stomach in a little while. You know there’s a headache waiting in there. I guessed you’d have to inhale a lot more glue for it to do anything. The silhouette of the bad kid on the science poster looked like the bag was over his mouth and nose. I put the two wing halves together and pressed. My bag from Ben Franklin was right there.
Our gym teacher, Mr. Granger, warned us all the time that we were getting old enough that we’d start to experiment. This was when we had to sit in a classroom and do Health units. We needed to resist these temptations especially drinking. It was all natural curiosity, nothing to be ashamed of, but could kill us anyway, just by messing up the one time. No one ever knew how they’d react. Well, it looked like I must have reached that age or something. So, congratulations to me. And if I could play center at only 138 pounds, why would I be chicken of a quick sniff, just to see?
I dropped the bit of cardboard into the bag. It had a thick ooze of glue on it where the tube had laid. The bag blew up at first, like when you get ready to pop it behind someone’s ear. But then I breathed in deep and it crinkled down. I did that three times. That would have to be my limit.
Nothing shocking happened right off. I lowered the bag and put it next to the model box, thinking it all must be a big dud. But, when I closed my eyes, the side yard between our houses kinda opened up like a flower–that one from Wide World of Disney where they show off for you if you have color TV? They filmed this blossom in a way that it takes the blooming part just a few seconds. Then Mr. Milner is stooping next to one of those toddler grandkids. “Pet kitty nice, Jeffrey. Don’t be rough.” He guides the kid’s hand along the kitten’s tummy. “Hear her singing? That’s the way.” Then I snap the ball and pow!– a linebacker blasts over top of me, his shoulder and helmet right in my ribs. There’s one of those cartoon bubble things they use for characters to talk in comic books? It open’s up in my mind just like that flower, just like Milner’s yard. The bubble says owwwfff!, only in Mr. Milner’s voice, as all the wind goes out of me and I stand up gasping.