There is something about boys, and friendship. Girls can have a falling-out, then make up by the weekend. They can say and do the most hateful things, which are then forgotten in a heartbeat. But I soon learned that this doesn’t happen with boys. Or men. Once something strains long term friendships, or an issue comes between a close-knit group, the damage is done, and can never be healed.
As the leaves began to turn, the heat came back. Not the good summer heat, with the clear air and blue skies, the oppressive heat. When it feels like a storm is coming, but never arrives. The flat sky has little colour, and a short walk has you sweating through your T-shirt until it clings to your chest. The weather reflected my mood as that year drew to a close, when breathing seemed to come harder, and the future was uncertain for all of us.
I could feel the change in me, just as I felt the change in the temperature. We had all grown up that last summer, and sleepless nights in the airless heat meant long hours of reflection about how things had turned out so differently to how I had expected.
I carried on going to the river, and that same spot where it all began. As the weather cooled, I watched the birds flying south overhead, and thought about how quickly friendships can vanish. Frankie had taken to nodding at me as I passed him in the corridor, and Duke spent as much time away sick from school as he did in it. The only news about Tommy was all bad. He was being kept in hospital now that the treatment hadn’t worked. People smiled grimly as they walked past his parents in town.
Nobody really knows what to say in situations like that.
One day I got caught in a heavy shower as I sat on the bank, and decided to take shelter in Old Man Henderson’s barn, just like we used to. I ducked under the crime scene tape, and stood looking at the spot where they had dug up Melanie. People said I was sweet on her, but they got that from her. It was the other way round. She had a thing about me since we were ten years old, and always just happened to be in the same places. “What ya doing, Clay? Where you heading to, Clay?” Mel was always there.
I liked her well enough. She was heavier than all the other girls, but I didn’t mind that at all. The weight on her face made her skin look good, and her smile was cute. And she developed faster, in those places where it mattered to boys. But I was never really sweet on her, not like everyone thought.
They hadn’t filled in the dirt, and as I stared into that small space, I wondered how it must have felt for her that Sunday.
Once it got cold enough to wear my padded coat, Old Man Henderson stood trial in Renton. People in town grabbed the papers every evening, keen to read what had happened in court that day. Against the advice of his lawyer, he took the stand to deny everything. But that left him open to some awkward questions about not having an alibi, and the judge ruled they could ask him about his juvenile record too. The prosecutor suggested he was exposing himself to the girls, and it had all gone wrong. It was claimed he killed both girls so they wouldn’t tell on him.
I was no expert, but I reckoned he was railroaded on flimsy evidence.
Still, when he got ninety-nine years with no parole, it certainly put an end to the matter as far as the people of Riverdale were concerned.
But not for me. I let everyone know I didn’t believe a word of it. Folks said he was lucky we no longer had the death penalty in the State, or he would have fried for sure. They told me to let it go, to stop talking about it. Then Dad got involved, ordering me to never mention it again, and told me I was upsetting Mel’s and Donna’s parents. So I did as I was told, and got on with my life.
They had both funerals in the church at the same time, and this time we were allowed to go. I went with Mom and Dad, and Frankie showed up with his family. But Duke was nowhere to be seen. People said he might still be sick.
Dad got me a weekend job at the lumber yard. He said if I saved some money, he would match that, and I could get a car. The thought of being able to drive started to occupy every waking minute. I had hardly ever been anywhere, and I imagined myself just driving in any direction, and never stopping. We had been to South Carolina to see Grandma, before she died. But I hardly remembered anything about that trip, as I was so young. I did remember it was hot, and there was a beach where I played. And there were fancy trees that my Dad told me were Palmetto trees. I couldn’t say the word properly, and Mom laughed. Maybe when I had that car, I could go back there.
But I never did.
Working with men at the yard was a new experience for me. They expected you to work hard, and not complain. And they talked about man stuff. How their wives were no longer attractive, and how their kids talked back to them. Football and baseball, drinking bourbon and beer, and sexy film stars. They didn’t include me, but didn’t exclude me either. And nobody ever talked about that Sunday when I was around. They knew my Dad worked there, but didn’t mind speaking about him to me, taking it for granted I would keep my mouth shut. The work mostly involved stacking the cut planks onto trucks. I had to buy some really heavy-duty gloves to protect my hands from the splinters, and at times the monotony drove me crazy. I had to switch my mind to other thoughts, and those thoughts were mostly about the happier times down by the river.
It was hot early that year, and Spring felt more like Summer. I got my licence, and Dad drove me up to White Oaks where he knew someone who was selling a reliable car. I would have liked something sportier, and something that wasn’t dark green. But Dad shook on the deal on my behalf, and handed over the cash. He handed me the keys with a grin. “Be careful now son. Take it easy at first, and try not to get yourself lost”.
I drove west, to the fishing lakes outside White Oaks, and sat in the car by the picnic tables.
I tried to imagine Old Man Henderson fishing there that Sunday, with no idea about what was going to happen to him.