Inside the car the air is hot. I lower the heater a notch, the breathes pouring out of the dashboard slowing so its not in my face. Yet still my skin burns, scalding to the touch. It is not the heat that is bothering me. Voices ring, ring, ring like a bell which has gone long without use. The familiarity comes back, and I cringe as I would at nails screeching across the chalkboard. A wise man once told me the things we store away have a habit of falling, hitting the floor with a loud thump in order to garner our attention. Once that attention is drawn, we have to work our way through picking it up again, picking all the things we don’t wish to look at and store them away again.
I roll down the window, the last fresh bit of coldness blasting my cheeks and removing the sticky hotness from my skin. A piece of paper floats in, a renegade fleeing from its rightful place, and I snatch it, throwing it aside to myself who sits with bleary eyes staring at the every changing landscape.
“What’s this?” they ask.
” I don’t know. Probably garbage,” I say.
But it isn’t garbage. They begin to read, and as the words become elongated, the sentences carved and shaped, I realize it is a story, lost and aching to be heard.
He was taller than a tree and built like a tractor; strong and hard, the meat on his body thick and lean. Any girl would have pawned over him. In fact, many did, drawn to him as bees were drawn to a beautiful golden flower. We called him ‘Smallfoot’ because he moved swift and lithely, a ballerina dancing on clouds. He too, did have the smallest feet out of the lot of us, which was surprising for a lumberjack of a boy. It didn’t seem quite right. But looking back on it, nothing ever did seem quite right with Johnny Smallfoot.
The last few days of school before summer break were hard for us. None of us could keep still, especially Johnny, who swung back and forth from one side of the room to the other as a monkey swinging from tree to tree. Mrs. Frederickson, an uptight woman with a back straighter than a ruler and a nose that always looked down contemptuously, was aggravated. “John, please, if you keep this up you know where you have to go. Do you think sweeping Principal Nelson’s office will benefit you in any way?”
Actually, he did. Because at least his hands would be busy, and he would not have to listen to Mrs. Frederickson drone on and on in a plaintive and dry voice. Johnny hated sitting still, a fact we often teased him for, but he did it for most of the year because he sincerely wanted to learn. That brain of his absorb everything, sucking up facts like a vacuum, never missing a scrap. He could recite the constellations and name which stars shine the brightest, list every Greek hero and their accomplishments, and read the time just by looking at the sun. Okay, so the last one was a skill he acquired spending time with us outside, up in the tree house we made near the old Vixen Bridge- named for the alleged ordeal of Mrs. St. Clair running down her husband and his much younger mistress and flattening them like a pancake.
When the bell finally rang, we jumped from our seats and sprang towards the door. Johnny would have beaten us all, if it weren’t for Alison Maynor blocking his path. She stood there, batting her pretty green eyes and smiling a charming smile on a face known more for its deviousness. “Hey, Johnny, you got any big plans for today?” she layered on the sweetness, trying to lure the fish to the bait. Johnny shrugged, gently trying to sidestep around her with that small foot. “Just gonna be free and enjoy summer I guess.”
Alison was persistent; out of all the girls in our class, she was the one who liked to dig her claws in, determined to claim whatever prize attracted her attention for herself, friends be damned. “Well, maybe you want someone to enjoy the summer with. You know,” she crept up onto her tip toes, her elegant fingers tracing a line down his chest. “It won’t be long before we go our separate ways. You’ve been thinking on where you want to go to college any?”
“The only thing I’m thinking is I’m gonna score fifteen times today, and there’s nothing Guzzler can do to stop me!” he grinned that toothy, boyish grin at Lloyd Guzman, or Guzzler as we called him because the scoundrel always bite off more than he could chew, running that mouth of his too far across state lines. I keep wondering if he wasn’t such a talker, if he knew how to reign it in a little, then maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
He scooted around her, chasing after the impatient scoundrels waiting for him to come along: me, Guzzler, Rudolph, and Garret. We ran through the halls, hooting and hollering with uninhibited idealism possessed by the youth. Teachers left and right frowned as me passed, Mr. Emerson going so far as administering one last, futile reprimand. But it was summer, and we had no restraints. We were determined to push ourselves to the irresponsible lengths that flooded every teenage boy.
I remember that day, a painting held high on the wall for me to look at; the summer breeze was picking up, smooth and gentle, not yet dry and filled with a miserable, unquenchable heat. We gathered around Felix and the others, who were just on the onset of a pickup game in a field littered with old soda cans and cigarettes, gum wrappers and, from the brazen, unsealed condoms. A few of the girls circled around the bleachers to watch, girls such as Alison Maynor and Eliza Flannagan, their eyes eager to devour whichever boy caught their fancy. We stripped down, shirts versus skins, and divided ourselves equally, although one could argue one side would always be stacked holding Johnny Smallfoot. His agility out shined us all, even Guzzler, much to his chagrin. He made it a point to always be opposite to Johnny, to take it upon himself to be the one to take down Goliath.
Poor Rudolph didn’t have an ounce of muscle on him, and after being picked last time and time again he decided to designate himself as permanent referee. He got himself a bright silver whistle for the occasion; he wore it around his neck, smiling proudly as if he found a hundred dollars. He blew the whistle heartedly, and we ran, our feet creating our own formations and patterns to our satisfaction. As expected, Johnny went by everyone, and their jeers, provoked by jealously, followed him like a stray dog: “Hey Smallfoot, let us have a chance for once, will ya?” “There goes pretty boy, dancing up and down. Maybe you should consider the ballet?”
“And maybe you should consider your mom!” he always shot back something of the sort, grinning from ear to ear as he scored again. I made a valiant effort once, my fingers coming mere inches from grazing the back of his shirt before I fell, my face scraping across the grass drier and rougher than sandpaper. “You alright, Bracey?” He patted me squarely on my sweaty, shirtless back as I got to my feet. I could hear them hollering, their laughter biting into me: “Oh boy, eating shit for lunch are we? Bracey Allen everyone!” The only one who was not laughing was Johnny. He smiled softly, although now that I think about it there was a sadness to it. He felt sorry for me, and I didn’t realize at the time it was a proffered pity, one he wanted me to take so he didn’t have to keep it for himself.
The game went on well into the afternoon, as it always did. Eventually the girls grew bored and departed. Once again, Johnny Smallfoot was running circles, and was about to score his seventh touchdown when Guzzler set himself in his path. Instead of trying to reach out and tag him, Guzzler stretched out his leg, and Johnny fell over it, dropping the ball in a fumble. Guzzler scooped up the ball and ran down the opposite end, slamming the ball into the ground.
“Dude! What gives? That was such a dick move!” Felix and the others shook their heads in disapproval, but at the same time looked over at Johnny, waiting to see what he would do. Guzzler grinned, also waiting. But Johnny stood up and walked away, effectively ending the game.
“Smallfoot! Smallfoot, what gives?” Guzzler bristled, marching over in great strides. “You going to end it just like that? Cause you’re a sore loser? No, you’re a pussy that’s what!”
“Come on, Smallfoot, you going to let him talk to you like that? Knock him on his ass, unless you’re not man enough to do so.”
Those words were enough for Johnny to unclench his jaw. For years, he was used to waiting, fidgeting in place when all he wanted was to run around, break free from the chains they tried to bind him. Every once in a while, such as that moment on the field, he would get loose, strike a blow, before finally they clamped him in iron again. I can’t but wonder, as I stand on this stage speaking to a solemn crowd, if it was the fear of those chains, the fear of being bound tight in discomfiting shackles, that sent him over the edge.
Johnny swung a blow alright, but not at Guzzler. Felix, a boy who acted more than he should, believing he knew enough of the world to tell others how it was, was sent sprawling to all fours with blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. “What the hell?” he spat.
Johnny didn’t say a word, but Guzzler sidled up to him, beaming. “Friends don’t fight friends, don’t you know?” he slapped Johnny on the back. “Right, Smallfoot?”
Again, Johnny didn’t say a word. He sauntered off, trailing southward passed the chain link fences and rows of squat shaped houses. We called after him, knowing it would take forever for him to get home, but he ignored us, his shoulders slacking in despondence.
“I don’t get it,” Guzzler muttered as we piled into Garret’s car. Garret was the oldest, and his parents worshipped him, he being their only child and they having a newfound urge, which developed after a difficult birth nearly led to Garret’s premature death, to give him whatever he wanted, including a brand new 1998 Mustang. He was the only one out of the lot of us allowed to have their own car. My parents came close to letting me have one, but after sneaking out and borrowing my dad’s convertible to take Eliza Flannagan on the worst date of my life, which ended with her getting a black eye, me missing a tooth, and the convertible taking a swim in the ravine, they decided I could not be trusted.
So, Garret became our designated chauffeur because, as Guzzler put it, friends don’t fight friends. I think about that a lot, how those words were dipped in warm metal which cooled and formed an airtight shield where there was no room for anything else. We devoted ourselves to a loyalty that I now see was misguided, a loyalty that was not as strong as it pretended to be. Friends don’t let friends go, was what we should have made for ourselves. We were his friends. We let him go. We were his friends, and we let him go without question.
That summer evening, we rode to our respective houses on a childish high, talking and laughing and avoiding all things that had to do with our soon to be changing future. Senior year was around the corner, and then who knows what, and it would be coming before we knew what hit us. We clung to each other, making as much plans as possible, afraid that if one moment away from each other passed, we were done for. “Say, shall we hit up Vixen Bridge tonight? Just spend all night out there, like we used to. I can probably get my brother to snag us a case of beer, some chips.. and, well, some other good stuff?” said Rudolph.
There was no reason to say no to that. We agreed to meet by the old oak tree that stood in the middle of a roundabout at what we called the Cross Sections, because conveniently each road led to where our neighborhoods sat. Except for Johnny Smallfoot. He lived in the boonies with his frail grandmother. The story was he was left there by his mother who decided, much like his father had previously, that he was too much.
I stayed in our simple, blue split-level house long enough to get a fresh set of clothes and something to eat. My parents made their usual disparaging comments about how I’m not home enough, I inhale too quickly, that I need to slow down and talk because I don’t talk to them enough, and so on and so on. I barely listen, mumbling just enough for them to hear I was going out, then disappear back out the screened-in door carrying a sleeping bag roll.
The night was beautiful; the sky clear of any smokey clouds and the moon winked along with the dozens and dozens of stars. I caught my breath as one fell, a streak of blue brushing across the black canvas. They were waiting for me, each of them holding their own belongings and contributions to the impromptu night out.
“Where’s Johnny?” I asked foolishly. I knew the answer before they told me: of course, he wasn’t coming, because he left before anyone told him what we were doing, and no one bothered to ring him up. We were his friends, and we let him go.
But it turned out he did join us. As we were walking and the road narrowed, the sides falling away to let the ravine come through, we spot him on the bridge, his small feet balancing delicately on the beam. “Hey, Smallfoot!” Guzzler shouted and I put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. Johnny was awfully close to the edge there, but he turned around, his feet still perfectly balanced, and smiled. Only later did I realize his smile did not reach his eyes.
“Hey, Guzzler,” he looked at me and something passed between us, some sort of secret code only we could understand except at the time I didn’t want to. “Hey Bracey,” I look down at my shoes, suddenly interested in the dirt between the laces. “Where are you guys heading out at this hour?”
“Where do you think? We cross this bridge for one reason and one reason only, and that’s not to look at Mrs. St. Clair’s dead husband,” Guzzler laughed and for once I found it grating. “Come along now. Bracey’s got extra blankets if you’re worried about that.”
Smallfoot lept from the edge with a springy step. Never did we stop to ask what he was doing out here by himself. The important thing was that we were all together. Johnny started skipping ahead, humming a song we recognized immediately as “The Old Bandit.”
“Down by the river, the old crone crows, looking for the bandit who stole her toes,” Rudolph broke out feverishly, his voice high and even, the best of the lot of us.
“Up in the trees the old bandit laughs, looking at the crone now needing a staff,” croaked Garret.
We continue reciting the verses, around and around like a merry go round, until we reach the cedar tree where a rickety wooden box sat on the thickest branches. A rope ladder, covered in mold and its threads poking from the seams, dropped down about five feet, its end hovering above the ground. One by one we climb it, Garret’s foot getting stuck on the third ring and nearly pulling the whole ladder down. Once inside, we unpack, covering the dusty floor and its protruding nails in a flurry of blankets, beer, bar-b- que chips, flashlights, chocolate bars, and zebra cakes.
“You know guys, the best kind of tree to build a treehouse in is an oak tree. And you know, oak trees are magnificent; they can live up to a thousand years and date back to the dinosaurs. Can you imagine f pterodactyls were still around, they’d probably be nesting right above us, and oak trees are so massive; they can extend over a hundred feet,” said Johnny.
Guzzler rolled his eyes. “You’re a fucking nerd, you know that? Nobody cares about that stuff. Now this is where it is all.” He dumped a pile of magazines onto the floor and we all, with the exception of Smallfoot, crawled eagerly towards them, our boyish curiosity compelled to drift towards any distraction that took us away from reality and what it brought. Beneath me, I could hear the plywood squeak and I wondered, not for the first time, how much longer it would keep us up. I dreaded the thought that once this place was gone, so were we.
We flick through the magazines pilfered from closets and bedsides, admiring from beneath a thin yellow light the naked girls, their bosoms mostly large and voluptuous. I could feel it coming on, the desire to squeeze and pull and take one of those girls, no women, and take her onto me. I know the others felt it too.
“Hey, Johnny, if you could pick any girl who would you want?” Guzzler said suddenly. His eyes were glued to the magazine, his tongue licking dry lips. He took a beer from the case and popped it opened, his nails bleeding from the added effort from lack of an opener.
Johnny sat in the corner, shifting uncomfortably. It seemed to me he was trying to melt into the wall and disappear, his mind second guessing his decision to come. He shrugged and said nothing.
“Oh, come on, there has got to be someone,” Guzzler pressed, shoving the magazine into Johnny’s face. Johnny recoiled. “Look, I know Alison Maynor is a shrew who is notorious for being ridiculous annoying. And the rest of them, well, we are too mature for them anyway.” Translation: they did not like him, and he was terribly distraught about it. “But I’ve never seen you look at anyone. You’re not a homo, are you?”
At that, everyone looked up. Johnny, calmer than stilled water, said: “I just don’t really prefer anyone at the moment.”
“At the moment? It is at the moment because it just isn’t right not to like anyone. Its unnatural; man is not supposed to be dry all the time.”
“Well, its like you said, these girls aren’t good enough for us,” he smiled and winked, but there was something missing. The joviality was missing, and when he thought nobody was looking, when everyone went back to absorbing the naked pictures so they could dream about them, I saw the grimness, the tears swelling in the corner of his eyes. He wanted to leave, but he was trapped, the shackles binding him and the chains holding him tight. Slowly, I get up and stretch, raising the blanket behind me like a cape and covering Smallfoot so no one could see him. He began to sob quietly. I could hear him choke, trying to hold them back, but he lets himself sob until Guzzler broke the spell.
“Allen, what the hell are you doing?”
I brought down my arms, dropping the blanket. “You know, I think I’m finally growing taller. My legs don’t quite fit like they used to, and they need a good stretch.”
“Are you finished? Because your shadow is spoiling our good time.”
To be frank, our good time had already been spoiled.
“Johnny tried to look at me, but out of shame I avoided his glance. I let him go. I was his friend and I let him go. The night was not the same, empty and full of a looming future we all dreaded. I do not think Johnny ever saw himself having one, and now here we are, gathered around a casket that should not be put into the ground this early. But we can only blame ourselves because it is not like we didn’t see, we just chose not to listen,” I stepped off the stage, handing the microphone to the pastor before walking to my seat in the farthest pew. Three days ago, I learned from an obituary floating around Shackler Park that twenty two year old Johnny “Smallfoot” Canyon jumped from Vixen bridge to his death. I was not surprised, my still my heart ache. Gradually, we saw less and less of Smallfoot, and he floated away, a balloon let loose into the wind. We let him go. We were his friends, and we let him go. I cannot forget that.
I learned Smallfoot’s grandmother had passed and the funeral was being provided by some distant cousin out of Kerlecky County, a place known for its self-righteous dissenters and ignorance as well as its abundant rabbit farms. I do not bother introducing myself to them; in fact, I was not even supposed to get up there and talk at all. But I knew I needed to. The crowd clapped politely and flashed kind, if not perplexed smiles, and so I walked on, listening to the pastor resume his sermons and then getting up to leave before the body passed through. I could not bear to see his body.
The day was bright and hot, just like that day after school those few years back. I straighten the wrinkles in the shirt and tie I was given at the homeless shelter. I think about going back there, but instead I stop, forcing my feet to change directions. From behind me, I could feel the brick building push me forward, sending me where I was supposed to go. I walk because I have time, and as I walk the thoughts flood through my head, each one more despairing than the other.
I fled from my future, first by joining the army because that was the easiest thing to do. When I did that, however, I steadily lost touch of the others. Last I heard, Guzzler was looking to get an athletic scholarship, Rudolph thought about going to med school, and Garret was arrested for roofying a classmate and assaulting her behind a dumpster. None of them came today. When I returned from the army, I tried to settle down, but I saw things no man should ever have to see, I lost things no man should ever have to lose and they plagued me at night, keeping me awake and crying desperately for sleep to come. It finally came, but then I refused to wake, missing shifts I couldn’t afford to miss. Unable to hold a job, I lost my place and I graveled up to my parents, but they wouldn’t have me. Disappointment etched into their faces, they told me if I only went to college this would not be happening. They slammed the door on my face, wanting me to figure it out on my own.
There were two girls that came into my life and neither stuck around long. Tara left me while I was away, told me she needed somebody by her side, keeping her bed warm at night. It stung, and for the first time I briefly thought of Smallfoot. Like Tara, we didn’t understand. We pushed him into a corner where loneliness was his only companion. Now I can feel it was mine, too.
The sun was beating down my back and my shirt was stained with sweat. I approached the Cross Sections, the oak tree standing the same as ever, and turned right. Soon the road narrowed, and I was walking along the bridge, the bridge that was stained twice red with spilled blood. I stepped up onto the beam and stood precariously over the edge. The fall was long, the ravine laying fifty feet below, its calm surface hardly bothered. On the far left where the cliff sloped steadily downward before turning into a sheer drop was the spot I crashed my dad’s convertible and bruised Eliza Flannagan’s face. I smile wryly. The memory was not enough to deter the ache dwelling inside of my heart.
I could hear the shocked whispers inside that brick building: How could this have happened? Why did he not talk to anybody?
Because it was impossible to talk when there was nobody there to listen.
“I’m sorry, Smallfoot,” the wind licked my cheek and rustled my shaggy hair. “I’m so sorry. But I hope to see you again soon. I’ve missed you.”
I stepped over the ledge, letting my body fall through space. Vixen’s bridge would be cursed once again.