Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
When my sister Janie and I were coming up in Smoketown, not long after Skeet came from across the street to stay and be our brother, an alley cat took to lingering around our house. Like all stray cats it lingered indecisively, torn between its two basic natures—it rubbed against your leg, but wouldn’t let you pet it. It followed you everywhere, but hissed viciously if you tried to pick it up.
Skeet loved that cat. For a while. It was scrofulous and rib-thin, but with lively gray eyes it still had its pride. Skeet put up with its nasty attitude, fed it food and milk, watched it stalk and prowl. I guess he just wanted something to take care of even then. But since no one really wants a cat that can’t be picked up and petted, an unfriendly cat, he stopped feeding it and petting it and letting it in. After a while the cat didn’t come around anymore. I guess it was picked up or wandered off or died—I don’t know which. And I guess Skeet was a lot like that cat. That cat had its own doom in it like a tumor.
* * *
It’s a slight episode from my childhood, and I wouldn’t have remembered it at all if Janie hadn’t phoned me in tears at the office last week and asked me to meet her at Skeet’s apartment. Skeet lived in a lot of places around town after we all left home eight years ago. I never saw most of the places Skeet lived, and I probably wouldn’t have cared to. But two months ago, out of the blue, he turned up in the neighborhood that Janie and I always took pains to avoid, the one where we all grew up together.
This was Smoketown, where the shotgun houses run undistinguished for blocks and blocks, like brick after brick in a masonry wall. Where the tedium of the street, dull and scrubbed and empty and clean, is punctuated at odd intersections by a few corner storefronts—a convenience store or a laundromat or a bar. Where the enormous chimney of the city incinerator looms over everything, and the smoke that erupts from it all day long gives the neighborhood its name.
Skeet’s few belongings were still at his place, and his landlord had asked us to clear them out. Apparently Skeet had put down Janie’s name as the person to notify in case of an emergency. It wasn’t an emergency anymore, but Janie had finally found the nerve to go over and see what was there. On her day off, calling me from a pay phone on the corner because Skeet didn’t have a phone, had never had a phone, she wanted me to come over too. Quick.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“Just come over.”
“It’s a bad time, Janie,” I told her.
“I’m new here. I can’t be running out on little errands in the middle of the day.”
“Just come over. All right?”
“Listen,” I said, guessing she’d just had a bad attack of the sorrows. “Leave it alone now. Tomorrow’s Saturday. I’ve got the day off. I’ll help tomorrow.”
“That’s not it.”
“Well, what is it?”
In the pause that followed I could hear her inhale, that signature breadth of time. She was smoking again. “Just come over,” she said.
“I can’t. Can’t you call Hal?” I asked, hoping she might consider calling her husband. A vicious silence ensued, and I remembered that Hal, who is not a bad person, had fallen from grace with my sister, his wife. I had no doubt he’d done nothing wrong, but that wasn’t going to help Hal any. Janie’s judgments have lives of their own, never dependent on things like good and bad behavior, one’s deservings.
“Never mind,” I said.
“He never knew Skeet,” she said, almost a growl.
“Janie,” I sighed.
“Sorry,” she said, softening a little but still defensive, still the disappointed little girl. “Look,” she went on. “I found something.”
Just then Mr. Logan, the senior law partner for whom I work, came into the library. Seeing me on the phone, he marched over to my table. I smiled and held up a hand in greeting. He leaned forward, his fingers splayed over the tabletop, and waited.
“What?” I asked Janie.
“I said I found something.”
“I know what you said. What did you find?”
“Just please come over.” She’d hung up.
“Mr. Logan,” I said, looking up. He raised his eyebrows at me over the top of his half-glasses, his face already dead with preordained disappointment. “I’m afraid I’ve got to run out for a while.”
* * *
Skeet’s apartment was no apartment at all, but one of those same storefronts in our old neighborhood, at the corner of Grand and Clay. I sat in the car for a moment and reread the address Janie had given me, convinced it was wrong. The store was too familiar to me, just two blocks from the house we grew up in. When Janie and I were kids it had been Murphy’s Candy Store, then Bunny’s Corner Market, and long after that a package store and bar—as though the building itself had seen fit to fulfill our every evolving need.
It was vacant now, though the front window was still intact, which surprised me. But the plate glass was painted pitch black, and plastered thickly with nightclub posters and concert flyers. I turned off the air-conditioning in the car, rolled down the window, and waited.
The air outside was hot and still. The hollow summer sunlight, the shadows and the silence, the spare barren sidewalks all stole my momentum and I just sat there, feeling something of summers past. Further down the street two children were beating at each other with sticks. A screen door slammed somewhere behind me, and a little girl sped by on her bike, a doll tied cruelly to the rear fender. Suddenly and loudly a big yellow Cadillac ran the stop sign in front of me, its windows down and its stereo thumping, then was gone.
When I looked back at the storefront, Janie was leaning out of the store’s dark doorway. She was watching me expectantly, staving off the heavy steel door with one of her strong, sinewy hands and motioning me inside with the other. I locked up the car and stepped up to meet her.
Janie retreated in front of me like a tour guide, walking backward deeper and deeper into the room. “Look at these,” she said. But I couldn’t see anything. The room, though cool and damp, was too dark to see. Janie had propped open the front door, and the weak light from it lit up the shallows. A dirty skylight in back illuminated the rear. Stopping, I let her go ahead, waiting for my eyes to adjust. And when they did the room seemed simple and empty. Old tongue-and-groove wood flooring, smoothed like stone by the treading of years, ran the whole length of the room. A broad double desk sat off to one side. A heavy oak swivel chair was pulled up to it. At the end of the room a mattress and box spring were stacked on the floor.
I stepped forward to follow, but something—a piece of string—fell against my face, startling me with its softness. A light cord. I reached up and pulled it.
“Busted,” Janie said. “Come look at these.”
At the desk Janie stepped around to the other side and faced me. She looked down at the surface, and I followed her eyes. Some boxes sat there. We looked up at one another, then back at the boxes.
“What are they?” I asked.
“You tell me,” she said.
I stepped around and leaned in closer. They were display cases—plain rectangular wooden boxes with hinged lids and glass tops—two of them, lying face up. They were recognizable immediately, the kind of boxes over which you might linger at a flea market, inspecting the pocket watches, pen knifes, old fountain pens and election buttons they contain—all the ephemera and mantelpiece trinkets that people hoard and collect and imbue with some secret significance. I peered into one of them and then looked back at Janie.
“Moths?”I asked, for I was no lepidopterist.
“Butterflies,” Janie crooned. “They’re all butterflies.”
She lifted the other box toward the weak light from the front door. Suddenly their colors—caramel, black, yellow and blue—began to glow as though lit up from within, translucent and alive. In that box as in the other, butterflies of all kinds sat in neat spacious rows, orderly and at attention. Their wings were spread open in perfect equipoise, as though they’d just finished a long flight, or a ballet movement, by gently landing and taking a bow. But small black pins pierced the narrow abdomens of each one, holding them to the corkboard surface, making them seem less graceful, more dead, engaged in no dance at all.
A paper name tag was glued below each butterfly, its proper name spelled out in Skeet’s erratic, struggling scrawl: Papilio Glaucus, Lycaena Phlaeas, Spicebush Swallowtail, Silver-spotted Skipper, Stage Monarch, Red Admiral, Peking Cabbage, Blue Ipso-Columbus, Northern Cloudywing. After reading them, I couldn’t imagine which was more unlikely—Skeet attempting to pronounce the names, or actually taking the time to pen them.
“Look at the others,” Janie said. She wagged a finger and guided me away. We walked down the length of the room until we came to three more identical boxes, standing upright in a row along the rear wall, like museum displays about to be hung. They too were filled with butterflies.
“Where did they come from?” I asked.
Janie moved a few paces away and turned, folding her arms. “I don’t know,” she said. “I honestly don’t.”
I bent down and inspected a few of them. “Maybe he picked them up somewhere.”
“Picked them up? Picked them up where?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe he bought them.”
“Come on,” she said. I looked up at her. Her arms were folded. She was rocking on the balls of her feet. Her forehead was furrowed and she was picking at her fingers mercilessly.
“Or found them,” I stabbed on, “in an alley. Or outside a lab. Or the museum. Or a garage sale. Who knows.”
“Picked those up in an alley?”
“Maybe he bought them, Janie. I really don’t know.”
“Look in the drawer,” she said.
“Why? What’s in there?” I asked.
“There’s something dead in there. Isn’t there?”
“Look in the drawer.” I looked in the drawer. Scattered around inside were all of the implements Skeet had used to make his displays—tiny plastic boxes filled with colored pins, glue, tape, cork-board, rulers, X-acto knives.
“Look in the other,” Janie said.
In the next drawer down, a deep drawer, were pieces of muslin and cheesecloth, two of them fashioned around coathangers to form crude butterfly nets. There was an old coffee can too. I lifted it out and the pungent odor that wafted from it—ethyl acetate, I know now—made me return it quickly. It was a killing jar, primitive and also of Skeet’s own fashioning. Strewn along the bottom of the drawer was butterfly carnage, their bodies dry and dusty and disintegrating, brittle like fall leaves.
After I’d closed the drawers I turned the desk chair around and sat down. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“Neither do I.” Janie, still standing, pulled out a cigarette and lit up. I started to cough conspicuously.
“Not a word,” she warned. “I’m the nurse around here.”
“You couldn’t tell by looking at you,” I said.
She inhaled and looked down at herself.
“I’ve got to get back to work,” I finally said.
“What am I supposed to do with them?”
“I don’t know. We’ll talk about it later.”
“I can’t just leave them.”
“You can for now,” I said. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
She started throwing her weight from leg to leg. She let her cigarette fall to the floor and crushed it with a pivot of her foot. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know it doesn’t,” I said. I stood up to go.
“What was he doing?”
I stood looking at her, watching her wonder and wondering myself if she would hit upon it, remember it, allow herself to understand how the most vicious person we had ever known had come to take an obsessive interest in butterflies.
“I don’t know, Janie. I’ve really got to go.”
But I did know. The lies we tell when we’re children might be called innocent lies, not because we’re innocent, but because as children we know we’re lying, and to what purpose or end. The lies we tell when we’re older, though, are the frightening lies, because now we lie mostly to ourselves, and it’s ourselves alone that we wish to delude.
* * *
Skeet once made medical history, though his name is in none of the textbooks. Why that is, I don’t know. All I know is that the measures the doctors took to save Skeet’s life, now so commonplace, were unheard of at the time.
He first got sick not long after he moved in with us. He began having difficulty with walking, and talking, and moving his arms, sluggish like a windup toy in the final throes of its gyrations. Mom was a nurse, attentive to those things, and saw it before any of us, including Skeet himself, I think, suspected a problem. She got Skeet the right appointments and checkups, and after many weeks of tests the doctors determined that Skeet’s muscles were dying. They were dying generally, and all over. No name for his malady existed, but the doctors said it typically began in a patient’s extremities. Limbs and appendages would begin to get more sluggish and numb. The arms and legs first, then the fingers and toes and the tongue. Skeet wouldn’t be able to walk or eat or keep his eyes open. And then the numbness would spread inward—to the stomach muscles and the abdominal muscles and the bladder muscles and, in the end, the heart muscle would go. Skeet was nine.
Although the doctors had seen this before, and knew what to expect, they still had no way to successfully treat it. One of them had some ideas, though, and wanted to try them on Skeet. And because the treatment was experimental, and the risks somewhat uncertain, and because we had no money to speak of, the entire procedure—tests, injections, physical therapy, and hospital stays—would be free.
Mom took a couple weeks to think about it, and to try and find Skeet’s mother.
Before he came to live with us, Skeet was no one special. He wasn’t even Skeet. His name was Ted, and he was just the sickly looking kid who lived across the street from us, in a shotgun house like our own. Ted and his mother had moved from somewhere, Cincinnati I believe, and because Ted’s mom and our mom were the only single mothers on our block, and close in age, they became friends. Skeet’s mother would haul him over to play with us when she wanted to sit on the porch and talk aimless talk to Mom. She would find a sitter for all three of us when she wanted to take Mom out drinking with her, which Mom liked to do now and again.
I wasn’t home when Skeet’s mom brought him over to spend a few days with us—forever as it turned out. Janie was home, and she remembered that Skeet’s mom seemed rushed. Apparently Skeet’s father had turned up in Ohio somewhere, and she was off to find him and bring him back. Could we look after Ted for a while? Of course.
That night, with Skeet asleep upstairs and Janie on her way up to join him in the bedroom we would all come to share, I lingered in the kitchen a while with Mom, and prophetically asked her what would happen if Skeet’s mom didn’t come back. She laughed. “She’ll be back for Ted, sweetie,” she said, unable to imagine a mother abandoning a child. “That woman’s had a hard way,” she said, never once stopping to think of herself in those very terms. In the months that followed, Janie and I were worried and Mom was privately terrified, waiting for Skeet’s mother to show up, then waiting for some city agency to discover her missing, or to question our possession of this child who did not belong to us. But nobody came, mother or father or officer of the law, and in time we all stopped worrying. It seems amazing now that a child could simply be left forever with a strange family, but I suppose you could get away with itinerant moves like that back then. You can get away with anything, really, when people stop paying attention.
Skeet never seemed to note his mother’s absence. He never once mentioned her, and in time none of us mentioned her. After Skeet’s illness we never spoke of her again.
If it was an awkward household before Skeet got sick, our unease grew as Skeet’s strength began to waste away drastically. When Mom wasn’t at work she was at home, holed up in her bedroom when she wasn’t making us meals, while Janie and I took Skeet around the neighborhood in the wagon, and sat him up on the porch with us. In the afternoons the three of us would watch TV, and when Mom would come out to fix dinner, Skeet, who could not move his head very well, followed her everywhere with his eyes as she moved about the room, and Mom, sensing it, would risk one glance at Skeet and start crying. She didn’t know what to do for him. Neither did we. And after a month of not being able to find Skeet’s mother, and with the doctor’s reports evolving from “concerned” to “grave,” Mom signed the releases. Skeet’s treatment began immediately.
The experiment they tried, untested then, as I said, but so common now, was to administer huge doses of synthetic hormones to his system. They did this in the hospital three times a week, for four hours each time—with a few hours afterward for rest and rehabilitation. On those days Skeet went to work with Mom in the mornings, and Janie and I went directly to the hospital after school and waited with Skeet while he rested, in the aftermath of the treatment. It was not unlike the way in which my mother would take chemotherapy just a few years ago before we had lost her, and it was not unlike chemotherapy in the havoc it wrecked on Skeet’s little body. He was exhausted, then exhilarated, then wracked with muscular cramps that made him scream. They had him on a rigorous program of physical therapy on his “off” days. When, after three months of treatment, his muscular control not only returned but started to flourish, Skeet continued with the workouts on his own and only went into the hospital for tests and an overnight checkup once a month.
“He’s Charles Atlas gone crazy,” Janie said one night at the dinner table, a year later. Mom and Janie and I were alone. Skeet had already left for the YMCA to work out. He worked out every night, always leaving the three of us at the table. Skeet had no patience for table talk, and he left us that way almost every evening. Not rudely, not unhappily, but in a distracted and determined way that seemed completely uncalculated.
“I think I’ll call him Charles,” Janie said, “instead of Skeet.”
“Oh, I hate that name,” Mom said. “Skeet is a name for hoodlums. Or hillbillies. I don’t know why you can’t just call him by his real name.”
Janie and I looked at each other, and Janie rolled her eyes.
“Ted,” we both said aloud, and started laughing. Mom smiled reluctantly and soon was laughing along with us. We were ashamed of our smiles, but we all smiled nonetheless. Skeet had been such a constant preoccupation for all of us that we could afford to take refuge in the shoddy respite of a little smile.
Skeet’s name came from the sputtering sounds he made early on in his illness, when the muscle spasms were just beginning to act up and were proceeding toward his tongue. His speech devolved into a drooling hiss as he struggled to control the delicate sounds—the S’s and T’s on the end of his tongue—and his tongue went flying off the handle. He sounded, said the neighborhood kids, like a mosquito. Skeet still went to school then, and the kids we had known all our lives, with whom we grew up and were familiar, became unfamiliar in the way they took to teasing Skeet, cruelly. They asked him questions. They were always asking him questions, any question they could think of, and many of them. They loved to hear him speak, and when he finally wouldn’t answer, humiliated, they asked him more and more questions, again and again, until he lost all restraint and sputtered out, screamed out, and the words fell apart and they called him Skeeter.
But by the end of the year, when he was almost well again, he adopted the name all our classmates had called him and would only answer to Skeet. His speech restored, he relished the slow, methodical, precise pronunciation of his name. “My name is Skeet,” he would say, and the way he said it seemed sinister.
One autumn evening after school, the air metallic and cool, we all went to play in the dead fall light that filled the outdoor lot of Jemson’s Brick and Tile down the street. On a cement island in the middle of the shipping yard was the neighborhood’s only really tall tree. We all liked to hang and swing from the tree, and that early evening our swinging brought down from the tree’s highest branches a bird’s nest. It went wheeling to the pavement. There were two eggs in it, and two chicks just recently hatched, one of which seemed to have been hurt in the fall. It was shiny and newborn, its nascent feathers wet and spiky like hair, and it was struggling, its beak opening and closing, one free wing flapping about.
“Look, look, it’s hurt,” somebody said.
“It’s not hurt. It’s just starting to come out of the shell.”
“No, not that one! Look! The wounded one!”
Everyone peered at the broken little bird, and after a while I looked around for Janie and Skeet. Janie was at my side, but Skeet was walking away. He was walking straight to the brick piles. I stood up from the huddle and watched him go. He came walking back into the group with a single red brick held high over his head. It was a remarkable thing to see, given that months before he could barely raise his own arms. I realized what he intended to do, and I stepped back swiftly. In the pause that followed the other kids looked up and, understanding, all scattered backwards. We waited. Skeet said something and let the brick fall from on high. We all approached slowly and looked down at the devastation. Flecks of blood and a yellow ooze spread out from under the brick. The wounded bird’s lone wing was still flapping feebly. A few of the children ran off crying. Another, bewildered, just said “cool.” In time they all wandered home, slowly and silently, but Janie and I stood with Skeet for a long time, until the one bird finally stopped moving. On our way back, I asked Skeet what he had said before dropping the brick. He repeated it, but so softly we still couldn’t hear him. “What?” Janie asked again. He said it once more, loudly and sternly and distinctly now—”I’m not the wounded one.”
* * *
The last time I ever saw Skeet we had an awkward encounter. My graduation from law school was kind of a miracle in my mind, not because I didn’t do well—I was an average student—but because I just never imagined it was possible. Janie knew how much it meant to me. It meant just as much to her, I think, and she knew how much it would have meant to our mother. So Janie arranged a celebration picnic, on that first Sunday in June after the graduation ceremony, in Seneca Park. We were going to have friends of mine, mostly new friends from the college and from law school, Janie would bring Hal, and when my new girlfriend asked if we wouldn’t have any family, Janie looked at me and we both said “Skeet” out loud.
Skeet was sort of beyond the pale around all us pasty types. His sheer bulk, his thick arms and neck, and his new buzz cut set him apart almost as soon as he pulled onto the grass in his hatchback, his car stereo blaring, and stepped out to join us. We’d been sitting in the sun, on the grass, drinking wine and eating cheese, and Skeet’s arrival put a stop to our drunken chatter. I didn’t know how I would introduce him, but I was suddenly glad he was there. There, where my future was supposed to start, I had a taste of my indiscriminate and reprobate past, setting me apart like a brash tattoo from my new friends and classmates. But as the afternoon proceeded and I watched Skeet work so hard at simply existing among us, I was ashamed. My past was Skeet’s present, and I was wrong to claim any share in it, especially now that I was poised to walk away.
Barbara and Stan invited him to sit, and they tried to get him to talk about his work, but when you’ve just been fired as bouncer at a bar for brutally beating a patron, and now you’re collecting loans for Jimmie Lavender the loanshark, the talk does not go far and everyone sits empty-handed. Later Skeet dropped under the tree and began flirting with Barbara and Margaret, who were fixing the food. He sat with his hands behind his head and gnawed at a blade of grass, Marlon Brando-like. And when he gave me a wink, though Barbara saw it and got up to walk away in silent disgust, I winked back.
He was at ease in a way I almost couldn’t believe, far less removed and far more present than I could ever remember. Later Skeet and I walked off together. If I had been glad to see him, he seemed more happy for me, and happy to have been invited at all. He made me feel as though Janie and I hadn’t forgotten him—which we had—but that he had forgotten us, so busy and moving and new had his life become. He was overdoing it. There was something hollow and vulnerable in his enthusiasm. Still, he insisted—he had big deals going. Responsibilities. Work to do.That’s what it was all about now. Never better, never happier. Moving up. “Making my own way now,” he said, as though there were any other way.
“A lawyer,” he said, shaking his head, after we’d come to a stop. We were standing at the edge of the public golf course. Skeet turned and beamed at me, seemingly more proud of me than I was of myself. He held his head back and looked at me steadily. Then his admiration transformed into a leer. “Whooda thunk it,” he said, and in the space of those three words I felt no pride at all.
He poked me in the side and laughed. “You wouldn’t bust me, would you?”
“I can’t arrest people, Skeet,” I said, brushing away his arm. “I’m a lawyer, not a cop.”
“Yeah. But that’s not what I asked. That’s technical,” he said. “I asked, would you if you could?”
“You’d stand by me, right? Keep me out of the can.”
His expression veered sharply from suspicion to anger to wild-eyed amusement. He looked at me hard one last time, then smiled. “The fuck you would,” he said.
When I took the bar last month I was asked to take a pledge. A pledge to uphold the law. I know a little about the law. Now it’s even fair to say I “practice” it. But that phrase—”a practicioner of the law”—has always had an odd ring to my ear. Like a practicioner of magic, an instructor in illusions, a dabbler in the dark arts. Thinking of it that way, though, maybe it’s not so odd after all. Maybe it’s perfectly appropriate. Maybe all I do is dabble in illusions—the illusion of the law. I’d never voice that suspicion to a single one of my peers (a key to success in this line of work, one learns early on, is playing dumb and holding your tongue at the right time). Skeet knew nothing of the law itself. But in his limited way, maybe Skeet knew the only laws worth knowing.
* * *
Last week, on Saturday morning, Janie and I met again at Skeet’s apartment to clear out all that was left over. The few clothes, the dishes, the hot plate and filthy bedding, the archival implements and the butterfly boxes. The mattress and box spring we dumped in the alley. The huge desk and swivel chair, though Janie pegged them as potential “antiques,” demanded more energy than we could summon. We left them for the owner to keep, along with an envelope containing a check for the balance of Skeet’s rent. After sweeping the floors, we locked up and left. It was 10:00 in the morning. We were finished.
On the sidewalk, I waited and talked to Janie while she finished another cigarette.
“How’s Hal?” I asked. I don’t claim to know or understand Hal very well, even though we went to high school together. But asking after him is one way I have of asking after Janie. Things were still rocky between the two of them, so I thought I’d ask.
“He’s pathetic,” Janie said casually. She exhaled and glanced at me to register my reaction. I gave none. “He says hello.”
“Say hello back,” I told her. Janie, I guess, has always held her husband up to the masculine standard that Skeet came to represent for her. Or for both of us, really. Skeet was vicious. He often frightened me. Everywhere he walked, he walked with a steely stone scowl. The arteries in his neck twitched, alive like vital organs, and the blood rushed into his cheeks when he was cooly furious, which was often. But he made us both feel safe.
Janie stopped going out with us eventually. She was dating some, and when she wasn’t dating she had girlfriends to run with. Skeet and I went everywhere together, though. High school for us was probably no different than it is for anybody else. And in the parks and parking lots where we all gravitated at night, somebody was going to get fucked up. I had Skeet to make sure it wasn’t me.
One late Friday night, in the bathroom of the White Castle downtown, where everyone went on late Friday nights, two guys from St. Xavier, primping at the mirror, mumbled something not nice about Skeet and me. I don’t know what they said, but they said something—”faggots” maybe. I wasn’t paying attention. But Skeet was. He was waiting for it. He was always waiting for it—the offhand insult, the snotty look, the middle finger, the rich-boy snort, the bigoted slur. He’d learned to expect those signs and was attuned to them in a way that I never was. In me they provoked a shrug if I noticed them at all. To Skeet they really mattered, they were everything.
I looked over at Skeet, standing at the urinal next to me. His eyes were narrowed and directed, burning holes in the tiles ahead. Then he just stopped peeing and zipped up in mid-stride, left me at the urinal, walked up to them in two decisive steps and smashed both of them full in the face so hard—one, two, that quick—that neither of them—both big boys in varsity letter jackets of some sort—had a chance to start. The sound of one of their noses breaking nauseated me.
Skeet didn’t stop. He pulled one back by the hair and threw his head into the Formica countertop, let him fall to the ground, and then kicked him. He picked up the other one, who was cowering in the corner holding his bloody face, and kneed him in the stomach. That one fell to the floor and vomited. Skeet waited for him to finish, held his head up by the hair, and threw a sidewise punch into his jaw that made it seem as if the lower-half of his face had a life of its own. When we walked out of the bathroom, every head in the restaurant was turned toward the bathroom door and Skeet cut an easy swath through them. I followed.
He did it to pretty boys at country club parties we crashed out in the county, without provocation and for fun. He did it to jocks at basketball pep rallies, in the dark, behind fieldhouses. He got into it with the black guys who strutted by our car in Central Park. He did it at dances to guys who were too drunk to dance and too drunk to know better.
The one that Skeet killed, Gordon Lang, had dated Janie twice. Only twice, but I guess that was enough for Gordon to feel he had an investment in her. Drunk and bitter, he called her a whore to my face, slurring the words grotesquely, and I suddenly hated him. We were standing in Brad Bowman’s kitchen, in a lull during one of Brad’s backyard parties. I looked around for Skeet. He brought out the best behavior in everyone who came near him, and his arrival at my side usually brought a quick apology or a retreat. The only thing that could stop him was a word from me, and often that did no good. No one else was in the kitchen, though. No one had seen or heard a thing.
After a minute of threats and posturing, Gordon walked away laughing. When Skeet returned a moment later I told him. “Who? Which one?” Skeet asked. I pointed out Gordon as he walked toward the street, and thought nothing of it, though in fact I’d just killed him. I walked away myself, to get another beer and brood on my own. The next morning Gordon Lang was found, two blocks down, in the backyard of a neighboring house, his head bruised and submerged in a two-foot-deep goldfish pond. He had “drowned.” Janie cried all the next day as though she had lost one of us, and maybe for that reason alone I never told her what Skeet had told me—that he’d done it, beat Gordon’s head against the creekstone and held him under. Janie never knew. She never knew and I never told her. I could never protect Janie the way Skeet could. But still, I have ways of my own—not telling her things being principal among them.
“You’re still coming for dinner?” she asked me, stepping off the curb and into her car. Bachelor that I am, I eat dinner at least twice a week with my sister and brother-in-law.
“What are we having?”
“What do we always have?”
In the summertime, with Hal cooking, we always have grilled something. Janie started the car, the door still hanging open.
“That’s what we’re having, then. Grilled something.”
“Bring beer?” I asked.
“Please,” she said. “And dope.”
Just after Janie left, I drove a few blocks out of the way to see the old house we had all three grown up in. It’s never been very far from the places I’ve lived—nothing’s very far apart in this city. But it was the only time since leaving it that I’ve ever been seized by a sense of nostalgia for my home, so I drove over and sat and looked at it. You could not pick it out from a picture, it still looks like every other house on that street, and it stands apart only because of its number: 332 Clay.
I have three of Skeet’s butterfly boxes in my possession now, Janie has the others, and I’ve since taken the time to look up their names in Peterson’s Field Guide to the Insects. What were at first extraordinary to my eye seem so no longer. The guidebook told me that. Most of the books I read these days do that—take the extraordinary out of everything. They were the most ordinary of butterflies, despite their exotic names, easy to catch in any suburban yard or public park. Easy to catch even along a city street. They were garden variety butterflies. Not an exceptional one among them.
* * *
“I think I know,” Janie says. She is sitting on the couch across from me, cross-legged, her third scotch cupped in her hands like something delicate, alive. Hal is asleep on the couch next to her, wheezing gently as he has been for almost an hour. A big meal and marijuana always make Hal sleepy. But it makes Janie alive, fills her with chatter. We’ve been talking for some time.
“You think you know what?” I ask.
Janie, laying a fresh cigarette in the ashtray, throws her head against the couch and stares up at the ceiling. “The butterflies,” she says. “Why Skeet had the butterflies.” She says it in an almost mystical way, and I guess it’s just stoned talk. But as she finishes speaking her whole demeanor slides rapidly into a quiet oblivion. She looks down into her glass, then up at me, and then back into her glass, and I suppose she has understood something.
“Why?” I ask, settling back into my chair.
“Well,” she says, “it’s just a guess.” She looks up at me sheepishly. “It may seem kind of kooky.”
“I’m sure it will,” I tell her. “What is it?”
“Well, do you remember the picnic, your graduation picnic?”
“Yes,” I said. Janie looks back at her feet, and lifts up her drink for a swallow. “Never mind.”
“No,” I tell her. “Go on.”
“Is it?” I say.
Janie looks at me suspiciously, a little frightened. She shakes her head, but says nothing more.
* * *
Many hours later we are sitting there still. Janie, asleep, is trundled hard against Hal’s shoulder and I have turned off all the lights. They are breathing softly, the two of them, and if they wake up I will pretend to be asleep myself, for Janie will think me crazy to not have gone home. I sit here watching them sleep because it’s good to sit here, good to be among family, to rest in the same room among loved ones and listen to them breathe in the dark. It has been so long since we shared a room together. So I will stay here and sip my drink, and think about what Janie doesn’t care to remember, about that day in the park, when Skeet killed a butterfly in the company of my friends.
The day was dwindling. Everyone was drunk. Skeet had some music he wanted to play for us, convinced it would pick everyone up. Nobody protested, though nobody wanted it. We were pretending to enjoy the quiet. And as he opened his hatchback to take out his tapes, an insect—I couldn’t see what, a bee or a wasp or a moth—began wheeling around him furiously. Skeet leapt back, clearly alarmed. That’s when I looked up and saw him. He stepped back, then forward, and reached deftly into the trunk. He pulled out a beach towel. Holding it high, he aimed at the insect, still whirling around him, and swung at it frantically, thrashing like a swordsman in a duel with the air. He pulled back for one more swing, then, appeased, let his arm drop limply to his side.
“Did you get it?” I asked, not really caring, but wanting to show some interest for Skeet’s sake.
He looked at me absently, with that familiar trance born of violence, and then leaned over into the trunk. Between his thick thumb and forefinger he withdrew a wide-brimmed orange butterfly. It was a monarch— I know that now. He held it up for our inspection. Then he began to study it a little himself. He held its wings up to the light, examined its underbelly, turned it back and forth. Or maybe I’m giving him too much credit. Maybe he didn’t study it at all. Whatever attention he gave it, though, suddenly ceased when Janie, who had been watching too, stood up and dusted the seat of her pants. “Is it dead?” she asked.
Skeet lifted it once more and looked at it. He shrugged, then let his hand, still pinching the butterfly, fall to his side.
“Did you kill it?” Margaret asked, looking up from the cutting board. She shook her head. “Oh no,” she mourned halfheartedly. “You killed it.”
Janie, a hint of humor in her voice, said, “Hey, Skeet murdered the butterfly.”
“Oh yuck,” said Barbara. “He murdered the butterfly.” “Murderer,” Stan teased.
“Murderer,” laughed Barbara, who went back to weaving her wildflowers.
“Murderer,” they all canted in chorus and I joined in, thinking it funny too until Skeet’s confused eyes hardened into discs at the sight of me and I remembered too late.
A native of Kentucky, Daniel Waterman is a writer and editor currently residing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This is his first published story.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.