The best way to survive a heart attack? Let somebody else have it. That might seem a little heartless—they talk about childhood innocence and all that—but I was kind of a mean little bastard. Still, I lost most of my fights or I might have grown up to blast away a dozen people in a Walmart instead of being the superannuated peacenik that Life, with its tricky fingers, turned me into.
I didn’t actually do bad things. I followed the rules, I got all A’s, my teachers liked me, my mom adored me, I always got the biggest piece of pie. But we didn’t have money, so I didn’t much care for the stuff they taught in Sunday School about Love Thy Neighbor. I liked it better when the Disciples were giving out free loaves and fishes.
When I was about to go into third grade, my mom remarried and we moved to South Dakota. My new step-dad said Rapid City was in South Dakota, where they had cowboys and Indians. That was going to be neat. We had lived in a little two-room shack with a coal stove and lots of rats. My mom opened the oven once and a rat was sitting in the skillet. Another time, its fellow rat ran across the bed and I thought it was our dog Ragsie, but then I remembered that Ragsie was dead.
But now this marriage meant that my mom wasn’t so worried about money. My step-dad was okay, he bought me ice cream and he was in the Air Force and maybe he flew the planes with atomic bombs. That’d be better than Kenny’s dad. Kenny always bragged about his dad being in jail.
But actually he didn’t fly planes, and he wasn’t really in the Air Force, he just worked on the Air Force base, and not with planes but in the payroll department. And after they married he didn’t buy me any more ice cream. His name was Lester. He looked like a ferret or some pointy thing. I didn’t like the guy.
And after a few months it seemed like my mom didn’t either. Anyway they weren’t sleeping together. I didn’t quite get what that was all about, what sleeping together was, but I knew you were supposed to do it. Once he got mad at me at dinner when I was chasing a couple of peas around the plate with my fork, and they had a big fight. Nobody criticized my mommy’s little boy.
So it’s a Sunday morning in January, heavy snow, kerosene heater going. And here’s this little boy with big ears and a blond crew cut, in a Cub Scout shirt with blue jeans. Mommy said they’d buy the Cub Scout pants when they could afford to, but most kids in the pack didn’t have the pants to the uniform, and anyway they were blue like my jeans. She’s in the kitchen doing the breakfast dishes. I ought to help her, but if I don’t finish my battleship I can’t kill the Communists.
The battleship is America’s last hope. I’ve nailed some 2 x 4 scraps together, now I’m gluing on sticks for guns, and then I’ll paint it gray. It doesn’t look much like a battleship, but it’ll kill Communists. In the comic books they’re easy to kill because they don’t care if they die. Human life is cheap, they say.
I think about the Communists a lot. They stole the atomic bomb, and once when me and my mom lived in Omaha, I looked out west at sunset and the sky was all cloudy red and I thought they’d dropped it, because they didn’t believe in Jesus. They wanted to rule the world, and it looked like they couldn’t be stopped. Korea first, then South Dakota.
So you’re on the floor in the living room. The daybed is pulled out. Your step-dad’s been shoveling snow and now he’s taking a nap. The guy’s like a weasel. He’ll wake up and look at the battleship and snicker. You listen to him breathe. He’s breathing hard. Now he’s snoring. It’s a funny snore, in the throat. He’s kind of growling. Then he says something that sounds like “Huh?”
You think he’s talking to you. He says it louder: “Huh!” Then you understand. You’re hearing something funny.
You get up, you look at him. He’s red-faced, making loud heaving snores like battleship guns almost. You think of the battleship sailing out and millions of Communists swarming like ants, like they do in the comic books, and the big guns roar and they die. If more people died, we’d have more money.
Maybe he’s dying. When people die, sometimes they leave you money and then you could have ice cream and your Cub Scout pants and your mom wouldn’t worry so much, and she could laugh the way she used to do when something struck her funny and she’d laugh and laugh like she’d never stop laughing.
You go to the kitchen to tell Mommy. “Mommy, he sounds kinda funny.” You never know what to call him. You can’t call him Daddy, and you can’t call him Lester. You try not ever to call him anything.
She comes in the living room and looks at the guy. She says, “Omigod!” She asks, “When did he start?” You don’t know, you were working on the battleship. Now he sounds really silly. Maybe he’s joking. Mommy says, “Go get the neighbors! Now!” She runs to the phone, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. “Put on your galoshes!”
I put on my galoshes. I go out the front door. To start asking for help.
It’s deep drifts. We had a story in class like this, about the pioneers, they had to go through the blizzard for help and they almost froze to death. I go next door to the Mayshacks.
Deep drifts. They never shovel their walks. I forgot my gloves. Wind is really sharp. How long does it take to freeze to death? Knock on the back door. Nobody home. They always go to church.
Down to Petersons. I knock and then stand at the door, trying to think what to say if Mrs. Peterson is mad. They don’t give trick or treat at Halloween. Maybe they’re asleep and I’d wake them up. I’d better go before they answer the door.
I go across to Agnews. Buddie Agnew’s my friend, or maybe he’s not. I was helping him chop wood, cause they have a whole bunch of kids and their stove burns wood, so he has to chop wood from old railroad ties they get somewhere. We got in a fight because I said wood comes from trees and he said it comes from railroad ties. I hit him real hard. He’s bigger than me, but he cried.
I go back home, I come in, Mommy says, “Did you get somebody?” I say no. She says, “Well try!” So I have to go out again. I don’t look at my step-dad.
I go out into the snow. It’s cold, but the wind has settled. I go down the street to the big yellow house. Mr. and Mrs. Graybell. Mr. Graybell is old, but he always shovels his sidewalk. I go up the steps and knock on the door.
I try to think of words to say why my mom needs help. “My step-dad is dead.” “My mom said to ask.” “Hello, I’m Joey.” I don’t know what she wants the neighbors to do. The door opens. It’s Mrs. Graybell.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
I run home. I hope Mrs. Graybell will follow me. In the driveway I see an ambulance with flashing lights. I go up the steps to the porch. Through the window I see people in the living room. They’re busy. I can’t see my step-dad. Maybe he’s dead. I don’t know if I should go in. If I go in and somebody sees me they’ll say, “What are you doing here?” Maybe you’re not allowed to see a person die until you’ve been in the Army. But if I stay outside how will I get my battleship?
No, I think, I can go in, it’s my house. But I stay on the step. I’ve forgotten my gloves, and it’s really cold. Maybe if I knock my mom will come out. But maybe she’s busy. Maybe my step-dad isn’t dead and she has to wait till he is.
When someone dies you’re supposed to feel sad, so I try to feel sad, but all I feel is hoping he’ll die and then things will be different. We’ll have more money and Mommy will laugh. And other people could die, the Mayshacks and Buddie Agnew and the Petersons, people in Rapid City and Omaha, the Communists, everybody except my mom.
Then it would be a whole different world.
So the first time I ever told this story to someone, it was at a party, we were talking about guilt or some such thing. This woman said, “Well, you didn’t kill anybody, after all.” No, I’ve always been pretty shy about things like that. And I’ve told people, sometimes, that I saw my stepfather die, but that’s not strictly true: I saw him start to die. Then I went around the neighborhood to get help, and didn’t, then stood out on the front step until I got too cold. And then I guess I must have gone indoors and found my mother. And grew up, to some degree. Until I got much older, I never knew what to do or what to feel. Neither did Lester, I guess.
Maybe that’s what dying is like. You’re there on the daybed but it isn’t you. The person’s not even related to you, although there’s some connection you can’t quite pin down. You’re somebody else, you’re a little kid who’s kinda confused. You go out to get help, but you’re scared to knock. You can’t really say what you need. You tromp around in the drifts. Then you go back home and people are all busy, so you stand out on the porch, very cold, feeling ignorant and cowardly and lost.
And you wait for your mother to find you.
(Published in The Storyteller)