As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page is a story previously published in The Sun.
The seed of a story is often a question. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the question on the mind of author Thornton Wilder, for which he invented five strangers falling to their deaths from an Andean rope bridge, was: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” After inheriting a bundle of letters from an advice columnist, many of which would be used verbatim in the novel Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West grappled not only with the nature of human suffering but with what might actually be done about it. “The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue” was born when my mother found a girl dazed and bleeding on our front lawn one misty morning. I was twelve years old, and it was the beginning for me of a philosophical exploration into the problem of evil, framed by a personal question: How was it that this girl had been found dazed and bleeding — and essentially destroyed — on that misty front lawn and not me?
For at least twenty years, as I slogged through version after version — from longhand, to electric typewriter, to floppy-disk Apple II word processor, to seven incarnations of IBM clones and all their Weinermobile printing technologies — I insisted that “Blue River Avenue” was a novel. Fortunately one day, when I was revising it for the three thousandth time, I came to a line at the end of what was then Chapter 3: “I was simply too lucky to be forgiven.” I realized this was the end because it answered my survivor’s-guilt question. Once I had my answer, I knew this was a short story, and the material fell into place with comparative ease. As always, compression improved the work.
When I submitted this story to The Sun, it was called something like “One Hundred Theories of Evil,” and it contained a long list of the more prominent theories I’d studied: natural, moral, supernatural. The Sun team, an editing-happy bunch if there ever was one — picture a wide-eyed, maniacal Joan Crawford wielding an axe — told me to lose the evil catalog, necessitating a title change. To my amazement the last chunk of rhapsodic chaff fell away, and I was left with a complete, compact story.
Immediately after publication I got little if any feedback from anyone except my father, who accused me of “purple prose.” So I was surprised when it was included in Best American Short Stories, and even more surprised when a major publisher offered me a multibook contract. (I was not surprised when the whole business fell apart a year later because I could not get along with my editor. If you enjoy that sort of agony, see my essay “Blessed Meadows for Minor Poets” in the October 2006 issue of The Sun.)
It has occurred to me that the neighborhood in “Blue River Avenue” and the people in it were largely products of a war economy. San Diego was, and still is, one of the largest naval bases in the world, and many of my neighbors were employed by the armed services or in factories making munitions and the like. In the 1960s they casually watched their handiwork unleashed upon the innocent on television nightly. They were unavoidably sick people, and their children were sicker. I was sick, too, and yearned to get away — to live on orderly pages instead of quietly vicious streets, which I suppose I do to this day.
The legacy of this story is undistinguished. In an online piece entitled “The Best Short Stories You May Never Have Read,” Victoria Leigh Miller says: “The coming-of-age story is difficult to read in parts, but so well written that it should have made Poe Ballantine a star.”
For the record, I’m glad it didn’t.
— Poe Ballantine
Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are Born; Every Morn and Every Night, Some are born to Sweet Delight; Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night.
— William Blake
Our first house, in the autumn of 1963, was a small, mustard-colored tract home in the older working-class suburbs of northeast San Diego. Before that we’d rented. My father had been a mailman, but now he was a schoolteacher. There was nothing on the other side of our street but a mountain and a few cows. Around the corner was a Jack in the Box, where you could talk to the clown and get a hamburger for fifteen cents. They got rid of the clown eventually. For a while you could get deep-fried jumbo shrimp in tissue paper with fries; fried chicken, too, almond brown with miles of crust. It was years before I figured out the secret sauce on the hamburgers was Thousand Island dressing. Behind the Jack in the Box was a Thriftimart with a colossal red neon T that burned in the sky twenty-four hours a day. It was like a crucifix, a giant symbol of grocery-store truth flaming against the mountain. People who came to visit my parents would be guided by the giant red neon T. About ten years later, Safeway bought the store and took down the T, but the Jack in the Box is still there. The cows are all gone: we ordered them through the clown and ate them with Thousand Island dressing.
Our house had yellow cupboard doors and a leaky fireplace and thin brown carpet. The living room was all windows with a sliding glass door at the back, like a giant glass bakery case with people instead of pastries inside. We had long white curtains, like bridal veils, over all the windows. The yellow and pink rosebushes climbed all the way to the tops of the little triangular windows under the eaves and gobbled at the sunlight. There were three lemon trees and the spirit of a long-dead dog and the grave of a pet chicken out back. There was a hedge that was a pain in the ass to clip. The neighbors had a kumquat tree that grew over our fence, and we would pick the fruit. The seeds were shiny, smooth, and brown as walnut, and fit perfectly in your nostrils. You could put one up each nostril and squeeze them out in front of people and tell them your brains were falling out.
My parents were Adlai Stevenson Democrats, which meant they felt sorry for people who were less fortunate than we were. It meant that they read Time magazine. It meant that they admired John Steinbeck. It meant that they watched The Dick Van Dyke Show. It meant that we had roast beef with baked potatoes every Sunday evening at six.
In the mornings we had eggs sunny or pancakes, French toast or cornmeal mush, waffles or cold cereal, cream of wheat or oatmeal. Sometimes we had bacon or sausage. We always had toast and orange juice. My parents drank coffee. We used whole milk, butter, mayonnaise, white flour, and eggs. Sometimes we poured real cream on strawberries, and my mom put it in her coffee. My father always drank his coffee black. He smoked Pall Mall Reds for thirty years and coughed like gurgling red death in the morning. My mother was a housewife who later became a court reporter. My sister was four years younger than me and didn’t like mushrooms or green vegetables or oatmeal or anything that appeared to have raisins in it. She gripped her spoon in her fist and boycotted liver and anything else that looked strange — especially strange meat and casseroles that might have raisins sneaked into them. Mom ladled up the hot cereal and fried the bacon, standing in the holy, twisting bars of sun and steam. My father held the paper up before his face. The sunlight came down through the triangular windows, soaked through the curtains, spread across the table. My father lit a Pall Mall Red. The smoke twirled in slow blue columns through the air. He rattled the paper. The news was important. I remember headlines: “Earth Turns In Flames Of Eternal Desire.” The sun turned the paper yellow before my eyes.
I had to stand around the neighborhood for a while and look stupid before anyone would be my friend. Roland Sambeaux was the first. We were something like instant friends, no need for introductions or background checks. Roland was skinny and dark with a little cap of oily brown hair. He had an older brother named Langston and a younger stepbrother and three younger stepsisters. His eyes were like crystal balls filled with olive oil, and his face was lean and wrinkled in a fine, cracked way, like brown eggshell. Sometimes he had a black eye, once a broken arm, another time a tooth knocked out. He would say that he had fallen off the roof, or stepped in a bucket, or slipped in the bathtub, or tripped into the dining-room table. On the odd days he went to school, we walked together, and he stayed at my left shoulder, like the moon at night. When he came over to my house, we played mumblety-peg or heaved guava berries or played Chinese checkers. We drank lemonade or root beer, and ate kumquats and stuffed the seeds up our noses. On Saturday afternoons, we watched horror movies on Science Fiction Theatre. Once, I accidentally hit Roland with a baseball bat and gave him a concussion and two black eyes. He was in bed for three days. I brought him over a Whee-Lo and a get-well card. His eyes were a pale green, and when they looked at you, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
My mother didn’t like my going over to the Sambeauxs’. There was something mysterious and menacing about that house: a bloodcurdling scream, a silhouette of a knife in the window, a wolf on its hind legs with a leather tail scuffling along behind the juniper trees. Out front were statues of undressed women holding up grapes or baskets and showing their armpits. A cactus garden grew against the living-room window: prickly pear, barrel, agave. Handmade birdhouses swung from the branches of a big yellow poplar. Mr. Sambeaux was an upholsterer. You caught only rare glimpses of him — drinking from a tumbler, or getting into his car to head down to the liquor store, or coming out of the bathroom, his pudgy, scarred, Babe Ruth face shining as red as the Thriftimart T. The sight of him invariably induced immediate, inexplicable terror. He spent most of his days in the dimness of his leather-and-machine-oil-smelling garage, amid the stacked slabs of moldering foam rubber and great, rolled-up bolts of fabric and spools of vinyl and leather. At the back of the garage crouched an industrial sewing machine with a chrome ring the size of a steering wheel; the long, thick needle thumped and slugged like a jackhammer. Often, you could not see Mr. Sambeaux running it; there was only the sound of the heavy needle thumping in the darkness.
Inside the Sambeaux house the walls were upholstered like car seats, red plush with brass studs. Coal red lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a big, gold, ceramic Buddha sat in a lotus on the hearth. Potted Venus flytraps thrived in the cool green shade of the enclosed patio. If Roland caught a fly he might drop it in for you with a pair of tweezers, so you could watch the hairy, gooey pod fold around it, like a slow and obscene birth sequence in reverse. In the backyard, below shelves of waterfall granite, was a mossy pool with plump, tattered, red-mottled goldfish flicking along its bottom. Against the fence next to the house were stacked crates of empty wine and whiskey bottles; we set them in cardboard-box shooting galleries and blasted them to pieces with BB guns. Roland’s brother Langston, who at twelve was already going bald and sprouting blackheads in the grease on his high forehead, shot the bottles with a vengeance, shot them with glee. Langston would rough me up, get me in wrestling holds, pin my arm against my back, make me say uncle. It got to where I would say uncle before he even touched me. I came to think of him as Uncle Langston. Roland and Langston both had kind of tricky, troubled, hair-trigger tempers.
Stories about the Sambeaux house circulated for miles. Kids from blocks away would come to stare at it as if it were a house on fire or a house that had burned down or the house of Red Riding Hood’s granny with the wolf still inside — the handmade birdhouses swaying in the yellow poplar tree, the naked women holding up their baskets, the sound of a sewing needle pounding up and down.
The Carrs lived next door to us in a falling-down purple house. There were five kids in that house. Queenie Carr, the youngest, was a dumpling runt who would change into a glittering sex princess in high school. Her brother Whitey was a year older than me and used to beat me up just about every Sunday. Like me, he suffered from asthma, and he would often come over a couple of hours after he beat me up to borrow my prescriptions. He was a nine-year-old Lucky Strike smoker. His father was a giant with leukemia, and his mother had died when he was six. In a few years his oldest brother would go to Vietnam and lose his mind. Whitey had long, straggly white hair and a bluish tint to his lips and eyelids, and hard little fists. He hooked his arms when he fought, as if hugging a telephone pole, his eyes glinting sadistically as he laid the hard little punches in.
Out behind our drab pink elementary school was a series of neglected arroyos and small canyons and brushy vacant lots where people would dump their junk: tires and mattresses and refrigerators and old cars. We’d wander down into these sunken otherworlds, these Roman ruins of junk, and look around, sit behind the wheels of rusted cars, lie on mattresses and watch the clouds sail over, catch scorpions and put them in jars. Whitey Carr would talk dirty and smoke cigarettes with Snooks Miller. Snooks always carried around a tube of Crest to cover her breath; she’d smear the blue-green paste on her tongue. We would practice talking like adults (“God damn it, I forgot my cigarettes”), holding adult subjects up like mysterious glass balls for consideration. Snooks had a brother my age named Fubsy, a fat kid who was always practicing his pseudojudo on me. The only reason I went down to their house at all was because, though Snooks acted like a boy, she liked me in a way I didn’t understand. She often told me she was horny, which I thought meant she needed skin lotion. (She did, especially on her legs.) Snooks’s father drove the ferryboat to Coronado and didn’t live at home anymore. Her mother was a barmaid. They had a clock in their house that said, “No Drinking Till After Five,” and all the numbers on the clock were fives.
Every time we went to the End Store, Roland or Langston had to steal something. We called it the End Store because it was the last in a row of shops. The man who ran it was from another country and spoke very little English. Where he came from, children probably did not steal the way they did here in America. America is all about freedom; we have an idea in America that things should be as free as possible. This was Roland and Langston’s idea, too. They would walk into the End Store, load up, and come out looking like lumpy scarecrows, their sleeves and socks and underwear jammed with PayDays and Abba-Zabas and Neccos and Red Hots. Roland would fill the saddlebag on the back of his bicycle, stuff it until he could barely get the flap over. Then we would go back to their house and sit in their room and gorge. In a trunk under the bed they kept nudist magazines and old Playboys that their father had given them. Uncle Langston would light a cigarette and blow the smoke in yellow streams out the louvered windows. Once, when Mr. and Mrs. Sambeaux were gone, we put away the magazines and played Twister with Roland and Langston’s three sisters in the living room. The sisters all had skinny legs and big, yearning eyes, like stained-glass windows in French cathedrals. Bizzy was the prettiest and, at seven, the eldest of the three. Langston asked me if I “wanted” Bizzy. He had the most curious look on his face. The question made no sense to me. Everyone laughed when I blushed and said no. I went home, jaded and jumpy from sugar and nudity and crime. I ate poorly, thinking of bushy-looking adults playing volleyball or shuffleboard in the nude. My mother cut sharp glances at me. She had the kind of vision that went right through you and saw into your future. She saw me taking LSD, or driving drunk off a cliff, or marrying a Filipina go-go dancer with a long scar across her abdomen. She saw weeds coming up in the garden of my innocence, and wormy, wild apples waving in the wind.
The Millers had a pinup calendar in their garage — you peeled up the cellophane and the girl’s bathing suit came with it. Fubsy claimed to know all about sex firsthand: he had been with the babysitter, who was fifteen. I didn’t believe him. He said he’d tasted mother’s milk. So had I, I told him, but I’d forgotten what it was like. Snooks rubbed up against me and talked in the language she heard through the walls after her mother came home from the bar. Once, I came over to spend the night and watch Lost in Space and giggle in Fubsy’s bunk bed. The barmaid mother was rarely home. Snooks kept up her edgy patter and periodically went out on the patio for a smoke.
Whether I was at the Sambeauxs’ or the Millers’ or the Carrs’, or just out in the street with my little buddies, it was always the same. They were like hothouse tomatoes pushing hard for what they thought was the light. We would hide in a bush, or cluster in the treehouse, or lean back among the interstices of the towering, ragged, catwalk hedge, and the topic would invariably arise, spelled out in red letters above our heads: S-E-X. And if Langston or Roland was there, someone might say, Go get your sisters. I kept my ears up, listened sharply, but at the same time I kept a hand on the door handle, looking back at the receding point of innocence. If you knew too much, you ended up a drooling, bug-eyed hermit living in a cave with people’s fermenting decapitated heads all around. My mother’s voice rang out across the neighborhood, the diamond-mother vibration of salvation, calling me in earlier than anyone else. I was scrubbed and in bed and staring at the ceiling with the burble of the Dodger game on the living-room radio before the red letters disappeared.
One day, my mother told me I couldn’t go to the Sambeaux house anymore. She thought Mr. Sambeaux was a bad man. I didn’t think he could be all bad: he laughed and told us jokes; he had a salty, bowlegged fraternity about him; he gave his children spending money and let them stay up as late as they wanted; he never made them go to the dentist or the doctor or school; he gave them booze now and then, and handed down his nudist magazines; whenever he went down to Mexico, where the liquor was cheap, he brought back firecrackers — black cats and ladyfingers, quarter sticks and cherry bombs, triangles and M-80s. Anybody who did all that couldn’t be entirely bad. My mother, however, thought it best that I not associate with the Sambeauxs. She had a way of announcing things with her jaw cocked slightly, which meant there would be no discussion about it. I didn’t doubt my mother’s wisdom, but she was beginning to make my life difficult. Already I was not allowed to watch Rat Patrol, could have only one soft drink a day, and had to go to bed every night at 8:30 sharp. Play with the Rose children, she said. Play with the Bendonellis; the Bendonellis are very nice. I did my best to stay simultaneously together with and away from the Sambeauxs. I still walked to and from school with Roland when he went, which was about every other day. Whenever he said, Whyncha come on over to my house? I would say I had homework to do, a book to read. He’d look at me with disbelief and disdain. I couldn’t tell him the truth: that my mother controlled my life.
At Christmastime 1966, the Ashmonts, a navy family from Illinois, moved in next door to the Millers. The Ashmonts looked like Illinois people to me: all big teeth and dimples. Homer Ashmont, the oldest child, drifted down to the Sambeaux house on his second or third day in the neighborhood. It was the natural course to take when you were new on the block, like a sailor strolling down to the red-light district, or a tourist looking for the Museum of Modern Man. The Sambeaux house glowed with the kind of desperate energy children give off when slowly broiling in a vodka base with frequent tenderizing chops to the jowls. Homer wore his red ball cap cockeyed. He was tall and careless and let his long arms swing as he walked up the street. He had a big chest and enormous lungs, and could swim or run forever. He was a baseball player — a pitcher, to be exact. He could throw a curve that raped the air with its seams and whistled as it sank for a strike into the dusty catcher’s mitt behind you. His hair was short and fair, and he had the polite and unassuming stride of a farm boy. From a distance, the Sambeaux house must have appeared to him to be the place to make friends. There were children everywhere: peeping from windows, lounging against cars, hanging lemur-like from trees, bare-legged, barefoot, the spirit of Peter Pan and Tobacco Road. There were paper clouds above the Sambeaux roof, pink pastel streaks painted across the sky, devils on the rooftop, monkeys on wires. A big cardboard vulture squealed over. Homer knocked on the door. Roland and Langston ushered him in.
After that, Homer was at the Sambeaux house every day, doing the things I had once done. He was more popular than any other kid I had ever seen. He possessed that rare combination of congeniality and the ability to beat you up. He traveled with the Sambeauxs, and I knew everything that was happening — the shoplifting, the porno, the BB guns, the firecrackers, the cigarettes. Whitey was there, too, along with half the other kids on the block, even the Roses and the Bendonellis. The Sambeauxs invited me over, too, but I pretended I had better things to do, like sitting by myself on the curb whittling a dumb piece of wood with the cold clouds blowing overhead. It was my mother’s fault. She wanted me to be a sissy. Well, that was all right with me. I would be a sissy and have no friends. It would serve her right. I would grow up to be the boy of my mother’s dreams.
In the wintertime in San Diego it rains, and when you are a deprived and oppressed child it rains every day. You stay inside with the swollen, bleating television at your back, the eye of your prison-warden mom permanently stitched to your right shoulder, the patches of fog on the windows that you can draw a face into with your fingertip, the smell of mushroom soup and cinnamon toast and frying onions and hamburger meat. The rain streams silver off the eaves like strips of Christmas tinsel. You have about six thousand games stacked up in the closet, but what good are any of them with only one player? All the children across the street are having the child-orgy time of their lives. Your father pulls into the driveway, wipers going, a dark car with black windows. He gets out with his briefcase, stoops his way around the slatted fence and in the door, shedding sparkling drops. He is tired, he says, and gets himself a drink. You don’t wonder about what he’s been doing all day; he just goes round and round from home to work like a hand on the round clock face of the gray days. You have the dreariest family on earth: a father who is always tired; a sister who bawls if you touch her arm; a mother with nothing better to do than manage every waking moment of your life. You are all prisoners in a rainy glass case called home.
One winter morning my mother went out to get the paper and found Bizzy Sambeaux sitting dazed in the mist on our front lawn. We were having bacon and eggs sunny with toasted, buttered English muffins and orange juice. My mother hurried back in with a wild look and took my father’s arm. No one would tell me anything, except to go to my room. My father called the police. My mother went back outside. I watched from the window as two patrol cars glided in from either direction. The neighbors had gathered in their driveways. Bizzy had birdlike legs with baseball knees. She hugged them to her, shivering in her thin green nightgown. There was a brown, egg-shaped blotch, like dried blood, on the front of the gown. Her big green eyes did not blink. I watched her get into one of the cars. The neighbors jabbered and nodded their heads. The patrol car parted gently from the curb and took her away.
The mist did not lift for a long time. Some days it was so thick you couldn’t see the hands on your watch. It was clammy and smelled of mushrooms and bandages and styrofoam cups. It spun and drifted with a lime tint on its edges, and did not stop at your eyes but trickled and pooled in creepy lagoons all the way down to the bottom of your brain. I walked to school by myself in the chilly green mushroom mist with the bare trees like bleached arms and fingers groping for the sky. The mist made me tired and slow. It squashed and muffled time and snickered dankly, like witch voices urging me to dash out in front of a car.
Then one day, Homer Ashmont was there walking next to me. He was about six inches taller than I was, wore his cockeyed red ball cap with the white script L on the front, and carried a lunch bag in his hand: salami sandwiches — I could smell the peppercorns through the mist. He put out his hand. “I’m Homer,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand. “I know.”
“How come you walk to school by yourself all the time?”
“I don’t know.”
“My mom said you weren’t allowed to go over to the Sambeaux house.”
“I can’t go over there anymore either. Did you hear about what happened?”
“I never heard of nothing like that before. Hey, do you like beef stroganoff?”
“We’re having it tonight. Do you want to come over to my house for dinner?”
A big shaft of sunlight broke through the cloud canopy and fell across the housetops.
That night, at Homer’s house, we had beef stroganoff that was pink. That was his mother’s specialty: pink stroganoff. She made it with sour cream and real mushrooms, not canned, and red wine, not white — that was what made it pink. Mr. Ashmont was a taller version of Homer, a big, cool hound dog with deep creases in his cheeks. He shoveled up the stroganoff and made jokes no one understood. He was a lieutenant commander in the navy, and went from here to there in a battleship. Homer’s mom was the tallest one: all teeth and long, stringy brown arms. The daughters looked like Homer, too, girlish Homers. The whole family had a rich, square-jawed, dimply, big-toothed vitality. They were swimmers and ballplayers, horseback riders and golfers. They put their napkins in their laps. They treated me as if I were twenty-six years old. They took a keen, warm interest in the dullest details of my life. They were Catholics. (I had never known any Catholics before.) I scooped up a little pink stroganoff and took a taste off the tip of my spoon, expecting raspberry, but it was beef, creamy beef with wine and melted onions. I had to restrain myself from eating too fast.
The Ashmonts were the only people on the block who owned a color TV. Other than that, their house was just like my house — a clean house with clean air in it, not hot, hairy, vegetable-soup-smelling air, like at the Carrs’ or the Sambeauxs’. The Ashmonts’ air smelled like aftershave from the 1940s. These are Illinois people, I kept telling myself. In my mind, Illinois was another country: cornstalks rustling in the breeze; old men sitting on a bench in front of the post office; kids racing their Flexies down the hill in the weightless thickness of twilight; friendly drunks with bottles of red wine who give you a dollar; a guy with a handlebar mustache polishing the chrome spigots at the soda fountain. There was a sort of unaccountable, cottony religion of humanity about them. This is how people are supposed to be! I thought. My head began to spin with the subtle intoxication of wholesomeness. It was a shock to my system, like Shangri-La to the downed American war pilot.
We had ice cream with hot-fudge sauce for dessert, and after dinner Homer took me down to his room and we played two games of Stratego and one of Battleship. We didn’t speak once about adult temptations, not a word about unspeakable desire. When Homer swore, he said shoot, or nuts. Our only talk about growing up was about the Major Leagues. He would pitch for a good club. They would call him the Cobra, on account of the fantastic way his curveball broke.
I did not know, when I walked out of my mustard-colored house now, whether it was I or the world that had changed. Somewhere, a war was on that I was only dimly aware of. In our town, a trial was on that I was only dimly aware of, even though my mother was a principal witness, and the children across the street — my friends — were the unwilling plaintiffs. Sometime in that year of 1967, the first kiddie-consumptive, recreational drugs began to appear on our street. They came with the war. They were anesthesia for the war. They were packed like candy; they even looked like candy, and had edible, colorful names: greenies and blue devils and yellow sunshine. They were in the songs on the radio, and in the magic feeling of being young and blossoming in a changing world. Many of the children did not resist their siren call, the Carrs and the Sambeauxs especially. Homer was not in the least tempted. He knew what “devils” were. The devil comes around just to mess you up; he doesn’t want you to pitch in the Major Leagues. I envied the logic and cleanliness of his mind. I tried to think of myself as an Illinois farm boy with the Virgin Mary watching over me.
When I saw them on the street, my old pals were quivering like little electric beasts. They stood out under the threatening sky like lightning rods for adulthood. Queenie Carr, ten years old, already had green eyelids and a slinky walk and a bleary lipstick grin and tacky, thrilling, hussy perfume and a rack of whites for a dollar in her purse. She would sidle up to me and dabble her fingers along my ribs. Meet me later, big boy, she’d say; ten o’clock, out by the gas meter. They gathered in little crowds on the sidewalk like old men around trash fires, their movements jagged or slow, shattered or dreamy, wrong-eyed, puppet-wired, bamboozled. They watched me with bitter cigarette scowls as I walked down to Homer’s house. He was going to be a ballplayer, and to be a ballplayer you had to live clean. Sex might take some of the bite off your curveball, and you certainly didn’t eat speed or drink malt liquor. He and I got some money from our parents and went to the grocery store and bought packages of Carl Buddig smoked meats. We came back and Homer built a fire in the fireplace. There was a movie on that night: Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. We got out the plates, pickles, cocktail peanuts, cream soda. The sparks from the chimney whirled up into stars.
The Sambeaux trial dragged on. At first, the children tried to protect their father. Opinions varied as to the degree of his guilt and what should be done with him afterward. My mother came home every day from the trial with reports, and rendered careful, Victorian scenes. My playmates painted cruder portraits. Neighbors volunteered scraps and morsels. Rumors and suspicions abounded. I reconstructed the entire chilling tale in my head.
Every weekend, Homer and I went to the matinee at the Helix Theater. Then we rode our bicycles four miles to the great blue-green vat of urine and chlorine called La Mesa Public Pool. Our moms drove us to the beach, and we learned how to surf on ten-foot boards. We tried to stay off the street as much as possible. The street was the enemy.
Mr. Sambeaux was sent away to a work camp for two years to sharpen up his ping-pong and metallurgy skills. (He was originally sentenced to a mental facility, but since this man who covered up things for a living would never admit to any wrongdoing, they were unable to treat him.) My mother, who had a new interest in the law, began to attend court-reporting school. The Sambeaux house was strangely quiet now. Bizzy went away for a while. Langston left, too, to live with an uncle in Florida. The remaining Sambeaux children had crumpled shoulders and bewildered, ruined expressions and smoldering eyes, like snuffed-out candles.
When eighth grade started, Homer and I tried to get into the same classes. We walked to school together every day, and Roland came with us once or twice a week, whenever he got organized enough to go. He followed along glumly, walking most of the way in the gutter, head down, kicking scraps. He carried a pack of cigarettes to school in his jacket — tricked up in his sleeve, slipped into the lining somehow — and he’d light one on the way, smoking it sullenly, cupping it in his palm. Homer and I were antismoking; it was the same as being antideath. Roland was tough, though. He didn’t care if he died. He had once considered Homer his best friend.
The next fall, when Roland found out he’d flunked eighth grade, he was so shocked he couldn’t speak. He hadn’t imagined that he could flunk. You went to school and they passed you along. It happened to everyone. All you had to do was go through the motions. It was the first day of ninth grade. We’d gone in to get our schedules, and they’d told Roland he’d have to do eighth grade over again. Now we stood outside under the clouds, and he looked at us and blinked in disbelief. Then his face shrank into a wrinkle, his big green eyes disappeared, and he began to bawl. He wept freely without covering his face, the water pouring down his cheeks. Homer and I patted his shoulder and said that it was probably some kind of mistake. But we walked home from ninth grade by ourselves that afternoon. And the next morning it was the same, and I hardly ever saw Roland after that. He watched me from the shadows, a slow, bitter shadow himself. I had taken his luck and his best friend — I might as well have taken his life.
Much later, Roland and I got to be something like friends again, though it was never the same. There would always be that wound of resentment, those long months of insurmountable shame. And even when he was married and I was his best man and he was happy for a few days and thanked me for being someone who had never turned on him, it didn’t change. I was simply too lucky to be forgiven.
“The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue,” by Poe Ballantine, first appeared in the August 1997 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 1997 by Poe Ballantine. Reprinted by permission of the author.