We’re standing in the drizzle — me and Uncle Oscar and Daddy and the chaplain and two soldiers who look like they’ve marched right out of the toy box. I half expect their feet to be welded to plastic platforms wedged into piles of sand, the way Bradley used to set up his army men in the back yard. The chaplain, his granny glasses fogged by the rain, has finished his prayers. The soldiers fold the flag that was on top of Bradley’s coffin into a neat triangle and present it to Daddy, who tucks it inside his coat. Then, all by itself, Bradley’s coffin starts sinking into the hole — like Kreskin or Uri Geller is doing a trick — except you can hear the electric motor whirring from the other side of the coffin.
The coffin moves only a few inches before it stops. Bradley just floats there, half in the ground and half out, the rain beading up on the dark wood. The chaplain whispers to a man in a green cemetery uniform, who shrugs. The two of them bend down and peer into the hole. Maybe it’s Bradley being stubborn like always. Maybe it’s his spirit refusing to go under. Or maybe it’s just a busted motor.
Finally, the chaplain comes over, his prayer book clutched to his chest. “I’m terribly sorry, but there seems to be a mechanical problem,” he says to Daddy. “Perhaps it would be better if we ended the service here. The groundskeepers can take care of the final interment.”
Daddy has let his umbrella fall back against his shoulder where it isn’t doing much to keep him dry.
“Of course,” says Uncle Oscar, whose voice sounds just like Daddy’s. They both have the same dimple in their left cheek. He takes Daddy’s hand, and we all walk down the hill in the wet grass to the car.
Across the road there’s another funeral with a crowd of mourners. Most of the ladies are wearing big, somber hats, like we used to see in church back home in Alabama. When they were fixed up for a holiday or trying to show off, some of the ladies would come to church wearing big hats full of fruit. One of them always seemed to take a seat directly in front of us, and Daddy would whisper to me that he couldn’t see the preacher for the “jungle” on top of the woman’s head. When folks were milling around on the church steps after the service, Bradley, who was tall for just ten, would sneak up behind the women and try to snatch grapes or cherries from their hats. Sometimes, when he knocked a woman’s hat askew, she would whirl around and stare at him like she was fixing to smite Satan himself, and he would tell her, “Ma’am, there was a hornet takin’ aim on your collection there, and I swatted him away.” She’d thank him and maybe even give him a quarter for his gallantry. One time, when he managed to steal a tiny grape without getting caught, Bradley brought it over to me, polished it on the hem of my dress, and told me to eat it. So I did. I didn’t know it was plastic. With Mama gone, there was a lot I didn’t know.
In the quiet nights after Mama had died, Bradley and I would play a game in the dark before falling asleep: we’d lie in our beds in opposite corners of the room and make sounds that the other had to guess.
“What’s this?” he’d ask, and I’d listen for the sound coming from under his covers.
“That’s toes,” I’d say. “Flickin’ toes.” Then I’d try to make the sound, snapping my big toe against the second biggest.
“That’s not it.”
“Well, you’re not doing it the way I was.”
“Then you do one.”
“OK, so what’s this?” I’d put my thumb up to my mouth, tuck the nail behind my front teeth, and pull it forward, making a sharp pop.
“Teeth,” Bradley would say, “that’s teeth. And your thumbnail.” Then he’d do it from his corner of the room, only bigger and hollower than I could ever do.
One night during a rainstorm, Bradley whispered, “Caty, what’s this sound?”
I listened and heard a hollow thump. He did it three times. At first I thought it sounded like the time a baby sparrow had fallen out of its nest in the tree out front. The bird had made such a big sound for something so tiny. But this was different.
“Thumb,” I said. “You’re flickin’ your thumb on your chest.”
“On your stomach then.”
“Half right. But it’s not my thumb,” Bradley said.
I peered through the dark to the shadows on the other side of the room. Bradley had made a tent of his blankets like he was reading under there.
“Your finger then.”
“OK, I give.”
“It’s my sword.”
“My sword. It’s stiff and ready for a fight. You pull it back like a slingshot and it fires forward. Pow!” He made the sound again.
“Aw, never mind. You don’t have one.”
“Yes I do.”
“Then make the sound.”
“I don’t have mine with me,” I told him.
“A guy always has his sword with him.”
Because it was dark and the rain was closing in on me, these last words sounded like a secret he had whispered in my ear.
We came north in ’64 after Daddy lost his job at the rock quarry. Uncle Oscar told Daddy that Boeing was going great guns and needed all kinds of people, so we drove across the country that summer in the Galaxie 500. Bradley was fourteen going on fifteen. I was twelve going on a baker’s dozen, as Daddy liked to say. We didn’t take much with us, except for our clothes and an old steamer trunk full of odds and ends that Daddy roped to the top of the car. When we crossed the Tennessee River, Daddy said he was glad to leave it all behind, and maybe he was.
Bradley was a pain most of the trip. At first he was determined to count up all the Confederate-state license plates along the way. By the time we got to the Missouri River, he had given up in disgust. The highway was crawling with Yankees, he said, but we’d never be Yankees because we never actually crossed the Mason-Dixon line — we’d swung too far west. Daddy told him they didn’t care about such things out west, that all they wanted to do was lift your scalp and steal your squaw. Daddy and I laughed, but Bradley was still mad.
A tornado chased us partway across Kansas, and we hit a flood in Denver. Daddy said all we needed now was a plague of locusts and we’d have stood toe to toe with Moses and all his troubles. In Wyoming, we stayed in a motel room at Little America. Over one of the beds was a painting of a cowboy twirling a rope around himself. Over the other was a painting of an Indian on horseback galloping alongside a buffalo; he was just about to put a spear into the buffalo’s hump.
The room’s only telephone was in the bathroom, next to the toilet. I’d never seen such a thing. Before we went to bed, I went in and sat on the toilet, picked up the receiver, and dialed the only number I knew by heart, just to see if it worked. It rang twice and a woman s voice came on.
“Switchboard. What number are you dialing?”
“Oh, I was tryin’ to call Huntsville,” I said.
“That’s a toll call. You’ll have to hang up and dial a nine and then the area code. . . . Should you be making a long-distance call? How old are you, anyway, dearie?”
“I’m calling my mama.” I thought that made it sound like I was supposed to be doing it, like I had the right.
“Maybe you should get an adult to help.”
“No, that’s OK.” I hung up the phone and sat there, peaceful and private, until Bradley banged on the door, announcing that he had to pee. I sat and made him wait a while longer.
Bradley wore his genuine University of Alabama Crimson Tide football helmet most of the trip. It was about twelve sizes too big for him, and his head rattled around in it like a pea in a bucket. Daddy had gotten the helmet from a friend who knew one of the team’s trainers. It had a busted face mask, and a crack that ran a good three inches right up the middle, I guess from all the head butting the players did. Bradley wouldn’t take it off. A man at a gas station in Oregon saw Bradley and said, “Can’t imagine that’ll do you much good on the field.”
Bradley scowled at him. “This come straight from Bear Bryant himself,” Bradley lied, “and he’s the best there ever was.”
“Bear who?” the man asked, which set Bradley to cussing up a storm for the next seventy-five miles about having to put up with these stupid Yankees for the rest of our lives. Daddy let Bradley cuss, but not me.
Daddy got a job at Boeing painting aircraft hangars, and Uncle Oscar let us stay in the cottage out back of his house on Mercer Island. Bradley and I shared the only bedroom, and Daddy slept on the living-room sofa. Every once in a while in the middle of the night, we’d hear a thump in the living room, which meant Daddy had rolled off the sofa. He said he couldn’t understand it, but I think Mama must have kept him from falling out of bed before.
The house was alongside the freeway that cut across the island and went over the floating bridge to Seattle. I couldn’t imagine such a thing as a floating bridge until we drove over it one day and there it was, smack on top of Lake Washington like a long barge. I asked Daddy what kept it from sinking, but he didn’t know. Uncle Oscar, who ran a machine shop out of the garage next to the house, told me the secret was cement pontoons. “Just like water wings,” he said. “You fill enough of ‘em full of air and they’ll keep a battleship afloat.” Truth be told, I never believed that cement could float.
Bradley and I went to Wilbur Junior High, about a mile from our house. We could either walk to school along the road that curved around the woods or take a shortcut through the blackberry brambles that grew alongside the highway. People had tunneled through the thickets and made hideouts under the vines. You could always find empty beer cans and cigarette butts on the dirt patches where the grass and weeds had been worn away.
In the summertime we walked home through the brambles, checking to see if the berries were ripe for picking. When the time was right, we’d come back with coffee cans and pick as many as we could carry back home, fighting off bees the whole time. Our hands and arms would be stained purplish red by all the overripe berries that had exploded when we’d plucked them from the vines.
The Calabrisi twins’ mother made the berries into a runny jam that she poured into jars and topped with paraffin. My best friend Norma’s mother made pies with mountains of berries covered by a layer of crust; if you stuck a fork in them right after they came out of the oven, they let out a puff of steam like a volcano. Bradley and I took our berries home and had them over ice cream or with cornflakes. We ate them as fast as we could before they spoiled, then ran around the house trying to put our red lips on each other.
Our first year in Seattle, Bradley got into half a dozen fights with boys at school who made fun of the way he talked. They’d call him Johnny Reb and cottonhead and mush mouth, mostly. He’d tear up his clothes in a scuffle, then hide in the bathroom trying to sew them up.
Once, I asked him why he couldn’t just let the other boys have their say. “I don’t pick a fight when a girl calls me Miss Scarlet.”
“It’s different for boys.”
Then he got all frustrated and pricked his thumb with the needle. “Damn you. Girls don’t understand honor. If a guy tells you you’re chicken, you gotta show him you’re not. And that’s all there is to it.” I left him sitting there on the edge of the tub with his thumb in his mouth.
Sometimes when boys got in fights at school, the vice-principal, Mr. Anderson, who also coached the track team, would give them the choice of sitting in detention or settling up on the track. If they chose the track, the boys would put on their PE clothes and Mr. Anderson would flip a coin. The winner of the toss would be handed the Green Bat, a plastic baseball bat with the top cut off, and the loser would get a ten-yard head start on the track. If the boy with the Green Bat could catch the other boy, he would swat him on the rear end as many times as he could before they made one lap around the track. Only the fastest boys were willing to take their punishment on the track. Bradley was awfully fast and always figured he could outrun the other boys.
In the spring of his ninth-grade year, Bradley got into a fight with Meryl Atcheson, who ran track and had even gone to the state championships one year. They were caught flinging books at each other in the library and wrestling on the floor. I didn’t hear about the fight until after school. Norma caught me before I started to walk home, and we both ran to the track to watch. Meryl was two years ahead of me, but it was hard not to know about him. He had gotten suspended once for setting the science room on fire.
It had been drizzling all day, and the clay track was wet and shiny. Just about the whole school had turned out to watch. Norma and I clutched the wire fence like a couple of convicts. Bradley and Meryl were dressed identically in blue shorts and gold tops — school colors. Bradley stood about two inches taller than Meryl. His legs seemed so long and skinny I thought they might break. Meryl was almost bowlegged and had the hairiest legs and arms in school; he supposedly also had hair on his back — which some girls were dying to see, but not me or Norma. He kept lifting his feet to knock the clay out of his spikes. Bradley was wearing his gym shoes. I asked Norma if it was fair that one of them had spikes and the other didn’t, and she said they could do whatever they wanted.
We couldn’t see Mr. Anderson flip the coin but we knew right away who’d won because Meryl grabbed the bat and held it up like an Olympic torch. Bradley walked to his chalk line ten yards up the track. Meryl got into a runner’s crouch and Bradley leaned forward, waiting for Mr. Anderson’s whistle. At the start I could hear their shoes hitting the ground together; then the sound broke apart into Bradley’s long, soft stride and Meryl’s thudding, hungry pace. By the time they got around to the backstretch, Meryl had gained about five yards and was closing. I wanted to ask Norma what Meryl had gone to the state championships for — whether it was the hundred-yard dash or the mile — but I couldn’t speak. Meryl was gaining, but Bradley never looked back. Meryl closed to about three yards as they came around the final turn, and he started pumping the bat with each stride, measuring the distance between him and Bradley. With fifty yards to go he took a swing and missed. He swung again and it seemed to throw him off balance; he fell back a yard and then another. As Bradley crossed the finish line, Meryl threw the bat at him and missed again.
I ran onto the track where Bradley was walking bent over double and breathing hard. I grabbed him from behind and pressed my face into his back. I could hear the air streaming into his lungs.
“I got him, the son of a bitch,” Bradley wheezed. “I got him.”
When he finally straightened up, I jumped and kissed him on the cheek. He was a sight. His face was sweaty and his legs were splattered with red clay.
“You all right?” I asked.
He pushed the hair back from his eyes and smiled. “Healthy as the day I was born. This wasn’t nothin’ but a little race.” Standing there so straight and tall with his hands on his hips, for a second he looked invincible.
“Then stop bein’ so cocky,” I said, not really meaning it.
He laughed. I grabbed hold of him tight and we walked home together.
By the time Bradley got to high school, he didn’t get into fights anymore. Uncle Oscar taught him how to drive, and Bradley and his friends would go down to the lake shore, where they would throw rocks, try to catch rides on speedboats, and smoke. Sometimes Norma and I would hide behind the bushes and listen to their chatter, giggling over what boys thought was fun. They would cut each other down with names like spaz and dork and gluehead. They would get into wrestling matches that would end as soon as one of them fell to the ground. They didn’t talk about girls as much as we’d thought they did.
Bradley graduated in the summer of 1968. Daddy had wanted him to try to get into the University of Washington, but Bradley’s grades weren’t very good. And besides, Bradley said, he and his friends wanted to play “Russian roulette” for a while — that was what they called the draft lottery. I guess when you’re a boy just out of school you think the whole world bows at your feet; you don’t think you’re going to die. For Bradley, playing Russian roulette was like stealing fruit from the ladies’ hats, a challenge.
It didn’t take but a couple of weeks for them to call Bradley’s number. I believe he was surprised at first, but once the idea had sunk in he strutted around like even this was a victory. Daddy didn’t say much about it, but for weeks afterward he walked around the house bumping into furniture like a blind man.
Toward the end of that summer, while Bradley was in basic, the blackberries came ripe, and I took an old Hills Brothers can and walked into the berry brambles. It was hot and quiet — everybody else was down at the lake swimming — and the bees were fat on nectar, barely hanging in the air. I walked around looking for a bush that hadn’t been picked over. Most of the full branches were up high, so I climbed on a wooden milk crate someone had tossed away. I had picked about half a can when I heard something crashing through the bushes, the way a big, stupid dog lumbers along when it gets on a scent. It was Meryl Atcheson. He was stocky as ever and growing a mustache now that he had graduated.
“You’re Bradley Chase’s little sister, aren’t you?” he said, putting on a big grin.
“Yeah.” Standing on the box made me an inch or two taller than him.
“I hear he was stupid enough to get nailed by the draft board.”
“He’s in Georgia, in basic training,” I told him, going back to my berry picking. Then, for some reason, maybe because it’s what Bradley would have done, I said, “The way things are going, they’ll probably get you, too.”
“Nah, my number’s too high. No hunting commies in rice paddies for me.” He took a pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket, put a cigarette in his mouth, and lit it. “Here, Southern belle, have a smoke,” he said, holding out the pack.
“How old are you, anyway?”
“Old enough to know better, I suppose?”
I didn’t say a word.
“Sweet sixteen. So, you got a boyfriend? You been kissed? Come on, Southern belle, you can tell me.”
I had my back to him now, but I could feel him coming closer. And then I could smell him. Maybe I could have run. Maybe.
He grabbed me around the waist and the coffee can went flying. With his free hand he tried to get hold of my wrist, but he stumbled backward and we both fell to the ground. I landed on my back next to the coffee can. The berries had spilled out and were oozing on the ground. Meryl rolled over and got to his knees.
“Come on, Southern belle, don’t you want to know about nature? You need to know how to kiss if you want to get a boyfriend.”
“You pig!” I yelled, and I picked up the coffee can and heaved it at his ugly face. It caught him above the left eye. Meryl yelped, jumped up, and danced around, yelling, “Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn!” He took his hand away from his forehead to check for blood. The rim of the can had made a clean gash in the shape of a perfect crescent moon. On his hand was an identical crescent of blood. When he saw it, he yelped again and tore off into the brush.
I lit out of there in the other direction and ran toward home, following the path by instinct, crashing through the brambles. After a bit I stopped to catch my breath, then sat down in the path and began to cry. I cried because I was scared and didn’t understand, and because, for a crazy second, I thought maybe I should have kissed him.
“What happened to you?” Daddy asked later when he saw the scratches on my arms.
I considered telling him the truth, but what could he do? He was just my daddy.
“I got chased by a swarm of bees,” I told him.
“They didn’t get you, did they?”
Then he looked at the floor. “Caitlin, Bradley’s on his way over to Vietnam. He called just after you left. He’s on the plane right now.”
I felt squeezed inside like an old sponge mop, like someone was trying to wring tears from my body.
“He’ll be all right,” Daddy said. “He will.”
“Sure he will,” I said.
Suddenly I saw Bradley everywhere: Bradley sitting at the kitchen table drinking milk from his cereal bowl. Bradley slung over the couch watching the afternoon matinee on television. Bradley standing at the bathroom mirror combing his hair for the sixth time in an hour. I couldn’t stay in the house another second.
I ran over to Norma’s and told her what had happened, about Bradley and Meryl both. She brought me a pop and some pretzels, and we sat on her bed listening to “Green-eyed Lady” on the radio. Then we held hands and walked down to the lake. For a long time we watched the cars crossing the floating bridge in the distance. In the twilight the bridge looked like it was just below the water, and the cars’ headlights danced across the surface. I asked Norma if she knew how heaven worked. She laughed and said she’d been absent that day from Sunday school. But I sat there imagining that the lights on the bridge were spirits crossing over to a good place. As long as they could get to the other side they would be all right.
The school put up a bulletin board in the main hall with the names of the boys who had gone over. And there was Bradley, right at the top by the luck of the alphabet. At home Daddy and I would eat in front of the TV, watching Walter Cronkite. We didn’t know where Bradley was, but when the war news came on, Daddy would stop chewing and listen carefully to the names of the places where battles were being fought, as if he could figure it out by the sound of the place alone.
Bradley had been in Vietnam about a month when we got a letter from him. He wrote that Vietnam was hot and rainy and that he expected to be moving up to “the action” any day now. He’d met a boy named Eddie who’d played for Alabama’s Sugar Bowl team the year before. “Looks like the Tide is on the move,” he wrote.
We never got a second letter.