Passing from sixth grade to seventh grade, from elementary school to junior high school, was a monumental event of the highest order for Eddie Calibresi and me. Gone were our wanton days of team-frogging fourth grade boys like Brady O'Neil, and stealing kisses in the darkened recesses of a coat closet from the exotic looking Debbie Simmons and her best friend, Bonnie Rankin. It meant fewer high-speed chases on our bikes or skateboards, flying over the bridge at Bogg's Creek or making kamikaze passes at old lady Young as she swept her sidewalk in the early morning light.
The boys were no longer boys, we thought; we were men now. We had to act like men, we had to talk like men and we certainly had to treat our women like men do, all of which neither of us had even the smallest inkling as to how to accomplish. Eddie and I were confident we looked the part—sneaking cigarettes behind the gym after lunch or in the boys' bathroom, swelling our chests up like Arnold Schwarzenegger for the girls and spitting—but we sure didn't feel the part; at least, I didn't.
Eddie did have his advantages, though. Where I was a blonde of better than average build and resources, Eddie was of Italian descent and, at thirteen, already tall, dark and muscular, with jet-black hair he would gel and comb straight back on his head. Every day he would wear blue-jeans and a pure white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up high on his shoulders. It was the bad boy image he was cultivating, he said, and the girls, it seemed, couldn't get enough.
“Hey! I got an idea,” Eddie said one day between classes while we pushed through to our lockers.
I tried to avoid answering. A bright kid, Eddie was always getting ideas and they usually involved money—mine. Stopping, I spun the combination on my locker and looked over at him.
“What is it this time, Calibresi?” I said flatly, trying not to sound the least bit encouraging or, by default, promotional.
“Come on, Malone,” he said, throwing his history book in his locker and taking out his algebra book. “You haven't even heard my idea and already you're torching me.”
“You have that effect on me, Eddie,” I said. “I'm surprised. You usually wait 'til Monday before you hit on me for my allowance.”
“Well, this won't cost you a thing,” Eddie said with a sly grin.
The bell started ringing and we ran in opposite directions. Mr. Hawkins, the assistant principal, was standing at the end of the hallway, shooting daggers at the two of us.
“We'll talk about it after school, Jazz!” Eddie yelled over his shoulder. “At Haskins!”
* * *
That afternoon, on the #29 bus Eddie and I rode home from school, the Law brothers—Garret and George—got into a heated argument with Cory Anderson over seating arrangements. The rear seats that framed the emergency exit were prime perches, and the two brothers invariably wanted to occupy them, bullying whoever had got there first into relinquishing their spot.
But the small and feisty Cory was not about to give up his seat, not for anyone. Paul Jenkins, the old guy that drove our bus, yelled at them, demanding they sit down and shut-up; to no avail. They were still arguing when we reached our stop at Haskins Hardware store.
“Get out here, you little prick!” Garret Law yelled. “I'm gonna beat your ass!”
First off the bus, he and George waited while Cory followed Eddie and me down the bus stairs and out on the pavement in front of Haskins' gas pumps. The two ninth graders—George, by ascension, Garret, by retention—had dropped their backpacks on the concrete and were dancing around like boxers, loosening up for the big match.
“Not if I can help it!” Cory jeered.
The fifteen year-old sprite was having none of their business. He took off like a shot, laughing and hooting, knowing they would never catch him, having been the winner of the city's annual 15k race in his age group two years in a row.
Standing to one side and watching the frustration grow on George's and Garret's face, Eddie and I tried hard not to snicker. It wasn't often we got to see a little guy deflating the big guys.
“Let's go check out my idea,” Eddie said.
“Cool,” I replied, following him around the corner to the store's entrance.
Entering the interior of Haskins' Hardware—in what were to become daily excursions—Eddie whispered that it was like walking into the haunted house at the county fair. Fascinated and not knowing where to look first, I had to agree: no matter where you turned, something hooked your eye, beckoning with some kind of mystery.
Trays and boxes and drawers and pails and shelves and rows and walls and columns of stuff and more stuff. More varieties, shapes and sizes of bolts, nuts, screws, nails and brads than I had ever imagined possible. The largest collection, I surmised, of hoes, shovels, spades, rakes, pitch forks, trowels and other gardening tools known to man, some too foreign to even identify, all gathered in this one place for our joyous perusal.
Tackle; my god. I never realized there were so many different hooks and lures and rods and spinners and reels and sizes of test line available solely for the sport of reeling in fish. Eddie's eyes sparkled like a Christmas tree; I was getting a headache just trying to take it all in, and I was beginning to understand why my dad spent some of his time off in places like this, rather than neighborhood bars. It was a real man's paradise, a refuge for hen-pecked husbands and a place where guys could talk unabashedly, where the possibilities for awe-struck boys like us were endless.
Eddie was an addict, I could tell, doing nothing more than running his hands over the top of the various goods, handling things, smelling. I was fast becoming one myself and I knew it was time to get out and suck some air.
“How come you never told me about that place?” I asked Eddie as we unlocked our bikes and began pedaling toward home.
“I didn't want to spoil the surprise,” Eddie said. “Check this out, my man.”
Reaching into his jeans pocket, he pulled out several packages of artificial worms and wiggled them at me. It slowly dawned on me: my best friend had stolen merchandise from the hardware store.
I slammed on my brakes and slid to a stop. This was not good.
“Eddie,” I said. “Is this your idea? You have to take those back, man, that's stealing.”
He circled back around me and stopped. He had a worried look on his face and quickly stuffed the worms back in his pocket.
“I can't do it, Jazz,” he said. “They'll call the cops. I'll be up the creek and my dad will beat the crap out of me.”
I didn't know what to say. I was torn between the complexities of Eddie's minor crime and the thought of his explaining away the belt marks on his legs in gym class.
Eddie caught up to me as I rolled up the sidewalk in front of my house. He was smiling again, and popped a wheelie.
“I'll put them back in the morning,” he said. “Before the bus comes. Okay?”
“So, what's your big idea,” I asked, pausing at the front door.
“Let's camp-out Friday night,” Eddie said. “I'll show you something that will definitely fry your eyeballs.”
“What? Another Playboy like last time?”
“Not even close, mon ami,” he yelled as he pedaled away. “Not even close!”
* * *
The perfect camp site, the open field that sat squarely in the middle of our neighborhood was crowded with palmetto bushes and stippled with slash pines and live oaks. When it rained, the air would swing heavy with the sharp tang of sandy loam, pine bark and palmetto husk.
Our routine on Friday nights had become easy with familiarity: first, after parking our bikes for our habitual midnight ride, Eddie and I would stake out the tent and spread our sleeping bags inside. Then, while Eddie dug a fire pit and built a pine wood fire, I would lay out our supplies in preparation for the junk-food feast to come later. Eddie and I had come to the agreement that, except for a radio tuned to a rock and roll station, we had no use for any other electronic machines on our getaways; we were into roughing it.
It wasn't a camp-out without hot dogs. Two packages, fully cooked, for snacking on and for impaling on the ends of serrated palmetto fronds we had cut from nearby bushes and roasting them over the fire. Nor would the occasion be complete without watermelon and marshmallows, each providing no small entertainment in their own fashion: the seeds for ammunition, the spongy, white lumps for burning, at the stake, then, lusciously, in the mouth.
We had loaded up on hot dogs, marshmallows and watermelon, and had taken our midnight cruise around the neighborhood. Laying on our sleeping bags in front of the fire, we took turns gazing at the stars through my binoculars, seeing which of us could name the most galaxies and star systems, with the winner free to frog the loser on any part of his body. Catching me on Aldebaran, Eddie frogged me on the forearm, causing my fingers to cramp into a claw and making him laugh uncontrollably.
“Here's my idea,” Eddie said, reaching into his backpack with a hint of conspiracy in his dark eyes. Holding it by the barrel, he waved a small pistol at me.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
“I found it in the alley behind my house,” he said. “It's an old twenty-two—and it's loaded.”
“What are you going to do with it?” I said.
“Pop some squirrels or something,” he said. “I don't know.”
He stood up and aimed the gun off into the darkness. I heard him click the safety off, then he turned and fired the pistol at the trunk of a pine tree nearby. The discharge sounded more like a firecracker going off than it did a gun; I had expected a loud, deadly sound.
“Here, you try it.”
I had never handled a gun before, much less fired one, and was reluctant to take the weapon from him. My parents had drilled me many a time about the dangers of a gun in the wrong hands, to the point where I had no interest in them nor any desire to have one of my own.
My hand trembled as I lifted the gun and pointed it. I was more aware of and afraid of the sounds of guns going off than I was of the damage they might possibly inflict, so little did I know about them.
“You couldn't hit the side of a barn,” Eddie laughed, after I had aimed at the tree and missed. “Try it again, and just squeeze the trigger this time, don't pull it.”
“I don't like guns, Eddie,” I said, handing it back to him.
He fired it a few more times, slowly, then clicked on the safety and dropped it in his backpack. The fire was burning down, so we pulled our sleeping bags inside the tent and stretched out.
Talking into the wee hours of the morning, Eddie shared with me his profound love for his mother, Diane, and told me about his father, Tony Calibresi, and the man's infatuation with the buzz he got from alcohol. He revealed to me the horror of watching his father, in a drunken rage, beat his mother with the same belt he had used to beat Eddie, and his frustration with himself for not having had the courage to try to stop him from hurting her.
In the darkness of the tent I could feel and hear the sadness in Eddie, and the anger boiling just beneath the surface. I knew what he was feeling, even if only for the moment, and wondered, as I drifted off to sleep to the sound of his soft snores, how his father could do such an ugly thing.
* * *
“Jasper Malone, come to the principal's office,” the voice on the school intercom said. “Jasper Malone, come to the principal's office, immediately.”
I had just finished buttoning my shirt after gym class and a shower, had hefted my books and was hurrying off to my English class when the summons echoed down the hallway. Like all my friends, I was just a little bit terrified by the thought of what awaited me there in Mr. Morgan's office, despite his being one of the nicest men I had ever met.
“Do you know where Eddie is?” Mr. Morgan asked, escorting me into his inner sanctum and sitting behind his big desk. Of medium build and fair-skinned, at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, Mr. Morgan had already lost most of his brown hair. I had heard the Law brothers—in one of their lesser moments—refer to him as “chrome-dome Morgan.” I thought it made him look like one of my favorite action hero actors, Bruce Willis.
“He wasn't on the bus today or yesterday,” I said, staring at his hand as he clicked two large, highly-polished ball bearings around in the palm of his hand.
“Have you talked to him? Or seen him lately?”
“No, I don't know what happened to him,” I said. “He was kind of upset about his dad Friday night at our camp site. I didn't see him the rest of the weekend.”
Mr. Morgan dropped the bearings into his desk drawer, then began making notes on a legal pad. He unconsciously arched his eyebrows up and down as he wrote, making the bare skin on the top of his head wrinkle, and I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from giggling.
“Well, I think that's all for now, Jasper,” he said, looking up at me. “If you happen to see him or talk to him after school or at home, tell him to call me. And thanks for coming in.”
“Yes sir, I will,” I said, anxious to leave.
* * *
There were two St. Petersburg cop cars and an ambulance parked out in front of Eddie's house when I pedaled up and dropped my bike on the grass in the front yard. The front door stood halfway open, and the red and blue lights from the emergency vehicles were painting the walls in heart-pounding splashes.
I pushed the door back against the stop and looked in. Mrs. Calibresi was sitting on the couch, clutching a handful of tissue and crying; her face was swollen and covered with bruises, and a line of blood had dried at the corner of her mouth. One policeman stood next to her, with one hand touching her shoulder reassuringly and the other, behind his back, holding an evidence bag containing a gun. The second policeman was questioning her softly and scratching notes in a small notebook. The emergency techs were lifting a body covered by a white sheet on to a gurney in the kitchen.
Eddie was slumped down on the floor against the refrigerator, his elbows propped on raised knees, holding his head with manacled hands. He turned his head and looked at me with an expression I'll never forget.