Authors: Richard Russo
When they were gone I asked Bobby why he didn’t have to pay, because of course that puzzled me. But Bobby just shrugged, as if I’d asked him to explain all the laws of nature. “Some people just don’t have to, Luce,” he said. “Other people…” We both knew what happened to other people and that I fell into that category. Which was one reason I was so glad to have Bobby’s friendship and also why, at the end of the school year, not long after Mr. Marconi got on full-time at the post office and they moved to the East End, I was so devastated.
HE FOLLOWING YEAR,
with Bobby gone, I knew the public school boys would be on the lookout for me. Most days my grade got out on time, which meant I’d arrive at the bridge before they did, and once safely across I’d scramble up the bank and head for Berman Court. Sometimes, as I emerged from the trees and turned toward home, I’d see or hear them coming, hooting and jeering, a couple of blocks away, and if it was too obvious that I was hurrying, they’d laugh and yell “Run, Lucy, run!” and the words would make me do it. Then they laughed all the louder. We all seemed to understand that it was just a matter of time before my teacher would keep our class a crucial minute or two longer, or for some reason they themselves would get out early, and then there’d be a reckoning.
The day it finally happened, I had no one to blame but myself. I’d stayed late to help Sister Bernadette clap erasers, an honor, and when I started through the yard and along the path down to the stream, I caught a quick movement at the edge of the trees and thought I heard voices coming up from the green darkness below. I might, of course, have simply returned to the school and had Sister Bernadette call my mother to meet me, but as afraid as I was of the boys at the bridge, I was even more afraid of being a scaredy-cat. It was one thing to turn and hurry back to school
I’d seen the public school boys at the footbridge, a genuine threat, but it was another to run away from a shadow that might, for all I knew, be that of a first grader. My eraser duty had taken a good fifteen minutes, and then I’d talked with Sister Bernadette for a while, which meant the public school boys had probably come and gone by now. Or such was my reasoning as I continued along the path to the edge of the trees, where I stopped to peer down the bank into the darkness below, my head cocked, listening. There was the sound of the stream, of course, but was that all? Was some other utterance mixed in with or obscured by the burbling of the water?
I don’t know how long I stood there before starting warily down the path, the trees and the darkness closing in behind me. In the middle of the footbridge lay a workbook. Public school workbooks were different from ours, used year after year, filled in with pencil and then erased at year’s end, the answers still visible on the page, ghostlike, along with the checkmarks identifying incorrect responses. Was it possible for this workbook to be sitting there without its owner nearby? An urgent whisper slipped out of the trees. Still I stood transfixed, waiting, but it was quiet except for the sound of the water and the wind in the upper branches. Stepping onto the footbridge, I immediately heard a sound behind me and, turning, saw a grinning boy come out from behind a large oak to block my retreat. Ahead, two others materialized, then two more.
One was Jerzy Quinn, who grinned and said, “Hey there, Lucy-Lucy.”
the stream. Though it happened long ago, that afternoon’s journey is still vivid in my recollection. I was flanked on both sides to prevent escape. With one exception they made it clear that I would remain their prisoner until they chose to let me go. When I lagged or showed any reluctance to get too far from home, they shoved me forward, hard, and took turns cuffing me on the back of the head and asking if I was a girl, since I had a girl’s name. All except for Jerzy Quinn, who remained aloof from the fun. Each time I was pushed or tripped, he helped me to my feet, talking to me the whole time, explaining how I had public school kids all wrong, that they weren’t such a bad lot. How I was being treated in the meantime didn’t seem to Jerzy to undermine his case in the least.
No, I was informed that he and his friends had started a charitable club, the purpose of which was to assist the unfortunate, cripples and widows and the like. The dues collected went to pay for their crutches and groceries and medical operations, and their club had already performed many good deeds. Did I know Janice Collier, the fourth grader in the wheelchair? Well, who did I imagine
her that chair? There was a good deal of smirking and snorting behind my back as all this was explained, then somebody tripped me again and I went sprawling in the stream, skinning the palms of both hands on the rocks, much to the delight of my captors. But again Jerzy Quinn helped me up and assured me that I was fine, after which he continued to recruit me for their club, as if he saw no reason I wouldn’t want to join. In the event I needed further inducement, I should know that my old friend Bobby Marconi was also a member. “We’re his best pals,” Jerzy gave me to understand. “Those East End kids are all fags, so he comes down here to hang out with us.”
“Are you a fag, Lucy?” one of the other boys asked.
“He doesn’t even know what it is,” said another, which was true.
What a strange downstream journey it was. The juxtaposition of the other boys’ jostling ridicule with Jerzy Quinn’s feigned friendship was what scared me most, that their behavior and his soothing words were at cross-purposes—the boys making it clear that they’d hurt me, even as their leader assured me that I’d come to no harm. Stranger still, while I knew his kindness was part of the cruel joke being played on me, some part of me believed him, or desperately wanted to. His pretend kindness, his urgent hope that I would admit I’d been wrong about him and his friends, were at some bizarre level almost convincing, as if just beneath the game he was playing lurked another boy who wished he
the boy he was pretending to be. Maybe that good boy was real. Maybe he wouldn’t let the others harm me. I also wanted to believe he was telling the truth about Bobby, that when we got wherever we were going Bobby would be there, and then they’d find out who his best friend really was.
Eventually we came to a blighted place where the bank on both sides was very steep, spanned overhead by a rickety railroad trestle and a dark, tilting structure that opened onto a rock quarry. This, it turned out, functioned as their clubhouse. At the far end several sheets of plywood had been arranged across the beams, and in the center of one of these sat an old steamer trunk. There we paused, the other boys forming a circle, with Jerzy Quinn and me in the center. Jerzy regarded the trunk, then me for a long beat, as if expecting me to draw from its mere existence some weighty inference. When he grinned, I saw in his yellow teeth that I’d been wrong, that there was no good boy.
“So, you want to join our club?” he said, putting his hand on the back of my neck and squeezing hard.
Balanced as I was on my railroad tie, even a gentle nudge would have sent me over the edge of the plywood and down onto the dark, jagged rocks below. Fearing that either a yes or a no might have equally disastrous consequences, I said maybe. I’d ask my parents. See if it was okay.
Well, you see, that’s the thing, I was told. Theirs was a secret society whose first rule was that no parents must ever learn about all the good deeds they performed. So I’d have to decide myself and if I joined I’d be made to swear a solemn oath never to tell anyone. It may have been then, seeing that in reality I had no choice, that nothing I said or did would change what was about to happen, that my eyes began to leak. Yes, I told them. Yes, I’d join.
“Look,” one of the boys said, pointing. “He’s so happy he’s crying.”
All that remained, they said, was the initiation. Did I know what an initiation was? When I said I didn’t, they pulled up the lid of the trunk.
Inside, it was dark except for a thin crease of light at a seam, and the air reeked of urine. “Hey, look who’s here,” I heard a voice say after the trunk’s lid was fastened. Had somebody new just arrived? Was I about to be rescued?
“I just thought of something, Lucy.” Jerzy’s voice was confidential, mere inches away. “You
join our club. Take a guess why.”
I tried to stop blubbering but couldn’t, because now that the possibility of membership had been withdrawn, I knew I should’ve agreed to join right at the start.
Came the chorus, “
No girls allowed,
” followed by much laughter.
Then Jerzy’s voice again. “Guess what happens next.”
That was when the sawing began.
it was pitch black and the silence outside the trunk so profound that for a moment I wondered if I was home in bed, having dreamed my imprisonment. But my room was never this dark, the tree branches outside my window always reflecting the ghostly glow of the streetlamp in front of the building. Still, it was only when I tried to stretch out my legs that I knew I hadn’t dreamed the trunk.
How long had I lain there in the dark? Probably not so very long, though upon awakening I remember feeling for the first time the dreamlike peace with which, over a lifetime, I would become so familiar. Exhausted from my earlier screaming and pleading, as well as from the panic of seeing sawdust filtering down through that thin crease of light, I’d waited in abject despair for the saw to finally come through the trunk’s lid and rip my flesh. But then a strange thing happened. Realizing that my struggles were fruitless, I’d surrendered and simply gone to sleep. I remember thinking of this as an actual solution, that if I could somehow will myself into unconsciousness, then perhaps what was happening would cease by virtue of my not, in a sense, being there to witness it. While I didn’t recall putting that plan into effect, I must have, because here I was, awake again, my ordeal apparently over.
Gradually I became aware of two things: time had passed, and I was alone. The sliver of light was now gone, from which I deduced that night had fallen and, from the complete silence outside the trunk, that my captors had vanished. Instead of being terrified anew, I felt an exhausted, inexplicable, yet very real sense of well-being. Through some act of will, it seemed I’d made my tormentors, their laughter, the ripping of the saw, all of it, disappear. But if true, this begged an important question. If I’d banished the boys by falling asleep, would I now bring them back into existence by awaking? Would the whole process start over again? Somehow I thought not, and just lay there quietly, sleepily content for each moment to pass without additional terror. True, I was curious how much time had elapsed and whether my mother and father were out searching for me. These considerations seemed remote, though. I was locked in a dark trunk, and it was possible, even likely, that I’d never be released, which should have terrified me but didn’t. Rather, it seemed I’d simply entered a new, quite natural phase of my life inside the trunk, breathing the heady mixture of stale air and urine, some of which I understood to be my own, where I would await further developments. About these I felt more curiosity than fear, as if I’d already expended my entire store of the latter emotion.
I may even have drifted back to sleep, because when my eyes opened again, I heard singing, first far off, then nearer, and I remember not wanting the singers—for there seemed to be two voices, a man’s and a woman’s—to find me. Then, when their voices suddenly got louder, I realized they must have entered the covered structure.
The woman was laughing now, and there was a slapping sound. “Stop, stop, stop!” she urged her companion. “You don’t know the fucking words.”