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Authors: Robert Cormier

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BOOK: Heroes
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I reached twenty-one points to his eighteen by simply playing the game Larry LaSalle had taught me: being patient, remaining cool and composed while Louis pressed harder. As he missed his last remaining shot, which gave me the victory, a shout went up from the crowd, followed by cheers and whistles and the stomping of feet.

I turned, flushed with triumph, my heart beating furiously, blood pumping joyously in my veins. I saw Larry LaSalle coming through the crowd holding the trophy high above his head, saw Nicole beside him, her eyes on me, shining for me.

Like a dream coming true, Nicole took the trophy from Larry LaSalle and handed it to me, the radiance of her face mirroring my own.

The crowd grew silent as I pressed the trophy to my chest, my eyes becoming moist. Was I expected to make a speech?

“Better watch out, Mister LaSalle,” Joey LeBlanc called out. “Francis has got your number.”

Cheers and applause greeted his words and I wished I could find a way of gagging Joey LeBlanc and keeping his mouth shut.

Then a cry rose from the crowd:

“La-ree … La-ree …”

Calling him by his first name, finding the courage to do together what no one would do alone.

“La-ree … La-ree …”

Cringing inside, my moment of triumph tarnished and trashed. I knew they wanted Larry LaSalle and me to play for the real championship of the Wreck Center.

Then:

“Fran-cis … Fran-cis …”

More applause, shouts and whistles.

And a voice from the crowd:

“You can do it, Francis …”

Larry LaSalle inclined his head toward me, his shoulders raised in resignation, as if to say: It’s up to you, Francis, how can we say no to the crowd and disappoint them?

Suddenly I thought: Maybe I can beat him. My play during the afternoon had been almost flawless;
even the game with Louis Arabelle, who was the best of them all, had been an easy win. Like the gamblers in the casinos who go on a winning streak, impossible to lose. Maybe I was on that kind of streak.

I nodded toward Larry LaSalle and picked up my paddle. Glanced again at Nicole and saw her smile of approval. Planted my feet firmly on the floor and took a practice swing.

A roar went up from the crowd.

The game began.

My serve.

Paddle met ball. I didn’t try for speed or spin, merely wanted to place the ball in proper position, without risk, and then play my defensive game. My heartbeat was steady, my body poised for action. The ball came back to me. I returned. Came again, and again I returned. Larry LaSalle’s return was placed perfectly, at the edge of the table, almost impossible for me to reach but somehow I reached it, returned it, throwing him off balance. My point. Next point his, then mine again. Then his.

We were halfway through the game, the score standing at 13–12, my serve, when I realized that he was letting me win, was guiding the game with such skill that no one but me realized what he was doing. He cleverly missed my returns by what seemed like thousandths of an inch, feigning frustration,
and placed his returns in seemingly impossible spots but within my reach.

The noise of the crowd receded, diminished to a hush, broken only by the plopping of the ball on the table, the soft clunk of the ball on the rubber dimples of our paddles. A giant sigh rose from the crowd when an impressive point was made. I dared not take my eyes away from the game to look at Nicole.

Two games were being played at the same time, the sharp, take-no-prisoners game the hushed audience was observing and the subtle, tender game in which Larry LaSalle was letting me win.

Finally, the score stood at 20–19. My favor. One point away from victory. I resisted meeting Larry LaSalle’s eyes. It was still his serve. Crouching, waiting, I finally looked at him, saw his narrowed eyes. They were suddenly inscrutable, mysterious. A shudder made me tremble as I realized that he could easily win the next two points and take the championship away from me. He could win it so easily and so humiliatingly that the crowd—Nicole—would know instantly that he had been toying with me all along.

The perfect serve came my way but my return was perfect. We entered a seesaw cycle, hit and return, repeating endlessly, near misses and lunging stabs, until finally the ball came to my side, a breathtaking shot that veered to the table’s edge,
causing the crowd to gasp, although he and I knew that it was within my reach. His final gift to me. Lunging, I returned the ball to the only place it could go, impossible for him to return.

He led the cheers, the hollers and whistles of celebration. Dashing to my side of the table, he pumped my hand, hugged me furiously, his ear close enough for me to whisper: “Thank you.” He turned me over to the crowd as the cheers continued, my name endlessly shouted. My eyes sought Nicole, found her joyous face, hands joined together as if in prayer, eyes half closed as if making herself an offering to me.

A moment later, as the crowd broke up, she was suddenly in front of me, radiant, clasping my hand, whispering: “My champion.” And leaning so close that her breath was warm on my cheek: “See you tomorrow.”

But tomorrow was December 7, 1941.

 

A
rthur Rivier is slumped against the brick building at the entrance of Pee Alley, and I know instantly that he is drunk. The streetlight catches his open mouth and the dribbles of saliva on his lips and chin.

Almost midnight and Third Street deserted. Restless in the tenement, I decided to walk the
streets, telling myself that it was possible for Larry LaSalle to show up in Frenchtown at night as well as during the day.

Arthur Rivier blinks as he sees me approaching. “You okay?” I ask, even though I know he is not okay.

He regards me with bloodshot eyes, his lips turned downward like the mask of tragedy high above the stage at the Plymouth.

“Nobody talks about the war,” he mutters, trying to focus his eyes and finally finding the focus and now his eyes drill into mine, the bleariness gone. “They talk about GI bills and going to college and getting married and joining the cops or the firemen but they don’t talk about the war …”

I place my arm around his shoulder to support him as his body threatens to slide down the wall, a ridiculous gesture because he outweights me by at least fifty pounds.

He lifts his head to the night. “I want to talk about it, my war,” he cries. “And your war, too, Francis. Everybody’s war. The war nobody wants to talk about …”

“What war is that?” I ask, having to say something, having to respond to the sorrow in his voice. But not expecting an answer.

“The scared war,” he says, closing his eyes. “God, but I was scared, Francis. I messed my pants. One day, running across an open field, so scared I shit my pants, bullets at my feet and everything let go …” Opening his eyes, he asks: “Weren’t you scared?”

I remember the village and our advancing platoon and Eddie Richards saying: “What are we doing here, anyway?” And the smell of diarrhea.

“Everybody was scared,” I tell him.

“Heroes,” he scoffs, his voice sharp and bitter, all signs of drunkenness gone. “We weren’t heroes. The Strangler and his scrapbook. No heroes in that scrapbook, Francis. Only us, the boys of Frenchtown. Scared and homesick and cramps in the stomach and vomit. Nothing glamorous like the write-ups in the papers or the newsreels. We weren’t heroes. We were only there …”

Closing his eyes, he again slumps against the wall, as if the words he has spoken have used up all his energy.

Shadows loom in the alley’s entrance and I look up to see Armand and Joe silhouetted against the lights of Third Street.

“Poor Arthur,” Armand murmurs, coming forward, placing his arm around him, touching his face
lightly. A deep snore flares Arthur’s nostrils, flutters his lips.

Poor all of us, I think as I watch them lurching away with Arthur Rivier between them. A cold wind buffets the buildings and sends me hurrying back to Mrs. Belander’s tenement.

 

L
arry LaSalle was one of the first Frenchtown men to enlist in the armed services, announcing his intention on Monday afternoon, a few hours after President Roosevelt’s address on the radio declared that a state of war existed between Japan and the United States, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Patriotic fever, mixed with rage over the sneak attack in the Pacific, ran rampant through
the streets of Frenchtown and, according to radios and newspapers, throughout the nation. Recruiting offices were immediately thronged with men and women answering the call to fight for their country.

Larry LaSalle stood before us that afternoon at the Wreck Center, the movie-star smile gone, replaced by grim-faced determination. “We can’t let the Japs get away with this,” he said, anger that we had never seen before flashing in his eyes. As we were about to cheer his announcement, he held up his hand. “None of that, kids. I’m just doing what millions of others are doing.”

Larry’s action became for us the beginning of wartime in Frenchtown. Other enlistments followed as fathers and brothers joined the armed forces. People gathered daily in Monument Square to say goodbye to the men being carried by buses to Fort Delta to enlist in the army and air force, and by train to the headquarters of the marines and navy in Boston.

The Frenchtown factories went on twenty-four-hour schedules as they began to manufacture material for the war effort. “We don’t make guns and bombs,” Uncle Louis said at supper one night. “But our men need everyday things—combs and brushes, buttons, knives and forks—life goes on, even in the service.”

I had heard rumors that the Monument Comb
Shop, where Uncle Louis worked, was producing secret material in a special section of the factory. He lifted a gnarled finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he said. A thrill went through me—a wartime secret in Frenchtown! Should we be on the lookout for spies?

Larry LaSalle’s enlistment caused the Wreck Center to close for what people now called “the duration.” The kids of Frenchtown hung out in St. Jude’s schoolyard or in front of Laurier’s Drug Store. Within a short time, the absence of young men on the Frenchtown streets was noticeable. At the Sunday masses, Father Balthazar prayed from the pulpit for the safety of our men and women in the service. Women, too, had begun to show up in uniform. They were called Waves and SPARS and walked the streets with a pride in their steps that hadn’t been there when they were shop girls in the factories.

Young people and women took over some of the jobs in stores and factories. Mr. Laurier hired me to work part-time, after school and on weekends, at his drugstore. I ran errands, swept the floors, took out the rubbish and filled the shelves with stock from the back room. My special pleasure was stocking the candy cases with Tootsie Rolls, Butterscotch Bits and the big five-cent candy bars like Baby Ruth and Mr. Goodbar.

Mr. Laurier, always suave and dapper in his white shirt and black bow tie, paid me two dollars
and fifty cents a week, and treated me to a chocolate frappe on Saturday afternoon after handing me the money.

Nicole Renard dropped into the drugstore once in a while. She sometimes lingered after picking out her favorite candy. Butterscotch Bits, three for a penny. She, too, had discovered the Monument Public Library and told me how she wept as she read the final pages of
A Farewell to Arms
.

“That’s my favorite novel,” I said.

“Have you read
Rebecca
?” she asked.

“No, but I saw the movie,” I replied, amazed that we were carrying on a normal conversation.

“I did, too, but I liked the book better,” she said. “Which do you like best, movies or books?”

“Both,” I said.

“Me too.”

And then a sudden silence but a good silence as she offered me a Butterscotch Bit.

Taking a deep breath, I said: “Would you like to go to the movies sometime?”

The earth paused in its orbit.

“That would be nice,” she said at last.

Saturday afternoons at the Plymouth downtown became our weekly date—the word made my head spin: I was actually dating Nicole Renard. We met in front of the theater and she insisted on buying
her own ticket although she allowed me to treat her to Milk Duds from the vending machine in the lobby. The theater was always crowded and raucous, the Saturday matinees a special time for kids, with a cowboy serial and two movies. The Movietone News brought reminders of the war that was raging around the globe, as the grim narrator spoke of places that had been unknown to us a few months ago—Bataan in the Pacific, Tobruk in Africa. We cheered our fighting forces and booed and hissed when Hitler came on the screen, his arm always raised in that hated salute.

At some point during the afternoon we held hands, her hand cool in my own, but I had to keep drawing mine away to wipe the sweat from my palm. Just before “The End” of the last movie appeared on the screen, she allowed me an innocent kiss, our lips briefly touching, the taste of chocolate transferred from her lips to mine. Once, my hand accidentally dropped and brushed her sweater and I was surprised at the softness of her breast.

My hand lingered there for a moment and she didn’t protest. My breath went away and then came back again as we rose to leave.

On the way home, we talked not only about the movies we had seen but about a thousand other things. I was amazed at the lack of pauses in our
conversation, how I always managed to have something to say. She had a way of teasing that coaxed me into forgetting my shyness.

“What do you want to do besides be a champion at table tennis?”

“I don’t know.” My mind racing: What
did
I want to do?

“You must want to do something, Francis. Say the first thing that comes into your mind.”

“I want to read every book in the Monument Public Library.”

“Good,” she said. “How about writing books? Didn’t you win Sister Mathilde’s medal for composition?”

A blush of both pleasure and embarrassment made my cheeks grow warm.

“Oh, I could never write a book.”

“I think you could.”

It was necessary to change the subject: “How about you, Nicole? What do you want to do?”

BOOK: Heroes
5.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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