W.A.R. Part One - Black Summer
Chapter One - A Day at the Park
by Jeff Wilson
As I was walking through Palmer Park, I saw some kids playing on the swings. My swings. At least they used to be. I had reached the age when it just wasn't cool to be on the swings anymore. That's the way life is when you're thirteen. Everything you grew up loving you either hate or you can't do because it's not cool anymore. The swings had belonged to some other, older group of kids before me, and now they'd been taken over by younger kids whose names I didn't know, but whose faces looked like younger versions of some of my classmates. In a few years, after these kids had grown tired of the swings a new group of even younger kids would take their place.
My new domain was Stan Musial Ball Park. Apparently Stan "The Man" Musial was a famous ball player who grew up in our town. Every town has its hometown sports heroes, but the Monongahela River Valley area was over-flowing with heroes who had escaped the soul-crushing black hole that was once the heart of steel country and gone on the greater things. Joe Montana had once played football at one of the schools that had merged to form our own Mon Valley School District.
What my beloved hometown is most famous for is the infamous Donora Death Cloud. Back in the fifties or sixties the town was booming with factories and steel mills. One night, something went wrong and a bunch of people got sick and a few of them died. The government closed the whole town down to investigate. My dad said he grew up in fear that he'd wake up dead someday because he lived through it.
The Donora City Chamber of Commerce was the sponsor of our youth baseball league. I'd been playing baseball longer than I could remember. My dad kept signing me up even though I was terrible. He loved the sport and could name the statistics of any player who had ever lived, or so it seemed. My dad had a lot of useless knowledge crammed in that brain of his. He apparently was some kind of genius when it came to mechanics and numbers. He had insisted on signing me up year after year and I continued to ride the pine year after year. I could tell everyone their batting average after every at bat, and I knew how many pitches the pitcher had thrown for strikes and balls and stuff like that. But that was only because I was so bored! My mind had to do something while I was stuck out there in left field, at least when I got to play, where the ball was least likely to be hit.
I had played for Frank Smith's team ever since I started. His son Dustin was one of my best friends. I'd known him all my life and it just made sense to stick with him. Dustin was a far better player than me. In fact, he was better than everybody else on the team. He was a tall lanky redheaded boy who was good at any sport he played. He had the highest batting average in the league and was the best shortstop too. That's why it sucked so much that he'd broken his arm a few weeks into the season. He told everybody that it was a motorcycle accident, which made sense because he did have an old dirt bike that he was always riding in the hills between his house and the park. But I thought for sure that his bike had been broken down all summer.
I arrived at the ballpark in time for warm-ups, even though it was impossible to be any warmer than we already were. I waited for Brett Reilly to join me. Brett was my other best friend. Brett had never been all that into sports, but he lived right next to the park so I'd convinced him to play that summer since I wanted somebody to talk to while I was on the bench. I also wanted somebody on the team who would be worse than me and I figured Brett would suit my needs since the only sport he cared about was bowling. He was the smallest boy in our class. He was even shorter than most of the girls in our class. He wasn't even five feet tall. Even though he'd turned thirteen in March, he looked about nine years old. He only weighed about eighty pounds soaking wet. If he wasn't such a slacker you'd swear he was skipped a few grades in school because he looked so young. He had a wicked sense of humor, and he wasn't afraid to say whatever popped into his mind, even if it was something rude. Brett was really friendly and funny most of the time, but he could also be kind of a jerk sometimes too. He was always getting in trouble at school because they didn't like his attitude and behavior. His mom was a sort-of famous doctor who had written books on child psychiatry and stuff, so they had a lot of money. She was real busy and she kind of forgot about him sometimes, so he hadn't really had much discipline growing up. Honestly, Brett was a real dick to her most of the time, and I couldn't believe the things he got away with saying to her. But she kept trying to buy his love by getting him whatever he wanted, which just made him disrespect her all the more. He knew exactly how to manipulate her to get what he wanted, and he didn't hesitate to do so. Half the time he just did it for fun. Unfortunately, I was wrong about him being worse than me at baseball, though, as he was surprisingly quite good. He was a fast runner and got walked a lot because he was so short.
"It's too fuckin' hot," Brett complained. With his light brown hair, fair Irish complexion, and ocean blue eyes Brett looked every bit like an angel, but he swore like the devil! His language could make a sailor blush! He'd been swearing for so long that it just became part of the way he talked even in casual conversation. Brett found ways to use the f-word the way most people find ways to use oxygen. I had never even said a swear word before I met him, but his swearing was contagious and now I swore all the time too. A ring of sweat had already formed around the edge of his hat and his hair was soaking wet. He was wearing his familiar Yankees ball cap, which he wore everywhere. It was always either on his head or tucked in his back pocket. He'd even wear it in school until a teacher would yell at him. I think he wore it because his hair had the embarrassing habit of being a disorganized mess, even on the best of days. He usually kept his hair cut really short, because if it grew too long it would start to get curly. But he also wore his Yankees cap because he loved his home town of New York City and was obsessed with the big city. He hated the small town life he'd had to adjust to when his mom moved to Donora when he was eight years old. He couldn't wait to move back there when he was old enough. I always loved to hear him say words that ended with "r" like river or water because that was one of the few times you could still hear the accent he'd had when he moved to the middle of southwestern Pennsylvania. Any other time he sounded like the rest of us now, except when he talked about drinking the "watah from the rivah" or when he called pop "soda."
"I'd be willing to drink out of the fuckin' rivah today," he panted.
"I'd only drink out of the river if you want to die of poisoning instead of heat exhaustion," I replied. Nobody would even think about drinking out of the Mon. The Monongahela was the very definition of a working river. Barges constantly lugged coal from the mines down south in West Virginia and hauled their loads north to Pittsburgh and beyond. Power plants and factories still lined its banks. The water was usually green, but sometimes it was a murky brown color. In any case, you'd have to be pretty thirsty to find it appealing.
"Reilly! Roberts!" Mr. Smith yelled. "Quit playing around and get a move on! It's almost time to start!"
"I hate that fuckin' douche bag," Brett mumbled under his breath. Brett hated adults and I think most adults didn't like Brett very much either because he was such a handful to deal with. But that was okay with Brett because he didn't really care what anybody thought about him. Anyway, we trudged through the oppressive heat to the shade of the dugout, which was still miserably hot.
I plopped down on the bench in my usual spot and prepared to take a nap. Even though three other players on our team hadn't shown up, the Donora Pizzeria Pirates wouldn't be needing my services today unless somebody got hurt since I was last on the depth chart. I didn't mind much. I wasn't all that excited about leaving the dugout's shade compared to the murky soup in left field. The team we were facing, the Mon City Ford Mustangs, was defending league champions and I didn't feel like getting killed by a line drive. Yes, a nice relaxing day in the relatively cool shade of the dugout would definitely be okay with me. I was so glad when we got out of the little leagues where everybody had to play no matter what. Now I could be a happy little bench warmer and shoot the breeze with the injured Dustin.
"We're gonna get killed," Dustin said optimistically as he took a seat beside me. His dad shot him a stern look and Dustin was quiet for a while. He didn't want to get slapped upside the head in front of everybody again. He didn't have to use a sling anymore and could move his arm pretty well. He was scheduled to have the cast removed and would be ready to play at our next game. I'd signed his cast the first day he got it and now my name was almost smudged away.
"It's hot even in the shade," I said, melting into my seat. "What is it, ninety-seven degrees today?"
"Ninety-nine," Dustin replied. "The record is a hundred and five." It wasn't just the heat that made the day unbearable. It was also as humid as a sauna. I hadn't done anything and already my clothes were stuck to my body like a warm moist extra layer of skin.
We heard a tremendous crack and watched as the baseball sailed further and further towards left field until it was gone over the fence. The Mustangs were ahead two to nothing after two batters. Mr. Smith swore and threw his cap on the ground. He sipped from the bottle he'd brought with him that everybody knew was secretly filled with beer instead of sports drink. It was going to be a long day.
"McKenzie shouldn't have run like that," Dustin said of our left fielder. "You could tell from the sound the bat made that one was gone."
"Yeah, look at him. He's already tired and it's not even the bottom of the first," I replied. We watched as he wobbled, leaned over and put his head between his knees. "He's gonna puke," I said nonchalantly, as if I'd said he was going to go the grocery store. And then he did puke, right on the field.
"Aw goddammit!" Mr. Smith swore, even more annoyed than before. The heat had claimed its first, and probably not its last victim. "Billy, go in there for Joey," Mr. Smith ordered. I grumbled as I grabbed my glove and walked out to the outfield, leaving a sweaty outline of my body on the seat. I knew Mr. Smith expected me to run to my position, but I certainly wasn't going to suffer the same fate as Joey, who was now bawling and being taken by his mom to his air-conditioned car and on the way home. I waved at Brett out in right field as I slowly trudged into my spot in left. He wasn't paying a lick of attention though, as he was throwing his glove in the air and catching it, over and over again. The sun beat down on the field like a giant foot, stomping everything into the ground. The grass had long ago turned yellow, and only a few weeks of rain would ever turn it green again. The heat was so unbearable that it felt like we were getting hit with it twice, on the way down from the sun and then on the way back up from the earth. I was so bored! I stood out there slowly running my tongue over the braces on my top teeth and then over the bottom ones. That's what I did when I was bored sometimes. I'd gotten braces right before I started junior high, so a lot of my classmates had never known me without them. I hated them. They made me different, which is the worst thing imaginable for a kid in seventh grade. I found a four-leaf clover while I was out there. For some reason they just stand out to me.
"Catch the ball Billy!" Oh great, I had to make a play. I caught a glimpse of the ball, high up there in the sky, as clear as the moon. I trotted to get beneath it, and then heard a disgusting squishing sound. I looked down to see that my shoes were now covered with whatever Joey McKenzie had eaten for lunch.
"Oh sick!" I said, as my lunch almost joined Joey's. While I was looking down at my feet in disgust I heard the distinct "plunk" sound of baseball hitting earth beside me. Three runs scored by the time I found the ball and tried to throw it back to the infield. It landed about halfway between me and the person I was trying to throw it to and stopped dead in the grass. Everyone on the team hated me.
"You suck Roberts!" Jerry, our second baseman informed me. As if I didn't know. Mr. Smith scolded me pretty awful when we got back to the dugout and I debated just leaving instead of having to endure any more torture. But for the team's sake, I gutted it out.
The rest of the game went by pretty much the same. They throttled us thirty-six to nothing. The haze was as thick as fog, and everybody was sweaty and smelled bad since most of the boys hadn't discovered deodorant yet, not that it would have mattered. By the fifth inning, I was wishing for a death cloud to come and end my misery. To add to my woes, I had to bat as well. I wasn't any better at that than I was in the field. I'm left-handed so I do have a small advantage over most pitchers. That advantage didn't help much against the Mustangs though, as our whole team went without a hit. In fact, the only time anybody on the team reached base was when their pitcher nailed Brett in the arm with the ball.
At any rate, when it was over, Mr. Smith sat there drinking his beer. His skin was always a shade of red, but he was even redder than usual that day. He had downed quite a few beers in the course of the decimation of our team. By the end, he wasn't even hiding his beer bottle and drank openly. We all waited for the usual tongue lashing that he gave the team after every game. He always had something to say, especially about Dustin, and it was never good. He didn't yell though. He didn't do anything. He just sat there finishing off his eighth beer. Finally, he stood up. He adjusted his sweat-soaked hat, put on his sun-glasses, grabbed Dustin by the scruff and left without saying a word to us. We'd never seen him do that before. He usually at least yelled at us for a few minutes before grabbing his son by the neck and going.
"Do you think he's coming back?" Jerry asked.
"Who gives a fuck?" Brett replied, rubbing his bruising upper arm with a bag of water that had only minutes earlier been ice.
"Does that mean we get to go home then?" asked another boy who had already taken his jersey off and was now shirtless.
"Let's get out of here," Jerry said as he gathered his stuff up and left the dugout. He was followed by the rest of our team until only Brett and I remained.
"This is fucking lame. I'm going to quit the team," Brett said after he had drank the water from the bag.
"Really? Why, because you got hit with the ball?" I asked.
"No," Brett replied, still rubbing his arm. "Because this sucks. It's so boring! I hate this fucking game and Mr. Smith's a fucking drunken dick face."
"He's not that bad," I lied. "Most of the time when he's not drunk he's okay."
"When is he not drunk?" Brett asked.
"Well... Okay, you got me there. But still, he'll be cool when Dustin's back."
"Yeah right. He's even more of a dick when Dustin plays. Is he getting the cast off tomorrow morning?" he asked.
"Yeah, and he'll be ready to play tomorrow evening's game," I replied.
"Well good. He'll be so happy to have the superstar back that he won't even notice I'm gone," Brett said. "Let's get out of here."
We left Stan Musial field for the next unfortunate group of kids and walked over to the pond that was the major attraction of the park. Industry had claimed the riverbank along the Mon, so this was where people came to be near the water. It was quieter than the rest of the park, and there were benches for sitting and looking at the pond. At night, Palmer Park had a lot of problems with drug dealers and other bad things happening, but in the day, it was a beautiful place to hang out. We found our favorite bench in the shade of an old oak tree and sat watching the ducks swimming. It was still miserably hot, but the ducks didn't seem to mind.
"You got a ride home?" he asked. He knew the answer before he asked the question. Of course I didn't have a ride. For one thing, my house was within walking distance from the park, the same as his. Donora was built on a big slope that went up from the river to the top of the bluff where the park was built. The richer you were, the higher on the hill you could afford to live. Brett lived in a big house on top of the hill on a nice street that led into the park that had a gate on it. I lived in a little house in town that looked just like every other house on my street about halfway down the bluff toward the river. If you walked out of my back door into the woods and up the hill you would eventually reach Brett's backyard. So it was like we shared the same backyard, only a mile away from each other. To get to my house from the park all I had to do was walk into the woods until I reached a trail that Brett and I had worked into the woods and turn down the hill. If you kept walking through the woods you could get to Dustin's house too, on the other side of the park. We spent a lot of time in those woods going to each other's homes over the years. But even though we all lived within a mile of each other it seemed like we each lived in a different world.
"Do my parents ever come to these things?" I asked. My dad had been to one game this year. My mom hadn't been to one of my games since little league. Since the park was close enough for me to walk, they had one less thing to worry about.
"You want to come over to my place then?" Brett asked. "We can play Super Mario for a while and beat the heat. It's got to be miserable at your house without a-c."
"Sorry. I have to watch grandma when I get home." My grandmother had had a stroke a few months before. For a while, she was in a rehab center. But she was too far gone to recover anything more than a few functions. She could feed herself sloppily. She couldn't talk, she couldn't walk, and she'd never be able to take care of herself again. When the insurance ran out, my mom made the decision to take care of her. My grandparents had retired to a house across the road from us years ago and mom was living there full time with grandma while I stayed at home with dad. It was causing a serious strain on everybody.
"That sucks, man," Brett said. "I don't know how your mom does it. Taking care of somebody all the time like that. Having to give up working wouldn't be bad, of course. But having to do what she does every day? It would suck."
"Yeah. Pap just had a heart attack one day and dropped dead. It was hard on everybody, but this is worse. It's like she's there but she's not. Trapped in a body she can't control anymore. I can't stand it."
Brett quietly sat next to me and looked out over the pond. She was practically his grandmother too. When Brett moved to the neighborhood and we became friends, grandma offered to watch him and me while his mom and my parents went to work. Of course Brett's mom worked so much that he practically lived at my house. That's how we became so close. We were basically brothers. Sometimes I felt like my parents liked Brett better than me! "Remember when she used to bring us here and sit on this bench? She'd feed the ducks and we'd always end up in the pond somehow."
"You mean you always ended up in the pond and dragging me with you. You're always getting me into trouble," I laughed. I tried not to smile too often since I was kind of embarrassed about having braces, but Brett just had a way of making me feel good. I couldn't count the number of times that he had got me grounded. He just had a way of talking people, especially me, into doing whatever he wanted. And it wasn't like he was trying to be bad. It was just that everything he wanted to do always sounded so... interesting.
Brett laughed. "Me? No way. I never get in trouble."
"Only because your mom lets you get away with murder."
"Hey. I have never murdered anyone. Although Frank Smith has been annoying me lately..." He stroked his chin as if pondering the death of Mr. Smith. Then he laughed. "I can't help it if my mother is overcompensating for having to raise me all by herself and for the trauma of moving us here..."
"To the middle of nowhere," I finished.
Brett corrected, "No. I've told you, this town isn't the middle of anything. We're in the outskirts of nowhere. This is quite possibly the farthest point from anything interesting in the world. I hate it here. It's nothing like home."
"Brett, you moved here when you were eight. You're about as much a New Yorker now as I am. You're a country hick now like the rest of us."
"Shut the fuck up, dude! I'll never be like these fucking people. And neither will you." We both stared out over the water for a while. After a long silence, Brett spoke again. "So how long is it going to be until your grandma gets better?"
"I don't think she's ever going to get better..." I started to choke on the words and they made my voice crack.
"Dude, don't say that." Brett insisted. "She's gonna be okay."
"I used to think that, but I just don't know anymore. I mean, she knows me, I can tell. She... You can just tell she's in there, trying to get out. It's so damn frustrating. I hate it!"
"You hate what?" Brett asked. "Having to take care of her?"
"I hate the whole situation Brett! You think I like sitting in her house making sure she doesn't die while I'm there? I sit there hoping and praying that nothing goes wrong on my watch! She used to push me on the swings over there. Now I push her around in a wheelchair. It's so stupid! I hate it!" My eyes were burning and everything was starting to blur. Great, now I was going to start bawling like an idiot! I needed to get away from him.
"Hey, it's okay. I understand," Brett said.
"No you don't!" I snapped. "You don't understand shit! Nobody knows what I'm going through! Not you! Not anybody! So just shut up!" I was trying desperately not to start bawling. Why couldn't he just leave me alone?
"Hey, it's okay," Brett soothed. He tried to put his arm around my shoulder but I shrugged him off.
"No it's not okay! It's just... Shut up and leave me alone! I have to go." I stood up and tried to walk away, but Brett grabbed my shoulder and turned me around to face him.
"Hey, life isn't fair, dude. This stuff happens to everybody. My grandparents got killed in a car accident just like that." He snapped his fingers. "And who knows what happened to my dad? I know it's horrible and you're feeling guilty for what happened but it wasn't your fault!"
I scowled him. "I told you to shut up. You don't know what I'm feeling. You don't know shit, you stupid idiot!" I shook myself from his grip and started to run away. I wasn't going to deal with this. Not today.
"It wasn't your fault Billy!" I heard Brett call from the now distant and blurry lakeshore. "It would have happened whether you were there or not!" I knew he was trying to help, and I hated him for it. I didn't want to be helped. I didn't deserve to be helped. And I didn't want to deal with what he was doing to me anymore.
"LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!!!" I yelled. The whole park could hear me. The kids on the swings had just learned a new word they'd share with their perfectly healthy and happy families. Once I hit the woods where no one could see me I finally let myself cry. I kicked a tree as hard as I could over and over again until I felt better, and then I limped slowly home. I knew Brett was just trying to help, but I wasn't ready to be helped. I didn't want to face what was coming. I didn't want to feel better about what was happening. I just wanted to be alone. I didn't want to hurt anybody else that I loved.
Hi! I'm Jeff Wilson. About ten years ago, which is ancient history in internet time, I wrote a little story called W.A.R.. My goal was to write a story about a couple of kids and their life. However, much like George Lucas, I always wanted to go back and work on it, polish it up, reformat it and make it pretty. That project turned into a complete re-write. The end result is the story that has begun above. So here's the plan: Every two weeks or so I'll put out a new chapter. Eventually, we'll have a complete little novel. What I'd like from you is some feedback. Right now, the best way to do that is by email. If you can let me know what you think of the story as we go along, I'd really appreciate it. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org I hope you enjoy this story!