Cover art by Marylyn Felion
by Mike Palecek
from The Truth
The attacks of 9/11 happened what should seem like a long time ago, but it does not.
It seems like yesterday.
There are people still locked away in Guantanamo, wars still being fought, people being killed, lies being told, new lies, old lies perpetuated and placed on monuments – all connecting in a straight line through the hearts of us all right to that day, that morning.
Sept. 11, 2001 happened everywhere, even in Saint Rose.
And now it can be told.
At least something of how it affected the lives of the people there.
Even though it seems not so long ago.
The story of at least a few of the people who lived here during that time. Enough time for someone to be born and grow to high school age. Enough time for those in high school at the time to have children of their own who don’t have any reason to question, to ask questions.
And so, we could be quiet and let them be comfortable in not knowing.
We could do that.
Some of us still hear the news reports of those days, quotes we read, somewhere, playing in our minds like there is a radio somewhere tuned to twelve years ago.
You had to be there as the saying goes, to understand … what it was like … Kate Smith on the radio … George Bush on the TV … the Towers coming down.
There is a radio on somewhere. I hear it.
Can’t you hear that?
We have to look.
You always look.
Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.
—Dr. Benjamin Spock
Cooper Light strode furiously through the nursing home, stuffing folded newspapers between the doorknobs and the frame, trying to get his route done before school.
His two hands worked in tandem, ripping out the favorite grocery ad, stuffing them into his paper bag, then twisting the papers to fit.
Stupid old people, he thought, with their flags Scotch- taped to the doors and the postcards saying “God Bless America.”
Sits And Does Not Move. Plays Cards Alone In The Dark. Walks Away And Cannot Return. Cooper played his game of making up Indian names for white people.
He had delivered the daily Saint Rose County Tumult paper for over two years now, since just before the September 11 attack.
Cooper had read the propaganda headlines, and he had scanned the underground websites on his computer at home, jammed into the corner, surrounded by boxes like Oswald’s sniper nest, and he had fought to understand how the editors of the Tumult could claim to live in the same world.
Nothing ever printed about the new pipeline through Afghanistan, the murder of Paul Wellstone, or the government manipulation of the Trade Center debacle. The Bushes and Cheney probably planned the whole thing years ago. How did it happen that the two towers came down almost together, symmetrically, in a heap, like when a building is taken down, by dynamite?
Just like on the day that 9-11 happened, Phil Berrigan was in federal prison for beating a hammer on a nuclear submarine or something—and they put him in isolation—for his own safety. Yeah, right. As if he ever was afraid or had any reason to be afraid . . . . The other prisoners would not have taken out some misplaced patriotism on him; they know what time it is. It was because he was a threat to the system, a leader, and they fear leaders. Like me.
Cooper rolled a paper into a tight tube and placed it expertly at Room 419. Without thinking he grabbed the next paper from his bag, walked down the carpeted walkway and again thought about what had happened.
Cooper had been sitting in the hall at Saint Rose Middle School, on the wooden bench left over from the middle school intellectual purges of the McCarthy days.
He sat with his legs crossed at the ankles; hands folded in his lap, trying to look unconcerned, watching the sweeping hand on the hall clock, listening to Mrs. Feenstra’s English class, smelling the lasagna from the cafeteria.
Mr. Schmidt walked by in his gym clothes, whistle around his neck, staring at Cooper’s T-shirt, then shook his head at the floor as he kept marching.
Cooper put his chin to his chest to again read the shirt, the reason for his being “on the pine” outside the principal’s office. The shirt was white, with ketchup stain on the breastbone, surrounded by a penumbra of water from the fountain where Cooper had tried to rub it out. Underneath the stain was a black picture of President Bush with a crosshairs on the forehead. Below it said, “Not My President.”
And so, as soon as Cooper walked into Mr. Freeman’s room that morning wearing the same shirt that Freeman had told him yesterday “not to wear to school again,” (now with the hand-drawn crosshairs), Freeman had turned from writing on the chalkboard. He stalked toward Cooper, gripped him tightly by the shoulder and said, “You’re coming with me.”
Freeman pushed on Cooper’s shoulder to tell him to sit on the old wooden bench as he walked into Mr. G’s office. Now they were in there talking as the stairs around the corner began to click and then men in suits came around the corner and down the dark hall. Cooper recognized them as the two who sat in the light blue Mustang outside his house every day. They studied Cooper as they touched their ties and buttoned their jackets to enter the principal’s office.
After the cooks had left the cafeteria to go drive bus and Mrs. Feenstra told her class to read silently while she strode out of her room to jog to the restroom, Cooper was called inside. He was hustled past Miss Johnson’s secretary table to Mr. G’s office, where Cooper sat in an orange plastic chair while Freeman and Mr. G and the two FBI agents sat on the edge of Mr. G’s historic desk, gripping the wood with just the edge of their butts.
Now Cooper headed down the retirement home hall, lit only by the fifteen-watt bulbs over each door, to his last drop.
He turned and headed back. Oswald’s chin, he thought. What an obvious crop mark on that photo, the one in the backyard holding the rifle . . . . Cooper’s dad had showed him the picture in Life magazine—took him to the Saint Rose library just to show him; where someone had taken a razor blade and put somebody else’s body under Oswald’s face, cut at the chin. And they put it on the front page of Life-freeking-magazine. Who would want to do that? Who could do it? So that the photo was all ready for dissemination minutes after Kennedy was shot in the head and dead.
And if that obvious crop mark—that’s what they call ‘em, crop marks—not corn, but where it’s cut—then none of this out here is what it seems, see?
Well, that’s what Cooper’s dad had tried to explain that one day. That it’s possible that nothing we think we know about Saint Rose is true. Cooper had tried to get his dad to tell him the truth.
“Is the library really the dentist office, then?” he had asked. “Is the ball field really a tennis court?”
But his dad just shook his head, annoyed that his boy did not get it.
Though Cooper was pretty sure that maybe he got it now. Nothing about this picture is true. There is a Wizard somewhere pulling levers behind the curtain. But where is the curtain? He wished he could ask his dad that.
Maybe we didn’t really win the state championship. Maybe it’s all a dream or somebody’s made-up story. That never ends.
Cooper did not want to think about that. Gave him a headache, just like thinking about being in heaven forever. Think about it. Never ending. Even if it’s good, eating strawberry ice cream forever, playing baseball in the park on a nice day—that’s scary. Right?
Scary like thinking that the men who sit in front of Cooper’s house to keep his dad from coming home were now after him, too.
Well, all right, then.
Maybe it was because Cooper and his dad knew the secret that somebody chopped off Oswald’s chin. Me and Dad. Bring it on, you stupid fucks.
Cooper picked the flag off its little mount on Room 342 and stuffed it into his paper bag. He took the gum from his mouth and leaned down to place it carefully in the middle of the floor—a bunji stick for some old fool patriot.
“Heey! Wake up!” Cooper yelled as he reached the door. “Fire! Fire! Fire! Commies! Arabs! Help! Fire! Bomb!”
… Spring bloomed with the joy of life to most, not all.
To live in America and not encounter Americans would be damn difficult, he allowed.
The postman Pete Penny grabbed handfuls of letters, slowly squeezing until they crumpled.
With each bunch he pictured good people gathered around Thanksgiving tables and Fourth of July backyards.
They are not good people.
He clenched his jaw and bit his tongue without pausing.
They only care about themselves.
He touched his zipper to make sure it was up.
He crushed a letter from somebody’s pen pal in Des Moines, then scrambled to smooth it out on the table.
Along one wall of the cavernous room stood one hundred cases of “It’s What A Man’s Got To Do” Selective Service brochures, which Pete had tried to hide one afternoon by draping his rain poncho over the boxes.
In a corner a radio played Roy Orbison.
Flush with the ceiling along the length of one wall a full-color poster showed male and female postal workers smiling and staring at sample packages, depicting which types of packages were considered safe and which should be held suspicious.
On the far wall hung an American flag that once flew over the Perkins restaurant at Disneyland, a gift from one of the carriers’ customers who had moved to Florida.
A hot tar smell drifted in from the city crew down the street.
In the middle of the large room, below half a dozen twirling ceiling fans on low, Pete entered the second hourof his work day as the Flying Walenda sun balanced on the telephone wires.
In front of him the torn cover page of the Feb. 21, 1964 — Life Magazine — 25 cents — was taped to the wall of his work station, Lee Harvey Oswald holding a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 millimeter carbine.
Next to the Life page was a hand drawing in colored pencil.
The yellowing paper, curled at the corners, showed a front yard that could have been in Saint Rose on Pete’s mail route.
There was a white front porch with a white cat sitting in the window. On the porch are two wicker chairs.
Two bikes are in the yard, one upright, with the kickstand down, one that sprawled on the sparse lawn.
An American flag hangs limp from the corner porch post. Two glasses of lemonade sit on the steps, one empty, and the other half-full. A hand pushes against the screen door from the inside.
Another hand reaches up with a cigarette lighter, setting the flag afire.
The signature at the bottom of the page said “Danny McGee 1967.”
Pete Penny scratched his left calf with the edge of his right shoe.
He sorted the mail for his route, firing each piece into a vertical slot on the large metal table in front of him.
Flick-boom, flick-boom, flick-boom, the letters hit the back of the stalls like horses being jammed into the starting gate.
Pete watched his hands working as if they weren’t his, grabbing from the large pile, flipping into the slots representing neighborhood blocks.
He heard the anxious banter of the carriers building around him.
Pete watched the nail of the pointer finger on his right hand dig into the tip of his nose, then return to flipping.
If he had a gun right now this is where the revolution would start, he thought.
If things could just be the way they were supposed to be. . . . If he could just go do his route. Talk to the people in the sunshine, then come on back home.
Click the gate closed on the picket fence on his way through, and then sit down to watch the ballgame, surrounded by ten children and his freshman sweetheart. . . . Then that would be a life worth living. Shit, some people still do that. Some people don’t realize what stupid fucks they are.
They’re just happy.
Stay stupid and happy, thought Pete.
And then Danny McGee’s face flashed on his brain screen for an instant.
Goddamn them. All.
Pete’s right hand felt the length of his ponytail, then itched between his shoulder blades before deigning to return to work.
Two guys across the table talked about Iraq: clean, shiny United States F-16s and B-52 knives spreading a sticky layer of blood and intestines over the sand.
Pete felt his face flush.
He took one step around the table, then one back again.
He slammed open the rubber band drawer and stuck his fist inside one, spreading his fingers to fit the circle, retrieving the day’s mail for Park-to-Jones-to-Phillip-to-Fourth and fitting the loop twice ‘round.
The tight bundle got tossed to the shined cement floor into a blue bag sporting a robo-eagle profile.
Pete yanked the string on the bag taut, grabbed the one next to it, and threw them both over his shoulders.
He stalked toward the big doors like Santa-who-had-just- about-had-it.
Pete’s long shadow raced him across the parking lot to his van.
He unlocked the back, leaned down to tear off the annoying ragged corner of the “Free Leonard Peltier” bumper sticker, then snuffed up snot and watched his big feet walk around to the driver’s door.
After sucking in his paunch to snap his seat belt he checked his mustache in the mirror and turned on the swivel fan.
“Just act normal,” he said out loud.
“You playing tonight?” Pete jumped when Jack France stuck his enormous head into the passenger side.
“Oh.” Pete reached for the pistol under the seat, then pulled his hand up and squeezed the padded steering wheel with both hands.
He threw his right arm over the passenger seat and leaned toward Jack with his answer.
“Sure. What time?”
“Seven-thirty. Be there seven. Bring your four bucks for beer. Don’t forget.”
France’s head made its exit.
Then his right index finger and thumb shot Pete between the eyes.
“I will kill somebody before I play softball again,” Pete vowed to the rearview mirror god.
He turned to check behind, then backed out, rammed the van into gear and took off.
His stomach rumbled.
All his life Pete had listened to people more than himself.
Play softball, work here, drink this, and shoot this.
From Saint Rose Elementary, across the street from the postal shop, to Vietnam across the damn ocean. . . .
He was tired of people.
They always disappoint you.
“I’m not the man they think I am at home,” he whispered out his open window, “no, no, no, no. I’m a rocket maa-aan.”
Penny stayed in second gear, puttering past the middle school, ancient even when he had passed through a hundred years ago.
Pete’s stomach rubbed the steering wheel as he turned onto Philip Avenue.
He looked into the side mirror to adjust his wire-rims, then took his foot off the gas and his hands from the wheel
The postal buggy coasted to a stop in the middle of the street, a hundred feet from the Fourth Street intersection.
Mrs. Row bent over with her head up her gladioli.
Pete stared hard enough to tell she wasn’t wearing underpants again.
The sparrows and starlings darted from tree to tree with needles in their beaks as if weaving clothes for Cinderella.
The sound of the semis backing up to the sales barn muffled the eighth grade jazz band practicing “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Pete bit down hard on his molars and pulled the folded W2 form from his front pocket.
He remembered a lighter in the glove box, unsnapped the belt and reached his full length for it.
He remembered a hooch near Phan Luong.
This oughta burn.
After testing the lighter, Pete held up the tax form and rested a corner in the flame.
He watched the fire crawl toward his face.
Ashes flickered out both open windows.
Pete stared into the light. He pinched the far tip of the paper.
The fire maneuvered to outflank his hot pointer and thumb.
The edge of the orange bit him and he flicked the wisp of curled paper into the street.
“U.S. Government Form.”
The ink and paper burned, shriveled and went out.
Pete watched the little pile in his mirror as he headed off around the block in first gear to arrive on the south side of Fourth.
He parked, locked his door, walked to the back and threw the strap over his shoulder.
… The next morning Pete Penny stood in front of his bathroom mirror straightening his blue tie.
He licked three fingers and pasted back a gray strand and flicked his wet ponytail over his collar, dripping suds on the clean, white shirt.
His deep-set eyes and large nose accused him in the mirror.
Downstairs, Pete put up a forearm to keep Winston from jumping all over his clean clothes.
“Sit down, boy! There. Hey!”
Pete grabbed the dog by the collar and marched him to the back porch.
He shut the door, then turned to pull the refrigerator open and grab a tomato, which he set on the counter, cut off a slice and bit it while staring out the window. In an instant he cursed and dropped the rest into the sink when a glob of seeds and juice stained the front of the shirt.
Penny hurried to the bathroom, wet the spot and rubbed it with a hand towel.
He mopped his forehead with the back of his hand, and picked up the green three-ring notebook from the sink ledge, holding it between his palms.
Pete had found the book in the box of Mike’s belongings sent home by the military. He read another of the poems, written in pencil on lined notebook paper. …
Pete walked out the front door, down the three steps, darting looks at his shirt, in a hurry to get to his son’s funeral.
He began to sweat. The long sleeves looked formal, he figured.
He had loaned his church jacket to Danny McGee for prom and it hadn’t been returned yet.
The black pants he had, and the shoes.
The blue tie had been his boy’s church one.
Pete passed Jane Row’s house and looked.
Jane stood in the picture window with both hands on hips, wearing those red shorts and the yellow tank top with the intentional tear in the shoulder. She smiled and nodded.
Pete thought he noticed pompoms behind her back. He looked again and she was gone.
The Legion had hosted a wake for Mike Penny the night before. Pete’s brothers and sisters and their families and Pete’s ex-wife and her family rented the party room for after the rosary at the funeral home.
The Legion provided a free keg, since Mike was killed in combat, a Saint Rose tradition revived from the Vietnam era for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Pete stopped at the corner, in front of Mrs. Cobb’s. He dug into his pants for the pack of Marlboros. One left.
He remembered the two Tylenol on the sink edge back home. He lit the smoke and stood at the corner, a block from the church front steps, watching the morticians setting out the “No Parking” signs in the street like duck decoys.
He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
The rest of the family had met at Werlitzer’s to ride in the limousine. Pete had said he could walk from his place.
“I’m used to walking, I guess.”
Pete jumped when he felt a sharp point in his back. He turned and saw Mina Cobb retrieving her finger. She held out her arms. He bent down so she could hug him.
“He delivered my papers for me. You bring my mail. You take good care of me.”
She wore a new navy blue Tigers cap, a maroon and yellow Saint Rose Lions T-shirt, white shorts to her knees and new high top Nikes.
The announcer on the radio began the pre-game show and the starting lineups. Mina turned toward her porch.
Pete checked himself again, brushing at the wrinkles in the shirt and pants.
He should have put the stuff on a hanger last night, he thought, took one step back toward the house, then saw Tony DiParno scurrying up.
“Hey, Tony,” Pete said while whisking ashes from his sleeve.
“Are we late?” asked Tony.
Pete eyed the church and saw the shiny black mourners car edging toward the front door.
“No, it’s fine.”
They stepped into the crosswalk together, then headed kitty-corner to Saint Barbara Catholic Church.
As they reached the steps, Tony draped one arm around Pete’s shoulders.
They waited on the curb for the family to crawl out of the limo.
With Tony still wrapped around his neck like an old muskrat stole, Pete shuffled up to Susan and hugged her around the waist.
“Hey, hon’,” he said, kissing her on top of the head.
Tony let his arm drop to shake Susan’s husband’s hand.
Carrollyn walked quickly around the limo when she saw her father. She squeezed Pete, burying her face in his chest, her tears mixing with the tomato stain on Pete’s shirt.
“Oh, Kitten,” hummed Pete.
Pete held them there, for one last moment a family: the dad, the mom, and the princess ballerina, with the Halloween sheriff being pulled feet first from the hearse.
Pete nodded to Susan’s husband and counted several of Mike’s friends that he didn’t know.
A white van with government plates pulled up and parked diagonally across the street.
Pete watched a sprite, tanned man with a short haircut descend the driver’s side and place a narrow hat with two hands like he was crowning himself prom king. A younger man appeared out of the front passenger’s side and another two stepped from the sides of the back seat.
The soldiers in dress uniforms and shined black shoes stood shoulder to shoulder and walked toward Pete, Susan and Carrollyn.
The church bells banged. Susan rejoined Robert and his two children. Carrollyn wrapped her arm tight around Pete’s waist. He laid his arm across her shoulders.
Three young soldiers and three of Mike’s high school classmates grabbed hold of the casket and positioned themselves for the ascension of the steps.
The young pallbearers clenched their fists and teeth, hoisting the box to waist level, eyeing the climb, counting the steps, and staring an opening into the crowd.
The family fell in behind, following Mike’s dead body headed backwards into the church, down the center aisle.
The congregation stood and turned inward as at a wedding.
The priest met the casket at the foot of the altar.
Two boys stood on either side of him. The priest took the dispenser from the server on his right, then sidled around the casket, billowing incense like a Native American holy man to the four directions.
Returning to his spot between the servers, the cleric raised his hands, closed his eyes and pressed downward, an isometric exercise bidding the people to sit.
Pete wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He let loose of Carrollyn’s hand for a moment to run his open palm up and down his pants leg. Someone coughed, a baby cried in crescendo, a hundred memorial cards flapped and young boys grimaced at the mere few stained glass windows propped open for air. This will never be over.
Father Gregory nodded.
The two ushers propped open the back wooden swinging doors with metal folding chairs—then plopped into them. They would need a quick getaway anyway in order to help stop traffic on the highway for the trip to the cemetery.
Father turned to the altar to begin.
The boys, who had begun to squeak when they walked from sweat buildup between their thighs, disappeared out the side doors to deposit implements in the sanctuary, giggle quickly, then returned solemnly to their posts at the lower rung of levels around the altar.
Each boy wore a black surplice covered in a white alb and underneath a full suit and tie, the required funeral dress for Saint Barbara altar boys, even dead ones, Pete thought.
One of Mike’s friends placed Mike’s ball glove on the casket. Others tossed red, yellow and white roses from their seats. Kids always surprise you with their genius, thought Pete.
He remembered Mike riding to city rec ball games with that glove on his handlebars. He recalled rubbing oil into the pocket when it was new and wrapping the glove in postal rubber bands for a week.
Years later he used Super Glue to repair it.
Pete straightened his arm on the pew behind Carrollyn, then they stood, knelt, then sat again, then repeated the route.
Pete completed the routine without thinking.
He didn’t hear the priest or the sounds of the church. He walked with his son, tracing the life of a child now become legend, myth, a god of the baseball field, classroom and battlefield by virtue of an early death.
Pete delivered Mike to the bus station in Sioux City for the trip to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Later, they had been able to share the joy of accomplishment at the graduation ceremony, though Pete rode back alone.
A map of Afghanistan hung in Pete’s kitchen. He had taken a subscription to the Washington Post, even though the papers came in bunches, often a week late.
He got hooked up to cable when Mike’s unit was called up.
For three weeks Pete heard nothing. Then something along the parent grapevine, later a paragraph in the news briefs that there may have been American casualties involving local boys.
The story made its way to CNN. “The Third Infantry lost three men during an all-night fire fight.”
Next came the official notification from the Army, the cell phone call from Susan, followed by inquiries from brothers, sisters, grandparents and Father Gregory, who said he would take care of everything.
When they viewed the body, Mike had a mustache.
For a moment Pete was relieved.
His son didn’t have a mustache.
They had the wrong boy.
Of course. This can’t be right.
Mike Penny does not have a mustache.
He doesn’t even shave. He just now learned to tie his own shoes. Make sure he wears his cap when he goes outside. This isn’t my son. Thank God.
And then Pete fell, ten feet from the open casket, and wept.
His knees cracked the hard floor with a popping sound that echoed and that he did not hear or feel.
He crawled to the casket and pulled himself up by the rim of the open container.
… Carrollyn tugged at his underarm to say it was time to stand now.
Pete looked around him and saw a forest of people. He stood. Then it was time to sit.
Father Gregory strode into the lectern.
“The air-conditioning fund will be the second collection on Sunday,” he said while wiping his glasses with the sleeve of his vestments.
He thanked the Catholic Daughters for helping with the arrangements and the coming meal in the basement. “It should be cooler down there,” he smiled while putting his papers in order.
He then recounted Mike’s life, the state baseball runner-up trophy, and “the duck hunting with his father he so loved.”
The priest smiled wanly down at Pete, who adjusted his bottom on the wood pew.
“We are proud of this son of ours who answered the call and did his duty. Who would not allow the forces of terrorism to have the last word.”
Like a magician, the priest produced a fresh handkerchief from the sleeve of his robes, and flapped it to unfold it, then removed his glasses, wiped his face, then the glasses, then lifted his robes with a flourish to place the cloth in his back pants pocket.
He then took a short drink from his personalized water glass.
“We are pleased today to have with us representatives of the United States Army. Mike wanted that. That’s the kind of man he was,” said Father Gregory.
A spasm shot along Pete’s jaw and it ached to try to open his mouth.
“And these men will tell you that those in the fighting especially do not like the fighting. They are true men of peace.”
Pete stared a hole through the young priest’s high forehead.
“But. . . they will do it. . . to preserve. . . freedom. And to allow us here in Saint Rose, so far from the battlefields, to enjoy the freedom to worship, taste the sweet lemonade and compete in the ballgames scheduled for later today.”
With both hands Pete grabbed the pew in front of him.
He pulled up and walked down the row on the kneeler, his long arms stroking as pendulums.
His head down, back slightly hunched, making him look like an emaciated Bigfoot in a suit and with a ponytail, stalking toward the middle aisle.
As he reached the end Pete stepped down and turned sideways to squeeze past the casket and lean up the worn red carpet, out of church.
… Leland Dupree was white though he could also claim Lakota or French Arabic or Cajun blood if it suited his purpose.
Truth be known, he had privately considered declaring himself a black man—because white people are so boring—secretly considering becoming an underground black man in Saint Rose, to plant the seeds of subversion in the town and maybe even the whole county.
He sat on the top row of the bleachers, his back against the railing, eating popcorn, a plastic cup of Pepsi between his knees.
Dupree wore gold corduroys and white tennis shoes, pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt and new cowboy hat.
He began his play-by-play as the Robins took infield and the stands began to fill, leaving a vacant halo around Leland.
“Casey to Knox. That a way. Judson to Knox to the catcher Johnson.
“Nice fungo by third-year coach Peters to second baseman Roger Pitz, over to Knox. Got h-i-i-i-m.”
Leland whispered between bites and drinks while fans around cast annoyed glances his direction.
Pete Penny made it to the Highway 8 and C22 intersection, crossed the road and headed back on the other side. He slowed his pace, now wondering if he should have been at the graveside ceremony.
He had also missed the church basement meal.
He would keep going now through town to the grave right now.
Mike probably wasn’t covered up yet.
And then he’d stop over to the rectory to explain to Father.
Leland leaned to position his pop cup between his feet.
When he looked up everyone around him was standing.
The Marching Robins had moved onto the infield.
The band stood at attention as a VFW color guard in center field began to raise the flag.
Those who had been hissing through clenched teeth for Leland to stop his commentary now stared at him to stand the fuck up for the national anthem.
Not wanting to spill his drink and unmoved by the dirty looks, he sat there.
The Reverend Jordan McCorkindale and his wife stood to Leland’s right as the band played.
Jordan slid over to Leland and pointed toward the band.
Leland nodded and shoved his hand into his popcorn bag up to his wrist.
The minister shuffled back to his wife, muttering to himself and shaking his head.
Those to Leland’s left and in front of him began hissing like Reformed Geese.
“It’s the National Anthem!”
The members of the two teams lined up on the first and third base foul lines turned around to observe the commotion in the stands.
The two umpires at home plate, their bald heads reflecting the sun, clutched their black hats over their hearts.
One turned and motioned to the press box.
A few seconds later Sheriff John Saney reluctantly pushed open the green screen door.
He walked from the roof of the press box to the bleachers, balancing on the metal seats to wade through the crowd.
Just as the flag had reached its zenith in center field and the band finished “and the home of the brave” Saney bent over Leland and commanded him to follow.
The crowd sat as Leland and the sheriff tiptoed around butts and loaded popcorn sacks.
Saney waited at the bottom, then took Leland by the elbow and led him around behind the seats.
The three old men carrying white rifles walked informally along the center field fence line.
The band marched stiffly to the right field bullpen, and the team members tossed their caps into the air as eight football cheerleaders crowded atop the green wooden press box freed one hundred red, white and blue balloons from gunnysacks.
Pete Penny marched past on the street side of the outfield fence.
As he walked he watched the game.
The motion felt good.
His legs petitioned to keep going forever.
He might never stop walking.
Pete saw a left-handed batter swing, then heard the sound and spotted the ball arcing toward him.
The right fielder ran toward the fence, trying to keep an eye on the ball, feeling for the fence with his right hand.
He looked back, then up in panic, thinking he had lost it, then back again, then up with confidence.
At the last instant he lunged up with his glove as the ball smacked with a thud in the moist, red, warning track dirt.
The boy grimaced—at the thought of his father in the stands, Pete figured.
He pounced on the miscreant ball and winged it sidearm to the disgusted cut-off man.
The boy walked with his head down back to his position.
“It’s okay,” said Pete.
The boy seemed not to notice, his head hanging and his shoulders folded around his chest.
“Thanks,” Pete heard as he neared the center field “350” distance marker.
The sheriff held Leland’s biceps and turned him to look into his eyes.
With a stiff thumb Saney pushed Leland’s hat back a bit, forcing Dupree’s eyes up.
“This is wartime. We can’t have somebody not standing during the national song. You know that.”
“I didn’t want to spill,” said Leland.
A string of boys on bicycles rode past.
“Crazy Leland, Crazy Leland,” they sang.
The adults in the stands—watching through the bleacher spaces—turned back to their game.
Pete left town on the west side, headed for the graveyard.
He whistled and carried the tie in his hand.