Willis Dickey and I lived only a block apart on the north side of Harstad, Minnesota, and we went to school in each other’s company from first grade through eighth. We played baseball, football, and basketball together, and if one of us was a team captain, he always made the other his first pick. We traded comic books, baseball cards, and marbles. We sledded down Brewers’ Hill and skated on Lafayette Pond. We graded each other’s burps, farts, and drawings of World War Two aircraft. With flashlights we hunted worms in the dew-wet grass of the local golf course, and the next day we biked out to Skyler Lake where, with our freshly caught worms for bait, we fished for perch, crappies, and bluegills. With our Daisy BB guns we hunted grackles and gophers. We slept in each other's bedrooms and backyards. Our mothers invited us to stay for supper, and our fathers asked us to help with chores. We gave each other Christmas and birthday gifts, mumps, and chicken pox. In the woods north of town we smoked our first cigarette, shared our first beer, and had our first glimpse of a girl's bare breasts when we bribed Carol Kellog to pull up her sweatshirt and t-shirt (the price: four dollars). Willis Dickey helped me with my English homework, and I helped him with Math.

    If the preceding depiction of a boyhood friendship sounds too close to a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover to be believed, readers should know that Willis and I grew up in the 1950's and early 60's. And while that era was not as becalmed or simple as it's often portrayed, it was a time when people, especially Midwesterners, believed that only a narrow range of options were available to them. Coke or Pepsi. NBC or CBS. Republican or Democrat. Levi’s or Lee’s. Converse or Keds. Catholic or Protestant. Ford or General Motors. Penney’s or Sears. Mantle or Mays. Presented with choices, almost everyone, and perhaps young people especially, chose from the established, conventional, middle of the spectrum. When I was a boy I didn't have the ability or inclination to see into the dark interior of anyone’s life, not my own and certainly not a nation’s. Eventually, however, I would be nudged toward that vision, and there Willis Dickey was an even greater help to me than he was with diagramming sentences.

    My friendship with Willis didn't abruptly end when I was fourteen, but it was curtailed when he enrolled at Harstad High School, while my education was turned over to the priests and nuns at St. Cecelia’s. My matriculation at the city’s Catholic high school came as a relief to my mother; my soul, as far as she was concerned, would now be out of danger.

    I was relieved myself, but for a reason that had nothing to do with my immortal soul. It was my body that would be safer if I spent less time with Willis Dickey.

    By nature I was neither reckless nor bold, but with Willis Dickey’s encouragement and example I climbed higher trees, dove into deeper waters. I skated on thinner ice. I sledded on steeper hills. Willis and I threw knives at targets that occasionally sent the blades ricocheting back at us. From a downtown rooftop (a height we never should have scaled) we threw snowballs at cars. We rode our bicycles down the steps of the county courthouse. We took the cartridges from his father’s .38 caliber revolver, pulled the slugs out with pliers, then replaced the lead with wax from crayons. We loaded these “bullets” into the gun and fired them at targets drawn on cement walls. The colored wax allowed us to see whether we had hit what we aimed at. Of course, those wax charges might just as easily have jammed in the pistol’s cylinder or barrel, with the resulting misfire exploding in our hands. Explosions not possible but real resulted from our 4th of July experiments when we used firecrackers to blow up bottles, cans, toy soldiers, constructions of stones and dirt, or anything else our imaginations conceived as combustible. Because of Willis’s mouthing off, he and I got into a few fights with other boys, ran from a few more, and talked our way out of others (I was always the advocate for flight or negotiation). We stole cigarettes from Dahlquist’s Drugstore and pilfered candy from McKinnell’s Red Owl, but the escapade that would have landed us in the most trouble, had we been caught, was “borrowing” a car. Willis's uncle and aunt lived just outside Harstad, and when they left town they asked Willis to look after their house and yard. While they were gone, Willis and I took their DeSoto out for joyrides. This happened on more than one occasion, beginning when we were twelve years old and had no training or instruction in operating an automobile. We were lucky we didn’t drive into a ditch or tree. Or ruin the transmission. The DeSoto had a stick shift, and even after we figured out the important role the clutch played in the enterprise, we still stalled the car repeatedly and shifted so clumsily that the grinding gears made almost as much noise as the gravel clattering underneath the car. As we stirred up clouds of dust racing up and down those country roads, I laughed as much as Willis did, but I was more frightened than exhilarated.


Once I was enrolled at St. Cecelia’s and lost the daily contact I’d had with Willis for years, I was still able to keep track of his life. I knew, for example, the reputation of the group he hung out with. They were as wild as Willis—wilder, in fact. To keep up with them he had to rev his reckless spirit up to an even higher speed. Those boys drank, smoked, fought, raced cars, and dated girls who were supposed to be easy. Willis’s new friends (and they might have been mine if I’d attended Harstad High) skipped school or flunked out altogether. The local police knew them on sight and by name.

    And on a few occasions, I witnessed for myself who and what Willis had become.

    A quarter mile track encircled the town’s football field, and at Friday night games most of the students walked around and around the track rather than sit in the bleachers. The circling students were always in groups (or gangs, depending on your view of adolescent sociology). On one uncommonly cold evening, however, I sat in the stands because I had a date with Dawn Tobey, and she wanted us to sit with her parents. Out on the brightly-lit field—frost-stiffened along the sidelines, but churned to mud in the well-trod middle—fog hovered over the line of scrimmage, as the night’s only heat steamed from the players and their panting breaths. When the ball was snapped, the air was filled with the collision-clatter of helmets and shoulder pads. Then the referee’s whistle blew, and sound and motion abruptly stopped. Except there was another scrimmage off the field and right in front of the bleachers where Dawn and I were sitting.

    A circle had formed around Willis Dickey and Virgil Lunde, a big brute of a farm kid who had two years, three inches, and thirty pounds on Willis. Because of his size and vicious reputation, Virgil was someone others usually stepped around. But on that night when Willis’s group and Virgil’s approached each other, neither group gave way, and Willis and Virgil bumped into each other. The confrontation might not have gone beyond shoving, but Willis, as every witness testified, had thrown a punch that caught Virgil above the eye, sent blood streaming down his face, and staggered him backward. A punch that drew that much blood would often end a fight immediately, but gore didn’t faze Virgil. He charged into Willis, and the two of them tumbled to the ground, the medium where Virgil Lunde was at his most effective. He was on top of Willis in an instant and proceeded to pummel him with a series of rapid, short, carefully aimed punches, each flesh-on-flesh splat contrasting with the padded sounds coming from the field. Football, it was suddenly driven home to those of us watching Virgil and Willis, was a game.

    I didn’t climb down from the stands to assist Willis, and not only because he and I were no longer as close as we once had been. Willis’s new friends didn’t help him either. Along with Virgil’s group, they gathered around the fighters and watched. The fight between Willis and Virgil Lunde was a fair fight (even if Willis was overmatched), and, unless someone’s life was in jeopardy or someone sought, perhaps with a weapon, to gain unfair advantage, fair fights had to be left to the combatants.

    While neither Willis’s friends nor Virgil’s could break up the fight, no such stricture applied to the Harstad High School teacher who pushed his way through the spectators and somehow pried Virgil off Willis. And because the fight was stopped before its conclusion—no matter that the outcome was inevitable—Willis wasn’t credited with the loss. In fact, for months afterward Willis had special status because he had dared what few others had—to stand up to Virgil Lunde.

     Yet anyone who saw Willis Dickey after the fight knew how badly he had fared. His lip puffed up, split open so he had to talk out of the corner of his mouth, one side of his face so badly bruised and swollen that he barely looked like himself. A month after the fight Willis’s cuts hadn't completely healed and his bruises hadn't entirely faded.

    But his spirits were still high, or so I assumed. The day after Thanksgiving, six inches of heavy, wet snow fell on Harstad, and that night when a few friends and I were driving up and down Sioux Avenue, the street that the city's teenagers endlessly cruised, I saw Willis in Marcia Butler's yellow Volkswagen convertible. He was the only male in the car with four girls, and while I didn't know for sure whether they were all drunk, that was a reasonable guess. Marcia drove through the falling snow with the top down on her Volkswagen, while Willis perched high on the folded convertible top. He was shirtless, waving what looked to be a plastic sword, and shouting threats and curses at the occupants of every passing car.

    Wade Jarvis, a St. Cecelia’s pal, was in the car with me that night. At the sight of Willis, Wade said, "Doesn’t that guy live over by you?"

    I couldn’t deny it.

    "Was he always such a crazy fucker?"


During this time, the citizens of Harstad, youth and adults alike, were preoccupied with a matter more urgent and serious than Willis Dickey’s unpredictable behavior. There had been a rash of auto thefts, and because the cars were never permanently missing—they usually turned up in a ditch within a day or two of being reported stolen—the police suspected one or more of the town’s teenagers. Whoever was taking the automobiles was doing just what Willis and I had done with his uncle’s DeSoto, yet it never occurred to me that Willis might be involved.

    Which said more about my nature—naïve and unsuspecting—than Willis’s.

    On a January night, Willis Dickey and Jeff Lake were arrested when their stolen Buick skidded out of control on an icy, snow-packed city street and hit a telephone pole. Neither of them were injured, but they were brought before Judge McCutcheon, who presided over Harstad’s juvenile court, and he sentenced Jeff Lake to a year in the Minnesota State Reform School in Red Wing. Willis received a year of probation, the terms of which dictated that he must observe a ten o’clock curfew and be on his best behavior or he too would be shipped to Red Wing. The reason for the discrepancy in their punishments was plain to anyone who had even a rudimentary knowledge of the town’s sociology. Jeff Lake had been in and out of trouble with the law since he was in grade school, and he lived with an alcoholic mother on the wrong side of the tracks. Willis, on the other hand, had a father who was an executive with a local farm implement manufacturer and a mother who was a hard-working housewife active in their church. It was common knowledge in Harstad that anyone who came from circumstances like Willis’s would not be subject to the same punishment as a poor kid, especially if that child of poverty already had a reputation as an incorrigible. Today, the walls of Red Wing, as immortalized in the words of Bob Dylan's song, are still standing, but youthful offenders are seldom sent there. If incarceration is in order, they are likely to be shipped instead to an adult facility.

    What was my reaction to Willis’s arrest and conviction? I was shocked, almost to disbelief. Auto theft, even though I had once participated in a variation of it, still seemed like a crime far beyond anything that someone I knew, personally or by reputation, would commit. Those juvenile delinquents in Minneapolis, yes, but Harstad's worst—and Willis Dickey wasn’t the worst—weren't that lawless.

    Except Willis was.

    The proof was there, and I couldn’t, or didn’t, do much more than shake my head at what my former friend had become. I no longer counted myself lucky that I wasn't drawn into such behavior.

    Soon Willis Dickey was being gossiped about again in tones of shock and disbelief. Willis was in the hospital because he’d tried to kill himself, or so it was rumored. The story found its way to me from multiple sources, but every version agreed on these details:

    For a few months, Willis Dickey had been dating Mary Milton, and that fact was more astonishing than Virgil Lunde, auto theft, and a suicide attempt combined. Mary was, first of all, a year older than us, and older girls almost never dated younger boys. Mary was a tall, flaxen-haired, somber girl, popular but also studious, and from a prominent family. In contrast to Willis and his wild ways, she had a reputation for rectitude. Maybe, maybe, a boy like Willis might have the nerve to ask Mary Milton out, but she would never accept.

    Except she did.

    Willis’s unruly ways were, not surprisingly, an obstacle to the success of their relationship, but even if Mary could get past that part of his character, her parents could not. They were resolved that she not see that boy, and Mary didn't have the courage, if courage was what was required, to defy her father and mother.

    On a Monday morning Rob Schwieger went out to his car to drive to Harstad High. On the way, he planned to pick up Willis Dickey. When Rob opened his car door, however, he found a note on the driver's seat, the contents of which read, "Tell Mary I love her, but I can’t stand her goddamn parents. Willis." Rob drove to Willis’s home, but instead of waiting in the driveway for Willis to come out, Rob went to the door and rang the bell. When Mrs. Dickey answered the door, Rob told her that they should check on Willis.

    Rob and Mrs. Dickey found Willis in his bedroom, still in bed. They had difficulty waking him and soon discovered why. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

    Whether Rob Schwieger or Willis’s mother or both of them took Willis to the hospital or if an ambulance was called, I never knew, but Willis had already been in the Good Samaritan Hospital for a day when the news reached me that my boyhood friend was a patient there. Neither did I know how close to death Willis had come. With the rumors that he had attempted suicide came the detail that his stomach had been pumped, but no one reported whether that measure saved his life or was simply precautionary.

    I didn’t need anyone to tell me I should visit him in the hospital, but because of the distance that had grown between us, the prospect of seeing him again was intimidating. For all I knew, Willis might have felt that I had betrayed him. He knew I had sufficient sway with my parents that I wouldn’t have had to attend a parochial school if I didn’t want to, and perhaps he believed that I chose St. Cecelia’s over him. Maybe there had even been a time in his recent life when our friendship would have been a help to him.

    Finally, duty or residual affection or both overcame my reluctance, and on a frigid February afternoon, I walked the eight blocks from St. Cecelia’s to Good Samaritan Hospital. I walked through the building’s front doors, asked at a reception desk for Willis Dickey’s room number, and then briskly climbed the stairs to the third floor. I didn’t slow down until I arrived at the door to Willis’s room, and then I was suddenly paralyzed because I couldn’t think of a way to solve either of the problems that had been worrying me: How would I bring up the subject of his suicide attempt? How would I avoid the subject of his suicide attempt?

    I would have turned around and left the hospital then and there if it weren’t for a nurse, an older woman, tall, gaunt, and gimlet-eyed, who came walking down the hall toward me. I knew she would ask me what my business was in that corridor, and since the truth was the only available answer, I walked cautiously into Willis’s room.

    Willis was alone and staring out the window. His only view was of the Wilson Avenue elms. Against the tarnished silver winter sky their bare branches looked more like metal than wood.

    He turned slowly toward me. “I thought you might show up,” Willis said. In a hospital I suppose you become accustomed to your room being entered frequently and that may have been why my appearance didn’t startle him.

    But I was surprised when I saw him, and not because I was gazing at someone my age who had recently decided that life was not worth living. No, what astonished me was that Willis Dickey looked exactly like himself.

    I should have mentioned earlier that Willis had distinctive looks. His face was long and rectangular, but his features tended toward circularity. His eyes bulged, his nose was small and button-like, and his narrow mouth often formed an O. Like many males of that era, his hair was cut close to his skull, but with the help of butch wax those short hairs could be trained to stand straight up. As a teenager, I had a secret ambition to be a cartoonist, so I appraised faces to see how they could be depicted with a few suggestive strokes. Willis’s would have been easy: A series of four circles to suggest eyes, nose, and mouth, and those topped with six or seven short vertical lines. In spite of the unlikely setting I found him in, nothing in Willis’s features struck me as unfamiliar; he was the Willis I had always known. And if he had not changed since we had once been friends that must have meant that I had not, either.

    But that couldn’t be. I felt different. Smarter. More responsible. More sophisticated. I no longer read comic books about superheroes or wanted to spear bullheads in the slow waters of Dunwood Creek. I didn’t care who drove the fastest car or who could drink the most beer. I paid more attention to my grades in Geometry than to where I could get my hands on alcohol or cigarettes. It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t tough or that Willis and his friends would have mocked me for worrying about where I’d go to college and what I’d do after.

    Yet there I was, instantly recognizable as Tommy Hazzard, friend to Willis Dickey.

    “How the hell can anyone stand to work in a hospital,” I said, “with that hospital smell?”

    “You get used to it after awhile. You hardly notice it.”

    “Yeah? Hell, maybe some of them even like it.”

    “Maybe that’s why doctors and nurses become doctors and nurses. They love that goddamn hospital smell.”

    For the brief duration of that exchange we were Willis and Tommy again, but then the silence lingered and we both spent more time than necessary looking out at those branches and the gray sky beyond.

    Even if I didn’t want or know how to bring up the subject of why he was in the hospital, I might have said something about the recent dramatic events of his life, his fight with Virgil Lunde or his arrest for stealing cars, but suddenly no topic seemed innocuous or unrelated to the choice to live or die.

    What did you have for lunch?

    A ham sandwich.

    And don’t you want to eat a ham sandwich ever again?

    Did you see Gunsmoke last night?

    Yes.

    And don’t you want to see another episode of Gunsmoke? And another and another?

    Doesn’t it look as though it might snow?

    Yes.

    And don’t you want to see another snowfall and another and another, the way the flakes sometimes fall fast like wet plaster and at other times flutter down so softly they can’t even find their way to the ground? Don’t you want to see the snow melt soon and then fall again next winter and the winter after that and after that and after that?

    What do you say to someone who answers no to all the richness and pleasure that life offers?

    I asked, “Did you notice that Purdue lost again?” Years before, Willis’s father had attended a sales conference in Lafayette, Indiana, and he brought back Purdue sweatshirts for us. Since then, Willis and I had half-heartedly followed Purdue football and basketball.

    "Yeah? Who to?”

    “I can’t remember. Michigan maybe."

    "My old man will know. He pays more attention to college ball than pro."

    "I’m not sure my dad even knows that colleges play sports."

    “I remember that,” Willis said.

    “Well, he hasn’t changed.”

    There we were, two old friends reduced to making unnecessary statements about uninteresting topics, but before another too-long silence could fall between us again, an unlikely rescuer arrived.

    Into Willis’s room strode Dougie Riem. When I knew Dougie in grade school and junior high, he’d been a gap-toothed, motor-mouthed little pest, avoided by his peers and disliked by his teachers (in spite of his high scholastic achievement).

    Dougie had barely said hello when he asked Willis, “Do you have to use a bedpan? What happens if you have to take a leak or a shit? What if it’s a good-looking nurse who brings it in?”

    “I’ve got my own bathroom. Right around the corner.”

    “How about the nurses? Any cute ones? Or candy-stripers? Some of the girls from school are candy-stripers, you know. What if Paula Niedell was a candy-striper, and she came in to give you a shot. In the ass. Do you think you’d get a hard-on?”

    It probably said something about Willis’s state that he couldn’t even rouse himself to become annoyed with Dougie Riem. “I don’t need any shots,” Willis said.

    “Because you had to get your stomach pumped, right? Because, what, you tried to poison yourself or something? Why the hell would you pull a stunt like that? I mean, Jesus.”

    Of course Dougie’s candor shocked me, but I was also suddenly edified. So that’s how you do it.

    Sternly, Willis said, “Food poisoning. Something I ate.”

    “Yeah? What was it?”

    Willis shrugged. “I don’t know. A hot dog, maybe.”

    “No shit? That’s what my mom thinks made me sick last summer. I ate a hot dog at the carnival and then I was puking and shitting for two days after. My dad said it was more likely the person who served me the hot dog. But I never had to go to the hospital. Not that time. Now a couple years ago when I had my appendix out—”
    Just as Dougie had earlier saved me from being alone with Willis and my own timidity, so another savior now appeared, this time to rescue us from Dougie’s blabbing. The nurse who had earlier scared me into Willis’s room brusquely entered.

    “You boys will have to scoot,” she said. “Doctor’s coming in.”

    Her command was as sharp as her glare, and Dougie and I instantly obeyed, waving farewell to Willis as we backed out of the room.

    Once wound up, however, Dougie did not stop easily. He continued his monologue as we rode down in the elevator.

    “That’s what I was always worried about when I was in the hospital. That a nurse would come in to check my stitches and I’d get a hard-on. I mean, they just flip your gown up and get their noses right down there. Lucky all the nurses I had were ugly old bitches. But I had a plan. If a good-looking one came in I’d think about my grandma taking a shit.”

    “That would do it, all right.”

    Dougie and I left the hospital and as soon as we turned north on Wilson Avenue, the wind carved into us. “Fuck,” Dougie said, shivering and hunching his shoulders. “You got a car?”

    “Sorry, I’m walking.”

    The cold was enough to clamp even Dougie’s mouth, and he said nothing for the next block or two. When we came to the intersection where we would proceed in different directions, Dougie had a final assessment to make of our visit to Willis.

    “Just think,” Dougie said, “the bastard tried to kill himself.”

    I had no more idea what to say than when I was alone with Willis. I thought we had all silently, gratefully, agreed to believe Willis about the food poisoning.

    Dougie was still shaking his head as he walked away. I had my own question to work on as I trudged home: Was Dougie the only person who would bring up the subject of suicide in Willis’s presence, or was I the only one who would not?


Although Harstad, Minnesota, was a smallish city, the town’s teenagers still segregated themselves. The parking lot of Frenchy’s Drive-In was Harstad High turf, whereas the lunch counter of Conroy’s Pharmacy belonged to St. Cecelia’s. Harstad kids partied in the woods north of the city; St. Cecelia’s gathered near Skyler Lake. No antagonism went along with those territorial claims—a Harstad girl wouldn’t have to worry about being harassed if she sat on a stool at Conroy’s and ordered a lime phosphate, and a few of my classmates crashed Harstad keg parties without consequence. But for the most part we kept to ourselves.

    That the town was divided into zones made it easier for me to tell myself that Willis Dickey was someone else’s worry. I seldom saw him, not even around our neighborhood, so why not consign his welfare to his Harstad High friends?

    At one location, however, both St. Cecelia’s and Harstad High kids gathered and even mingled: Skipper’s Lanes, a bowling alley-pool hall-bar-café on the outskirts of the city. The first time I saw Willis Dickey after visiting him in the hospital was at Skipper’s on a night in March.

    At Good Samaritan his unchanged appearance had surprised me, but now it was the sight of him alone that shocked. I suppose I’d developed, without having given the matter any conscious thought, a set of attempted suicide protocols, among which was the rule that after such an act you couldn’t show up in a normal setting behaving normally.

    Except Willis wasn’t. Behaving normally, that is.

    None of us bowled at Skipper’s, we were too young for the bar, no one ate in the café, and only a few guys played pool, but there we were, night after night, early or late, weekend or school night. We needed nothing more than the promise of connection, a place where we might learn that Darrell Peck’s parents were out of town and the party would be at his place, where we might find out who had a false i.d. and was willing to buy beer, where Johnny Maynard and Bob Holan might get into it because they both loved Sharon Howley, or where Lanny Brickbauer might take you out to the parking lot and show you how he had customized his ’52 Ford. A place where Susan Layne might appear.

    Susan was a slender, curvy, vivacious brunette, the youngest of the three Layne sisters, legendary beauties in Harstad, and I’d had a crush on her since the third grade when she sat in front of me in Miss Cordell’s class. Susan had something brazen and knowing in her dimpled smile that probably frightened off as many males as it attracted. I belonged to both camps—too intimidated to initiate contact, but too tantalized to turn away. While it was true that I had recently broken up with Dawn Tobey, that had no bearing on my feelings for Susan. Even if Dawn were at my side, if Susan Layne had so much as crooked a finger in my direction I would have abandoned Dawn and followed Susan wherever she wanted me to go. There was little I wanted more than for her to notice me.

    On that March night Susan Layne was at Skipper’s, laughing and talking with four or five other Harstad High girls back by the pool tables, not far from where I was hanging out with my usual cohort of St. Cecelia’s friends, all of them male.

    But when I looked out across the brightly-lit emerald-green felt of three pool tables I could also see a cluster of Harstad High guys, and Willis Dickey, the only one sitting down, was at the center of that pack. Considering their rowdy reputation, they were unusually subdued, so quiet, in fact, that something surreptitious had to be going on.

    Finally, someone walked away from Willis Dickey, and as he approached our side of the room, one of Susan’s friends called him over. “What’s the big secret over there?”

    Another girl giggled and asked, “Does somebody have dirty pictures?”

    I recognized him as Ferdie Moeller, a good athlete in junior high who had given up on organized sports because they interfered with the profligate life. “You wish,” Ferdie said to her. “If it’s something dirty you want to see, you let me know. No, he’s giving shit away.” Ferdie brought a Zippo lighter out of the pocket of his leather jacket and clanked it open and closed a few times.

    “Who is?” the girl asked.

    “Who’s the looniest bastard over there? Willis Dickey.”

    “Like what?” Susan Layne asked, a note of urgency in her question. “What’s he giving away?” Were she and I the only ones who understood what Willis’s actions might portend?

    “Everything he’s got on him. And then some. A good-looking knife with a bone handle. A stocking cap. A watch. Gloves. I didn’t see it, but somebody said he gave Harleck a gun. A fucking gun!”

    “Was it a revolver?” I asked. “A .38?”

    “A pistol. That’s all I know. Somebody else got a bunch of silver dollars.”

    Ferdie put the lighter back in his pocket and strolled away. Now all of us, Susan Layne’s group and my friends and I, turned our attention toward the side of the room where Willis was conducting his giveaway program.

    Beside me Wade Jarvis said, “Hell, maybe I’ll go over there before the goods are all gone.” He stayed where he was, however.

    Then, while we watched, Willis rose and pushed his way through his circle of friends. He had his keys in his hand, and it was obvious he was leaving.

    On the pool tables the balls rolled silently until they clicked against another ball or plunked into a pocket. Over in the bowling lanes the balls rumbled down the alleys and clattered against the pins. All those misses and hits, planned and unplanned. . . . Am I wrong in remembering that for the briefest instant Susan Layne’s gaze collided with mine in an instant of understanding?

    But I know I’m right when I recall what she said, and though she might have been looking in the direction of Willis’s current friends, only his oldest friend was in a position to hear her words and act upon them: “Somebody should go with him.”

    Others must have had a similar thought. Everyone seemed to be watching Willis Dickey walk off, and the murmurs that rose from different corners of Skipper’s had the hush of concern.

    “Oh, hell,” I said, then hopped off the pool table where I’d been sitting and trotted after Willis. “Wait up,” I called after him.

    I was showing off. I know it now, and I knew it then. I wanted Susan Layne and everyone else present that night to recognize that it was Tommy Hazzard who had the courage to ride with Willis Dickey.

    Willis stopped and turned toward me.

    “Are you leaving?” I asked. “Can I bum a ride?”

    “I guess,” he said and continued toward the door.

    The day had been warm enough to melt some of the season’s accumulated snow, but at nightfall the temperature had dropped, turning the parking lot to patches of black ice and ridges of frozen slush. Willis slipped but caught himself before he fell. “Fuck,” he said, and from that single utterance I took heart. Someone who intends to kill himself, I reasoned, wouldn’t care whether he remained on his feet or fell.   

    The hour also encouraged me. It was not yet ten o’clock, so Willis must have been leaving in order to be home before his curfew, an effort that someone who didn’t intend a tomorrow wouldn’t make. Would he?

    If I’d read a suicide prevention manual before climbing into Willis’s car, I would have been advised that it was more important to listen than talk, but I was yammering away before we pulled out of Skipper’s lot. Nervousness was not the only reason for my garrulity. As long as I was talking, Willis couldn’t bring up the subject that was the reason for my being in the car. What had been my thinking—that if he couldn’t mention suicide he couldn’t contemplate it?

    Willis sitting quietly while I talked was also a reversion to the pattern of our friendship. How often as a boy had I ground my teeth in frustration over Willis’s silences? He’d come to my house or I’d go to his, and then we’d sit, just sit, watching television, demolishing a bag of potato chips, but saying nothing to each other. After years of trying to engage him, I finally gave up, resigned to the fact that time with Willis either meant furious action or leaden passivity.

    Which meant that for all our years of friendship, Willis and I were never on particularly intimate terms. I don’t offer that as complaint or even as a characteristic of uniqueness. I expect our friendship was, in that regard, like others. As I’ve said, our youth was in the 1950’s and early sixties. Perhaps Norman Rockwell had concentrated on the superficial details since so much of life at that time was lived on the surface. But that history, personal or national, didn’t serve me well on my mission on that March night.


I knew, you see, and knew almost immediately, that I was the wrong person to be in the car with him. In the front seat of that Chevy Impala should have been someone like Dougie Riem, someone who didn’t think before he spoke, someone whose first priority would have been talking Willis Dickey out of suicide rather than looking like a hero for getting into the car in the first place, someone who cared more about Willis’s welfare than about impressing Susan Layne.

    But I was there, and I made an effort, feeble as it was.

    I lit a cigarette and offered Willis one. The car’s interior smelled so strongly of Mr. Dickey’s White Owl cigars and Mrs. Dickey’s Old Golds that we didn’t have to be concerned about our own smoking being found out. Or maybe Willis didn’t care. He accepted the Marlboro I offered him and the light.

    Talk of the future seemed the best strategy. Get him to commit to the future. “Are you playing Legion ball next summer?” I asked. Because of Minnesota’s late, cold, often snowy springs, neither Harstad High nor St. Cecelia’s had a baseball team. Those of us who wanted to keep playing baseball after Little League had to try out for the American Legion team, but since boys from both schools competed for roster spots, the team was difficult to make. Willis was good enough. I wasn’t.

    “Nah,” he said. “I sat on the bench most of last year. The hell with that. Besides, my old man wants me to work.”

    “Having a little beer money wouldn’t be bad,” I suggested. “Or maybe even enough to buy an old beater.”

    “I guess.”

    “I don’t know if you noticed but back at Skipper’s someone had her eye on you. Susan Layne? You know who she is? And I heard her say something to her friends about you.” The remark might have been misleading, but it wasn’t untrue. What I hoped, however, was that it would impress Willis powerfully. How could it not, since it had behind it the weight of desperation and sacrifice? In all but words I was saying to Willis, See how much I care about you? For you I give up this girl.

    “I know who she is. She was in my Biology class.”

    “What do you think? I mean, come on. She’s a babe.”

    Did I see his indifferent shrug or just feel it through the Impala’s springs?

    “Or are you and Mary still an item?”

    “That ain’t going anywhere.”

    “Because of her folks?” I surprised myself with my willingness to venture in so close, but then suicide can make every other subject seem casual.

    “She says she needs to concentrate on her music. Whatever the hell that means.”

    Mary Milton was an accomplished violinist, but I don’t think either of us believed that a musical instrument could truly stand in the way of love. “You should give Susan Layne a call then. You have a shot with someone like her, man, you don’t want to pass it up.”

    “We’ll see.” Had contemplating the end of his life aged Willis? His remark was exactly something an adult would say.

    I hadn’t wanted to climb into Willis’s car in the first place, but once in, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be getting out any time soon. But the distance between Skipper’s and my home wasn’t a journey of more than a few miles, hardly time at all to present an argument in favor of living, even one formed well in advance, and mine was not.

    Willis didn’t pull to the curb but stopped in the street in front of my parents’ house. The front porch light was on and would remain so until I stepped inside and turned it off.

    The Chevy’s engine thrummed. My cigarette had burned down to the filter. I couldn’t think of anything else that could keep me in the car.

    But Willis had something more to say. “If anything should happen to me, there’s a fifth of Scotch up in our attic, and you can have it. My old man got a couple bottles for Christmas, and I lifted one and hid it up there.”

    That was my opening. Did I know it then? It’s hard to believe I didn’t. I know it now, oh, I know it well. But I persisted with my pose of ignorance. “What do you mean if anything—?”

    “Maybe I won’t go home tonight. Maybe I’ll just. . .I don’t know. . .take off or something.” Across the span of the front seat I could smell his breath, yeasty and sour like a sleeper’s awakened from a long slumber.

    “Really? Well, look. If you still have the car in the morning, why don’t you pick me up for school?” I was still searching for a way to put a future, even one with an obligation, into his life.

    And then I got out of the car and walked toward our brightly lit front porch. I turned around once, to watch which direction the Chevy’s taillights took. Willis turned west, away from his home. Then I was inside. I flipped off the porch light. All the Hazzards were home safe.

    Bravado had made me volunteer to ride with Willis, but once I was inside the house where I was still a child, I was sufficiently aware of how inadequate I had been to the situation and that I needed the help of adults. I woke my father and told him of my concern for Willis’s welfare. I left the Scotch out of the story and substituted Willis’s .22 rifle. My father phoned the Dickeys and alerted them of their son’s state of mind.


At Skyler Lake cottonwoods grew close to the north shore, and in the winter months snow drifted deep between those trees and the lake’s frozen edge. In one of those drifts Willis Dickey’s body was found, three days after he gave me a ride home from Skipper’s Lanes. If anyone saw him or spoke to him after I did, they never came forward. It wasn’t clear whether he died of exposure or from an overdose; an empty bottle of sleeping pills lay next to his body. I’ve always figured the pills were just a precaution, something to assure his sleep if the cold should try to shake him awake.

    Few days pass when I don’t think about Willis Dickey and our last hour together. I don’t berate myself with the certainty that I could have said or done something to save him. But I know that I didn’t, and that guilty knowledge I’ve lived with for thirty-five years. And will for as many years as I have left.

    When you’re sixteen, however, you believe that life will present many opportunities for redemption.

    It won’t.





Larry Watson was born in 1947 in Rugby, North Dakota. He is the author of the novels In A Dark Time, Montana 1948, White Crosses, Laura, Orchard, and Sundown, Yellow Moon; the fiction collection Justice; and a poetry chapbook, Leaving Dakota.  His fiction has been published in more than a dozen foreign editions, and has received prizes and awards from Milkweed Press, Friends of American Writers, Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association, New York Public Library, Wisconsin Library Association, and Critics’ Choice. Montana 1948 was nominated for the first IMPAC Dublin international literary prize.  Two of his novels have been optioned for film.

    He has published short stories and poems in Gettysburg Review, New England Review, North American Review, Mississippi Review, and other journals and quarterlies. Watson taught writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point for twenty-five years.  He is presently a Visiting Professor of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.




Back to Freight Stories No. 2

 

Larry Watson

Redemption