Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by Dennis Wolverton

When I Was a Kid in the 70's, I Used to Smoke

Jerry Duncan later told me that he first noticed me because of the smoking.  He said he didn’t like to see kids smoke.  On a warm October afternoon after school, I was kicking through the dead autumn leaves that covered the sidewalk, a Marlboro cigarette in my hand, when an old pickup truck pulled over to the curb.  The driver stopped and yelled through the open passenger window for me to come over.  He looked like he was in his twenties or early thirties.  I couldn’t tell.  All adults seemed about the same age to me unless they were really old.  He had lots of dark brown curly hair and a poorly trimmed beard and mustache.  My own bright blond hair came down to my shoulders and as I walked over to the truck, the wind blew it across my face.  I figured he wanted directions, but instead he offered to give me a ride.  I, of course, had been told many times in school never to accept a ride from a stranger, but I already liked to ignore the advice they gave us in school.  I decided a ride might be exciting, so I stamped out my cigarette and climbed up into his truck. He started right off by giving me a lecture on the evils of smoking, but then asked me how old I was, which was 12 almost 13, and my name, which was Petey.  I told him I didn’t know my father and that my mother worked at the Cockadoodle Bar on Highway 39 just past the trailer park.  “She sleeps in the day time,” I told him.  “Makes me a hamburger or spaghetti sometimes for dinner when she gets up.  But I went two days once and never seen her even one time.”  I tried to show him I was proud I could live on my own.

Jerry said, "Petey, I think we can be good friends, but I want you to quit smoking.  I want you to promise me right now you’ll quit.”

I told him OK, I would quit, and he took my last cigarette, but as soon as I was alone at home, I stole one of my mother’s packs and broke my promise.

Jerry had several other boys my age for friends.  I was never sure how many.  I was probably his favorite though.  I know he liked me better than my friend Earl.  Jerry wasn’t married and I knew only one friend his own age—Rupert Nelson, a married guy with two kids, Julian and Danny.  Julian was a little older than me, fourteen I think, and had kind of an arrogant attitude.  He thought he was better than Earl and me because he lived in a big house in a nice part of our town with a father and stay-at-home mother.  Danny was small and delicate, not just because he was ten.  He whined and complained a lot.  I really didn’t like either of them.


The Saturday morning sun was already strong and warm when Jerry got about eight of us boys together, including Julian and Danny, to go on a hike up Mount Jumbo just outside our little town.  I told him we shouldn’t take Danny, that he was too little and would only slow everyone down, but Jerry said it would be all right.  We weren’t in a hurry.

The hike started from the parking lot at the base of the mountain. We had to cross a small stream several times and for some reason it made Earl and I laugh so hard we almost couldn’t keep walking.  I think the other boys thought we were a little bit crazy.  After a long gradual ascent and then a short steep climb up, we all ate our lunch in a flat little clearing surrounded by tall pines.  Jerry said we were about three quarters of the way, but the hardest part was yet to come. 

After eating, I wanted a cigarette and I wondered if Earl and I could sneak away some place for a few minutes.  Even though I had promised Jerry at least three more times to stop, I continued to smoke.  The last time he caught me, he threatened to take back the little pellet gun he gave me for my 13th birthday, so I knew I had to be careful.  Before I could say anything to Earl, however, Jerry announced that we had to cross the stream again.  We were higher up on the mountain, and now the stream was narrow with banks on both sides and the water moved much faster.  There was a shiny log across it, however, so we didn’t have to step in the water.  The other boys took small steps on the log and pretended that they might fall if they weren’t really careful, but I pushed my hair back, laughed and ran.  All of us got across the log and were ready to go except for Danny.

  “I can’t do it.  I can’t go across the log,” he said in his high thin voice.  Jerry still hadn’t come over and he squatted down to talk to Danny at eye level.  I couldn’t hear what he said, but I could see that Danny was crying. 

“Just pick him up and carry him across,” one of the other boys yelled.

 Danny was such a whiner.  Finally Jerry stood up and came across the log to us, which now meant that only Danny was on the other side of the little river.  “You can do it,” Jerry hollered back at Danny and then all of a sudden the rest of us started to coax him across.

“Come on Danny.  You can do it,” we cheered. 

The little boy abruptly quit crying.  He wiped his nose with his arm and then walked up to the log, looked into the rushing water and then at the log.  He started across with the smallest steps possible.  I had a hard time watching him; he was doing it all wrong. 

“Take bigger steps,” someone said in a loud voice. 

Then when he got just past the middle of the log, he froze.  We could all see the panic in his eyes and we all stopped cheering.  A strange feeling went through me.  Then Danny fell forward into the river.  He didn’t put out his arms to stop himself; he just fell like a stiff piece of wood and smashed face down into the water and the rocks.

“Oh shit,” I heard Jerry say.  “God damn shit.” 

I had heard him swear only once before, and he would get really angry if he heard one of us swear, but I whispered the same thing to myself, oh shit.  Jerry dashed into the water and picked Danny up in his arms.  He stood there for a few seconds to get his balance and then carried Danny up the little bank to the other side of the stream and laid him on the ground.  The rest of us ran back across the log and crowded around him as he tried to revive Danny.  Twice he had to tell us to stand back.  He put his fingers first on Danny’s little wrist and then when he couldn’t find a pulse, against Danny’s neck.  He slapped Danny very gently a couple of times on the cheeks and then got down and tried mouth to mouth resuscitation.  When still nothing happened, he stood up and announced in a loud serious voice to us, “I’m sure Danny will be all right.  He’s just suffered a minor concussion.  I need to get him to the truck as fast as possible and then to the hospital, so I’m going to take him and run.”  He looked up at the tall trees and then back at us.  “If you can’t keep up with me, I want you to behave.  I’ll come back and get you in the parking lot.  Don’t try to walk back into town.  Stay there.  Understood?”  None of us said anything.  He picked up Danny and started off.

At first we were all able to stay with him.  Danny’s brother Julian especially, stuck right behind Jerry.  Earl and I, however, stopped to rest by ourselves.  When we realized no one else was around, I got out the cigarettes I had hid in my pack and we took our time getting to the parking lot.

It was almost dark when we saw the pickup truck’s headlights.  The one street light in the parking lot had just come on, and Earl and I were debating whether to walk down where we could hitch a ride.  Danny didn’t interest us any longer.  We believed Jerry when he said Danny would be all right, so we discussed other things.  We had tried to get some older girls to talk to us, but after they left, we got really bored and hungry.  When Jerry arrived, we had pretty much forgotten all about Danny.

“We were startin’ to worry,” I said.  “Thought you might have forgotten us being out here.” 

Jerry didn’t say anything but waited patiently while Earl and I climbed up in the truck.  He circled the pickup truck around and we headed back to town on the now deserted two lane road.

“How’s Danny?” Earl blurted out.  “Did you get him to the doctor ok?”

We waited such a long time for Jerry to answer that I wondered if he heard Earl.  Just when I was going to repeat the question, he said, “Danny didn’t make it.  The little guy never came around.”

“You mean he died?” Earl asked.

“Yup, that’s what I said.”  Jerry steered the truck through a curve in the road.

Earl opened his eyes wide.  “Oh wow, oh man, oh man, oh man.  He died.” 

I sat between them a little stunned and couldn’t think of anything to say.

“What are you going to do?  What’s going to happen?” Earl asked.

“I don’t know, man.”  Jerry took his eyes off the road for a few seconds to look at Earl.  Then back at the road.  “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Nothing happened on Sunday, but Monday morning at school I got called into the principal’s office.  The police chief, Chuck Brown, sat in the principal’s big chair behind the desk.  Mr. Diggernaught, sat in one of the side chairs looking uncomfortable.

“So what really happened there on Saturday?” Chuck asked me as soon as I sat down. “I think you know what I’m talking about.”

“Why do you want to know?” I asked.

“Well, Petey, we’re trying to figure out if anyone did anything wrong.”  He said this as though he were talking to a very small, very stupid child.

I sat and looked at him and then at the principal.  Finally I said, “Nothing happened.  We had to cross this little river on a log and Julian’s brother Danny slipped and fell.  I guess he died.”

“You guess he died.  Petey, he did die.  Did anyone talk him into getting on the log when he said he didn’t want to?”

I thought about lying but then said what I thought was the truth, “We all talked him into it.  We all thought he could do it.  We crossed it.  We did it.  If he was going to be on the hike, he had to cross it too.”

“I see,” Chuck said.  Mr. Diggernaught looked a little nervous.  “Mr. Duncan was in charge wasn’t he?” he continued.  “Did he try to get the little boy to step on the log?”

“I guess so.  We all wanted him to cross.”

Chuck kept at me for almost two hours with the same questions over and over again.  At the very end, he asked personal questions about me and Jerry Duncan, whether Jerry had ever tried to touch me in inappropriate places.  It took me awhile to figure out what he meant.  When I told him no, I could tell he wasn’t happy with the answer, but that was when he let me go.

I went over to Jerry’s house just before it got dark that night.  He opened the screen door but had me stand on the porch.  He said he couldn’t invite me in.  I asked him when I could come over and he said he didn’t know.  He was going to move to Chesterton on the other side of the state where his brother lived.  He had a lot of things to take care of.  Confused and a little hurt, I held the screen door in my hand and looked at him.  Finally I said, “OK, good-bye” and left.

I never saw Jerry Duncan again.  Earl later told me the police chief had made a deal: if Jerry left town, nothing would happen to him.  Rupert Nelson and his family moved away a month later.  After Jerry left, I was kind of moody and sullen at first, but then Earl and I really got crazy.  We shoplifted more stuff than ever and started hanging around with a couple of high school guys who lived down the alley from me.  They gave us beer and let us smoke marihuana with them a couple of times.  I pretty much quit going to school.  Eighth grade was going to be a failure.  I would have to repeat it, assuming I didn’t get kicked out for bad attitude and sent to reform school.  But shortly before Christmas I got a letter from Jerry Duncan.  He wrote he missed me very much and hoped I was doing well in school.  He said he wasn’t very happy in Chesterton, but always felt better when he took out my picture and thought about how much he had helped me with my life.  I read the short letter several times.  It had never occurred to me that I meant much to him.  After I folded it up and put it back in its envelope, I started to cry.  I hated to cry but sometimes I just couldn’t help it.  Maybe I missed him.  I don’t know.  Maybe it was something deeper.  After my tears stopped and I blew my nose, I lay on my bed and thought about him and about the hike and about Danny for a long time.  It was then that I resolved to quit smoking and do better.  I wanted to be a good kid—to be a good student and have good friends.  I got up from my bed, picked up the pack of cigarettes I had left on top of my desk and carefully shredded the remaining two into my little wastebasket.

I did change my life.  I really did.  I got good grades the rest of the year in school and although I stayed friends with Earl, I became best friends with Paul, who got me interested in astronomy and science.  The quit-smoking part didn’t work, however.  I made it about three days and then I bummed one from Earl before buying a pack of my own.


BIO:  Dennis Wolverton is a creative writing student at Long Beach City College.