Scott Laudati on the marks left by the need to belong, and the greater need to be true to self.
Carl’s parents were divorced before we started first grade. For a few years, before Carl’s dad won a scratch off ticket and no one ever saw him again, I called Carl my best friend.
His parents went broke for his affection. That first Christmas, Carl’s mother bought him the Ninja Turtles Blimp. I asked my parents why Santa didn’t bring me one. It’s too expensive, they said.
On Fourth of July, Carl’s father drove to Pennsylvania and came back with a trunk of fireworks. All the neighborhood kids chased each other with sparklers. I asked my parents why we didn’t have any. It’s too dangerous, they said.
Carl’s father began to take longer trips. His mother had to pull Carl out of Catholic school. In the mornings we still walked to the corner, but I had to leave Carl there. For the public school bus. The public school kids were different. They were taller. Some of the older kids smoked cigarettes. “I’ll see you after school,” I would say, and watch as Carl shook hands with new kids. On my way home I’d wait at the corner for the school bus to drop off Carl.
One morning, just before Christmas, Carl told me he and some other boys on the bus started a gang. He told me they were called “The Savage Students.” The gang uniform was a Macho Man Randy Savage t-shirt. It had to be worn every day or you were kicked out of the gang. They were having their first initiation. A boy named Philip. He had to wedge a pencil in between the wooden boards of his teacher’s seat. “So when she sits on it,” Carl laughed, “it goes up her ass.”
I waited at the bus stop for an hour that afternoon but Carl never showed. I walked to his house. His mother was on the stoop, crying. “Carl got suspended today,” she said. “He’s grounded.”
Carl and his mother went to Brooklyn for Christmas break. I didn’t see him for three weeks. It was the longest we had ever been apart. We made a secret handshake before he left and promised to be pen pals. Neither of us ever wrote. I did get Carl a gift, though. My father got a promotion and we all went down to Disney World. “Holy cow,” I thought. “This is heaven.” I went into a gift shop and bought two Donald Duck pendants. One said “best” and the other said “friends.”
We got home and I ran right to Carl’s house. To give him my present. Carl didn’t hurry to come outside. His hair was longer. He had a gold earring. I handed him the pendant. “That’s really gay,” he said. “Look what my dad got me for Christmas.”
Carl and I walked into his backyard. He had a table along his back fence. Four empty beer cans were lined up a few inches apart. Carl left me in the backyard and went inside.
I looked at both Donald Ducks. The same plating on both. Donald’s blue cap hanging down over his eyes. His bill chiseled to smile. I put the pendants back into my pocket.
The back door opened and the black barrel of a gun came out first. I remember how big the gun looked in Carl’s hands. A black Daisy BB gun. Carl pulled the lever down and pumped the gun four times.
“It gets 800 feet per second,” Carl said.
He fired. The BB missed the can but you could see small pieces of wood splinter in the fence where it had hit. Carl pumped the gun four more times and handed it to me.
I didn’t know why but I knew it was trouble. I thought about my dead relatives looking down at me. It felt like the whole world was about to watch me go to the bathroom.
“No thanks,” I said.
“You can’t join my gang if you can’t shoot.”
I held the gun like I had seen in movies. I shot. The BB went up into the trees. A few birds flew out but other than that nothing happened. I don’t know what I was expecting. An explosion, maybe.
“You shoot like a girl,” Carl said.
He told me that snipers take a deep breath in and hold it when they shoot. He pointed out a white dot at the tip of the barrel. “Put that in the groove,” he said.
I took a deep breath. I put the dot between the groove at the end of the chamber. “Do it,” Carl said. “Pull the trigger.” I shot again. The empty can bounced off the fence. I didn’t move. I had power in my hands, and I knew how to control it. Carl picked up the can I hit and shook it. A lone BB rattled around the bottom. He showed me the hole the BB had made on the way in.
“Shoot till you miss,” Carl said.
I hit the other three cans. Then I shot their corpses on the patio floor. Carl never hit a can. Eventually I had to leave and let myself out. I could hear the gun’s pump clicking against the stock as I walked down the sidewalk.
The next day I met Carl at the bus stop.
“Do you want to play stickball today?” I asked.
“No. Let’s shoot more. I have an idea.”
Mr. Scornelli lived at the end of the block. Our parents told us he was on the last boat out of Sicily before the Nazis took it. They said the Nazis got the rest of his family and that’s why he lived alone. He was the evil neighbor all the kids were afraid of. When the baseball went over his fence everyone drew straws to see who had to jump the fence and get the ball back. At night his silhouette shuffled around his backyard. He kept a garden back there. The older kids told us it was where he buried small children.
Carl and I went into the woods behind Mr. Scornelli’s house.
“Let’s steal his eggplant,” Carl said.
I kept watch while Carl climbed the fence. He ripped three eggplants off the vine and tossed them over to me. We went back to Carl’s and shot the eggplant. I hit all three. Carl missed. Carl wanted to throw the eggplant back over Mr. Scornelli’s fence. “So he knows we’re not afraid of him,” Carl said.
I didn’t feel like shooting the next day. “Let’s play stickball,” I said. Carl agreed. We got our bat and went to the church. Carl had the best stickball bat. An old broom handle his father had taped for a decent grip. We took turns pitching and batting.
“Do you see all of these squirrels?” Carl asked.
I looked around. We were using a dumpster to stop the missed pitches. There must have been twenty squirrels jumping in and out of the dumpster.
“Yeah,” I said. “So?”
“I’m going home to get the gun. I’ll be right back.”
I sat against the dumpster and watched Carl turn the corner. When he was gone I kicked the dumpster. The squirrels didn’t leave. They stopped for a second. Looked at me. All of them. Like dogs. With confused heads titled to the side.
“Run,” I said. “Don’t you know what’s about to happen?”
I threw a rock at one but it didn’t flinch. You’re dead, I thought. You’re all dead.
Carl came back. The gun was in one hand, the box of BBs in the other. He was too excited to get the thing loaded. BBs were spilling out all over the ground. He pushed me out of the way and laid the gun on the ground.
“I’m going first,” he said. “No. You’re the better shot. You go.”
He handed me the loaded gun.
“I don’t know which one to shoot,” I said.
Carl studied the squirrels. “That one,” he said. He pointed at a baby.
“We can’t shoot that one,” I said.
“OK”, he said. “That one.”
It was a big fat sucker. I ran through all the reasons: It’s old, I thought, it’s ok. It’s an old fat squirrel.
I put the white dot in the groove. Carl was watching me. I pointed the white dot right between the squirrel’s eyes. Carl looked away from me, at the squirrel. I moved the gun an inch and shot into the dirt.
“You did that on purpose,” Carl said.
“No I didn’t.”
Carl took the gun from me. He pumped it six times. He put the butt against his shoulder. I could see from his stance he was going to hit it. He hadn’t hit a stationary can in a week but I knew he was going to hit the squirrel.
He took his breath.
“Don’t,” I yelled. “Don’t shoot it Carl.”
He exhaled and pulled the trigger. The squirrel fell off the curb. It started to run in circles in adrenaline psychosis.
Carl dropped the gun. We stood side by side. Watching the squirrel in some kind of heave. I think all sound left the earth at that moment. It looked like a broken-winged angel lying in the dirt.
I looked down at Carl’s hand. It was shaking. I took it. I clenched it. We understood a truth in that moment; for the first time we understood that we wouldn’t live forever, someday we would die.
The squirrel stopped flailing and collapsed. I watched its stomach moving up and down. It was hurt, but it wasn’t dying. Carl blinked a few times and threw my hand off of his.
“I’m going home,” he said.
“What about the squirrel?”
“Who cares? It’s a squirrel.”
“We can’t leave it. It’s still alive.”
“Hit it with a rock. Let the birds eat it. I’m going home.”
Carl picked up his gun and left. I sat next to the squirrel. Its black eyes stayed on me but it didn’t try to run. It was the acceptance of some order I didn’t understand.
I carried the squirrel home. The BB entered through its leg and stayed somewhere inside the squirrel’s body. Small pieces of bloodied cartilage were stuck in its fur.
My mother called animal control. I lied and said that I found the squirrel in this state. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I looked at the Donald Ducks. I didn’t think I’d ever be allowed in Disney World again.
Some time passed. Summer break came and Carl and his mother went back to Brooklyn. When school started I would still see Carl at the bus stop. He was smoking cigarettes by then and sitting on the bench with the older kids. We would nod at each other for a while. Eventually I just walked by.
My family moved to New Jersey soon after and I never saw Carl again. I remember when I was moving some boxes, he came over and we did our handshake. His head was shaved. He was going to a school that preps you for the military. I got a letter from him once. He was married and doing a tour in Afghanistan. He said he couldn’t wait to take his baby to Disney World and show her the things I was always talking about. He signed the letter with a poor drawing of Donald Duck. I wished I had kept the “best friends” pendants, but I gave them to someone else.