One thing that gives us great satisfaction here at BoomerCafé is the gift of creative writing, a gift that comes to some baby boomers from a lifetime of perspective and experience. Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Keefe of Denver, Colorado — longtime editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post and a regular contributor to USA Today — is endowed with that gift himself, and treats us to a piece that just won the 2014 Non-Fiction award at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. It’s touching … and true. We present “Blue Grenade” in two parts.
I am cleaning my catch at the water’s edge, kneeling on a flat stone the size of a car hood. Bluegill. Perch. Working on the last one of the batch. I punch the point of my pocket knife blade through the fish’s skull. End his suffering. I slit open his belly, scoop out the pearly innards and pitch them into the lake.
I don’t know it yet, but this is my brother’s last day on earth.
And here I am, fishing.
I scrape scales from the slippery skin. All together a half dozen keepers. Not bad. I rinse the gutted fish in the gentle waves lapping against the rock. Gary Hacking and his dad are packing up. We’ve caught our limit and we’re preparing to head home.
It is a bit of a puzzlement to me why I am here with them in the first place. Gary is a couple of years older than I am and quiet, hardly says a thing. He is not a friend of mine. He and his parents live up the hill from us, at the end of the block. He’s an only child. When I walk to elementary school in the morning I always see him at the junior high bus stop, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a two-tone jacket, beige and brown. He stands apart from the other kids. Yesterday, out of the blue, his father invited me to join them today on this excursion to Creve Coeur Lake.
We are coming up on the last week of school and I have the uncomfortable suspicion that I am being recruited to be Gary’s summer friend. Why else am I here with these people? I’m eleven and this does not sit well with me.
Mr. Hacking bundles our fish in Reynolds Wrap and stashes them in the cooler, then lifts it into the trunk of the car. As we decouple the rods and stow them in back, he says he’s heard that I’m interested in the war. World War II. That’s true. But how does he know?
“I’ve got something you might like to see,” he says.
He digs through a small cardboard box in the trunk. “Here,” he says, and drops a grenade into my outstretched hands.
“Holy cow!” I say, recoiling for a split second, but hanging on to the thing.
It is a genuine United States Army hand grenade which, for some mysterious reason, has been painted powder blue. It’s the real McCoy. Pin, spoon, dimpled iron casting. It feels heavy and serious. Mr. Hacking explains that the explosive charge has been removed. It’s a dud.
While we drive home, I sit in the back seat, rolling the grenade from palm to palm. Gary is dozing up front, his head tapping against the passenger window. Behind the wheel, his dad is silent, but I keep catching his eyes on me in the rearview mirror. I feel like I must be doing something wrong and set the grenade next to me on the seat.
“Home,” Mr. Hacking says as we pull up next to their house, a half-hour drive from the lake. He pokes Gary on the shoulder and says, “Home.” Gary jumps and says, “Huh?”
Home is Wismer Road in St. Ann, a St. Louis suburb of small post-war, two- and three-bedroom brick houses. We live in a rental halfway down the hill from the Hackings. Ours is two-bedroom with Mom, Dad, and Pat in one and me in the other. Teri sleeps in the tiny, doorless dining room, off the kitchen.
Over the years, when she chooses to, Teri will tell me about conversations she’d overheard between Mom and Dad at the kitchen table. Some of those talks she will keep to herself well into middle age.
We unload the gear from the trunk and Mr. Hacking carries the rods and tackle box into the house. He offers to share the fish but I decline, saying that we didn’t eat fish, which is not entirely true. We often have frozen Bird’s Eye.
Gary, still sleepy, leans against the front fender, wiping his specs with his shirt tail, eyelids flagging.
Then Gary’s father tells me I can keep the grenade.
I am overjoyed. I thank him for that, thank him for the fishing trip. I’m still not sure why this outing has happened, but I like to fish despite feeling awkward around the Hackings.
I head down the hill, happy. I hold my new possession to my nose and sniff. Behind the residue of dirt, earthworms and fish scales on my fingertips, there is the iron essence of deadly intent. It thrills me.
I study the grenade, intuiting how, upon detonation, the shell would fracture along the grooves, spewing shrapnel into pieces the size of Double Bubble gum pads. I am engrossed in this relic of the war and don’t look up until I hear the clunk-clunk of heavy doors closing in front of me. There is an ambulance in our driveway. One man in white throws the bolt securing the rear doors then joins his partner who is already in the driver’s seat.
The ambulance pulls out slowly, crunching gravel, no lights, no siren.
Teri sees me coming down the hill. She is the center of attention within a knot of neighbor kids her age, seven and eight. She dashes my way, her entourage trailing behind. Out of breath when she reaches me, she says, “Pat died, Mike. Pat’s dead.”
I am suddenly underwater. I watch my sister’s mouth move, see the other kids looking at me from above the surface, their faces distorted, their voices muffled. I can’t hear what they are saying. I have no air supply.
I need space. I need to breathe. I bat my arms and run, sprinting for the house. Dad catches me before I can dive through the front door.
“Stop,” he says.
I try to duck around him but he has me by the arm.
I flail at him.
“Stop,” he says.
He says, “Patty’s gone.”
I look up at him, my father. There is a weight bearing down upon him that I have never seen before. And this scares me.
“She needs some time.”
He turns me around and tells me, “Please, go play with your sister.” He steps behind the screen door, latches it and disappears into the house.
Play with my sister? Play?
Teri and her friends are waiting a few steps away. I walk past them.
“Where are you going?” Teri calls after me.
“I’m just going.” She starts to follow but I put up my hand, No.
Downhill from our place is the Teehan house. I cross their yard and walk to the barren baseball field at the Lutheran church where Wismer kids often gather to play ball or race bicycles. The field is deserted. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, the blue grenade still in my hand.
My brother, Patrick Lawrence Keefe, is dead.
Two and a half years old, a very sick child and yet I had never doubted that he would be with us forever. That was what my mother believed. I knew that for a fact. By God, she was going to keep him alive. Damn the doctors. She knew more than they did. Hadn’t she already proven them fools when they told her he’d be lucky to live six months?
With all my might, I heave the grenade into the sky. It comes down with a thud and a puff of dust a yard short of the batter’s box. I trudge over and pick it up. Why is it painted blue?
Up the block I can see Teri’s crowd running around in the Bayless’s driveway. Uphill neighbors. I can’t figure out what the kids are doing. Playing Tag maybe. It doesn’t seem right to me. But I don’t know what’s right, certainly not what I’m doing.
I loft the grenade again, this time out towards the shortstop position. When it hits the ground I make a soft explosion sound, gritting my teeth and puffing my cheeks. I realize I must sound like a six year old.
Back and forth I traipse, pitching the blue grenade every which way, round and round the infield until the sun begins to set, and my shoulder aches.
…. Tomorrow, Part II of Blue Grenade.