Casting stones (a short story)
"I swear, we didn't kill his goddamn goose!"
"Don't you ever talk to me that way. Put your father on the phone."
Neither of us cared to talk with her, but I handed him the receiver. With his eyes trained on me he did most of the listening.
"Uh huh... yeah... I see.. OK."
After he hung up, I pleaded with him to believe me, but he was tired of fighting. We drove out to her house in silence.
We waited at the door, avoiding each other's eyes. The brown woven mat bearing my step-father's initials felt like an insult. Dad and I shared a sense of dread. Mine involved Mr. Schuldauer, my accuser. My father's was now approaching the door.
"Hi Janet. Do you want me to wait?"
"No, but thanks. I don't know how long it's going to take." She looked down at me. "I can bring him back when it's over."
Watching my parents talk in person was always odd. When he talked with her on the phone, my father appeared relaxed, even disinterested. In person, he was a different man, nervous and wounded.
"OK then. David, you listen to your mother. I'll see you this evening." He rested his hand on my shoulder, but I could barely feel it. It was confirmed; I was screwed.
Maclean Cooper and I had been accused of killing a goose. It was an absurd charge, but we were only eleven and powerless over so much. The adults in our lives struggled with their own pains, their own problems. We were mere inconveniences.
Maclean, my little league teammate, was headed down the same bumpy path that I stumbled down four years earlier. The Coopers were splitting up. Mrs. Cooper and my mom had been close friends since childhood. Mom, the veteran divorcee, had been helping Betsy through her recent troubles. On Saturday, Mrs. Cooper dropped by for a long heart-to-heart, and I was asked to occupy Maclean. In hushed tones, Mom told me about them and said I should be kind when they come over, as if I needed a reminder.
Maclean and I grew bored of cartoons and opted for some noisier in-house play, at which time Mom interrupted.
"It's such a beautiful day boys. You don't want to waste it inside."
Herb must have been ruffling the sports page more intently than usual. So I shoved a couple Milkbones in my pocket to keep Bunker nearby, and we grabbed our jackets. With hours to kill and no clear destination, we slipped out the back door. Herb's property lay at the edge of Elkridge Valley, a sprawling expanse spotted with private homes. It was wooded as far as we could see and without fences, we didn't know who owned what, nor did we care. The tacit rule: if you see a house, you're too close.
"Does your mom talk like that?" I thought I'd break the ice.
"That loaded talk. ‘It's a beautiful day, boys. You don't want to waste it.' It's such crap."
Maclean snickered. "I don't know, maybe."
"It's like we're robots, and she's telling us what to think. Makes me sick." I walked ahead of Maclean as we entered the woods.
"I wouldn't sweat it. So where are we going?"
"I don't know. I thought we could just wander around, see what we find." Then I thought of the tree fort.
It was a natural starting point, but like all aspects of my stepfather's house it felt tarnished. I never belonged in it, was never at home among the faded initials carved in its planks. The floor was littered with cracked plastic toys and rusty trucks, castoff scraps from the first family. But I found a way to spice up that dingy space. With the help of Herb's subscription to Playboy, that tree fort became a welcomed oasis. During weekend visits, when the coast was clear, I rummaged through the den and master bedroom trashcans, the hunt nearly as exciting as the prize. If I was lucky, I raced to the tree fort, smuggled treasure beneath my jacket. Up in my hideaway I laid eyes on the cowgirls with their suede chaps and open vests. And the city girls in fuzzy couch poses, wine glasses, and bear rugs. The magazines were one of the few bright spots at my mother's.
Maclean scaled the rope ladder, and I followed. Spiders had moved in. We brushed aside webs, leaves, sticks, and acorns. I reached behind a section of nailed plywood and produced a shopping bag. Maclean stared.
"Check this out." I threw him Miss January.
"Whoa! Where'd you get this?" He raced to the centerfold.
"He lets you have them?"
"No way. I steal ‘em."
Maclean sat down cross-legged and dove in.
"She looks like, like Ellie May Clampett, except for the... you know." He held up one of the busty blondes in the barnyard.
"Yeah, I know. Bet Jethro never saw anything like that, huh?" We laughed and bragged, pretending to be grown up. Strange it was, seeing as the grown-ups had left us like they left each other. Alone. I grabbed a copy and we gawked away.
"Damn, what I'd give for an afternoon down at the see-ment pond. Just me and Ellie May."
"Yeah." I agreed, though my mind was on other things. I knew there was more to this sex stuff than tanned curves and boners. There was much I didn't understand about men and women, especially parents. They baffled me as much as the jokes in the magazines.
Bunker started barking, so the ladies went back in the bag.
The sky was dead gray and bold shades soured on the forest floor. Yellow maple and beech leaves, like old banana peels, were tainted with black and brown holes. Apple red leaves, curled into bird claws, lay burnt at the edges. The dank air was clipped by the spicy wasps of black walnut. It was a time of transition. We pressed on.
With sticks snapping beneath our boots, we forged our own path. Distant cawing of crows welcomed us, while miles above silver dots trailed their stitched scars across the sky. Trees towered all around, sunlight filtering through the branches. Occasional breezes, like long exhaled sighs, freed the stubborn leaves, which spiraled all around us. Acorns and walnuts plummeted from their branches. The smell of smoke from a distant neighbor reminded us we were not alone, but the woods were ours. We walked in no particular direction, trusting Bunker to find our way back. The old retriever always knew where dinner waited. We stared at nothing in particular and at everything.
"You know who you'll be living with?" I asked.
"Probably Mom. Dad's already got an apartment. It's kinda small, and she's got Millie, too. You been living with your dad, right?"
"Yeah. Sometimes I wish it were the other way around. But just between you and me, I'm not too crazy about Herb, so it works out."
"What's wrong with Herb?" Maclean smiled as Bunker brought him a stick.
"Well, for starters, he's old. He doesn't throw the ball around like Dad. He's bald, and he gets pissed when I flop down on the couch."
"Huh?" Maclean grabbed the stick. Bunker back-pedaled.
"When I come in the den, he's watching news, or reading the paper. I'll sit down on the couch to see what's on, and he gets grumpy. Says I need to sit more slowly."
"That's ridiculous. How do you sit slowly?" He released the stick.
"Beats me. I don't get him. Not sure what Mom sees in him either. I think she just got tired of being alone."
"How's your dad?" Maclean asked.
"He's OK, I guess. He's dated a couple times, but nothing serious. I don't think he wanted to split up."
"My mom's looking forward to it. She's fed up. Says he's mean to her, but I don't think it's that bad. Course, I'm usually asleep when he gets home."
"Are they getting divorced?"
"I don't see ‘em getting back together." He stopped by a fallen tree and lifted himself up on it. I sat beside him, our legs swinging free. "What's it like?" His voice grew softer.
"You mean after they split?"
"It's weird. Real weird at first, but then you kinda get used to it."
"Do they keep fighting?"
"Mine didn't. I think they did most of the damage while they were still together. They seem pretty careful when they talk now."
Maclean turned away.
"You'll be alright. It takes some time, but it's not the end of the world. Come on." I hopped off the trunk and walked ahead. That last line I lifted from my dad. He said it a lot. I often wondered exactly what was the end of the world, and, when it came, were we then allowed to get pissed off? By then it seemed rather pointless.
We wandered up to the edge of the Schuldauer property and paused beneath tree branches by the edge of a large pond. Hank Schuldauer had been widowed for eight years. The retired banker became a hermit in his own vault. At cocktail parties whispering gossips called him the "recluse of the valley." Mom had invited him over to several holiday gatherings, but he always declined, so she stopped asking. "People like him just want to be left alone," she said. I could understand.
His house sat on a rise, facing Caves Road. A large bay window stretched across the back overlooking his property. Three plateaus stepped down behind his home, each with a pond. The closest one, the size of a small swimming pool, was concealed by boxwoods and willows. The rickety remnants of a gazebo begged for nails and paint. The middle pond, as big as a hockey rink, would have made an ideal wintertime gathering spot had Mr. Schuldauer been a charitable man, but the old guy wasn't lending much anymore.
The third pond, furthest from his house, was the size of two football fields. A lone dock stood with missing planks. One corner sagged, dipping to the water's edge, as if taking a sip. A decrepit old dinghy lay tucked among reeds and grasses. Cattails sprang up in several spots along the edge, and the entire pond was ringed by massive oaks and pines. It was here where a curious mix of mallards, wood duck, and snow geese puttered about.
Maclean threw a stick out on the water. It floated, so we tossed rocks to see who could come closest. It was fun, wholesome entertainment, so we thought. We never suspected that behind the bay window a man watched us through his binoculars. A few birds in the distance honked and flapped their wings, but we ignored them. The game lasted a few minutes and we moved on, searching for frogs in a cattail patch.
On our way back we came upon a chestnut tree. A distant memory stirred. My mother's father had a huge chestnut tree in his back yard. We used to collect the little burred gifts for their treasures inside. My grandfather once challenged me to find ten good ones, so I found thirty. After opening them all, palms scraped and bleeding, I buffed them to a smooth veneered finish, shiny as their antique furniture. Piled in the front of my shirt I ran to my grandmother's kitchen. She handed me a colorful porcelain bowl, Italian, she said, pale yellow and blue. I filled it with the best ones, arranging them just right. Beaming with pride, I presented it to them. My grandfather grinned, nodded approval, and tousled my hair. Mema said she had never seen such a collection in all her years. Could she put the bowl on the mantelpiece, she asked, to show to her bridge friends?
While Maclean marched ahead, I stopped and searched for a loaded bur. I opened one, and the nut seemed smaller and duller than the ones in my grandfather's yard. I pitched it aside, and with dinnertime nearing Bunker led us back. Mrs. Cooper thanked us for a nice visit and they left. Later on, my mom drove me back to my father's. The next day, after mass, we got the call.
Maclean had already met with Mr. Schuldauer, I was told, while Betsy waited outside. I could only wonder what was said. Now it was my turn. Mom and I walked in mutual, silent anger. There was no discussion, no explanation. Her message was clear: you have to apologize. I wanted to tell her what I was really sorry for, like all the pain I didn't create, but had to bear. Like why I never asked my friends over because I was embarrassed of Dad's cooking, or Herb's age, or how I hated looking to the bleachers for one parent or the other, but never both, and how it felt to wave goodbye to my father on Christmas mornings as my mother drove me away. I was sorry for plenty of things but apologies never made a difference. Why would they now?
His house was in widowed condition. The walkway resembled the lonely dock, neglected and cockeyed. Flagstones were loose and mossy, and leaves covered the yard. His porch was dim, a rusty receptacle by the front door crammed with yellowed fliers. My mother rapped her knuckles on the door, four metered knocks. I stared at my shoes.
"Just head back when you're done. I'm not going to wait." The air was crisp that autumn afternoon.
I tried to dry my hands on my corduroys, but it wasn't necessary. When he opened the door I put my hand out. He just looked at mom.
I followed him to his den. It was dismal and cold in there, and the fireplace was empty. Black iron tools leaned against the stone hearth. The nervous ticking of a grandfather clock was hollow and pained. An oil portrait of a pleasant woman hung on the wall, her gaze spectral and lifeless. The threadbare rug had seen better days.
I sat on a stiff wooden chair, severe as a church pew. The old man lowered himself onto his couch, in a slow and deliberate fashion that Herb would have appreciated. He slumped to his side, resting his arm on the edge. Mr. Schuldauer had thin, wispy hair, hand combed at best. Liver spots covered his cheeks, and his turkey neck dangled when he spoke. His lips were wet and fleshy, with little strings of spit that failed to snap when he spoke.
"You know why you're here?" He scowled at me.
"My mom says one of your birds died."
"That's right. You boys killed her."
I knew I was supposed to apologize, but I didn't kill anything. I stalled. The grandfather clock ticked. The old man stared. The painting stared. With no TV or radio, no family or pets, there was nothing to distract this moment. I gulped and shifted in the chair.
"I'm kinda confused. The only geese I remember were way across the other side. I know we chucked some sticks and stuff, but how did we kill one?"
"You scared it to death." His voice was flat, his expression dry. "She was floating on top after you all left." He held his hand out to demonstrate. It quivered.
"But we didn't throw anything close to them? I, I don't get it."
"You don't get it?" He sat up. "Well what exactly do you get, son?"
The "son" threw me off. I hated him for saying that. I forgot the question. His tired fish face hovered, waiting for a response. I wanted to tell him that what I get is a lot of grief.
"Those birds were doing fine until you boys showed up. And I don't mind telling you, this is private property. You all had no business down there to start with, now did you?"
"No sir." I could barely hear myself. There was a long silence. I lost track of whose turn it was.
"I've already spoken with your friend, and he said you all didn't mean any harm. I believe him, but that's beside the point." He looked down at his hands for a moment, then back at me. "She's dead now." I squirmed. I glanced at the painting, and he saw me look there. His stare was cold metal and he worked his lower jaw from side to side. I thought about Maclean and what he might have said.
"I want to show you something. Come with me."
He labored on ahead, his pants sagging low. The house smelled of stale coffee and grease. I tried not to breathe. I followed him through the kitchen and into his garage. A dusty brown Buick filled most of the space, unused like his tools. He walked me around the back of the car, and pointed to the floor. She lay on the concrete slab. Belly up, wings partly open, her beak was turned to the side, eyes pinched. There was no blood, no telltale signs of death.
"Do you get it now?"
I had no words. I still couldn't make the connection.
"They been coming here for three years, maybe four. Spend their winters in the big pond." His gaze lifted from the dead bird to me. He waited for a response.
"Snow geese." His eyes returned to the bird. "Her gander's out there by himself now." His voice changed. It lost the edge. There was something brittle in it now.
I pictured the lone goose out there, searching for his mate, a mournful honk sounding through the trees. Mr. Schuldauer was leaning, one hand resting on the Buick. He didn't seem so scary anymore.
He pulled in a deep breath and let it out. "What do we do now?" I couldn't tell if this was for me. He stood upright and placed his hands in his pockets. I decided it was.
"Bury it?" I offered.
"That'd seem about right. Meat's spoiled by now."
I looked around the garage. A rusty shovel hung between two nails. "Do you want me to help?"
"What say?" He was still staring at the floor.
"Should I get the shovel?"
"Yeah. Yeah, you'll need that." He pushed a button on the wall and the garage door groaned and clattered. "And don't forget the bird."
I didn't want any part of it. I'd dig the hole, but I didn't want to touch it. I gripped the shovel with both hands.
"Pick her up by the neck, son. She won't bite."
Damn him. I tried to slide my hand under her neck and it moved to the side. I had to pinch it to get my fingers under. The neck was supple and cool. I lifted her, surprised by the weight, sickened by the creaky bones in her neck. She was a big bird and swayed as I walked. Mr. Schuldauer stood by the edge of his woods, scraping pine needles with his heel.
"This'll do fine. Right here." He pointed to the ground with his shoe and backed up.
The ground was hard but not frozen. When the hole was big enough I picked her up.
"Not yet, not deep enough." His hands rested on his hips.
I went back to work, wondering how deep he would make me go. After a few more minutes he consented.
"That's good. Now lay her in there gently. Don't drop her."
I knelt on the cool damp earth, my knees straddling the hole. Gripping her neck with my left hand, my right beneath her body, I lowered her down. Her wing caught on the edge. I jiggled it free. After laying her head across her breast I plowed armfuls of dirt into the hole. Back in the garage I hung up the shovel, brushed my hands off on my pants and turned to Mr. Schuldauer.
"You know what you did wasn't right." I nodded. "But I can understand." He paused and looked out the door. "Hell, I used to do stuff like that myself. Point is, you just can't walk away from it. You boys might never known you killed something precious."
He reached his hand out. We shook. "I'm sorry Mr. Schuldauer."
"I know. Now go on."
I walked away to the groan and clatter of his garage door.
Note: Due to an embarrassing array of mix-ups, an excerpt (which was not marked as such) from this story appeared in the July 26 edition of the Hook.–editorRead more on: hook short story contest