Peter trailed a little behind Tom Sullivan and Gerry McDonnell. Since school had ended, he had sort of fallen in with them again, either out of habit or from lack of alternatives. He wasn’t sure if he fit with them anymore. For one thing, Sully and Mick had just finished Eighth Grade, and Peter had already been through a year of high school. Not only high school, but a Jesuit prep school in New York City with other alleged boy geniuses. And despite his less than stellar performance there, Peter felt he had found a place and friends who understood what is was like to be freakishly smart, and as the year had gone on, he’d felt less and less freakish, to the point where he actually thought he belonged somewhere. For Peter, school closing for summer was like being dumped by a girl who had gotten under his skin. Not that he really knew about that, but he could imagine. His new friends were all an hour or more away, so when Sully and Mick came calling, Peter didn’t see much choice but to pick up where he’d left off with them.
Peter had sometimes imagined himself as the glue between Sully and Mick, and it seemed that when he dropped out of sight last September, his buddies had become unglued. Even though they were still in the same class, they had become estranged, and on those rare occasions Peter would run into one, either Sully or Mick would start ranking out the other. So tonight was sort of an experiment, to see if they could raise some of the old hell. But it wasn’t just a trip back; his friends would graduate from grammar school in a week and they already had high school on their minds. So this was a test of whether that would bring them back together or send them spinning off in their own directions.
Peter swung his arms and legs energetically as he walked. After shriveling in the peculiarly harsh June heat, he felt larger out in the cool night air. Tom truly was larger than last summer, taller and broader in the shoulders, but what really struck Peter was the size of Tom’s hands and feet. With his poker-straight blond hair, Tom looked more like a Swede than an Irishman. Mick showed his age differently; more sunken and sullen, he showed crows around his eyes when he laughed, which seemed rarer now than in the past.
The boys tramped over a collapsed length of chain link fence, which Peter imagined had bowed down before them, a testimony to the power the night gave them, and they trotted over to the bleachers of Diamond 16. Peter spotted Frank Slattery crouched on the top plank, pitched forward as if a game was actually being played. A paper sack lay between his feet.
“Slats!” Tom howled, rippling the park air. “Brewski, brewski!”
“It’s still cold, man,” Slattery chirped. It struck Peter as odd that a guy Slats’ age would have his voice crack every other sentence. Slats had gone to Vietnam, picked up a medal or two and a heroin habit. Peter was supposed to shun guys like Slats, who’d shamed his family by turning into an addict. But he’d been an all right guy most of the time since he’d come home, and he was always willing to cop a six-pack for the neighborhood kids. Still, when Slats was around, Peter inevitably thought about age, and whether getting older automatically made you a man. It hadn’t seemed to take with Slats, and if Uncle Sam’s best efforts, including a uniform, basic training and combat, had not produced anything Peter could recognize as a man, what did that bode for boys from the same streets? If manhood could not be conferred by design, if variables in any one boy’s makeup could lead to such colossal failure, would Peter and his friends have to forge their manhood from deliberate acts or be crushed by some accident outside their control?
Peter reached for the sack at Slats’ feet, but Slats stooped down, pulling out five tall boys. “And I just had one,” Slats assured them. “That’s all.”
Tom snapped a can out of its plastic noose. He tossed it to Mick.
“Sully, don’t fuckin’ shake it!”
“Relax, fag, what’s a little foam?”
“Foam sucks. Ya can’t drink it.”
Peter snapped his can loose from the plastic holder. He pulled on the tab savoring the click and hiss. Cool vapor rose from the dark opening and a bitter aroma wafted towards his nose. Peter held his breath and gulped until his throat stung.
“You guys play Little League here?” Slats asked.
“Useta, Slats,” Tom groaned. “Little League stops at twelve.”
“Shit, I don’t know how fuckin’ old you guys are.” He crossed his legs on the plank in front of him and shoved his hands deep into his army surplus jacket. “But you all played here?”
“’Cept for Pro,” Tom said, bringing up Mick’s long-discarded nickname.
“Fuck off,” Mick snapped.
“Mick is All-Pro All-Star,” Tom laughed.
“All Pro,” Slats mused. “Cool.”
“It’s a rank,” Peter said. He wished Tom would drop it.
“Could be cool, but Pro can’t throw.”
“Nobody taught me, okay?” Mick climbed down the bleachers. He’d been over this point time and again.
“Coaches could teach you,” Tom jeered.
“Yeah, like I could show up for tryouts without knowing anything. Nobody ever even bought me a glove.” Mick took a deep swig. “Fuckin’ foam.”
“Hey, you don’t mind I have another?” Slats asked.
Peter shrugged and looked over to Tom.
“You copped it,” Tom said.
“Cool.” Slats popped another can. He took a long swig, then stared dreamily out at the diamond. Peter studied the man-child. Unkempt hair, wiry and dirty blond. A growth of stubble betraying both immaturity and aged weariness. His hollow eyes reminded Peter of the bronze corpus of the crucifix in the apse of St. Sebastian’s. Every time Slats spoke, Peter wondered if he should meditate upon the final words of someone who had or soon would descend into hell. Peter took a swallow of beer to wash those thoughts down.
“Who’d you guys play for?” Slats asked.
“Whellan Oil,” Tom said. “We sucked.”
“D.A.V.,” Peter shrugged. “We got to the championship my last year. But we lost.”
“D.A.V.?” Slats groaned. “You’re shittin’ me? My D.A.V.?”
“I don’t know. The…”
“Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 7, Post down on Sip Avenue?” Slats wagged his head. He tried to stand, but tottered and sat hard. “Those fuckin’ guys. They ever show up at your games, any of ‘em?”
Peter shook his head.
“Fuckin’ guys. They’re all down the Post going ‘My dick useta be two feet long, but I got it half blown off at Battle of the Bulge.’ And like, ‘They were gonna use my dick to raise the flag on Iwo Jima, but I got my balls blown off at Guadalcanal an’ couldn’t get it up. But I don’t give a shit, ‘cause I saved the fuckin’ world! And what did you do, asshole?’ An’ they don’t wanna hear you did what you had to do, y’know, just to fuckin’ stay alive. You put a needle in your arm, that’s not fuckin’ disability, that’s fuckin’ I don’t know.”
Peter drained his beer and jumped from the bleachers into the powdery dust below. A cloud kicked up. He crushed the can against the metal brace of the bleachers and worked the crease back and forth until the can tore. He folded it over to form a jagged point. Tom leaned over and eyed Peter’s handiwork.
“Punk test?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, hello!” Peter rolled his eyes. How drunk did kids have to get before a punk test made sense?
“I ain’t disabled according to them, so fuck what?” Slats kept ranting. “I can go play dominoes or fuckin’ backgammon somewheres else.”
Tom guzzled down to the foam and threw his can over Mick’s head onto the field.
“Sully, you got me wet!”
“So throw it back, Pro!”
Tom hopped off the bleachers and ambled down the grassy slope to the field. Arms outstretched, he offered Mick an easy target. Slats held up the last tall boy. “You guys. Hey, can I?”
“Take it,” Tom yelled.
“Sully!” Mick whined.
Slats waved his lanky arms, erasing the objection. “Look, next time I cop for you, I won’t drink any. It’s just tonight. It’s fuckin’ warm tonight, y’know?”
Mick stomped his can flat in the dust of the third base line. “He gets half just for coppin’?”
“Fuckin’ makes him feel good. What else’s he got?”
Mick kicked ferociously at his flattened can, managing to move it just a foot and a half.
Tom laughed, “Get your sister to cop next time. She’s eighteen,” and jogged up the slope toward the path. Peter followed after him, tossing a glance over his shoulder at Frank Slattery stretching his neck and arching his back to guzzle the pint can. No longer a slouching sacrificial lamb, Slats resembled a ragged coyote howling at the moon, so Peter let loose a howl and Tom joined in. They kept yelping until Mick caught up with them.
“You guys are stoned on one can!” Mick snarled. “You give it away ‘cause you can’t handle it.”
“Handle me here,” Tom laughed, pulling at his fly.
Peter laughed hard enough to snort. He was feeling looser. The path through the park felt spongy. The street lamps were soft candles, inviting the darkness instead of dispelling it. He was ready for this evening’s main event.