“Circle the Wagons” by Cathy Strasser

Green Rectangular Toy, Gray Boat Toy, Gray Shovel Toy, and Green Car Toy on Top of Brown Leather Surface

Jeff crouched in the sandbox, pushing his bulldozer. In two weeks, he would be finished with second grade. He liked this time of year because it stayed light enough to play outside after dinner. He switched from bulldozer to dump truck as the screen door at the Barnes’ house slammed. Leaning over, he could just see their back porch. It was Mrs. Barnes. She pushed up the sleeves of her tattered blue robe, stumbled to the edge of the porch, and started yelling. “You sons a bitches! You goddamn commie bastards! Who the hell do you think you are, treating us like that?”

Jeff jumped as her hand slapped the railing. Mrs. Barnes staggered back a step, then lurched forward to slap it again. “You got no right! No goddamn right. Who the hell makes the decisions anyway? What ass-hole decided to do this?”

Picking up his shovel, Jeff bent over to keep an eye on Mrs. Barnes. She was leaning against one of the posts now.

“You think you’re God, but you’re not. You’re nothing but a goddamn sorry-assed bunch of bastards who think they can rule the world…”

The slam of another screen door distracted Jeff. His mother came tiptoeing across the yard toward him and crouched down once she reached the sandbox. She was wearing her rainbow-striped housedress and smelled sweet, like the powder she had in the round pink box.

“Jeffey, would you like a popsicle?” she whispered.

Jeff nodded eagerly. Two desserts in one night! Usually she was very strict about desserts; he must have done something really good today. Happily, he followed her across the lawn. “…and I don’t give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks, I know what’s going on…” The front door cut Mrs. Barnes off as they entered the house.

His mother gave him the Popsicle and sat him down at the kitchen table to eat it. It was orange, his favorite, the kind with two sticks. He bit off the top while his mother bustled around slamming the windows shut. That seemed strange because she had been complaining of the heat at dinner, but Jeff couldn’t ask why with his mouth full.

His mother patted him on the head and went into the living room where his father sat reading the paper. The sharp tone of her voice carried into the kitchen.

“Tom! We have to do something. It wasn’t so bad in the colder weather, but now it’s getting unbearable to have to close the windows every night.”

Jeff heard his father’s low pitched voice answer, but couldn’t make out the words.

His mother’s voice jumped back in. “I don’t know who we should call. But there must be something we can do. It’s just not right to have to listen to that every night.”

Jeff noticed the Popsicle was beginning to drip down the stick. He tilted it sideways and sucked at the bottom to try to slow it down. He wanted to finish without making a mess. Whenever he was messy, his mother talked about not buying any more of whatever made the mess. Her voice resumed in the living room.

“Talking to him won’t do any good. For all we know he’s in exactly the same condition, just not so noisy. Lord knows what Jeff hears. All we need is for him to repeat some of that language at school and then we’ll be down there trying to explain it all!”

Silence. Jeff worried it would be one of those nights when their talk ended in the crisp crackle of the newspaper from his father, and the sharp slam of the bedroom door from his mother. On those nights his mother tucked him into bed so tightly he could barely move, and her good night kiss was so curt and fast it was like a stab to his forehead.

He waited, then heard the strike and sizzle of a match, a pause, two quick breaths and a long exhale. The tang of cigarette smoke drifted into the kitchen, and Jeff relaxed. When his father lit a cigarette for his mother and they sat smoking together, her goodnight kiss was always gentle and tender.

Carefully, he put his Popsicle sticks in the trash and checked his clothes for drips that might have escaped.

Finding none, he moved close to the living room door. His father was talking again, low and soothing, and when he finished his mother laughed for a moment. “But seriously Tom, something has to be done. I can’t spend the whole summer with the windows closed at that end of the house, and besides, it’s not healthy for her. She could fall and hurt herself or hurt someone else. She’s yelling threats out there.” More soothing murmurs from his father.

“If you say so Tom, but it needs to be soon. Now I’d better get our little scamp into his bath.”

The next morning, Jeff trailed slowly down the block to the bus stop. Billy Morton was ahead of him, walking with Joe Carter and Stephen Brooks. They were deep in conversation as they reached the corner.

“Ma Barnes was at it again last night.”

“What is that, three nights in a row?”

Joe kicked a rock into the street. “At least. What was she saying this time?”

“The usual. Goddamn this and son of a bitch that.”

All three boys sniggered.

“Was she bombed?”

Billy rolled his eyes. “You better believe it. She could barely stand.”

“My mom says it’s getting worse every week.”

“Was she yelling her dear son Eddie’s name this time?” Stephan’s kick sent another rock to join Joe’s.

“Nope, just a lot about commie bastards.”

Jeff edged a little closer. They were talking about Eddie. Eddie was his friend.

“Jeez, you wouldn’t think she’d get so nutty so fast.”

“How long has he been gone now?” Billy stepped out into the street and nudged both rocks together.

“He left just after Thanksgiving, and it’s almost June now…”

There was a silence as the boys counted.

“Seven months!” Joe got the answer first.

“When do you think he’ll be back?”

“I dunno. Maybe a year. If he doesn’t come back in a box.” Billy said, letting fly with his foot and managing to hit both rocks in one savage kick.

Jeff moved away again. He didn’t like the way their voices sounded. It was like when they decided to steal his lunch box or play keep away with his hat.

That was how he met Eddie last spring. The boys had taken his new baseball cap and were making him jump to get it back. Eddie was walking by the bus stop on his way to work and saw Jeff trying to jump without crying. He crossed the street and grabbed Jeff’s hat out of Billy’s hand.

“What’s going on here?”

“Nothing.” Billy muttered. Eddie towered over the three boys, and looked very tough in his green mechanic’s coverall. He seemed like a super-hero to Jeff.

“Why don’t you leave the little kid alone?”

“We were just playing. He doesn’t mind, do you Jeff?” Billy glared at Jeff, daring him to disagree.

Jeff didn’t know what to say. If he said yes, the boys would pound him as soon as Eddie left. If he said no, they’d take his hat every day and tell him he’d asked for it. Eddie solved the problem for him.

“Well, I mind. I don’t think its right for three of you big guys to gang up on one little kid.”

“It’s none of your business.” Stephan piped up from behind Billy, drawing nods and sounds of assent from the two other boys.

“It’s my business ‘cause Jeff here is my next door neighbor, and we’re buddies. Isn’t that right Jeff?”

He winked at Jeff. Jeff bobbed his head up and down.

“And I’m gonna make it my business to walk past this bus stop every morning to make sure you’re not bothering him. Got that?”

Jeff watched the three boys back away, grumbling about busybodies. Eddie stayed with him until the bus came and kept his word over the next few weeks, showing up at the bus stop most mornings.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the evenings, when Eddie came home from his job at the garage. He started calling Jeff to come over and help him with his project. Eddie was an auto mechanic. “A grease monkey,” he called it. During the day, he worked fixing up other people’s cars. In the evening, he worked on his own; tinkering with the engine to make it go faster. He said it was his ‘hot car’. Jeff couldn’t figure out why. He’d touched the car once when Eddie wasn’t looking, and it felt the same as any other car.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Eddie talked to him while he worked. He told Jeff about his plans for the car, asked him to pass tools, and called him ‘buddy’. They’d work together until it got dark and the smell of baking came stealing from Eddie’s house. Then Mrs. Barnes would call them both in to her shiny kitchen and offer them a snack, usually fresh from the oven. Jeff didn’t know there could be so many kinds of cookies.

“C’mon in boys,” she’d say, while the light from the kitchen touched her carefully curled hair and glimmered off the pearls she always wore. “It’s getting too dark to see out there.”

It gave Jeff a wiggly proud feeling in the pit of his stomach to be classed in the same category as Eddie. He liked Eddie very much.

Jeff’s mother liked Eddie too. “Are you sure he’s not bothering you?” she asked when she called him in for his bath.

“Nah, he’s a good egg.” Eddie said, while Jeff beamed up at him.

“He’s so polite and well behaved.” Mrs. Barnes added. “I hardly know he’s here.” Eddie’s father, a quiet man, murmured his agreement.

That always pleased Jeff’s mother. “I’m glad to hear you’re minding your manners while you’re there. It’s nice to know you remember the things I tell you.” And she would give him the soft bedtime tuck in.

Things changed when the leaves started falling off the trees. Eddie didn’t talk as much when they worked together. His mother talked more, and they both smiled less. Mrs. Barnes’ conversation didn’t make as much sense, and she seemed to be talking to herself a good deal.

“Here’s your snack,” she would say. “Heaven knows you should stock up now. Who knows what kind of food you might find…But you’ll have to eat. No one can do anything on an empty stomach. I just worry that there won’t be much worth eating.”

One night when Jeff went over to Eddie’s he was surprised to see that no tools were out, and there was a sheet pulled over Eddie’s hot car.

“Come over here buddy, we have to talk.”

Jeff went over and sat on the little stool Eddie kept in the garage just for him.

“I wanted to tell you I won’t be able to work out here with you for a while. I have to go away for a few months.

You see, there’s a war in a little country called Vietnam. Have you ever heard of it?”

Jeff shook his head.

“Yeah, I wish I never did either. It’s over by China. You’ve heard of China, right?”

Jeff nodded. Sometimes, for a treat, his mother would make chop suey for dinner. She’d tell him that was what the children ate on the other side of the world in China.

“Anyway, I have to go to Vietnam to help fight in that war. I just found out I’m leaving next week and I’m gonna be busy getting ready until I go. So I wanted to say good-bye now, okay?”

When Eddie didn’t say any more, Jeff nodded. That seemed to be the right thing to do. Eddie stuck out a hand.

After a minute, Jeff did the same and Eddie shook it.

“I’ll look for you when I come back. I’ll expect my buddy to be ready to help me again.”

Jeff nodded once more and Eddie steered him to the door. “Take care, buddy,” he said, then turned and went in to the house. Jeff ran through the yard to his own door; suddenly frightened. He had never seen Eddie so serious.

Over the next months, Jeff heard that strange word Vietnam in more and more places. It was in the news program his mother listened to on the radio. It was in church when they took a minute to pray for ‘our brave boys overseas’. It was even on the playground where kids talked about brothers and cousins ‘pulling low numbers’. For a while, Jeff listened, hoping to hear about Eddie. But no one mentioned his name, and soon Vietnam became just another grown-up topic, like ‘demonstrations’ and ‘student unrest’.

It was around Christmas that Mrs. Barnes started coming out on her porch to yell at the
neighborhood. At first, Jeff’s mother had been understanding.

“It’s the stress of the holiday season.”

She baked a cake and took it next door. She told Jeff to stay home because there would be a lot of adult talk and he would be bored. But she came back very quickly.

“I stood on their front porch,” she told Jeff’s father, “out in that cold wind, ringing their doorbell and no one would answer! I could hear someone moving around inside so I know they were home. I just can’t imagine why they wouldn’t come to the door.”

Jeff’s father inclined his head toward Jeff and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, all right. Jeff, scoot up to your room now and play. I have to clean up the kitchen and I don’t want you under foot.”

Jeff moved to the door and climbed the stairs as slowly as he could. His mother’s voice followed him.

“I thought they were such a nice family. But to act like this! I never thought someone could change so quickly.”

Mrs. Barnes continued to come out on her porch throughout the winter and spring. She stopped wearing her neatly ironed dresses and started wearing her robe, even in the daytime. Jeff’s mother stopped using her name and started calling her ‘that woman’. When school let out for summer, Jeff’s family took out a membership at the town pool. Every afternoon, they left the house and spent the day there. Jeff got a tan and learned to dog paddle. Jeff’s mother made new friends and exchanged recipes. Jeff’s father built a patio on the far side of the house, away from the Barnes, got a charcoal grill, and a big red apron that said ‘Chef.’

Jeff’s mother didn’t talk about Eddie or his parents unless it was an exceptionally loud night from Mrs. Barnes. Then his mother would say, “I don’t like the thought of Jeff going over there once Eddie comes home.”

“If.” his father said. “We’ll worry about that when and if the time comes.”

Eddie Barnes came home just before Halloween. He didn’t come in a box and he didn’t wear a costume. He had a purple heart pinned to his shirt and a metal hook sticking out of one sleeve.

The other sleeve was empty, and hung loosely from his shoulder.

Jeff didn’t see him come home, but he heard the story from the boys at the bus stop.

“Both his hands were blown clean off.” Billy said.

“They couldn’t even find any pieces.” Joe added, twirling his book bag by the strap.

“There must have been blood everywhere.” Stephan dropped his bag on the ground and stood straddling it, nudging it with his feet.

“I wonder what that must feel like.”

The sudden silence was awkward.

“He got a medal,” Billy rushed on. “Cause it happened while he was trying to save someone.”

“And the guy was booby-trapped; as soon as Eddie touched him, ka-boom!”

“Now he’s got a hook instead of a hand.” Joe stopped twirling his bag and started swinging it.

“What can you do with just a hook? He doesn’t have anything on the other side.”

“I bet he has to pee like a girl now.”

“And I bet he can’t even…” Stephan stopped suddenly as Billy nudged him. “What?”

Billy nodded toward Jeff. He’d moved closer when they started talking about Eddie.

“Don’t let the kid hear you. We might get in trouble.”

The three boys looked at Jeff, then moved away. Jeff didn’t care. Eddie was home.

Jeff waited for Eddie to call him over to his house, but the invitation didn’t come. Finally, he walked next door and rang the bell.

“Who is it?”

Jeff hesitated. Eddie sounded angry. The curtain over the door was wrenched aside, and Eddie’s face peered out. “Oh. It’s you. C’mon in.”

Jeff opened the door and followed Eddie’s back into the kitchen. The house smelled sour and musty, and the kitchen was cluttered and grimy. Eddie, dressed in a rumpled T-shirt and boxers, matched the kitchen. He sat down at the table and surveyed Jeff.

“You’ve grown. Now that you’re here, you can make yourself useful. See that pack of cigarettes?

Wedge one in here.” He held the hook up near Jeff’s face and turned to show a small opening. Jeff fumbled for the cigarette and tried to get it into the space.

“Not that way. There has to be enough sticking out so I can get my lips on it. That’s better. Now, grab that lighter and light me up.”

Jeff froze. His mother never let him near her lighter, and threatened dire punishments if she ever saw him touch one.

“C’mon, c’mon, you just flick that wheel with your thumb. Even a baby could do it.”

Stung into action, Jeff managed to light Eddie’s cigarette. He sat down across from Eddie and watched him inhale deeply. Eddie looked over at him. “You want one? Go ahead. I won’t tell.” Jeff stared and then shook his head. He’d be grounded for life.

“Suit yourself.” Eddie shrugged, an oddly off-balance action with only one arm. “It’s one of the few things I can still manage, so I do a lot of it.” He exhaled unhurriedly, letting the smoke trickle out through his nose. Jeff sat, hands pressed between his knees, waiting for Eddie to finish. The kitchen faucet was dripping slowly, and it made an odd counter rhythm to Eddie’s puffs on his cigarette.

Finally, he finished, knocked the stub out of his hook into a bowl on the table, and squinted over at Jeff. “So what’s your story these days, kid?”

Looking away, Jeff squirmed slightly in his chair. He didn’t like the way Eddie called him ‘kid’. He wished he’d go back to ‘buddy’.

“No story, huh? Just like me. No story, no chance of a story any more, just a lot of nothing. At the VA they gave me this,” he shook his hook toward Jeff, “and told me they could rig something up for the other side.”

He banged the table in disgust. Jeff jumped, then perched back on the edge of his chair.

“I told them not to bother. What’s the point? What good are a pair of hooks gonna do me? You can’t use tools with a pair of hooks, can you? CAN YOU?”

Eddie shouted the last two words at Jeff, leaning across the table toward him. Jeff shook his head, hunching away from Eddie’s yellowed teeth and stale breath.

“What the hell do you know anyway, you’re just a little kid.”

Jeff blinked and hung his head. They were buddies. Why was Eddie talking like this? He stole a quick look from under his eyelashes. Eddie was still looking at him.

“You don’t talk much, do you? Were you always this quiet? You’re like some kind of little spook, just sitting there, staring at me. Well, this is it, kid. This is all you’re ever going to see. So why don’t you just head back home to your mamma and leave me alone. I JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE!”

Jeff didn’t remember how he got to the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and looked back once more at Eddie. His expression hadn’t changed. He looked mad and scared and sad; just like Jeff was feeling. Jeff opened the door and ran out, leaving it to swing closed behind him.

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Jeff was out in the yard. His mother had shooed him outside, telling him to take advantage of the nice day before winter set in, and stay out from under her feet while she started tomorrow’s pies. Jeff went over to the sandbox and lined up his trucks.

His father thought he was getting a little old for the sandbox, but his mother told him to let Jeff alone. “He’s still a boy. Let him be one as long as he can.”

He cleared the leaves out of the corners of the sandbox and began to dig. Soon he had a road, a deep pit, and a parking area. He was just clearing out the space to try a tunnel, when a screen door slammed. He looked toward his house. His mother had promised him the leftover pie dough when she was done, but their door remained tightly shut. He leaned to the left and looked at the Barnes house. There was Eddie, out on the porch.

Jeff hadn’t seen Eddie since his visit to the house. No one talked about him much any more. When his name came up Jeff’s mother pursed her lips and shook her head, and even Billy, Joe, and Stephen no longer speculated about him. Jeff looked at Eddie through the trees. He seemed to have trouble walking. He got up to the porch railing and leaned against it, looking up toward the tree tops.

“You sons a bitches. You goddamn assholes. Who the hell do you think you are? Look what you’ve done to me. You had no right to play with my life like that.”

Quietly, Jeff began to gather up his trucks.

“I hope the goddamn commie bastards who did this burn in hell with you right next to them, you sick sadistic psychos. You think you know what’s best, but you don’t know a goddamn thing.” With the trucks neatly gathered in the corner of the sandbox, Jeff got up, brushed off his pants, and headed toward his house.

“You sent me to the other side of the world just to blow my fuc…”

Jeff closed the door firmly behind him.

“All done outside?” his mother said.

“I think Dad’s right. I’m too old to play in the sandbox.”



Cathy Strasser is an Occupational Therapist and freelance writer. She has had short stories published in the Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine, The Literary Bone, Silverthought Press Women’s Anthology, Touched By Wonder Anthology, The Chrysalis Reader, as well as a two article series in Cabin Life Magazine. She is currently working on her first book, Autism: A Therapist’s Journey Toward Enlightenment, describing her experiences in working with children with autism and will be published by AAPC in late 2007. Cathy is a member of The New Hampshire Writer’s Project and co-founder of the New England Chapter of the National Association of Women Writers. She lives in Sugar Hill , New Hampshire with her husband and two children.