I know I’ve posted this before, but in honor of its upcoming release as an ebook, here’s the first chapter of
The Death of Patsy McCoy
Approaching your hometown after twenty years, to attend the funeral of a childhood friend, I guess your thoughts are pretty much destined to run backward. There was a time when I knew beyond any reasonable doubt that my life was going to be wasted. That it was, in fact, already wasted. I’d sit alone on the back porch, reading some crime thriller or space opera, and I’d feel all the same urges that have united sixteen-year-old boys since crime thrillers and space operas were invented. I’d be a famous detective, or a fearless astronaut, or a brain surgeon, or a quarterback; something, anything, if only I didn’t live in Bumhole, Kansas.
Fifty years earlier, a hundred and sixty acres would have been a lot of land. When I was sixteen, it was small enough my dad could work it by himself, just him and a few machines, and still work at the mill.
Twenty years sooner, and I might have been busy enough in the work of the place to have been ok. Twenty years later, and I would have had MTV and MySpace and Google to keep me company. We had neither, and we found our own trouble. That summer, we found Patsy McCoy.
His death began the moment we saw him. It just took a long time to consummate that death. We began to kill him when we first saw him, walking slowly up the road that led past Stud’s place, his eyes flicking away from us and shifting from bush to chimney to tree, and then flicking away from us again.
Stud got up like he was going to go talk to him, his basketball trapped under one arm, but then he just stood there. We didn’t get many new guys in Bumford. Sometimes somebody’s cousin would show up for a visit, but that was it. We were sitting there on Stud’s steps, all five of us, doing nothing, not even talking much, just wasting our lives and not really caring. What else was there to do in Bumhole?
The new kid slowed, but he kept coming. Pudgy and doughy, sweating like it was hot out, squinting a bit. His eyes began to flick away from us a little later, a little more slowly. He began to lick his lips as he approached, like he thought he’d get a chance to speak, like he thought he had anything to say.
“Think fast!” Stud said, launching his basketball at the new guy’s stomach. He didn’t think fast enough, grunting wheezily as the ball bounced off onto the road.
“Hey! Pick my ball up, stupid! Don’t let it bounce on the ground like that! Who do you think you are, Fatso?” Stud shoved him a little with both hands. We circled around behind him, surrounding him. He began to shift around, like he was trying to keep tabs on all of us at the same time, but we had some kind of group-think going on, and we sidled around and around so he couldn’t track us. It was like we’d been harassing new guys all our lives. That was Stud. He could do that. He’d get some plan in his mind, and it’d spring full-blown into the minds of all of us, like he was some kind of god or something. He thought he was, anyway.
He stood there spread-legged like the eye of our storm, not following us as we circled, his eyes on the new guy’s, his arms crossed high on his chest.
The new guy stooped down over his baggy belly and groped for the ball, but it rolled away from him a bit, and he had to stand back up to go after it. He bent down again, and Spittle kicked it to Stud just as his fingertips brushed it.
“Hey! Don’t kick my ball, Fatso!” Stud said, trapping the ball under his foot and smacking Fatso on the arm. “Who do you think you are?”
“Don’t argue with me, Fatso,” Stud said, dead quiet, and Fatso fell silent.
“I’ve asked you twice, now, Fatso. Who do you think you are?”
Fatso licked his lips again, his eyes flicking from one face to another, back to Stud’s.
“Um my butt! Pay attention! Your name, Fatso! What’s your name?”
“Uh, Patrick, Patr–”
“Patricia? Your name’s Patricia? My little sister’s name is Patricia!” Stud looked around at us, demanding laughter.
“No, it’s Patri–”
“What’s that? What’s that you say, Patricia? Patsy? It’s Patsy? Ok, it’s Patsy, then. Guys, meet Patsy!” and Patsy McCoy was born. We created him. We created him, and then we began to kill him.
“Come on,” Stud said, turning away, three-pointing the ball into the porch swing on the way by. Patsy stood there a few seconds, like he wasn’t sure he was supposed to come along, but Bowels was behind him, and he gave him a shove to get him started.
“Come on, Patsy! What’s the holdup?” he demanded.
Patsy took a couple of steps, but then he stopped and looked behind him. “I, um, uh, I think I’d better–”
Stud, almost into his side yard by now, stopped and turned toward us. “Look, Patsy,” he said, and his voice was almost friendly, almost helpful. “School starts in six weeks. You want to be the new guy then? You want to see what that’s like, going to our school and not being one of us? Come on. You gotta do this.” He turned and walked away, confidently, like he knew he’d be followed, like he knew we’d all troop along behind him, like we always did. That was Stud.
Across the big gravel farm yard, down behind the barns, there was a wide, shallow gully, choked with willows and cottonwoods, scrub forest up the slope beyond it, a slow muddy stream at the bottom. We called it the river, but I don’t think it even had a name. There was a place there that we called the swimming hole, but if you’d tried to dive there, you would have broken your neck. We had a rope swing that went out over the water, and if you dropped off of it, you had to do a cannonball, or you’d hit bottom. Sarah Gilbert had broken her ankle, the summer before, when she was twelve, because she didn’t tuck quite hard enough. She let me sign her cast, and after the first couple of letters, I pretended I had to hoist her foot a little higher, but it was only so I could see more of her leg under her yellow skirt.
We weren’t headed there, though. We crossed the river on the old log bridge, one at a time, arms stretched out to our sides for balance. Patsy went last, and we threw sticks and rocks at him, urging him to fall in. He made it, but it was a close thing.
Downstream a few yards, on the far side of the river, a big birch tree stood alone among the cottonwoods, and we had slowly put together a pretty decent treefort up there, dragging pallets and planks from any construction site we could find. There was a ladder of sorts up the side of the tree, and remodeling the treefort was one of things on our minds that summer. Not that we’d done a whole lot about it.
Patsy went last again. We’d get used to that, before the summer was over. He almost always went last. When we were all up in the treefort, gathered on the big uneven platform we called the deck, Stud said there’d have to be an initiation for Patsy. All that went through my mind was the thought that none of us had had to undergo any initiation, but I didn’t argue. We’d been born to it, so to speak.
Babyface goes “Yeah, we should put a sack over his head, strip him naked, and beat him with blackberry vines!” He had that avid look he always got when he talked about stuff like that, but we were used to him, and we all ignored him. Except Patsy. Patsy looked pretty worried. Babyface would have been about fifteen then, but he looked like he was twelve, and I could see how it might spook a stranger to see this little kid talk about beating a naked guy with blackberry vines, especially with that look on his face.
“Hold your arm out,” Stud said. “We all get to hit it three times, as hard as we can. Just our fingers, open, like slapping. Like this,” hitting the air in front of him like it just lost at rock, scissors, paper. Patsy hugged his arms against his ample stomach, but Spittle and Bowels were both between him and the ladder, and there was no railing, and he looked a little scared. I admit, there was a slow stirring of some lurking evil, deep down within me, knowing we had him trapped up there until we felt like letting him go. There was a power there, there was something there that said Your life is wasted? No, look at this. Look what you can do!
“Hold your arm out, Patsy,” Stud said, and he slowly put his arm out to his side, his other hand clutched below his bicep like he could keep the pain from climbing up through there. His eyes were clenched, but there was still a tiny slit of wet glimmer in them as he looked from one to another, not looking at Stud at all.
Babyface went first, of course, his hand sweeping down so fast and so hard his heels came up off the boards, his open fingers sliding from the inside of Patsy’s forearm in that welt-raising lash he’d developed for rock, scissors, paper. There were tears in Patsy’s eyes before Babyface’s three strikes were all laid down, but still, there was that tiny watchful gleam.
I went next, think. Either that, or I went after Bowels. I remember my fingers stung for twenty minutes, afterward. I know Spittle was next-to-last, and then Stud took his turn.
“Look at me, Patsy,” he said. “If I have to do this for you, the least you can do is look at me. Why are you crying? Baby. Crybaby. Now I have to do this, just because you’re a crybaby,” he said, slowly licking the fingers of his right hand. Patsy’s eyes widened in fear, like he couldn’t have closed them if he’d wanted to, as Babyface started in about getting to go again. We should all get to go again, he said, because we hadn’t licked our fingers.
“No,” Stud said, “that wouldn’t be fair. That would just be cruel,” and he slowly laid down his three lashes.
Afterward, we went inside. There were only five seats, though, two old car seats and the Woolsack, Stud’s broken recliner. We’d hauled them all up on a block and tackle. Patsy had to sit on the floor. He sat there and snuffled and sniffed as Stud laid out the plan. We’d see to it he was one of us by the time school started, so he wouldn’t have to go through that alone, and all he had to do was put up with a little hazing. I was watching his eyes, and I think he thought he already had, that it was already over. It hadn’t even begun.
“Have you moved a lot?” Stud asked, sounding almost like he cared.
“No, this is the first time,” Patsy mumbled, rubbing his arm. The welts were pretty impressive, but I knew from rock, scissors, paper that the pain would go away quickly, and I wasn’t sure he wasn’t already starting to milk it.
“Well, then,” Stud said like that settled something, his hands out like there you go, then. “Do this, you’re in like Flynn, dude! You’re one of us by the time school starts. You’re in, not out. You’re accepted, not a new guy. Believe me, you don’t want to be the outsider. No parties, no girls, no nothing. What’s a little hazing to all of that?” and he looked around at us, demanding our agreement.
We taught him the secret handshake, made up on the spot by Stud, explaining our own fumbles by telling him it wasn’t the one we used. It was the Lesser Secret Handshake, only used by initiates, and we’d teach him the real thing when he became one of us. After his hazing was over.
He’d get his new nickname then, too, we promised, his cool nickname like the rest of us. Patsy was just his initiate nickname.
It was late by the time we left, walking through the gloomy woods to the bridge, and we didn’t even try to make him fall as he shuffled across behind us.
Oh, I know. Believe me, I know. I knew even then. Even while some small part of me was enjoying it all, I knew it was wrong. It was like signing Sarah’s cast on her front porch. Even though I hardly knew her, even though she was just a friend’s little sister, even though she was two years younger than me, I squatted there on the steps in front of her, her foot in my lap, lifting her knee farther and farther off the porch trying to see her panties, and the thrill I felt was mostly shame. I don’t think she ever did catch on, but she reached down by some female instinct and tucked her bright yellow skirt in under her thigh before I ever got that flash of white, or baby blue, or lavender. I was almost as relieved as I was disappointed.
The hazing of Patsy McCoy was the same thing all over again. I knew it was wrong. I’m pretty sure Stud knew it, too, even though he was the force behind it. Bowels I don’t know about, Spittle was too dumb to know the difference, and I think Babyface thought it was all great stuff, but I knew it was wrong, and I still think Stud knew. But for months after that day on the Gilbert’s porch, I dreamed long, detailed dreams of her, asleep and awake, and for all those weeks we persecuted Patsy, I lived in a thrill of secret pleasure.
We rebuilt the treefort that summer, after two years of saying we should. We’d talk about how we’d learned all the things not to do, all the ways not to build a treefort, but we never did anything about it until Patsy came along. Until we had a grunt to do our grunt-work.
We made him haul on the block and tackle, hoisting things. We made him tote the heavier pallets and planks we stole from construction sites. If we had nothing for him to carry, we’d make him walk ten feet behind us, or we’d make him walk in front while we made fun of his rolling waddle.
Every time he began to grow a little bit of backbone, saying it wasn’t fair, saying that surely, by now, he was one of us, Stud would go into his routine again, about how soon school would start, and how badly he needed to be one of us by then. He’d always fall silent then, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up and staring off into the distance, or down into the fire, or at the boards at his feet.
When we first saw him, on the road in front of Stud’s place, he wasn’t really fat. He was pudgy. He was well-padded. We hounded him so much about how he ate like a pig that he began to eat like a pig. We called him fat so often, he got fat to earn our approval. We mocked his waddle until he began to waddle.
I don’t know how it would have ended, had things just gone on the way we all thought they were going to. If we’d all gone back to Bumford High School like we thought we were going to, would he have been one of us at last? Would he finally have earned that? Or would we simply have taken it all to school with us, to recruit all the other students into the I Hate Patsy McCoy Club?
They closed the mill. A week before school started, the owner made the announcement on the local radio station that the mill was closing effective immediately, the end of day shift today. If you’re scheduled to come in tonight, or any time after that, don’t. We’re closed.
I don’t know how it would have ended.
All of our fathers worked at the mill. All of us except Patsy lived on places that could be called farms, but none of them really paid off, and all of our fathers except his worked at the mill to try to make ends meet. Stud’s old man had been going along pretty well, till the energy crisis spiked the fuel costs up into the sky, and then he had to work, too. Now, with the mill closed, they all congregated down at the diner, talking about the places they could go and the things they could do to try to make up for it. Talking about losing places that had been in the families for generations.
One by one, all the old places would be boarded up and emptied. Most of us would never see the inside of Bumford High that fall. Stud’s old man took a night job driving a milk tanker to Topeka and back, and Patsy’s dad had been working for the city, anyway, but all the rest of us would leave that fall.
I haven’t been back since.
My fingers clench harder and harder around the steering wheel as I close on Bumford for the first time in over twenty years. I’ve called around a little. I’ve googled a little, and I know the diner’s still there, still the social center of this backward-looking ex-milltown. I know Patty, Stud’s little sister, works there now. I’m hoping we can forget, or ignore, the string of quickies in the big barn behind their house.
Stud went on and on all the time about his kid sister, how she was the definition of sweet and pure, and it was almost like Patsy and his waddle. The more I heard about Patty and how pure she was, the more I wanted her, until I decided to make a try for it. Looking back now, I think she had an awful lot of knowledge for being so pure. I think she knew what to do just a little bit too readily for being so sweet. Actually, I’m pretty sure Bowels was doing her, too, but at the time, I thought I was the only one. I thought I was in love. I tried to keep it from Stud.
When Stud thought Patsy’d been staring at Patty, he made a big deal of asking us for suggestions on how to help Patsy not let that happen again. We all looked around at each other, and I don’t know what the others were thinking, but I was thinking along the lines of making him spend one whole day in his house, not coming out at all, or something stupid like that. Not Babyface.
“Sew his eyelids shut!” he shouted, leaping eagerly to his feet. “I’ve got this sewing-kit thing I got from my grandmother! We can sew his eyelids shut for a day, and then he’ll learn not to stare at girls!” He was serious, and he got Bowels and Spittle on his side pretty quickly. We didn’t let him do it, but the look in Stud’s eyes as he thought about it made me even more determined not to let him ever catch me with Patty.
The place is called Danny’s Diner, although no one seems to have any idea who Danny might ever have been. I can’t even begin to tell you how she ever tracked me down. When she emailed me out of the clear blue, about the funeral, I went on Google to see what I could find out about present-day Bumford, and I tried to reverse the process, just to see what it would be like. I found thousands of Patty Fishers, Pat Fishers, and Patricia Fishers, and of course, I had no way of knowing whether she might be married, with a new name by now. Without her email address to help me, I certainly never could have tracked her down, the way she found me.
But I did find a website for Danny’s Diner in Bumford, Kansas, and most of the pictures showed Patty, a little older, a little more worn-down looking, but still Patty. Not as skinny as she was then, but still sleek and fit-looking.
Park the car. Shut the engine off. Sit there with one hand on the door handle, remembering the way the heat would hit like someone had opened an oven, or a sauna, any time you opened a door. I can see Patty’s face at thirteen, stacked up on the face from the internet pictures now. Her damp parted lips from then, stacked up on the hard grim line from now.