This story originally appeared in Northern Liberties Review, 2014
Traces of an Early Summer by Robert Sachs
Small gray houses lined the narrow dirt road across from the park. William’s father parked the ’37 Chevrolet Sedan in front of Nettie Pollack’s grocery, a wood-framed rectangle with large windows on either side of the entrance. An old, unfinished painting project testified to decades of neglect. Worn wooden steps led up to the door, the interior lit by two low wattage bulbs dangling from the ceiling. For meat or fish everyone shopped in town. For everything else—from milk to canned goods to toilet paper to fishing lures and live bait—it was Nettie’s. She and her son, Daniel, lived in a room in back of the store. Just past the grocery was a dense thicket of weeds, brush and evergreen. William wondered what kind of creatures roamed in that endless darkness. “This is it,” William’s father said, pulling the parking brake. Behind the store was the small wood cabin, William’s home until…when? His mother promised Labor Day, but how did she know they would find an apartment by then? “It’s an adventure, Will,” his mother had assured him. They had been evicted from their third-floor apartment, and the word—evicted—sounded to eight year-old William like something to be ashamed of. Apartments in their neighborhood were hard to come by. “It’s the returning G.I.s,” his father had said during the drive around the lake to South Haven. “They need apartments and it’s who you know, buddy. It’s who you know. Think of it as our contribution to the war effort.” His sarcasm and heavy drinking were well known in the community, and when he attempted to enlist in the army, he was rejected. A neighbor who served on the local draft board was suspected by William’s father of being behind the rejection. But everyone in the neighborhood knew, including William’s friends. Did his father see the eviction somehow as retribution? Part of William was glad he’d be out of the city, away from his friends, so he wouldn’t have to explain the eviction or, worse yet, listen to their explanations.
A hundred storms blowing in off the lake had peeled away most of the pale green paint from the cabin. There was a small bedroom, a bathroom without a tub or shower, a screened-in porch and a larger room that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. William was assigned a cot on the screened-in porch looking out on the back of the grocery only ten yards away. A thick overhang from two shade trees covered most of the cabin’s roof, the back half of the grocery, and the space in between. It created a feeling of gloom even on the sunniest days. It was here William saw Daniel, sitting with his back against the grocery wall, his knees to his chest, softly humming a tune William couldn’t identify. He was surprised by Daniel’s size, taller than his own father, with droopy eyes and large soft hands. His thick black hair was long and unruly.
“Daniel.” Nettie’s call was sharp and angry. “Daniel, get in here.” William would hear that often during their stay. Daniel would get up without emotion to take out the garbage or empty boxes or sweep the floor or wash the front windows or change a light bulb. When William and his mother first arrived, Nettie motioned for Daniel to help unload their things. “Tell him exactly where you want him to put your stuff,” she told William’s mother. “There’s no lock on the door,” his mother said. “No need for locks here,” Nettie said. “This ain’t Chicago. Every now and again a thief might find his way into town, but it ain’t usual. Ain’t nothing to worry about.” William’s father kissed his wife and son goodbye. He would stay with his sister’s family in Chicago during the week so he could work and look for a new apartment. He’d drive up when he could. William was worried that his dad would use the absence of his family as an excuse to drink. He suspected that was what his father and mother were whispering about before he drove off.
Nettie looked old and weathered to William, her skin tight against her thin frame, her pale blue eyes set deep in recessed sockets. She was tall and wore her shoulder-length gray hair pulled back in a ponytail held by a thick rubber band. Her hands were large and bony with crooks and outcroppings, the consequence, William would later learn, of arthritis. The set of her jaw did not seem to allow a smile. She and Daniel had moved from Chicago to South Haven to run the store after her father died. If she was happy to have this extra business, it didn’t show. Settling in, William plopped down on his lumpy cot, resigned to the extended stay. He found himself thinking of home and then realizing he no longer knew where that was. If anything good was to come of this forced exile, he surely didn’t see it in the tall weeds of the coming summer. But it wasn’t summer yet. South Haven was a sleepy resort town with bright white hotels strung out like charms on a bracelet along the southeast shore of Lake Michigan. To the east of the shore and these grand resorts were the motor hotels with their buzzing neon signs, and beyond them, brightly painted houses on streets with names like Elm and Oak. Then the little park, the river, and finally, the town. Guests at the huge palaces along the lakefront weren’t expected for another couple of months, and the cold gusts from the northwest still had the nasty bite of winter. William had to leave school two months early. His mother worked things out with the principal so he wouldn’t lose a grade when he got back in the fall. Their furniture was stored with family and friends. Now lying on his cot reading a comic book, William was focused on crippled Freddy, the poor newspaper boy who could turn himself into Captain Marvel Junior just by shouting “Captain Marvel.” Month after month, in each new issue, it surprised William that Junior, having vanquished the bad guys, always went back to being Freddy, the cripple, hobbling along on an old wooden crutch, selling his newspapers, waiting for the next adventure. William wondered why it was necessary for him to return to that difficult life. Did he like it? William looked up at Daniel sitting on the ground humming, and thought if he had the choice between being a crime fighting super hero or a lame newsboy, he knew which one he’d pick. “Why don’t you do something outside, Will? It’s not that cold.” Like tap water over ice cubes, his mother’s voice cracked his world of superheroes. He looked up. “With who, Mom? I don’t see any kids around.” While he knew she wanted him to have a good time, he also knew she didn’t understand that if he couldn’t get back to Chicago and his friends, he just wanted to bury himself in his comic books. Even school would be better than this. “What about Daniel?” she whispered, glancing at the large young man sitting in the dirt, staring at the stem of a single leaf he held between his thumb and forefinger. Daniel. He wasn’t a grown up, but he certainly wasn’t a kid, and William sensed he’d always be in that space between. He couldn’t imagine playing with him. “Mom.” William put his head down on the cot, and listened to her drone. “I don’t want you sitting around doing nothing for weeks, waiting for summer.” It became a test of wills, but after a few days of doing nothing, William grew desperate for change. Daniel was sitting in his usual spot behind the grocery, tying and untying his shoelaces. He didn’t seem to notice William standing a couple of feet in front of him. “Daniel?” Daniel raised his head slowly, with an uncertain look. William wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t recognize him or because he was surprised he’d talk to him. “Hmmm?” “Wanna play catch?” William held up a rubber ball, wondering if Daniel had ever played catch before. Daniel got up, smoothed his shirt and pants with both hands and said that would be okay. “As long as we stay near the store,” he added, looking quickly at the back of the grocery. William nodded. “Ready?” He threw the ball to Daniel. It hit his shoulder and bounced back. William lobbed the next one softly, underhanded. Daniel caught it and lobbed it back the same way. They kept on like that. Daniel’s eyes and his mouth were open wide when the ball came his way. And when he caught it, he smiled. William noticed Daniel’s mother watching from behind the old screen door of the grocery, but when William caught her eye she turned away. After that, the two played catch every day. One day, with Nettie’s approval, they walked to the park. The lush green was interrupted here and there by flowerbeds of purple and white. Daniel headed for the swings and William followed. The thick chains attached to the painted wooden seats groaned as they sat down. Daniel creaked back and forth with caution, never going very high. William wondered how long it had been since he’d done this. After getting the feel of the swing, William stood up, pumping and pulling until it was difficult to go any higher. The seat was almost even with the top bar and he was close to horizontal. At that height he saw the tops of the beachfront resorts, gleaming in the afternoon sun. On the up swing, the cold wind splashed against his face. On the back swing, it rattled the back of his neck. He felt free. Ah, to fly! If only he had the magic words to make that happen. Absorbed in the thrill, he momentarily forgot he was in a new place, forgot about Daniel. “William,” Daniel called. He had stopped swinging and wasn’t looking up. William slowed his swing. “You could get hurt,” Daniel said in a whisper, as if he was unsure whether or not it was his place to keep William safe. William assured him he did this often back home, that he was pretty careful. “Once my friend Ralph tried going all the way around. He actually made it over the top, but then he fell and broke his shoulder.” Daniel was silent for several seconds. “Did he die?” he asked softly without looking at William. Something in his voice made William wonder about Daniel’s experience with death. He hadn’t mentioned a father and William knew enough not to ask. He remembered a girl on his block whose father was killed in the war. She had brought some of his medals to school and told the class how he’d killed some Germans and how he died saving other G.I.s. William wondered if Daniel had a similar story about his father. But he didn’t ask. Instead he assured Daniel that Ralph was fine. “He missed some school and had to wear a cast for a while,” he said. Both began to swing again, slowly this time, in unison. “I was born in Chicago,” Daniel said after a silent minute. “But I don’t remember anything about it.” William wondered if he was just a baby when he left Chicago or if there was some other reason for his lack of memory. He felt Daniel wanted to hear more about the city. He told him about his neighborhood, about school, about his friends. How he climbed to the roof of a three-story apartment building and saw the beacon on top of the Palmolive Building all the way downtown. He told Daniel some of the tricks he played on Halloween. Daniel laughed at the one about smearing honey on the handles of car doors. When Daniel laughed he covered his face with his hands, and his laugh made William laugh. William told him how, the previous summer, he and a friend made slingshots in a wood carving class at the River Park field house, and how one night they shot pebbles at passing cars from behind a row of bushes. “You shouldn’t do that,” Daniel said. But when William smiled, Daniel begged more stories from him. William told him how he once took the El all the way downtown and back alone, without his parents knowing. He made Daniel promise to keep the secret. Daniel seemed interested in everything William had to say. William told Daniel how he and his dad often took the bus to Wrigley Field. They would sit in the bleachers and eat hot dogs. The first time was on William’s fifth birthday, when they saw the Cubs play the Dodgers. William’s father taught him how to mark a scorecard and this became his job so they had a complete record of the game. Hot dogs and pop, even during Passover when it had to be a secret between them. “Play ball!” William yelled. He couldn’t stop himself from jumping off the swing, showing Daniel how the pitcher always puts the ball behind his back and looks down toward the catcher to get the sign. William wound up and threw an imaginary pitch. Daniel laughed. He told William he’d never seen a baseball game. Nor did he and Nettie ever listen to the games on radio. William promised to show him his mitt and league ball when they got back to the cabin. And William realized the more he talked about Chicago, the surer he felt his father would soon find a place for them in the old neighborhood. He returned to his swing then, and for a minute or two, both of them swayed back and forth in silence, like saplings in a gentle breeze. “I never went to school,” Daniel said. “I like going to the movies. Nettie and me, we walk into town once in a while after the season and see one at the Haven Theater.” He fell silent again, his eyes unfocused, as if he was replaying his memory of a scene from one of those movies. Then he looked up and asked to go home. On the way back, William started skipping. Daniel tried but couldn’t get the hang of it. But he could run, and he beat William back to the grocery by fifteen yards. They both stood in front of the store, hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath. Nettie spotted them. “Daniel, get in here.” He loped into the grocery and William went back to the cabin. During the next few weeks he found himself telling Daniel about the kids on his block—the Troy Street gang, they called themselves—and about school. He said nothing about the eviction or about worrying where their new apartment might be, about whether he’d be on a new block or have to go to a new school when they moved back in the fall. William kept these concerns to himself. But he shared many other things: His favorite radio programs, his favorite teachers. He even told Daniel about a girl he liked named Susan. And no matter how long William talked, Daniel wanted to hear more. William began to feel like a master storyteller, like the woman at the library who read books to the kids during the summer. Sometimes he wondered what stories Daniel had heard in other summers and whether he was judging his against those. It turned warmer. William and his mother walked into town, where they met a woman and her son, Richie. He looked to be about William’s age. His family was from Grand Rapids and they had rented a home on Elm for two months. After some pleading, the mothers agreed to let William and Richie go to a movie together at the Haven. They would meet them afterward at the park. The boys saw The Story of G.I. Joe and split a box of popcorn. They became friends after that, and William went over to Richie’s almost every day. They played ball or walked the beach, although it would be weeks before the water warmed up enough to go swimming. Every time William ran out of the cabin, Daniel was there, sitting on the ground near the back door of the grocery. The first couple of times, he raised his head, his eyes wide with a look of anticipation. William avoided acknowledging him and soon, Daniel didn’t bother looking up. Richie was a couple of inches taller than William. His hair, in a crew cut like William’s, was bright red and he had freckles all over his face and arms. He was chunky and when they raced, he couldn’t keep up. William could skip faster than Richie could run. But Richie could throw pretty hard, so playing catch with him was a challenge. One day while they were skipping stones, Richie asked William if he was a Jew. When William said yes, Richie said his mother had mentioned it. “So?” William asked. “So nothing, except you’re not going to heaven unless you accept Jesus as your savior.” William’s parents didn’t attend services, even on the high holy days. They didn’t send him to Hebrew school either. But he knew enough to know that Jesus wasn’t part of Judaism. After that, it seemed as if Richie was always talking about Jesus, as if he’d been given an assignment to convert William. William tried to convince himself it didn’t matter, but it did. One hot afternoon when they finished playing pinners on Richie’s front steps, Richie told William that Jesus loved him and died for him. William decided not to see Richie again. Returning to the cabin, he spotted Daniel hauling out the garbage. Good old Daniel! William yelled to him. Daniel picked up his head, but then he walked back into the store without turning around. William stayed close to the cabin for the next few days, close to his comic books. From his cot he often spotted Daniel sitting in the deep shade behind the grocery, humming. He looked up once and their eyes met, but Daniel looked down quickly and began tying and untying his shoes. Eventually, William asked him if he wanted to play catch. Daniel shook his head from side to side. “Let’s at least go to the park.” “No,” Daniel said, pulling his knees closer to his chest. But over time, Daniel’s coolness abated. The two resumed their routine of playing catch and going to the park. One day upon returning from town with his mother, William found Daniel sitting on his cot and looking through his comic books. “Daniel?” “What’s this?” Daniel asked. Captain Marvel Jr. was on the cover, poking at the nose of an ugly giant with a pen. Daniel was pointing at a small white rectangle. “It says, ‘Fight Infantile Paralysis. Join the March of Dimes.’” “Oh.” “It’s a disease.” Daniel pointed to the giant. “Is that the disease?” William was about to explain that the message in the white rectangle had nothing to do with the giant Captain Marvel Jr. was battling, but it occurred to him that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if it were. “Could be. Let’s go to the park.” On the swings, when William talked more about Chicago, Daniel asked if he was going back. “Sure,” he said quickly, hiding the worry he had that his father wouldn’t be able to find an apartment.
Vacationers were pouring into South Haven now. The resorts were filling up and so were the public beaches. Soon William would walk over that way and meet kids his own age, maybe even some from Chicago. He knew he wouldn’t be taking Daniel along and he wondered if Daniel realized this. One afternoon, while his mother was in town, William and Daniel were lying on the grass behind the grocery looking at a comic book when they heard someone inside the store yelling at Nettie. Around front, they saw Nettie with her arms raised. “There’s no more money,” she screamed. The man was wearing worn blue overalls without a shirt. His face was red and pockmarked. There was a knife in his hand. “You’re lying,” he growled. Daniel screamed “Nettie” and rushed inside. The man whirled around and caught Daniel in the arm with his knife. Daniel grabbed the man and squeezed, pinning his arms at his sides. They fell to the floor, the knife squirting out of the man’s hand and landing at Nettie’s feet. Daniel’s grip was tight and the man couldn’t move. Their faces were an inch apart, Daniel yelling “Nettie” over and over again, the thief cursing Daniel and straining to break free. But Daniel held on. “Run across to the Melton’s—have them call the police,” Nettie shouted at William, finally realizing she could put down her arms. “Quick!” William did as she said. “Robber,” he yelled, running across the road and pounding on the Melton’s front door. “Robber!” Mrs. Melton opened the door. William pointed back at the grocery, hardly able to speak. She grabbed his arm, pulling him into their living room and closing the door. William sat at the front window while Mrs. Melton made the call. A few minutes later, a squad car with two policemen showed up. William could see Nettie standing outside the grocery, holding the thief’s knife. The police needed to pry Daniel’s arms from the man. William could see the blood on the floor and on Daniel’s arm. He watched as Nettie took a piece of checkerboard cloth and wrapped it around Daniel’s arm. A second police car pulled up. One of the policemen put handcuffs on the man and threw him in the back seat. Nettie and Daniel were put in the other car and taken to the hospital. William’s mother returned in time to see the thief being shoved into the police car. Mrs. Melton allowed him to go back across the street, and he sat with his mother on the steps in front of the grocery and told her what happened. The sun began its shift to red and the shadow of the store cooled him. “You okay?” she asked, putting her arm around William and pulling him close. “Yeah. I guess.” “That was a scary looking young man.” “He didn’t scare Daniel,” William said. The image of Daniel bleeding, but holding tight to the man, would stay with him for years. “Oh, I think he was scared, but I think he wanted to protect his mother.” “Yeah.” William sat there quietly for what seemed like a long time. “I’ve got good news,” his mother said, breaking the silence. “Daddy’s found us a place on Kedzie, right around the corner from where we were. We can move in the beginning of September. I bought a cake to celebrate.” William started to cry, and his mother held him tighter as he rocked slowly back and forth on the creaky steps. It was dark by the time the police dropped Nettie and Daniel back at the grocery. “He’s fine,” Nettie said as she left the squad car and walked toward the store. On the way, she bent down and lightly touched William’s shoulder. She stopped at the door of the grocery, sighed a long, low whistle like a steam engine coming to rest. Daniel, his arm bandaged, walked behind his mother. He hesitated as he reached William and then, without saying a word, moved on.