By Doug Elwell
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or not, is entirely coincidental.
I like the story and would like to publish it–but I’m flummoxed by its being a work of fiction, as you noted. I have never yet published fiction on TSWT. Could you write a sentence or two about the degree to which this is based on true experience, and why you chose to fictionalize rather than write creative nonfiction based on that memory?
[Doug’s response follows his story; read on. ]
Shooting at the Baltimore Catechism
One day when Harry was thirteen, he put a handful of .22 long rifle rounds in his pocket and rested his rifle across the handlebars of his bike and rode through the village. He went the length of Main Street, past the village square west, and on to the highway. Folks nodded and waved as he passed, not taking any particular notice of the rifle on the handlebars. He was where he wanted to be, outside in the warm summer day on his way to Tanner’s place in the country.
He passed old man Potter in front of the café who was on his way to lunch. He waited at the curb for Harry to go by. “Goin’ shooting huh Harry?” Harry nodded as he passed. “Be sure to bring back a rusty tin can or two for me,” he shouted as Harry pedaled on—his voice trailing off.
Main Street ended at the highway on the edge of town. He rode the shoulder of it to the lane that led to Tanner’s place. He went over the railroad tracks and turned into his lane—pedaled up to the house and dropped his bike in the side yard.
As he stepped up to the porch, Tanner’s mom called out through the screen door, “C’mon in, Harry. He’s up in his room.”
He said hey as he passed through the kitchen and climbed the narrow stairs that led to Tanner’s room, “—ready?”
“Yeah, but I gotta get some stink bait and a stringer for my trot lines.”
Tanner picked up his .22 and a box of shells and they were out the door, through the side yard and across a field of foot-high corn to the railroad tracks. They followed them toward the trestle over the Embarrass River. The railroad bed was a rich source of old whiskey bottles and tin cans that made good targets on a fence post. They picked their way slowly down the tracks, set up old bottles and cans, took turns shooting them off. Just before they got to the trestle they saw an orange and blue Tide soap box with a sort of target design on it lying between the rails. They took turns seeing who could get closest to the dot over the “I” in Tide. After the fourth or fifth shot they couldn’t tell whose shot made which hole in the box. They argued over that for a minute or two. Tanner said his holes were bigger than Harry’s. Harry asked, “How can that be when we’re both shooting .22’s?”
“Because I’m shooting longs and you’re shooting shorts.”
Harry snorted, “What a load of crap. A .22 is a .22—don’t matter how long it is.”
“Yeah, but a long hits harder than a short—makes a bigger hole.”
“In a piece of cardboard?”
Harry threw the box aside and started on down the tracks laughing, “You’re so full of shit your eyes are turning brown.”
“My eyes are naturally brown.”
“See what I mean? You were born full of it.”
When Tanner caught up he said, “—but I wonder how stuff like this gets out here along these tracks—no houses or roads around, yet here’s a Tide box. I found a leather belt once, almost new—took it home. Mom said the world was full of mysterious stuff like that—said it’s all explained in the Baltimore Catechism.”
“What’s the Baltimore Catechism?”
“She says everything in the world that can’t be explained is explained in the Baltimore Catechism. Empty soap boxes and belts and such along the tracks are mysteries and we have to take it on faith that they’re a part of God’s plan and it’s not for us to question.”
“Oh.” He looked into Tanners eyes, “I think they’re getting browner by the minute.”
By the time they got to the trestle over the river, they had pretty much left the mysteries of the Baltimore Catechism somewhere back up on the tracks along with the bullet-riddled Tide box.
They left the tracks and slid down the gravelly embankment to the river. It flowed across that part of the prairie mostly in a state of confusion. Tanner said, “This ole river twists and turns more than a night crawler on a hook.” But in spite of its uncertainties, it generally flowed from north to south.
They started up river, keeping to the east bank toward Tanner’s trot lines. In single file, they walked quietly, picking their way through branches and fallen trees that lay along the bank—not talking. His two trot lines stretched across the river about fifty feet apart. When they came to the first one, Tanner stopped and looked at it for a minute, “I think I got one on that third line.” Harry looked and saw it stretched downstream more than the others. They took off their shoes and pants and waded into the river. Tanner checked each line as they went while Harry carried the stringer and stink bait. At the third line, Tanner pulled up a large catfish flapping his gills—wriggling indifferently—said, “This ole boy’s ’bout played out.” He took it off the hook and put it on the stringer. Harry took the empty hook and loaded it with a fresh ball of bait.
On the second line was one fair-sized catfish and they put it onto the stringer. They climbed up the bank and out through the canopy of the woods that ran along the river until they broke out into the sunlight of a pasture. They were mostly dry by then so they stopped to put on their pants and shoes. Back at Tanner’s, they cleaned the fish and took them to his mom. She washed them off and wrapped each in a piece of butcher paper.
“Harry, take this for your mom, okay?”
“Tanner, put this other in the fridge.”
Tanner and Harry grew up together like that. The sunny days of their youth mostly along the river. In the winter they tramped empty fields, meadows and brush at the edges of the woods hunting pheasant, rabbit and quail. They graduated high school together and started college together only a few days later. They lived in the same rooming house that first year. Then Harry left and they lost touch until many years later when they met at a class reunion.
Harry arrived at the banquet hall a little anxious—not sure why. He thought it odd to be nervous about such a thing, wondered if the idea of class reuniting wasn’t a bit oversold. He thought reunions must be like wakes—for the living—not the dead. He didn’t think people who go to reunions are who they once were. Those earlier people whose lives were once so intertwined were long dead. They died the moment they left the stage and moved their tassels from the right side of their caps to the left. Until that moment they were a single living thing—an intricate thing of living parts that were stitched together. They were a class and it was a living breathing thing, but when they scattered on their separate ways the thing dissolved into the ether and became but a memory. He took no notice of it over the years, what with the stuff of his life—college, family, career and such, but when he reached a certain age he came to mourn it in a gentle way like the passing of a favorite uncle. Reunions are an attempt to put the parts back into some remembered order if even for a brief moment—but dead is dead. He told himself to relax, it’s just a wake.
At the registration table, he was greeted by two grandmotherly ladies with paper name tags stuck on their blouses. They were the same girls who sold tickets to sock hops in the gym after football and basketball games. Before they could rip their grandkid’s pictures out of their purses he excused himself and worked his way to the bar for a drink. He saw an empty spot—stepped in. The man on his right looked over, “Harry—that you?”
He looked at the man—apologized for not recognizing him.
“It’s me, Tanner.”
Harry didn’t recognize the boy he knew so many years before. He had become an old man. They shook hands as if meeting for the first time and in a way we were. They had become strangers with the passing of time. Neither resembled the boys they once were, the ones who walked the tracks shooting at the mysteries of the Baltimore Catechism. Those boys were dead—turned to dust long ago. After a few minutes of forced, awkward attempts, it slowly dawned on him that they didn’t have much to say to each other except for the banal conversation strangers just meeting for the first time pass back and forth. Neither was particularly interested in the other’s medical history and Harry dreaded the possibility of looking at pictures of grandkids who he didn’t think looked at all their father or uncle Mort. Thankfully they shared a reluctance to force them on each other. They sipped cocktails at the bar, each seeming to make an effort to re-connect if even in a small way, but it didn’t happen. They looked at each other—for something they recognized in the other and didn’t find It. There were years of memories and good times to recall, but they didn’t seem particularly interested in that either. Without words they tacitly agreed to let those two boys they once knew rest in peace. The effort to conjure them up was too great—too many lost years to bridge. They weren’t the same people as those two boys who shot at the Baltimore Catechism along the tracks and ran trot lines barefooted in their underwear. He smiled, “You know Tanner, with all the twists and turns we’ve been through over the years, we’ve changed in ways I don’t think either of us thought about back then.”
Tanner leaned in close—put his arm over Harry’s shoulder. In his soft, quiet way he gave him a couple of pats on the back, “Yeah Harry, you’re right but I’m glad to see you anyway—sorta closes the circle doesn’t it?”
“It does that.”
Harry sat across the room and glanced Tanner’s way occasionally—still searching and he caught him doing the same. It pulled strings deep in his chest and it hurt a little—that they had become something they weren’t in their youth, but becoming dead is what wakes are about. He’d hoped to have one more moment with the ghost lying in the coffin, but that wasn’t possible. The best one can do at times like that is compare his memories with the other strangers in the room as if it was a semester grade card. The hope being that he could still hold his own with his mates. So it tugged at Harry’s heart a little. The boys Tanner and Harry knew were gone. Now men each were left with only his half of their shared memories—like the day they walked the tracks shooting at the mysteries explained by the Baltimore Catechism.
© Doug Elwell, 2010
A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. His work occasionally appears on True Stories Well Told. Doug can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now, Doug’s response to my question:
Non-fiction: Tanner and I often walked the tracks plunking tin cans, etc. with our small rifles. He also had trot lines in the river that he and I checked daily. We did often find odd things along the tracks that were in the middle of nowhere and we wondered how/why they got there, i.e. the Tide box. His mother was a devout Catholic and explained everything she couldn’t answer as part of God’s plan by referencing the Baltimore Catechism. Tanner and I did part ways as described in the story and did meet again years later at a reunion. It was a bit awkward because we had grown up in very different ways and had become very different people. Harry’s ruminations on school classes, the purpose of wakes and wake as metaphor for reunions that remember the dead (school class) and their dissolution following graduation are mine which I found out at the reunion that Tanner felt the same.
Fiction: The dialogue is fiction but is consistent with the characters as I remember them.
It is a reminiscence that touches on how the times we live in and people change over time. For example Harry riding his bike through town with a rifle over the handle bars and no one pays much attention. Young boys on their own with rifles. Maturing and becoming older someones who aren’t recognizable later in life. It’s my true story but certainly not everyone’s.
What are your thoughts about the continuum between non-fiction and fiction in memoir? Comment! -Sarah