a short story by
We weren’t scared of much, but Crazy Joe scared us.
We rough, small-town kids, a gang of six, all the same age, could
chase each other with oozing blood suckers, put flashlights under our
chins and tell ghost stories at midnight, ride bicycles down steep
hills, hands overhead, not on the handles. But when Crazy Joe moved to
the neighborhood we huddled in a quiet circle, aware of an unpleasant
new sensation: fear of the unknown. But then, what is fear, if not
awareness of the unfamiliar?
Crazy Joe wore a torn, faded military jacket, a peeling leather helmet
with goggles, and boots of no lingering color, held together with
ragged cloth. His scanty hair, visible at the back of his head and the
sides where the helmet did not reach, was gray and lank. Everything
about him seemed gray and shrunken, as if he were a nighttime creature
ill at ease in the light. His eyes were the grayest thing of all, and
they never seemed to focus on anything, least of all us.
“Don’t go near him,” my brother ordered. He was older and not part of
the gang of six.
“Why?” I resented orders from one born just a year before myself, but
knew he was right.
Crazy Joe inhabited the thin edge of the known, the place where you
don’t want to step off of. He wasn’t part of our known world of pretty
mothers who slept precisely on bouffant hairdos that never stirred, of
home-from-the-war fathers who drank martinis at dinner and built rec
rooms in the basement of their new ranch houses, then later converted
those rec rooms to home bars, and then to bomb shelters...just in case.
Crazy Joe lived in his own world, cut off from our reality,
amputated from us by the surgery of his madness: he came out of his
sister’s gray ranch house every morning at seven-thirty and without so
much as a quisling glance at the sky would charge up the graveled hill
that was our street, running as quickly as his thin, uncertain legs
could carry him. As he ran, arms held askew in front rather than
swinging at his side, he would screech incomprehensible things at
enemies we couldn’tsee. At the top of the hill he would stop, catch
his breath, then run screeching back down. He repeated this crazed
charge dozens of times, stopping only when his breath was so ragged it
exploded from his lungs in broken gasps.
Exhausted, he would retreat to the lilac bush in his sister’s front
yard and crouch there, waiting. He would still be there, gray and
gasping, when we came home from school in the afternoon. We crossed to
the other side of the street rather than pass directly in front of that
Buddy O Brien, born during the war rather than after and so older than
us, said that Crazy Joe’s clothes were from the Great War, the war
before. Buddy was a history enthusiast and knew such things. Crazy
Joe, he said, was a war vet, just like our dads.
“Is not!” we screamed, horrified at that dangerous connection. Our
fathers did not screech up and down the hill or crouch under bushes.
Our fathers, if they spoke of the war at all, spoke quietly, made light
of it, turning it into the stuff of Saturday night cocktail hours.
“He’s a war vet,” Buddy insisted, changing our world forever. My
brother and Buddy made eye contact; Buddy blinked first. My brother
didn’t like him, thought he was weird to want to hang out with kids
younger than he was, even to just talk war talk.
After Buddy’s history lesson, the gang went on the offensive. When
Crazy Joe came out of his house in the morning we waited in ambush
across the street. “Crazy Joe! Crazy Joe, come get us!” we taunted,
braced to run. He giggled, saluted, and then began his tour of duty, up
and down the hill, screeching, arms cocked under the weight of an
We tired of the game and grew into other distractions. I don’t know
when Crazy Joe stopped waiting under that bush. When I was twelve the
hill was paved into a real town street, with layers of gravel and tar
smoothed over the rutted dirt of our bicycle paths; one morning I
realized that Crazy Joe no longer defended that area.
But sometimes, freed from his real presence, I could imagine his
history, his private story of madness. I borrowed some of Buddy’s books
and learned new vocabulary: trenches, mustard gas, voulez-vous,
foot-rot, Sarajevo, Verdun, shell-shock; I could imagine burning
lungs, sleeping in water filled trenches, bayoneting blue-eyed Germans.
Crazy Joe disappeared from the hill, but took up residence in my
memory, becoming the soldier who survived the war, who came home, who
brought his never-ending war with him.
My brother did not survive Viet Nam, although he never really went
there. Forty years after my last encounter with Crazy Joe I sit in my
brother’s new ranch house in Florida, trying to celebrate Christmas.
The remnants of a family who have gathered more for funerals than
weddings, we have migrated to this warm place where snow never falls.
It is past midnight and my sister-in-law, niece and husband are asleep
in their beds. My brother, father and I, insomniacs, wilt and yawn in
front of the television. Christmas tree lights compete with the neon
glare of the large screen. My father thumbs through a year-old issue of
National Geographic. I shuffle the cards for another round of
solitaire. My brother rewinds the tape in the VCR and begins to watch
“A Christmas Carol” for the third time that day. Dicken’s story is one
of regret, and what is regret if not needing to live the past again and
again? My brother especially likes the part where the ghost of
Christmas past shakes his chains at Scrooge and menaces him with what
might have been. There is a half-empty tumbler of whiskey in my
My brother drinks too much. If I were still the seven year old child
who taunted Crazy Joe I would use other words to describe my brother,
but because I am older and have learned to fear the knife-edge of
truth, I merely say, “My brother drinks too much.”
We don’t speak often. Once a year we hug and say ‘Be well, take care,
be happy.” And between those well wishes there is much silence. A
long time ago, I lost him. We lost each other. Our childhood closeness
disappeared as surely as Crazy Joe had - it just wasn’t there one day.
On the screen, Scrooge trembles and screeches in high-pitched horror.
I lose another round of solitaire. My father picks up a different
issue of National Geographic and yawns again. When the movie ends, the
VCR switches itself off and a tv movie fills the screen. It is a war
movie, filled with images of John Wayne aiming his rifle, carrying a
wounded buddy on his shoulder, enjoying intimate if prickly
conversations with a pretty nurse.
My brother’s eyes are fixed on the screen. He has seen this movie
more times than he has seen “A Christmas Carol,” and it holds him
spellbound. He pours another glass of whiskey.
My father throws down the magazine and clears his throat. “It wasn’t
like that,” he says, glaring at John Wayne. “It wasn’t like that,” says
my father who, fifty years later, still rarely speaks of his war. “We
weren’t grown men doing brave things,” he says. “We were scared little
boys doing what we were told we had to do.”He gets up and disappears
down the dark hall, dragging his left leg a little from the stroke. I
hear him in the bathroom, gargling.
My brother is not a war vet. When the other eighteen and nineteen and twenty year olds of the town were going off to Viet Nam, he was left behind. His National Guard regiment went. He did not. My mother did that. She performed miracles for her son, her only son. I do not know what officials she talked to, what words she used that other mothers did not, but she kept him home, kept him out of Nam.
Naive about war, I had always assumed he had been pleased about this,
happy to have been spared the napalm, the rat cages, the loud speakers
blaring Rolling Stones into a blackened jungle, the drugs that helped
the soldiers through another day.
But when I look at my brother, there are tears in his eyes.
“I should have been there,” he says. His words are slurred, his eyes
still fixed on John Wayne.
“Where?” I ask, confused.
“In Nam. My best buddies died there. I should have gone with them.”
“So you could die, too?” I say. It is what my mother would have said.
The powerless of the words numb me.
The wall between us grows thicker. We no longer share a common
language, when survival to one person looks like guilt to another. I
have no words to understand his pain.
We retrofit the past to give it an innocenceit never possessed. I
am, even at this moment, romanticizing my memories of my brother, in my
mind’s eye the light falls more gently on his stricken face than it did
in reality at that moment. But my other self who still lives in that
moment does not know this. I am part of the dream, not yet the
dreamer, so I look at my brother whose eyes are red with longing for a
war that excluded him. I say the only thing that comes to mind.
“Remember Crazy Joe?”
He grins at me. “Good old Crazy Joe,” he says.
Crazy Joe is copyrighted 2006 by Jeanne Mackin
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