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 thesurgery 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 lilac bush.
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 invisible bayonet.
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. Dickens’ 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 brother’s hand.
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 innocence it 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.
Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels including The Sweet By and By and The Frenchwoman. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Goddard College. You can find out more about her books on her web site http://www.jeannemackin.com/.
Crazy Joe is copyrighted 2006 by Jeanne Mackin
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