Bread and Butter

Paul Pekin

Paul Pekin

There were two boys, both twelve: the boy who lived in the old frame house, and the boy who did not. The boy who did not was new to this town and its people. He was short and dark haired and had hard dark eyes that seemed never to have known joy. He wore knickerbockers and knee-length stockings and a thin winter jacket, and his cap did not cover his ears. The other boy was taller and very fair; in a certain way he was almost beautiful.

It was Saturday morning and the parents were not home. The tall boy’s father worked six full days for very little money; his mother had taken the younger children to visit her sister, a few blocks away. The house was open, unlocked. This was small-town America in 1937. Some of us remember just how things were.

They entered through the door. “You want something to eat?” the tall boy asked.

“I dunno,” the dark-eyed boy said. “Can we see it first?”

“Don’t worry. She’ll be gone all morning.”

He busied himself at the table, cutting several slices of bread and spreading them with butter. “I don’t want any,” the dark eyed boy said.

“Sure you do,” the tall boy said. “It’s good.”

He handed his new friend a slice and sat down opposite him, eating. A strand of blonde hair fell over his forehead.

“You said we could see it.”

“Do you want milk?”

“I didn’t come here for milk. I got a mother to make me drink milk.”

The tall boy ate his bread and butter very slowly, very deliberately—it was as if he were waiting for his friend to do the same. At last the other boy picked up a slice and tore at it with his sharp white teeth. He chewed swiftly and swallowed large. “You better be telling the truth,” he said.

When they were finished, the tall boy put away the milk and the butter, wrapped the bread, returned it to the hamper, found a damp cloth, and wiped off the table. He moved easily, gracefully, as if unaware of the dark-eyed boy’s bright unyielding stare.

At last he straightened, brushing the crumbs from his trousers. “There we go.”

He led the dark-eyed boy through the living room and up the staircase. There was no carpet on the living room floor, just a sheet of linoleum, and no carpet on the worn wooden stairs. The wallpaper was clean, but very old and faded. At the top of the stairs the tall boy pointed out his bedroom. It was as small as a closet and had no window. “I can show you my comic books,” he said.

“I got comic books,” the dark-eyed boy said.

At the end of the hall there was another set of stairs, steep, almost a ladder, that led into the attic. The tall boy went first and held the trap door for his friend.

They were together in the dark for a moment before their eyes began to adjust. A square of light came through a window at the end of the building and it was enough. Soon they could see the beams and the underside of the roof and the aisles of old furniture and boxes stacked around them.

“A lot of junk,” the dark-eyed boy said. His voice was tight, excited.

“Some of it was here when we moved in,” the tall boy said. “You should see. There’s papers written in German.”

“I don’t want to see no papers. You know what I want to see.”

The tall boy led his friend to a large wooden chest, the kind with metal straps around it and a brass handle. He raised the lid and began removing a layer of old sweaters and rags. He worked very carefully, taking care to remember exactly where and how everything was stored. “There it is,” he said.

The dark-eyed boy pushed him aside and knelt next to the trunk.

“Hey. Are you sure that’s real?”

“It’s real,” the tall boy said. “My dad took it off a dead German.”

“Do you suppose it’s loaded?”

The dark-eyed boy had the gun in his hand. It was heavier than he ever would have imagined. He wrapped his finger around the trigger.

“It’s loaded,” the tall boy said.

“How do you know?”

The tall boy took the gun from his friend, opened the cylinder, and showed him the cartridges. There were four remaining. “My dad says that German probably shot two of our guys.”

“Give it here.” The dark-eyed boy snatched the gun back. It felt heavier, denser, even deadlier than before. “Let’s take it outside. Let’s take it down by the swamp. Let’s shoot it.”

The tall boy shook his head. “My dad would kill me.”

“Like he killed that German?”

“He didn’t kill the German. It was a bomb.”

“Why don’t you ask him what it felt like to kill somebody?”

The dark-eyed boy had the gun in his hand, he had his finger around the trigger. He aimed first at the window, then at an old dust-covered chair, then he leveled the gun and the tall boy found himself looking into the barrel.

“Put that down.”

“I bet I could kill you.”

“They’d put you in jail.”

“No they wouldn’t. I’d say I didn’t know it was loaded. I’d say I thought it was a toy. They’d believe me. Why would I want to kill you? They wouldn’t understand that.”

The dark-eyed boy pulled back the hammer. It made a distinct and menacing click. There was a hush after that. There was a moment when the attic was the quietest place on earth.

“Put it down,” the tall boy whispered.

“It could go off all by itself, couldn’t it? I could kill you right now and you’d never open your eyes again.”

“Please.”

“Please is for girls,” the dark-eyed boy said. “You’ve got to do what I say.”

“What do you want?”

“I don’t know, but it won’t be bread and butter.”

The two boys sat in total silence. There was a dog barking somewhere outside. There was a train whistle in the distance. There was, for each, the thump of his own individual heart.

At last the dark-haired boy lowered the hammer very carefully and stood. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going down by the swamp.”

Once again the tall boy led the way, down the ladder, down the stairs, through the linoleum covered living room, and out the kitchen door, buttoning his heavy coat. The dark-eyed boy was always a step behind, shivering with excitement. “My dad’s going to kill me,” the tall boy repeated.

“No, he’s not,” the dark-haired boy said with great confidence. “Your dad is not going to kill you.”

It was a cold, blowy day, and there were patches of unmelted snow along the railroad tracks. The sky was sunless and very close to the earth. Crossing the embankment, the tall boy saw how the tracks ran off into the prairie and disappeared under a mist. There were trains that used this line that went on and on until they reached California where the world was always warm.

At the bottom of the embankment the boys entered a field of tall, dry weeds and followed a narrow path until they came to the swamp. In the summer this swamp would go dry; in the winter it froze to the bottom; but every spring it came alive with the singing of frogs. Only days ago they had been so strong the tall boy could hear them from his porch. Then winter had returned, driving them back into the mud and silence.

“Sit down,” the dark-haired boy ordered.

The tall boy obeyed. He could see vapor rising from the cold dark water.

And he waited.

*   *     *

Sixty years passed, and more: six entire decades during which the world turned and turned and turned and carried him with it. There was a war, and there was the death of millions, and there was a part in this for him. There was an atomic bomb and a peace that was not really a peace, and there was a part in this for him. There was a nation that changed and grew and prospered as never before, and there was a place in this for him. There was love, there was marriage, there were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; there was sickness, there was the loss of loved ones, and the joy of having known them, and all of these things were there for him.

The house with the wooden stairs and the long dark attic was torn down to make room for a highway. The swamp was filled in and built over and no one ever heard the frogs again. The tall boy who became a tall man and then a tall old man with a rich full life moved far away and never returned to see any of this. But on certain nights, and in certain dreams, he could still see the vapor rising from the cold dark water. He could see it more clearly than he had ever seen the forgotten face of the boy he had invited in for bread and butter.

18 Comments

  1. In Emily Dickenson’s words: Zero at the bone.

  2. Rats! Dickinson…sorry!

  3. I’ve been waiting for this one, Paul, and it’s very much as I thought it would be. All good fiction — all good writing — resonates in the reader’s life, I think. And each of us, or at least most of us, look down the barrel of mortality long before we are able to contemplate its reality. This is a perfect story, tender and almost soft in a way hidden by the shadows of the “vapor rising from the cold dark water.”

  4. I liked the concise nature of this, Paul–how you boiled a life down to milestones, news headlines, and that one poignant, horrific memory.

  5. It’s a gripping story. But (there’s always a but), I want to know what happened between the boys and whether the dark-haired boy survived.

  6. The first sentence hooked me; the voice and structure were compelling. The story that followed did not disappoint. A very realistic portrait of two very different twelve-year-olds. Kudos.

  7. Solid and powerful without a total explanation, narrowing down life’s most defining moment to a sharp, crystal focus.

  8. Brilliant.
    And the other boy?

  9. Oh, Paul…How do you do this? I’m still trying to understand how you take the simplest words and the simplest sentences and turn them into settings I can see and people whose hearts I can know. You take your time and end up with a whole life on a single page. Lovely, as always.

  10. excellent story. Masterfully crafted. I was hooked the whole time and was there with my own slice of buttered bread.

  11. What an exciting and engrossing story. I was sure the dark haired boy was going to shoot the tall boy when he said “Your father isn’t going to kill you.” Whew.

  12. I was drawn in from the get-go. The tension is a character alongside the boys, and it pulled me along. Good to read a new piece. Well done!

  13. Karen,
    I think you phrased the essence of this piece perfectly. “The tension is a character alongside the boys, and it pulled me along.” That is exactly what I had been thinking about Paul’s story but wasn’t able to articulate until now.
    Erin

  14. The opening: clearness with personal force and conflict. The conflict leads to action and a resolution. I didn’t see the resolution but I can guess, and that makes it memorable.

    From the beginning to the end, you narrowed two lives to a memorable and defining incident that stirred emotions in me: fear, anger, even quiet. But in the end, I came away with a sense of pleasure for having read this story.

    Masterful storytelling, Paul!

  15. Wow. The matter-of-fact tone of the narrator is kind of haunting.

  16. Wow. Wow. and Ouch. The everyday horror of war and pull of a gun. Spare no extra word, indeed! Will look for more of your fiction.

  17. Fantastic, powerful. I was there.

  18. I can’t believe I just found this story. What a wonder it is!

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