Jeff crouched in the sandbox, pushing his bulldozer. In two weeks, he would be finished with second grade. He
liked this time of year because it stayed light enough to play outside after dinner. He switched from bulldozer to
dump truck as the screen door at the Barnes’ house slammed. Leaning over, he could just see their back porch.
It was Mrs. Barnes. She pushed up the sleeves of her tattered blue robe, stumbled to the edge of the porch,
and started yelling. “You sons a bitches! You goddamn commie bastards! Who the hell do you think you are,
treating us like that?”
Jeff jumped as her hand slapped the railing. Mrs. Barnes staggered back a step, then lurched forward to slap it
again. “You got no right! No goddamn right. Who the hell makes the decisions anyway? What ass-hole decided
to do this?”
Picking up his shovel, Jeff bent over to keep an eye on Mrs. Barnes. She was leaning against one of the posts
“You think you’re God, but you’re not. You’re nothing but a goddamn sorry-assed bunch of bastards who think
they can rule the world…”
The slam of another screen door distracted Jeff. His mother came tiptoeing across the yard toward him and
crouched down once she reached the sandbox. She was wearing her rainbow-striped housedress and smelled
sweet, like the powder she had in the round pink box.
“Jeffey, would you like a popsicle?” she whispered.
Jeff nodded eagerly. Two desserts in one night! Usually she was very strict about desserts; he must have done
something really good today. Happily, he followed her across the lawn.
“…and I don’t give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks, I know what’s going on…” The front door cut Mrs.
Barnes off as they entered the house.
His mother gave him the Popsicle and sat him down at the kitchen table to eat it. It was orange, his favorite, the
kind with two sticks. He bit off the top while his mother bustled around slamming the windows shut. That
seemed strange because she had been complaining of the heat at dinner, but Jeff couldn’t ask why with his
His mother patted him on the head and went into the living room where his father sat reading the paper. The
sharp tone of her voice carried into the kitchen.
“Tom! We have to do something. It wasn’t so bad in the colder weather, but now it’s getting unbearable to
have to close the windows every night.”
Jeff heard his father’s low pitched voice answer, but couldn’t make out the words.
His mother’s voice jumped back in. “I don’t know who we should call. But there must be something we can do.
It’s just not right to have to listen to that every night.”
Jeff noticed the Popsicle was beginning to drip down the stick. He tilted it sideways and sucked at the bottom to
try to slow it down. He wanted to finish without making a mess. Whenever he was messy, his mother talked
about not buying any more of whatever made the mess. Her voice resumed in the living room.
“Talking to him won’t do any good. For all we know he’s in exactly the same condition, just not so noisy. Lord
knows what Jeff hears. All we need is for him to repeat some of that language at school and then we’ll be down
there trying to explain it all!”
Silence. Jeff worried it would be one of those nights when their talk ended in the crisp crackle of the newspaper
from his father, and the sharp slam of the bedroom door from his mother. On those nights his mother tucked him
into bed so tightly he could barely move, and her good night kiss was so curt and fast it was like a stab to his
He waited, then heard the strike and sizzle of a match, a pause, two quick breaths and a long exhale. The tang
of cigarette smoke drifted into the kitchen, and Jeff relaxed. When his father lit a cigarette for his mother and
they sat smoking together, her goodnight kiss was always gentle and tender.
Carefully, he put his Popsicle sticks in the trash and checked his clothes for drips that might have escaped.
Finding none, he moved close to the living room door. His father was talking again, low and soothing, and when
he finished his mother laughed for a moment. “But seriously Tom, something has to be done. I can’t spend the
whole summer with the windows closed at that end of the house, and besides, it’s not healthy for her. She
could fall and hurt herself or hurt someone else. She’s yelling threats out there.”
More soothing murmurs from his father.
“If you say so Tom, but it needs to be soon. Now I’d better get our little scamp into his bath.”
The next morning, Jeff trailed slowly down the block to the bus stop. Billy Morton was ahead of him, walking with
Joe Carter and Stephen Brooks. They were deep in conversation as they reached the corner.
“Ma Barnes was at it again last night.”
“What is that, three nights in a row?”
Joe kicked a rock into the street. “At least. What was she saying this time?”
“The usual. Goddamn this and son of a bitch that.”
All three boys sniggered.
“Was she bombed?”
Billy rolled his eyes. “You better believe it. She could barely stand.”
“My mom says it’s getting worse every week.”
“Was she yelling her dear son Eddie’s name this time?” Stephan’s kick sent another rock to join Joe’s.
“Nope, just a lot about commie bastards.”
Jeff edged a little closer. They were talking about Eddie. Eddie was his friend.
“Jeez, you wouldn’t think she’d get so nutty so fast.”
“How long has he been gone now?” Billy stepped out into the street and nudged both rocks together.
“He left just after Thanksgiving, and it’s almost June now…”
There was a silence as the boys counted.
“Seven months!” Joe got the answer first.
“When do you think he’ll be back?”
“I dunno. Maybe a year. If he doesn’t come back in a box.” Billy said, letting fly with his foot and managing to hit
both rocks in one savage kick.
Jeff moved away again. He didn’t like the way their voices sounded. It was like when they decided to steal his
lunch box or play keep away with his hat.
That was how he met Eddie last spring. The boys had taken his new baseball cap and were making him jump to
get it back. Eddie was walking by the bus stop on his way to work and saw Jeff trying to jump without crying. He
crossed the street and grabbed Jeff’s hat out of Billy’s hand.
“What’s going on here?”
“Nothing.” Billy muttered. Eddie towered over the three boys, and looked very tough in his green mechanic’s
coverall. He seemed like a super-hero to Jeff.
“Why don’t you leave the little kid alone?”
“We were just playing. He doesn’t mind, do you Jeff?” Billy glared at Jeff, daring him to disagree.
Jeff didn’t know what to say. If he said yes, the boys would pound him as soon as Eddie left. If he said no,
they’d take his hat every day and tell him he’d asked for it. Eddie solved the problem for him.
“Well, I mind. I don’t think its right for three of you big guys to gang up on one little kid.”
“It’s none of your business.” Stephan piped up from behind Billy, drawing nods and sounds of assent from the
two other boys.
“It’s my business ‘cause Jeff here is my next door neighbor, and we’re buddies. Isn’t that right Jeff?”
He winked at Jeff. Jeff bobbed his head up and down.
“And I’m gonna make it my business to walk past this bus stop every morning to make sure you’re not bothering
him. Got that?”
Jeff watched the three boys back away, grumbling about busybodies. Eddie stayed with him until the bus came
and kept his word over the next few weeks, showing up at the bus stop most mornings.
But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the evenings, when Eddie came home from his job at the
garage. He started calling Jeff to come over and help him with his project. Eddie was an auto mechanic. “A
grease monkey,” he called it. During the day, he worked fixing up other people’s cars. In the evening, he
worked on his own; tinkering with the engine to make it go faster. He said it was his ‘hot car’. Jeff couldn’t figure
out why. He’d touched the car once when Eddie wasn’t looking, and it felt the same as any other car.
It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Eddie talked to him while he worked. He told Jeff about his plans for
the car, asked him to pass tools, and called him ‘buddy’. They’d work together until it got dark and the smell of
baking came stealing from Eddie’s house. Then Mrs. Barnes would call them both in to her shiny kitchen and
offer them a snack, usually fresh from the oven. Jeff didn’t know there could be so many kinds of cookies.
“C’mon in boys,” she’d say, while the light from the kitchen touched her carefully curled hair and glimmered off
the pearls she always wore. “It’s getting too dark to see out there.”
It gave Jeff a wiggly proud feeling in the pit of his stomach to be classed in the same category as Eddie. He liked
Eddie very much.
Jeff’s mother liked Eddie too. “Are you sure he’s not bothering you?” she asked when she called him in for his
“Nah, he’s a good egg.” Eddie said, while Jeff beamed up at him.
“He’s so polite and well behaved.” Mrs. Barnes added. “I hardly know he’s here.” Eddie’s father, a quiet man,
murmured his agreement.
That always pleased Jeff’s mother. “I’m glad to hear you’re minding your manners while you’re there. It’s nice to
know you remember the things I tell you.” And she would give him the soft bedtime tuck in.
Things changed when the leaves started falling off the trees. Eddie didn’t talk as much when they worked
together. His mother talked more, and they both smiled less. Mrs. Barnes’ conversation didn’t make as much
sense, and she seemed to be talking to herself a good deal.
“Here’s your snack,” she would say. “Heaven knows you should stock up now. Who knows what kind of food
you might find…But you’ll have to eat. No one can do anything on an empty stomach. I just worry that there won’
t be much worth eating.”
One night when Jeff went over to Eddie’s he was surprised to see that no tools were out, and there was a
sheet pulled over Eddie’s hot car.
“Come over here buddy, we have to talk.”
Jeff went over and sat on the little stool Eddie kept in the garage just for him.
“I wanted to tell you I won’t be able to work out here with you for a while. I have to go away for a few months.
You see, there’s a war in a little country called Vietnam. Have you ever heard of it?”
Jeff shook his head.
“Yeah, I wish I never did either. It’s over by China. You’ve heard of China, right?”
Jeff nodded. Sometimes, for a treat, his mother would make chop suey for dinner. She’d tell him that was what
the children ate on the other side of the world in China.
“Anyway, I have to go to Vietnam to help fight in that war. I just found out I’m leaving next week and I’m gonna
be busy getting ready until I go. So I wanted to say good-bye now, okay?”
When Eddie didn’t say any more, Jeff nodded. That seemed to be the right thing to do. Eddie stuck out a hand.
After a minute, Jeff did the same and Eddie shook it.
“I’ll look for you when I come back. I’ll expect my buddy to be ready to help me again.”
Jeff nodded once more and Eddie steered him to the door. “Take care, buddy,” he said, then turned and went in
to the house. Jeff ran through the yard to his own door; suddenly frightened. He had never seen Eddie so
Over the next months, Jeff heard that strange word Vietnam in more and more places. It was in the news
program his mother listened to on the radio. It was in church when they took a minute to pray for ‘our brave
boys overseas’. It was even on the playground where kids talked about brothers and cousins ‘pulling low
numbers’. For a while, Jeff listened, hoping to hear about Eddie. But no one mentioned his name, and soon
Vietnam became just another grown-up topic, like ‘demonstrations’ and ‘student unrest’.