Elmer Toon was always a little beyond the edge.
Elmer shot across the bridge from Dorsey Street and onto the big parking lot, head thrust out over the front wheel as he peddled full tilt on a right-hand arc toward the river bank. Almost at pavement’s end, he stood up and threw the bicycle into a skid. The machine did as he wished. When it stopped, he was facing the direction from which he had come.
Elmer scanned the backdoor faces of the Main Street buildings and the car-spangled field of blacktop that spread from their feet to his. The shadows of summer clouds rolled across the scene with a dreamlike swiftness. The brick walls and peeling window frames seemed to advance and recede with the change from light to dark, light to dark.
“Mine,” Elmer mused, though it was more feeling than thought.
With a sense of satisfaction like that which comes from eating a slice of warm, homemade pie, he dismounted and walked to the river’s rim. An old coffee can was tied to his belt by way of a cord that passed through a pair of holes punched in its side. Elmer pried the plastic lid off the can and waded into the water, turning his bluejeans darker than they had been since they were new.
Elmer Toon was an intelligent boy approaching the depth of puberty. The only activities he enjoyed more than masturbating were bicycling and shoplifting, and shoplifting was losing ground fast. It was primarily because of his passion for petit larceny that Elmer was a figure of note among the village merchants. Mostly, they made note of his every move. They knew he was robbing them, but they were unable to catch him in the act; and, as soon as the slightest distraction intervened, he would slip away. Then someone would notice that there was one less fishing lure on the rack than there had been before, or a box of bolts was only half full, or the largest turtle in the tank had vanished.
By the time such irregularities came to light, Elmer would be riding his bicycle headlong down Helen Hill or testing his balance on the railroad tracks. Most boys were challenged by walking a rail for any distance, though some could go a mile or more without having to step off. Elmer rode his bicycle. It was rumored that he could, on calm days, ride a rail from one end of the village to the other—three times the distance of the other boys’ best walk. Also, a story leaked out, to the horror of the parents of those involved (except Elmer’s), that Elmer had dared a group of friends to throw rocks at him while he rode across the high trestle, fifty feet above the Saranac River, just twenty inches of tie-ends between him and empty space. The friends didn’t want to do it, but Elmer cajoled and prevailed. Not a single stone struck Elmer, but several of his friends were bruised by falling rocks which had been launched from opposite sides of the trestle. It was another Toon triumph.
Kneeling in the river, Elmer dislodged a rock that had the right look. The small, lobster-like creature which had been concealed beneath tried to escape, but Elmer seized it behind its pincers and dropped it into the old coffee can hanging against his hip, carefully replacing the lid.
Silas White looked up from the doorway of his shop. The clouds had become plump with summer moisture, but there was no smell of rain. The sky was pale and silky, the air warm and soothing. Silas accepted it with practiced resignation. The pattern was too familiar. “When the weather is good, business is bad,” he recited to himself. “People don’t read books when the sun is shining.”
Silas rearranged the contents of the two wide, wooden bins he’d set on sawhorses on the sidewalk. He had hung brightly printed signs on them, indicating half-price sale, to attract attention; but the few people there were to attract only rummaged.
In the time it took Silas to sell two magazines and a paperback Western, Elmer Toon had filled his coffee can with crayfish. He left the river and walked up one of the alleys to Main Street, leaving a wet trail as his soaked jeans and sneakers drained. On the street, he saw Tina Harper approaching from the direction of the book shop.
Elmer had the whole town, but he wanted Tina. She had been held back twice, so she was more fully developed than any of the other girls in his class and, he judged, was that much less stuckup, as well. Elmer walked with her as often as possible when classes changed, taking care to stay just a little behind while descending the stairs so that he could look down the opening of her blouse and into the shadowy notch between her breasts. Sometimes it was all he could do to keep his hand from reaching out to touch and be enfolded by that miraculous promise of forbidden warmth.
As he thought about this, Elmer felt a warmth of his own swelling against his river-cooled leg.
He walked toward Tina.
When they met, he showed her the crayfish, unfastening the can and holding it low so that she would have to bend over in order to get a good look at what was inside. Elmer believed that Tina knew he was staring at her and that she didn’t mind. He imagined even that she was bending farther than she really needed and was leaning toward him a little. They were so close he could smell her. He began to blush. He wanted to ask her to come with him to the river, to sit beside him on the grassy bank in the sunshine. He would show her how to skip stones, where to find snagged lures. But the words somehow became tangled behind his teeth and never left his mouth.
“Would you like one?” he asked.
“Oh, no thanks, Elmer. I don’t have anything to carry it in, and I don’t think my mother would let me keep it anyhow.”
“Oh. Well . . . ah. . . . I guess I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Sure, Elmer. See you later. . . . And thanks for showing me your crayfish.”
But Elmer was already on his way, walking with a peculiarly stiff gait and feeling excruciatingly conspicuous. He stopped by the bins in front of Silas White’s book shop, hoping the distraction would help him to calm down. He began to idly peruse the books that no one would buy at half price: Antique Bottle Collecting; Esoteric Astrology; How to Know Your Miniature Schnauzer; Human Sexuality. . .
Silas had never been one of Elmer’s victims, but he had heard many an exasperated fellow merchant say that the boy was “no good” and had to be “watched like a hawk.”
Silas left the shop in the care of a friend who had just purchased a newspaper, and then he slipped out the back door. Elmer continued examining the non‑sellers. The bin was not full, and there had been space enough for him to set the coffee can to which he had forgotten to affix the lid. He realized his oversight when he noticed the tail of a crayfish disappear between two copies of UFOs: The True Story. The sight was an inspiration.
Silas had just stepped onto the sidewalk from the alley next to his building as the last crayfish fell from the coffee can in Elmer’s hand.
Elmer saw Silas bounding toward him, dropped the can, and started to run; but Silas had a long reach, and he grabbed for whatever part of the fleeing boy was nearest. What his fingers closed upon was the young man’s ear.
Elmer stopped short, turned, and came back kicking at Silas’s shins.
“Let goa me, you fuckin’ turd!”
Silas gave the ear a sharp twist, and Elmer, screaming with pain and indignation, dropped to his knees. Slowly, Silas released the pressure but not enough to lose control of the boy glaring at him.
“Now, collect your friends,” said Silas, pointing to the abandoned coffee can.
When the can was full again, Silas, still holding Elmer’s ear, began to lead him down the alley toward the parking lot and the river.
“Where the fuck you takin’ me?”
“We’re going to put those crayfish where they belong.”
Down on the riverbank, the two stood once more facing each other, the man’s hand still firmly gripping the boy’s ear. Elmer regarded his captor with wariness and contempt.
With his free hand, Silas took the coffee can from Elmer. He looked into it for a moment, appraising the scuttling mass at the bottom.
“Some pretty big ones in here, aren’t there?”
“What’s it to you?”
Then, with a movement so swift as to seem never to have happened, Silas dropped his hand from Elmer’s ear to shirt collar, yanking it forward and, with his other hand, jammed the up-ended can inside to spill its startled contents against the boy’s chest and belly. The expression which spread across Elmer’s face gave Silas his first smile of the day.
Elmer Toon danced an odd little jig down the embankment and tumbled into the river. Silas was halfway up the alley before Elmer regained his capacity for speech.
“I hate you, you bastard! I hate your fuckin’ guts! I’m just a child! You can’t do this to a child! I’m going to the cops! Wait’ll my father hears about this! You’re dead, mister!”
With that, Silas rounded the corner of his building and entered his store, which was empty but for the friend he’d left in charge.
The shadows of afternoon were beginning to grow long on Main Street. A few last-minute browsers were in the store making sure Silas stayed behind the counter until five o’clock; but Silas had had enough this day, and he was just about to ask the browsers to leave when a balding, brick-shaped man trundled through the open door, followed a few paces behind by Elmer Toon.
“You the dork that tortured my boy?”
“I was merely putting the crayfish where they belonged,” replied Silas calmly.
“Don’t get cutesy with me. You poured crayfish down my boy’s shirt. You in the habit of molestin’ children? With all these damn books around here, you’re probably a pervert.”
“Mr. Toon,” (Silas had decided it might help to sound respectful) “I caught Elmer dumping those crayfish into one of the book bins out front. If someone had reached for a book and been bitten by…”
“My boy says it was an accident. You’d think he was some kinda criminal or somethin’ the way you’re talkin’. You callin’ my boy a criminal?”
“No, of course not, Mr. Toon, but I’m afraid what I saw did not look very much like an accident. He was holding a coffee can about two feet above the books. He was holding it nearly upside-down, and there were crayfish falling out of it. I’m sorry, but it really did not look like an accident.”
“You callin’ my boy a liar? Huh? You callin’ him a liar? ‘Cause if you are, I’ll take care of you right now, even if there are other perverts in here.”
Silas was suddenly thankful for the browsers, now witnesses.
“Mr. Toon, I really don’t know what else there is for either of us to say here, but perhaps you could get in touch with Judge Griebsch and arrange for us to meet with him to discuss our differences. I honestly don’t know how else we can resolve this.”
“I got an idea, you pervert creep. Let’s you and me go down to the river so I can kick your ass into it. Then you can talk it over with the crayfish. How’s ‘at sound?”
Silas knew he was taking a chance when he reached for the telephone, but he felt he had no other options.
“Waddaya think you’re doin’, dork?”
“I’m calling the police, Mr. Toon. If you aren’t gone by the time they answer, I’m going to ask them to come and remove you from the premises.”
The elder Toon began a slow retreat, his son at his side.
“I’m not through with you. You understand me? You think you’re hot stuff when you’re pushin’ a little boy around. Well you’re gonna find out what hot is! Your ass is on the coals as of right now!”
With that and an obscene gesture from Elmer, the two Toons were gone.
Silas returned the telephone receiver to its cradle as an elderly female voice queried, “Hello. Hello? Who is this?” Silas never could remember the police department’s number.
For several weeks, Silas worried about Mr. Toon’s threats. And he felt anger for allowing himself to feel fear in such a small, safe town. But August passed without incident; and, by mid‑September, the brick‑shaped man and his son had become just another story in Silas White’s personal stock.
It was a cool night in early October when Silas awoke sweating to the sound of shattering glass and the smell of calamity. The fire fighter coming through the window was polite but blunt.
“Put your pants on,” he said. “Don’t bother with anything else.”
Silas stood on the street with the spectators – browsers of tragedy, he thought. Someone had put a jacket across his shoulders, but still he shivered, even so close to the orange heat glinting in the tears through which he saw a smile on the face of a brick-shaped man at the far side of the crowd.
It had begun to rain – a hostile, wind-pushed rain trying to become snow. The shell of Silas White’s building had been cold for nearly a month, but the origin of the fire was still undetermined. Silas had found a room in a house on Pine Street, near where the railroad sliced a triangle out of the junction of Pine and Main and launched itself across the river. It was fairly quiet and only a five-minute walk from the center of town.
Silas bought the beginnings of dinner at the Grand Union supermarket and walked the shortcut through to Woodruff Street and the path up the railroad embankment. When he reached the crest, the wind nearly threw him down, and he had second thoughts about crossing the trestle.
Evening was touching night. The air was full of ice pellets, dead leaves, and assorted trash all traveling south in a hurry. Through this shadowy maelstrom, Silas saw a shifting figure across the river, approaching him along the tracks, moving fast.
In a basement apartment on a French Hill street, a tattered chair was full of Elmer Toon’s father. Surrounded by a collection of beer containers and cigarette butts, he was making hard progress toward forgetfulness. He had already forgotten that his son was late coming home. By the time the last, empty can fell from his sleeping hand, he had forgotten even that he had a son.
When Mrs. Toon returned from working the late shift at the all-night restaurant and noticed Elmer’s absence, she decided to let her husband snore and went to bed hoping the boy had gone to spend the night at a friend’s house. By that evening, she’d called the police.
Silas White had remained active in the community after the fire. In gossip reruns, people remarked approvingly that he hadn’t lost heart. Eventually, he collected on his insurance, but he was unsure what to do with the money.
In the weeks following Elmer Toon’s disappearance, though, Silas was seen less and less about the village, and he withdrew from all but a few old friends. In a brief encounter near the library, he told one of them: “I feel naked, Wally. I feel like everybody’s looking at me.”
A few days later, someone said they thought they’d seen his face in a window of the outbound Trailways bus; but they had not see the small piece of paper clutched in his hand—the stub of a one-way ticket.
Late in May, on one of those breathless and beckoning days when no boy true to his spirit could be found in school, a young truant stood at the river’s edge below Pine Street Bridge and watched his fishing line grow taut in the direction of a nest of splintered logs, bald tires, a bicycle frame, and two shopping carts. He began reeling, but too late. The line was snagged. He gave it a few smart tugs. There was a slight yielding, but no release. He watched, for a moment, the swallows snapping midges from the shade beneath the bridge. A crow called from the high trestle beyond.
The boy tugged again. The line sang with tension, falling silent only when he allowed it slack. He decided to follow it. The sun was warm. The snag was in the shallows. The lure was one of his best.
He reeled himself toward it, the tip of the pole leading him like an accusing finger, until all the line had been retrieved and the bright bait was found, now a funereal jewel in a lost classmate’s ear.
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