Virgil Lamb walked briskly through Pewee Park with his hands in his coat pockets, making his way toward Mike Musselman’s house over on Walnut. Virgil had known Mike since the days they’d attended grammar school together, sixty-some years ago. Mike would help him. Mike would know what to do.
Virgil stopped where he and his friend had built a fort high in the branches, long before the area had been designated a nature preserve. No remnants of the treehouse remained--or even the tree, for that matter, not even a stump--but Virgil knew the site. He knew it like the back of his liver-spotted hand. He gazed toward the sky for a few seconds and traveled to another time, to the summer he turned eleven. He and Mike walked along a dirt road, picking up rocks and seeing who could hurl them the furthest, talking about how they might scrounge a few pennies to split a Coca-Cola at Gunther’s Sunoco. Then, out of the blue, Mike said, “Let’s tear down that old tobacco barn and build ourselves a fort.”
“You can’t just go tearing down people’s barns,” Virgil said. “Tends to put them in a bad mood.”
“The Schweinhardts done lost their land, so the way I see it that barn ain’t nobody’s. Free barn.”
“It’s the bank’s.”
“You think the bank cares? Look at it. Roof’s half gone, wood’s all weathered and warped, foundation’s probably crawling with termites. Hell, we’d be doing them a favor.”
“I don’t know about that.”
But Virgil did know about one thing. He knew that once Mike Musselman had his mind set on doing something there was no stopping him. He knew that the next day they would come back with sledgehammers and start taking the place apart board-by-board. What he didn’t know about, what his nine-year-old brain couldn’t possibly have predicted, were the nightmares that would follow, the horrifying visions that would poison his sleep for years to come.
It started that same night, before they ever pulled and straightened the first rusty nail. In his dream, Virgil sat on a bench outside the Pewee Valley Mortgage and Trust Company, chewing on a stick of licorice, waiting for his father to take care of some business inside. A man on the corner opposite the bank stood beside a big hand-painted sign that said NOOSES ON SALE. Not for sale, but on sale, as if you needed to hurry on over to get one cheap. Naturally curious, Virgil crossed the intersection and told the man howdy.
There were several lengths of rope lying on the ground, each with a hangman’s knot on one end. Virgil counted the loops on a couple of the knots and, sure enough, there were thirteen just as he’d always heard.
“What are the ropes for, mister?”
“They’re for ugly redhead retards who jaywalk.”
“I ain’t no retard. I can read and write and cipher and everything. And it ain’t no crime to have red hair. My momma says--”
“But jaywalking is a crime. You ain’t heard the news? It’s a hanging offense now.”
“You’re funny, mister.”
Virgil’s father appeared then, seeming to be in a foul humor, the way he got when he drank too much whiskey the night before.
He grabbed Virgil by the arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing, Papa. Just talking to the noose salesman here.”
“I’ll take one of those,” Papa said to the man.
“Buy one, get one half-price. While they last.”
“I’ll only be needing the one.”
Papa handed the man some money and picked out a length of rope, checking the knot to make sure it functioned properly.
“Why’d you buy that noose?” Virgil asked on the ride home, but his father didn’t answer.
And they didn’t go home.
Papa steered the truck through the open gate of the old Schweinhardt place and parked beside the tobacco barn. He got out, grabbed the rope with one hand and Virgil’s hair with the other and pulled Virgil shouting and screaming to the inside of the barn. Next thing Virgil knew he was standing on a rickety stool with his hands tied with baling wire, the loose end of the rope secured to a roof beam and the business end to his neck. It was hot in the barn, probably over a hundred degrees, and the noose was tight and the hemp coarse and he could feel it burning into his sweaty skin. He teetered on the stool, knowing a loss of balance meant instant death.
“Why are you doing this, Papa?”
“You can’t just go tearing down people’s barns. Tends to put them in a bad mood. Plus, like the man said, jaywalking’s a hanging offense these days. Nothing I can do about that.”
“Please, Papa. I’ll be good. I promise.”
“You should have thought of that before. Too late now.”
A wasp flew overhead. Virgil followed it to its nest with his eyes.
“May as well get rid of them damn things while I’m at it,” Papa said. He picked up a can of gasoline, screwed the lid off, sprinkled some in the straw around the stool and then doused Virgil’s britches with the rest.
He lit a match.
Now Virgil had a choice. He could jump off the stool and hang himself, or he could stand there and burn. Up to this point he’d thought all this was just another one of his father’s ways to scare some sense into him, but those gasoline fumes were real and making him dizzy and the flame on the end of that match was real and the noose and the rickety stool and the wasp’s nest and it was hot, hot, hot in the barn and just when he thought this is it I’m going to die now he woke with his heart hammering in his ears and the bed soaked with sweat.
Despite the ominous nightmare, Virgil returned to the old Schweinhardt place with Mike the next day. They started dismantling the tobacco barn and toting a few pieces of wood at a time to the spot where Virgil stood now sixty-some years later gazing up at a sky the color of molten lead where the tree used to be. It turned out to be a fine clubhouse, and he and Mike would climb up there and eat candy and smoke tobacco in a corncob pipe and talk about fishing and hunting and other manly things and later on about how the bad girls at school were much more fun than good ones. Those days were like pure gold; but, nothing gold can stay, some great poet whose name escaped Virgil at the moment said, and it was true. Nothing gold can stay. But maybe it can leave for a while and then return.
They never got in any trouble over stealing the wood from the barn, but Virgil was in trouble now and he couldn’t think of anyone to turn to other than his dear old friend Mike Musselman. In a way, Mike was responsible for all those nightmares all those years, so maybe he could help with the one Virgil was living right now. He walked on briskly toward Walnut, hoping that would be the case.