When I saw the obituary in the local pages, I thought it was Lenny himself, but I looked closer, and it was his mother. I knew he was long gone. I shot a wedding twenty years ago where I saw his little brother Bobby, and he told me then that Lenny had died of an overdose or a broken heart. I was too busy to ask what that meant.
I went to the funeral. I drove forty miles to look at a dead woman I hadn’t seen for fifty-two years, since I left the old neighborhood. I brought my camera.
The funeral parlor was on Findlay Road, the same side of the swamp where Lenny and I grew up. Of course the swamp had been drained soon after I left. The ten square miles of prairie that rose above it—where we had burned our black paths through the tall grass, always blazing some trail to the Highland Road—were now covered with concrete boulevards, brick houses, back yards.
We were just kids, but we owned guns, .22 caliber rifles (one of us toted a .410 shotgun), and we hunted pheasant and quail or rabbits and squirrels, pretty much anything that moved. When that got boring, we’d spear leopard frogs where the swamp waters were already being stirred by construction up on the Highland Road. We gutted them and nailed their skins to a thick tree; it took a couple of years to cover the trunk, but then we had to strip the skins away because one day the .410’s little sister got a look at our wallpaper—Lenny called it “exterior decoration”—and told their mother. We never cooked any animals. We killed them for fun.
Or profit. One winter, Lenny immersed himself in outdoors magazines, the serious kind that featured hard-boiled fiction, so after four years of random slaughter, we started trapping muskrats and selling their skins by sending them to post office boxes listed at the back of Field & Stream and Sports Afield. With more local knowledge, we learned to kill rabbits without shooting them, by chasing them through snow deep enough to exhaust them, knowing that they’d run in circles, slower and slower, until we could just lean down and pluck them from the powder; we sold them to a German restaurant in town that was looking for small game unblemished by shotgun pellet holes.
Lenny and I led the gang, six or seven guys, depending on whether the .410 showed up. We didn’t play any team sports. Whatever the season outside of summer, we’d gather in the swamp after school, decide on a plan. We lit cigarettes with cinematic deliberation, making sure that the smoke veiled our faces as we discussed our options. But nobody ever disagreed with Lenny, not even me, and everybody knew I was his equal, his partner, his best friend. We kept the cigarettes burning no matter what he decided.
He was ugly. Even I could see that he’d be a repulsive adult. His long head was misshapen by the scalpels used to extract him from his mother’s womb, an emergency procedure done at Cook County Hospital. His eyes always seemed squeezed shut by the weight of a massive brow; his jaw looked like a turnip stitched to his face by the stray whiskers he didn’t yet shave. His teeth were tangled yellow edges never to be repaired by the braces then sprouting in the mouths of our classmates. His skin was pale rubble, and his voice was already stripped of high notes by tobacco.
But he had conviction. He always seemed to know exactly what to say, whether he was explaining to the cops that we had nothing to do with the poodle they found tortured to death, skinned alive and nailed to a tree on the Highland Road, or explaining to my mother that it was his fault we were late for supper. He gave advice and spit out aphorisms like he was our own Ann Landers. He’d say, “Forget the cops, never tell your father where you’ve been.” Or, “Your mother is not your friend.” Or, “Never ask someone what he’s thinking, he doesn’t know any better than you do.” Or, “You commit yourself, and then you see.” He knew a lot about Civil War battles and generals. Also Napoleon.
I loved him more than his mother, I loved him like he was my father, and he knew that as well as I did, although I never said it. From time to time, we used a potato peeler to scrape the skin off our right index fingers and let our blood mingle; but we never made any vows during these ceremonies, we never said a word. We didn’t have to, I was with him every day, outside Christmas and maybe Thanksgiving, for seven years of my life.
One of those days, as we’re lighting our cigarettes, the .410 says “Let’s burn the house down.” I say, “What house?” and Lenny says “The one on the Highland Road.” I look confused, so he continues: “They’re building houses up there, that’s why all the traffic, the trucks and shit, my mom says they’re gonna drain the swamp and take over the whole thing.” He waves his right hand at us and then lifts it, so I know he’s pointing outward, telling us that everything we see—everything we know—will be gone, and soon. The animals, too.
I’m still confused, though, so I say “What do they want with this?” and I make the same gesture, so I mean the whole thing as well, I mean this swamp, the prairie rising above it, the ranch houses we come from, the animals we kill, the wrong lives we’re bound to live. Lenny shrugs, he says, “No idea, but they’re gonna have it, sooner or later, nothin’ you can do about it.”
I look down the barrel of my .22 rifle and say, “They can have it.”
Lenny says, “When you movin’?” My father had been promoted at work, so he’d bought a house in the center of the old town, near the railroad crossing and Sacred Heart School. I hadn’t told anybody about it. “Next week,” I say, but I don’t look at him, and when I raise my eyes from the gun I realize that everybody’s looking at me. The .410 is staring, he says, “C’mon, man, let’s burn it down.” Lenny waves away the smoke that hides his face and says, “All right. First we clear a path, make it look like an accident.”
That’s what we did that day, we burned another crooked black corridor to the Highland Road, and when the construction crew was gone, we torched the half-finished house. The .410 and I led the way, piling wood chips, spilling turpentine, lighting rags—we’d been starting fires since the first grade, so we knew what we were doing. It was a three-alarm call by the time I got home, but I felt safe; we’d made a pact to deny everything, including the evidence of the fire itself, and I knew Lenny would enforce it.
He was arrested that night, charged with criminal damage to property instead of arson. I heard later that the property he was convicted of damaging was the grass we burned—the real estate developer building the house on the Highland Road already owned the whole thing. Lenny never said a word about the rest of us, so he went alone to juvenile detention, “reform school,” we called it in those days, for 18 months.
I saw him again two years later, on the first day of high school. I had long since moved to Overton Street and made new friends, the kind of guys Lenny had called jocks and climbers and socialites. We were walking toward each other, dodging locker doors and seniors bent on cruelty. The .410 and a couple of other guys from Findlay Road were right behind him, everybody wearing baggy grey pants, pointed black shoes and wife beaters under open denim shirts.
He stopped when he saw me and my friends, everybody in jeans and loafers and golf shirts. He smiled, looked down, shook his head, but then he was walking again, and nodding, stamping my new life with his seal of approval.
He said “Jeff, how’re you doin”? and I said “Good, Lenny, I’m good, how’re you doin’?” After that, we just passed each other in the halls. I never saw him again outside the high school. I never wanted to.
I took some quick pictures of the funeral parlor from the parking lot because it looked like the houses behind me, across the vanished swamp—like a monument, something that would last forever. I wanted it to. Once inside, I spotted Bobby right away and walked over, thinking he wouldn’t recognize me.
I said, “Bobby, how you doin’, remember me from the house on Findlay Road?” He said, “Hey, Jeff, sure, how you doin’, Mom talked about you all the time, Lenny did too. You were at that wedding, what, twenty years ago now?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t do weddings anymore, but I’m still a photographer. I’m sorry for your loss, man, she was a nice lady, a good mother.” As he got himself ready to say thank you, I said what I came to say: “You know, I’ve been wondering all these years, how did Lenny die? You mentioned something at that wedding, but I never got it straight.”
Bobby looked over my left shoulder, then over his own, waiting for an interruption. I remembered then that he was always waiting for something, mostly directions from Lenny. Finally he shrugged and said, “I don’t think anybody ever got it straight.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we know how he died—he killed himself with a fucking shotgun—but nobody, except maybe my mother, nobody knows why.”
“Wait a minute, I thought he OD’d on something—“
“No, no, that was what Mom wanted people to think, but now that she’s gone, who cares?” He stopped and sipped from his Coke, waiting again.
“I didn’t know. Jesus.”
“Yeah, I guess it was pretty ugly . . . must have blown his whole head off. I never saw it, never saw him, it was a closed casket. My mother found him in the basement, cleaned up after him. As usual.”
“Jesus. Did he leave a note?”
“Mom said ‘No’ until last year . . . and then she showed it to me, just once. Made no sense.”
“What did it say?”
“Something about the Highland Road. And you were in it. So was I.”
“Bobby, you remember the day we burned that house down?”
“Hell yes. I was scared for years after that, I’m still scared of it, cops comin’ to the house in the middle of the night, bangin’ on doors and shit—”
“You remember what he said? He said, ‘We get to the Highland Road, there’s no turning back,” like he was making a speech—like we were going to war or something. You remember that part, was that in the note?”
“Yeah, getting to the Highland Road was in there. In the note, I mean, I don’t remember him saying that shit the day we went to, when we burned—“
“’No turning back,’ he said, but he did, you see what I mean, he turned back!”
“I don’t know about that, he kept doing crazy shit all his life. Back to what?”
“I don’t know, you think I know?”
“Well, you seem pretty worked up about it.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.” I settled down by pretending I was going to shoot myself—in my mind I posed for my own camera, and then I said, “Come on outside, Bobby, I want to take a picture of you.” He looked around to make sure there weren’t any relatives that needed his attention. “OK,” he said.
I wanted to shoot him in the foreground of those houses, so I stood him up at the edge of the parking lot, where they rose behind him across the drainage canal, marching in tight formation up the incline toward the Highland Road. I used him like the snap-up sight on an old rifle, aiming just over the top of his head. In three minutes, I found the target I’d been looking for, the house the developer had built on the ruins of what we incinerated.
From there I could finally trace the path we’d burned that day. It wasn’t a straight line, but it led to where Bobby and I were still standing.
“OK Bobby,” I said, “I got it. Thanks.”
He relaxed—he knew he had been posing for something—and walked toward me. I stuck out my hand and said, “Well, I should be going. I’m glad we talked, man. It’s good to know about Lenny.”
“You’re not gonna stay for the service?” He shook my hand. “You OK? You know, you can come back to the house after.”
“Yeah, I’m good, and thanks, but I think I’d better get back. It’s a work day for me.”
“Hell, it’s a work day for everybody in there except the old-timers.”
“Well yeah, but I want to develop these pictures. I’ll send them to you.”
“All right.” He turned back toward the Highland Road and without looking at me, he said, “You know, that wedding you did twenty years ago, my mother loved those pictures you took. She never said shit about me being the best man, she just wanted to talk about you, how you were Lenny’s best friend.”
“She did?” I wasn’t surprised. What was there to say about Bobby?
“Yeah, she did.”
“She really loved Lenny,” I said.
“Yeah, she did.” He nodded as he said it, and then he turned again and was walking away, toward the funeral home. I decided to drive home across the Highland Road. I knew I’d never see Bobby again. I never wanted to.