Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Thought for Al

About 25 years ago, a friend of mine was murdered in a swamp not far from Little Rock, Arkansas. The police found his ring finger near the side of a road some miles away, apparently tossed from the window of a car.

I hadn't seen Al since the seventh or eighth grade, but I can't forget him because I've got a scar on my forehead from a rock he hurled at me. I don't blame him for that. I was hurling rocks at him, too. He just had a better arm (and better aim).

We were throwing from opposite banks of the creek that ran between our homes. I was preparing for one final toss, and so was Al. Reaching down, I grasped a stone, looked up, saw a rock only inches from my eyes, then felt it thud against my forehead. From my hand slipped the stone I'd grasped. From my head streamed blood.

Possibly, my skull was cracked. I don't know because my grandparents didn't take me to a doctor. We never went except for emergencies. Once, I got a three inch splinter in my upper thigh. Grandmother attacked it with a sewing needle, extricating a bit. Most of it's still there, just under my skin. Anyway, grandmother looked at my injured head, judged I'd live, put me in bed, and swabbed to staunch the flowing blood.

Al, apologetic and defiant, came to see me: "I'm sorry, but you were throwing rocks, too."

I should have said, "Yeah, it's okay," but I didn't. I said, "Al, you know I can't throw."

Poor Al. He got blamed for everything bad that happened even though he didn't do anything worse than I did. We both torched some vacant, grassy fields, but Al got caught. I didn't. I knew to crouch, use a small match, get away quickly, watch from hiding. Al ripped open a cardboard box, set that aflame, then danced across the field screaming "Wooooo-eeee!"

Another time, he and I worked a concession stand at the annual Rural Electrical Cooperative Day Fair. At twilight, I saw him turn his back to the fairground tents and crowd, grab a huge sack of raw popcorn, hoist it up 'hidden' in front of him, and hurriedly waddle across the long fairgrounds to stash it under a bush. In the dark, I stole it from there before he had a chance to retrieve it. Al got blamed even though the evidence was never found.

We had BB-gun fights, too. Al shot me in the leg. One of my brothers got him back in the ear. He'd aimed for an eye but missed. People knew of Al's shot, but not of ours.

Al met a bad end. I didn't. What was the difference? That Al got caught? Possibly, but getting caught would have cured me.

I think, rather, that Al couldn't foresee consequences. And he didn't learn from them either. He went from bad to worse, from worse to worst. By age 14, he was in reform school. After that, I don't know.

I only know that he turned up dead, murdered in a swamp, minus a ring finger.

So, rest in peace, Al. Maybe you don't deserve peace, but I knew you as a kid. I was, in an odd way, your friend.


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