Carl’s parents were divorced before we started second grade. For a few years, before Carl’s dad won a scratch-off ticket and no one ever saw him again, I called Carl my best friend.
His parents went broke for his affection. The first Christmas I knew Carl, he pulled the inflatable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blimp out from under the tree (the only present that mattered in 1990). I asked my parents why Santa didn’t bring me one.
It’s too expensive, they said.
Carl’s father was always taking “trips.” On 4th of July, he came back with a bouquet of flowers (for Carl’s mother) and trunk full of fireworks (for Carl). All the neighborhood kids chased each other with sparklers that night. Except me. My father watched from our concrete stoop and told me not to leave the front yard. I asked him why I couldn’t hold one.
It’s too dangerous, he said.
Carl’s father began taking longer trips. The grass on their lawn went unmowed. The Christmas ornaments stayed hung. Eventually, the priests at our Catholic school decided to collect on Carl’s mother’s monthly IOUs and that was the end of Carl. We had been walking to school together since the first day of kindergarten, but now I had to leave Carl at the corner for the public school bus.
The public school kids were different. They were taller. Some of the older boys smoked cigarettes. “I’ll see you after school,” I would say, and watch as Carl shook hands with new friends. On my way home I’d wait at the corner for the bus to drop Carl off.
One morning, just before Christmas, Carl told me he and some other boys at the bus stop had started a gang. He told me they called their gang “The Savage Students” and their uniform was a purple Macho Man Randy Savage t-shirt. If you didn’t wear it every day, you were kicked out.
Carl told me they were having their first initiation that morning. Some kid named Philip wanted to be a Savage Student but his mother couldn’t afford to buy him a Macho Man shirt. Thankfully, we were too young to think of things like jumping someone into a gang because Carl’s crew took hazing very seriously. They’d told Philip if he wanted to be a Savage Student, he had to shove a pencil in-between the wooden boards of his teacher’s seat while she was standing at the blackboard. “So when she sits back down,” Carl laughed, “the pencil goes up her butthole.”
I waited at the bus stop for an hour that afternoon but Carl never showed. I thought I had been flat-left and walked to Carl’s house to confront him. His mother was on the stoop, crying.
“Carl got suspended today,” she said. “He’s grounded.”
Carl and his mother went to Brooklyn over Easter break. He knocked on my door before they left and told me he’d be back in three weeks. We made a secret handshake and promised to be pen pals.
Neither of us ever wrote.
I did get a gift for Carl, though. My father got promoted to Captain in the FDNY and my family drove down to Disney World. “Holy cow,” I thought as we walked under The Magic Castle, “life is really good.” We ate turkey legs and rode Splash Mountain and it seemed like everyone on earth was smiling. Even the animals walked arm-in-arm in this fearless universe. But on the raft-ride to Tom Sawyer Island, I thought about Carl and realized he probably wasn’t having any fun where he was. I told my parents I missed him and when we stopped at a gift shop my mom bought me two Donald Duck pendants. One said “best” and the other said “friends.”
When we got home, I ran to Carl’s house with the Donald Ducks. His mother opened the door and told me he’d be right out. But he didn’t hurry to come outside. And when he did, he looked at me like I was a memory he’d almost forgotten.
“Your hair is longer,” I said to him.
“Yeah,” he turned his head to show me a gold diamond in his ear. “And I got this.”
I took the pendants from my pocket and showed them to Carl. He looked excited for a second and then changed his face.
“Those are mad gay,” he said. “Want to see what my dad bought me?”
I followed him to his backyard. A long table stood against the back fence. Four empty beer cans were lined up a few inches apart.
Carl said he’d be right back and went inside. I looked at the Donald Ducks. The same blue caps hanging down over one of his eyes. The bills chiseled to smiles. Two painted pieces of medal that in an instant had gone from everything to nothing.
I put them back in my pocket.
The back door opened and the black barrel of a gun came out first. I remember how big the gun looked in Carl’s hands. Probably the same way guns have looked to every mother who’s ever sent their baby off to war. It was only a black Daisy BB gun, but I didn’t know anything. The sound it made when Carl pulled the lever down and pumped the stock made me feel like we were playing with a real shotgun.
“It gets 800 feet per second,” he said while shooting at the beer cans on the table.
He missed them all but you could see small pieces of wood splinter in the fence when the BBs hit. He pumped the gun four more times and handed it to me. I didn’t know why but I knew it was trouble. I thought about my dead relatives looking down at me. It felt like the whole world had caught me with a finger in my nose.
“No thanks,” I said.
“You can’t join my gang if you can’t shoot.”
I took the gun and held it like I had seen in movies. I pulled the trigger. The BB went up into the trees. A few birds flew out but other than that, nothing happened. I don’t know what I was expecting. An explosion, maybe.
“You shoot like a girl,” Carl said.
He told me that snipers take a deep breath in and hold it when they shoot. He said sometimes they spent days not breathing just to get the perfect shot. “They’ll go to the bathroom right in their pants,” he said. “They don’t care. They’re heroes.”
He pointed out a white dot at the tip of the barrel. “Put that in the groove.”
I took a deep breath. I put the dot between the groove at the end of the chamber.
“Do it,” Carl said. “Pull the trigger.”
The trigger clicked. A can bounced off the table against the fence.
“Whoa,” Carl said, “you’re a dead-eye.”
I didn’t move. An overwhelming sense of control came over me. Like the first man who figured out how to make fire. I had power in my hands, and I knew how to control it.
We ran over to the can and Carl picked it up. He shook it and we heard a lone BB rattling around the bottom. He showed me the hole the BB had made on the way in.
“Shoot til you miss,” Carl said.
I shot the other three cans. Then I shot their corpses on the grass. Carl never hit anything but the fence. Eventually I had to leave and let myself out. I could hear the gun’s pump clicking against the stock as I walked down the sidewalk.
The next day, I met Carl at the bus stop after school.
“Do you want to play stickball today?” I asked.
“No. We’re going shoot more.”
“I don’t want to shoot any more cans.”
“Me either. Let’s go to Mr. Scornelli’s. I have an idea.”
Mr. Scornelli lived at the end of our block. My parents had told us he was on the last boat out of Naples before Mussolini took it. They said that Mussolini got the rest of his family and that’s why he lived alone. He was the evil neighbor all the kids were afraid of. When the baseball went over his fence everyone drew straws to see who had to jump it and get the ball back. At night, his silhouette shuffled around his backyard. He kept a garden back there. The older kids told us it was where he buried small children.
Carl and I went into the woods behind Mr. Scornelli’s house.
“Cover me,” Carl said.
I kept watch while he climbed the fence. Mr. Scornelli’s backyard was basically a paved driveway with a bathtub in the middle. The tub was full of dirt and little poles stuck out from it to separate different vegetables. Carl ripped an eggplant off a vine and tossed it over to me. I caught it and said, “All right, Carl, let’s go.”
But Carl started punching and kicking vegetables out of the tub. Tomatoes landed on the pavement and stained it red. Wasps buzzed angrily around him but were afraid to land. Then Carl unzipped his pants and pissed on the rest of Mr. Scornelli’s plants.
He walked back to the fence and climbed it slowly like he wanted to get caught. I told him we were going to end up getting grounded and he told me I was being a “whimp.” We went to his house and shot at the eggplant. I hit it three times. Carl missed. He wanted to throw the eggplant back over Mr. Scornelli’s fence so “he knows we’re not afraid of him” but I talked him out of it.
I didn’t feel like shooting the next day.
“Let’s play stickball,” I said.
Carl agreed. We went to his house and got his bat. Carl had the best stickball bat on the block; an old broom handle his father had taped up for extra grip. Then we walked around the corner to the rectory and took turns pitching and batting.
“There are squirrels everywhere,” Carl said.
I looked around. We were using a dumpster to stop the missed pitches. He was right. There must have been twenty squirrels jumping in and out of it.
“Yeah,” I said. “So?”
“I’m going home to get the gun. I’ll be right back.”
I sat against the dumpster and watched Carl turn the corner. When he was gone I kicked it a couple times. The squirrels didn’t leave. They stopped for a second and studied me. All of them. Like little dogs. Their confused heads titled from side to side while I yelled at them. “Run,” I said. “Don’t you know what’s about to happen?” I threw a rock at one to scare it but it didn’t flinch.
You’re dead, I thought. You’re all dead.
Carl came back. He had the gun in one hand, a box of BBs in the other. He gave me the box and tried to pull a bunch of BBs out. But he was too excited; a rain of silver balls spilled from the box and bounced all over the ground.
He pushed me out of the way and laid the gun on the ground. He picked up some of the BBs and packed them into the slot. “I’m going first,” he said. “No. You’re the better shot. You go.”
He handed me the loaded gun.
“I don’t know which one to shoot,” I said.
Carl studied the squirrels. “That one,” he pointed at a baby.
“We can’t shoot that one. It’s a baby.”
He set his eyes on a big fat sucker munching on a slice of pizza. “Ok,” he said. “That one.”
I tried to think of a reason that would make it ok. It’s old, I thought. It’s an old, fat squirrel. I put the white dot in the groove. Carl was watching me. I pointed the white dot right between the squirrel’s eyes. Carl looked away from me, at the squirrel. I moved the gun an inch and shot into the dirt.
“You did that on purpose,” Carl said.
“No I didn’t.”
Carl took the gun out of my hands. He pumped it six times. He put the butt against his shoulder and bit his tongue. I could see from his stance he was going to hit it. He hadn’t hit a stationary can in a week but I knew he was going to nail the squirrel.
He took his breath.
“Don’t,” I yelled. “Don’t shoot it, Carl.”
He exhaled and pulled the trigger. The squirrel fell off the dumpster.
We stood side by side and watched the squirrel’s chest rise and fall in some kind of heave. All sound left the earth at that moment. The squirrel looked like a broken-winged angel lying in the dirt.
Carl dropped the gun. His trigger hand was down at his side, shaking. I took it. I clenched it. We understood a truth in that moment. For the first time we understood that we wouldn’t live forever, and someday we would die.
The squirrel kept breathing. It was hurt, but it wasn’t dying.
Carl blinked a few times and threw my hand off of his. “I’m going home,” he said.
“What about the squirrel?”
“Who cares? It’s a squirrel.”
“We can’t leave it. It’s still alive.”
“Then put it out of its misery. I’m going home.”
Carl picked up his gun and left. What have we done, I thought. I knew there wasn’t a priest in our parish who would forgive me for this one. I sat down next to the squirrel. Its black eyes stayed on me but it didn’t even try to run, it just seemed to be asking, “why?”
I carried the squirrel home. The BB had entered through its leg and stayed somewhere inside its body. Small pieces of bloodied cartilage stuck in its fur like little crumbs.
My mother called animal control. I lied and said that when I’d found the squirrel it was already injured.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I looked at the Donald Duck pendants like a soldier who loses all his men and gets a medal for being the last one left alive. I’ll never be allowed in Disney World again, I thought.
The weeks passed. Summer came and Carl and his mother went back to Brooklyn. When school started, I passed Carl at the bus stop every morning. He was smoking cigarettes by then and sitting on the bench with the older kids. We nodded at each other for a while, but eventually we stopped doing even that.
My family moved to New Jersey in middle school and I never saw Carl again. I remember when I was packing some boxes he came over to say goodbye. His head was shaved bald and his earring was gone. He told me he was going to a school that preps you for the military.
I got a letter from him once. He was married and doing a tour in Afghanistan. He said he couldn’t wait to take his baby to Disney World and show her the things I was always talking about. He signed the letter with a poor drawing of Donald Duck. I looked around my drawers for the “best friends” pendants but I’d lost them somewhere along the way. And the next time my family went to Disney World, I was already an old man, certain of nothing but time, wishing I was anywhere else.