The deputy was squatting in the hallway examining the splintered remains of the door. He knew me from the firehouse but he held out his hand and told me his name as if I never heard it before. He rolled a toothpick in his mouth and scratched the back of his neck then turned sideways to let me in. The place smelled of rot and mildew and that other smell you never forget.
The sofa cushions were slashed open with the stuffing all pulled out. All the drawers were emptied, the drywall smashed between the studs. In the stale air of the room there buzzed a tiny squadron of fat black flies. All the shades were drawn. The shades were amber from all the cigarettes and the light that came through the cracks was the sickly yellow of bad teeth.
He was slumped over a pizza box, his eyes open toward the ceiling like he was waiting for something to fall. I couldn’t tell for sure at first so I leaned in closer. He looked like some roughneck all spattered with oil so I couldn’t be certain it was him. I hadn’t seen him since before the meth years. He didn’t look like Brucie. He could have been anybody.
The truth was that he was the best kind of boy. We called him Brucie back then and he was just like a little bird, delicate and light with that wispy blonde hair that fell in his face like that kid from the funny papers, the one who had the coal black eyes of a doll. He was a quiet kid, and had that look like he was always about to cry. God only knows what went wrong. He was such a good kid but he was small and his father left his mother before he was born. He was always so eager to please. You could get him to do just about anything; which I suppose for a little kid like Brucie was a form of defense.
I guess they found my card in his wallet because when I walked up those rickety steps the Sheriff’s deputy was standing there holding it in his hand like some paper badge of truth. He didn’t say a word. I just followed his eyes, knowing that what I’d find there wouldn’t be the Brucie I once knew.
We were in the Cub Scouts together. It was 1972 and that was a time when the world felt like it could end on any given day, with the war still on and all the hijackings and the killings of those great men fresh in all our minds. We used to wear those nickel-plated POW bracelets that bore the names of men we didn’t know. Lost men. Prisoners of an unjust war. We were reminded by our den mothers to keep them always in our prayers. He used to pray, Brucie did. He was an altar boy too. He’d get down on his knees and fold his hands like the Virgin Mother in a halo of golden dust. He had these small, pale fingers, tiny little hands, but they sure could work a piece of wood. He could swing a baseball bat like nobody’s business and with a pocketknife he’d carve you a soapbox racer that would go like the wind. His cars won all the derbies and he won for himself more badges then all the boys combined. He was a good scout and for a while a good friend. But we drifted apart in junior high and he took a different path.
I looked at the face and I looked at the hands and it couldn’t have been Brucie. But I saw something lying there among the clothing strewn out on the floor, a tiny blue shirt with red and yellow epaulets and a bright red patch on the shoulder. An old Cub Scout uniform. I bent down to pick it up. It still had all the merit badges pinned to the ribbons – shiny brass pins for archery and such. There was our troop number 515 and his Wolf Scout patch and also the last badge he got, which we worked on together. That was the last time I had seen him before his slide. We just earned Webelo and I was there the day his mother sewed it on.
I held that little shirt spread in my hands and I thought, were we really that small? If a boy can do everything that’s asked of him, everything that’s right and more, and yet still come to an end like this, then what is the point of it all?
I turned to the sheriff with that little blue shirt in my hand and he must have seen it in my eyes. His mouth got all scrunched up and he gave me a little nod. Then he looked away.
Can I keep this? I said. He told me I could.
I didn’t save my own Cub Scout shirt or my soapbox racers or any of those things I once treasured as a boy. I never thought about them until Brucie came back so unexpectedly, so utterly changed. I sit up some nights with his shirt in my hands and I weep for the body and I weep for the soul and I weep for a world that would do Brucie Dowell the way he got done. This is no place for little birds or little boys or anything else with feathers and wings.