Tuesday, October 11, 2011

#4: "Little Sinners" by Thomas E. Kennedy


~~This piece previously appeared in American Fiction 1 (1990)

My ninth summer, in 1952, I ran with a kid named Billy Reichert, a classmate from The Christian Brothers Boys School. We were thieves. We used foul language. We smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes purchased with stolen quarters. We pored over the dirty pictures on a pack of Tijuana playing cards Billy had secreted in his basement. It was a lovely summer.
I loved stealing. You had to be quick and brave. I loved that feeling in my stomach just before I made my move. I glanced at whatever it was--a Milky Way bar, a cap pistol, a comic book--walked past, scanned the shop in front of me, turned, scanned behind, and if the coast was clear, zip!  I moved, shoved it in my pocket, under my shirt, down my pants. Then I hung around a while as a precaution, but also as part of the fun: that incredible sense of power it gave me to stay there, moving slowly amongst the enemy, the loot on my person, ­the danger, the triumph, the sheer belly-tingling risk! I asked the shop clerk, the guy with the pencil moustache and under-slung jaw at Gerstie's, say, the price of some impossibly expensive item, HO gauge electric trains or a glittering package of imported hand-painted lead soldiers in red coats, looked wistful, wandered out with my head down. I understood from overhearing my father, who was a legal counselor for the State of New York, that the law said you could not be arrested for shoplifting until you were actually out the door, so I was prepared to put the booty back on the shelf again at the least suspicious glance. But none ever came. I was too quick. Me and Billy could lift just about anything – coins out of the cigar box on the brick and plank newspaper stand in front of the Roosevelt Avenue cigar shop, comic books out of Gerstenhar­ber's, cupcakes and Mission sodas from the A&P or Frisch's Market, toys from the glass shelves of Kresge's or Woolworth's, and assorted junk, mostly mysterious small automotive gadgets, out of Sears & Roebuck's which, for some reason, we called Searsie's. If there wasn't anything in particular we desired, we would lift any old thing, just for the joy of it.
Billy was a nice-looking good-natured boy, blond and tan and blue-eyed with a big white smile and easy laugh. My feeling for him was a little like love. We were together all the time that summer, morning to night. We rose early in the mornings to go out prowling in the mild air, breathing the aroma of honeysuckle and cut grass. Usually I was up first and called for him because of his sister.

             The Reicherts lived in an attached house on Hampton Street, and he and his older sister, Fran, shared a bedroom at the rear of the second floor. When I called for him, his mother used to send me straight up to Billy's room, and because his sister just saw us as little squirts, she went about her business without paying us any mind. Lots of times she would come out of the bathroom wearing nothing but underpants and bra or wrap­ped in a towel with beads of water on her tan shoulders and long thighs.
Once I remember she sat on her vanity bench wearing just a skirt and bra and slowly pulled on her nylon stockings the way women do, even when they're only fifteen as she was, so slowly and wonderfully, the leg extended out in the air and curving like heaven. Billy and I sat there pretending to play checkers. We watched her draw one all the way up to the top of her thigh. I sighed, and Billy said, in a singsong kind of way, "It's gettin' ha-ard." And she didn't get ticked off or anything. She just glanced over and smiled as she pulled on the other stocking. To this day, I don't know whether she knew what her little brother meant, whether she enjoyed us watching her as much as we enjoyed watching, or whether she was completely oblivious of us as males and was just smiling innocently, maternally at us. If I knew that, maybe I would have a better handle on women today, but all I know and knew was how happy I felt at that moment with my eyes full of her and the whole long wonderful August morning and afternoon stretched out before us.
In my memory, that was in fact the last day of that summer, the day when it all hit the fan. Probably my memory is not completely right. It seems hard to believe that so many things could have happened in one single day. But then again I was only nine then, and when you're nine, any day is full of wonders.
It was Tuesday. Indian Head Penny day at the Jackson Movie House. Every Tuesday morning the Jackson had a special offer for kids where you could get in for a can of soup or for an Indian Head Penny. I think it was to benefit charity, or maybe the owner of the movie house was a coin collector and was hoping to acquire some rare and valuable dates. Anyway, my father had a box of old pennies, and we had standing permission to help ourselves. Otherwise, we would have had to lift a can of soup from the A&P. My parents would have given us the cans of soup, too, they were generous, but we'd just as soon have lifted them.
Most ‘50s movies, when I see them today, are junk. But back then, to a nine-year-old, they were magic. Wonder tales of heroes and desperadoes, love and murder, cruelty and kindness, theft and retribution. I can't recall the titles or even the stories, only a scene here and there: Jimmy Stewart in a lambskin jacket rolling in the dust cradling a pump action rifle against his chest. Gary Cooper's face glistening with sweat as he poled a raft through the Everglades. Dale Robertson on horseback, riding up a rocky hillside along the foaming Red River where, no doubt, some woman, an Indian squaw or a white woman abducted by the Indians, would be bathing her bosoms.
This particular Tuesday, we paid our Indian Head pennies to the gray-haired, white-faced matron in her white dress – the same one who would later prowl amongst the dark aisles, clutching in her white, blue-veined hand a steel-cased flash­light that she would shine and swat at our feet to make us take them down – and took our usual seats down in the front where the great blue-gray screen loomed up above us like a billboard for the gods. The film that day, all I can remember of it, included a lovely scene in some jungle somewhere, and we watched Clark Gable watch Ava Gardner take a bath in a wooden tub underneath the vines and palm trees. She lifted one creamy leg from the water. Gable's moustache stretched across his grin, and she gave him that incredible smile of hers which hinted of things whose beauty no imagination could match.
"It's gettin' ha-ard," Billy sang.
                     As we stumbled out of the dark movie house into the midday sunlight, blinking, laughing, we ate the last of the Jujubes we'd hoisted from the Cigar Store, made a horn out of the empty box, ripped the flap off one end and blew into it, and it honked like a duck. I got to thinking about a girl we knew named Sally Donnell who lived in the Hampton Apartments. She was a friend of one of the other kids in our class. I played with them one day months before in the basement of her building.
"She took her underpants down," I told Billy.
                      "Bull. "
                     "She did. I dared her, and she did."
                    "What did it look like?"
                    "I'm not sure. It was kind of dark. She lives just around the corner here."
                     We looked at each other. "Let's go!" And we took off running.
The lobby of the apartment was dim, solemn as a church with its old dark wood and smell like the bottom of an empty fountain. We rode the wooden walled elevator up to the third floor and found the door halfway down the dim corridor. The two-noted sound of the bell was lonely in the empty hallway. Then Mrs. Donnell, a smiling, gray-eyed woman, was looking down at us.
"We're in the same class as John Brandt at Christian Brothers School," I said. "He had my reader from school and said he'd give it to Sally for me."
I was pretty nervous in case she questioned me further about it, but she just called Sally, who came out into the hall and fixed the door so it wouldn't lock before closing it behind her. I was glad she didn't invite us in. "Johnny didn't give me no book," she said.
                   I smiled. Billy smiled. She looked at us. She smiled.
Down in the basement was a meter room with a single window,  high up on the wall, through which motes of dusty sunlight slanted down across a patch of the concrete floor. I don't remember too many details, but until the day I die I will never forget how beautiful Sally looked taking her clothes off and folding them, piece by piece, into a neat pile on an old trunk in the comer, how she looked with no clothes on in those motes of sunlight, smiling and showing herself, slender and blond, her face flushed and shining. We sat on seltzer crates and watched her turn for us in the light beneath the window.
"Gee, it's gettin' hard," Billy said, but there was a reverence to his voice, and I couldn't speak at all for the lump in my throat. I just watched. I just drank her in through my eyes, into my heart, to fill my memory with enough of her to last forever.
                Somehow the moment, the meeting, found its end, I don't remember how, but next thing I knew we were out in the sunlight again wearing cap pistols in holsters slung low on our thighs and tied with strips of rawhide, gunfighter style, our pockets bulging with cigarettes and pop bottles, all acquired by virtue of our special talents. We were waiting for the bus to the Flushing Meadows swamp, over by LaGuardia Airport, to visit a secret little pond there that not many people knew about and where we could be alone to exchange our thoughts about the beauties and wonders of Sally Donnell.
Our pond was up behind the golf course, through a path that wound between the hills and back behind a wall of tangled overgrowth. You never saw grown-ups there and only rarely other kids. Once we saw a group of girls there, tough-looking girls with leather jackets and duck-tail haircuts.  I asked one of them, “Are you girls or boys?” and she put her face close to mine, showing her teeth, and snarled, “Shut up you little freak or I’ll cut your cock off!” 
We had a favorite rock there we sat on, a big slate-­gray boulder, the kind my father had once told me was the very thing New York was built on, the same kind of rock that the Mespatches Indians and the Dutch and British colonists saw hundreds of years before. "Just think," he said, "Indians might have camped right there, hunted over across the river, in that park. Wolves and wildcats and brown bears and rattlesnakes. . ."
I drew my cap pistol. "Watch it!" I shouted. "Snake!" And fired a roll of red paper caps, smoke and the smell of gunpowder rising from the little pistol as a diamondback twitched and bounced into the air, twisting, dead. I blew the smoke from the barrel of my shooter, holstered it again, sat on the warm sunny rock, and popped the cap from my Mission orange soda with the opener on my key chain. 
        "If this was real jungle wilderness, like in the movies about Africa or something," Billy said, "we'd take off all our clothes here and dry ourselves in the sun."
            "We're not even wet."
            "We would be if this was the real jungle. That pond would've been a river where we had to wash ourselves, like Stewart Granger and that woman did there in King Solomon's Mines. "
            "They still had clothes on."
            "That's all the movie shows. In the real life part, they were nude." He tore the cellophane off the pack of Luckies and tapped out two cigarettes for us. I dug a matchbook from my pocket and we lit up. We smoked in silence for a while. Then I said, "You want to?"
            "What?"
            "Take off all our clothes?"
            He smiled. He was pretty. We unbuckled our cap guns and doffed our clothes, admired each other for a while – he was almost as pretty as Sally, the way his tan skin rippled over his ribs and stretched tight across his belly. Then we lay back in the sun, the warm rock beneath our naked flesh, sunlight tingling in our faces and chests and bellies, as we smoked cigarettes, blew smoke rings at the sky, washed the bitter smoke from our mouths with orange soda. I twisted out my cigarette, closed my eyes, and turned my face to the sun and I guess I've never felt more content, more completely alive than I did just then.
Then we heard footsteps, voices, giggling, on the path behind the overgrowth. We hid our cigarette pack, ditched the empty soda bottles and pulled on our clothes, tied the holsters to our thighs. Someone was moving closer. We practiced drawing on each other while we waited to see whether we would have to make a run for it or stand and fight or what. Two older kids came crashing out of the overgrowth. They had funny looks on their faces, like they knew something we didn't, like maybe they had seen us. I recognized them both, but I didn't think they knew me. The one kid, William Zipler, used to be in my older brother's class at school, and the other, a Latin kid named Manuel, always hung around with him. Manuel was older, too, though small and dark-haired with big dark eyes and long black eyelashes like a girl's. Zipler was a tall skinny kid with a big nose and a mouth that made me think of an owl's beak. He drew a deck of cards from his pants pocket. "You guys want to play some poker?"
                      "We got no money," Billy said.
                     "No sweat," said Zipler. "We can just play for fun."
                      So we all sat on the rock, and Zipler dealt a couple of hands of stud. Billy got brave and lit up, offering the pack around. "Estunt your growth," Manuel said, but Zipler took one, and I did, too.
The Lucky wobbling between his lips, eyes squinted against the smoke, Zipler said, "Hey, I got an idea. Let's play strip poker."
                      Manuel giggled. "Panty ante,"
                     Billy said, "That's no fun unless there's girls."
                     "Well, look," Zipler said. "You don't have to play. You can just watch."
                  Pretty soon, the two of them, Zipler and Manuel, were naked. Me and Billy sat where we were and watched. It was fascinating, but a little sickening, too. Zipler had a very big dark cock with hair around it. He started rubbing it between his palms, and it got bigger. Then he said, "Manuel, tell them about your dream you had." To us, he explained, "Manuel had this crazy dream about something, something he had to do to someone. "
                      Billy flipped his cigarette into the pond. We were backing away, gun hands poised over our holstered cap guns.
"Show these kids what you dreamt about, Manuel," Zipler said and lay back on the rock with his cock sticking up in the air, but we had already backed up to the tree line.
"Hey, where you going!" Zipler called out as we dashed across through the scrub and out to the path, running like hell. There were snakes all around us, hanging from tree branches, coiled at our feet, wrapped hissing around the trunks of trees, and we fired our cap pistols as we ran, killing the one after the other, but they kept on coming as we ran along the sunlight ­dappled path beneath the leafy trees.
                     "That guy's a queer," Billy said.
                    "He's pretty weird," I agreed.
                     The bus wheezed in to the curb, and we climbed on. We sat in the back seat, rode in silence for a time. Then I said, "Hey, what was he doing that with his cock for? Rubbing it like that?"
"Who knows? The two of them are prob’ly just queers."
"Oh, right,” I said.   And, "What's a queer again?"
                     "A queer is just a queer guy who does queer stuff like that.  That's all. My old man says if a queer takes a drink in a bar, the bartender smashes the glass with a ball bat afterwards."
                     "How come?"
"Cause that's what they do.  ‘No man will put his lips on that glass again,’ my old man said the bartender says."
                     The bus pulled in along the curb at 82nd Street, and we climbed down to the pavement and started walking again. The day, which had been so perfect, so wonderfully beautifully perfect, suddenly, inexplicably was blemished. Something needed to be done. Of course, we couldn't understand that or know what had to be done. We could only sense that all the beauties of that day, all the beauties of the female body and of our own, the wildness of our freedom was in threat, the day was in danger of being lost somehow.
The sun was no longer high in the sky. Our shadows were long and slender before us as we walked.
"What you want to do now?" 1 asked.
"I don't know. Somethin'."
                      We were passing by the local tavern at just that moment, and a man named Mr. Sweeney stepped out, blinking into the late afternoon sunlight. He had wild hair and a swollen red nose and white gunk in the corners of his mouth. He didn't know us at all, but he pointed at me and said, "You. What the hell you think you're doin'?"
                     "We're walkin'," I said.
                     "Where to? You walkin' to the ball field?" His nose was bumpy and full of broken veins. His eyes were bloodshot. "You play any ball today?"
I shook my head.  "Uh-uhn. "
                      He leaned close to us with fierce eyes and snapped, "Why the hell not? You a shit-heel, are you? Get out and play some ball, the two of you! Little baseball. Basketball. Football. Don't be a goddamn shit-heel all your goddamned worthless life!"
This was just what we needed to lift the mood. We went right into a dialogue. I turned to Billy and said, "Get your ass out and play some baseball!"
                    "You shit-heel!" Billy said.
                    "Some bowling ball!"
                    "Damn shit-heel!"
                    "Tennis ball!"
                   "Shit-heel!"
                    "Ping pong ball!"
                   That one broke us up pretty good. We started giggling and staggering along the street, and old man Sweeney was yelling after us as we took off running.
"Snot noses!" he hollered. "Idiots!  You goddamned worthless little sinners!"
We threw our stolen cap guns, holsters and all, off the top of the Long Island Railroad Trestle, and decided to head over to Searsie's to hoist just one more thing, something really great, something to remember the day by, to heal its wound. As we headed on up to Roosevelt again, I watched the long weird shadows strutting out from the tips of our sneakers before us, and I couldn't help thinking about Zipler, about what Man­uel's dream might have been, what they were out after, what Zipler looked like lying there with it sticking up in the air. I didn't like it. It wasn't good. It wasn't beautiful as Sally had been in the meter room, turning in the sunlight with her slender golden body. Or as Billy had looked sitting naked on the warm rock with his smiling face.
At Searsie's, we took a drink of cold water from the stainless steel water fountain and wandered around looking at the objects displayed in the glass-partitioned counter spaces: sparkplugs, fuses, batteries, headlight bulbs, flashlights... And then we saw it. A beautiful little flashlight charm on a chain. It was wondrous to behold. A yellow and white plastic oblong on a golden drain-plug chain. You flipped open the top and thumbed a switch on the side, and a strong, clear, pencil beam shone forth. My heart thumped with desire to have it in my pocket, the cool plastic against my palm, to have it home with me, crawl into the depths of my closet, lighting my way into the unknown with its scalpel sharp beam, studying the secrets of floor cracks, the mysteries in the corners of upper shelves, beneath beds…
We made our move fast. Once around the counter, a glance at the guy in the white short-sleeve shirt through which you could see his strapped undershirt as he slouched up against a counter waiting for a customer, then back to the end of another circuit and zip! Our pockets were thick with treasure.
The guy in the transparent white shirt glanced at us. He was chewing something very slowly with his lips closed.
"What's the story with you two?" he said.
                       "Huh?"
                       "What's the story? What are you looking for?"
                       Billy said, "Uh, where do you have the toothbrushes and toothpaste and all?"
                      The man wrinkled his brow. "This look like a freakin' drug store to you, kid?"
"Sorry, mister," Billy said. "Guess we better try the drug store," he said to me. I felt the man’s eyes on my back as we headed for the door. I felt fear in my knees, in the pit of my stomach. Is it this time? I thought. Is it now? Waiting for a hand to clutch my shoulder. Just for good measure, we took another drink of water from the fountain before exiting. Then we hit the street, spun:  No eyes watched, no hands reached for us.
            We ran like hell.
             Maybe it's only something manufactured by my imagina­tion, by the retrospect of memory, but there seemed some­thing sad in the way we parted that evening. Dusk lay across the town. The streetlights had just been lit. We parted at the corner of Gleane and Baxter, I to proceed to my house through the tunnel of trees that was our street, Billy to head along beneath the El to his own house. He had chained his flashlight to one of his belt loops. Mine was secreted in my hip pocket. I don't remember what we said. I only remember, or think I remember, a melancholy yellow light from a streetlamp, a sadness of dusk, Billy's downturned face and the shadows on his yellow hair, a sharp sense of loss, though of what I could not know.

That evening as I lay on the living room floor on my belly, chin propped in my palms, watching "The Big Story" on TV, the telephone rang. My father answered, spoke quietly for a time into the black mouthpiece. Then he hung up, and he and my mother went into the kitchen and shut the door. A few minutes later, the door opened again and he invited me to join them. 
                They sat in the ladder-back chairs at the beige metal kitchen table. My father motioned me to sit. Then he said, "I just spoke with Billy Reichert's mother on the phone. She said he came home with a little flashlight on his belt loop, and when she questioned him about it, he finally admitted that he stole it. She said he told her you stole one, too. Is that true?"
                   Caught!  No time to make up a story.  No use denying it.  "Yes," I said and lowered my eyes.
                   "Why?"
                    I shrugged, shook my head.
                    "Don't we give you enough? Do you feel cheated? Do the other boys have more than you?"
                    "No," I whispered. Which was true. My parents were very generous.
                    "Then why?"
                    I shook my head, stared at the black-and-white checked linoleum.
                    "Have you stolen other things, too?" my mother asked.
                    "Yes," I said. "Twice. A pack of gum and a quarter from the newspaperman's box outside the cigar shop."
                    "You'll have to put that quarter back," my mother said.
                     I nodded.
                    "And the flashlight, too."
                    "I threw it away. Down the sewer."
                    "Well, then, I'll have to go up to Searsie's and make amends for that," my father said. "I won't make you come with me. Unless the priest says you should. The gum I suppose we can just forget. You can put a dime in the poor box to make up for that. Out of your allowance. But you'll have to tell the priest in confession about each of the things you've stolen, and then we'll see what else there is to do about this."
                     I nodded, raised my eyes for a moment, swallowed, whis­pered, "Are you mad?"
                     "Not mad," my mother said. "Just disappointed."
"And puzzled," my father added. "We don't understand why you would steal. You have a good allowance. We don't deny you anything within reason. Why would you steal? Why?"
I looked into my mother's sad blue-gray eyes, my father's brown troubled ones. Their sadness pierced me as nothing could. If they had yelled, beat me, my heart could have hidden from it, but there was no escape from this. I wanted to explain to them, but the truth, the fact of it, the experience, which had never found or needed words in my consciousness, that it was beautiful to steal, already was beyond the reach of my tongue, hiding away like a shy fish beneath some deep rock of consciousness. But their eyes, their sadness and disap­pointment was a wound that needed comfort, an emptiness that needed filling.
                      I said, "William Zipler made us do it."
                       They leapt at my words, sat up straight and stared at me.   "Who?"
                      "William Zipler."                          .
                      "Who the hell is William Zipler?" my father said.
                     "He was in Ralph's class at school, wasn't he?" mother said.  "He's much older than you."
 "Promise not to tell Ralph," I pleaded. "Ralph will kill him. Promise not to tell." I knew they would honor the confidence. My mother and father were reasonable, dependable people.
                  "How did he make you do it?" my father asked.
                  "He just, he didn't make us exactly, he just showed us how, and then he said we should do it, too, or he'd give us a rap in the teeth."
                 "The little creep," my mother said.
"That makes it at least a little bit more understandable," my father said. "But still it doesn't excuse you. I still want you to tell this in confession."
                 "I know," I said.
                      "You stay away from William Zipler from now on," my mother said. "The little creep."
                     "Do you have anything else to tell now?" my father said. I shook my head. Then I whispered, "I'm sorry."
                     My father placed his warm hand on the back of my neck. "It's all right, son," he said. "It was an experiment. Now you've tried it once and it's over, and I want your promise that you won't ever do anything like that again."
                 I promised, was hugged, allowed to hug back, released, and went up to my room where, in bed, in the dark beneath the covers, I played with my plastic flashlight on a chain. I pressed it up behind my fingers, inside my fist, and saw the light glow eerie red through my flesh, limning the bones of my fingers. I realized I was going to have to ditch the flashlight, for if they saw me with it they wouldn't under­stand, it would bring that sadness to their eyes again, and this time they wouldn't believe me. Yet there were so many things I wanted to do with that light, so many small corners and crevices, floor cracks, to explore, the inner depths of the closet, the dim far reaches of the basement. . .

On Saturday, as always, I got my allowance, thirty-five cents, with instructions to return a quarter to the news stand, put a dime in the poorbox at Blessed Virgin Church, and go to confession.
              I did put the quarter in the cigar box, reversing my talents, getting it in there without being observed. The challenge distracted me from the pain of forking over the two bits. But putting my last dime for the whole week in the poor box, with no prospect of other means of procuring the goods I wanted, was something else again. I stood there for quite some time just inside the church doors, the little silver coin sweaty in my palm. I decided not to do it, was about to turn away, but saw my hand lift to the coin slot, felt the dime slip from my fingers. It clunked and echoed into the depths of the tall metal box. Then, in confession, my little flashlight in my pocket (how I would have liked to explore the dark shadows inside the confessional box!), 1 spoke to the dim outline of Father Walsh behind the screen, told him I had stolen gum, a quarter and a flashlight.
             "Have you made retribution for these things, bub?"
             "I returned the quarter, Father, and put the gum money in the poor box, and my father made retribution for the flashlight."
             "And are you sorry for these sins?"
            "Yes, Father," I lied – thought it didn't really seem a lie so much as a formality, a concession to the social order.
            "Okay, bub, then say ten Hail Marys and make a good act of contrition now."
        As 1 prayed, "Oh my God, I am hardly sorry for having offended Thee. . ." I couldn't help thinking how ironic it was that, in fact, I had never stolen gum in my life. I didn’t even like gum.  That has always seemed a funny kind of administrative irony to me.

                  I've often wondered about the fact that it didn't bother me, lying in confession – which we had been told was one of the most grievous sins. It was no doubt also a sin to have lied about William Zipler as I had, but I never confessed that, never really regretted it either.          .
That day was the end of my friendship with Billy Reichert. I did regret that. He was such a nice, good-looking kid, and we had shared so much joy that summer.
I still have the flashlight. It doesn't light anymore, been dead for years, but I keep it in a cigar box where I have a bunch of little doodads and souvenirs, a broken watch, an old tarnished silver miraculous medal, an Indian Head penny, things like that. From time to time, I take the flashlight out and hold it in my palm, dangle it by the little gilt chain from my finger. In all the years since, I never did steal again. I never felt real sorrow for what I did or remorse, but I never did steal again. In fact, I don't think I ever sinned again with such pure joy.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

“Little Sinners” was a finalist in the American Fiction 1 prize in 1990.  The judge was Anne Tyler, and she did not pick my story for first, second or third prize, but it was one of 24 finalists.  Neither did Ms. Tyler mention “Little Sinners” in her introduction, but I took solace that neither did she mention the stories of Cris Mazza, Ann Copeland or Joe David Bellamy, who were also finalists. 
We 21 non-prize-winning finalists were at any rate “published finalists.”  For that honor we received fifty bucks and one contributor’s copy and had to put our signatures on a contract that signed away our copyright to our stories.   I agonized over doing this, felt like an impoverished man selling one of his children into servitude, having convinced himself that at some point he would be flush enough to buy the child back.  But I had not yet published a book of fiction then and was, well, hard up for recognition in a New York City prize anthology.
            As it turned out, commerce being more fickle than art, the publisher went out of business after three annual issues.  And after nearly twenty years and many letters, I finally got my copyright back.  I have never again signed away the copyright on anything.   Your stories are an organic part of you; signing one of them away is a bit like selling one of your kidneys.
I was particularly disturbed to have lost the right to “Little Sinners,” a story that came to me at the peak of the first creative movement in my development as a writer, in the late ‘80s.  The story is, to me, a recognition and dramatization of the fact that at some point in our progress from innocence to informed responsibility, we bite the apple, wander out of Eden, lose the light of innocent amorality and become increasingly accountable – although that accountability is not to an institution but to ourselves and our own inner ethical compass.  We lose the light of innocence.  It burns out just as the tiny stolen flashlight in the story burns out and becomes a mere souvenir in a cigar box of memorabilia.  And we begin, albeit begrudgingly, to take responsibility for our actions. 
“Little Sinners” is a celebration of the moment immediately before the loss of innocence and eviction from Eden and a kind of contemplation of the moment after its loss.  I have no doubt that the sexual identities of children are rich – at least my own sexual identity as a child was.  I was curious yellow, blue, red, white, green, and orange.  I was curious and charged to the hilt.   And I loved being beyond the law, being a thief.  I was not only a little sinner, I was a little outlaw.  I pocketed quarters, candy bars, anything.  Didn’t matter what.  I even stole spark plugs from Sears & Roebuck’s, though I had no idea what purpose they served,  simply for the charge of putting one over on the adult world.  Maybe there was something Freudian in this, but I think not.  I think that I just loved the thrill of the moment that I might get caught but never did until my friend Billy broke under interrogation by his mother.
I did worse things than the narrator of “Little Sinners” did – I rode hanging from the back of the elevated IRT train high over Queensboro Plaza, I used to jump on the back bumper of the city buses and cling by my fingertips to a narrow strip of metal – for the rush of danger, for the thrill.  I was, I thought, indestructible.  I was not a bad kid – I even had a conscience; I stole a Pez dispenser from Fat Sid in the Hampton Luncheonette once and felt guilty about it because I liked Fat Sid and felt that his sad demeanor revealed a sadness in his soul.   I brought back money to pay for the stolen candy and confessed to him, throwing myself at his mercy.  He looked incredulously at me.  “Did your father make you come back and confess?”   I told him no, my father didn’t know, but I just felt very bad about having done it.   He took the money from me but continued to stare at me like now he’d seen it all – a kid who stole something from him and got away with it, then came back to pay.
I was not really a bad kid.  I knew some bad kids.  They were nasty and evil, would cause other kids pain and harm, had an evil leer and did stuff I don’t even like to think about – they once made a girl who hung around with them because she was unattractive eat a dog turd, and they cut a boy’s lip with a hacksaw blade…   I wanted no part of them.  I didn’t want to harm anyone.  I was an innocent desperado as was my beautiful friend Billy.
But our innocence matured into culpability.  That’s the way of life.  As Wordsworth put it, “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass or glory in the flower,/We will grieve not./Rather find strength in what remains behind.”  (As sad, beautiful Natalie Wood recited so movingly in the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass.)
About ten years ago I received an e-mail from a high school teacher in Arizona.  She was a speech instructor, and she told me that for several years she had been using “Little Sinners” to train her students in reading aloud.  You never know what kind of life one of your stories, sent out into the world, might take on.   For the most part, one has the impression of pumping them out into the void, but I was amazed and delighted that this teacher had been using my story in that way.
One of my teachers and friends, the writer and artist Gladys Swan, once told me that she felt her stories passed through her on their way someplace else.  How delightful to think that “Little Sinners” might all those years have been passing not only through me, but also through many another, that it might have had a life beyond the page, beyond the bankrupt publishers who first printed it two decades ago. 
I am grateful to Redux, to Leslie Pietrzyk, and to Susan Tekulve for giving it another chance to live.  ~ Thomas E. Kennedy
*****
ABOUT THOMAS E. KENNEDY
Thomas E. Kennedy’s “Little Sinners” will appear in his forthcoming Getting Lucky: New & Selected Stories, 1982-2012, scheduled to be published by New American Press next year.  His novel Falling Sideways has just been published by Bloomsbury USA and will appear in Europe in November 2011, following In the Company of Angels (2010), the first two books of his Copenhagen Quartet, four independent novels about the seasons and souls of the Danish capital.  Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz has said about the novel, “In the Company of Angels is as elegant as it is beautiful, as important as it is profound,” and it was chosen by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post as his favorite novel of 2010.  Yardley also wrote that “Falling Sideways is that rarest of commodities in American literary fiction, a novel about men and women at work; it is part-satire and part-drama, and it is very smart.”  Kennedy’s 30 books include novels, story and essay collections,  literary criticism, translation and anthologies.  In 2010 New American Press published his Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down (a novel) and in 2008, his essay collection, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America.   His work appears regularly in American periodicals such as New Letters, Glimmer Train, American Poetry Recview, Ecotone, Epoch, The Literary Review, Serving House Journal and many others and has won, inter alia, O. Henry and Pushcart prizes and a National Magazine Award (an “Ellie”) in the essay genre.  He teaches in the Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA Program, holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and PhD from the University of Copenhagen, and is co-publisher, with Walter Cummins, of ServingHouseBooks.  Website: http://www.thomasekennedy.com/

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Not only the story itself, but the story behind it. Tom is a magnificent writer who, like few others, brings characters to life with one phrase, one word, and engages with the reader in a way that makes us feel as if we too "ran with a kid named Billy Reichert."

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