SOME COLD WAR BLUES: A Short Story, Episode Five

So they followed Peter’s lead as they almost always did. It was Peter who picked and chose for them from the fads raging in the outside world—hula hoops, coonskin caps, bubble blowing, whiffle ball—the ones worthy of their allegiance. It was Peter who established their morality, their aspirations, their fears and hopes for the future. He would lead them on shoplifting expeditions, then decide that they must return the goods or their money’s worth so they would be fully cleansed of the sin of theft. And they did what he so enthusiastically advocated, sneaking 23 cents or 78 cents, always the exact amount of the stolen item with estimated sales tax too, onto the rim of a cash register in a department store, often a greater risk than stealing the stuff in the first place. It was Peter, too, who would decide which colleges they would attend and which sports they would choose for their professional careers, for there was no doubt in any of their minds that they would remain together forever.

     Jack’s cloth mittens were thoroughly frozen now. His hands were stumps of cold. His jeans were wet and his legs, especially the soft flesh of his inner thighs, chafed and stung. He tried to balance in his mind his physical discomfort against the peril of going back into the house to change, and he suspected that both the peril and the discomfort would increase as the morning progressed. At least he needed to get a dry pair of mittens. Besides, he had forgotten to use the Swansons’ bathroom and was about to wet his pants.

     “I gotta take a pee,” he said. “You guys wanna come in a minute?” He hoped their presence would keep his mom and her list of chores at bay.

      “Naw,” Peter said. “Go on. We’ll start on the fort.” 

      She was still asleep.  He sat down on the toilet to pee to make less noise. He decided not to flush it. She was buried in the covers, lying on her stomach, only her foot dangling out. He put the wet mittens on the radiator to dry and sneaked his other pair from the chest of drawers in his rooms. Now! Down the hall quickly, then to the back porch and out the back door. He tried to forget the chafing and burning on his legs and that his neck was sweaty and his stocking hat dripping wet because the snow caked on it had melted in the warm house.

     He walked across his own yard and the Kryzanowskis’ and climbed the fieldstone wall that separated the Kryzanowskis from the MacDonalds. Peter and Andy had already made great progress on the fort. They were building a low parapet, six feet wide, a foot tall, and growing. They had situated the fort close to the alley in a small clearing between a massive oak tree and a huge propane tank that they sometimes pretended was an atom bomb, planted there by Russian saboteurs.

     Peter ordered Andy to begin making snowballs (“ammunition,” he said) while he and Jack worked on the fort. They fell into an easy and efficient rhythm, forgetting about the cold, saying little, concentrating on the work. Within half an hour the parapet had grown to four feet in height, and Andy had stacked up 47 hard-packed snowballs. Jack looked up and saw the Gorski brothers standing in their backyard across the alley.

     “Whatcha doin’?” Tom Gorski said.

      “What’s it look like?” Andy sarcastically replied. “It’s a fort.”

      Andy threw a snowball that whizzed over the Gorskis’ ducking heads. The Gorskis conferred, then Tom Gorski went running off, and his brother Mike started making snowballs.       

      “Looks like we’re gonna have our war,” Peter said. “I’m gonna go get Larry. Andy, you go get Big Bob. Jack, why don’t ya start on the side walls? We’ll make it a three-sided fort.”

      Like World War I combatants during a temporary truce, the alley a strip of no-man’s-land between them, Jack on his side, and Mike Gorski on his, worked silently and feverishly making snowballs. Jack thought a couple of times about flinging a snowball at Mike, and he was sure that Mike was thinking the same thing. Tom Gorski returned with Tim Dietrich and another boy, a very big boy that Jack did not recognize. “Must be a public school kid,” he thought.

     “Where’s your buddies?” Tim Dietrich shouted over at him.

     “They’ll be back in a minute,” Jack said, eyeing the pile of snowballs Andy had made, worrying that the four boys across the alley would decide to jump him while he was alone. Yet he found himself almost welcoming the idea, unconsciously reveling in the underdog role.

     “Maybe we oughtta just come on over there and knock down your fort and steal all your snowballs,” Tom Gorski said.

    “No fair,” Jack said. “Four against one.”

    “So what?” said the big kid that Jack didn’t know.

    “Yeah,” Jack thought, disgusted, “he’s a public school kid all right.”

    “Jack’s right,” said Mike Gorski. “Four against one ain’t fair.”

    “Mike’s a good guy,” Jack thought, “not like that brother of his.”

    Peter came back with Larry Zarda. Andy came back but without Big Bob.

    “Look at how big that guy is,” Peter said, eyeing the public school kid.

    Peter looked around at Andy.

    “Is Big Bob comin’?” Peter asked.

    Andy shook his head no, looking glum and a little ashamed.

    “He says he’s too old for this stuff.”

    They all shuddered a little. They always won when Big Bob was on their side. But Big Bob had abandoned them now, grown up all of a sudden, entered a different world and left them behind.

   “Well, we better get goin’,” Jack said.

   The opposing sides worked feverishly to finish their forts. Since Jack’s group had a head start, they finished theirs first.

    “Okay,” Peter said, “everybody start makin’ snowballs now.”

    But Andy was restless, itching for the fight to start.

    “We better attack ’em before they get ready,” Andy said. “A surprise attack.”

By Max McBride
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