Important In Retrospect

Danforth Higgins, Danny? Dan.

The mottled newsprint trembled before my tired eyes. The paper rattled.

I stilled my shaking hands.

"Danforth Higgins, age 31, of Montmartre Street, Hilldale, was arraigned yesterday in County Court. Higgins, a native of South Bend, Indiana, is charged with the murder of his parents, Sheila Higgins, 48, and Norman Higgins, 52, also of the Hilldale address.

"The elder Higginses were found yesterday morning by their younger son, Walten in their home on Montmarte Street in the affluent development of Lacrois Estates. Shucksaw County Coroner William McGinnis said..."

Dan. Wally. Where was Rosemary?

My memory paged back unbidden, and I smiled. A line of acid pain creased my gut simultaneously. Some conflict there, I told myself silently.

A small yellow room. Hardwood floor. Blond woodwork. Contrasting dark bedframe. Dresser, desk, carboard boxes along the walls. The door was closed. The Ventures on the portable phonograph. The snow sifting down outside the little window.

"I don't knooow!"

Rosemary brushed the dirty-blond strings of her hair from her eyes. She looked up at us with a smirk.

"C'mon, Rose," Dan said. A carbon-copy of the smirk rode his face. "We just told ya last night. How many inches in a yard?"

Rose's eyes shifted rapidly, laterally. I imitated the motion with my own eyes, to see how it would feel. It hurt in my temples. She did that all the time, whenever anybody asked her a hard question, as though her eyes, if they rattled back and forth fast enough, could escape the bony cell of her skull and fly free of the strain, the endless pressure, to learn, learn, learn something.

"Learn something for once," Dan and I had once overheard his father saying, and we took up our stations around the corner from the head of the stairs.

"Why won't she learn?"

"You mean, why can't she learn?" his mother shot back.

"She can. She won't."

"You're wrong. We've been over this before. She--"

"Her teachers say she just fools around, talks in class, plays with her charm bracelet..."

Now Dan rocked back in his oak swivel desk chair. He pulled a long leg up into the chair with him, as if for company. With one hand, he grasped the toe of his black low-top sneaker. The other hand gently stroked the feathery black hairs which had just begun to sprout on his upper lip.

"How many inches, Rose?" he asked again.

Rose yawned, put a hand to her mouth a couple of seconds too late, "I'm tired," she whined. "Can't we quit now?"

"You want to flunk your test tomorrow?" Dan grinned at her.

I took a more serious stance. "You're going to flunk, just like you flunked the last three math tests, just like you flunked your social studies test, and your reading test. You'll keep flunking unless you start studying."

"And if you flunk again, they're going to paddle you again," Dan said. He rocked back and forth a couple of times. "How many inches in a yard?"

Rosemary stood up from the bed, where she'd been lying with that silly grin on her face. Her hands formed fists. Her hair shook, following the motion of her trembling head. Her pale face reddened. She screamed. "I don't know! I don't know! I DON'T KNOW! LEAVE ME ALONE!"

She leaped for the door, was stopped there a second as she fumbled the knob, then she was out. The door across the hall slammed. There came the sound of muffled crying.

"Asshole," Dan chuckled. "She's never going to pass. And we'll never get our tutoring money." He stood up.

"What are you doing?"

He didn't answer. Instead, he left the room. I heard Rosemary's door open. I heard her yell, "Get out!" Then I heard his voice, low and featureless, and again the sound of her crying.

I got up and followed him.

He was slouching over her bed, hands in his pockets, sneakers crossed. How he could maintain his balance in that position, and make it seem effortless, I don't know.

He spoke. "How many inches in a yard?"


"How many inches in a yard?"

More sobs.

"How many inches in a yard?" His voice never changed. It remained well-modulated, evenly paced, emotionless. I think that was the first time I realized how he would end up.

"Both of the bodies bore multiple stab wounds. Mr. Higgins' body was partially dismembered..."

I have not forgotten.

Walter, his straight black hair hanging limply to one side of his sallow face. His eyes wide.

"The kid'll believe anything," Dan had confided to me that first day, as we walked home from school.

Dan Higgins and I discovered we both lived in the same neighborhood, Lacroix Estates, that afternoon. I was the new guy in town; new to the area, new to the school, new to my adolescent body. He had been the new guy the year before. Thus, when he happened around the corner and saw me surrounded by four gangling guys in fatigue shirts and hunting jackets, he knew the drill.

He sneaked up behind the guy who had me by the collar, and swung the big heavy leather briefcase he always carried, and was tortured for, into the back of my enemy's head. The guy's knees collapsed into his ankles, and the rest of him followed them to the ground.

The other three noted this development. They considered it for a moment. Then they began to lift their jungle boots, to rotate their bodies, in search of the thing that had done in their buddies. When they had turned completely around, I jumped on the back of the nearest one. He came down on top of me, surprisingly fast. I rolled over, and perforce, so did he. I grabbed his hair in both hands and began smashing his face into the ground, as hard as I could. The guy screamed. Blood ran across the sidewalk. I got up. Dan had his Bic out uncapped. The sun glinted off its steely point. It was aimed at the stomach of one of the two guys who still had voluntary control of their muscles. The other one I could see about a block away. I saw the back of his black leather jacket and the bottoms of his shoes in swift alternation.

The last guy must have heard me get up, because he glanced over his shoulder at me, just in tine to see me running at him. His face twisted, and he went to join his fleeing friend.

"Thanks!" I said to the boy with the pen.

"No problem," he said, and a wide grin cracked his face, in no way involving his eyes.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I'm Danforth Higgins," he said, sheathing the Bic. He shoved it into his jeans. "Who are you?"

"Billy Cabot."

"Hey, haven't I seen you riding a bike in Lacroix Estates?"

"Well, I live there. Sometimes I ride around the block."

"Really? Wow! We're neighbors!"

So we walked home together, acquainting each other with our life stories up to then. It was in the course of his describing his family that we settled on his brother, Walter, seven years younger than himself.

"Yeah, last summer I had him convinced that the Martians were invading, and that I knew that because I was really from Venus."

"C'mon, not really!" I was incredulous, and fascinated. "Are you sure he wasn't just pretending to believe you?"

"No I don't think so. I told him my Venusian name was Bogwar, and one night he came into my room and woke me up. He was crying, and he kept saying, `Bogwar! Save me! The Martians are here!'"

"He was having a nightmare," I said.

"Obviously," he chuckled. "But he was awake at the time."

"So what'd you do?"

"I told him I'd put a magic spell on him so the Martians couldn't see him. Then I waved my hands around and said some made-up words, and told him he was invisible to Martians. He calmed right down and went to sleep."

"Wow," I said. "Bet he'd be easy to hypnotize."

"Probably," he agreed. We walked about a half a block.

"Hey!" he said suddenly.


"You want to come over tonight? Maybe we can plan another way to trick him."

I hesitated. This was my first friend in this cold, hostile place, and I didn't want him to think I was a wimp, a queer. But making little kids have nightmares was not the kind of thing my midwestern Calvinist upbringing considered a good way to have fun.

"Won't your mom and dad get mad if he tells on you?"

"Nah. They only care if I hit him." His eyes darkened. "I'll tell you something. One time I had a poster of Superman he wanted. I wouldn't give it to him. So he went into his room, and five minutes later I heard him screaming. He went running downstairs to my mother, yelling, 'Danny hurt me! Danny hurt me! My mother hollered at me to come down. When I got down there Walter was holding his arm and blood was dripping from it. I knew I was done for."

"Jesus!" I said, awed. "You mean he hurt himself just to get you in trouble?"

"Yup. And they believed him. They always believe him. Then they kick the shit out of me." He raised his voice a little for the last sentence. His eyebrows came together and created a furrow between them. That was as mad as I ever saw him get.

Well, I'd had my own little-brother problems, so eventually I decided to join him in his plot.

Dan stepped away from the desk, and I replaced the dozen or so brightly-painted plastic model cars on the little wooden shelf under the window. These effectively hid the string as it snaked under the partially-open sash and down to the floor behind the desk. From there it ran through a series of screw-eyes set in the floor under the hot-water baseboard heater, and into the closet. Once there, under cover of clothes, it ran over the bar and down into a large, open box which held a bunch of old wooden puzzles with missing pieces; ragged, dirty stuffed animals; and torn box-game boxes, minus the games. All of Walter's precious "junk".

Now there was something else in there. The smell of tempera paint was fast fading from the room; the string was already dry.

From the window, the string ran outside along the house through another series of eye-hooks and in through the window of Dan's room. We tested the set-up, Dan in his room, I in Walter's. It worked.

Later that evening, we took turns telling ghost stories to Walter. He listened, wide-eyed, until his bedtime came.

About an hour later, Walter awoke. Something was banging in the wall behind his head. He sat up, heart pounding. He opened his eyes. Moonlight flooded in from the window over the desk. The memory of his brother's voice came back to him: "Give me back my golden arm! Give me back my golden arm! GIVE ME--"

The banging in the wall increased in volume and speed. Walter was shaking, A tear squeezed out of one eye. There came a rustling in the closet. Walter pulled the covers over his head, then peeked out. The long-sleeve knit shirts hanging from the bar seemed to shiver. Then, slowly, a white draped form rose up from the toybox in the closet. Walter screamed, "MOMMY!" and ran out of the room and downstairs. Dan dropped the string; and fell back on the bed, laughing.

We were inseparable friends from that point. We saw each other every day, and every evening I continued to have confrontations with the other kids at school, confrontations like that from which Dan had rescued me. I had more problems with the kids in the neighborhood. Why? Did I have an attitude problem?

In the midwest, where I'd come from, parents kept their kids on short leashes, in short hair and short of cash. Here in the east, kids seemed to go their own way, checking in with the folks for supper and back out again afterwards.

My parents tried to continue their midwestern child-raising in an eastern urban/suburban setting, and they were failing miserably. I was tense and withdrawn at home, funny-looking and frightened at school.

But with Dan, I didn't need to worry. He accepted me as I was. In the beginning, I think he needed me as much as I needed him. But as we aged, we separated. He grew in, and I grew out. I'd entertained ideas of meeting other kids, making more friends, meeting girls... But each attempt met with scorn and ridicule. My parents cut me no slack, insisted on a me who bore no resemblance to those whose favor I sought. I remained isolated, and increasingly turned to Dan, and cleaved only to him.

Meanwhile, he slowly lost interest in everything, so that that he no longer needed to make other friends. In later years, he ceased to need even me. I went away to college, grew my hair, experimented with drugs, and at last managed to rip down the red flag of differentness which I had waved in the faces of my peers and which had so enraged them. When I came back to see him, he had not changed. He remained at home, attended community college, and stayed in his room, increasingly obsessed with state-of-the-art audio equipment, which he could play loud enough to drown out anything from the outside. His stereo played so clearly, so beautifully reproducing every note, every nuance, without distortion or noise, within the yellow walls of that little room.

One summer day before our senior year in high school I was hanging out at home, reading. He called me, an increasingly rare event. We saw each other daily, but it was always me who called, always me who asked, "Can I come over?", always he who answered, "I don't care."

"Why don't you come over here. I got something to show you."

"Sure." I jumped on my bike and rode around the block to his place. I knocked on the door, rang the bell. No answer.

From around back of the garage I heard music, faintly. I followed the sound and saw him sitting on the picnic table out on the patio. A small portable radio was playing beside him.

"What's happening?" I called out.

His back to me, he jumped, then turned around. "Hi. Look at this." He pulled a green plastic see-through squirt gun from his pocket, pointed it at me. He pulled the trigger. I could smell lighter fluid.

"What the hell's that?" I demanded, trying to brush the stuff off my T-shirt.

"Watch" he said. He produced a disposable lighter from somewhere, and lit it. Holding it in front of the squirt gun, he pulled the trigger, and a flame shot away toward the concrete patio floor.

"Neat!" I said.

"Yeah?" He picked up a newspaper from the stack near the sliding glass door. He ripped off a piece of paper and crumpled it, then tossed it into the rusty old round barbecue standing next to the table. He lit the lighter, aimed the gun at the ball of paper, pulled the trigger. Zip! Flash! The stream of fire ignited the paper, and the paper became a torch, all in a fraction of a second.

"As I said, neat. Is this what you wanted to show me?" I said.

"Nah. C'mere." He stepped off the patio, turned, and squatted.

I stood at the concrete's edge, watching. "What?"

He pointed at a spot where erosion had washed some of the dirt away from the concrete. Here a little cave had formed under the patio floor.

"Stomp your foot over that spot."

I did. A hornet flew out of the cave.

I jumped back. I've always had a phobia about stinging insects. I guess I screamed, a little.

The perennial dead grin appeared on his face. He chuckled. "He isn't gonna hurt ya."

"It would if I stood there and let it," I said defensively.

"But we're armed," Dan said, and presently another hornet appeared. Dan lit the lighter. The hornet hovered near the hole, abruptly ascended about a foot in altitude, and hovered again, level with my ankle and about a foot away.

Dan shot and crisped the hornet, and would have set my pants on fire as well, had I not stepped back right smartly.

"Hey! You almost burned me," I yelled.

"I did burn him."

"This looks like fun," I said, after a minute.

"It is. I've been doing it all morning. It's like they know something's happened to one of their tribe, you know? So they send another one out to investigate, and when that one doesn't come back, they send another one."

I peered at him, There was a red flush to his cheeks, and he'd been speaking more quickly than usual.

I looked down at the ground near the hole and now I saw several little black cinders, scattered around in a semicircle before the nest.

He tossed me a squirt gun--a blue one, already loaded. A lighter followed.

"This is the best part," he said, as I stood there holding the implements of destruction, my arms hanging down loosely at my sides, my eyes on him.

He shot flame into the interior of the hole. Three hornets appeared almost at once. They flew straight at him.

"Get 'em before they get me!" he yelled in a strange, high-pitched voice, and opened fire. He got one, and I got a second. We both aimed for the third, now disoriented by the flashes of heat and light around it, and our flames zeroed in on it simultaneously. The intense heat exploded it with a shallow pop, and it crashed in the dirt.

"Three for three," he said, and laughed. Was that laugh a little out of control, or is my memory distorting the event in the face of this news story I hold in my hand?

"It is fun," I said, "but it's also a little cruel."

"If you don't get them now, someday they'll get you," he said. "Maybe today, right now, or maybe tonight, while we're having a family picnic out here, or maybe next week, when I'm mowing the lawn. Sooner or later they'll get you."

So we incinerated hornets for the next half-hour.

"Where's your folks?" I finally thought to ask.


"Shit! I'm not supposed to be over here then," I said.

"Who'll know?"

Then a shot of mine missed and sprayed the stack of old newspapers with orange flame. They caught and for the next ten minutes we had a grand old time putting them out. We decided to knock off after that.

Instead, we walked back into the wooded part of his yard, to get out of the sun. He bent and picked up a good-sized stick, deadwood fallen from some tree. "What do you want to do?" he asked.

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

"You say."

. "You say. I asked first."

This was an old game. We were pros at it, and we had passed whole afternoons and evenings lying on his bed, passing that question back and forth.

He began swinging the stick back and forth, and then hit a tree with it. It broke off neatly, now three feet shorter. He dropped it, searched for another one. I got into the act. I picked up a stouter one, about an inch in diameter and maybe six feet long. It was slightly green, and wouldn't break even when I whopped a tree with all my strength.

The sticks Dan found all broke, until he grabbed a branch about two inches thick and nine feet long. He started hitting at my stick, trying to knock it out of my hand.

"Alright," I laughed. "You've had it. En garde!" And I held up my stick like a fencer.

He grinned like a mechanical death's head and went after it. We swung back and forth at each other, getting hot and sweaty, hitting harder and harder, faster and faster, countering blow with blow. Then came a swing from him too fast for me to parry. His stick was longer than mine, forcing me to get closer to him than safety prescribed.

An explosion of pain in my left temple, then nothing. Then I was on the ground, confused, my eyes closed.

I heard him. He was blubbering, "Oh God, oh Jesus, oh I've killed him! Billy! Bill! Wake up! Christ, wake up!" He was shaking me by the shoulder.

I opened my eyes. Focus returned gradually, and I could see the tears running down his face. His hand was still on my shoulder. Instinctively, I reached for it, grabbed his wrist. "I'm okay," I whispered.

"Thank God!" he said in a strangled voice. A tightness came into his brow, then passed out of it. I let go his wrist in surprise as the first real smile I'd ever seen on him appeared. It lit all of his face. Slowly, gently, his hand slid from my shoulder, across my chest, down along my stomach.

I panicked. I rolled away, leaped up, the word "queer" a split second away from my lips. Then I saw his face and held my breath.

Ah, I remember it now, like yesterday, like a half-hour ago. His face, one second before so expressive, so open; and then, in the time it took me to stand, it all died in his eyes. The old pale thin-skinned skull hung motionless beneath his wispy dirty-blond hair. And slowly, the rictus-like grin spread out, utterly empty, completely mechanical, beneath his moribund eyes.

"Sorry I hurt ya," he said.

I saw there was now no need to utter my curse, to pronounce my sentence of abnormality on the first healthy burst of emotion I'd ever seen from him. It was all gone then. I soon forgot it had ever happened.

And in the years to come I never saw him do anything like it again. I became aware that he suffered my infrequent visits during school breaks for my sake, and so I stopped calling him but waited for him to call. He never did, and I never saw him again.

Until he showed up in cold print on my doorstep this morning. It was a mode of appearance that would have gratified him, I think.

As for me, I've got to go to work. On my way to the car, I'll drop the paper in the garbage can in the garage. I no longer feel like checking out the international situation.

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