Accessory To His Death
Jeffrey stood out from the rest of us. His skin was a lot whiter for one thing. A lot whiter because he came from one of those really white-skinned families that moved here from the mid-west or someplace like that. Some place where people only came in the palest shades of white, so translucent that you could see the blue veins peeking through. Jeffrey’s round freckled face and his plump little legs in his plaid madras or seersucker shorts, burned a deep scarlet any time the sun fought its way through the smog and burned down on the pavement near downtown Los Angeles.
It was around 1959, I think. So, we were all around eight or nine years old, a raggedy group of kids that played in the street, about six of us. Our families were Mexican or Asian, or Russian Jews, because they were the people that settled in this area then. Or else, we were some combination of the two races or a mixture of all of them. One of the boys was African American. He was a better pitcher than I was, but I ran faster and climbed higher. I remember him later in high school because he said he was proud that he was the only one in his class that wasn’t some crazy mix of races.
Skin color was only one reason why Jeffrey stood out. Besides that, there was the fact he was always dressed in an immaculate short-sleeved summer shirt, and clean new tennis shoes. His hair was nicely cut; a crew cut. He said his mother took him for a haircut every few weeks. I don’t think we believed that was a fact. Who had enough money to do that? Still, his hair never grew more than a half inch from his scalp, and it stuck straight up. His mother cut his fingernails every few days he said. That I believed.
I was the only girl in that group of boys. I liked hanging around with the boys because they only did things that were fun. I didn’t play with girls. They were boring. They only played house or with dolls and I never had a doll. Just to make the point, I said I didn’t want one either. The boys didn’t have much in the way of toys themselves. But one of them usually had a baseball, maybe a bat too. One kid had some little plastic soldiers. That’s what I remember.
We found ways to play without toys. We made stuff up; games that usually involved running through the neighborhood, exploring, hiding, playing tag. Playing follow the leader. I don’t remember who invented the game; Walk the Plank.” I guess it was one of the boys who saw a pirate movie on television. It wasn’t me. We didn’t have a television.
It was a simple game. You rigged a board between the roofs of two buildings and whoever got tagged “it,” had to walk across. Of course, we usually all ended up making the walk, just to show we weren’t chicken. When it was a game of daring like this one, I was always the leader. I had to show I wasn’t afraid of anything. My social life in those days depended on it.
It wasn’t always easy finding a board that was long enough. We didn’t worry about how wide it was. Any board that would reach across from the roof of one building to the other would do. Because our feet were small, they fit foot over foot on any board we used, and that’s how we walked across. We made sure there were enough of us to drag it from the houses that were being demolished on Sunset or maybe on one of the side streets. They were tearing down a lot of the gingerbread Victorians then or else moving them out of the neighborhood. We’d stand around waiting as they loaded half a house on a long flatbed truck and drove it away down the street. Once the truck pulled out of sight we all ran yelling and screaming on the empty gaping space looking for left-over wood.
Jeffrey usually followed us if he wasn’t kept inside to watch television or practice writing his numbers. He huffed along behind us, trying his best to keep up. It wasn’t easy, he was more than just chubby for an eight-year-old. To us he looked almost as wide as he was tall. His face was bright red from the exertion all the way down to the roots of his blond hair that his mother checked fifty times a day, ever since she found out that a lot of us had ringworm and scabies. Jeffrey kept yelling for us, “to wait.” But we never did. It was funny to watch him running behind us, his chubby legs flying in all directions, his clean white shirt all caked with dirt and his short pants straining across his fat little stomach.
Jeffrey always wore shoes, nice tennis shoes. His mother bought them at the May Co, or maybe at Bullock’s. Elegant and intimidating department stores on Hill street. We knew where they were. When it rained and the gutters flooded we sailed our little boats made of newspaper along the curb right in front of the stores. At Christmas time, we lined up in front of the big display windows; a fairyland, where elves moved hurriedly among the displays assembling trains and dolls in a magical and unreal world awash with Christmas. We knew Santa was in there, seated on his red and white furry throne. We’d watched him finish suiting up in the back alley. When he finished dressing, he’d pull out a small silver bottle. Then he’d tip back his head and pour whatever was inside down his throat.
Sometimes, when we played the plank game, we found the perfect board right away, a long plank left over from the porch that belonged to one of those old houses or maybe from the veranda. Sometimes it came from part of the interior frame. Now that I think back, that probably meant it was rotted, and it might give out when somebody was halfway across to the next roof. We never thought about things like that.
It took four or five of us to drag the board away on that August day. It must have been close to one hundred degrees. Steamy and smoggy. Most of us were pretty scrawny. We took off our shoes and looked out for the cops who chased us off the streets when they saw us. We hauled the board over to one of the streets near Beaudry. I don’t remember which one, but we picked the tallest of the old apartment building on the block, and we hauled the board up the moldy carpeted stairs to the fifth floor and opened the door to the roof.
I remember a couple of us throwing the board across the space between the apartment roof we were on and the building next door. Jeffrey dragged up the stairs last, panting and sweating. “Wait for me!” I remember he’d been following us around all day. He usually did though, wanting to do everything we did, and failing. His feet turned in when he ran, and he took little steps that made it look like he was hopping from side to side in one spot. He couldn’t throw a ball or catch one either. Not even the oversize red rubber balls that we stole from the school yard. He was afraid when we played in the street; afraid a car would hit him, or a dog would chase him. We thought his clothes were stupid too. He didn’t wear faded hand-me-downs or go barefoot like us. Besides, he wore a watch and had to go home at twelve promptly for lunch. Unbelievable. What a baby! Nobody called us for lunch, so we played until it got dark. Nobody wanted Jeffrey hanging around, but he kept coming back, even when we chased him away.
Once the board was across, we flipped a penny to see who would go first. Two others went ahead of me. Then it was my turn. Jeffrey stepped on the board behind me. He’d never crossed before and I was surprised to see him standing there. “Go home!” I yelled at him. “Quit following us.”
Jeffrey shook his head and kept standing there.
“You’re too chicken to cross,” I told him. I’d called him chicken a hundred times before. Sometimes it made him cry, but it always made him turn around and go home, his bottom lip wobbling. “Go home to your mother.” I yelled. His mother looked as strange to us as he did. She was taller than our mothers, and her white-blonde hair made her stand out in a sea of brunettes. She always wore a nice dress and high heels when she came out to find Jeffrey. You could tell she didn’t like us by the way she wrinkled up her nose. I was pretty sure she felt the same way as we did about him playing with us.
This time though, Jeffrey didn’t turn around. He just kept moving closer to me as I stepped off the edge and onto the plank. The other kids were yelling, “Walk the plank!” “Walk the plank!” I remember I thought that if I started going across he’d turn around and go back. But the kid behind him already started moving forward. Maybe that’s why he stepped off the edge, or maybe its because I yelled back, “You’re a big chicken. Just go home to your mother!”
I remember I heard him shout out, “I can do it too,” and I felt the board shaking. Then seconds later I heard the sound. A loud thud. Something hit the concrete. It was a strange wet kind of noise like the sound that the older boys made on the hottest summer days, when they chased each other down the street hitting whomever they could catch with a cold wet towel. When I looked Jeffrey was lying face down on the concrete below. It was suddenly so quiet. We all stared, waiting for him to stand up and start crying, but he didn’t move. Somebody called his name, and then it was silent again.
A few weeks later or maybe it was longer. I was walking downtown with my mother. We were going to look for day-old bread. Jeffrey’s mother was walking toward us in the other direction when we crossed the street. She turned her head and stared at me as she approached. I saw her face get tense and her lips pull in a tight line. She didn’t take her eyes off me until we walked past. My mother looked back, and then turned to me. “Isn’t that the mother of the little boy who fell off the roof and died?”
I think a lot about Jeffrey these days. Maybe because of everything that’s happening in the world, and how I’m on the downward slope of my life. Maybe because I have grandchildren now. I think about how he never had a chance to grow up, and I wonder what he would have been like if he had. I wondered if he would have finally made friends, and if he would ever have stopped being afraid. But mostly I remember the way his mother looked at me that day; how you could see the suffering in her eyes. I could see that then. I just didn’t know that what I saw was the pain and hurt of losing a child. Nothing could ever be sadder or make me feel less guilty.