I've made some more progress and thought I would share it with those of you who have read the first part. I've posted the entire story from the beginning and there are a few changes (thanks to some feedback and refinement). This is by no means complete because there are still quite a few unanswered questions and we are starting to get into the actual meat of the plot next. Hopefully my next post will have the last half of the story (we're a little less than halfway home).
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be critical if it is warranted. I really appreciate the help and the honesty!
Lenny Cooper hated the Fourth of July. It wasn’t the fireworks. The noise never bothered him and he thought that some of them looked quite beautiful. It wasn’t the patriotism. Lenny had risked his life for his country in the South Pacific during WWII. He loved his country dearly. Still there was no day that filled him with as much anger, as much dread and as much loathing as Independence Day.
And it was all Mike Peterson’s fault.
Lenny and Mike had grown up together, had gone to war together and had once been best friends. They celebrated birthdays together, having been born on the same day and it was a running joke between them as to who was older. Mike was born, according to the birth certificate, one hour and 22 minutes before Lenny. It was a source of constant teasing and good natured argument. Lenny’s mother insisted that the certificates were wrong and the Lenny was indeed born first, but it didn’t really matter. They had shared birthday parties, bicycles, even the occasional girlfriend as they grew up. It never hurt their friendship. When they were sent to other ends of the world during the war, they wrote each other as much as any one else back home. Mike had even once saved Lenny’s life when they were younger. They had been swimming together in an abandoned quarry pit that the county filled with water to keep the kids from climbing around in it. There was still some old equipment and structures that it cost too much to haul back out of the pit after men of the town gave up on it in 1914 to go and fight in the Great War. Part of the fun was the strangeness and the danger of swimming there. None of the parents would allow their kids to swim in the Pit, but all of the kids did.
On that ill-fated July day, Lenny and Mike had gotten there early, while the rising mist still swirled over the forbidden waters. Even as ‘old veterans’ of the Pit at the ripe age of 10, the water looked strange and unfamiliar that morning. The summer of 1926 had been a particularly dry one and the level of the water was much lower than normal. Lenny, always the rasher of the two, was tearing his clothes off even as he ran toward the still, dark water. He stopped just a moment at the edge looking out over the man-made lake. Lenny felt a small twinge of warning in the last moment before he leapt, but like all 10 year old boys he promptly ignored it and went flying off the ledge into the waters.
Mike was still removing his socks when he noticed that Lenny still hadn’t resurfaced. “Lenny?” he called cautiously into the quiet morning. The surface of the lake wasn’t clearly visible yet, but Mike couldn’t hear the tell-tale splashing of Lenny coming back up for air. Acting on instinct, he quickly pulled off his shirt and leapt into the water with his jeans on. He might catch hell for it later, but he didn’t even think about it as he dove. As he bobbed back to the surface of the lake, he could see that Lenny was nowhere in sight. Ducking back under the water he turned his head frantically this way and that looking for his friend. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the gleam of something pale just out of reach. Swimming, grabbing, grasping – his hand closed on the solid shape of Lenny’s arm. He pulled him up to the top and to the safety of the small bit of dirt that served as a beach.
Mike turned Lenny’s head and water ran out before a sudden fit of coughing erupted from Lenny’s throat. He turned onto his side and promptly threw up the quick breakfast he had grabbed on the way out the door and sat heaving and coughing and crying without speaking for the next 15 minutes. When Lenny could finally speak he croaked out a pitiful “Thanks, Mike” and offered his friend a meager smile.
The boys never went back to the Pit again. In ’25 another kid had an accident down at the Pit but this one was fatal. They drained the Pit and filled it with dirt. And Lenny and Mike breathed a silent prayer of thanks that the malevolent presence was gone from their lives. They never talked about it. It just wasn’t their way.
But they knew. Deep down they both knew just how much that day had brought them together. For the rest of their lives that moment would bind them closer than brothers until the day that John Hester died.
In the town of Indian Cove, the Fourth of July was bigger than Christmas. The town celebrated that holiday as their very own. A small, but intensely patriotic community, they had lost more than their share of local boys to wars over the last century and everyone knew somebody who didn’t make it back. In the hearts of parents who lost a child, celebrating the country that they had died defending made the sacrifice count and made their pain noble.
People came from miles around to spend the day in Indian Cove. The town square was a red, white and blue festival with flags on every storefront, bunting on anything that didn’t move and on some of the things that did. People, cars, dogs – nearly everything in town dressed up for the big day. The strains of Sousa marches, the Star Spangled Banner and Lee Greenwood could be heard floating across the small square that served as the center of town. Fireworks that the locals would claim were the best in the state (and some years they were right), would light up the night skies.
But the biggest, most important part of the day was the Independence Day parade. Golf carts, trucks, little red wagons and the occasional horse were decorated to compete in the judging. Although the word ‘decorated’ is somewhat misleading; calling these vehicles decorated would be like saying Patton won a few medals. The baroque artists of the 17th century would have felt right at home in the overdone splendor of the parade. Back in 1975 Bobby Gustafson actually put a 10 foot tall flag on the top of his car using two poles on either side to hold it up. When a strong wind hit his little VW bug broadsides Bobby was tipped over in the middle of Main Street. No one was hurt and Bobby was forever known as the first contestant to ever try to make his float fly.
Each year the floats got grander, more complex, more silly and, simply put, more. No one wanted to be outdone and it was a race to see how much crepe paper, bunting, balloons, inflatable Uncle Sam’s and giant eagles could be squeezed onto every last inch of your entry. The streets were sometimes more crowded than the sidewalks, as no one wanted to be on the sidelines. They didn’t parade for the spectators, they did it for themselves. And for the Marshall of the parade.
In a town as small as Indian Cove, there was no need for a mayor or any kind of local government. The county took care of everything that they needed and mostly they took care of each other. The only position of any importance in town was that of Marshall. When there were disagreements, the Marshall was the court of last resort. His advice wasn’t binding, but it was almost always followed. When someone new would move in, the Marshall would lead the welcome wagon to the house. When someone needed help, the Marshall would make sure that they got it. When the parade was over the Marshall would declare the winner. Like a medieval town elder, the Marshall was the center of the community. Most of the time, you would see him or her on the front porch chatting with the neighbors – a benevolent monarch beloved by the people. The parade Marshall was always the oldest person in town and John Hester had been the parade Marshall for over ten years.
At 94 years old, John was as hale and as hearty as anyone had any right to expect a man of that age to be. There were some who said that being Marshall made him that way, others said it was his wife Wendy. Everybody loved Wendy, she was warm and open and many of the town’s older men had a secret crush on her. It was the worst kept secret in the Cove that Wendy was the ‘power behind the throne,” so to speak. Even John would acknowledge it. “Wendy’s smarter and prettier than me any day,” he’d tell any one who happened to mention how smoothly he handled the community’s little problems.
With John at the helm and Wendy as his likely successor, the town ran as smooth as clockwork. And, more importantly, the great Indian Cove tradition of Independence Day went off without a hitch year after year.
Mike and Lenny returned from the war in ’45 and settled down to the business of living their lives. They both got jobs at the local mill and more often than not would share a ride to work in the mornings. Mike had married his high school sweetheart, Emma DiFrancesca, before leaving for Europe. Lenny had always had a crush on Emma, but never did have the chance to ask her out. When they got married, Lenny stood as best man and was as happy for them as could be, but in his secret heart he always thought that she was the one that got away.
Lenny married Alice Simpson after coming back from the war and bought the house across the street from Mike. Most weekends would find them drinking a beer together on the porch trading stories, jokes and half-hearted jibes. When kids came along weekend barbecues, camping trips and family vacations kept the guys together. After the kids went away to college, they guys took up bowling. After retiring they became full time fixtures at the local VFW.
Emma had started smoking long before anyone knew that it would kill you, and by the time word started getting out she was too old to change her habits. After a long bout with cancer, she had wasted away to practically nothing and Mike had wasted away with her. He spent whole days at her bedside and Lenny knew enough to let them have their last days together alone. Alice would always cook a little extra and Lenny would bring it next door wrapped in tin foil to leave in the kitchen. Usually a few half-hearted nibbles had been taken of the food, sometimes it was never even unwrapped. Alice kept sending it anyway.
When the phone on Lenny’s bedside table rang at 2AM, he knew exactly who was calling. “She’s gone,” Mike said hollowly into the phone. “I’ll be right over,” Lenny replied.
Lenny didn’t bother changing clothes before he trudged across the darkened street. He walked right into Peterson house and even though he had been there hundreds of times before the house felt strange to him. He sensed right away that it was different now. In the kitchen, Mike stood mutely next to the phone staring blankly at the floor. Without a word Lenny, walked up to his friend and enveloped him in his arms. At first Mike hung there stiffly accepting his friend’s embrace, but then he melted crying all the tears that he had held back from Emma. Lenny just held him and accepted his tears. Mike cried all the pain, all the hurt, all the loss onto his best friend’s night shirt until he could cry no more. The two men couldn’t say if it had been minutes or hours or days that they stood in that kitchen.
After the funeral, Mike found himself spending more and more time over at Lenny’s and his friend knew that he didn’t want to be alone in that house. The pain never quite went away, but slowly life returned to normal. They never talked about it. It just wasn’t their way.