Not even two weeks into our vacation, my brother Jim got himself into some real trouble. Jim’s best friend David died at Crocker Park and the police were looking into it. Even Jim, who was normally tougher than the Marlboro Man, looked worried. Sometimes I wished they’d send Jim off to military school so I could get away from his constant teasing. But when it came right down to it, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. He’s my brother and, right or wrong, a person’s got to stand up for family.
My brother and I had spent the last five summers with our Auntie Catherine and Uncle Ernie in Marblehead; since I was seven and Jim was nine. Auntie Catherine and Uncle Ernie didn’t have kids of their own so they invited us down east for the summer. Marblehead was the place where Jim and I were born and we loved it there. Our family had to move to Michigan so my dad could get a better job. But there was no ocean in Michigan, no rocky cliffs, no pretty painted wooden homes. The new subdivision we moved into looked liked Legoland – rectangular red brick houses, all the same, snapped into lots of dried, cracked clay, equidistant from one another along the newly paved, chalk-white road. There were no trees or bushes. My mom cried when she saw it. I felt like crying too but I didn’t want her to feel worse so I just held her hand.
Uncle Ernie came to Michigan in his old car, the “rattletrap” we called it, to pick us up. My mom and dad stayed behind with our little brother and sister. Uncle Ernie took two days to drive us to Marblehead; the rattletrap didn’t go very fast. We stopped overnight at his sister’s house in upstate New York along the way. I usually sat in the front seat and read my books. Jim sat in the back and slept or stared out the window. I didn’t know how he could just do nothing for 750 miles. When he got bored, he started kicking the back of my seat. I tried to ignore him but when it finally got on my last nerve, I broke. I turned around and yelled at him to stop. He got that evil smirk on his face because that was exactly what he was going for. I just wished I would have had more self-control. Jim was good-looking and funny and all my girlfriends had a crush on him. He was really generous and always bought me neat stuff – my own roller skates, my pink puffy coat, my first record player. But he was a natural-born needler and sometimes he wouldn’t leave me alone.
If you climbed the uneven rocky staircase in the alley off of Front Street, you would get to Crocker Park. From its position on the top of this steep hill, you got one of the best views of the harbor. There were a few benches on the rocks and an old rickety wooden staircase attached to the sheer cliff. It zigged the forty or so feet down to the water to an old swimming float. The staircase had been roped off for years. You were not allowed to dive off the cliffs or swim off the float because of the sharp rocks and shallow water in the harbor. There were signs all over the place but the boys did it anyway. They just tried not to get caught. Jim, David and some other boys went to Crocker Park that day. David took a dive off the cliff and hit his head on a rock. Maybe he hit an outcropping or maybe he got all the way to the water. Who knows? One of the boys said he didn’t jump. He said Jim pushed him.
Uncle Ernie and Auntie Catherine were seated on the worn green living room couch on either side of Jim. The bright sunlight through ruffled sheers on the front window made Jim’s eyes squint, like he was under an interrogation lamp. I had never seen Uncle Ernie look more serious. He was our favorite uncle and I think his face would have cracked if he frowned.
“Jim,” Uncle Ernie said, “What happened today?”
I was around the corner in the dining room trying to keep an eye on the action.
“David jumped off the cliff and hit his head, that’s it,” said Jim.
“Jim,” said Auntie Catherine,” I can tell if you’re being truthful. You get a pimple on the end of your nose when you’re not.”
I peeked around the corner to see what she was talking about. I couldn’t see any pimple but Jim’s eyes were crossed trying to look down his nose.
“Jim, you need to tell us the whole story,” said Uncle Ernie, “The police will find out what happened.”
“We were goofing around,” said Jim.
“Did you push David?” said Auntie Catherine, her voice quivering.
“I don’t know. We were all pushing each other,” said Jim.
I start to tear up so I ran into the kitchen before they could see me. Was my big brother a murderer? Would they put him on death row? I could picture Jim strapped to a table being injected with lethal drugs as our family sat in the gallery. I would hold my mother’s hand as she sobbed but I would try not to cry.
I wiped away my tears and walked into the living room.
“Uncle Ernie,” I said,”You need to drive us back to Michigan just as fast as that rattletrap will go. We’ve got to get my brother outta here.”
Uncle Ernie said Jim had to talk to the police. They needed to go down to the station. I guessed that was better than having them come here, cuff Jim and lead him out to their squad car while all the neighbors stood around and watched the perp walk. Uncle Ernie said Jim just needed to be honest and everything would be alright. Well, I wasn’t so sure. If the other boys said Jim pushed David over the cliff, it would be his word against theirs. And to be frank, Jim had a way of looking guilty even when he wasn’t. It may be that smirk of his. He could be his own worst enemy. From where I stood, Jim looked like he was about to puke.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he said to me.
As I walked across the living room floor, the ridges on the braided rug brush my bare feet. I took a seat across from the couch in Uncle Ernie’s chair. It’s straight back, wooden seat and arms felt uncomfortable to me but Uncle Ernie loved it. This is where he drank his Manhattan and watched the news on the tiny Magnavox TV every night before supper. I liked to sit on the couch and watch with him when I wasn’t helping Auntie Catherine with supper. He made funny comments like “poppycock” and “balderdash” and called the TV reporters clowns. He never seemed really mad though.
There was a knock at the front door and Auntie Catherine carefully raised herself from the sagging couch to answer it. It was David’s younger brother Allen, who was at the park with the boys. He looked shook up, like he’d been crying. Auntie Catherine patted him on the shoulder and stepped aside to let him in. Jim stayed seated, almost like he was stuck to the cushion, as he made out Allen’s shaded face through the sunlight.
“I’m sorry about David,” said Jim and this time he looked like he meant it.
“I know you didn’t push him,” said Allen, “You guys were best friends. I just wanted you to know I don’t believe what Eddie said.”
“Thanks,” said Jim.
“I gotta go home now. My mom starts calling and asking where I am every time I walk out of the room. She’s probably having a fit right now.” Auntie Catherine walked him back out the door.
Auntie Catherine and Uncle Ernie look at one another. Auntie Catherine’s lips didn’t look as tight as they did. Uncle Ernie’s brow was not as wrinkled and Jim didn’t look so sick.
“See, I told you,” said Jim.
“It was nice of Allen to take your side. That’s good. But we still need to go down to the police station. It’s the right thing to do,” said Uncle Ernie.
Jim resignedly got off the couch and followed Uncle Ernie to the front door. He looked at me, grinned that evil grin and held his hands together behind his back as if handcuffed. I shook my head and watched out the windows as they walked to the garage, Jim lagging behind in his invisible shackles. Pretty soon Uncle Ernie backed out the rattletrap and they disappeared down the street.
I was glad my mother didn’t know what was going on. If she were here, she’d be making leather buttons, as she always said when she was worried.
“How about you help me with supper while they’re gone?” said Auntie Catherine.
I think she was afraid we’d both start making leather buttons if we didn’t stay busy. I followed her into the kitchen and sat on one of the chrome chairs with the red vinyl seats. Auntie Catherine turned on the oven and put a colander of fresh green beans on the yellow Formica table in front of me. I knew what to do. I snapped off the ends of the beans and pulled off their strings. Green beans are my favorite vegetable. Jim’s too. Auntie Catherine took some swordfish out of the refrigerator. Our favorite fish. She put it in a glass pan and put pats of butter on top. Then she put it in the oven. When I was done snapping beans, Auntie Catherine put them in the pressure cooker. Pretty soon the smell of green beans filled the room.
We heard the front door open and Ernie and Jim came in. They joined us in the kitchen.
Jim still looked worried. Ernie looked serious.
“I smell cooking. It must be time for cocktail hour,” said Uncle Ernie.
He grabbed the large bottle of Manhattan mix from the floor of the pantry and poured it into a short glass. It seemed like more than his usual “dose.” Then he added some ice and took a sip. I never tasted a Manhattan but he made it look so good, I wished I could have had one then.
“The police say it was probably a terrible accident,” said Uncle Ernie, “But they still need to do a thorough investigation. It’s standard when someone dies.”
“I hope you’re not going to jail,” I said to Jim.
“If I was in jail, at least I wouldn’t have to look at you,” said Jim.
Suddenly I realized why Auntie Catherine was cooking Jim’s favorite meal. It might be his last!
The next morning, as we were seated around the kitchen table which Auntie Catherine had set the night before, there was a knock at the door. She put down her cup of coffee and walked to the front hall. I followed behind. Outside the sheer-covered side lights on either side of the door, there was a haze of blue. She opened the door and let in two police officers.
“Sorry to disturb you so early, ma’am,” said the short, fat one on the left. His voice sounded like a trapped mouse. I bet he was really sorry about missing the free donuts the cops got every morning at the bakery.
Auntie Catherine asked them if they would like some coffee and a blueberry muffin. The tall, think copy said no but thank you. The short fat one looked at his partner with disgust.
“We need to talk to Jim again,” said the tall thin one.
Auntie Catherine called Jim to the living room. He was still wearing his pajamas which made him look younger than he was.
“Jim,” said the tall one, “We need to ask you a few more questions.”
“OK,” said Jim in a soft voice, totally uncharacteristic of him.
“Yesterday, after you left the police station, Eddie Burkhart came in. He insisted you pushed David over the cliff. On purpose. He said you two were fighting.”
“We weren’t fighting. Everyone was just goofing around,” said Jim.
I looked at Jim’s nose. No pimple yet.
“Did you push David when you were goofing around?” asked the fat one in his squeaky voice.
“We were all pushing each other, like I told you yesterday. I don’t even know if I even pushed David,” said Jim. Jim glared at me and I knew he wanted me to leave but I wasn’t going anywhere.
“OK, if that’s your final story,” said the tall one. “We’ll be talking to rest of the boys today. We may be back.”
After Auntie Catherine saw them out the door, she headed back to the kitchen.
“Did you really push David off the cliff? Even by accident?” I asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I didn’t,” said Jim.
As much as I wanted to believe him, I just wasn’t sure. But, like I said, you gotta stand up for family.
“I believe you and I bet those cops did too,” I said.
“Thanks, Pollyanna,” said Jim, “The trouble with you is, you don’t what it’s like to get into trouble. When adults think you’re guilty, you may as well save your breath. They won’t believe anything you say.”
We walked back to the kitchen and sat down at the table. Blueberry muffins were my favorite breakfast but somehow I just couldn’t finish the last half of the one on my plate. Jim just looked at his as well.
“Don’t worry,” said Uncle Ernie, “This will all get straightened out and you’ll be fine.”
Well, half the boys sided with Jim and half with Eddie. Back then, there weren’t security cameras all over the place or people with cell phones recording everything that went on, so the cops had no choice but to stop the investigation. Jim was off the hook – for now.
That was the last summer we spent down east with Uncle Ernie and Auntie Catherine. They told my parents they were getting too old to take care of us anymore. I think that summer aged them by at least ten years. At first, I was mad at Jim for ruining our vacations, but I got over it. I knew that Jim, even though he didn’t show it, appreciated my support.
Jim never seemed to learn his lesson and this wouldn’t be the last incident of the summer. As it turned out, there were plenty of ways for Jim to get in trouble in Michigan. And one of them got Jim accused of murder all over again.