"The Darger Episodes" - EXCERPT

Originally published in Looking Together: Writers on Art (2009) and published here with permission of the Frye Art Museum and University of Washington Press.



. . . the fiercest and bravest of these, her blond curls bouncing as she leaps toward a villain, runs a sword through that dastardly heart. All around them, pitiful cries fill the air, but with his final resounding howl, a coward’s bellow of surprise, thick hands falter, and evil deeds, in one great unfastening, unravel. Yet the innocents, their poor little sunflower bodies racked asunder, cannot be revived and made whole, and even while those stone-hearted scoundrels fall back astounded, a mighty. . .



Eight blocks away was an abandoned tar factory where kids played from time to time. It wasn’t one of the regular spots like under the metal bridge at the dead end of Taft Street or the weedy lot behind Dexter’s Market. But now and then on long summer afternoons when heat stilled the streets, a ragtag gang found themselves drifting to the narrow alley beside the factory. They snaked between close walls streaked with urine from the bums who sprawled there at night and, at the alley’s end, scrambled up onto a half wall and over a locked metal fence to enter the factory’s walled inner yard.

There was, with them, a tall boy named Jack O’Dignan, and he brought along his younger brother, Leo, who did not speak. His tongue, Jack said, had been notched, nearly cut out, after an open-mouthed fall from a second-floor window, which everyone knew Jack himself had initiated. Doctors had managed to sew the tongue back, but the nerves were clipped, and Leo could only flap it uselessly. And with them, too, came two other little boys no one knew well, although they had been seen behind Dexter’s, scowling and picking fights with Dexter’s three-legged cat. They claimed they’d taught it to spit. No one much cared for them, and once, not long ago, someone had paused beside the unliked boys’ fallen bicycles to press found tacks into the front tires. Helen from next door also came along — Helen with her scabby knees and cool defiant expression. Underneath the collar of her blouse, she wore a chain with a Saint Philomena medal that — as she told Margaret Breen in greatest confidence — the Bishop himself had given her. No one asked the last fellow to come, but Helen was there, so he felt okay skirting the edges, until those bully boys set at him and ran him back through the alley, banging his bare legs on the brick sides as he went, and Helen not saying a word for him, only gazing at the white-hot sky above his head.

Boy , was he mad!

Of course he crept back. Exiled, he spied from the alley as the other children explored that private stolen place. He squinted as they popped fat tar bubbles, and he plotted even while Leo eyeballed him and Helen wandered the asphalt yard, princess-like, picking up lobs of softened tar, rolling them into balls, then laying a line of ‘em on the concrete ramp leading up to the locked factory doors, as if she were amassing ammunition for a coming battle. Hsst. . . he tried, but she would not hear him. Hsssst. . .

He waited until she was closest to the alley, her best chance, before he started just a little fire with pieces of trash those bad boys had thrown heedlessly behind them. A hellish day, so hot the tar melted on its own, and as the fire took hold, the air seemed to recognize it and draw it more and more passionately to itself until, together, the fire and the tar and the desperate air raced down that alley to where those bad boys conjured their play. Hsst, he tried once more for Helen. As loudly as he could before the walls began to crumble in and a great wave, a searing sheet, flew away from him, and he ran and ran and ran. . ..



One Tuesday, word came that a tremendous row was brewing. A clothesline hung with children’s dresses — yellow dotted swiss, sprigs of forget-me-not on pale pink, mint green seersucker with lace-edged puffed sleeves — was chosen as the battle site. The clothes created a long curtain separating the back of a single house from the mustard fields. Weapons were chosen for what promised to be an occasion of terrible violence and inescapable confrontation, the likes of which had not been seen before that time. Yet when the precise moment arrived and the horrible advance commenced, the row of girls’ dresses came alive, wind entering their skirts, billowing out sleeves, so that the dresses marched in the lightest fashion, and that very gentleness, relentless and unstoppable, confused the enemy, who set forth massive charges of great fire that the wind blew back toward them. And still the little girls, vacant, headless, continued their own advance. . .