Cookie and George

Tony Press
Fiction


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Photo Credit: scarlatti2004/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The first George was my sister’s age, two years older than me. His sister, Missy, was in my class, and they lived down the street in a house that backed up to the creek that gave the town its name, so from day one I knew who he was. He was forever the tallest guy on the block. Everyone tried to get George to play basketball but he never went out for a team. He played at recess, and in P.E., but that’s all. He’d rather draw pictures.

“It’s a game, guys, it’s just hearts or four square or Risk. Coach thinks it’s war, and who needs that?” Even in art class, where he was really good, he never put his drawings into competitions.

He was always George. Never anything else. No, that’s not true, because once I heard some jocks call him Georgie-the-queer. I looked away real quick, but I heard the coach laughing with them. Who knows? And even then, when I knew almost nothing, I knew enough not to worry about who liked what. Who cares? They were jerks, I knew that much.

The second George was George only to his teachers. To the rest of the universe, from his seventh birthday on, he was “Cookie,” because that was the word that enticed him from a dead-perfect but rapidly airless old refrigerator during hide-and-seek on that very birthday: the word likely saved his life.

Of course George is not an unusual name, but we only had the two for years, even in a high school of almost 500 students.

As life does on occasion imitate art, Cookie proved to be one sweet kid. He was adored by all: little kids, dogs, big kids, teachers, parents, the whole town. Being nothing but himself, he charmed. His smile calmed you, his laugh made people grin without knowing why. He asked you questions because he wanted to know the answers. By the time he was seventeen, the girls, and doubtless a few moms, longed to share his company, and maybe one or two did. Boys liked to be with him, too, but not for the same reasons. I suppose dads would have, too, but we didn’t see many fathers in our neighborhood, even counting those who actually lived there.

George and my sister graduated on schedule as Missy and Cookie and I finished our sophomore years. George’s mother, who worked in the dry cleaning place two towns away, urged him on to go to college, but he declined.

“Not now, anyway,” he told her, and us. “I’d go if I had a reason, but right now I’d just be taking up desk space.” And just like that, he stayed, adjusting his life to full-time worker. He told us: “As soon as we get Missy through, I’ll probably go. You know me, if I want it, I’ll do it.” Instead, he hired on at the cannery, the town’s biggest employer.

George hoisted bottles, cans, crates and pallets of tomato sauce, chili, and ketchup six days a week. My mom’s boyfriend that year worked there, too, and told me “that George is skinny, but he’s a mother of a worker.” This boyfriend, Archie, looked pretty strong himself but it never came out at our place. The one thing he did lift was my mom’s real diamond ring, from when she was married to my dad. Old Archie grabbed it one night and we never saw him again. It took a while, but eventually my mom agreed it was a fair trade.

Nine months into his job, George got a letter from Uncle Sam. Just like that, he was drafted and gone. After a quick bout of basic training in a different part of the state he was off to Vietnam. My sister sometimes got letters but she never told me anything. How all of us could have been so clueless about the draft, I simply don’t know.

Two years after George’s graduation, Missy and I were practicing our own “commencement walk” across the makeshift stage in the gym. We had three days of practice to learn how to climb three steps, walk to the center, accept a diploma, and exit the other side. I guess it was the only thing they could do to slow down the clock. Strange pedagogy.

On the program, Missy was co-valedictorian. I was not the other one, but I was one of the 112 names listed alphabetically. Cookie did not make it. He had liked auto shop, and wood shop, and nothing in between, and dropped out junior year. He was already eighteen so it was his choice. Fortunately, his mom’s hamburger joint was the place in town, and without the nuisance of the school day, he served burgers and shakes from noon to eight, and still got to see everybody.

Every graduation week shocks. For three years, every day lasted forever as we trudged toward unimaginable futures. Now, entire weeks were flashing by like minimum days. Even the chunk of the senior class that hates school is struck dumb, thinking: “Well, dang, what am I supposed to do now?” Our class—“we are mighty, we are great, we are the class of ’68”—so radical, so hip, was fooled just like all the others. One moment we were freshmen, the next we were getting measured for caps and gowns. And, if you were eighteen and male, getting mail from the draft board.

Still, our year was different. I had cut my morning classes on April fourth to walk in the hills with Cookie but the car radio shouted that someone had murdered Martin Luther King. We still hiked but didn’t talk much. In June, just after I’d gone to bed, my mom came in to say Bobby Kennedy had been shot, on live television. Graduation was three days away.

Campus was dead-silent the day after Kennedy. Missy and I were sitting on a bench, sheltered by our favorite oak tree, finally signing each other’s yearbook, when Mr. Mayfield, the vice-principal, materialized as only he could, and told her to follow him.

“Hold my stuff, I’ll be right back.” Clutching my yearbook to her chest, she left with Mayfield, both walking quickly. I figured it was co-valedictorian stuff. I didn’t see her for two hours. When I did, she still held my yearbook, but she also held the knowledge that her brother George had been dead for a week—“died a hero”—Mayfield and the army guy repeated, as they could find nothing else to say. Missy and her mother, who had come to school in the army car, clutched each other on Mayfield’s mock-leather couch, portraits of championship football teams grinning down at them.

It would be a month before we returned each other’s yearbook, our messages hopelessly out-of-date. She skipped the ceremony, skipped her speech.

Despite Kennedy, despite George, graduation week continued. Those last few nights we partied on the hill behind school, drinking and smoking until we were wasted. Some kissed, some groped, some with cars did more. Missy was home with her mom so I hung out with Cookie. Missy told me I should go out, so I did. Cookie never missed those nights that flitted between boisterous and bittersweet. He promised he would be at graduation, “in the front row!”

Only four hours until “Pomp and Circumstance,” Missy still in seclusion, I went to George’s. You could say the hamburger stand was the town’s third George, named by and for Cookie’s dad, a guy most of us had never seen, who lived somewhere in Texas. Cookie wasn’t there and his mom, working alone, just shrugged her shoulders behind her blue apron.

He wasn’t in the front row or any other row. He wasn’t at the parties. Sometime the next afternoon his mom phoned. She was crying and said Cookie had called “at nine o’clock last night,” as if the important thing was the time of the call. Then she said “he joined the Marines yesterday. He’s already there.”

In March, on a steaming Sunday morning, Cookie stepped off a path someone else had chosen, walked onto a mine and exploded.

Cookie’s mother sold the place and disappeared. The new owner changed its name, sold it again, and it finally shut down. It was empty for years but now it’s a bike shop.

My sister swore off boys and started calling herself George. She moved to Canada to work with draft resisters and said she’s never coming back. She hasn’t yet.

I went to work at the cannery and my income, plus George’s “death benefit”—that’s a weird-ass term—put Missy through the university. I overdid it once at work and got a nasty hernia for my trouble, but the damn thing kept me out of the army.

Missy’s got two degrees but I tell her she can’t be as smart as people say, because she’s still with me. I’m lucky, and lucky beats smart six ways from Sunday.

Missy designs playgrounds and I build them, and we do okay. One guy who works for me is from Vietnam and he told me they call it The American War. I never thought of that.

Last spring Missy and I went to Washington for the first time. It’s been a while since the fall of Saigon, followed soon by the fall of Richard Nixon, but young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand. For a moment it was the way church is supposed to feel.

pencilTony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Good fiction, including some of his, can be found here: Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Boston Literary Magazine, Digging through the Fat, Doorknobs & BodyPaint, 5×5, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, Lichen, Literary Orphans, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, 100 Word Story, 101 Words, Qarrtsiluni, Ranfurly Review, Rio Grande Review, Riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Temenos, Thema, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

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