The world sometimes precedes itself. In the attic that day--September 1952--I am almost certain that both Lorna Sue and I understood deep in our bones that significant events were now in motion.
I remember the smell of that attic, so dank and fungal, so dangerous. I remember Herbie gazing down at his sister.
"We need you," he said.
"What for?" said Lorna Sue.
"It'll be neat. Tommy and me, we've got this cross--we'll nail you to it."
Lorna Sue smiled at me.
This was love. Seven years old. Even then.
"Well," she said, "I guess so."
And so the three of us trooped back to my house. Impatiently, under Herbie's supervision, Lorna Sue stood against the cross and spread out her slender brown arms. "This better be fun," she said, "because I'm pretty busy." Herbie and I went into the garage, where we found a hammer and two rusty nails. I remember a frothiness in my stomach; I felt queasy, yes, but also curious. As we walked back toward Lorna Sue, I lagged behind a little.
"You think this'll hurt?" I asked.
Herbie shrugged. His eyes had a hard, fixed, enthusiastic shine, like the eyes of certain trained assassins I would later encounter in the mountains of Vietnam. Herbie gripped the hammer in his right hand. Quietly, like a doctor, he told Lorna Sue to close her eyes, which she did, and at that point, thank God, my mother came out the back door with a basket of damp laundry. The basket was blue, the laundry mostly white.
"What's this?" my mother asked.
"Sunday school," Lorna Sue said. "I get to be Jesus."
At dinner that evening, the hammer and nails lay at the center of the kitchen table. It was a long and very difficult meal. Over and over, I had to explain how the whole thing had been a game, just for fun, not even a real cross. My father studied me as if I'd come down with polio.
"The hammer," he said. "You see the hammer?"
"Is it real?"
"Naturally," I said.
He nodded. "And the nails? Real or unreal?"
"Real," I told him, "but not like . . . I mean, is Toby a real engine?"
My father was unhappy with that. I remember how his jaw firmed up, how he leaned back, glanced over at my mother, then segued into a vigorous lecture about the difference between playing games and driving nails through people's hands. Even as a seven-year-old, I already knew the difference--it was obvious--but sitting there at the kitchen table, feeling wronged and defenseless, I could not find words to say the many things I wanted to say: that I was not a murderer, that events had unfolded like a story in a book, that I had been pulled along by awe and wonder, that I had never really believed in any of it, that I was almost positive that Herbie would not have hammered those nails through Lorna Sue's pretty brown hands.
These and other thoughts spun through my head. But all I could do was stare down at my plate and say, "All right."
"All right what?" my father said.
"You know. I won't nail anybody."
"What about Herbie?"
"He won't either," I said. "I'm pretty sure."
But he did. The left palm. Halfway through. Almost dead center.
Herbie Zylstra was not a mean-spirited child. Nothing of the sort. Hyperactive, to be sure, and so impulsive he could sometimes make my stomach wobble, but I never felt physical fear in his presence. More like wariness--a butterfly sensation.
In a later decade, Herbie would have been a candidate for Ritalin or some similar drug, gallons of the stuff, a long rubber hose running from pharmacy to vein.
September. A Saturday morning, two weeks after school opened. Around noon Herbie stopped by. "I'll need the cross," he said.
I was busy with Toby; I barely looked up.
Herbie muttered something and picked up the cross and carried it over to his house and set it up against a big elm tree on the front lawn. He found Lorna Sue. He told her to stay steady. He squinted and pursed his lips and put the point of the nail against the center of her left palm and took aim and cocked his wrist. He did not have the strength, I suppose, to drive the nail all the way through, or maybe it wasn't a solid strike, or maybe at the last instant Herbie held back out of some secret virtue, pity or humility.
Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. Copyright © 1998 by Tim O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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