by James P. Johnson
Being his best friend in school, his family had asked me to deliver Peg-leg Pete’s — Edward Kowalski’s — eulogy.
We’d first met in Kindergarten in 1952. He would’ve entered school when he was five, but skipped a year and he walked with a stiff right leg. The other children revealed themselves to be exceptionally cruel. Almost instantly, they began calling him, “Peg-leg Pete.”
At first, I thought his name was Pete, but after we became friends, I learned that his real name was Eddie. The following year, we were separated by the fact that he’d be going to the parochial school and I’d be starting the first grade in the same public school. We wouldn’t be together in school again until ninth grade junior high.
In the interim, we played at each other’s houses and watched TV at his house — my dad didn’t buy a TV, having identified it as only a fad.
In junior high, even though, it wasn’t as mean-spirited as before, the kids were still calling him, Peg-leg Pete.
I finally summoned up the courage to ask him how he got the nickname.
He said, “Ya know, you’re the first kid to ever ask me that?”
“You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.”
“But, I will tell you. By the way, I had just turned five. Well, one day my dad got more drunk than usual, got ahold of his deer rifle and started shooting. I ran out of the house toward the neighbor’s, when I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. I realized he shot me!
“I lay on the grass, pretending I was dead, because I was afraid he’d shoot me again. He went back in the house and continued shooting.”
As he’s telling me this, I watched the color drain from his face. Eddie was reliving the whole thing! That’s what I was afraid of.
“Somebody must’ve called the police, because I was hearing a lot of sirens. An ambulance came for me and took me to the hospital. The doctor showed me an X-ray of my leg and said that I’d been shot. The bullet entered behind my knee and shattered my kneecap. There was nothing more they could do, except fit me with a plastic knee brace. Then this cop, wearing a suit, came in to talk to me. He told me that my dad killed my mom, the family dog and himself. Remember, I was only five when he’s telling me all this and I’m trying my best to understand. Then, he asks if my parents argued a lot. I said, ‘yes’ and he said that someone from County Social Services will come to talk to me, too.”
A search for suitable relatives, with whom Eddie could live, had begun. Finding none who were willing to take him, he was sent to a foster home to live with the Kowalski family. The Kowalski’s had two teenage children of their own and three adopted; ranging in age from six to fourteen. Eventually, they adopted him as well.
He had told me that he was envious of his friends who played sports. Some kids had told Eddie that he could play baseball and use his stiff leg as a bat. While others told him that he could be a great field-goal kicker. But, by far, the meanest jape of them all was when the boys told the girls that it wasn’t his leg that was stiff. Of course, this sent these pubescent girls into uncontrollable giggle-fits.
We rode the school bus together; he on the aisle and I on the window side. Of course, he had to stick his leg out into the aisle. The other kids thought he was intentionally trying to trip them. While their bullying tactics pissed me off, I found it amazing that he calmly accepted their attempted provocations.
I’ve chosen to omit all references to his leg, from the eulogy, especially his nickname. Anyway, it was a preposterous implication that his leg was a wooden prosthesis.
When we were about ready to graduate, none of us great athletes received athletic scholarships. We were envious of him getting an academic scholarship to the University.
As a newly minted MBA, Eddie set out for California to find employment … and perhaps a wife. He wrote me a letter saying that he found a good paying job and a tall, willowy blond named Olivia, who was willing to marry him. He went on to say that she was a wannabe movie starlet waiting to be discovered and scheduled for a screen test.
I wrote back wishing them luck. There must be about twenty-thousand young women, in and around Los Angeles who’d love to play the part of some fresh-faced ingénue.
After ten years, his marriage failed. In another ten years, his job failed and he moved back home, coincidentally in time for our twenty-year high school class reunion.
I was stunned when I saw Eddie walking with only a slight limp.
“Eddie, what happened to your leg?”
“I had a knee replacement. Of course, they had to wait ‘til I stopped growing. At least it kept me out of the draft.”
“Geez, what are you, six-three?”
“No, just six-one.”
“Lucky. I think I stopped growing when I was twelve.”
We hung out at the reunion, barely speaking to anyone else, sometimes only saying,“hi.” A lot of these former classmates stopped by to stare and then say a few words to Eddie and me. Then returned to the cliques they’d formed in high school.
“Remember when most of these people considered us pariahs, Eddie?”
“Oh, I don’t think you were. You were a jock and fit-in with them.”
“I don’t know if ‘fitting-in’ was that important then. It means absolutely nothing now.”
“There’s something I don’t understand,” Eddie said, “you knew I was bullied and you and your jock friends didn’t do anything to stop it. You know you could’ve. In fact, nobody, the principal, the guidance counselor, the teachers … nobody stopped it! That’s why I’ll be in therapy for the rest of my life.”
I told him how sorry I was.
We moved toward a poster set on an easel. On it were high school yearbook pictures of deceased classmates; a few going back to only a couple of years after graduation, others in more recent years. Of course, I recognized all of their seventeen and eighteen year-old faces.
“Don’t you think it’s sort of curious,” Eddie asked, “that most of them, boys and girls were bullies?”
“Really? So, what’s your point? Are you saying that you might’ve had something to do with their deaths?”
“No, I’m not saying that at all. A couple of them died in Vietnam, a few from fatal illnesses the rest accidently or, suicide. Tell me, how the hell could I manage to kill them off so selectively?”
“Well, there were some who died under mysterious circumstances, their cases still unsolved. I don’t know. Maybe you had some help.”
Eddie gave no reply, just laughed and clapped me on the back.
In the intervening years since then, Eddie and I saw each other infrequently. Caught-up in our own “busy lives” was the often-used excuse.
I’d gone to the thirtieth reunion and found that Eddie wasn’t there. I phoned him and he said that he wasn’t feeling well. He thought he had the flu.
About a year later, I received a phone call from one of Eddie’s siblings; he had died suddenly from an aneurism. I offered my sincerest condolences and asked if there was anything I could do.
“Yes,” was the answer, “you could do something … “
I arrived a little late and stood outside the stone cathedral and marveled at the mishmash of Roman, Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Inside, the vaulted ceiling sported beams that I supposed were flying buttresses. The nave was surrounded by ten-foot statues of saints, all looking down in apparent condescension at us insignificant, sinful mortals. I noticed that someone had thought it was a good idea to position them in alphabetical order. So, Amos stood next to Andrew. I was thinking about that when the priest signaled me to come up to the pulpit.
I began the eulogy by saying that we all were enriched for knowing Eddie, but were diminished by his passing and hoped that no one caught me in the obvious plagiarism. I mentioned how long we’d known each other and ticked-off the decades. And the fact that he was stolen from us at such a young age. I liked the word, stolen, because it was the truth.
I asked him once if he was traumatized by the events of his early childhood. He shrugged it off saying that he’d be in therapy for the rest of his life.
“Physical therapy?” I asked, stupidly.
“No, but being adopted by the Kowalski’s helped to give me a brighter and positive outlook.”
“We’d have more serious discussions about life in general. I’m not saying that we’d agree on everything, but we always got along. We will always be friends.”
When I had finished my ten-minute eulogy, the mourners were softly sobbing, but when the massive pipe organ belted out an ancient dirge, they began wailing inconsolably.
At the burial site, after the priest’s incantations, I filed by, putting my hand on the casket and pulled it away, fast. It was a warm, sunny, summer day, but the casket felt cold. I shivered. There was an oldwives tale which says that if you shiver for no reason, a dead person is thinking of you.
About the Author:
After a thirty-five year career in residential real estate sales, James P. Johnson decided to retire and devote more time for writing fiction. He likes to think of himself as both an avid reader and a prolific writer. He lives with his wife in Minneapolis, Minnesota.