Volume 21, Number 2

Parts of Speech

Sharon Erby

The boy was standing on the bridge when Patrick saw him, heard the intermittent plunking of rocks hitting the creek as he got closer. How long had the boy been there? He didn’t look up; this was what Patrick wanted. What if J.T. bolted before they had a chance to talk?

It was the sound of gravel grinding under Patrick’s feet that finally turned the nine year-old’s head. He grabbed hold of the bridge’s metal rail, shifted his feet, bent his knees as a sprinter might, seconds before a race started. Patrick stopped, threw his hands up—an entreaty. He needed to keep the boy there.

The boy straightened then, stared out over the water that slurped under the bridge. Patrick approached him. He was a good two inches taller than Patrick’s son, Brent, although they were the same age.

“You sure can handle the big rocks.”

“They’re not that big.” J.T. unearthed a rock the size of a shot-put from the embankment adjacent the bridge, carried it over, and, once back to the spot he’d left, released it into the creek, his fingertips opening as if he were freeing a bird that happened to have a broken wing.

Patrick stepped beside the boy, reached for a small rock, tossed it into the creek that was muddy and swollen from spring rain. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen Brent pick up one that size. And we’re always taking walks down here.”

“I know.” J.T. created a chasm between himself and Patrick. “I can see you from out the kitchen window—sometimes.”

“Really? Then you’ve got good eyesight, too.”

“Suppose I do.” The boy paused, looked at Patrick for the first time.

* * *

A little more than an hour had passed since the shooting; Patrick’s son, Brent, was at their farm, while J.T.’s big brother, Toby, was in the hospital, his left arm torn open.

“Patrick?” It was all Clare, his wife, could say after the fact, her eyes slim ribbons—remainders from Brent’s birthday packages left behind on the walk, the red bled out by nature’s harshness.

"What’s the problem?" was all Patrick could say when the state police car roared down the dirt lane to tell the news. Officers occasionally stopped by the farmhouse that he, Clare, and Brent had lived in for nearly three years now, looking for ‘dopers’ or drunks who used the dirt road and the mountain that fluted into the sky above it for their covert transactions and social events.

“The boy down the other side of the lane, Toby Miller, has been shot. And your son has admitted to doing it.” The officer spoke as if he were reading from the report he’d need to write later.


The incredulous tone in Patrick’s voice brought a softer response from the officer. “The boy—Toby—his life’s not in danger. He was hit in the left arm—I’m not sure what the doctors will need to do.” The officer moved in closer to Patrick. “Your boy’s okay. The other officer is bringing him over—we’ll question him here.”

Patrick had been about to take off running to the Miller’s trailer where Brent had gone to play baseball with J.T. The officer grabbed Patrick’s arm to stop him. “The younger brother of the victim, J.T.—he’s missing.”

Then another police car pulled up in front of the barn; in an instant Brent was in Patrick’s arms. He had knelt then, looked into his son’s dark eyes, saw nothing he recognized. Clare stood on the porch. “Go with your mother,” Patrick told Brent. “Go with them,” he nodded toward the police officers. “I need to take care of something.”

The boy had at first clung to him; his mother walked out to him, then, and they left Patrick with the officers.

“Listen,” he’d told them, “The boy can’t be far. Where are his parents?”

“The father went in the ambulance. The mother was at work. But by now she’s probably there at the hospital.”

She was supposed to be at home. Patrick considered that he never would have agreed to allow Brent to go over to the Miller’s trailer if the boys’ mother wasn’t home. The father was more of a waste than the stuff the boy’s mother hauled away as a garbage collector.

* * *

“Mom says I’ve got eyes like a hawk.” J.T. spoke again, matter-of-factly, his voice mixing with the sounds of the creek water as it rushed toward them, then under, then away. “She’s gone. Got called in to work real early—again.”

He picked up a branch the wind had blown down, snapped it, threw the pieces into the creek. His eyes followed the broken branches until they passed under the bridge. Then he darted across it so he could watch as they emerged and flowed downstream. When he returned to the other side, J.T. walked up close to Patrick. If the boy had been his son, Patrick would have wiped away the specks of dirt that were close to his mouth. But he was not. Patrick considered that his own son wouldn’t have been dirty, wouldn’t be handling a gun.

“Nobody’s home.” J.T. scraped his shoes across the gravel, leaving behind clumps of mud that had been caked on the bottoms. “One time I cut myself bad enough she had to take me to the hospital. Just me and her. You can’t come, Toby. That’s what she told him. He was all mad about it—didn’t get what he wanted for once.”

The boy tramped on the mud he’d just scraped off. “He always gets what he wants ‘cause he’s a whiny baby girl. And ‘cause he gets good grades and kisses butt. Anyway, she even got me an ice cream cone on the way home. And I made sure I saved a little bit of it so he could see it.”

Patrick kicked one of his boots against the concrete bottom of the narrow bridge that connected with the even narrower lane that lead to J.T.’s trailer—the same lane that forked into the dirt road leading to his farm. The mud pile grew. “You know, I’ve got a younger brother.” J.T. looked at Patrick with interest.

“He’s three years younger than me.”

“Whoa. Toby’s three years older than me.”

“Lou never left me alone. I used to get pretty sick of him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I used to hide just to get away from him. Out behind the shed. Like that little one you’ve got up in your yard.” Patrick had trained himself to pick up on things his patients said—openers, he called them—from which he constructed tales to connect, to empathize.

“Daddy says it’s a piece of shit ever since Mom forgot to close the door and the wind ripped it apart.”

Patrick ignored the boy’s language. Hadn’t he heard Brent use the same word a few days ago? “I’d hear him going by, and he’d be yelling my name. And I’d be laughing to myself about tricking him again.”

J.T. moved in close enough so Patrick could see through the thick lenses of the boy’s glasses—see that he had eyes the color of a ringneck pheasant—innocent eyes. “What’s your name?”


“Like the day with the Leprechauns?”

“Yes.” The answer seemed to satisfy the boy’s curiosity, so Patrick continued. “I’d wait in there until I thought I was safe, and when I came out and started toward the house, I’d have an extra shadow—named Lou. I could run faster than him, though. That saved me for a while at least.”

J.T. took all this in, while he shuffled his feet in a mock running-in-place exercise. “He probly just wanted to play ball or something.”

This time it was Patrick who looked at J.T. with interest. “Well, as a matter of fact, sometimes that’s exactly what he wanted.”

“How come you wouldn’t play?”

It kept coming back at him. Water that receded—like the water that would be under the bridge in August—water that swelled as it right now did, just under the bridge where he stood.

“I don’t know.” Patrick mimicked the boy’s movements. “Guess I just didn’t feel like it.”

“Like Toby.”

“I always figured people should do what they want,” Patrick said. “It’s not as if I ever forced Lou to do anything.”

“Yeah, well; you’re older than him. You’re supposed to look out for your little brother. That’s what Mom says, at least.”

“Well, there’s a difference between looking out for someone and letting them hang on you.”

The boy finally stood still. “What if there’s nobody else around?”

Patrick looked hard at the boy. “Lots of things can happen when there’s nobody else around.” He waited until the boy’s eyes met his. “I’ve got a little story for you.”

“Is this another one of those dumb stories like Daddy tells us right before we go out for trick-or-treat? If it is, forget it. I don’t want to hear it.”

“No. Nothing like that at all. I don’t think you probably ever heard anything like it.” What harm could there be in telling it? He’d just need to put in or leave out some things. It was a skill Patrick had perfected.

The boy said nothing. Patrick took it as an okay to proceed.

“There wasn’t anybody else around when I got home from school that afternoon. I figured Mom had gone for groceries—Dad probably finally gave her some money.”

The boy was watching Patrick very closely. “It’s the other way around at my house. But Mom gives Daddy too much.”

Patrick decided not to engage the boy in a discussion about his home life. He needed to tell this story. “And Dad? He was at work—like always. Anyway, the minute Lou got off the bus he started with it—his nagging. ‘You got to come outside and pitch me a few. Dad said I’m on the team this year if I can hit.’ You see, my dad’s construction company helped sponsor a little league team.”

“Wow. Lucky.”

“I never thought of it that way.” Patrick looked down at the child, wondering which the boy considered luckier—that his dad owned a fly-by-night construction company, or that the company sponsored a baseball team. He kept talking. “I remember I told Lou, ‘I don’t got to do anything.’ The little punk. It was eighty-seven degrees—and it was still May! I just wanted to sit in front of the only fan we had and read my magazine.”

“We don’t have AC either.” The boy spoke the words as if saying them in that particular way made him somehow older, wiser.

Got to. Dad says you got to.” Patrick remembered how Lou got so close he could smell the peppermint lifesaver on his breath. “Got to. He was a broken record.”

“I know about records, too. Mom has some that used to belong to Pap—he’s dead now. You know, like “The Gambler.” Every gambler knows the secret to survivin’ is knowin' what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep.

The boy sang the words, his voice quivering each time he said ‘knowing.’

“Me and Mom and Toby listen to it and sing along all the time.” He lowered his voice then, spoke with the reverence of a preacher at Sunday services. “Mom says that singer, Kenny Rogers, is a wise man.”

“At least you can enjoy music,” Patrick said. “When I was a kid, my dad yelled at my mom every time he heard her sing. And she had a voice soft as a lamb.”

“That’s too bad.”

Patrick wouldn’t accept the boy’s pity.“Anyway, I told Lou to go get his stuff from the shed.”

It wasn’t anything like the shed in J.T.’s yard. Instead, it was full of windows—let in light and heat like a greenhouse.

“After he left, I waited just for a minute. Then I threw the magazine on the floor and managed to slip through the door before it closed. When I got to the shed and looked in, I could see Lou using his bat to rummage through the junk on the floor. I figured he lost his ball again.”

“Baseballs aren’t as big as softballs. They’re easier to lose. I’m always losin’ mine.” The boy leaned over the top of the bridge, looked not at the rushing water but at the water’s edge.

He was an odd little fellow, this boy, Patrick considered. He could finish off the story now. It was finally time to see where telling it took him. “I locked him in.”


“I locked him in.”

“Did he holler?”

“No. Not at first. He didn’t even notice I did it.”

“Did he,” the boy paused, “die?”

“No.” This time Patrick chose to avert his gaze from the rising waters of the creek below him. So much water, even for this time of the year. “I got him out—in time. Right before Mom got home. He wasn’t any worse off for it—except maybe he was a little skinnier. Maybe he sweated off a few pounds. Back then, he could use it.”

“Bet you got in trouble.”

“Mom never did believe anything Lou said.”

There. Patrick imagined the water beneath him as it would appear in August. No matter the month, it never would seem the same to him again. He looked at the boy; the boy wasn’t looking back. He was instead fixated on two birds that had alighted on the wet grass beside him and were pecking at the ground, looking for worms.

“Are you even listening to me?” It was a question Patrick often asked his son. It was a question his wife and son often asked him.

“I was thinkin’ about verbs,” the boy said, now looking Patrick full in the face. Lou was all about non sequiturs, too. “I got told about them at school. Parts of speech. Verbs. They’re what you do. Didn’t Brent tell you?”

J.T. ran at the birds. They vanished so quickly Patrick wondered if they had even been there.

The boys were in the same classroom. If his son had told him, Patrick didn’t remember. He’d long ago trained himself to look like he was listening to what others said when his mind was where he chose to put it.

After twelve years of marriage, Clare knew his habits. “I bet if one of your patients and I were on a boat and fell overboard, you’d save her first,” she’d remarked to him just last night, when he’d literally closed the door on her bitching about the errant truck driver who’d nearly run her off the road. She was the one who wanted to move into this place where every route was a truck route. Now she’d better learn to deal with it.

Right now, though, he was listening.

J.T’s words became a cadence. “The teacher made us play this stupid game. We couldn’t say anything. We had to do something. Everybody had to guess.” The boy started flapping his arms, leaning left and right. “Flyin,’ see? Those teachers are good at thinkin’ up stupid games.”

“I suppose they are.” It was Patrick’s habit to pick up on fragments or phrases his patients used when they spoke to him; he’d then use the patients’ own words as he spoke to them. It was another strategy to connect. Connections brought breakthroughs.

“Stupid teachers.” J.T. spit into the water. “But, you know what? It’s like what happened when Brent was over this morning.”

Patrick looked into the creek, let its motion mesmerize him.

“The .22 was layin’ there on the table. Daddy was just comin’ home when Mom was leavin.’ He lets his guns layin’ out when he knows Mom’s not home.” He fiddled with his baseball cap—put it on backwards.

“Sometimes there’s bullets in ‘em, sometimes there’s not. One time Toby opened up the .38 to see—right after he pointed it at me.”

He looked up at Patrick, nodded. “Yep, there were bullets in it.”

Patrick opened his mouth to speak, but instead stayed silent.

“Now we leave ‘em alone.” J.T. pulled up the hood of the sweatshirt Patrick thought was too thin for such a chilly spring day.

“Anyway, I said, Go ahead, Brent. Nothin’ in it.

“I thought you said you left the guns alone now.” Patrick spoke slowly, deliberately. He was close enough he could have grabbed the boy.

“He looked at me all polite—Brent’s always all polite.” J.T. paused, looked directly at Patrick again, grinned. “I got my manners at Halloween, did ya know? Mom told me I had to remember to say thanks when people gave me candy.”

Then he started firing his words with the staccato of a 9-mm Glock. “Anyway, Brent was like, what if your dad sees me picking this up? Daddy wasn’t gonna see nothin’—still sleepin.’ Sometimes he sleeps ‘til lunchtime. And I told him that … and I told him don’t say anything—do it do it do it—it won’t amount to a thing, ‘cept to make Toby shit himself.

J.T. glanced up at their trailer. “That got me and Brent laughin’ just at the thought.”

Clare had warned Patrick about letting Brent go to the Miller’s. “I don’t trust those people. I don’t think they even watch those boys.” It was the ‘those people’ that caught in his craw. Clare and her elitist ways. Her real concern was that the boys’ mother was a garbage collector—nothing more.

Patrick considered that if Clare had seen the way he and his brother Lou grew up, she probably wouldn’t have given him a second look years ago. His salvation was that they’d met when he was in California while he was completing his doctorate in clinical psychology—far away from the bitching and unpaid bills at home. Presently, though, in his middle age (especially in the stillness of evening just after his last patient had left), Patrick often wondered about the notion of his own or anyone else’s salvation— wondered if it was even possible—deemed it yet another veil that could not be lifted.

“They’ll be outside,” Patrick had told Clare the first time Brent went on his own to the trailer. “And he’ll only be allowed to stay for an hour. I’ll walk him down. I’ll walk back and pick him up.” Brent had been there quite a few times since then—with no problems—until now.

Now, as he stood looking at the cause of his son’s lost innocence, it seemed that problems would cover them forever—an impenetrable mist stretching clean across the valley where their farmhouse stood—to the mountains on either side.

But the boy was oblivious to it all. He just kept going on and on, like one of the toys Patrick remembered winding too tightly as a child.

“Toby wouldn’t come out of his room, like always. He’s gettin’ fat. Too much playin’ video games. Too much whackin’ his carrot, Daddy says. Even when I told him we needed him to catch the ball. Go open up his door. That’s what I said to Brent. He never locks it. Show him what you got. Won’t hurt nothin'. And he did.”

The boy extended his arm, pretended his hand held a gun. “POP!” He first raised his arm—to show the recoil—then dropped it, looked Patrick in the eye. “Musta liked the sound of it. He ripped off a coupla shots before he dropped the gun.” And then, as an after-thought: “I think it was the last one that nailed Toby. Least that’s when he hollered most.”

J.T. ran from the middle of the bridge then, and for a moment Patrick thought he’d have to run after him. But instead, the boy stopped abruptly just at the end of it, ran back just as fast toward Patrick, stopped mere inches from him.

That got Daddy up. What the fuck are you son of a bitches doin’ now?

Patrick stepped back, looked away from the boy. The air was thick—a mouthful of a creamed soup he didn’t like; it caught in his throat—he swallowed, but the action didn’t take the taste away.

J.T. kept talking. “He was flyin.’ Brent? He just stood there like somebody crazy-glued his feet to the floor. I took the bat and ball and I went into them woods.” The boy paused and pointed. “And I watched the cop cars go by. Then I came down here.” He dashed to the end of the bridge again; this time he tore down over the embankment toward the creek.

* * *

Patrick had gone back into the kitchen, positioned the fan so it splashed a soft breeze over his face every time it oscillated. Not much time passed before he heard it. First, it was a grumble, a mumble, words and sounds mixed together, some loud, some soft. But as he listened, the oooahh, ooOAHH, oOOAHH, OOOAHHH of a jungle animal emanated from the shed, along with the clap of small fists against glass, pounding an aberrant rhythm.

He peeked through the curtain to see Lou standing, his body an X pressed against the glass front of the shed, his mouth an open-and-shut O. He stood there for a long while, drank in the view, watched while the raw sun streamed through to Lou, showed the red in his hair.

Patrick opened the door then, walked outside so Lou could see him, walked close enough so he could see the look in his little brother’s eyes, the sweat marks his small hands left on the glass, could watch his mouth move. After a while, the boy slipped from view. Patrick walked to the door and looked down at his brother. He waited until he was sure Lou’s eyes were closed before he opened the shed door. Stupid, Patrick told his mother when she got home later, only Lou could manage to lock himself in the shed. Lucky I noticed.

* * *

Patrick would have shouted, would have leaped over the bridge into the dirty water if he had to, to save the boy. But before he even could get a word out, J.T. emerged, with a bat and ball.

“Figured I better get these. Mom would be pissed if I forgot—or if I lost ‘em. She probly paid a lot of money for ‘em.” He held up a wooden bat that looked like it came from the consignment store where Patrick’s mother shopped when he and Lou were boys. J.T. came close to Patrick. “Wanna play?”

“Another time.” Patrick thought he heard the start of a car engine down the lane. Were the police done talking to Brent already? Clare’s eyes would drill him when he got home; she’d be sitting on the sofa next to Brent, pulling and pushing her wedding ring over the swollen knuckle that would be colder even than the creek water.

“Let’s get you back. You’ve got to talk to the police. It’s what you need to do, you know.” Patrick offered the boy his hand. J.T. looked at it as he might look at a stray dog who’d wandered into his yard. Then he took it; both males’ eyes opened wider. They started the short walk back to the right side of the lane.