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The fabulous Craig Adams never came back.
That summer we didn’t feel the pressure or velocity of time. While our fathers and grandfathers claimed they once were boys, we didn’t believe them. We were boys eternal as Peter Pan with days of play endless as a Mobius Strip Staircase. We played on the streets with girls names: Martha, Marlene, Peggy and Luella. That was the summer of China Berry Seek & Sting. We could buy several wire slingshots with a leather pouch and rubber bands at TG&Y. This was back when we believed the lie that any of us could be whatever we wanted to be, that we had infinite choice. So we chose to be a slingshot gang. You could kill birds and sting people regardless of size. Everything else looked like years of school and work.
We were friends because something was wrong with our lives. Scot’s dad was a drunken child beater. My father was a Baptist preacher sober in his violence. Nicky’s dad tried to sleep with every mom in the neighborhood. Bert Fern’s dad loved to tell stories of doing “cleanup” in the Korean War by killing entire villages. Men. Women. Children.
So. None of us suffered delusions of happy family nonsense. Scot seemed to have a normal family, but he was a thief of various items from our school. In his room, he had a school desk, a shelf of filched library books, a ticking school wall clock, a pull down wall map of the world, and his biggest treasure, an overhead projector. We all secretly admired Scot’s theft from our daily lives. His parents never asked about the booty. In fact, they never talked to Scot at all as far as we could tell. Scot later become a middle school science teacher. I now think he was building his own personal classroom.
One guy was the seeker. The others hid. If he saw them, he could shoot them with a China Berry tree. China Berry trees grew through the subdivisions near the Houston Shipping channel. In the summer, we all imagined ourselves Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers. We kept a healthy supply of China berries with two the three backup slingshots on our person. But if the seeker shot and missed, the one shot at could shoot back. There were many sub rules and exceptions to that rule, most of which were composed by Bert Fern. Bert Fern always was adding and modifying rules to China Berry Seek & Sting, whiffle ball or what determines what tricks and property destruction to wreak on Halloween.
The rules would grow in number and complexity until Nicky Swift would start ignoring all the rules and go back to the initial rules of China Berry Seek & Sting. If no one protested, we’d start again. But Bert Fern would always protest if he was there, and he and Nicky would shove and threaten to beat the shit out of each other. They’d both let Craig Adams patch it up after a few minutes by making him a scapegoat for some pretext. Oh, Craig Adams. Nicky said he was an old lady. Of course, as boys we didn’t understand the wisdom of an old woman. Despite our rough background, what Craig Adams lost we wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. We were just pushing life about, not in a deep or shallow way, but because we were young in a way Craig Adams would never be. We broke the rules of the game to find out what the game is. We knew this world celebrates the birth of a child, but we didn’t know once the baby is documented and handed off to the mother, the world doesn’t give a casual shit. Children are snatched, abandoned and thrown away. Bullets fly, cars plow into crowds, psychopaths swing swords as if in ancient battle. We learned but didn’t understand that all things die that come into this world, and the sun itself will swallow the world one day, like Cronos swallowed his beautiful children
Craig Adams wasn’t like the rest of us. He didn’t like sports. He didn’t like to be outside. He had stomach pains. He had plump weird pink skin like a newly born rat baby, so translucent you could make out his eyeballs when his eyes were closed. He spoke like if a persnickety little girl was an old lady. He walked habitually bent over. His mother talked constantly how he had some bacterial infection in his intestines that made his gut inflamed and hard to poop, and when he pooped it was green. He had a lot of cool model cars that he kept behind glass. The cars all had names and he liked to tell us, with his little girl’s giggle, they talked to him when no one else was around. And he liked to set up elaborate chains of dominoes. He worked on them for hours. Then he’d get his mother to call my mother to send me over to watch him tip the first domino. He’d jump and clap in glee at the sequence of cause and consequence. Sometimes he’d make flowers out of dominoes.
“It’s like you see the petals open,” he’d scream like old flower arranger. “What pretty little knick knack paddy whack gimcracks.”
And he’d talk to you about “Mother’s China Collection” if you weren’t careful. Craig Adams’ mom always called the other boys moms to get their sons to ask Craig Adams to play. I was made by my mom to bury Craig Adams’ dead hamster in a shoebox in the backyard because both his mom and he were too afraid to pick it up. Then he and his mom prayed over the tiny grave and played funeral songs on the turntable.
She always dressed him in ironed linen shorts and a college shirt and a leather cap that had to be twenty years old. (We never met Craig Adams’ dad). The shorts were unfortunate. His legs, as Nicky Swift said, looked like old lady legs. He carried a wooden book box in a pink leather satchel that was once his mother’s. In the book box was a worn copy of The Wind in the Willows and his favorite Matchbox cars. He carried that satchel with him everywhere, despite the insults of others. His Matchbox cars meant more to him than his pride.
These games were so far beyond Craig Adams’ comfort zone, he was like a baby fawn stepping into a steel plant. Many times he sat still as an old fussy lady forgotten in a nursing home. Then a giggle would escape him. He was so afraid, yet so much wanted to be with kids his own age instead of his overbearing overprotective mother of knitted coasters and women missionary societies.
During these games, Craig Adams would always ask me for help as if I was his Prince Charming or champion. I feel ashamed, now, on what I did. Most of the time I’d brush him aside. If I was the seeker, I’d pretend to ignore him, then shoot him with the sling shot point blank.
He’s immediately hit. He’d scream, and run home screaming, on short pink plump old lady legs in that weird toddler way of his.
I still agonize over what I did to Craig Adams. I used to tell myself I wasn’t as bad as the other boys. But I was. I was a bully and Craig Adams did nothing but seek my friendship. I was all he had. I’ll never be redeemed for what I did. Not from any religion. Not from any moral system. There is no penance. There is no forgiveness. There’s only action and time passing. I long for the theory to be true that the bubble of this universe, this reality, will pop and all will be erased. Yet even then, I fear, what I did in this reality still will always be. Words cannot limn what actions are – they are more real than the rest of reality. They survive outside of time.
Once you finished counting, everyone who was hidden in bushes and trees and backyard fences of the neighborhood was yours to hunt.
Craig Adams was a terrible hider. Terrible. We usually found him examining cars parked on the street or in driveways. We always shot him first. He brought out the tyrant bully in us. Craig Adams defined us as much as we defined him.
He’d scream like a small dying animal when he was shot. For some reason, that made us want to shoot him more, like dogs fighting over a squeaky toy. He would even scream if he thought he was about to be shot. For Craig Adams, the fear of even our ordinary games overwhelmed. But the fear of not being included, even as the habitual easy victim, I think compelled him to force himself into our company. We were the closest friends he had, and we weren’t friendly to him.
After we played a few times, Craig Adams prevailed on us to be a seeker even though he was always the first to be found.
That game fell apart. He couldn’t find us. Then when we finally started scooting from our hiding places out of boredom, he couldn’t hit us. In fact, he popped his own wrist once and when he saw there was a spot of blood, he screamed and fainted.
So, he hung around and was usually the first victim in hundreds of our China Berry sling shot games. He witnessed incidents such as when I shot Nicky Swift in the eye from 70 yards away from behind a parked Vista Cruiser. He had to go to the hospital on Spencer Highway to get pieces of China Berry tweezed out. His eye looked different after that. There was some damage to the iris. But years later he was on scholarship to play Navarro Junior College.
There was the time we heard a dog whining in a sewer grate. It was wedged up in a slot above the storm water pipe. When we heard it, we of course thought it was Craig Adams. it sounded just like one of his screams. But then we saw Craig Adams. He was crying because the screams frightened him.
I was the smallest. The others shamed me by calling me Craig Adams till I climbed into the storm sewer. I followed the screaming with my flashlight. Leaves and pine needles were thick above the pipe in a fissure between concrete and pipe. Green moss grew all over it and there were many, many earthworms. You could hear the wind whispering down the grate and down the storm sewer. At first I thought it was someone whispering, then I heard the screaming whimper. It was the Herrington’s border collie husky cross with bright blue eyes.
That’s when we started exploring the huge concrete storm sewers which snaked under sidewalks on every street in the fairly new suburban developments near the petrochemical plants and ship channel. Rodents from small field mice to the giant nutria rats used the pipes like the Gulf freeway. The Herrington’s dog ended up in that same spot again and again. Hanks figured out we could get to the dog quickest by lifting up a storm sewer lid. Many people mistook him for a young adult babysitting us. He sported a faint black mustache. Hanks, who eventually would grow to six feet and ten inches, towered over us and didn’t much like the confined spaces. But he was a natural bully, and he couldn’t stand the thought of us looking more brave.
Hanks always carried a metal stemmed pipe and a pouch of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco. Hanks would light it up, and then we’d take turns. Whenever I smell pipe tobacco, even today. I think of us in that sewer juncture.
Craig Adams wouldn’t do it. Hanks threatened him and Craig Adams screamed that dying animal scream. Then he smelled the pipe, gagged and vomited. He also peed his pants.
“God damn it,” Hanks said. “God. Just like a baby. Just like a baby girl.”
Craig Adams threw up again and we all exited the sewer, about to throw up ourselves. When Hanks realized Craig left the pipe, he made him climb back down to get it. When Craig returned and handed him the pipe covered with vomit, Hanks knocked it out of his hands and walked away. Hanks didn’t play with us anymore after that.
One time, we met to play china berry sling shot, but Nicky Swift showed up with a bulging Caffey’s grocery sack and claimed he was our “little leprechaun” with something better than gold.
“We got to go to the club room,” Nicky said.
The “club room” was once of the best discoveries of our boyhood. We explored the wonderful terrors of the storm sewers via giant drain pipes in local creeks and loose manhole covers. The clubhouse was a long forgotten juncture of storm sewer pipes that made a large room at the intersection of Marlene and Peggy streets. It had the appearances of being an unused utility or storage room forgotten by the city planners. The size of a small den, we made it our secret hangout where we smoked, drank stolen beer wine and liquor, and even cooked hotdogs over an abandoned grill. Scot stole a small chalk board and hung it from some exposed rebar. With stolen chalk, we drew maps and plans of the sewers and neighborhoods. We called them our Wonder Warthog talks after the underground comic. And our proudest possession? A poster of Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC glued on the wall.
We followed Nicky Swift to the clubhouse where he displayed his loot. It was the entire 1966 set of Playboy magazines. We were astounded. We didn’t care they were the property of Nicky’s older brother, who was in Vietnam. We were more interested that Nicky found these magazines in a blocked off bookshelf in the room with World Book Encyclopedias in the front.
We congratulated him with slaps on the back and cries of glee. Except Craig Adams. He was perturbed. But then, Craig Adams didn’t like the storm cellar club room.
“It’s so nasty,” he said. “My mother would have a nervous breakdown if she knew about this place.”
We all started flipping through the Playboys that Nicky handed us. Except Craig Adams. He sat down his Playboy, reached into his pink leather satchel, pulled out The Wind in the Willows, and began to read. I think if we’d stumbled on an orgy he’d reach for a book in that satchel.
Nicky was irritated. “Read your Playboy.”
“Why no thank you I won’t,” Craig Adams said “This place is not for me. And my mother would put me in so much trouble I might get my first spanking.”
I picked up Craig Adams’s copy. November 1966. The front cover was tame, a woman in a white sweater with white playboy bunny ears looking over her shoulder. The back cover was the Marlborough Man. I snorted. I smoked Camels. I flipped to the centerfold. Lisa Baker.
“There’s a picture of the new Mustang,” I said, not expecting any response. I turned back to the Lisa Baker centerfold.
“What?” Craig Adams grabbed the Playboy. He stared at the 1967 Mustang car ad. He started to rip it out. Nicky jumped and knocked him over.
“Don’t rip my brother’s Playboy.
“It’s just a car ad,” I said.
“I just love Mustangs,” Craig Adams said. “Look at this. It’s the next year’s model corvette. Beautiful. And look at this.” He pulled out a Matchbox car from his pink satchel. “A 1967 Matchbox redline classic custom mustang. It’s so so fabulous. It’s a pretty little Knick knack paddy whack gimcrack.”
“That’s my brother’s” Nicky said.
“You said you were our leprechaun with our pot of gold,” Craig Adams said. “You don’t know what to do with gold.”
Nicky stared at Craig Adams, surprised as the rest of us that he wasn’t groveling. “Oh that’s precious,” he said, examining a page. “Oh I’d like to have that.”
“Lisa Baker?” I said.
“Shame on you,” Craig Adams said. He clutched his heart like a shocked old woman. “I ought to tell your mom.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“This,” Craig Adams said. “On page 234. Wouldn’t it be a scream?”
It was a light up Christmas tie.
“I could wear it to school,” Craig Adams said. “Or even church. I think my mom might let me.”
The last game of China Berry Seek & Sting was classic. I was on fire. Nicky Swift was a sniper god. We couldn’t miss.
Craig Adams as usual frantically yelled for help, but stopped and waved at a man driving a red Corvette. The man stopped and talked to Craig a bit. Then he drove away.
“Wasn’t that car fabulous?” Craig said. “I gave him directions to Alyse Street, but he said he’d be back to let me look at the car more – ow!” He screamed, rubbing his belly.
A china berry popped him in his stomach. Nicky Swift made the shot from at least fifty yards away. We hooted in admiration.
“I’m going to have a bruise on my belly,” Craig Adams said, tears running down his face. “Look. It’s already forming a bruise. How am I going to explain that to mother when I bathe tonight?”
We all gasped and laughed so hard we couldn’t stop. Craig Adams looked at us, the tears still streaming. I laughed then, but the memory of his face now haunts me. His eyes gleamed a weird doomed look.
A new game started. We persuaded Craig to stay and told him we’d just shoot him in the leg.
“You just need some gumption,” Scot said.
“The father, son and Holy Ghost is all I need,” Craig Adams said in his persnickety little girl old lady voice. He waddled off, pink leather satchel swinging. I snickered. The mistake we make over and over is that we’d think we were doing one thing, when in fact we were doing another.
Initially, the game was a win for Alberto Alvarado. He’d get to be the next shooter.
“Wait,” Scot said. “Not so fast. Where’s Craig Adams?”
Alberto cursed. He was angry. He’d be seriously injured in a car wreck on Center Street years later and we lost contact. But now, we all had our slingshots out, loaded with berry, and ready. Scot assigned us to different front yards, back yards, walking the wood fences down each block checking each backyard. An hour later we met up at Scot’s house. After arguments and accusations against each other that we’d half-assed our search for Craig Adams, we decided to do every yard in the neighborhood together so there could be no doubt.
The Gandys had high grass. We saw movement. Relief , then anger. We ran into the grass shouting what we’d do. Birds flew up. No Craig Adams.
The Batsons had a grove of pines in the back. We swung up on the branches, thinking Craig had finally conquered his fear of climbing trees. Only a few squirrels.
An hour later we met up at Scot’s house.
We went again, same plan. We looked up every tree, behind every bush, even the dog houses. Nothing. No one. We discussed going to see Craig Adams’ mom. We didn’t want to do that. We refilled Scot’s old First World War canteen and went out again.
The heat beat and beat us. The heat burned through our shoes from the street, burned our lips on an old First World War metal canteen with warm water that tasted sweet-metallic.
Finally, we went to see his mom, Nicky ditched his slingshot into a trashcan. Scot, Gary and I looked at each other. Then we ditched our slingshots.
Mrs. Adams met us at the door. She smiled.
“Oh, are you here to see Craig? I’ll go get him.” She turned. “Craig?” she called.
“Is he here?” Scot asked, surprised. But she was away, calling Craig. We were relieved, but that quickly faded as she continued to call Craig’s name out throughout the house.
“Oh shit,” Nicky muttered as Mrs. Adams voice screeched angry and shrill.
“Craig Adams, I’m calling you for the last time. You are in serious trouble, mister.”
She finally came back, confused.
“I’m sorry, boys,” she said. “I have no idea where that scamp went to. He’ll be sorry he missed you boys.”
“Mrs. Adams,” I said. I stopped.
“He was with us. Playing China Berry Seek & Sting…a game. A hiding game. But now we can’t find him.”
She trembled. Her mouth opened to a tiny plump oval.
“Can’t find him?” Her voice already was too high. “My Craig? Lost? No no no, he has a medical condition!”
There was a pause that was so loud we froze. Then she screamed. We jumped. She screamed several more times. Then she called the police.
Craig Adams was never found. The police did a search. An eyewitness said a suspicious man had been seen driving the neighborhoods and trying to talk to children. We all had seen the red Corvette Stingray cruising Martha Avenue. The Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post reported that Craig Adams had been kidnapped and ran his school picture.
His mother retreated into her home at the end of Martha Street. She didn’t return calls.
She was found on her couch with one of her china collections on the coffee table. She was one of those cases where she had mummified and not thought of by anyone for more than five years. She was buried in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Pasadena. A marker over an empty grave said Craig Royce Adams. Born 1957. Disappeared 1967.
With Craig Adams’s kidnapping, a gear worked lose from some boyhood mechanism and shattered whatever innocence we had left. China Berry Seek & Sting ended without any discussion.
Nicky Swift became a devout catholic. Bert Fern became a Pentecostal preacher, then killed himself. The rest of us gradually went our separate ways.
For me, I had nightmares of Craig’s fear. How his soft mind and body must have suffered. His absence more than anything else convinced me that religious and moral beliefs change nothing. Despite Catholic, Baptist, existential confusion, or atheist, the cheeseburgers at Carl’s Diner on Center Street tasted the same. People are vile and vicious.
Years later, Nicky Swift caught a case of the craving nostalgia that hits some in late middle age. He nagged and nagged and finally got Scot and I to meet at the old neighborhood. My backyard clubhouse was gone. The huge Batson pine we used to sit for hours and read comics was gone.
We walked the sidewalks catching up. Then I said more to myself than to Scot “Where in world did Craig Adams go?”
We heard the whisper of the grate and then a screaming whimper.
“The Herrington’s dog,” Scot said. We laughed too loud as we remembered that poor canine always getting stuck in the same place.
Then we stopped. A dread tightened our faces.
“No,” Scot said.
We laughed. Then we looked at each other. The old house we thought was so rich was still there with its huge swamp cooler. We looped around to the back.
I was too big to climb into the grate so Nicky got a crowbar from his trunk. He bore down and we heard the whine of the old grate coming up through the crumbling concrete, then burst apart with decades of pine needles, grass clippings and earthworms.
The beam from our iPhones lit up the chalkboard first. We saw an old drawing of the sewers. Besides that was a sentence scrawled: “My friends.” I saw my name and all the other kids who played China Berry Seek that day. Then we saw a form in our old hangout and at first we thought we’d found a small child. But we now were grown men, but the child hadn’t grown. It was Craig Adams. He sat in dusty trousers and his old TCU Horned Frogs jersey. He had on the old leather hunting cap, the Brown University shirt and linen pants with Buster Brown shoes. His pink satchel, the leather cracked and flaking, splayed open. A snail was on it. We could see the old book box. Two sling shots with a pile of rotted berries sat by him. In his hands was a 1968 Matchbox classic mustang. He’d never left the club. We later found out that a petrochemical plant near the ship channel had been dumping formaldehyde into the storm sewers for decades. The forensic scientist that came into to examine the body over the next few months concluded that’s why he had been preserved so well. He also found Craig Adams had a congenital heart defect which most likely had been the cause of death.
His hands seemed to move. Scot and I jumped, expecting him to talk. Nothing. The skin, translucent and dry. His blue eyes peeked from slightly parted transparent eyelids. His skeletal grin was so like his real grin I thought he was somehow still alive.
Nicky Swift started laughing. It was a laugh that wasn’t a laugh, and worse than crying. Much worse. He couldn’t stop.
“Damn, he said. “I guess Craig Adams finally won a game of China Berry Seek & Sting.”
“He was so weak,” Scott said. “So sad and weak.”
Craig grinned at us.
“Oh god,” I said. “Was he not weak? All that time? Oh god, how do you sit and wait for death? Was he not weak?”
Craig Adams was buried in that empty grave by his mother. The word “Disappeared” remained on his tombstone, unchanged. A few days after he was buried, I felt compelled to go to his graveside and do a funeral service like I did for his hamster so long ago.
Craig Adams expected us to find him. At nights I wake up from a dream of that grin. How do you sit, awaiting death for so long?
Nicky Swift stopped going to confession, going to mass or taking communion. I hear he quit his job and stays inside drinking all day.
Scot. He stays in my mind so weightless, so heavy. He may be at peace. I am not. No. Since we found Craig in that old sewer junction room, I find no peace. Matchbox cars. That dead hamster. Lisa Baker. That old Playboy advertisement for the 1967 Mustang. China berries. Those small soft hands. These haunt me. I may walk into a field, a park, a mall. Each feel like a dark, small space. It’s not fabulous.
J. Alan Nelson
J. Alan Nelson, a writer and actor, has work published or forthcoming in journals including New York Quarterly, B O D Y, Stand, Acumen, Pampelmousse, Main Street Rag, Texas Observer, Arc, California Quarterly, Connecticut River Review, Adirondack Review, Red Cedar Review, Wisconsin Review, South Carolina Review, Kairos, Ligeia, Strange Horizons, Illuminations, Review Americana, Whale Road Review and North Dakota Quarterly. He has received nominations for Best of Net poetry and Best Microfiction. He also played the lead in the viral video “Does This Cake Make Me Look Gay?” and the verbose “Silent Al” in the Emmy-winning SXSWestworld, and recently narrated a widely viewed New York Times video on PEPFAR.