"The Black Pool" - Short Story Submission

Detroit in 1927 seems like a foreign country now, with tree-lined streets even in poor neighborhoods, and streetcars to take you downtown if you had a nickel for the fare. Back then children ran free as long as they didn’t get in the way of adult business; perhaps because there were so many of us, grownups sometimes seemed to think we were replaceable. When I look back to that time, I see a warm day in summer, and four barefoot boys picking their way gingerly over the hot cinders of the Grand Trunk railroad bed that separated P. Koenings' Coal and Gravel Yard from their neighborhood. I was one of them, a kid called Beety because of his red hair and constant summer sunburn, and because his older brother, with hair the same fiery shade, had already claimed the name Red. Now that I’m an old man, I think of my ten-year-old self as another person, with a name I haven’t used since I came back from a taste of sweet oblivion in the black pool that swallowed Beety.

On that day, this gang carefully stepped over the ten pairs of rails, which were too hot to walk on, and slid down the side of the ditch next to the fence that surrounded the gravel yard. Moving rapidly before anyone could notice them, they scampered along the ditch to a secret passage under the fence and entered the yard, where coal and sand were pushed into tall black and tan cones that looked like mountains. P. Koenings’ had its headquarters in a building that crouched far away on the other side of these mountains.

The great wonder of this place lay on the valley floor just over the first ridge of mountains, where there were several concrete-lined pools, used to rinse gravel and coal, about forty feet long and twenty feet wide. At least one of them, sometimes all, would be filled with water. "Way over your head," their parents said, to stress the danger, but to the boys, "way over your head" meant perfect for diving and swimming. Occasionally foreign boys from other neighborhoods would come and crowd the pools with their horseplay and yelling: loud Jews, big Polacks, and shrill-voiced Italians from blocks and worlds away. Then the big cheese boss would come out of the distant office to chase everyone out.

            The boys had visited this forbidden territory every warm day the summer before. If anyone asked, Beety and Red would say they were just going "out," but there was usually no question because their parents, always worried about money and the new babies that kept coming every couple of years, didn’t want to know about any dangerous activities their two oldest boys might be up to. They were happy the kids could amuse themselves without hanging around on the front porch to intensify the misery of muggy summer afternoons with their loud bickering.

            Although it was already late June, the boys were making their first trip of the year. Last summer there had been six in their gang, and when school let out at the beginning of June, there were five. Now it was just Beety and Red, at twelve the leader of the group, and Willy and Jimmy, who were eleven. Willy was the boys’ translation of Guillaume, a French name, and Jimmy was James Moriarity, whose parents came from Ireland. In Detroit such distinctions were important: French people lived in one neighborhood, Irish in an adjoining block of streets. Jews, Poles, Hungarians, and Italians lived further away, fighting old battles more than they mixed. Because Beety and Red had a French father and an Irish mother, Red led a rare gang that was both French and Irish.

E.B.St.A. "The Black Pool" - Tuscany Prize 2015 Short Story Submission

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