Hutch Van Buren is fifteen years old, playing sports and searching for arrowheads in a small industrial town in Ohio with his three closest friends when an altercation between them and Petey Sanchez, a troubled seventeen-year-old, leads to Petey’s accidental death. Vowing a pact of silence, they allow a local ne’er-do-well to go to jail for the crime. As they grow older, each boy shoulders the burden of truth in his own way as each attempts to leave the past behind.
Thirty-three years later, in 2004, Van Buren is the prosecuting attorney in Summit County, Ohio, and a candidate for state attorney general when he learns that he and his boyhood friends weren’t the only ones keeping a secret about Petey’s death. A convicted sex offender in need of a favor attempts to blackmail Van Buren in return for his silence. Van Buren must decide between his political career and the duty of the office he has sworn to uphold.
With the clock ticking, Van Buren has a week to seek out his boyhood friends and search his soul while he sorts out three decades of deceit he helped create.
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Petey Sanchez was a troubled human being, a stewpot of mental, emotional, and psychological problems manifested in the body of a wild-eyed seventeen-year-old, who cursed and made screeching bird noises as he rode around town on a lime green spider bike with fluorescent pink streamers flying out from the handlebars. Mothers could never relax when Petey was in the neighborhood. He had been banned from every backyard in town, but that didn't stop him from pedaling through the alleys and around the blocks, watching, staring, circling like a wolf on the lighted fringes of an encampment. Occasionally, an angry mother would shoo him off with the gentleness normally reserved for stray curs. "Get out of here, Petey. Go on, git. Go home." He would scream like a wounded raptor and flee, only to return a short time later, circling from a safer distance — pedaling and watching. Crystalton was a little less than two miles long and only about five blocks wide, squeezed hard between the Appalachian foothills and the Ohio River, so even when Petey wasn't in view, he was never far away, a wispy, ubiquitous apparition looming in shadow and mind.
From an early age, I learned the difference between Petey and the other kids who rode the little yellow bus out of town each morning to the school for the handicapped and mentally retarded in Steubenville. To my mother, most of them were objects of pity. There was a girl who lived down the street from us, Sarah Duncan, a frizzy-haired little kid who was cross-eyed, wore bulky, metallic braces on her legs,and struggled to the bus stop every morning, swinging each stiffened leg in an awkward arc. When she passed our open kitchen window you could hear with each footfall the clack of the steel braces and the squeak of the leather restraints, which would cause my mother to sigh, push an open palm to her breast, and say, "That poor little thing." Then, she would turn and glare at me, the corners of her eyes and lips crinkling in anger at my apparent lack of appreciation for the gifts I had been given, and say, without pause for a breath, "You should count your lucky stars that you were born with ten fingers, ten toes, and a good mind. Don't ever let me hear that you were teasing that little Duncan girl. Do you understand me, mister?"
"You better. If I hear a word of it I'll knock you into tomorrow."
And she would have. Miriam Van Buren was a sturdy, humorless single mother who meted out discipline to her three children without impunity. She had strong wrists and heavy hands, which I had felt everywhere from the back of my head to my ass. Never mind that my various infractions had never once been for making fun of any handicapped kid. Mom always felt duty bound to forewarn me against potential indiscretions.
But she had no such sympathy for Petey Sanchez, of whom she said, simply, "Stay away from that boy; he's not right in the head."
I didn't need the warning. From an early age I had both detested and feared Petey Sanchez, and bore a J-shaped scar on my chin that I received in the fifth grade after he shoved a stick into the spokes of my bicycle, locking up the front wheel and sending me hurtling over the handlebars face-first into the asphalt parking lot at the elementary school. On our way back from the emergency room my mother stopped by the Sanchezes' to talk to Petey's mother and show the gash that had taken eight stitches to close. When Mrs. Sanchez saw us standing on her front porch with a gauze bandage taped to my chin, she sighed and shook her head, weary of the steady stream of neighbors and police officers knocking on the door with complaints about their feral son. "I'm awfully sorry, Miriam," said Lila Sanchez, a sickly thin woman with train-track scars along the base of her neckfrom a bout with thyroid cancer. "I know that boy's out of control, but I can't do a doggone thing with him."
As we climbed back in the car, my mother reiterated her early admonitions. "Stay away from the boy." That seemed to be the solution offered by most parents. Unfortunately, staying clear of Petey had its own challenges. He cruised the streets of Crystalton with more regularity than our police department. Throughout elementary and junior high school, if I saw Petey pedaling down the street, or heard his screeching cry, I would duck between houses or hide behind trees to avoid him. If you made eye contact with Petey he would call you a queer and a faggot, his favorite words, and try to run you over with his bicycle.
Petey was the second youngest of the nine children born to Lila and Earl Sanchez, who worked as a coupler on the Pennsylvania Railroad and had lost four fingers and a thumb to his job. The Sanchezes lived at the far north end of town in a paint-starved Victorian house with chipped slate shingles and sagging gutters that was wedged between the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad tracks and the water treatment plant, where following each heavy storm, effluvium overflowed into the drainage ditch behind their house. They were all skinny, pinched-faced kids with stringy hair the color of dirty straw and the unwashed smell of urine. Petey had a similar look, except he had bad buckteeth that were fuzzy and yellow, rimmed with decay, and foul-smelling. However, the feature that overwhelmed his narrow face was a calcified ridge that ran from the bridge of his nose and disappeared into his hairline, the result of a botched birth during which the doctor grossly misused a pair of forceps. If all this wasn't misfortune enough, his forehead ran back from the calcified ridge, giving his thin face a trout-like quality. This battering of the skull and brain was most likely the genesis of Petey's cocktail of problems. Lila had told my mom that there were times when Petey would roll around on the floor of their living room, sometimes for hours, squeezing his temples between his palms and crying like a fox in a leg trap.
My first introduction to Petey Sanchez was when I was six years old and riding my new bicycle with training wheels down the sidewalk from the house. Behind me, I heard someone making a noise like a police siren and soon Petey flew by me on his bicycle, head tilted upward, mouth agape, howling away. He stopped broadside on the walk, blocking me. I was terrified. He was wearing a dime-store police badge on his T-shirt and carrying a small pad and the stub of a pencil in his hip pocket. Pointing a grimy index finger at my face, Petey slobbered down his chin while admonishing me in a tongue I did not comprehend for a violation I could not fathom. He then pulled the pad and pencil from his pocket, wrote some nonsensical drivel on the paper, ripped it out and handed it to me, then continued down the sidewalk in search of his next traffic violator. When I returned home and showed my mother the "ticket" and told her of my encounter with the strange boy who talked but couldn't say words, she shook her head and for the first time in my life I heard, "That was Petey Sanchez. Stay away from him. He's not right in the head."
Petey's traffic cop antics continued for several years. It seemed harmless enough at first, but after a while Petey started demanding that the young violators pay their fines with whatever change they had in their pockets. Parents complained, but it didn't stop for good until the day Chief Durkin walked out of Williams Drug Store and saw Petey making a traffic stop with a very realistic-looking .38-caliber revolver stuck between his belt and pants.
"Helping me with some speeders, huh, Petey?" Chief Durkin said as he approached Petey and a terrified little girl on the verge of tears.
"Uh-huh," Petey said.
"Did you get the license plate number of her bicycle?" the chief asked, pointing to the rear fender of the girl's bike.When Petey turned his head, Chief Durkin snatched the revolver. Petey screamed, called the chief a queer and a faggot, and lunged for the weapon, which looked realistic because it was, and fully loaded. A highly agitated Chief Durkin put Petey in the back of the cruiser and took him home. "What the hell is wrong with you, Earl, leaving a loaded gun around where a boy like that can get his hands on it?" the chief asked. "Why in hell do you even own a gun? You don't have enough fingers left to pull the damn trigger."
It was one thing after another with Petey. For a while he ran through the streets at night with a black cape, pretending to be a vampire. During another stretch he lurked in bushes and behind fences, pretending to be a tiger, leaping out and scaring young and old, then running off, growling. Twice he got angry with his parents and set his own house on fire, though miraculously the tinderbox was saved both times.
Parents in Crystalton worried that Petey would someday badly hurt or kill another child. Still, most would not reprimand Petey for his misdeeds because they feared he would return in the night and set their houses on fire. Thus, there was a silent but collective sigh of relief among these parents when on the evening of Tuesday, June 15, 1971, a berry picker found the body of Petey Sanchez on Chestnut Ridge.CHAPTER 2
At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, June 14, 1971, Deak Coultas tapped twice on the back screen door and walked into our kitchen. His face was freshly scrubbed, pink acne medication applied to his considerable eruptions, hair neatly parted, his khaki shorts cuffed and a pair of tube socks pulled up just below his knees. A Boy Scout knapsack was slung over one shoulder. I was still rubbing sleep out of my eyes and had pulled a ball cap over my uncombed hair. My last fried egg was congealing on the plate; I slid it between two slices of dry wheat toast and we headed down Second Street.
My name is Hutchinson Van Buren and I grew up in the eastern Ohio village of Crystalton, which anchors a slight, southwest bend in the Ohio River. Crystalton was named for the glass and crystal business that thrived there from the mid-1800s until the Brilliant Glass Works closed in 1932, its doors slammed shut by the Great Depression. Around the turn of the century, there had been eight glass and crystal companies operating in Crystalton. All that remained of that once-booming industry were a few slag dumps, the stone foundation of the Brilliant Glass Works, and the Upper Ohio Valley Glass Museum, which was a meager display of fallow photographs, canning jars, and bowls occupying a second-floor room of the village hall. Admission to the Upper Ohio Valley Glass Museum was free, but you had to ask the village clerk for the key, which hung on the wall behind her desk next to those for the public restrooms. Crystalton had about sixteen hundred residents, an electric generating plant just south of town, a sand quarry, and the headquarters of the Belmont Coal & Gas Company. We had a high school that was much beloved by generations of graduates who never left town, a hardware store that sold bunnies and colored peeps at Easter, a drugstore with a marble soda fountain, and the usual assortment of mom-and-pop diners, dry cleaners, and grocery stores. Although we had a name that evoked beauty and style, there was nothing that set Crystalton apart from the other dusty, industrial communities lining the river. However, it was a wonderful place to be a kid. We had ball diamonds, hills to explore, creeks and a quarry to fish, a community swimming pool, and the Big Dipper Ice Cream Shop, where Edna Davis gave you a free double scoop of your choice if you made the honor roll. On grade card day, kids would be lined up to the street, proof in hand, awaiting their rewards.
A heavy fog had rolled off the Ohio River that morning and shrouded Crystalton in a damp cloak that stretched from the water's edge to a hundred feet up the Appalachian foothills that rimmed the town in a huge semicircle. Deak and I cut through the alley behind the drugstore and across the Little League field, where the ground was still soggy from the previous day's rain, to the Lincoln Elementary School playground. Behind the monkey bars, concealed by a row of blue spruce trees planted by the PTO, was the beginning of the hunting path that led to the crest of the encircling hills, known as Chestnut Ridge. Deak and I could hear the voices of our friends float through the fog long before they came into view. Our classmate Adrian Nash and his younger brother Eldon, whom everyone called Pepper, were sitting on the first rung of the monkey bars, their arms wrapped around the second rung, giving the appearance they were strapped to a crucifix. As we walked out of the fog, Pepper said, "Low man buys the Cokes? How about it, Hutch? You in?"
"Sure, works for me," I said.
"How about you, preacher, or is that too close to gambling?"
It was said in fun and Deak took it as such. "I'm in."
Deak's real name was Dale Ray, but he was so devoutly religious that we gave him the nickname, Deacon, which over time had been shortened to Deak. We joked that he was the perfect child — he was a good student, rarely cursed, had earned more merit badges than anyone in the history of the Crystalton Boy Scouts and was well on his way to Eagle Scout, and served as president of the youth group at the Crystalton United Methodist Church. He was a tall, gangly kid, with an angular face and a sharp nose and chin. On both cheeks were patches of acne that stretched like quarter-moon-shaped mountain ranges, purple and red and blue eruptions with pustular snowcaps. The acne also ran across his forehead and on his neck and shoulders. He was so self-conscious that he was never without a T-shirt, even at the swimming pool. Once, just before the opening tip of a freshman basketball game, a kid from Martins Ferry lined up against Deak, pointed at the rash of acne popping out on his neck and shoulders, and asked, "That shit's not contagious, is it?" The question so rattled Deak that he only had two points all night.
It was a half-mile hike up a twisting trail from the playground to Chestnut Ridge. Beneath the canopy of conifers, it was still midnight. The fog saturated the leaves and the condensation dripped to the ground, pelting the carpet of desiccated vegetation with a rhythmic cadence. Soaked limbs hung low over the trail and slapped at our faces. The acrid stench of decay and mold was heavy in our nostrils. A little more than halfway up the trail we walked single file out of the mist and found the sun bright over the West Virginia hills to our east. As always, Adrian led our small troop, quiet as usual, with Pepper following close behind, a dervish of nervous energy, chattering away, throwing stones at trees, tickling the back of Adrian's neck with a length of foxtail. Adrian, Deak, and I had been good friends since we began attending Sunday school together when we were barely out of diapers. In fact, there isn't a moment in my memory when they weren't my pals. Pepper was fourteen and a year younger than the rest of us, but he fit right in. He was as fun-loving as his older brother was somber. Adrian and Deak were both quiet types, so I enjoyed Pepper's constant banter.
We hiked beyond Chestnut Ridge to the Postalakis farm, which stretched more than three hundred rolling acres from the crest of the ridge west to the fertile bottomland on the shores of Little Seneca Creek. Marty Postalakis let us search his fields for Indian relics as long as we didn't trample the crops. When we weren't playing ball, arrowhead hunting was one of our favorite pastimes. There had been a big thunderstorm the previous afternoon and we arranged the hunt while the lightning was still streaking over the hills west of town. Arrowheads were easiest to find after a big storm had washed away a layer of dirt, exposing the shiny pieces of flint.
We had been going on the hunts for years. Deak's collection was neatly arranged in framed, wool-lined cases that he dutifully cataloged, labeled, and displayed on the walls of his bedroom. Mine were kept in several coffee cans, canning jars, cigar boxes, and other miscellaneous containers scattered about my room. I had no idea how many arrowheads I had and getting the collection organized was something I had been promising myself for years, similar to my mother's continual vow to organize the family snapshots in albums. For me, the thrill was in the hunt, not the display.
Adrian and Pepper's artifacts never made it home. They were in it strictly for the money and each hunt ended with a stop at Fats Pennington's cluttered antique shop at the south end of town. The brothers Nash had a pact that called for each hunt's findings to be combined, sold, and the proceeds split. Adrian spent his money as fast as he earned it on records, eight-track tapes, magazines, and condoms; he wanted to project the image that he was having sex with Darcy McGonagle, which he most certainly was not. Pepper banked every dime he made and had a bank account worth more than sixteen hundred dollars, a fortune for a fourteen-year-old in 1971.
The last time Pepper was in my bedroom and saw the numerous cans and jars of arrowheads scattered about, he asked, "Why don't you sell those? You'd get a lot of money for 'em."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Favorite Sons"
Copyright © 2011 Robin Yocum.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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