At the height of World War II, Artie Garber turns eleven years old in his hometown of Birney, Illinois. When his older brother, Roy, joins the US Marines, Artie is left to defend the home front—as well as Roy’s high school sweetheart, Shirley. Without the guidance of his beloved big brother, Artie resorts to reading advice in Collier’s on how to identify spies and search for German aircraft over the lush fields of Illinois. As Artie works to protect Shirley—a lost cause, despite the cheerleader’s best efforts—he must come to grips with his own burgeoning sexuality as he steps cautiously toward adulthood.
Rendered in stunning, peeled-back prose, Under the Apple Tree realistically depicts one boy’s loss of innocence and the devastating effects of war felt far beyond the battlefield.
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Under the Apple Tree
By Dan Wakefield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Dan Wakefield
All rights reserved.
The hero came into the kitchen with a lurch. Bacon popped in the skillet like shots, and he grabbed his side, wincing.
"They got me," he groaned.
"Redskins or Germans?" the hero's kid brother asked.
"Whiskey and women," Dad said, "if I know Roy."
Mom waved a homemade biscuit stained with strawberry jam.
"It's Sunday morning! That goes for all of you!"
"Water," moaned Roy, as he bent his head and turned on the faucet.
Artie the kid squeezed his eyes shut, picturing the way his big brother had looked the night before, in his glory. Wearing the black and gold colors of Birney High, Roy led the Bearcats to one more win in their still undefeated season of 1941, vanquishing the dread invaders, the red-clad Demons of DeKamp. Pivoting and hooking, faking off defenders and dribbling the ball behind his back, Roy had seemed like a god.
Now he looked more like a refugee from a Bowery Boys movie.
He had on the T-shirt and Jockey shorts he had slept in, and a pair of dirty white sweat socks. When he finished slurping the water from the tap he straightened up, wiped an arm across his mouth, and scratched under one armpit. His face was pale and stubbly.
Dad looked up from his sunnysides and shook his head.
"Name of God. You look like Death warmed over."
"No wonder," said Mom. "He came home with the birds again."
"Party after the game," Roy mumbled.
"I can smell it," Dad said. "The booze, and Beverly Lattimore's bear grease perfume."
Mom took a deep breath and waved her hand in front of her nose.
"Why don't you buy the poor girl a nice little bottle of 'Evening in Paris'?"
Roy made a rumbling belch and went to the icebox.
"Is everyone starting in on me now?"
"Try sitting down at the table for a change," Mom said. "Join the family."
Roy yanked the quart bottle of milk out and tipped it to his lips, gurgling.
Artie knew he had to act fast, like the Green Hornet disarming his enemies, or the morning would go down the drain. He stared into his bowl of Hot Ralston (the cereal Tom Mix guaranteed gave you "cow-boy en-er-gee") so his folks couldn't read his face when he told the fib.
"If you let Roy have the car today, he's taking me up to Devil's Foothills to hunt for the Phantom Caveman."
As soon as he said it Artie braced himself for the possible thunderclap that God might strike him down with for telling a lie, especially on Sunday, but nothing happened. Artie figured God understood it was only a "white lie," or at worst a "gray" one, since it was not for his own good, but only to help out his brother. They had cooked up the story the day before, so Roy had a good excuse for getting the car.
Mom puckered her lips and made a long, high whistle.
"Will wonders never cease," Dad said.
Artie glanced quickly back and forth at his parents' faces to see if he could read the verdict.
Each one looked as inscrutable as Charlie Chan.
"So does this mean yes or no?" Artie asked.
He tried to make his voice the way Mom called "nonchalant," which meant you couldn't care less. Roy was doing a good job of it, pretending he wasn't even listening to them while he slapped big gobs of Peter Pan on a piece of Wonder bread.
"The Phantom Caveman," Dad said. "First time I heard of him, I knocked the slats off my cradle."
"Well, he's back again," Artie said. "I heard at the barbershop they saw these strange, amazing footprints in the snow — and at night, there's this weird, mysterious blue light in the hills."
Roy scraped a chair back and sat down at the table, gobbling his peanut butter sandwich.
"The mystery to me," said Mom, "is Roy all the sudden finding time for his brother."
"Dammit, you're always harping on me to do stuff with him."
"I suppose it has to be forty miles away in the next county," Dad said. "On a wild goose chase."
"In this weather," Mom said.
Roy shrugged, stuffed the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, and went around the table to give Artie a friendly biff on the shoulder. Actually it stung a little, but Artie didn't flinch.
"Sorry, old buddy. Would have been a great adventure up there, tracking those weird footprints through the woods."
"Aw, please?" Artie said, pleading to both his folks.
Dad rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
"Oh, carry me home to die," he said, like he always did when things seemed crazy to him.
"If they drop us at church?"
"All right," Dad grumbled. "At least they can wave at it when they go by."
"Shazam!" Artie yelled, and Roy grabbed him out of his chair and swung him like a sack of potatoes.
"But I want you home for supper," Mom said. "And Roy has to hit the books tonight."
Dad nodded, and aimed a finger at Roy.
"If you don't have the car back by dark, Roy Garber, you might as well join the Army."
Mom got up to get the bacon, and brushed her hand lightly against Dad's cheek as she passed.
"Don't even joke about the War, Joe."
"It's not ours, anyway. 'There will be wars, and rumors of wars.'"
Roy set Artie down and slapped him on the rear.
"We're off — like a herd of turtles in a snowstorm!"
Roy charged out of the room with Artie in hot pursuit.
The car crept around the corner after leaving Mom and Dad off at church and then Roy shifted into first and hit the gas.
"Wahoo!" Artie yelled.
They barreled down the street and screeched around a corner, burning rubber like regular gangsters. The town was Sunday empty, and Artie pretended the people were all inside behind their davenports cowering in fear of the renegade outlaw brothers in their getaway car.
Roy hit the brake, the car skidded and spun in a circle, then slowed, and moved on steadily, safe and droning.
"Is that all?" Artie asked.
"I got to pick up the guys now. Where you want to be dropped?"
"Who all's going with you?"
"Wings and Bo."
Wings Watson and Bo Bannerman were part of the Bearcat starting five, along with Roy, not as great as he was, but real big dogs, all-'round athletes and helluva-fellas.
"Can't I come along — if I keep my trap shut?"
"Artie, you're not old enough."
"I'm going on eleven."
"You got to be sixteen or they won't let you in."
"It's not fair."
"Sure it is. You wouldn't even like her."
"Everyone likes Bubbles LaMode — you said so yourself!"
"Not everyone. Girls don't. Or wouldn't. And guys got to be old enough. To appreciate her."
"By the time I'm sixteen, she'll be dead, probably."
"Not Bubbles. She'll still be bumpin' and grindin'. Where you want to be dropped?"
"Home, I guess."
"I'll pick you up at the drugstore at five. Okay? And we'll say we followed what looked like the Phantom Caveman's footprints all afternoon, and we built a fire, and cooked hot dogs."
"How 'bout we say we caught a glimpse of him — we could see his beard, and this big fur robe he was wearing?"
Roy shook his head. "Stick to the footprints. And throw in about the fire and the hot dogs, it's sort of like camping. They'll like that."
"Hey, Roy. Will you answer me something honest?"
"Don't I always?"
"Sometime will you really take me to hunt the Phantom Caveman?"
They pulled onto their street and Roy took a long glance at Artie, like he was sizing him up. He didn't say anything till he pulled the car up in their driveway and yanked the gearshift to neutral.
"Artie, when you're old enough to see Bubbles LaMode, you'll be old enough to drive. Right?"
"In about a million years."
"Well, when you're old enough to drive, and you got a real hot date, what you do is, you drive up to Devil's Foothills, and say you want to see if there's any sign of the Phantom Caveman being back in these parts. Then you park."
"Then you 'do what comes naturally.'"
"What about the Phantom Caveman?"
"He'll never bother you. Okay? Now I got to get going or we'll never make it to Moline in time for the show."
Roy stamped on the gas pedal a couple of times, racing the motor in urgent bursts, but Artie didn't get out of the car.
"What if the girl doesn't want to 'do what comes naturally'?" he asked.
"Don't worry. She will. She's just got to pretend she doesn't."
"I bet Shirley Colby wouldn't."
Roy slammed his fist on the dashboard.
"Dammit! How come you always got to bring her up?"
"How come you always hit something when I do?"
"Am not! Last time I said 'Shirley Colby' you kicked a tree. Remember? We were walking along Main, you were carrying your team bag —"
"I remember I told you then and there she's an Iceberg. You get it? Now 'that's all she wrote.'"
Roy mashed the gas pedal down to the floor and the car rocked and shivered with the roar.
"Hey, Roy! I won't ever mention Shirley Colby again if you play some pass with me now!"
"I'm gonna be late!"
"You wouldn't have got the car if I didn't tell the fib about the Phantom Caveman!"
Roy took his foot off the gas and pressed his head against the steering wheel, closing his eyes.
"Jesus wants me for a sunbeam," he said.
"Does that mean yes?"
Roy took a deep breath, raised his head, and switched off the ignition.
"One long one," he said. "That's all."
Artie ran in and got the football in less than a shake, tossing it to Roy and then getting into scrimmage position with one knee and one fist on the ground, ready to spring.
"Okay," Roy sighed.
"No! You gotta say it!"
It wasn't any good without the ritual, the barked command of the quarterback.
"Go out for one!"
The simple, traditional signal of passer to receiver, like familiar magic, sent a tingling thrill through Artie, as always, and he leaped ahead, legs and arms pumping, running now not across his own snow-covered front yard but an autumn green gridiron, lined with straight white chalk stripes that marked the way to the goal, the field surrounded by cheering throngs whose roar was the very sound of glory. Artie jerked his head back over his left shoulder, saw the quarterback set, feeling the laces of the ball like braille, cocking his throwing arm and sending the spiral like a spun bullet through the clean air to strike the receiver in the pit of the stomach. Artie grunted at the impact but held, clutched, the ball, the victory, as he slumped breathless to the ground with the crowd's acclaim sweetly stinging his ears. He lay there, panting, as the fans' roar faded in the blast of the starting car and the quarterback, behind the wheel, fledCHAPTER 2
Artie sat alone in the center of the universe.
Without anyone telling him so, Artie felt in his bones that his own hometown of Birney, Illinois (Pop. 4,742 — Moose and Odd Fellows — Welcome!) was the focal point that the rest of the world spread out from in all directions, and the circular, white wooden gingerbread Bandstand in the middle of the Town Square was the center of Birney, and therefore of everything. He had learned in school that "the population center" of the U.S.A. was over in Elvira, a hundred miles or so to the southwest, but he figured that was just the "geographic" center, the way the North Pole on the map was only the "geographic" North Pole, but not really "true north," which was where the magnetic pole was located. He reasoned that if Elvira was the "population center" of the United States (and therefore, by definition, of the world and the universe), Birney must be the "magnetic" or "true" center. He never asked anyone about it; it was something he just knew.
When he squeezed his eyes shut he could picture the Town, fanning out from the Square, and beyond it fields and farms and woods, and beyond that cities, oceans, and foreign lands. If you went to the east you would hit New York and then the Atlantic Ocean, and across that, Europe, where everyone spoke different languages, except the English, who had kind of funny, high-falutin accents, but were brave and clean, like us, and were fighting the dirty Germans who didn't play by the rules but bombed whole cities of men, women, and children by the dark of the night. If you went to the west you hit California, and down at the bottom of it, Hollywood, where poor Shirley Temple had to live and grow up without ever seeing real snow, but on Christmas her parents put cotton all over the yard to make it look like a White Christmas. If you kept walking west from Shirley Temple's cotton-covered lawn you would fall into the Pacific Ocean, or, if you had a boat, and kept sailing west, you would come, inscrutably, to the lands of "the East," where the tall, trustworthy, yellow Chinese people, who were our friends, were fighting the short, bloodthirsty yellow Japanese people, who were our enemies. When Artie got his mind as far as the coasts of China and Japan, to the west, or England and Germany, to the east, he saw flames, as he had seen them in the newspapers, magazines, and newsreels about the War, the burning and bombing of cities and villages; the dead and bleeding bodies of soldiers in uniform and refugees in rags. He was glad to be able to blink himself back and be in Birney, "Home of the Bearcats," where life went on like it was supposed to, with people mostly behaving themselves, working and playing ball and listening to the radio after supper and going to church on Sundays, like God intended.
Artie felt God was usually watching over him, and glad of it, but today he hoped the Almighty was busy looking after the refugees in the flaming cities at the far edges of the earth, so He wouldn't notice or mind about anyone who happened to skip Sunday School in Birney, Illinois. If God's attention were elsewhere, it would also mean Ben Vickman wouldn't get any points on his scorecard in Heaven for being in Sunday School today, as he surely was. Vickman had won the Good Attendance medal, and was out to add new bars on it that hung from a little chain and made him look like some kind of old-fashioned French General. Vickman was mainly a good guy, but Artie was tired of him lording it over everyone because his Dad was a Doctor, and anyway, he didn't want to wait till Ben got out of Sunday School and went home to change to his messing-around-in clothes before thinking up something neat to do for the rest of the day.
Artie was in the mood for something more adventurous, anyway. He stood up from the floor of the Bandstand, feeling he had somehow "centered" himself in the scheme of the universe, and trotted off toward the little clump of shanties across the railroad track where Fishy Mitchelman lived. Fishy could do about anything he wanted, since his Dad flew the coop to join the Merchant Marine. His Mom, who liked everyone to call her Trixie, painted ladies' fingernails at the Birney Beauty Shop, and didn't much care what her son did as long as he didn't call her "Mom." Lots of mothers didn't like their kids to even associate with Fishy, but Artie's Mom actually liked the guy and was always feeding him cake and cookies, trying to fatten him up. He was a year older than the kids in his class, and a lot wiser in the ways of the world, which he learned about from spying on Trixie and her boyfriends, and hanging around with guys on his side of the tracks who did wild stuff like hopping freights to Chicago and getting tattooed. In return for Fishy's wisdom of the world, Artie helped him do his homework sometimes, writing up whole essays for him, but spelling some words wrong on purpose so it wouldn't look suspicious.
Fishy came to the door with a bag of potato chips he was eating, which was probably his breakfast.
Trixie was lying on the couch wearing a pink nightgown and reading a movie magazine.
"Whatcha doin'?" Artie asked.
"Lookin' for what's cookin'," Fishy said, and grabbed his coat.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," said Trixie, without looking up from her magazine.
Artie was glad to get out of the place. It smelled like boiled cabbage and perfume.
"We can't mess around in town," he said out of the side of his mouth as they crossed the railroad tracks. "I'm supposed to be up in the Devil's Foothills with Roy, hunting for the Phantom Caveman. Actually, him and Wings Watson and Bo Bannerman went to Moline to see Bubbles LaMode, so I'm helping cover for 'em."
When he said it, Fishy rolled his eyes around in his head like Barney Google. That was his trademark. So many things seemed strange, or "fishy" to him, and he said it so much and googled his eyes around that way, that everyone called him that, except for teachers, who called him Monroe Mitchelman, and thought he got his nickname because he liked to fish, which was really a laugh, since he'd never be able to sit still long enough to wait for a bite.
Excerpted from Under the Apple Tree by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 1982 Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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