Tuesday, April 5, 2011

“Safety Patrol” by Merle Drown

“You want this?” my mother held up a folded web belt. The tired rubber band
that secured it burst, and it fell to the floor in a white tangle.

We’d just buried my older brother Keith, dead at fifty. Not unexpected, no matter
how my mother had tried to protect him—a bad heart and thirty years of smoking, drinking, and looking at joy as something to be avoided.

“It was like his wine turned to vinegar before he got to sip it,” I said

“Your brother never sipped.”

“He didn’t want anything to go stale,” I said, wanting to tell her, then changed my mind. I unstuck the blue captain’s badge from the belt. “Only thing he saved from his days of responsibility. Too responsible.”

“Not too responsible,” my mother said, “since he stole it.”

“All the boys lied about losing their belts, paid their two dollars, and kept them.”

“You weren’t on Safety Patrol.”

“Keith told me I was lucky I was a girl, couldn’t get on the patrol. Real mean about it. I figured it had to do with that boy Melvin, hung himself with a patrol belt.”

My mother snorted. “Fifteen year olds don’t hang themselves.”

“He was sixteen, same as Keith. That weekend I went to Washington for my seventh grade trip. They already had Melvin in the ground when we got back.”

“Melvin got himself tangled up with that Cain girl,” my mother said. “She
belonged to that clan lived in a trailer back of the swamp.”

“Keith had a crush on June Cain, too. A dark haired girl who made the boys shift
their hands in their pockets?”

“She gave the boys what they wanted,” my mother said.

“Not Keith, she didn’t. He had to go elsewhere.”

“June made him turn on Melvin,” my mother said.

“Melvin had been his friend.” “They hung out together—”

“His best friend.” She snatched the blue badge from me. “He came home with this and said, “Mom, I advanced through the silver, the green the red, and won the blue. Now I’m responsible for all the little kids plus the boys on the patrol.’”

“He kicked one of the boys off for running against the light.”

My mother tossed the badge on the floor. “Stickler for rules, Keith.”

“Then,” I said. “Never applied them to himself,”

“Keith was a stickler for rules before June Cain got ahold of him,” my mother said. “June relied on that and poor Melvin died.”

“Mom, you’re just like Keith, blaming the girls. They moved away, June and the whole family, even took the trailer with them.”

“They better had,” my mother said. “They took your brother with them too, the better part.”

“Sometimes you talk such nonsense.”

“I told June I’d burn that trailer to the ground with all of them in it.”

My throat tightened as I tried to swallow thirty years of lying.

“Did Keith admit—”

“He sat right there— She pointed, but of course it was a different chair. “Folding that belt over and over just like he’d been taught. I knew.”

“Maybe he was just in shock.”

“June told him a bunch of lies about Melvin, like Melvin broke the rules, and it was Keith’s duty to punish him.”

“Maybe they weren’t lies,” I said.


All those years I’d thought Keith had gone bad for what he did with me. I wanted to tell my mother that. Of course she didn’t know about it. Any more than I’d know Melvin hadn’t hanged himself. But I shut up, refolded the safety patrol belt and stuck the blue badge in it. I kept them and both secrets twenty more years, till my mother died, and I could throw them away.

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