One weekend Kenny Lustyik and two friends snuck off to explore the spring ice as it caromed down the swelling river. When the fire whistle blew, the town paused, waiting hard. Soon we knew—the two boys, Rob and Adam, their arms frozen to the hull of a canoe, screamed Kenny’s name, even as the ambulance doors closed them in and the siren stopped splashing red along the shore.
We stayed, gathered at the bridge in the cold. His mother pressed tight to the metal, almost rocking over, until her husband placed his own aching body against hers. Waiting, two parent statues, icicle stiff, and then Kenny’s body came free of the river, rose up from beneath an ice flow, pulled from the sticks and debris of winter by divers who placed his rigid body in his mother’s empty arms.
Kenny had owned the snare drum. He could slide the drumsticks over his knuckles, then grab the ends, bringing our song to a close, almost like we were real musicians. Only he smiled during band. Rob, who played the trumpet, returned to school after a week. His eyes swollen, he walked in a bubble, clearing space at the lunch table and down the hall. He never told anyone how his mother slept with him, to make certain of his warmth and to wake him when the dreams began. He hated needing her there, but only she could make the picture of Kenny disappear—the swirling water, the hand reaching out. Rob, too frightened to reach for him as the hood of his sweatshirt, a shock of red, passed by.
Adam stayed out of school for two weeks and didn’t speak once he returned. He had been a drummer like Kenny, but he went to the nurse rather than band for the rest of fifth grade. He couldn’t tell any of us about lying awake in the tight rectangle of his bed as Kenny rose from beneath him, and they reached together for the canoe. But then a twist and spiral, the water sucking at them, a vacuum that would not stop. He felt the pull on his legs, thought it was the current trying to drag him down. He kicked, hard, connected, hard, and hauled himself onto the canoe. Closing his eyes, he breathed out the river and shock a little at a time. He never saw the red of Kenny’s sweatshirt disappear. All night, breathless and sweaty, he called for no one.
For all of us, fifth grade is a deep pocket where Kenny’s image remains. Through sixth grade and seventh, as Adam transferred to a new school and Rob kissed his first girlfriend, pressed against the splintered boards of the skating rink, we remembered Kenny. When we were seniors his mother begged us to put her son’s picture in the yearbook and we complied, still remembering, but from a distance, and only for a moment when we opened to the page dedicated to his freckles and crooked front teeth.