The Last Marble by J Scott Harden

Have you ever looked back on the past? Of course you have, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is have you ever really looked at it. They say everybody romanticizes things. You know, the birthday candles were a little brighter than they really were. Or your teachers said meaner things to you than they actually did. Your girlfriend’s buck teeth weren’t so noticeable. You know what I mean. The edges get kind of smoothed over.

That’s the way it is for me anyhow. The people, the ones I can remember, are a bit . . . well, they’ re just bigger is all. The places are bigger too. Our football field in high school was a stadium of giants, more like a coliseum built for gladiators. My town ran in all directions, just about to forever. And the colors? You’ d think they’ d fade with time. In your mind, I mean. But they don’t. It’s a lie. They get even brighter.

I guess that’s why I don’t trust my memories that much, because they’ re not quite right. You can’t make sense of things when you don’t get the picture right in the first place.

But I found one thing about the past I can trust. That’s why I want to tell you about it, because I can tell it was real. Not romanticized I mean. See you can put an airbrush to people and places and the things in the world -- people just do that by nature.

What you can’t seem to gloss over or gussy up, or whatever you want to call it, is an idea. It’s kind of like a lesson. Well you might not learn from it at all, or you might learn different things depending on where you’ re at. You know, with your life. All that may be so, but the actual idea, well that’s just there. You can use it if you want.

That’s why I want to tell you about Will. What he did with his last marble. It’s an idea that I look back and think on. Maybe I’ ll make him out to be bigger and better than he really was. Or maybe I’ ll embellish when I tell you about that marble. I’ ll try hard not to, but it doesn’t really matter. The thing is the idea. I can’t forget it. Even after all this time, it may as well have happened yesterday.

It’s hard to explain. Will was the same as any of us, I suppose, but he was always different too. He must have been. He was something of a paradox. I mean you wouldn’t think anything particular about him. It could have been the age we were at. It was the time when you’ re not just a kid anymore, but you’ re not exactly a man yet either. It’s when everything’s in limbo. Things get weird.

That’s not quite right though. There was more. I don’t mean what he looked like. He was still pretty short. He was skinny and didn’t like to wash his hair that much. When I say he was different, what I mean is that he had a look in him. Sometimes he used to stare off past Barnaby’s Mill, past the steel factory at the edge of town, over the trees and into -- what exactly I was never sure. I wish I’ d have asked him. Out past the skies I guess. I think everybody knew he was sort of strange.

We all found out about his marble because he showed it for his speech in Mrs. Gresham’s class. She was our seventh grade teacher. I can still remember the sense of awe I had when he pulled it out and showed it. He had it passed around, and everybody had pretty much the same reaction. Except the girls, of course. Leastwise most of 'em. And not Bobby Henderson either. He said it was just a stupid story, but I don’t think anyone believed him. I don’t think Bobby Henderson even believed himself. He knew it was real. You could tell.

I remember when it came around to me. I had already lost track of the speech, and when it got to my hand I couldn’t even hear Will anymore. You grow up with a kid. You see him every day, year after year. You go fishing with him a hundred times, but do you really know him? What’s in his head or in his heart. Could be a million different things in there -- faces, places, dreams --, but it’s all dark to you if you’ re on the outside. It really is. That’s why you get surprised.

It was heavy. Too heavy to be a regular marble. The size was about right, a little bigger than usual but smaller than a shooter. It probably weighed about as much as three shooters put together. It was pretty shiny but not in a flashy way. However you moved it, the light caught in a ball and then lit up a thin ring outside it. It was like the rings set around Saturn but made out of light instead.

It was crazy. The pattern was an ocean of curves, bulging outward here, retreating into a pocket there, like some kind of battle map. It was made out of copper, silver and lead. The ball was a beautiful mix of metals, but it was more than that. It was an orb with a tale.

You see, Will’s dad was in the infantry. He did two tours in Vietnam. He got shot in the head by a sniper. It grazed his left side and lodged into the back of the skull. He was alright and everything, but he got to keep the bullet. When he came home, he got his old job back at the steel works. That’s where he’ d made Will the marble. He melted it and made it into a perfect sphere in one of the rivet molds. And he handed it down.

Now you’ ll remember that I told you we were all of a certain age. The path that winds through the wilds of boyhood was coming to an end. It was about the last time we all agreed on something. Actually it was two things. We loved the U.S. Army, and our game was marbles. That was the last year we played. It was the best year we played.
Will was the best shot in school. He barely lost, except when there was cheating. And some of 'em did cheat. But even the cheaters knew he was best deep down. His thumb was just as accurate as any rifle you ever saw. So when he told us about his dad’s creation, well you can just imagine that it rose him up to the ranks of legend.
Now I mentioned Bobby Henderson already. He was good at the game too, but he won a lot more often by cheating than by skill alone. And he was mean, meaner if he thought somebody had the best of him. He was big, and he had his friends, and he had a couple of scuffles with Will. Tell you the truth, he was scared of Will. He was scared of him in more ways than one. I know it. And he wanted that marble. He wanted it bad.

After school, his gang found Will outside. Bobby told him to hand it over or he was in for it. Of course there was no way he was gonna do it. When I got outside, I heard him tell Bobby to go to hell, and then they started pushing him around.

Bobby pushed him down, but by then a teacher had heard the commotion. Principal Wilson came storming out with his puffed out chest and booming voice and broke it up. He told Will to go home, and he started lecturing the other boys. He said if he saw anything happen again, he was going to call their parents. Most of them looked scared, but not Bobby. He looked uncomfortable, in an angry kind of way.

Will was already most of the way across the field when my mom pulled up. It was Friday, and we sometimes spent the weekend in the city with my aunt and uncle. I got to school early on Monday and waited for Will. I wanted to hear more about the marble. Especially, I wanted to see it again, see if maybe he would give me a try shooting it.

The bell rang. I hurried in to class, figuring that I’ d missed him. But his seat was empty. He didn’t come that day or the next. Bobby was more full of himself than ever. After school on Wednesday, I walked over to his place to see what happened. It was a pretty long walk through the back woods along the creek. That’s where we used to fish, me, Will and sometimes a couple others.

His mom answered the door. She wasn’t friendly like usual. I asked her if he was alright, if there was something I could do, if I could talk to him. Dumb questions like that. But she wouldn’t say anything except he’ d be in school Monday. I just sort of stood there, and she closed the door in my face. She wasn’t like that. I thought maybe he was sick. It was too weird. I hoped he was sick.

Bobby won all the games that week. He laughed it up, too. And he only had to cheat once or twice. It was generally understood that’s the way it was. I played a couple times, but I wasn’t very good. Let’s just say that nobody had to cheat to get my marbles. The people I knew hadn’t heard a thing about Will. I thought about asking the teacher, but Mrs. Gresham was a loon anyway. So I waited.

I got to school on Monday early again, but he didn’t show. He came to class after lunch, and my suspicions were right. He hadn’t been sick at all. Two of his fingers were in a splint, and his thumb was all taped up. It was his right hand. His face was good and bruised, but you could tell that was healing alright. His cheekbone was mostly yellow and a fading black.

He didn’t say anything in class, and old Mrs. Gresham never called on him. Bobby kept his eyes down. I watched him when I got the chance. Once he smiled in an evil way. I tried to catch Will outside after school, but his mom was waiting with the car.

Will didn’t come outside for recess that week. He kept to himself as if he alone held the map to a dark treasure. He stayed in the classroom during lunches. He was quiet as the dead. I wanted to talk to him, but he never once looked at me.

The next week, I was playing marbles during lunch when he finally came out. It wasn’t my turn, and I was looking around. Well alright, I was actually looking at Lynn, this girl I had my eye on. She was sitting with her friends, and he walked by them slowly.

He went to the edge of the pavement and looked out past the town just like he used to. I guess it wasn’t exactly like he used to. It was like he stood there with a purpose. If you didn’t know any better, you could call his stance stiff. I guess I knew him well enough to know better.

He always spent time thinking about things. He always had ideas. You could tell when he was mulling something over. His eyes kind of glazed over, and he got this smirk at the corner of his lip. He stood there like always, but this time his eyes had a sharpness, an intense focus. He seemed obsessed.

I asked him if he was okay, but he didn’t answer. I stood beside him for a while, shuffling the dirt around. It was strange. Something really had happened, and he wouldn’t talk. I asked again, but it was no good. When he looked over at me minutes later, it was as though I didn’t exist. How can you look at something that doesn’t exist? If you can figure that out, you’ ll know what I saw in those pale, blue eyes.

No one ever heard anything from Will for months. Mrs. Gresham never called on him. It was as if they were the parties to some secret armistice. They left each other alone, and that was weird because loony old Gresham liked to hear from everybody. He pretty much stayed in the room, eyes down, mouth shut tight.

I tried to talk to him once or twice, but it was the same as before. Once he said “yes, I think so", but I hadn’t asked him a question. Between the schoolwork and the marbles, I was pretty busy. I said I’ d tell the truth, so I should also say that I had thoughts about Lynn, too. More than a few. I never completely forgot about Will, it’s just that I sort of moved on. I heard him like an echo you might make at a great canyon, persistent but far away after a while.
One day, I made up my mind to find out what really happened. I played marbles after school but cut it short. I hated doing that because it meant forfeiting a marble to each of the other players. I gave Bobby my ugliest one. I took my stuff and started walking to Will’s place. It was a warm spring day, and everything in the woods was coming to life.

He was sitting on a rock at a bend in Miller Creek, staring hard into the waters. When I got close, I could see his trousers were soaked. His sleeves were rolled up almost to the shoulder. He was sitting in a ball, arms wrapped around his shins and chin resting on his knees. He was shivering. The water in that creek was still pretty cold.
I sat down next to him and asked him what he was doing. This time, he answered right away. He told me it was none of my business and to go away. I said I wasn’t going to leave, and I saw his eye squint. I knew he was serious, but I told him we were friends so I couldn’t. His voice turned hard.

When I repeated that I wouldn’t go, he jumped up and pounced. It scared the hell out of me. He was like a madman. We rolled off the rock. I guess I blocked most of it, but he landed a few wild punches on my face. I started yelling at him to stop, and I pushed him off into the dirt.

I scurried backwards and felt my eyebrow. It was bleeding. At first I thought I was seeing things, but after I rubbed the blood out of my eye, I could see Will was crying. Actually it was more like sobbing.

I’ m not trying to pass myself off as especially nice or kind or anything like that. It’s just that I knew he didn’t really hate me. So I went over and knelt beside him. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it was going to be alright. I mean I had no idea what the problem was or if was really going to be alright. The thing is, sometimes you have to lie to your friends in a way. You don’t mean any harm by it. You just want them to know that they’ re not alone. And Will was my friend. At least he had been.

He broke down and told me his old man was dying. Let me tell you, that’s not what I expected. His dad was getting more and more sick. They didn’t expect him to live more than a month. His mom was a wreck. She had to take an extra job at a diner in the city.

She didn’t know what to do, but you see Will did. That part of it was what I suspected. Bobby Henderson and his cronies caught Will on his way home that day. I was dead right about how much Bobby wanted that bullet-marble. They had roughed Will up, but it wasn’t until they started searching him that he got himself all worked up. They could tell he had it. When they began to pick his pockets, he knew his time was up. Will pulled that marble, that metal thing that had been inside his father’s head, out of his shoe. He threw it into the river.

First of all, he’d figured that anything was better than handing it over to Bobby. Second, he also had a plan. That marble was heavy, heavier than any piece of glass you could find. It was heavier than a rock by far. So he tossed it into the creek, hoping that its weight would keep it from drifting. His idea was rewarded with a broken thumb and two busted fingers.

They left him there beside the water, convinced that they had made the best of things. If Bobby couldn’t have that marble, then no one would. And Will never told his mom what happened either. He was stubborn as a whole stable of mules. She made him stay in his room all weekend, every weekend. His dad even whipped him once, but he still wouldn’t talk.

You see, he couldn’t tell his father that he’ d lost that marble. No matter what. He’ d live and die by that crazy plan of his. Almost three months later, he was still by that rock at Miller Creek, still plunging into its murky depths. That’s what he’ d been up to every day after school. He couldn’t go on the weekends, which made him sore, but his mom didn’t mind him coming late from school. I guess she never thought to ask why he never had any luck with the fish. Will’s dad was dying. That’s why he couldn’t bring himself to tell him about what happened. He was pretty torn up over it, and he was at odds with everything and everyone, even his family --even himself. So he set himself up with a mission to find it at any cost. He was crazed with an obsession you can only find in honeybees and certain boys at the frontiers of manhood.

His face was smeared with dirt and tears, and he told me he was sorry. What could I say? It was a rough deal. I told him not to worry about it. I felt bad for him. His plan sounded far- fetched to me, searching a riverbed for a little ball. Miller Creek was five or six feet deep in the middle this time of year. The water was cold, still chilled by frosty mountains way upstream. It was one of those dreams that makes you numb.

I decided to help him, not because his idea stood a chance, but since he’ d had a hard knock and probably needed the company. So there I was, barefoot and hip deep in the freezing water, searching for the impossible. I couldn’t believe he went through that day after day. My hands turned bluish after five minutes, and I couldn’t feel whether what I touched was jagged or smooth.

He had been there a while already, and I was relieved when he said he had to go home. He didn’t thank me or anything. He just looked and shrugged his shoulders before he walked off. His eyes were bright and glossy. They seemed to derive their glow from some other realm of life. I remember them because they were unnatural.

Over the next couple of weeks, I went back to that bend in the river. If I was late, Will was already looking. If I walked with him, the only conversation we had was a silent exchange with nature. After that, I came less and less. I wanted to help, I really did, but it was cold and boring. It was hopeless, and I didn’t share the obsession. So I just stopped going after a while. I was alive, and I wanted to play among the living.

The last time I went, I watched from a ways off, just staring as he scoured and probed the murky depths. He was mad. I just couldn’t be like that. I didn’t know how. Maybe that’s not quite right either. The truth is I didn’t want to know how to be like that. The storm that raged and uprooted the foundations of Will’s life rained on me only enough to make me take a few steps backward into the sun. I even stopped looking at Will in class.

The rest of the year went by like cars on a highway. It was fast and fun. By the end, we had got used to loony old Gresham. I kissed Lynn four times, once on the lips. The days grew steadily warmer, and the anticipation of summer filled me up with restless energy.

The last day of school was a half day. It was liberation from all the rules and books. You could feel tingling tension in the air. We knew we had freedom on its knees. We felt ourselves invincible. The gazes you crossed in the halls reflected confidence right back at you.

Everyone knew that the harbinger of this destiny, its first flowering, was the final game of scuds. Scuds was the way we played most of the time. You kept your shooter, like always. You got another turn if you hit anyone’s marble out of the circle. Besides the traditional rules, with scuds you also got to keep shooting if you hit a guy’s marble into one belonging to another opponent.

That was the trick. Every player had to drop a marble in at the beginning of his turn. If there were eight players, you could get every marble already on the ground. We called it “the clean up". Little playoff groups had decided the finalists throughout the week.

As luck would have it, I won mine the day before. Rebecca Morgan won her spot on Monday. She was the only girl that made it. She was a tomboy with a wicked aim that went crooked from time to time. Jack was there, the rich fat kid I suppose you can find at any school. A couple of the others I didn’t know that well made it along with two of Bobby Henderson’s pals. It went without saying that the main threat was Bobby. He was laughing with his friends while we set up the circle. He didn’t look worried at all. Practically the whole seventh grade was there, even a hoard of younger kids.

The entry was fifteen marbles, and we all picked our best. Bobby’s were all red. He had accumulated an enormous collection. The only real rival to it was Jack’s. His parents bought him everything. We all got our share of the spoils off him, though he was getting better.

All the players had their piles of fifteen, an empty bag and a chance to take it all. This was it. This was the last refrigerated soda in the case, the cherry on top of the best sundae, the final battle. I couldn’t wait. It was the kind of moment when you can almost forget who you are. You get lost in time.

We shot for who would go first, and I won. It wasn’t luck mind you. Most of them took a dive because the first player had the fewest targets to start. I didn’t care. I’d been waiting for this all year. Everyone dropped a marble, and I was lining up my first shot.

That’s when Will came walking up to the circle. It caused a bit of a stir. I mean none of us had talked to him in a long time. It’s not that we didn’t see him, you know. He’ d just made it so that people saw through him as if he was made out of thin air.

I was irritated because the ruckus messed up my concentration. But when I looked up and saw him standing there, all that vanished. He said he wanted to play. Bobby, as you’ d expect, was furious. He was adamant. The finalists had already been decided, and there was no way it could be changed.

What it meant of course was that Bobby was scared. A couple of his friends backed him up, but for the most part the protests were met with a mad silence. We all knew what they had done to Will, and we knew he was the best player in school. At least he had been.

I thought it was a brave gesture, but I also had my doubts because he hadn’t played most of the year and because his shooting thumb had been broken. Besides that, he’ d been out of sorts in his head. I looked for any emotions in him, but his face was straight, not confident or anything, just dead serious. I wondered if he was maybe trying to be a kid again. You know, normal. I quickly buried the thought. This was Will.

The crowd was behind him. Some of them wanted to see him get a chance. Others I think were just tired of Bobby and his friends running everything. Will asked if he could have my place. I said he could. Yes, in case you’ re wondering, I was a little sad over it. Bobby raged on that it wasn’t how the rules worked, but all the kids knew very well how Bobby felt about rules. People started telling him to shut up. It was the first time in my life I can remember being proud of myself. I guess I was curious to see what would happen. If I stayed in the game, we all knew what would happen.

Amidst a lot of murmuring, Will laid down to take his first shot. I was kind of glad I could focus on the kids’ faces during the game. Bobby looked like he was deciding what to do. Will stared for a moment, then launched his shooter. It was a good hit. He pulled off a clean up but had to lose his turn after he got the eight marbles.
The players dropped one in again, and the game went on like a dance. Will played well, but it seemed like Bobby had more skill after the whole year of practice. He had the better clean ups, and he was pretty consistent. Once, when Will had an important shot that was fairly easy, one of Bobby’s friends nudged his leg. It wasn’t a hard kick or anything, just enough to screw up a big shot. Will didn’t complain. He stared hard and kept quiet the whole time. Bobby put his thumb in his mouth and popped it out from time to time, making smacking sounds during Will’s turns.

One by one, the players lost their marbles. Jack was out first, to no one’s surprise. Bobby’s friends lost out. Another, then another dropped the game. Rebecca Morgan got third place, and she looked happy about it. She had more than doubled her pile.

In the end, it was like the last showdown in an old Western movie. It was Will and Bobby. We watched it closely, and there was no way anyone was going to let Bobby cheat. He knew that and didn’t try anything. We wanted Will to win so bad we could taste it.

The reality was different. Bobby got the most marbles, a few more clean ups and then made a solid last shot to take the game. He had been sweating it the whole time, and he sighed with relief when it was over. The most that could be said was that Bobby got a run for his money, and that wasn’t very satisfying.

Will’s face remained straight as plywood. He didn’t look disappointed at all, but when I got a better view, I noticed that look again. It was the same as when he used to stare off across the town and into a world no one else could touch. Will couldn’t completely block the storm that lit up the night in his eyes.

He offered Bobby a bet. Bobby could put any marble he wanted anywhere in the circle. If Will hit it out and knocked his own marble out as well, he won. If not, Bobby did. The winner got to keep all the marbles.

You could have heard a pin drop when he said it. I think even the birds and the wind took pause. Bobby shook his head and said why should he since he was already the winner. Will put all his marbles to the side and pointed. It was a good collection, but not enough for Bobby to lay it all on the line.

That’s when he did it. Will reached inside his shoe and pulled out the bullet marble. That was the shooter, so if he missed then Bobby would get the greatest prize of all. That skinny little bastard, who I was sure had gone crazy, had found it somewhere in the bottom of that creek. Month after month in those icy waters, and here it was glistening before one and all. I warned him not to, but Will raised his hand in a simple gesture to stay out of it. He knew what he was doing. He understood the risk in a way I could only imagine. Will was on the precipice of a cliff I was far too scared to face. Of all the kids there, I at least had a notion of what he’ d been through.

Bobby Henderson had the look of a dog when you wave a juicy steak in front of him. It’ d be an exaggeration, but I’ d like to tell you he even drooled. Needless to say, he couldn’t refuse the offer. He placed his smallest marble perfectly, just to the side of a dirt mound that had formed during the game. Jack held both full bags for the winner. All we could do was watch.

Will sized up his shot, and I know I held my breath when he let that marble fly. It streaked across the dirt like a bolt of lightning skimming low over the Earth.

I know, I know. You’ re going to want to know if he made that shot. Well, think about it. I mean, from where you’ re sitting it could have gone either way, right? So he made it and everyone cheered and Will walked off in vindication and triumph. If you’ re a real sap, you’ d think of everyone cheering and bursting into applause. Maybe we all took turns shaking his hand or something.

Or you could be the other kind of person. He missed, and Bobby and rest of the jerks won out. That’s the way life is. And as for Will, he was the naïve fool crushed out by the real world, the way things are. Maybe you want me to tell you he killed himself because he tried everything and his father found in his son a horrible failure. You’ d want to make a tragedy out of it so your self-pity would find some type of reflection. Or redemption.

But remember what I told you when I started. This is about an idea, not a story. It’s not about the kids at my school or about Will or me or anything like that. I don’t think you can capture the past like that and tell the truth perfectly. I know I can’t do it.

And besides, if I told you it would ruin the whole point. It’ d be cheating because Will didn’t know if he was going to make that shot when he took the risk. Now you’ re in his shoes because you don’t know the answer either. So what do you want to hear? I never saw Will again. His dad died that summer, and they moved away. I don’t know where.

What I do know is that sometimes, when my family is asleep and it’s dead of night, I stand on the edge of that damn town and look out into the horizon. I wander past what I can see. Deep inside us, in the places our friends and enemies can’t go, we all have our last marble. What will you do with yours?


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