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But boy, could that kid Donald climb a tree.
There was a big old elm towering over his front yard, across the dirt driveway from his house, in front of a ramshackle barn we were forbidden to enter, and therefore did, regularly. It was a tough start, that old elm, with little to grab onto down low, but once you got past the lower forks it was a veritable ladder climb to sixty feet. We would race up opposite sides and test each other's nerve eye-to-eye. The most exhilarating moments came after the climbing frenzy. We'd look down on the leaky roof of his family's house, our palms burning, shins barked, and we grew still, barely breathing, feeling the breeze rock us in a way we wished our parents would. Donald would often swing from branch to branch on a length of clothesline fastened to a high branch, but I, traumatized enough by the climbing rope in gym class, refused to touch it.
It was a silent friendship, this union of two lonely space-race devotees. We rarely talked, and when we did I usually looked straight through his owl's-eye glasses, paying little attention to his words. He was the first kid I'd met who seemed more needy than myself, and that scared me.
When Donald was "left back" after first grade, our teacher instructed me to assure him that we'd still be friends despite being in different grades come the fall. The implication that I would cease being Donald’s friend surprised me, being too young to have remembered the end of any relationship. The bus ride home was awkward. Why was it suddenly my job to take care of him? How could I speak openly about a friendship I couldn't define? But by the time the bus deposited him in front of his splintered porch he seemed reassured of my constancy.
We watched the summer pass from the highest neighborhood boughs. My fear of his neediness and my inability to satisfy it drove me to discover a new kind of power: the simple cruelty one child can exert upon another. I learned to make him freeze, numb with anxiety, by bringing up the coming school year and the special assignments I knew he had not even begun. He feared those projects, most of all because they reminded him of what was to come: exile back in first grade. But I poked his fear nonetheless. He became the perfect target for the rage just starting to simmer inside me, especially because he hadn't learned the same trick.
When school resumed we were assigned different buses. I saw Donald only occasionally, alone in the lunch room or in the hall. And while I felt bad for him, I rarely summoned the strength to confront my own solitude by talking to him. It wasn't long into autumn when he killed himself.
I was in my room — I had been sent there, punished, supperless again — when my father asked if he could come in. This portended something momentous, as he never before, nor ever again asked for permission to enter any room in his house. Dad's imposing frame filled the doorway. He told me to sit down. I hopped onto my twin bed, attentive. He told me that he had some bad news, that my friend "Donny" was dead, that my friend somehow got tangled up in a rope in a tree by his house and hanged to death. It was an accident, he assured me, but I knew better right away. He spoke a few more words about being strong and feeling free to talk about it, and then I was alone again, feeling sweaty despite my dry skin. I think I felt sad, but I was mostly curious. I wondered what a little kid looked like, hanging by the neck from a tree. In my mind I heard his jerky-skinned mother screaming out his name, "DAAWWNNULLDD" as she found her son hanging, neck stretched and cold. Had I possibly heard her raspy screams sometime during the day but not recognized them for what they were?
I had no tragic reaction to offer the public. I didn't really know what I felt. I wondered if I should go climb a tree, search the sky for Donald's face. I wondered whether I should find a rope and follow his example. Eventually I just went to bed, as confused as ever, and as silent as Donald.
At school the next day it was announced that a tree would be planted in memory of Donald. I promised myself I'd come back one day and climb it. A counselor was brought in and I was encouraged to speak to her. I couldn't think of what I'd tell her, but it got me out of spelling so I went. I sat in a room off the nurse's office for a little while then wandered back to class, preferring writer's cramp to self-contemplation. I lacked the vocabulary to express my crime. How could I tell anyone that I had failed as a friend, that I'd succeeded in drowning a seven-year old boy in his own sadness, that I was a murderer? I wanted to tell someone that I was sorry, that I was sad he was gone. But that would have been a lie. The treetops were mine again.