Standing in front of Larry’s apartment building with his gun in his pocket, Francis readies himself to murder his former hero. He reminds himself one last time that Larry is not an innocent man, and that really, his death will be just one more to add to the others who died during the war.
By reminding himself that Larry is not innocent, Francis shows that he is coming closer to understanding that heroism must have an ethical component. By considering Larry another casualty of war, he also reinforces the idea that the war ended many other childhoods prematurely.
Francis knocks on Larry’s door, entering as Larry calls out from within. Larry, sitting in a rocking chair, stares feebly at his guest before Francis, for the first time since his return to Frenchtown, reveals his identity. Flushed with pleasure, Larry beckons his former pupil inside, inviting him to take a seat and shed his costume.
By announcing his true identity to Larry, Francis signals that he is finally ready to reckon with his past. Larry, on his part, tries to get Francis to reveal his war wounds, thinking that his costume was simply to hide his physical deformities.
Francis, however, remains standing as Larry begins to reminisce about their Wreck Center glory days, his old “movie star smile” flitting across his face. When he brings up the Ping-Pong tournament, Francis points out that Larry allowed him to win. Predictably, Larry brushes off Francis’ protestations, telling his former student that he had deserved to win. According to Larry, it had been more than just a game with a score, and there had been more than just a trophy at stake.
When Francis refuses to take off his costume but still sheds his anonymity, it shows that his true wounds are psychological. In his reminiscing and his insistence on the importance of the tournament, Larry shows that he too, despite being an adult at the time, was able to see the childish importance attached to small things. Now, though, it is clearer that he understood the children’s worldview in order to manipulate them.
Quickly though, Larry snaps back to reality, rubbing his stiff legs and remarking to Francis that not all wounds are visible. Further explaining, Larry mentions that the doctors claim he had jungle fever, though Francis silently muses that it could be Larry’s sins catching up with him.
Larry’s words echo the psychological wounds of both Francis and Nicole, while Francis’ musings about Larry’s sins catching up with him show that again, religion and suffering are logical companions in Francis’ mind.
Moving the conversation back to Francis, Larry brings up Francis’ own Silver Star, remarking that he went into the war a child but came out a decorated hero. Francis admits to Larry how he had forged his birth certificate to enlist, but mentally, he admits that while he had always wanted to be a hero, his status as a war hero has always been a fraud. Finally tired of living a lie, he admits to Larry that he had gone to war looking for a way to commit suicide with honor.
Finally, Francis reveals to another character the dark secret behind his supposedly heroic deeds. Now, with two Silver Star recipients in one room, both with a secret that invalidates their claim to heroism morally speaking, the novel implicitly questions the value of wartime heroics in general.
Confused, Larry asks Francis why he had wanted to die so badly. Realizing in that instance that Larry really hadn’t seen him the night of Nicole’s rape, Francis reveals to Larry that he had been there all along, a silent witness to his crime. Since then, Francis says, he had wanted to die. Silently, he adds that he still does.
With his admission, both aloud and silently, Francis shows that he still lacks the ability to process large, real problems with maturity. He is unable to reconcile the new perspective with which he must view the cruel adult world, since his entire childhood world, which was centered on Nicole, was destroyed.
Larry, ever the smooth talker, begins to comfort Francis, telling him that there was nothing he could have done to stop it, since after all, he way only a child. Bitter and trembling, Francis shoots back, “So was she.”
Here, Larry blatantly reveals his manipulative nature, showing that while he made all the children feel special and valued, he still viewed them as immature and powerless.
Tired of the dramatics, Larry asks Francis why he really came to visit. In response, Francis draws his pistol, and with a shaking hand, aims it at Larry, demanding to know why it had to be Nicole that night instead of any of the other grown women fawning over Frenchtown’s new war hero.
By contrasting Nicole with the adult women, Francis again shows how the trauma of her rape ended both of their childhoods, pulling them abruptly and violently into adulthood. With the gun, Francis is trying, misguidedly, to negate violence with more violence.
Unfazed by the gun in his face, Larry tells Francis that he couldn’t resist “sweet young things,” that “everybody sins” yet they love their sins all the same. Still holding the gun, Francis asks Larry if he had ever realized how mush the Wreck Center children idolized their teacher. From his rocking chair, Larry asks if his “one sin” erases everything he did for his students.
With his question, Larry blatantly introduces morality into Francis’ idea of heroism. While Larry is playing devil’s advocate, he is forcing Francis to reckon with the fact that humans are by nature flawed, yet can still be considered heroes for isolated incidents that fit certain social criteria.
Once again, Francis simply replies that Larry should be asking Nicole, not him. As he stares down the barrel of the gun at his hero, Francis struggles to decide where to place the fatal shot, overcome with a desire to avenge Nicole (and the other girls like her) so strong that he can’t focus on details.
While Francis’ response seems poignant, it still shows that he is unable to entertain a more nuanced, mature view of heroism. Instead, he just focuses on the betrayal of his specific hero, keeping the focus personal and concrete instead of philosophical.
Still unfazed by the gun aimed at him, Larry becomes dismissive, explaining to Francis how he has all but lost his legs to the war: no more dancing, no more “sweet young things,” nothing that had defined his life before the war. When his honesty elicits disdain and not pity, Larry finally averts his eyes, wishing aloud that the two of them could return to the days when Francis looked at him like a hero.
Objectively, Larry’s confession shows how, like many of the novel’s veterans, he suffers from the trauma of war in ways that the general public will never see. His plea to Francis shows that even adults sometimes wish that they could return to the simplicity of childhood.
Impatient at last, Francis tells Larry to say his prayers and takes aim at his heart. Larry, however, cries out “wait” and withdraws his own pistol from a nearby cigar box. Instead of defending himself, though, Larry gently places the pistol in his own lap.
By sincerely telling Larry to say his prayers, Francis shows that his idea of religion does not preclude violence.
With an air of seriousness, Larry begins to explain to Francis that he too has a pistol, one that he often takes out of its box to place against his temple, wondering what it would feel like to one day pull the trigger and put an end to it all. With a sigh, he tells Francis to put his pistol away, that one gun “is enough for what has to be done.” Sensing Francis’ uneasiness, Larry ejects the pistol’s magazine, telling Francis that he’d always been safe with his teacher.
Larry’s confession of contemplating suicide makes him more like the other veterans in the novel, including Francis and Enrico, who seem fine outwardly but struggle to cope with the trauma of combat. By telling Francis he’d always been safe around his teacher, Larry references how childhood always seems safe because it ends as soon as suffering enters it.
Begging now, Larry pleads with Francis to put down his gun, saying that he wasn’t a cold-blooded murderer at heart. Finally, Francis assents, placing his pistol back in his pocket, and on Larry’s urging, turns to leave the apartment. When Francis reaches the door, Larry calls out from his chair, telling Francis that he believes he would have fallen on the grenade anyway if it meant saving the lives of his platoon. Downstairs, Francis hears a single, muffled gunshot, like a Ping-Pong ball striking a table.
Although he cannot bring himself to murder Larry, Francis proves that of the two Silver Star recipients, Francis is the closest to a true hero, since he realizes (at least somewhat) that more violence will not solve anything. In the end, when Francis compares the gunshot to a Ping-Pong ball strike, it symbolizes that the part of his childhood involving Larry is finally and fully dead.