It’s April 1963, the snow is mostly melted, the ice is gone from the sidewalks, and we’re streaking, we’re flying, we’re absolutely airborne on our bikes as we race to the center of town. Flash has a sleek new racer, one of those Schwinns, accented bright blue on the frame and handlebar. He’s hunched over in an aerodynamic crouch, so low you can’t see his eyes. The rest of us – Ziti, Rando, myself – we’re green with envy, so jealous we can’t see straight, but it doesn’t matter, not really; we know sooner or later our parents will give in and we’ll all get one. Well, Rando might have to earn the money to buy one for himself, but he’ll do it because we’re blood brothers, inseparable; we do together whatever it is that we do.
Right now we’re daredevils, we ride no-hands pedaling as fast as we can, skidding on the gravel and sand another winter has left behind, scattering stones, rising up out of our seats when we hit the bumps and train tracks, swerving to avoid all those wet, uneven potholes new this spring. Sometimes we go single file, but more often we ride three or even four abreast, flaunting traffic. We look back and forth at each other, craning our necks, clowning like fools, all of us wearing death’s-head grins bigger than the next guy, yelling whatever nonsense and insults we can think up. You’d think we were drunk or stoned, but it’s long before any of us ever held a beer bottle and long before any of us knew how to spell marijuana let alone toke on a joint. That revolution’s coming, yes it is, and Ziti will be right there in the center of it all, but not today, no sir, today we’re all just hurtling down the road together, careening around that terrible curve where the accident will happen all those years later, unmindful of risk and utterly too young to think of ourselves as anything but invincible, screaming down that long, oak-lined hill until we reach the final flat stretch and there it is, its simple red and white sign an irresistible beacon on the corner a hundred yards ahead up there on the left side of the road, pulling us in with the force of pure overwhelming gravity to our shrine, our temple, our secret place of all secret places.
“Hey, River!” Flash yells at me. “Wait up! Wait up, will ya?” But I won’t wait up. I’m wild to get there, obsessed, and nothing will slow me down.
We pedal furiously to the finish. When we screech up to the front step, we throw our bikes down recklessly on the sidewalk, each of us breathless from the final sprint to be first. We know it doesn’t matter, but it’s a ritual we share and nothing can change that, not among twelve-year-olds who are certain they’ll be best friends for life. We stand at the bottom of the short flight of stairs that will take us up to the worn-down, splintered stoop and the heavy wooden front door, its two large windows smudged with dirty fingerprints and in need of a good cleaning, its screens dingy and a bit more rusted this year from the bitter, snowy winter we’ve just endured. We’re panting hard, patiently surveying the empty sidewalk and the quiet street in both directions, making sure. We want no one we know to see us here, to spy us entering or leaving, or even worse, to come upon us when we’re inside. This, after all, is the deepest, most private bond of our friendship. We look again in every direction, but there’s no one. Once more we’re certain that our secret is safe. Elbows flying, hands playfully clutching and grabbing at each other’s clothing, we pound up the steps and rip open the door. We’re going to the CD.
Two years earlier, when we’re ten, something of a miracle occurs. We all convince our parents to send us to summer camp in Maine, the one and only year this will happen. It’s probably a financial hardship all around, but they agree to do it. With our camper’s trunks jammed to the breaking point – toiletries, shorts, T-shirts, socks, sneakers, baseball gear, comic books, pens, letter paper, stamped pre-addressed envelopes and postcards so that none of us have an excuse not to write home – we crowd into the northbound B&M train in Boston and, with excited anticipation and premature homesickness mixed together in more or less equal parts, we lurch away from the station. Hours later, we settle down in the Blue Group cabin at Camp Kimball somewhere near Mt. Desert Island and choose bunk beds together, ready for the best summer we’ll ever have. We arrive as Joey Santangelo, Stevie Weinstein, Randall O’Hara and Danny Malinsky. We’ll leave as Ziti, Flash, Rando and River.
Camp Kimball is a glorious experience. It’s deep in the pines on a quiet, loon-splashed lake where we swim and sail nearly every day. The counselors sometimes wake before dawn and motor out on the water to fish for breakfast, or head for the nearby Atlantic; when they bring back more than they want to eat, we get a taste of what’s left over, large-mouth bass, Atlantic salmon. We learn that the white, bleached pieces of curlicue driftwood with those irregular worm-like hieroglyphics etched onto the surface that are always washing up on the shoreline are called dry-kye, perhaps derived from French-Canadian slang, or maybe German, or Gaelic, or lumberjack lingo unique to northern Maine. We play capture the flag, softball, basketball; go out on the archery and shooting ranges every other day; make lanyards in arts and crafts; spend free time flicking baseball cards up against the cabin walls. On the few rainy days we encounter, every camper crowds into the dining hall for chess, checkers, board games and a viciously competitive card-passing elimination game named Snatch.
Once a week, the camp director Ezra LeFavre – “Z” to us – enters the Blue Group cabin long after bedtime with a single candle in hand and in a hoarse, gravelly voice perfect for the task, he tells us ghost stories. He strikes fear so deeply into our souls one night with the story of the haunted Canadian trapper Defago and his terrifying encounter with the moss-eating windigo that by the time the story is nearing its end all twenty-four Blue Group campers are huddled together in the center of the cabin floor, pressed tightly into each other for safety. As Z whispers the last few sentences of the story and blows the candle out, he leaves the cabin in total darkness. To mask our frightened whimpers as we crawl off to cower in our bunks, there is only the sound of the cool evening breeze rising off the lake and rushing through the tops of the towering pines like the fearsome windigo itself.
The annual camp ritual, Nickname Day, occurs early in the second week of camp. It’s a simple thing; to encourage camaraderie, everyone has to have a friendly, playful nickname. The four of us congregate to decide each other’s fate. For Joey, it’s an easy call. He loves pasta in any and all forms, spaghetti, linguini, rigatoni, shells. Every Monday night is ziti night, tomato sauce, butter, or plain, and Joey demonstrates an unmatched capacity for it. He’s Ziti from that point on. Randall is a strong, good-looking Irish kid with a real flair for boxing. Our parents have been talking about this handsome actor, Marlon Brando, and his role as a fighter in On the Waterfront, a movie we know nothing about except the actor’s name. We blend Brando and Randall to get Rando. He likes it, insists we never call him Randall or Randy again.
For Stevie and me things are a little more complicated. We both love comic books; they’re why we’ve been going to the CD since we discovered it when we were nine. Our favorite superhero is Green Lantern, and we both want a nickname that relates to him. Neither of us will relent so Ziti tosses a coin. Stevie calls heads. It comes up tails, and I get the Green Lantern name “River” thanks to Rando’s twisted way of thinking: 1) Hal Jordan is Green Lantern’s alter ego in real life; 2) We all love the song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Hallelujah,” which we just learned and now sing twice a week while we’re gathered around the campfire for cookouts. The River Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah, chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah. I’m now River.
This leaves Stevie. He’s pissed off that I got the Green Lantern name but fair’s fair. He loves another superhero, The Flash, and by coincidence Stevie is the fastest sprinter among us. The nickname makes perfect sense. Flash it is. By the end of the summer each of us can hardly remember our given name.
It’s lunch recess. The sixth-grade walkers – those of us who live close enough to our elementary school to get home for lunch in the hour we’re given to leave and return – gather at the front door and head into our neighborhood. On this particular day I dawdle at my locker an extra minute, fumbling with my notebooks, and when I close the locker door and sprint down the empty corridor to catch up with everyone I can’t believe my eyes. On the floor in front of me I see lying there like the loathsome, base thing that it is the evil Mrs. Pressman’s little red book. It’s tiny, much like the old, filled-up address book my mother keeps in her purse, and I scoop it up without breaking stride and stuff it deep down in my left side pocket. This find is a true prize, and I’m going to get a lot of attention from my friends.
When we’re safely beyond the school, I run up ahead of the pack, turn around to face everyone, and pull out Mrs. Pressman’s book, waving it back and forth and thrusting it over my head triumphantly.
“I’ve got it!” I cry out. “I’ve got the little red book!” Everyone starts yelling at once, jumping up and down, pointing at each other, trying to grab it away from me to see what’s inside. “How’d you get it, Danny?” they’re all calling out. “Where was it? What are you going to do now?” Besides Flash, Ziti and Rando, there’s April McGann, the best reader in our class, Suzy Lafrance, who wants to be a model when she grows up and already has the body and face that might let her cash in on the dream, Jimmy Grossman the math whiz, Lester Nixon, who’d give anything to figure out what the CD is and horn in on us, Arnold Basher carrying his beaten up old trombone case home from music lessons, and two or three other kids I don’t know very well.
We all know what’s in the book. Mrs. Pressman, whose tall, thin body, slightly bent features and watery eyes remind us of the green, squawking, crook-fingered Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, is the disciplinarian from hell. She gives out detentions and demerits indiscriminately, lurking in the well-lit corridors and entering classrooms willy-nilly to seek out infractions of school rules and anything else that offends her sensibilities. It doesn’t matter if you’re in her class or someone else’s. It’s a reign of terror, all recorded in the little red book where she keeps her class’s test scores and grades – time, date of offense, nature of offense, date of detention, actions assigned to the offender – all reported to teachers and Principal Schlamer every quarter, in turn making its way to parents in the “Conduct” section of everyone’s report card. There’s no escape. Until now.
We approach a sewer grate at the curb of the road. As I bend down with the book, I hear the slow trickle of water ten feet below us. I open the book and make to rip out the first page. Everyone has gathered around me in a tight, excited circle. Suzy’s smiling a private little smile, Jimmy looks stunned, Lester pushes someone aside to stand directly above me. Arnold Basher trudges away, unable to gather up the courage to join us in this small strike back at the Wicked Witch. Flash, Ziti and Rando are already egging me on.
“Should I do it?” I yell out, yanking the first small page from the four little rings that hold it inside the book.
“Do it, River!” Ziti is shouting, thumping Rando and Flash alternately on the back. “Do it! Do it!”
Suddenly they’re all shouting “Do it, Danny! Do it, River! Do it now!” And I do it. Methodically, carefully, I pull out one page after another and drop each one through the sewer grate as the sun beats down on us from a glorious deep blue sky devoid of clouds and the birds chirp their celebratory songs. Everyone is clapping as the last page flutters out of my fingers and down through the grate to be carried away by the befouled stream flowing in the sewer main below. I drop the empty red leather binder through the grate, and we hear a single plunk rise up like a gigantic exclamation point punctuating the finality of what I’ve done. The adrenaline is still flowing strongly a half hour later when we gather ourselves to walk back to school after lunch.
Just as the dismissal bell rings that afternoon, Principal Schlammer The Hammer bursts through the classroom door, the Wicked Witch trailing behind him. She’s a redhead, the only teacher who is, and right now the color fits her perfectly. Her eyes are blazing, burning around the room, coming to rest on me. She’s on fire, and I know already that I’m about to be in really big trouble.
My teacher steps aside as The Hammer beelines toward me in four long, thunderous strides. He’s a large man, muscular, with a deep baritone voice that adds authority to everything he says, and in an instant he’s looming over me, staring down from a very great height, the Wicked Witch hovering at his shoulder.
“Danny,” he roars, and I see immediately there are to be no preliminaries here. My execution will be swift and very public. “Daniel!”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Schlammer?” I’m trying to be brave, but it’s an exercise in futility. All I am is scared.
“Did you find Mrs. Pressman’s red notebook today?” His eyes bore into me as the Wicked Witch sucks in her breath and narrows her eyes to slits.
There’s no point in lying. Later, much later, I’ll learn that Mrs. Pressman accosted her class after lunch about the book, taking each of her students aside one at a time for a private, piercing inquisition. She got what she wanted from someone; it’s obvious they know I had the book. I admit it. “Yes sir, I did.”
“I’d like you to give it back to Mrs. Pressman immediately.”
“I can’t do that, Mr. Schlammer.”
“Why not, Danny?”
“I don’t have her book anymore.”
“Then who does have it, son? Did you give it to someone else?”
I’m starting to tremble now. My voice is shaking and I’m looking straight down at the floor. “No sir. I just don’t have it anymore.”
“Where is it then, Danny? Look up at me when you answer!” This question and order come not from Mr. Schlammer but from the Wicked Witch herself, who looks like she wants to pour boiling oil all over me, rip out my brain and sear my insides with a white-hot flame. Her face is as red as her very red hair, and her eyes are frog-like, bulging with anger, almost pulsating. She walks to the blackboard, picks up a piece of chalk and slowly scrapes it across the dusty green surface. I imagine the sound of knives being sharpened, sparks flying to every corner of the room as some gigantic instrument sizzles and hones each blade. She writes on the blackboard as if to emphasize her question, each word a stiletto to the heart. Where. Is. It?
I’m actually smiling at this moment to hold back the tears that would otherwise flow. I cover my mouth to hide this involuntary response to the stress. And then I say, “I ripped it up and threw it down the sewer.” There’s an unreal silence in the classroom.
The Wicked Witch explodes at me like a tornado. “You did what? You did what?” She turns to Mr. Schlammer. “Oh, John, all that work, all the grades, what’ll I do now? It’s lost. It’s completely lost.” Her words are like a wailing, plaintive echo. There’s no answer he can give to satisfy her. He starts to say “Ethel…” but stops before he gets out another word, instead just watches her as she rushes over to me and grabs me hard by the arm. “Let’s go, you little piece of….” She swallows whatever she was going to say. Spittle flies from her mouth. In five seconds we’re out the door, across the hall, and I’m squirming uncomfortably in a chair in her classroom. “You will have detention with me every afternoon for the next two weeks, is that clear? Don’t even open your mouth to answer. Each afternoon you will follow my instructions exactly or the detention period will be extended another day. Am I clear? Am I clear? You may answer now.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pressman, you’re clear.”
“What was in your mind, Daniel? Do you know what you’ve done?”
Of course I know exactly what I’ve done, and why I did it, but I can’t see that telling her she’s a hateful, mean-spirited shrew, that I did it to save some of my friends from her miserable, punitive ways will do them or me any good. I just stay mute.
“Very well then.” She hands me a piece of letter-size graph paper filled with row after row of very tiny squares. “Get yourself a pencil. Sharpen it well. Each day you’ll get a piece of graph paper like this one. Your job is to fill in every square on the page with the three numbers of the day. None of your numbers may touch or cross any of the lines that define the boxes. If they do, you’ll fail the detention and have to start over. Pass your paper in to me only when you’re finished with every box. I have plenty of work to do here, so we’ll stay as long as it takes. Today’s numbers are 7, 8, and 9. You may begin now.”
For two weeks, I fill in graph paper until my fingers ache and my eyes blur. I learn several new techniques for sharpening a pencil, including how to use an Exacto knife to whittle down the lead into a very fine point, something I have to do every afternoon a dozen times or more to fit all those numbers into the prison cell each square resembles. And as I do Mrs. Pressman’s bidding, all the while I’m wondering how there can be a Mr. Pressman waiting for the Wicked Witch to come home from work, and what he can possibly say to her, or she to him, when she walks through the door.
“Who did it?” I ask Ziti. The two-week detention is over, and so is my grounding: no friends, no phone, no television, no anything. Somehow I’ve survived my father’s fury, my mother’s chagrin, my teacher’s disappointment, my own humiliation. It’s Tuesday, the day we always go to the CD, and we’re biking there once again after the absence I alone have caused. It’s a four-mile ride including two main roads, and if our parents knew where we were going they would wring their hands about our safety and forbid it in an instant. Right now Ziti and I are riding side by side, Rando and Flash a hundred yards ahead. Someone told the Witch about the little red book, and I want to know who it was.
“River, we asked everyone. The girls swore they didn’t say a word, and we believe them. Basher didn’t want to be around to see what you did, and he says no. Lester says no but he was fidgeting around, trying to avoid us, and he looked guilty to me. Grossman hates her; he would have done the same thing if he had found the book. I think it was Lester.”
“Nixon. I knew it. Nixon. Wants to be a friend and then goes and does something like this. We will get him back. We will all get him back.”
“Forget it, River,” Ziti advises. “He’s a twerp. Not worth it. Forget it. Come on, we need to catch up with Flash and Rando.” We accelerate our pace, catch Flash and Rando, and in another minute we’re there, our bikes down on the sidewalk, our feet bolting us up the stairs and through the door. We’re standing inside our secret, hidden world.
It’s hard to say what we like best about this place; the dimness of the lighting, the overpowering and ever-present smell of Mike’s cigar, the incredibly cramped quarters, the way everything is jammed haphazardly onto shelves and racks that line the four walls and take up most of the modest interior floor space, the two display windows with their reversed red letters outlined in brown. They’re all part of the atmosphere, of course, but the truth is it’s really two other things that matter most. It’s Mike, the short, balding, round-faced proprietor who welcomes us enthusiastically every time we enter his store, who knows our names and lets us call him Mike, who’s friendly and lets us stay for hours even though he knows we never spend much money. And it’s the comic books. We’re fanatics, collectors, especially Flash and me. We go to the CD every Tuesday because that’s the day the new comics go on sale. Each week we know exactly which new issues will grace his shelves waiting for us to whisk them into our hands, exulting, joyous, not waiting to buy them before we read them from cover to cover right then and there, hungrily devouring each word, studying each colorful sketch, analyzing each twist and turn of plot, each nuance and hint of future events in the lives of our superhero heroes.
The comics are Mike’s specialty and he knows everything about them, each series, each character, each plotline. He knows the story of the secret origin of every superhero we love, their enemies, their weaknesses, their narrow escapes and earth-saving triumphs. Green Lantern’s lords, the Masters of the Universe, the loss of his powers induced by the color yellow. The panoply of Flash’s extraordinary enemies: Grodd the Gorilla, the Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, the Weather Wizard. The mysteries of Batman’s dark, brooding psyche. The hidden agonies of Wonder Woman, beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Mercury and stronger than Hercules, wielding her powerful instrument of Truth, a magic lasso. And more, and more, and more.
“Hi fellas,” Mike calls as we enter the CD on this balmy May afternoon, “missed you the last two weeks.” He comes out from behind the counter, the place he keeps the magazines we’d kill to see a year from now, the Playboys, the others wrapped in cellophane whose fleshy covers we can only glimpse from afar. Standing in front of the magazine rack, face to face with us, his feet splayed out to his sides, he sticks his arm forward to shake hands, the thing he always does when we show up each week. His brown-and-black-pocketed cardigan buttons in a paunch that’s heavier and rounder than it was a few months earlier.
“Yeah,” I reply, “that’s my fault. A little trouble at school.”
“New Green Lantern is in today,” he says, knowing the reaction this will engender. “And in the past two weeks new issues of Batman, Superman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Flash. You guys have a lot of catching up to do.”
We’re already jumping and shouting as we slap Mike’s hand in what passes for a handshake and practically knock him over, pushing each other into the far right corner where the comic racks start. We ignore everything else the CD offers, the medications and personal care products, the snacks, the local and foreign newspapers, the hundreds of magazines and journals covering news, sports, politics, beauty, automobiles, literature. One of the sensationalizing tabloids hawks a terrible headline: Gigaton Bomb over Cleveland! Destruction for A Thousand Miles! In the atomic age we’re learning to fear, we should be swayed to pick up this paper and read about the awful things the Russians have in store for us, how President Kennedy will respond to yet another crisis, but nothing will deter us from our goal.
The comics are displayed along the entire right wall from floor to ceiling, five dark wooden racks, each issue of each comic carefully separated in its own compartment. We find the new Green Lantern first, a copy for each of us. Before we start reading we engage in our own ritual of emulation, joining our right hands together as one, whispering the oath Hal Jordan utters as he charges his power ring by holding it against the battery-like green lantern:
In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!
We’re certain Mike hears us, but he never says a word. He understands us, the ways of twelve-year olds, how, for example, we each ache beyond reason to be the superhero we admire most. I dream of having a power ring, of simply thinking what I want to accomplish and having the ring enact my every wish. It’s such a powerful dream and it occurs so often that I’m certain one day I will wake from it and find the ring truly on my index finger and the lantern strongholded away in my dresser, tucked carefully among the shirts and sweaters. The others, I’m sure, dream as I do. For now, though, we sit next to each other in the back-right corner of the CD wherever we can find a perch, eager, thirsting, reading away the hours in our veiled, clandestine euphoria. When we can stay no longer, we make our purchases, say goodbye to Mike for another week, grab our bikes and ride slowly back home, trying to savor for as long as we possibly can the feeling of unbreakable unity we carry home every time we visit the CD. Dimly, ever so dimly, we perceive chasing us steadily the nearly unbearable burden of wanting to preserve this feeling forever, but we push it from our senses with every fiber of strength we can muster.
It’s late in the evening, and my parents have just shut off the television for the night and turned down the lights. Twice I found them whispering to each other when I walked into the family room to ask them a question about my homework, and both times they glanced at me and immediately stopped talking. Something is definitely up. Now they’re tiptoeing to their bedroom which adjoins mine at the end of the hallway. I hear the door glide quietly against the fluffed up woolen carpet and close with a soft, indistinct click. My younger brother and sister each have their own room on the other side of the hall, but their bedtime is much earlier than mine and they’ve both been asleep for an hour or two by now.
Sometimes, when the house is very still, when the windows are closed against the cold or the weather, I can hear my parents talking in their bedroom. They never leave the door open, but we share a common wall and if I turn off my radio or stop concentrating on whatever I’m studying or reading, especially if I slip down off the edge of my bed and nudge my ear up against the wall as I’m doing tonight, I can catch a snippet of their conversation. My mother’s voice, with its higher timbre and her penchant for enunciating words distinctly, is much easier to hear than my father’s low, gruff register.
“Artie,” my mother says, “It’s about what Connie Bailey told me today.” Sure enough, my father says something I can’t make out at all. Now my mother is saying “It looks like that Roberta Jankowicz has her little claws into another one. Bob Nixon! Can you believe it? Why would he do such a stupid thing? Roberta, that little harlot. What a whore! Connie saw Bob’s car at her house today, and she says there’ve been several times…some of the other women in the neighborhood…” I can’t get it all. The words are too fast, too garbled. My father sounds angry.
“Janice, c’mon, Bob Nixon?” He shouts it out, unmindful of the late hour and the strength of his voice. He quiets a bit, says something else that’s too muffled to hear through the wall. Then I hear a loud “Artie! Shhh! Danny!” from my mother. Now there’s only indistinct whispering.
I don’t grasp the entire import of what they’re saying, not right away, but I know who they’re talking about. We all do. We rode our bikes past her house all summer long last year just to catch a glimpse of her. Roberta Jankowicz, the voluptuous divorced blonde woman with the hourglass figure who lives way on the other side of our neighborhood over on Jefferson Road. The Wiz. She’s always wearing shorts, tight little white ones that show off her butt, and a kind of thin jersey that she ties in a knot just below those beautiful knockers that strain against the fabric, her nipples etched dark and butte-like for all to see. But what does Lester’s father have to do with The Wiz? I press my ear harder against the wall, hoping for more, but there’s no more talking, only an occasional brief sound, a soft moan, something like wood or maybe a hand knocking gently against a wall.
The next day in school I can’t wait for our lunch period. Ziti, Rando, Flash and I scoop up a table and I tell them quietly what I heard through the wall the night before about the Wiz and Mr. Nixon. We’re all still pretty naïve about sex. We think we know about the way a man’s and a woman’s body might work together, but despite everyone’s pretensions and posturing, we’re not going to know most of what’s really important for another year.
“So what’s a harlot?” I’m asking. “My mother called her a loose woman. And what about whores? We don’t really know anything about them.”
Ziti lifts his middle finger to me, thrusts it toward the ceiling, twists it back and forth a few times. “That’s what they do,” he says. “Whores. They fuck.”
I’m about to ask him if he actually knows what that means when one of the guys at the table next to us pulls his chair over and props up his elbows. It’s Billy Slaughter, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. “Don’t you guys know about the facts of life yet?” he gloats. We all find a way to study our uneaten hamburgers, our thumbs and fingernails, the students walking past our table, anything but look back into Billy’s eyes.
“It’s the sex,” he says. “Shit.” He’s staring at all of us one by one. “It’s like this. I’m going to China, in her fachina. I’m going to France, when I get in her pants.” Rando glances over at Suzy Lafrance across the cafeteria. He thinks he’s in love with her. Thankfully, right at this moment she’s oblivious to our presence and our woeful lack of critical knowledge. “You guys better figure it out soon or your dicks are going to just fall off from lack of use.” He says this loudly enough for his friends to hear, and they whoop it up for a minute at our expense. Billy stands up and walks away laughing.
I look at Ziti, then at Flash, then at Rando. “Lester Nixon’s father is having sex with The Wiz?”
It’s the last day of school, a big one for us because next year we’re moving on to junior high, losing our status as kings of the hill but eager beyond measure to become teenagers. We’ve survived math contests, surprise exams, endless boring assemblies, our first encounter with a jockstrap, detentions galore. We burst out of school after the last dismissal bell at noon, jumping, yelling, shouting “”See ya soon” to kids we won’t see again until September. The four of us biked to school today and now we’re heading for an afternoon of pure, unfettered play, first to the arcade to lose ourselves in pinball mania, then off to the CD.
Rando and Flash are the original pinball wizards. I still think of them dueling each other for hours whenever the oldies station plays The Who crashing out Tommy, A Rock Opera: “that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!” I still see them hovering over the glass casings of the machines we used to play, Oklahoma, Wagon Train, Aloha with its swaying hula dancers in the yellow and red grass skirts. They would lean in just so, their fingers lightly gripping the flipper buttons on both sides of the cabinet, the flashers and bells and chimes of the machine like the cacophony in a Las Vegas casino as their point totals escalate higher and higher for all to see. They play with wild intensity, their bodies gyrating, throwing knees and shoulders forward and back, watching the lightning-like trajectory of each shining, quarter-sized silver ball as it flies up the entry ramp to the playfield, careening off bumpers, activating the rollover buttons, bouncing from one point-getting roto-target to another (“10 points when lit!”), lodging momentarily in the jet shooters that capture the ball and spit it out into play again. They slam away at the flippers in a furious onslaught of defense against losing the ball and ending their turn.
“It’s More Fun to Compete!” says the advertising slogan brightly painted on the upraised backglass of the Gottlieb company machines, and compete we do, though Ziti and I are just pretenders. Rando and Flash have the skills that matter most. They possess incredible flipper control, allowing them to catch the ball in play, settle it down, cradle it in the elbow formed between the flipper and the sidewall, and then send it rocketing upward to exactly the location they want. Even more importantly, they are experts at imparting physical force to the machine, pushing it left, right, forward, sometimes even lifting it off the ground just firmly enough to help propel the ball where they want it without causing the machine to suddenly go dark and display the disastrous game-ending “TILT!” sign. They routinely put in a dime or a quarter to get things started, then win free games for as long as we stay, the “games remaining” counter making that sharp, deeply satisfying clicking sound – thwock! – it always makes each time it records another free game, like a steel trap slapping shut.
Today we’re taking turns duking it out on a machine we’ve never seen before when Lester Nixon walks in.
“Hey, look who’s here, it’s the fearsome foursome!” he says, striding up to us and checking out the progress of the game. Rando’s winning, but Flash is coming on strong. “What are you guys up to?”
Ziti wastes no time in responding. “We’re just beating up on the pinballs for an hour or two,” he says, sucking in his breath before he taunts Lester the way the four of us have taunted him so many times before, “and then we’re going to the CD.”
Lester’s half-grin disappears from his mouth. This is the sore spot between him and us, the separation point, the shielded compartment that spawns embitterment and jealousy. He looks around at each of us, trying to decide if he’s going to risk it, ask us once again if he can come with us. He knows the CD is our secret place, how much we protect its identity; he knows how many times, dozens at least, we’ve told him no. But he can’t help himself, he wants so badly to be accepted into our exclusive little circle. He swallows his pride and asks us yet again.
And yet again we tell him no.
He doesn’t stick around for long after that. “Some day…” he mutters under his breath. He doesn’t look up as he walks out, his disappointment and belittlement raw and palpable, a fire searing the air all around us.
We’re all in a pretty chipper mood when we get to the CD later that afternoon. We destroyed the new pinball machine, even Ziti and me, and several new comics are waiting on the racks. Plus we’re well into baseball card season and Mike keeps the CD well-stocked with the latest releases of card packs from Topps and Fleer. We’re all hoping to find an Al Kaline, a Carl Yastrzemski, maybe one of those special multi-player Yankees cards.
We’re sitting in the back corner near the comics, opening packs of baseball cards and comparing finds when someone yanks the door of the CD open. I glance up, catch a glimpse of a T-shirt I’ve already seen earlier today. “Oh shit, shit, shit,” I say, scrambling my cards together and putting my finger to my mouth in a desperate attempt to silence Ziti’s loud recitation of every card in every pack he’s opening, Flash and Rando’s repeated cadence as they look at each other’s cards “Got him, got him, got him, need him, trade ya?” What we need is to become instantly invisible, but that particular superpower is in short supply today.
It’s Lester Nixon.
He saunters over, wide-eyed, unable to hide the brief look of glorious triumph pasted on his flushed, pimply face. And then his countenance changes. Oddly, he looks as if he’s going to cry buckets, so potent is the emotional force of his discovery. “So this is it,” he says. He looks all around the place, peering into corners, splaying his palms as if wondering what the big deal is, why we accord this shabby little variety store such purposeful, blind reverence. I think he understands though, without having to be told. He understands about secret places and best friends and the power these notions have when they’re joined together in a place like the CD.
Lester stands above us looking down at our cards, our comics, not wisecracking, not gloating. In a funny way, he looks almost respectful. But it doesn’t matter to us. I’m thinking, shouldn’t there be a sound of some kind when something so big is in the midst of fracturing, of being lost? But there’s no sound at all. There’s only silence as Ziti and Rando and Flash and I look back and forth at each other, bewildered, dazed, immobilized.
It seems like an eternity passes, and then I’m the first one of us to stand up. I brush past Lester, then turn to look at him as I open the door of the CD to leave. There’s no hostility or anger in my voice; those feelings will only come later. “You’ve ruined it,” is all I say. “You’ve ruined it. You’ve ruined it.” And then I walk out.
We’ve been fortunate, Amy and me. We met during sophomore year at college, and although those years were dominated by the fierce, turbulent politics surrounding the Vietnam War and the emergence of a generation of drug-taking, music-driven, sexually uninhibited activists who turned quiet university campuses across the country on their heads, our relationship somehow survived it all. Our son has entered the world of next generation network technology out in Silicon Valley; our daughter has given us grandchildren. Today we’ve got one of them with us, Jonathan, three years old and asleep in the back seat of our car. It’s the only time he’s quiet.
We live about forty-five minutes from the town I grew up in, so it’s easy for us to go back once a year as I insist we do. It’s only for a brief visit, never more than a couple of hours. Today’s the day, and we’re heading for the neighborhood where Flash, Ziti, Rando and I adventured together. It’s blazingly bright but unseasonably cold, even for January, and the car’s heating system is working overtime to keep us warm. I reach out to Amy, grasp her gloved hand, run my own briefly against her cheek. She squeezes my hand back, lays her head against my shoulder for a moment.
Every year Amy humors me in this annual nostalgia trip, somehow recognizing the forcefulness of the need that drives me back, even though I’ve never told her the entire truth about the events that cause me to return. I’m not certain myself why I feel compelled to go back, not entirely. I’ve told her about Flash, Ziti, and Rando, about all the things we did together, and of course about going to the CD and the day Lester Nixon walked in on us, intruding on our holy ground. That seems to be enough for her, to believe I’m on a vision quest, an attempt to re-create the enduring, remembered glories of youthful friendship; she’s never asked me anything more, though there’s no doubt she must have questions. I’m sure I’ll tell her some day if I ever work it through, if I can ever purge the guilt I created that summer and carry with me still. Maybe if I talk with her about it I’ll achieve some resolution, but I can’t seem to do it. It’s a continuing catch-22.
It’s important to me that Amy and I be faithful to the route the four of us used to take when we biked to the CD all those years ago, so we start out in front of the house where I grew up, and then it’s up the block, a right, another right, and we reach Flash’s driveway, the house he lived in just at the top of the long, graceful hill we used for sledding on all those wonderful days when we caught a snowstorm and school was cancelled and we were free, free, free! all day long. No one from any of our families still lives in these houses now, not the parents who’ve all moved to warmer climates or passed on, nor any siblings. I still remember the wrenching, terrible ache I felt the day Flash moved away in eighth grade, across the country to California; we kept in touch through high school, but each year the contacts were less frequent, our common ground eventually reduced to talking about the sports we both loved and lying about the things we were doing with the girls we dated. By senior year in college, we had completely lost contact.
“Tell me again the way this worked, this CD thing of yours,” Amy implores. She likes to see that faraway look in my eyes she knows so well and to hear the occasional catch in my voice as I tell her the way it was.
“I would pick up Flash,” I say, grinning from ear to ear with the memories rattling around in my head, “and then we’d race each other to Ziti’s. It had to be almost a mile, and Flash and I’d be breathless and in a sweat by the time we got there. Ziti was always waiting at the end of the driveway to decide the winner if it was close. Then the three of us headed to Rando’s, but he’d never be ready, so we’d bang on the door, and his mother would answer.”
“ ‘Randall, your friends are here!’ she’d bellow down the hallway, and then, turning to the three of us with a twinkle in her eye and a look of amusement lighting up her eyes, she’d fix each of us with a knowing stare and in that hypnotic lilting Irish brogue of hers ask the question all our parents were always asking, ‘Now where would you boys be goin’ on a fine day such as this?’ And one of us, usually Flash, he’d just look at her politely, shuffle his feet a moment, wait for Rando to join us, and then answer with a straight face, ‘Why Mrs. O’Hara, we’re going to the CD!’ We’d burst out laughing, whacking each other on the arms and shoulders, shouting inanities, and we’d leap out the door, jump on our bikes and be gone with Mrs. O’Hara’s often-asked but never-answered question echoing faintly in our ears. “Well, what’s so special about this CD place of yours and where exactly might it be?” Amy smiles through every word.
From Flash’s driveway, Amy and I trace the route to Ziti’s and then to Rando’s, and although she knows the story well by now and doesn’t need reminding, I remind her anyway, telling her how after Flash moved to the West Coast Ziti seemed to just drift away from Rando and myself, maybe because we were placed in different academic tracks, maybe because he played baseball, football and basketball and found himself in the athletes clique while Rando and I were driven to try to best each other’s classroom performance and grades. The last time I saw Ziti…
The last time I saw Ziti was at Rando’s funeral mass, thirty-nine years and three hundred sixty-two days ago exactly. I know this time span with such precision because I come back with Amy every year on the same date, the day Rando lost control of his car in the blinding snow and took the winding downhill curve too fast, the curve we’re approaching now on the perfectly dry and sand-whitened roadway, his tires unable to hold the road surface on the snow-covered ice that made driving on the night of the accident impossibly hazardous. The police said he must have died instantly. I can’t avoid what’s in my mind’s eye, what I’ve always imagined about that night: the impact with the retaining barrier throwing the car skyward, Rando and Suzy screaming or completely silent, I’m never sure which, the car hanging briefly in the air as the snow whips into the windshield blinding them both to their terrifying trajectory, the wind howling around and through the chassis for one terrible moment, and then the car inverting, falling, landing upside down, caving in the roof and crushing Rando’s head and chest. There were no seatbelts. That Suzy survived the crash, albeit in critical condition with severe internal injuries and fractures of both legs, her modeling career ended, was a not so minor miracle.
The police said there was no evidence that drinking was a factor in the accident. Nothing was ever said publicly about the marijuana and the LSD tabs that Ziti and I were certain must have been in the glove compartment, a point of information we were privileged to know only because Ziti was Rando’s supplier. He was the whole neighborhood’s supplier and had been since we were seniors in high school. Post-mortem tests looking for drug use were still rare in those days; if any were taken and analyzed, the results were kept private by Rando’s family, or by Suzy’s.
Flash was stunned and actually cried on the phone when I called him with the news. Even though he hadn’t seen any of us in more than five years, he begged his parents for an airline ticket and flew in from California to attend the service. It was the last time you could say the four of us were together. He stayed on another two days with me in my parents’ house, reminiscing about old times, comparing college stories, both of us hoping we might find a way to resurrect a friendship that had once meant so much to us. It was a visit both comfortable and terribly strained, the way things are with people who have grown apart yet yearn for the closeness they once had. But when he boarded the plane to fly home, it marked the final time we would see each other. Something about Rando’s death, maybe its suddenness, maybe the knowledge that our foursome was gone, that we’d never see ourselves together at some free-spirited, happy reunion, maybe that was enough to extinguish any lingering thoughts we might have harbored that somehow our friendship could cycle back around to the way it once had been.
As for Ziti and me, after the accident we simply stayed away from each other. I could not bring myself to call him. I suspected, maybe irrationally, that Rando had been dropping acid that night and was tripping from the LSD, that he was out there driving his own private hallucinogenic highway. Ziti must have known I harbored these thoughts and would blame him, at least in part, for what happened. He never called me to say otherwise, never tried to defend himself or suggest that in truth we didn’t know and would never know. The drifting apart that had started years earlier widened to an impassable crevasse, severing the minimal contact left between us, the remainder of our friendship in shreds.
At the exact location where Rando’s car plowed through and over the guardrail, I pull off to the side of the road. Amy takes my hand while I offer a silent prayer for my long-departed friend. In the back seat, Jonathan slumbers peacefully. As I always do, I step out of the car to leave a bouquet of flowers, this year in a few inches of freshly fallen snow. I try to stand them up, give them purchase that might last a day or two, a futile effort to ensure that other drivers will see them and know that something important happened at this location, something someone wants remembered.
In a minute I’m back behind the wheel and we’re driving the last mile to the CD, or, to be more accurate, to the place where the CD used to be when we were kids. It hasn’t been there for a long time, of course. That little drugstore cum variety store had been on the first floor of an ancient three-story red brick building situated at the corner of two quiet streets several blocks away from the main center of commerce where all the busiest clothing and hardware and sporting goods stores were clustered. Somehow it had survived into the early eighties, still sporting that old “Mike’s Town Variety” sign, the owner we loved probably scratching out a marginal income until the building was sold, completely refurbished and converted to condominiums.
I notice, as I always do, how much the large, all-encompassing canvas my memories are painted on seems now so much more compressed, so small and unimportant. When I took Amy here for the first time, I mentioned how exaggerated these memories seem when seen now through the unsparing prism of adulthood. An English major who had also studied the more contemporary Russian poets – Voznesensky, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko – she immediately recited from Yevtushenko what he wrote when he first returned as a young adult to the town of his birth: Somehow the Corn Exchange had got smaller, so had the chemist shop, so had the park; it was as if the whole world were smaller than it was when I left it.
“Don’t you see?” she had asked me. “It’s a universal theme, the adjustment of childhood perceptions to reality. Why are you surprised? For most of us it’s like the house we grew up in or our second-grade classroom, more modest than we remember, maybe even cramped, not the spacious, generous setting the mind still wants to place us in.”
We don’t linger at the CD. Our visit there is purely ceremonial, its only purpose for me to dutifully fulfill the promise I made to myself to return there every year on this date after stopping at the accident site. We return to the old neighborhood the way we came, passing my old house once more. The circuit is complete. There’s only one more thing that needs to be done.
When we pull up across the street from the house where we always stop, it’s not where Flash or Rando or Ziti lived. It’s Lester Nixon’s house. We’ve done this so many times now I can’t imagine why Amy hasn’t tried to beat the story out of me, threaten separation or divorce if I don’t finally come clean. As we get older we get more honest, that’s something. There’s her Russian poet in my head again, urging me forward, but somehow, even with the woman I share everything with, who will never judge me, I can’t seem to tell her the story. I wonder about myself, my capacity for deception. If it’s not deception, what is it? Avoidance? Misdirection? Indifference?
Sitting in the car with Amy, glancing over at the house where the Nixons used to live, I still see the events of the summer when we were twelve as if they had happened yesterday. After Lester discovered us in the CD, after he claimed our secret as his own, we feel our spirit broken, our camaraderie temporarily askew as if we are disoriented, punch-drunk prizefighters thrown together in a boxing ring somewhere in a place we don’t recognize.
We’re standing outside the CD a week after Lester walked in on us. It’s an unusually hot and humid day, and the sky is a threatening gray. We all worked up a sweat biking down here and our shirts are wet and stained, our underwear damp beneath our shorts. We’re uncomfortable about everything. Somehow we all know what we’ve lost. We’re feeling dirty, soiled, beaten. Now Lester can find us at will, crash our tight little friendship anytime he chooses. It’s not the way we want things to be. We won’t let it happen. Deep down, we all know this will be the last time we go to the CD together, but it’s Flash who gives voice to it first.
“I don’t think I want to come here anymore,” he murmurs, his eyes downcast, his voice broken and throaty. He swallows hard, once, a second time. “We’re outgrowing it, aren’t we?” His tone is pleading and unhappy, sullen. “We’re outgrowing it. We’re giving up baseball cards, and the comics are getting kind of dumb, don’t you think? We’re outgrowing it.” We’d like to convince ourselves that he’s right, that we can just abandon this center of gravity that binds us together, but the truth is we’re hurt deeply and we want to exact retribution.
I’m angry, and shout back at Flash immediately. “That’s not it, Flash, and you know it. We all know it. We still love the comics. I swear I’m going to read Green Lantern forever! And Mike, we love seeing Mike and giving him shit about his cigar! And he’ll still let us stay here for hours. It’s Lester, that asshole. I can’t believe he tracked us down. I can’t believe he found us here.” Now all of us are swearing at Lester simultaneously. “Turd! Motherfucker! Shithead! Fucking asshole!” It’s a crescendo of profanity, twelve-year-old style, and it just reinforces our need to do something about Lester.
We bike home slowly and quietly. When we get to Ziti’s house, we grab lemonades from his mother and huddle together around his picnic table, seeking shade and solace under the backyard forest of tall northern pines. And we plot out a summer’s worth of revenge. The truth is it’s harder on us than any of us will admit. We’ve all been brought up in the “do unto others…” mold. We’re not bullies, and Lester’s actually a pretty good guy. We play baseball and football together. He’s a good sport, a strong athlete, and he plays fair. On the other side of the coin, he dresses up to go to school, he’s super-polite to the teachers in a way that makes the rest of us look bad, he hates comic books and he cries a lot for no apparent reason. He just wants so much to be part of our inner circle that when we don’t invite him in he tries to force himself on us. But the four of us are tightly bonded, immovable; there will be no fifth friend, at least not Lester the Invader.
All through July and early August, we conduct our campaign of harassment. We sabotage his bicycle, gumming the seat, breaking spokes, letting the air out of his tires. We leave him out of baseball games. We invite him to non-existent games. We gang-tackle him a few times in touch football. It doesn’t take long for Lester to figure out what’s going on. It’s not surprising that he strikes back in a way he knows will hurt us as much as he possibly can.
“Hey River,” he calls out triumphantly, riding his bike past my house, ringing the doorbell, calling me on the phone. “Want to go the CD with me? I’m going to the CD this afternoon. Going to the CD.” He does the same to Flash, to Ziti and Rando, and he gets exactly the result he wants. We seethe about him, we burn, and our hostility grows. Quietly, privately, I’ve been thinking for a while about another kind of retribution, turning it over in my mind, and these mocking provocations only serve to reinforce my churning fury at Lester.
Maybe if I’d told the other guys what I was going to do, they would have stopped me.
In the third week of August, the opportunity is suddenly there. Ziti and Flash are away on vacation with their families. There’s a baseball game Rando organized at a field on the other side of town, our neighborhood against their neighborhood, and Lester will be part of our team, though I won’t. I begged off. It’s Thursday, the day each week when I see Lester’s father’s car parked in The Wiz’s driveway, always for just a couple of hours in the early afternoon, and I can’t do what I plan to do if I’m on a baseball field across town.
I bike past the Wiz’s house and sure enough there’s the car, a 1958 Edsel Corsair, the roof white above the narrow rectangular windshield, the body an orangey red, the oversized headlights flanking the elongated air intake that looks like a narrow nose and mouth joined together and stretched open painfully in a grotesque vertical oval. Like a tell-tale fingerprint, Mr. Nixon’s Boston Red Sox display ornament hangs from the rearview mirror. In the house the curtains and shades in every window are drawn against the light and heat, and there’s no one to be seen in the front or backyard.
I race to Lester’s house, almost two miles distant, and ring the doorbell. In a moment Mrs. Nixon opens the door, Lester’s baby sister Valerie cradled in the crook of her left arm.
“Danny?” Her eyebrows arch quizzically. It’s the first time I’ve rung their bell all summer, and she certainly must know what’s going on between Lester and the rest of us.
“Hello, Mrs. Nixon. Is Lester home? I thought maybe we’d bike over to the ball game together. It’s a long way.”
She searches me with an odd, curious stare. “Danny, he left about twenty minutes ago. I guess you’ll have to catch up with him at the game.”
“Oh.” I try to look disappointed. “Well, OK then. Oh, Mrs. Nixon?” The baby’s fussing in her arms, and I know I’d better be quick.
“Yes, Danny?” She’s short and abrupt, impatient. It’s clear she wants me to leave.
“Well, I was wondering, did you and Mr. Nixon sell your Edsel to Mrs. Jankowicz over on Jefferson Road? A little while ago I thought I saw a car like that with a Red Sox emblem hanging in the front window parked over at Mrs. Jankowicz’s house. A red and white one, just like yours.”
Mrs. Nixon’s face seems to crumble, her features sagging, her eyes glazing over for just a moment. She can’t mask the sudden wave of dread my carefully chosen words must have inspired. “No, Danny, no, we haven’t sold the car,” she says, her voice sounding drier, more brittle than before. There’s hesitation in her words. “Maybe it’s someone else’s car you saw.”
“Well, OK then, thanks Mrs. Nixon. I guess I’d better get over to the ball game.” I turn away. She closes the door without saying goodbye.
It’s the era of the one car family and the stay-at-home mother, and it’s a long way on foot with a baby carriage from the Nixon’s house to the Wiz’s house on Jefferson. As I bike away with no plans for what I’ll do next, I’m thinking maybe the best I can hope for is what my parents would call a little domestic discord in the Nixon family, accusations and denials, Lester stuck in the middle of an unhappy situation for a time. But Mrs. Nixon surprises me. When I bike along the route from the Nixons’ to the Wiz’s house a half an hour later, leisurely patrolling to see if maybe, just maybe, Mrs. Nixon will want to check things out for herself, there she is. She’s up ahead of me, pushing the baby carriage in a determined way, striding purposefully, clearly moving at a pace that’s not a casual stroll. There’s a light pink scarf tied above her hair, something of a makeshift sun bonnet, and there are small circles of perspiration showing on her blouse under her arms and across parts of her lower back. I’m certain these are signs of tension and panic, not just the effects of the intense August heat. I don’t approach her, and I hope she doesn’t see me. I head off on an indirect route to Jefferson Road. I need to find a hiding place in the vicinity of the house of Wiz, an observation point. And there’s a good one, a tall, shapeless hedge at the house diagonally across the road.
Mr. Nixon’s car is still there in the Wiz’s driveway.
Mrs. Nixon leaves Valerie sleeping in the baby carriage on the sidewalk and strides up the walkway to Roberta Jankowicz’s front door. She rings the doorbell several times, but no one answers, so she begins pounding on the door and yelling her husband’s name. “Robert! Robert! Robert! Robert!” These two syllables, sounding less like a name and more like an epithet each time she spits them from her fevered mouth, ring out in her strong, firm alto over and over again. Her voice does not break, not even once, and she is not crying.
I see her step back from the door as Valerie begins to make loud noises in the carriage. For a moment, as she cranes her neck to her left and then to her right, it seems as if she’s trying to decide whether to walk around the house looking through the curtained windows or hurl her body straight at the door, this harsh unyielding barrier that separates her from the father of her children, so brazen and careless to be where he is for this midday tryst with his lover. And then the door opens.
I can’t be certain, from my perch behind the hedge, who has answered and is standing there facing Mrs. Nixon. My view is too obscured by the greenery and by the limited angle of view keeping me out of Mrs. Nixon’s sight. I hear words in a low voice, probably Mr. Nixon’s, then something back from his wife, and then I see Mr. Nixon move through the doorway. He steps across the threshold and reaches out his arms as if trying to take Mrs. Nixon to his chest. He glances over her shoulder, sees the umbrella-like carriage shielding his daughter from the shimmering sun, casts his eyes for one brief instant in the direction of the hedge that hides me from the events unfolding across the way. There’s a sudden look of surprise on his face, but it’s not because he’s spied me there. I’ll never find out if he saw me. At that same moment, as if in slow motion, I see Mrs. Nixon raise her left hand, fingers tight and palm open, and bring it forward without hesitation to strike Mr. Nixon on the side of the face with as much force as she can summon. The sound her hand makes on his face is sharp and loud, demanding attention. Even though the air is thick with humidity and the steady drone of insects, the sound seems to carry along the street, a deadly thunderclap announcing the end of something vulgar and unclean. Mr. Nixon is mute and still when she raises her hand a second time, closes her fist, and rakes his cheek open with the prongs of the diamond she wears but no longer wishes to wear.
Valerie is crying in her carriage. Mrs. Nixon turns and walks to the sidewalk, her head still, her eyes staring straight ahead. She reaches in for a moment to soothe her daughter, holds a warm bottle to her tiny lips. She begins the long walk home without looking back. Mr. Nixon follows her with his eyes for as long as she is in his sight, the blood from his cheek winding along his jawline, tracing a path down his neck and onto his starched white shirt where a bright irregular stain shaped like a diseased cell gradually blooms and widens. When he can no longer see her, he heaves his shoulders forward, takes a handkerchief to his face, and steps back inside.
I feel Amy shaking me gently, bringing me back to the present. I have seen all of these events with the speed of memory, compressed, almost instantaneous, and I’m slightly disoriented.
“Did I fall asleep?” I ask.
“It was more like you were in a trance, daydreaming,” Amy answers. “We’ve only been here a couple of minutes. Jonathan woke up and wants your attention.” I lean into the rear seat, give him a playful tap on the knee.
“Hey buddy,” I say. “What’s shaking?” He grabs my hand, laughs, babbles something indecipherable. I turn back to Amy. “Let’s get going.” I turn the key and begin to pull away from the curb, thinking about how it all finally ended.
None of us will see Lester for the rest of that summer. We focus on our baseball cards, sell our entire collection of well-read comics, more than two hundred, to the neighborhood barber shop for twenty dollars. And then one night, just before school starts, my parents tell me over dinner that Lester’s father had to move away to Ohio, or maybe it was Idaho, to take a new job. Could you and your friends, Danny, find a way to be a little nicer to Lester this year, they ask, circumstances being what they are? Lester comes to school for the first two weeks and then tells the teachers he and his mom and his baby sister are moving away. He won’t say where they’re going, but there’s no talk of Mr. Nixon.
We were good kids, all of us. We had disagreements, fights, jealousies, but none of us ever intended real harm to anyone else. In the ring of mostly white suburbs burgeoning west of Boston in those days, it was rare to find a single parent family, a divorced couple, a broken home of any kind. Families were strong, couples stayed together, virtually every kid any of us knew had a mom and a dad. I changed that for Lester Nixon. When I walked up to the Nixon’s house that steamy August day and asked Mrs. Nixon about the Edsel, I knew what I was doing, just as I had when I ripped up Mrs. Pressman’s little red grade book and jammed the pages into the sewer drain in harsh, unthinking anger.
As Amy and I drive down Jefferson and turn onto the main route that will take us most of the way home, traffic slows to a crawl. I glance in the rearview mirror, expecting to see Jonathan’s shining face, his beaming, infectious smile. But the image I see isn’t Jonathan. It’s the face of Lester Nixon the last time I saw him, that late September afternoon he walked out of school for the final time. He’s cleaning out his locker when I come around the corner and nearly run into him. I step back, embarrassed, tongue-tied, consumed immediately by a terrible gnawing guilt about so many things, all of them tied to Lester.
Neither of us says a word. We just stand there looking at each other for the longest while, hands by our sides, feet completely still on the scuffed, tired linoleum. Lester’s face is an impassive, proud mask, his features solid and chiseled, conveying a growing athleticism. He struggles to keep it that way, waiting me out, surely hoping I’ll leave. But I don’t. I can’t. It’s as if a power entirely beyond my own control has taken hold of my body and cemented me down in the face of a wretched, vengeful demon. And then, against his will, Lester just slowly dissolves, his features seeming to crater in on themselves, his color draining away until his lips begin to tremble and his eyes take on a vacant, glassy helplessness. He turns to his locker, and I walk away.
Choices, we learn, always have consequences. It’s the unforeseen ones that can haunt you forever.
In the car, Amy turns off the radio, tired of hearing the repetitive droning about the day’s top stories. Jonathan is having a conversation with his Elmo doll in the back seat and seems occupied and content, blissful. Amy reaches out for my hand. She sticks her face in mine for just a moment, searching, beseeching.
“Let me tell you about something I did,” I say.