Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000
I felt bad after I ran away from the picnic. I don't really know why I did in the first place. It just seemed that Dave could figure me out better than anyone, and I had to think on my own for a while. I felt really funny being with somebody who could to figure me out so fast.
I thought about going to write a letter, but ended up just sitting behind my back porch. Nobody could see me there, and I'd be able to think. The problem was that I couldn't really think. It usually took me just a few seconds to focus on Jack, but I couldn't that day. All I could think about was Dave, how he seemed to know. He was seeing into me, and I didn't like it.
I wasn't hiding anything, I just didn't want to share what I was feeling. Who was this guy, anyhow? Just because he moved next door gave him a right to play with my head? I didn't think so. Maybe I should fuck with his head a little, just to see how that stuck. Maybe I'd just sit where I was and let him come looking for me. I was sure he would.
I waited and waited, then finally heard some sounds from next door. I peeked around the corner of the porch and saw Dave going in through his back door. I thought he'd be looking for me. I was picturing him tapping on the door to Jack's room to see if I was there, to see if I wanted something. I expected to hear his voice calling around for me, but I didn't. Maybe he was whispering because he thought I was mad.
I didn't know. I wanted to talk to him some more, but I didn't at the same time. He seemed nice enough, but I didn't really know him. Well, I knew him more than before, because now I knew he was Timmy's boyfriend. Well, man friend ... whatever.
I was just going to go over and talk to him, to apologize for running away, when I heard his screen door slam again. I peeked around the corner to see him heading back to the picnic. I slumped back against the porch, my head a mess of sulky feelings. I didn't want anybody poking into my thoughts, but I had made a bit of an exception with Dave. I didn't want to approach him, but he seemed to get into my head without that. Now I was ticked off to find out that he hadn't come looking for me at all, just to do whatever he did.
I sat there with that in my head for a while, then decided that if I wanted to keep anything going with Dave I'd have to go back to the picnic.
I went inside my own house with the idea of washing my face and changing my shirt. It was in the nineties and I'd about sweated myself to death. I ended up taking a quick shower and changing all my clothes, just to feel better. The heat and my attitude had combined to make me feel pretty cruddy.
I went back down the street, but I couldn't find Dave. I asked a few people, but nobody had seen him for quite a while. I walked down to the horseshoe pit, then over to the volley ball game. I couldn't find him and nobody had seen him. I couldn't stop thinking that he'd gone looking for me somewhere, but it didn't make sense that he would head this way and just keep going.
I finally gave up and went to get some food. I talked to a few people while I was eating, then I got up and headed back home. I was bored and I was getting more unhappy with myself by the minute for running out on Dave in the first place. I was almost to my house when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around to see Jed following me.
"Where ya goin' now, Mike?"
Jed had a nervous smile on his face. "Is somethin' wrong? You've been actin' weird for an hour."
I hung my head. "Nothin's wrong."
"Don't tell me you're not havin' fun. C'mon back and play volleyball or jarts."
I felt a flash of anger run through me, but I choked it back before I said anything. "Naw. Thanks, Jed."
I turned to continue on my way and Jed fell in beside me. "Let me come with ya, then. I'm leavin' in a couple of days and I'm gonna miss ya. Let's hang out for a while, okay?"
I smiled a little. "Okay."
Just then we heard, "Hey Jed! Wait up!"
We turned to look, and Scott Goldman and Jose Cassarino were running towards us. They were younger kids, but pretty nice. When they got to us they were both out of breath. Jose gasped, "I thought you were gonna play volleyball with us, Jed. We were just gonna get in the game."
"Sorry, guys. Mike and I got some friend things to take care of. Find somebody to take my place, okay?"
They both looked dejected for a second, then Scott grinned. "We'll help! We're best friends! You can ask us anything."
Jed's eyebrows went up, then he smiled and looked a question at me. I shrugged and turned into our driveway, with everybody following me. We climbed onto the back porch and sat down. Jed and I plopped down into chairs and Scott and Jose sat together on the glider. I looked at them sitting side by side. They were both twelve, but Jose had to be almost a foot taller than Scott. I knew Jose had been adopted, but he looked like his father Nick, different from his other father. Scott wasn't adopted, but he didn't look like either of his parents. He wasn't real dark but he had the hair of a black boy.
Our families were pretty friendly and my father had once explained why Scott looked black. His mother was a lot of things, but mostly Portugese. He said Portugal used to be one of the great exploring countries of Europe and there had been a lot of intermingling between the Portugese and North Africans. It wasn't unusual at all to have a child pop out now and again who displayed the traits of those ancient unions.
Scott and Jose were best friends and everybody knew it. You never saw them apart, and I was watching them leaning into each other on the glider, looking expectantly between me and Jed.
Scott asked, "So, what're we gonna do?"
Both he and Jose seemed to be excited to be sitting with the older boys. I smiled at them. "Just talk, guys. You'd probably have more fun across the street."
"What're we gonna talk about?"
"I don't know." I looked at Jed. "You started it. What y'all wanna talk about?"
He looked at Jose and Scott. "How was your vacation, guys? It must'a been great bein' at the beach all summer."
They both started talking excitedly at the same time. Jed made them shut up for a second, then told me to listen to Scott and he'd listen to Jose. They thought that was a funny idea, but they started taking turns telling us all the things they'd done and how much it had rained. It was fun listening to them, but it made me realize that I hadn't done a damned thing. Not all summer. Not since the accident. If I didn't start now, I'd have absolutely nothing to show for all that time off.
When they ran out of adventures to tell us about, I said, "Let's see if we can still get in the volleyball game." That was kind of silly, because it was a game played for fun only and anybody could play. It didn't matter how many people were on a side as long as they all fit within the boundaries. I remember when I was younger I'd get on one side and, if they started losing badly, I'd run under the net and play on the other side. Nobody cared, and nobody kept good track of the score. It was either pretty close or one side was way ahead. The game wouldn't end until it got too dark to play.
The others wanted to get in the game, so we trotted across the street and watched for a while, each of us taking somebody's place when they dropped out.
I didn't know where he'd been, but Dave was playing on one side of the net next to my father and Andy. Scott's mother and father and both of Jose's fathers were on my side. There were about fifteen or sixteen people on each side, but the only two aggressive players were Jed and Jose. Everybody else was having too much fun to bother trying to score.
I got caught up in it and had a blast. The men were really funny to listen to, and we were laughing harder than we were playing. I probably stayed in the game for almost an hour before I decided I'd better cool off and get something to drink. I just backed off the court and plopped on the grass in the shade, immediately being replaced in the game by my mother. I was right next to Scott's father.
"Hey, Mike! I missed you. Did ya have a good summer?"
"So-so, I guess. How was the beach?"
"Don't ask. Expensive and wet. Rain wet, not ocean wet." He grinned. "We had a lot of fun. It's really a beautiful area, even if the sun don't shine."
"Yeah, Scott and Jose were tellin' us about all the rain. It sounds like fun, though. Maybe someday I'll get up north."
"You were invited, you know."
I knew. I'd been invited over and over, but just said no every time. I wasn't ready to leave. "I know. I just couldn't, but I'm glad y'all had fun."
I was looking around, trying to see where Dave had gone. Joe asked, "Looking for somebody?"
"I just wondered where Dave was. He's new. I just wanna make sure he's ... havin' a good time. I couldn't find him before."
"He came with me to get my dune buggy. He's a pretty neat guy. He says he grew up driving a duner."
"Really?" I loved getting rides in that thing.
"Yeah. He wants to borrow mine."
"You gonna let him?"
"I guess. He has a pretty good reason."
He gave me a huge grin. "He says he wants to teach you how to drive it."
I was surprised. I pointed my finger at my chest and asked, "Me?"
He grinned again. "You! He said learnin' to drive helped him find his head when he had problems like you're havin'."
I was just about to say something when Joe snagged the leg of somebody who was passing by, bringing him to the ground beside us.
"Hey, Wolfie! Is your old man here?"
Great. Anton Wolfe, the only kid in my class I really could never forgive. He was the only freshman who joined with the rest of the school in harassing me and Jack, the only person in town who kept it up after Jack died. He was a mousy looking skinny kid with a buzz cut.
He looked at Joe and grinned. "Hey, Mr. Goldman. Daddy's here someplace. Check the horseshoe pit or the beer barrel" He looked and saw that I was there and put a look of distaste on his already sour looking face. I decided not to bother with him. I just stood up and walked away, looking to find almost anyone else to talk to. I was heading towards the picnic tables when Joe caught up with me.
He put his hand on my shoulder, making me look at him. "What was that about? You don't get along with Anton?"
I felt bad because Mr. Goldman always wanted everybody to get along, but Anton was my limit. I looked at him. "Sorry, Mr. G, but Anton is the biggest jerk in town. He's the only ... only ... kid that kept pickin' on me after the accident. He didn't say much in school, but he's still a pain in the butt, talkin' shit about me everywhere."
Joe had pulled me next to him and had his arm around my shoulder. "What's he say?"
"Oh, that I want a dick in my butt, that I like it, and he's got one for me. Crap like that." I tried to see what Joe was thinking. "He thinks I want sex from him, but it ain't so." I was getting pretty worked up.
Joe tightened his hand on my shoulder. "Easy, Mike. Take it easy. Have you told anybody else? Do you want me to talk to his father?"
"You don't hafta say anythin'. Maybe he'll just get sick and die or somethin'."
"Aww, Mike. Don't talk like that. You know that's not what you want."
He was right. I hung my head and kicked at the grass. "I know, but why's he hafta still be a jerk about everythin'? Nobody likes the little creep."
Joe looked surprised. "Mike, I never heard you bad mouth anybody before. It's not like you."
"Anton is the biggest idiot I ever met. He won't leave me alone, so why should I say anythin' good about him?"
"Come on, Mike. Just don't say anything, then."
I was about to say something, but there was a sudden squeal. "Daddy!"
I looked to see Joe's daughter, Melissa. She was always cute, but she had a purple mouth from the grape sno-cone she was holding. Joe smiled at her. "Hi, Missy! That looks yummy. Can I have a bite?"
She proudly held it out to him and he took a few licks. It looked good to me, too.
I asked, "Where'd ya get the sno-cone, Missy?"
She pointed towards the front porch. "Thanks. I'm gettin' one. See ya!"
There was a fair sized crowd of kids hanging around the sno-cone table, but most of them already had one. I think I was the oldest one there, but it didn't bother me. I waited for a while. Two ladies were crushing ice in a blender, then scooping it into paper cones and ladling syrup on, but it wasn't going very fast. I finally got a lemon-lime and started licking it as I headed back to where I'd left Joe.
He wasn't there any more, but I saw Andy and talked to him for a while. My father joined us, then Dave came over. We were just joking and making small talk about the games, then I saw Joe with his arm on Anton's shoulder. They were both grinning and walking real fast towards the street. I followed them with my eyes, then saw them hop into the dune buggy, heard them whoop, then they drove off up the street.
I started to boil. That fuck! I just told him what Anton was like, now he was taking him to have fun. I was being betrayed and my boil turned into a rage. I flung my sno-cone into the woods as hard as I could, then just turned and ran.
I ran up the street, turned into Dave's driveway, then ran into the woods behind their house and kept going. I didn't even slow down when I got to the brook, just ran straight through it and across the field until I got to the pond, then headed through the woods to the back side. I finally sat down and wept. They weren't tears of sadness either, but of rage. It was directed at Joe and Anton. Those bastards! It was like they were mocking me, like Anton was being rewarded for being a scummy little prick.
I couldn't stand it. Being mad wasn't working. I stood up and started picking up the biggest rocks I could find, holding them over my head, then literally slamming them into the water. I was stumbling around like a drunk, barely able to see through my tears, but getting angrier and more frustrated by the second. The anger was for Anton. I hated him. He was a worthless little bastard. The frustration was for Joe. How could he? I was talking to him first. Why didn't he take me for a ride. He was supposed to be my friend!
I was out of control, and I didn't stop until I slipped and one leg went into the water while the other twisted painfully underneath me. It really hurt, like I'd torn the muscle all the way from my crotch to my knee. It was too much. The bank had been grassy when I got there, but I'd torn it up and splashed up so much water that it was now all mud. My rage had been replaced by physical pain. I didn't move for a minute, then pulled myself to a prone position, lying face down in the mud.
I was still crying, but less violently. I wanted to stay there forever ... to just fade away into nothingness. My only friend was leaving in a few days. I was sure my father would have me back at the shrink, wasting money for nothing.
I had to go back to school in a few weeks, and I knew that with Jed gone I'd be the scapegoat for everybody that listened to Anton. I didn't want to hear that crap again, but I knew it was going to happen. I didn't want to listen to anything. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn't want doctors or parents or neighbors or teachers interfering anymore. Alone was good ... satisfying to me. I didn't have to meet any expectations because I didn't have any of my own.
I managed to stop crying after a while, but my leg hurt a lot so I just stayed there. I wanted to stay there, but it wasn't to be. I heard voices, then, "There he is! Come on."
I looked up and saw my father, Jed and Andy hurrying towards me. Jed and my father knelt down beside me. I didn't want them there.
Jed said, "Man, who hit you? Are you okay?"
I didn't answer. I just crossed my arms and laid my head on them. I was getting anxious with them looking at me. My breathing got quick and I could feel my heart beating. I wanted to shut down in the worst way ... to be nothing, to let things happen to somebody else. I could hear them, but I refused to listen. Their voices were just background noise, and I wished it would go away. I wanted the peace of the woods all to myself, the black water of the pond to reflect in.
That wasn't to be, either. I heard my father sobbing, and I didn't want to hear that either. Jed rolled me onto my side, then my Dad pulled me up into his arms. I had my eyes open when they did that, but when my father held me I squeezed them shut. I felt worthless ... useless. I had nothing to offer anybody and it made it doubly painful that everybody wanted a piece of me. They wanted me to be the way I used to be, and it wasn't possible. I knew they loved me, but I didn't want them to. I just wanted to be alone, left to my own devices.
My father had stopped crying and was talking. Jed had his hand on my shoulder and Andy was rubbing my hair. "Mike, please don't do this. Don't shut us out, Mike. Please? Say something. Please talk to us! What happened?"
Fuck them! They'd all been right there. They'd watched the traitor take my enemy out to have fun the second I turned my back. They were probably in on it! I pushed back from my father and screamed. "Leave me the fuck alone! I don't want you here! You're all so full of shit ... it's ... it's ... it's pathetic. Just go home. Please ... GO HOME!"
I heard another voice ... Dave's. "Why don't you guys go?"
I'd closed my eyes again by then, and I didn't open them. Nobody said anything, but my father let go of me and the other hands disappeared. I heard them walking off and laid back down the same way I had been, with my face down on my arms. It was silent, so I figured Dave went with them. I laid there for I don't know how long ... I might even have dozed off, then I heard Dave's voice again and it startled me.
"I never got very far with my story, but seein' you have time maybe I'll tell you some more of it. You don't have to listen, but I know you'll hear it anyhow. You don't have to react, okay? Just hear. It's a story about you, Mike, and I know you're gonna hate it as much as I do. It's not exactly the same, but see if you can't recognize yourself in it."
I tried not to move a muscle, but Dave started in. Before, when he'd started the story, it had been just a lark ... almost like a fairy tale, but now I grasped that he was talking about himself, about the sudden illness and death of his father when he was a little boy. He was too emotional for it to have been about anybody else, then he told me how he went from a happy little kid to an avenging mass of angry muscle practically overnight.
He tried to describe the desperation and rage that had consumed him, how he had turned into a little monster who only wanted to hurt people. He did hurt people, but it made him feel worse instead of better. He hurt the people who loved him, and he hurt people who were trying to like him ... to help him.
I finally reacted and looked over towards where his voice was coming from. He was sitting against a tree with his knees up in the air, his hands playing at the ground between them. He was looking at the ground while he talked, not towards me.
"You're not going to believe this part, Mike, but just listen."
He didn't even know that I was watching him. "My father sent me an angel, Mike. Four angels, really ... maybe more. They were there to look after me, but I didn't know that they were." He finally looked up and seemed mildly surprised to find me looking at him. "You have angels too, Mike. Jack has you pretty well covered."
At first I was too surprised to say anything. I think my look was probably suspicious. "Are ... are you an angel?"
He looked genuinely perplexed, digging his fingertips even deeper into the pine needles. "I ... I don't know. Maybe ... I'm startin' to wonder. The ones I know about are already here."
"Yup, and you know them. You just booted three of 'em outta here, but they're waitin' for their next chance. They'll never leave, Mike. You can't get rid of an angel that easy."
I just stared at him. "Your angels were real? How do you know?"
He stared at me. "My mother told me. Mike, I know you think they're just family and friends, but there's more than that. They have a special power, and that power comes from Jack."
"Yeah, it's a power. The power to love you just the way you are, the power to wait it out, the power to teach you what you need to know so you can find your way to where you want to be."
"W ... with Jack?"
"You'll find Jack, but you have to find a lot of other things first."
"Like ... how to open your eyes and see what you have right here. You'll never find Jack if you can't see clearly. Does that make sense?"
I didn't get it. My vision was perfect. "I can see fine."
Dave shook his head gently. "How's your leg?"
I hadn't said a word about that. "How'd you know?"
"Oh, ESP, I guess. Plus you been rubbin' it for a half hour. What happened?"
"Doin' what? It looks like a herd of elephants danced right where you are."
A slow smile crept onto his face. I smiled back. "I got pissed."
"Want to tell me?"
I told him, especially about Anton. He told me that Joe had talked to Anton's father, then taken him out for a dune buggy ride and given him a piece of his mind, then left him about five miles away to walk back and think about the price of acting like an asshole.
I felt pretty foolish. I should have known better about Joe, but I didn't expect it to do any good with Anton. I'd never been in a real fight, but him I'd like to smash up once just to see how he liked it. If he didn't, maybe I'd do it every day. I didn't know why I hadn't already. I knew I could overpower the little twerp, just flatten him and knock his lights out. He was the Wolf ... that's what everybody called him ... but I might just be the wolf in sheep's clothing. I never understood where his mouth came from anyhow. He was pretty scrawny.
I felt better and started to stand up, then realized I was coated in mud. I kicked my sneaks off and fell backwards into the pond with my clothes on. I dove down to the bottom, then Dave was beside me. He was wearing his clothes too, and I soon learned that there were smarter things to do than try to laugh under water. I got a mouthful of water and headed to the surface, gasping for breath when I hit the air.
Dave came up behind me and pushed me towards the bank. "You okay? That was funny. I guess you can't laugh underwater."
"I guess not. You wanna stay here?"
He pulled up beside me. "Nah. I want some more food. Besides, I was having fun. You're not goin' back?"
I had to think. I'd run out of there twice already, upset both times. I liked most of the people there, but I was having a hard time being in a crowd. "I think I'll just go home. Everybody must really think I'm nuts by now."
"Come on, Mike. Nobody thinks you're crazy, they just think you took up joggin' or something. We can keep Anton away from you, if he ever even came back."
"I don't know. I don't feel right over there."
"It's up to you, kid, but it's gotta be more fun than staying home. Give it another try, okay? There's a whole lot of nice people there."
He was right about that. With the exception of Anton Wolfe, pretty much everybody in town was nice. That picnic had always been my favorite thing, and I knew I was ruining it for myself if I didn't go back, but I was afraid to, embarrassed even. "I ... I don't think so."
I pulled myself out of the water and sat down to put my sneakers back on. Dave did the same thing When I stood up and started walking I had to limp a little and go slow. My leg didn't hurt a lot anymore, but when I tried to take long strides I could feel jabs of pain. Dave held back with me, but we didn't say anything until we got to the driveway between our houses.
"I'll see ya, Dave," I said as I turned to my porch.
"You really staying home? Come on, I'll play ya a game of jarts."
I turned around. "Nah. I'm tired. I'll probably just go to bed."
He looked at his watch, then back at me. "It's six o'clock! Are you making fun of me?"
I didn't know what I was doing, but I kept on doing it. I started to get angry again, but instead of saying anything I went in the house and slammed the door behind me. It didn't make a loud enough bang for me, so I opened it again and slammed it as hard as I could, hoping Dave would get the message. I don't know what the message was, but my brain was telling me to let him think I was angry with him, which I wasn't. I went into the bathroom and tossed my wet clothes into the hamper, then walked naked to my room and fell face first onto my bed. My dark thoughts were back, and I just wished people would leave me alone. I did not need them, and I didn't want them caring about me. I hated it!
I fell asleep for awhile, and when I heard a noise in my room it was dark. The light came on suddenly, followed by a laugh. "Nice hiney!"
It was my brother Raymond! He'd only been home twice all summer, now he found me in my birthday suit. My face was still into the pillow, but I said as clearly as I could, "Hi Ray. You ever knock?"
He laughed again. "Not in your lifetime. This room's still half mine, you know. Howcum you're not at the picnic?"
"It's too boring. I thought you weren't comin'."
"I decided it was worth the gas to see everybody again. How can it be boring? That'd be a first!"
I felt something land beside my face. I turned my head and opened my eyes to see a pair of underpants on the pillow. I grabbed them and sat up to pull them on. I looked at Ray and he looked pretty good. He'd definitely lost weight or grown taller or something. He still looked a little lumpy, but it was just his face now. The rest of him looked pretty trim. I was glad to see him, that's for sure.
Ray had always been a kind of ideal older brother, always ready to lend a hand when I needed one. Sure, he'd teased me plenty, but it was always gentle and usually something he knew I'd laugh at myself. I loved him a lot. When I'd gotten into my underwear I smiled up at him.
He grinned back. "It's good to see you, Mike. Things gettin' better around here?"
My smile faded. "No. Everything sucks."
He sat next to me on the bed. "Mike ... I don't know what to say. I hate seein' ya sad like this. What's it gonna take? Aren't people treatin' ya good?"
I barely whispered, "People are assholes."
"I said nobody leaves me alone. I don't need them ... I don't want them. I just ..." I didn't intend to finish the sentence. Ray was quiet for a minute, like he was expecting me to.
I just nodded.
"He's dead, Mike. Gone."
I raised my voice. "I know he's dead! Why the hell couldn't he die like everybody else and just be gone? Why'd he hafta come back? Now I know he can and I can't stop ... lookin for him." I looked a plea to Ray. "I can't find him! I know he's right here ... I can feel it sometimes, but I just can't find him."
Ray looked sad. "Jack came back for a reason, Mike. Pat and Jens are alive because of that. What better reason could he have? Do you ever see those guys?"
I nodded. "I see Pat once in a while. I never seen Jens since the crash."
"Never? He never even said thanks?"
I shook my head, not wondering about it at all. His father had called my father right after the accident to tell him to thank me, but that was it. I wasn't looking for thanks anyhow, but I'd never had much to do with the kid to begin with and saw no reason to start now.
"How about Pat? Is he doin' better?"
"I guess. He's almost blind, but it don't seem to bother him much. He's pretty cool."
"You gonna sit here all night? I wanna party a little."
I was getting fidgety. "You go, Ray. I'm stayin' here."
"Come on, Mike. I'm not goin' without you. I want to go to the picnic, but I really came down to see you. You up for a little night fishin?"
I wanted to go to the picnic, I just didn't want to say I did. "I don't feel like fishin', either. Just go have fun. I'm okay."
"Dammit." He opened my dresser and the next thing I knew a pair of shorts hit me in the face, followed quickly by a shirt. "Put some clothes on! You ain't sittin' here by yourself, and I ain't missin' the picnic. You're just sulkin' here, and you're goin' if I hafta carry you!" He put his face right in front of mine. "You're goin', Mikey, and I ain't takin' no for an answer. Get dressed!"
It's really a stupid feeling when you know you're behaving like an idiot. I wanted to go back across the street, but I wanted to be dragged there so I could continue sulking in public. Ray was doing me a favor, and I suspect that he knew it. I pulled on my shorts and shirt, then dug in my closet for a dry pair of sneaks. When I was ready Ray made me wash my face and comb my hair, then he pushed me out the door and walked behind me until we were back at the Surdiak's yard.
Ray was immediately surrounded by neighbors who wanted to say hello and hear about his summer job. I just started walking toward the picnic tables. Joe Goldman and Scott Johnson were sitting on a bench with guitars and singing Barney songs to a semi-circle of rapt little kids. Other people were listening to them, too.
It was kind of a tradition at the picnic - sort of the last hurrah for the little ones. When the songs were done they'd get bundled off to home and to bed, thinning the crowd to just adults and older kids. I remembered sitting in that little circle and loving it up until I was about nine years old. After that I wanted to be associated with the older kids, but the only real change was that I stood and listened. I still liked hearing it, even if the songs were silly.
I was standing there just remembering when Dave walked over. He stood beside me.
"I can't believe I'm listening to Scott Johnson singing lullabies. He's one of my rock and roll heroes, you know."
"Yeah, but he does this good too." I knew what Dave was talking about. Scott was famous for his powerful blues voice, but when he was singing like this it sounded so gentle - almost pretty. My mother always said he had a smile in his voice, and it was true. The adults and older kids who were listening were just as mesmerized as the little ones.
We stood and listened to one more song, and it was the last one. Mr. Goldman told the kids that the free concert was over and if they wanted to hear more they'd have to come up with ten bucks each. The kids knew he was kidding, but they still protested. Scott told them to sing themselves to sleep every night and, if they did, he'd come back again next year.
I looked at Dave. "Sorry about before, okay?"
He looked at me for a second, then flashed a grin I hadn't seen before. "Hey, it wasn't my door and I wasn't trying to sleep, so no problem. Ready to party down?"
I smiled back at him. "I guess so. Wait'll the kids leave, then you'll hear those guys do some real funny stuff."
"Yeah. They have some great songs, really funny ones."
Dave looked over at them. "Really? I have a few of my own."
"Make sure they sing 'The Big Friggin Wheel'. It'll crack ya up!" I started chuckling just thinking about it.
Dave's expression was great. "The Big Friggin Wheel? I can't hardly wait!" He was laughing at the title, and I couldn't wait to see what he thought about the words. I started laughing, then remembered how hard Jack had laughed when he first heard it. My laugh died out as I recalled his, almost hearing it in my head. It took me a second to shake the memory.
I looked at Dave. "Come on! You gotta meet my brother."
"Yeah. He surprised everybody. Come on - he's out front."
We headed to where I'd left Raymond, and he hadn't gotten very far. He was standing with a group of people who sounded like they were all talking at once. I pointed him out to Dave and was just going to introduce him when a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Joe Goldman.
"Got a second, Mike?"
I glanced at Dave and he nodded. Mr. Goldman led me towards the street, then jumped in the passenger side of his dune buggy. I climbed into the driver's side and started looking at the controls. I put my hands on the steering wheel and felt for the pedals with my feet. It was fun just sitting in it.
"Mike, I'm sorry you got the wrong idea before. I took Wolfie for a ride to find out what's goin' on in his head, then I ditched him in Erickson's pasture. He walked all the way back here, then his Daddy made him keep walkin' home. He won't bother you anymore."
"Thanks ... I think."
"I feel bad, Mike."
"Don't. Okay? I don't need it from you too."
"Mike? I know you're hurtin', but I feel bad for Wolfie."
"Yeah, for him. I like the kid ... I always did. I'm not sayin' the crap he was doin' to you was right, because it plain wasn't. He's just in a bad spot and I feel sorry for him."
I wasn't surprised that Joe liked him. He liked everybody, at least the ones who lived on the north or south sides of the equator. I couldn't think how he could feel bad for a little weasel like Anton, though. I didn't want to hear it, but I knew I was about to. I didn't say a word.
"Mike, Wolfie doesn't have any friends. His folks are older and all his brothers and sisters are gone. He's the only kid in their trailer park ... it's all old people there."
"Yeah, well tough shit. If he wasn't such an asshole he'd make friends."
"Mike, look at me. He was tryin' to make friends. He heard all the noise about you and Jack at school. He joined that side hopin' sombody'd like him just for agreeing with them. He wasn't tryin' to hurt you, he just wanted to be a part of something. It's not just his fault, it's everybody's fault." He looked right into my eyes. "It's part your own fault, Mike."
Oh, did that piss me off. "MINE? What'd I ever do to him?"
"Think about it. Did you ever talk to him? Did you ever choose him anythin' except last to be on your team?" He was getting louder. "Did you ever even look at the kid? You got any 'yes' answers?"
I stared at the horn button on the steering wheel. Why would I have any 'yes' answers? My voice was small. "No."
"I don't want to hurt you, Mike, and I know the crap you and Jack put up with last year at school. You never said anything. I mean, it would have stopped if you just spoke up. You know that, don't you?"
"I know it now. We just never thought, just shook it off."
"Wolfie's been gettin' shit like that all his life. He never looked right, never dressed right, never talked right. He never had anything new, never even had a bike. And you other kids knocked him for it, or just ignored him. Do you know how lonely he is? Do you?"
I looked over at him, but I didn't answer.
"Mike, I ditched him in a farmer's field today. He had to learn that bad-mouthing you wasn't anything good. He understood that, but he was crying. You know why?"
"Because he thought I was his only friend. Do you know how that made me feel?"
"Not too good, I guess."
"Rotten is more like it. He was pickin' on you so you'd notice him. He didn't even care if you knocked the shit out of him. He just wants somebody to look at him and see a person standin' there." I didn't say anything, so he went on. "He's a real person, Mike, and I think he's a good one. Did you ever notice his eyes?"
Who wouldn't? Half the kids in school called him 'Doe Eyes' or 'Bambi'. It was one of the first things you'd notice about him. He had a triangular face, but the biggest, widest eyes you could imagine on a human being.
"Yeah, I noticed."
"Look, I don't want to keep you here. Anton knows what he did was wrong and he'll apologize if that's what you want."
"I don't want anything."
"Just know that he's willing. You should apologize to him, too."
"He's been a jerk to you for a year. All you kids in this whole area been treatin' him like dirt for fifteen years. It ain't right, Mike. It just ain't right." He looked at me and smiled. "I just wanted you to know, okay? You do what you want."
"I don't know what I want, but it sure ain't Anton Wolfe. Tell him to just stay the hell away from me."
Joe sighed. "If that's what you want. I'll talk to Hector. Maybe he can come up with a little compassion."
I tried to change the subject. "Are you guys gonna sing some funny songs?"
"I don't know. We planned on it, but I don't feel very funny right now. Maybe Scott and Nick will. I think I'm goin' home. Maybe I'll bring some food over to Wolfie. He never got much chance to eat."
I knew he was pissed at me, and I knew why. I just thought he was wrong about it, but I didn't want to ruin the picnic for everybody else. "You don't hafta go, Joe. I'll leave. I never wanted to come here in the first place."
His look softened. "I'm not leaving because you're here, Mike. Don't think things like that. I just don't want Anton thinkin' I don't like him anymore." He smiled. "I might come back later, but I think I better take care of this, okay?"
I didn't say anything, but followed him when he climbed out. He went over to the food tables and tossed a couple of burgers on the grill, then started filling a plate with potato and macaroni salad and some beans. I decided something on the spot and told him to wait until I got back. I ran over to my house and dug Jack's bike out of my garage. I put some air in the tires and wiped it off with a rag, then rode it back over to the picnic so Joe could give it to Anton. I had no idea why I was doing it, but I didn't want Joe mad at me.
Joe was just getting to his dune buggy when I got there. He had a plate piled with food and set that down in the passenger seat, then looked expectantly at me.
"Here. Anton can have this bike."
He looked surprised. "I didn't mean you should give him your bike. I just said he never had one."
"This ain't mine, it was Jack's. I already have two."
"You're givin' it to him?" He smiled. "There's hope for you yet, Mike. Let me give you a hand."
We lifted the bike into the back of the dune buggy. Joe asked, "You sure you don't wanna come?
I just shook my head no, so he got in and drove away.
I stopped and talked to Pat for a while, but he was tired and just waiting for his father to bring the car around so he could go home to bed. At least I felt like I was getting used to his glasses, because I barely noticed them. His father was taking him fishing in their canoe the next day and he asked if I wanted to come. I told him I wasn't sure, though the idea sounded good. He said he'd call before they left.
I walked with him to the car after his father came for him, then said goodnight. After that I just wandered around, talking to people if they said something first, but not initiating anything. I finally sat down on the grass and leaned against a tree, watching everybody having fun. It was kind of pleasant even if I wasn't involved. I could hear the jokes the men were telling by the beer keg and some of them were pretty funny. I wasn't a good joke teller. I always got them mixed up and spoiled them.
I had been there a while when Dave came and sat with me. He was chuckling at a joke we'd both just heard. "Hey, Mike. When's the music start?"
"It might not. Joe took off a while ago."
"He left? No problem, I hope."
"No, he went to make up with Anton." I literally spit the name out.
Dave looked at me. "It's hard when somebody you like likes somebody you don't like, huh?"
"It ain't hard. I don't hafta go with him."
"Yeah, but it makes you feel funny doesn't it? You think Anton's getting something that belongs to you, don't you? Like he doesn't deserve Joe for a friend because Joe's your friend?"
I thought about that for a second, and it pretty well summed up my feelings. "Yeah, that's what it is. It really sucks."
"Yeah, I guess it does. There's only one thing to do about it."
"Make Anton your friend too. That way you'll have Joe and him."
This guy's cheese just slipped off his cracker. "You're nuts! Me be friends with Anton? There ain't no way! No way in hell."
Dave looked at me and gave me a funny smile. "Shut up for a minute, Mike. You can only lose if you keep hating this kid. Joe will think less of you, and eventually he'll stop being close. You know why? Because he'll resent you. He's a nice guy, so I don't think he'll be mean or anything, but you can't keep knockin' other peoples' friends without makin' them decide between you. If Anton's doing the same thing, he might drop both of you. Who needs other peoples' problems? You with me so far?"
I thought I was, so I nodded.
"The other thing, and I just told you this, is that you have to start seeing things. I told you that you'd find Jack someday, but I didn't know what was inside you then. Let's stop right here. Tell me about Anton Wolfe. How well do you know him?"
"Well enough to know he's an asshole."
"What makes him an asshole?"
"He's the only person around that still calls me a fa ... names. Everybody else gave it up, why can't he?"
"How long have you known him?"
His eyebrows went up. "He's been calling you a fag since kindergarten?"
"No, he started last year with everybody else."
"Oh, so you liked him before that?"
"He was just there before that. Nobody ever liked him."
Dave was fingering his chin with his right hand. "Hm! Why was that? Does he smell bad?"
"You don't know? You never got close enough? What else?"
"What y'all want from me, Dave? He's a loser. His mother sews his clothes, for Chrissakes! He don't know how to do anythin', and he talks like some hillbilly. He just hangs around starin' at everybody all the time."
"So everybody hates him?"
"I don't think kids hate him, he just got nothin' to offer. It's like he belongs out in the hollers or somethin'."
Dave looked a question at me. "Hollers?"
"Yeah, like out in fork city or somethin'." Dave didn't have a clue what I was talking about. "If you go east from here, then south, you get to where the roads don't go nowhere. They just fork left, fork right, then stop at some farm or pond. People that lived here all their lives still get lost down there. Everythin' just follows the hills, so it's all in hollers."
His eyes were going back and forth like he was thinking. "I get it! Hollers. Hollows, right? Valleys?"
I had to smile. Yankees sure talked funny. "Yeah, like everything there is at the bottom of the hills. That's where people like Anton belong."
"Oh, I get it. Anton doesn't belong here with the fine upstanding citizens of Morton. Is that it?"
I felt trapped. "Come on, Dave. Can't we talk about somethin' else, or just shut up?"
Dave seemed pensive for a second, then he faced me. "No we can't! You've got reason to be angry with Anton, but not a single reason to not like him. Mike, you have to know people before you can like them or not, and I'll bet you can like everybody if you try. Joe must like him for a reason."
"Shee-it. Joe'd like him 'cause he knows how to breathe. Anton says Joe's his only friend."
Dave seemed surprised. "His only friend? How old is Anton, anyhow?"
"My age, I guess. Maybe a year either way."
Dave seemed to deflate a little. He put his head in his hands. "Mike, I told you you'd have to change if you want to find Jack, remember?"
"Well, I think you should try to find something good about Anton. Then try to like that good thing." He looked over at me. "You have to get to know him first, and I know you don't want to. It serves no purpose for you to run around hating him. It sounds like he should be the kid that hates everybody."
"What kind of good thing?"
"I have no idea. Maybe he's funny, maybe he knows how to do something you don't, maybe he's good with animals. You have to find that out." He put his hand on my shoulder. "You have to spend time with him to find it, and you'll have to look for something. If you have trouble, try just doing something nice for him. That usually works."
I hadn't felt anything about giving Joe the bike for Anton. I didn't tell Dave about that, but wondered if it was an okay peace offering. I didn't want anything else to do with the kid and started to protest, but Dave put his finger to his mouth. "Sssh! Think about it, Mike. You and Anton have a lot in common if you're telling the truth. I used to hate a kid because he was different, but now he's .. he's ..." his voice got softer, "now he's the most important person in my life."
"You say I have somethin' in common with Anton. I never saw that. What is it?"
"You both know how it feels to be an outcast, Mike."
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