Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000
When most everyone had left the picnic I sat in a dark corner of the yard. I wasn't very happy with the way the day had gone, and I wasn't very happy with myself. I had thought I was losing my mind for a while, but that night I was certain that it was already gone. Dave called me an outcast and he had that right, but it really pissed me that he thought it somehow gave me a connection with Anton Wolfe.
I was never an especially moody person, but I'd gone off the deep end that day and I consciously tried to hurt people that cared about me. The worst part was the fact that thinking about it made me even angrier at them, especially Joe and Dave. I felt that the both of them were meddling where they had no damn business. Joe was fussing over Anton Wolfe, then he had him acting like he was buddies with everybody. I was pissed at Jed too, because I saw him joking around with Anton, then after Joe left Dave was sitting at a table with him.
I gave Anton Jack's bike, but only because I thought Joe was mad at me. Then Joe went to visit the little creep and brought him back to the picnic just when I was starting to settle into things. And he had a present for me... a fucking birdhouse! Oh, man. That thing was going to be toothpicks in the morning. I would have smashed it right in front of Anton, but my mother saw it and made me take it home after gushing about how beautiful it was.
She was on my shit list, too. All of them were.
Pat Anderson asked me to go fishing in their canoe the next day. He was supposed to call me, but I'd only go if Jed wasn't going to be there. My father had talked about fishing too, but he was all smashed on beer when he left so I knew he wouldn't be getting up too early.
I put my head in my hands. I felt like crying, but I didn't. I couldn't make the anger go away, though. Thinking about other things didn't help because no matter what I thought about it always led back to Anton's ugly puss. I knew I should go home to bed, but I couldn't make myself move. I was disturbed by a sudden gasp.
"Aah! Jesus! Who's there?" It was Bob Surdiak's voice and I looked toward where it had come from. "Mike? What're you doin' here? The party's over."
"I'm just sittin'. I'll go."
"No, no. Sit if you want. You just scared the bejeezus out of me. I thought everyone was gone."
"Sorry. I had a rotten day an' I can't get it out of my head."
Bob stooped down in front of me. He looked dog tired. "You had a bad time here? I thought things went real well."
I felt bad for putting it that way. "The picnic was fine, just like always. It's just that some of the people here are startin' to get on my nerves."
"Oh? That doesn't sound like the Mike Waters I know. I thought you liked everybody."
"Who the hell could like Anton Wolfe? He's a rotten little creep and I hate him. Everybody's pissin' me off by treatin' him like he deserves to live or somethin'."
He stared at me. "And everybody is...?"
"Fuckin' Joe... and Jed and Dave, and my mother." I slammed the ground with the side of my fist. "This SUCKS!"
Bob's stare turned into a glare. "Mike, I don't particularly like hearing that tone of voice used about my friends. If you choose not to like somebody, that's your business." He looked angry, and I hadn't ever seen that. "It's my business when you start callin' them names in my yard. You get on home now, boy. Best you stay there 'til you can keep a civil tongue in your mouth."
He stood up and turned toward the house. I watched him go, thinking I should say something to apologize. I was too stunned. I'd just been kicked out of the Surdiak's property. I'd be willing to gamble that it was the first and only time it'd happened to anybody, and that anybody was me. I was fuming, wondering what the hell everybody suddenly had against me.
I got to my feet and trudged toward the street, thinking every evil and malevolent thought I could come up with. Joe's dune buggy was still parked out there and I kicked the back fender with the bottom of my foot, then started really stomping on it. I was hurting my foot more than the car, so I finally stopped, then worked up a big lunger and spat it on the windshield.
Satisfied, I walked home. I decided to get my fishing kit out of the garage, and when I had it in hand I started walking to the Anderson's house. I didn't want to be home, and it was late enough that I wouldn't get any sleep anyhow. I stopped along the way to piss on a tree, then continued on. Walking in the dark was taking just enough concentration that my anger faded. I was trying to remember the last time I'd been out in the canoe with Pat's father. It was a long time ago, before I knew Jack. It was always fun and I always wished we had a boat of our own, but a canoe was just another thing we couldn't afford. By the time I got to Pat's I was pretty tired, so I just slumped in a lawn chair and fell right to sleep.
The next thing I knew I was being shaken awake pretty rudely. I opened my eyes to see a red-faced Mr. Anderson. "What on earth are you doin' here, Mike? Half the neighborhood's out lookin' for you."
I squinted and rubbed my eyes. "I thought we were goin' fishin' in your canoe."
He looked exasperated. "Did you ever think to mention it to your folks? They're nigh on frantic. Get yourself inside and call them, then we'll decide if you're goin' fishin'.
"Yessir." I got out of the chair and walked through the door that led into the kitchen.
Mrs. Anderson was on the phone looking worried. When she saw me she said, "Never mind. Here he is." She gave me an annoyed look and held the receiver out to me. "Your father."
"Michael, where the hell have you been? Everybody's out combin' the woods for you. You got poor Bob Surdiak in a panic. You get your butt home NOW, mister."
"Dad... I'm sorry. It was late, so I just came here. We're s'posed to go fishin' in the canoe. Can't I go?"
"NO, you can't go! You stay right where you are! I'll come get you." He mumbled something else that I didn't understand, and hung up. I looked at the phone in my hand for a second, then hung it up and turned around. The whole Anderson family was standing there looking at me.
I managed to fixate on Pat's giant eye, then I hung my head. "Y'all go. My Dad's comin' for me." I felt like crying, but I looked back up at nobody in particular. "Catch some big ones, okay?"
Jed spoke up. "I'll talk to him, Mike. You look like you need some fishin'."
His father said, "Jed, don't go interferin'. Mike can come another time."
Jed looked at his father. "Dad?" He pointed to the door to the front hall and they both turned around and walked through it. Pat looked unhappy and I shrugged my shoulders, not having anything to say in my own defense. We stood there in silence until my father banged on the door before he walked in.
He glared at me, then smiled at Mrs. A. "Morning, Twyla." He smiled at Pat. "Hi, Patty! You're looking good!" He looked at me and glowered. "Let's go, Michael. You have some serious explaining to do."
Just then Mr. Anderson appeared in the door. "Joe, you got a minute before you go?"
My father looked at me as if to glue me to the spot, then at Mr. A. "Sure. What's up?"
Pat's father made a little shooing gesture with his hand. "You boys go outside and get some fresh air. We'll just be a minute."
Pat and I looked at each other, then went and sat on the back step. "Geez, Mike! What'd you do? I called to see if you were comin' and they just about had the National Guard lookin' for ya."
"I don't know, Pat. I feel pretty shitty about yesterday. I'm really losin' it."
"I just feel like I'm pissed at everybody. I don't want to be, but I can't stop it. I never do anything anymore, now I want to and I can't. I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do."
Pat looked at me sadly, then put his hand on my forearm. His voice was soft. "I know. I get mad all the time... about Kevin, about the way I look, about how I feel. I just wanna jump in the water, swim and yell and have fun. It's not there for me anymore, Mike. This is the first time I'm goin' fishin' since... it happened. I don't even wanna go if you're not there. It used to be me and Pop and Kevin." He was getting tears in his eyes. "Shee-it, I don't wanna go if nobody's in the middle.
I was feeling bad for Pat. I'd even managed to screw up his day, and he was starting to seem like a friend. I just wished my father would come out and bring me home, but he seemed to be taking a long time. I finally heard voices approaching, and the screen door opened behind us. It was my father, Jed and his father. My father reached down and touched my head. "Come on, Mike."
I stood up and started walking toward his car. I was reaching for the handle when he said, "Don't get in, son." I looked up and he had a minimal smile on his face. "You go fishing with Patty. We'll talk when you get back, okay?" He raised his eyebrows in a question.
"I can still go?"
He nodded. "Mike, I don't know what's with you lately." He sighed. "I know you're hurting about Jack, but you have no business callin' other people names. I don't know where you learned it, but you better unlearn it fast. Those people are our friends." We stared at each other for a moment. "I got nothin' else to say. Just go catch somethin' good for dinner."
I tried to smile myself. "Okay, Dad. You want trout or bass?"
He beckoned me to him with his finger. I walked over and got pulled into a bear hug. "I love you Mike. I don't want to see you turning bitter like this. It was an accident! You got no right to blame me or your mother or Joe or Dave or anybody else!" He squeezed me even harder. "You have to move on, Mikey. Jack's not coming back." He pushed me away a little and looked in my eyes. "You know that, don't you? You understand that?
I didn't, but I nodded an assent just the same.
He hugged me again, then patted the back of my shoulder. "Go catch some fish. Watch out for Pat's head, okay?"
He had a tearful smile on his face. I don't know if I managed a smile, but I know I had tears welling up in my eyes. "Okay, Dad. I'll get us some trout."
We looked at each other for another second, then I turned to go. I heard the car door close as I walked around back. Pat's face lit up and even though it seemed impossible, his giant eye got bigger with excitement. "You can go? Mike's comin' with us, Daddy!"
Mr. A. smiled. "I thought he might be. Let's get movin' before all them fish fall back asleep."
The boat was already on top of the Suburban. I grabbed my stuff and tossed it in back, then climbed into the back seat while Pat and his father got in front. I was excited. "Where we goin'?"
I loved that river. I always wanted to go in a boat. "Neat! Where ya settin' in?"
"We'll put in at the campground just above the falls. I like to paddle up 'til we get to the rocks, then just drift down. It's real pretty and the fish change at every bend. I've caught about everything you can name in that river."
"I can't wait!" I tapped Pat on the shoulder. "This is gonna be so fun!"
He looked over the seat back and grinned. "I'm glad you could come. Your father looked pissed." He looked at his father. "Oops! Sorry, Dad."
His father just grinned. It took about a half hour to get to the launching area, then just a few minutes to get on the river. Pat sat in the middle while his father and I paddled upstream. It's not a fast river, so we made good time. When we got to the rocks, maybe two miles upstream, we put the paddles in the bottom of the boat and baited up, then dropped our lines in. I loved the way Mr. Anderson dealt with the river, letting the current take us where it would. If we got hung up on a branch or the shore we'd just stay there until the canoe and the water got us free. The sun was well blocked by the overhanging trees, but the patterns of light and shadow made the water and foliage beautiful to look at.
I got a fish almost immediately. It was big, but just an ugly pink sucker. I threw it back, and we continued our lazy meander downstream. We got to an area where the water spread into a grassy swamp and Pat caught a pretty nice speckled trout. Just when he was pulling it in I got a bite, then his father had one. Ours were both good sized speckleds, so we baited up again and Pat and I each caught two more good ones. We were laughing and kidding his father about our luck and his lack of it. He just smiled as the canoe bounced off the shore and followed the direction of the water.
We had a short while where we didn't catch anything. We were all caught up in the lazy haze that was fishing. It was peaceful and good, and no words could have made it better. The riverbank went by slowly, our motion stopping altogether a few times when the boat got hung up on something, but it always freed itself. It was mostly shaded along the river, but when we got into a sunny spot we started reeling in little perch on almost every cast. We were laughing and filling the cooler with fish, dozens of them as there was no limit on perch. Once we drifted out of that area Pat caught one little sunfish that he threw back, and then we were back at the launch area.
None of us said much as we got the stuff back into the truck. I felt good. I'd gotten used to the way Pat looked. He was the same nice kid, despite the goofy glasses. His father was the same nice guy he'd always been. The only thing said was my "Whoo-eee!" when we looked in the fish cooler and saw how many we had.
I fell asleep on the way back. I woke up to Pat shoving my shoulder. "Mike, Mikey, wake up! We're here!"
I yawned and stretched, then undid the seatbelt. I smiled. "Thanks, Patty. That was a nice day." I looked around. "We're home already? I must'a fell asleep."
"Me too. C'mon, we'll divvy up the fish!"
We didn't argue over the perch. We'd caught dozens, and they went one in his pail, then one in mine until they were gone. There was some discussion about who's trout was who's, but I didn't press it. I had plenty of perch for a family fish-fry. The trout could go in the freezer. Everything was fine. I felt better.
I heard a voice say, "It's Mike! Lookit, Mike!" then I saw Anton Wolfe trying to ride Jack's bike, a stupid grin on his face. It looked like Jed was teaching him how. Jed was right behind him yelling, "BRAKES!" but Anton bumped right into me.
Where the tire rode against my leg only hurt a little, but I got furious. "YOU IDIOT!" I swung and smashed him right in the face. He went down with the bike. The last thing I remember seeing was a look of pain and fear on his face as he lay tangled in his bike, his nose starting to bleed and tears forming in his eyes.
I had never intentionally hurt anyone in my life. I looked at Anton for a second, then ran to the road and turned toward home running as fast as I could.. I was afraid, not that I thought I'd hurt Anton badly, but afraid that my anger had gotten the best of me and I hurt him at all. I think I was crying myself, and I was running like a nut. I soon ran out of breath and slowed to a stumbling walk. I heard a car coming and moved to the side, but it stopped beside me. It was Jed, and he looked furious.
"Get in the car, Mike."
I ignored him and kept walking. He pulled up a bit ahead of me and stuck his face out the window. "Get in the car, Mike. I mean it!"
"Fuck off, Jed!"
"WHAT?" He pulled the parking brake and jumped out. He was holding my shirt in his fist after three fast steps, his face red with anger. "What did you say?"
I tried to push his hand away, but he had a firm grip that he used to pull me up on my toes. "Nuthin, Jed. Just leave me alone."
He relaxed his pull enough to let me settle back onto my feet, but he was still twisting my shirt in his hand. "What the hell's the matter with you? Why'd ya hit Anton like that? He didn't mean to bump ya! He was just all excited that you could see him ride, then ya gotta sock him. I want you to come and apologize to that boy."
"I ain't apologizin' to that jerk. He had it comin' anyhow."
"I'm warnin' you, Mike. You get in that car right now, or I'll make you wish you had!"
I stared at him, my own anger rising again. "Go ahead, Jed Anderson! Let's see what you got!"
Jed was so mad that I could see veins in his forehead. He pulled me up on my toes again, bringing my face to within inches of his own. He glared at me for a moment, then shoved me so hard that I fell on my ass. I sat there looking up at him. He pointed a finger at me. "You win, Mike. Go the hell home, but you just stay on your own end of the road from now on. If you ever bother my family again I'll kick your ass clear to the North Pole! You got that?"
I just stared at him. He looked down at me for a few seconds, but I didn't say anything. He finally said, "You turned out to be a real dumb fuck, you know that?" Then he turned and walked across the street to his car, squealing the tires as he turned around in the road to go back home.
I yelled after him, "Fuck you, Jed! I don't need you!" I sat there with my knees up and my arms holding onto them. My anger faded into a sorrow that I'd never felt before. Jed was right about one thing, I was really getting stupid. I was feeling sorry for myself in a big way. I had the idea that all of my friends were ditching me for Anton Wolfe, and I couldn't shake it. I knew it wasn't true, I knew it, but I was screwing up all over the place because of it. My brain just wouldn't leave the thought alone.
Now I'd been dumped by two of the friendliest families in town. Those were bitter pills, and I felt terrible because not only wasn't I welcome there anymore, I wasn't even allowed. I didn't know what to do. I was still sitting where Jed had left me, crying a little, but mostly feeling miserable and worthless.
I wasn't alone very long. Without even lookin up I could tell it was Jed's car that stopped across the road. I heard the door close, then Jed sat beside me. I still didn't look at him.
"I hate this, Mike. Why're you actin' like a spoiled brat all of a sudden? I know you're hurtin', but I can't do anythin' if I don't know why."
I hid my tears and didn't say anything.
"I didn't mean it before, Mike. I'm sorry I got pissed, but you're actin' like a real asshole lately."
I knew I was, I just couldn't admit it.
"Why'd ya hit Anton like that? He didn't hurt you. I don't get it at all. You give him a bike, then won't show him how to ride it. Man, he was so excited when he finally got up on it, then you gotta come along and sock him in the face."
I maintained my silence, then felt Jed's hand land gently on my shoulder. "It ain't like you, Mike. You're scarin' me."
I was sobbing out loud by then. I lifted my head and looked at Jed. "You wanna know why? Little Saint Anton won't leave me the fuck alone, now he's stealin' all my friends."
Jed's voice sounded incredulous. "Stealin' your friends? You mean makin' friends with folks you know? That ain't stealin', Mike. That's just... life. I don't get why you hate that boy."
I was overexcited and having trouble breathing normally. "You wanna know? Last year when me'n Jack were gettin' shit from every direction Anton was the only kid in our grade dishin' it out. After the crash it all stopped... except fuckin' Anton! You know what that was like? It was so bad with everybody dead'n everythin', than that little... fuckin... WEASEL just kept it up every time he saw me." I looked at Jed, tears clouding my picture of him. "I should'a bashed his brains in a long time ago."
I could make out Jed's surprised expression. "Anton? I... I didn't know that. You should'a told me before, Mike. I would'a made him shut up."
I muttered, "He's too fuckin' stupid. He ain't gonna learn nuthin'."
"Mike, I'm sorry. I didn't know that was goin' on, but it don't make Anton stupid. Dumb maybe, a horse's ass maybe, but he sure ain't stupid. I never talked to him before yesterday, but he seems pretty nice, and he sure seems smart."
"See? First Joe, then my mother, then you, then Dave. He's weaselin' up to all my friends an' takin' 'em away! It ain't right, Jed. He should just go back to the holler he came from."
"Well, I'm not tryin' to change your mind about him, but you're wrong about me. Ya can't ask me to not like somebody because you don't. That ain't fair to anybody." He lifted my chin with his hand, forcing me to look at him. "The only person who can make me change my opinion of you is you!" He grinned. "You're doin' a pretty good job of it right now."
I had calmed down a little. I tried to smile, but doubt that it worked very well. "I'm bein' an asshole. Can I get a ride home? I'm beat."
"You won't talk to Anton? At least give it a try?"
I shook my head.
Jed sighed. "Okay. Let's get you home."
He got to his feet and held a hand out to me, but I got up by myself and walked over to the car. The ride only took a minute, and when I was getting out of the car Jed said, "I'll go get your fish and your things. I'll be right back." He looked worried. "You gotta calm down, Mike. Things'll get better, you'll see."
I tried to smile and nodded. "Thanks, Jed."
I could hear agitated voices from the back porch. My mother and father were sitting there. When they saw me, my father said, "Now what, Mike? You're getting in fights? You get up here and explain yourself!"
His voice sounded angry and worried at the same time. I went in through the kitchen, then out to the porch. My parents both looked at me with expressions that should have been reserved for the first visitor from Mars. I don't think my mother could have looked more mortified if I'd come at her with an axe raised in my hands. My father just looked angry, but in control of it. He told me to sit.
He spoke. "Mike, what exactly is going on? Bob Surdiak told us you were cussin' out people last night, now Mrs. Anderson said you just punched little Anton Wolfe in the nose. I'll listen to your side, but you're already in trouble."
My mother said, "Joe, wait." She looked at me. "Michael, go wash up and change your shirt. You look like something the cat dragged in."
I saw what she meant when I got to the bathroom. My face, which had already been dirty from fishing, was all streaked with mud from my crying. My hands were almost black, and my shirt was dirty and all messed up from where Jed had grabbed it. I pulled the shirt off and dropped it in the hamper, then washed up. I went to my bedroom and put on a clean shirt, then headed back to the porch. I could hear other people talking as I approached.
Bus jokes are not funny things in Morton these days, but it sure looked like one had just pulled up out front of our house. The Anderson's were all there, Anton with them. Joe Goldman had his son Scott and Hector Cassarino with him, and Dave was just jumping the railing when I walked out. I guess I must have looked surprised, because a few people giggled. My father wasn't among the ones who seemed amused.
"Mike, we have company right now but you're not off the hook, so don't think it for a second." He looked around. "Who wants to start?"
Jed had my pail of fish in his hand. He held it out to my father with a dumb grin on his face. "I put ice on 'em. I bet I know what you're havin' for supper tonight."
Pat smiled his big-eyed smile. "Yeah! Same as us. Fish fry!"
I caught a glimpse of Anton. He was wearing his usual frown, but he didn't look any the worse for wear. I hadn't given him any bruises, anyhow. Mr. Anderson spoke up. "Michael, I want you to apologize to Anton right now. If you decide you need to fight again, please give him some warning and do it in your own driveway."
A lot of people at once asked, "What happened?", while I looked at the floor and muttered, "Sorry, Anton."
When I looked up Dave was staring at me. Mr. Anderson was explaining how he saw me sock Anton, but Dave never changed his stare. He looked at my father. "Let me borrow these two." He looked at Joe. "I know you're going to the store, but this shouldn't take too long. Okay?"
Joe grinned at Dave, then around at everybody. "Man, you're takin' on the Hatfields and the McCoys with this pair! Take your time!"
My father nodded, then Dave said, "Okay. Mike and Anton come with me." He led us to his house, then to Jack's room. When we were all in there he had me sit in the middle of the floor with my legs straight out, then made Anton sit the same way with his back right against mine. The position was uncomfortable to start with, but I was doubly uncomfortable with the little creep's body actually touching mine.
"Okay, guys. Cross your arms and talk things out. Talk, nothing else. You can yell and scream if you want, but don't move a muscle. When you're friends, give me a yell. I'll be in the kitchen."
That was it! He left the room and closed the door behind him. I thought he was really dumb if he expected this to work.
Anton and I sat there. I found the position uncomfortable, but I was damned if I was going to move first. We were there a long time, a half hour, maybe longer. I literally cringed every time Anton shifted his weight or moved in any manner. Anton was on the top of my shit list, but Dave was right now a close second.
Eventually I heard Anton's creepy little voice from behind me. "Why'd you hit me?"
I remained silent. After another minute he said, "I didn't mean to bump you. I was just all excited and I did the brakes the wrong way. I didn't mean it."
I said nothing. Anton sniffled. "Nobody ever hit me before. You scared me."
"You hate me, don't you?"
"You got that right!"
"It's okay. Everybody does. Is it because of the way I look?"
"I look weird though, right?"
"You are weird! Will you just shut up?"
"Dave said we're s'posed to talk."
"Well, screw him! He's your friend, not mine."
"He likes you a lot."
"Yeah? Well he's got a funny way of showin' it."
We were both quiet for a long time, then, "Mike?"
"I like the bike. It's real fun to ride. I'll get better on it. Jed said I did good."
"Just shut up, okay? I don't care if you like the bike. I don't care if you get to be a world champion. Just quit runnin' your mouth and go to sleep or somethin'."
He sniffed. "Sorry. Do you like your bird house? I thought it was stupid, but Joe said you'd like it."
I didn't answer.
"It was the best one I ever made. I like it."
"You made more?"
"Yeah, lots. I make them to look like the people houses that I see. We never had a house. I like houses."
"There's nothin' wrong with trailers. Lots'a people have 'em."
"I know. Where I live is fine, but I like real houses. Trailers are all the same. They're boring."
Imagine that! The most boring person on earth telling me that trailers were boring. "Will you please shut up?"
"Joe said the things I called you were bad, that I should say I'm sorry."
"Joe said it's never to late to make things right."
"It's too late."
"I'm sorry anyhow. I was bein' mean."
"That you were, Anton! You like bein' mean to people?"
"No! I... uh... I didn't even know it was bad 'til Joe told me. It's..."
"Jesus, Anton! You spent a solid year tryin' to make me and Jack feel like total misfits, then you tell me you didn't know? That's bullshit!"
I could feel him sob this time. His voice was very low. "I was always last, Mike. I never had a single friend, 'cause I was too small or too stupid or too funny looking. Then they said you was queer and it made me feel better than you. I didn't even know what it meant. I asked about a hunnert times before I even believed it, then my Daddy said it was so."
"Your Daddy said I was queer?"
"No, he said there was such a thing is all. I was just tryin' to get a friend. I didn't mean anything about you when I said that stuff."
"Why'd you keep it up then? Why the hell'd you pick on me when everybody else gave it up? Before that you were just an asshole like everybody else, but when Jack got killed you didn't let up. That was just plain mean!"
He was quiet for a few seconds, and I swear I could sense him hanging his head. "I'm sorry, Mike. I truly am." He paused. "I wanted to be like you. I don't mean queer, I mean happy and easy with people like you are. I guess I was always... jealous."
"Why the hell would ya be jealous of me? I'm the town queer! That ain't anythin' to be jealous about."
"Joe said you really loved Jack and he loved you back. Is that so?"
I squeezed my eyes shut, forming a picture of Jack in my mind. "Yeah, it's so. We were in love. Are in love."
He was silent for a few minutes. His voice had gotten even smaller. "I loved my granny before she died. She showed me how to whittle."
I didn't say anything, so he went on. "When I was makin' that birdhouse it was like she was right there with me, makin' sure I got the glue right an' everythin'. I know she's dead, but I still love her. It's like she's livin' right in my head."
Boy, did I want that! "Anton?"
"How do you do that? How do you make her alive again?"
"I didn't mean she is alive, just that it seems it sometimes. She always said that if I put two good thoughts together and she's in one of 'em, then she'd never leave me.
"You miss her?"
"Too much. You miss Jack, too."
He'd stated that as a fact, which I appreciated. I also appreciated what Dave had done there. My hatred toward Anton had pretty much evaporated from talking to him. He was just a shy kid, worse off than me in some ways, but he had more of a sense of self than I ever did. I wasn't ready to like him, but I knew that we could at least have a civil relationship.
"Ready to go?"
"But, Dave said..."
"We're there, Anton. Don't you have a nickname or something?"
"Joe calls me Wolfie."
"He calls your father Wolfie, too, your mother for that matter." We both laughed.
"You could call me Tony."
"Tony? Tony's cool. Can you get up? I'm about stuck to this floor."
"We're gonna be friends?"
"If you stop bein' a rotten little prick!"
"You gotta stop bein' a snob, then."
We had both dropped to our sides, hoping to get some circulation going in our legs. I looked at Tony. "Snob?"
He smiled. "Yeah. Stuck up. You never said if you like your birdhouse."
I got to my feet smiling inwardly and outwardly. "I gotta look again. It was kinda dark out. Ma said it was spectacular."
"Well, she's my Mom. She don't miss much."
I actually looked at his face when he smiled broadly at that last remark. I guess ugly is in the eye of the beholder. With a smile on his face and those huge brown eyes, Tony looked pretty normal. I smiled back, then we went into the kitchen.
Dave must have heard us coming, because he was at the table looking toward the door that we came in through. When he saw us he grinned, then looked at his watch. "Not bad. Hardly a record, but not bad at all. You guys figured things out?"
I glanced at Tony. He was smiling his shy smile. I looked back at Dave. "Yeah, we're cool. Thanks, Dave. That was neat. How'd you know it would work?"
He smiled and made like he was twirling the end of a non-existent moustache. "Practice, me boy, practice. Ready to go face the elders?"
We both nodded, and we went back to my house. There were even more people there. Joe's wife had come with their other two kids, and Bob Surdiak was there with his wife Karen. I went directly to Bob and knelt down in front of him. "I'm sorry for what I said, Bob. You never been anythin' 'cept good to me. I was just mad at the world, okay?"
His eyes twinkled. "Yeah, and I was pretty tired. Just forget what I said. You know you're welcome anytime."
I smiled and patted his knee. "Thanks."
Joe was standing there. "Okay. Let's get this shoppin' trip on the road! Who's coming?"
I raised my hand along with Hector, Scott and Tony. Joe grinned, then looked at his wife. "Gotta take your car, they won't fit in mine."
She dug in her purse, then handed him the keys. "Don't park too close to anybody."
Joe grinned, then leaned down and kissed her. "Not to worry. I'll just stay with the car and let these punks empty out the mall by themselves."
She grinned. "Nap time, huh?"
He shrugged and smiled, and we piled into their car. Squeezed would be a better term. Scott sat up front with his dad, Hector and I were in back with Tony, and it wasn't a very big car.
It took us about forty minutes to get to the mall. Joe parked and we walked inside. I hadn't been there many times and Anton never had, but Hector and Scott knew their way around. The first stop was a shoe store for a few pairs of sneakers and some winter boots. Joe sent us into Dillard's by ourselves to pick out clothes, his only rules being no baggy pants and no shirts with obnoxious writing on them.
It was kind of fun by ourselves. We got ten pairs of socks, and then looked at underwear. Everybody had their opinion on briefs and boxers. Tony couldn't make up his mind, so we ended up getting him twelve pairs of each. We looked at the clothes in there, but only bought two pairs of jeans. Hector thought Anton would like the things in The Gap better. Scott had his father's credit card and a note saying he could use it, but the lady wouldn't take it. I went out and found Joe. He came into the store, and while he was signing the slip, he politely gave the saleslady hell for not believing his son.
We all went into The Gap together. Tony didn't like their pants very much, but he got a bunch of shirts there, then we went to American Outfitters where he got a whole bunch of things. Anton liked their flannel shirts, so he got several of those along with fall and winter jackets, more pants, some belts, a scarf, gloves, and a wallet. We all had armloads of stuff, but when we were walking back through the mall Joe stopped at a kiosk and got Tony a watch, then sunglasses at another one. We stopped at one more kiosk and we all got baseball caps, which Joe called helmets, from our favorite teams. Tony didn't have a favorite so he got a Blue Jays cap because he liked the way it looked.
We filled the trunk of the car with all the things and headed for home. Joe got off the interstate in some town because he said they had the best milkshakes in the state at a little place that was right off the exit. We all got what we wanted, then sat at a picnic table and enjoyed the treat.
Anton looked at Joe and said, "Thanks Joe. That was an awful lot of money."
Joe smiled. "Don't worry about it, Wolfie. Your Daddy's taking care of everything. What time is it?"
Tony beamed as he looked at his shiny new watch. "It's three-twenty!"
Joe smiled again. "You know what's good about that?"
"It's the perfect time to be eating a yummy ice cream and havin' fun with all your friends."
Tony took off his sunglasses and smiled at each of us in turn. "It surely is, Joe. This is …" he paused for several seconds, "This is nice. Really good!"
We finished up and drove back to my house. It looked like half the town was there by then. It was kind of a joke with the adults that a good picnic never really ends, you just wait to see where it's going to pop up next.
Joe made us bring all the clothes inside and take the price tags off them. We hauled everything into my bedroom and started peeling and snipping them off. There wasn't enough room for all of us to help, but Scott and Hector were doing a good job. Tony was looking around, and he noticed the picture of Jack and me. He said, "That's Jack." He looked around at me. "It's not a very good picture."
He was right, but it was the only one I had of the two of us together. It was a little off center and a little overexposed. I sighed. "It's the only one of us."
"It's too bad. He was nice?"
"He was real nice, Tony. He was the best friend I ever had."
Tony nodded sadly, and Scott announced that they were finished. Tony wanted to put on some new clothes, so we left him there with the bags of clothes and headed out to the porch.
I saw my father sitting with Andy and Dave, so I walked over to them. "Hi, Guys!"
They looked up and said hi, then my father spoke. "Jed told me why you hit Anton." He looked a little anguished. "Why didn't you say something? If you keep holding things inside, you're going to explode one of these days. Anyhow, I don't like fighting but I guess you're off the hook on that one. No more though, understood?"
"Good." He smiled. "Bob Surdiak refuses to press charges, so you're a free man for now. You really need to think better of people, Mike. Everybody's on your side, but you're making that a hard place to be.
I hung my head and drew a little circle on the floor with the toe of my sneaker. "I know. I'm sorry."
Dave looked pretty happy. "So how was the shopping trip? Did Anton get what he needed?"
I smiled. "There ain't much left at the mall, that's for sure. He got about ten of everythin'."
I heard my mother cry out, "Here he is! Anton Wolfe, come meet Mr. Dickey!" I turned around to see Anton just coming out through the door. He was wearing a dark red tee shirt and stone washed jeans with his new Nike's. He had the Blue Jay's cap on and the shades resting on top of it. At least everything fit and didn't make him look so skinny. Joe smiled proudly at him and called him 'slick' when he walked by, causing Tony to smile and blush at the same time.
I followed Tony over to my mother. Mr. Dickey was sitting next to her with Tony's birdhouse in his hands. He stood up and held his hand out. As Tony shook it Mr. Dickey said, "This is a fine piece of work, Anton. It's my house, you know." Tony looked confused. "I mean, I live in the real house that you modeled this after. Can you make another one? I'll pay you for it."
"Uh, sure... I guess. You sure got a nice house. I only ever saw the front, so I just guessed about the rest of it."
"Well, thank you. I never noticed you there, but you must have spent some time to make it so accurate."
"Huh? I only seen it one time when I walked by. I just remembered it so I could get the porch right."
Mr. Dickey's eyebrows went up in surprise. I think mine must have, too. "Just once? That's amazing! So how much will you charge for one just like this?"
"Um... uh... you don't hafta pay me. It's just twigs an' stuff. It'll take me a couple weeks, but I kin make another one."
Mr. Dickey smiled. "Nonsense! You put a lot of work into this. You just let me know when it's ready and I'll pay you, okay?"
Tony grinned. "Really?" He looked at me. "You hear that, Mike? He's gonna pay me."
I smiled back. My mother asked, "Have you made others, Anton? I'll bet lots of people would pay you to do the same thing with their houses."
"You think? I made a whole lot of them but... well there's birds livin' in 'em."
We all laughed at his earnest expression of the truth. I smelled food cooking and it made me hungry. "I'm gettin' somethin' to eat. You hungry, Tony?"
"I just ate a triple banana split!" His expression changed a little. "It does smell good. Maybe just a hot dog."
Our yard was full of people, the same ones who had been at Surdiak's the day before. They were in Dave's yard too, apparently helping themselves to tours of the new barn.
Jed was manning the grills and we approached him from behind. When he turned around and spotted Tony he gave him a huge smile. "Whoa, Anton! You look like a new man!"
Tony smiled proudly. Jed looked quickly back and forth at us. "So... you guys cool now?"
As I nodded my head Jed said, "Turn around, Anton. I wanna see the whole package." Anton turned around slowly. "Not bad. Not bad at all! Now you just gotta put some ass in those pants! What'll it be? Hotdogs, hamburgs, cheeseburgs or spicy sausage?"
I said, "I'll have two cheeseburgs."
Tony said, "Four hotdogs."
I looked at him. "I thought you were full."
He grinned. "You heard Jed. I gotta grow me an ass."
I shook my head and smiled. "You're nuts." Then I snuck a look and he did seem a little deprived in that department. I wondered if it hurt him to sit down directly on bones. I looked at Jed. "Where'd Pat go? I didn't see him."
"He went out to the creek with some other kids. He'll be back. He said you guys had a good time today. Hey, go get some plates and get your rolls. These things won't take long."
We went to the picnic table and got plates and buns, then I took a scoop of chili and some macaroni salad. The meat was ready when we got back to the grill and Jed loaded us up. I sat against a tree, but Tony didn't want to get his new clothes dirty so he went back up on the porch. I watched him walking away and suddenly realized that I'd hated him when I woke up that morning, now he seemed okay, kind of a nice kid really.
The big thing was that I felt better about it. I didn't think we'd ever be good friends because we had very little in common, but at least I wouldn't get a knot in my stomach every time I heard his name.
"This seat taken?" I was startled, but it was Joe Goldman bending to sit beside me.
"Hi, Joe. Thanks for the ice cream before."
"No problem. So... you made me real happy today."
"Yup. You settled your differences with Anton like a man." He smiled before his look turned serious. "Don't turn into a loner, Mike. If that was your nature I'd say go for it, but it ain't the way you're put together. You're a social person, so you're just gonna be miserable stayin' by yourself all the time." He smiled again. "People like you, Mike. Don't make it hard for them to know you."
"I'm happy bein' alone. It's easier."
"Oh, it's easy alright. It's also boring and a waste of your life. I was a shy kid, Mike. I was afraid of everybody all the time, but I got over it. It's not a nice place to be, and you're crazy if you put yourself there on purpose."
"I think I am crazy."
"You're not crazy kid, you just got a raw deal. Your first love got ripped right out from under you... um, so to speak." He put on an embarrassed smile. "Let me rephrase that. You lost Jack in the worst possible way and it turned everything upside down, but if you let your friends help you you'll be okay. It wasn't anything you could have stopped from happening, and you can't stop it from happening again if your luck's bad enough." His expression turned serious. "Listen to me. What you're looking for isn't in your head yet. You need to open up to other people, because that's where your answers are. There's lots of love in this world, but you can only find it if you're givin' it off yourself. Am I makin' any sense?"
"I guess, but I'm not lookin' for love. I'm lookin' for Jack."
Joe put his hands on his face. "Oh, boy. Dave told me that. Let me think a second." He thought for what seemed like several minutes. "Okay, this is only a guess. Say when you die your spirit lives on. I'm not sure what that means, but I don't think you can take the bus anymore if you're a spirit. Now, if it's true then there's a heckuva lot of spirits around all competin' for space. Just think, one spirit for every single person that ever lived, maybe every animal and bug too. You with me so far?"
"I think so."
"Okay, so how do you think one spirit could find you if it wanted to, what with all the noise and crowding in the spirit world?"
"Jack knows where I live."
"I don't think it's that simple, not like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I don't think spirits sit around playing cards. I don't think they do anything. I don't think they have a sense of direction or place. If they're spirits they're just the essence of the beings they once were." He tapped my knee to make me look at him. "What was the essence of Jack in one word or less?"
I didn't hesitate. "Love and caring."
"That's two words. Is one more true than the other?"
"I... hmm. This is hard. Jack loved me, but he cared about everything. He loved me though. If I answer 'love' then it sounds selfish. Screw it! Jack's essence was love!"
"Now we're gettin' somewhere. The rest of this might be a stretch, but it's gotta be obvious that the connection between the real world and the spirit world is pretty flimsy. If it wasn't we'd have ghosts everywhere, and that ain't the case. We do hear about them, though, so there's gotta be a way some of them find their way back. You with me so far?"
I was and I nodded. Joe's ideas were always at least different, and he was fun to listen to.
"Okay, the way I figure it, it's gotta be like giant magnets. We're still here and we can be whatever we want to be, but most of us do too many things to work any magnetism up. I think the spirits can only find the people that send out one strong signal. If Jack's essence is love, then you gotta be love central before he can find you. You need to attract him just like a magnet. Am I makin' sense here?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"If I say something wrong just slap me. Jack was a hard kid to know, right? I mean, he kept to himself all the time."
"That's for sure."
"But once you liked him you didn't let up, did you?"
"You had to know everything, right? You bugged him until he gave in, didn't you?"
I chuckled. "Yeah, I bugged him. I don't know if he ever gave in though"
"Who said it first?"
"I love you."
"Um, I did."
"Did he say it back?"
"Yeah. Not right away, but he did."
"How long before he said it?"
"A couple of days, I guess. What's it matter?"
"Did you put your feelings on hold when he didn't answer right away?"
"Did you still love him when you didn't know if he loved you back?"
"Do you still love him now?"
"Of course I do."
"Okay, so that parts all lined up. Now you hafta expand your love to other things... other people. You can't keep goin' around thinking this sucks and that sucks. You'll never get your magnets fired up bein' like that. You have to start giving out love all the time, but it's even more important that you start accepting it every time it's offered."
"I don't get it. Who goes around offerin' love?"
He had a mysterious little smile on his face. "Most people do it, Mike. You just don't recognize it all the time. Where'd ya go fishin' today?"
"Little Wheezy River."
"Now that's a nice place. Did you have a good time?"
"Yeah, I had a great time."
"Did you love it?"
I had to smile. "Yeah, I loved it."
"Who brought you?"
"Mr. Anderson and Patty."
"Very good. What kind of ice cream did you get today?"
"Chocolate-chip cookie dough."
"Did you love it?"
"Who took you to get it? Who paid for it.?"
"Very good. Those were easy ones. What'd you and Anton do when you were in Dave's house?"
"We talked. Well, mostly he talked."
"You hated him when you went over there, didn't you?"
I was embarrassed about that. My response was a whisper. "Yes."
"You don't hate him anymore do you?"
"Doesn't that make you feel better? I mean you look a lot happier than you did yesterday."
"I do feel better."
"Do you like feeling better?"
"Yeah, I like it."
"Do you love the difference between feeling miserable and feeling good?"
He had me trapped, and I had to stifle a laugh. "I guess I do love the difference."
"Who made you talk to Anton?"
"You know what you're missing here?"
I didn't have a clue where he was going with it. "No."
"Those were all acts of love, Mike, but you didn't recognize a single one of them for what it was, did you?"
"Acts of love?"
"Yup! Sometimes people have to do things for you, like waitin' tables in a restaurant or something. When they do something nice they don't have to do, it's because of love. You need to recognize that when it happens. Absorb all that love, build up your magnet. You want some more examples?"
He pointed to the grills. "Look at Jeddy over there cookin' for everybody. That's love. Look at your Mom givin' Anton a big head by showing off his birdhouse. That's love, too. Look at your Dad and Andy playin' with other people's kids. That's love. It's all around you, Mike. You gotta be a love sponge, soak it all in. You need to recognize it when you give away love, too."
I was hooked. "How's my magnet gonna get strong enough if I give it away?"
He grinned. "Love's funny like that. The human mind has an infinite capacity to absorb it, sorta like dissolving salt in water. Look."
He reached into the mulch around the tree and grabbed a handful, then started sprinkling it into a little pile. "This here's your love reserve. Now here's somebody commitin' an act of love on you." He dropped some mulch on the pile, then looked around. "Uh oh, here comes somebody else!" He dropped some more, then looked at me. "It's pretty simple when you have a nice graphic example. Here's where love gets different than most things." He picked up more mulch in his other hand. "Here's you giving off love to somebody else, Wolfie for example." He started sprinkling the stuff into the original pile and into a new one as well.
He looked up triumphantly, an excited expression on his face. "See? When somebody else is givin' you some love your little pile grows, but when you're doin' it both piles grow. Your pile can only get bigger, and it gets big twice as fast when you're the one doin' the loving things!" He smirked. "It's simple science, Mike. Your own stash of love actually gets bigger when you give it away."
I was giggling at the simplicity of it. "That is so cool! I'm gonna pay way more attention to what people do."
Joe looked happy. "You do that." He started to stand up. "Remember... magnet! It's nothing special, Mike. It's the little love things we all do without thinking, just everyday love."
I leaned back against the tree, smiling inwardly as I tried to picture myself as a love magnet. I saw Jed talking to his father and decided to give it a try. I got to my feet and walked over. "Mr. A?"
"Oh, Hi Mike."
"I'm sorry I got mad before. I had a good time today and never said thanks. So... thanks. I loved fishin' in your canoe."
He smiled. "Well, thank you for saying that. You and Anton settled your differences?"
"Yeah, we're okay."
He smiled and patted my shoulder. "Well that's good. I really don't like having blood stains in my driveway. And next time, you get to clean my fish!"
"You cleaned 'em? I forgot all about 'em."
"I cleaned them, Mrs. Rizza's in the kitchen gettin' 'em ready to fry."
I hugged him, which is what I meant to do in the first place. I looked at Jed, who had a bemused look on his face. "Thanks Jed... for stickin' with me when I'm an asshole. You're a good person." I walked over to him and gave him a hug. He returned it and laid his chin on my shoulder.
"Hey, us assholes have to stick together. You gonna help me cook the fish?"
"Sure, I'll be right back."
I walked up on the porch, greeting the people that I passed. I went to where my mother was sitting and picked up the birdhouse that Anton had made. The one I had wanted to smash into smithereens the day before. I sat down in a chair and took a good look at it. There was so much detail that it looked almost like it had been made by a machine. The spindles on the porch were hardly bigger than tooth picks, but they looked almost like they'd been turned on a lathe. The doors and windows were just little pieces of wood glued on, the only real entrance being a round hole for the birds with a little round twig for them to perch on just below it. Everything looked delicate, but it felt as solid as a rock.
The night before I'd just thought it was some little model, but looking closely at it in the light of day I kind of got lost in it. The little details, right down to door knobs and a porch light, were all there. I'd made model cars and planes for a while, but they mostly ended up with blotches of glue running out of all the joints. Anton's work gave you no clue how it was all held together.
Duly impressed, I set it back down on the table and smiled at my mother. I saw Anton talking to his father and Dave, then walked over and tapped him on the shoulder. As he was turning around I said, "Hi, Mr. Wolfe. Hi, Dave. Hey, Tony! I just took a good look at that birdhouse. It's beautiful! How'd you do that?"
He looked excited. "You really like it?"
"I really love it. I never said thanks."
"You don't hafta. It was just a trade for the bike."
"I know. It's too much, though. The bike was just layin' here an' you worked real hard to make that.. You should just sell it to Mr. Dickey."
I could see Dave shaking his head 'no' behind Tony, as if he thought I said the wrong thing. Tony looked stricken. "You don't want it?"
I felt bad. "That's not what I meant. It's too valuable to trade for an old bike. You can give me somethin' else someday. That's all I meant."
Tony shook his head. "Nope. That's what I gave you. It's yours now. If you wanna sell it you can, but I ain't takin' it back."
I looked into those big eyes, wondering what his expression meant. What Joe had just talked about popped into my head. Tony had taken the gift of the bike as an act of love on my part and wanted to return it by giving me the birdhouse, no matter the difference in relative value. I felt a twinge of shame, then a powerful urge to become better friends with this boy.
He looked like he was afraid of what I was going to say, so I smiled. "I'm keepin' it. I'll keep it forever. You wanna help cookin' the fish?"
His worried look disappeared. "Sure, I'll help."
"You doin' anythin' tomorrow? You wanna go ridin'?
"Bikes? You'll go with me?" His face was a picture of happy surprise.
I lifted up my leg and showed him the tire mark from earlier and grinned.
"I'll go with ya. You need professional trainin' and practice. Lotsa practice."
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