The rest of the summer, the next couple of years actually, were great. I finally heard Ken playing the electric guitar, and I fell in love with the instrument. He showed me some stuff and I picked it up pretty quickly. Nobody expected this kid to have any talent, but within a year I was a pretty competent player.
For a whole lot of reasons, my friendship with Tim Atkins really blossomed.. We did more and more together, and became just about inseparable. Our strengths and weaknesses were just about polar opposites, and we learned to use each other to make up the difference. I was tough and Tim was gentle. Tim was smart and I was dumb. By the end of that first summer everyone thought of us as best friends. I guess we both did, too, but we never really talked about it. It was a given. Barry and Ken seemed really tickled about our relationship, Ken especially. He said everyone should have a best friend, but not everybody deserves one. He was really happy about the way I'd changed, and you could tell he was a little proud to think that he'd helped. He said I'd completed my summer project with high honors.
Having a best friend was wonderful to me. We didn't change our relationships to the other guys at all. We had a nice, tight circle of friends, and we did all kinds of things together. It's kind of hard to describe the difference between a good friend and your best friend. It was sort of all inside the head. Your good friends knew what and who you liked and didn't like, and why. They knew about your favorite stuff, like food and types of movies or tv shows. One or another would do stuff they didn't really like just because everyone else wanted to. That was good friends. As best friends, Tim and I did that too, but there was a deeper level of feeling ... of sensing things, knowing things, not having to decide things verbally. We could feel each others needs most of the time, and just know exactly what it would take to break a bad mood or something like that, or even to share a bad mood. But it was still more than that. We wished things for each other.
Timmy was pretty smart and refined. I was kind of hardscrabble. I prayed that he'd get a little more confidence in himself, stand up to people more, be less sensitive. He hoped I'd relax some, be less demanding, less critical. We didn't try to change each other, though. As a team, our very different personalities worked in harmony. We became a unit and everybody knew it. He was thirteen and I was eleven. He was tall for his age, and I was a little short for mine. I'd kicked his ass once in a fight, even with the size difference. I was never able to square that one. There was just no reason. I was fighting all the time then, and when somebody said Timmy was a faggot, I just jumped him and fought him right in front of about twenty other kids. I know losing must have humiliated him, being bigger and all, but he just calls it bad timing and laughs about it.
If Tim has a signature, it's his laugh. His regular laugh is a real happy one, but when something strikes him really funny, the laugh starts in his toes and builds up through him. He'll be shaking all over before he makes a sound. It's one of those laughs that makes everyone around him laugh, even if they don't know what's funny to start with.
Ken brought us to lots of places that first summer. We went clamming, fishing and crabbing. We went to ball games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. His company had great box seats at both places. We went out in the dune buggy and on the dirt bikes. We went to the beach. Everyone except me swam in the quarry. I never did. The D'Allesandro's had an above ground pool in their yard, and I confined my aquatics to there. Jimbo had a Hobie Cat and he took us on that a few times.
The level of activity around Ken never seemed to die down. Rainy days called for great, muddy rides in the woods. We went on night hikes with torches that Ken made from tent poles, with oil-soaked rags wrapped around the ends. We spent the entire summer doing things and having a ball. Excitement and laughter were the name of the game.
Ken and Don were hopeless practical jokers. When Ken would see somebody sprinkling their lawn at night, he'd stop and pull the sprinkler out into the middle of the road. They'd run pants and things up people's flag poles. If they saw a fountain, they bought a box of Tide and dumped it in.
Their revenges were great, too. Don had been complaining about his hours because another fireman was always calling in sick, and he had to cover. The guy lived in a neighborhood with lots of houses. They went there one night, and went through the backyards connecting everybody's garden hoses together. They had a splitter, and pointed a nozzle at this guy's front door and another at the back door. They connected it at the first house on the street, about twenty houses away, and turned the water on. Then they went home to bed. When the guy got up, he couldn't get out either of his doors without getting soaked, and he couldn't turn the water off because it wasn't his.
At the end of summer, Ken had to bring his kids back to New York. You could tell he hated having them live so far away. That's why he got his flying license to start with, but with all his traveling for work combined with the distance, he just didn't get to be the regular father he wanted to be.
Then school started. We were like a parade every day. Tim lived the farthest out, and he'd meet Jerry at the RR trestle, then they met up with me and we walked to Richie's house. The D'Allesandro's and Bobby Knight came a different way, and they also met at Richie's, who lived closest to the school. From there we all went together, loudly remembering the good times we'd shared or, sometimes, busting balls just as loudly.
One day towards Halloween, we passed some kid that made a faggot remark about Timmy. Let's just say that I doubt he will ever, ever again make such a comment as long as he lives. The threats he heard that day were reality the next as he ate a chicken shit, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Right in front of school and about two hundred kids. Between bites and barfs, he had to announce that he was the real queer, not Timmy. I often wonder if, to this day, somebody doesn't occasionally come up to him and mutter 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing'.
Timmy was against things like that all the time, but we finally got him to agree to learn to fight back. He hated violence, but figured he should at least know how to defend himself against punks like me. He was big enough, and strong enough, and coordinated enough. He just didn't know how to get out of the way of a punch or a kick. He learned pretty quickly. Most days, one or another of us would try to ambush him, and he got to where he could hold us off without doing much damage.
Ken had started traveling again for work, and was spending a lot of time in upstate New York and in Wyoming. He didn't always come home on weekends, but things at his house weren't a lot different whether he was there or not. As the weather got colder, he actually liked having someone hanging around and checking on things. Don and Barry had keys to the bikes and the dune buggy, and we were allowed to use them if one of those guys was there. It was mostly kids there most of the time, but we tried to be respectful of Ken's house and things. We realized we had a good thing, and like Barry had told me, we policed ourselves. We always cleaned up any mess we made, and did things like vacuuming and dusting sometimes.
Tim and I had learned a little about practical jokes. When we knew the day Ken was coming home for Christmas, we short-sheeted his bed. Then Tim figured out how to connect the stereo in his bedroom to his bedside lamp. As soon as the lamp was turned off, the tape player would start full blast. Turn the lamp on and it would stop. We bought a marching band tape and cued it up to Hooray for the Red White and Blue. Tim couldn't figure how to not have the stereo playing when he went in there, so we just left the lamp on figuring he probably wouldn't notice.
When he got home that night we partied for a little while, but everybody kept telling Ken how tired he looked. That worked, and after about an hour he said he was going to bed. We all made like we were leaving, but snuck right back in and crowded in to the room next to his. We could hear him moving around for a little while, then the bed squeaked when he tried to get in. There was a big 'SONOVABITCH', then he said he'd get those little bastards, then we could hear him stripping the bed and putting it back together. It was quiet for a minute, then BWA BWA bwa bwa bwa bwa bwa bwa. Then silence as the light came back on. Then the music blasted again. Then it stopped. It started again. Stopped again.
"Yer all PRICKS, ya know."
We all ran outside laughing ourselves foolish. Tim went under Ken's window and yelled to him to unscrew the bulb and he'd fix it the next day.
We all got Christmas cards from Ken. On the front there was a full length picture of him dressed up in a suit and tie with his hair combed. When you opened it up there was a picture from behind, but he was naked. You could see the hairs on his legs and the pimples on his butt. The message said, 'Merry Kiss My Ass'.
He took me choppin at about noon on Christmas Eve. He got everybody a crock pot. I guess they were pretty new then. We went from store to store, getting all they had. He got them for all the adults, all his relatives, and all the kids. I can tell you, this eleven year old boy was delighted with his very own personal, genuine crock pot. Really.
Ken's brother got him a puppy, a little black and white German Shepherd. He named her Samantha and called her Sam. She was a pisser in more ways than one, and he ended up buying Pampers and cutting tail holes in them. We all loved the dog and helped train her. She loved to play and especially loved to ride in cars. She grew really fast, but never barked - never made a sound. Ken thought there was something wrong, but didn't worry about it. One night we were watching something on TV and Jimbo came in with his big high pitched voice. The dog started barking so loud she scared the shit out of all of us. When she finally stopped, Ken looked at her and said "But, Sam!" That became her name. Everybody called her But Sam.
We got through the winter. The dune buggy was fun in the fields, but scary in the woods when there was snow. Barry and Don had snowmobiles and we all rode them. Ken loved tobogganing, and we did a lot of that. Doctor Forrester lived on a lake, and he took us ice-boating a few times. Those things are so fast they're scary. We went ice fishing, too.
Some of the guys seemed to like it, but if anyone can show me a more pointless reason for freezing your ass off, I'd like to hear it.
When spring came, things moved back outdoors. Rich surprised us by saying they were moving out of town as soon as school was out. His father found a better job. It was only about twenty miles away, but when you're a kid that's no closer than the moon. Ken had a nice going-away party for them. It was pretty quiet, except for firing some nails out of the cannon.
That summer was pretty much a repeat of the prior one, minus Richie. We did see him a few times. He'd come whenever his parents were visiting Ken, and we all went to their new house for a house warming party. He spent a week at my house and we still felt like friends, but he was meeting new kids where he lived now.
When school began the next year, Tim started high school and took the bus. I still walked with Jerry, but we just met the other kids at school, because the walk was shorter without the detour to Richie's house.
High school really agreed with Timmy. He joined a couple of clubs and made the JV cross-country team. He was making some new friends, but we were as close as ever. I was really glad for him, because he was getting happier and more confident all the time. I think being a big kid works against you in junior high, where you just look gawky and out of place. In high school it's just the opposite. People start to appreciate tallness and good looks. Tim, instead of slinking around trying to seem shorter, started to walk tall and proud. He still wore K-Mart clothes because his mother couldn't afford nicer stuff, but he got a lot better at picking things out. His hair was blonde and really long ... below his shoulders. He had a nice face and good teeth. He never got zits. He was getting pretty popular, and I was about busting with pride that I was his best friend.
My bubble burst the following April. Mom sold the house. She hadn't been trying to, but some real estate guy came and gave her an offer she had to take. She told me we would have lost it eventually anyhow, because she just couldn't afford it. Whoever was buying it paid more than she thought it was worth. She could get totally out of debt.
She found a job taking care of an old lady. The lady owned a two family house, and the pay included free rent on the second floor, so in June we moved there. It was downtown, and about two miles from our old place. The house was old, but had been kept up really well. It was neat in a way - lots of nice woodwork and stained glass. Timmy absolutely loved the place. He wanted to add about half of it to his collections.
It was really beyond walking distance to Ken's, though, and way too far from Timmy's house. My mother and Ken worked out a deal for the summer where I'd just stay at his house on weekends, and she gave him some money for food and stuff. That third summer turned out pretty well for me.
Barry had me working with him a lot of the time, and we usually stopped at Ken's when we were done. I stayed over on Friday and Saturday nights, sometimes Sunday. I was good enough on the guitar to start jamming with Ken and his friends, and that was a massive amount of fun.
When that summer ended, I had to start high school. That other school. The one across town from where Tim and all my other friends went. The rival one, where my descent into Hell began.
... to be continued
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