Jack in the Box

Chapter 9

Joe Goldman - Short Hill Road - August 2000

Well, our long planned stay at the beach turned out pretty wet, but all in all we had fun. It was good to be back home, though. We'd gotten in late the night before the big picnic, so we were tired and cranky in the morning. I was tired and cranky anyhow. The minute we got home everybody disappeared and I had to spend an hour unloading our stuff from the van we'd rented, then another hour dropping things off at the homes of the people who had gone on vacation with us. It was after two when I got to bed and I seriously wanted to sleep in the next day.

Between the alarm clock, which had remained set at four AM, three very loud children, a phone that never ceases to amaze me with its ability to ring constantly without self-destructing, and a wife with plans, there was no way I was going to get any extra sleep. I grumbled my way into the bathroom and took a shower, then couldn't find my shaving things. I had just decided to forego shaving when I realized that wherever my shaving things were, my toothbrush was probably in the same place.

I put a towel around myself and went back to the bedroom, but I had no clue where anything was. I called out to my wife.


She answered from three rooms away as usual, so I had to go find her. She was in the living room dumping bags out on the floor. I found it hard to believe that we'd brought that much stuff just to go to the beach. I'd pretty much stayed in my bathing suit all summer, but there were mountains of clothes on the floor. Mostly woman's clothing.

"Is my shave kit in there somewhere, girlie?

"Hello yourself. You should hurry up if you're meeting Nick at the restaurant."

"He'll just be late anyhow."

"He already called when you were in the shower. He's bringing the boys, so you should bring your children."

"My children? When did that happen? All of them?"

"They all need to eat. Now go shave and get dressed and leave me to try getting this house in order."

"Okay, chick. Just find my toothbrush and I'll be outta here."

"It's right in the bathroom."

"I didn't see it."

"Did you look under the sink?"

"Why's it under the sink?"

"It's neater that way."

I had to marry me a neatnik! If I hung a jacket on the back of a kitchen chair just to use the bathroom, it'd be in the closet by the time I went to put it back on. If it wasn't in the closet it would be in the hamper and I'd have to find another one. When I went to pay bills I'd have to search the house to find their new hiding place, then look for the checkbook, then a pen. It wasn't unusual to find things like remote controls and bags of hair curlers in the refrigerator.

Sure enough, my little travel bag was under the bathroom sink. I figured it was way too late to shave, so I brushed my teeth and gave my hair a finger combing. It didn't matter what I did. It was going to be a hot day and it'd just end up plastered to my head anyhow. I went out to the kitchen and hollered. "SCOTT! SAM! MISSY! Let's go eat!"

I heard my twelve year old son Scott. "Right here, Dad." I turned around and he looked ready to go. Melissa came downstairs wearing a bathing suit.

"Missy, put some clothes on. We're going out to eat."

She was seven years old. She looked at herself then up at me. "I have clothes on. I wore this all summer."

I smiled. "I know, honey, but we're not at the beach anymore. Wear some shorts over it or something."


She ran back upstairs. I looked at Scott. "Where's Sam?"

"How should I know?"

"Well, could you like go find him or something? We need to get going here."

"Where should I look?"

"Look in the basement, then look outdoors. Just do it, okay? I'm hungry."

"Alright! Jeez, I gotta do everything around here."

I caught a glimpse of movement in the driveway. It was my nine year old son. "Never mind, he's right out front." I walked to the door. "Sam! Let's go. We're leaving right now!"

"I'm ready."

He was wearing shorts and nothing else, not even shoes. "You need a shirt and shoes. You can't go like that."

"C'mon. It's hot out."

"It's air conditioned, so move it! Taxi leaves in two minutes."

He ran upstairs just as Melissa was coming down. She'd done just what I said and pulled some green shorts up over her orange bathing suit. It was a nice combination as long as we weren't headed to Northern Ireland.

We met Nick and his boys at the restaurant and had a decent breakfast, meeting the new middle school teacher, Dave Devino, in the process. Then Scott showed up. Nick had a bit of genius in him. He invited himself, Scott and I over to Dave's, saving us from the horrors of listening to female questions about laundry, from the indignity of sorting through it all, and from the drudgery of putting away a summer's worth of toys and luggage.

When we left the restaurant I brought the kids home and let them loose. I found my wife still in the living room. "Hey, girl!" I kissed her on the cheek. "We met Scott's new teacher and we're goin' over to help him get settled in. It's right across from Surdiak's, so I'll just see you at the picnic, okay?"

Even with a good strategy an exit was never easy. "What about me? Am I supposed to do all this myself?"

"You know where everything goes. I'd just be in the way. Get the kids to take care of their own junk and I'll do the big stuff in the morning."

I almost made it to the door. "Wait! What's he like?"

"What's who like?"

"The new teacher. What's his name?"

"Dave Devino. He seems nice. Can I get goin'? Scott and Nick are waiting. You know how they hate to be late."

"Those two will be late for their own funerals. You just want to get out of here."

Boy, she had that right. When challenged, change the subject. "Did anybody feed the dog? Never mind, I'll check." The dog dish was right by the back door. I almost made it, too.

"Can you at least start the water for the deviled eggs? Use the big pot."

Specificity was called for in a situation like this. I walked back to the living room. "Which big pot? We have lots of big pots." If I put water in the wrong big pot it could spell trouble later.

"You know the one."

"Just remind me. Is it the real big pot that has all the other big pots in it? Or is it in there somewhere with the rest of the big pots?"

"It's not the biggest one ... oh, never mind. Just go and I'll take care of it."

I had my hand on the back doorknob. "Joey?"

I was three rooms away. I walked back and looked at my bride.

"Don't forget to feed the dog."

"I won't." I turned and took two steps.

"And Joe?"


"Hook her to her run when she's done eating."

"I will." NOT! Our dog was a good dog as dogs went, but she had the peculiar notion that she couldn't or shouldn't eat when somebody was waiting for her to eat. I think in a former life she might have been a regular at a bad restaurant or something, but if she felt that somebody was waiting for her to eat she just wouldn't. I filled her food dish and her water dish and put them on the back stoop where her run started, then hooked her outside, killing two birds with one stone. Instead of going back in, I walked around the house to my car and drove to Scott's house.

They were in much the same predicament I had just extricated myself from. Their daughter Maria was barking out orders when I arrived. Scott, Nick and the other four kids were running around trying to finish one thing before she had them start another. Nick saw me come in and dropped the basket he was carrying right where he was. "Sorry Honey. Joe's here and we gotta run!" He went to Maria and hugged her, giving her a peck on the cheek. "You're doin' a great job."

It took the two of them a few minutes to exchange hugs and kisses with the kids, then we were on our way. I left my car there and we went together in Scott's Jeep.

We had a fun morning getting to know Dave. He was smart, witty, and very talkative. He was also gay just like Scott and Nick, and like young Mike Waters, who was there for a while.

Mike was having a terrible time getting over the death of his friend, Jack. Marty and I had tried again and again to get him to go to the beach with us, but he wouldn't budge. His parents were good friends of ours, and they were at their wit's ends trying to bring him back to the real world. I was very disappointed to learn from Dave that, from what he'd seen so far, Mike had made little if any progress. He said he had some ideas and would try to work with Mike, but that the kid was an emotional wreck. I offered him any help that I could give, though I didn't know what that could be.

Later on, we made our way over to the picnic. A lot of people arrived all at once, and it was fun catching up with everybody. Marty arrived with our kids just about when Scott and Nick's kids got there. There were several tons of food on a group of serving tables, and all of it looked tasty and fattening.

It wasn't good politics to hang around the food too long, though. Everybody had brought something and they'd all want to know if you had tried their zucchini casserole or whatever, which would obligate you to get another plate and try some while they anxiously awaited your reaction.

I found myself talking about our beach vacation too many times, so I wandered back to the horseshoe pit and ended up playing a few games with Bob Surdiak as my partner. His skill, despite my own ineptness, had us headed toward the interplanetary championships. I was very happy when his usual partner showed up and apologetically took my place. He was Bob's age and naturally more experienced in things horseshoe than me, so I gracefully excused myself. I stayed and watched them for a while, amazed at how often they could throw ringers. The only times they seemed to miss were when their beer cups were empty or their bladders were full.

It occurred to me that I'd forgotten my guitar. We always played and sang at night, first for the kids, then later we'd do our most obnoxious funny songs for the people who stayed late to hear them. I looked around until I found my wife, and tried to convince her to give me a ride home to get it. I'm not sure what it was with her, but all the years we'd been married she had tried to make it seem like she didn't even know me when those songs started. She was telling me that she thought it was a wonderful idea to leave the guitar at home, and then Dave showed up.

She was happy to meet him and seemed to like him, so I invited him to come along to our house for a minute. That worked, and in no time I was leading Dave to the barn so we could drive back to the picnic. I'd left my car at Scott's and didn't want to make an ungracious return in the dump truck, so I put the guitars in my dune buggy and turned to face Dave.

It looked like he was trying to grin at the same time his chin hit his belt buckle. "I don't believe it! This is gorgeous!" He looked at me, awe in his expression. "I grew up driving a dune buggy. This is wild!"

I'd built a few duners over the years, but bought this one, which was put together by someone else. "You like? Wanna drive?" If he said yes I could go back and have some beer myself.

He'd gotten close and was looking at the interior, which was very simple. The body was cool, though. Rolls-Royce grille, dark metallic blue body and metallic black rear fenders. The engine was stock Volkswagen, which had enough power for the little car, and always ran fine.

He didn't hesitate, just held his hand out for the keys. I handed them to him and took the guitars out, then jumped in the passenger seat and buckled up. He started the motor, backed out of the barn into the driveway. He had a wicked grin on his face when he asked, "Which way?"

I pointed toward the house, then told him to turn across the lawn just before we got there. We drove across the lawn, then through a line of trees up to the gate to my neighbor's horse pasture. I hopped out and opened the gate, then closed it behind after Dave drove through. The hay was high, but I knew there were no serious obstacles, so I pointed toward a hill about a mile away. Dave drove slowly at first, then opened up more and more until we stopped on the crest of a hill overlooking a swamp.

It had been fun so far, and Dave looked at me with envy. "I forgot how much fun these things are! You want to sell it?"

I grinned at him. "Not 'til I get another one running, but you can use it when you want." I looked down toward the swamp. "Wanna see if it floats?"

His gaze followed mine, then his eyes opened wide. "You serious?"

"You can't drive across it, but there's good mud around the edge and the water's real shallow for the first ten feet or so. Go for it!"

His grin turned evil, and we roared down the hill until we got into the mud, then skidded and splashed all over the place for a good half hour, both of us laughing our heads off. We were a pretty good mess by the time we got back to the house. I hosed off the buggy, then went inside to change. Dave just cleaned himself off with the hose before we loaded the guitars and drove back to the picnic.

On the way there Dave was talking about how a dune buggy had helped change his life when he had some problems as a youngster, and wondered if learning to drive one wouldn't help Mike Waters get his mind onto other things. I told him he was free to use mine anytime he wanted.

Dave ran home to change while I went around to count my kids. Finding them all happily engaged in things, I fixed myself a plate of food and wandered around eating and talking to people. I was just finishing the last of the food when I got to the volleyball court, so I dumped my trash and went to join the game.

I played on and off all afternoon. The teams kept changing, but the game never really ended and nobody really kept score. One time when I sat down to cool off I found myself next to Mike Waters and we struck up a little conversation.

Mike's family were some of our closer friends in town, and we started talking about nothing in particular. I noticed a friend's kid going by so I grabbed his leg, making him fall to the ground. I asked where his father was as I hadn't run into him yet.

The boy's name was Anton Wolfe. I'd always liked him even though I felt sorry for him. He had come along late in his parents' lives, long after their other children had grown up and moved away. They didn't have a lot to begin with, but I think they felt that Anton was an accident that cost them whatever margin of comfort they might have had in their retirement. There were plenty of poor folks in our area, but the Wolfe family seemed poorer than most. They lived in a trailer park and kept little gardens all over the place to grow their own food in. Celia, Anton's mother, made all their clothes without the benefit of a sewing machine. They were proud people, and they always refused offers of assistance. I'd buy Anton an ice cream or something if I saw him along the road, but that's about as far as it went.

They were a private family for the most part, but they participated in some things in town and they were all at the picnic that day. When Anton sat with us Mike seemed suddenly uncomfortable, then got up and walked away without a word. I sensed that something was wrong, so I followed him. Mike told me he hated Anton for being the only person who was still harassing him about being gay. I was trying to make some sense of it when Missy came over for a hug, then Mike went to get a sno-cone.

He didn't come back, so I went looking for Anton or his parents. I found his father watching the horseshoe game. We talked about general things for a while, then I told him that I wanted to talk to Anton about something.

"What's he done, Joe?"

"I'm not sure Wolfie, but I mean to find out. If it's a real problem I might have to give him some time to think about it."

"You do what you need to, Joe. Anton's a strange boy, but he's never been a real problem to us. He sure admires you."

I smiled and patted his shoulder. "I know. Just don't fret if you don't see him for awhile."

"I won't. Did y'all have a good time up north?"

I grinned. "It sucked! I'll see ya later."

I found Anton sitting alone watching the volleyball game. "Hey Anton! Want a ride in the dune buggy?"

Anton's already huge eyes got even larger. He grinned and jumped to his feet. "Really? You'll take me?"

"Sure. Let's go cool off." I put my hand on his bony shoulder and we headed toward the street, walking fast so we wouldn't have to stop and talk with anyone else. When we got to the car, Anton stopped and stared at it.

"You changed it."

I smiled, "No, it's a different one. You like it?"

His grin was his answer, then he jumped in and started making vrooom sounds. I got in and started the car, then headed up the street toward Arlington, turning off onto a dirt track after about a mile. Anton had a death grip on the grab bar and a huge grin on his face. I gave him a good ride, turning into a fallow field and really kicking up some dust, then turning back into it. After about a half hour I finally pulled up under a big spread oak, then climbed out and leaned against the back fender. Anton followed and propped himself up beside me, still grinning.

I smiled at him. "Hey Wolfie, we have somethin' we need to talk about." He looked up at me, a question on his face. I put my hand on his shoulder. "Wolfie, Mike says you've been buggin' him. Is that true?"

He looked surprised. "So?"

I put a squeeze on his shoulder. "I don't like that, Anton. Mike's a nice kid, and he has enough trouble without you bein' mean."

"But he's a queer!"

"Listen, Anton! I want you to tell me what a queer is and where you learned it."

"Queers suck on guys' dicks. I learned it at school."

"Say again? You learned that queers suck dick in school? What class?"

His expression became apprehensive. "Not in class. I learned from the other guys."

"What other guys? I don't hear other guys saying anything."

"Everybody said it, Joe! Even girls did."

"That doesn't make it right. You know that's just gossip and bullshit, don't you? You're just bein' mean by keeping it up. What the hell made you follow that particular crowd? Don't you have a mind of your own?"

"I was just tryin' to make friends." He choked back a tear. "I never have friends."

That statement derailed my train of thought. I started trying to think of times when I'd seen Anton with other kids and realized I couldn't. He was always either alone and off by himself, even today at the picnic. If we really have such things as heart strings, mine were being pulled very hard right then. I had grown up so shy that I had no friends outside of my family until I was ten years old, then only one friend for another four years.

I had grown out of it, but I remembered very well the feelings I got by always being on the sidelines, watching other kids have fun while I just watched, then wandered away. My shyness eventually evaporated, actually turned into quite the opposite, but I could feel the reality of the loneliness any time I thought of it. I moved my arm across Anton's shoulder, then looked in his face.

"I'm your friend, Anton. You know that, don't you?"

His big brown eyes were looking into my own. "I know, but you're the only one I got. Nobody likes me. I'm too poor and too stupid and too funny looking."

I turned a little and started gently stroking his frizzy head with my fingers. "Anton, I know you're poor, but so's half the county. You're far from being stupid, at least as far as I can see." I smiled. "And you're not funny looking, you're a beautiful child. I can understand that you're lonely, but you won't make that better by making Mike feel bad. You feel like listening for a while?"

He nodded, so I stood up and we walked slowly through the dusty field as I told him about my own lonely childhood, then about meeting Scott Johnson and how things started to change for the both of us. Then I talked about homosexuality and the pain and fear many people felt when they finally put that word on themselves, how people who behaved like Anton had toward Mike made it all that much worse. I also told him that I expected better from him if I was going to remain his friend. He asked a few questions about homosexuality and I answered him honestly.

It wasn't a long lecture. We'd walked in a circle and ended up back at the tree. He sat down, but I stood there looking at him. "Wolfie, you're a nice kid. You need to think about what we just talked about, okay?"

He gave me an innocent nod. I felt terrible about what I was going to do next, but I wanted this to be a lesson he'd remember for a long time. "I'm goin' back to the picnic. You stay here and think. When you're ready to go through life not sayin' bad things about other people you just come on back, okay?"

His jaw dropped. "You're leavin' me here? Please Joe, I'll be good!"

"You're already good, kid. You need to be better."

I got in the car and started to drive away, not turning around when I heard him crying my name out after me. I got out of sight, then had to pull over and think about going back to get him. If it was my own son I'd let him walk for sure, but Anton wasn't mine. None of my kids had been born with the shy bug and they all had friends. We were able to provide for them materially and, despite the way we talked sometimes, they all knew we loved them and would stand by them no matter what. I don't think Anton had any of that, but he still needed the lesson. I wasn't exactly whipping him, so I decided to go back by myself and leave him to walk. I really felt like a crud, but he'd been mean to Mike and I didn't like that at all.

When I got back to the picnic, Dave was waiting excitedly for me. Mike had run off in a rage when he saw me leave with Anton. To be honest, I hadn't even seen Mike when we left. I explained what I'd done with Anton, and Dave went to find some others who'd gone to look for Mike. I wasn't having a good day. I love kids and I didn't mean to hurt either of those boys, but I'd hurt them both.

I found my wife and told her what was going on. She gave me a hug for my discomfort, then told me I shouldn't feel too bad for Anton if he'd been acting like that. She was very worried about Mike and what might be going through his head, but the others had already gone looking for him.

I gradually settled back into the picnic, talking with whoever was nearby. I saw Anton come into the yard, but he walked right past me to his father. I didn't watch them, but the next time I saw Anton he was walking toward the road looking like he was trying not to cry. I called after him but he just stepped up his pace.

Right at dusk Scott asked me to get my guitar so he could sing for the kids, a picnic tradition since he'd moved to town. We sat on a picnic table and the younger children gathered around while Scott sang to my accompaniment. Scott could do a lot of things with his voice, but they way he sang to kids was my favorite. His tone was clear and gentle, full of emotion, love and humor. It wasn't a child's voice anymore, but it was much like the first time I'd heard him singing to animals and birds nearly thirty years before. Scott's youngest daughter, Nydia, sat next to him and my Missy sat next to me. This was really to give them bragging rights with the other kids, and Scott and I were rewarded with kisses after each song.

"Little Bunny Jump-Jump

Hoppin' through the meadow

Pickin' up the field mice and

Boppin' 'em in the head"

We played for about forty minutes, the kids joining in when they knew the words. By the time we finished it was fully dark out and most of the children were clearly ready to go home to bed, even though they protested that they weren't.

After I put the guitar away I saw Mike in the front yard. I told him what had gone on with Anton and how lonely the boy was, but Mike wasn't buying it. I decided to bring Anton some food because I didn't think he'd had much chance to eat. I also didn't want my actions to make him think I didn't like him anymore. I cooked up two burgers and two hot dogs and put a lot of other things on a plate, then grabbed a few cans of soda. I was just putting it all in the car when Mike came over and gave me Jack's bike to give to Anton. Mike's behavior told me the bike was more of a peace offering for me than for Anton, but it was a step in the right direction.

When I got to the trailer park I had to drive around for a while as I didn't remember exactly where the Wolfe's home was, but I found it after just a few minutes. I saw Anton sitting in a lawn chair in the side yard. I called to him and he looked up, then he just looked away. It was obviously still 'Get Pissed at Joey Day' in Morton. I picked up the main plate of food and brought it over to him.

"I brought you some food, kiddo. I know you're pissed at me, but that ain't no reason to not eat."

"I ain't hungry."

"Don't do it, Anton. Look at ya. If you get any skinnier we're gonna hafta tie knots in your legs to make knees."

I held the plate out, but he didn't move a muscle. I sighed. "I don't care that you're mad at me, but don't punish yourself. You take this and eat it. I fixed it up just for you. You didn't get a chance to eat because of me, so I'm makin' up for that. We're still friends, aren't we?"

He looked up and his gaze softened a little, a glimmer of a smile coming to his face. "You ditch all your friends like that? Wudja bring?"

I handed him the plate, then went to the car for the rest of what I'd brought. When I got back a hot dog and half of a hamburger were already gone and he was eating potato salad with his fingers. I popped open a can of soda and held it out to him. "Ah, so you were hungry!" I pulled two more lawn chairs over and put the rest of the food in one of them. I sat in the other, and then I remembered the bicycle and went to get it.

I wheeled it over and set it on the kick stand. "Mike wants you to have this. I told him you didn't have one."

Anton put his food on the other chair and walked to the bike. He just looked it over at first, then started touching different parts gently with his long, slender fingers. He finally looked at me with very shiny eyes. "This is for me? I don't get it ... that boy hates me."

That was a pretty accurate statement, but I didn't want it to be true. "Listen, Wolfie. Mike's mad at you, but he never hated you. This town's too small to allow for hate. If we ever let that start up it'd be all over the place in no time. You and him have to make some kind of peace. He gave you a bike, now you go and do somethin' nice back."

"I got nuthin to give. I don't know how to ride a bike."

Okay, think here. I smiled. "Give Mike the chance to teach you, then. Get to know each other."

"But he hates ..."

"NO HE DOESN'T!" He shied away, so I lowered my voice. "Come here, Anton." He came close, then I grabbed him and pulled him onto my knee, wrapping one arm around him. "Nobody hates you, kid, they just don't know you. People don't bite, but sometimes you gotta make the first move. It ain't your clothes and it ain't your hair, it's what's inside that people are gonna like or not like. I always liked you, you know that don't you?" He nodded his head. I asked, "Do you like me?" He nodded again.

"Why's that? Why am I different?"

"Because you're nice, and you're funny," he turned and gave me a little smile, "and you buy me ice cream."

"Those are the reasons you like me, not why I'm different. I'm different because I talked to you first. You hafta bite the bullet, my friend. You're what ... fifteen now? It's time for you to make the first move. You have to be the one who talks first. It's not so bad."

"I'm a'scared, Joe. They just make fun of me. Nobody's ever gonna like me."

I let him go so he could finish eating. "Don't worry, Wolfie. You're gonna make lots of friends. Let's see a smile. Come on, show me them pearly whites!"

He gave me a shy little grin. "You can do better than that! You have a bike now. You can come over for ice cream any time you want."

His smile brightened a little. "That's better! Finish up, then keep that smile on your face when we go back. You're gonna be surprised at how many people want to talk to a happy boy."

The smile disappeared. "Daddy made me come home. I can't go back there"

"Don't worry, kid. I'll talk to papa Wolfe. You just keep smilin'. We got a whole yard full of people that wanna hear funny songs. You sing?"

He put his hand on his chest and jerked backwards. "Me? I can't sing in front of people. I swear, my heart'd stop if I had to do that."

"Come on, Wolfie! I can't sing, but I do just the same. You just play the guitar, then."

"I don't know how to play guitar."

"Well, play the washboard. Anybody can do that. Ya gotta do somethin'!"

His shy grin was back, and it looked like he was done eating. He looked up at me. "Joe, do you think Mike likes birds?"

"Birds? I don't know." That was a strange question. "Why'd ya ask that? Doesn't everybody like birds?"

"I got somethin' I can give him, but it's stupid. Let me dump this trash an' I'll get it, and see what you think."

He got up and took his plate and empty cans around to the back of the trailer. He was only gone a minute, and when he came back he was carrying something that I couldn't make out in the dark.

When he got into the light it looked like a miniature log cabin. He handed it to me, then I could see that it was a birdhouse, but what a birdhouse! Somebody had obviously spend many hours crafting it. It had a porch that was beautifully detailed with a spindled railing. The roof was made of individual miniature wooden shingles, perfectly installed. I looked at it from every angle, and couldn't find a fault. My house should be so well built!

I looked at Anton. "This looks pretty valuable. Where'd you get it?"

He looked at the ground and kicked the dirt with his shoe. "I made it. I just finished it the other day."

I looked at the birdhouse again, brand new respect for Anton swelling in my head. "You made this? It's ... it's beautiful! Where'd you learn how to do that?"

He looked at me shyly. "You really like it, or you just sayin' that?"

"Anton, this is the neatest birdhouse I ever saw! How'd you do it?"

"Mostly whittled it. I don't have no real tools." He looked at me hopefully. "You really like it?"

I handed it back to him. "I love it, kid. If Mike doesn't like it I'll buy it from you. How's that?"

He looked surprised, but he grinned as brightly as if I'd bought him a triple-decker cone. I could tell that he was pleased with himself, but it was well earned and I wasn't leading him on. I was definitely impressed! "Let's go, kid. There's a party waitin' for us."

I picked up the bike and carried it to the car. Anton carried his birdhouse, and I think I detected a new sense of pride in his walk. It wasn't a strut, just somehow seemed more confident. He pretty much looked like he was marching, anyhow. I smiled at his skinny self before I walked around to get in the car. Kids are always full of surprises, and Anton's skill at wood crafting had surprised me for sure. I drove back to the picnic thinking about how much my family and friends would love beautifully crafted birdhouses like that as Christmas gifts.

We drove through the darkness not saying much, but I felt Anton's eyes on me. The bicycle was in the back and the birdhouse was on his lap. When we were almost back to the picnic I looked over at him. "What? Why're you starin' like that?"

The resulting smile was so captivating that I damn near drove off the road. Wolfie's suddenly wide eyes made me look back at what I was doing in time to avoid anything more than a few skid marks on the road and, I suspect, in his pants.

There were still a few people in the front yard when we got back, and the focus of the picnic had shifted from games and food to beer and merriment. There were just enough lights on around the house to see where you were going, but it was still pretty dark. Anton wandered off somewhere while I went looking for his parents so they'd know I brought him back. Like most people around here, knowing I was annoyed at their son was all I needed to get their support. I hadn't gone into specifics about the cause of my annoyance.

His father wasn't hard to spot. I saw his long silver pony tail from halfway across the yard and walked straight to him, touching his shoulder when I was close enough. He looked up. "Hey, Joe! Marty was lookin' for ya jes' a while ago."

"I'll find her. I went and brought Anton back. You never told me he was a woodcarver."

His little smile seemed pretty proud. "Yeah, the boy's good with his hands. He kin draw good, too. I jes wish he'd get some meat on them bones so he could do somethin' useful. He eats like a damn mountain lion but he jes stays skinny."

"Yeah, well kids grow when they're ready I guess. Listen, Mike Waters had Jack Murphy's bike and he gave it to Anton. I hope that's okay with you."

"Aw, Joe. You know what I think about charity."

"It ain't charity, Wolfie. The thing would'a just rusted away. Besides, Anton brought a birdhouse for Mike. It's more like a trade."

He nodded a little. "Well, I guess if it's just a swap it's okay. Was it the log cabin one?"

"Yeah, and it's a real beauty. Your boy has a real skill there." I looked at him. "You're proud of him, right?"

He grabbed my wrist and tugged me toward him. "Sit, Joey, stay just a minute."

I looked around for a vacated lawn chair, then pulled it up to face Wayne. I looked at him, waiting for him to say something. He didn't, so I asked, "Is something wrong?"

His eyes dropped to his lap and he started fidgeting with his fingers. He looked up. "Anton ain't a normal kid, Joe. I mean ... we love him and everythin' and he's a real sweetheart of a person, but he just don't do what kids do. He don't have no friends, least not what I can detect. He does what we say an' he does good in school, but he's off by hisself the rest of the time." He turned his face to me, a pleading look in his eyes. "It ain't normal is it, Joe? We try, but things ain't the same anymore. I'm just too old for this."

I reached over and patted his wrist. "You ain't that old yet, Wolfie. You're kinda set in your ways, though. You got Anton lookin' like some fragment of the 1940's and I think that's his big problem. He don't fit in with today's kids. I'm not offerin' charity, but let me help here. Scotty's a little younger and Hector's older, just let him spend some time with them. Stop shaving his damn head, and let me buy him some clothes." I smiled. "There ain't nothin' wrong with your boy, Wayne. You just gotta let him fast-forward about fifty years."

He turned his silver-haired countenance to me. "You'd do that? Buy him clothes and everything? Why, Joey?"

It was hard to say, but I did. "Look, Wayne. I like Anton and I always have. You just need to let him be a boy of his own generation. You're tryin' to make him you and that ain't the way it works." I gulped some air. "Let him loose, Wayne." I probably sounded pleading, but I was. "Set him free and just watch what happens!"

He looked a bit surprised. "The boy has lots of freedom. I don't have any chains on him."

I grinned. "I didn't say you tied him to trees or anything, but havin' to live in a modern world lookin' like a throw-back to World War II doesn't exactly help him fit in. He's a lonely boy, Wayne, and it hurts me to see that. There's plenty of good kids around here that he should be friends with, but he isn't."

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see Scott. "Marty went home with Sammy and Miss and Nydia, so don't forget Scotty when you go home. Where were you, anyhow?"

"Nowhere special, just playin' Meals on Wheels for a friend." I grinned at him. "Howcum you're not all shit-faced yet?"

He socked my shoulder. "I was waitin' for you. You ready to get warmed up?"

I looked back at Wayne. "Give it some thought, okay? I don't mind helping."

His head was nodding slightly as if he was lost in thought, then he gave me a little smile. "You go ahead and give it a try, Joey. Don't go spendin' a lot of money. You keep track an' I'll figure out a way to pay you back."

I stood up. "I'll be restorin' that old tractor next year. I'll need some help pullin' the motor, okay?"

I was used to Wolfie. Give him an easy thing to agree to and he'd jump on it. He smiled. "You jes let me know when. I'll be there."

I smiled, then turned and walked with Scott toward the beer. He looked at me. "Anton in trouble?"

"Nah. Not in trouble, just kinda out of it with other kids. I wanna help him fit in a little better."

"He is a strange kid."

"He's not strange at all. His old man just keeps him lookin' that way. That's what this is all about."

We both poured ourselves beers, then I led Scott out to my car to show him Anton's birdhouse. "Wait'll you see what an artist he is. This'll knock your socks off."

It would have if it was there, but it wasn't on the seat where Anton had left it. I heard a husky little voice from behind me. "Over here, Daddy!"

I turned to see my son Scott sitting at a picnic table with a bunch of other boys, Scott's two sons among them. Both of the Waters boys were there, along with Jed Anderson and Anton. We started walking toward them, then Scott stumbled and spilled icy beer on my back. That made me jump enough that most of the contents of my cup shot skyward. The boys thought it was hilarious and started laughing. Jed was closest to me, so I poured what little beer was left in my cup onto his lap. He squealed and jumped up, so I quickly sat where he had been. I held up my empty cup and said, "Thanks for offerin', Jed. Get Scott another one too, okay?"

The boys were still laughing. I looked at Anton. "We came out so Scott could see your birdhouse. Where'd you put it?"

Jose and Hector had made room for Scott to sit between them. He looked expectantly at Wolfie.

Anton put on his shy smile. "It ain't mine anymore." He looked down the table at Mike. "I gave it to Mike. It's his now."

I liked the way that sounded. When Anton gave something it was given, not his anymore. It was better than Anton thinking Mike had something of his. I looked over to Mike. "Is it here, Mike? Scott wants to see it."

"I brought it home. I'll go get it." He started to get up, but Scott interrupted.

"I'll see it another time, Mike. You stay here with your friends." He looked over at me. "So, Bwana! Is this party over, or are we gonna make some noise?"

There was a chorus of "Noise!" and "Sing!" and "Alright!" from the boys. Jed came into view carrying a tray filled with cups of beer and soda. Scott and I grabbed beers, as did Jed and Raymond. The younger kids all took sodas and we headed toward the back yard. I held back until Mike was next to me, then put my free hand on his shoulder as I took a sip of beer.

"Thanks, Mike."

"For what?"

"For whatever it took to let Wolfie give you something. Did you guys talk?"

"Not really."

"Well, you should. He's really a nice kid, Mike. Give him a chance to prove it, okay?"

I didn't get a response, except I think I felt a little shrug motion from Mike's shoulder. He was staring straight ahead. "What's up tomorrow? You have plans?"

"I guess I'll go fishin'. My Dad wants me to, now Pat asked me to go with him. Maybe we'll all go."

"How about after? Feel like a trip to the mall?"

His look told me that he thought I'd lost my mind. I was always pretty vocal with my negative feelings about shopping. "You're goin' to the mall? He reached up and felt my forehead. "You must have a fever!" He grinned. "Sears got motors on sale or somethin'?"

I stopped, and tugged Mike's shoulder. He faced me. "Look, Mike. I'm takin' Wolfie so he can get some real clothes. I just don't want him to get the wrong things. I can bring Scotty and Hec, but you're the only one his own age. Will you go?"

"No way! Look, we're square now, but I don't wanna be his friend." Mike walked away quickly, leaving me feeling a bit deflated. Oh well, I wanted Anton to have a friend. It didn't have to be Mike.

When I got around back it didn't take a genius to tell that Nick, Joe, Andy and Dave all liked their beer. Well, I knew about the others, but Dave was as far gone as them. They weren't plastered, but they were in such a general state of hilarity that I knew their hangovers would be state-of-the-art things in the morning. I decided to join them and pulled up a chair. I tipped my cup and emptied it, then took another from the collection on the table. I looked at Dave. "Having fun yet? You really play guitar?"

His eyes were glassy, but he looked okay. "Yeah, I play a little. I thought that was booozhe (hic) boos (hic) LIQUOR in those cases!"

"I lied. You wanna play for a while? We like to end this thing with a singalong."

"Mike told me. I'm s'poshed to ask about a fuckin' wheel or somethin'."

Everybody laughed. I said, "Yeah, we save that one for last. You sure you're okay to play? How many beers did you have?"

Nick held up four fingers and grinned through them. "Three hundred," then he burst out laughing like that was the funniest thing anyone had ever said, the other guys seeming to agree.

Scott pulled up a chair and grinned at them, then took Nick's hand. "Hey, Bossman decided to come back! Are we gonna sing or what?"

I went to get my guitars, then we pulled two picnic tables together to sit on. We started with funny little songs, then they got obnoxious, then dirty, then pretty repulsive.

Scott started with "I'm My Own Grandpa", which was pretty much G-rated. People laughed and clapped and pretty much got into the swing of listening and singing along. We continued on, the songs becoming raunchier as we went. This gave people with higher sensibility levels the chance to get out of earshot.

We were a bunch of laughing fools, and Dave joined right in. When we'd gotten to the point where the songs contained some or all of George Carlin's 'Seven Little Words', Dave said, "I have one! You guys know the Shithouse Blues?"

Nobody did, but everybody started clapping anyhow. He yelled out, "Give me a first name!"

Somebody yelled out, "Lisa!"

He chunked a chord on the guitar. "I know a girl! Her name is Lisa. You can screw her twice and charge it on Visa!"

People started roaring with laughter, then calling out names. "Laurie!"

"I met a girl. Her name was Laurie. Her twat's so big it's got a second story ... Laurie. Oh man, got those shithouse blues."

He was a hit! It was funny stuff, in the way things can only be that funny when a lot of booze is involved. It didn't have to make any sense, just hit that collective inebriated funny bone.

Dave had others, progressively more raunchy. 'Yank My Doodle', 'Johnny B. Bad', all things that I promised myself I'd remember. He had Scott laughing so hard that his moustache was covered with snot.

When we'd had enough, Scott started singing about a guy who's lover was way too insatiable and demanding for him to keep up with.

"So he built himself a great friggin wheel,

And on it he mounted a big prick of steel.

Two balls of brass he filled with cream,

And the whole damn thing was run by steam!"

I guess it's stupid, but it was a perennial favorite. Everyone knew the words by now, and it seemed a terrific way to break up a picnic. People were still laughing, but they were gathering their things at the same time. I led Dave to the guitar cases, then looked at him. "So? What'd you think?"

He seemed to have sobered a little and he grinned a wide grin. "I had a ball!" His grin faded a bit, turned more pensive. "I have friends ... good friends. I kinda hated just walkin' out on them, but this is great! Timmy told me I'd like the people here and he was exactly right! Everybody's just so ... real!"

I knew what he meant by that. "Yeah, we're real alright. I saw you talkin' to Mike Waters before. I talked to Anton Wolfe." I snapped the last catch on the guitar case, then looked at Dave. "I hate that they don't get along. Anton tried tonight, but Mike's still a mess. I don't like being in the middle on this one. What'd Mike say, if I can ask?"

"Oh, you can ask. I tried to get out of him what he thinks about other people, especially Anton, but he won't say a lot. I think with Anton it's more disdain than anything. He just thinks he's a weirdo." He looked at me with a question on his face. "Is he? I mean, I asked other kids and they seem to think Anton's a space shot."

"It ain't true, Dave. I just talked to his father earlier. Wolfie's a nice kid, you'll see." I looked around to see if anyone was within earshot. "They're a poor family to start with, but they keep the kid lookin' like a refugee or somethin'. I'm takin' him for new clothes tomorrow and his Dad's gonna stop shavin' his damn head." I stared at Dave, maybe even glared. "Nobody gives the kid a chance. I'm his best friend, and I'm pushin' forty!" Too much beer. I tried to soften my look. "You're a teacher. You must see it all the time ... the kids that just don't fit in. Look, I'm happy to be Wolfie's friend, but it just ain't right that I'm his only friend."

Dave plopped down on the table and I sat beside him. I was staring at the ground, but felt his hand land on my shoulder. "You're right, Joe. I do see it all the time and believe me, I'm on your side here. I talked to Mike earlier and I told him he had to look for the good in people. He's in tough shape, so it's not fair to get mad at him about the way he thinks. I just met him, but he seems nice enough." His grip on my shoulder tightened a little. "Before I forget to mention it, you have great friends and they think the world of you. Um, do you work at that?"

"At what?"

"At keeping your friends. I know I do, but I never met many other people who tried. Friends are important to you, aren't they?"

I looked at him and he had a quizzical smile on his face. "Yeah, friends are my big thing." I grinned, "I keep 'em busy by pissin' 'em off once in a while. That's the measure of a good friend. He can be pissed, but still call you to come help set a toilet or something. Want another beer?"

"In a sec. You say you're buying Anton clothes. Are you paying for them yourself?"

"Well ... yeah."

He seemed hesitant to speak. Finally, "From the looks of your house you're hardly hurtin', but me and some friends have a ... uh ... fund. It's been a little harder to get rid of than we ever thought, but we meant it from the start to help people just like the Wolfes."

"Wolves, when it's plural."

"Heh, thanks for the correction. I'm serious, though. Don't spend your own money. There's plenty where I'm talkin' about. So what's special about Anton? What's everybody else missing?"

I didn't answer right away. I'd changed from the shy child I grew up as, dramatically even, but I'd never forget the pain that my own fears had put on me. I wondered silently if Dave hadn't been just as bashful. He seemed to understand both me and Anton.

"Anton's an artist, but nobody knows it. I just found that out today, so that's not why I like him." I looked over at Dave. "Dave, he's a nice quiet kid. I didn't know he wasn't makin' friends 'til today. You didn't talk to him?"

"I didn't even see him. I wouldn't know him if I tripped over him."

I thought about that. "If you did see him you would have asked something." I sensed an ally. "You staying a while? I'll go find him."

"Hell, I live across the street. Bring him on over so I can see for myself."


I stood up and turned around, almost bumping noses with Scott. He smiled, then we fell into a hug. "We're goin' home, Joe. You want a ride?"

"Right now? I need about fifteen minutes. You're not drivin' are you?"

"No, no … Maria came back." He slapped my shoulder. "You do what you gotta do. I can stall her for a while."


I took off in search of Anton and found him talking to Jed. "Hi Jed. Can I borrow Wolfie for a few minutes? There's somebody I want him to meet."

He looked toward Anton, then back at me. "Sure Joe," then back at Anton, "I'll see you in the morning, Anton."

Anton said, "Thanks, Jed. I'll come at ten like you said," then he took a step toward me, a question on his face. "Somebody wants to meet me?"

"Yeah. His name's Dave and he's the new teacher at the middle school. You're doin' somethin' with Jeddy?"

"He's gonna show me how to ride my bike. He's real nice, you know that?"

"I was gonna take you shoppin' tomorrow. You gonna have time for that?"


"Yup! We're gonna get you some twentieth century clothes. Your Dad didn't tell you?"

"Clothes? For me? Like real clothes?"

I smiled. "Real clothes, just for you. I'll see if Scott and Hector can come to help you pick things out."

We were approaching Dave. "Anton, say hi to Dave Devino. Dave, this is Anton Wolfe. I call him Wolfie."

Dave smiled and held out his hand. Anton took it to shake, but he was looking at the ground. Dave said, "Hi, Anton. Joe tells me you're quite the artist. I'd like to see your work sometime."

Anton glanced at me, his shy smile coming back, then he looked up at Dave. "It ain't much to look at, but you can see it if you want. It's mostly just whittlin' an' pencil stuff."

"I still want to see it. Did you take lessons?"

"Naw, just in school. Daddy says I got a good eye for things and good hands. I just like doin' it is all."

"That's nice. We'll get together one of these days and you can show me." Dave looked at me. "Hey, you're holdin' up the show. Go catch your ride and I'll talk to Anton."

I shook hands with Dave, then gave Wolfie a pat on the shoulder. "I'll stop at Jed's tomorrow, then if you have time we'll go shoppin'. Okay?"

He reached up and put his bony hand on my wrist. "Thanks, Joe. Thanks for everything."

I patted his head, then waved to both of them. "See y'all soon!"

Scott was waiting for me. "What's with you and Anton Wolfe? You spent a lot of time with him today."

"Yeah, well he's my buddy. He reminds me of someone else."

"Who's that?"

I grinned. "You, Scott. He reminds me of you."



* Shithouse Blues' is copyright John Valby

© Copyright, 2018, the author.. All rights reserved.