Jack in the Box

Chapter 12

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

That afternoon I discovered the joys and pains of learning how to shift a standard transmission. Dave was a patient man, but he eventually stood outside the car while I tried to make it move forward in first gear. I don't know how many times I stalled it, but I was informed by both Dave and Tony that I had just set a galactic record. When I finally did make the car roll instead of lurch I was so surprised that I slammed my foot on the brake pedal, causing the car to stall again, and Tony's little body to propel itself from the back seat into a hanging position on the right front bucket. There were still some guys working on the barn, and they seemed to be finding great amusement in my progress.

We were in Dave's back yard, and this had all been prefaced by a description of the controls and plenty of time for both of us students to play with the controls and practice the shift patterns while the ignition key sat in Dave's pocket.

Dave helped Tony back to his perch and made him buckle up, then he got back in the passenger seat. "Okay, now you have it. Get going in first and try to keep a steady foot on the gas. Just drive in a circle and keep startin' and stoppin'."

I started the car again and, much to everyone's surprise, managed to get it moving quite smoothly. I cut the wheel into a turn and held it there, then discovered that it's very hard to keep a steady foot on the gas when you're totally thrilled. We lurched and bucked some more, but we kept moving. I stopped several times, but didn't stall anymore starting back up. Dave finally told me to widen the circle and shift into second.

"Okay, push in the clutch and let off the gas. Good! Pull the shifter straight back. Okay, now press the gas a little, then let up on the clutch."

I did it! My first shift! It took too long and the engine started chugging, but we eventually started moving a little faster, then Dave let me shift into third. That was real easy, but we were going too fast for a back yard, so he had me practice a few more times from a dead stop, then it was Tony's turn.

I think Tony had learned from my mistakes. He stalled the car once, then got it moving. He got the same basic practice that I'd had before Dave took the wheel and drove us between the trees and to the brook out back. When we were almost there he looked back at me and grinned. "I took your advice!"

"What advice?"

"I built a bridge!"

Sure enough, there was a flat wooden bridge across the brook, probably nine feet wide. Dave drove right across it and I turned around to watch it disappear. "You built that?"

"No, the barn guys did. Let's explore a little!"

Dave started driving faster, jumping the car off the tops of little hills, making trails in the high grass. He turned the radio on and kept driving to the tunes blaring from an oldie's station. I was having a blast watching everything whiz by and holding on for dear life. I could only see the back of Tony's head, but he was alternately squealing with delight and gasping with fright.

Dave eventually stopped the car just at the edge of the woods by the pond. He climbed out and smiled at us. "Mike, you go first. Stick to the trails I just made and make sure you practice stopping once in awhile, and give Tony equal time driving." His look turned stern, but I think he had to force it. "Don't hit anything, and for Pete's sake don't forget I'm out here."

I jumped out of the back and grinned. "Yessir." I looked at Tony and repeated to myself, "Don't hit anything and don't forget Dave. Don't hit..."

Tony started laughing, and when I turned around I saw Dave walking into the woods alongside the pond. I jumped into the driver's seat and buckled up, then started the car, causing the radio to come on. Tony yelled, "Can I change the station?"

I got the car moving smoothly enough and, keeping my eyes on where I was going, yelled, "You better change it!"

We didn't try to keep track of time, but for the next hour or so we had a ball. When I had the wheel I didn't go crazy, but I wanted to. I became more and more confident and drove faster and faster, never getting into real trouble, although I did manage to scare myself a few times when I momentarily lost control on the wet grass. When Tony drove he was more conservative, but he was doing a much better job than me on the shifting and never slid once when he didn't intend to.

We probably would have stayed out there all afternoon, except one time when we were going past the pond we saw Dave leaning against a tree, a hopeful smile on his face. Tony pulled up and stopped, hollering, "Yee haw!"

Dave walked over grinning. "Yee haw means you like it?"

Tony tried to jump out of the car and suddenly realized he'd overlooked a pretty basic thing. He reached around and undid his seatbelt, then tried jumping out again, any chance of appearing macho already gone. He succeeded in exiting the car, but he caught his foot and fell on the ground. Dave and I were laughing when Tony got to his feet. He brushed himself off and tried not to laugh. "It's not funny!" He laughed anyhow.

Dave laughed and laughed, then calmed down enough to say, "It's pretty funny," then started chuckling again.

Tony, like any teenager, stood and tried to look indignant for a moment, then burst into laughter himself. "Did I look stupid? Man, I can't even get out of a car right!

I said, "You just looked funny. You gotta stop fallin' down, man!"

We all chuckled as we climbed back into the car, me in front with Dave this time. Dave took another spin around the fields, driving much faster than he had been earlier. It was an exciting ride, and had both Tony and I shrieking loudly with delight until Dave finally slowed down to take the bridge.

When we finally got back to the house I was shaking, mostly from sheer joy at having had such a great afternoon. Tony and I both thanked Dave profusely and asked if he'd go fishing with us after dinner.

He looked happy, although that wasn't unusual. "I don't have a license yet. I'd love to go with you for a while, but I don't want to get in trouble."

Tony spoke up. "Sheeit, you don't need no license for a pond! It's on private property. The warden ain't gonna even check there."

Dave seemed thoughtful. "Don't I need permission from the owner?"

Tony put on an expression that said Dave was asking entirely too many dumb questions. "Ya don't need nuthin! Just some string and hooks and bait. Come on, go with us? It'll be fun!"

Dave grinned. "Okay, I'll bring you guys and stay for a while. What time you leaving?"

I answered, "After supper, probably around seven. Is that okay?"

"It's perfect. I'll see you then."

"Ain't ya eatin' here? Everybody left the food, so that means they're comin' back."

He smiled in surprise. "The picnic really never stops?"

I scratched my head. "Not for a while. It'll end when everybody gets rid of the stuff in their gardens."

Dave smiled and shook his head. "This is pretty wild." He looked at his watch. "Listen. Let me make a call. I'll come back over when I hear noise, okay?"

Tony and I thanked Dave again He went inside and we went into my house. Tony ran to the bathroom while I called Pat to see if he could go fishing with us. Pat was all excited that his parents were going to let him go. Jens could come too, and they'd asked some other kids to meet us there if they could get their own rides home. We agreed that we'd all go with Dave just around seven.

When Tony came out of the bathroom I went in and peed. When I looked in the mirror while I was washing my hands my reflection surprised me. My face was dirty and my hair, which hadn't been cut in months, was all over the place, but I looked... happy.

I had become accustomed to seeing a blank stare, a certain dullness, a lack of spark. Now, without even smiling, there was life in my eyes, color in my cheeks that showed right through the dirt.

When I was younger everybody called me cute and I got my cheeks pinched a lot. Jack always called me beautiful, but that was Jack and he was beautiful to me too. Lately people had started to call me handsome, men even said it. Even when it was all over school that I was a fag, I caught girls looking at me. Jack noticed that too, and I think it got him worried sometimes.

I had never seen it in myself, but suddenly I did. I washed up and combed my hair as best I could, then looked at myself again. I was good looking! I examined myself, looking for flaws. My teeth were white and straight, I had a good jaw and lips, pale blue eyes, my ears didn't stick out, I had wavy blonde hair that was way too long and out of control right then, and darker eyebrows.

At the moment I didn't have a single pimple, though I often got one or two. I was solid, but four months of relative inactivity had caused me to lose whatever definition I used to have. I had never worked out or played organized sports, but years spent riding my bike in the hills and lugging gear around for fishing and camping had made me pretty strong.

I sat down on the toilet lid and thought about things. Maybe I should try getting to know some girls. I had loved Jack and he was a boy, but I only fell in love after I got to know him. He had fully occupied my time ever since I was sexually aware. I didn't doubt for a second that our love had been real, had meant everything to both of us, but Jack's love had been the only one I'd ever known. The only girls I really knew were my sisters, and there had never been a girl my age in the neighborhood for me to get to know.

I decided that I didn't know what to think, I was just glad that I was thinking of myself for once. I went looking for Tony and found him on the back porch looking lazily out into the yard.

"What's up, Tony?"

I pulled a chair up to face him, then sat down. He smiled a little, then said, "Nothin'. I was just thinkin'."

"About what?"

"Nothin' special, jes how nice today was." His look turned questioning. "Are we really gonna be friends? I never felt like this before."

"Like what?"

"Like all happy, that maybe somebody... somebody's gonna notice when I'm around. Like I don't hafta feel all... all ashamed all the time. Joe Goldman says I'm a 'beautiful child', but I know what I look like. I like the clothes and all, but I'm still a freak."

I looked closely at Tony. He was definitely different looking, but I kind of liked what I saw. His eyes were the first thing you'd notice, looking like something nobody else had. They were big and they were brown, but I was starting to get a sense of what he saw through them. His head was practically shaved, but lots of kids did that in the summer. Tony's teeth looked good, and he had a nice smile when he used it. He was skinny, but still seemed to have a shape. His skin seemed dark and smooth and without blemish.

I had to say something. "You're not a freak." I smiled, "You add up pretty good."

Tony scowled. "Yeah, you can say that. Lookit you. You could get any girl you want. Who's gonna want me?"

I said, "It ain't just looks, Tony. Look, until last year I never knew anything 'cept who you were. Then you started raggin' on me so I was pissed. Now I'm gettin' to know you I think you're pretty nice."

Tony smiled sweetly and was going to say something, but the phone rang and I jumped up to answer it. It was Jens' father wondering if the picnic was still at our house that night because he'd bring a ham if he knew where to go. I told him it probably was because all the other stuff was still there, so he said he was on his way.

By the time I hung up and took two sodas from the refrigerator, a car had pulled into the driveway. It was the Nettleton family.

Jimmy, was a year younger than me, his brother Clay a year older. His sister Ann was in my grade, but I didn't really know her. They lived on the south side of town and always seemed nice, I just never had any reason to really get to know them.

Jimmy was a giant kid. He was younger than me but almost as tall as and heavier than Jed. Clay was my size, but never very friendly to me. I think he was surly by nature, as I don't know that I ever saw him smile. Ann looked pretty cute, though. She had reddish blonde hair and a few freckles, but she was getting some good boobs and looked pretty trim. She was definitely a pretty girl.

Jimmy had been a big help on the bus after the crash. He was in charge of the kids who weren't badly hurt, and he did a great job. He kept them in their seats and tried to keep them warm and fed. Neither was really possible, but his good nature and sheer size had helped turn the trick. Everybody on the bus knew that there were dead and mangled people up front, but Jimmy had the strength to overcome his own fear and revulsion enough to keep the kids from panicking any worse than they already were.

I hadn't thought about it at the time, but when I asked for help Jimmy jumped right in. I should have been proud of what he was doing, but I just kept giving him the orders I'd gotten from Jack. They hadn't been at the picnic and I didn't know why, but I was happy to see them.

I ran to the porch railing. "Hi! You're the first ones here. Hey, Jimmy! Hey, Ann! Hi, Clay!"

They were smiling, except Clay. Mrs. Nettleton, a merry person, bounded up the porch steps and gave me a quick hug and a wide smile. "Michael, you've grown!" She looked at me and smiled. "You're such a handsome young man! Where's your mother?"

I said, "Still at work. She should be here any time now." I looked at Jimmy, who was smiling shyly. "Hey Jim, you wanna go fishin' with us tonight?"

Clay was right behind Jim, so I said, "You too, Clay! There's a bunch of us goin'. We'll have fun!"

Jim grinned and said, "Yeah, I'm up for it 'cept I don't have anything with me. You got an extra pole?" His grin softened into almost a grimace. "How ya doin', Mike? Granny says you're havin' a hard time."

I had forgotten that his mother was one of Bob Surdiak's daughters. "I'm okay, Jimmy. How're you doin'?" He grinned, then just about squeezed my hand to a pulp.

"I'm great! We just got back from Disney! You ever been there?"

"No. It was fun?"

He started to answer, but his father had set down the bag and cooler he'd carried up and held his hand out to shake. He answered for Jimmy. "It was great fun! Expensive fun, but they really do a good job. How's the town hero doing?"

I winced, but managed a smile. "I'm okay." Tony was still sitting there watching. "You all know Tony Wolfe, don't you?" They both smiled and said hi, but Clay and Ann were still in the driveway. Clay was walking around admiring the dune buggy while Ann was getting something out of the trunk of their car.

Mrs. Nettleton stuck her head out the door and asked if it was okay to use the oven. We settled in at the table with Tony and started hearing about the marvels of Disney World and other places in Orlando. We were interrupted when Ann pulled up a chair. Tony and I stood up and I introduced them, even though they knew who the other was from school.

It had turned out to be a nice day, with the humidity gone for once and a gentle breeze stirring the cooler air. Other people began to arrive and before long there was a crowd on the porch and in the yard. Mr. Anderson showed up with Pat and Jens and their fishing gear, though he couldn't stay himself. He did come up on the porch and talk to Tony for a few minutes, thanking him for the picture of Kevin.

Jens' parents came and carried in a colossal ham, which they set on one of the porch tables. Andy Stark came, followed by Joe Goldman and his kids, Scott and Nick with their kids. I lost track and stopped counting. Dave had come over and was talking to Joe in the driveway, then they both came onto the porch looking for beer.

They stopped in front of the ham, and Dave seemed awestruck by it. "That all came from one pig?"

Joe seemed to be equally impressed. "Holy mackerel, it's the Loch Ness Ham!" That made Dave laugh, and Joe continued, "Wait'll you taste it! The Christiansens are known all over for their smokehouse. These things just melt in your mouth. Damn, though! That's a monster."

Joe was right about how good the ham was. Later, when they started carving it up I found myself in line for thirds, even though I was stuffed. I wanted some for later, figuring I'd get hungry while we were out fishing. I put it in a baggie, then grabbed a few more bags and went scouting the tables for other goodies. I put some deviled eggs in one, then some brownies in another.

When it got to be about seven and the shadows were stretching out, I rounded up Tony, Jens and Pat, then we all went looking for Jimmy and Clay. We found them talking to Billy and Al Dominguez, who both wanted to join us. I was a little surprised that Clay was going to go, but the plan was for Mr. Dominguez to take them all home to get their equipment and we'd just meet them at the pond.

Pat, Jens, Tony and I found Dave shooting the breeze with a bunch of other guys, and we stood there staring at him until he noticed us. He let somebody finish their thought, then excused himself. He opened the back of his Explorer for our gear, and went in the house to get his own things. Tony and I got my equipment and an extra pole out of the garage, and I went inside to get a sweatshirt.

When we were all in the car, I gave Dave directions and it took about ten minutes to get over to Arbutus Pond. It was only separated from the road by a fifteen foot spillway in front of the dam, and Mr. Arbutus kept a lawn around about one third of the pond. It wasn't the best fishing in the area, but it was the easiest to get to and you never had to worry about getting lost in the woods after dark. When we arrived a man was already fishing with a little boy, and the kids Jens had invited were sitting on the grass getting their kits ready.

They were four black boys. Arnold and Henry were younger than me, but Aaron and James were in my grade. Aaron was kind of a cutup in school, but I always thought James was destined for great things. He was probably the most 'ready' person in the whole school. Always ready with his homework, always ready with good answers when he got called on in class. He was also well spoken, polite, friendly, a good athlete, and tremendously popular.

We sat with them and introduced Dave and made sure everybody knew everybody else. Dave had already seen or met most of them at the picnics, and a kind of easy anticipation of some quiet fishing fun settled on the whole group.

As each of us got our things ready we'd stand up and claim a spot on the bank, then make that ever-hopeful first cast. I had a favorite spot in the woods at the back end of the pond, but sat on the grass with the others for a while waiting for the Nettleton and Dominguez boys to show up. We were quiet, none of us getting any bites, then suddenly Henry yelled, "Got one!"

All eyes turned to watch his bobber zip back and forth a few times, then just start floating lazily again. He reeled it in and looked at his hook, then hollered, "Shit! Fuckin' bait thief!"

Dave looked at Henry and went, "Shhhh! There's a little kid here. He's not ready for that kind of language."

We heard the boy's father say, "Thank you."

Henry jumped and looked over at the guy, embarrassment all over his face. "I'm sorry, honest mister! I forgot y'all were here."

The guy had a gentle voice. "Just keep it down. I've been losin' bait for an hour, but I'm not swearing out loud about it. The fish in here get thrown back so many times they're getting good at this."

We all laughed a little, then settled back down. Mr. Dominguez arrived with Jimmy, Clay, Billy and Al. I left my line in the water and sat with them while they got ready. They were all pretty animated except for Clay. I looked at him for a second and wondered what his problem was, but I had an unattended line in the water and didn't want to leave it too long. When those guys looked about ready I went over to my pole and reeled it in.

I looked at Dave and Tony. "C'mon guys. Let's try another spot."

Tony started to get up but Dave said, "You guys have fun. I'm not staying much longer anyhow." He smiled. "I'm glad I came though. Thanks for askin', guys."

Tony and I protested, and decided to stay where we were until Dave left. We both cast our lines back in and Tony got a hit before he sat down. I saw the bobber go under water and stay there and cried, "It's a bass! Get him off the bottom!"

Tony was grinning, "I know how to land a fish! It's just a little guy anyhow."

Everybody came closer to watch Tony pull in the first catch of the night. I had my net ready and he had the fish almost to shore when he saw the little boy right next to him. He knelt down and looked at the kid. "I need help with this one. Here, you come over and reel while I try to hold on to this monster."

The boy hurried to his other side and started turning the reel while Tony feigned a major struggle holding on to the pole. It was cute to watch the excitement in the boy's face. He must have been about five years old. When the fish broke water right in front of him he squealed with delight, then I scooped it into the net. Tony had been right about the size. It was about a nine inch black bass, but the kid thought he had a big fish. I unhooked it and looked at the father. "You want it?"

He smiled. "Nah." He patted Tony on the shoulder. "Thanks, Anton. That was real nice of you." He looked at his son and said, "Billy, this fish is just a baby. Let's put him back with his mom, okay?"

The kid nodded. "Can I do it?"

I offered Billy the fish and he put his hands out. As soon as I put it on them the fish flopped to the ground, then flopped again and was in the water on its side. After a few seconds it wiggled and disappeared. Billy made a little cupped hand wave and said sadly, "Bye fishy."

I heard Tony say, almost inaudibly, "Bye fishy."

Billy ran to his father and hugged him around the legs, then got scooped up onto his shoulders and looked triumphantly at the rest of us. The father took his own floppy hat off and I recognized him as Mr. Warszyk from the Mobil station.

He smiled at us, then looked happily at his son. "Okay, Billy. You got your fish, now let's go home and get some sleep." He looked at Tony. "Next time you're near the station, stop by and I'll buy you a coke."

When they walked away Dave said, "I'm going home too. You guys stay out of trouble, okay?"

He couldn't be dissuaded, so we walked him to his car and said goodnight, thanking him for driving us. When he left we walked back to the other guys and I announced, "We're goin' down the back end if anybody wants to come." James and Clay started picking up their things to go with us while the others started to fight over Tony's spot.

When we approached the edge of the woods we had to get into single file to follow the well-worn path around the pond. Clay and I both had flashlights, so I took the lead and he took up the rear. It wasn't a long walk, just a few hundred feet, but the trail was criss-crossed with roots and we all took turns stumbling and bumping into each other, cussing quietly into the night.

When we got to the clearing, we all got baited up and cast out. It was decidedly cooler in the woods, so I unwrapped the sweatshirt I had tied around my waist and put it on. We started fishing, having scant better luck than before, then Clay got a good bite and ended up reeling in a nice fat small mouth. It was dark out, but when I pointed my flashlight at his fish I could see Clay's smile, the first one I could remember on that boy's face. We all congratulated him on his catch as he unhooked it and tossed it back in the water.

James said, "That was a nice fish. Why'd you throw it back?"

"It was a bass, man! What'm I supposed to do with it, eat the ugly thing?"

"Hey, bass is good. If you get another one like that, give it to me if you don't want it."

It was silent for a good while, then I heard Tony's voice. "I'm cold."

Clay said, "Put a coat on."

Tony didn't respond and we were all quiet again until Tony said, "I'm really cold. Anybody got an extra shirt or somethin'?"

Nobody did. The next sound I heard that wasn't fishing related was Tony making a 'brrrrr' noise and, I swear, the chattering of his teeth. I put my pole down and pulled off my sweatshirt. "Where are you, Tony? Put this on." I fumbled for my light and switched it on. Tony was about ten feet away and all pulled together like he was freezing. I tossed him the shirt and it landed right next to him.

He picked it up and looked at me. "Now you'll be cold."

"We can take turns, Tony. I'm alright, for a spell anyhow."

Clays voice came from the darkness behind me. "Tony? You got a pet name for Anton? Is he queer too?"

There was dead silence for a second, then I heard James say, "Shut up, Clay. You can't say that! Mike's gay because he says he is. If Anton says he is, then he is. If he doesn't say he is, then he isn't." He paused. " Are you gay, Anton? I mean, it doesn't mean anything to me either way."

Tony's voice, "No way!"

James, "See, Clay? Anton says he isn't, so that means he isn't. What about you?"

Clay asked, "You talkin' to me?"

"Yeah, I'm talking to you! It's a simple question. Are you gay?"

"Fuck you, James. That ain't a simple question, it's a stupid question."

"So give me a simple answer like yes, or give me a stupid answer like no!"

There was a big splash from something being thrown in the water. I flicked my light on and pointed it towards James. I could see Clay getting to his feet behind him. "Fuck you, James. You're callin' me aqueer? You're gonna hafta defend those words, mister! Nobody calls me queer!"

James' voice was calm and quiet. "Why not, Clay? If Anton's queer because he's with Mike, then you an' me must be too. We're here just like Anton is. It's your own logic. If you think about it, you must be black too, because you're here with me. I must be white because I'm with you guys." I could hear the amusement in his voice. "We sure pick some strange people to go fishin' with. Now say you're sorry to Anton and I'll let you go back to bein' a straight white boy."

I was glad it was dark out. I was trying to keep my laugh silent. At least I didn't have to hide it from my face.

I heard Clay mutter, "Sorry Anton," then he spoke louder, a trace of amusement in his own voice. "You are truly an asshole, James."

James snickered and said, "It's the company I keep, Clay."

We all laughed out loud at that, then Clay said, "It is cold out here. I'm goin back with the others." Then he giggled, "Is that gonna make me fourteen again, James?"

"You're damn tootin' it will! I'm goin' back too. Where'd this weather come from?"

We all decided to go back, seeing we hadn't had any better luck in the woods. We trudged back the same way we had come in and joined the other kids amid litter from chip bags and soda cans. Clay was the oldest, so he said loudly, "You guys better pick up this mess, or old man Arbutus ain't gonna let us come down here anymore.

There was a collective "We will," from the other kids. We all settled back into fishing, but it had cooled off even more under the starry sky.

I asked, "Anybody got an extra shirt or somethin'? I'm freezin' here."

Tony said, "You can have yours back," instead Clay pulled the blanket Jimmy was sitting on right out from under him, just like the table cloth trick.

Jimmy protested but Clay said, "You're just sittin' on it an' Mike's cold, so shut yer yap."

I wrapped myself up in the blanket and said, "Thanks Clay."

I got no response, but we must have awakened all the fish. We started getting bites, one at first, then two more, then suddenly we were all pulling in fish and releasing most of them almost as fast as we could re-bait. The chill seemed to disappear.

We whooped and hollered and laughed, teasing when somebody couldn't land one, laughing harder still when somebody got a foot in the pond, bitching when lines got crossed. Fishing is always fun for me, but when you get lucky enough to find a whole pond in a sudden feeding frenzy it's an absolute blast.

The good times always seem to come at the end. We were suddenly bathed in light from a car's headlights and we heard a woman's voice calling for Aaron.

I heard him say quietly, "Damn! Damn! Jes when it's gettin' fun!" He sounded dejected. "Come on, guys. She ain't gonna wait."

Clay said, "Don't forget your garbage."

Before the four of them had packed up there was a second set of lights and Mr. Dominguez called out to his gang. We all started packing up, knowing that my father wouldn't be far behind. Clay was beside me when we walked out to the cars. "I'm sorry for what I said before, Mike. I didn't mean anything by it."

"Why'd ya say it then? It wasn't fair to Tony or me."

"I know. I thought it'd come out funnier'n it did."

"It's alright, I guess. Someday I'll tell ya some good ones... if I ever see ya."

"Thanks. Oh, and thanks for askin' us. It was a fun time."

"Yeah, me too. I can't believe the way they started hittin'." James and Aaron were getting in their car, so I ran over to say goodbye. I thanked James for sticking up for Anton, then exchanged happy goodbyes with the four of them.

As they drove off, everyone else was saying their goodbyes and promising to do it all over again before school started. My father pulled in before they left so we were soon on our way too, all of us excitedly telling my father what a good time we'd had. We dropped Jens and Pat at Pat's house, then went home to my house.

I was hungry and hadn't eaten the food I brought with me, so Tony and I sat at the kitchen table and shared it. As we munched I was trying to picture him with hair on his head. "Hey, Tony!"


"Did you ever draw yourself?"

"Myself? Just once."

"You should. You could try out different hair styles that way."

He smiled. "Daddy says I can grow it if I want." His smile turned into a grin as he looked at me. "I ain't too sure. It looks like a pain in the ass."

I put my hand to my head and could tell that mine was sticking out all over the place. "It ain't usually this long. I just never got a haircut since the accident. I can't even tell what color yours is."

His look was innocent. "It's probably gray like my folks." He gauged my reaction, then giggled. "It's brown, jes like the rest of me."

"Howcum you're so dark? You're folks don't look like that."

"I have some Indian blood on my Ma's side. Every once in a while it shows up by looking like me. I got a cousin what's even darker."

"Just like Scotty Goldman, then."

"Scott? He looks black. I thought he was adopted or somethin'."

"Nah. He's like you, got some ancestor with some black blood. Same thing, every once in a while somebody comes along lookin' like him."

"I like Scott. He's funny like Joe."

"Yeah, he is. Hey, speakin' of funny, how'd you like the way James took care of Clay?"

Tony had just stuffed a deviled egg in his mouth and he had to put his hand over it to keep it in there. When he finally managed to gulp it down he took a big glug of water. "That was fine!" He tried to deepen his voice to sound like James. "Give me a simple answer or give me a stupid answer." He was bouncing in his chair with merriment. "I wish it was light out so I could see Clay! He sounded so pissed!"

I also tried to mimic James' voice. "Are you gay?"

We both laughed a while remembering the incident. I teased Tony. "Well,are you? You must be if you're hangin' around with me!"

Tony laughed and said, "No, no. Y'all got it wrong!" He pointed at me. "You can't be if you're hangin' around with me!" He emphasized it by pointing back at himself.

We continued like that for several minutes, apparently getting loud with our laughter. My father appeared at the door in his pajama bottoms. He tried to look angry, but I knew he wasn't. "Guys, go to bed or take it outdoors!" He smiled. "Every time I just about doze off I get laughed awake." He turned and tramped back down the hall.

I looked at Tony and we both giggled. I was pretty tired so I said, "Let's just turn in. I'm beat."

"Fine by me. Uh, where'm I sleepin'?"

"In my room. There's two beds and the toilet's straight across the hall. Let's go!"

I picked up our trash, then wiped the table. Tony stood there waiting, but when I looked at him I had to laugh. He was still wearing my sweatshirt. It was big on me, but on Tony it looked almost like a dress. I hadn't even noticed before.

He looked wounded because he didn't know what I was laughing about. "What?"

I just shook my head. "You're cute in your dress, that's all." I laughed again as Tony looked down at himself, then back at me with red ears. He didn't say a word, just pulled the shirt up over his head.

The face that had disappeared under the cloth looking all embarrassed emerged with a wry smile. "You wise ass! Why didn't ya say somethin' before?"

"I didn't even notice, honest!"

He tossed the shirt to me and I caught it. "Thanks, Mike. I was really cold out there." His look intensified. "If you were cold first I would'a gave you my shirt, honest!"

It's weird. Tony was a kid I hated until just the day before, now we were trying to prove to ourselves that we actually liked each other. I wasn't sure it was true yet, and I could tell he wasn't sure either, but we were both trying. I didn't know where it came from, maybe my talks with Dave and Joe and Jed, but somehow I wanted this skinny little creature to be my friend. I could tell that he wanted it too, but I don't think either of us knew how to proceed.

Anton... Tony... and I didn't have to butt heads anymore, and I liked some things about him, but I still had misgivings. Not so much about the treatment I'd had from him, just that I didn't know much about him. Everyone at school viewed him as a misfit, an outsider. I had no idea how things at school would be for me when it started back up. The last year had been a total bust with all the harassment. I wondered what it would be like if my only friend in the sophomore class was Anton Wolfe.

We took turns in the bathroom, then started to get undressed for bed. My clothes dropped to the floor and I kissed Jack's picture, then climbed in under the covers, noticing Tony carefully folding his jeans and shirt and placing them on the dresser.

When he turned around and saw me watching him he looked suddenly embarrassed, crossing his hands in front of his underpants.

It embarrassed me when I figured out that he must have thought that I was checking him out instead of simply watching what he was doing. He quickly climbed into bed and looked at the ceiling. I turned off the light, then said, "I wasn't lookin' at ya, if that's what you're thinkin'."

There was a long silence. "I was just watchin'. I never knew somebody to fold their clothes like that."

He still didn't say anything, then I thought I heard a suppressed sob. "Tony?"

Still nothing, but now I was certain he was crying. "What's wrong? What's makin' ya cry?"

He sniffed for another minute. "It's the first nice stuff I ever had. Ain't I s'posed to take care of it? You just fling your stuff all over the place. What if ya couldn't get more? You got all these nice things, this nice house... I got squat." He sobbed. "I'm sorry ya thought somethin' else. I know ya weren't lookin' at me. Nobody does that."

I felt like a real creep. I took things like clothes and bikes for granted. When I wore out clothes I got more. When I forgot a shirt somewhere I didn't go back looking for it. If I cut a tire on a sharp rock there would be another one. I had plenty of wants that were left wanting, but I didn't have any needs that weren't automatically taken care of.

My parents worked hard and we weren't poor, but Tony was. Lots of people around here were. Not bleeding poor, but barely surviving poor - minimum wage and grow-your-own poor. I looked over to where Tony was, not seeing him in the darkness. "I'm sorry. I guess we see things different ways, huh?"

"I guess."

"So... how do you see me?"

"Before I knew you or since?"

"I guess before."

"I used to watch ya all the time."

"You said."

"I guess I saw you as a happy rich kid. You always had everybody talkin' to ya. They all liked you. Nobody even knew I was there."

"Why didn't you ever say somethin', Tony? Y'all just hang around like some... ghost all the time. Why don't ya ever talk?"

"I don't know. Everybody thinks I'm stupid. I am stupid."

I answered in a quiet, even voice. "I don't think you're stupid. You seem pretty smart." I tried to put some humor in my voice. "Skinny, yes. Stupid, no. I seen ya eat. Where's it all go?"

"You really wanna know?"

"I'm not sure now. You're gonna say it turns to shit, aren't ya?"

He sounded almost proud. "Yep! Turds! Ma says I have an active metal... mebal... somethin' like that, some kinda ism."

I started to giggle, then Tony joined in. I asked, "Giant turds?"

He laughed and said, "Yep! Real toilet jammers."

"Colossal turds?"

We both started laughing harder, but trying not to make noise had us both wheezing. I had tears in my eyes.

"My Daddy calls 'em Klondike turds."

I could hold back no longer. I started laughing so hard that I had to roll over onto my stomach and bury my face in the pillow to keep the noise down. I was a helpless ball of mirth for a good minute, then I started to calm down, then I thought again about Klondike turds and started all over again.

It's strange how some dumb thing can strike you so funny, but I was laughing as hard as I ever had with Jack. Once Jack had found the way to my funny bone, which was usually with toilet humor, he could get me laughing so hard that I'd wet myself. Not like really pee my pants, just that a little would leak out while I convulsed in laughter.

Tony had just made me laugh like that.


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