"Lenny, would you stop drumming on the table. You're getting on my nerves." My mother was nagging me again. "Will you please find something to keep you busy until your father gets home?"
"There's nothing to do."
"If you want, I can find something for you to do. Like dusting, vacuuming ...
"Oh, all right, Mom." I slipped into my room and starting leafing through an old Mad Magazine.
But there was nothing to do where we now lived, which was just south of the village of Lakeville, New York. Our house was around the bend of a dead-end street. The nearest shopping mall was seven miles away, and that's where the movie theater was, too. The central high school was also seven miles away. Every place was too many miles away - way too far for a kid going on fourteen, who was used to walking everywhere.
It was the summer of 1992. My father, Matthew "Matty" Abramowitz, dragged us out there - my mother Estelle, and me - from our cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Queens, after I failed to get accepted into Townsend Harris, the coveted, specialized academic high school. He was afraid that I would get into trouble in my zoned high school - that I had "the propensity," as I overheard him saying to my mother late one night. After looking up the word "propensity," I couldn't understand where he had gotten the idea, or why he trusted me so little.
My father, with two partners, had owned a drug store on Union Turnpike, only fifteen minutes away by bus. But their full-service pharmacy began to falter when the area's demographics began to change, when many other stores were selling the same high-margin perfumes and cosmetics at discount, and when third-party payers - the health insurance carriers, and, especially, "welfare," as my father still called it - began cutting deeply into their profits. And then Charlie Dallenbach, who attended St. John's School of Pharmacy with my father, succumbed to lung cancer, and my father's other partner, Alan Blume, an older pharmacist who had previously worked with my father at a now closed drug store in the Bushwick barrio, decided he had had enough. Alan and my father had trouble "going it alone" when Charlie's health was plummeting and, after Charlie died, they decided to get rid of the store. They ended up taking a loss, but, as my father said afterwards, "it wasn't a total loss." Even so, my father remained bitter towards Alan because of the loss of the store and because, unlike my father, Alan was able to build up his investments during their years of partnership. And both my father and mother were resentful because Alan and his wife were able to pack up and move down to Florida before "the angel of death came a-knockin."
At 48, my father insisted he was too young to retire and, because he failed to recoup much of his initial investment in the pharmacy - seed money that he had "borrowed" from my grandparents - he was forced to take a job at a chain drug store, a usurping competitor he had previously despised, that sold everything from penicillin to potato chips. He chose to work the evening shift as the managing pharmacist; despite the evening differential, he was forced to work overtime. My father was always complaining, and mostly about the ridiculously low pay scale. When he came home he often flopped down on the couch, too exhausted to untie his ripple-soled shoes and yank off his support hose. Some fathers wanted their children to follow in their footsteps, but my father threatened to cut off my "stinkin' feet" if I ever decided to become a pharmacist.
Although we had a "serviceable, practical" car - a Toyota Camry bought used in 1988 - he chose to take the bus, the number 46, not only to save money, but so he wouldn't have to look for a parking space. He also feared that the car would get broken into as it already had been; out of necessity, he had learned how to replace a damaged trunk lock. So the car was left for my mother, who used it only for an occasional errand and for the weekly visit to my grandmother in Brooklyn.
When I was old enough to stay by myself - finally, at the age of twelve - I was allowed to stay home - "Make sure you don't let anybody in, Lenny" - and watch television all day long without my mother's interruptions and her nagging about putting my things away like, "I wonder whose shoes these are?" or "Thank goodness for gravity; otherwise your things would float up to the ceiling," and her attempts to get me to spend my time more valuably, like "Lenny, why can't you find something else to do?" or "Lenny, why don't you go out and play?" or "Lenny, why don't you read a book?" Worst of all, my mother was home all day unless she walked the two flights up to drink tea and gossip with Rosa, an emigre from Moscow. So she was almost always around to drive me crazy. It was so annoying, I wanted to scream.
Late at night, when I was in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother Jack until he went off to college, I often overheard my mother and father arguing about money:
"Estelle ... you know that Lenny is old enough already. Why don't you go out and at least try to find a job?"
"Matty, what do you want from me? You know about my condition. You know I'll never have enough energy to go out and get one, let alone hold onto it."
This was invariably followed by the sounds of sobbing, a ssh-sshing sound, and whispering that was supposed to sound reassuring. And, after that, the subject was dropped ... until the next time.
Two years before, my nineteen year-old brother Jack, then seventeen, had escaped to a state college way up near the Canadian border, so I finally had the bedroom all to myself, except, of course, when he came home during vacations or inter-session. Then, I had to take my stuff off his bed and find a place to put it all - neatly, of course. After his sophomore year, he landed a summer job at a lodge in the Adirondacks. It was then that my father, who was floundering both physically and emotionally - who was "sinking up to his neck in quicksand," as he put it - decided to get his family, and especially himself, "way the hell away from this rotten city." Maybe my rejection from Townsend Harris was a pretense, or maybe it was simply the last straw - "the straw that broke the camel's back," as my mother liked to say.
My mother and father spoke in idioms and aphorisms, in proverbs and sayings. Looking back, I wonder if their thinking and points of view were limited by their pertinent, yet often superficial, choice of phrases. I also wonder why my father didn't just "pack it all in," and "walk away from it all." But I know that it was just not his way.
So my father asked for a transfer and became the managing pharmacist in an about-to-be opened store in Geneseo, which was seven miles from where we were to move. I knew he wanted to get a lot further away, but because my brother was attending a state college, he didn't want to "kiss goodby to" the comparatively minimal in-state tuition for Jack's education. But we did get about as far away as possible and still remain within New York State. Lakeville, at the northern end of Conesus Lake, the westernmost finger lake, was 350 road miles away, but it was a world away in so many ways.
* * * * *
I was about to turn fourteen during that summer of 1992. I had attended Hebrew school for four years, and I was supposed to have my Bar Mitzvah the summer before. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, instead of hanging around and playing ball in the school yard, I had to drag myself over to the musty basement of Congregation Ohav Shalom, where we'd learn Hebrew by rote and try to memorize the prayers. Rarely was anything translated, explained or, God forbid, questioned. There, becoming a good Jew was learning how to memorize and repeat.
In addition, I had private Bar Mitzvah lessons on Sunday mornings with the assistant rabbi, a black-hatted pasty-faced guy not much older than my brother whose name was Meyer Goldstein. He always wore the same thread-bare suit, which reeked from the Lucky Strikes that he chain-smoked in his office. He also had no sense of humor - "Vat you makes joke for, boy?" - and he enjoyed standing over me and staring down at me through his thick, smeared lenses.
I was also required to attend junior congregation services every Saturday morning and it was expected that parents would come to shul, but my father was either working or sleeping. Aside from paying my tuition, my father had little to do with "all that religious bullshit," as he often put it. I hated the waste of time. I hated that my parents were not involved. I hated it all, and I was relieved when, after the rabbi's final decree that I was "making no discernible progress for several months, already, Mr. Abramowitz," I was told, none to gently, to not return until I got serious about my Jewish education. At that point, my father was already fed up and didn't give much of a damn, one way or the other.
But being Jewish in Lakeville was an entirely different matter. There was no shul. There was no kosher deli. There were no other Jewish kids. As far as I knew, there weren't any blacks, Asians, Hispanics or American Indians, either.
When my parents registered me at my new high school, a guidance counselor and the principal, both who looked as though it took too much energy for them to crack a smile, examined my junior high transcript and my 8H report card and scheduled me for tenth-grade honors classes - biology, integrated math II, social studies and English - and Spanish and gym. My father and mother could not hide their joy that I had been scheduled for more advanced classes, which they attributed to the quality of the so-called gifted and talented program I had attended. Instead of moving normally into the ninth grade, I was being skipped a grade, with, seemingly, no thought given to my own non-academic needs. And my parents allowed it.
But there was something else. So far, in my life, there was always something else. The principal left the room and came back a few minutes later with a rexographed sheet. "Since you're going into honors English, you have a summer reading list and a writing assignment. All of last year's ninth grade honors students have to complete the assignment." His face was serious, but I detected delight in his voice. "You have to read The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, and any other five books on this list" - he pointed to the titles printed on the page in faded blue ink - "and make sure that you write notes about each one. In addition" - and this time, he did smile - "there's a thousand-word essay you'll have to write. It's a report about your 'most unforgettable character.' You know ... like the feature article in the Reader's Digest?"
I groaned and my father scowled at me. The Readers Digest? I had no idea what he was talking about. And a thousand words meant six or seven handwritten pages. Moreover, whom did I know well enough to write about? My father, the unhappy pharmacist? My mother, who was sleeping late every day? My brother Jack, who was waiting tables? Everyone else I knew was back in Queens.
The principal ignored my reaction and went on. "You can interview the person you choose. Ask him or her questions. Make believe you're an investigative reporter, that you work for a newspaper." He finally handed me the paper. "It's all explained right here on this sheet."
And there I was, a skinny Jewish kid going on fourteen, about to be skipped into the tenth grade of a central high school in the middle of nowhere, a bus ride away. Where I wouldn't know anybody. Where there would be nobody else like me. But where, my mother assured me, "You'll do fine, Lenny. We know you have it in you." I wasn't so sure.
* * * * *
My birthday was on August tenth, a Monday. No party had been planned, because there was nobody to invite. But that was only part of the reason.
There had never been a party, except the previous summer, when, at the very last minute, my mother had me call up a couple of friends. We made ice cream sundaes from melting half-gallons of Breyers and Reddi-wip and small tubs of chips, sprinkles and broken-up cookies that she had arranged on the plastic-sheet-covered kitchen table. After that, they sang "Happy Birthday" to me. Although it was my thirteenth birthday, it was very much not the Bar Mitzvah celebration I had long been expecting.
At least in Queens, I did have some friends. In Lakeville, in the three weeks since we moved, I saw other kids only from a distance - sitting inside station wagons, being ushered through the Stop 'n' Shop, practicing on the fields at the high school when I was registered, or walking side by side on the roads around Lakeville. Even television - the shows and the reception - was terrible. With the rusted-out antenna bolted to the chimney of the house my parents had rented "until we find a place we can finally call our home," we could get only three regular channels and two others on UHF. I needed to get out of the house; I needed to get out and around. One night, at dinner, I pleaded with my parents for a bicycle.
"But you don't know how to ride one, Lenny," was my mother's reply. "You're going to get hurt."
"I do know how to ride. Remember I learned how when I was at Camp Runamuck a couple of years ago?" That what she used to call the camp. "And I still remember how. I promise I won't fall."
"But what if you do?"
"You worry too much, Mom."
"We'll have to talk about it," my father announced, in that way he had of squelching further discussion.
On the day of my birthday, my mother woke up just before noon, something she was doing just about everyday. She often seemed sad, like she there was something on her mind. When I asked her about it, "Hey, Mom ... are you okay?" she started to whimper, and between sobs, answered, "It's nothing, Lenny. It's nothing to do with you. I'm just preoccupied. That's all." And so I dawdled and read what I had to and didn't do much of anything else until her soap operas were over and I could turn on my cartoons.
When my father came home, it was already past six. My mother had prepared a tuna fish casserole, not my favorite dish, but what could I expect? "You want something better, Lenny?" she'd ask if I dared to complain. "You want to do the cooking?" I noticed my parents eyeing each other as they hurried through their meal. I didn't eat very much.
When we were finished, and after the dishes were draining on the rack, my father asked, "Okay, now. How about going to Friendly's where we can really celebrate your birthday?" My mother smiled at me. I realized that I hadn't seen her smile in a long time.
We got to the Friendly's in Geneseo without much time to spare before it closed. They told me I could order anything on the menu and I picked out the Royal banana split. My father had a dish of four scoops of ice cream. "I don't really want any chazerei on it," he said. "But you should enjoy yourself. And, if you can't finish it, you can always bring the rest home."
My mother insisted she wasn't hungry and that she was watching her waistline. Nonetheless, she sat next to him and reached over for spoonfuls of ice cream from his dish. For a moment, I imagined what they must have looked like when they were going out. I did manage to finish my banana split so there was nothing to pack, but my stomach was churning as we drove home.
After my father parked the car in the driveway and turned off the ignition, he said, "Follow me, Lenny. I want to show you something." When I got out of the car, the cacophony of the night insects drowned out what he was saying to my mother. We walked to the rear of the car port, and he raised his hand, gesturing us to "stop." He slipped behind the bushes and wheeled back around a bicycle that he had hidden. "This is for you, Lenny. Use it in good health."
"Oh thank you! Thank you!" I cried out. I was so happy. "Can I try it now?"
My parents looked at each other, silently deciding. "Sure. Go ahead," my father said. "But be careful."
The bicycle glistened in the yellow glow of the bug light hanging over the side door. It was a twelve-speed bike and had hand brakes, unlike the BMX bike I had learned on when I was at Camp Runamuck that summer. I carefully lifted my leg over the frame. The last time I rode, I mounted a bicycle like a horse, but this time, I didn't want to make a fool of myself, and I certainly did not want to fall. I pushed away and got up on the seat and started to pedal. I remembered what I had learned the hard way: to turn the wheel in the direction that I was falling. After wobbling down the driveway and into the street, I started to ride more smoothly. I rode around the curve, and out of their sight.
Near the end of our street, I heard my father shout, "Use the hand brakes to slow down!" I almost skidded out of control and fell because I squeezed the brake levers too tightly. I was really glad they couldn't see.
I turned around and tried shifting the gears as I rode back. I would have to get used to shifting, I realized. Back at the house, I turned around again to ride to the corner, and then back again, several times more. My father had his hand around my mother's waist and they were grinning at me. I grinned back and waved. I don't think I was ever so deliriously happy.
* * * * *
That night, I was so excited that I had trouble sleeping. The next morning, I woke up early, put on a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers, washed up and then went into the kitchen. I poured Cheerios and milk into a bowl and scarfed down my breakfast. I couldn't wait to go out riding.
As usual, my mother was still in bed, so I wrote a note on the back of a bank slip from the pile she kept on the counter. I scotch-taped it to the pull-down light fixture over the kitchen table so she wouldn't miss it: "Dear Mom. Don't worry. I went out on my bike. I'll be home by lunch. Lenny."
I got on my bike and headed down the driveway. When I turned onto the street, I felt free at last. Although I could not possibly know how Dr. King, himself, had felt - "free at last ... thank God, almighty, I'm free at last" - I thought I had some idea.
I decided to head towards the lake and then turn north and ride up to Lakeville. Until I learned the way, I figured that all I had to do was stay as close as possible to Lake Conesus and I wouldn't get lost.
It soon became much hotter. While I was riding, the breeze cooled me off, but when I slowed down or stopped, I felt as if I were surrounded by a smothering soup of steam, like the time my father took me into the steam room at the JCC. I rode up East Lake Road, and then turned left on Tuxedo Park, which changed names several times until I made a left onto Big Tree Road. On the way into town, I passed the Beverage Barn, a Texaco station, a Michelin tire place, and then an abandoned building with a LAUND sign attached and the ROMAT part quivering in a sudden breeze.
I wondered where all the people were while I rode through the town. Some of the stores had been boarded over and there were only a few that were still open for business, like Adelaide's Second-Hand Shop, a VCR rental place called Play it Again, Sam, and Nolan's Hardware & Feed. The few people who were out gave me a strange look as I rode by. I figured I didn't look familiar, and they didn't know who I was.
A 7-Eleven was a bit further, and then there was nothing. As quickly as I had ridden into the town, I was suddenly on the other side of it. I made a left turn and continued riding close to the lake.
I passed a red-haired kid who was on a rusted-out blue and white BMX bike. "Hey!" he shouted. "Wait up!"
I slowed down to let him catch up and we began to ride side by side since there were no cars on the road.
"Who are you? I never saw you around here."
"My name's Lenny Abramowitz. We moved in two, three weeks ago."
"I'm Billy. Billy Gerber. Where d'ya live?"
"On Lynnewood Drive. On the other side of town."
"I'm a couple of blocks away, on the corner of Westervelt. You had to pass right by my house. The old brown one with the porch?"
"No. I don't remember."
"Anyway, where're you headed?
"I'm just out riding. Seeing what's around."
"I'm going swimming. You can come if you want to."
"But I don't have a suit."
"You don't need one. You've got shorts on."
"My mother'll kill me if I ..."
"If you get 'em wet? What does she do? Wash 'em in mud?"
I couldn't fight his logic, so I followed him. And my shorts would probably dry by the time I got home, anyway.
His chain was creeking but the noise didn't seem to bother him. Billy was big for his BMX bike and rode standing up on the pedals, bending over to steer. The only time he sat on the seat was when he was coasting. Meanwhile, I was barely able to reach my own pedals and I was developing a chafe. When I got home, I'd have to find a wrench to lower my seat.
Ten minutes later or so, we rode by several cars that were parked along the side of the road. We had gotten to the beach, which was just a narrow, cleared-out strip between the road and the lake. Several families had set up umbrellas and a few small children were running around, splashing each other along the water's edge.
It was so different from when my family went to Jones Beach, which always became an all-day trip, "a real production," my mother used to complain. Before we left, she would busy herself in the kitchen preparing our lunches while my father packed aluminum chairs, towels, a cooler and a blanket into the trunk of the car. We would be in stop-and-go traffic on the parkway and then have to park so far away in the parking lot that it seemed like it took forever to get to the ocean.
As soon as we took off our sneakers and used them as weights to hold down the corners of the blanket, my brother and I ran into the waves and stayed in the water as long as we could. We never wanted to eat lunch - neither the bologna and salami sandwiches my mother had made, nor the soft peaches and plums she had packed - because she would make us wait an hour before allowing us back into the water. And later, when it was time to go home, we would ignore our father's calls to come out of the water. We could never get enough. What I hated was the hot sand, which burned my feet. But what I loved the most was the residual feeling of the rushing water streaming around my legs, as I fell asleep in the back seat of the car.
Billy and I leaned our bikes against a tree. I started to uncurl my chain from around my top tube, but Billy said, "Don't worry. You can leave your bike here. Nobody's gonna steal it."
When Billy teasingly lowered his jeans, I felt embarrassed, but he was wearing bathing trunks underneath. He laughed at my reaction; I didn't know it showed. Then he took off his sneakers, balled up his socks, placed them in his sneakers, and then tied his sneaker laces together over his handlebar. I did the same and then took off my shirt and draped it over the top tube. I couldn't wait to get into the water.
"Race ya," he yelled, but he was already on his way.
I followed him into the lake. The water was warm at the water's edge, but it was much cooler the further in I got. Billy started swimming towards a platform a hundred yards out, but when I followed him out there, it seemed like a lot further. Then I remembered that fresh water does not have the buoyancy of salt water.
When I pulled myself up on the platform, Billy said, "Cool, huh?"
"Yup." I felt myself smiling. It was pretty cool - especially when I realized that I could ride to this beach all by myself.
I jumped from the platform and when I realized how deep it was, I pulled myself up and began diving into the lake. I swam around a bit and when I felt cold, I climbed back up on the platform to sun myself. I watched several girls swim out; their strokes were strong and smooth. They pulled themselves up and sat together, ignoring us and whispering and giggling to each other. Billy whispered to me, "Dumb, stupid girls," but it was loud enough for them to hear, which was probably what he had wanted. Each of them gave us a dirty look, the look of disgust, as though they had sucked on lemons. All three were blonde and they all looked the same; they might as well have been triplets. He reached over the side and splashed water at them. When they shrieked, he laughed and then dove into the water and headed back for the shore.
I shrugged apologetically at the girls, dived into the water and followed him back in.
We sat on the beach and let the sun dry us off. I wanted to ask Billy why he had splashed the girls, but I was afraid to. I felt awkward and exposed when he left me alone
with the three girls for those several moments on the platform. But I didn't say anything.
I looked up at the sun, which was high in the sky. "Uh, Billy. I've gotta get home. I promised my Mom ..."
"But what else d'ya have to do?"
"She's going to worry about me. And I don't want to get into trouble."
"Aaa ... forget about her. Whyn't ya stick around?"
"I can't Billy. I really can't."
"Oh, all right. Let me ride you back."
"No. That's okay. I can get home by myself."
I didn't want to be with him just then, but I didn't know how to say no to him, either.
We put our clothes and sneakers back on and got back on our bikes. The sun beat down on us as we rode.
"Hey, Lenny. See that house over there? That's where I live." Billy had pointed to a big, brown, ramshackle house on the corner. On the wrap-around porch, chairs, a table, an old television set and lots of furniture were piled up under the overhang. Along the Westervelt side was a tall, wild-looking hedge. Weeds sprouted throughout the burnt-out lawn. "You wanna come in?"
"I told you, Billy. I've got to get home."
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"Uh, okay. But let me ride you the rest of the way." He made it so hard to refuse.
We rode back through town. This time, I didn't see anybody except a disheveled-looking guy walking slowly along the sunny side of the street. I wondered: It's so hot, why not in the shade? And the first thing I noticed was the green beer bottle in his hand. The next were the two hound dogs following closely behind him. He had on a dark brown long-sleeved shirt which was hanging over his faded jeans, and blackened work boots. His hair was scraggly - long and uncombed. Billy and I slowed down and when we got closer, I heard him muttering to himself. He looked up and snarled at us, in a gravelly voice, "What the hell're you lookin' at?" And, "What d'ya two want?"
"Fuck you, Eddie!" Billy yelled back. "Fuck you and your dogs!"
He raised the bottle as if to throw it at us, and Billy sped off. I could not accelerate as quickly, and I was afraid that I was going to be hit by the bottle. I looked back at the guy. His bloodshot eyes were angry and crazed. I called out, "Sorry, mister. Sorry." His eyes softened as he lowered the bottle.
When I caught up to Billy, I asked, "Hey ... what'd you do that for?"
"Aaa ... Eddie's just a drunk. He walks around all day between here and Livonia - back and forth along Big Tree Road - with those filthy, mangy dogs of his, drinking out of - get this! - a Heineken bottle."
"But why'd you curse him out."
"Why not? He ain't nuthin' but a stinkin' old drunk."
Something inside me was trying to warn me that my new friend was someone to be wary of. But I wasn't willing to listen.
* * * * *
When we got closer to Lynnewood Drive, I decided that didn't want him to come over, although he probably wanted to hang around a while. I stopped at the corner and said, "I think you'd better go. My mother's going to be really angry."
"Yeah. My ma gets pissed at me all the time. It don't mean nuthin', though."
"Well, see ya." And I started riding up to my house.
My mother was waiting on the stoop outside the front door. She was standing in the sun, despite the heat, as though she were oblivious - as though her comfort were of no concern.
"Leonard ... where in God's name have you been?" she screamed. "I was worried sick about you."
I got off my bike and said, "Ma, I told you not to worry," and I walked my bike into the carport.
"Worry? Of course I'm going to worry. You're over two hours late. You could've gotten hurt. You could've gotten killed. You could've ..."
"Ma, look at me. I'm okay."
"Well, just wait until your father gets home. In the meantime, go to your room. No TV. No nothing. And don't come out until I tell you to."
I silently closed my bedroom door. I wanted to slam it, but I didn't, because I knew that that would certainly bring on another round of screaming. I pulled the curtain aside and looked out the window. Billy was in the middle of the road, sitting on his bike, grinning ear to ear. And then he rode off.
* * * * *
Some time later, there was a knock on my door.
"What is it?" I called out. I was lying on my bed, still seething. I wanted to yell out, "What the hell do you want?" But, of course, I didn't.
My mother came in and stood over me. "Are you hungry, Lenny? Maybe you want something to drink?"
"No, Ma," I answered, although I was starving. I was going to punish her by not eating. That'll show her, I thought.
"Well, if you change your mind, I made a tuna fish sandwich for you. I'll leave it in the refrigerator."
"Thanks, Mom." My stomach was already growling.
I checked my clock radio and promised myself that I'd wait at least a half hour before going into the kitchen. But ten minutes later, I gave in.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, next to the window, looking through the Lake & Valley Clarion. The newspaper was delivered every Thursday by an old man in a station wagon that belched out clouds of blue smoke. More than once I heard her tell my father not to waste money on a "rag" like the Clarion, but he said that it was the best way - maybe the only way - to keep up with community events.
I opened the refrigerator, took out the Tupperware sandwich box, and poured myself a glass of orange juice. I sat down across from her and started eating my sandwich.
"Lenny? You want a section?"
"No, Mom. There's nothing to read." I missed the crumpled New York Times that my father used to bring home at night. Like the kids I used to hang around with, I loved the New York Mets, especially after the Amazin' Mets won the 1986 World Series just six years before. Shea Stadium was a short bus ride away and my father took Jack and me to a couple of games every year. I used to study the box scores of all the games in the Times and I had memorized the list of batting and pitching leaders in both leagues, and their statistics.
Then, I changed my mind. "Sure, Mom. Just pass over either part of the paper." If I were nice to her, maybe she would relent and change her mind about telling my father.
But she didn't.
When my father came home, she met him at the door and took him right into their bedroom. I heard murmured voices behind the door. I knew whatever they were deciding wasn't going to be good.
When they came out my father said, "Let's sit down at the table and talk this over." That usually meant that they would talk, and I would have to listen.
Then: "Your mother told me what happened this afternoon. You've got to be more responsible, Leonard. You've got to come home when you say you're going to. It's not fair to make people worry. We're new here in town and you don't know your way around. So anything can happen to you. Do I make myself clear?"
"That's better. So this is your punishment. You are to be grounded for three days. We considered making it longer, but we decided that three days were enough. And there's no bicycle."
So it was just like two days before - before my birthday, before I got my new bike. And once again, there was nothing to do.
* * * * *
That evening and the next day dragged on. Just before dinner, the doorbell rang, and I went to answer it. It was Billy Gerber.
"Nothing, Billy. But I can't come out. I'm grounded."
"For coming home late yesterday."
"That's all? For being late?"
"Yeah. My parents are really strict. And my mother worries a lot."
"Well, when I get caught doing something, my mother takes a belt to me. Or a hanger. That is, when she can catch me. But she's usually had a few beers by the time she gets home from work. And that slows her down a bit."
"But what about your father?"
"He ain't around. My mom says he took off right after I was born."
I didn't know what to say.
"Shit. It's just as well. She said that he beat her up a whole lot. When he drank, he was really mean and nasty. Whenever I ask about him, she says, 'good riddance to bad rubbish' and she spits on the ground."
"Leonard? Who is it?" It was my mother, from the kitchen.
"Uh, listen, Billy. I've gotta go."
"I've got to have dinner. Really. I've gotta go."
I was pretty sure he wanted to be invited in for dinner. He waited a moment before saying, "Okay. See you around."
He got back on his bike and rode off. I was glad to see him go, not only because I was starting to feel uncomfortable around him, but because my parents usually didn't "do" things like entertaining drop in's and extending impromptu invitations for dinner.
* * * * *
After dinner, my parents usually read library books my mother had taken out after she read their reviews, or they watched television until 11:00 or so if anything on were worth watching. In Queens, they stayed up late enough to watch Johnny Carson's monologue and then went to sleep. Now that Jay Leno had taken over, my parents decided that they'd rather go to bed. My nightlife was just as dull as my daylife, but I was allowed to stay up late with them because it was the summertime. So far, it wasn't much of a vacation.
Tonight, we all went to bed around eleven. My parents never minded if I stayed up late to read. Ever since they read to me when I was little, they'd turn the light off when they left the room, but a few minutes later, I'd turn the light back on and continue reading. They must have realized what I had been doing all along but they never let on.
This time I had been reading Lord of the Flies, one of the books on the summer reading list. It was actually pretty good. The other students had all summer, but all I had was a couple more weeks to finish the books and that darn report, which I hadn't even started. Even though I liked to read, and I did read a lot, I'd rather have been reading books that I had picked out. Or Mad Magazine or my super-hero comics that my mother referred to as dreck, and which she warned me were going to ruin my eyesight.
I was almost halfway through the book, at the point when the pilot who had parachuted from the sky washed up on the island, when I heard tapping on my window.
I pulled aside the curtain and there was Billy, about to knock on the window again.
I opened the window and whispered, "What are you doing?"
"I don't know ... I wanted to see if you wanted to go out."
I looked back at my clock radio. "Are you nuts? It's one-thirty in the morning."
"Come on. What are you worried about?"
I had never done anything like this before. My parents would go crazy if they found out. "Where'd we go? What'd we do?"
"Maybe ride our bikes up to the 7-Eleven. Get something to drink or some candy."
"I don't know, Billy. I don't think it's such a good idea."
"What are you, chicken?"
"No, I'm not chicken. But I don't want to get into trouble. I'm already grounded."
"That's even more of a reason." He beckoned to me and said, "Come on, Lenny."
"I don't know ..."
Billy made a clucking sound and laughed at me.
I couldn't resist; I just couldn't say no to him. So I changed into my shorts and a T-shirt, laced up my sneakers and remembered to take some money with me, along with the house key. I silently closed my bedroom door and tiptoed to the front door, which I locked behind me.
I went to get my bike from the carport. When I walked it past the garbage pails, I knocked my knee against one of them. I winced and had to stop myself from yelling, "Ow!" Then, I walked the bike to the street where Billy was waiting for me.
A full moon was above and it was easy to see where we were going. There were no cars on the road. It was beautiful, and so quiet, except for the incessant chattering of insects. It was also much cooler than the during the day. I felt exhilarated and excited. Billy giggled when he saw the big smile on my face.
I pedaled behind him on the way up to Lakeville, letting him lead the way. Where the road neared the lake, I almost rode into him when I took my eyes off of him to watch the shimmer of the moon on the black, rippling water.
When we got to Lakeville, every business, including the Texaco station, was closed. The only place open was the 7-Eleven. We leaned our bikes against its front window and walked in.
The man sitting behind the counter was wearing an old white T-shirt, frayed and torn. His gray pony tail stuck out of a Pittsburgh Steelers cap. When we passed the counter, he barely looked up, but he mumbled something to us.
"What'd you say, old man?" Billy asked.
"You boys is up late ... 's all I said," and then he went back to leafing through his magazine.
I followed Billy over to the magazine display, and we looked through some of the magazines. Then, he whispered, "Watch what I do." He took a Sports Illustrated from the rack and, in one motion, tucked it under his waistband and covered it with his shirt.
I couldn't believe what he had done. I kept my voice low. "What if you get caught?"
"Haven't been yet."
I wanted to get out of there, and fast. But he grabbed my arm. "Why don't you pick out a magazine?" Unsaid were the words "... and steal it, too."
"No. I don't think so."
"C'mon. What are you afraid of?"
"Getting into trouble. Being arrested."
"It's not going to happen. The old guy doesn't even give a damn."
I don't know what made me do it, but I picked out a Mad Magazine and a Cracked and slipped them under my shirt and under my waistband.
"You also've gotta buy something, like candy or soda, or else then he'll be suspicious."
So I reached into the soda cooler for a Chocolate Yoo-hoo and then picked up an Almond Joy. Billy got a can of Coke and a Snickers bar. The old man rang Billy up first, who quickly walked out. When he got to me, my heart was pounding and I felt sweat rolling down my forehead as I handed him two dollar bills. It seemed like it took him forever to ring up my purchase and count out the change from the register. When he handed me the coins, he stared at me as if he were looking right through me, as if he knew what we were up to. "Thanks, mister," I said. I wanted to get out of there. On the way out, he growled, "You best be behavin' yourself, now."
"Yes, sir," I answered, and when I caught up with Billy outside the store, he winked at me and said, "Like taking candy from a baby. Right?"
Sprawled on the wooden bench in front of the store was Eddie, the bedraggled guy from the day before. His two dogs were lying on the sidewalk at his feet and we had to step around them to get to our bikes. A green Heineken bottle was on the bench next to him. When he opened his eyes, I was hoping he wouldn't recognize us.
"What're you two doin' out so late?" he growled at us. His words were slurred and his voice was raspy and gruff.
"Whattya wanna know for?" Billy asked. "You writin' a book?"
"Don't get smart with me, you little prick." One of the dogs stood up and stretched. I heard a low rumble from the suddenly alert dog, which began eyeing Billy. When I noticed that his tail was not wagging, I stepped back and finished my Yoo-hoo.
Billy seemed fearless. "Hey listen, Eddie. You wanna buy us some beer?"
"What the fuck for?" he snarled.
"You know. Like do us a favor. We'll even give you some extra money so you can buy your own."
Eddie picked up his Heineken, took a sip, and snarled at us. "I don't need your fuckin' money."
"C'mon Eddie. Be a good guy."
"Get out of here, you little bastards."
Billy gave him the finger, and, as Eddie staggered up from the bench, he jumped on his bike, and took off. I was left standing there.
"Sorry, mister," was all I could come up with, again.
"What's the matter, kid? You're not as fast as your friend?"
I shrugged. Eddie had hit the nail on the head.
But when Eddie did not immediately come after me, I knew that I didn't have to be scared of him. After all, I had done nothing wrong except to be with Billy. I wasn't the one who had cursed at him or given him the finger.
"Go on. Get out of here." Eddie's words were still angry, but his voice had softened.
I rolled my bike onto the parking lot, climbed on it, downshifted, and started to pedal away. I turned to him and said, "See you around."
"Yeah, kid," Eddie replied. He raised his bottle, like a salute.
* * * * *
I rode home as quickly as I could. Sometimes, I would hear my father getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I certainly didn't want to risk the chance that he would check on me tonight. As I rode, I tried to figure out what I would say if I did happen to get caught.
After pedaling a couple of minutes, I was breathing hard. Then, up ahead, on the side of the road, I saw Billy, sitting on his bike, nonchalantly drinking his soda, and waiting for me.
I wanted to ignore him, to ride by him without stopping. I knew he couldn't catch up if he tried to chase after me, but, then I thought, what was the point?
So I pulled alongside him. "You got out of there pretty fast," I said.
"Well, you know."
I unwrapped my Almond Joy and started eating one of the two bars while I thought about what to say. Then: "Yeah, Billy, I know, all right. But you left me standing there by myself ..." - my father's phrase came into my mind - "... with my dick hanging out. Like you've already done a couple of times to me."
"But you got out of there okay. Didn't you?"
"That's not the point."
"What is the point? You don't want to be my friend?"
"It's not that."
"Then what is it?"
"I don't know, Billy. I'm not used to doing these kinds of things. Like sneaking out at night. Stealing magazines. Trying to get someone to buy beer. Cursing at people. Giving someone the finger."
"I told you. He's just an old drunk."
Billy didn't get what I was trying to say. I was too angry at him, and, If I had to admit, too threatened by him, to argue. "Listen, Billy, I've got to get home. I've been out way too long already." I started pedaling away.
"Hey, wait up. I'll ride you home."
"No, don't bother. I can get home on my own." This time, there was something in my voice that stopped him.
"See you around, okay?"
"Yeah, sure, Billy. See ya."
"Maybe. Whatever. But I've really got to get going."
I rode slower the rest of the way to calm myself down. I had sweated through my T-shirt but the night air helped to cool me down.
But when I rode up Lynnewood Drive, it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I saw the light on in my bedroom, but I was sure that I had turned it off. When I got closer, I saw that the lights was also on in the living room. And then I noticed the silhouette of my parents, framed by the open front door.
"Leonard! Where have you been?" My mother was screaming even though I was two houses away, and it was the middle of the night.
I saw my father touch my mother's arm, but it didn't help. "We've been worried sick about you!"
I wanted to turn around and ride away forever, but I knew I couldn't; I rode up the driveway instead. They followed me into the carport. I didn't even have time to get rid of the soggy magazines under my shirt.
"Put your bike away," my father ordered. His voice was more ominous than ever before. Then, "It'll be a long time before you ever get on it again."
I knew that this time I was really going to get it. I had already been grounded and I had disobeyed them by sneaking out.
They remained silent as they followed me into the house. I wanted to slip into my bedroom, but, instead, my father pointed to a kitchen chair and said, "Take a seat, young man." Not "Lenny." Not "Leonard." It was "young man." This was going to be bad.
I could tell my mother was seething. She looked flustered, as if she were searching for the right thing to say. But my father said, "Wait a minute, 'Stelle. Let me handle this."
And he began. "Leonard, answer me this. Just what the hell is going on with you?"
"What do you mean, nuthin'? And it's 'nothing' - with a 'g.' Where were you?"
"I was out riding. It was a beautiful night and there was a full moon." As my words came out, I knew they sounded foolish.
"But you were grounded. Or didn't you remember?"
"Yes, but ..."
"Don't 'yes but' me. Were you or were you not grounded?"
"Yes, I was."
"Well then explain yourself. What were you doing out in the middle of the night? Where were you? Why did you specifically disobey us? And what the hell is wrong with you?"
I couldn't possibly answer the four questions that were shot-gunned at me. "I don't know. Billy came by. He talked me into sneaking out and going on a bike ride. And we rode to the 7-Eleven."
Just then, my father's eyes bulged; he was looking down at my T-shirt.
"What do you have under there?"
"Uh, a couple of magazines."
"Let me see them." My father's hand was out, waiting.
I pulled out the Mad Magazine and Cracked and handed them to him.
"Did you buy these or did you steal them? You better tell the truth."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. Did you pay for these? You better not lie. I can drive you back to the 7-Eleven and find out the truth."
My mother broke in. "Just why, Matty, are you accusing him of stealing?" Thank you, Mom, I thought, for coming to my rescue.
"At the store, quite a few kids get caught stealing, but, I suppose, a lot more get away with it. Some just slip something into their pocket and take off. Or they tuck something down their pants, or when they wear a sweatshirt or a jacket, they hide it under their arms. You can sometimes tell, because they walk out like robots or like zombies, not to mention the guilty looks on their faces. When I owned the drugstore in Queens, I hated it when one of them took something and then left the empty box. Now that I just work there, I don't care as much, of course. But it still gets to me. Thieves, trying to get away with something. Trying to get something for nothing."
"But we're talking about our son. Our son acting like a criminal."
But my father ignored my mother's protest and started at me again. "So, Leonard, did you take the magazines without paying for them?"
Somehow, that didn't sound as bad as stealing. "Yes, I did. But it wasn't my idea."
"Whose idea was it? Not that that is ever an excuse for anything."
"But why did you go along with it?"
"I don't know, Dad. It's like, uh, I just couldn't say no."
"Billy? Was he the boy that you met who came by yesterday around dinnertime?"
"Yup ... uh, yes."
"And you met him the day before, the day you came home late?"
My father looked at my mother, and rubbed his forehead above his eyebrows - something he always did when he was thinking. Then, he said, "I don't want you to hang around with that boy anymore, Leonard. Never again. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I hear."
"Say it, and mean it."
"I promise I won't stick around with him anymore."
"Yes, Dad. I swear."
It was almost four in the morning. My father yawned and said, "Maybe it doesn't pay to go back to sleep. I've got to be up in a couple of hours anyway."
"I'm sorry, Dad."
My mother answered, "You ought to be." Then, "Well, I'm going to try to get back to sleep. Matty? Are you coming? Maybe you can just try closing your eyes." And they headed to their bedroom, while I went into mine.
I wondered how I would tell Billy. He was the first kid I met, the first friend I had made in Lakeville. I also realized he was getting me into trouble, not that it took all that much, I guess. I really didn't want to give in to my parents, but, down deep, I felt relieved. And, strangely, free, once again.
When I no longer heard noises from their bedroom, I tiptoed into the kitchen for my magazines.
* * * * *
My mother was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in. It was already past noon. Even though I expected some sort of accusation, there was no mention made of the two magazines. And she didn't say anything at all about last night. I sat down and began reading an old Mad while spooning cereal and milk into my mouth. My mother sat across from me, sipping coffee and reading Revolution from Within, a book she had taken out of the library. On the cover, there was a picture of Gloria Steinem, the author, and the words, "A Book of Self-Esteem." I had an idea what "self-esteem" meant, but I wondered why my mother was reading that particular book.
When I had finished my breakfast, she put down her book and asked, as if she were punishing me for reading my Mad Magazine, "How are you coming along with the summer assignment? You know, Lenny, you have only a couple of weeks left."
"Well, I already finished The Old Man and the Sea, which was required, and A Raisin in the Sun. Right now I'm in the middle of the Lord of the Flies."
"What did you think of those books?" I wondered if she were checking up on me, or if she were actually asking for my opinion.
"It's amazing how those kids changed when they were left all alone on the island. I can't wait to see how it turns out." I hoped I wasn't piling it on too thick.
"And what about the other three?" My mother had always made sure that I had finished my homework, even though she could no longer help me with my math assignments; she said she was never good at algebra. It was as though my parents wouldn't - or couldn't - trust me, and this probably arose out of the constant fights they had with my older brother about his "ferkokteh grades" and about getting him to finish all of his schoolwork on time.
"I have the Hyde and Jekyll book, but I have to get back to the library to take out two more."
"Well, I called the library in Livonia's and it's open 'til five today. It's also open tomorrow evening. Dad can drive you over there when he gets home with the car. Or I can."
My father seemed much more tired, lately, when he finally did get home. And I often heard him complain that standing on his feet all day was getting to him more and more - that all he wanted to do when he got home was to lie down and relax. So the last thing I wanted was to have him drive me to the library. And if my mother drove me, she would have been such a pain, insisting on helping me choose which books to read.
"And what about the written report? The 'My Most Unforgettable Character' one?"
"I don't know, Mom. Who the heck am I supposed to write about, anyway?"
"What about Dad, or your brother?
"What about Dad's older brother, Uncle Jerry. He's got an important job on Wall Street."
My mother must have noticed the pained expression on my face. "Okay. Then how about Aunt Rita?"
"Yes. You know; my youngest sister, Rita. Our family's very own flower child. She's a really interesting character. She's been in the Peace Corps. She's traveled around the world. She's been married twice and divorced twice. Right now she's living out on the West Coast - in San Francisco - in what she calls an 'urban commune.'"
The last time I saw Aunt Rita was at my brother's Bar Mitzvah, when I was eight. I remember thinking, back then, that she stood out because she looked pretty flaky in her peasant dress and hiking boots. "At my son's Bar Mitzvah, she had to dress that way," my father made sure to point out on numerous subsequent occasions, which got my mother angry every time. And I also remember trying to swat Aunt Rita's hand away when she grabbed my cheek and pinched it hard, while saying, "Oh, you're so big, Lenny. And so cute." I stayed away from her the rest of that evening.
"If she's in California, how am I supposed to do that?"
"Well, you could write down a bunch of questions, and you could call her up on the telephone and ask her."
That, at least, was an idea, but it was not a good one. But I didn't want to hurt my mother's feelings, so I said, "I don't know, Mom. Can I think about it?"
"Sure, Lenny. But remember ... you don't have much time left." As if I could forget.
She finished her coffee and got up to rinse out her mug. "Uh, listen, kiddo. If you want to ride your bike over to the library in Livonia today, you have our permission."
"What? Really, Mom?"
"You mean, I'm not grounded anymore?"
"Dad and I talked about it last night, and again, today, on the phone before you got up, and we're willing to give you one more chance. But just one more chance." She lowered her voice and added, "As long as you stay away from that Billy character."
"Oh, thanks, Mom!"
"Make sure you stay away from him," she repeated. I know she was trying to stay calm, but her voice was becoming more threatening. "If he tries to talk to you, you ride away from him. If he tries to stick around with you, you've got to make him understand you're not allowed to. You've got to keep away from him."
"Promise me, Leonard."
"Okay. I promise." And I really hoped that I could keep my promise.
My mother stared at me for a few moments, and then, having decided, unfolded a sheet of paper and handed it to me, saying, "Here, Lenny. Your father drew this for you." On it was a hand-drawn map and written directions to the library.
I examined the map. "But isn't Livonia pretty far away?"
"Probably no further than you've already ridden. It's only about two and a half miles. You can get there and back in an hour or so if you don't get lost."
* * * * *
I slipped the reading list into my pocket and I packed the books I had already finished in a doubled-up plastic bag, which I tied over my handlebar. I unfolded the map again and memorized the directions: make a right onto Densmore Road, and where it ended, turn left onto Pennimite Road. Then, where that street ended, make a right onto Big Tree Road, and take that it into Livonia. The library was on the corner of Washington Street, the second street past the tracks. In Queens, it seemed much easier, with numbered streets, roads and avenues in a grid, more or less, and addresses that made sense.
It was not as hot, so riding was easier. I passed farms, open land and a few houses. At the end of Pennimite Road, there was a junction sign for US Route 20A and State Route 15. I hoped my father hadn't drawn the map wrong; it would really have been very much unlike him. Before we went anywhere new, he studied a road map or the Hagstrom Atlas. So I made a right and, a few minutes later, I saw a Big Tree Road sign.
I pedaled as far over on the right shoulder as I could, but I had to ride more slowly than on the two side roads because the pavement on the shoulder was pitted in places and sometimes covered with shards of glass. Once, when I swerved to miss some glass, I almost fell when I had to ride up onto the grass. After a while, I got used to the roar of trailer-trucks approaching from behind, the thump-thump of their tires as they rode over the cracks between the concrete slabs, and the whoosh of turbulence as they sped by. And I remembered the Doppler effect lesson from eighth grade science, and the reason for the lowering pitch of the sound the trucks made as they disappeared in the distance.
Around a bend and then far up ahead, I saw a man walking in the same direction that I was going. When I noticed the two dogs, I realized it was Eddie, and, as usual, he had a green beer bottle in his hand. As I came up on him, I had to slow down because he and his dogs were taking up the entire shoulder. Although I didn't hear any traffic behind me, I made sure to look back anyway. I waved as I passed.
"Hey, kid." Again, that raspy voice.
I stopped, put my feet down, and turned my head. "Hi. How're you doing?" I asked. I wasn't afraid to talk to him. Not after last night.
He stopped when he caught up with me. The two dogs ambled on. "Where's your friend today? The one with the red hair."
"Oh, you mean Billy?"
"If that's his name."
"Well, he's not really my friend. My parents told me I couldn't hang around with him anymore."
"Well, he was getting me into trouble."
"Gimme a break, kid. One day you'll learn that trouble is something you get into all by yourself."
"Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, my parents made me promise to stay away from him."
"That's a good thing. He's no damn good."
"I don't know. But, I guess, I suppose so."
"So where ya headed, kid?"
"To Livonia ... the library, there." I pointed to the bag. "I've got to return some books and take out a couple more."
"So you read a lot?"
"Yeah. I like to read.
"What're you reading?"
"The Old Man and the Sea - that was required - and A Raisin in the Sun. Right now, I'm in the middle of Lord of the Flies, and I have Dr. Hyde and Mr. Jekyll at home."
"That's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
"Oh, yeah ... right. And I've got two more books to get through for the summer assignment."
"Get through, huh?" He spat out the words with disgust. Then, "So, you're going into tenth grade?"
"Yeah. How d'ya know?"
"Well, I used to teach English in that high school over in Geneseo. You wouldn't have guessed, would ya?"
He looked and talked much different from any teacher I had ever known. But it wouldn't have been nice to say such a thing. My mother always warned me that if I didn't have anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say anything at all. Another one of her sayings.
"No, I wouldn't've."
"Go ahead, kid. Say it. I know I'm a drunk. I know people make fun of me. They think I'm a loser. And they call me names. Like your friend. Billy, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, Billy ..."
"I'm just a burnt-out drunk. That's what people call me. But at least I know it. All I do is drink all day, and I walk from Livonia to Lakeville and back. Sometimes I sit in the library and sleep. That is, until they get up the guts to throw me out if anyone complains." Eddie started to laugh, but started coughing, instead.
"Complain about what?"
"Snoring. Stinking up the place. Sometimes cursin' or talkin' too loud."
"It doesn't sound fair."
"Kid, a lot of things aren't fair. That's something else you'll find out soon enough."
I couldn't hang around much longer. My mother would expect me home within the hour and I didn't want to get her, or my father, angry at me again.
"Listen, I've got to get going."
"Okay. Sure, kid. By the way, what's your name? Or should I just call you 'kid'?"
"Leonard Abramowitz. But they call me Lenny."
"Mine's Eddie. Eddie Campbell."
"Okay. See ya, Eddie."
"Take care, kid. See ya around."
I started pedaling and, as I rode past the dogs, who were sniffing at some road kill off to the side, I heard Eddie shout at them. "What the hell're you doing, you two mangy mutts?" Once again, his laugh turned into a hacking cough.
When I got to the library, I locked my bike next to the entrance and returned my books. I then checked through the shelves labeled "GCHS Summer Assignment." The books on the reading list that I thought I had wanted had already been taken out, so I took out three others - Death of a Salesman, The House on Mango Street and To Kill a Mockingbird. I figured that two out of those three would be worth reading.
On the way back, I hoped that I would run into Eddie again, to talk to him for just a minute, but he was nowhere in sight. I struggled against the wind as I rode down Pennimite, and I thought about what Eddie had said to me when it hit me: I would write my summer report about Eddie Campbell. Compared with Uncle Jerry, the business whiz, or Aunt Rita, the flower child, Eddie was, so far and by far, my most unforgettable character.
* * * * *
My mother was waiting for me at the front door as I rode up the driveway. "I was starting to worry about you, Lenny."
I put my bike away and walked into the house. I grimaced as I passed her - a look that she couldn't see - and checked the clock on the VCR. "I've been gone only fifty-eight minutes, Mom. Not even an hour. Why do you worry about me so much, anyway?"
"That's what mothers do, Lenny. When you get older, then you'll understand."
I wanted to say, "But you're buggin' the hell out of me," but I kept my mouth shut.
"So, what'd you take out today?"
I slid the books out of the plastic bag and onto the kitchen table. She picked up each one and then began leafing through The House on Mango Street. "Oh, I see. It's a book of short stories ..." She turned the book over and continued, "... about a Mexican-American girl who lives in Chicago. Sounds interesting. But isn't the book kind of short?"
"Oh, Mom. Come on. It's on the list. And didn't I hear you once say, 'Size doesn't matter'?" My mother started to turn red. Back then, I didn't yet understand the significance of that phrase.
"Uh ... well. I hope you enjoy your books, Lenny."
As I picked up the books and hurried into my room, I wanted to stop and tell her whom I wanted to write about, but I decided not to, yet. She'd probably worry about my talking to a guy like Eddie Campbell no matter how much I tried to explain. And then, to pacify her, my father would put the kebosh on the whole idea. I knew I would have to find excuses to ride into Lakeville to look for Eddie or to ride along Big Tree Road. Because they would always think that a library was a worthwhile destination, I would tell them I would be riding to the one up in Livonia. And, if I actually ended up there, then it wouldn't have been a complete lie.
* * * * *
The next day, I rode into Lakeville with the sheet of questions that I had prepared the night before folded up in my pocket. It had become very hot again, especially with the sun on my back and the lack of shade along the road. Like the first day on my bike, Lakeville was almost empty. There was no sign of Eddie. I started to wonder if this was a good idea, after all.
While I rode along several side streets looking for Eddie, I also kept an eye out for Billy Gerber, whom I certainly did not want to meet up with again. I was still worried about Billy's effect on me, despite what Eddie had said about my getting into trouble all by myself.
Because it was so hot, I really didn't want to ride to Livonia, but when I didn't find Eddie, I set out along Big Tree Road. There were patches of tar along the shoulder that were so soft that I my bicycle almost slid out from under me.
Again, I kept as far to the right as possible. When I passed the junction of Pennimite Road, the rest of the way looked familiar. But still, there was no sign of Eddie. At the Livonia library corner, I finally spotted Eddie's dogs lying on the lawn, under a willow tree. Neither dog looked up as I locked up my bicycle.
I walked into the reading room. Eddie was asleep in an arm chair in the back, near the window, this time without a bottle of Heineken bottle close by. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't want to wake him, so I decided to wait. I went to the reference desk and asked the librarian for a map of the area. I also asked her if there were any old Geneseo High School yearbooks that I could look at.
She asked for my library card and then handed me a map. "We have the recent yearbooks on the shelves" - she pointed to where I could find them - "but if you want any that are older, you'll have to fill out a request. We keep them in a storage room in the basement."
I thanked her and sat down with the map. I found where I lived and studied the streets and intersections. I saw that there was a shortcut to Livonia that crossed the tracks at Vanzandt Road. I saw where Geneseo High School was, and wondered if I could ride my bicycle there if I missed the bus. The school was way over on the other side of the lake, past Interstate 390, and I'd have to ride around Lake Conesus to get there. Then, I realized that my parents would never allow me to ride there by myself, anyway.
I re-folded the map very carefully, the way my father always insisted, and handed it back to the librarian. After she handed back my card, I went over to the yearbook shelf.
At first, I didn't know where to start. There was a shelfful of thirty or so Geneseo High School yearbooks, including duplicates, dating back to 1978, the year I was born. I slid one out from the middle. It was the 1986 Jen-O-See. Oh Jeez, I thought: Jen-O-See? What a corny title for a yearbook. And then I realized that this would be where I would be going to school for the next three years. What had my parents gotten me into?
I flipped through the 1986 yearbook and then started from the beginning. After the principal's and the assistant principal's pages came the English department. I scanned the pictures, but there was no Eddie Campbell. His picture was not in the 1985 Jen-O-See either. I finally found a picture of Eddie in the 1984 yearbook. He was standing in front of a chalkboard, pointing at the word "dignity," which was number four on a list of words. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with his sleeves rolled up. The top button was unbuttoned and his tie was loosened. His hair was long but it was combed and he looked clean-cut. He was nothing like the filthy, disheveled Eddie Campbell who was asleep in the next room. I wanted more than ever to find out what had happened between then and now. And what had gone on before.
I kept checking on Eddie; I didn't want him to disappear before I could talk to him. When I saw that he was starting to come to, I put the yearbook back on the shelf and walked over to him. I said, "Hi, Eddie."
He looked up at me, but it took him a while to focus. Then, "Oh, it's you. Hey, kid."
"How're you doing?"
"The usual, I suppose."
"Listen, Eddie. I got to thinking. You were a teacher, right? You know about the books we have to read and the summer writing assignment?"
He thought for a moment, like he was trying to pull a memory back from somewhere else. "Uh ... yeah, kid. So what about it?"
"Well, you know I have to write a report or an essay about someone who is unforgettable."
"Well, I thought about writing about you."
"Me? ... Why me?"
I had thought about this all last night, and came up with, "Because I think you're a really interesting person. And I think writing about you would make a good story." I figured he couldn't resist that.
He turned his head one way, then the other. He rubbed his eyes and scratched the top of his head. Then, having decided, he shrugged and said, "Uh ... okay then. But, first, we've got to get out of here. They don't like people talking too loud."
He stumbled as he stood up, and he grabbed for me. I took his arm, and we started walking towards the exit. The woman behind the circulation desk stared at us. Unquestionably, it was a look of distaste.
As we walked down the marble steps in front of the building, the dogs opened their eyes and their ears perked up. They both got up and stretched. I unlocked my bike and caught up with him as the dogs meandered after us.
I walked my bike beside him as we crossed Main Street. When we got to the convenience store at the Mobil gas station several blocks away, I followed Eddie in. The man behind the counter looked up; there was a sour expression on his face. He said, "Listen, Eddie. I'm warning you. I don't want no trouble this time."
Eddie raised his hands - a gesture of peace - and went over to one of the refrigerator cases. He opened the glass door and pulled out three bottles of Heineken. He turned to me, and asked, "Havin' anything, kid?"
"Yup." I went to get a bottle of Yoo-hoo.
I waited to pay as Eddie pulled out some crumpled bills from the back pocket of his jeans. He pointed at my bottle and said, "For what the kid's having, too."
"You don't have to ..."
"Nah. It's on me. You'll pay for the beer next time." And he winked at me.
The counterman put Eddie's bottles in a brown bag, handed him his change and said, "You have a good day, now." At the door, I looked back and, as I had guessed, there was a look of relief on his face.
The dogs followed us to a tiny park on the next block, which was alongside a church. I cringed when Eddie started rummaging through a trash container. "Aha," he cried. He held up, like a trophy, an empty two-liter Coke bottle. He reached into his pocket and took out a pocketknife, cut the bottle in half and, when he noticed my expression, explained to me "For the dogs ..." He went to the water fountain and filled the half-bottle with water and placed it down on the grass. The larger dog slurped most of it up and Eddie went to refill it for the other one.
Then Eddie sat down on a bench and used the pocketknife's bottle opener to pry up the cap of the beer bottle. "Got to take care of your dogs before you take care of yourself," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
I sat next to him, but not too closely. He smelled from alcohol and body odor, and I knew I would gag if I got too close. He took a long swallow of beer and said, "So, kid. What d'ya want to know?"
I unfolded my list of questions and clicked open my pen. "Okay. What's your birthday and where were you born?"
"Uh, those are easy. The eighth of October, 1956. The very day that Don Larsen threw that perfect game. My father was always so pissed off" - Eddie chuckled - "that he had to spend the whole time at the Noyes hospital, and he missed the game. And, oh, yeah ... we lived here, in Livonia, up on North Street."
"Near the tracks?" I remembered seeing North Street on the map.
"No, on the corner of Linden Street."
"And so you're, uh ..." I did the subtraction in my head, "... thirty five years old?"
Eddie nodded, and I continued. "What school did you go to?"
"I graduated from Geneseo Central. Then four years at Princeton."
"Princeton?" I couldn't hide the disbelief in my voice.
"Yeah, Princeton. Made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude." Words tossed out like isolated facts that he, himself, had trouble connecting to, let alone believing.
I shook my head and went on with my questions. "What did you major in?"
"Literature. English and American literature. And I also minored in philosophy."
"But you ended back here as a teacher in Geneseo?"
"It's not the way I planned it, kid. During my senior year at Princeton, my father became very sick. And then he died a short time after. The doctors said it was cancer, but it was his heart that gave out. Anyway, it doesn't matter, now. My mother was never the same, and there was nobody around to care for her. I wanted to go to graduate school and get a doctorate in English, but I had to return home instead. Had to do the right thing. That's when I got the job teaching at Geneseo Central. Being an alumnus and a Princeton graduate sure helped." This was followed by another throaty, phlegmy laugh.
He swallowed down the beer and opened the second. "Sure is hot today. I sure am thirsty." He nodded at me, then reached for my sheet of questions. He rotated the page and squinted at it as if to decipher it. "Can't read your handwriting," he said, although I had printed the questions.
"Listen, kid. I had enough for today. Too many bad memories. Come back and find me. Tomorrow or the day after. And I'll tell you more of my story, but my own way. You can listen, take notes, and then write it all down. Then you can read it back to me and I'll tell you what I think, and then you'll have the best damn report in the class. An 'A' for sure."
* * * * *
The next day was Saturday, and according to the sign on its door, the library was closed weekends during the summer. I needed another excuse to take my bike out because I knew that my parents didn't yet fully trust me. And I couldn't figure out how I could tell my parents about whom I had chosen to write about. I could imagine the argument: "A homeless guy? A bum? Why are you writing about a bum?" "Because he's a really interesting guy ... " "But he drinks all day ... even your father has seen him shlepping around with his dogs ..." "But he used to be a high school teacher. He went to Princeton and he was Phi Beta Kappa ..." "It doesn't make any difference ..." "What do you mean, 'it doesn't make any difference'?" I'd scream, and it'd go on and on, back and forth with her, while my father would sit shaking his head, a stern, unyielding "no" written all over his face.
I decided to wait until the next day to go look for Eddie. In the meantime, I'd start writing the first part of my story.
According to the calendar stuck on the refrigerator with flower magnets, my father was off every other Sunday. He had been working many extra hours - "for the overtime," he'd explain - "If they offer it, you can't turn it down" - and sometimes an extra day each week "until we hire another pharmacist," which was difficult because of the especially low wages the chain drug store was willing to offer.
On Sunday morning, we had a late breakfast together. My mother made French toast from half a loaf of stale bread while we listened to National Public Radio on the station from Rochester. When we were finished, I announced that I wanted to ride my bicycle to Livonia.
"What for? There's nothing open on Sundays," my mother said.
"Well, uh, I found a park there, and it'd be a nice place to take one of my books to and sit and, uh, read."
My father gave my mother a quick look, she smiled back at him, and then I noticed her blushing. "What do you say, 'Stelle?"
"How long will you be gone?"
"Maybe a couple of hours. But I'll be back before dinnertime."
There was another exchange of looks that wasn't meant for me but which I noticed out of the corner of my eye..
"Okay, Leonard," my father said. "Make sure to be careful, and watch the traffic."
I had finished Lord of the Flies, so I packed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Death of a Salesman into a plastic bag, hung it from my handlebars and set off for Livonia. I took the Commercial Street shortcut up towards the library and rode through town looking for Eddie. I even rode past the library to North Street but there was no sign of him. If I had any hope of finding him, I'd have to take Big Tree Road back up to Lakeville, so I headed that way.
Another of my mother's sayings was, "You'll find something the last place you look." Well, I had to ride all the way to Lakeville before I spotted Eddie, in the distance, walking along the shoulder with his two dogs following several yards behind.
I slowed down and pulled up next to him. "How ya doin', Eddie?"
He turned and looked at me. His eyes were puffy and bloodshot. For a moment, he didn't recognize me. Then he smiled. His yellow-stained teeth had wide gaps between them.
"I came to hear your story."
"You sure you want to?"
"Yup. Still do."
"I've got to get something to drink. Right over there, at the 7-Eleven."
This time I insisted on paying for myself. He walked out with three bottles of Heineken in a plastic bag, and I, with an Orange Crush. Eddie searched through the garbage can for a plastic bottle and went back inside the store to fill it up. I watched through the window as the counterman's expression turned from annoyance to relief when Eddie walked back out. We sat on the bench outside the store while he watered the dogs and then opened his first bottle of beer.
I had left the questions home but I had brought along a notebook that fit into my pocket. After swallowing down the entire bottle of orange soda, I took out my pen and waited for Eddie to begin.
"I hadn't always been like this," he began."God knows they wouldn't've let me in front of a classroom if they'd known how much I'd been drinking." As he continued sipping from the bottle, his slurred speech became easier to understand, which seemed strange to me. Or else I was simply getting used to it.
"But I started drinking when I was about your age. What are you, kid - fourteen or fifteen?"
"Just turned fourteen."
"We were able to get beer a lot easier back then. Many of our friends looked like they were over eighteen. You didn't have to be twenty-one, like now. So we'd get a six-pack, my friend Kyle McCarter and me, and we'd ride our bikes to the pond out back in the woods." He pointed his thumb in the direction behind the 7-Eleven. "But it's no longer a pond; the beavers made sure of that. They built a damn and, after a few years, it turned it into a swamp. Really interesting critters. They can live forty years or more and, you know, they also mate for life."
We were getting off the topic, but I didn't want to interrupt.
"Uh ... where was I?" He took another sip. "Anyway, we drank a lot and it always felt so good. Or at least, it deadened the pain. My parents had always complained about being sick - I can't remember them ever being well - and then, Jeanine, my little sister, got killed. I was only twelve at the time and she was five going on six. She ran into the street, and got hit by a drunk driver. Bang, dead. Never had a chance. I remember the date, too - August the ninth, 1969, because it was the Woodstock weekend. I wanted to go, but couldn't find a way. After all, how could I? I was only twelve at the time.
"And my parents blamed me. Naturally, I suppose. It was my fault, never theirs. It was a Saturday afternoon, and they were sitting out on the back porch and drinking. Always told me it made them feel better. 'What do you want from us, Eddie?' they'd ask. 'We're sick and we need our medicine.' Medicine. Yeah, right. What could I say? They told me I was supposed to watch Jeanine, but it happened so fast. One minute, she was sitting on the ground with her legs crossed, playing with a kitten in her lap that she swore had followed her home. And the next, the kitten jumped out of her arms, and she was chasing after it, and she didn't watch where she was going. Never saw the car coming. Never had a chance. D-O-A. The driver happened to be a neighbor, too, from up a ways. The poor bastard committed suicide shortly after. A tragedy, all around.
"So for weeks, months, maybe, my mother and father, they wouldn't look me in the face. Couldn't look at me. Had trouble just saying anything at all to me. As though they didn't for once realize that Jeanine was my sister, too."
After Eddie took a long swig from the bottle, and sat silently for a while, I asked, "And what happened after that?"
He tipped the bottle in my direction, as if focusing. "You're something, kid."
And he continued to tell me about entering his seventh grade class the next month, and having to deal with the teasing and the insensitivity of his classmates, who called him "sister killer." And about having to make his own breakfast and lunch because his mother was always too sick - Eddie winked at me at that point - to get up, about disappearing into his bedroom to do his homework, about finding refuge in the library and going there every chance he got, and about reading and finding magic in the words. He told me about reading the classics and he mentioned about having gone through some of the Greek mythology at thirteen and, later, a few of Shakespeare's plays. Then it was Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jules Verne and François-Marie Arouet, who he told me was known as Voltaire. His teachers had to write notes for him because he needed special permission to check out books from the adult section. I was writing what he was saying as quickly as I could.
We both looked up when bicycle tires skidded to a stop in front of us. "Hey Lenny! Where've you been?"
"Around, Billy. You know."
"I've been looking all over for you. I even rode up to your house but you weren't there. Your mother told me never to come back and slammed the door in my face."
"Well, that's because, uh, I can't hang around with you."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"It's my parents, Billy. They forbade it. And," I paused for a moment and then said, "also because I don't want to."
"What do you mean, Lenny?"
"They don't want me to get into trouble and I don't want to get into any more trouble. I don't want to be left behind when you take off. My parents said - and I know - that you've been ... you are ... a really bad influence on me."
When Eddie scowled at me, I remembered what he had said about getting into trouble all by myself.
Billy got off his bike and stepped up to me. His face was contorted and he looked like he wanted to punch me, but I stood up to face him. "Listen, you punk. You're the one sitting here with this drunk." I felt his spittle on my face. "You ain't nuthin.' You'll never be nuthin.' You're nuthin' but a punk. A skinny, little Jew punk."
Eddie staggered up and started to step between us, but I put my hand up. "I can handle this, Eddie."
"I don't want any trouble, Billy. I don't want to fight you, but I will if I have to. You'll probably beat me up, but maybe you won't. At least that'll be the end of it."
Billy glared at me, and then, he started to deflate, like a pricked balloon. He lowered his arms and unclenched his fists. He stepped back, and then got on his bike. "Fuck both of you! You stinkin' drunk and you fuckin' Jew punk. Why don't you both go fuck yourselves!"
I wanted to go after him, but Eddie grabbed my shirt from behind. It didn't matter, anyway, because Billy had already hopped on his bike and was riding away.
We sat down again on the bench and I sighed in relief. "What a little bastard," Eddie said. "You're better off staying away from him. But if I were you, I'd watch my back. Guys like him, you can never trust."
"Yeah. And now I have to spend the next three years of high school watching my back."
"Well, you're in the honors track, and he probably isn't. It's not like you'll be in the same classes."
"Yeah, but ..."
Eddie put up his hand, signaling "enough." "Okay, where was I?"
* * * * *
The last couple of weeks of summer vacation passed too quickly, as they always had and always would. I figured my parents knew that something was going on, but I was coming home on time and not causing them any trouble. I was even keeping my room straightened out and my stuff put away so my mother had fewer things to nag me about.
I caught up with Eddie several more times at the library, at the park, and at the 7-Eleven up on Big Tree Road and every time, he told me he actually looked forward to seeing me. I guess he was lonely and he finally had someone to talk to. Somebody who'd actually listen.
He told me about how much he studied to earn his straight-A average in high school, and how he was then offered a full scholarship to Princeton. How he made extra money bartending, and how he had to break up fights in the bar. How much he enjoyed "devouring" books - that was the word he used - and how much he tried to instill the joy of reading in his students when he had returned to teach at Geneseo Central. How he won the district's "Teacher of the Year" award and how he got to teach the honors and advanced placement classes. How he fought with the administration over what books he was allowed to teach. How he battled over the "acceptable reading list" and what he referred to as "stifling, two-faced academic censorship." How embarrassing and demeaning it was when the school pulled the plug, as he put in, on The Graphic, the student newspaper, to which Eddie was the advisor, after it published a student-written exposé about teen-age drinking. How poorly he dealt with his overwhelming need to drink, which was steadily taking over and ruling his life. And how the administration went about undercutting and undermining him every way it could to force him out.
Between each of our meetings, I wrote up my story - actually his story - double-spaced, on the blue-lined white pages of a legal-size pad, and then brought the pages with me the next time I went to find him. Eddie had me read aloud what I had written, and he made lots of suggestions and corrections, which I then wrote in the blank lines. His voice was sometimes gruff and his advice was sometimes crude, but I learned an awful lot from him - especially how writing sounds so different when read aloud and how to make it sound even better.
I finished the "My Most Unforgettable Character" report on the Saturday before Labor Day. I went out looking for Eddie on Sunday, and again on Monday. I wanted to read the entire "Eddie Campbell Story" to him, but he was nowhere to be found. On Monday evening, after my parents insisted on finding out what, exactly, I had come up with, I finally read the report aloud to them.
"So that's where you were going when you disappeared all those afternoons?"
"Yes, Mom. I didn't think you would have approved."
She looked at my father, who smiled and nodded, and she said, "What you wrote was wonderful. Excellent. You did a great job, Lenny. And we're very proud of you."
I had been bracing for a fight, for accusations, but, instead, I won their praise. I felt warm inside. Loved. I wondered how Eddie would have felt if his parents had ever given him the attention and love he deserved.
* * * * *
School started the day after Labor Day. I got on the bus that started picking up students in Livonia. I was relieved to find out that Billy was not on the same bus. In my new looseleaf notebook's pocket was the final copy of the story of Eddie Campbell that I - that we - had written.
It is hard for me to describe how much like an alien I felt, walking into a strange, new high school on the first day of school. For one thing, it was loud - so darn loud. Students were shouting at each other over the din, and the noise echoed off the newly-shined tile floor and the overly bright yellow walls. Many of them were talking animatedly in small groups, while comparing their schedules printed on green cards. They had probably all been in school together since kindergarten. There was nobody I knew - except Billy Gerber, of course, who, thankfully, wasn't waiting for me in the lobby - and, maybe a few others who looked familiar only from seeing them around.
When the bell sounded - actually, it was an electronic tone - Eddie had always insisted on "verbal accuracy, kid. Don't forget ... it's important" - the students split up with "see you later"s and "meet you at lunch"s. I headed off for my first-period honors English class. According to my schedule, which had been mailed to us along with the detailed "Required Materials List," the teacher was to be Mr. Raymond, who Eddie said was a beginning teacher the last two years he was there, "a pretty decent guy, if I remember correctly."
I went down the wrong corridor, had to backtrack, and so I was the last one to enter the classroom. It was exactly what I did not want to happen. Questioning faces - "Who the heck is this new kid?" - glared at me as I walked in. I felt the heat of their stares on the back of my neck as I crossed behind the teacher's desk to get to an empty desk next to the window. When I sat down, Mr. Raymond cleared his throat and started to read from his list of students. "Leonard Abramowitz," he said, pronouncing my last name with two hard "a"s. Several students tittered.
"It's, uh, Ah-brahm-o-witz." Then I thought: correcting the teacher - another great way to start the day.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Abramowitz." This time, he pronounced my name correctly, and there was no sarcasm at all in his voice. He wrote something on a Delaney card and slipped it into the binder next to the lectern on his desk.
He read through the rest of the twenty or so names on his roster, with no mistakes, of course, because those names were easier: Baker, then Bradley. Collins and Everest and Fields. All the way down to Thayer and Warner and Williams. Not another Jewish-sounding name on the list. But what could I expect?
When he was done, even though he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, he made a rolling-up-his-sleeves motion and announced, "Okay. Let's get down to business," which was followed by a smattering of nervous laughter. "Take out a sheet of looseleaf paper, and write your name and today's date on the top line." Looseleaf notebooks were snapped open and sheets of paper were torn out. There was also some whispering, which immediately stopped when Mr. Raymond put his finger to his lips. "Now, number from one to six - skip a line between each one - and then write down the titles of the six books from the summer reading list that you have read. And listen carefully: Put them in the order in which you enjoyed them. Your favorite one, first and your least favorite, last."
Even though it was hard to understand the book at times, and I thought that there was more going on than I first realized, I wrote down Lord of the Flies as my number one. The Old Man and the Sea made it to number six because it sounded so choppy.
When he saw that we had finished, he said, "Okay, now. Pass your papers to the front." The girl behind me slipped her sheet over my shoulder, and then I placed them into the waiting hand of the blonde-haired, crew-cut boy in front of me.
Mr. Raymond straightened out the pages and slid them into his binder and cleared his throat. He said, "I trust you've all had a chance to finish your reports. And," he paused for effect, "that you have them with you." There was a rustle of bodies shifting in their seats. "But instead of handing them in, you're going to first have the pleasure of sharing them with the rest of us by reading them aloud in front of the class." The students groaned and grumbled in unison and Mr. Raymond waited until the dissent subsided. "Is there anybody who'd like to go first?"
Of course, nobody's hand shot up. There were silent shrieks of "No! Please, not me!" and I, along with all of my new classmates, I suppose, wanted to crawl under our desks and disappear.
"Okay. Then we'll do this democratically. In alphabetical order." This time, there was only one groan. It was mine.
I gulped and answered, "Yes?" hoping, somehow, that he'd change his mind.
He gestured at the lectern and I reached into my binder for my report. I walked up to the front of the room, looked around at the students, whose faces were laughing at me, as if saying, "You sucker! I'm sure glad it's not me." I unclipped my report and placed it on the lectern and began to read.
"This story is about a person almost everyone knows about, but nobody really knows. It's about a man whose full name is Edward James Campbell. It's about a man whom I have gotten to know over the past several weeks, a man who most of you know only as 'Eddie the drunk.'
"He is the man who walks back and forth on Big Tree Road between Livonia and Lakeville with his two dogs. He is a man who always takes care of those dogs before he takes care of himself.
"He used to teach right here in Geneseo Central High. He used to be the faculty advisor of The Graphic, the high school newspaper when the school had a school newspaper. He was the valedictorian of this school when he graduated back in 1974. He was all honors and he also had a straight A average."
I went on to tell them all I had learned about Eddie Campbell: the death of his sister; the parental blame and then their indifference; the beginning of his drinking; the increasing difficulty he had keeping it all together; and despite all that, his achievements at Princeton; the success and then his deterioration and failure at Geneseo Central High.
And then, I told them about the intervening eight years, the years after he was forced out. This was the part I hadn't gotten around to reading back to Eddie.
I told them about how people were up in arms against him when he raged at them on the sidewalks and in the businesses of Lakeville and Livonia, but also how much he was hurting. I told them about the stray animals he took in, in that North Street house where he had lived with his parents, and where he still lived, but in the back room, when he wasn't sleeping out of doors. I told them how gentle he was with the animals and how he cared for them. How he used whatever was left over from his disability check and the meager stipend he received from the school district, as part of its severance settlement, to help pay for food and clothing for several families who were more destitute and desperate than he was. And how he had welcomed a dead-broke family with two small children and allowed them to move into the rest of that North Street house until they could get back on their feet - into that very same house that housed memories he still couldn't live with.
And I finished with: "Eddie Campbell was no saint, but what he did have was heart and compassion. We should all have such compassion. What we should not do is yell at him from our fancy cars or from our bicycles. What we should not think is that he is less than us, that he is somehow below us. For me, he has been a teacher, a mentor and a friend."
The students were still when I looked up. Several of the girls were dabbing at their eyes. Two words that might have accurately described them all were "silently contemplative."
Mr. Raymond nodded at me and said, "Thank you Mr. Abramowitz. That was truly excellent. I had the honor of knowing Mr. Campbell some years ago when he was the English department team leader. But I guess I really didn't know him because he always kept pretty much to himself. Anyway, I'm very glad that Mr. Abramowitz has shared the real story with us."
As I gathered up my papers and went to sit down, Mr. Raymond looked down at his class roster and said, "And the next batter up is ... Miss Rosalie Baker ..."
* * * * *
It is the summer of 2006 and I am fourteen years older - twice as old as I had been during that Eddie Campbell Billy Gerber summer of 1992. But I know that I am far from being twice as wise.
"Len? What do you want to do today?" It was one of our rare off-days and Kathleen and I were lying in bed together. We had been "an item," as my mother ruefully put it, for over a year; her parents were equally as unhappy about our enduring interfaith relationship although neither or us, and none of our parents, were religiously observant.
"I don't know, Kath," although I did. "How about taking a ride?"
The Mets have finally climbed to the top of the league, and I have followed their progress by reading the Times on my laptop computer. I have been the lead reporter, with Kathleen as research associate, of a five-person team piecing together an investigative report about the deleterious effect of global warming on fresh water lakes. We have focused mainly on the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes of New York State. If the article is well-received - I could dream of a Pulitzer! - I am hoping that it could eventually be expanded into a book that may even have an impact on the misguided, wrong-headed environmental policy of the current Washington administration.
Kathleen and I got into the rented Impala and I headed down to Lakeville from our temporary headquarters in a Buffalo Econolodge. I hadn't been back for six years, ever since my parents made their exodus from that same drafty house on the dead-end street to the Jewish diaspora of southern Florida. By then, my father had had enough of the drug store and enough of the horridly-cold, strength-sapping, arthritis-inflaming winters, and my mother had enough of the isolation and always feeling like an outsider, for she was never able to set down roots. They evidently needed much more than the fresh air of western New York State to revive, refresh and renew them.
Although I had seen Eddie from afar throughout high school, I rarely stopped to speak to him, and even then, there was little more than a cursory "Hey, Eddie. How're you doin'?" and his response, after a mental unclouding, like, "Oh, it's you. Hey, kid." He was raging and ranting less and less. But it was as if he were evanescing, as if his inner fire were burning itself out. It became harder to stick around and talk to him and I was always so busy and too much in a hurry. There were things I had to do and people I had to see. Anyone except Eddie Campbell.
I had returned to the Lakeville area only a couple of times between my graduation from the University at Stony Brook and my parent's move to Florida. "Stony Brook? Why Stony Brook?" the argument had gone during my senior year. "Why so far from home? What ... Buffalo's not good enough? How about Binghamton or Albany?" Stony Brook, forty five miles away from Queens, was a large New York State university with a cosmopolitan student body because of its proximity to New York City. It was also the only state university that had a journalism program.
After Stony Brook, I kept in contact with my mother and father through our Saturday phone calls and through e-mail - exchanging gossip and the occasional filthy joke, attachments of a newspaper or magazine article I had written or an occasional dirty picture that gave my father a laugh. I am still very surprised that my Luddite-like, VCR-spurning parents had used the computer that I purchased for them and taught them to operate. And I feel so gratified that I was able to get beyond their whining and their "But I don't know how"s and their "I can't do it"s and drag them kicking and screaming into the technological age.
I got off the I-290 loop around Buffalo and drove east along US Route 20. "So, where, exactly, are we going?"
"Towards Lakeville. Where we moved to when I was fourteen."
I wanted to look for Eddie, but I didn't want to tell Kathleen the whole story about that summer of 1992. So I told her that I wanted to see how the old place looked.
An hour or so later, I pulled into the 7-Eleven because it was, as it had always been for me, on the way into Lakeville. "You want anything, Kath?"
"Let me come in with you. I need to stretch my legs, anyway."
While Kathleen was pouring her coffee, I asked the woman behind the counter if she had seen Eddie around. I was met with a blank look and a stare that said that she obviously didn't know whom I was talking about, and cared even less. We got back into the car and I drove along Big Tree Road, which had been widened and re-paved - "Improved With Your Highway Tax Dollars" a sign proclaimed above the more prominent names of the local politicians. I finished the Almond Joy I had bought and sipped from a bottle of Diet Coke while Kathleen nursed her cardboard cup of coffee.
I was hoping, probably magically, I had to admit to myself, to spot Eddie Campbell and his dogs walking along the shoulder as he always had. Intellectually, I knew that neither dog would still be alive; after all, it was fourteen years later. But I really hoped that Eddie would still be around; I yearned to see him and to tell him what a major influence he had been on my life. I made the left turn at the library and headed up towards his house on North Street; I remembered what he had said: "at the corner of Linden Street." But when I got there, there was only rubble - ugly, burnt, blackened rubble in a bulldozed pile, with weeds and wild-looking bushes pushing their way through.
"Is that where you lived?"
"No, Kath. But a friend of mine lived there. Someone I wanted to look up."
"A guy I wrote about, back in high school. I'll tell you all about it later."
I made a U-turn and drove back to the library, which had been modernized and enlarged into a shrine of green glass and steel. Intellectually, I knew that a library is just a library, but it would never replace my own sanctuary, the drab and rundown brick building to which I had escaped to read and to study and to explore.
"Wow! Look at that," she said, ever the library junkie. "A brand new library in a backwater place like this."
"Yeah. They must've modernized it." I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
I parked the car and we passed through the electronic theft-prevention sensors. There was a teenaged girl at the circulation desk, so I went to find somebody older. The reference area was in the new wing; the librarian there was the same one who helped me when I had first moved to Lakeville. Her skin had aged and her hair had grayed, but she had the same twinkle in her eyes as she had fourteen years earlier.
"Can I help you?" She looked at me with a glimmer of recognition, but I didn't want to get involved in a prolonged conversation.
"I wonder if you knew what happened to Eddie. Eddie Campbell. He was the guy who used to come in some years ago. The one who drank all the time. The one who used to leave his dogs outside?" Kathleen had a questioning look on her face.
"Oh, him. I haven't seen him in a while. Maybe a couple of years or more. Heard something about his house burning down, though. Some say he took off after that. Others say he went off and died. You know, like cats do? No one really knows."
"Is there anyone around who might actually know what happened to him? Or who could tell me anything more than hearsay?" I forced myself to sound professional although I was beginning to feel despondent.
"No one who knew him. Everyone knew of him, of course, but no one really knew him. Sorry, sir. But I can't help you."
Kathleen and I spent the afternoon walking around Livonia. I asked about Eddie at the Hess station which used to be a Mobil, at the church next to the park, where the deacon mentioned the same things, and used almost exactly the same words as had the librarian, and at several businesses - Sylvia's Beauty Shoppe, O'Day's - "A Fine Dining & Drinking Establishment," which used to simply be O'Day's Bar & Grill - "Nice place," Kathleen said, deadpan - at Olmstead's Bait & Tackle, which was right next to O'Day's, and at several other businesses which had sprung up, seemingly overnight. A couple of volunteer firemen were sitting outside the firehouse on garden chairs, sipping from cans of Rolling Rock they plucked out of a cooler. "Sure, sir," one of them answered, talking to me while staring at Kathy. "We were there when the Campbell place burned. Right, Joey?" "Yep. Happened in the middle of the night. Went down in no time, like kindling. Before we could do a darn thing about it." The first fireman added, "Don't know what happened to that old drunk, though."
I saved the constable's office for last. Constable? Evidently, a village with newly-installed brick sidewalks and filigreed, faux-antique street lights in the throes of gentrification and desperate pretension decided that it needed to have not a village cop, but a constable. Just like the standardized embossed gold lettering on the racing-green signs over Sylvia's and O'Day's and Olmstead's, it was all for show.
On the way over, I played out the scene in my mind. I half expected to see the name "William Gerber" stenciled on the front window. That would have been tragically ironic, but so typical: a nasty law-breaking kid becoming an officer of the law. The last thing I wanted was a confrontation or even a few minutes of genial but false nostalgia and reminiscence. I couldn't decide which would have been worse, because after all these years, I still had the bad taste of the Billy Gerber days in my mouth. But it didn't come to pass. Nor, when I scanned the "wanted" posters stapled on a cork board while I waited, did I spot a picture of Billy Gerber. The village constable, in a crisp gray uniform, was gracious and professional but totally unhelpful. His story, like that of the librarian and of the deacon and of the volunteer firemen, sounded the same, but with an underlying tone of "good riddance to bad rubbish": "Maybe he upped and left" or "Maybe he went off somewhere to die. Like a cat, you know?" and "No one really knew him."
Or cared, I added under my breath. "Well, I knew him, goddam it," I wanted to scream. "He was my friend, at least for a short time," I wanted to cry out. And my most unforgettable character.
I thanked the constable, shook hands with him and we headed back to where I had parked the car. And as we buckled up and headed west on Main Street back towards Big Tree Road, I started to choke up.
"Len ... are you okay?"
"Yeah, but I uh ..."
Kathleen patted my lap and then placed her hand gently on my shoulder, but I couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks.
Rev 12 / September 16, 2006
September, 2006 Copyright © 2006, Lloyd B. Abrams