When I was ten I had a friend down the block. Kevin Anderson was bug-eyed and warble-voiced. His mother, a housewife, gave him bowl cuts in the kitchen and packed him the kind of balanced lunches – with mini-carrots – guaranteed to provoke our classmates’ hostility. She forbid him from accompanying me to Rockafella’s Arcade, where I spent my allowance on Galaga and Ms. Pac Man, as she believed it was a hangout for dope fiends. Kevin was a good boy; he resisted my frequent attempts to strong-arm him across the arcade’s dark threshold, squirming back out into the bright afternoon. He preferred his own strange hobbies. He took apart small electronic appliances in his basement. He tape-recorded himself singing off-key to Top 40 hits, and for a few weeks he became obsessed with running shoes. He bought Runner’s World magazine’s annual Best Shoe issue and pored over its complicated rankings, finally settling on a pair of Sauconys which, since he wasn’t a runner, he wore around the house. But his enthusiasm was contagious, and eventually I convinced my mother to buy me a pair of New Balance. No doubt she hoped they would make me more “active.” I liked hanging out with a boy who was dorkier than me. I liked his mother’s oatmeal cookies and playing in his basement, which didn’t smell like cat pee.
We’d had class together since the second grade, when I’d arrived in the middle of the school year from Wisconsin, but in the fourth grade we were separated. If it’s possible for ten-year olds to “drift apart,” we did. In the fourth grade I met Joe Weleczki, who sat across from me and who began passing me notes. This took my by surprise; it was only over the summer that I had graduated from orthodontic headgear to a stream-lined retainer, and I was unsure of my footing in this new school year. Joe was an athletic boy with a wide face, pale freckles, and brown feathered hair. He was the kind of boy I watched, and envied. He wore flannel shirts and Nikes with the laces untied and took to calling me “Beaker” within the first few weeks of school. The nickname had its roots in a popular Muppet character and the fact of my skinny, bird-like legs. I hated the nickname, because it pointed out the very thing I wished to hide, but since it was Joe, I put up with it. He began passing me folded-up notes – with “Beaker” scrawled across the front – asking me which of the fourth grade girls I’d most like to “go with.” There were always three or four names listed, with checkboxes beside them for my convenience: Carolyn? Michelle? Paula? Half the class passed such notes, and “going with” was the vernacular of our times; we’d dropped the “steady” of our parent’s lingo. When Joe began passing me notes the girls began adding my name to their lists, and I was thrilled: I was taken with the idea of going with someone, even if its consequences confused me. It was all theory and no practice, but I thought that was the point. The point was the anticipation, the notes, the playground gossip. The point was to see who on that particular Tuesday afternoon would put my name down as the boy she’d most like to go with, and what sort of status that girl conferred upon me. Kristy Zilliox, the chubby girl in the second row, had always put my name down. But when Dana, the tomboy with the pierced ears in the first row, wrote down “Beaker,” my popularity soared. Inevitably the note would end up in the wrong hands, but that was also the point. The point was our prepubescent anxieties rushing in to secure us spots in the tradition of romantic love. The point was Joe’s foot, covering his latest note, sliding across and nudging mine.
Sometimes I stayed at his place overnight. He lived in a low, shoddy house across the highway from the golf course. He had older brothers and sisters, but they were rarely home, and I never met his father. One night Joe made us hamburgers in the kitchen. His mother came in wearing a bathrobe over her sweatpants, and tapped her cigarette over the sink.
“Don’t stay up too late, boys,” she said, and kissed Joe’s forehead. She peered over his shoulder. “You should flip them now.”
“You’re tired, Ma, go to bed.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” she said, shuffling back into the hallway. “I’m still your mother.”
I’d never made myself a burger, and I’d never had one with mayo, either. After that, every time I visited, I’d ask him to make me another one.
Another night, near summer, he showed me how to light bottle rockets in the abandoned lot next door. He propped a Coke bottle against some stones and bent low over the grass. “This guy I know, friend of my brother’s? He blew off a finger lighting a M-80,” he said. It was just something boys told each other. Still, each time Joe lit a fuse I’d pull him away, and it became a game for us, to see how long he’d resist before we scrambled backwards. The rockets spit sparks on the lawn and shot over the highway, popping with a bang and a flash of light. Four or five rockets later and all the neighbors’ dogs howled in a chorus. The sixth rocket burst above a police car on the highway. The car slowed and then turned onto his street, fifty yards away.
“Shit,” I said.
“It’s the fucking pigs, Beaks,” Joe said. We ran back inside his house and peered out from between the curtains as the cops crawled by. Joe, a few inches away, whispered a song in my ear in what we always called “the Beaker voice:” I love to go swimmin’, with long-legged women, and swim between their legs! I pushed him away and headed downstairs. Joe had the entire basement to himself. He caught up with me halfway down and punched my shoulder a few times. Later he changed into his usual pajamas: red, with feet. I had every right to give him shit, but something stopped me. He wore them with no trace of self-consciousness, which was what I most admired in him. Later we fell asleep on the floor in front of the television. Every night I stayed over, he wore those pajamas. I felt proud, knowing that I was the only one from school who’d seen them.