The next day we were off to our new school, where we would remain for the next seven years. It would become a haven for us, with the hours spent there being the happiest of our young lives. The bus ride was much longer, as we were among the first to be picked up and the last to get off, but that was fine, as it gave us a chance to get a good seat and settle in. There were kids from several different schools, a Catholic girl’s high school and a Catholic school for disabled children, with everyone segregated into their own group. I’d never seen retarded (that’s what they were known as back then) kids before, and found myself staring at them, poking Rory to see if he had noticed them, fascinated and repelled at the same time. One, named Bobby, was a big kid, impossible to tell what age, who sat scrunched against the bus window, his lips plastered against it licking it (in the winter his tongue once froze to it and boy did he set out a howl), moaning unintelligibly over and again, hisk adair, hisk adair. There was a manic blind boy named Billy, who, when he got excited would go into a fit, frustrated at not being able to express himself, gesticulating wildly until it finally subsided. Another, a girl named Candace, was seemingly normal mentally, but very physically disabled, with stunted growth, hunchbacked, missing fingers, and simian features. She was extremely well-adjusted, though, and took it upon herself to mother the others whether they wanted her to or not. I would find out later she was the sister of George, our paper boy, and lived just a couple streets away. Perfectly normal, he was very protective of her and, as a result, exceedingly mature for his age.
When we arrived we were told to wait for Mr. Hellman, who would take us to our class. In a few moments he came and escorted us to a classroom next to the kitchen that opened out to the gym. I was confused because this wasn’t Mrs. Wyatt’s class, where we were told we would be. I didn’t question it, being my first day and all, and when I saw it was Mrs. Bell’s class I didn’t mind a bit. She immediately came over to the door smiling and said, Thank you, Mr. Hellman, I’ll take it from here. Mr. Hellman gripped each of our shoulders firmly and said, You’re in good hands, boys, don’t disappoint me, and departed. It turned out it had been decided to put us in second grade, with (unbeknownst to us) the Barnes’ approval, because of our age (we would now be at the young end of our class), our test scores, and the fact (which we didn’t find out until much later) that Mrs. Bell had put in a special request for us, promising to work especially haard with us to make sure we didn’t fall behind, which she didn’t think we would anyway.
Mrs. Bell quietly said good morning to us and told us to take seats at the nearest empty desks. I found one at the beginning of the second row, Rory in the back, and put my things in it, holding up my lunch for Mrs. Bell to see.
Mrs. Bell said, Class, I want you to meet Wesley and Rory, twins who are new to our school, please welcome them on their first day. Hello Wesley, hello Rory, the whole class said perfunctorily but in unison. Very good, said Mrs. Bell, now Tom, could you show Wesley and Rory where to put their lunches? A tow- headed rail-thin boy came up to me and stuck his arm out, ushering me toward the back, where Rory joined us, through a door into the kitchen and up to a gleaming chrome refrigerator. That’s where we put our lunches first thing when we get here in the morning, he said.
As I settled in at my desk and surveyed the classroom I knew I was definitely not in the suburbs anymore. There everyone looked pretty much the same, here most of the kids were from the city and obviously not as well off as we were, many of them wearing clothes that looked like hand-me-downs- ill-fitting, frayed, and literally washed out. Each was peculiar in their own way, but that didn’t matter one bit, I somehow felt comfortable already, much more so than I ever had at the other school.
That being said, there were (it can’t be put otherwise) some strange ones: a boy named David with green teeth; another, Judy, was overweight and looked tough, but had a shy, sweet smile; Caroline looked like Brumhilda and smelled like she came from Dogpatch USA; then Paul Zuck, his father a pastor at one of the member churches, a tall nervous math whiz who got constant nosebleeds; there were also several kids who were obviously slow, with learning disabilities and speech impediments. I know it sounds cruel but that’s the way it was, and some of them were mocked, ostracized, or just ignored, yet somehow were still part of the group. We were only in second grade remember, and most of us remained together for the next seven years, so they were (had to be) accepted, and Mr. Hellman wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most gravitated to their own group of friends, except for David and Caroline, who never seemed to fit in, had it the worst, though each never backed down, and often gave as good as they got, which they had to do to survive. Looking back on it now, I shudder and am ashamed to think how it must have been for them, and how we all contributed to their misery. The only consolation I got was realizing deep down that it would have been much worse for them at our previous school; in fact, I can’t even imagine anyone like them being there. It was an early lesson in survival of the fittest: the kids who were attractive or had a special talent such as athletics or music or just were intelligent had it the best; then there was the majority group of the “normal” kids, none standing out in any particular way (there was even a pecking order in this group), and lastly, David and Caroline on the bottom rung.
I was never to see or experience anything quite like it again. Each had his own story (ours, of course, was being twins and being from the suburbs, though we never told anyone about being adopted).
There was Paul (Barr), the fastest runner in our class, double-jointed, the best looking (according to the girls), the best athlete, but also the biggest baby. His father, a Lutheran minister at one of the member churches, was the school’s pastor, which gave him the lion’s share of officiating at the Wednesday morning services, as well as at other school functions. They had a passel of kids (nine altogether) and Paul, the oldest, wore threadbare clothing and was always grimy, but nobody seemed to mind because he was still handsome and charismatic, with pearly white teeth, a great smile, and sparkling blue eyes.
Dorothea (Dodie) Brown, was a big blonde girl, who was a real tomboy. She was bigger, faster, and stronger than most of the boys, and could outplay the majority of us in any sport. She seemed puzzled that many of the boys shied away from her, unaware that she intimidated them. She didn’t like being the only girl playing with the boys so mostly played with the other girls, unless someone challenged her. She came from a large German family, her father was a florist and refereed our basketball games, and as such, as well as being a former boxer, his word was law.
Penultimately there was Richard Appel, who went to the same church as Mr. Hellman, who called him Dick, though no one else did. He was the biggest, strongest, and brightest kid in the class, not easy to warm up to as he knew he was superior, and had to live up to his brother Hank, who had been a big deal before him.
Lastly among the relevant kids there was Jimmy Wornick, the class cut-up, a boy already plagued by the skin problems of a teenagers; it was he who doled out class nicknames such as Smelligan Nelligan and Nork of Knowledge, made weird noises (arm farts, catcalls, and such), provided running commentary during any disputes, and, though not big on sports, was a preternaturally fast runner.
There were others in the class (Ruth, John, Artie, Mike, Linda, Scott, and Wendy are the only ones I can remember), but they mostly played supporting roles, and will only be mentioned as their part arises.
Every few years or so a new kid would appear (one was George, our first black student, and the first black kid I had ever met), but the new ones didn’t tend to stay, for one reason or another, usually leaving after a couple of years, and so our core group remained the same, except for Tom Rollins and his brother Ed, who moved to Texas for a couple of years, but in the end came back to stay.
The classes were small and, since there was little turnover from year to year, meant that the same core of children were together for our entire elementary school years. This continuity was just what we needed after the frequent displacements in our early life. I relished the role ritual played in the little school and quickly felt a part of it all, beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer each morning; the Wednesday morning church service held in the gym, led by a different pastor from the member churches each week; the Friday morning gym assemblies; the annual Christmas pageant and the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, when we exchanged presents with a student whose name we had drawn (we also did this for Valentine’s Day) , and the school cook made her delicious goulash; talent shows, occasional musicals, fall paper drives; the outdoor recesses in good weather and sometimes bad, when we played kickball with a passion later reserved for baseball and basketball; rough and tumble (our form of rugby) in the winter when we would come in freezing and full of snow to dry off by the furnace in the boiler room; the Lutheran Field Days near the end of the school year when the weather was fine.
In hindsight, when I went on to public school I realized most of these kids would have been cut to ribbons there, which made me all the more glad we had had those innocent years together.
—– o —–
At home things had settled in, too, now that we were finally established at a school, although Mr. Barnes was away on his weekly business trips, which was troublesome to both Rory and me. Every now and then, just when things seemed to be going smoothly, we would hit a little bump in the road, and Mrs. Barnes let us have it. Certainly we did as much as we could to avoid the lash whenever possible, but it grew more difficult as time went on. I’m pretty certain we didn’t get any worse, it just seemed that Mrs. Barnes was always on the warpath, constantly looking to catch us at something, anything. Most times we weren’t even aware we had done anything wrong, at least nothing that we worried she would find out about, so we were usually caught unaware when she sprung it on us and thus couldn’t defend ourselves.
One such incident involved Mrs. Wilcox, a neighbor who lived up the street. She had several children around our age, and one day we were all playing when I asked the youngest girl if her mother had cancer. I didn’t even know what the word meant, didn’t even know where I’d heard it, hardly knew Mrs. Wilcox at all, but had heard it somewhere, and it had stuck in my mind. Ever inquisitive, when I suddenly remembered it I asked her, mostly to see if she knew what it was. She immediately burst out crying and ran into her house, and I didn’t know why.
I thought no more about the incident until Mrs. Barnes called us in from play late one afternoon. I knew from the tone of her voice she was angry and wondered why. I soon found out. Which one of you told the little Wilcox girl her mother had cancer, she demanded. Rory and I stood there in the kitchen and when I looked at him I could tell he was thinking the same thing as I: what should we do? Should we lie and pretend we knew nothing about it? I knew Rory wouldn’t tell on me, so it was up to me to own up to it but I just couldn’t, besides I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong except make the little girl cry. That must be it, I realized, I’d made her cry, but I still said nothing and Rory didn’t either, we just stood there mute in the middle of the kitchen. I tried to gather my thoughts and realized the reason I was confused was because it hadn’t happened quite that way.
Thinking it might mitigate things a little I finally spoke, pointing out that I hadn’t told the Wilcox girl her mother had cancer, I’d asked her if she did. Mrs. Barnes didn’t say anything for a moment then she exploded, pulling us both by the ear upstairs to the bathroom, hardly able to contain herself. Once we reached the bathroom she told Rory to stand there then she grabbed me by my tee shirt and began pummeling me in earnest, shouting Don’t you raise your hand to me, I’ll teach you ingrates how to behave, by god, if it’s the last thing I do. Embarrassing me like that! How dare you?
She kept at it for a while and then crammed a bar of soap into my mouth, then did the same to Rory (minus the pummeling), telling him he was getting the same punishment because he hadn’t told her who was responsible. I gagged on the soap, which burned my tongue with its awful taste, as a thick lather developed that I was desperately trying not to swallow. Then she forced her hand into my mouth and raked the roof of it with her fingernails, all the time holding me tightly to her. The lather from the soap foamed up until it was coming out of my mouth, even through my nose, and I was gagging, yet still she was cuffing me in the head with her other hand and shouting, I’ll teach you, you little bastard. Her face was so red I hardly recognized her, then she finally stopped and left the bathroom for a moment. Shreds of skin were hanging off the roof of my mouth, my tongue was burning, and the taste was awful, so overpowering I got the dry heaves, but even then Mrs. Barnes wasn’t quite finished, not by a long shot.
When she returned she was carrying a box of salt and a tea kettle. She poured some of the salt into her hand and told me to open my mouth, and when I did she sifted it into my mouth, which both itched and burned, and then made me drink from a glass of some boiling water from the tea kettle, which I immediately spit out it was so hot, tearing myself away from her so I could spit it in the sink. The hot salt water had initially cauterized my mouth which actually soothed the pain, which I’m certain wasn’t her intent. Finally, she pushed us both out of the bathroom and sent us to bed.
My mouth still had the taste of soap in it, and along with the pain I was parched from the salt water, but the worst thing was the blister on my tongue and the shreds of skin hanging down from the roof of my mouth, which was both excruciating and nauseating. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t have dinner; I wasn’t hungry nor would I be able to put much of anything in my mouth for several days. I felt bad for Rory about not having dinner but was thankful he’d only had the bar of soap treatment and been spared the rest.
A few days later, Mrs. Barnes asked me nice as you please if I had learned anything from that day; I said yes, but when she asked what I I really didn’t know what to say, so I replied in the most obvious way, Not to ask if someone had cancer? She said that’s partly right, but mostly you have to learn to watch what you say and whom you say it to. Little Kathy was devastated when you asked her that, she didn’t know her mother had cancer or even what it was, and then to find out from you, a stranger, you just can’t do things like that. Think before you speak, and, when in doubt, don’t say anything. Children should be seen and not heard.
Of course, I felt even worse when Mrs. Wilcox died not a month later, though, unbelievably, Mrs. Barnes didn’t throw it in my face. I avoided going anywhere near their house after that and they moved away shortly afterward. And I still didn’t know what cancer was, just that it killed you.
One day after school Mrs. Barnes showed us a colorized picture of Mr. Barnes taken when he was in the Air Force during World War II. While I looked at it, she began to reminisce, as was her wont, about those bygone days (I realized later this was a sign she had begun drinking early), how handsome Mr. Barnes looked with his Don Ameche mustache, which he had shaved off immediately upon his discharge from the service and never grew again, and how brave in his leather flight jacket and pilot’s cap with the gold wings!
They had met in Cleveland during the Depression, when Mr. Barnes had supported both his family and hers during those stark days by driving a bakery truck during the day, and when he was finished with his deliveries, working in the bakery until midnight. We grew to dread it when she did this reminiscing, as she made us sit close to her despite our protests that we had homework to do or that we wanted to go outside and play, but she quickly nipped that in the bud, hissing that we’d do what we were told and like it, by god, or she’d know the reason for it. She talked and acted funny, too, as though we weren’t there, although we knew she would notice the minute we moved a hair. This was in contrast to the way most days would be, when she pretty much ignored us when we got home from school which for some reason began shortly after we entered Martin Luther School.
She had been a bright, talented student in high school, she would continue, skipping two grades and graduating when she was just sixteen. Her ambition was to become an actress, and she had actually won a drama scholarship to a top school for that purpose, but her family still couldn’t afford it. So she worked menial jobs, just enough to have spending money, then met Mr. Barnes, and before she knew it, was married. Soon after, the war came. She got a job at an airplane factory near Niagara Falls when Mr. Barnes went into the Air Force, and they settled down near Buffalo after he got his discharge three years later.
Time slipped by, as did all thoughts of an acting career, which seemed such a frivolous thing, what with all they had been through during the war years, and she’d had no regrets. Lately, though, it seemed she had nothing but regrets, she thought about it constantly, how she had wanted so badly to go to college and study acting, it seemed like a lifetime ago, and hadn’t Mr. Barnes promised her she could do it once the war was over? But then they began planning for a family, tried for several years to have children, and when they found out they couldn’t, would never be able to have children, it had been devastating for her. By the time we arrived they slept in separate beds. We would hear these things incrementally on a nightly basis, sometimes more sometimes less, depending on how much she drank.
We went out to eat a lot for special occasions, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, which was her time to shine, and she usually made the most of it. Although we enjoyed this very much, the ambience of those fifties restaurants, trying all the different dishes (sweetbreads and frog legs being my particular favorites), the hot bread and relish trays, these dinners could be interminable, again depending on how much she drank. Two martinis before dinner, just wave the (vermouth) bottle over it she would say, another with dinner, and then an after dinner aperitif (Drambouie or Irish Mist) with dessert, and finally brandy with her coffee. Mr. Barnes didn’t try to keep up with her, nursing his Manhattan on the rocks through dinner, then joining her for the after dinner drinks and coffee. Naturally we would get fidgety eventually, being mere spectators at that point, having finished our dinner and dessert, and Mrs. Barnes, who had been smiling blissfully throughout dinner, would suddenly kick us under the table, or, if Mr. Barnes went to the men’s room, whisper in a harsh stage voice, Don’t you two ruin this for me or wait until I get you home! We didn’t worry, however, because we knew that by the time we got home she would barely be able to get upstairs on her own power, and the times she couldn’t Mr. Barnes wouldn’t even bother but pour her (his phrase) on the living room couch.
At home, if she ran out of gin before the week was out (which was rare, the liquor cabinet being usually well-stocked), Mr. Barnes being away, she made do with straight vermouth, from a Gallo gallon jug. She never drank in front of us, but we could smell it on her, hear it in her voice, and see it in her blotchy face. We later found out she had drinks stashed in hiding places throughout the house.
The longer these nightly sessions lasted the more likely the subject would eventually come around to us. We certainly weren’t normal children by any means, but I’m also pretty certain we weren’t as bad as she portrayed us, little cretins who didn’t know what the word love meant, both smart as a whip but crude as could be, soiling our underwear on a regular basis (she would hang them up on the chalkboard in the kitchen for everyone to see, keeping track of it on a weekly basis, drawing two circles on the chalkboard, put our names under them, and put various numbers of dots inside, indicating who had soiled theirs the worst), couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak properly, showed little or no emotion, didn’t want to be held, had horrible table manners, and blurted out whatever we felt like. We weren’t even her own flesh and blood for God’s sake- no wonder. No one knew what she had to put up with, and no one would ever know, because anything that occurred in the house stayed there. Her good name was at stake, and two ungrateful little strangers would not shame her- ever.
She continued to reiterate how much she had wanted to adopt us when no one else had, but no matter how many times she said it, it just didn’t ring true. Why did she treat us the way she did then? She even began to tell us things about our real parents and how we came to be given up for adoption. Strangely, I felt nothing when she told me these things because I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t believe for a moment that we had been found at a year and a half old in an attic crawl space, battered and starving, bruises and sores all over our bodies, so that the County had had to step in and take us away from my parents, I just couldn’t. Instead I decided she was telling me this so I would be grateful we had been adopted by them, which I already was anyway, I had no other choice. We no longer trusted her, knowing she could turn on us at any time, sure that she would leave the room on these nights thinking she had won us over, but what we really felt was anger, frustration, and helplessness, wondering what we had done to make her hate us so.
The fact that I loved school made the days fly by. I rarely looked back then on those dark earlier days, things were sailing along pretty smoothly, except for those aforementioned bumps in the road at home, though I never thought about them at school, and Mr. Barnes was home on the weekends, so things were better then. I can’t say I liked the learning part of school all that much, such as it was, I found it boring. The part I enjoyed the most was seeing how the other half lived, so to speak, in a world vastly different from ours, which was so isolated and circumscribed, while theirs, as far as I could tell, was much freer, with sleepovers, movie going, neither of which we were ever allowed to do. It was strange, because I loved books, couldn’t get enough from the library, read voraciously, it was just school books I abhorred. I hated all the different subjects except reading, doing just enough to ensure I could be a part of the daily routine, excluding recess, when I gave it all I had on the playground and which ended all too soon.
And I continued to shoot myself in the foot too many times for my own good. In fourth grade we had the strictest teacher in the school, Mrs. Egbert (“Eggy,” as former and more rash current students called her), short and stout; when she got angry she went white in the face instead of red, her eyes got squinty, her voice terse and strained, and the object of her wrath knew they had better immediately cease and desist or it was straight to the storeroom for them. As there was already only a narrow margin for error, Mrs. Egbert had the unofficial record for storeroom banishments, in addition to her already being a martinet who meted out her own severe punishments in the form of a slap of the ruler, a strident dressing down in front of the entire class, detention, loss of privileges such as recess, or cleaning her chalkboards after she made you write interminably long sentences of her prescribing over and over again until the fresh piece of chalk was a nub in your hand. With the odds of being punished as high as they were it was no surprise that I took my first slow walk to the storeroom that year.
Ironically it happened on a day Mrs. Egbert was out sick and Mr. Hellman’s wife was substituting for her. For some unknown reason (I’ve never been a joiner) I joined in on an ink war one kid started and, giving it my all as I did with most things, I inadvertently splashed some on Mrs. Hellman in the process. There was a sudden hush in the classroom as we watched Mrs. Hellman inspect the damage to her clothes. I was instantly mortified by what I had done, and knew I was in big trouble. Mrs. Hellman remained quite calm about it all, I have to say, merely asking in a quiet voice that someone get her a wet paper towel from the lavatory. I immediately jumped up and did so, being closest to it and wanting to atone for my lapse in judgement. When she was finished carefully dabbing out what ink she could (which was not very much and created a wide Rorschach blot that foretold my doom) she spoke to us, saying in a calm voice, I’m very disappointed with all of you that this happened, I hope that nothing like this will ever occur again, I’ll say no more about it. That was it, no reprisals, but that somehow made me feel even worse. I couldn’t be getting away with it could I? Maybe she hadn’t seen who splashed the ink on her, maybe no one had. I couldn’t believe it was true and of course it wasn’t. After a night of tossing and turning, constant questions to Rory if anyone knew I had done it or if anyone would find out, apparently someone told Mrs. Egbert the next day and I was summoned to Mr. Hellman’s office immediately. I went with mixed feelings, on the one hand knowing I deserved to be punished and at the same time indignant I had been ratted out and was being punished after the fact, and, worst of all, figuring Mrs. Barnes would probably find out.
First I had to go to the principal’s office, which was a surprise as I hadn’t known that was part of the process and annoying because I just wanted to get it over with. I wondered if I had to do this because it was Mr. Hellman’s wife who was involved, and, if so, if it would be worse for me.
Mr. Hellman sat back in his chair smoking a cigarette, saying, I’ll be right with you Wes. I couldn’t believe he called me Wes, something I’d never been called before. Whether it was good or bad I didn’t know but what I did know was it was strange. First timer, eh? My wife and I disagree on the principle of corporal punishment but it wasn’t from her that I found out about what you had done, in fact she begged me not to punish you. Be that as it may, you know I have to punish you, so let’s get on with it, he said, stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray with a serious grimace and frown on his face, the hair on his head and in his nose bristling.
I hoped we wouldn’t run into anyone in the hallway as he marched me down, gripping my shoulder firmly with his strong trembling hands. No one saw me except the janitor, Mr. Bunn, a strange old German with wavy silver hair and a mouth full of gold teeth, who smiled and with a gleam in his eye shook his finger at me. Mr. Hellman didn’t acknowledge his presence and he beat a hasty retreat, leaving Mr. Hellman and I alone in the storeroom.
It was damp and drafty in the cement room, which was dominated by a gigantic boiler, and redolent with sour mop, cigarette, and cleaning solution smells. Mr. Hellman stopped me in the center of the room and said, Here’s how it goes. You will take your pants down and I will give you three whacks with my belt. Crying is optional, though you’ll feel better if you don’t. Trust me on that. What happens in this room stays in this room, even your parents won’t be informed of what happened today. This will be the end of it, we’ll move on from there, and hopefully it won’t happen again. Are you ready? I nodded my head and he had me lean over a nearby box and it was over before I knew it. Three thwacks that definitely stung but nothing like other punishments I’d received before, it was more the embarrassment if anything. He was actually kind afterwards. Looking me in the eye with approval, he ushered me out and sent me back to class. When I looked back he had his finger to his lips and I nodded slightly.
When I returned to class I could tell everyone knew I’d gotten the store room but that no longer bothered me. I had weathered the ordeal and felt stronger for it. Mrs. Egbert acknowledged me with her gimlet eyes as I sat down gingerly in my chair, and all was back to normal. Some of the guys (especially Rory) clamored around me at recess, some wanting to know what happened and how it was, others who were iniates already comparing notes, but I didn’t give them much, preferring to keep the code of silence Mr. Hellman had invoked. I sensed the slightest jealousy on the part of those who hadn’t gotten it yet, an eagerness to join the fraternity of the initiated and know what I now knew. What made it even better was the fact that supposedly Mrs. Barnes would never know, though I couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical about that from past experience. She’d find out somehow.
Like every child in the early sixties (or at any time for that matter), I lived for the summer, which in suburbia meant untrammeled warm days, baseball, swimming, backyard barbecues, ice cream, pop, vacations in the family car, neighborhood games of tag, pies, hide and seek, television re-runs (most of which I was seeing for the first time), camp, and, of course, no school. For me, it also meant afternoons spent reading the books I wanted to read at the backyard picnic table, late-night baseball games on the west coast that came in clearly on the transistor radio hidden under my pillow, even going to Cleveland once or twice to see the Indians play. In fact, almost anything seemed possible as I lay in my bed on a hot summer evening with a little bit of light still left in the sky, listening to the sound of a convertible cruising down our street with the top down and the radio blasting “I Get Around”, dogs barking, screen doors slamming, disembodied voices on porches, and the smell of newly mown grass, flowers, and forecasted rain wafting through my bedroom window.
I trembled with anticipation as I imagined it all so vividly: I was driving that red convertible cranking the Beach Boys, it was my arm around the girl wearing the white sweater. I ached as the music receded into the distance and I realized how far into the future this all seemed. Who knew what was in the stars, what could happen in the meantime? As we walked home on that first day of summer and last day of school, I thought how it also meant that when Mr. Barnes got home that evening he would be home for the summer, too, just like us, and could start coming to our Little League games, one of which was that very night. We suddenly decided to hurry home and wait for Mr. Barnes’ arrival at the top of the street, and set off running. We reached our corner and headed down our street, but as I neared the house, saw a car parked in the driveway with Mrs. Barnes sitting in the front seat, which tempered my enthusiasm a bit because it could only mean she had been out with her friend Mrs.Tabor, and that never ended well.
As we approached the car gingerly on the passenger side, Mrs. Barnes didn’t notice us right away but when she finally did she seemed to be taken aback, her face flushed, though she recovered quickly, grinned and said, Hello boys, aren’t you home a little early? She turned to Mrs. Tabor and said, Jeanie, here’s Wesley and Rory. We said hello, although we couldn’t see inside the car very well, then I asked Mrs. Barnes if we could wait for Mr. Barnes at the top of the street after we washed up and changed our clothes. Of course, she said, be my guest, then waved us away and turned back to her friend.
We heard Mrs. Barnes come in the house as we were changing our clothes, but didn’t see her on our way out the door, so I yelled out, I’m going and Rory said, Me too. We went up the street to wait for Mr. Barnes at our bus stop, and when we didn’t see him right away, grew impatient and began to walk down to the next block. Halfway there I spotted his big blue Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight as it was about to turn the corner by the Bell Telephone Company building. Almost at the same time Mr. Barnes saw us and tapped on the horn, took the chronic cigar out of his mouth, flashed us a big grin, then waved in his breezy way. The cream convertible top was down and the radio was playing. He had the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, the left arm tanned from being out the window all those hours on the road, the right arm pale and seemingly thinner. He pulled up alongside us, turned down the radio to offer us a ride, but we ran ahead, shouting behind us, We’ll race you home!
When we all three got there, Mrs. Barnes wasn’t in the kitchen as she normally would be, fixing Mr. Barnes a welcome-home dinner. Mr. Barnes called upstairs, and when he got no answer, went up. As he did so, I reminded him about our Little League game, and Mr. Barnes replied, Don’t worry, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I just want to see what’s cooking. Why don’t you fellas go down to the basement and put your uniforms on?
Donning my uniform was a ritual I loved, a very precise sequence of movements I never altered, for fear of being jinxed. I immediately got the most unpleasant part out of the way, gingerly putting on my athletic supporter and cup after shaking a liberal amount of talcum powder inside, avoiding looking at Rory the whole time. Next I pulled on my long-sleeved baseball undershirt, the ones where only the sleeves were colored, in this case royal blue, which I wore until the weather got its hottest because I loved to sweat when I was on the mound. After that I put on my sanitary hose, smoothing them over my calves much like a woman would stockings, and over those, my uniform’s stirrups, which were the same color as my shirt sleeves. Then it was my uniform pants, threading the wide black or brown belt through the loops on them and I was almost finished, with just my neatly creased uniform top with the elephant logo (my team was the Athletics) over my heart, left to put on. I buttoned each button carefully, top to bottom, then tucked it into my pants and, finally, cinched my belt, making sure the silver or gold buckle was square, and centered against the outer edge of my zipper flap.
Just as I finished and was reaching for my glove, spikes, and hat, I heard Mr. Barnes say in a loud angry voice, BULLSHIT. I looked at Rory and saw that he’d heard it too. It shocked me because I wasn’t used to hearing Mr. Barnes swear or sound that angry. I couldn’t make out what Mrs. Barnes was saying, though I could hear her voice, but Mr. Barnes replied to whatever it was by saying, Oh Sal, go on, don’t try to kid me. You’re sloshed. Every time you and Jean get together you come home this way. A fine welcome home this is. Ah nuts, he finished, we’ll go out to eat.
We hung back until we heard Mr. Barnes downstairs, then quickly grabbed the rest of our gear, then rushed up the basement steps to meet him in the back hall. When we got there, Mr. Barnes didn’t say much, except, Let’s get a burger, would you like that? I think we have time. We were all mutually eager to get away, and, except for my ambivalence at being so happy under the circumstances, made a convivial crew. I loved baseball, and had been waiting all season for Mr. Barnes to come to a game to show him how much I had improved since he had last seen me, and wasn’t going to let anything spoil it.
As usual I was nervous before the game so not very hungry, although I hoped we might go to Carol’s, a new hamburger place that had just opened up and was all the rage, it being the first fast-food joint in Wilsonville, and I wanted to say I’d been there. It was just up the street from our Little League field and sure enough Mr. Barnes pulled into the brand new parking lot and ordered us burgers, fries, and shakes, which we ate (devoured) in the car, as we were all suddenly ravenous.
If anything was bothering Mr. Barnes he didn’t show it, and that made me feel much better. As if to prove it, I hit a bases-loaded triple in the game, and pitched our team to victory, winning 13-2 and striking out 10, getting my league-leading 10th victory; Rory, my catcher, chipped in with a home run, adding to his league-best total of six.
As we drove to the custard stand afterwards I could tell Mr. Barnes was proud of us, and not a little surprised to find out we were the stars of the team. When we got there, the whole team was gathered around in the parking lot, milling around excitedly, and eager to get in line for a custard, waiting for the coach (who was buying) to arrive. When he did, Mr. Barnes insisted on paying for everyone, which made me proud and a little embarrassed at the same time. We got in line with the rest of our teammates while Mr. Barnes talked to Coach Kunz.
Although happy and flushed with victory, my mind was elsewhere, thinking about what had transpired earlier that afternoon and evening, wondering if it was going to be like that the whole summer, so much so that when a teammate suggested I smell my ice cream I did and he smashed it in my face. I was mad at first as he was the most obnoxious kid on the team and everyone had noticed, but I wasn’t going to let it spoil my accomplishments, and soon forgot all about it as I became mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and smells of the magical summer evening. To top it off he had the nerve to ask us soon after for a ride home (which was way out of the way) later. Mr. Barnes was annoyed but he said yes, although I could tell when he dropped him off he hoped he wouldn’t see him again any time soon.
Later that evening, we watched “The Flintstones,” a new television program whose popularity was sweeping the country, in the living room while Mrs. Barnes, who by this time had managed to rally and come downstairs, watched her television by herself in the den, which was often the case anyway, as she and Mr. Barnes didn’t have the same taste in television programs, but even more so after they had an argument. Suddenly the program was interrupted by a news bulletin: a little boy was missing in the city, and there was a search underway to find him. I don’t remember anyone’s reaction to it, but I found myself not only scared but also fascinated by it.
The glow I’d felt at our Little League exploits dissipated rapidly. I’m sure Rory and I discussed it that night because I remember him being unmoved and uninterested, which confounded me, as heretofore we’d always been in agreement about most things. I lay awake thinking about it, mostly keeping my thoughts to myself, which was a new experience as prior to this Rory and I had shared most everything. Evan then I realized it was a momentous event, one that would have a profound impact on my life from that time forward.