I could look up what year it was. It was a milestone in history equal to the voyages of Columbus or the French Revolution. I suppose if you’re not a great person immediately involved, the resonance of any such event is intimate and personal — as that night was to me, so brilliant and hard-edged for reasons not directly connected with worldly incident that I believe I would possess it even if nothing particular had happened. Still, it was the first time events made a difference, the first time I recognized an involvement in what happened beyond the few back yards and playmates that were my universe, the first time anyone said, “You will remember this day forever,” and I believed it.
Mother was sick that year, and when I asked to stay weekends with Ronnie Evans I could count on a good percentage of permissions, as it got me out of the way of my parents’ tribulations for a while. I didn’t understand their situation then, and was driven into passions of mortifications because I was not allowed to invite Ronnie for return visits.
He was two years older than I, though he wet the bed and had failed back into the same grade. In the summer Ronnie’s mornings had to be left free so he could attend reading school. This seemed a terrible thing to me, who read easily and cherished the freedoms of summer — almost a prison sentence. I was careful never to say the word “read” or to be caught reading when Ronnie was around. When we played with his chemistry set, I read the directions and he did the mixing and heating. Sometimes when he was too slow I’d point to the jar of sulphur or bicarbonate, and he would become angry and accuse me of mocking him. I thought this was the reason he could not stay with us, my parents’ shame at his shortcomings, though I see now they and the Evanses planned it, to give them as much peace as possible in a bitter time.
That does not mean my parents were happy with the arrangement. “White trash” was not a phrase our set used, but if it were, that’s what people would have called the Evanses when they moved in for a few months before finishing the new house in Tallmadge they’d been hammering together by themselves. There were too many of them, and what we fancied as the taint of the hills still lay heavy on their speech and demeanor. Everyone in east Akron was an emigré from either Pennsylvania or West Virginia, and those from Pennsylvania looked with fierce scorn on the West Virginians, driven north in a later and less heroic wave of unemployment. I was allowed to play with them as children of missionaries receive grudging permission to mix with the natives. When I came home with a cute saying or a change in my walk, mother would lament, “You picked that up from the Evanses.” This permitted me to think Ronnie and I were friends against the world’s opposition, and encouraged me to believe that I was having adventures when in fact I was being babysat by people too insistently helpful to be turned down.
I saw the differences between the Evanses and us, but didn’t think of them as invariably in our favor. Most of my approved playmates were quite violent. Our games were war and cowboys, which was war in ten-gallon hats, or Lost Civilizations, which was war in imaginary Trojan helmets. I think the violence sounded well in our parents’ ears, for certainly it was the American and Christian violence of good triumphing over evil. Hitler had been dead for less than a decade, Stalin still lived, and righteous force had acquired no taint in the nostrils of Goodyear Heights. Ronnie never played war. This would have sufficed to queer him in common conception. He never spoke against it, but turned away when I joined in, trudging down to the creek with a bit of screen stretched between dowels to sieve the waterweeds for insects. Part of his pacifism was, I suspect, a lack of imagination, which made the invisible intricacies of the games unintelligible to him. But part of it was true and innate gentleness, the first example I ever had of such a thing.
Generally I was unable to distinguish between Ronnie’s virtues and his limitations. Was a particular comment or gesture stupid or so marvelously subtle I did not perceive the goodness of it? I have the same problem to this day with discerning the ingenuous from the idiotic, but for Ronnie’s sake try to be patient until judgement is unavoidable.
Ronnie’s family was not lucky. The five children were all maladjusted in some way, impeded, anti-social, loose-bladdered. I remember their mother as handsome and gallant, and thought at the time it must have been some horrible trick played on her, or the doing of the hairy, silent father that I saw for five minutes in the morning and an hour at night. She had no illusions about her children, yet played as well as she could such long suits as she found in their hands. Ronnie was active and wiry, and when we returned from hiking through the wilds around their house, she’d say to me, with the invariability of a religious observance, “So, Ronnie has been running you ragged again.” He hadn’t, but it never sounded like a question, so I answered, “Yes.” To be run ragged was tacit recognition of my superiority in other matters, so I relinquished that to her.
It’s strange how many crises of my life I passed among the Evanses. The day Ronnie’s older brother nearly put my left eye out with a mud ball Mrs. Evans spent hours bent over picking mud out of the eye. I squirmed in their kitchen on a high metal stool, frightened not so much of the blindness as of the power everyone had over me in that situation. I begged her repeatedly to call my mother. She wouldn’t, whether from fear or because my mother was sick I don’t know. When I tried to phone myself she had Ronnie gently take the phone away. It’s still my weak eye.
Mr. Evans telling his older son he was “way out of line” and then beating him to a pulp was my introduction to downright domestic violence. The brother had a jar of pink butchwax that Ronnie and I snuck dollops of when we dared. I think the beating had something to do with the butchwax, or with the surfer records they played loud and with a grinning appreciation I did not share. They were Teen-agers. Since I was the oldest at home, I had no experience with that, and was as perplexed as a parent.
The Evanses were the sort that went to carnivals. I usually had to throw up after the rides, and they were good at finding places to do that without being in the way. Throwing up was a big deal at my house, and someone held your head. But the Evanses took it in stride, growing impatient if you made a production of it. The Evans daughter had assignations with carnival workers with a frequency that made me think that’s why they went, to give Mrs. Evans the opportunity to bray at her, “. . . and with a carnival barker. The scum of the earth!” I was on the daughter’s side then, though she was too high-and-mighty seventeen to care. I found them seductive, too, though I wanted to be them rather than hide behind a tent sipping wickedly out of their beer. Alliance with carnivals, however, was flatly unthinkable for anyone from our set. I admired the Evanses for their vulnerability to things that were no threat to anyone else I knew.
Ronnie and I would sit in the splintery living room of their unfinished house, talking cars, of fins and black Mercuries and three-tone jalopies, a topic of conversation I have never enjoyed since. For two or three years of my life I could tell you make, horsepower, or cylinder count by the briefest glimpse from the corner of my eye. Now I can barely fill my own gas tank. I wonder if Ronnie stuck with it.
I’m trying to remember if I liked Ronnie. I don’t know if I liked anyone. One’s friend was one’s friend, and, as in conditions of barbarism and chivalry, there was honor and loyalty between us even if nothing my present heart would call affection. He was important to me. Partially this was because he was rough-hewn and outdoorsy and oblivious to the sorts of distinctions with which I burdened my days as a child. I think he had no imagination, which made him a perfect playground for mine. Perhaps it’s enough to say that he was the first friend I had to whom I was utterly unsuited, so much so that we had to learn each other before we could communicate at all. The value of such forced accommodations cannot be overestimated.
We were friends for maybe two years. When our relationship ended, it had less to do with us than with revolution in the external world, an upheaval that changed alliances among boys and made adults reconsider the courses of their lives. One could look up the exact day, but the excitement in the air was like that of the eve of the first day of school. I hadn’t been going to school long, and a new year was a thrill that seeped backward into the last week or so of summer. It would not be like my parents to let me go to the Evanses so soon before an important event, so perhaps I misremember, or perhaps my mother was sick. My sister was less than a year old, and she may not yet have recovered from the birth.
We’d hiked all day. Ronnie was clever, and told me two jokes I still remember. This surprised me, for I had always been the joke-teller, and Ronnie had never been especially witty before. I think I liked him that day, maybe because of the jokes, for the first time seeing him as more than a co-star in my interminable fantasies. He earned my admiration again for remembering to bring matches so we could burn debris at a favorite campsite, and for making a whistle of a blade of grass. We spent hours with one foot on either side of the little creek that passed their house, overturning rocks to find the crayfish and nymphs beneath. We called this “Fishing,” though fish were the things we saw the least of. I see now I was a naturalist and he a hunter, potentially a great team, even if the potential would not be realized.
I’m trying to remember if I liked Ronnie. I don’t know if I liked anyone. One’s friend was one’s friend, and, as in conditions of barbarism and chivalry, there were honor and loyalty between us even if nothing my present heart would call affection. He was important to me.
Though we never quarreled, that was the day I first noticed us talking at cross-purposes. I spoke of dinosaurs and space travel and of Fishing, longing to be forever at the creek levering stones, curious, delighted, unchangeable, and unchangeably a child. I spoke of us, aware that I wanted what people called a friendship. I thought our relationship — whatever it was — should stop being accidental and start being something we worked at and thought about.
Ronnie’s face had already begun to scar with acne. He talked of forming a rock and roll band, suggesting The Youngbloods and The Hurricanes as possible names. I didn’t know enough about rock and roll bands to point out that he didn’t play an instrument, and my elementary school violin would probably not do. I liked The Hurricanes better, but not the idea really at all. I’d probably jinxed us by mentioning the word “friendship.” What irked me was that he had stopped listening. I had been the talker, he the listener. That day he talked, not stupidly either, and I stared into the shiver of leaves.
One thing I liked about the Evanses was that there seemed never to be a schedule. Ronnie brought us home when he pleased, and when we arrived, there would be supper. Deep into dusk we sat at our scorched campsite, recognizing that we had little to say to each other. I wanted to add, “suddenly,” but it wasn’t so sudden. His hormones and my imagination raged, and there wasn’t room even in our loose confederation for all of that. Still, neither hurried to leave the ashes, in case the spirit might move us back six months into our Eden.
A voice began shouting Ronnie’s name. It was his father, a voice I didn’t remember hearing more than once or twice, and rare enough to Ronnie that he jumped and ran, I following with the urgency of someone not anxious to be left in a strange woods at nightfall. It was a very strong voice coming from a great distance, and we were afraid.
When we ran into the road I saw my father’s car in the driveway, my mother standing beside it with the baby in her arms. It should have been a reassuring sight, but something in the strangeness of it, the unexpectedness, put me off. I looked hard at the faces as I ran, trying to read if I was in trouble or there had been a catastrophe. Everyone was smiling. Even that was not reassuring, for I had already seen smiles that did not express pleasure.
My mother said, “We came early. To take you home. We wanted to see it together.”
It sounded like she meant my sister, but I had already seen her. I said, “What?”
My mother looked into the air, unable to point with my sister in her arms. I looked where she looked. There, moving perceptibly, like a shooting star of miraculous durability, was a fire in the sky. Red, I remember it, though I remember the whole sky that night a spilled burgundy flecked with rubies.
“Sputnik,” my father said, “the first space ship.”
Ronnie said, “Travelling Companion. It means Travelling Companion.” He said this without looking at it, already feeding the cats. I asked him if he didn’t want to see it, but he went on feeding the cats with his meticulous single-mindedness, refusing to look up. This was the sort of thing he did when he didn’t want to do what I wanted, but had no better suggestion of his own. It made me angry. I turned away, vowing never to speak to him again unless he spoke first.
Mrs. Evans had my gear ready to go home. I felt there was something more to it all than Sputnik, but no one mentioned anything else. In the car my mother sat with her head sticking through the window so she could watch the red fire till it sank in the trees.
She said, “You’ll remember this day always.”