— for Susan Edwards
I was five years old the first time I saw the total interconnected harmonic clockwork of the cosmos, and it happened again when I was seven or eight, and possibly once more when I was reading the great philosophers and experimenting with hallucinogens in my late teens. Since then my confidence in an omniscient reconciliation of the Apollonian with the Dionysian has gradually deteriorated to the point that, at the age of fifty-four, when explaining the most elementary concepts to my seven-year-old son, Tom, I have to admit that I don’t really know anything. A gas is . . . Wind is . . . The sky is . . . Evil and destruction are . . . Let’s just say that the capital of Florida is Tallahassee and leave it at that.
Most difficult for Tom, since he has recently been diagnosed with a learning disorder that features language and social impairment, is the concept of friendship.
“I have no friends,” he declares vehemently.
Well, you will one day. I hope. And to prepare the way, let me explain to you what friendship is. It’s another of those cherished articles of faith that I’ve recited to you with specious authority over the years, like working hard, telling the truth, and giving more than you take. I really have no idea what friendship is, or how you ever truly know who your friends are, or why friendships sometimes fizzle, or how human beings you trust and hold dear can turn out to be such resounding disappointments.
As a matter of fact, I started out very much like my son: a friendless boy with two doting parents. My father was a schoolteacher, and ours was the only white-collar household on the block. An outcast and target for all the blue-collar kids with violent, drunk, and abusive parents, I was in the habit of staying mostly indoors, living in my imagination, producing my own satirical magazines, practicing my violin, and reading Time, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker. I was sick much of the time: asthmatic, weak, and thin. I finished a book every three or four days. Children would often present themselves at my door in the guise of friendship in order to lure me out and beat me up. I invented fantasy adventure games that required no other human participants. Until Clifton Harding’s arrival on the block in the summer before fifth grade, I placed friendship in the same category as unicorns and world peace.
Cliff’s navy family moved into our San Diego neighborhood in the summer of 1966. Cliff was athletic, first pick of any playground team, a proven fighter, a big, healthy, outdoorsy, good-looking fellow with a turned-up nose and a Dudley Do-Right grin — the opposite of me in every respect. He had a paper route and was a member of the Boy Scouts and the secret Order of DeMolay (a sort of junior Masons). On the weekends he cut lawns.
At first Cliff did not deign to meet any of the other children in his new neighborhood. Perhaps he was upset about being uprooted or was too busy, or maybe he had somehow divined their cruelty. Nevertheless he came to my rescue several times when the other children tried to bully me. Once, I was being taunted while carrying my violin home from school. Another time a boy faked a cough and launched an egg-yolk-sized blob of mucus onto the back of my jacket. Both times Cliff intervened, demanding not only restitution but apologies. He was not afraid to fight; on the contrary, he enjoyed it. His defense of me seemed to derive more from some mid-twentieth-century TV-cowboy code of honor than from anything personal.
To my surprise Cliff and I became friends. I believe it owed to the fact that we were two of only a few children on our block who lived in sane households. Our lower-middle-class neighborhood had recently crumbled under the license of the times, and many families were divided, parents divorced, children drowning under waves of chemical pleasure like flies in syrup. Why were the mom and dad drunk? Why did they not seem to care? Why did they molest and beat their daughters and sons or, at best, leave them unattended? Why didn’t someone clean the kitchen, fix the heater, mow the lawn, have that broken-down car towed away? Why did everyone give up? What was the source of all this anguish and despair? Why, in every house, was the television always on?
My friendship with Cliff had a salubrious effect on me. I was drawn out of my house and onto a bicycle and a basketball court. Cliff insisted that we learn how to surf. He brought me into his lawn-mowing enterprise and split his earnings with me. He took up the cello and joined me in the school orchestra. On Sundays I’d get up with him before the sun — often after staying overnight at his house — to help him deliver his morning papers. Even my asthma began to subside. My parents were pleased at my progress and choice of friends. At their urging, as much as I distrusted groups, I almost joined both the Boy Scouts of America and the secret Order of DeMolay.
Cliff had tall, coal-eyed parents who drank Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee, laughed a great deal, and smoked cigarettes like the movie stars of their day. Though they had moved there from Illinois, the Hardings were originally from the South, evinced by that slight interrogative lilt in their speech and the “Jo” embedded in the first names of all the women in the household. The youngest was Heidi Jo, the next was May Jo, and the mother was Bobbi Jo, and they were not ashamed to be addressed thus in a neighborhood devoid of feminine Jo’s. Mr. Harding was a navy commander and looked the part, with his broad build, tightly buttoned jackets, and severe slab of a forehead. Mrs. Harding was a homemaker and a Girl Scout leader who gave us rides to the beach and the pool hall and the Helix Theater — our church — where we worshiped our idols and saints: the misunderstood outcasts of the movies. Mrs. Harding had once had throat cancer, Cliff told me, and she had been given only a few months to live, but here she was, still reading Valley of the Dolls, doing the cha-cha in her chartreuse cocktail pants, and loading up a picnic basket with peaches, Cokes, and chicken-salad sandwiches.
Cliff idolized his father and imitated everything from the way he walked and the cut of his hair to the angle of his cap and the black peacoat he wore in winter. Cliff quoted the old commander as if he were Bartlett and was content to spend the day doing whatever his father did: working in the yard, lounging in the recliner in front of a John Wayne movie, or changing the spark plugs in the Chrysler Town and Country Estate.
Then, one summer day after I’d helped Cliff mow Mrs. Davidson’s lawn, we were lounging barefoot in my front yard, sucking on cherry Slurpees from the 7-Eleven, when a sharp crack tattered the air. We sat up.
“What was that?” Cliff asked.
“Firecracker?” I said.
Cliff shook his head. “More like a backfire.”
“There’s no cars,” I said.
“Somebody shot someone.” He scrambled to his feet.
Cliff’s younger sister Heidi Jo came sprinting down the street in a red bikini, flip-flops clacking. “Dad shot himself!” she cried, panting. “You better come. Oh, God, Cliffie. He shot himself!”
I pictured brains splattered across walls, the unthinkable loss of a parent. Cliff threw aside his drink and tore off after his sister. I sat there in disbelief, afraid to move, the shadows from the tree limbs spreading like cracks across the earth. A few minutes later the white ambulance came yowling around the corner.
That afternoon I sat in my house on the gold couch, looking up at the dark oil paintings and the dust collecting on the piano. My mother wrung her hands. A neighbor knocked on the screen door and declared Mr. Harding dead. She explained that Mr. Harding had had a problem with narcotics. Also his wife drank and slept around. (“Oh, you mean you hadn’t heard?”) But perhaps the neighbor herself had been drinking, because we found out a few minutes later that Cliff’s father would live. He’d only shot himself in the shoulder.
“The shoulder?” the children gleefully chimed after word got around, because they understood well enough the difference between an honest and virile suicide attempt such as John Wayne might make and a feeble and unforgivable plea for help.
For a while Cliff was like a boy who’d stepped on a land mine: dead gaze, zombie gait. The children of our neighborhood, accustomed to hero failure and thinking this a fitting comeuppance for a young man who’d had the audacity to presume that his home life might ever be happy, tittered behind his back. I’d go down to visit a morose Cliff and see a thin Mr. Harding sitting on his island of a beige couch, surrounded by newspapers, arm in a sling, the smoke from his cigarette veiling his face.
But Cliff rebounded. Men, after all, were allowed to get knocked down, as long as they got back up. Even when his father moved to an apartment on the other side of the interstate, Cliff took it in stride, hitchhiking over there every weekend to visit him. When his father got a new honey-pot girlfriend, a perplexed and disheartened Cliff made room for her. When his parents finally divorced (the last time I ever saw Cliff cry), he faltered but bounced back. When Mr. Harding and his new bride moved to Delaware, Cliff brooded for a time but then put the matter away. When his mother began to bring home strange men from the bar, he bore down and made adjustments. Bad things kept happening to him, but he kept popping back up, each time a little more disoriented, a little stiffer and glassier of eye, a little more like a jester in a ruffled silk blouse on the end of a broken spring.
The year of his parents’ divorce Cliff grew six inches and put on thirty pounds. A General Custer mustache sprouted under his nose, and his personality hardened like a blob of amber sap. The taunting children, cowed by his metamorphosis and eager fists, quickly learned to leave him alone. Cliff abandoned his paper route and his lucrative lawn-mowing business. He quit the cello and said bye-bye to baseball, Boy Scouts, and DeMolay.
I’m aware that seven-year-old Tom is watching me every second, integrating what I’ve become into what he will be. I am, whether I like it or not, his original god. It would behoove him to find a better one soon, especially before he begins to read the detailed accounts of my blundering escapades. At the same time, all my peregrinations and transgressions have given me a few practical insights. I at least know the difference between a child who is loved and one who is not.
Because of my work schedule I’m able to spend a good deal of time with Tom. I rouse him in the morning, cook his breakfast, walk him to school, pick him up again at three. He accompanies me on my weekly tavern trips, sits at the bar with a lemonade while I have my wine or beer. When he is not in catechism class (his mother is Catholic) or at the college swimming pool, leaping otterlike through the blue, he enjoys coming with me to the rural school two miles east of town where I clean the desks, floors, and toilets. Recently, to his utter and terrified fascination, there have been several mountain-lion incidents at this school. Once, the place was locked down because of a sighting, and another day a lion was shot dead. An expert on the animals came to speak with the children and posted on the classroom walls this advisory:
Mountain Lion Safety
If you encounter a mountain lion:
- Don’t approach it.
- Never turn and run.
- Face the lion and stand upright.
- Try to make yourself look as big as possible.
- Some ways of looking bigger is [sic] to open your jacket, hold up your pack or bicycle.
- Throw rocks or sticks at the lion. Yell and make lots of noise.
- But if you are ever attacked, your best chance is to stay on your feet and fight back. These tactics will usually convince the lion that you are not prey and make it run away.
- Leave the animal an avenue of escape.
- Report any mountain lion observations.
By the time we leave the schoolhouse, it is usually dark. Tom has done his homework in Miss Schmid’s room, and we are miles from home, all alone upon the prairie under the stars, the owls hoo-hooing and the raccoons rustling in the trees. Tom asks the same wide-eyed questions over and over: Do mountain lions eat people? Do they eat children? Can they knock over our car?
Though my son has begun socializing on a limited basis with other children, he is not invited to birthday parties. There are no kiddies coming to the door and asking if Tom can play, and except for his mom and dad, he’s a solo trick-or-treater on Halloween. When it comes to interactions with others, he prefers adults, especially my friends: Chris, a scholarly bartender who lives in a residential motel; Jeanne, my employer for four years at the Olde Main Street Inn; Deane, who teaches philosophy at the state college a mile south; Steve and Cheryl, who live a block away and have big bonfire parties; George from Spain and his wife, Beth, both of whom teach high-school Spanish.
I thought innocently for a long time that, because of Tom’s aloofness toward his peers, he might be spared their cruelty. That hope came crashing down two months ago when I went to pick him up and found him despondent and disinterested in activities he normally enjoyed. The next day there was a long scratch down his back. It took a week to drag it out of him that he was under the thumb of a hyperactive ruffian we’ll call “Wiley.” Though Tom was only seven, he already understood that telling his teacher or parents about Wiley, as he had been officially instructed to do if bullied, would only make the situation worse. I was roughed up and hazed for years without a peep to my parents or teachers until Cliff arrived, and even Cliff didn’t solve my problem but only postponed what I needed to learn for myself.
I explained to Tom that dealing with the bully was no different than dealing with the mountain lion. They were both predators looking for easy prey. I told him: If you encounter a bully, don’t approach him. Never turn and run. (He cannot chase you if you do not run.) Face the bully and stand upright. Try to make yourself look as big as possible. If you are attacked, your best chance is to stay on your feet and fight back. Crack him on the snout or kick him in the knee — whatever it takes to convince him that you are not prey. “I don’t care if you get in trouble,” I said. “I won’t have you living in fear.” Tom smiled with bright eyes when I told him this. What happened with Wiley I don’t know, but the mistreatment has stopped.
I have few goals for Tom outside of a civilized integration into society. No doubt he has predispositions, and when they emerge, I intend to nurture them, as long as they are legal. My notion of the adaptable, well-adjusted American boy is one who can ride a horse, clearly express his thoughts, swim to the closest island if he falls off an ocean liner, effectively dissuade a stray mountain lion, speak three languages, and make a decent cheese sauce. My wife wants Tom to go to college, but, except for those who plan on scientific careers or don’t know what else to do, I think there are much cheaper and more edifying places to drink beer.
At his mother’s insistence, my son is being raised Catholic. He crosses himself before meals, recites an Our Father before retiring to bed, attends weekly Saturday Mass, and lustily belts out the psalms. His mother controls him by saying, “That’s not what a good Catholic does.” Catholicism gives him identity, community, structure, the full complement of symbolic stories, and, most important, a list of moral imperatives that, if not obeyed, carry ruinous consequences.
“Why don’t you become Catholic?” he asks me.
“It is something you’re born into,” I reply, “or you convert to it when you’ve got the hots for someone.”
“What are ‘the hots for someone’?”
“When you want to marry them.”
I would add that I don’t believe God gave me the ability to judge and discern so that I could turn my moral decision making over to orthodoxy — though if I had been born Catholic, there’s a good chance I might not have succumbed so easily and so young to so many wicked temptations. If anything I encourage my son’s religious beliefs. Cliff and I and 25 million other youths of the counterculture revolution could have used some set of inculcated virtues to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the feel-good generation. In that era of sunny California decadence at the end of the Westward Migration of the American Dream, our moral armor was provided by Darwinism, Hollywood, the technological utopia of tomorrow, and Time magazine. You could’ve split most of the families on our block with the tap of a hammer.
Of all the bad things that befell Cliff, the one that deviled him the most was the Fall and Disgrace of his mother. Once, we had spent whole weekends at his house, but now it was, like so many other houses on our block, a wreck with dark windows and a weedy lawn and a tumbledown parent slumped at the kitchen table or sprawled across the couch with the television on. Cliff would have preferred to live with his father, but his father had started a new family three thousand miles away.
As Cliff’s only remaining friend after his transmogrification — the definition of friends in this case being “a pair of souls clutching one another with mutual delusion as they navigate a fabulously inscrutable and hostile universe” — I stuck with him throughout. Expeditions into that untidy house were unsettling. It smelled of gas. (The furnace was broken, and they used the stove to heat the place.) Bobbi Jo was usually bombed, her latest gentleman lover in the bedroom or on his way to pick her up. She made herself up with crude applications of paste and paint. She was skeletal at this point, averse to food, a perennial cigarette burning between her long fingers, hanks of hair falling across her cheekbones, and that croaking whisper of a laugh. She stared at me with unreflecting eyes, sneering through misapplied lipstick, one eyelid drooping.
“You think you know me.”
“You think you can read my mind.”
I tried to be polite. I hadn’t learned yet how to reply to mothers of perdition. Long ago Mrs. Harding had been diagnosed with throat cancer and given only a few months to live. She had survived, the story went, though I secretly wondered, as the smoke spooled lazily up from between her fingers, if she had.
In the summer after ninth grade Cliff hitchhiked alone across the country, intent on visiting his remarried father, but he never made it. A truck driver in Tennessee picked him up toward nightfall and suggested that they get a room. The son trying desperately to get back to his father was instead humiliated by someone else’s son. He returned home to find his mother in the embrace of Al, a gray bear of a man in his sixties who claimed to be a Mafioso. Betrayed and confused, Cliff moved in with my family. There were no objections from Bobbi Jo.
Though Cliff would always be a thirteen-year-old boy with an arrow in his heart, the years he lived with us were comparatively blissful and productive for him. He and I shared a bedroom, talked late into the night about our plans to travel to faraway lands, sneaked Kent cigarettes (his father’s brand), and listened to the Chi-Lites, Jethro Tull, and Neil Young. We hitchhiked or bicycled to school together and tried to take the same classes. Whenever my family took trips to New York, Las Vegas, or Colorado, Cliff always came with us. My parents even let him drive. Everywhere we went, the girls flocked after him, giggled and swooned and skinned their knees.
Every few days Cliff had to go down to his old house to mow the lawn, check on his sisters, make sure there was food in the cupboards, and see if his mom was still alive. I went with him because I was in love with Heidi Jo, who had burst into stunning bloom over the previous year and was almost as tall as I was. Heidi Jo teased me, and sometimes I’d wrestle with her. “You think you’re hot shit in a martini glass,” she’d say when I had pinned her to the ground, “but you’re cold poop in a Dixie cup.” Once, out of the blue, she kissed me with such fervent conviction (“Stop acting like that!” Cliff shouted at us) that it boiled my brain into marmalade and made me want to marry her the minute I could find a job. But she got married to someone else before she was even out of high school. I was crestfallen.
For legal reasons (chiefly unpaid loans and taking a new car for a test drive one day and never bringing it back) Cliff finally had to leave California, and he began to wander aimlessly about the country, cheating and alienating the inhabitants of a world he felt had cheated and alienated him. Because I was drifting myself, I’d catch up with him now and again: a joyous reunion always followed by a disagreement and a parting of ways. In 1976 he came to live with me in Colorado Springs, but after he’d exhausted my savings, ripped my clothes (they were too small for him), and wrecked my car, I drove him in my Vega Kammback, with its cracked windshield and crushed bumper, to the bus depot downtown and wished him good luck. He would never in a million years have kicked me out of his house, but if I’d let him stay, he surely would’ve had me sitting on a duffel bag at the side of the road in front of mine.
Cliff’s refusal (inability?) to conform to the rules of society — especially that part about paying your bills — kept him tripping briskly down the road, one step ahead of his creditors, until he ran out of land and ended up in a sparsely populated Caribbean isle, two-thirds national park. Despite the fact that I’d booted him into the Colorado winter with only a bus ticket, my last eighty dollars, and a carton of cigarettes, Cliff cheerfully invited me to join him.
The fantasy of a primitive, carefree, coconut-tree existence amid warm sapphire seas appealed to me. America appeared soon for the dust, and I thought my relocation to an island paradise would be permanent. Cliff lived on the nearly unpopulated east side in a dreadful, rat-infested shack under a grove of papaya trees not thirty feet from a sunlit cove that I never got to swim in because my days were occupied dawn to dusk with earning enough money to survive: gas was $1.50 a liter (six times the U.S. price); groceries, when you could get them, were triple or more what you would pay in the States; and after Cliff’s piece-of-junk Toyota broke down, I hitchhiked to the resort where I was a full-time breakfast cook and walked twelve miles home each day. I learned quickly that the only paradise on that island came out of a red-and-gold-labeled bottle of Johnnie Walker. I eventually managed to save enough money to leave those mosquito-ridden shores and return to the comparative paradise of the U.S.A.
Cliff stayed on for five more years, living in sundry hovels with sundry amours and nurturing grandiose, Scotch-and-Demerol-addled schemes involving treasure, smuggling, and archaeological digs. I can only imagine that, when he one day found himself pushing thirty and saw that he resembled more a chattering maroon than an independent tycoon — and that all his friends had given up on him (except for me) — he concluded his best chance for salvation was the guidance of a good Christian woman. As luck would have it, he found one in the island jungle, possibly doing missionary work or scolding parakeets — I don’t know. But he was serious enough to ask for her hand, and she was smitten enough to say yes.
Cliff and his fiancée, Denise, moved to South Carolina, taking up temporary residence in Denise’s parents’ stately home in an upper-crust neighborhood. (Denise’s father was a millionaire.) Meanwhile I was traveling around to places absent of coconut trees, enjoying hot running water, Mexican food, and electricity, and working on the tenets of my home-baked philosophy, which did not yet contain a central moral code. (Sometimes if you make your own bread, you forget to add the yeast.) Finally I dragged tail back to San Diego, where I got a job at a catering place and found a downstairs studio apartment. There I shut myself away for a while with my books and my thoughts and my writing projects, which held little attraction for me, since I had nothing yet to say. Occasionally I went out in the evenings to a blue-collar saloon on El Cajon Boulevard that looked like an ice-cream parlor, with its mint-green ceiling, eight red stools, and a bartender with a white apron and a handlebar mustache. That’s where Heidi Jo found me one night.
I was still in love with her — in part, admittedly, due to her striking good looks. Beauty, Søren Kierkegaard asserts, is the opposite of good, and he was probably right in this case, though to a barren, art-dreaming man in his twenties she looked a lot like The Answer. Her marriage had gone stale, she explained (Dear, dear), and she was thinking about leaving him, even though they had two young children. I told her that would be a bad move (as I ordered her another drink), pointing out how her parents’ breakup had affected her brother — loss of a father figure at a crucial age and all that.
She waved off my three-ringed psycho-baloney. “Sometimes divorce is good for children. What is the point of a relationship without love?”
“And how would you make a living?” I asked.
“Well, I’d go with you,” she replied.
I was able to resist Heidi Jo for days that seemed like weeks, though my heart thundered and my mouth went dry whenever she strode through the barroom door in her red woolen jacket. Each night that we met, she insisted on walking me home. “I have to be home by midnight,” she explained one evening before she kissed me for the first time since we were teens. Marmalade brained, I invited her in, and she did not leave until after four.
A month later I flew east to be Cliff’s best man. Though the old-money family he was marrying into seemed pleasant enough, they had about as much in common with my rough-hewn friend as monarchs of the Habsburg Empire did with a gladiator. I wondered privately: How long are you possibly going to deceive these people, old boy? Cliff, who’d been faking it for so long he assumed that everyone else must be faking it too, always came into the game with plenty of confidence. He knew that success meant bullshitting better than the next guy, which meant that he behaved like a jackass wherever he roamed, and I believed that after a brief period of endearment he would be high-tailing it down the road with a boot print on his backside. He was the only person I had ever heard say openly that the truth is a bad policy. Cliff contended that if you told the truth, people would only discover your weaknesses, which they would then use against you. I understood how his distrust of “truth” had begun, since it had apparently set out to torment him from an early age, but I don’t believe the line goes: “To thine own self be untrue until you look like Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson preserved in a cask of brandy after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar.”
Since I was the sole representative of Cliff’s friends and family to attend his wedding, we borrowed Denise’s brother and a few of her male friends — all strong-chinned, assuredly glib chaps with droll, prep-school styles — and we threw a bachelor party. We hit Charleston and raised our black-and-tans in toast. I performed my best-man duties, tried to be as hearty and jovial as possible, and waited for the chance to go back where I belonged.
It was when Cliff and I were sitting alone at a bar in Charleston that I confessed I was having an affair with Heidi Jo. I was proud of myself for some reason. Cliff, who esteemed the keeping and telling of secrets as the hallmark of a true friendship, was dumbstruck. I’d thought somehow that he would be pleased. (How many other men’s wives had he tallied?) I explained, to his withering glare, that I loved her and had once hoped to marry her, but she’d been snatched away from me before I’d had my chance. And then I got a mental picture of his mom in the arms of a tavern stranger, and I knew that what I was doing was wrong.
When I returned home, I broke off the affair with Heidi Jo and moved as far away as I could, her unanswered letters at my heels. The central moral tenets in my home-baked philosophy were beginning to bear a remarkable resemblance to those of every other major belief system, but at least they were mine, and I knew what they meant. My correction came too late for Cliff, however, and we did not speak again until four years later, when I stopped by to see him with my dog and a truckful of belongings on my way to West Virginia. His face had become puffy from drink; his laugh and smile were like a winter house with no fire inside. In the evenings we’d sit in his work shed next to an oil heater, drink Scotch, and listen to the radio at such low volume that the songs sounded like nocturnal birdcalls piped in from the local cemetery. There was not much to talk about. I left with relief a day early.
Long after the majority of my peers had settled down and begun to have children, and even grandchildren, I was still traveling in search of meaning, purpose, love, and a good publisher — and looking more aimless and indigent than Cliff in the worst of his prematrimonial years. In my early forties I finally hit a patch of luck, met a woman in central Mexico, and married her. My wife and I returned to the U.S. and had Tom, who fills our house with trains and Dr. Seuss; who wears “bee-jamas” and is going to be an alligator when he grows up; and who gives me the meaning, purpose, and love I was looking for all of my wandering days.
Not long ago Tom stayed home sick from school. When he got out of bed, he crawled into my lap, and we cuddled for a while. Then he climbed into his chair and composed an outline for the day’s activities on his dry-erase board. He allotted two minutes each for counting our footsteps and watching TV (he doesn’t like television much, except for SpongeBob SquarePants and the Three Stooges), five minutes for reading, and a whopping fifty minutes for drawing. His list also included scheduled times to “think” (Tom frequently stares into space; his mother and I rarely find out what he’s daydreaming about), “ask” (he asks me questions, mostly about bones, carrion birds, the properties of electricity, and mountain lions), and “do something.”
The something we did that day was drive to his school to pick up his homework. He scrunched down on the floorboard of the car so his schoolmates wouldn’t see him and laugh — maybe the predators were back, I thought, or maybe he was embarrassed that he’d stayed home sick but then come to school anyway. I was encouraged, at least, that he cared what others thought. This was new, perhaps the tendril that would eventually take root and grow into friendship and the childhood activities that most parents take for granted, such as riding a bicycle, calling someone on the phone, or having lunch at school with someone besides himself.
But that doesn’t mean Tom has no goals. After first declaring that he would be an alligator when he grew up, then a “trash guy,” Tom has now decided that he will become the mayor of our town. I inform him that the job will require him to become social. “I will become the night mayor then,” he announces.
Through my parents I’ve kept track of Cliff over the years. He has raised four children and built two sheetrock palaces with money from his in-laws’ estate.
Heidi Jo called me up last week. I hadn’t spoken to her in many years. “Did you hear the news?” she asked. “Cliff had a stroke last night.”
“How bad?” I said.
“He woke up paralyzed and can’t talk,” she said. “That’s all I know.” Her voice broke. “He’s still in the hospital.”
“He’s going to be all right,” I said. “You know how strong he is.”
She cried for a while.
I asked her how she was.
She sniffed and said she had just turned fifty-two, was a grandmother twice over, and was still with the man she had married at seventeen. It was a good marriage. Life wasn’t bad, she said, even if she had advanced osteoarthritis and couldn’t work anymore. Some days she couldn’t even walk. Her children took care of her.
I apologized for not calling or answering her letters all those years ago. She said it was all right. She understood. She said she still loved me.
In the silence that followed, I thought of getting in my car and driving east to see Cliff, my best friend from childhood. I would take my son, who has no friends except for me.