Dicky and Joe went on over and gave her their presents, and she laughed and nodded and thank-you’d, and my God but she looked nice.
I decided to leave. I didn’t want her to see me in my bow tie and my corduroy suit with the little brass buttons. I didn’t want to see her talking with Dicky Cable, who looked like a human Lawnboy to me but who seemed to look pretty good to her. I figured I could slip out before anyone got a really good look at me. Like Lamont Cranston, I would just cloud a few minds and then bug out. I had a buck in my pocket from weeding Mrs. Katzentz’s flower garden the day before, and I could go to the movies in Brunswick if I could hook a ride, and work up a good head of self-pity sitting there in the dark.
But before I could even find the doorknob, Mrs. Granger spotted me.
It wasn’t my day. Imagine a pleated skirt and one of those see-through chiffon blouses on a Sherman tank. A Sherman tank with two gun turrets. Her hair looked like a hurricane, one glump going one way and one glump the other. The two glumps were being held together somehow by a big sateen bow that was poison yellow in color.
“Charlie Decker!” she squealed, and spread out arms that looked like loaves of bread. Big loaves. I almost chickened and ran for it. She was an avalanche get-ting ready to happen. She was every Japanese horror monster ever made, all rolled into one, Ghidra, Mothra, Godzilla, Rodan, and Tukkan the Terrible trundling across the Granger living room. But that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was everybody looking at me-you know what I’m talking about.
She gave me a slobbery kiss on the cheek and crowed, “Well, don’t you look nice?” And for one horribly certain second I expected her to add: “Slicker than owl shit!”
Well, I’m not going to torture either you or myself with a blow-by-blow. Where would be the sense?
You’ve got the picture. Three hours of unadulterated hell. Dicky was right there with a “Well, don’t you look nice?” at every opportunity. A couple of other kids happened over to ask me who died.
Joe was the only one who stuck by me, but even that embarrassed me a little. I could see him telling kids to lay off, and I didn’t like it very well. It made me feel like the village idiot.
I think the only one who didn’t notice me at all was Carol. It would have both-ered me if she had come over and asked me to dance when they put on the records, but it bothered me worse that she didn’t. I couldn’t dance, but it’s the thought that counts.
So I stood around while the Beatles sang “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and “Let It Be,” while the Adreizi Brothers sang “We Gotta Get It On Again,” while Bobby Sherman sang “Hey, Mr. Sun” in his
superbly tuneless style. I was giving my best imitation of a flowerpot. The party, meanwhile, went on. Did it ever. It seemed like it was going to go on eternally, the years flashing by outside like leaves in the wind, cars turning into clumps of rust, houses decaying, parents turning into dust, nations rising and falling. I had a feeling that we would still be there when Gabriel flew overhead, clutching the Judgment trump in one hand and a party favor in the other. There was ice cream, there was a big cake that said HAPPY
BIRTHDAY, CAROL in green and red icing, there was more dancing, and a couple of kids wanted to play spin the bottle, but Mrs. Granger laughed a big jolly laugh and said no, ha-ha, no no no. Oh, no.
Finally Carol clapped her hands and said we were all going outside and play follow the leader, the game which asks the burning question: Are you ready for tomorrow’s society?
Everybody spilled outside. I could hear them running around and having a good time, or whatever passes for a good time when you’re part of a mass puberty cramp. I lingered behind for a minute, half-thinking Carol would stop for a second, but she hurried right by. I went out and stood on the porch watching. Joe was there too, sitting with one leg hooked over the porch railing, and we both watched.
Somehow Joe always seems to be where I end up, with one leg hooked over some-thing, watching.
“She’s stuck up,” he said finally.
“Nah. She’s just busy. Lot of people. You know.’
“Shit,” Joe said.
We were quiet for a minute. Someone yelled, “Hey, Joe!”
“You’ll get crap all over that thing if you play, ” Joe said. “Your mother’ll have a kitten.”
“She’ll have two,” I said.
“Come on, Joe!” This time it was Carol. She had changed into denims, prob-ably designed by Edith Head, and she looked flushed and pretty. Joe looked at me. He wanted to look out for me, and suddenly I felt more terrified than at any time since I woke up on that hunting trip up north. After a while, being somebody’s responsibility makes them hate you, and I was scared that Joe might hate me some-day. I didn’t know all that then, not at twelve, but I sensed some of it.
“Go on,” I said.
“You sure you don’t want to-?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I got to get home anyway.”
I watched him go, hurt a little that he hadn’t offered to come with me, but re-lieved in a way. Then I started across the lawn toward the street.
Dicky noticed me. “You on your way, pretty boy?”
I should have said something clever like: Yeah. Give my regards to Broadway. Instead I told him to shut up.
He jackrabbited in front of me as if he had been expecting it, that big lawn-mower grin covering the entire lower half of his face. He smelled green and tough, like vines in the jungle. “What was that, pretty
All of it lumped together, and I felt ugly. Really ugly. I could have spit at Hitler, that’s how ugly I felt. “I said shut up. Get out of my way.”
[In the classroom, Carol Granger put her hands over her eyes . . . but she didn’t tell me to stop. I respected her for that.]
Everyone was staring, but no one was saying anything. Mrs. Granger was in the house, singing “Swanee”
at the top of her voice.
“Maybe you think you can shut me up.” He ran a hand through his oiled hair.
I shoved him aside. It was like being outside myself. It was the first time I ever felt that way. Someone else, some other me, was in the driver’s seat. I was along for the ride, and that was all.
He swung at me; his fist looped down and hit me on the shoulder. It just about paralyzed the big muscle in my arm. Jesus, did that hurt. It was like getting hit with an iceball.
I grabbed him, because I never could box, and shoved him backward across the lawn, that big grin steaming and fuming at me. He dug his heels in and curled an arm around my neck, as if about to kiss me.
His other fist started hammering at my back, but it was like someone knocking on a door long ago and far away. We tripped over a pink lawn flamingo and whumped to the ground.
He was strong, but I was desperate. All of a sudden, beating up Dicky Cable was my mission in life. It was what I had been put on earth for. I remembered the Bible story about Jacob wrestling with the angel, and I giggled crazily into Dicky’s face. I was on top, and fighting to stay there.
But all at once he slid away from me-he was awful slippery-and he smashed me across the neck with one arm.
I let out a little cry and went over on my belly. He was astride my back in no time. I tried to turn, but I couldn’t.
I couldn’t. He was going to beat me because I couldn’t. It was all senseless and horrible. I wondered where Carol was. Watching, probably. They were all watch-ing. I felt my corduroy coat ripping out under the arms, the buttons with the heralds embossed on them ripping off one by one on the tough loam.
But I couldn’t turn over.
He was laughing. He grabbed my head and slammed it into the ground like a whiffle ball. “Hey, pretty boy!” Slam. Interior stars and the taste of grass in my mouth. Now I was the lawnmower. “Hey, pretty boy, don’t you look nice?” He picked my head up by the hair and slammed it down again. I started to cry.
“Don’t you just look dan-dan-dandy!” Dicky Cable cried merrily, and ham-mered my head into the ground again- fore! “Don’t you just look woooonder-fur„