I once gave Brownie’s father a Father’s Day card. How, I wonder, did that go over in their house? Little Billy Buck, eleven years old—can see it now—sweet and awkward, delivering his little valentine to the man. What kind ofkid would think that that was a good idea? Did they laugh after I was gone? Was there a sense of quiet embarrassment?
Who knows, but it’s little wonder that I ceded things like baseball and hockey and fathers to Brownie, just as it was no wonder Brownie let me have things like Earth Sciences and American History. We divvied up the world between us. I took the things he didn’t need. I was the one who had to do well in Social Studies and Algebra. He was smarter, but I was the one who did his homework at night. What else did I have? What else was an only child going to do when he got home but to get ready to go back to school in the morning.
Just me and my mother and the television at night. You could go through and circle every no on a page— no father, no siblings, no garage, no go-karts, no cottage by the lake, no grandparents in nearby Worcester to visit, no sly smile, no easy laugh—I had none of the list of things that Brownie had. In my own little mousehood way, it was all about the presence of a father or the absence of a father, this had to be the theme bubbling under the surface of everything for me. The finished basement, the woodstove, the Mustang half-restored in the garage. Even the easy charm, the way Brownie could talk in class, the way he could take charge of a ballgame, it all had to come from somewhere. Or, more to the point, it all had to come from someone.
His father would have to stand as the most obvious difference that I could name between us. It’d be the only aspect I would have deliberately changed in my life, if I could. I’m sure I’d have traded this fact with Brownie without an iota of hesitation. Even if a father completely erased all that I was at the time, and even if that father was no good to me at all, I’m positive I’d have traded everything for the idea of a father. It wouldn’t have even been a question. The bristle of chin, the errands in town, even those chores in the yard that Brownie complained about, how could I not feel that low-heat envy? How could everything not circle back to that presence of a father (for someone like Brownie), or that absence of a father (for kids like me and Crawford)?
These were the things one thought about in exile, apparently. These were the moments that passed through a boy standing outside in the cold. He—this kid down there—I am daydreaming all of this as the clouds moved low and solid against the trees.
Funny I’m not aware of the Monitor I seek in my labyrinth.
Still, if you added up all the negative, you’d have thought that Crawf and I should be the best of friends. You’d have thought some extra bond should have existed between us, though maybe the truth was that we matched up too perfectly. Maybe we cancelled each other out somehow. Maybe it was all too subtle for us to understand, the list too tiresome to talk about with anyone, but it seemed that Crawford and I had nowhere to go with one another, as if the presence of someone with the same sort of story somehow diminished you, making your own deprivations more common, less valuable.
Here’s another sad story: once, in Cub Scouts, our den leaders gave us each a Pinewood Derby kit to take home. A block of wood, four wheels, four nails, and my mother and I hammered it together on the kitchen table. We wrapped the car in tinfoil and painted lightning bolts on the side in red nail polish. It never passed our minds to do anything more. It didn’t once occur to us to round the edges or oil the wheels or glue pennies underneath for weight.
Downstairs in the church hall, that first glimpse of the other racecars, a kind of beauty contest for fathers and sons. Brownie with a thin wedge of a car with retractable wings, cockpit carved for his hornet-helmet figurine. My car sat on the table, and I heard someone ask whose dinner was defrosting over there. People laughed, and the hall went hot and crowded and airless, everyone talking at the same time.
Later, it would seem that everything a person would need to know about these boys could be found in that small tableau of pinewood cars. That’d be what a memory was worth, each accident becoming necessary, each weakness turning into a secret kind of strength. Even if this crude block of foil won the entire Derby that day—awkward thing starting slow and heavy down the track, but then ploughing long and stubborn with momentum—who could blame a kid for taking the exact wrong lesson from this? Even with a trophy to bring home, who would expect him to keep coming back to the Cub Scouts after that?
There was also that time his mother arrived from work with a present for him. Her kid should have something nice every now and then, she said. Her kid deserved something special at least once in a while. She had even taken the trouble to wrap the gift, saying it had arrived in the store brand-new that morning. He held the shirt to his chest. It was bright burnt orange, long-sleeved and silky, rayon with a motocross biker tearing life-sized across the front.
She thought for sure he’d like it, she said.
He lifted the shirt up and told her he did not like it at all.
He waited a moment.
He laughed and said he loved the shirt!
He danced with it around the kitchen. He wore it to bed that night. He was young and happy. He was a little boy again. He had it on as he went to school that next morning. He tied his jacket around his waist so that everyone could appreciate the orange sheen, that motocross guy ripping through mud. He waltzed into homeroom only to find Crawford wearing the exact same shirt.
Orange, motocross, silky, and the two of them could have laughed or tried to joke it off. They could have paraded around as mirror images of each other, as if they meant all along to match, as if they coordinated their wardrobe the night before, blood brothers. Instead they kept away from each other. Instead they seemed to feel threatened, afraid, neither of them ever wearing the shirts to school again.