Authors: Jack Gantos
He was what I wasn't, but in an instant I intended to become what he was. All that longing to be like him set something inside of me on fire and I had a feeling that there was no putting me out.
He peed for so long I got nervous and kept glancing toward the screen door in back of my house. If my mother came out from the kitchen with some party food and saw him with his shorts down she would say something. She wouldn't be nasty, but she would have no hesitation in calmly pointing out that he was outside, half naked, and peeing in public, which was unsanitary, especially when people were cooking and eating only a few feet away on the other side of a wire fence that germs could easily pass through. She had a thing about migrating germs. She still feared the invisible spread of polio.
But he finished first, took a deep breath, shook himself off, and pulled up his undershorts just before Mom opened the back door.
“Jackie!” she called out, sniffing left and right as she scanned the yard. “Do you smell something burning?”
I turned to Gary. “Don't tell my mother anything,” I said in a half whisper. “She won't understand.”
is what you want from your girlfriend,” he sagely replied, and for emphasis he slowly zipped and unzipped the tracks of silver teeth on his leather jacket. “
,” he said with contempt, “is what your parents want from you. Tattoo that on your sailor beanie and sign it
I wouldn't do that. Not exactly. But much later I would write down in a notebook what he said, and then I followed his words with my own words, which were as permanent as a tattoo. I wrote, “This is the day I realized that the unknown self deep within me is the self to pursue, and that the known self is the superficial self I have to burn all the way down to the ground without ever looking back.”
“Jackie!” Mom called again.
,” he quickly mimicked, then added in a mincing voice, “Isn't
a girl's name?”
I suddenly hated that junior version of my name. I turned from him and looked toward her.
“Is the grill ready?” she called out.
ready?” he mimicked just loud enough for me to hear.
I nodded. “Yep,” I called back to Mom.
“Then don't just stand there,” she said impatiently. “Come get the hamburgers! He'll be home at any moment.”
I lurched toward her, but instead of landing with my shoe on the dry grass I seemed to step onto that narrow platform of white space that both separates and connects the train of printed words. Instantly I sensed that I was no longer myself. Something had changed when I met Gary and I no longer felt trapped by a past that judged me. I was escaping my old self, and now I was riding a fresh train of words that would transport me toward that unknown secret new self.
Those words I was riding were as solid to me as if I had been racing a train full speed along the railroad tracks. As it rumbled past me I reached up with one hand, gripped a metal handle on the corner of a car, swung my feet upward, and in a perfect arc hopped right onto the clanging iron coupling between the freight cars that were hauling boxes of words that would spell the story of my new life. That train sped me away so swiftly I didn't have time to look over my shoulder and miss myself. I think that's the moment I gave myself away. As my mother later said, after I was escorted home from custody and we hastily moved to a better neighborhood, “You gave yourself away for cheap. For
But she was wrong. It was the moment I got carried away and in an instant became everything I had ever wanted from myselfâand a lot more than I guessed I had in me. And who knows, maybe I wanted the trouble, too. I didn't see it coming, but the moment it showed up and said “Follow me” that is just what I did. It's the moment when I became “the follower.” I was Gary's follower. He was Peter Pan and I was his shadow, and his words replaced my words and his emotions were now my emotions. His choices were now my choices. His way of doing things was now my way.
They say you can never escape your past because it is always hiding like a conscience within your present, but in my case the present had no past. I had hopped onto Gary's train and now I was living every second in
present and my future was going to have to think on his two feet.
Dad was turning thirty-eight. Last year, while framing a house, he had cut off half his left-hand index finger with a circular Skilsaw. Around that time Jack Ruby had shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald with a snub-nosed .38 and Dad had nicknamed himself “Jack Ruby.”
At breakfast on his birthday morning he had aimed his stubby trigger finger at us and said, “
You'll be gunned down on live TV like that assassin Oswald if I don't get my big you-know-what party tonight.”
He laughed and I laughed, too, just to go along with him, but not for long. Mom stiffened and declared that he should never refer to “that horrid Ruby man again” or decent people would find Dad “just as
.” Every time Mom used a four-syllable word she said it as if it were always
She had admired President Kennedy, who, like me and Dad, was named John but called Jack. She especially loved Jackie Kennedy because she, too, was a mother with young children and my mom wiped tears from her eyes whenever the brave Kennedy children, Caroline and John-John, were shown on TV.
Mom had a tender inner life, which I feared because instinctively I knew her kind heart had given birth to my own heart and I had her same softness within me, but I was a boy and not a mom and it seemed impossible, even wrong, that we could share the same emotional life. Still, we did, though tenderheartedness expressed itself differently through us.
For her, sadness was a mood that connected her to an embracing world of others who were equally sad and equally resolute.
For me, sadness was a repulsive flaw I hid darkly within myself so I couldn't find it. I was ashamed of my sadness and knew it was a sign that I was not brave; instead I was a coward, and being a coward was the source of the whole world's scorn.
How could sadness give her great strength when it only left me feeling weak and small? I loved my mother and it confused me to think that this difference in our twin hearts might tear us apart.
When I left Gary standing at the canal and ran up to the back porch to get the tray of hamburgers and buns from my mother, she firmly looked me in the eye and said to me, “Let's make sure this is a special moment for your father. He works very hard, and I want this party to make him proud of his family.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” I replied, and gave her a snap salute, then quickly took the tray and turned away from her before she noticed my bloody shirt and blisters. The tray was heavy in my hands, but even a cloud would have been heavy in my hands at that instant because I was feeling gutless and weak for not telling her I had already ruined the trophy moment by setting the special banner of honorific flags on fire.
“No monkey business,” she warned as I marched away.
“Okay,” I called back earnestly. “I promise I'll do a good job on the grill.” I truly was sorry about the burned flags and wanted to make up for the stupid blunder.
But when I returned to the grill and stared down into the eyes of the glowing coals, they leaped up like red bolts of lightning and seared that dutiful promise right out of my mind. I removed the hamburgers and buns from the tray and hastily tossed them any which way onto the scorching grate. Almost instantly the meat drippings and snotty gobs of fat sizzled and crisped like someone burning at the stake, but I wasn't paying them any attention.
I just stood there in a glazed trance while watching Gary dig the hole in his backyard. I was traveling on his train now and I knew it. Where he went and what he did mattered most. My time was now. My mother and father were losing their influence over me. When I looked at them I could see that their own teenage dreams had expired. Maybe they had had bigger plans that melted away with their wasted days and nights. And once they had us kids, their chances for greatness became as extinct as dinosaurs and now they just wanted to survive. Their past was not a story I wanted to live. This day was my turn at greatness. I was the young one now, and Gary was my leader. I was following him out of the dull trap of my life. Soon, I knew, I would catch up and be equal to him. Then I would be him. Then maybe I would surpass him. And he would want to be like me. He would envy me because I would be the stronger leader and he would be the follower.
That was what I was thinking as my eyes were glued on Gary and my neglected party food burned into furiously charred fists on the grill.
He kept digging and every now and again his mother pulled a window curtain to one side. She coughed and exhaled empty clouds of gray cigarette smoke that were abruptly filled with tarred words. “Is the hole finished yet?” she hollered in her raspy voice.
Gary shrugged. “No,” he said patiently. “Give me a minute.”
In less than a minute she hollered out, “Are you digging to the center of God's unholy earth?”
“I would,” he replied sarcastically, “if I could be sure I'd find your big ol' fat hunk of bacon down there.”
“Then what's taking so long?” she called back, clearly annoyed.
“For God's sake, Mom,” he replied in frustration, and jammed the garden fork into the ground. “You're puttin' me in a bad mood and you know how I can get when I'm in a
“You're always in a
,” she whined, imitating him.
“It's a greyhound we are burying,” he said. “It's the size of a four-legged third grader.”
“Maybe we could use the
your probation officer said you already dug for yourself,” she suggested in a clever voice meant to needle him. “He said it's dug pretty darn deep after all your sass and law-breaking stunts.”
“I figure we'll save that grave for the future,” he replied slickly, “so when I'm dead you can roll me into it and kick the dirt over my smiling face with your slippers.”
“Don't you dare turn your moody smart-ass mouth onto me,” she threatened. “Or I'll call your officer in a jiffy and give him an earfulâdon't think I don't know that you sneak out at night for God-knows-what trouble.”
“A little fresh air is good for my health,” he replied. “And fresh air would be good for yours, too.”
“And being fresh with me is bad for your health,” she said. “Now, dig!”
Their conversation carried back and forth like they were an old married couple gnawing on words that could never nourish love. I only found out later that she lived entirely in the house. Gary said she was a freakishly big woman who never went outside and when she walked the halls the whole house rocked back and forth like it was a boat tied to a dock.
I wasn't sure why she never went outsideâvanity or insanity, I figured. But with the Pagoda family there was no reason why they did anything and yet they were always doing something. The five of them just did what they wanted. They were all loudly critical of each other. Our houses were so close I could hear most everything, but then maybe that was what kept them together. Their yelling was like glue.
Perhaps I was hypnotized by Gary and his mother's banter because all along I was standing with the warm spatula in my hand but was not paying attention to the grill. I was not myself. I was in the process of becoming less and less of my former self while becoming more and more of something else I couldn't yet define. Gary's words were like heat rising from the flames of his hot breath, which he breathed into me as if he were molding me into something elseâinto an Adam or a golem or some magical creature that had once been a handful of dirt but was now under his spell.
Anyway, I stood there in my trance watching him dig that hole while he was half dressed as if he had fled a burning house. He must have sensed my steady gaze because at one point he stood up with one hand on his hip and stared directly at me like an animal sizing up a meal he was confident of swallowing.
I waved to him with the spatula.
Was he thinking about me as much as I was now thinking about him? It seemed impossible that it could be any other way. My consumption of who he was must have been equaled by his consumption of me, but I never considered that the word
could be so different between us. I was consumed with me becoming
. I didn't know then that he was consumed with me becoming
In the meantime I let the hamburgers burn down into craggy meat rocks that smoldered like pointy hunks of smoking meteorites. The hamburger buns were lacy domes of gray ash that sifted through the grill grate and down onto the flames.
Normally I would have been worried about the ruined food and my thoughtless waste of the family dinner, but instead an unusual moment of calm came over me. Fire changes everything so quickly. If I didn't care about being in trouble, then consequences had no power over me. My apathy dissolved my alarm. I used the spatula to scrape up and then catapult the charred nuggets of meat into the air. They arced about twenty feet overhead and then hit the fleshy surface of the canal like someone being slapped across the face.
That drew my mother's attention to where I was standing and she came rushing down to judge for herself what exactly I had screwed up.
When she saw, she looked furious and said, “Didn't I tell you not to ruin this?”
“Don't worry,” I said before she kept at me. “I'm getting rid of the evidence before Dad notices.”
“What has happened to you?” she asked, both cross and puzzled. “All you had to do was flip them back and forth like you've done a million times. It couldn't be easier.”