Every Other Friday
Every Other Friday
Ken Delaney had to ease me in on his secret. He needed to be able to trust me. He began by asking if I ever felt my parents were strangers.
“I never thought about them that way,” I said.
“Think about it a minute,” he said. “Just think about it.”
I thought about it. I was simultaneously looking inside myself and outward at the distant San Gabriel Mountains and the thunderheads looming above them. The world suddenly expanded and became lonelier and more threatening.
“I think I see what you mean,” I said, with a hint of awe.
We were heading north, walking on the left side of a road bordering an orange grove. It was getting hotter, so we entered the grove, picked a couple of oranges, and sat under a wind-break eucalyptus. We ate our oranges, talked about girls, and then continued our trek through the orange grove, until we came to a stretch that had been leveled by chain saws and bulldozers. The local state college was making way for new buildings and parking lots. It looked like No Man’s Land. A year ago we would have grabbed some rifle-size sticks and played army, but we were now too old for that kind of thing: we were about to enter the eighth grade.
Ken sat down on a tree stump and threw dirt clods at a resting tractor. “I want to tell you something,” he said without looking at me. “But you have to promise not to tell anyone else.”
“Okay. I promise.”
“I was born on another planet.” He sounded serious.
“What planet?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I was real young when they abandoned me here. But I think I came from Mars.”
We discussed all the planets in our solar system, and agreed that Mars was the most reasonable candidate. We ruled out light-speed transportation.
“Can you remember any canals?” I asked.
He shook his head.
That evening, at the dinner table, I studied my parents’ faces. The resemblance I bore to them seemed insignificant: perhaps even accidental. Who were these people? Why was I with them? I weighed what Ken had told me about his birthright. Was it possible we shared the same home-planet? Or could he have been pulling my leg?
I thought back to my third grade classmate, Jimmy Schneider, who had once tricked me into looking for miniature dinosaurs in the cornfield bordering the school playground. I never really believed Jimmy’s story. I knew that the footprints he’d pointed out to me were raven tracks—not the wanderings of a pint-sized Tyrannosaurus rex. Nevertheless, I followed Jimmy, at recess, under the chain link fence, into the cornfield, and later into the principal’s office, for my first and only school paddling.
But that was kid’s stuff, willing make-believe. Ken was neither a liar nor a practical joker. His confession was earnest and disturbing and strangely credible. It made me think back even further: to when I was five or six. I had certain thoughts then—creepy thoughts—that seemed to come from somewhere outside my own making. I somehow got the notion that everyone on the planet was putting me on; that when they left a room, they would go to some secret place to compare notes and plan the next illusion for keeping me in the dark. The play was all for my benefit; everything that happened was only performance, props and acting, and the real world—whatever that was—would always be in another place, just beyond my reach.
“Why aren’t you eating?” my mother broke through my thoughts. Her timing was scary. “Have you been eating those malt balls again? I told you not to eat those things before dinner.”
“I didn’t have any malt balls.”
“What, then? Are you sick? Let me feel your forehead.”
The following morning, I walked the four blocks to Ken’s house. I normally would have met him on the sidewalk, but today I was anxious to tell him my revelation: that I, too, was of Martian blood. I rang the doorbell.
Mrs. Delaney answered the door and I introduced myself. She called out for Ken and then asked if I’d like some cookies. She seemed very pleasant. When Ken arrived she said she would put some Oreos out on the kitchen table.
“Just leave us alone,” Ken sneered at his mother. “Stay out of my life.”
I was dumbstruck. I had never heard anyone talk to his mother that way—leastwise, not in front of company. Mrs. Delaney’s face turned deep red. Her eyes welled and her mouth tightened to a shriveled scar. I half-expected her to slap Ken’s unguarded face, but she instead hurried from the room.
Ken instructed me to follow him down a hallway, as if I were a client with an appointment.
He shared a bedroom with his older brother, Dom. As I entered the room, I noticed a small holy water font next to the light switch—just like the holy water font in my own bedroom. Out of habit, we both dipped our fingers and crossed ourselves. I saw nothing of the penitent in Ken’s face. A German Mauser hung above the door: a trophy, I was told, from their father’s participation in the Second World War. Not to be outdone, I mentioned my dad’s Nazi helmet and bayonet. “The helmet has a bullet hole in it,” I said.
Three of their bedroom walls were decorated with college pennants and pictures of Sandy Koufax, Sophia Loren, the Mercury astronauts, and the official White House portrait of Kennedy: in which the President sits at his desk, looking up from a stack of papers. Kennedy was my hero. I admired his wit and courage and intelligence. But for some reason, the look on his face in this portrait troubled me. I couldn’t tell whether he was about to smile or was perturbed at being interrupted from his reading.
A small crucifix had its own uncluttered space above Ken and Dom’s bunk beds. It was a graphic representation of the crucified Christ: with parchment-colored skin and bright-red blood streaming from His wounds.
My older brother and I no longer shared a room, but I had always wanted bunk beds. I thought it would be manly to climb aloft to sleep. Dom now sat atop his bunk reading a book. He seemed a more handsome version of his younger brother. I decided not to mention anything Martian, unless Ken gave the okay.
“What are you reading?” I asked Dom.
“War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells,” he said. “Have you read it?”
“I saw the movie.”
Ken showed no interest in the topic. He suggested we play three-way burnout in the backyard. He lent me a decent fielder’s glove.
The brothers threw the hardball at each other with much more velocity than when they threw to me. There was for awhile a silent tension between the two, until Dom spoke out.
“You shouldn’t talk to Linda the way you do,” he said to Ken. “She’s been real kind to us.”
“She’s a bitch,” Ken said.
“Don’t say that.”
“She’s a dumb bitch and I hate her guts.”
The brothers threw down their gloves and slowly approached each other, as if in the preliminaries of a duel. A short pushing match ensued and Dom took Ken to the lawn in a legal wrestling hold. It was impressive. Both boys were in top physical shape (I had noticed a 125 pounds set of weights on their patio). No punches were thrown—it was all formal wrestling. Ken fought bravely but he was no match for his older brother, who had pinned Ken’s arms with his knees and begun a round of Chinese water torture: the relentless metronomic poke of the index finger into the sternum.
“Take it back,” said Dom. Tap-tap-tap-tap . . .
“She’s a dumb bitch and I hate her guts,” Ken persisted.
“Take it back.” Tap-tap-tap-tap . . . “Say uncle.” Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap . . .
Ken seemed willing to die rather than surrender. Dom did not have the killer instinct. The match ended in an uncertain draw.
Later that day I asked Ken who Linda was.
“She’s supposed to be my stepmother, but she’s nothing. She’s a dumb bitch and I hate her guts.”
That was all he would say about the woman who had offered me Oreos. Martian citizenship would also become a dead topic.
When I got home that afternoon, my mother told me she had spoken on the telephone with Mrs. Delaney. “We had a long talk,” she said. “Mrs. Delaney said you have good manners.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t want to betray my friend by taking the side of his enemy. But then I surprised myself. I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: I confided in my mother.
“She’s Ken’s stepmother, actually,” I said. “He hates her. I can’t understand why; she seems really nice.”
“She is really nice,” my mother said. “But try to be understanding with Ken. Be patient. Think about what it would be like if I died. I would hope you would think that no one else could replace me. Because it’s true. We’re not furniture. We can’t be replaced. Ken is dealing with something impossible to comprehend: the early death of a parent. Right now, anger is the only way he can express his grief. He’ll find better ways as he gets older.”
I was taken aback by my mother’s show of intelligence and compassion. I had no idea.
That night, sleep came in small doses. I was attacked from all angles by the dark and persistent thought of losing my own mother. I tried to suppress the thought, but it was no use: I was paying the penalty for knowledge.
In the morning I walked to Ken’s house. We got on the topic of our upcoming confirmations. We had both chosen the names of saints who had not been martyred. We favored the idea of leading a holy life without dismemberment or violent death. I chose St. Patrick. I admired his courage and faith and power of persuasion. I loved the legends surrounding him and the fact that he was the patron saint of Ireland: the land of my ancestors.
“You do know that he never really chased out any snakes, don’t you?” Ken quizzed me.
“Of course,” I said. “The snakes were a—what-do-ya-call-it.”
“Yeah. The snakes represent evil, the devil . . . things like that.”
Ken said he had picked St. Augustine. He liked the fact that Augustine had written great books and had led an adventurous life that included several girlfriends. “He was one of the smartest men who ever lived,” Ken said. He also confessed that he wanted to be able to use “Gus” for a nickname.
Later in the day, as we were playing a game of Yahtzee, Ken fell into one of his silent moods.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My dad and the Bitch said they were going to send me to a Catholic junior high.”
He shrugged his shoulders resignedly. He then suggested we walk to the TG&Y so he could buy a kit model of The Wolf Man. “You can paint the legs,” he said.
During dinner, my mother mentioned that she had again been on the telephone with Mrs. Delaney, and that the two of them came up with a plan to help Ken and me keep in touch—even though we’d be going to different schools. The plan was to set aside every other Friday, for a shared recreation. It could be a movie or miniature golf or something else—the choice would be ours.
For the first of our Friday outings, we chose the Balboa Fun Zone. Mrs. Delaney drove us through Balboa Island and onto the ferry for a three-minute boat ride to the Fun Zone. Island is a generous term for this platter of soil connected to the mainland by a bridge the length of a driveway. Balboa Island consists of a tiny downtown and web of narrow streets with houses and shops crammed together like pieces on a Monopoly game board. But the ferry ride to the Fun Zone made me feel like a sailor headed for a raucous shore-leave in an exotic foreign port.
It was the last weekend before the start of a new school year, and the Fun Zone was packed. First thing we did was ride the Ferris wheel. We bought frozen bananas, checked out the girls, hit the penny arcade, and bought some souvenir novelties. When we got back home, Mrs. Delaney prepared us a dinner of cheese toasties and tomato soup. We ended up in the brothers’ bedroom: comparing our souvenirs and observations.
“Friday after next, I’ll kick your butt in miniature golf,” said Ken.
Dom suggested that the next time we should instead ask to be taken to Knott’s Berry Farm. “It doesn’t cost anything to get in. You can spend time at the old-fashioned penny arcade, walk around the lagoon and the Ghost Town . . . drink boysenberry juice. You can watch real cancan girls at the Calico Saloon—that’s the best.” He showed us the garter belt he’d once caught from a Calico Saloon cancan girl. He kept it slung around his top bunk bedpost. “She tossed it right to me,” he said.
“Bullshit,” Ken said. “She just threw it without even looking.”
“She looked me right in the eyes and tossed it to me. She chose me.”
“Can I see it?” I said.
Dom twirled the belt around his index finger then let it fly down to me. I dropped it.
“You better be able to catch it, if a cancan girl tosses one to you,” said Dom.
“Maybe we should go to Knott’s Berry Farm, next time,” I said to Ken.
“We already decided to go miniature golfing.”
“Well, then, how about the time after that?”
“Okay. Knott’s Berry Farm after miniature golf.”
The Knott’s Berry Farm adventure would be pushed ahead one more time. My mother insisted on taking us to see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. “It won’t be here next week,” she said, “so we’d better see it now.”
Ken and I were glad we saw the movie; every comedian in the world was in it. The Three Stooges even made a cameo appearance.
Two weeks later, we were finally set to go to Knott’s Berry Farm. Mrs. Delaney would drop us off and then pick us up at closing time. We would be left on our own. We were now officially “teenagers.”
At school that day, my mind was far from the curriculum. Most of the students in my afternoon social studies class were suffering from a similar brand of yearning. A combination of hormones and the celebratory mood of Friday made all of us anxious and scatterbrained. Mrs. Ford’s lecture reached my ears as a mere humming noise. I was thinking about boysenberry juice and garter belts.
“And what do you think about that?” said Mrs. Ford, suddenly standing before my desk.
“It’s difficult to say,” I said, as if I’d been listening.
She looked at me long enough to let me know she was on to me. “I’ll bet,” she said at last.
It took me no time to retreat back into my head, where my thoughts continued to bounce between the mundane and the adolescent erotic. I meditated on Gerald Jacob’s cowlick: how it formed a perfect question mark. I did my best in imagining certain girls naked. I marveled at Steven Knoll’s ability to decorate the blank areas of his Pee Chee folder with accurate drawings of tanks, diving Messerschmitts, and the bolt-action rifles used in the Second World War. I dreaded the looming threat of fish-sticks for dinner.
I was off somewhere in the middle of a heroic daydream when Joe Looney tapped me on the back of the head and whispered that he could see Lorrie Easley’s nipples when she bent over to get something from under her desk.
I couldn’t see a thing.
Just then, a faceless boy entered the classroom and said that the radio was on in his woodshop class and some guy had interrupted the music to say that President Kennedy had been shot.
The whole class made a clipped gasping noise: like a huge machine coming to an abrupt halt.
“Mr. Swanson wanted me to tell you,” the boy said, as if offering an excuse or apology.
Mrs. Ford began to say something but rushed from the room before she could finish. A long silence held, until the principal’s quivering voice reported over the intercom the news from Dallas.
To this day I can remember every detail of President Kennedy’s televised funeral—the empty saddle, my family weeping, the steadfast cadence of tenor drums, the Irish Cadets at the gravesite—but I remember very little from the principal’s confirmation of the President’s death. I remember only that I had been set adrift in a classroom full of people my own age, and that none of us knew what to do next.