There was a tear in our screen door and I would peek through it at the little houses across the street. The house across from ours was purple. There were many wild-colored houses on our block, like a row of cheap drinks; their great snarls of TV antennas were the swizzle sticks. I’d watch Daphne Poalua, a little Hawaiian girl, come shimmying down the street in her bikini, her skin a creamy, chocolate brown. Daphne was only ten, my age, but she had hips like a grown woman and lips like plums.
In the evenings the men came home from work. Most of them made rockets or bombs. Some were mechanics or bricklayers. They parked their giant, faded cars along the curbs underneath the pepper trees and hauled their empty lunch buckets up the driveways. The pepper trees dropped sweet, sticky, papery red berries that covered everything in a carpet of crisp crimson snow. The berries were the size of BBs and there were millions of them; the men shuffled through them up the driveways and into their houses.
The name of the street was Blue River Avenue, though there was no river for twenty miles; just little California ranch houses and scruffy, square lawns and old, faded cars parked under the pepper trees. At dusk, after dinner, the children would come out to play. Whenever they let me play with them I got trounced or beaten up. Most of the children had small souls: blue or green. The mean ones had the greenest souls. On Sunday afternoons the green-souled children would seek me out; they’d come to my door and ask my mother if I could come out and play. My mother would touch the back of my neck and nudge me outside; she wanted me to make friends. I could never tell her what was about to happen.
Each night my father listened to a giant maple radio, and I lay awake and cataloged the ways to die. Once I’d thought of a way to die — getting run over by a train, for instance — I could not die that way. I thought of poison needles in my eyeballs and runaway bulldozers and getting eaten by wild dogs. If I could think of every possible way of dying, I would never die. It took a long time to fall asleep, and even then I had dreams about death. I dreamed of light bulbs flashing on and off, of witches and gorillas and old green men. I felt their arms and hair and breath. I knew there were too many ways to die; I couldn’t possibly count them all.
Each morning my mom woke me and fed me eggs and syrup-puddled pancakes. I ate like a machine and walked to school alone at sunrise with my violin in hand. At school, I sat in cold, clean rooms listening to the teachers’ faraway voices that sounded like astronauts. When I walked home, my mind was in another world.
The children watched me as if I were a stranger. I wanted to play with them, but they called me names in shrill voices that cut like glass. I didn’t understand why they hated me. At home, my mom was watching science-fiction movies and ironing. She wore more makeup than a clown and her voice was like sunlight through honey. She gave me onion soup and cinnamon toast, then took me outside and showed me a bird and explained a cloud. We sat together and sucked the nectar out of a hibiscus flower. Back inside, she drew me a soldier — straight and tall, with a blue jacket and brass buttons. He was undefeatable. I tacked him to the wall and for a few days I was him.
I conducted science experiments that I read about in books: I made a fireball out of cornstarch and a straw; I pulled an egg through the neck of a milk bottle with a burning match; I threw a rainbow onto the wall with a pan of water and a mirror. The children were curious about this magic, but I was more useful to them when I was crying on the ground. At dusk they waited for me to come out of my yard. Most of the time it was a kind of blue opium dusk that made me miserable with its endlessness. I sat on the brick wall in front of my house listening to the screams of children like the calls of wild birds. I escaped deep into my imagination.
A new boy named Homer Ashmont moved in down the street. He was athletic and tough looking with a snub nose and a cocked red baseball cap that shadowed his eyes. He sat on the other side of the room in my fourth-grade class. Once, I caught him watching me. He made me nervous because I didn’t know how or when he would strike. His eyes stayed hidden under the shadow of his cap. Sometimes I looked back and saw him following me home.
One day the teacher asked a question about the Panama Canal, and I raised my hand and told her all about the French and the Suez, and she said, Quite right, and everyone hated me for it. I had been reading about it and had even daydreamed about taking a rowboat through the locks. I didn’t really care if everyone hated me for knowing about the Panama Canal; they hated me anyway.
On the way home, Fubsy Miller, a fat, raisin-eyed bully with pointed pig’s ears, caught up with me and demanded to know how I knew so much about the Panama Canal. I told him I’d read about it in a book and he shoved me in the chest, knocking me off the curb. Fubsy claimed to be an expert in judo, and as soon as I got up he was going to give me a few chops and flip me over his back, after which he would sit on my chest and sprinkle grass in my face. All the kids were rushing in for the show. Come on, Panama, he said, putting up his fists. I stood up to fight him. He was all fat, a tiny cement head with slits for eyes.
Then the new kid, Homer, was flying through the crowd, and somebody said, Watch out, Fubsy! Homer jumped and tackled him around the waist. They tumbled over and over, then they were up and Homer landed one and the crowd gave out a little gasp. Fubsy kept his arms up, backpedaling. He didn’t seem like the same person who had beaten me so many times with such ease. Homer kept cracking him in the head and finally Fubsy sat on the ground. Homer stood over him, fists curled, waiting. When Fubsy’s chin dropped to his chest, Homer said, Leave him alone, and all the kids standing around looked at each other — some even nodded approval.
Homer put his arm around me and guided me along the sidewalk. You OK? he said. I kept my eyes down. I wanted to ask him if he knew what he’d just done. He patted me on the back as if he understood. He seemed more relaxed than ever. I caught a glimpse of the crowd in the distance standing around Fubsy, who was still sitting on the ground, rubbing his head.
What a coward, said Homer. He do that all the time?
Well . . . , I said.
You shouldn’t have to fight somebody who’s twice as big as you, he said, pulling down on the bill of his cap. You know?
I pushed my glasses up on my nose.
Homer scooped up a rock and slung it underarm and rang the back of a stop sign ten feet away. I heard you play the violin pretty good, he said.
I looked at him. I couldn’t see his eyes in the shadow under his cockeyed red cap.
My dad said I could play an instrument if I wanted, he said. I can’t decide what to play, though. . . .
Homer walked all the way home with me and told me his life story: He was going to be a lawyer or a pro quarterback. His dad was a lieutenant commander in the navy. I kept waiting for him to turn off down a street or put up his hand and say, Well, see you later, pal, but he stuck right alongside, jabbering and slinging rocks as if we did this every day of the week. Before I knew it, we were crossing the carpet of red pepper berries on my front lawn and walking into my house.
We drank lemonade. Homer had these long, curved teeth like a horse and drank a whole glass in one tilt. I poured him another, then took him to my room and showed him my prize possessions: my Royal typewriter, a magazine I was working on with drawings of people getting their heads chopped off, a stuffed rattlesnake in a coil, my collection of 78s, and a piece of beef liver dissolving in a cup of Coca-Cola. Homer tried to play my violin but couldn’t get the hang of it, so he strummed it like a ukulele.
After that he took me to his house. He lived right across the street from Daphne Poalua, the little Hawaiian girl I was in love with. His parents had just added on a front room with wood paneling like a mountain cabin. His mom was sitting on the couch in that room like a tall ghost drinking pink wine. Homer went straight to the kitchen and turned on the new garbage disposal that his father had just put in, then dug a jelly jar out of the trash and stuffed it down the wide drain. The crashing of the jar in the disposal sent vibrations up my spine. I clamped my hands over my ears. Homer just grinned at me. It sharpens the blades! he shouted. My dad showed me how to do it! I was waiting for his mom to bustle into the room and beat him with a broom, but she just sat there on the couch, sipping her wine. Finally he shut it off, and the silence was like pain going away. Then he took me to his room and showed me all his athletic equipment, the signed baseball posters on the walls, his little television set, and a tiny orange horned toad in a jar.
I had dinner at his house. I met his naval-officer dad, who looked like a movie actor with deep creases in his cheeks and a great orange soul burning like a fire in his chest. Homer’s two sisters had red-dot souls. One kicked me under the table. She had a slightly bigger dot and when she kicked me I could see it flare up and her eyes wrinkled as she smiled. Everyone asked me questions and Homer’s dad served up the beef stroganoff. Homer told them that he was going to play an instrument in the school orchestra like me. His dad laughed a lot and kept making jokes no one understood, while Homer’s mom peered over the top of her wine glass, blinking like a woman in a trance.
After dinner, Homer and I ran all over the neighborhood and down to the store and through the alleys. We climbed a tree and threw limes, and I got my shoes wet and ripped my pants; it was like being someone else, as if I had accidentally slipped into the wrong life somehow. I figured it would eventually repair itself, but meanwhile I was going to live it up like a stranger at the ball. I ran and laughed and screamed until I got the hiccups. When it was dark and time to go in, Homer shook my hand and told me he would come by in the morning and walk with me to school. I didn’t believe him but said OK. Then I watched him go inside and I stood for a long while hiccuping and listening to the wind in the trees. That night, before I fell asleep, I couldn’t think of a single decent way to die.
Suddenly, the other kids were leaving me alone. The sun was high and bright like a diamond. The white pebbles on the rooftops blinded me. The crowns of the trees blazed. The black streets shimmered like rivers of tar and the houses along the way looked like the paintings on cans of Dutch cookies.
The kids not only left me alone, but began to like me, or at least act as if they did. They were probably afraid to be left out, so they invited me over to their houses, sometimes with Homer, sometimes even by myself. The McDermott brothers showed me porno magazines and how to shoot a BB gun. The Grahams taught me how to burn a hole in a stink bug with a magnifying glass. Roddy Kelton took me up into his treehouse to play strip poker and I got to see his thing, which looked like a bean sprout. Even Daphne Poalua invited me into her back yard to see her father’s goldfish pond, but her big dog knocked me in and, as the dark, swampy water came gurgling over my ears, I panicked because I’d never thought of drowning in a goldfish pond.
Mr. Ashmont bought Homer a used cello — nicked and peeled like an old cigar with a patch of white rosin like peppermint dust around the bridge — and Homer got himself in the school orchestra. He was the third cello out of three. We practiced together almost every day, sometimes at my house, sometimes at his, and pretty soon he knew all the parts by heart.
I got Homer to read books. There was one called The Survivor, about a bunch of guys trapped in a leaky submarine at the bottom of the ocean. The water was pouring in through the hatches and the sailors were in a panic about how to get out. One guy said that if you blew your breath out the whole way, you wouldn’t be crushed by the immense water pressure. No one listened to him; they all climbed through the hatches and held their breath and exploded like balloons, while the one guy kept blowing the air out of his lungs. He was The Survivor, the only one who made it. He ended up on a desert island and got saved at the end. Homer read that book twice.
One day when I went down to Homer’s with my violin to practice, there was a big crowd around his house and five police cars and an ambulance with its back doors open, and they were loading someone into it. I stood on my toes, but I couldn’t see who it was. I prayed to God it wasn’t Homer. Then someone said it was Mrs. Ashmont; then someone else said suicide. When I got home my mom was on the phone, wiping her eyes. I told her what I’d heard, and she knelt down to my level and said that the news was wrong, that Homer’s mom had probably taken too many pills by accident.
Mrs. Ashmont was in the hospital for two weeks. At school, the children talked behind Homer’s back, and he was so upset his father took him out for a few days, which was almost worse for him. He seemed to have lost all his blood, like a boy made of chalk. I stayed with him, walked with him, did everything I could: brought him chocolate bars and showed him magic tricks and got my mother to take us to see The Dirty Dozen twice; read him The Survivor and gave a speech and told jokes and stayed up late with him. I even prayed once. But I felt about as useless as a human being could be.
When Homer’s mom came back from the hospital, she was pale and thin and didn’t eat much and called me by the wrong name. Mr. Ashmont took afternoons off. He sang opera and brought home presents. There were swirls of cool colors in him now, twists of blue and even speckles of green. He took the family out to movies and dinner, and I went along. Mrs. Ashmont smiled, but she was drained and blue as the sky. Music seemed to cheer her up, so Homer and I played for her whenever we could. She liked waltzes, the “Blue Danube” and the “Minute Waltz.” We’d rosin up our bows and lay our music on the stands and play for all we were worth. She would get up and drift around the room as we played. Sometimes when I came to play I found her sprawled across the couch, one naked leg sticking out of her robe, the ashtray on the floor filled with cigarettes, the television blaring, a glass of wine spilled on the carpet at her feet. She cackled when she laughed and there was lipstick caked on her teeth.
One time Mrs. Ashmont drove us to the carnival. She seemed to be getting better, but she watched me nervously as if I knew something about her. She stood outside the rides and exhibits with her arms folded on her chest and the wind ruffling her hair while Homer and I went in and saw the giant rats and the two-headed girl and the iodine man, and rode the flying chairs and the rockets and, finally, the Wild Mouse. As the roller coaster began its climb, I sat listening to the grind of the chain and looking up at the sky, and it suddenly occurred to me that this might be how I was going to die: the cart I was in was going to slip on its track and go plummeting over the side. So, as quickly as I could, I envisioned the whole scene: flying off the Wild Mouse and everyone screaming and tattered metal, the horror and guts and flames and me in the middle of it all, dead. Then I caught a glimpse of Homer’s mom. She was way down on the ground wearing blue and there was blue like a mist all around her.
Homer told me the news one day while we were riding our bicycles down the street; he’d been strange all morning and all at once he stopped his bike and looked at me with this horrible sorrow on his face and he blurted it out — My parents are getting a divorce — then took off, tears streaming from his eyes. I tumbled after him; I wanted to tell him that it was a mistake, that it couldn’t really happen, but he kept opening ground between us. I slowed for a minute and watched him pull away, a thin, bobbing shape against a whirling sky; then he banked and rose, raced along its edge, a blur of clouds like snow along train windows. I thought he might be dying, or finally giving up: my first, last, and only friend. Don’t leave without me, I thought, and I put my head down and laid into the pedals.
Homer moved away in a matter of weeks, went with his father to live in Virginia. Whenever I think of him it is of the last time I saw him: on that bicycle riding into a place where I cannot follow, and I am trying to catch him. And I cannot catch him.