Excerpt from a short story
I can’t remember his name, or even if I knew his name. My best guess is Marty. He was the angriest kid in second grade—a stained, wiry limbed, musty-sour-smelling, quick-tempered, cat-kicking punk. It isn’t easy to believe that second graders can be punks. They can.
In those days we wandered the streets in our neighborhoods in search of others who, like us, had been banished from our houses until dinner. (Adults had neither the time nor the inclination to entertain listless kids. Go outside and come back at dinnertime. Find one of your friends.)
Finding my friends, in theory, was a good idea; logistics, however, came into play. Between my house and my friends was the dangerous corner house — home of the Bad Seeds. Both the sidewalk in front and the alley behind were within view of the Bad Seeds’ panopticon of malevolent observation. These fully operational thugs ranged in age from the oldest, sinister twin boys who were in fifth grade, to the youngest demon, who was in first grade. In the middle was the third-grader, a kid who seemed like he had the potential to be nice, but easily overcame any inclination to do so. They were ostensibly my friends when they weren’t threatening, bullying, or hoodwinking me—those in-between moments when they were thinking of a new way to inflict unhappiness; or had a plan in motion that I wasn’t yet aware of.
During the school year they seemed to disperse to the dark corners of the universe when classes let out, re-materializing on their driveway at dinnertime. On some weekends and for weeks at a time in the summer they would go with their mother to visit her family in Kentucky, leaving their father at home. He never appeared during these times. The only clue that he was in the house was the going on and off of lights in downstairs and upstairs windows. It was safe for me to travel freely during these times, keeping a watch eye out of course for the return of the Bad Seeds. When they returned, the sidewalks were once more under threat.
To avoid them I could go all the way around the block in the other direction and end up on Washington Street. Marty lived a few blocks down, near our school. His house was an apartment in a duplex made by demolishing one of the old Elizabethan houses that lined that part of the street. It was a flimsy, two-story gray box that was less than a decade old, but looked exhausted and grimy. There were sloppy wooden stairs up the side that led to the second floor. Unidentifiable debris was draped over the 2×4 handrail in a cascade that flowed onto the steps and down to the asphalt paving below.
As I came up the block Marty would usually appear from somewhere in there and amble down the asphalt yelling, “Hey, kid! Cm’ere!” I knew Marty was in second grade, but I had never actually seen him in school. He’d asked me once what grade I was in, probably looking for an angle of superiority, then grunted, “Huh. Me too,” when we turned out to be the same age. He was small, I was tall, and what he lacked in size he made up for in hair-trigger rage, backed by the recklessness of a boy who had always been denied the allowance of fear.
Though I would never have wanted to be in a classroom with him, I sometimes wished Marty could have my second grade teacher, Miss Schultz. She had a gentle scent of corkboard, mimeograph, coffee, mild perfume and cigarettes; a smell of comfort and adultness. I was uncommonly naive. My first grade teacher had sent me to the principal’s office several times a week for infractions I did not understand how I had committed—but Miss Schultz enlivened me and guided my energy. For me, she was a beneficial luxury. For Marty, she might have been salvation.
The last time I saw Marty was in the summer, on my way to Snyder’s, the neighborhood corner store. It was four blocks down my street by direct route, and twelve blocks by the Bad Seed avoidance route. I nearly went by the direct route, as I suspected that the Bad Seeds were leaving for Kentucky. I couldn’t be sure, though, and if they were just waiting for their mother to round them up into the car they could be especially poisonous. Working fast was not outside their range, but it meant foregoing the finesse and nuance of their typically well-honed methods. The resulting damage was no less severe, but by its compression, had more blunt impact.
There was another reason to go the long way: I had a quarter and was going to buy either a popsicle or a push-up. I had learned through experience that this introduced a few additional risks to my trip. First, I had a quarter. Once, on an illicit excursion to the abandoned Angler’s Club (which was not only illegally trespassing, but was also outside my parentally-set boundaries), I had walked right into a Bad Seed setup.