A short story about adolescence, where a clever scheme is hatched in order to thwart the will of those who wish to oppress fun…
by: T.E. Cowell ((Header art by Randy Lewis.))
My parents say something about how nice our neighbors are and how nice it is to know everyone in the neighborhood. They go on about how friendly everyone is once you get out of the city, a conversation that began during during the first commercial break of The Simpsons. I remind my parents that it’s not a city we line in but a town, a town with no such thing as stoplights and only two main streets that make an enlarged plus sign. My mom tells me to quit being such a smart aleck, that they mean Seattle, the city they fled from before I was born.
“What about our neighbor Gordon?” I say. “He doesn’t seem too friendly.”
“No,” dad says. “He’s the exception here. That guy’s a jerk.” He points a sideways thumb through the wood-paneled wall of our living room, past the framed landscape paintings my mom did when she first moved out here with my dad, before me or my brothers were born, when the nature of the land inspired her creativity.
“Jacob,” my mom says, but my dad makes no indication of having heard her.
“What makes him a jerk?” I ask.
“Probably his parents,” my dad says, his eyes fixed on a muted Budget, Brake and Muffler commercial. He hates commercials and mutes them whenever they come on.
“So his parents are jerks too?” I say.
“It’s highly likely,” my dad says. “That reminds me, I don’t want you guys tearing around on his property anymore. You hear me?”
We don’t say anything, me or my brothers.
“You hear me?” my dad says again.
“Loud and clear,” I say. My little brothers moan their complaints from the couch.
“I mean it,” my dad demands.
I’m thinking there’s no way we’re going to give up playing baseball just like that. My brothers must be thinking the same thing as my dad points the remote back at the TV. The Simpsons is back on, but I’m not following it the same anymore, and I can tell my brothers aren’t either, none of us laugh at the funny parts.
Once the show ends, my mom says goodnight and leaves the room to get ready for bed — she likes to read for an hour or so before falling asleep. She’s in a book club with some of her friends. I asked her one time what she does at her book club. “We sit in a circle and talk about different books we’ve read,” she replied. If I ever joined a book club I’d pray for lightning to strike some sense into me — books are for people who don’t know how to have fun — like Gordon and his two sons. They probably read Shakespeare to each other and address themselves in Old English. “How was thou day? How art thou feeling? How bored art thou?” A square is what Gordon is, in my opinion, not the jerk my dad claims him as. The same goes for his two sons.
Because we don’t live in town, my brothers and I take the bus home from school most days. Gordon’s sons also take the bus, though me and my brothers don’t sit anywhere near them. I sit near the back and my brothers sit somewhere in the middle, while Gordon’s sons sit up front. They have no friends and no social skills or athletic ability. They sit as stiff as peacocks during the hour-long length of the bus ride with books open in their laps, heads bent to the page. I don’t know what they’re reading and I don’t care. They’re always reading, always behaved, and the bus is always loud with the frenzied shouting of kids free from school for another afternoon. Every five minutes or so the bus driver turns a rock n’ roll station down, one that’s always playing that “Loser” song or that “Mysterious Way”s one, to yell at us to quiet down. Some kids shoot spit wads at the backs of girl’s heads. I don’t, but sometimes I can’t help laughing when I see a wet ball of paper stuck in a girl’s braids.
Gordon’s sons never laugh, never do anything except read as far as I can tell. Because they always sit in the front of the bus they get off first. My brothers and I follow them along the blacktop road that leads home, staying a ways behind them. For the most part Gordon’s sons pretend we don’t exist, and we do the same.
After being on the bus for nearly an hour, the silence on the road is stifling. The echo of all the bus-noise sticks in my head like the remains of a dream as we walk on home. Gordon’s sons walk alongside the road like soldiers might, with their JanSport backpacks flapping against their backs in rhythm with their stiff steps. My brothers snicker and imitate their walk, their posture, but I shove them and they quickly cut it out. I don’t want my brothers turning into bullies. I know the feeling of giving someone a bloody nose and it’s not a good one.
Gordon’s sons turn off the road and go down their driveway without so much as glancing back at us, and my brothers and I pass their driveway and go down the next one. Through the trees, our neighbor’s house is hard to see; it’s dark and wooden and camouflaged by all the trees that surround it. In the boonies there’s nothing but trees and more trees, half-hidden driveways leading to half-hidden houses.
Once Gordon’s sons go inside their house they don’t come back out until the next morning to catch the bus. I know because I’m always outside, kicking the soccer ball at the garage door, shooting the basketball at the hoop nailed to the tree, or playing my favorite sport of all, baseball. Because I’m left-handed, I play first base and sometimes pitcher for my middle school team, The Badgers. Ken Griffey Jr. is also left-handed and has the same birthday as me, and I don’t believe in coincidences. I’ve watched The Sandlot so many times the tape has stopped working.
My brothers and I stop short of the house and drop our backpacks on the ground in the shape of a diamond. Then I grab the bat and our gloves from the garage. I toss my brothers their gloves and then close the garage door. Then I stand in front of the garage, bat in hand. My brothers slip their gloves on while I take some practice swings.
“Alright,” I say.
Joe pitches and Jimmy plays outfield. The first pitch I hit right in the sweet spot and the ball soars over my brothers’ heads, over the woodpile and onto our neighbor Gordon’s property.
“1-0!” I shout. My brothers look at each other, then at me.
“Jimmy, go get it,” I say.
Jimmy disappears behind the woodpile. A minute later he comes back with the ball. He tosses it to Joe and then runs up to me. He looks back at our neighbor’s house as he runs.
“What is it?” I say.
“I saw someone through the window,” he says.
“Crap. Did they see you?”
“I think so.”
“I think so.”
“Crap. That didn’t take long.”
“Dad’s gonna be mad at us.”
“Only if he finds out,” I say. “Come on, let’s keep playing.”
It’s not my dad that finds out, but my mom. She gets home from work first, while we’re still playing baseball. I run over to the side of the garage to push the black rectangular button that opens the door. My mom says thanks as she drives her Subaru into the garage. Then she slips inside the house and I close the garage again.
“Strike one!” Joe says after pitching the ball. I feel the frustration as I toss the ball back to him. Jimmy’s standing in the outfield with his legs spread apart, fist-punching his glove. “Here batter batter. Here batter batter,” he chants.
The next pitch I crack a line drive. Joe jumps out of the way just in time and Jimmy reaches for it but isn’t quick enough. The ball bounces off the woodpile and shoots high in the air. Jimmy runs under it with his glove spread wide, and I know he’s got it before gravity works its magic.
“Out!” Jimmy shouts.
I drop the bat and reach for my glove. That’s when my mom comes back outside.
“Boys!” she says. “I need to talk with you.”
From the tone of her voice I know this can’t be good.
“I just got a call from Gordon. He says he saw one of you on his property again. You boys are not to go over there, understand?”
My brothers nod.
“Dinner will be ready in forty minutes,” she says. She gives us another look-over before going back inside.
We keep playing, but are careful not to swing for homers anymore. Before my dad gets home we’ve switched to basketball — tips, then 2 on 1. I keep thinking about baseball because basketball’s nowhere near as fun. Then my mom yells, “Dinnertime!” and suddenly I’m starving. I glance through the trees at Gordon’s house before following my brothers inside.
“Hey!” I say the next day as the roar of the school bus engine fades down the road. “Why’s your dad such a jerk?”
Gordon’s sons turn around and stare at me like I just hit them. My brothers snicker, but after I give them each a push they cut it out. They don’t say anything at first but look from me to each other and then back to me, resembling deer trapped in headlights.
“What’s your dad care if we step on his property for a second to retrieve a ball?” I say.
“Our dad doesn’t like distractions,” one of them says. It’s the first time I’ve heard either of them say a word. His voice is shaky and nasally, just as I’d expected.
“Is he always reading too?” I say.
My brothers snicker again. I air-punch them.
“Reading or writing,” the other one says.
“He likes his peace and quiet, huh?” I say.
“Pretty much,” they say together.
I don’t say anything more. They continue to walk ahead of us, and when my brothers start imitating their walk again, for once I don’t stop them.
I have an idea. It comes to me on the bus ride home from school the next day. Joe’s birthday is coming up, so once we’re off the bus I say, “Hey Joe, tell mom and dad you want a drum kit for your birthday.”
“But I don’t want a drum kit,” Joe says.
“You wanna keep playing baseball though, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, glaring at our neighbor’s sons up ahead. “It’s not as fun now that we can’t try for homers though.”
“That’s why you should ask for a drum kit.”
“I don’t get it,” Joe says.
“Just ask for a drum kit,” I say.
Later that evening, when The Simpsons goes to commercials, I ask my dad why our neighbor Gordon is a jerk.
“Did some design work for him,” my dad says. He takes a swig from a can of Budweiser, and I think that’s all he’s gonna say until he says, “Showed him the blueprints for the add-on he asked about and never heard back from him. Didn’t pay me a penny for my time. The guy’s got no etiquette in my opinion.”
“What does he do?” I ask.
“Beats me,” my dad says. “As far as I know he doesn’t do anything. I don’t know his story and I don’t want to know it. He’s not my kind of person.”
“Jacob,” my mom says. “That’s no way to talk.”
“Yeah, well, it’s true,” my dad says. “I wish he’d never moved here.”
My dad gets up from his La-Z-Boy, and then I hear him crack open another beer from the fridge. My mom says goodnight to me and my brothers and leaves the room to read in bed.
Joe turns ten on the weekend, and gets the drum kit he asked for. My dad tells him only to play it when he’s not around, when he’s at work, otherwise it’ll be confiscated. I look at the picture on the cardboard box. There’s a tambourine and two drums and even a foot pedal that pounds a bigger drum. It’ll do just fine.
All of Joe’s friends come over on the weekend for his party. They tear around our property, playing hide-and-go-seek-tag. We don’t have a lot of property, but what we do have is a lot of trees. Whoever’s “it” stands by the woodpile and closes their eyes and counts to sixty, while everyone else runs into the woods. Some of the kids climb the Douglas Fir or the Western Red Cedar trees, hoping whoever’s “it” will run right past without seeing them. Others hide near the house or the corner of the garage, waiting for their chance to sprint to the woodpile — the designated base. There’s no shortage of screaming and laughter, arguments over whether or not someone got tagged or made it to base safely. Joe and his friends take these games seriously, the way I take baseball.
After tag there’s pizza, and after pizza there’s cake. Joe blows out ten candles, and after the cake we all watch Billy Madison. Joe and all his friends take up the living room to watch it. My mom drags a few old mattresses down from the attic for everyone.
Before it gets too late I sneak outside. In our neighbor’s house I can see a few lights on, squares of gold against the darkness. I wonder if Gordon’s sons feel left out, they had to have heard Joe and all his friends tearing around making noise. I wonder if they read through it all, and how Gordon took the noise of a dozen kids having fun. Like my dad, I bet Gordon himself wishes right about now he’d never moved here.
“Hey!” I say. “What’s your dad do?”
Gordon’s sons stop on the side of the road and turn around; the school bus is a distant drone of sound. I air-punch my brothers.
“What do you mean?” one of them says.
“For work,” I say.
“He writes,” the other says.
“Books,” they say.
“What’s he write about?”
“People. People and their problems.”
“What kind of problems?” I say.
“Grownup ones,” one of them says.
“Yeah?” I say. “Speaking of grownups, how come your dad didn’t get back to mine about the add-on?”
I watch them both glance nervously at each other.
“It’s just a question,” I say.
“He thought the price estimate was too steep,” one of them says. “He’s waiting to see how his new book does. If it does well then he’ll build a soundproof study room. If it doesn’t, he says he’ll have to wait.”
“Soundproof, huh?” I say.
“He’s very serious about his work.”
“So am I with baseball,” I say.
My brothers help me carry the drum kit out of the house and over next to the woodpile once we get home. I take the kit out of the box and set it in the dirt, grab the drumsticks and start banging away on the thing. My brothers break out laughing, hiding their mouths with their hands like this is the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Like me, they’re looking through the trees at our neighbor’s house.
It doesn’t take more than a minute until I see a figure in the front window, then Gordon crossing his driveway in a hurry. My brothers stop laughing when they see him, and I do a riff on the tambourines. Gordon stops at the edge of his property line and starts shouting at me. I keep banging away on the drums, pretending to be self-absorbed in the rhythm-less noise. Gordon cuffs his hands over his mouth, and finally I stop.
“Do you have to make so much noise?” he says.
Considering how rarely I see Gordon, he looks funny outside of his house — somehow out of his element. He’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, a white V-neck t-shirt, blue jeans, and brown slippers.
“Like my new drum kit?” I say to him.
“It’s my drum kit,” Joe corrects me.
“Sorry,” I say. “My brother’s new drum kit.”
“Is this fun for you?” Gordon says, resting his hands on his hips. “You take pleasure out of bugging others?”
“Only when they leave me little choice,” I say.
“How old are you?” Gordon says, and squints at me like I’m a puzzle to solve.
“Listen,” I say. “Baseball season’s coming up, so I’m either banging on these drums every day when I get home from school or when me and my brothers step on your property to retrieve a ball, you let us without calling our parents.”
Gordon pauses before saying, “It’s my brothers and I.” He removes his hands from his hips and crosses his arms, reminding me of an umpire after he’s made a tough call.
“What?” I say.
“My brothers and I. If you’re going to speak English, try and do so correctly.”
“Okay, professor,” I say. “So have we got a deal then?”
Gordon looks at me looking right back at him, and then his balding head slowly nods. “We’ve got a deal,” he says.
“Let’s shake on it,” I say.
I walk past the woodpile and stop just behind the steel peg driven into the ground that marks the property line. I reach out my hand and Gordon does the same. His hand swallows mine like a glove. Shaking, I look him in the eye.
“You’ve got some nerve, kid,” he says before releasing my hand.
Then he’s walking away, back in the direction of his house. I start walking away too, but then I remember and turn back around. “Good luck with the book,” I shout.
If he heard me he doesn’t bother turning around. He climbs the stairs and disappears inside, and that’s when I notice his two sons staring at me through the window. I wave at them, and to my surprise they wave back.