When I learned that my friend Sean had self-published his novel, not only was I eager to buy it (review to come as I plan on reading this book over the Thanksgiving holiday), I wondered whether I should do the same with my novel that has long since lain dormant.
This weekend, after attending a writers’ conference at my graduate school, I decided to do just that. To whet your appetite for my work, for the first time since I completed my book, I will post the very first chapter on the web as I consider means to both self-publish this touching story and to promote.
Just another way I’m joining something one wise wag called “An Army of Davids.”
Without further ado:
A Boy’s Best Friend
“The Child is father of the Man;”
“My Heart Leaps Up”
“Daddy, do you have a best friend?” my four-year old son Tommy asked after I had finished reading to him and had tucked him in to bed. Generally, when Tommy asked me a question, I would answer as quickly as possible. Sometimes the question would stump me as when he asked how the telephone could transmit Grandma’s voice all the way from Arizona. But, at that moment, that question was easy compared to this one. As I write this, I can answer without hesitation, “No, not now.” But, then, now nearly a year ago, I didn’t know what to say. I hesitated and tried to think up a response. Discovering one that would work, I was about to reply, “Well, I guess, Mommy has always been my best friend,” when he began to tell me about Philip, his best friend, and how they were building a castle together out of Legos. Before I kissed Tommy good night, I had to promise my son that I wouldn’t touch the castle that he and his best friend were building in the basement of our house.
I switched off the light in Tommy’s room, then instead of returning to my room as I would normally do after tucking him in, I walked downstairs, switching on the light in the basement. In the corner of the basement, not far from where I used to build Lego castles as a child, stood a large, multi-colored, awkward-looking Lego structure. I stopped and paused, admiring my son’s handiwork, then approached in order to examine Tommy and Philip’s joint endeavor more closely. On the very edge of the base board, they had built the walls, stacking blocks of all different colors one on top of another, with no visible pattern. I was about to pick up their project, but remembering my promise, stepped back and studied it from a distance. They had used blocks of all different shapes and sizes. There were windows, not placed symmetrically, of course. On the top of one side, they had attached several Lego trees. I smiled and wondered how Tommy would respond when I asked him how the trees happened to grow out of the walls. And then as I imagined Tommy building the castle together with Philip, I remembered the hours I used to spend as a child in that basement, then my grandmother’s house, playing alone with Legos. And I wondered if, when I was his age, I had ever wanted to share that game. With that thought in mind, I switched off the light and walked upstairs.
After I had closed the door to the basement behind me, I paused. The door clicked shut and in my mind, I heard Tommy ask me again if I had a best friend. With the door knob still in my hand, I looked up through the kitchen doorway and at the door leading to the back porch. I walked towards it. I don’t remember opening that door, only know that I did because the next thing I remember is sitting on the back porch, looking out at the tops of the trees swaying in the autumn breeze. I could not see the full splendor of their fall color as I would the following morning, I could only see their black inconstant shapes against the gray of the sky. Occasionally a cloud would skirt by, as if a branch had escaped from a tree and floated on into eternity.
As I looked at the trees, I heard Tommy’s question and remembered a day nearly fifteen years earlier when I had retreated to that very porch to get away from the noise of a family dinner with my brothers and sisters as well as Aunt Sally and Uncle Ernie in from Chicago with their children, my cousins. We were celebrating my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. Then, I remembered closing the outside door behind me and shutting out the loud noises of the family dinner to sit alone.
Earlier that day, fifteen years ago, after cross country practice at school, I had sat in the bleachers with my teammate Jonny Jacobs and watched football practice. We had been walking back from the cross country course together. And Jonny, normally voluble, was silent. As we approached the bleachers, I suggested that we sit and watch the football team. He nodded assent and we climbed up; he sitting on the third row, I on the fourth. For some reason, I had been unusually self-conscious after I had asked him to sit down and was afraid to sit next to him. I looked down at him watching Coach Whitman tell the team that they would have to “hustle” better than they had the previous week against New Richmond if they wanted to beat Stonefield in our Homecoming Game the following day. I remember noticing the dark hair on Jonny’s legs and his slender wrists. I had glanced over to see the curve of his chin and his brown curls dancing in the wind. For some reason, the word “gentle” seemed to describe that boy, who in class was loud and occasionally obnoxious, talking often, insisting on his point of view.
But, then he was quiet. And so was I. For a moment, how long I will never know, as we sat there, he on the third row, I on the fourth, I felt at peace. I felt a bond with him that I had never previously felt for another person. Much later, much much later, indeed, long after looking at Tommy and Philip’s castle, I would say that Jonny’s presence had left a tender impression on my soul. Only when I had sat alone with Jonny on the bleachers, I could find no words to describe what I had been feeling. All I knew was that it was pleasant. And I did not want it to end. We sat there. He watching the game. (Or pretending to.) I looking at his unkempt hair, made messier by the windy practice or at his profile set against the football players scrimmaging on the field beyond.
A gust of wind came out of the north. Jonny shivered. “We’d better go in,” I said. “Yes,” he replied. We walked to the locker room together. He packed his clothes into his book bag, put on an old sweatshirt and headed out, telling me to take care as he left. I undressed and showered. Although I was alone in the showers, I did not feel alone, feeling instead this pleasant sensation, like the glow after a beautiful dream. I do not know how long I lingered there, only remember that I left when the football players, snapping towels and boasting about their conquests on the field and off, started coming in from their practice.
My father and Uncle Ernie picked me up. On most days, I would have welcomed the opportunity to be with my family. But, on that day, I had wanted to be by myself. Again at dinner where I would normally feel at peace, sheltered in the bosom of my family, I felt ill at ease; I had lost touch with Jonny. His presence had seemed to have left a more nourishing residue than the company my family had then provided. So, trying to escape the isolation I felt in that crowd, I got up from the table, walked through my grandmother’s kitchen and onto the back porch. And there, looking at the trees swaying in the autumn breeze, I tried to recapture what I had felt when I was sitting near Jonny on the bleachers.
That evening last fall, when I sat on the porch hearing the echo of Tommy’s words in my ears, I remembered that fifteen years previously I had thought to call Jonny a friend. I didn’t know why. I hardly knew him. He had transferred to Belmont Academy our sophomore year and while he was always talking, he never seemed to get close to anyone. Moreover, he and I were so different. He, loud and talkative, his long, curly hair often uncombed, had few friends at school. I, on the other hand, usually quiet, my short, straight hair always neatly combed and while I had few close friends, had my clique and had one good friend, indeed, oftentimes I called her my best friend. But, on the day I had watched the football practice with Jonny, I wouldn’t have used that expression to describe Jane.
Fifteen years previously, I had sat on that porch and wanted to be back on the bleachers with Jonny. I sat outside and watched the trees swaying and could barely hear the din of the family dinner through the heavy wooden door. When I thought of Jonny, the pleasant sensation of his presence returned to me and I recovered the peace I had felt on the bleachers. Then, I did not have words to express what I was doing. Nor did I when I sat on the porch after kissing Tommy good night. But, now I have found the words. They don’t exactly do the job, but at least, they help me to better understand what I felt. On that day, nearly sixteen years ago, half my life, I drank Jonny’s presence in and in so doing, felt a certain kinship with a boy who seemed so different from me. As I took another draught, I heard the door open and the sound of the family dinner was magnified. But, then, the door closed and the sound again diminished. I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and heard my mother speaking softly, “We’re about to bring in the cake. Come help Granny celebrate her birthday.”
“In a minute, Mom.”
I stood up and looked at her. She put her hand on my cheek and said, “Trying to escape the noise of the family dinner?”
“Sort of. I had something on my mind . . . .”
“Anything a teenager can share with his mother?”
I shook my head. She lowered her hand and kissed me on the cheek. I followed her inside.
Last fall, when I sat on the porch remembering that moment, I also felt a feminine hand on my shoulder. I looked up, half expecting to see my mother, as if merely by revisiting an event through memory, I could relive it. But, this time, when I looked up, I saw my wife Jane. I turned away and looked at the trees again. Wanting her to remove her hand, but not wanting to ask her to do so, I stood up. As I rose, her hand fell to her side.
“Is everything all right, honey?” she asked. We stood staring past one another. Or at least I was looking at the shadowy outline of the bushes beyond her right shoulder. I am pretty sure she was looking at me.
“Just thinking about something.”
“Do you want to share it?” She asked. It seemed there was some hesitation in her voice, as if she knew that I wouldn’t.
“No,” I replied, not looking at her.
“You’d better come in before it gets too cold.”
“In a minute.” I looked at her. She looked at me. I turned away and looked at the stones that served as the porch:s floor. Then, turning to her again, I told her that I needed to be left alone. She turned away. And even though I was not looking at her after she had turned away, as I write this, I remember seeing her standing at the door, with her hand on the knob, looking at me, her eyes suffused with tears. I looked up at the stars, then gradually lowered my head, letting my eyes rest again on the trees. The door opened, creating a beam of light which briefly illuminated the chair where I had been sitting. When I heard it shut again, I sat back down in the obscurity.
As I looked at the trees, I remembered taking Jane to dinner before our senior prom, at the same restaurant I had taken her to a year earlier for our junior prom, and thanked her for being my “best friend.” But, seeing the branches swaying, I wanted to go back in time and remove the superlative. Because fifteen years earlier when I had sat alone on my grandmother:s porch, I had wanted Jonny Jacobs to be my best friend.