Details for a Young Detective

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Before everything went haywire, the fence marked the border of a small paradise. Jenisse lived four blocks away, but her yard was a square cement pad behind their apartment. My mother used to say that travelling five blocks was leaving one country for another. I thought she was being judgmental but I was wrong. She just thought Jenisse had a tough life and wondered how she might change my viewpoint. It should have been the other way around. My best friend wasn’t perfect and maybe took a couple false turns but it was a long way from where I ended up awhile.

We  had several things in common back then but the most important were philosophy and fast cars.  I read Camus and Kierkegaard in study hall. She found that weird in ninth grade but the thing that impressed me was that she even knew who they were. She liked to think past pink lipstick and white pom-poms, too. We were, contradictorily, cheerleaders that year. We had other friends, but no one liked us as much as we liked each other.

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The cars had fascinating, daredevil men attached to them in our imaginings. We also wanted to drive a few of our own. On Friday and Saturday nights we watched them roar down our busy street. I was better at calling the make and year but she was better at waving and smiling if they slowed down to get a better look at us. A perfect team.

We liked to hang out on my parents’–and mine, by default–half-acre. Our overgrown yard. I don’t know why our modest bungalow got the benefit of so much space outdoors–we were at the edge of the city– but it was perfect for me and my two older brothers. There was a little creek–that is, when it rained enough, otherwise it was just an unsightly ditch. Dad, a history teacher who had a passion for making things, built an old-fashioned house like a pioneer homestead. We half-grew up there and used it for all sorts of secret activities, from eating too many chocolate donuts(us) to playing dice and smoking a joint (brothers and sometimes us) to furtive gropings in the dark (all). There were sleepovers there which were popular with everybody. Our parents could see the place from the kitchen window so they felt we were safe.

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I guess we were but it was easier to find trouble there. My brothers’ exploits are theirs to give away. Even though it was fifteen years ago, I’d raise my dad’s blood pressure if I told him about the fire Jimmy started that consumed the neighbor’s prize roses and damaged the fence at the property line behind the “homestead”.

Jenisse and I were happy best friends, that’s the thing I need to make clear. We had that innocent, bountiful trust that you look for the rest of your life. Everything that happened or crossed our minds was talked over: breathtaking and annoying family dramas, sapping discouragement when we failed to meet our goals, whether or not slapping Hugh was a strong enough response to his hand on Jenisse’s thigh, the skin cancer scare for my mother. Or just how wine red lipstick and black eyeliner made us look older but not better. And our plans for the future.

“I’m definitely going to be a private investigator,” I told her. “That, or a lawyer. By the way, I want to–no, I will–win the next debate at school.”

“Of course you will, Lola–you out-talk everyone, who wouldn’t cave under all that? But I got you beat. I now think I want a career in designing parks. Isn’t there something like that? Ever since I got to know you and spent time out here I’ve thought about it. More safe outdoor places for people could change neighborhoods, even whole cities.”

I gave her a long look. “See, this is why you are so much smarter than most people. You think about the long tem effect of things, not just your own little desires. You have principles. Me? I just want action!”

She punched my shoulder. “Stupid, you just have to make a show of things, like telling people you gotta have action, when what you want is to save this crappy world, just like me. Well, as long as it involves some risky–or maybe a little risqué?–stuff!”

I gave her a punch back and then a hug, I’m sure. How many people got me like that? So it seemed like we would be friends forever. We even talked about how when we were old we would have houses by each other with a connecting yard for our kids. If we had any time for kids.

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It was the following autumn when things changed. September had shaken out the languid vestiges of late summer, edged with the promise of frost. A fire was burning in our corner woodstove. I was in the living making a poster for class when I heard her on the porch. I would know her laugh anywhere, a crescendo of sound sweet but loud like she had just seen or heard the funniest thing ever. When she didn’t come in, I dropped my felt tip pens and looked out the beveled glass window in the door.

It was not to be believed. She was on the porch swing with Arnie, my brother and they were swinging hard, chattering about something that appeared to fully engage Jenisse’s attention. His arm was around her shoulders. I opened the door.

“Jenisse? What are you doing out here?”

The swing kept going but Arnie just looked at her and she looked at me like, what did I mean? I thought it was funny how dumb they acted. Like, were they up to something, like planning a surprise party for my upcoming birthday?

“Why are you out here with my brother instead of inside while I struggle to create a fabulous poster for my speech about Egypt? Come in and help me out.”

“I can’t. Me and Arnie are talking.”

I thought they were both just up to aggravation so I went out and pushed Arnie half off the swing and squeezed in beside her.

“Lola, “she said, hands up, “wait a minute. What’s wrong with me having a conversation with Arnie? I’ll be in later. You’ll do great without me.”

And there it was. I got it instantly. Jenisse liked Arnie more than just her best friend’s older brother. He got up and leaned against the porch railing post, arms folded, feet crossed at the ankles like he was King Tut. It killed me, that look. I knew from others’ feedback that he was good-looking or even better but I didn’t think he was that smart or nice or fascinating. I was closer to Jimmy. Arnie, well, he was arrogant. He was a jock and I thought myself a burgeoning intellectual; he teased me about it. I was not having Jenisse sit with him now or ever. It was cross contamination.

“Get up, Jenisse. You’re blinded by genetically pleasing material. He is not The Man. You and I are best friends. That makes it almost illegal for you to remotely care about my brother!”

Her brown eyes shot me a challenging look. “Lola, you don’t own me! I can be with Arnie if I want. In fact, we’ve been together more and more. You just didn’t notice. Some detective you’ll make!”

That did it. I got up, entered the house and slammed the door. I steamed all night and into the wee  hours.

You think you know how this ended. We had a fight, got over it and they got married one day. A love story in which I could play the part of everlasting friend, maid of honor. Sisters-in-law!

None of that.  I ended up alone. Too often. I ended up taking rides with a few drivers of those fast cars after school. I felt like I should change, too, or I’d be lost. I was upset and angry every day; I had to see her hang out with Arnie at school or while I sat in my room or avoided them. She greeted me tentatively but I was deaf to her attempts. Watching them from my upstairs bedroom window was shocking. Seeing how he pulled her close, how they whispered things. It was bad enough thinking of my brother kissing at all but my best friend? What was she telling him about her life that she kept from me now?

Jenisse stopped trying to talk to me. She got dumped by him four months later and her grades dropped I heard. But I burrowed into school work but I’d found a group who liked to party. I had instant success, being a little mouthy but witty. But I frightened my family with increasingly grave errors. The last car I got into while in high school accelerated to one hundred twenty mph. A gorgeous Porsche. Before we even hit sixty we bounced off a lamp post and another car. The guy was in the hospital for two months and then in court for a DUII. I broke my nose and right arm.

But I finally figured out what not to do about the misery of loss. You had to just live through it. So, I guess, did she but by then the bond had frayed and split. I returned to my saner self and resolved to pay strict attention to internal and external signs. Do something good.

Despite my initial lack of observational skills as a teen-ager, I am now an investigator. I’ve survived worse things than losing a best friend. But I had to tell someone our story. Today I saw Jenisse’s picture–it was her with more make up, less hair and sleeker–in the newspaper. She won an award for her co-design of a park circling a pond. The name? Homestead Park. I want to see it. Then I may give her a call. We each had our plans. We aimed for the target and finally hit bull’s eye. How many people can say that?

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Morning Walk

Irvington walk 2-12 042Benjamin had resolved to not look at the sidewalks and ground so much. His mother reminded him daily. He had the habit of examining a tiny alteration in the sidewalk or the curve of downy feather, a twig that had been snapped by others’ feet and now lay forlorn. He admired stones. He saw things others did  not, in fact, whether it was a last starling gathering up steam for the group gossip or the muddy tip of a grey cat’s tail as it slunk home after a night of stealth and thrills.

He wanted to keep the neighborhood clean, too. It was like a hobby, picking up shards of broken glass or a dropped business card, the pamphlet that never made it into a mailbox, the lost sock of a toddler. He thought about the sock a bit. It was late September and he imagined a chubby pink foot turning pale then bluish as the parent, innocent but carelessly so, rushed the stroller back home. Only then would the loss become apparent. So the blue and white striped sock went into a box, one of many where he stored all finds until his mother sneaked in and tossed some of it. She didn’t fully support Benjamin’s need to collect oddities, remnants and cast-offs. He didn’t like her invasion of his space.

“Why do you think nature casts them off?” his sister, Vi, asked impatiently. “Nature sheds feathers, leaves, dandelion fluff and so on when they aren’t useful. They aren’t special! People do the same, of course, but no, you have to pick up what they just let go.”

Benjamin gave her his best superior look which wasn’t hard since she was just eleven and he was going to be thirteen in two days. He knew he was not like other kids. How could he not? He carried a toad around in his jacket pocket when he was four and named it T. Troll. The preschool teacher who discovered T. Troll (T. for Ted but no one asked) found Benjamin smart and sweet, but thought it alarming that he had this relationship with a toad. Talked to named toad often, and knew many things about it she did not. His father told him this story when Benjamin skipped second grade. He was appreciated by a handful but bullied or tolerated more often. Ninth grade was not likely to be any more pleasant than all the others. Perhaps less.

Meantime, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning. He was passing the Gunderson house on his route to the bus stop when he first spotted the beer bottle. He stopped and examined it but didn’t touch it. It was a brand his parents didn’t drink, likely one of the local microbrews the city loved to boast about. He didn’t, as a general rule, take home bottles unless they were unusual or he planned on throwing them away. He had only ten minutes to get to the bus. He glanced at the big house. It took up the whole corner on the south side of the street. Mr. Gunderson was a doctor and he was fussy about his yard. Benjamin found it disconcerting to let it clutter up the grass but he went on.

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On Thursday morning he was studying a slug making its painstaking way to the Gunderson’s fence when he stole a glance at the spot where the bottle had been. It was undisturbed. He bent over it, admired the colorful label and wondered if there might be a way to peel it off but the bottle was none too clean. That was going too far. He readjusted his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He thought about that bottle all day, why it was still there, who had dropped it, if it had beer in it. Who in the neighborhood enjoyed a beer only to toss the empty on grass? Well, moss to be technically correct. It had to be a passerby but not a homeless one; they found and kept them.

Friday was his birthday and arrived sunny and clear; leaving for school felt like good for once. He had tentatively made a friend the day before, a new guy from England who liked math as he did and cycling and, best of all, amphibians and insects. Benjamin didn’t cycle much but he was willing to if needed. He had hope for the first time that the year might be okay.

As he neared the Gunderson’s he hurried, the paused. The bottle had not budged. No one else had thought to remove it. He thought it was time to take action so he picked it up and peered inside, the sour smell of beer wafting up his nose, His upper lip curled. This was what kids at school often talked about, how alcohol made all the difference. He had even been asked to a beer party by the joker behind him in biology but he’d declined. The kid laughed, relieved. The being asked was what counted he supposed; he was the youngest in ninth grade.

But what if? Benjamin wondered. What if he went and a beer was offered and he was the only one who had never drunk a beer? Not even tasted one? They would be able to tell by the way he hesitated. And then they would make him drink it and the nasty stuff would spill on his shirt, maybe make him sick. He didn’t drink because he was not allowed. It wasn’t that he always did what he was told. But it seemed reasonable to him. He could have a drink when twenty-one. He had other things to do until then.

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But he stood there and felt the morning sunshine and heard the wind in the high branches so he wiped the mouth of the bottle, put the bottle to his lips, let cool drops of beer roll onto his tongue. He spit it out. It tasted ten percent less than terrible and nothing to be excited about. He was about to toss the bottle when he caught sight of someone at the brick wall of the Gunderson place.

“Benjamin, I can’t believe you drank that.” Mr. Gunderson cast a large shadow with his six foot, two-inch frame.

“Oh, no sir,  just found the bottle, and then, well…”

“Not so good, huh?”

Benjamin stood up taller and lifted his eyes to the man’s head. “No. Not good at all.”

“That’s what I like to hear. You may learn to appreciate it as an adult. Or not. Hand that over so I can get rid of it. I’ve been meaning to put it in the trash. And better eat a mint on your way to school.”

Benjamin picked up the bottle and gave it a toss; it landed right in Mr. Gunderson’s hands and he smiled.

“Have a good year, Benjamin. I expect great things from you one day. Tell your dad I said so. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. You all should come for dinner.”

“Yes, sir.”

Benjamin watched him amble across the yard and disappear. He wondered if it was possible to retrieve the bottle later. Keep it as a souvenir. If his potentially new friend asked him if he had ever tasted beer, he could say yes. He would pull it out of his closet and show him. On the other hand, it sure stunk. Benjamin took off down the street at a gallop. He didn’t want to be late.

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