The houses in our middle class neighborhood were all set well back from the street. Most of the other people on the block, concerned with appearances, concentrated their gardening energies on the front lawns, to impress the neighbors. But Dad didn't care much about the front yard, where we never spent any time. He worked harder on the backyard lawn, which our family could enjoy in privacy. And so when we wanted to run around under the sprinkler, creating mud holes in the grass, we did it in front where it didn't matter because only the neighbors could see it.
At the very back of the backyard, however, was a paved area where there had once been a garage, and this was where we had a sort of playground. On the left was a great mound of sand, where we made miniature cities and used the hose to create lakes and rivers. The neighborhood cats and dogs loved the sand too. Once Dad's boss and his wife came to dinner, and the wife, a sweet elderly lady, said gushingly to Vicky and me, ``Oh, what a lovely sandpile you two children have to play in!''
``That's not a sandpile,'' said Vicky, who was five. ``It's a shit pit.''
Next to the shit pit was a 500 gallon army water storage tank, which was our swimming pool. It was a hideously ugly round black rubber container about ten feet in diameter and three feet high. You couldn't exactly swim laps in it but we weren't into swimming laps, we were into cooling off in the hot summers, splashing each other, doing underwater somersaults, and skinny dipping with our friends when our parents weren't home. The water froze in the winter; before sliding around on it ourselves Vicky and I would plop Danny or Tycho down on the ice first, to see if it was strong enough. In spring we would watch with fascination the thousands of mosquito larvae floating just below the surface, breathing through their tiny probosci, soon to leave this ideal breeding ground and take over the neighborhood.
There was nothing in the large space to the right of the swimming pool until the day before Vicky's sixth birth-day, when she found Dad's present to her there--a pile of lumber. He was going to build her a playhouse, he told her, the best playhouse in the world. ``Oh, how wonderful! Can I have my party in it tomorrow?'' she naively asked him. He cautioned her that it might not be finished by then.
Eight years later he had completed the foundation, the floor, and three walls. It wasn't only that he was the world's greatest procrastinator. He also did everything with extreme thoroughness. The playhouse foundation alone, Mom used to say, would support the Empire State Building. Dad never finished it, but what there is of that playhouse will probably still be standing long after the house itself has collapsed.
Vicky never did have a birthday party in the play-house. Instead, it was the setting for the seance I con-ducted the summer after ninth grade.
When I was in grade school, Mom had organized many creatively weird parties for me, the best ones being Halloween parties. These parties took place in my room in the refinished attic on the third floor. The house would be darkened; no one would be at the front door to greet the guests. Instead, there was a series of posters to show the guests the way up, painted by my brilliant friend Nicole. They weren't grade-school work, they were very professional. The first one, posted on the front door, showed a man hanging from a noose, obviously dead, because the angle of his head indicated his neck was broken. But one of his arms was outstretched, his boney hand pointing inside the house. And written underneath, in scraggly letters, was the instruction: ``Walk in. Follow the spooks.''
The only lights inside illuminated Nicole's other posters, located at strategic intervals to indicate the way up the creaky stairs. One showed a Frankenstein monster, holding a dead child in one hand and pointing with the other. The next was a hideously decayed corpse, rotten flesh dangling from its face as it rose from a coffin. Finally there was a leering skeleton in a moonlit graveyard, gesturing at the flight of steps up to the attic.
The third floor was the perfect setting for a Halloween party, because Mom had allowed my friends and I to paint a mural on one entire wall. Several of us participated, but the most gruesomely effective sections had been done by shy, plump Nicole. The central figure was a rather glamorous witch standing behind a bubbling cauldron. She was surrounded by all manner of grotesque creatures--bats, demons, imps, octopus-like things with claws.
We did some of the conventional Halloween things, like bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins. Nicole's pumpkins were always the most unusual, and the most intricately and delicately executed.
Then, with the candelit pumpkins arranged around the room, Mom would read aloud a couple of truly horrifying ghost stories, about haunted houses, nightmares coming true, people being followed by ghouls. Usually a guest or two would have to leave at this point, which was too bad, because the best part came next--fortune telling. Mom wrote the fortunes before the party, typing them on little pieces of paper, and folded them up and placed them in a bowl. Each kid would pick one and read it, and they were all horrible, things like, ``You will work hard for many, many years and finally earn a million dollars--and then it will all be stolen from you by your children and you will die penniless,'' or ``You will develop an incurable neurological disorder and spend the rest of your life as a gibbering idiot in an insane asylum.'' The best fortune, every year, was, ``I'm sorry, my dear, but you have no future . . .'' I remember when Nicole got that one. She just smiled and carefully folded it up and kept it.
(The fortunes were effective because Mom was a good writer. She helped all her kids write things for school. Actually, she didn't just help us write things, she sometimes wrote the entire paper herself--and then would be indignant if the teacher didn't give it a good grade. In third grade I had to write a poem about Thanksgiving, and Mom wrote a great poem all about Thanksgiving from the point of view of the turkey, the cranberry and the pumpkin, with lines like, ``Poor Mr. Cranberry's due for a loss, he's going to be made into cranberry sauce.'' The school psychologist was so impressed by this poem that he published it in a book he wrote as as example of a poem by a gifted nine-year-old. That was Mom's first publication.)
Naturally, these Halloween parties were a big hit with the kids in grade school, and I was conditionally accepted by all. But things changed in junior high, when peer pressure and the rigid rules of teenage convention reared their ugly heads. Before we became deliberate non-conformists in high school, Vicky had been on the verge of being accepted by the popular kids in junior high (those we would later refer to as pituh-people). I, on the other hand, never had a chance with those people; I was always an oddball, a nothing in their eyes. I'll never forget the time in seventh grade when I was just getting to be friends with Dave. He lived in another neighborhood, but one day rode home with me on the school bus. A popular kid named Steve Kamen asked Dave what he was doing on this bus. ``I'm going over to Bill's house,'' Dave explained. Kamen looked at me, then back to Dave. ``You sap,'' he told Dave, and walked away.
But despite Steve Kamen's disapproval, Dave became my good friend in junior high. Like me, Dave was more interested in music and literature than in sports. Unlike me, Dave had a chance to be popular at the beginning of seventh grade--he was naturally better at sports than I was, despite his lack of interest, and at the start of the year a lot of the girls considered him to be very cute. That changed when he was suddenly struck by virulent acne, which persisted throughout his teenage years, and left him with permanent scars that were not merely physical.
Dave considered himself to be smarter than me, and though I was a better piano player he was more ``serious'' than I was about music, and was contemptuous of me for listening to music he considered to be trivial.
I had other friends in junior high too, an extremely disparate group. My best friend was still Nicole, who had painted the Halloween posters. She was now a tall, overweight girl, and was generally recognized as the smartest person in the school. In eighth grade we had an English teacher who was new to the school, and he gave Nicole an F on her first paper. Nicole, in her quiet, self-effacing way, did not protest or even ask the teacher why he had given her the F, as I urged her to do when she told me about it over the phone. ``It doesn't really matter,'' she said, no particular emotion in her voice, as though she accepted such injustice as a normal part of life.
A few days later the same teacher had us write an essay in class. When he saw what Nicole came up with on her own, he apologized to her privately for giving her the F on her first paper, explaining that it was so well-written he had assumed she had copied it word for word from a published article. He changed the original grade, and his opinion of Nicole.
Though Nicole always got very good grades, she claimed she hardly ever studied. Mom didn't believe her--she said Nicole couldn't do so well without studying. But Nicole was telling the truth, all right. I knew how much of her own study time Nicole spent writing papers for other kids who were not good writers, though of course I couldn't give this evidence to Mom. (It was okay for Mom to cheat for her own children, but I knew she wouldn't approve of a kid doing it for another kid.)
Mom also didn't believe what Nicole said about her weight problem. No one ever saw Nicole eat much, and Nicole told me that she really didn't overeat; she said she was so heavy because there was something about her metabolism that turned every morsel of food she put into her mouth into fat. Mom said that was baloney, she was sure Nicole overate in secret. On this issue I had no evidence one way or the other--until many years later.
Nicole and I had no romantic interest in each other, but we spent a lot of time every night talking on the phone. We loved discussing the other kids, and Nicole had remarkable insight into human nature. It was Nicole who pointed out to me that Dave had copied his attitudes from his parents, who were intellectual snobs, and that I shouldn't pay any attention when he criticized the music I listened to. She always seemed to understand why people did things--even people who were very different from herself.
Such as Matilda, who was also a close friend of ours, but in many ways Nicole's direct opposite. Matilda was skinny, for one thing, and very self-conscious about her appearance. She was always complaining about her unfashionably frizzy red hair, and her pale skin which was so sensitive she could never tan, only burn. She thought she was too tall, and stood in a slouch. Her grades were even better than Nicole's--her grade-point average of 98.6 was the highest on record in the history of the school system. But unlike Nicole, Matilda's grades were the result of relentlessly compulsive studying. When we did A Tale of Two Cities in English, Matilda read the book so many times that she could recite as much of it as anyone could stand to hear, ``It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .'' from memory. She studied all day on weekends and holidays. She didn't stop when she had completed all the required work; she would then write extra papers that were not even assigned by the teachers.
Matilda laughed a little too long when she told us how her parents tried to bribe her to calm down about school work by offering her twenty-five dollars if she would ever get a B in a course, fifty dollars for two B's, and so on. She went right on obsessively piling up A's in everything. It reached the point of pathology when she brought a razor blade with her to school on the day of an important exam, so that she could kill herself if she didn't think she did well on it. But she was so well prepared that she didn't feel the need to slash her wrists--not that time, anyway.
Nicole and I talked about Matilda a lot. We both knew that part of her problem was that Matilda considered herself ugly, she had to excell at something, and that was going to be scholarship. But Nicole, who was more observant than I, thought there was more to it than that. She had noticed the way Matilda's mother looked at her daughter, she had picked up veiled but critical remarks Matilda's mother made to her, and observed Matilda's reaction to them. Nicole was sure it was only Matilda's father who had offered her the money to study less. Matilda's mother, she suspected, would never be satisfied, no matter what Matilda did.
Bart was another close friend. Because he was regarded as one of the smartest boys, it was assumed that he and Nicole belonged together, and they did sort of go out with each other. He worked hard enough, but not anything like Matilda--nor did he always go to great lengths to impress the teachers. The most gentle and beloved English teacher in the school once told us, as an example of man's inhumanity to man, a very sad story about a blind man who got lost on the street and no one would stop to help him. Bart's reaction to this story was to laugh out loud, an act which earned him great notoriety--and problems in English--when it turned out that the blind man in the story had been the teacher's son.
What Nicole told me was that she was sure Bart had known the teacher was talking about her son--and he had laughed anyway. It occurred to no one but Nicole that Bart's strange reaction might have something to do with the fact that his older sister had cerebral palsy.
Tony was different from my other junior high friends because he was more of an athlete than a scholar, a not-very-funny clown who made dumb jokes all the time. We had no interests in common, but what I liked about him was that he was foul-mouthed and never tired of dirty talk, especially about girls. Despite the fact that he bore a certain resemblance to Alfred E. Newman of Mad Magazine, Tony was actually very good-looking. It often puzzled me that he would want to be my friend.
Once Tony and I went on a double date to a carnival held annually by the fraternities at the university. I was with Gail, a popular girl whom I worshipped from afar. It was Tony who gave me the courage to ask her out, insisting to my disbelief that she liked me enough to accept--and he was right. Tony was with a new girl at school, a year younger than us, who was extremely pretty and had very quickly established the right kind of bad reputation. Almost the first thing we did at the carnival was to go on a ride that was essentially a large metal cylinder. Inside the thing you sat in seats on a platform that tilted back and forth while the cylinder rotated around you, lights blinking on and off. Tony immediately began to complain that the thing was making him sick. There was, of course, no way to stop it. In an impressively short period of time, Tony was leaning over the back of his seat and loudly vomiting, while the new girl kept murmuring, ``Oh, my God, Oh, my God.'' That was the end of the date, and Tony's relationship with her.
Nicole didn't think it was odd, as I did, that Tony enjoyed spending time with me. She quoted a remark that the actress Katherine Hepburn had once made about some old movie stars from the 1930's, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: ``He gives her class; she gives him sex.'' Nicole wouldn't explain any further what this obscure statement had to do with Tony and me, but now I know what she meant.
I did not have a Halloween party all through junior high. But the summer after ninth grade I hit on the idea of conducting a seance in the playhouse at the end of the backyard. It was dark out there, and the half-finished wooden building was like something from a ghost town. I planned the seance carefully, with Nicole's help. The only part Nicole didn't help me with was the actual script. I spent several days writing it myself, laughing a lot, and kept the contents a secret from Nicole. Typically, she never tried to coerce me to tell her what was in it.
But Nicole was the brains behind the recording I made on Dad's big, clunky tape recorder. Nicole created sound effects by coaxing weird noises out of various musical instruments and then making them weirder by speeding up or slowing down the tape. Nicole helped me figure out how to disguise my voice by speaking through an electric fan, which gave an effect of windy, echoing distance. But I didn't record the script until Nicole had gone home; I wanted the actual words to be a surprise for her as well as everybody else.
The day of the seance Dad brought home a big piece of dry ice from the lab, which we kept in the freezer until the last moment. (The dry ice was Nicole's idea too.) I carried a table out to the playhouse and with several extension cords set up the tape recorder under the table. I put a cauldron-like cast iron pot on the table, for the dry ice, and on one side of it arranged a flashlight so the beam would hit my face from below. Nicole had loaned me some mascara. I painted wrinkles on my face with it, blackened my lips, and wore a black robe Nicole had found at a junk store. Just before my friends arrived I put the dry ice in the pot, where it began to generate wafting clouds of vapor.
I was waiting for my friends in the half-lit playhouse as they made their way down to the end of the dark backyard. The idea was that I was a medium contacting an authority in the spirit world who knew what lay in store for each of my friends. They sat down at the creaking table and joined hands. Mist billowed around my dimly-lit, lined and demonic features. Various wavering hoots and moans floated up from under the table. I sighed and groaned awhile myself, and then announced, ``The contact is there, I can feel it coming, it's taking over me, it's . . .'' My head lolled forward.
I had seated my friends around the table in the same order as their futures were related on the tape. ``And what lies in store for Matilda, Master?'' I said dully, as though speaking in a trance. Tall scrawny Matilda, with her thick glasses and unfashionably kinky red hair, who did nothing but study and had never had a date, was sitting just beside me.
``For Matilda . . . Ah, yes, fame and glamor lie in store for this fortunate, ravishing creature,'' intoned the tape. ``She will quickly eclipse Brigitte Bardot as the reigning sex goddess of her time. Clad only in a towel, her image will slither and writhe before vast audiences in all corners of the world. With the advent of the new type of entertainment known as 'the feelies,' her popularity will soar to orgasmic heights.''
``I knew it!'' Matilda crowed, flattered in spite of herself. The others were also amused, but didn't laugh too hard, in deference to Matilda's feelings.
``For poor Dave, the future is not so bright,'' pre-dicted the voice. ``His sheer lack of talent will make him a failure at all 'serious' musical pursuits. He will become a poorly paid salesman at a flea-bitten record store catering to the tastes of moronic adolescents. He will spend his days listening to the raucous blare of popular idols, and at an early age will grow deafened by the sounds, and end his life in poverty.''
Dave wasn't so thrilled by this--he and I were intensely competitive. He grunted, and muttered, ``Thanks a lot, Bill.'' Everyone else was chuckling though. And the next prediction, for Tony, was so ridiculous that even Dave couldn't maintain his resentment of me. ``It cheers me once again to be able to relate another bright future,'' came the voice. ``Because of his intense religious fervor, Tony will become a very holy man, leading a life of extreme self-sacrifice, abstaining from all the lower sensual pleasures of sex, alcohol and drugs. He will become the leading evangelist and faith-healer of his day, converting millions to progress to a higher, more spiritual way of life. He will keep none of the money given to him, but will donate it all to worthy charities . . .''
Bart snorted; Nicole giggled. Tony made a pleasantly obscene remark to the effect that the spirit's head must be caught in a certain part of its anatomy.
Bart and Nicole--the two smartest kids in the school--came last; their prediction created the most satisfying reaction of all. ``Ah, for these two the future is so hideous that it pains even me to utter it,'' droned the voice. ``For them, only thankless, unceasing toil and drudgery lie in store. Due to their extreme mental incompetence, their career opportunities will be limited indeed. They will spend the rest of their lives cleaning the toilets at Westgate Junior High . . .''
By this point not only Bart but almost all the others were happily hooting and guffawing. I glanced over at Nicole. Of course she wasn't insulted by her future, as Dave had been. No one could take this particular prediction seriously. But there was something about Nicole's smile that indicated cleaning toilets was exactly the kind of thing she had known I would come up with for her all along.
It would be cute if I could now surprise the reader by saying that these predictions unexpectedly came true. But of course they were intended to be farcical and ironic, the most highly unlikely futures I could come up with for everyone. Naturally Matilda became a psychoanalyst, not a movie star. Bart is a successful scientist, not a cleaner of toilets. And though Dave dropped in and out of college for awhile, and had various jobs, he never worked in a record store, and is now seriously studying musical composition.
But Tony shocked us all by entering Theological school. He is not exactly an evangelist, but he is a Presbyterian minister.
Nicole spent part of her high school senior year as a foreign exchange student in Italy. Previously an atheist, like most of my friends, in Italy she had a deep religious experience, a calling. She lost a lot of weight. And after college, to Matilda's horror, Nicole entered an order of nuns.
It is not a teaching order, as one would have expected of brilliant Nicole, but a more radical group. Though not missionaries, the sisters in her order live with the poor, in the same housing conditions, some in the bleakest projects in the United States, others in the most poverty stricken developing countries. They support themselves by doing the same kind of menial work as the people they live with . . .
Nicole, the smartest person I ever knew, has spent much of her life working in factories, operating steam pressing machines in non-air conditioned industrial laundries in the tropics, carrying urine samples in inner-city hospitals--and cleaning toilets.
Of all my childhood friends, she is the happiest, the most at peace, and the most genuinely satisfied with her life.