I wasn’t the only kid bursting with stories. There was also Marsden, the boy who came from a troubled family, ended up with a cool joke book, and the only boy in school who could do a cherry drop. When our first-grade teacher became fed up with his undisciplined behavior, she went after him with a yardstick and eventually locked him in the cloak closet. (Cloak closet? Who talked that way—Louisa May Alcott?) That teacher was fired. In second grade, Marsden was pulled out of class to talk to the school counselor. But when you’re seven years old, people point fingers at the parents, so his parents made him stop counseling. Marsden went back to doing cherry drops alone on the playground. It bugged me because it reminded me that I was alone on the playground, too, and I didn’t want to be like him, except for the joke book and the cherry drops. I watched him do those cherry drops in case he broke his neck. I didn’t want him to break his neck, but if he did, I certainly wanted to see it. He probably would have come up with a good joke about it, too. After he went to see the school counselor, when anyone criticized him for playing on the bars—a girly thing—he stood perfectly still, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and counted to ten, which was the only thing the counselor had had time to teach him. Then he did another cherry drop. I decided that it was too girly for me, both the cherry drops and playing with Barbie dolls. That way, I didn’t feel so bad that I wouldn’t even attempt a cherry drop. I didn’t need to break my neck and then be shut in my bedroom to know the Truth, although I like to think that breaking my neck would’ve been another good-enough reason for Mom to access secular health care. For me, it was just wise not to do a cherry drop in the first place.
In third grade, Marsden and his big sister had a carnival in their backyard. It was to raise money for UNICEF, which was a nice thing to do, but I felt ripped off. There was no adult supervision, so the carnival was lame. Some kids even asked for their money back. Marsden didn’t give refunds. It cost a dime.
In fourth grade, Marsden was the only kid to go out on Beggar’s Night, the night before Halloween. He squeezed out an extra night of candy gathering, wearing a hobo costume. He smeared charcoal on his face. He had no shame. I kind of admired him for that. On the other hand, I kind of didn’t. Then on Halloween, he was out again, dressed the same, only this time he was trick-or-treating for UNICEF. He didn’t get credit for trying to do something nice, because the stigma of going out on Beggar’s Night still clung to him. People criticized him for counting to ten, for his crappy carnival, and for smearing charcoal from his backyard barbeque grill on his face to become a hobo. Mostly, people kept their distance from him. I did as well. I didn’t need his reputation slopping onto me. Not that my own reputation was sterling, especially after I put on Mom’s leather skirt, go-go boots, and wig and trick-or-treated as a girl. People asked what I was dressed up as, and I indignantly told them that I was really a boy. What had started as a good joke on them turned out to be a bad joke on me. For the record, I didn’t grow up to be a transvestite or transgender male, in case you’re wondering. In fact, I never cross-dressed again. I’d like to spin this anecdote as an indication that I was in touch with my feminine side as a preadolescent and maybe actually as a good thing—except that in retrospect, it seems like just another bullet I dodged and another humiliation I endured.
Anyway, I don’t blame my former self for avoiding Marsden, but I do wish I’d been nicer. At the time, though, I blamed Marsden for his awkward behavior. Today, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Marsden struggled socially. I never saw any adults in his life, other than the teachers and principals who were determined to whack him down into the box that the rest of us already hunkered in.
In fifth grade, I walked the same way home from Mark Twain Elementary that Marsden and his big sister did. They often trailed behind me, and they looked as if they were still dressed for Halloween. Marsden could pull off the hobo look because he was a boy, and so it was no biggie. But his sister wore Ma Clampett dresses and dusty clodhopper boots only half laced up and untied, so the laces flopped around. Those laces ticked behind me. I didn’t want people thinking that we were together, so I picked up the pace. Marsden might’ve remembered that joke book he got, and he ditched his sister, caught up with me, and matched my stride. He didn’t tell me an outright joke as I expected; instead, he pointed to the house with aluminum foil on the windows as we walked past. I had noticed it, of course. Covering things up only raised my suspicion and made me want to peek inside—people as well as houses. The rumor was that there were witches in that house. Marsden proudly claimed that it was true. See, he trick-or-treated alone for speed. He hit every house on Beggar’s Night and Halloween, even the haunted ones. I always skipped that house, not out of cowardice but to be prudent, I told myself. But Marsden said the witches chased him around in circles. Yeah, “in circles.” I smirked. It was either a joke or a lie, but he swore it. I knew to be distrustful of that statement. See, he’d also, by his own account, been hit by cars on no fewer than three separate occasions. I was incredulous because I thought being hit by a car meant you were killed. But no, Marsden survived and told me how he lay beneath the cars as hot oil dripped on his face. I acted as if I believed him, which, I’d learned, was a good skill for getting along with others—it was better than outright calling them liars. But I also wondered how many times he needed to be run over before he learned to look both ways. I always looked both ways, and even when there were no cars, I kept looking as I crossed a street. Who was in any hurry to die? I knew by that point that nobody looked out for me, so why wouldn’t Marsden look? It didn’t occur to me then that perhaps nobody had taught him to look both ways. I didn’t wonder back then why Marsden thought he needed to lie; I didn’t wonder what happened inside his own house—and inside him—that he covered up with tall tales and charcoal.
The last story I heard about Marsden was only obliquely about him. His older sister finally had enough and hanged herself in their garage. The cops left the garage door open too long, and the neighbors saw. I was a teenager by then and had moved away, but I was told that her face was puffy and purple, and now I can’t get the imagined horror out of my mind. I wish I’d slowed down and walked with her at least once. Where was the harm, other than the challenge to my puny sense of self? But my reputation was too fragile to risk it at the time, and remember, I still assumed that the way things were was the way things would always remain. I imagine those clodhopper boots and those ticking, dangling laces, and I’m bummed out again.
Today, my homeowners’ association has a rule that garage doors must be closed immediately after a car is pulled in. Nobody wants what’s inside to upset the neighbors. No one wants to have to witness all that messiness. So, we all have very pretty garage doors, all painted one of three preapproved colors, and all of those pretty garage doors remain mostly shut. Everybody’s happy and problem-free. Or at least they appear to be so.