Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.
Once a week, after lunch on Wednesdays, the janitor flooded the boys’ bathroom and the nearby lunchroom with ammonia. I tried to hold my breath, but the sharp, painful fumes always drilled their way into my head. And—there was no escape. We were all at attention, just outside the lunchroom doorway—waiting for the teachers to march us upstairs
Along this line of thirty students heading up to my room, one student had a special place: at the end, always. Yet he had not harmed anyone, nor was he eager to do so. In fact, he had a gift that the Greeks urged everyone to find or uncover. From kindergarten through the eighth grade, Eric was an instant adversary to others, and most of all to himself—and, he knew why. Surrounding him, everywhere at all times, was a cloud of vinegary fumes from Burroughs Solution that was soaking into his body.
Across the schoolyard, the hall, or the classroom for nine years, Eric was as memorable as ammonia. But what Eric “had” was a mystery. Adding to the fears were layers of gauze that went round and round his scrawny arms and body. The gauze did not stay in place for very long though. Every minute of every hour, Eric was scratching, and each dig of pain or relief uncovered his skin. Then the leathery, yellowed cape began to bleed from all the places where his frantic scratching took root.
“Sweetly sings the donkey
at the break of day,
If you do not feed him,
this is what he’ll say....”
And pleasant melodies never soothed pain in Eric’s life. Instead, years of crying and screaming had given him a permanent low-toned hoarseness. This was threaded to his other sound, a high-pitched shriek of frustration and anger. Thankfully for him, though, he was able to muffle that sound with yards of gauze that covered or trailed him everywhere.
In all nine years that I knew Eric, no one ever asked him how he felt. No one dared. These were the years after WWII in New York City. An outbreak of smallpox had caused the mobilization of the entire city. And polio remained as a dreaded catastrophe too. How all this was linked to Eric was never explained. But no one doubted that disease happened when you became connected improperly to the wrong people.
So Eric faded into the routine of everyday activities. He had his usual seat, for nine years, at the back of the room, where he could scratch and scratch without disturbing anyone.
When the school was let out for the day, many kids headed to a playground in the middle of one of the first apartment projects in the northeastern section of the Bronx. The complex of habitats seemed vast, at that time, but compared to the mini-cities of windows and walkways in urban settings today, this project, called Hillside, was rather small. And in the days before health conscious “environments,” a playground in the “projects” added up to nothing more than a black-colored concrete-and-asphalt parking lot with white lines. Looking onto this “field,” in all directions, were metal-rimmed windows of apartment houses.
One afternoon, on a hot day at the end of the school year, I watched from a distance as Eric and his father were playing. It was a game that might have been designed just for them. Far away from anyone, father and son were standing five feet or so on both sides of one of the white lines. A shining, silvery dime was placed on the line. Back and forth, they bounced a pink rubber ball—with the hope of hitting the coin.
After an hour the two players headed over to a teenage game of baseball underway on the asphalt playing field. They were attracted, and so was I, by the enthusiasm and the evident professionalism of the players. One in particular stood out. He was playing first base. On his right hand, casually, loosely, was a brown butter-fly-wing glove that snapped the balls out of the air. In they went—one after another. And he had a song:
“It would take more than a pack of
Pulling your wagon,
To keep you from me.
It would take more than a pack of
Pulling your wagon,
To keep you from me.
It would take more than....”
Over and over, the same words. And on his jersey was the magic word YANKEES. Crack—balls shot straight at him from the yellow wooden bats. Then, in a whiz, he pegged the browned, white-hot pill to chums around the corners of the infield. The immortals—that was his league. And accordingly, joining all YANKEES, the sixteen-year-old singing first-baseman was imperturbable.
The next day I saw Eric in school and we both commented with envy on the first baseman. And then he revealed that he had asked his father to buy a glove for him, just like the singer-athlete’s. I congratulated him on that, and also for having a father to ask. My father was already dead.
A week later Eric brought the glove to school. But he was disappointed. The glove was not the sleek butter-fly wing that he had seen the previous week.
Joining the melancholy discussion in the school yard, oddly for him, was Rex. He was the opposite of Eric in every way. Everyone wanted to stand next to Rex. It was a recent illness though that had amplified his agreeableness. Because of that illness—which remained a mystery—Rex had missed nearly a year of school. But when he came back, everyone could see that all the blood vessels on his limbs and hands were protruding constantly. This was, he and everyone concluded, a sign of special strength and vigor.
Rex was also a slick talker. And when he smiled, his white teeth ran directly to dimples on his cheeks. Girls considered Rex “cute.” So no boy could possibly hold back from his competitive measurements of blood-vessel prominence. And of course, with his narrow body and razor-thin arms and legs, Rex was always the winner. In this he was joined by another super skinny “tough guy”: Teddy D. He was a redhead, while Rex was dark-haired. Both made a curious sight talking to Eric, whose hair had already become silvery grey. They certainly seemed interested in Eric nonetheless. And looking at Eric’s glove, Rex and Teddy D urged Eric to meet them after school for a game.
It was a moment of intense joy and hope for Eric, I could see. Suddenly he was about to be released from solitude. And, from afar after school, I watched as the game began.
There—standing in the middle of the baseball diamond between Rex and Teddy D—was Eric. Instead of throwing around a ball though, with the glove snapping them up, Rex and Teddy D had taken Eric’s glove and were throwing the glove back and forth over his head. Each time, he was straining madly to view the entirety of the horizon above him. But—his head could not move quickly enough. Sideways then with one eye—as if he was a sea bird watching a bird of prey going by above—he followed the blurred leather creature. Each time, as well, when he jumped with his hands in the air to get hold of his glove, the gauze all along his arms and body became more and more undone. Within moments, the wispy white material was flying in all directions. From a distance he now seemed like an exotic South American bird that had fallen into a trap. And with so many years of breathing and soaking in his medicinal bath, his endurance and strength ebbed quickly. Shrieks of anger and chokes of despair then became louder as each swing of his body became weaker. But he was drowned out, more and more, by his captors. Over and over they kept shouting at him SILOOJII, SILOOJII, SILOOJII.