We met the day they carried my mother away.
Summer was just underway and someone had started a game of freeze tag. Kids swarmed the yards, dodging outstretched hands, finding themselves petrified for whole minutes until a friendly touch set them free. Brand new to the neighborhood, I didn’t even know the names of my captors or liberators — but I was grateful for the chance to be chased. Mammoth, our cat, watched from the bushes, terror in her green eyes.
I first heard the siren while balancing on one leg in the front yard: I’d been tagged mid-stride. The faint peals waxed and waned with every turn, and as the wail grew closer, the kids gathered in the front yards. I let my foot drop to the ground, and my heart swelled with excitement as the long nose of an ambulance slipped around the corner of our block, not two hundred yards away. The last stragglers joined our group, and we stood wide-eyed, as still as if we’d all been tagged at once. The vehicle slowed at the curb in front of my house. And suddenly the siren held its tongue.
I don’t remember exactly how my giddiness dissolved into panic. Car doors slammed and white-clad attendants scurried. Our front screen door smacked shut as they entered the house, and I heard voices and shuffling within. Heavy steps sounded from inside, and soon the screen door burst open again, pressed to the side by broad shoulders covered in hospital white. As the first figure backed out, the rounded form of my mother came into view, laid out on a stretcher. They carried her down the sidewalk, and my mother turned her head toward me, pulling her lips into a smile. Her hair still perfectly in place, a small blond curl by her ear. She lifted the fingers of her left hand weakly, suggesting a wave. My stomach hurt, and the back of my neck tingled. I tried to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t cooperate.
The doors slammed closed and the engine revved. The vehicle looked somehow longer now, vast and solemn. Then the siren started its slow whine, and the ambulance pulled away. I surveyed our ragged group: all eyes were now on me, and mouths stood open wide enough to catch flies.
Only one among us seemed untouched by the drama. Sweeping his greasy black hair to the side, Donny Wellek spoke his first words to me: “You see?” he said with a nod. “That’s what happens when he sticks his thing in hers.”
And he was right, of course: my mother’s disappearance into the maw of the ambulance didn’t lead to the dramatic future that flowered in my imagination during that instant of panic. I had pictured myself half-orphaned, pitied, suddenly singular and interesting. But thanks to Donny’s biology lesson I understood the course of events I was witnessing. And when Mom returned home three days later, accompanied by the wrinkled, yellow creature thereafter known as my brother, I realized that I had, indeed, lost my mother — to a rival.
That’s the way they did it in 1968, when I was ten.
With Michael’s arrival in the family I was not just displaced from the center of the Ripple family universe, I was relegated to the status of a distant planetoid. Often I’d have to tuck myself in while my parents tended to Michael’s bouts of colic. Or I would eat breakfast alone, my mother too exhausted to crawl out of bed. My parents orbited around this new son, and since I still hadn’t made real friends, Mammoth was the one I felt closest to. A fan of interesting smells, our cat spent the lion’s share of her time in my room, leaving my bed in order to curl up on my desk chair, which she would later abandon for the windowsill before heading back to my bed. Sometimes I draped her over my shoulder like an enormous orange scarf. Whenever my loneliness overwhelmed me, Mammoth made an excellent pillow into which to spill my tears.
Donny lived just two houses down. It was in part this proximity that brought us together, but also the fact that Donny was more available than other kids, less locked into the jigsaw puzzle of relationships. That probably should have been a warning, but I was in need of a companion.
We were in the same grade, but Donny was nearly a year older and what felt like a foot taller. His skin was oily, and he reeked of adolescence. He seemed grown up.
Through the first days of June we spent swaths of time playing Monopoly together, and many evenings we sat at one of the houses watching the Far West. Lorne Greene and Michael Landon shot their way out of dilemmas we would find ourselves re-enacting in late afternoons, often armed with little more than fingers for six-shooters. Clayton Moore set high standards for honor as the Lone Ranger, occasionally outdone by the tragically misunderstood Chuck Connors, in Branded. “That one’s going to get it,” he’d say while we watched, pointing at some newcomer to the Ponderosa Ranch. The life expectancy of guest stars on these shows was short.
When we reproduced these tragic scenes outdoors, Donny always played the part of the bandit or the Indian — or whatever kind of villain the previous day’s shows had offered.
Our programming of adventure was interrupted early in the month when a man with a double name plugged three bullets into a presidential candidate in a hotel kitchen in California. To be honest, I hadn’t quite understood the function of a president, and I’d only seen Robert Kennedy a few times on TV. Scores of people had died from shootings in our living room before, but to my knowledge this was the only episode that had sent tears streaming down my mother’s cheeks. She sat on the sofa, staring at the still pictures on the screen, clutching baby Michael to her breast, my father’s arm around her shoulders. “Not again,” she kept saying while rocking forward and back. “Not again.”
Soon even the assassination became grist for Donny’s mill. Out in the yard, in a variety of situations, I obediently crumpled under my friend’s sniper shots. Time after time. I knew Mom wouldn’t like our playing at this, but Donny soaked it up. He wanted me to call him Sirhan Sirhan, but he settled for Donny Donny. He liked having a sidekick.
Even more gripping than television was Donny’s family, which appeared to be governed by a wholly different universe than my own. If the laws of gravity had stopped applying in the Wellek household, it wouldn’t have surprised me. Membership in my family included weekly chores, with my mother playing the role of drill sergeant, but the Welleks had given in to the forces of entropy. Donny’s mother had brought no fewer than five new Welleks into this world (which explained Donny’s expertise regarding reproduction) and the effort of such labor had apparently prompted her to retire early from the duties of motherhood. While my mother dusted, mopped, shopped and cooked until she was ready to scream (an urge to which she occasionally surrendered), Mrs. Wellek enjoyed life to the fullest. I did sometimes encounter her in their kitchen, but she was usually passing through to refill a glass before returning to her magazines or the telephone. Her children did not so much eat as graze, scrounging through the cupboards like modern hunter-gatherers, collecting handfuls of Cocoa-Puffs or grasping at stray Pop-Tarts. That’s where I first encountered Donny’s older sister, Sylvia, who slipped through the kitchen one day wearing nothing but a towel, the bottom edge of which was perfectly aligned with the rising curve of her buttocks.
“Get a load of that,” Donny whispered to me as he signaled toward Sylvia’s rump. And although I didn’t think he should be as interested as I, I was grateful for the permission to stare.
Donny was my connection to this other world — and, as I would soon learn, to galaxies beyond. In my own family sex belonged to the unspeakable; it was the burning secret, fully absorbed within the world of adults. It had something to do with the gallantry of Zorro, when the women saved by the masked hero awoke from their swoons; one caught whispers of it in Dick and Laura’s relationship on the Dick Van Dyke show; on occasion it even manifested itself in our own home, when Mom and Dad engaged in a rare and unhygienic smooch. Recently my mother pointed out that Mammoth had gotten herself pregnant, but she volunteered only vague answers to my pressing questions about this feline event.
But someone had let the genie out of the bottle at the Welleks, and despite my ambivalence about Donny, I let myself be invited over with regularity. There was always the chance of glimpsing Sylvia. And Mr. Wellek was not above pinching and patting certain contours of his wife — who often positioned herself so as to encourage such molestations.
Donny enjoyed a kind of terrifying freedom. For instance, when he picked his nose he wiped the boogers on the wall in his room, just behind his bed — a stunt that would have cost me my arms back home. Then there was the time he showed me what a turd looks like as it emerges from the sphincter — a little number he referred to as “laying an egg.” It was a fascinating sight, to be sure, but not a form of knowledge I could ever imagine passing on to others. Once, when Mammoth slinked past us in my back yard, her belly starting to round, Donny suggested with a laugh that we cut her open to look at the babies. The shiver that rippled through my chest made me realize he might not have been kidding.
Donny knew the scales of grown-up sentiment, and he played the notes with a mixture of ease and confidence. When there was trouble in the group, Donny was always in the area, but never pinned with the crime. Although one of the coarsest people I ever met, he had mastered the use of “sir” and “ma’am,” powerful forms of address that gave him a patina of maturity and almost antebellum politeness of which few ten-year-olds could boast.
These manners made him into a convincing liar. When Jonas Trent’s brand new transistor radio went missing at his birthday party, it was Donny who strode up to Jonas’ mom. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, his eyes wide, looking up from under a slightly bowed brow, “but something has happened to Jonas’s radio. Can you help us find it?”
The fact that I later spotted the red plastic device in Donny’s room did not surprise me. In fact, I admired the mask of deference and sincerity he had adopted so casually, not to mention the bold move by which he had placed himself above suspicion.
I suspected that Donny and I were of different species, and I feared that his was the superior one, fitter for survival. His raw intelligence, unharnessed for academic achievement, remained as a vast, untapped resource available for other, more illicit pursuits. When he introduced me to shoplifting, the victims of our spree consisted of three neighborhood shops aligned along Lake Avenue, only a few blocks from home. I lost my legal virginity at the Five and Dime on the corner, a slightly decrepit and over-stocked store run by old Mr. Manning, a frail specimen of a bygone era, always outfitted with a bow tie and red suspenders. Bird-like in his movements, he wore glasses of such abnormal thickness that they magnified his eyes twofold. While I should have deduced from this that he was as blind as a mole, the sheer size of the orbs behind those lenses suggested to me the very incarnation of Vision.
I met Donny outside the store on a Saturday morning, where he gave me the digest of essential instructions: Keep quiet and follow my lead. That was the sum of my lesson before he pushed through the jingling door, heading straight for the counter.
“Good morning, sir,” Donny said, looking Mr. Manning in the eye.
“Good morning, boys,” the old fellow croaked, beaming back.
I followed dumbly in Donny’s wake. He scanned the comic book rack next to the register, picking out a Batman and perused the opening pages. I kept waiting for the move, expecting him to slide the book up his shirt or to wad it into tiny balls in his cheeks, and my staring must have irritated him, because he finally pulled another comic off the rack and thrust it into my hands. I stared stupidly at the pictures, turning the occasional page to make it appear I was reading. My temples pounded and my fingers left small, sweaty smears on the pages.
At length Donny put back the comic and moved on. Mr. Manning smiled at us as we headed to the back of the store. We sidled past two women selecting cosmetics, past the toys and models, past the cleaning supplies, all the way back to stationery. There he slipped an elegant Parker pen out of its case and into his back pocket. The gesture was entirely natural and unhurried. Then he stepped across the aisle to a stand of greeting cards. I had seen enough movies to know that now was the time to run for it; in seconds the alarms would go off and we would hear sirens in the distance. But Donny took his time. He fingered the cards on display, stopping at some as if reflecting on their possible effect on the recipient, and giving me a couple of icy stares to stop my fidgeting. After careful consideration he selected a Get Well Soon card with a green envelope and then headed up to the register. I was ready to bolt, but Donny actually slowed during his approach. As he leaned on the counter and began to chat with the smiling Mr. Manning, I could see the diagonal bulge of the pen in his back pocket.
“You have a wonderful card section,” Donny said.
“Glad you like it,” Mr. Manning replied, clearly amused at Donny’s mature tone. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Oh yes. No problem at all.”
“Somebody you know not well?”
“My aunt,” Donny replied. “My aunt Lily. She broke…” — I saw the wheels spin for an instant — “… her collarbone.”
Such a wonderful choice: not so banal as an arm or a leg, but more probable than a finger or a knee.
Coins were tendered and change received while Donny gave details of the imaginary accident of a make-believe person. The transaction completed, Mr. Manning looked over to me, his head canted slightly back so that his enormous eyes could bring me into focus through the bifocals.
“And anything for you, young man?” he asked.
As Mr. Manning’s gaze drilled in, I felt a slight flutter in my chest and my vision flickered. For a moment I feared I might black out entirely, leaving my small, felonious body collapsed on the linoleum of the Five and Dime. But after a final shudder, I regained my calm. Off to the side I saw Donny Wellek dip his hand into a plastic bin of fingernail clippers, and in slow motion he slipped one into his front pocket. Always thinking, he was.
More than his success, I admired Donny’s style. The principle of purchasing something at the same time you thieved made perfect sense, upon reflection. But the selection of a greeting card — that sign of selflessness and compassion for others — it put him absolutely above suspicion and elevated petty theft nearly to the realm of art.
Donny was unburdened by conscience, and his delight at playing with a newly palmed object was not obscured by the clouds of guilt that swirled around me. Still, I found the terror experienced in Manning’s Five and Dime strangely thrilling. Better than playing with fire — which was another pastime Donny introduced me to that summer — shoplifting was more like juggling with high explosives. In the unwritten criminal code of my home, burning down the house would have figured as little more than a misdemeanor in comparison to the capital offense of thievery. One showed an error of judgment, while the other demonstrated an absence of scruples.
Donny was gifted at stealing. And adventurous: we acquired some fine looking tools wrench from the hardware store, a large array of desk supplies from Manning’s, and at one point he smuggled a live neon tetra out of the pet store. Bit by bit Donny’s room started to look like Ali Baba’s cave, piled high with treasures.
In addition to on-the-job training, Donny gave me general pointers. Never linger in the back of the store: it gives rise to suspicion. And calculate your turns: if leaving the register requires you to show your left side, pocket your items on the right. These principles were simple enough — although sometimes challenging for me, who had never quite mastered the difference between right and left. If I had time to look at my hands, I knew which way to go, but when Donny whispered a direction in my ear, it introduced a dangerous hesitation in my execution.
For my first solo job I had settled on a prism from Manning’s, a satisfyingly heavy pyramid of glass that divided the visible world into planes of light and color. Faithful to the teachings of the master, I made a purchase at the same time I stole, but I bungled my calculations: on my approach to the cash register, with Mr. Manning’s unblinking fish-eyes peering down at me, our gazes met and locked. I felt a surge of panic, and with it came a familiar tingling at the back of my neck and a slight dizziness. I willed myself to focus, and in an attempt to allay suspicion I reached out to the nearest shelf and the first item to come under my hand became my decoy purchase. At the register I found myself paying for an elegant pocketknife, priced at twice the cost of the prism. Red-faced under Mr. Manning’s gaze, I spent precious moments counting out the coins while the lump of glass, hidden inside my sagging sock, threatened to roll out onto the floor.
The prism heist was not the only time I erred on the side of extravagance during my criminal adventures. In fact, this practice soon became more deliberate, for I discovered that larger purchases eased my conscience. Indeed, it occurred to me years later that Mr. Manning may have caught on to our operation early on but allowed it to prosper because it proved so good for business. Soon the bulk of my allowance was subsidizing my thievery, and I found it hard to make ends meet.
Eventually Donny ratcheted up the stakes. In the back of Manning’s, on the highest row of the magazine rack, there was a series of publications tucked behind a blue metal panel, above which only titles showed. While most magazines were arranged so their vivid covers caught a customer’s eye from halfway across the store, these were nearly hidden. The idea that a store would actually conceal the merchandise it had for sale was sufficiently puzzling to give rise to suspicion. The titles of these publications composed exotic words that were difficult to peg: Penthouse, Vue, Gaze, Playboy…. At the time, the only magazine I knew intimately was Boys’ Life, and to me the pinnacle of journalistic production was reached in the “Grin and Bear It” humor section found at the back of each issue.
The copy of Gaze that Donny smuggled out in his trouser leg was thus to shape the future course of my reading habits. The creatures I discovered in that issue shared only the slightest anatomical resemblance to women I had met in real life, but that shred of similarity was enough to pique my curiosity. The idea that the beings I had found so insufferable in the fifth grade would one day look like that outstripped my powers of imagination. I found myself studying other candidates from the world around me — and among these was Donny’s sister. It was a stretch, but if anyone I knew resembled the models in Gaze, it was Sylvia Wellek.
Donny thus led me from shoplifting to more prurient pursuits. I scrutinized girls with new interest, scoping out the Liddel twins from next door, and studying the young brunette who walked her terrier past our house every day. As far as I could tell, clothing played the same role as the blue metal panel on Mr. Manning’s magazine rack, and I found myself yearning for the penetrating gaze reserved for superheroes. Donny pointed me to a solution: the wrapper from a piece of Bazooka Joe bubblegum invited me to send in for “X-ray Specs,” advertising that I’d be able to see people’s bones beneath their clothing. It wasn’t actually the skeletal structure that interested me, but the patter was vague about what was visible and what wasn’t: “Look at your friend,” the text read, “Is that really his body you ‘see’ under his clothes?” Although the ad gave us the benefit of the doubt, assuming we would use the specs only in the knee-slapping camaraderie of male bonding, the sketch of a buxom female figure in the background of the gum wrapper ad, smiling at the use of this very practical joke, tipped me off to the idea that their power could be harnessed for other uses. And so, three weeks and a dollar thirty-five later, I received my eyewear, which I had had shipped to Donny’s address for safety’s sake. But whom to select for my inaugural leer? Briefly I considered my mother, but the very thought triggered a shiver down my spine, and I quickly banished that mental image. The obvious model was Sylvia, who obligingly posed before us as Donny and I passed the specs back and forth. But her ample forms yielded only a dark, fuzzy profile, which no amount of fiddling with the lenses or the lights seemed to remedy.
During this period I found myself wracked with guilt each time I headed home. I saw other kids out in the neighborhood, but they kept their distance from me the way they steered clear of Donny. I would come into the house while Mom made chili or sloppy joes — my favorite dishes — but crime cut my appetite. At night, in my room, I buried my face in Mammoth’s warm fur, wondering what I was turning into. Mammoth never judged me; she was happy with her imminent motherhood, purring as hard as she could to ease my misery.
To compensate for my guilt, I found myself purchasing ever larger items in the Five and Dime, and to swing this financially I was doing chores around the house for extra money. Most of my loot and many of the decoy purchases ended up in Donny’s room — sometimes because I gave it to him for safe keeping, but sometimes he had simply swiped it.
Finally, in August, I stopped stealing altogether: I couldn’t afford it any longer.
I tried to disentangle myself from Donny, but he knew my weak spots. It was the carrot and the stick: threats to denounce me to my parents, and gifts of dirty magazines. One evening he called me on the phone — a rare occurrence, since my back door was only a hundred feet from his.
“You got a sec?” he said, not even pretending it was a question. “Get over here right away. Come up quietly.”
The urgency in his voice made the invitation irresistible, and soon I was creeping up the stairs toward his room when his hand shot out of the darkness and pulled me in another direction. In moments he had led me into his parents’ bedroom, his finger to his lips as we crept toward a door at the back. It was the second entrance to a main bathroom, and through crack between the jamb and the poorly fitted door, there was an opening to which Donny and I applied our faces. Inside the steamy room, behind the mottled glass of the shower doors, we could see vague movement, flashes of skin tone. Although we could make out no discernible shape — not even the blurred masses perceptible with X-ray specs — there was an unmistakably naked body on the other side of the glass. Piled on the floor in front of the shower door was a large white towel, and I imagined how Sylvia had glided through the hallway to the bathroom, allowing the towel to slide down off her body as she stepped under the streaming water. I guessed at which body parts we were viewing based on the height of the flashes of color.
The mix of sensations visited upon me in that moment is difficult to describe: certainly a sweet and sudden hardening of that little organ between my legs; just as surely a rush of excitement, and an irrepressible urge to continue to stare. But also a sense of panic and guilt, similar to what I had felt in Manning’s Five and Dime: a fear that I was stepping over the line. There was that familiar itch at my neck, and the room began to turn. I knew the wooziness would settle down if I stopped looking, but Donny and I stood riveted to the spot. His hands were already busy below deck.
The shower water stopped, and we heard shuffling feet inside the shower stall. I felt light-headed. We watched breathlessly as Door Number One began to open for us.
That was it: after surprising Mr. Wellek in the shower, I decided it was time to reform. I vowed to turn over a new leaf. Cold turkey, I stopped hanging out with Donny.
But it isn’t always easy to do the right thing. In fact, it was not enough to set out on a new course: I had reparations to make. And so I amassed some of the goods I had stolen and began a campaign of shop-putting. This consisted of returning goods to the stores I had stolen from. However, since I had already made use of many these wares — having extracted them from their packaging and left them with the blemishes of wear — it was only fitting that I should repurchase them myself. The whole process became dizzyingly complex, and it proved far more dangerous, and considerably more expensive, than the original thefts. This was especially true at the Five and Dime, where Mr. Manning was already keeping a look-out for me, despite his impaired vision. Since I was entering shops with concealed goods I had not purchased, I constantly ran the risk of being accused of theft while in the very act of making restitution. After successfully depositing a stolen object back on its shelf or in its bin, I would peel a sales sticker off a different article and apply it to the freshly returned one, which I would then carry up to the register and purchase.
My closest call came in the hardware store, where I mistakenly shop-put a cigarette lighter I had actually stolen from Manning’s. The puzzled sales clerk was about to point out that it was not their merchandise, but he suddenly thought better of it and rang the lighter up anyway.
Once I crossed paths with Donny at Manning’s. I was in the midst of returning a stapler, and I saw him slip a silver penlight into his pocket. He smiled at me and raised his eyebrows before turning to leave. I just shook my head: my work was like trying to fill a leaky bucket.
During our crime wave I had concealed my stolen goods in order to protect my reputation. But now, since I was actually paying for them, such discretion seemed superfluous, and so my room became progressively cluttered with what my father referred to as “crap.” My mother eyed the growing collection with suspicion, evidently wondering if I had come by it all honestly.
The magazines were too precious to give away, and yet too dangerous to keep. I lived in fear that my mother, in some act of zealous housecleaning, might discover my stash, and I was unable to concoct a reasonable explanation for why so many photographs of breasts and buttocks had accumulated in the folder under the box of train track in the back of my closet. I flushed red just thinking about it. I needed to distance myself from this booty, and so one night I snuck out into the yard and dug a shallow grave for these beautiful young women. I buried them in the garden, wrapped in plastic, using part of an old pea pole to mark the spot so I could find them when needed. I startled at a noise in the bushes, and looked up to see two luminous green eyes watching my every move. It was Mammoth. She had grown huge around the belly, soon to give birth.
The world began to return to normal after I distanced myself from Donny. Although I missed our closeness, and felt guilty about abandoning him, I was glad to find myself playing more with other kids, and the cloud of guilt that had smothered me for the past months began to lift. By late August I was out again with others, relishing evening games of tag or capture the flag — although Donny rarely joined in. Sometimes I’d see him eyeing me from his yard as I ran with other kids. I wanted him to swear or yell at me so I could hate him, but he just stood by himself, quiet and unsettling.
In July the summer had seemed too long, but now, as the dog days dwindled, I savored my fleeting liberty. I recall vividly the sensation of being frozen in tag — standing stock-still in the twilight, waiting for the touch of a friend to thaw me, to release me from my petrified state. For whole minutes I was arrested in time, action whirling around me, oddly out of step with my own surroundings. Sometimes the magic of this position — utter inaction in the midst of chaos, tinted with the anticipation of imminent release — sent a tingle down my spine, one that I wished to prolong, and which vanished as soon as a friendly finger freed me from my bondage.
This was the state I found myself in on the Friday evening before Memorial Day: poised in the darkness, listening to the crunch of footsteps on the brittle grass and the sounds of a television through an open window. The innocent hum of noise was rent by a screech of tires from the front of our house. I held my freeze as long as I could while the other kids lit out to see what had happened. Car doors slammed and there was an explosion of voices, first the small sounds of children, and then the lower tones of adults.
Nobody came to free me. When I abandoned my pose and headed around the house, there was a group standing by the road, and a long white car I did not recognize parked at the curb. As I approached, faces turned. The voices quieted as people saw me. As if in a dream, the group parted silently, opening a path before me.
On the asphalt lay Mammoth on her side. Eyes half open. Immobile. I moved forward as if in a game of freeze tag: everyone was motionless; only I could move. I could touch them, and they could move again; I would touch Mammoth, and she would spring from her frozen state. But when I knelt down and felt her fur, my fingers worked no magic. Her pupils were but slits, even in the light of dusk, and the tip of her tongue showed between her teeth. I knew what had happened, of course, but I slipped my hands under her and scooped the body into my bare arms. She was perfectly intact. There was no blood. Nothing was broken. Her fur was soft and clean. But the unbearable limpness of the body told all. Her pregnant belly, full of promise, sagged, the tautness of life gone slack. I was too late.
When I stood and turned, I saw Donny in the crowd of kids, his lips pursed and his brow furrowed, a look poised between sympathy and satisfaction.