by Chris Wiltz
Did I ever tell you about my first friend from kindergarten? His name was David. My friendship with David was one of those friendships that you only have when youíre a child, truly and beautifully abstract.
I donít even remember exactly how I met David. I remember that Kindergarten classroom with its parallel rows of long tables facing the front of the class. All the students sat two to a table and we were at the same table together, two tables from the back I think. We were on the teacherís right and I sat in the aisle seat. All of the students had little school boxes with our names on them that we kept all of our supplies in. David and I used to pretend that our boxes were military bases and that our giant erasers were tanks. We would throw bits of paper at each otherís bases, having little wars with each other during class. I donít remember who ever won these battles if anyone ever did. One day during a lecture on sexuality we were having a battle instead of paying attention. I remember the silly little cartoon pictures of naked children in the book we were given and I remember us pointing to the pictures and laughing. Why doesnít he have a penis? I thought, not knowing then that I was examining a picture of a girl. Our battle ceased and our distraction turned towards making fun of the pictures. Then David got yelled at. I donít specifically remember what but no doubt it was because we were talking in class. The teacher went on about a lot of things. At this point I donít really care what she said and Iím sure David doesnít either but I remember she yelled at us for a decent amount of time. The subject of us never paying attention and having school box wars must have come up because we never had them again. When I got about a year older I stopped feeling guilty about this and I only wondered why she didnít just tell us to stop the first time she saw us instead of going into a tirade about it later?"
The end of our wars led us to our next favorite activity; making fun of subjects that came up in class. This was especially true during Bible study. We went to a private Lutheran school and every morning the teacher had us gather around on a carpet in the back of the room while she read us a Bible story. Once she was telling us about how Jesus turned water into wine and did some trick using Kool-Aid and turned a pot of water red. I didnít know what she did at the time but David and I resolved then that she had probably bled in the water or maybe God was a personal friend of hers and had helped her out with changing the water. One day during Bible study I noticed David looking at me and smiling that usual wily grin he had when he knew something funny that you didnít. He asked me what was wrong with my hand and when I looked at it there was a red bump protruding from the thumb side of my left had right where the thumb joins with the center of the palm. Having no clue what this red bump was I started picking at it. David hung over me intently as I finally picked it open and a yellow liquid oozed out of it and all over my hand. Davidís eyes widened with a look of pure awe and amazement and told me how cool that was as though I had acquired some kind of super power and could now make my hand ooze at will. I was a little confused but mostly neutral about the situation and I rubbed my hand clean on the carpet and my pants. The teacher never noticed and the rest of the day went pretty normally.
When I got home that day my whole body itched and I noticed those red bumps appearing all over my body. I was picking at the ones on the soles of my feet when my mother walked in the room and gasped and called my father. My mother eventually calmed down when my father found her old medical book and they determined that I had chicken pox.
I stayed home from school for what felt like an eternity. Looking back I can still swear that a whole season passed before I got better. I remember it not being very warm when I caught the pox and Easter going by before I returned to school. When I got back I found out I wasnít alone in my predicament. Lots of other students had caught the chicken pocks too. Apparently that day I had come to school with that one pock on my hand I had caused an outbreak and infected a number of my classmates. David had been the next one after me to get sick suggesting that I had definitely given the pox to him when I revealed my new oozing power. I thought that David would be mad at me but he only thanked me and told me how cool it had been to miss so much school and stay at home watching cartoons all day. He even asked if I could give him the pox again. I tried rubbing my hand on him to see if he would break out again but nothing ever happened.
First grade came around and the amount of change was incredible. It was about the time that the "politics" of recess came into our lives. Now that we were in first grade we were privy to three recesses a day instead of just one; a recess early in the morning, one right after lunch, and one late in the afternoon around two oíclock or so. As a result of our frequent time on the playground what happened in the classroom became less and less important to us. There was no need for school box wars when we now had a whole playground at our disposal. In kindergarten you were restricted from many of the activities like the jungle gym and the swings but now that we were in first grade we had full run of the playground. A favorite game was to have people lay down in front of the swing while someone would get on a swing, go as high as he could, and jump off. The idea was to see how many people you could clear. I was timid and had to be teased and dragged before I would agree to lie on the ground to be jumped over. And whenever David was able to convince me to try jumping off of the swing I never did it with people under me, I was too afraid of hurting someone. David on the other hand knew no fear at this game. He would fly over two sometimes even three of us on a good day. He never made the five, six person jumps that the third and fourth graders did but among the first graders he was without question the best.
I never liked high places. The only structure on the playground I would dare scale to the fullest was the jungle gym. David and the others loved climbing over everything, especially the big opaque monstrosity known as the Play Tower.
The Play Tower was a big fiberglass structure; on really bright days the sun would create a prismatic effect within its foggy layers. It consisted of a hard, foam stairway leading up to a fiberglass, chain bridge that crossed over to a platform with a firemanís pole in the center. One either side of this platform were ladders leading to two lower platforms. The one on the left was pretty plain but the one on the right was across from a rope that hung from an extension of the Tower. Other kids loved to jump from the platform, grab the rope, and swing Tarzan-style back onto the platform. Whereas I could barely gather the bravery to go down the firemanís pole the other kids would try the rope stunt and even climb the exterior of the tower. Even with Davidís encouragement I could never find it in myself to try any of these things. The area around the tower was packed with gravel made of small, smooth stones. They were all a pale gray or orange and looked like millions of candies that had been dropped in the dirt. The gravel made the area extremely soft and hard to run through but falling onto the gravel from high enough still hurt a lot. One day I finally resolved to try the rope stunt but when we rushed over to the tower we found that the administrators had removed the rope over safety concerns.
My size in relation to the other kids told me that strength would not be my strong point and everyday the tower and the swing jump told me that I was not destined to master heights anytime soon either. I did discover something during all my time on the ground though. I was fast, much faster than most of the other kids. Except for Richard, another friend I had made by then, and one or two others there wasnít really anyone in our grade who could change direction and speed as quickly as I could. Whenever we played tag in large groups the kids would always use my fear of heights to their advantage, climbing up someplace high to avoid me. This always used to anger me but later I took it as a compliment about how fast I must be if they had no confidence in avoiding me on the ground. Eventually Richard and I came up with a whole system of dodging movements that we dubbed "fake-outs." Eventually we got so good that during tag games either one of us when being chased could dip and dodge around someone so rapidly and effectively that whoever was chasing us would either give up or end up falling flat on his face.
David wasnít fast though. In fact in comparison to Richard and I he barely moved at all. It wasnít that he was fat or any of the other things kids attribute with slowness, he just couldnít run that fast. What David was though was strong. I remember once he demonstrated his strength by lifting my father off of the ground for a few seconds. His strength definitely came in handy when other kids would pick on me. His strength equaled that of any bully on the playground and I never worried about being picked on when he was around. I was probably the smallest and weakest guy in our class and the other boys in the class made sure I knew it.
The favorite game between David, Richard, and I became "Fake-Outs." Richard and I liked running and David for whatever reason liked chasing so it was a perfect match. Every so often David would get frustrated at us for not letting him be the one running away from one of us but we found if we let him run away for a day or two he would gladly chase us for weeks without complaint. And so the cycle went on and the three of us became inseparable.
We disassociated ourselves from the other kids. Who cared about jumping rope, or playing football with the third and fourth graders? All the other boys played with the older kids because it made them feel grown up. We, on the other hand, were in no rush to grow up The reality was that the third and fourth graders let younger kids play with them because it was easy and fun for them to tackle someone less than half their size.
But ever so slowly we were growing up and as we did it I began noticing how we were treated in relation to the other classmates. Despite never really interacting too much with any but a handful of the other kids I found that I was pretty much liked and accepted by my whole class. I took this as a result of my being a better student than most, I was always happy to share answers with someone who needed help. Richard was just as popular as me but was not as good a student, girls liked Richard better cause he was just a little slicker than me at fake-outs and was also learning how to do back flips. David on the other hand did not seem to be well liked by anyone in the class. Most of the class seemed to have a negative or neutral opinion about him. The few of us that liked David and enjoyed his friendship couldnít understand why the other kids didnít like him too. Of courseÖwe never asked. I couldnít understand why most of our classmates could seemingly like Richard and me for no apparent reason and not like David at all. Of the three of us David seemed to me to be the most likeable and easy to get along with. David himself didnít really even seem to care though. He would enjoy Richardís and my company and was content with just that.
Davidís interactions with our classmates usually resulted in confrontation or David shrugging them away from him. There were times when even Richard and I would abandon him on the playground if for whatever reason we felt like playing with other kids. David would just shrug though and find something else to do, never complaining. I imagined that he liked things best when it was just the three of us because when we played games in large groups David would seldom join in, even when he was invited. Sometimes this really annoyed me. David didnít want to be in the group and the group didnít seem to want him and no one would tell me why. Of course, againÖI never asked.
I like to think of third grade as the point when I finally started listening to adults. I mean really listening. That is not to say that I understood what they were saying. One day I came home from school and my mother was sitting in the living room with my aunt. I donít remember the circumstances exactly but I remember they were talking about those "crazy white folks." Every other sentence had this phrase in it: "crazy white folks." I had never heard it before. I had also never heard such frustration and raw emotion in my motherís voice before, not even when she argued with my father. The strength in her voice was what made me stop just short of being seen and listen to her conversation in the first place. I remember her talking about those "crazy white folks" and how they were ruining the world. My aunt nodded in agreement throwing her own statement about "white folks" into the fray.
I donít remember exactly what they said but I do remember the anger and hatred in the voices of my mother and aunt. What could have happened to make them so angry? Someone must have done something really wrong to make my mother this mad. What were white people I wondered? My mind flashed images of those old black and white movies; the people in those movies were white, like living crayons. Did people like that really exist, crayon-colored people walking around not speaking and wearing all black? I had never seen them before. My mother must have. I wondered where these white people lived. Why did they make my mother so upset? My mother once said nothing annoys her more than a stupid person so these people must be really dumb. They sure did seem dumb in the movies, walking around all funny to the beat of that silly music. I smiled at the thought of these awkward people walking around in world with real people who wore bright-colored clothes, doing their silly swagger in the grocery store parking lot while my mother rolled her eyes at them as she loaded bags into the car. The pounding of my motherís voice as I continued to eavesdrop assured me that however funny these people appeared they were also capable of making her as angry as I ever heard her in my life.
Our third grade teacher was a tyrant. There was a blinding unfairness in the way he treated us that made even the best students give up and take Fís from time to time. Sitting in the classroom it was almost as if he waited for the moment when anyone would slip up and he could put a lock on their ID so they wouldnít be allowed to pass onto the playground by the automatic doors. It seemed like every time anyone stopped staring at the board for even a second he would go into a tirade about how he wasnít respected and no one ever paid attention to him. Thinking back perhaps this was partly true but only because of the way he treated us.
The worst was when heíd make us sing. Weíd sing these boring, droning hymns everyday and were sometimes expected to memorize them for homework. Of course no one ever memorized him then he would go into another of his worn out tirades about how children spent all their time watching holograms and how they new the lyrics of every rap song on the radio but couldnít memorize the hymns. Our response to this among ourselves was that the songs on the radio were good and the hymns were horrible. Almost anything was better than "We Three Kings." I didnít know about anyone else in the class but I didnít have any gold and incense and even if I did I probably wouldnít give them to some broke guy living in a stable.
Some of us started finding our own ways of making the hymns interesting. We used to "remix" the hymns and change words around to make them funny to us. This always worked because there were always just enough people singing the hymn correctly for the teacher to not notice what we were doing. Thus "A Mighty Fortress is our God" because "A Mighty Fucker is who Taught" and transformed from a song praising the glories of God to an anthem declaring our hate for our teacher. I always imagined our versions of the hymns blending in with the real version when they were both sung and becoming a sort of subliminal message letting our teacher know just how much we despised him. Maybe this actually happened because as the year wore on he became more and more of a tyrant.
After a while though he only seemed to come down on certain students. He now just ignored the ones who had constantly given him "problems" since the beginning of the year. One day Alem, a boy in our class, raised his hand to ask to go to the bathroom. Our teacher never stopped lecturing. Alem writhed in agony until he finally peed himself and our teacher flew into a rage and sent him out of the classroom.
David, who was mostly quiet and got in little to no trouble (even if he had been involved with a group of us causing mischief), became one of the teacherís favorite targets. During one of his soapbox lectures about he would say something like "They sit around a complain all day and watch the Ďidiot boxí and then wonder why they never make anything of themselves in the real world." Then without missing a beat heíd glance over and say, "Isnít that right David?" David would always be caught off guard and would never give him an answer more definite than "I guess so." I remember one day when he did this to a girl named Stephanie for the entire stretch between the lunch and afternoon recess and she finally broke down crying.
Recess transformed itself from a luxury to an absolute necessity. It was that time during the day when we were free of our teacher, if only for a short time, and could still enjoy each otherís company. Of course we never knew when he would find an excuse to take our recess time away so every session became a mad race to have as much fun as possible before the bands on our wrists started flashing signaling that our freedom was over.
Our collective hatred of our teacher did allow us to bond more. I found myself playing with kids I had known but had never really interacted with that much until that year. Particularly there were these three boys named Jeremiah, Hector, and Isaiah. They were probably as good of friends as David, Richard, and myself. Everyone called them H, I, and J; further establishing how close they were. H, I, and J enjoyed football more than anything else. And unlike Richard, David, and I they had a gang of loyal followers that were pretty much willing to do anything that they would do first.
Richard and I managed to ingratiate ourselves with them pretty well. They already liked us for whatever reason and Richard proved to be pretty good at football. I was too if I ever caught the ball but my "butter fingers" quickly earned me a reputation as someone that shouldnít be passed to on a regular basis. Even David played sometimes. He was only getting stronger as he got older and he made for a really good defense.
Still he never played that often but it didnít matter much because, despite the fact that we were playing more football, Fake-Outs was still our favorite game of all time. Sometimes H, I, or J would forget to bring a football to school and some of the other kids would play it with us. David, Richard, and I always thought it would be incredibly fun with a half and half mix of runners and chasers but the other kids never quite understood the game. They always thought it was supposed to be like tag and didnít understand when we told them that runners and chasers stayed in their rolls for the whole game. To us the fun in the game lied in its immutability but the immutability was also what made the game seem so pointless to the other kids. A few times it even came down between us arguing to play Fake-Outs and H,I, and J wanting to play football. The latter group always won though not so much because football was anymore fun (most times the same people were on the same team because H,I, and J didnít want to be separated, and they always won) but because H,I, and J were a lot more popular. On more than one occasion Richard and I found ourselves looking at David standing alone once the line had be drawn. David was still as independent and forgiving as ever though and would just shrug us off and find some other way to amuse himself for recess.
One day David didnít come to school though. He didnít come to school for what had to be months in fact. The days drug on and I soon found myself falling into a daily groove of playing football like the other boys in the class. I was too carefree to worry too much about David. Our concern never went beyond a simple "I wish David had been here" when we had an especially good day on the playground. Eventually his absence became so familiar that I honestly couldnít remember what I did before I played football every day.
Just as we were about to chalk David up as another student who had moved away without saying goodbye our teacher made an announcement: David had been in a car accident and had severely damaged both of his eyes. The doctors performed several operations but were unable to save Davidís natural sight. As a result David had to be outfitted with prosthetic vision and had spent his time away from school adjusting. We were told he would be returning in a few days and the teacher warned us not to make fun of David or give him a hard time as he would still be adjusting to his new way of seeing the world.
Davidís eyes didnít have any presence behind them anymore. Once vivid, they were now a pale gray like foggy windows on a winter morning. If you looked at them hard enough you could see past them and to the multicolored wires snaking their way back into his head. I didnít realize how much the new David scared me until weeks after he came back to school and I started having nightmares. I saw those same wires in my dream, moving, writhing, pushing up against the back of Davidís eyes, pilling up behind his lens like lost earthworms, and pushingÖthey pushed right through Davidís eyes. David would just stand there, yellow-fluid, like from my first chicken pock, leaking down his face and onto the floor, every so often the steady flow would carry a bit of wire down onto the floor with it. David would look up at me and frown. Iíd never seen him frown in real life. The expression had no laughter behind it. It only shocked me awake and led me to frantically fumble in the dark to reach the lamp on my nightstand.
I wasnít sure if it was the nightmare, his absence, or his foggy-window eyes but after David came back I just didnít like him that much anymore. Maybe I was just learning to appreciate football. We played Fake-Outs every now and then too but David didnít seem to be as coordinated as he once was. I finally got up the nerve to ask him what it was like the way he saw things and he told me everything was black and white like an old movie and if things moved too fast they turned into grain and he couldnít make them out until they slowed down again.
There was no more color in Davidís life and it showed in the way he acted and even more in the way he was treated. Already an outcast for reasons I didnít understand David was shunned even more so because of his prosthetic eyes. Though he had rarely accepted the invitation before, he was no longer even given the courteousy of being asked to play football.
His isolation grew to the point that he even asked to play once. His request fell on deaf ears, though Richard and I heard David and invited him to get in the game the others chose to ignore him completely, even after he took it upon himself to simply jump into the game the entire movement of play shifted until the game was essentially being played around David. He stood in one spot in the middle of the field like a misplaced statue, every time we all ran past him David would turn around and stare blankly in our direction with his foggy-gray eyes.
Some of us even started using David as an obstacle, faking our way around him to avoid being tackled. The area around David became a sort of safety zone. No one would dare go for a tackle in Davidís vicinity because doing so would be to risk touching David. Eventually the centrifugal movement around David became so natural that we barely noticed when Hector had the ball and David reached his arm out, grabbed Hector by the collar, and slammed him to the ground with one hand. Hector hit his head and was crying, too hurt to move. Almost immediately a group of Hectorís friends converged on David like a small pack of dogs. David fended them off for a while but even he couldnít fight of so many at once. Eventually they wrestled him to the ground and beat on him until our wristbands went off to signal us back indoors. I was too scared to do anythingÖtoo scared of David.
I thought about old black and white movies that day when it rained. It didnít rain hard, it just drizzled enough to make everything wet and gray. The colors and contrasts reminded me of those old black and white movies. All the playground needed was some silly piano music and those crazy crayon-colored "white folks" running around. The air even smelled like crayons; thick and pungent, not enough to overwhelm you, just enough to let you more than realize that it was there. The raindrops sliding off of the Play Tower made it look disgusting, either I was too young to know the word or the word didnít exist that could describe how ugly the raindrops made the tower look. It was slimy yet firm, clear and foggy, bright and dark, all at the same time. I donít even know why I was sitting under it by myself that day; it probably had something to do with the rain. I hated being outside when was raining.
No one was playing on the Tower. Looking up from under the bridge, there were no opaque shadows or the clap of footsteps running across it, just the rain leaking down from between the spaces in the bridgeís structure.
Not really paying attention I assumed the increasing background noise was just the rain gradually beginning to fall harder. But as the noise got louder I realized it wasnít really getting louder, just closer. The uniform static that I had assumed was millions of raindrops colliding with the smooth gray and orange grave slowly turned into a mixture of several distinct voices.
It was strange how things had been so quiet and then erupted into chaos so suddenly. I probably wouldnít even have paid as much attention as I did if I hadnít made out Richard and Davidís voices among the pack. I saw a group of kids running in a circular formation, the ones at the head of the circle had their backs to me. Everyone was yelling as their hands flew in every which direction. Had it not been for the rain or the fog I would have realized that they were all Hector and his friends, the usual football crowd, much quicker.
I saw another kid in the center of the circle. His features were masked by the blur of all the hands flying around him. As the circle moved he gradually pushed himself out of it and towards me. It was David. He was running, head down like a linebacker, pushing away from the other kids around him. He forced himself past who turned out to be Richard. Richard whirled around and almost fell over, leaving David with enough room to finally break out of the circle. By the time everything settled down a line had been drawn; David and I on one side, Hector, his friends, and Richard on the other.
I remember more yelling, and cursing. David was standing behind me, his eyes could no longer make tears but his face still showed that he was near crying. Davidís upset swearing mixed with the taunting and angry comments from the others and formed a screeching hurricane. Maybe the weather did get worse.
I was confused. The most that I could gather was that David had done something to make the others, even Richard, mad at him. Over the past few months David had clashed with everyone even me. No one ever spoke of a reason (I guess we were all supposed to have known on some level) but a rift was tearing through the students in our class. Friends were drifting apart and old friendships were being replaced with strange new ones that just didnít seem right. Though I drifted apart from many of my friends, including Richard, over the course of those months none of the newfound distance I saw between others and myself was as large as the distance that had somehow grown between David and me. A chasm was opening up in between us and it was getting larger everyday. Pretty soon it would become so wide that I wouldnít be able to see David standing at the other end of it. I wanted to blame my nightmare but something in the people around me told me that the reason I seldom hung out with David was much more broad and complex than a mere dream.
I didnít even see it when David hit me. I couldnít understand a word that anyone was saying and as I attempted to make sense of the whole situation I felt a shove on my back. I stumbled forward a few steps, turning around as I went. I felt myself falling, I anticipated hitting the ground but there was a cracking sound followed by a sharp sting on the right side of my face. I found myself looking straight down into the gravel. Was it thunder? I lifted myself up; still looking down at the ground, the raindrops landing on the gravel stones centered me as the yelling continued over my head. I focused on the raindrops as I strained for the throbbing in my cheekbone to go away. Some of the raindrops were red.
Richardís hands reached into my vision and grabbed me. I rolled over as he pulled me along the ground until I was well within the midst of the group that had been chasing David. The sky was so gray. For some reason I heard silly piano music in my head, but only for a moment. I sat up and looked at the Play Tower, David was up on the bridge alone. He had a handful of gravel and was throwing it one stone at a time at the miniature mob below him. The others were returning fire. Their mass and accuracy completely eclipsed Davidís efforts.
It wasnít anger that made my fist scoop up a handful of gravel as I stood up. At the time it felt to me like we were playing a game. We must be playing a game I thought. David was the bad guy up in his tower and all of us good guys down below had to defeat him. This was our last chance. It was like that cartoon episode, the best one, when the heroes finally had a decisive showdown with the villain.
I smiled as I hurled stone after stone up at the bad guy on the bridge. I looked over at Richard throwing handfuls at a time. He cheered, "Yeah go!" uttering the first words I could clearly make out as we all hurled gravel back and forth. The game was really fun until I looked up at David and saw that he wasnít fighting back anymore. We had won.
David was turned sideways away from the rest of us. His face was red, redder than I had ever seen a face turn. He wasnít mad though, he was crying. But David canít cry I told myself, it had to just be the rain on his face. When David turned fully toward us again I saw that most of the moisture was only on one side of his face. David was holding his eye as a yellow fluid creeped down the side of his face. He slowly lowered his hand. One of the gravel stones had hit him in the eye breaking the frail lens.< /P>
He looked just like he did in my nightmare. For a second I looked down at my hand and I saw that first chicken pock again. The scar it had left on my hand oozed just as it had done that day in kindergarten. There was nothing there though, only my skin. I looked at my skin, dirty with gravel dirt. I looked at the colored gravel in my hand and it went limp, letting the remaining stones slide back down to the ground. I looked at all of the others around me; I looked at Richard, I looked at Hector, I looked at Jeremiah, I looked at all of them, their faces, their hairÖThen I looked up at David, his face red and soaked with a mixture of the now settled fluid from his eye and the rainwater. He was crying but there was no sound coming out of his mouth. Some of the fluid leaked off the side of the bridge leaving a pale yellow streak dribbling off of the fiberglass. I looked up at the sky and heard my mothers voiceÖangry, echoing off every raindrop. I thought about black and white movies, and silly piano music, I smelled crayons. Iím not sure if I heard thunder or not.
Black and white movies, my motherís voice, that gray sky, the crayon smell in the air, and the place where I was standing all told me the same thing at once. I understood what no one had taught me but what everyone had assumed Iíd knownÖ My friend David was white.