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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MORE TROUBLE WITH ARTHUR LEE

Few things are as dangerous as two bored kids with nothing to do on a summer afternoon. The extended sunlight hours, the lack of supervision and the teenager's innate sense that the thrill of bad behavior will surely outweigh the sting of its inevitable consequence conspire to lure young men-to-be into situations with little purpose other than pure childish titillation. It all starts with the boredom. Children are creative. If you leave them alone with a hole in time, they'll come up with some way to fill it.

When I was 13 I filled a lot of those holes hitting tennis balls at the Hunnewell courts on Washington Street with Arthur Lee. Yes, that Arthur Lee, the same one with whom I would later be falsely detained for auto theft. Twice. Our reckless imaginations would concoct absurd scenarios and an equally reckless desire to turn those scenarios into reality just to see what would happen created a world made of dynamite in which Arthur and I were pair of lit sparklers aimlessly wandering about.

Though we didn't realize it at the time, the most positive result of the hours and hours we spent hitting tennis balls was that it kept us from filling hours and hours with some other more dangerous activity. One has to wonder what would have become of us had we not been lucky enough to live in a town with multiple public tennis courts, several sporting goods stores, a high school tennis coach who tolerated our stunningly undisciplined approach toward the game, and most of all, parents who paid for racquets, balls, shoes, sweat bands, tube socks and lessons at the Babson Recreation Center. Without this support, Arthur and I would most likely have lost all control of our destructive impulses and drowned in an eddy of dysfunction.

We would have been truly bad kids. As it was, were we just occasionally bored.

There was a stack of rotting firewood in Arthur's backyard that seemed to have been there forever. The wood was black and weathered, partially encrusted with late summer mildew, funghi and moss. One steamy, August afternoon the heat and humidity caused some brief but powerful thunderstorms, the kind that are so localized that the sun shines right through the rain drops as they stretch out before exploding on the asphalt. The rain left the firewood soggy and pungent. Knowing that the Hunnewell courts would be peppered with puddles that would render our fresh Penn tennis balls heavy and useless, we found ourselves mindlessly whacking an old tennis ball against the firewood.

The ends of the logs stuck out of the pile creating hundreds of corners and bumps and irregularities that made it impossible to predict where the ball would bounce when it hit the stack. That, I suppose, was the game. It tested your reflexes. How many times could you whack the ball against the wood pile before it took a crazy bounce over your head or past your feet.

"Wait! Stop!" Arthur shouted. His brow came down as he focused intently on one section of the wood pile, one triangular space between three logs. He approached slowly, picking up a stick off the wet grass.

"There's a snake in there," he reported calmly.

When I was in 3rd grade my unfairly beautiful teacher Miss Wargo, on whom all the boys in class had a crush, came over to our house with her boa constrictor. She told me that the snake was her pet, that it wouldn't hurt me and that I could hold it if I wanted. I really didn't want to but it seemed to be important to her so I held out my arms with my palms facing up. She placed the snake in my hands. I wasn't prepared for the unfamiliar sensation of cool, smooth living flesh moving across my skin. I freaked out, yelped and dropped the snake on the grass. I was embarrassed and blamed the snake for making me look weak in front of Miss Wargo. I've hated snakes ever since.

I came up behind Arthur and looked over his shoulder as he used the stick to probe the triangular void in the wood pile. Sure enough, there was the recognizable flash of shiny, green scales. I didn't see its head, just about three inches of its mid-section.

"It's a garter snake," I said.

"Duh," Arthur said and before I knew it he had retrieved a pillow case from the basement past the washing machine and the garbage can his mother kept filled with dry white rice. Arthur was Korean and his mother served rice with every meal. Their house always smelled acidic and his kitchen refrigerator came to be one of the most feared places on Earth to me and my friends. It was only when I'd see the garbage can full of rice or the bizarre, unidentifiable pickled vegetables in the fridge that it ever even occurred to me that Arthur was Korean or else when some conversation specifically centered around nationality. He just was what he was and right now he was a kid trying to coax a snake out a stack of firewood with the stick. It took some patience but, hell, we were just two kids hitting a tennis ball against a pile of rotting wood. We had time. Eventually, the snake fell to the ground and before it could wriggle to safety, Arthur tossed the pillowcase over the beast, inverted it and tied the top. There stood Arthur, with a flopping, writhing pillowcase in his hand and a familiar look of excited anticipation on his face, a look I didn't even realize I was wearing, too.

"Let's go," he said.

"Where?" I asked.

"Woolworth's."

The rain water sprayed up off the back tires of our ten speeds creating damp, beige stains on our backs as we sped through town. Adept at this sort of thing, Arthur skillfully steered with one hand and held the pillowcase with the other. We locked our bikes to a parking meter a block down from Woolworth's, part of some intricate getaway plan that now escapes me, walked up the street, and took a moment to compose ourselves before pulling open the double doors and oh, so casually walking into the fabled department store.

There was nothing fancy about this Woolworth's although now that it's gone – it closed before I turned 14 – I wish I had spent more time there. Aisles of dusty brown metal racks with faded coloring books, bottles of soapy water for blowing bubbles, Mad Libs, rhinestone jewelry, Lik-A-Maid and Pixie Stix. The coolest thing about it was that it still had a luncheonette counter where you could order a grilled cheese sandwich and get a coke made right there from syrup and soda water. I could have made good use of that place as a teenager. It's the kind of thing I wish I could be nostalgic for, a memory I wish I had.

But on this day we weren't there for the grilled cheese or the rhinestones. Why were we there? We had not formally formulated any plan. We went straight from "snake in pillowcase" to "take snake in pillowcase to Woolworth's." I guess we thought we'd walk in, assess the situation and improvise some sort of prank. We failed, however to foresee the fit of uncontrollable laughter that overtook us immediately upon our arrival in the underwear aisle. I can't explain it, but trust me when I say that standing in a department store holding a snake in a pillowcase surrounded by shelves and shelves of men's underwear can really be quite amusing.

"What do we do?" I whispered, barely able to keep from squealing like a piglet.

"I don't know!" Arthur was giddy, almost frenzied and untied the top of the pillowcase just as we saw the front of a shopping cart peeking out from around the end of the aisle.

"Someone's coming!" we whispered in unison, now fully panicked. I guess some sort of primal self-preservation instinct took over because Arthur just dropped the pillowcase onto a big pile of unwrapped white jockey shorts and we scampered off to the board game section where we hid and stood listening intently for something, anything. Three minutes went by. Five minutes, Ten. Soon we became distracted by the grimy, outdated board games.

"Look at this. It looks like it hasn't been touched in 20 years," I said to Arthur.

"Yeah, it probably got put there when it was new and it hasn't moved since," Arthur said. "I mean, that game's been around forever. See how old the drawings look. They're like old-fashioned."

"Who do you think put it here 20 years ago? Do you think it was some guy who was a stock boy back then and now he's the manager?"

"Maybe he's still a stock boy. Maybe he's still a stock boy working here right now and he walks by these games everyday and says, 'Nope. Still haven't sold that one.'"

"That would be pathetic," I said. "I mean, he's an old man by now and he's still a stock boy? That's kinda sad."

"Maybe he's retarded," Arthur said, thoughtfully trying to cheer me up.

"Dumb-ass. You can't get a job if you're retarded."

"Why not? Yeah, you can."

"You can not. Think about it. If your boss tells you to do something and instead you go wandering off somewhere, why would he keep you working there?" My logic was flawless.

"Because you'd be retarded," Arthur explained.

"What?"

"Because you'd be retarded. They have laws that let you get away with stuff if you're retarded. Or black." Arthur spoke with authority but I skewered his argument with an impenetrable retort.

"Dumb-ass. You're retarded."

"You are. Haven't you heard of affirmative action? It's a law that says that if you're black or retarded, then your boss has to give you more chances to mess up before he can legally fire you. Don't you watch the news?"

"That's what that is? I keep hearing that. 'AFFIRMATIVE ACTION!' Whatever," I said dismissively.

"It makes things fair," said Arthur.

"It's just for black people and retarded people?" I asked. "What about Chinese people? Do they get to mess up more, too? Do you get to because you're Korean?"

A glimmer of confusion flashed across Arthur's face but he decided to remain certain.

"No. Just the blacks and the retards."

"Well, then the law is retarded. It should be fair for everyone. Blacks, retards, Chinese people, Korean people. Even white people."

"White people?" Arthur seemed slightly irritated and indignant. "Why should white people get to mess up extra? You already have it the best. That's why they need they law in the first place."

"Well then if white people are the only ones who have it so good, why not just change things for them instead of trying to make it even for everybody else?"

"Huh?"

"Yeah, treat the white people like the retards are treated now. That way everybody's happy."

I swear it made sense to me at the time.

Speechless, Arthur looked at me blankly. I blew on a Candyland box and sent a cloud of dust into the shaft of summer light streaming in from the street.

"You are!" Arthur finally said.

"I am what?"

"Retarded."

Just as the ensuing shoving match was getting underway, a piercing, womanly shriek pealed across Woolworth's from the general direction of the underwear aisle, bringing our socio-economics discussion to an abrupt end. Like mirror images of one another, Arthur and I locked eyes and stood motionless for a full second, eyes popping out of our heads, jaws lowered, mouths puckered in cartoonish "Oooooooooo!" fashion. Years later I would realize that this was the moment that always made it worthwhile for us. The adrenaline rush we experienced at the moment our mischief reached its peak, that was the high that kept us coming back for more. That's what we were hooked on. That's why we were always getting into trouble.

I didn't think about any of that at the time. At the time all I thought about was getting the hell out of Woolworth's before anyone realized that we had let a garter snake loose in the men's underwear.

We bolted down the games aisle, cut across the checkout lanes, burst through the double doors and ran as fast as we could down the street to our bikes, laughing hysterically the entire way.



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