The first time my parents had the church pastor over for dinner they played Tom Jones records and The Man of La Mancha soundtrack on eight-track tape. My mother made spaghetti and meatballs. The pastor, who was Irish, twirled his pasta and said he didn’t get much Italian cooking at the rectory, it was mostly meat and potatoes.
Now, with my mother dying of leukemia in the hospital, dinner with the pastor feels like a wake.
My father talks about a tree fort he is helping me build.
Nice thing about the suburbs, the pastor says. No tree forts in Brooklyn.
During dessert the pastor mentions that an altar boy was caught stealing in a toy store.
My mother would call him a bad apple, I say.
Well, he’s still a good boy, the pastor says. He just made a poor choice.
My father says that when he was a kid, his mother would’ve burned his hand over the stove if he’d ever stolen, and his father would’ve used a belt on him.
I think the best punishment is guilt, the pastor says. Let the boy think about how he’s disappointed his parents.
When the pastor says good night, he rubs my head and asks in a stern tone if I’m behaving and doing well in school.
After he leaves my father tells me to look the pastor in the eye when I talk.
The next day, Saturday, I cut the grass and bike to Korvette’s department store to buy records with my allowance money. I lock my bike at the rack. There’s only one other bike there, a familiar one, and for a moment I think of leaving and going to the stationary store to buy comics, but the bike belongs to a boy I’ve had inexorable clashes with, in classrooms, the playground, the woods, sometimes involving his fists, but most times just snarling derisive comments that get other kids to laugh at me, and I’m certain that if I go to the stationary, fate will guide Jimmy Gray there.
Inside Korvette’s, I’m greeted with that new plastic toy smell I associate with Christmas morning. I take the escalator down to the record department, where I know Jimmy will be because he’s always doodling rock band names on his notebook and talking about concerts his older brothers have been to. I think about hiding out in the games section, until I hear his dreaded voice.
Still wearing those faggot pants, he says.
Jimmy is short and stocky with a mop of messy hair and wears a stained white t-shirt.
No, I lie, they’re Levis.
No way, he says. You cut the tags off.
He was right. My jeans were bell-bottoms, but they had a childish-sounding brand name, Billy the Kid, so I asked my mother to cut the red, white and blue tag off the last time she’d been home from the hospital. Her hands were weak, dotted with needle marks.
These are nice pants from Bloomingdale’s, she said, but I didn’t know Bloomingdale’s from Sears, all I knew is that most kids wore the popular Levis.
My father was reading the paper while she worked the scissors. The TV news showed footage of helicopters landing in tall grass in Vietnam. The broadcaster said the war would be ending soon. Or maybe he said there was no end in sight.
Tell that boy that Billy the Kid was a bad guy, my father said.
In the record aisle, Jimmy asks what I’m going to buy.
A Kiss album.
They suck, he says.
He walks away and I browse the record bins. Then he comes back with a brown paper bag and takes an album out of the slot and puts it in the bag.
I’ve done this before, he says.
You’re not going to pay for it? I ask.
He points to an empty register. I just take a bag, he says. It looks like I bought it.
I look around and feel like an accomplice in a TV police drama.
Do it, he says.
I have allowance money, I tell him. For cutting the grass.
Our grass sucks, he says. Bunch of weeds.
I’m too young to perceive it, but Jimmy’s whole life story is summed up in that comment. He is embarrassed about his unkempt property, which includes car engine parts strewn about, grease and oil stains on the driveway, overgrown shrubs that cover the windows, a lawn that is out of place in a row of perfect suburban lawns, a kid who probably never gets an allowance and has to wear second-hand clothes from older brothers. Maybe that’s why he stole, and maybe that’s why the pastor’s explanation about guilt would never apply to him because Jimmy thought he deserved the record. Maybe his bad behavior was a fuck you to his parents and I was just collateral damage.
I heard about your mother, he says. My mother says she’s going to die. He doesn’t look at me as he says it and I know he’s not trying to hurt me, he’s no different than the kids at school who seem afraid of me, afraid of the subject of death, as if it might rub off on their family.
If you’re not outside in ten minutes, he says, I’m telling the class you’re a chicken.
I watch him go up the escalator, the bag under his arm, looking like he hasn’t a care in the world.
I count my allowance money. I have enough for two record albums, but I think of how Jimmy will tell the class on Monday I was too scared to steal, how I cut the tags off my jeans, and I see my mother shopping at Christmas time, weak from chemotherapy, with only a few months left to live, our prayers not working, choosing the jeans, wrapping them, setting them under the tree, and now I’d made her desecrate them.
Maybe it was time for me to say fuck you to God.
I walk over to the empty register and take a bag. But my plan is to take more records than Jimmy and show the class how bad I could be.
Even the altar boy had stolen.
I pace up and down the aisles for a long time and think about what a kid in the cafeteria said once, that Korvette’s was the hardest store to steal from, but I don’t see how that could be when there are no store employees around.
My heart races so fast that the bins of rock band names and album covers become a blur. I take a record I never heard of, an album with psychedelic artwork and a rock singer with long hair frozen in an image of rebellion. I pace a little more, up and down, still nobody around, and then I grab three more albums and walk over to the escalator. I could even give one record to a girl I liked.
At the top I hurry towards the sunlight beyond the exit doors.
At the bike rack, Jimmy stands next to his 10-speed. Walking towards him I hold up four fingers.
Then something happens to his eyes.
From behind, strong hands are on my arms, two men, store employees, who spin me around and lead me back into the store, through the aisles of clothing and toys, and into a cramped office that reeks of stale cigarettes. They place me against a stained paneled wall and frisk me.
It feels like a violation, to be frisked, but I imagine that they aren’t frisking me, it is someone else’s body, and I need to convince them they have the wrong boy, I am really a moral person, the son of parents who had a pastor over for dinner.
This is my first time, I say. I’ll never do it again.
They write down my phone number and tell me the store has two-way mirrors, which was how they caught me, and if I come back I’ll be arrested. You took a long time to do it, they say. It did look like your first time.
As I walk out I notice there is no more joy in the plastic toy smell.
Jimmy is gone. I bike home slowly and take a short cut through the drive-in movie theater. In the children’s play area, the wood is rotting and the metal rusty. Weeds erupt out of cracks in the concrete and wrap themselves around the speaker poles. I will remember this moment in the future, how the drive-in felt different in the sunlight, as if we weren’t meant to see it bereft of its nighttime allure.
When I turn onto my maple tree-lined street I realize that I won’t be the same boy who sits on the curb with his friends at the base of the street lamp at night as moths bang off the plastic globe and talk about girls we like who don’t notice us.
I enter my house a criminal. On the wall of my paneled bedroom hangs a framed inkblot image, a seemingly indecipherable blot that you have to stare at for a long time until the picture comes into perception, and once you see the image you never forget how to see it. The face of Jesus.
That was the best thing about Jesus, his forgiving stare, but my father would not be forgiving.
At dinner, my father asks me if I bought the latest Spider-Man comic.
Jimmy Gray was there, I say, so I left.
He’s a bad apple, my father says.
They test you and teach all the right things, fractions and important dates and the history of the Indians who once lived on the fertile suburban land that our town was named for, and the proper way to do push-ups. They teach you everything, except how to understand the things that really matter.
After dinner, my father goes into the yard to put a few more nails in the tree fort. I’m doing homework in my room when the phone rings. It could be Korvette’s, or the hospital with news of my mother, or a friend asking what TV show I’m going to watch later.
I let it ring.
I turn on the small black and white television on my dresser. An old John Wayne Western is on. Westerns are my father’s favorite genre because the good guys always win.
from Peter DeMarco
"I published a New York Times “Modern Love” essay about becoming a New York City high school English teacher and meeting my wife. Other writing credits include pieces in Monkeybicycle, Hippocampus, Prime Number Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Cleaver."