We left Chicago for Burleson, Texas in the fall of 1976, just as my fourth grade school year was beginning and my first great romance was catching fire. Her name was Colleen, and she let me chase her around the playground.
Grown-up stuff prevented us from moving into our new house right away. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I didn’t really care. For the time being we were living in a motel, and that meant unlimited time at the swimming pool. I spent so much time in that sunny pool that my shoulders blistered, but that didn’t bother me. Pool access ranks higher than skin cancer on the childhood list of priorities. Pool access ranked higher than just about anything.
After a few weeks living in a motel our new house was ready. I didn’t want to leave the motel’s pool for my cruddy new neighborhood: “Rendon Forest.” It even sounded boring. Rendon Forest was a long way from the Chicago suburbs and the sweet smell of my third grade crush’s hair. Colleen was a Brownie, a woman in uniform. What nine year-old boy can resist a beanie and knee socks?
Never mind true love: There were no ice cream trucks slowly circling the Rendon Forest subdivision, no pickup baseball games in the street, no best buddy Curt or big kids who listened to cool music. I couldn’t walk outside barefoot without getting stabbed by sand burrs. The streets were so hot that tar collected on my fake Stingray’s tires. My problems didn’t end at the house’s front door, either: Texas refused to stay outside. Scorpions gathered in our bathtubs and snails crawled up the shower doors. It was like living in a nature documentary, or a horror movie.
At least there were other kids in the neighborhood, though. Next door lived Brian, an adopted only child who always wanted to show or discuss his single testicle. Behind us lived the Carreys, fellow fourth grader David and sixth grade sister, Annette. Directly across the street was my buddy Joey, and next to him lived the two younger boys, Brandon and Chris, whose house featured both a pinball machine and a jukebox.
One would think that a pinball machine would render the brothers the most popular kids in the greater Fort Worth area, but the real friend catch of the neighborhood was a kid named Steven who lived just up the street from Mr. Munch, the neighborhood PhD who drove my father crazy. “What? Munchie taught you about gear ratios?” my father grumbled one evening when I came home and excitedly told him how bicycles worked. “Goddamned Munchie thinks he knows everything because he’s a ‘doctor.’” Mr. Munch was a very nice man. I couldn’t understand my father’s hostility.
Steven’s house was the only one in the neighborhood with a pool, so he was automatically the most popular kid around even though none of us knew him. Steven never came outside to ride bikes (which were fast because of gear ratios) or screw around in the brush piles and thorny vacant lots awaiting tract homes. There was no chance of running into Steven and casually picking up an impromptu invitation to the pool, but where there’s a pool there’s a way. We just had to crack the code.
My new elementary school was okay, nothing to complain about, really. My previous school published a yearbook in which I appeared in a candid cafeteria photo. The photographer captured me mid-bite, revealing that I didn’t so much open my mouth to make way for a sandwich as I unhinged my lower jaw like a reticulated python working on an antelope. I looked like the fiberglass clown who doubled as the entrance to a funhouse. Any new school was a blessing after that photo.
I wasn’t going to step into that mud puddle twice, so I didn’t eat lunch at my new school. Can’t photograph what never happened, right? I sat on the little cafeteria bench with my classmates, making jokes and marveling at the exotic lunches packed by their mothers: little packs of chips, individual pudding cups, cookies, brand name products in colorful packages, and all sealed in Zip-Loc bags and packed in shiny new lunchboxes. I hadn’t owned a lunchbox since my Adam-12 went missing, probably left on a school bus. Irresponsible boys do not get new lunchboxes, they get brown bags.
Mostly I passed the lunch period staring at Julie Potter, the prettiest girl in class. She was no Colleen, but if you can’t be with the one you love and all that. Julie wore her brown hair shoulder length, just like my long lost Brownie, but more importantly she was the first girl in school to sport a training bra. Whether she needed an entry level foundation garment wasn’t really relevant: What mattered was that she wore one. Julie was all woman.
We attended her family’s church, which wasn’t really much of a coincidence. Burleson was a very small town, so pretty much everyone with exception to my father and Mr. Munch counted themselves among Brother Steve’s congregation. The important thing here is that I had something in common with Julie outside of school, and once per week I was sure to see her in a dress.
There must have been other girls in that classroom, but they’ve vanished. I have no problem picturing a towheaded boy named Tracy eating Funyuns or a kid named David challenging me to a drawing contest, but the only two women I remember from that classroom are Mrs. Hatton, my cat-eyed teacher, and Julie Potter. Mrs. Hatton took an interest in my lunch activities or lack thereof, casually stopping by each day with an “aren’t you hungry, hon?” or a “can I get you a milk, hon?”
Her curiosity finally overcame her, and she called me to her desk one afternoon when the lunch bell rang. “Why don’t you eat lunch, hon?”
“I just don’t want to.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to?”
“Is there something else? You can tell me, hon.”
“No, I just don’t want to.”
She stared at me, the place where her eyebrows were supposed to be wrinkling behind her cat eye glasses. “Here,” she said, and she handed me an envelope. “Give this to your mama for me, okay hon?”
That night my mother’s face fell when she read my teacher’s note. “What? What the hell did he do?” my father asked.
“It’s an application for the free lunch program. They think we’re poor.”
“Why the hell do they think that? I bet Munchie told them about the utility shed.”
“He doesn’t have any kids. Why would he be at the elementary school?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” my father said. “He already threw a fit with the homeowners’ association, as if it’s any of his goddamned business what I have in my backyard.”
My mother turned to me: “Did you tell your teacher that we’re poor?”
“No, Mama, I didn’t say anything like that.” I repeated for her my conversation with Mrs. Hatton, and I confessed that for weeks I’d been throwing away my sack lunch.
“Goddamnit, you don’t throw away food. You eat your lunch or I’ll beat your ass,” my father said.
“Why are you throwing your lunch away?” my mother asked.
I didn’t know what to tell my parents. “I’m afraid somebody will take my picture” would set off my father, and besides, I didn’t really understand what was happening. At that age feelings and impulses aren’t easily verbalized, they just are, so I went with what I knew how to say: “Our bread is always stale and we have that weird lunch meat and my sandwich is in a wax paper bag and the other kids have plastic bags with that zipper thing like on TV so they make fun of me and they always have lots of cool stuff and all I have is a gross sandwich and they have lunchboxes and all I have is a bag.”
“If we fix those things will you eat your lunch?” my mother asked.
“I can have different sandwiches?”
“We’ll go to the store and you can pick out some things you’d like.”
“Can I have a lunchbox?”
“We have a cabinet full of lunchboxes. We’re not wasting money on another lunchbox for you to lose,” my father said.
“Those were the girls’ lunchboxes, he can’t carry those,” my mother said. “Yes, we’ll get you a lunchbox.”
Overnight I went from not being on the roster to the King of Lunch, my brand new “Go to School with Snoopy” lunchbox packed with Zingers, Snack Pack pudding cups, and individual packs of Fritos. My sandwiches sported three slices of wheat bread, towering Dagwoods packed with lettuce, tomato, Swiss cheese, and boiled ham.
Julie Potter knew a good thing when she saw it: the Queen of Training Bras and the King of Lunch became a couple, which at nine years-old means ignoring each other at all costs. We never spoke, never played together at recess. We never even looked at each other. I stole glances whenever I could, and I imagined her doing the same. Just in case she was looking, I switched from looking up words in the classroom copy of Webster’s to the more sophisticated Webster’s New Collegiate that rested on the shelf near Mrs. Hatton’s desk. This both demonstrated to Julie my superior intelligence and required me to walk right past her desk. Smooth.
Not only did I have a sweet lunchbox and a hot girlfriend in a training bra, but things in my scorpion-infested neighborhood were looking up, too. Joey cracked the impenetrable Steven code and scored the two of us a pool invitation. We met Steven at the curb, and he walked us through his park-like yard: soft, manicured grass like cool shag carpet and stone pathways tucked between rows of colored shrubs and flowers–not a sand burr to be found. His family’s pool was much nicer than the motel’s, and it was in the ground. I didn’t even know regular people were allowed to have in-ground pools. Circling the pool was a redwood deck with five matching steps leading to a second level. The railing of the upper deck was covered with blankets.
“What’s up there?” I asked Steven.
“My big sister. She’s in high school, so my mom makes her watch me when she isn’t home, but she just lays out.”
Joey laughed and Steven cannonballed into the pool. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“She lays out naked so she doesn’t get tan lines,” Joey said, and he cannonballed next to Steven.
We played Marco Polo and Jaws, timed each other doing the dead man’s float, and raced the length of the pool. We dove for pennies and splashed each other. Occasionally the blankets rustled in the breeze, and Steven’s sister’s oily thigh would gleam briefly in the sun. We jumped from the diving board, jackknifed, spanked the baby, covered our faces and did the preacher dive. I never wanted to leave that pool.
Eventually my friends grew bored, though, so they went inside to play with Steven’s new SSP Smash Up Derby set. I paddled around the shallow end of the pool and practiced holding my breath underwater. The blankets rustled again, and I turned to see Steven’s big sister standing with her back to me, tying the strings of her bikini top into a loose bow in the middle of her bronzed back. She turned toward the pool and adjusted the two triangles of black fabric covering her breasts. With her angel wing bangs and her big sunglasses she looked like a teenaged, brunette Farrah.
No good could come of this. If the naked lady was getting dressed that could only mean that she was going inside, which meant swim time was over and I had to either go home or play stupid race cars with Joey and Steven. She didn’t, though. Instead of disappearing through the sliding glass door, she unlatched the gate at the top of the five stairs. Without a word she walked to the pool and lowered herself into the water. “You’re new,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“You’re a cutie. What grade are you in?”
“That’s far out. You look so much older.” She waded toward me. “I thought you were thirteen at least.” I didn’t know what to say or do, so I stood frozen as she neared. We were face to chest now. “Are you shy? Cute and shy. Are you big, too? Let’s see what you have for me.”
She pulled the string on my swim trunks. The bow came loose and the fabric billowed in the water. My lower body felt weird, like on the hill of a roller coaster. She reached into my trunks and said “ooh” and I felt like I had committed a crime. Everybody–God, my dead grandmother, my parents, the police, my cat-eyed teacher–-they all could see how bad I was. My face burned.
“Do you want me to take my top off?” she smiled.
“I have to go home,” I said.
“Okay. Come back soon, cutie,” she laughed, and she pushed off and floated across her soon to be empty pool. To this day I’m not sure whether she was a predator or she just knew how to get her little brother’s friends out of her space.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and ran down the walkway, not even stopping for my shirt and shoes. I stopped at the street to tie my trunks, and the pavement burned my feet. I threw down the towel and jumped on it, tied my bathing suit and made my way home running as far as I could tolerate and then jumping on the towel to give my blistered feet a break.
That was my only visit to Steven’s house. I needed a woman more my speed, an age-appropriate girlfriend who understood that romance was all about ignoring each other publicly but stealing careful glances on the way to the Webster’s New Collegiate. I needed a girlfriend who wore a dress to church on Sunday but otherwise kept her feminine secrets to herself. Privately lusting after the sight of an errant training bra strap was just about the edge of the envelope for me.
Damned if Julie didn’t break our unspoken contract, though. On my next trip to the dictionary, she placed a wad of paper on the corner of her desk. “Throw that away,” she said, not only violating the “don’t acknowledge each other” clause but bossing me around. This wasn’t expressly forbidden by the fourth grade rules of dating, but it was bad form.
“No,” I said.
“Throw it away.”
Her expression said it all but she spoke anyway: “Throw it away or we’re through.”
“Then I guess we’re through,” I said.
That was that. In the course of two days the King of Lunch lost both his girlfriend and his pool privileges. But at least I owned a cool new lunchbox.