He’s pretty dead now. I thought he was dead already. But he wasn’t. He is now. So I started reading The Catcher in the Rye today.
There is a reason I'm doing this, and it's not just because he's some famous author who died. That's not my style. Actually, it's quite a story. You see old JD’s death reminded me of sixth grade. I had this friend, well not really. His name was Clark Shangle. My understanding is that he is dead too. Alcohol. I never saw that coming back in sixth grade. I figured if anything he’d live to annoy people at least two hundred years if not a day.
By the way, when I say “well not really”, what I mean is that he was more like a pity friend. He actually had no real friends to speak of even though his dad was the only one in town in a wheelchair because of dead legs, which was kind of cool to have for a dad in those days. Anyway, I sort of became his friend by default because I wasn’t mean enough to turn down his friendship advances. It was more like being volunteered because every one else in line took a step backwards. The truth is I felt sorry for Clark. But that didn’t stop me from being mean to him sometimes. Mean to a pity friend. Wow! That’s really pathetic. I was really pathetic.
One such day, old Clark invited himself over to the house after school. I wasn’t really in the mood at all. I had it in my mind to make uranium from my chemistry set that day. Clark was impossible to do important experiments with. He was a noodge if ever there was. Always with a hundred questions. Some people bite their fingernails. Other people move their legs up and down. I, at the time, pulled my eyelashes out. Clark asked questions. Really dumb questions too. “Why did ya do that?” was his favorite, when he had nothing else to ask. I hated that question. I hated it a lot.
The point is that I wasn’t in any sort of mood, especially when I was set to make uranium. In case you don’t know, it takes a certain amount of concentration and silence when working with radioactive isotopes, and he’d be, “What are you thinking Bobby Boy?” I hated being called “Bobby Boy” too. It was the exact sort of thing a noodge would come up with and think was cool. It wasn’t cool at all. It was annoying.
So when Clark invited himself over, I pretended I didn’t hear him, which was my way of saying, “You can’t come over. I’m making uranium.” Well, he came over in spite of my passive aggressive uninvite. So I hid in the garage while my brothers let him in the house to look for me. It was planned. They told him I was at church which he’d never follow me to. Not in a hundred years. Anyway, I guess he looked out a window or something and saw me in the garage pacing back and forth while pulling at my eyes. He got the big picture. Not a proud moment for me.
I guess he left upset and told his mother. She called the house and chewed me out pretty good. But you see, that’s exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t make one popular. Having your mom call someone up and yell at them? Not good for friendship business. The short of it is that I apologized, even though I thought it was clear that he wasn’t invited over and that most of this could have been avoided if he wasn’t such a douche bag. I also promised to come over to his house the next day to play and the week following. Clark’s mother is a lot of things, most of which would be cruel to say right now, but she was one persuasive arguer. Clark didn't have a chance with her. It made me feel even sorrier for that poor sap of a son of hers.
The next day I showed up at the door and she greeted me, “Hello Robert. Come on in.” Now as much as I hated being called “Bobby Boy”, I hated “Robert” even more because it almost always meant I was about to be lectured or grounded or both. Since she couldn’t ground me, although coming over to play with Clark the next week was pretty much the same thing, I knew a lecture was imminent. She did not disappoint.
“Hello Mrs. Shangle.”
“Clark is changing and will be out shortly.” She paused a moment, then said, “Why don’t you take a seat in the living room.”
I walked into the living room and sat on the end of the couch. There was something about other people's houses I didn't care for much. Mostly the smell. It told me a lot about a place. Sometimes nothing. Old Clark's house smelled like it had wheelchairs in it. And it did because of old man Shangle, which I mentioned earlier. Now Kedso's house for instance—he was another sorry sap who lived up the street from me—always smelled like dog piss and pipe smoke. It was enough to make ya puke if you weren't prepared for it. Sometimes I wondered what my house smelled like to others. It had no smell to me. But I just know it had to smell to others. For one thing it had kids in it, and kids always make stink of one kind or another. Especially four boys. But I'm thinking for a while there it smelled like ducks since we had two ducks living underneath the porch. I wondered what ducks smelled like to others. I couldn't tell because they were our ducks and therefore our smell. You can't smell your own smell, which stinks when you think about it. There's no telling what others thought about it though. Like what I thought about Kedso's house. But I was pretty sure ducks smelled pretty good or better yet, exotic. Anyway, wheelchairs smelled metallic and cold.
Mrs. Shangle sat in a chair facing me. It had fancy Irish lace arm rests. They'd never last in my house. My mom could never have anything so fragile. Not when her four sons would take to jumping off the banister onto the couch and bounce every which way. I already took out three lamps by age 12. And my brothers were well on their way to break that record.
"Nice arm rests Mrs. Shangle. Are they imported from Ireland?" I asked. I could create a distraction just about anywhere when trouble lurked.
“You know that was a terrible, hurtful thing you did yesterday.” She was one focused cookie that Mrs. Shangle.
Unfortunately though what she was saying didn't really register. I mean I understand it now, dah, as an adult with a son of my own and all. But at the time I didn’t really get it. I was a dumb kid who was preoccupied with the smell of wheelchairs. Besides, he invited himself over like the real clueless lard ass he was. It wasn’t my fault at all. He wasn't expected, the turd head. Not when I'm experimenting with uranium for chrissakes.
“Yes, I know. It won’t happen again. I promise Mrs. Shangle.” Boy it killed me to say that, but what else could I do. I had told my mom about the whole affair over dinner, which she didn’t take as well as I thought she might. She made me promise to say such lies if the subject were to come up, which of course I knew would. Apparently, this whole episode reflected poorly on my mom (or so she yelled) and she wanted me to straighten this matter out like a man, which I wasn’t anywhere close to being at 12 years old. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter, that I wasn’t close to being a man that is. I seem to remember hearing that a lot during those uninformative years, as it was always at the heart of most of her complaints. It was a parental perspective that a kid, even one like me with my natural ability to play blame dodge ball, couldn’t maneuver around. So I put my best fake serious face on and lied to Mrs. Shangle when I said what I said.
Then old lady Shangle said something quite unusual.
“Robert, I want you to promise me that in a year or two you will read The Catcher in the Rye. It’s written by J.D. Salinger. It’s about an older boy named Holden Caulfield who you are going to be just like if you don't watch out. Hopefully you'll be able to do something about yourself before it's too late.”
“Oh, I don't know Mrs. Shangle if there's any helping me. But okay! I'll read it and give it a try. What’s that title again?” Of course I had no intention of doing such a thing. She sounded like a loon in a wig. I was pretty sure she was wearing a wig. Her hair was way to big for her skull type. Anyway, me read a book when there were Three Stooges and Little Rascal marathons on channel 11 all afternoon? Was she insane? What a dumb thing to ask the kid of someone else's loins to do anyway. The nerve. I was beginning to understand where Clark got his misguided gumption from.
“The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.”
“Got it Mrs. Shangle. Thank you for the suggestion. Let's pray you got to me soon enough.” I could be so Eddie Haskle when the situation called for it.
Later at dinner, when I was grilled by mom about repairing her damaged parenting reputation, I mentioned Mrs. Shangle’s request and specifically her comparing me to this Holden guy.
It’s funny what can turn people sometimes.
“Oh is that so?” A sneer came over her face. I guess mom must have read the book. She read a lot of books. Mostly boring books as far as I could tell. Books with a lot of words and no pictures. Anyway, I guess this character, Holden Caulfield, was not a model teenager. I guess she'd taken great exception to Mrs. Shangle’s trespassing on mom's loin product, namely me.
“Did you hear that Bob?” she asked dad.
He stopped arranging his crumbs on the tablecloth to make his initials. Well that's what he was always doing when he wasn't reading the Sports Section of the Newark Star Ledger. “Hear what?” he replied.
“Mrs. Shangle said Bobby reminded her of Holden Caulfield? Holden. Caulfield.” When mom called me Bobby it wasn't so bad for some reason.
Dad shrugged his shoulders, “Who’s Holden Caulfield?” I don’t think I ever saw dad read anything thicker than the instructions to stuff or his beloved sports pages. But even so, I agreed with him about this Holden jerk. What's the big deal?
“Oh never mind! Now what’s this about you having to play with Clark all next week?” Hmm ... I could tell things were souring so I piled on.
“Mrs. Shangle made me promise to. She was so mean about it too ma. And I think she wears a wig!”
“Figures! Well, you tell Clark you can’t. Your mother has other plans for you. And if he has a problem with that, have his mother call me."
“Sure ma. But what other plans because Clark is gonna ask me for sure?” The fact is mom's other plans might just be a worse alternative. I needed to get an answer before she had my buy in.
“You tell Clark, none of his beeswax!” I never understood that expression, “none of your beeswax”. No one ever wanted beeswax or owned beeswax as far as I knew. So it rang hollow to me that anyone would be that upset if they didn't have my beeswax even if I was such a loser as to have some. I guess it was instead of “business” because saying “business” in this context was like cursing or something. So you had to say something else dumb like “beeswax”. Mom had a bunch of those peculiar expressions.
“Okay. I’ll tell him. But between you and me ma, what other plans?”
“I have no other plans. I just don’t want you to be subjected to any more of Mrs. Shangle’s observations. One is quite enough.”
“Sure thing ma. Thanks.”
“Holden Caulfield my fanny,” she sputtered under her breath but loud enough for me to hear. My fanny was another one of those beauts of mom’s.
To mom's credit, her orders put an end to any hanging out with Clark for some time. That is until eighth grade when Clark found his father’s playboy stash, which struck me odd at the time with his being in a wheelchair and dead legs and all. I mean what else might be dead? It just goes to show ya though. You never can be sure of anything. Oh well. Better still, stupid idiot Clark was dumb enough to bring them into school (a big part of my sex education).
But that's getting off topic. Um ...
Yeah, so where was I? Oh, that’s right. J.D. Salinger died. So I remembered this story and started reading The Catcher in the Rye because I wanted to see what Mrs. Shangle was talking about. The funny thing is, from what I've read so far, I think I know why mom was so upset.
The loin product trespassing truth can hurt sometimes.