For a couple of days I don't see Colleen. Which disappoints me. Which reminds me of why I am what I am: a bit player in the movie of life. Listed at the tag end of the credits: Crippled Kid. Before Thug #1 but after Handsome Man in Copy Shop.
Then my phone rings and I lunge for it. It has to be her. Nobody calls me. I mean that. Nobody. My answering machine probably has cobwebs in it.
Without saying hello or anything, she asks, "I was talking to some kids at school about you. What happened to your mom?"
I fall back on the bed, relieved and excited. "Nobody knows. She just split." I roll onto my side. "Turn on AMC. Check out how John Ford shoots this scene so it looks like John Wayne is about a hundred feet tall."
As I watch, I hear the raspy sound of a Bic lighter, then her quick intake of breath. "I thought John Wayne actually was a hundred feet tall."
"The Searchers is still really popular. Do you know the story? Ethan totally devotes his life to finding this niece of his that the Comanches kidnapped. I guess most people like the idea of somebody who'll just look for them and look for them and never give up no matter how long it takes."
"My father disappeared, too."
"Like about a second after I was born, I guess. Even John Wayne couldn't find that son of a bitch."
"You don't want to go look for him ever?"
"No way. Do you want to find your mom?"
"Sometimes. Around the holidays, usually. When it's just Grandma and me and a turkey as big as a VW."
"Do you know Ms. Johnson?"
"The sociology teacher?"
"And resident feminist. She says sometimes women split because they have to. She says sometimes they have to be true to themselves."
"So it's not always because some kid is dragging his foot around the house?" That's when Grandma knocks softly on my half-open door. I turn my back on her and whisper into the phone, "Looks like I better go."
Colleen whispers back, "Me, too, if I want to keep up with my regimen of self-destructive behavior."
Grandma leads me into the living room. This is never a good sign. "I hope I didn't disturb you, Benjamin."
"That's okay. I was just talking to a, uh, friend."
I can almost see the exclamation point, and it means she's surprised I have a friend. I'm not getting into that.
"Did you want to talk to me?"
"Yes, I spoke to the new neighbor this morning. She seems very pleasant, and I thought it would be a nice gesture if we invited her for brunch." She holds out an envelope, one of her ritzy cream-colored ones. "It's a bit on the short-notice side, but I've got leukemia next week, then UNICEF, and before you know it the whole Tournament of Roses thing begins in earnest. Our phone number's right at the bottom in case she isn't home, but I believe she is."
"You want me to take this over now?"
"It's barely dark. I don't think she'd be alarmed." Then she looks down at my sweats, the ones she sends to the cleaners.
In old-fashioned cartoons there are always rich women looking at things through these glasses-on-a-stick. That is my grandma. She pretty much looks at everything like she has glasses-on-a-stick. Including me. Especially me.
"Would you mind changing, dear, since you're going to go out-of-doors?"
For somebody with C.P., changing clothes is no piece of cake. The good side has to help the bad side, so it takes a little while. And if I'm not careful, I'll get all my clothes off and see myself in the mirror. And that is something I try never to do.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm standing on the curb, still sweating from the struggle. God, I hate getting dressed. It always reminds me of how I am.
A couple of SUVs glide by, both of them driven by the littlest mommies in the world, like there's some place called Inverse Proportion Motors and the smaller you are, the bigger the car you have to buy.
Lurching across the empty street, I wave at Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, who sit on their porch every evening and stare at the Neighborhood Watch sign with its sinister cloaked figure.
I make my way up the walk of 1003 between borders of purple lobelia. The lights are on. Music seeps out from under the oak door.
Just in case the doorbell's broken, I tap with the little bridle that hangs from the brass horse's head. When I hear footsteps I announce, "Hi, I'm a neighbor. From across the street."
The door opens. A woman in a striped caftan says, "Yes, can I help you?" Her black hair is short and shot through with gray. She has quick-looking eyes and sharp features. If some people look smoothed by hand, this lady is machine made.
I tell her my name and why I've come.
"Marcie Sorrels." She's holding a drink with her right hand, so she sticks out the other one.
I show her my bad arm, the fingers curled into a pathetic little fist.
"Not a stroke, I hope."
"But not dyskinetic."
"Ah, well, you were lucky."
"That's the title of my autobiography: Ben, the Lucky Spaz."
She opens the door wider. "Why don't you come inside and be hard on yourself?"
All of a sudden, I just want to throw Grandma's envelope at her feet and get out of there. What does she know? I think. Who does she think she is, anyway?
And then I wonder if I'm having a heart attack, because I've never thrown anything at anybody in my life, not even a baseball. Well, for sure not a baseball.
Where does all that emotion come from? Is it just from hanging around Colleen, who's so famous for going off on teachers she has a permanent seat in detention?
STONER & SPAZ by Ron Koertge. Copyright (c) 2002 by Ron Koertge. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.
From the Hardcover edition.