–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Kid Across the Street

by | Apr 23, 2024

During the late 1970’s and early 80’s, Michael Paley was my “lives-across-the-street” friend, which means that it was a friendship of convenience. A well-meaning doofus, Mike was gullible, accident prone, and generally a yutz. A kind of juvenile Inspector Clouseau, but without the charm and lucky breaks. The sort of person whose haplessness could rouse the sadistic inclinations of even the saintliest soul.

Mike’s mother was a sweet, friendly lady; short and enormously fat, with an endearing smile. His father, in contrast, was skinny as a pencil, at least six foot five, and loud and opinionated, his favorite conversational mode being the red-faced rant. Whenever I went over to their house, whatever the time of day, I’d hear Mr. Paley in his home office yelling at someone about something on the telephone. (Years later, he would die of a massive coronary during one of these artery-bursting episodes.) When combined with the gentle sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, which Mike’s hippie sister, Jackie, would play incessantly in her room on an acoustic guitar, it made for a surreal experience. 

Though I never brought it up, Mrs. Paley’s size was something Mike felt compelled to explain. Not long after their family had moved into the neighborhood, we were playing Battleship in his room, when he suddenly stopped and looked at me gravely.

“So, you know my mom is really…fat.”

 “Uh…” I didn’t know how to reply to this.

“I can tell you why.”

I hadn’t asked, so I remained silent.

“My dad was in the Navy.”

“Your mom is fat because your dad was in the Navy?” I wasn’t following.

“During the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Mike’s grave affect grew even graver.

“Ah.”

“And she was so worried about him that she just sat on the couch and ate and ate.”

I was eleven at the time and impressed. I imagined this poor, once-thin woman worrying about her husband so much and for so long that she ate herself into morbid obesity. Indeed, I was so impressed that when I got home, I immediately ran upstairs and told my parents who had to break it to me that the Cuban Missile Crisis only lasted two weeks.

Speaking of my parents, Mike wasn’t a big hit in our house. He would compliment my mother on her outfits, hair, and whatever else he could think of — one evening, when we were sitting in the kitchen, munching on saltines, he sought her out in the living room to praise her “excellent crackers” — and would call my father ‘Sir’, every time he spoke to him. (They got into the habit of hiding whenever he was over.) Mike also was strangely enraptured by our bathrooms, always making sure to use one before going home, even though he lived only about fifty yards away, and my father got so tired of him stinking up our house that he started posting “Out of Order” signs on all of the bathroom doors, whenever he heard that Mike would be around.

One day, during the summer between seventh and eighth grade, Mrs. Paley called and asked if I could spend some time with Mike, who had been hurt in a Little League game. I thought it odd that he hadn’t called me himself, but when I arrived at his house I found out why. Somehow, he had caught a line drive with his mouth – which knocked out half of his teeth and broke his jaw, which the dentist had wired shut – and could only talk in a kind of strangled murmur, which was largely incomprehensible. And though I pitied him and visited him every day while he was convalescing, I also found it all amusing enough to persist in making him laugh, which he would do by huffing and grunting and shaking, since he couldn’t open his mouth.

Mike also broke a lot of limbs, like his left pointer finger which he broke three times in six months. The first time, he slammed a door on it. The second time, he fell down the stairs and landed on it. The last time, he swam into the side of the local public pool, and by this point, his father had had enough. 

“Dad, I broke my finger.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I can’t move it.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No, look, really, I can’t.”

“Walk it off.”

“How do I walk off a broken finger?”

“Figure it out. Pretend I’m not here.”

“Ok, I’ll ask mom.”

“Pretend she’s not here, either.”

But, the bane of Mike’s existence was Rand Campbell, one of our local toughs and my best friend. The two were the worst combination one could possibly imagine: Mike was ingratiating and desperate for everyone to like him, while Rand liked pulling pranks and practical jokes and punching people. Mike would keep trying to be friends with Rand, and Rand would make him regret it every single time. There was the sleepover, when we invited him over to watch scary movies; got up in the middle of the night while he was sleeping and painted red dots on our necks; then stood over him, moaning until he woke up. He was so freaked out and annoying afterwards that Rand ordered him to sleep in the bathroom, and I didn’t realize he’d actually done it until the next morning, when I woke up to Mr. Campbell calling out from across the house: “Rand, why is there a boy sleeping with his head in the toilet?” And there was Halloween, when we were in the ninth grade, which by then was less about trick-or-treating and more about egging houses, vandalizing mailboxes, and getting into bottle rocket fights with other groups of kids. Mike had devised what he called an “exploding egg,” which was an egg with a bunch of firecrackers tied around it that he had stuffed into the breast pocket of his polo shirt. Everyone thought it was stupid, but Mike was beyond proud, exclaiming as we headed out, “I can’t wait to throw this!” whereupon Rand (who collected knives, throwing stars, and other weapons that you could buy underage) whipped out a pair of nunchucks and whacked him in the chest – and the egg – with it.

As we progressed through high school, Mike and I drifted apart, and he moved on to a more amenable friend group. He also grew from a scrawny little kid into a top heavy giant, with a lurching, cantilever-like gait. (His father, seeing this, would scream (red-faced), “Do you have to walk like a chicken?!” often repeating it several times in succession.) For decades, after we graduated, I neither heard from nor thought of Mike, until a few weeks ago, when I decided to look him up. He works for a risk-assessment firm. And before that? He was in the Navy.

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