In the house where I grew up, in the garage-turned-rec-room, stood one of the many oddities my father was always salvaging from God knows where. This find was an old style phone booth that stood, like some vertical coffin, three sides wood, one side folding glass door, with a little bench inside. It was a favored perch of my teenage sisters, who sought the privacy it availed in a house with many rooms but few doors.
I was twelve in the fall of 1976, my first year at the junior/senior high school where my sisters, Mare and Kit, were a senior and junior respectively, too busy being Real Teenagers to be bothered with me.
Mare, sweet elfin jock magnet, attracted strapping young athletes with peach fuzz and shy grins, perfect fodder for false hopeful dreams of this scrawny seventh grader still waiting for my first period, my first kiss, my life to begin.
Fred was my favorite. Six foot three. Dreamy eyes. Wavy hair. Even better than his aesthetic gifts was the fact that he took the time to speak to me when he called, as if he had called for me, not Mare, as if he wasnít in any hurry at all, not one bit. As if seventh graders were infinitely interesting to senior boys. Me, in the phone booth, being quizzed on how my life was by Fred.
God I loved him.
Number 73óhis football jersey number. Whenever I see that number, regardless of context (TV channel, price tag, random appearance on a license plate), immediately I think of Fred.
Fridays, seventh period, are reserved for pep rallies out at the football field. I am in the marching band, sectioned off from the stoners and the jocks and the geeks, our own special brand of weird.
One Friday, it is decided that the most popular football players will emerge dressed as nursery rhyme characters. Fred sports a green dress with white polka dots. Maybe he's Li'l Bo Peep.
Really it doesnít matter, this is drag before Tootsie, before drag is a common thing. Collectively we die of laughter, cheerleaders jump and shout, and I pick up my saxophone to bleat out some peppy, off-key something with the rest of the band.
And now, our temporary drag queens, our Most Popular Guys in The Entire School, hit the stands to pick one person each to be their Most Special Personal Fan at Saturdayís game.
My hair is greasy and long enough to hide behind, which I do, simultaneously wishing hard to be picked and chastising myself for being stupid enough to wish at all. Heíll never pick me.
He picks me.
I follow him down the bleachers, to the track, mortified with joy. Standing next to him towering over me, the crowd cheering, I fold into myself, a nervous wreck, stunned, elated, unworthy, overjoyed.
He picked me!
Spring comes, Mare and Fred graduate, breakup, Mare starts dating Johnny.
A year passes. I come home from school one day. Behind my father's ominous hedgerow lie my motherís gifts: Cartoon-blood red roses ramble up trellises. Azaleas, never subtle, shout hello. Purple Rose of Sharon bursting by the front step. A Japanese red maple, deep in thought. Bright bedded flowers circle concrete Virgin Mary.
In the green grass sits Mare. Quiet.
I go inside. Iím standing before the big round mirror, combing my hair, telling a joke. I even remember the joke. Am I telling it to my mother? I think so. I think she's the one who stops me mid-joke, tells me.
Fred. Dead. Car wreck.
My parents won't let me go to the memorial, tell me I'm too young. I spew and rant over the unfairness of this but have no choice. Mare goes, I stay home and think of Fred. Cry.
In the hallways at school I glance sideways at his younger brother, making out with his girlfriend against the lockers. He's a couple of years older than me. We never talk. He graduates. I graduate. We move on.
Three years ago, on a visit, I stay with Mare and Johnny and their four kids. They now live in the town where Fred grew up. I go for a long walk, come back, describe a house I passed. I know Iíve never been in this house. But for some reason I know it.
"Fred's house?" I ask Mare.
My memory, eerie in its unrelenting way, astounds my sister yet again. Fred's family hasn't lived there in forever. But someone must've once pointed it out to me. It is an outstanding house, very Edward Gorey gothic, tall, imposing. Unforgettable.
Like my Fred. Twenty-five years since
that pep rally now. The length of his life and then some and still, I
need not photograph nor verbal cue to conjure him. Taking the time.