Connor

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6 - Sunday

As I slept, I dreamt about Ken again. The one in the desert where he vomits flies. I woke up in a cold sweat.

I guess it wasn’t really that surprising, the way things turned out with Ken, why we never talked that much anymore. I mean, even looking back. He was just, well, from the other side of the tracks. Literally. Me, Jake, Audrey, Rowen, Scott…we all lived by the middle school. Ken was only about two miles away, but his house was across the train tracks in the not-so-good part of town. I guess it just made it that much more difficult for us to get together.

See, Scott used to live in the old brick house next to mine. His family moved in when we were in the fourth grade. His parents were of a nomadic variety. They weren’t in the army or anything. His father just worked for a rather large furniture retailer. They traveled around quite a bit, opening new stores in Omaha, Poughkeepsie, Seattle, Duluth. This was all before Scott was born, though. They were in Nome, Alaska for four months when his mother’s water broke. About a week later, they applied for a transfer and were whisked off to Northport, just outside of Tuscaloosa. Fourth grade, they came to Illinois, moved into the old brick house next to mine.

His mother was a freelance journalist. Did opinion columns on occasion, but mostly wrote movie reviews and edited crossword puzzles for syndication. Eventually, she built up quite the following. Last I heard, she was nationally published in the New York Times.

Audrey lived across the street and two houses down on the left. The big sky-blue house, large vaulted ceilings, hard-wood floors, big picture windows that opened onto an actor’s stage of a deck and about two acres of wilderness and field. Most of the trees we climbed growing up could be seen through those windows. The field also bore a lot of those flowers with the white pollen that sticks to your skin and clothes at the end of a long summer day.

Her mom didn’t work, just cleaned and cooked and went to yoga class. She kept the entire house smelling like apple pie. Audrey once called her mom a homemaker that kept things perfect and in their place.

Her father’s some kind of investment banker, financial advisor…something to do with money. He sold stocks and bonds, helped people set up fancy bank accounts with letters in the numbers. He did it for years, knew all there was to know about the economy. I didn’t know if it was the money or what, but he intimidated me. When Audrey and I dated, he pulled me aside and said, “Son, my daughter deserves the best. What are your plans for the future?” I asked him what he meant. He said, “For a living, son. What are you going to do to support my daughter? The market’s hot right now. You should be investing.”

I just shrugged. “I haven’t thought that far ahead, sir. I figured I’d have time to decide that in college, I guess.”

He said, “Don’t knock her up then.” I could hardly kiss her after that.

Beyond Audrey’s property was Johnson Turner, the middle school. It didn’t have much of a playground, just a few swings and a jungle gym, a ball diamond where we played kickball from time to time, and bleachers that were good for looking at the stars. Behind that, through a hole in the infield fence, a short, wooded path spat out into Jake’s backyard. We spent a lot of time there in the summers. He had a big in-ground pool with a slide, diving board, and ten feet in the deep end.

His dad was a professional pool man who owned the pool supply store down on Turlington. He sold beach balls, chlorine, patio furniture, and a limited selection of barbecue grills. His staff boys drove white commercial vans, cleaned residential pools and even maintained thirty plus hotels in and out of Chicago. Sometimes they installed Florida rooms, gazebos, hot tubs – stuff like that. Jake’s mom used to help him run the business, did paperwork, reception, and accounting when she wasn’t filling in at the school. He had to hire a girl to do that after the accident.

Jake lived on a cul-de-sac. Two doors down from him was Rowen’s family. Rowen’s dad owned Field & Sons Construction. He was pretty good friends with Mr. Sellers, Jake’s dad. He did most of the patios, decks and gazebos under contract from the pool store. He his brother, Rowen’s uncle, did other things, too. The uncle’s an architect. Together, the two of them worked on three of Chicago’s taller buildings, not to mention the Howard Johnson with the pool on the roof. The pool, of course, was Mr. Sellers’ doing.

Rowen’s mom never really did anything. She cooked a lot, loved to bake. She had four kids – Rowen and his three brothers. She cooked so much all of her boys were fat, round little kids until they hit their growth spurts and began, of course, playing sports. Rowen played varsity football his sophomore year. He was a beast: six-foot four, damn near two-eighty, starting center linebacker.

We all lived within walking distance of each other. We played a lot at the middle school or in someone’s backyard. We swam in Jake’s pool, rollerbladed in circles in front of Rowen’s house, dodging parked cars in the cul-de-sac. We mostly kept within close range of each other.

Like I said, Ken lived across the train tracks. He went to different elementary and middle schools. We wouldn’t have even met until High School, if even then, had his mother not worked with mine at the pharmacy. He didn’t get along so well with the kids at his school. I was doing my mother a favor to hang out with him. That’s what she said, anyway.

From what I can remember about Kenny, he was always somewhat disturbed. Jake, for all his wacky, religious up-bringing, shied away from him at once. Likewise, Ken never warmed to Jake’s church, calling them “snake-handling, holy-rolling, gibberish-speaking kooks,” though I’d never seen any snakes when I visited.

The second time Ken and I arranged to play together was late in the fourth grade, spring. The first time, he had come to my house. The second, I went to his. I was still doing favors for my mother at this point, though I did enjoy his company. I genuinely liked Ken. He was smart, funny. He knew things no one else did, vital things, like how to make money. We used to sneak into the golf course behind his house, gather buckets of balls together from the tall grass by the lake and sell them at a quarter a ball outside the pro-shop. We rode our bikes down to the driving range one night, filled two garbage bags and had to pull them home in a wagon. We made $40 that weekend.

Kenny also knew a lot of ghost stories, and almost every place we went was somehow haunted or had been at one time or probably would be soon. He told me that Andrew Perry’s house, which was next to his, was haunted by Andrew’s old, dead grandmother; you could see her sometimes at night standing in the attic window. A ghost car drove down his street sometimes, too. Frankie LaFontaine, some bank robber from the thirties, one of Capone’s men. Legend had it he did some heists in Chicago and was chased by the police through the ’burbs. Every full moon, his ghost followed the same path out of the city. Let’s see, what else? The haunted train that whistled the “Twilight Zone” theme as it chugged. He used to always use that as an excuse not to cross the tracks at night. When neighbor dogs started disappearing, Ken said the tractor at the driving range that gathered balls was possessed by Satan’s cat. And of course, Ken’s house was haunted and his backyard, too.

I learned this the first time I went to his house. He tried to tell me over and over, but I didn’t believe him. “There aren’t any ghosts,” I told him. I was only nine, but I knew enough.

“There are, too, ghosts. I saw one eating the other day.”

“Ghosts don’t eat.”

“Yes, they do. I’ll show you.” He was adamant about it. We were sitting upstairs in his room, playing with Thundercat toys. Before I could protest, he was out of the room. I would’ve been a bad guest not to follow, so I did, outside into a little square patch of yard sectioned off by a chain-linked fence.

His backyard wasn’t very impressive. There was a half-finished treehouse nestled in the only tree large enough to hold one, the wood of it rotting through. The stand-alone garage was flaking paint, the glass windows smashed in and boarded over. I stopped in front of the car-sized door that didn’t lift anymore, looking through the man-sized one beside it that only hung by a hinge.

“We don’t go in there anymore,” Ken said. “I think a family of cats lives in there.”

“At least it isn’t haunted.”

“They’re ghost cats. I’ve never seen them, but you can hear their cries at night. Sounds like they’re being tortured.”

I just nodded. I was too young to know any better then. I believed the things he said when he said them because they were interesting, and normal life was often boring. I liked Ken because he didn’t rule anything out just because it was hard to believe. I liked him because he saw things differently. Though I look back on his fascination with death and realize it explained a lot. Maybe it was foreshadowing, and we all just missed it.

I followed him through the fence gate. It hung crookedly, scraping against the stones set in the ground. “Watch your step,” he warned.

The lawn hadn’t been mowed in what looked like a year. Shovels and rakes and loose boards and pieces of things I didn’t recognize were scattered in places, hidden by the wild, weed-like grass, buried like treasure. There were also mounds of what could have been dirt – big ant hills, perhaps – but looked very much like wads of dog crap. It wasn’t a very big yard by any standards, but it took a few minutes to navigate. I was, after all, watching my step.

In the far corner of the lot, where his fence met the neighbor’s, the corner that met the golf course, he stopped. I was a few steps away from him still, so I couldn’t tell what he was doing. He dropped to one knee, parted the grass before him, almost petting it. “If it wasn’t a ghost, Connor, than what did this?”

It took me a minute to see it, even after I spotted it. At first glance, it looked like a pile of sticks and a deflated football with hair. There was a length of rope or wire, something shiny. It was wet. There was something like a small hand. Then the smell hit: like warm, rotten cabbage. It made me cough, gag and spit.

“What is it?” I asked. I couldn’t look. My eyes were burning.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “At first, I thought it was one of those cats from my garage. I think it might be a possum or something.” He poked at it with a thin branch. “It’s cool, isn’t it? Just the way that it sits there. How the face is all mashed in. It’s hard to believe that it was alive once.”

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I told him.

“There were more bugs on it yesterday.”

“I’m going inside, Kenny.”

“Wuss.” I started to walk away, but I could still hear him saying, “It’s mangled pretty bad. You sure you don’t want to touch it?”

A few days after that, I told Jake and Scott. They thought it was a little odd, but didn’t see it the way I did. Maybe because they hadn’t seen Ken’s eyes. The way he was so completely in awe of death was just unnatural. Yet, that was one of my first memories of him.

Jake just blew it off. He hadn’t even met Ken yet.

Scott had. He lived next door to me and was there when Ken first came over. The three of us played Army in the middle school playground. I don’t remember what Scott said the day I told him about Kenny and the dead thing, but I’m sure Jake made fun of him for it. Scott had a thick southern accent, having moved from Alabama. He still called pop “soda.” Audrey seemed to like the way he spoke, though, liked that sweet old twang. She wouldn’t have said it that way, not in the fourth grade, but I’m sure she felt a special little twinge whenever he said, “y’all.” Maybe that’s another reason Jake made fun of him.

Jake always liked Audrey, even back then. But she’s never liked him. Jake’s…odd. All through middle school, he carried around a small, stuffed monkey. Sixth grade, he was Zorro for Halloween. For weeks afterward, he wore the cape. Wore it everywhere: the mall, the movies, church, and when he could get away with it, school. He must’ve worn it for like two months, up until probably Christmas when he got a new bathrobe. He started wearing that instead. We went bowling on New Year’s Eve. He looked like the Big Lebowski. It was nuts. Jake was nuts, and Audrey didn’t really care for it.

Scott never liked Jake, either. Sure, they hung out, but only as part of the group, especially in the summer, because of his pool. I guess you could say that Scott used Jake. And Jake, you could say, annoyed Scott. He was funny. He annoyed all of us, at one point or another, but we loved him, so we kept him around.

But back to Ken. Certain things just seemed odd about him over the years. Nothing completely out of the ordinary, nothing that made us not want to be friends with him. Ken just had slightly odd quirks. He would say things sometimes that made you feel uncomfortable. He was also really pessimistic, almost always stoic and serious, almost too adult, grown up before his time. I wish I could say that when I looked in his tired old eyes, all those years ago, that I saw a bleeding soul, an understanding that surpassed the limits of time, a sadness that seemed to mourn the misery and suffering of all mankind. But I can’t. If it was there, I couldn’t have known. I was a boy, just the same as Kenny. He was just like me, just like all of us, but he was different.

I felt so sad for him, though. I would see him in the halls sometimes at school. I would wave. He would nod. Sometimes I’d see him hanging out back by the dumpsters, smoking as I walked to my car. Now, I mourned, but not for all mankind, just for a boy I knew once. I mourned a good friend.

To say that Ken had joined a cult just sounds silly and hokey. The word cult just carried too much baggage, funny connotations, and unnecessary weight that shouldn’t be there. Cults are all robed figures and watered-down nonsense about rituals and what-not. It wasn’t taken seriously. Like when Ken would always call Jake’s church a “cult.” See, he wouldn’t call the Brotherhood of the Risen Moon a cult, so I try not to either. They didn’t handle snakes, didn’t drink Kool-Aid. Maybe he just got involved with the wrong people, and I didn’t know why. I mourned now because I didn’t understand what made a life grow so dark. Literally. After joining up with the Brotherhood, that’s when he started dressing in all dark clothes with fishnets on his arms and wearing make-up. He died his blonde hair jet and pierced both of his ears, up and down, and the corners of his mouth. He started wearing make-up: lipstick and eye shadow. It was like there was no smile left in his soul. I’ve analyzed it up and down and could say it’s because he never knew his real dad. His mother’s random, drunken boyfriends over the years beat him, degraded him, and called him worthless. Over the years, I’ve said anything to try to justify it.

But despite everything, Ken Darter was my friend. Always. We made a pact, ya know. The summer after our eighth grade year. That was actually when he had his run-in with Nigel Fanning, too. It was the summer that everything changed.

It started when Scott’s dad got his transfer notice. It wasn’t something he had requested this time. Not something he expected, either. He was just informed to pack his family. Apparently, Iowa was waiting. That was in May. They were to move the end of June. Scott had kicked the accent. He said he liked drinking pop. He called his mother, Ma. He was a northerner. He needed to stay a northerner. He needed to stay with us. We all felt that way. Even Jake. We didn’t really know anything about Iowa, but it sounded southern. I didn’t know if they had accents there or what. Truth be told, I really didn’t care. Didn’t want to think about it.

Nigel Fanning was a junior in high school when we were in eighth grade. He was the bully. Him and his dog, Righteous. Kind of a neat name for a dog. I read a story once where this dog’s name was Shithead. This dog wasn’t like that. He was Righteous. He was a mean bastard, too: a Rot-Pitt.

They lived across the tracks, too. Maybe a couple blocks from Ken. Nigel lived down by the old park, though. Him and the dog ran the place. I didn’t really know his story. I heard he was in jail, now. He was busted for drunken misconduct, disturbing the peace and assault with a deadly weapon. I heard he beat one of the carhop guys at Sonic, hit him with a steel toed shoe, knocked him to the ground and hammered him with the heel like a tent stake. There may have been something to do with drugs in there, too. I’m not sure. He used to sell, though. Back in high school. Down at that park. Him and that damned dog.

Well, he and Ken got into it. Ken had been hanging out with Chad Duritz and Adam Morris. He hadn’t been hanging out with them for very long, maybe a couple of months, maybe just at the end of eighth grade. They weren’t good guys, but they lived closer to Ken than we did. They ended up introducing him to Chris, guy in the Brotherhood. Eighth grade, everything changed.

I had no idea at the time, but looking back, knowing all I know now, Ken must’ve owed Nigel for drugs. I didn’t know for what, and I didn’t know how much. But when it came time to collect, Ken came up short. I guess Nigel even came up to the school – Ken’s school – at lunch. He pulled him outside, asked for the money. Ken didn’t have it. He got hurt.

When I’d gotten home from school that day, my mom told me something had happened. Ken had been in a fight, was all she said. “Linda Darter had to leave work early today,” she told me. “She had to go pick him up.”

I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing my math homework. “Did she say who with?” I asked. “Or why?”

“She didn’t say, Connor. Why don’t you give him a call?”

“Would it be okay if I went over there?”

She didn’t like me going that far away on school nights. I didn’t have my license. Then, I had to ride my bike, it was different. “I don’t know…it’ll be dark in a few hours.”

“What if Scott goes with me?”

“Just be home by 8:30, Connor. I mean it.” She always meant it, too. She was a mom. Moms always said stuff like that. When I was younger, if she said to stop – and she meant it – and I didn’t, I got a spanking. I remember thinking, that night, if I didn’t get home on time, I’d get a spanking. Scott was from the south, though. He’d probably get paddled. Maybe a whoopin’.

We saddled up the bikes and took off. It was never a long ride. Not unless there was a train, then it’s just a matter of waiting. We mainly just took the back roads, stayed in the neighborhoods. There was only one main road to cross, then through a busy parking lot. The tracks were another block. After that, only two blocks to Ken’s. If you went the other way after the tracks, it was only a block and a half to the park. The one where Nigel sold drugs.

When we got to his house, his mom let us in. She was always very nice, when she was sober, at least. She said he was in his bedroom. He hadn’t come out since they’d gotten home. He wasn’t eating. His door was closed. Scott and I knocked, sat outside for a minute. Then it cracked open.

The room was painfully dark. The light was off, the curtains were drawn, and Ken sat on the edge of his bed, surrounded by shadows. He wore his hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled low over his eyes; his mouth was down-turned and hurt – he looked like the Emperor of the Dark Side. When he spoke, it was slow, painful. Just the sight of him was hard to stomach because he couldn’t even sit up straight. He was holding an ice pack to his arm.

“What are you guys doing here?” he said. His voice was hoarse and a little more than a whisper.

“My mom told me what happened,” I said. “Are you okay?”

He started crying, then. There was just a faint, muffled sob. I don’t think he said anything.

“What happened, Ken?” Scott asked.

“I, I’m in trouble,” he said. “I think he’s going to kill me.”

Neither of us expected that. I felt shocked, amazed. “Who?”

“Nigel,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if you know him.”

“Nigel Fanning?” Scott asked. “Rowen’s brother, Carson, is always talking about him. He’s…”

“An asshole,” Ken said.

We just stood there. It felt awkward. “How bad is it?” I asked.

“The left half of my face is swollen. My arm’s cut up where that dog got me. I had to go for a rabies shot. It’s real bad, Connor. My mom cried when she saw me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He almost sounded angry. “It’s my fault.”

There wasn’t really anything else to say. A few more tense and uncomfortable seconds passed. “Thanks for coming, guys,” he said. “I think I’m just gonna get some sleep now.”

“You sure?”

“I’m okay. I’ll see you later.”

I didn’t know what happened after that. We really didn’t see Ken for a few weeks or so. Jake joked that he was dead, but I knew better. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone. He kept conversation light. He was healing, though. He could talk about that. He was looking better. He sounded better, too.

We were out of eighth grade, then. It was the second week of June. That’s when it really got bad. Jake’s parents had just taken all of us to the water park. Ken, too. The next day, we were all supposed to meet over at Audrey’s, play some football in her back field. Ken didn’t show. We called his house; his mom hadn’t heard from him. I didn’t want to worry her, though, so I told her he was probably just on his way. He never showed, though.

Over the next couple of days, I kept trying to call, but the phone would just ring and ring. Nothing. Scott and Audrey wanted to swing over and check on him, but we didn’t get around to it. I think we were scared. And Scott was distracted with the packing. I’m sure we all assumed the worst after a week went by without word. Just when we had all but given up hope, he called me.

I’d just come in the house for something, I can’t remember what. It was just about dusk, though. 8:30, maybe. The phone rang. “Hello?”

The voice on the other end was rough, dusty. “Connor?”

“Ken? My God, we thought that…”

“I’m in trouble, man. I’m in some really big trouble.”

There was so much distress and anguish in his voice. “Where are you, Kenny?”

“I’m in a lot of shit,” he said, almost crying. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Do you want to come over?”

“I…okay. I’m on my way.”

“Alright, then. I’ll see you soon.”

As I went to hang up the receiver, I heard, “Connor?”

“Yeah, Ken?”

“Just you, okay? Nobody else.”

“Alright, man. No problem.” There was something in his words, his tone, in the quavering of his voice that had me unsettled, nervous. Scared, even.

“And Conman…promise not to freak out.”

That’s when he showed up all bloody on my doorstep. He wouldn’t say what happened, just that he couldn’t go home. My folks weren’t home, so he came inside, took a shower. I gave him some clean clothes, bandaged what I could. I gave him an ice pack, and we watched a movie on cable. He stayed the night.

The entire time, I felt uneasy. I was worried. I thought Nigel was coming after him again. He didn’t have any dog bites or cuts. Just bruises, a busted lip, split nose, black eye. He looked like death warmed over.

I asked him about Nigel. He didn’t answer, not directly. He just said that it was taken care of. That Nigel wasn’t going to bother him anymore. He talked a little bit about the Brotherhood. Not too much. Just about some of the guys in it. About some harvest festival. He was learning to shoot a bow. He invited me to come with him sometime, to one of their meetings. He was already wearing black nail polish. He had a wallet chain.

Mostly, he talked about the past. He remembered fondly our boyish adventures. We’d been friends for four years. He wanted to talk about selling golf balls to the pro shop. He remembered the time we peed in the Mountain Dew bottle and tried to get the kid at the end of his street to drink it. It might’ve worked if it hadn’t still been warm. He liked that story. Even though it hurt to laugh, remembering that story made him laugh.

When we ran out of the old stories, he just wanted to watch TV. He wanted to see if there were any movies on with boobs in them. He just wanted to look at naked women. He got mad when we couldn’t find any movies like that. That was the first time I realized he had anger issues.

A couple days later, the cops came by. Ken wasn’t at my house anymore. He only stayed the one night. He only got angry once when he couldn’t look at boobs. And the cops came by looking for him. I didn’t know where he went, though, once he left my house. I told the cops that. I told them about the boobs. I told them how he got angry. I asked why they were looking for him, was he in trouble? They said yes. They couldn’t say too much. They said domestic situation.

When they left, I called his house, spoke to his mom. I pretended to look for Ken, but I really just wanted answers. She sounded drunk. It reminded me of the stories of old rock stars. They do so many drugs for so many years that eventually they just sound wasted all the time, even though they’re really sober. She sounded just like that. She sounded nuts. But she told me, through the tears and hysterics, that Ken attacked her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was drunk and hit her, and Ken saw it. Ken lost it. He attacked the boyfriend with a floor lamp, fractured his skull, broke a couple ribs. She had to call 911. Ken took off before the ambulance arrived. The boyfriend went to the hospital.

I understood a little better after that. I didn’t think Ken was really mad about not seeing boobs. I thought he was mad at other things.

The next time I saw him was a week later. It was the night before Scott moved away. It was the end of June. Middle of the night. We all met in a barn and cut our fingers with knives and said we’d be friends forever.

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