It’s been a year since this time last year, and it makes me think. One thing I have in common with myself is a feeling that I don’t belong anywhere. It’s more than just Marxian alienation resulting from a divorce from being master of my own destiny — indeed, what a tale I could tell about that! — but it’s a thing that is inseparable from me.
Once or twice, I heard that confessional writing is passe, so I’ll tell you a story in the third person.
Once there was this kid whose name was Charlie. Charlie lived in a big city, and was really uncomfortable about his name. “Charlie,” he thought, “that’s a name for kids with lots of friends.” Good thing for Charlie, though, that he lived in a city: there were so many people to hide among, so many people to pass every day that not knowing any of them was expected. This was something he thought of often. He didn’t know how some of the kids he knew seemed to know everybody on the way home from school. It was as if there were some secret meeting of the neighborhood to which he was never invited; a meeting where good jokes were told, experiences shared, and where kids got to act like grownups without anybody yelling at them, because the grownups were in on it. He wished he knew for sure if there were such meetings, or if he was crazy for thinking like that.
Charlie’s brothers both had friends with whom they spent a lot of time, and Charlie read a lot of books, listened to shortwave radio in his room, and started learning languages other than English. He thought it would be great to talk to people and make friends, and maybe that would be easier in some other language. But his parents were concerned that he seemed to have nobody to play with, so he invented a friend, and named him Carlo.
Carlo was great at everything. He was a real friendly kid, lived about ten blocks away, far away enough to be in a different neighborhood. It was a tougher neighborhood than Charlie lived in, but that was what made Carlo so cool: nobody ever bothered him. He attended those meetings and was voted Most Likely To Be Popular. Carlo took a special liking to Charlie and taught him how to play hockey. Hockey, of course, had to be played on concrete, with roller skates. Carlo never had skinned knees, because he never fell down. But he didn’t lord that over anyone; his humility was so great that you just knew he had a special talent. Well, Charlie had to ask his parents for some basic hockey gear, like roller skates and a hockey stick, and they happily obliged. His father kept offering to go down with him to see one of the games that Charlie kept talking about, and to meet Carlo. Trouble was, nobody scheduled those games, it was sort of hit or miss, and Charlie didn’t want to disappoint his father nor to waste his father’s time.
Charlie spent many days walking around the neighborhood with skates slung over his shoulder, his hockey stick hidden in the bushes of a nearby park so that nobody would invite him to play a pickup game. So nobody would make fun of him for walking around with a hockey stick, since it was pretty well known that Charlie was never known to play hockey in the neighborhood. He never got lonely, because he always was; but he developed a strange feeling of connectedness to the past. He would look at houses whose front entrances were once storefronts, and wonder what kind of business used to be there, what it was like to walk down a certain street and go into a store there, where now there were no stores. He looked at cracks in the pavement, revealing cobblestones, and pictured the clothes that people wore when those cobblestones were new. He always took his time going home, estimating how long a hockey game would take, and how long it would have taken him to walk home from the place where kids played hockey, making sure to rub the plastic end of the hockey stick against the pavement to wear away as much as possible, so it would look like the tough kids’ sticks, the ones that were almost as small as toothpicks.
One day Charlie’s father decided to surprise Charlie, who had been gone long enough for a game to have begun. He saw nobody there but a few old men playing handball. When he got home, he waited for Charlie, who came home about an hour later, looking happy and exhausted. He told his father about the game and how good Carlo was, especially at the end, and his father revealed that he had not seen anyone, and that he had driven all around that playground without seeing any hockey game.
Charlie’s breath froze in his esophagus and he said nothing. His father let the matter drop. Carlo died that day, and nobody went to his funeral.