My mother tried to instruct me, “I want you to play with Danny.” All my closest friends had been similarly instructed by their mothers to play with Danny. Danny’s mother was calling our mothers because Danny was friendless. He wanted desperately to belong to our coterie and Danny’s mother could not comprehend why her darling Danny was being ostracized.
Danny was slovenly, his clothes disheveled. He had a broad face and a pounding walk. It happens that obnoxious Danny was trying constantly to insert himself into our circle. We actually tried to include him even before our mothers asked. He wanted desperately to belong and we often felt a degree of pity, but Danny was not a good fit. My friends did not curse crudely, nor did they appreciate scatological humor or jokes a preteen would think bawdy, and we did not treasure Danny’s ability to perform farts. Who was his role model?
Even as a young child there was something brutish about him. Danny could readily lose his temper, but I don’t remember him ever becoming physically threatening despite appearing powerfully built. He was loud and boastful, like Falstaff’s companion Pistol, and like Pistol, essentially a coward. He was crass. He was vulgar. He was epic in that his unpopularity was famous, seemingly universal. Danny was disgusting and boorish even at the tender ages of eleven and twelve.
I am not to be the hero of this story. I must have insulted Danny as often as others. I would have joined in laughing at him. I held myself aloof when talking to him, capable of vicious childhood cruelties. Whatever indiscreet or injurious barbs were my contribution to his misery, I have allowed myself to forget.
Having our mothers asking us to try again came too late. We had given up on him. My friends were a group of like-minded boys with similar interests in things imaginary or cerebral, unlike our peers who were athletic and into sports. Danny was neither cerebral nor athletic. Perhaps he wasn’t athletic because of restraints due to severe strabismus (exotropia). I had been told he was declared legally blind, yet he could recognize any of us from great distances. He seemed to know us by our postures or by the way we walked, blasting out our names before we could change directions. Then he would come racing to join us.
I remember in sixth grade he brought in a box for show-and-tell containing a litter of rabbit kits, their eyes still closed. He was sure it would make him popular, failing to realize what the rest of us understood, that interfering with their nest was their certain death.
It was also in sixth grade when I fell in love with my classmate Lee. She was slender and boyish, wearing her dark brown hair short, but she was sweet in tone and correct in posture. Everything was proper and restrained about her appearance. Thinking back, I would say she was stiff, which, while attractive then, would be unattractive to me now. To be sure, it was as much love as an eleven-year-old could muster, but it swamped my being. I endured those feelings for what seemed a long time. Friends advised me to tell her how I felt. When Danny overheard the telling of my passion, he declared he loved her too. When I collected enough courage to walk her home and carry her books, Danny decided he would walk her home too, at the same time.
Why did Danny have to be there, splitting her attention? He walked on her right and I walked on her left. It was soon evident that he wasn’t making progress with her. She was polite, yet critical of his offensive humor. She was trying to show more interest in me, but Danny would say anything, make any noise, to steal her attention. Why did he have to make this a competition? Why couldn’t he have walked with her on another day?
When we arrived at her home, the question put to her was, which of us did she liked better? She wouldn’t answer, saying she would think about it. Friends assured me I was a shoo-in. I might not have been a particularly popular kid, but Danny was contemptible. He wasn’t wicked. A liar and braggart, yes, a thief or bully, no. The next day, I was informed she picked Danny.
I was stunned and scarred. I descended into a hellish inferiority complex that would define me for the next many years. I saw them together for only a day or two, that was all, and she didn’t seem to like it. When they no longer appeared friends, I was not about to approach Lee again and face another crushing dismissal.
I avoided Danny after that, more than before. It was hard to avoid him completely. We lived only half a mile from each other and our paths would continually cross in school. I remember when he played guitar at the ninth grade talent show, singing “House of the Rising Sun” in the style of Dave Van Ronk and plucking away on a guitar. He was awful, was booed and laughed off the stage. He blamed a broken guitar string, or was it hurt fingers? For the rest of the school year, and even the next, kids mockingly imitated his performance to get laughs from their mates.
I was lucky never to be in the same class, but that’s because Danny, for all his faults, was a good student and I was placed among the low achievers. The exception was our first gym class in tenth grade. Me and a small group of friends were getting dressed in the locker room. Danny made the mistake of lingering too long in the showers. A group of bullies went after him with snapping towels. We were snickering at Danny’s misfortune until one of the coolest kids in our class, Glenn, went back into the showers to defend Danny, thrusting himself between the cowering Danny and his attackers. Scott turned to the rest of us and said with all earnestness, “He makes me feel ashamed of myself for laughing.” We all felt ashamed. The teacher arrived. The entire class was punished, except for the courageous and decent Glenn, and also Danny.
For years after grade school there were chance meetings when Danny would appear and try to entice me to come visit him and share drugs, or more specifically buy drugs from him. He was not a good salesman. I was never impolite, but kept our conversations very short.
Then I went years without seeing Danny. A story had reached me that Danny became involved with his upstairs neighbor’s wife where he lived in Philadelphia. The husband caught him. Danny tried escaping, but the husband got a shot off as Danny was dashing down the staircase. The bullet passed through his back and out his chest just grazing his heart. I wish I knew the details; how reliable was the story? I was not going to check it out. I didn’t want to be any part of his life.
The last time I saw Danny was in Doctor Cohen’s waiting room. I didn’t know we shared the same dentist. We politely shook hands and his were still warm and damp as in childhood. He was heavier. He wore his shirt opened half way down his flaccid chest; a field of dark hairs served as the backdrop for a thick gold chain and a gold horn pendant. He had large gold rings on his fingers.
The conversation immediately went to what did I do for a living. He asked only so he could brag that he was selling life insurance. Did I have life insurance? Would I be interested in life insurance? Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, and I never wanted to divert money into life insurance, had always preferred enjoying the spending of money while we were both alive. We figured we could not enjoy it as much with one of us gone. Danny asked if he could meet with me to see if he could change my mind. I declined and told him I had automatic life insurance through my job, which I did. For the remainder of that brief encounter, until I was called in by the dental assistant, Danny shared how successful he was.
Not many years after that last meeting, I heard that Danny was back at his parents’ home dying of bowel cancer. My mother asked if I was going to visit him. Again, I declined.
One day years later, I was retelling the story of my unrequited love for Lee and the devastating rejection that crippled my self-esteem to an acquaintance. To my surprise, this acquaintance told me that Lee was her lifelong friend and that I should go and talk to her about it. She said I should ask Lee why she picked Danny over me. She assured me Lee was a wonderful person, very easy to meet and speak to, and that Lee was a sales clerk in a local department store.
I soon happened to be in that department store and found her when I was only half looking, curious to see her, yet part of me hoping not to find her. There she was, behind the glass counter. I even recognized her, still slender and still wearing her hair short, reassured it was she by reading the name tag. I thought I would have to introduce myself and that she wouldn’t remember me. I was surprised when she knew who I was despite being middle-aged and not wearing a name tag. I wasn’t bald and bearded when I was eleven.
The conversation was brief and awkward. There was no enthusiasm on her part with meeting me again after forty years. She avoided making eye contact. Would she remember the event? I asked, “Why did you like Danny more than me?”
“I didn’t,” she quietly announced. “I liked you better.” She was deadpan, but I was shocked.
“Then why did you pick Danny over me?”
“His mother called my mother and my mother made me do it.”
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.