Without a doubt my third-grade best friend, Brian Kirkman, was a bit of a whiner. On the way home from school everyday, as we were walking down the grassy side of Freeman Parkway, he'd be going on about some new grievance, whether something his mother said he had to do, Mrs. Teague's homework assignment that day, or some kid in class he didn't like. Looking back I think I should have said something like give it a rest Brian, or changed the subject, but I was eight and, lacking discernment, I simply said yeah, I know, which only encouraged the whining.
Kids could be cruel in third-grade, and Brian's whining and physical demeanor encouraged them. Given his crew-cut that accentuated his oversize head and too large ears, they called him Pencil-Head, or The Eraser. I could see why. I didn't call him those names, but I often thought them. To be honest, he did look like a #2 pencil with his skinny body and squared off head and shirt with the top button always buttoned, pinching his neck. Brian just sucked it up when they called him names, except for one time when he totally lost it and pounded Jeffrey Meadows. It was one of those Jekyll and Hyde moments. I mean Brian was a peaceful if nerdy guy at all other times. I guess he'd just had enough of it. The name-calling died out after that, said under the breath if at all. But they still didn't call him Brian; they just said hey. . . followed by a sort of unspoken identifier, and he accepted that.
Well he was my friend, anyway, even if the endless complaining grated on me. He had imagination. He could turn a normal walk home into something, well, special, where unseen realities began to impinge on our eight-year old world. Like the day we dropped into Underworld.
Instead of crossing Freeman Parkway that day, we kept to the right side, the side by the creek, figuring we'd catch tadpoles in the slow-flowing murky water, picking up cold mossy stones on the creek bed and seeing what came out. But no, Brian had other ideas. About halfway home, a round drainage pipe which runs under the parkway dumps its liquid froth into the creek. Brian said come on let's get in there and explore, but I wasn't sure. Besides, it smelled bad and I figured whenever Mr. Monroe up on Ferndale flushed the john it all flowed downhill through that pipe. (I realize now I was wrong about that, but it concerned me then.) But Brian was already in, his voice echoing in the pipe, beckoning me in.
Now this was a big pipe, big enough for an eight-year old to stand up in, and I walked right in, following Brian's voice. After a few feet, it became quite dark. All I could hear was the slow trickle of the water beneath me. I was beginning to enjoy the quiet, and I imagined how Brian and I could explore the pipes, popping up in different areas of the neighborhood, traversing the city surreptitiously underground, lifting manhole covers and dropping in on friends up on Elam Avenue.
And then I heard Brian yelling get out of the way, move it, there's a rat, and he brushed by me making for the entrance. I ran too, until we both stood outside the drainage pipe, gasping for air. When we could talk again, I asked Brian what he saw. He said it was a rat about a foot high and two feet long. That was our first and last trip into the Underworld.
We lived off that story for a while, the rat growing in our imagination, and I even began to believe I had seen the rat as well, that it had brushed up against me or nibbled at my leg. It was particularly fun to tell girls this story just to hear them squeal. Impressive.
Generally the walk home was good. An adventure perhaps, like the Great Rat of Underworld story. Or maybe the time we were lost in the Netherwoods and shot at by the hobo that lived there. Or maybe it was just a story we made up to kill the time on the way home, where Brian was a superhero (say Elastic Man) and I was a very capable sidekick (say The Inferno) as we spread terror in the hearts of villains everywhere, rescued Moms, and impressed girls. Stories are funny --- talk about them enough and you begin to believe they are true.
But one day the walk home took a turn for the Dark. We're walking, Brian's talking, and for the first time in all these times of walking I notice the flashing school sign that hangs over the middle of the parkway. Time for target practice. I'm not sure who had the idea, but Brian and I began to pitch rocks at the sign, seeing who could score a direct hit, not thinking at all what might happen should our rock land on a car passing under the light. It was fun, throwing rocks, and I could have done it for a long time, maybe even a half hour or so, but it was cut short that day.
A large brown sedan pulled over to the side of the road. Two men were in the front seat and the one on the driver's side motioned for us to come over. He asked what are you boys doing? Brian said he didn't talk to strangers, and I nodded, remembering I'd been given similar instructions. He said he was a police officer and opened the door to the back seat and asked us to get in. Brian said he didn't look like any police officer, and he didn't believe him. The man reached in his coat and pulled out a black wallet, flipping it open to reveal a very shiny and important looking badge.
I looked at Brian. Brian looked at me and burst out crying. I don't mean that tears were streaming down his cheeks. I mean he literally burst out crying, tears popping out of his eyes, sprinkling his whole face instantly, which was a red, slobbery mess in no time. We got in the car, were taken home, and received justice at home. Well, Brian got justice. I received mercy. I learned that day that ignorance of the law is not a defense, and the shame of being branded a criminal was enough punishment for me.
On the way home the next day we didn't throw rocks. We didn't explore the drainage pipes. We walked straight to Brian's house, plopped down in the family room, and turned on Gilligan's Island. Brian's Mom fixed us a fried bologna sandwich, and we ate silently as we watched the hapless castaways.
When the show ended, I said Brian why don't we go out in the back yard and pretend to be spies. He said pretending's for babies, and that it was time to grow up.
Brian moved away later that year. I didn't miss him --- not much, anyway. He wasn't any fun anymore. Now I walk home on my own, and I make up my own stories. Besides, I don't have to listen to that whiner anymore.