In the 1960s, James Royce lived in a suburban enclave tacked onto the side of Memphis, Tennessee. It was called Raleigh and it was new and shiny with gravel roads and houses or the frames of houses, every hundred yards, and the abundant trees were leafy and full of life. Raleigh was being born. James Royce was ten or eleven. He was small and pale and his white hair disappeared in the sun and made James look like an angel with a head made of eggshell.
James Royce didn’t think he fit into the world. He felt this way even when he was a toddler. Things other kids did with ease and grace came hard to him. His street, Kenneth Street, was populated by young families and there were many children his age. They did things so effortlessly. They threw balls and caught them. They kicked and fought and spit and cussed. James liked them immensely. They all rode bikes and James Royce did not know how. His balance, his fear of falling and his fear of failing, tied James up in knots and rendered the simple human machinery required to balance upon and move a two-wheeler far beyond his abilities. It made him ill to try.
Linny Thayer lived across the street from James. She was tall and blonde and tomboyish. She was James Royce’s best friend. He loved Linny. Not like a girlfriend, though there were mysterious stirrings in him sometimes when Linny was near. Once she left the bathroom door open and said to James, “You can watch me pee if you like.” James was spellbound. Her soft shorts and white panties were pooled at her feet. Her legs shone like brilliant playthings. And she sat there smiling at James Royce and James felt less lonely. He fit in somewhere, he thought. He fit in with Linny.
James used to play Barbies with Linny. She had this elaborate pink and pale blue plastic house and car, also other dolls related to Barbie, a sister doll and a boyfriend doll. Linny told James to pretend to be the boyfriend. His name was Ken. Once walking to Linny’s house with one of the dolls in his hand a car slowed down next to James. It was full of older boys. They pointed and laughed. James begged his face not to cry but his face didn’t listen. Tears came. His neck and throat felt hot.
Linny’s family moved away after Linny’s mother died of cancer. Linny’s mother was Mrs. Royce’s best friend. When she died James’ mother stayed in her bedroom for what seemed an awfully long time. James worried the whole while. He thought something had gone wrong with his mother, like maybe her chemistry was upset. Perhaps she would catch the cancer that killed Mrs. Thayer and then she would be gone and James would be more alone, without a best friend and without a mother.
After three days, James’ mother emerged from her room unexpectedly and the day was sunny and the air seemed scrubbed clean and clear. James’ mother put her hand on James’ head and leaned over and kissed him on his crown. She asked James if he wanted homemade waffles. This was James’ favorite food and he never got to have it in the middle of the day. James knew then that his mother was back and that she would not die.
After he ate the waffles James went outside where everything seemed still and quiet. James walked his neighborhood as if he had been granted possession of it all. The street was freshly paved and there were black bubbles of tar which some of James’ friends would pull out of the glistening roadway and chew as if they were licorice. The Thayers’ old house now with a For Sale sign in the front yard, the spooky split level where the mean football coach lived, the fire hydrant that sat in front of the fireman’s house, the one the fireman drove over sometimes returning home late and drunk: It was all saluting James Royce. At the end of his street, right before his street, Kenneth Street, intersected with another street, Joslyn Avenue, there lived a family of older twin boys and a sister who was as pretty as a TV star. James knew their names. Their last name was Appling. There was something mysterious about them that captured the imaginations of James and the other youngsters.
One of the boys was named Peck. That was his first name. He was seen outside more than his siblings, who tended to stay inside their two-story home. The house was as big as a palace to James. It was said that the Appling children read books and were very smart. The beautiful sister read books, it was said, that some of James Royce’s teachers wouldn’t understand. James loved this family, the Applings. Once Peck spoke to James on the school bus. The school bus usually frightened James because the driver was a rough farmer named Cow John, or that’s what the kids called him, and because there were rough boys on the bus who did not live on James’ street. Peck said, “Nice shirt,” about a paisley shirt James was wearing. That was a good day.
James sat on the curb at the bottom of the Appling’s driveway. Maybe Peck would appear and talk to him. Maybe the sister—Stella—would make a rare trip outdoors and James could ask her what she was reading. He had prepared that question in case he ever found himself alone in her presence. What are you reading?
James watched a stream of ants moving into a crack in the curb. They were so small and there were so many of them and James wondered if their world was as complicated as his, wondered if there were too many ants living underneath the curb and there were some ants undone by this. James had to stop himself thinking about the crowded, airless, underground ant home.
James heard a car slowing down on the fresh blacktop and he looked up. The car moved as if he were dreaming it. Inside the car was a driver, a man who must have been 25 or more, and beside him a scrawny boy with ugly teeth, sitting on the passenger side. James began to smile as they slowed. It was a beautiful day. His mother did not have cancer.
The boy on the passenger side sneered deliberately and made a gesture that James knew was ugly. He held up the middle finger of his hand. Then the car increased speed and was gone.
James sat still, afraid if he moved he would shatter. The world seemed to spin around him as if he were inside a clothes dryer. James mouth felt funny and his tears began to well. He couldn’t speak or move for a moment. Why did that boy and that grown-up man hate James? He asked himself that. Why did they hate James Royce?
After a while James stood and listlessly walked home. His stomach was full of waffles and suddenly James hated waffles. They made him sick. He never wanted to have waffles again, or friends like Linny who disappeared, or dolls, or games to play, or tar bubbles to chew. He would never ride that bus again with that awful Cow John and he would not return to school. Maybe there were some friends who would wonder where he went but he wouldn’t care. Maybe some people would be thinking about him as his absence lengthened. He would be a ghost to them. James Royce, that day, gave up on the world.
Corey Mesler has published in numerous journals and anthologies. He is the author of eight novels, three books of short stories, three full-length collections of poetry, as well as numerous chapbooks of poetry and prose. John Grisham once blurbed one of his novels, as did Lee Smith, and Marshall Chapman. He and his wife own Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, TN. He can be found at www.coreymesler/wordpress.com.