The first thing he ever told me was that Clark wasn’t his real name. They’d stuck him with his father’s name, but the minute he turned eighteen he’d be changing it officially from “James.” In the meantime, he wanted everyone to call him Clark. He’d explained this to everyone in a short essay he read aloud on the first day of Adventures for Young Writers, our weeklong summer camp, held at the local community college. That summer I had already done Model Rocket Engineering, Soccer II, Ocean Exploration, and “I’ll See You in Court!” Adventures for Young Writers was my favorite; I took it every summer, and all year looked forward to the hours I’d spend counting sestina syllables, making up short stories, and banging away on the word processors at the typing lab.
Clark and his friend Sam were the only other boys in the group that year, and we sat together at lunch without any prior agreement. Sam was pudgy and short, with a bowl of straw-colored hair that was too long in the front. Clark was something else altogether. My height, with a cleft chin and a constant smirk. He wore khakis, a braided brown belt, penny loafers, and a pastel green polo shirt. Even when we weren’t writing, he gripped a black pen in one hand—a gesture of admiration, I’d later learn in another essay, for then-presidential-candidate Bob Dole. He and Sam were a year younger than me, about to enter the eighth grade a few towns over. We had no friends in common outside of camp, which wasn’t surprising; none of us had many friends to begin with.
When I joined them at the cafeteria table, they seemed to be playing some kind of game: casually eyeing a nearby table of older girls, sporty types, with ponytails and headbands.
“They’re Bulgarians,” Sam whispered.
How did he know? They were speaking English, I pointed out.
“They’re Bulgarian spies,” Clark answered. “Pay close attention.” Without staring, I tried, but could pinpoint nothing especially suspicious or Eastern European about them.
“You see it, right?” he asked.
Every day Clark typed up a short, one page humor piece, “Clark Talks Back,” with great care given to the choice of fonts, borders, and clip art available in Word Perfect. These were short observational pieces, somewhere between a Dave Barry column and a Letterman monologue.
There’s a sharp new look in Freehold County fashion these days, namely the Enormously Baggy Pants, which as we speak are sweeping the floors of the mall for free and getting caught in the revolving glass doors at the main entrance. At any time of day now you will be sure to find two or three clueless teenagers stuck inside, perplexed as to how this “totally whack” situation has occurred. While it is inconvenient for the rest of us to have to use the regular doors now, many find they enjoy getting the chance to play Boxer Short Bingo, by keeping track of the different colors of underwear hanging out of the backs of these pants, which can be seen as you pass by on your shopping trip. Try to find all seven colors in the rainbow!
Before the Bulgarian Spy incident, I’d never have expected Clark’s sense of humor to run in this direction. He was always so stiff, so polite to both the teachers and the other students. But on the page he was a whole other person.
“What’s up?” You surely know that this is a typical greeting these days in the halls of William McKinley Middle School, but what you may not know is that the question is meant sincerely. Most young people these days are unable to look in a skyward direction anymore, because they are so concerned about tripping over the hems of their long pants, or their unlaced high tops, and so are forced to ask each other constantly for information about anything going on above their exposed navels…
There were certain themes to which he’d often return. Girls wore too much makeup. The English language was generally imperiled. Rap music and Ren and Stimpy were racing to bring about the end of civilization. Newer, edgier superheroes like Spawn and Hellboy would never, in a million years, be better than Superman. I’d assumed these ideas must be trickling down from his parents, but when I began spending most of my Saturdays at his house, I discovered he had little in common with either of them. His much-hated father was a bristle-mustached ex-Marine, now a well-paid contractor for the DOD. I never heard him speak, not to me or to his son. His mother was an indulgent, lovely woman, always eager to drive us to the nearby mall. By the end of the summer, Clark and I were getting together nearly every weekend and speaking on the phone most weeknights. Together we wrote six episodes of a sitcom, featuring ourselves as middle-age men, bantering like Seinfeld and Costanza. He sent the pilot to ABC studios and was baffled when, a few weeks later, we received a form letter saying that they did not consider unsolicited material.
Everything about Clark said that he did not want to be fourteen, but forty-five. He loved The Beatles (pre-Revolver only) and believed Nintendo rotted your brain. He intended someday to become either the President of the United States or the host of The Tonight Show. One night as we talked on the phone while watching Letterman, he grew quiet. “I just realized we’re going to live to see that man die. I don’t know if I can take that.” I’d never met anyone like him before.
Clark had an imaginary girlfriend named Caroline. He’d confided this to me just a few days after our friendship began.
“Look,” he said, “It’s a fact. If you’ve never dated anyone before, girls think you’re a loser, so they won’t go out with you. So what are you supposed to do?”
This felt accurate, given my experiences thus far with Miranda, a girl at school that I adored, but who only spoke to me when she and her boyfriend, Junior, were broken up. This happened two or three times a month, but my intermittent heartbreak-counseling didn’t seem to be getting me any closer to earning the boyfriend spot myself.
“Tell her you’re dating someone else,” Clark advised. “She’ll be all over you.”
He opened a WordPerfect document where, in a cornflower-blue font, he had collected every detail pertaining to his imaginary true love. He and Caroline had met the summer before, in Maine, where her family had a summer house on Frenchman’s Bay and where he’d been visiting family friends one weekend. He’d seen her from some distance—across a rocky shoreline—a vision with curly blond hair, pink shorts, and matching jellies. Later he’d seen her again at the Mount Desert Ice Cream shop. A big scoop of her rocky road had fallen onto the sidewalk. He’d marched over and bought her a new cone. The next day they had played chess on her beach blanket (which had the New Kids on the Block on it). She had a cold and her nose was red. She wiped it with Kleenex Ultra-Soft Tissues. Her younger sister, Patty, was a brat. Her parents, Wilfred and Alice, co-owned a nearby lumber mill. He knew their ages, descriptions, Alice’s maiden name, etc. Caroline wanted to be an AIDS researcher in either Phoenix or Toronto. She used a Wild Basil & Lime-scented hand cream. They’d had their first kiss at sunset on July 17 the previous summer and it had lasted four minutes and nineteen seconds. All that was just page one of nineteen, and he updated the file each time he mentioned a new detail so that he’d never be tripped up in a lie. Clark carried around several letters “she” had written, in case anyone seemed doubtful.
Working off of Clark’s template, I spent hours writing up my own girlfriend, basically Miranda but nicer, only I never showed it to anyone besides him or pretended she was real. While I felt Clark’s plan was ingenious, I knew it would never work for me. I was a terrible liar. I blushed, stammered, stared at the ceiling. Time and time again I saw him con people with a perfectly straight face. We’d spend an entire afternoon at the food court just watching girls walking by, debating their cuteness with the precision and discernment of antique dealers. Then when his mother came to pick us up, he’d tell her we’d seen a movie. On the spot he’d make up a whole film. Once, I remember, we’d seen White Bread, starring Kevin Costner as a single dad named “Pete Bread,” and something happened involving his son’s science fair experiment and he’d become transparent.
There’s a word in one of my older dictionaries, which isn’t in my newer ones. “Chumship: the condition or relation of a chum or chums.” Coined in the early 1830s, its usage peaked in the 1920s and then declined until it was revived by psychologists in the ’80s, who considered it to be an important stage in early adolescent development. That first friend with whom one could frankly discuss adult matters without embarrassment. It was to Clark that I divulged my daydream of swimming with Miranda in a pool filled with hot fudge (but not, obviously, that hot). To me, Clark confided about a time he’d seen a pornographic movie called Carnal Encounters 2 late one night at a friend’s house, and how this guy had started jerking off right in front of him, and how Clark had walked back home in the dark and never spoken to the boy again. We borrowed a pair of binoculars from his father’s closet and used them to gaze across his yard toward the house of a girl named Zoe, very popular in his grade. She was just his type: dressing modestly, beautiful with no need for makeup, and the top student in their English class. She wanted to become a lawyer and work for Amnesty International. We studied her yearbook photo each weekend, and the curve of Zoe’s brown bobbed hair sometimes forced Clark to have to lie down on the floor until his heartache passed. We wrote her into our sitcom, as Clark’s future wife. They had three kids. He knew all their names, and ages, and so forth.
Imagine, then, the earth-shattering excitement one day when he told me over the phone that he’d heard a rumor that Zoe liked him.
“Who said?” I asked. We each had the same Seinfeld rerun on in the background. Usually the rule was no conversation until the commercial break, but this was an emergency.
“Zoe’s best friend Kristen. She was talking to Nikki.”
The three of them were allegedly inseparable.
“But here’s the problem,” Clark said with concern. “This is all according to Sam.”
Sam refused to accept that he and Clark weren’t friends anymore. Clark still called him sometimes because Sam still believed anything he said, and at times like this it was helpful having a henchman at school. Still, he’d often tell me about various-size whoppers that Sam had swallowed. He was always convincing him to do or say embarrassing things.
For hours we debated ways of verifying Sam’s intel. Could Clark buy a red Mead notebook like the one Zoe used, and swap them during Art class, so he could look to see if she had written his name inside anywhere? Or could he sneak into a stall in the girl’s bathroom just before the third period break, when Zoe, Kristen, and Nikki were known to congregate there? Ultimately, I can’t remember what we settled on, only that Sam was employed as some sort of fall guy and that we did get the confirmation we’d been looking for—only it didn’t matter, because Clark’s plan soon turned out to have one unanticipated wrinkle.
In our zeal we had forgotten one thing.
Read the rest of “Chumship.” Get ZYZZYVA No. 105!