I haven't thought of Mr. Williams in years, but recently, while trying to figure out what it means to be 12, I remembered the time I spent with him -- time out of school and away from my family, time that I owned and treasured. My youngest children have now reached that age, teetering on the cusp of adolescence, and I often fall into the trap of thinking school is the most important thing in their lives.
When grade reports come out, my children's report cards are met with great anticipation. Computer print-outs record every assignment, completed or missing, every quiz, every test. I receive them breathlessly, brain-washed as I am by a system that measures children by their grades, thinking an A means A-okay, hunky-dory, all's well. We frown together over C's, agreeing that by next report things will get better.
My sons breeze past the kisses aimed at the tops of their heads and run out to play. They jump on their bikes and head off to life, freedom, adventure. School is a place where they have to sit and listen all day. Afternoons are when real life begins.
Some days Mr. Williams and I listened to Jim Reeves' sad tunes with their deep, melancholy sonic drops; and sometimes we listened to Elvis. Mr. Williams was a retired railroad man who walked hunched over at a 45-degree angle. His fingers were drawn into the shape of a hook by arthritis. He had a white crew cut and filmy red eyes. Every five minutes of so, he convulsed with wet coughs and caught his upchucked juices in a white handkerchief.
We listened over and over to "Love Me Tender." Sometimes he gave me saltines to eat and a glass of Koolaid to drink. He showed me prom pictures of his grown-up daughters, Norma Jean and Judy, dressed in stiff, strapless crinoline gowns with pointed breasts, their hair poofed into stiff bouffant hairdos.
After we listened to Jim Reeves sing gospel ("In the Garden" was Mr. Williams' favorite), he turned off the hi-fi and we began the slow, painful descent to his basement. Usually we walked around the outside of the house because the stairs were too hard on his legs. Out back, he pulled a round steel key ring out of his loose pockets and unlocked the basement door.
Inside were two things I hadn't ever seen before, two things I coveted a regulation size pool table with a swinging light fixture overhead, and a model train that ran a complicated circuit next to the basement walls, past tiny trees made of wire brush, matchbox houses, flannel pastures and plastic cows.
Mr. Williams lit up a cigarette and I racked the balls. I broke, since his power stroke was impaired, and he taught me all the tricks he knew. We played 8-ball, and he won.
Then he'd fiddle with the connections on his train set, slowly pull back a little lever and release the slow building electrical current that put the tiny locomotive in motion. I was in charge of switching the tracks, sending the train off on a vaguely different route, then back.
One day, Mr. Williams pulled out his key ring and opened a closet at the back of the basement. On a long clothes rack stood the gorgeous mint and sky-blue ball gowns of Norma Jean and Judy. He hacked and dabbed his eyes, then asked if my little sister and I would like to have them. Yes, I said, and ran home with the huge squishy dresses flying up in my face, the crinoline petticoats scratching my outstretched arms.
I don't know why I'm thinking of Mr. Williams just now except that my sons are 12, and most days they run off somewhere after school, after I have released them from the strictures of homework, after I have given them the third degree about what they're learning.
I watch them bound out the door. I tell them to be smart, to have fun, to be safe. Then I release them to a world only they know, filled with strangers and surprises, a world at the outer edge of childhood.
-- The author's sons are now almost 16, meaning this essay was written and published almost four years ago. Next week, Domestic Bliss will catch up to the times with a new, previously unpublished essay.