Okay. He was my best friend before I knew what best friends were. At five I ‘d moved with my family to this newly built brick house on the edge of town. Like any other place anywhere else, what was edge of town then is no longer -- at seventeen, we moved again, to Houston, moved to the edge of town, to a place now twenty-seven miles inside the metropolis. But back then we had a fine new place in a fine section of place in a place I've grown to know forever as home, though I can scarcely go back there anymore except to search for my father's lost grave.
Kelly lived across the street from me there on Fourth Street where Sycamore Street comes to rest. First Street should have been the edge of town, but where First Street should have been was a drainage canal for the cabbage fields just outside town. It was Second Street truly marked the edge of town, but the blocks between there and Fourth were brush field, and that made our row of houses at Sycamore on Fourth the buttress that made up east McAllen in 1959.
Now Kelly took me, three years his junior, under a wing, and showed me the details of the field: where the big red ant mounds were and how to find horny toads around their edges; how to climb down in the standpipe where the crosspipes had water, and how to make a little dam there and catch black-spotted salamanders out of their dark niches; where the patches of sunflowers that had been knocked down by bushhogs and pushed together to be burned off were, ‘cause that's where the mourning doves and white-winged doves and blue rock pigeons gathered to fill up on waste seed. He taught me how to sneak up on them by crawling from behind the burn piles and how, if you were real quiet, you could knock off a half-dozen with a BB gun before the others got wise and took off for the day; how to catch big carp in the canal where they gathered in the whirlpools of trash at the outlets, and how you could just a drop a treble hook in their gaping mouths and haul in all you wanted, even if Ma didn't want anything to do with those bony old fish.
I was ten when Kelly showed me a Playboy, my first, caked in mud and dog-eared, from finding it in the field, and first told me how guys were different than girls, though my sister was enough to prove that fully dressed, mouth alone, and he told me how certain parts of things were designed to perfectly fit certain girl things, and you had to search and search for the right girl or things just wouldn't fit right and then you had to get divorced, which already was the most horrible thing I'd ever heard of ‘cause Billy's parents had done that and he cried forever and then she found some other father for him and they took away Billy’s name and gave him another.
I was thirteen and just beginning to fight with understanding what thirteen meant when I realized Kelly was there already, in real life, and then he could drive, and I hardly saw him anymore except to hear stories about grander things, mythical things, in the middle of orchards where you could see and hear all around but no one could see or hear you when I didn't know what shouldn't be heard or seen, unless it was boy and girl things and he said yeah, yeah kid, it's those things and you'll know sometime soon. I knew he'd tell me, because he always told me the things no one else would, and he was smart and didn't have a reason to lie, like JimBob did when he couldn't think fast enough to figure things out for himself.
Kelly spent a lot of time at the beach too, not like some of his riding around friends though, because Kelly would never stray far from home for too long. Maybe part of where our hearts met was his mom's problem and my dad's problem. My dad’s throat didn’t work. He got polio in the war. It took away his swallow like a bird grabbed from the nest and now there's nothing to feed those babies. My dad pumped food straight into his gut with a red rubber hose and a glass bell three, four times a day, that's how he lived, at least ‘til he started pouring bourbon down that tube, didn't even have to taste that awful stuff, just poured it straight down there till it numbed off every organ he had and talked them into quitting 'bout the time I was nineteen, which was not far away. Kelly's mom had gotten polio too, but it stole her legs, stole her chance to walk, and she spent her whole days in a wheelchair. Kelly was hardly ever out of reach, though I could see in those dark Dutch eyes that she wanted him out there in the world. Days when I’d cross Sycamore Street to find him, I’d want to linger and absorb that lovin’ deep inside her eyes, but how is it you find a way to watch someone who’s already spent a lifetime being watched.
Kelly’s dad had a used car lot, but his passion was buying Model T's and Roadsters and fixing them up like they were just bought. I thought it was about the coolest thing ever but he wouldn't let me near those cars. My grandma, the one who lived with us, the one who had the answers, said it was a hobby, kept his mind occupied while he was at home where he might be needed to help out the wife, who needed a lot of help, and I didn't know what kind of help, she had a wheelchair that'd take her anywhere, and grandma with the answers said sometimes she knew the answers but couldn't say them. Kelly and I hardly talked about our parents, but I'm sure now that part of us being us was that we had parents we didn't want to talk about.
TV was still special back then. Everybody watched on the fall night when the new shows came out for the season, and you had favorites like Lucy and Gleason and Carson and you never missed them, and it was a family thing to sit and laugh together in the evenings. I remember sitting, every night, with my dad as he watched the evening news, first the national network news, then the local news from two stations, not in our town, but from nearby towns even smaller than ours, and maybe that helped steep me in some of the things I'm interested in today, and how that is one of the few memories I have of my dad, who'd been on the fringes of history, and had an appetite for politics and history and news, and how one December night we saw the local Channel 5 KGBT-TV show film of a wreck, three teenagers, drinking, hit a tree and were all killed, one of them flying out of his shoes through the front windshield and they showed his shoes there in the front floorboard and said his name Kelly Timlin and mom flew out the front door screaming across the street to Kelly's mom slumped in her wheelchair just heard the news over the phone herself and then had to see that on TV.
Kelly taught me to play marbles, not just to shoot, but to kill, how to use a shooter and play the angles and pick the rim, and then showed me how to flip baseball cards and I got real good at that too, so good that every time we played I was the winner of the last game and got back all the marbles and cards I'd lost to him before, though gone now are all my old Mantles and Maris' and Koufax's. I've still got some of the marbles though and I keep them in a milk bottle on a shelf with other things from back then.