Billy Putnam shot my dad in the butt with a BB gun. It was quite a feat, as nailing a middle aged man on a ladder cleaning out his rain gutters couldn’t have been easy all the way from the house next door—a house whose gutters were always full of old leaves and debris.
My father’s screams of outrage brought my brother Sam and me tumbling right out of our backyard tent. The tent itself was a heavy canvas monstrosity, one held up with bent aluminum poles, yet perfect for us to play in. We’d been taking Polaroids, scrawling down dates and times on the back, to add to our Summer Fun collection. At the end of every summer, Sam meticulously filed the Polaroid pictures, dutifully recording our memories and storing them in a shoebox.
When we saw our father, Sam was holding the Polaroid camera in his hand. We looked at each other, then at my dad rubbing his backside where a BB-sized hole appeared in his pants. I nodded at my brother, who quickly took a picture of our father, still on the ladder, still cursing a blue streak. We added it to the box.
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“I tell you, Evie. This neighborhood is going to pot—literally going to pot—with that marijuana-selling hooligan next door.” My father punctuated his remarks by stabbing a piece of Salisbury steak. He chewed malevolently. “He dented the station wagon, too. I saw gold paint on the front bumper of his Chevy. Where’d a boy get a car like that, anyhow?”
“I don’t know, dear.”
“Well, I’ll tell you something, Evie—I do know. I know exactly what that societal parasite is doing over there. He’s selling marijuana. Right here in our neighborhood. You keep our kids away from that punk. Any day now, we’ll have junkies strung out on the front lawn!”
“Do you think so?”
“It’s the gateway drug, Evie. I blame Jimmy Carter. It’s a good thing we’ll have a new president one day who understands that those types of people need to be locked up!”
“Do you think we should move?” my mother asked, eyes wide open.
“We may well have to, Evie. We may well have to.”
Sam and I looked at each other. From that day on, Billy Putnam represented everything completely amoral in the universe, an agent of chaos to orderly Christians everywhere.
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When I started middle school, my father and Billy Putnam were still engaged in a holy war. On Saturdays when my father mowed the lawn, he’d balefully stare at the few cars who briefly dropped by the Putnam’s home. Sometimes my father would write down license plate numbers. In return, Billy Putnam would simply walk over and boldly present him with both middle fingers.
“How do you flip the bird?” I asked Sam. “I can’t get my pinkies to stay down.” We had set up the canvas tent in the backyard, determined to sleep in it one more night.
Sam pumped the Coleman lantern, trying to get it to light. “Why? You’re a girl.”
“I might need to flip off someone,” I replied, slightly aggravated.
“Girls don’t flip the bird.”
I sulked, picking up his handheld electronic baseball game. I watched the red lights beep before tossing it aside.
“Lawn darts?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, finishing the last of our Jiffy Pop.
“I want to spy on Billy Putnam,” Sam replied, grinning.
We unzipped the tent flap.
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The fireflies blinked on and off as Sam and I scrambled quietly out of the tent. Barefoot, we muttered childish swear words whenever we stepped on an errant aluminum pop-top.
“I think his room is in the basement,” Sam informed me. “We can hop the fence and crawl along the bushes. I hear he’s got a pachinko game in his room and everything.”
“Okay—” was all I could manage, as my brother’s wealth of knowledge of Billy Putnam impressed me. We dropped and crawled like commandos on the ground, which smelled of loam and moss. I followed Sam closely, sure that if I deviated even an inch, Billy Putnam would murder me.
The blinds were open. As we peered into what was clearly Billy Putnam’s bedroom, we noticed posters with blonde girls in tiny bathing suits hanging on the wall, the legendary pachinko machine with its lights glittering, and a tangle of bodies in bed linen.
“Don’t look—” Sam loudly whispered, a warning that only made me look harder.
“What?” I exclaimed, sure I was missing something fantastic.
“They’re doing it.”
“It. They’re doing it,” Sam said, scrambling backwards like a crab. I followed him, saying nothing until we returned to the tent. We didn’t say much after that, either.
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It didn’t take long to learn I would be a total failure in middle school. The girls seemed to dress and wear lip gloss in a way a tomboy like me could only imagine. Alone in the backyard where Sam and I no longer set up the tent, I looked heavenward.
I looked up. Billy Putnam.
“You want to throw that back?” I looked at a frisbee that had sailed over the fence. I quickly retrieved it for him.
“You’re welcome.” I started to walk away.
“Hey, you look sad,” he remarked.
“School sucks,” I replied, my voice breaking as I tried to hold back hot tears.
“What part?” he asked, folding his lanky arms on top of the chain link fence.
“The friend part.”
“Well, people totally suck,” he explained. “But why would you want to be friends with anyone who didn’t want to be your friend? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I guess not,” I decided.
“You’re cool. Just wait until everyone figures it out, too. Okay?”
“Okay,” I smiled and watched Billy Putnam flick his wrist, sailing the frisbee high across our yard, right onto our roof where my father would have to climb a ladder to get it down on a Sunday morning.