Earlier that year, prior to getting run over by some fish-eyed old man in a Dodge Dart, I slipped from beneath the chore-heavy thumb of my mother by taking on a paper route. It took easing into—a little leeway here, some extra time there—before freedom from adult rules and the dawn of my delinquency made itself known to me. I found that on my own the world became available, and the intoxicating potential of doing whatever the hell I wanted had me drunk with wildness. If I felt like setting a fire or stealing some cigarettes, smoke trailed in my wake. My pockets stayed full of the things my parents wouldn’t or couldn’t give me and I reveled in the feeling. Disobedience showed me an isolated area where rules and laws are abstracts rather than chains and I liked it. Little did I know this sort of life has more people trying to escape its influence than run into its embrace.
On my way to the outer limits of what can be considered acceptable behavior, I met a girl who would serve as my first wake up call. Initially, it was more of a nod in the direction of another human being than any real introduction, but it was enough acknowledgement to remember. It occurred in school during band practice – I was an offbeat snare drummer with little talent or patience and more interest in the lighter in my pocket; she played the trumpet, her prosthetic right arm ending in a hook that held the instrument in place.
If we shared other classes I don’t remember, ours was a separate existence. While most kids at school fit beneath the labels jock, prep, geek or skater, Krissy and I were outsiders. My status as such was a choice, hers was not. Where I preferred to be alone or hang out with a couple of guys from another school, Krissy’s deformity and natural shyness automatically detached her from other kids. When we finally got to know one another it was a unique experience beyond the halls of junior high, free from peers who ridicule the smallest difference or eccentricity, making life more difficult than puberty and social awkwardness already did.
The paper route was a miserable little job that paid in tips from stingy old French Canadians who retired in Maine, and the bits of time I could steal for myself. Fridays were the worst because the papers were thick with inserts and I had to slow down to collect the weekly fee. At one apartment, in a building that stank of rotten cabbage and soiled diapers, I knocked on the door but nobody answered. “Times Record! It’s Friday, Mrs. Griffin!” The door was yanked open, surprising me, but not nearly as much as Krissy in a t-shirt and jeans, her prosthetic arm absent. She looked naked without it and I stared at the soft flesh of her stump, also realizing the baggy sweatshirts she wore hid a quickly developing figure. She rolled her eyes, went and got the money, then handed it to me. Struggling for something to witty, I said, “I didn’t know you live here.”
“Well now you do” she said and slammed the door.
Thus our first conversation was brief, so when less than an hour later I bumped into Krissy at the library (one of the few places I was allowed to be unsupervised) I was ready. Curtis Memorial is a small place compared to some libraries, but a lot of kids went there to research projects or attend one of the reading programs. For me, the library was a convenient alibi to do as I wanted; Krissy used it to escape the tiny apartment she shared with her mother’s current boyfriend. She looked up and shook her head when I walked over. “Go away.”
“It’s a free place.” I grabbed a magazine from the rack, dropped it on the table and sat across from her, unwilling to give in. She wore the hook, which seemed infinitely more useful than the stiff plastic hand her mother made her wear. Krissy hated both prosthetics, but unlike me she was obedient. She saw I wasn’t going to budge and her scowl softened.
“Don’t you have some homework or something?” She watched me pull a silver Zippo lighter from my pocket and play with it. She reached for it and, failing that, held out her hand.
“Sure,” I said, closing my hand around the prize. “It’s at home. I’m on break. You know those papers get heavy after a while.” I wrinkled my nose at her extended hand, then the lighter, not liking the idea of it leaving my possession. She smiled and I caved.
“You really shouldn’t play with these things around all this paper.” I watched her open it and look around, then close it and slide the lighter back across the table.
“Keep it.” I was delirious and didn’t know why I said it. I guess she seemed as fascinated with the shiny thing as me and I liked her smile. It wasn’t something she did in school, like go without her baggy clothes or prosthetic limb, and she seemed more human.
Krissy’s hand froze on the Zippo, then curled around it and put it in her pocket. “You’re not so bad after all. Now what are you gonna do?”
“No. I mean here at the library. It’s obvious you’re not reading,” she said, and almost smiled.
I looked at her, wondering what she meant when it dawned on me Krissy was interested in talking. So we talked about band practice, teachers, and the kids we knew until I was almost late getting home. Stealing another lighter was the furthest thing from my mind.
After a few encounters like this I got up the nerve to ask Krissy about her arm—it seemed the only way to handle the elephant crouched in the corner rather than pretending it wasn’t a big part of her life. She glared at me, suspicious, but knew enough to understand I would not make fun of her or spread rumors.
She shrugged one shoulder, “There’s nothing too dramatic about it. My mom smoked a lot when she was pregnant and it stopped my arm from growing. I’m lucky it was only my arm.” She said, “It’s not a big deal anymore. I’m used to it.” I asked to touch the stump and she put the hook in my face, threatening. “Don’t get any funny ideas, boy.”
I don’t know if we were quite friends, though we generally like one another in an offhand way. Over a period of about two years, we talked when our paths crossed, but it was about simple stuff: complaints about teachers, parades and marching, and school projects. There were some unspoken things, like our feelings for each other, that we simply left alone. She believed I would end up in prison one day and said as much, something my father would echo a few years later when he kicked me out of the house. I scoffed and teased she would be married out of high school, wishing I had the courage to tell her what I really felt. We were both right to some degree. Where Krissy’s life continued on in normalcy, mine spiraled out of control. I fooled myself into thinking there would be no long term consequences for my lying, stealing and defiance. Where I should have felt remorse for thwarting my parents there was only a sense of vindication. Krissy’s appearance in my life and her reaction to my open rebellion was a warning, a sign post at the edge of delinquency that travel beyond this point would be difficult to return from. I ignored it as I would many other warnings, and viewed our connection as nothing more than a chance meeting on the fringe of society where so many people are eventually lost.