I was one of the smallest kids in class, and the youngest, but Marion was a bit smaller than me.
We looked at each other. He shrugged. I shrugged back. He offered himself to me with a smile. "Wanna trade?" he asked. I accepted his proposal. He handed his coat to me. I handed mine to him.
I was happy that he had smiled at me and that his smile had made me smile back. And I was relieved that I hadn't had to suffer the humiliation of being the only one wearing his own coat out on the playground. From that instant on, Marion and I were best friends.
Now that I was paying attention to him I saw that he was someone I liked to look at ... he was a little bit like a doll. I liked to play with dolls. This new doll had wavy brown hair and brown eyes. He had what the French call un grain de beaute nigh his right cheekbone. Later, on a couple of occasions, I was to witness adults swooning over him, saying how cute he was, how wavy his hair was.
For the first time I now looked forward to going to school; prior to this I had been withdrawn and timid and uneasy; indeed I had spent the entire first school year concentrating on not making eye contact with a certain kid named Jackie Smythe. He had failed the year before so was repeating the grade. He was a year and a half older than me and much bigger than me and I'd heard that he was really mean and I was afraid he'd beat me up if I looked at him.
But now that I had a friend I would get to school early enough that I'd be waiting out front when school bus #5, with its precious cargo, pulled up. I'd scan the long line of windows until I saw my doll's face searching for mine. Big smile ... big smile.
Eventually, once a week or so, I was allowed at the end of the school day to board the school bus with Marion and stay overnight on the Boggs Farm. It was six or seven miles east of town on Highway 25. My friend and I played in the barn, explored the woods and fields, did some chores, sneaked matches out of the house and smoked straw cigarettes. Then it'd come time to sit down to Dorothy Boggs' sumptuous suppers with Marion's two older brothers and his dad. It was always the best of times on the farm ... everything was new, everything was interesting, everything was fun; being six and seven and eight and nine and then ten years old was good.
After supper Dorothy Boggs listened to the news on the radio as she cleaned up the kitchen and put things away. Sometimes Old Man Boggs would reach for a deck of cards or the set of dominoes or the checkerboard. He'd banter away, telling stories, asking us questions, teasing us, and beating us at all the games.
Eventually Marion and I would be told that it was time to go upstairs and get into our pajamas and go to bed. The upstairs of the house was not heated and it was cold. We dove into the cold bedclothes. We shivered and talked softly and laughed and cuddled into one another's warmth. Country nights were dark and quiet. We felt good. We were happy.
On a December day when we had reached the fifth grade, Marion was not on the bus. One or the other of his older brothers spread the word that he was sick. Then the next day he was still absent, and the next day, and the next. When I looked over at his empty desk in the classroom the space took on the character of a hole. It was a hole whose bottom I could not see. His absence made the days spoiled and empty.
After several days of Marion's absence, two words rose in the chatter at recess. One word was brain. The other word was tumor.
Shortly after these words became familiar the teacher, Mr. Witham, came and told me that I was to leave class as someone wanted to speak to me. Old Man Boggs was waiting in the hallway. He said he had just come from talking to my mother and that it was okay with her for me to get on bus #5 after school to go visit Marion.
"But it's not going to be like before," Earl Boggs said. "Marion can't talk anymore. And he can't walk. He can only walk when he's helped. But I think he'd like to see you and I think it'll be good for him, and you could tell him what your class is learning. That way maybe he can keep up. I've got your pajamas in the car. I've told the bus driver you'll be getting on his bus. You know which one it is now, right?"
I shook my head yes.
I sat on the couch in the living room next to my stricken-silent friend. He stares at me impassively. I tell Marion what Mr. Witham had taught us that day. And I try really really hard to think of other things ... anything ... to say. It's hard. He doesn't take his eyes off me but he doesn't respond to anything I say; there is just the blank expression on his face.
It was decided that I would get on the bus one night a week to go and sit and talk to Marion. Week after week. His expression never changed. I told him that, as usual, I had won the weekly spelling bee which meant that I got a quarter from Mr. Witham to buy a strawberry malt down at Pete's Restaurant. I told him if we had had a letter from anyone, maybe from my oldest brother who'd gone off to college. I told him what we'd been studying in class. I told him everything I could think of but there simply was not a lot to tell; I had no imagination to turn myself into a storyteller. Sometimes I'd bring things to show him -- a marble, books with pictures, an arrowhead I'd found in the alley next to our house, any sort of thing to pass even just an additional minute or maybe two additional minutes. But, no matter what I said to him, no matter what I pulled from my pocket to show him, Marion just stared at me with the face that never indicated comprehension ... the face that did not indicate anything except perhaps that he liked to look at me ... the face that did not smile, did not frown, did not change. Minutes moved slowly. Then they moved painfully slowly. Frankly, it was tough.
Eventually I'd go upstairs to sleep. Marion now slept downstairs.
One evening I had money in my pocket -- a fifty-cent piece, two quarters, two dimes, and a nickel. It was money that the next day I was to give my teacher to pay for a week's worth of hot lunches in the school cafeteria. Five lunches for a buck and a quarter ... the special welfare rate you got if your dad was dead, as mine had been since the previous July.
I held up a dime for Marion to see. No response.
I held up a nickel. More empty stare.
I held up a quarter. Nothing.
I held up the half-dollar.
At this, amazingly, a great big happy smile lit up Marion's face! I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I put the coin back into my pocket. His smile went away. I pulled out the coin again and the big happy smile came back. It works! It works!
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I called to Mrs. Boggs out in the kitchen to come and look. She stepped into the living room and I showed her my fifty-cents worth of miracle.
She smiled but she didn't seem as thrilled as I was that I'd found a way to make Marion smile. I don't know -- maybe, for her, a smile was not enough of the old Marion ... or maybe Marion sometimes smiled when I was not there, and it was nothing new to her ... or maybe the doctors had told her that nothing was going to bring all of him back -- or something like that -- and she knew about a hopelessness that I didn't know about. Whatever, it puzzled me for years when I'd recall that it hadn't thrilled her like it had thrilled me. She went back to her cooking.
That night, when I was lying in bed waiting for sleep, I wondered how I could get my hands on a silver dollar. If a fifty-cent piece could make Marion smile, who knew what a shiny silver-dollar might do?
I hadn't managed yet to get my hands on a silver-dollar when Marion died on March 24th, 1950.
The boy that I loved was dead. My lover was dead. It made no sense. Nor, except as feelings, did the words love and lover have any meaning to me; they were not words I would have thought of in thinking of another person.
They waked him in the living room. He was wearing a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. He looked scrubbed and beautiful and serene. Banks of flowers covered the casket below the hinged-open half of its top. A wide blue ribbon, draped amongst the blossoms, was imprinted in fancy gold script: Son ... Brother ... Friend.
A Protestant church of some sort set at the gentle curve of the highway just a mile down from the Boggs farm. The funeral was there on a mild March day but the church was so crowded that it seemed like a hot summer's day. They'd dug a hole in the cemetery behind the church. They put Marion and his little coffin in it.
The blue banner that bore the gold scripted Son ... Brother ... Friend glistened in the forefront of my mind for weeks after the funeral. I didn't say much and I didn't know what I could do except just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually the banner came less frequently to the front of my mind. Summer came. And then the sixth grade came. The banner hardly came to mind at all then ... but, still, 60 years later, it appears now and then.