The last time I spoke to Melvin, who is dead now, he was walking away toward the World War One memorial that stood just past right field. He was surrounded by his friends who were saying things to him that I couldn’t hear. But because they were his friends I suppose it was something about why the race hadn’t been fair and how I must have cheated somehow.
Maybe the sun was in his eyes or the grass was wet. Or maybe he didn’t have on the right shoes.
Whatever the reason, he lost.
I didn’t know then that it was the last time that Melvin would ever speak to me. We never know those types of things. Because if I’d known I would have paid more attention. And maybe I would have thought of something to say to him. Instead, all that I remember is that he turned to look at me as he walked away, with a wounded look as if I had stolen something from him. And I had.
But when we were still in grade school, when we used to play tag, he was never it because he was just too fast. I don’t remember how the game started or how we decided who was “it”, but no one ever tried to tag Melvin, so after a while he quit playing all together and would only watch us, laughing from the side like an amused parent.
He would rather have played I’m sure, but it just made more sense to tag Joey who was fat and couldn’t catch anybody or Tim who fell whenever he tried to change direction.
There was no point in trying to tag Melvin. He moved as easily as a breath.
When Melvin died his obituary did not say any of that. It said where he worked, what clubs he belonged to and where he went to church.
“He was one of those Jones boys,” someone said at his funeral. And that said something about him. “You remember,” another remarked. “He was that tall quiet boy that bagged groceries at the Food Mart.”
And that said something else.
We become our differences rather than what makes us alike.
But in the first grade, where I first met Melvin, we were all the same.
We were wide-eyed and unaware; carrying crayons, paste and scissors with round edges. We all wore stiff new clothes that felt like costumes and we walked like we expected the floor to give way and swallow us. Our faces were scrubbed to a shine and our hair was slick and combed into perfect lines.
We had no idea what to expect. And none of us knew that our lives were changing forever.
We were away from our mothers for the first time for one thing and being asked to sit still all day in straight rows with one thing to do after another.
After having spent the first five years of our lives doing whatever we wanted for the most part and free to squirm about as much as we liked; now we were constantly being reminded to sit up straight and keep quiet and stay in line.
School it turns out, was mostly about sitting up straight, keeping quiet and staying in line. We got into groups a lot too and that is where the trouble began.
Everything was new to us and so we didn’t notice the things that would separate us eventually, like who dressed well and who always looked sloppy no matter how hard they tried not to. We didn’t see who was tall and who was pretty and who was not. We were too busy trying to remember all the instructions and where we were supposed to sit and when we were supposed to stand.
We would get in line to go from one place or another all day long and if we happened to wander off, someone would appear right away and ask what group we were in. All of that was new too and so most of the time we didn’t know the answer.
“You are in group seven,” they would say sternly. “Remember that.”
It was Mrs. Brown, a short stocky gray-haired woman that smelled like chicken soup and wore dresses the color of an overcast winter day, that decided where we belonged and began to point out our differences. She decided just by looking at us what we were and what we would eventually become.
First she put us into two groups and called one the bluebirds and the other the redbirds.
We began to compare.
And because we found out we were not all the same, we had to figure what we were.
Part of it was easy.
Someone was going to be the smart kid and another was going to be the short kid. There was going to be the skinny kid and the kid with a funny laugh. There was the quiet girl and the boy that talked all the time. Others came later. There was the poet, the troubled and the overly concerned. There was the kid that couldn’t let things go and the lucky and the fearless. Melvin it turned out was the fastest.
And it stayed that way until the race.
The race was John’s idea, who was the same as us in the first grade too.
He became the right tackle on the junior high football team eventually because he was the biggest and the strongest and also because he couldn’t move very fast. All you have to do if you’re the right tackle is block whoever happens to line up in front of you which requires no speed at all. And since the person right in front of you isn’t trying to run away; it also doesn’t require much thought.
But before we played football in junior high, John used to carry the ball once in a while when we played in Ricky’s back yard on Sundays. He even got to be the quarterback occasionally. No one kept track. Somebody would yell “I’m the quarterback,” when the game began and that would be it. It all came out even and no one cared very much.
And wherever someone scored, the other team would have to walk to the other end of the field for the kickoff. “Losers walk!” the scoring team would yell in unison and the other team had to take the walk of shame as penalty for their incompetence.
Things kept changing.
By the time we got to Junior High School, instead of Mrs. Brown it was old men with big bellies and whistles around their necks that told us what we were going to be and how we were going to play. We stopped playing in Ricky’s yard altogether and instead we practiced every night after school.
And the biggest and the strongest played the line and the fastest carried the ball or threw it or got to catch it.
But John, who was not only slow running but also slow to understand most things, thought he was fast or could be if he really wanted to be and because he was a football player and Melvin was not, figured he could outrun him.
But Melvin had always been the fastest and so there had to be a race.
It began like most things, with a challenge.
Mrs. Brown who is either dead or around one hundred and ten years old, asked a few of us to read books about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. Then she put us into groups. We didn’t all get to read to her individually. And we didn’t get a few weeks to work the whole thing out.
Maybe she wanted to let us read individually but since there were thirty of us, she just didn’t have that kind of time. So she put some of us into groups and decided what we were going to be, before we’d even read a word, based on how smart we looked to her.
I’m not sure how someone that has trouble reading looks, but she was a trained educator with years of experience and so she must have had some way of knowing, the way someone just looks like trouble or like they are up to something.
The groups were called the redbirds and the bluebirds; birds that fed at the feeder just outside the always closed windows. They were names intended not to offend and to disguise their meaning. But we were young, not stupid and so we all knew the bluebirds were the good readers and the redbirds were not. The bluebirds sat next to windows reading independently while the redbirds kept going over vowels and sounding out words.
Mrs. Brown meanwhile sat in a chair too small for her, her butt pouring over the sides like ten pounds of potatoes shoved into a five-pound bag.
By the seventh grade no one had to point out our groups anymore; we just went to them naturally like leaves in a pond gather together without thought or recourse. And so after lunch when the kids all went outside to get some air before the bell rang, there were groups all over the place.
The pretty girls sat together on the bleachers posing for whoever happened to be looking. They posed for the boys they liked and posed for the boys they didn’t like. They posed for each other and sometimes posed for no one in particular; but just to stay in practice and in case someone happened to look.
The smart kids sat near the dugouts of the ballfield looking very smart. They read books or worked ahead even if they didn’t have to. Girls that weren’t pretty and boys with funny noses or eyes too close together were quiet and sat near trees where they tried to draw no more attention to themselves than God had already done.
And the popular kids and the brave ones and the biggest that thought they had nothing to be afraid of walked in the middle of the outfield.
Still to separate us further and make sure everyone knew who we were; all the football players were required to wear their football jerseys on the day of the game. We walked together on the infield and the group that was Melvin’s walked there too.
Melvin’s group was the kids that never made it out of the redbird group. They were the kids that lived near the railroad tracks on the east side of town and wore hand me downs. Teachers every year put them into the same group although the names and the purpose of the groups changed. They were the kids that never raised their hands and always were on the wrong end of the curve.
Like most things, it happened by chance.
John was late that day and happened to be passing Melvin’s group running when one of them said, “must not have to run very fast to play football.” Which got his attention right away.
“I’m faster than any of you guys,” John said sticking his chest out. He was always sticking his chest out for one reason or another.
“You couldn’t outrun the girls,” one of Melvin’s friends said.
Like most things it escalated quickly.
One guy says this and the other says that and the next thing you know you’re telling your wife that her mother looks like a foot. Which is true and everyone knows it but things are never about the truth.
John couldn’t out run most of the girls and everyone knew it. But it wasn’t something that needed saying.
“Melvin’s the fastest kid in school,” someone shouted. “He’s always been the fastest.”
All of that was true too. He had always been the fastest. And because Melvin had always been the fastest we assumed it was still true even though we didn’t play tag anymore and even if he was a redbird and lived in a trailer outside of town.
He could move like a breath.
Still, one thing led to another and soon Melvin and John were at the starting line which someone had drawn on the infield. About fifty feet away the pretty girls who had nothing better to do marked the finish line. Besides providing a service they found it was a perfect opportunity to pose.
Melvin stood at the starting line two heads shorter than John with the look of a man that has bet on a horse knowing all the others are lame. John meanwhile looked like a marine about to take a hill.
When Bill who was the most honest yelled go, Melvin was at full speed in five steps. Meanwhile John looked like a man running in sand; his face contorted in effort and feet moving like pistons but going nowhere.
The race was over quickly. John finished a miserable second.
Melvin’s friends celebrated. “He’s still the fastest,” one of them yelled and jumped up and down as if he’d won the lottery.
That’s when Rich, who was the most logical said, “No he’s not.”
I was fast in the seventh grade. I’m not fast now because things change and like being pretty or strong, physical things never last very long. Eventually age, genetics or too many falls change what was. But in the seventh grade I was fast.
“He’s the fastest,” Rich said pointing at me.
Flush with their recent victory Melvin’s friends scoffed. All things seemed possible to them now and once again one thing led to another. There was not much to do that was interesting in Junior High School and so another race seemed like a good idea.
And so the starting line formed again and Bill said go again and just like before, halfway to the finish line the race was over. But this time it was different for Melvin.
He was ten steps behind me halfway through the race and didn’t even finish. There didn’t seem to be any point.
Unlike the race before, there was no shouting or pats on anyone’s back. It was what it was we all seemed to say and order had been restored. Everyone just went back to doing what they’d been doing before, becoming whatever they would eventually become. And Melvin surrounded by his friends looked back at me once and then walked away.
We were separated again and as it turns out we would never be the same.
“Losers walk,” somebody said and then the bell rang calling us back into the school where we went about the rest of the day.