My siblings and I were raised in a small, rural village. Poor kids were poor, middle class kids were rich. Lewis was one of the poor kids.
Lewis lived in a run down house with his mother, and wore a uniform that consisted of a stained t-shirt, threadbare corduroy pants and a pair of tattered sneakers. Lewis had no advantages – not even when it came to personality. His greasy hair and fascination with potato bugs made him an easy target for kids on the school ground. God help you if you’re different in middle school.
Lewis stood only one notch above Becky Fowler on the social ladder. She found herself on the bottom rung because she had chickens living in her bedroom and there was a rumour that she wandered the town graveyards at night. My parents had long-stressed the importance of equality and inclusion, but I was far too meek to argue the finer points of playground equality with the cool kids. Stand up for a booger-eater even once, and you’ll find yourself excommunicated too. Instead, I hid behind my classmates on the sidelines with my insides churning.
Girls are born with a sixth sense when it comes to boys. Lewis stared at us a little too long even in the sixth grade. I got the same vibe from the man two streets over that everyone in town insisted belonged in jail for reasons I wasn’t privy to. But a special sort of conflict arises when you’ve been raised to believe in the importance of treating everyone the same.
I was in the drugstore with my father when he approached me briskly from the other end of the aisle.
“You’re going for a milkshake with Lewis.”
The words took a moment to register. What did he say? Did he say LEWIS?
“No, Dad!” I whisper-shouted, looking for the nearest exit. “NO. Why?!” I could see Lewis pacing in the magazine section by the front door.
“He asked if he could take you, and I said yes. He told me he saved up his money, and it’s just a milkshake, so you’re going.” My dad gave me a look that said: no kid of mine is going to be a snob. It was like he hadn’t even noticed that Lewis was still parting his hair in the centre.
“You’ll walk home after. Take this just in case,” he said, handing me some money. “Have fun!”
I walked toward Lewis as if I were about to be executed.
When you live in a goddamned village, nothing goes unnoticed. The Sundry Shop was right next to the drugstore, but it felt like a ten mile parade down Main Street. The women who worked behind the counter watched us, probably thinking we were perfectly adorable, Lewis and I, sitting on our stools, sipping their signature milkshakes. They were probably congratulating themselves on how it takes a village to raise kids and all. I bet it never occurred to Ethel and Myrna that I wanted to drop dead right then and there.
I don’t recall much of my conversation with Lewis that afternoon. Surely there were references to bug collecting and the trinkets on the store shelves behind us. The Sundry Shop was always well stocked with bridge pads and ceramic kittens, and the sound of knickknacks being engraved would have served as part of the ambiance. I remember staring at the marbled pattern on the countertop, memorizing the markings. And I remember wishing Lewis would stop staring equally hard at the side of my face.
“How was it?” my father asked when I got home.
I made it perfectly clear that I never wanted to speak of it again. My father obliged.
I didn’t see much of Lewis in high school, but stories about him had a way of spreading like a scabies outbreak at a high school. One day Andy grabbed me by the arm as I passed his locker and said, “So Lewis got hit in the face with a basketball last night and then his mother carried him off the court in her arms.”
“Lewis is on the basketball team?” I was in shock. I mean, Lewis’ legs were skinnier than mine. “Is he any good?” I suddenly recalled an announcement made at the beginning of the school year which enthusiastically stated: If you can walk, you can play for the senior boy’s basketball team! Tryouts in the big gym at 2:15 pm!
“Jesus, that’s not the point,” Andy moaned. “Listen to me: Lewis stopped a basketball with his face. He dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes.”
I wondered if Lewis was still into potato bugs.
“So there he is, laying on the floor and we hear his mother, like, HEAR her stomping across the gym, and she’s yelling, ‘LOOOOOWIS!'” Andy reenacted the scene in slow motion, arms outstretched, eyes open wide as he mouthed LOOOOOWIS.
“We couldn’t believe it was happening,” he said, shaking his head. “Everyone’s just standing there, and when she gets to him, she scoops him up into her arms like he’s nothing. She carried him out of the gym like a newborn frickin’ baby.”
Lewis’ mother was an impressive woman. Built like a mac truck, and probably capable of carrying a full grown heifer in her arms should it be required.
“So, this happened at a game? Not a rehearsal?” I asked.
“PRACTICE. Jesus. But it was a game. Shit, everyone was there.”
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“Yah, I think so.”
“Still… it’s all over for him now,” I guessed.
Andy nodded. “I think that ship sailed when he pooped his pants in the cafeteria, but yes. There’s no coming back from this.” His face brightened. “Wait! Didn’t you date him?”
“One milkshake, Andy. It was one milkshake.”
After high school, our graduating class spread and divided like the organisms we studied in biology class. Many of us left town for university, others headed west for work. Sometimes, with distance and the passage of time, comes the understanding that we have misjudged the people of our youth. Other times, not so much.
“Hey, remember when you dated Lewis?” my friend Sherrie asked. We were standing in my parents’ kitchen.
“It was ONE MILKSHAKE IN GRADE SIX.”
“Right,” Sherrie said. “So he called me the other day. Heard I was home for the summer. It was weird, since I haven’t spoken to him since what? Grade 11?”
“Probably 12,” I said.
“Yah, probably,” she agreed. “He did that thing where he wouldn’t tell me who it was, and insisted I guess over and over again. Ben? No! Sean? No! Jeff? Nope, guess again!” She rolled her eyes. “After five minutes of that he finally gave up and told me. I hate when people do that.”
“God awful,” my mother said.
“So, what’s he been up to?” I asked.
“Yes,” my father chimed in cheerily, “what has Lewis been up to?”
“Well,” she continued, “we talked about school and stuff, and then he asked me to mail him some pictures of myself in a bathing suit, so I ended the call pretty quickly after that.”
I looked at my father. His face assumed an expression of horror similar to the one he wore when he found out how much a Cabbage Patch Kid was going to cost him in 1983. Lewis was immediately excommunicated, and my father made it quite clear that he never wanted to speak of him again. I was happy to oblige.