I was nine years old the first time I picked up Roger Kahn’s seminal classic, The Boys of Summer. It was a paperback edition, the cover of which had been laminated by the City of Downey Public Library.
I was in Downey, California at the time because my two younger brothers and I had been dropped on the doorstep of our Aunt Catherine’s house in the wake of our parents’ split. Our father was drunk and drug addicted and, though we didn’t know it at the time, beginning to show the first manifestations of the schizophrenia that would plague him the rest of his life.
It was September of 1984, when he snatched my two brothers and me from the driveway at our grandparents’ (our mom’s parents) home and drove us away. His family – and the home we’d known for the first part of our lives – was south, in El Monte, CA. Our grandparents’ home, where we’d been for the past year, was on the central California coast, in Nipomo (not too far from Pismo Beach, if you know the state).
“We can’t go south,” he said to me. “The police will be waiting for us there.”
So for a week or so we hid out in motels in the San Luis Obispo area. What I remember of that time was him on the edge of the hotel bed, head in his hands, phone on his lap. My mom had left him for someone else. My brothers and I watched a lot of tv and ate a lot of cold pizza.
There was one night in there that my mom was there with us, and she was sick; feverish and delirious.
“You stabbed me in the back,” he said.
She lay under the cheap bed covering, face pale, sweating, eyes twitching under lids wrenched closed.
“I don’t have any knives,” she whispered.
Maybe I dreamed this, I don’t know.
When we left San Luis Obispo, my dad headed to his sister’s house. He left my youngest brother and me there and took our other brother back to Nipomo – dad couldn’t bear to see my mother’s eyes and dark hair reflected in his second son.
I don’t know exactly how long we stayed at Aunt Catherine’s, but it was long enough that we were enrolled in school. Weeks, a couple of months, maybe. It was during this time, during a field trip to the City of Downey Public Library that I picked up The Boys of Summer.
At first, it was the Dodgers on the cover, and Willie Mays, that attracted me. [note: I tried to find an image of that paperback edition I remember so well online, but haven’t seen it yet. It had a collage of Dodgers memorabilia on the cover, and I remember distinctly a picture of Willie Mays, too.]
But after reading the first 40 pages or so I realized that this book wasn’t about the Dodgers. It was about a kid. A kid who loved the Dodgers. A kid like me who loved the Dodgers. A kid like me on the cusp of maturity, struggling to assert his independent personality but drawn by nature and love to flawed, though well-meaning, parents.
It is in the third section of the first chapter of the book that the narrator, Roger Kahn, describes the body of their family maid as “broad and functional.” She’s Austrian, about thirty-five.
“I’m a woman aren’t I?” is her self-assessment.
This is the scene – a bath scene, a reminiscence on the innocence of those first sexual impulses Kahn as a thirteen-year-old felt when invited by the maid, to watch her bathe – this is the scene where I stopped reading, when I was nine.
I carried that book around with me the rest of the time I stayed at my Aunt’s house. It was mysterious and terrifying, but compelling and alluring to me. I had thought it was going to be a book about the Dodgers of the 1950’s, the team my dad and my grandpa talked about with reverence. Jackie, Pee Wee, Duke – those names that were canonized in Dodger lore. I thought that’s what I’d be reading about.
But up to this point in the book, it wasn’t, and I was afraid of where the story might go.
TO BE CONTINUED