At the sound of his alarm, Robert nearly fell off the edge of his bed.
He’d been teaching himself Latin when he nodded off to the music of amo, amas, amat echoing in his ears. The discipline of conjugating Latin verbs would’ve been torture for most kids, but to Robert the letters and words sung as sweetly as any backyard bird, each utterance a tiny door leading him to a past world so different from his own.
Besides Latin verbs, Robert was thinking about his name. How formal it was. Kids had tried to call him Bob, or Bobby, or Rob, but his mother made sure the Robert stuck. It was her father’s name, and, as she never failed to mention, “No one ever called him Bob. Nicknames are for pets.”
He wondered if a name actually changed a person. He pictured a kid named Rob, fifteen pounds lighter than him, running track or sinking a three-pointer to win the big game, a kid with a flat stomach who Dory Scheff and her crew would admire as he swaggered past their lockers. He wondered if you could be that kind of guy and still be interesting because, in spite of his looks, Robert knew he was “interesting.”
“There are two kinds of people in this world,” his mother said, “those who read and those who don’t read,” and Robert had certainly read. He had devoured novels by authors other kids hated. He read biographies, mythologies, sports books, science books, and even a book on the invention of dirigibles.
Could you be this imaginary Rob and still be able to carry on intelligent conversations with other “interesting” people? The only people Robert found really, really interesting were his best friends, Barney Roth and Rishi Patil.
No chance of being cool with that name. But Barney and Rishi and he got along. They had their own lunch table since fifth grade, not because they were considered losers but because no one knew what to do with them. A kid might ask Barney, “What’s up?” and he was more than capable of quoting a price from the Stock Exchange. Or if he was in a real bad mood and wanted to bust someone, he’d say, “What’s up? The Carbon Index because of that gas guzzling Land Rover your dad just bought,” or, “The ticket price to La Traviata,” which would make kids run off to the Internet to see if they’d been insulted.
It was one thing to be smart, but another to be so smart that only two or three other people knew what you were talking about, so that your jokes went totally unnoticed or appeared to be insults, so that your sense of humor got you into deep shit.
And that’s what happened to Robert about a three weeks before his alarm jolted him from his nap. It started when he ran into Campbell McVeigh one night outside of the hardware store where he went to buy plastic for a miniature hover craft he’d been building. Campbell usually looked like that good-looking, confident Rob who Robert imagined himself being, though, at that moment, he seemed depressed. He was sitting on a curb, and nothing could hide that he was having a bad night: not his wavy blond hair, clipped perfectly to land a tenth of an inch above his collar; not his electric blue eyes; and not those annoyingly adorable dimples God had blessed him with.
So Robert was rather stunned when Campbell said, “What’s up, Hammersmith?”
Robert thought about saying the “Carbon Index,” but he was more politic than Barney, not to mention it would be bush-league to steal Barney’s material.
Campbell smiled, those two dimples sinking deeper into his cheeks. “I said, What’s up?”
“Just buying a few sheets of plastic.”
“Yeah, for a hover craft.”
Campbell started to laugh.
“A miniature hover craft.”
“I wish that’s all I had to think about.”
All he had to think about? Did he have any idea how hard it was to make a hover craft?
“Yeah,” was all Robert could counter with.
Campbell stood and slowly shook his head, then raised his hands over his head, as if stretching. He was a foot taller than Robert. “Would you mind walking with me, Maurice?” he said.
“My name’s Robert.”
“Sorry, I thought it was Maurice. I’m probably thinking about your friend, the tall Pakistani dude who’s always in the Science Olympiad.”
“His name’s Rishi, and he’s Indian.”
“Well, I know there’s some ridiculously smart kid named Maurice somewhere.”
“That would probably be a safe bet.”
Campbell looked startled. “You making fun of me?”
That certainly wouldn’t be hard, Robert thought, but he decided not to be too smart that night.
“No,” he said. “I wasn’t making fun of you. I guess I’m just distracted.”
That response seemed to relax Campbell. “Would you mind walking with me, Maurice?”
Campbell rested a hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Sorry, it won’t happen again. I’m on my way to Rite Aid, and I have a problem you might be able to solve.”
A problem? Robert thought. What kind of problems do kids like Campbell McVeigh have? Jock itch? A pair of lost Wayfarers?
“There’s this girl,” Campbell said, “and, well, you know how it goes. One thing, then the next, and it looks like I’m going to need some condoms. The problem is I can’t buy them because my mother’s friend is the pharmacist, and they’re right under her nose.”
“Why don’t you go to the Rite Aid in Riverside?”
“Because I have to meet this girl right now,” Campbell said, winking. “Get my drift?”
Although Robert did, indeed, get Campbell’s “drift,” he knew absolutely nothing about condoms.
“So,” Campbell said, “when I saw you going into the hardware store, I thought, ‘Now there’s a smart dude who might be able to help.’”
Robert kept placing one foot after the other, walking mindlessly with Campbell, wondering if this was one of his dreams where, at any moment, some assassin would pop out of an alley and take him out. “Being smart doesn’t have anything to do with buying condoms,” he said.
“For some reason, Robert, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem.”
“Just a feeling.”
Robert knew exactly what accounted for that feeling. He knew that Campbell knew that when the counter person took one look at Robert, this short, slightly overweight kid with freckles and longish curly black hair, she’d think he was buying the condoms for someone else, maybe his older brother.
“You think you could do this for me, Robert? I’ll make it up to you. Promise.”
Robert’s first reaction was to tell Campbell to go to hell, but he was intrigued by the idea of being on an adventure with a guy like Campbell. He often thought the cool kids would like him if they ever took the time to know him, and here was his chance. No doubt, Campbell would tell everyone how Robert helped him to get laid. But Robert wanted more than that.
“Who’s the girl?” he said.
“Ah, come on, I can’t tell you that.”
“No name, no girl,” Robert said, enjoying his advantage.
“So you’re a tough little guy.”
Hey, why not? Robert thought.
“Dory Scheff,” Campbell said.
Robert tried to act unaffected but couldn’t stop his heart from plunging somewhere between his stomach and lower intestines. Since sophomore year Dory had been the face he had mentally transplanted onto his fantasy girls. This put him in a weird position. How could he buy the condoms, then go home and sleep soundly with the image of a dummy like Campbell mounting the main object of his desires?
So he was surprised to find himself five minutes later, clenching a twenty dollar bill Campbell had given him, while staring at dozens of brands of condoms dangling from a row of metal hooks. It was more disorienting than navigating the cereal aisle in the grocery store. So many brands and no way to know the best one without trying them all. There were latex condoms, others made from Polyisoprene (whatever that was). There were condoms that sped up or slowed down ejaculation. There was one brand with a “reservoir tip and a silky smooth and long lasting lubricant,” and another one you could put on with one hand. There were regular, large, and extra-large condoms, and even one that gave you a coupon for a vibrator.
Faced with such a mind-boggling variety, Robert was almost (almost) glad he was still a virgin. But he was also angry he’d put himself in this situation. To make matters worse, Heather James, a classmate and an acolyte at his church, was working the cash register. He knew he couldn’t look into those God-fearing blue eyes, while asking her to ring up a package of Durex Avanti Bare Latex Condoms. But, most of all, he was mad at Campbell, who was probably sitting on a promotional lawn chair outside the front door laughing his ass off.
And that’s when he got his idea to steal the box of the largest condoms available. It was a black box with “NINJA” printed boldly in gold on the outside. Under the “NINJA,” in smaller type, was written: “Be a Warrior,” and under that, “Extra Extra Large and Long Condoms.” He thought Campbell would like the warrior part but, with his huge ego, would never consider whether the condoms would fit.
Although Robert had never stolen anything before, a different Robert (maybe that Rob with the flat stomach) was in charge now, so he scanned the store to see if he was being watched before sliding the box into his pocket. Once it was hidden, he opened it with one hand and took out the three attached packets, leaving the box next to a display of protein bars. He bought a bar on his way out and even chatted with Heather James at the register about how the summer was almost here.
Outside, he handed the condoms to Campbell.
“Ninja,” Campbell said, looking at the packet. Then, “Warrior. I like that.” Followed by, “Why aren’t they in a box?”
“I stole them.”
Campbell looked around, as if waiting for the condom police to show up. “That took balls, dude.”
Robert sure didn’t feel very ballsy. In fact, just the opposite, as if he had somehow betrayed all the interesting, unattractive people all over the world, particularly those kids who had ever been called geeks or losers, the ones who sat home on Saturday nights watching old Twilight Zone episodes while the cool kids smoked dope and got laid.
“I owe you, Maurice,” was the last thing Campbell said to Robert before walking away.
“It’s Robert,” Robert said, but Campbell never heard him.
A few days later Robert was hanging out after school by the bike rack with Barney and Rishi. Barney was describing an old X-Files episode about an archangel who was sent to bring girls he’d fathered back to heaven. “He had to fry them with heavenly light before taking their souls,” Barney said. “Now that’s the kind of God I could believe in.”
“I remember that episode,” Rishi said. “But it wasn’t based on the Bible. It was from a story even the Church thinks is bogus.”
“You mean in contrast to the fact-based Garden of Eden story with the talking snake?”
“It was about love,” Robert said.
“What was?” Barney said.
“That episode. The angel loved the girls. He wanted to put them out of their pain.”
“So he fried them? I mean, there was smoke coming out of their eyes.”
The three of them would have argued all afternoon if not interrupted by the tennis team heading toward the courts, led by Campbell McVeigh. Robert had seen him a few times since he’d bought the condoms. He had expected him to say hi or at least to pat him on the back, but it seemed Robert’s plan had worked too well, and that Campbell had figured it out. Robert had told Barney and Rishi about the Extra Extra Large and Long Condoms, and had sworn them to secrecy, which was driving Barney nuts.
But that promise of secrecy was about to change.
At first, Campbell looked like he might pass harmlessly by, but then he veered off, stopping a few feet away.
“You guys having a good time?”
Rishi and Barney weren’t used to being talked to by kids like Campbell unless they were being insulted, so even Barney was speechless for a second.
“You knew about the condoms, didn’t you?” Campbell said.
“The condoms?” Robert said.
“You know what I’m talking about, Maurice.”
Robert played ignorant, and, for a second, he thought he might pull it off, but then Barney had to get cute. “His name’s Robert.”
“Maurice. Robert. What does it matter? You guys are almost invisible, anyway.”
“You mean like your penis?” Barney said.
“Cool it, Barney,” Robert said.
“You told these geeks?” Campbell said. “Anyone else know?”
“Relax, Campbell,” Robert said. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“More like a mismeasurement,” Barney said. “Dude, do you know the penis you have at eighteen is the one you’re stuck with for the rest of your life?”
“You’re in real fucking trouble, Maurice,” Campbell said to Robert.
“What’s with this guy?” Barney said. “He’s got the short-term memory of a squirrel.”
Robert almost laughed at that one, but the look on Campbell’s face told him it was best to play dumb.
As Campbell continued to glare at him, gripping his racket, Robert wondered if anyone had ever been murdered with such a weapon.
“Fuck all of you dinks,” Campbell said, then started to trot toward the tennis courts.
Barney was about to offer a reflection, probably on the word “dink,” when Robert said, “Shut up, Barney. You just made everything worse.”
“You mean you won’t be going to the prom with him? What’s up, Robert? That idiot can’t even get your name right. Why do you care what he thinks?”
“Barney’s got a point,” Rishi said.
“Oh, fuck you, Reesh,” Robert said.
“Totally unnecessary,” Rishi said.
Which got them all sniping at each other until they went their separate ways.
The next week was torture for Robert. Every time Campbell or one of his friends passed him in the hall, they’d bump him hard, trying to knock off his backpack. One time, Campbell, pretending to be helpful, picked up the backpack, but then swung it into Robert’s balls. Robert went to his knees, while a group of jocks laughed loudly. For the rest of the day, he found himself involuntarily twitching as he moved from class to class, wondering when the next attack would occur. He knew it was just a matter of time until Campbell cornered him somewhere and beat the hell out of him.
“We have to do something,” Barney said one day when he and Robert were sitting on a boat launch at Echo Pond, throwing tiny stones into the water.
“Hey, it was my fault.”
“You’re evolving, Barney. It only took two weeks to admit that.”
“Sorry, but I couldn’t stand listening to that asshole.”
“Whatever, dude, I think I’m going to have to ride it out until school ends.”
“No, that’s too long. It’s time for Muscle.”
Robert laughed. “You don’t really think that exists, do you? That’d make you as dumb as Campbell.”
All of senior year there was a rumor that some badass guys had started a club called Muscle, and for a price, they’d intimidate someone or smack them around, if necessary. Everyone knew one of those guys had to be Adam Igoe, but who’d ever publicly say that unless they wanted to get punched out.
“I’ve done some checking,” Barney said.
“You don’t let up, do you?”
“Just talk to Igoe. I told him you’d meet him at seven under that gazebo by the kid’s park.”
“Should I wear a disguise?”
“It’s up to you.”
“I was joking, Barney. What did you tell him?”
“Just general stuff.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said he’d been waiting a long time to hear from one of us. What do you think he meant by that?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m actually not.”
“He meant that we’re the kind of guys who get made fun of a lot.”
“Well, I don’t see that.”
“Yeah, you probably don’t.”
“Whatever, Maurice, it’s your call. Do you want to be in therapy the rest of your life, flinching every time you walk by some kid at college, or do you want to strike back?”
And so Robert found himself under the gazebo right before nightfall, arranging to pay Adam Igoe fifty dollars down to intimidate Campbell McVeigh, then fifty dollars a few weeks later if Robert was satisfied. Much to Robert’s surprise, the first payment was worth it, since Campbell had backed off. That’s why he was glad his alarm had woken him up. He owed Adam the remaining fifty dollars that night, and he was afraid to keep him waiting.
For early June it was hot. By the time Robert reached the gazebo the moon, almost full, had risen, a few stars taking their expected places in the sky. Adam was late, so Robert hoped he hadn’t messed up on the time. Normally, by 9 p.m. Robert’s town was as dead as Lindsay Lohan’s career, but red flashing lights and the wail of sirens filled the night. Cop cars went rushing by, and, for a moment Robert thought they might be coming for him. Three weeks ago, who would’ve thought he’d end up stealing condoms and hiring what amounted to a hit man?
Fortunately, the lights and wails disappeared down Spruce St. in the direction of Echo Pond. Before Robert could guess the reason for this unusual activity, he saw Adam Igoe exiting a wooded path and moving slowly toward the gazebo.
Adam wasn’t a tall dude, but he was solid. Barney called him “The Hulk” because he was so muscled that his arms and legs looked like thick intertwined ropes covered with a thin layer of skin. His head resembled a stripped skull—a chiseled appearance that was exaggerated by his shaved head. He was a running back on the football team, and Robert couldn’t imagine anyone being strong enough to tackle him. He had a strange habit of pursing his lips when annoyed, and he was doing that now. “You didn’t call them, did you?”
“If I had, they wouldn’t have driven past us.”
“You making fun of me?”
In fact, Robert wasn’t. It just seemed like the obvious answer. He wondered why all the guys he didn’t think were very interesting or bright always thought he, Barney, and Rishi were making fun of them.
“I’d never do that, dude,” Robert said.
Adam pursed his lips again. “I told you the last time not to call me dude. You stupid wangstas all make me sick.” He pointed to the bench on the gazebo and gestured for Robert to sit down. “Welcome back to my office.”
“It was a joke, jerk-off.”
If Adam thought it was a joke, then that was good enough for Robert, so he laughed and sat down, surprised when Adam joined him. Adam raised his hands from his lap and interlocked his fingers, sliding them slowly back and forth. Looking straight ahead, he said, “Campbell bothering you anymore?”
“So do you have the rest of the money?”
Robert handed Adam some bills, which Adam stuffed into his back pocket.
“I want you to know I don’t have anything against you,” Adam said.
“Yeah, you made that clear before.”
“I mean, you don’t piss me off or anything.”
“Before I go, I need to show you something.”
“Just follow me, okay?”
Robert shadowed Adam as he climbed down the gazebo and headed toward a path in the woods. He was glad he hadn’t pissed off Adam. He might end up being useful later.
“Where’re we going?” Robert said.
“Just a little farther,” Adam said, leading Robert a few paces into the woods.
When they stopped, Adam said, “Nothing personal,” and he punched Robert in the face.
Robert lay on the ground, too afraid to stand.
“You can get up,” Adam said. “I’m not going to hit you again.”
Robert stood and rubbed the area below his cheekbone.
“I made sure I didn’t hit you square in the eye or nose.”
“Why did you hit me at all?” Robert asked.
“Because Campbell paid me a hundred dollars to do it.”
“But I paid you, too.”
“I know, and I did what you wanted. Campbell isn’t bothering you, right?”
“Can I go now?”
“You going to the cops?”
That option had crossed Robert’s mind. “No,” he said.
“Why do you care?”
“I may seem like a dumb shit, but I’ve always wondered why people do things.”
“Like punching someone in the face?”
“No, I know why I did that.”
“If I don’t say why I’m not calling the cops, are you going to hit me again?”
“No. Believe it or not, I like you better than Campbell. For another twenty-five dollars, I’ll gladly kick his ass.”
“Like I said, you’ve never done anything to piss me off. He has.”
“I’m not telling anyone, Adam, because I’m afraid of you, and because I probably deserved to get punched for bothering with a jerk like Campbell.”
“Still, tell me if he hassles you. He knows I’m watching him.”
“I guess I’m supposed to say thanks.”
“You trying to be funny again?”
“I’m not feeling very funny right now.”
“Just one more thing.”
Robert was waiting for Adam to pull out a knife and stab him a few times. What was the going rate for that?
“What?” Robert asked.
“Part of the deal was that I had to say something before I left.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Campbell said to say, ‘Fuck you, Maurice, since you’ll never get the pieces of ass I’ve had, even if you have a dick that fits those shitty condoms.’ Remember, that’s coming from him, not me.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I won’t ask what he meant.”
“I appreciate that, too.”
Before Adam left, he held out his hand, and Robert shook it. “I’d put something on that cheek when you get home.” Then he turned and disappeared into the woods, seemingly unafraid of any wild animals or nutcases lurking there.
Robert waited a few minutes before starting his long walk home. On the way there, he rubbed his eye, periodically glancing behind him, pleased to see that Adam wasn’t following him. He wondered what Barney and Rishi would say about this bizarre turn of events, though he fancied the idea of looking like he’d been in a fight. He also knew that if Campbell hassled him again, Adam was waiting in the wings.
And for only twenty-five dollars.