Another Sad, Bizarre Chapter in Human History

Benjamin Markovits

I used to be friendly with a kid called Sam Bamburger, whose mother was the first woman I ever heard of to get divorced. Sam was about nine at the time and up to that point something of an all-American kid, except maybe shorter and paler. He had fair hair and a small nose and the kind of face that looked either innocent or cruel. Sam played shortstop on my Little League team and had the reputation among the fathers of being a prospect—if he grew, that is. He never grew much.

Hard to say how we became friends. He lived not far from me, just the other side of Speedway, in a small corner house that overlooked a park. The park had the nearest swimming pool—nearest, I mean, to me. I used to bike there in the summer and lock my wheels against the chain-link fence that surrounded the pool. Afterwards, when I was tired of swimming, I looked around for kids to play basketball with on the court next door. Sam’s house was close enough that we could run back for a ball if no one was playing, but that can hardly be how I got to know him in the first place. I remember feeling that I didn’t have much choice in the matter—in our friendship. Maybe he took me in a game of pickup, and together we held court for an afternoon. (I was already about a head taller than Sam.) Sam liked leading; I liked winning. 

Kids don’t really choose people, anyway. People are more or less thrust upon them. I do a lot of choosing now; it doesn’t mean that I like anybody more. I think it was Sam who got me to try out for Little League. I wasn’t very good at baseball, but I went along for the ride, and Sam liked giving me pointers. Which is probably how we became friends: him pointing things out and me saying, OK, I’ll try that next time.

After the divorce he started acting up in pretty harmless ways. At least at first. For example, he started what he called the gleek club. I don’t know if he invented gleeking, or where he got it from. Basically, gleeking was spitting, except the spit never touched your tongue or lips but streamed straight from the glands or ducts in the roof of your mouth. I guess it’s a pretty disgusting habit, which is why we did it, but it also involved getting control of a normally uncontrollable bodily function. And it didn’t do anybody any harm. We used to keep paper cups on our desk. After the bell rang we showed them to each other to see who had gleeked the most.

When Sam was eleven his mother got remarried to a computer programmer from Dubrovnik who taught at the university. The worst part about it, from Sam’s point of view, was that this guy had a son from a previous marriage who already went to our school. Sam called him Sputnik, since he sounded Russian and Sam didn’t know any other Russian words. The nickname stuck. Sputnik was one of those boys it’s almost impossible for other boys to like. He was tall for his age and had freckles, braces, and black hair that hung down to his collar. Every day he wore the same clothes to school: skinny gray pants, which he claimed were European, and a Windbreaker whose sleeve he used to suck on.

In retrospect I can see that he was one of the nicest kids you’d ever want to meet, but at the time it was hard for me to look past a few basic facts about him. He had a big Casio watch with a compass on it and sometimes, when he didn’t know what else to say, he would point to something in the distance and ask you what direction you thought it was. This was a game he was bound to win, and so I didn’t like playing it much. The game I liked was basketball, and the worst thing about Sputnik was this: whenever he got the ball, no matter where he happened to be on court, he used to turn to the basket and shoot. You were lucky if he hit the rim; most of the time the ball went straight out of bounds. If you asked him why he did it, he gave you this big shiny smile, which stretched out the freckles on his face, and he always said the same thing: “It was a challenge.”

Sam was stuck with him. He couldn’t just abuse the kid outright or his mother would hear of it, so he had to think of other ways of getting at him. Sometimes he used me. Eventually he had the bright idea of just letting Sputnik tag along with him, which was bound to land him in trouble sooner or later. Sputnik was less used to trouble than he was and suffered more for it, especially from his father, who had some very strict ideas. I remember one of their schemes. Sam started a pencil club, which wasn’t much worse than the gleek club, except that it was more competitive. The pencil club met in the halls between class and fought out flicking duels with their pencils. Kids took it in turn: first you held out your pencil between two hands and let the other kid flick it with his, then it was your chance. The game left a trail of broken pencils around the halls, not to mention splinters, eraser heads, and snapped leads. There were also a few bloody fingers and palms, and lots of arguments, for which Sam tended to get the blame.

He liked to make an excuse of his mother’s remarriage, but the strange fact is that Sam got along great with his stepdad, who was a colleague of my parents. (Both my mother and father taught at the law school, and Mr. Miksa used to give occasional guest lectures about computers and the law.) Mr. Miksa had a passion for everything American and was initially delighted at the thought of acquiring, all made up and ready to go, his own American son. Sam’s biological father had married slightly above himself. He was a college dropout, a kind of handyman who worked less and less each year as Sam’s mom, a university administrator, moved her way up the pay scale. Sam once said to me, while we were still friends, that he liked having Miksa (that’s what he called him) show up at his baseball games instead of his dad. Miksa came to the ballpark in the jacket and tie he wore to work, and he was always punctual. Mr. Bamburger tended to come late and to bring his drink in a paper bag.

It was around this time that the computer entered our childhoods and became one of the things we would later grow nostalgic about: those early and innocent Apples. By junior high, we could take classes in programming languages, but even by the end of elementary school a number of kids had made the break from things like Pac-Man to something more complex and interesting. For a while it seemed that Sam would be one of them. Miksa, of course, was the perfect stepdad for our generation. Sam was the first kid to mention DOS on the schoolbus and could get his computer to make inappropriate noises in lab class while convincing our teacher, a retired army engineer doing his one day a week, that his brand-new Texas Instruments had simply malfunctioned. He talked about studying to be a game designer and quoted Miksa to prove that games in the future would become incredibly more involved than anything we could dream of. It seemed to suit him. He had always liked inventing games.

For a while, I remember, I was jealous of Sam, or jealous of Sputnik—I’m not sure. All this was in the Reagan years and somebody, it may have been me, started calling the two of them the Evil Empire. It sounds like me—by which I mean it sounds like my brother. He was campaigning for Mondale/Ferraro at the time and putting up placards in front yards all over the city (and sometimes, at night, tearing down others). There’s a line from one of Reagan’s speeches he liked to quote, in the deep tragic voice of a football announcer: “another sad, bizarre chapter in human history.” I probably got Evil Empire from him. It made no sense, of course; they were more like détente: the all-American kid and the Soviet-style geek.

When pencil club was banned, Sam began using the leftover eraser heads for a more artistic purpose. He found that if you rubbed them against your skin repeatedly, you could get them to burn just short of bleeding in a way that left behind a beautiful white scar. Then it was just a question of what kind of scar you wanted: a name, a cross, a very rudimentary skull, etcetera. I should add that this is the point when Sam and I began to drift apart. I was a little bit scared of pain. A number of kids overstepped the line between burning and bleeding, and used Band-Aids began to take the place of splintered pencils in the school halls. At the time I felt like a bit of a coward; it seems to me now more likely that I just didn’t have enough adolescent unhappiness to work off. Childhood didn’t leave many scars on me.

The first people to complain were the janitors. I don’t know what they thought they might catch—AIDS, probably, which was beginning to make its way onto TV. They didn’t like handling all the bloody bandages, stuck like wads of chewing gum against the sides of desks. By the fire extinguishers. On cafeteria trays. When cases began to reach the school nurse, the principal stepped in. It was a difficult problem to control. Kids needed pencils and they could use the erasers under their desks in the middle of class. Eventually the principal ordered each teacher to assign a classroom monitor to keep track of what was going on: basically, a class snitch. This created an unpleasant atmosphere, in which Sam Bamburger took particular delight. He had already begun the transition from innocent to cruel.

I was one of the monitors. My homeroom teacher, a beak-nosed dark-skinned woman named Mrs. Wallace, who looked a little like a witch but was probably no more than thirty years old and reasonably sexually attractive, moved me from the front to the back of the class so that I could observe better. Sam got a real kick out of that. At lunch break he said, “I thought we lived in America, not the USSR.” He went on like that for a while and even hummed some Springsteen at me. Then we had an argument about Springsteen. I felt a divide growing between us, working its way down, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked the side I was on. This was what pushed me, more than the things Sam said, not to report anybody.

Sam had the bright idea of getting Sputnik to write something on the back of his hand. (Most people picked a spot on the forearm or shoulder—somewhere without veins.) They wouldn’t tell me what; it was part of some gang they were getting together, but I never heard of anybody else invited. For one whole week of homeroom, which was followed by social studies, which was followed by Spanish, I watched Sputnik work away on that thin patch of skin below his knuckles. After lunch, I moved on to advanced geometry and then, when the bell rang, to basketball practice, and I didn’t see them again till the next morning.

Every morning it looked a little bit worse. I kept hoping he would stop; it was beginning to make me sick. Since taking up with Sam, Sputnik had started wearing the cap of the baseball team to school, a vivid dark maroon. Unlike Sam, he doffed it deferentially before class and laid it across his lap. It came in pretty useful now, but I could still see him flexing his fingers under the dome of the cap to stretch out the skin of his hand. It had begun to puff up. He used a little white eraser with the phrase PROPERTY OF U.T. stamped across it in red ink, and by the end of the week the smoothed-out edge of the eraser, which had worn away about a third, was a little red too.

I guess it was inevitable that Sputnik was one of the kids who overdid it the worst. He was that kind of kid. On Thursday Sam told me what he had gotten him to write: Prince, like the musician, though he never got further than P. Not that Sam liked Prince; he thought he was kind of gay. I realized that whatever Sam thought he was doing, and I still wasn’t sure, he wasn’t doing it to me. He was doing it to Sputnik. And I wondered even then if that was one of the reasons I kept quiet, which Mrs. Wallace questioned me about afterward. Sam had confided in me; he was asking me to take his side.

“Did you see what was going on?” she said. “Did you know why he was wearing those black gloves to class? Let me explain to you what happened.” (She had that kind of drawl, syrupy and slow, which made everything she said feel like a pinch in the cheek.) “First, he couldn’t get the bleeding to stop, that’s how thin it was spread out. Then it got infected. His dad only found out when he started running a fever. Do you know what that boy spent his weekend doing? Sitting in the hospital with an antibiotic drip.” She let that sink in for a minute. “Nobody likes to tell tales,” she said, “but sometimes you have to say something even if it makes you unpopular.”

The game was changing, I could see that, though I was too young at the time to relate what was happening to Sam’s life at home. My parents made occasional cryptic remarks about second marriages. I still don’t know if the problem started with Sam and Miksa or with Sam and Sputnik or whether it had nothing to do with the kids at all. Mrs. Bamburger (she had kept her name) was a woman with a wild side: she had entered her first marriage, as she liked to say in front of us all, with her eyes wide open. But I don’t think Sam helped. He was a difficult kid and began getting into a lot of trouble. Maybe the problem was just baseball. He had always been the shortest player on the field, but by the time he reached junior high some of the other kids had gotten big in a different way. Sam was out of his league.

By eighth grade I had quit baseball, too, though only because it turned out I was better at other sports. On weekends I still went to the park by Sam’s house to swim and shoot hoops, but he stopped showing up. I saw him sometimes, sitting on the rooftop over their front porch, watching. The last time we played any kind of ball together was at a faculty picnic his stepdad got invited to. These picnics were a real feature of my childhood. What I remember most of all, as I lengthen stride into my own mid-thirties, is how young my parents were. My mom wore printed dresses that tented out in the wind; holding them down again she could almost fit her waist inside her hands. My dad was still beardless, and he wore his big sports glasses and a sweatband. I grew up in an outdoorsy kind of town, and when the university types got together they brought their kids, meat for the grill, a few Frisbees, and a handful of handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs were for flag football.

I couldn’t believe that I’d ever grow to be as muscular and fast as my father’s colleagues. It seemed enough to make them happy, tossing a ball back and forth, running between the trees. During the summer it was too hot to stand around outside, so mostly they met up in March or April, toward the end of the school year. The parks outside of town always carried the threat of snakes, which meant the kids had to stick together, and every once in a while a worried mother streaked over to check on something, then sauntered embarrassed back. I wasn’t friends particularly with any of the other kids but got on well enough to make it through an afternoon. They were kids like me, most of them: nerdy—a little timid, I mean, about breaking rules—but competitive too.

A month after Sputnik came out of the hospital, his father brought Sam to one of these picnics by himself. Mrs. Bamburger, Miksa explained, was taking what he called in his thick, jokey, Russian-sounding voice “the other one” out shopping for shoes. I remember thinking how short Sam looked. He didn’t know any of the other kids but me, and he wasn’t feeling as loud as usual, so I saw him for what he was: a real short kid. He kept hanging back by his stepdad’s hip, touching the key chain that dangled from a belt hook into his pocket, wanting to take out the car keys and go sit in the car—Miksa had made him leave his Mattel Electronics Football 2 in the glove compartment. What I also remember is how much more interested I suddenly felt in all the other faculty kids. Maybe I was getting back at him for what Mrs. Wallace said, or maybe I had just recognized the fact that I had a lot more in common with them than with Sam.

All that afternoon I had a vague sense of being pulled at, and that night, after going home, I had the same vague sense (it was really very much like the first one) that I had let him down. There wasn’t much I could accuse myself of, except one thing—and to be honest what I felt about that was guilt mixed in with a little bit of pride. The boys that year were old enough to get our own flag football game together, though we spent the first hour trying to take something from the girls to use as flags: headbands, socks, anything. When it came time to pick teams, I picked one lot and another kid, the son of the law-school dean, a decent red-haired boy who became a lawyer, too, and now lobbies for the ACLU, picked another. I didn’t pick Sam with my first pick or my second pick or my third; and then Greg, the dean’s son, took him before I had a chance to pass over him again.

What I kept coming back to, as I lay in bed that night, was whether I didn’t pick Sam to get back at him for something—something nameless that I spent a certain amount of time trying to name—or whether I didn’t choose him because I wanted to win. I decided in the end that I probably just wanted to win. (We did win, easily. Puberty had begun to set in, making us all one thing or another, and sports turned out to be something I was pretty good at.) I can’t say now for sure that the kid I was then was wrong about himself, but maybe the difference between the two reasons wasn’t as great as he imagined. It’s true, though, that Sam hardly managed a catch all day and spent most of the time going deep and standing around and shouting for the ball—just shouting, till nobody paid him any attention any more, including me.

That was small of you, my grandmother would have said. Well, small enough, though maybe it summed up something important we didn’t have the heart to say to each other. I guess the only difference it made was that we stopped describing each other as a friend, or thinking of each other that way. A lot of friends change hands between high school and junior high. Sam was just one of those kids who had to completely revise his idea of himself when he hit his teenage years. He would never grow into an all-American. His parents were divorced, he’d been cut from the baseball team, and he was turning into the kind of grown-up he used to make fun of: a short, slightly intense-looking young man. Computers could have saved him—they don’t care what you look like—but then his mother got divorced a second time.

I used to see him in high school hanging around in the parking lot across the street, which was just off campus and outside of school control, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Sometimes he made it to class. There was a hard edge to his look of careless happiness; you didn’t want to run into it. He’d always been kind of a naughty kid, but the things I used to get up to with him strike me now as rather sweet, at least by comparison with the things he got up to later. The little cups we kept on our school desks to keep the spit in—the last thing we did each day was put them in the trash. That was the big joke with him, the way he said “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am,” as if he never had the least intention of stepping out of line. I mean, he liked the line; teachers used to talk about his “spirit.”

A few summers ago I went to my fifteenth high-school reunion. Sputnik was there. He was living in Berkeley and working in Web design. His name is Alex. He wore jeans and a T-shirt to the class barbecue, which was held on the practice field. He remembered a lot more about the football team than I did and sounded completely American. At one point, passing me a beer, he showed me the back of his hand. You could still see the faint white blurring of a P. He also passed on the biggest piece of gossip at the reunion, which was that Sam had finally gone to jail. Alex refused to say for what, but something along the lines of possession with intent to distribute was the most popular guess.

My parents still live in the house I grew up in, which is where I was staying, and I mentioned the news to my father the next day. We sat watching television with the sound off, sports highlights, and he told me a story about Miksa from around the time of his divorce. Miksa had said to him (they ran into each other sometimes at a deli just off campus that sold decent rye bread), Miksa had said, “It is a terrible thing, you know, to fall out of love with a child.” Terrible for both of them, he meant, my father added. There was something about his tone I didn’t like—as if he knew more about my childhood than I did. “You don’t fall out of love with kids,” I said. “They’re just kids.” He gave me one of his knowing looks, and then asked, “Well, what can you expect, after his son ends up in the hospital?” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about; then I got angry. Oh, that was nothing, I answered. That was just stupid, an accident. That was the kind of thing I could have gotten up to myself. 

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