Penny Social

I met Alex at a Penny Social, where the church ladies lined up donated items — toys, dolls, cellophane-wrapped baskets of bath products, boxed appliances — in our school gym, and placed paper cups in front of each one. We kids all begged pennies from our parents and bought colored paper tickets with which we stuffed the cups in front of the things we wanted. Once we’d spent our tickets, we ran around and got yelled at to slow down, snuck outside and got called to come back indoors, grabbed the snacks off the snack tables and got scolded to leave some for everybody else.

I remember catching eyes with a boy some time after I’d used up most of my tickets, and when our eyes met I couldn’t help smiling. He looked older, a high-schooler maybe, and familiar, though I wasn’t sure why until he told me.

“I’m Alex, Phil’s older brother,” he said, and his voice was incredible, like a girl’s voice in a boy’s mouth, drawing his words out, smoothing and thinning them into not-quite-lisps. He raised one eyebrow as he spoke, as though everything he said was a challenge or an invitation to…something. I knew my mother wouldn’t like him at all. I kept an eye out for her as he and I talked, though I don’t know what I planned to do if I saw her. Alex was impossible to quiet, his strangeness impossible to hide.

“Who’s that?” It was a small school and I was friends with everyone, and one by one they sidled over to whisper in my ear, pointedly turning away from Alex as they spoke to me. I watched his face go blank, his dark eyes glaze over; he stared off into the air like there was no one there for him to notice, no one worth seeing. He leaned against the doorway, cool and casual, waiting. Once I’d explained that he was Phil’s brother, the other kids would shuffle away, muttering, to look again at the items up for auction, or to grab another friend and scurry off somewhere.

I turned back to Alex, and now that we were alone, his eyes were those crazy glinting eyes again. He grabbed a pair of cone-shaped water cups from the dispenser nearby; holding them up to his chest, he pranced for me, singing high-pitched, tossing his head and swaying his hips. The first glimpse my mother got of him, he was moving like that, dancing, singing: “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time! Like a vir-ir-ir-irgin…”

I elbowed him, darting my eyes frantically toward my fast-approaching mother, and he set his pair of cone-cups on the snack table. “Okay,” he muttered, smiling sweetly as he watched her approach, whispering out of the corner of his mouth, “when she gets here, just tell her I’m your boy toy, ‘George’.” I was caught between a giggle and terror — would she rush me out of the Penny Social? Would she tell me I couldn’t talk to Alex again? — so when she reached us, it was Alex who spoke first. I smiled hopelessly.

“You must be Mrs. Lehman,” Alex said, and his voice sounded less vibrant, lower and more normal, like other boys’ voices. “I’m Philip Nowicki’s older brother, Alex. It’s nice to meet you.” And he held out his hand, and my mother had to shake it. My smile grew a little steadier. Mom looked skeptical, and I could see her left eyebrow twitching the way it did when it wanted to jump up; like Alex, she often raised one eyebrow, but hers was an eyebrow of judgment. She didn’t trust him, I could see it, but he was so polite and mature, and after all he was my best friend’s brother.

She said a few things — Phil’s a great kid, Crystal’s father and I like him very much; how are you enjoying the Penny Social; are your parents here, I haven’t seen them yet. She gave me a long look that I smiled into innocently, and then she wandered away, as though she’d merely run across us in her ramble through the auction tables.

“Let’s go outside,” Alex said, watching my mother walk away. “I want a cigarette.” He and I walked calmly out of the door behind us and out of sight, then raced down the stairs to the back door, where we slipped outside and he lit up a Marlboro Red. I learned later that his mom shared her cigarettes with him, but at the time I didn’t ask, just enjoyed leaning against the brick building with him as he dragged and puffed. Some of my other friends came outside a few minutes later, and when they saw us, they turned around and went back into the school. Most of them still thought cigarettes were bad. They avoided us for the rest of the evening, and I didn’t care. Alex was magic. Maybe, as Phil had told me again and again, something special did run in his family.