By Max Delgado
In the closing days of junior high, I watched my friend Dennis sit in the principal’s office with his mother as she cried, and he looked down at his shoes. I had been in the main office feigning some other excuse, knowing that the sliver of office window behind the secretary’s desk gave a workable vista to any private meetings being held in the back. And there they were, in back, his shaggy head down while his mother’s head was bravely raised, tears leaking down her face.
It was the end of junior high. We were all talking about high school and I vaguely wondered how this would hurt Dennis, or those of us who’d gone along. The nuns used to threaten narcing out our bad behavior to future administrators, and we were too trusting to wonder if this was just a ploy. Most of us were going to public schools, and maybe the phone call of an irritated nun wouldn’t matter, but others of us were filling out enrollment forms for Catholic schools and the threat felt very real.
The Utrup girls were going to Notre Dame, an all-girls school near Franklin Park mall; Drew, Mark and I were aiming at St. John’s, the prestigious all-boys school past the western suburbs; and Dennis was looking at the biggest flagship school of all: Central Catholic, down the road. I was an unremarkable student. And a poor test taker. I felt one call would end me, and so I was trying to orbit the wreck to see how bad it was.
Dennis’ mom wiped another wave of tears off her face and I had my answer.
I never actually asked Dennis why he did it. I assume he, like all of us, wanted to be remembered for something other than our awkward arc of puberty, or how we’d dressed as fourth graders. We wanted badly to be adults. A few of us were starting to experiment with drugs and I was trying to make an educated choice. Drew said something about mushrooms. A perpetually anxious kid, I’d heard about “bad trips” and asked Drew how common those were. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said: “As long as you’re comfortable with who you are, you won’t have a bad trip.” If I knew anything at fourteen it was that I was deeply uncomfortable with myself, and so Drew’s casual reply kept me sober for the next five years. Someone should give him an award for that.
Dennis cemented his legacy differently. One morning, near the coat rack, he passed out fifty dollar bills like playing cards. “Here, here,” he said, as the hands of our classmates rushed him. Dennis, like me, had often struggled to find his place. We were part of several groups, but initiated into none. My best friend was in high school now, and we’d lost touch. 8th grade and I wasn’t a kid who hung out. I didn’t talk on the phone. Later, watching my sister navigate junior high I realized there was a different way to do it: she had weekend dates planned, she knew how to put an outfit together, she talked on her clear plastic neon telephone for hours. I had drawn, read, and watched TV.
“Where did you get these?” I asked Dennis, stepping closer.
“I found them,” he said.
It was not an unreasonable response. There was a lot of drug dealing that went on around our school. We’d learned to recognize the back and forth of deals at the housing projects across the street from us: the gentle jog from stoop to car to stoop again. When cops came, dealers would throw their drugs on the ground and run. The girls found several bags of weed once, but never cash. “Have one,” he said, holding a bill out. The bills were so clean and crisp and green, I knew that he was lying. But I took one anyway.
Money was perpetually an issue as a kid and so my compass was all fucked up. I completely overestimated the impact that a fifty dollar bill could have. For a moment, I felt rich. I felt like we no longer had to charge our groceries, or stress about the car breaking down. I played with the thought of giving the bill to my mother, but realized she’d want to know where I got it. Maybe being broke was bad, but being a thief was worse, so I decided to sit with it a few days, keeping it in my dresser drawer, underneath a stack of comics.
At this point we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment off Secor Road, with a parking lot pushed against the back lot of a Farmer Jack’s Supermarket, separated by a narrow painted fence. Past that fence and past that Farmer Jack’s the world got bigger: a coffee shop, a bagel shop, a music store, a bookstore, an electronics center, a Sears, a pharmacy and several restaurants. In the five years that we lived there, I spent nearly every free hour I had sneaking through a gap in that narrow fence, walking through that loading area, passing by those oily green dumpsters, and slipping into the foot-traffic of West Central Avenue, vainly looking for a comic stand.
Two days after getting that fifty dollar bill, I snuck through that fence again.
On this day I crossed the intersection into Westgate Shopping Center, and walked into Thackeray’s bookstore. Thackeray’s didn’t have a comic stand, but they did have a graphic novel section -- one of the first I’d ever seen. It wasn’t Garfield and Doonesbury. They had darkly illustrated books of characters I’d never heard of, and glossy deluxe editions of characters I had. I’d never had enough money to actually browse responsibly, but things were different that day. I had a neatly folded bill inside my wallet, and an hour to myself. In the end, I bought something called The Dark Knight Returns. It was thick and glossy and expensive.
I carried it home carefully, like a carton of thin-shelled eggs, almost expecting it to disintegrate between my fingers. I’d never spent more than ten dollars on anything on my life, and I didn’t feel like I really owned it. I know for sure I hadn’t earned it.
I got in bed. I started reading.
I can say, with distance now, that I was not ready for what Frank Miller had done. I wasn’t ready for a satire of Reaganomics, or the logical interpretation of the Joker as a serial killer, or for the blurring of hero into villain. I had never re-read chapters just to get them. I had never looked words up while reading. I had never asked my mother to explain the significance of baptism, just so I could understand what Batman meant when he jumped out into the rain. I had never reached the end of a book and felt a tension between wanting more pages, but respecting that they story needed to end there. In time, I came to memorize the book.
For better or worse, it made me a reader. And I hate to say this, but it made me a writer, too.
Later, we found out where Dennis had gotten his money. He had snuck the bills from his grandmother’s safe, which she’d left open by mistake. It was her savings. More calls were made. A stream of parents came in eventually and met with the principal; more kids sat in that same office with their heads down. I don’t why, but my mother was never called. I graduated from St. Mary’s in June owing Dennis a debt of fifty dollars, but really something more. Something I’ll never be able to repay.