When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.
For a long moment I was back in 1966, remembering the effort of writing the make-up essay, the paragraphs that had come so easily and those that had left me sweating with the effort to pry out the words. Handwritten, of course, in blue biro on the usual three-hole lined paper and stuck in a bright red plastic-covered binder. It was years before I got myself a typewriter at college, and personal computers were the stuff of science fiction. I flipped back to the title page. “The Outsiders”, I’d called it, with the letters doubled over to make them look large. Next line under, “by Ponyboy Michael Curtis”, full name no less. I looked at the top right corner, where I’d identified the assignment with my teacher’s name, the class, the school, the date. At least, I thought, I had been old enough by then not to go on to add “Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States, North America, the World” or some such nonsense. I probably would have a few years earlier.
My hand lingered under the corner of the page. Almost, I turned to read on. Instead, I closed the binder and set it aside. I’d have a look at it later for auld lang syne. After all there was the rest of the box to go through. We were in the middle of clearing out the attic, my wife and I. It held the detritus of years, from junk to treasure; and it all had to be sorted before we could really settle down to the business of putting the house on the market, though we’d already starting looking at condos in a desultory sort of way. Moving is hard when you’ve lived in a place for years and easiest done slowly.
The attic was not that well lit. Just a sparse row of lightbulbs. Old incandescents, at that. Also, most of the things in the box needed my reading glasses. After a while, therefore, I shoved everything back and hauled it all down to the living room. My wife found me there when she got in. The box was on the floor by my chair, and I’d been sorting things out in little piles along the coffee table. There were report cards going back to grade school, crayon drawings that our mother had once had taped up on the fridge door, a couple more assignments from school or college, my old stamp collection, several paperbacks, a list of birds I’d seen in our yard when I was ten. Oh, it goes on. Memorabilia our mother’d kept; junk from my bedroom; things that must have been lying around the house for ages; also some stuff of Soda’s. My wife looked at it all quizzically and said, “I’ll order take-out, shall I? Do you want Chinese?”
After she’d phoned, she came back and had a look through some of the stacks I’d decided to get rid of. “This is that box your brother sent you, isn’t it?” she said after a while.
I nodded. When he sold our family home, Darry’d gone through this same sorting-and-tossing business. My share of the money sat in the bank for years. I had been off working on my M.A., half-decided on teaching high school, sold an article or two, sent out feelers in the hope of making journalism my career. Never touched the nest egg till, eventually, we’d used it for the down payment on this place.
“It was your mother saved these,” said my wife with certainty, holding up a folded sheet of thin card.
I glanced over. It was from third grade. “Just toss it,” I said.
She shook her head. “That’s your past, Pony,” she said. “And hers, too. Or do you think I saved the kids’ reports just for them?”
“When they sort things after we die, they’ll burn the lot,” I replied. “But keep it if you want.”
After we ate, she went through the rest of the things I’d sorted, while I sat back with the red plastic binder and a cup of coffee.
”Darry’s eyes are his own,” I read. “He’s got eyes that are like two pieces of pale blue-green ice. They’ve got a determined set to them, like the rest of him. He looks older than twenty—tough, cool, and smart. He would be real handsome if his eyes weren’t so cold. He doesn’t understand anything that is not plain hard fact.”
God, even Darry had only been a kid back then, I thought, for all he seemed so much older. And colder—though, if I remembered correctly, I at least got that sorted out of me by the end of the essay. I wondered if either of our own kids would have coped half so well if it had been my wife and me who had died in a crash. After the funeral, I’d gone to pieces; so had Soda. Darry had hardly cried, just done his best to hold what was left of the family together in the face of Social Services telling him we’d be better off in a boys’ home. What struck me, as I read on, was how swiftly I seemed to have adjusted to the new status quo. I mean, it was clear from the number of references that I still missed our folks. It had, after all, been only eight months. However, it was just as obvious that it had never occurred to me that “the gang” would prove equally susceptible to the chances of life. At that age, you basically live in the present. The past slides away, the future is blank, and you kind of assume that now will go on forever.
Yet by the end of that week, two of us would be dead. No way had my barely-fourteen-year-old self imagined that. Nor, for that matter, straight-A student that I was, could I have thought it would hit me so hard that I’d need to write a make-up assignment just to pass English, of all things. I mean, I’d got good grades that spring just months after our folks had died. Looking back, I suppose it was a case of too much too fast. Too many changes, too many deaths. Also the aftereffects of a concussion, which we know more about nowadays.
As I read on, looking at the essay with the eye of a journalist, I couldn’t help but note that my life back then had been remarkably parochial. I might have been well versed in the social niceties of mid-sixties Tulsa; but I never mentioned any events in the greater world. We got a daily newspaper, but it was Darry read it. God, there was a war on! Did I mention it, even in passing? Not a word! Granted, I was far too young to register for selective service; so was Soda, for that matter. Granted too that Darry, whose draft card must have been in some drawer or other, would have been granted exemption after our parents died and he became responsible for Soda and me. Even so.
Two-Bit got his draft notice the following year. He was still a junior, which is incredible when you think about it. I suppose he could have asked for a deferment, barring the fact that his grades were so low. Anyway, before he had to report for induction, he decided to have “one last fling”, as he put it. At least, that’s what he told us; and I certainly bought it, though I remember to this day the still look on Darry’s face when Two-Bit came over to ask if Soda and Steve wanted to share the car.
Well, Soda couldn’t. He had to work, after all. And Steve was seeing a girl pretty steady. So, in the end, Two-Bit headed off on his own. If I thought anything, it was surprise that he was driving so far when there were plenty of rodeos on the local circuit. I only got the point a couple of months later when we got the postcard of the Calgary Stampede. It said little and wasn’t signed, except with a badly drawn sketch of a quarter. A Canadian quarter. We didn’t see them so much where we lived, and Darry had to tell me what it meant. He didn’t comment, but his face showed a lot. After a while, though, Soda said, “Two-Bit’s no coward,” which was true, as we all knew. He’d always been solid back-up in a rumble.
A day later, Darry said quietly, “I never knew Johnny’s death hit him so hard. Dally, too. Fighting’s one thing, killing’s another.” Still, he didn’t talk much about Two-Bit after that. Later we learned that his mother got a letter from Vancouver now and then; but, of course he couldn’t come home to see her until after the amnesty.
I was in my freshman year, living at home and taking the bus to campus, when Soda got called up. He went, of course. There was never any question. We didn’t talk patriotism, we Curtises; but only because it was too certain to need saying. He came home for his pre-embarkation leave hardly looking like himself in his smartly pressed uniform. His long golden hair had been shorn close to his scalp, which I’d sort of known would happen but was a real shock to see. He didn’t look himself, though he still acted the same. Maybe he was making an effort to reassure us, I don’t know. He’d not been overseas yet, of course, just basic training—and I dare say he enjoyed most of that, being physically fit and quick to make friends. He was always the sort to just take things as they come. He was no hand at writing, though. After he went to Vietnam, he could’ve been swallowed by the jungle for all we knew. Still, he served his tour and came home. Not everyone did. For a few weeks, he hung around the place saying nothing much, didn’t look for work, didn’t even look up Steve to see how he was doing. Then he disappeared. I kept an eye out, driving round; but it was Darry who found him. And then he turned silent, except to tell me sharply to hit the books.
I was so lost in thought that I hardly noticed when my wife took the open binder out of my hands. I doubt I’d turned a page for fifteen minutes at least.
I read the whole essay through the next day. When I hit the last lines, I again sat for a long while; and then I closed the binder gently and set it aside. “The Outsiders” fixed a moment in time: one fraught fall week, plus its aftermath. The pain of lost childhood and the unquestioning love of a gang of brothers. I’d never forgotten, of course. Those weren’t the sort of events you forget. But they’d long since slipped into the past. And I didn’t doubt that the essay itself had helped. A catharsis, that was what it had been. Mr. Syme wrought better than he knew when he set me to write.
Whatever else went into the trash, “The Outsiders” would go with us when we moved. One day, maybe, one of our kids would read it. It’d be a bit of an eye-opener.
In fact, the next person to read the essay was my wife.
A few days later, I came in from a trip to the library expecting to find the house empty, for she usually spends her Wednesdays on campus. Instead, she was curled into a corner of the couch, nose well buried. The red binder was unmistakable. She’d not got far in. I think the handwriting was slowing her down; I was never the neatest.
She looked up as I came in. “Do you mind?” she asked, with a slight jerk of the binder to show what she meant.
“Not at all,” I said, putting the books down on the side table by my chair. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Yes, please,” she said. Her eyes returned to my essay.
When I got back, mugs in hand, I offered to answer any questions she might have.
“Well, I get most of it,” she said. “Not that I’ve personal experience, but I’ve read things, of course. There is one thing, though—” She flipped back several pages. “You talk a lot about ‘the gang’.” She flipped further back, muttering, “Where is it?”
I put her mug beside her and sat down.
“Here!” She looked up for a moment. “Now I get that ‘gang’ here just means a bunch of guys who hang out together. You’re talking social, not criminal. But I was wondering about this: ‘I could have gotten one of the gang to come along, one of the four boys Darry and Soda and I have grown up with and consider family. We’re almost as close as brothers.’”
“After our folks died, the gang were a sort of extended family support system,” I said. My wife still teaches a couple of Adult Ed. evening classes in sociology.
The quizzical look on her face merely deepened, though; so I dug into the bit she’d quoted—and did a double-take. “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, well, I suppose we didn’t really all grow up together. Steve was around as long as I could remember, though. Did I put that he and Soda met in grade school? You have to remember that there was going on three years of age between us; by the time I was four, the two of them were already close buddies. Johnny got added towards the end of grade school. Two-Bit they didn’t meet until high school. He’d been kept back a grade already and happened to land in the same class. Dallas only came along after his folks moved to Tulsa. So no, I didn’t actually, literally, grow up with all of them. It felt that way, though.” I pointed at the binder. “Certainly it did by the time all that happened.”
“Ye-s-s-s,” said my wife slowly. “I think I get it. They were really your brother Soda’s friends.”
“No, the gang was all of us.”
“Well, you write it that way,” she admitted. “But Pony, what I’m trying to get at is—”
Suddenly, it clicked so hard she must have seen the lightbulb over my head. “Oh, Geez,” I said, and sat back sheepishly, pinching the bridge of my nose. “I see what you mean. Yeah, when I was in grade school my best friends were a pair of brothers a couple of streets over, one a bit older, the other younger, kind of bracketing me in age. I hung out with other kids at school, those two when I was home. Then their family moved away.” My hand dropped to my knee; I shook my head incredulously. “Oh, no wonder Steve loathed my guts. The tag-along kid brother … I was, wasn’t I? Yeah, I remember Mom calling after Soda, telling him he needed to take me with him so I wouldn’t be hanging round the house.” By this time I was pretty sure I could feel myself flushing.
“And Darry, of course, is about as much older than Soda as he was older than you. Nicely spread-out, in fact.” My wife smiled wickedly. “Family planning?”
At that I definitely blushed, and muttered something about “Dunno” and “My parents, for God’s sake!” Then I gulped down half my coffee before it could get cold. Long before I’d unflustered myself, my wife had gone back to reading, and I’d headed into the kitchen with my empty mug, stuck it in the dishwasher, and started dinner. Chili, for what it’s worth.
Yes, obviously, the gang had started as Soda’s friends. I hung out with different people at school; and Darry … well, even before our parents died, he really didn’t know anyone else any more. He didn’t have a steady girl, either, for he had no time for dating. Darry should have taken up that athletic scholarship, I thought. All his old Soc friends had gone to college. Instead, his life was work-work-work, plus a frantic attempt to be Mom, Dad, and big brother, all rolled in one. Okay, by then our folks had died and he was trying to keep the family together; but, in the start, it had been our parents who’d said no to college. Neither of them had finished high school. People mostly didn’t in their day. Even though they’d been proud to let Darry stay on to graduate, post-secondary education was beyond their understanding. It was time he got a job, they'd said. All I’d taken from it back then was a notion that we needed the money.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know what Darry had wanted to study. Business? Engineering? No, I was extrapolating from his later life. But it wasn’t only my books that littered our living room.
“When my brother sold the house,” I began suddenly at the dinner table, and my wife looked up. Then I stopped.
It was a decision that came out of the blue, and stunned me. I’d been in grad school; but I’d always assumed I’d go back for vacations while I studied, then get a job and live with Darry in the house where we’d grown up. After he explained, though, I couldn’t deny that he had a hell of an opportunity. But it wasn’t college. He used his half of the money to buy into the roofing company. He was junior partner till the old man decided to retire for good, then used his savings to buy him out. Eventually he bought a place on the West Side. I’ve wondered sometimes whether his kids were the Socs of their generation. Never asked, of course.
My wife waited. In the end, all I said was, “Choices change.”
That night, as we got ready for bed, my wife said, “That story of yours is good, you know. You should think of getting it published.”
I snorted. Sure it had got an A+ and pulled my grade up to a pass; but, after all, it was just a make-up essay for English class.
“No, I’m serious,” my wife insisted. “It’s a real page-turner.” She’d finished it shortly before bed-time.
I’ve had a couple of novels published. If you scout around a large public library you’ll maybe find a copy or so if you look under “P. Michael Curtis”. (The publisher’s decision, that had been.) I don’t think there’s a columnist anywhere that doesn’t think they have it in them to write the Great American Novel; but neither book exactly made me a household name.
“Given the age of the characters, it would be sold as YA,” I said with the certainty of minimal experience. “And can you imagine any teenager nowadays wanting to read it? If it were historical, maybe. There’s a market for historical. But it only happened back in the sixties. If any publisher were to take it, they’d want major revisions to make it more up-to-date. I’d have to change greasers and Socs to something contemporary, add computers and cell phones, and—” I had vivid memories of nicotine gum and the patch. “—there’d obviously have to be no references to teen-age smoking. And I got through a couple of packs a day back then. You may have noticed.” I pulled back the duvet and sat down. “Besides, kids these days don’t run around unsupervised the way we did. They get driven everywhere, and run into danger hanging out online. They’d think the whole thing an incredible fantasy. And I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.”
“Game of Thrones,” my wife corrected. She’s an addict, if you ask me. “I think you’re wrong,” she added mildly. “Anyway, it’s just a suggestion. There’s plenty of time. It’s not as though you’re on deadline.” With that, she took off her robe, got into bed, and turned out the light.
The following day we tackled the next lot of boxes in the attic. They held a couple of decades’ worth of income tax forms. Plus all the supporting documents, of course. They tell you to keep them for three years; but you know how it goes. You just sling the latest in on top without tossing the oldest ones, and start a new box when you have to. We were both tempted to dump the whole lot for recycling; but I said there might be other things mixed in, letters and such, and my wife pointed out that all the old MasterCard receipts had actual signatures on them. Then she said that, by the weekend, we’d have only a thin file folder of things to keep; and I said we’d be recycling at least three big squashy bags of paper strips that had been through the shredder. Still, we each admitted that the collection of boxes would indeed have to be gone through. This was quite impossible in the attic; so, one by one, we lugged everything down to the back bedroom we used as an office. We then suffered several hours of busy boredom, occasionally alleviated by reminiscences. At one point, as my wife looked through an envelope of bus tickets and restaurant receipts from a holiday that could surely never have been claimed as a business expense, she turned to me and asked, in an almost off-hand way, “Were Johnny and Dally lovers?”
I looked at her incredulously. The idea was so far from anything I’d ever considered that I couldn’t even stutter out a denial.
“Well, I was just curious,” she said, a little defensively. “I don’t think I’ve even heard you mention either of them before.”
There was no escape, of course. She went downstairs, rummaged through the now half-empty box of memories, and hauled out my old essay again. “Look here,” she said, but then spent several minutes hunting for the passage she wanted. After a while, with a finger marking a page near the middle, she looked up and said, “I can’t find it. It was when you were in the church: you said Johnny hero-worshipped Dally. But here,” and she flipped to the page she was marking, “you’ve got Dally saying ‘Oh, blast it, Johnny, you get hardened in jail. I don’t want that to happen to you. Like it happened to me.’ And then you say, ‘Dally never talked like that. Never. Dally didn’t give a Yankee dime about anyone but himself.’ Now, I realize that you were barely fourteen. But Dallas Winston? The toughest guy in your ‘gang’, the only one you considered a real ‘hood’, who’d been in jail and had a gun—he’s the one who goes all to pieces? Goes off and gets himself shot? What did you think went on between the two of them for him to act like that? Come on, Pony! He just can’t bear life without Johnny.” She paused, and then admitted, “You did at least recognize that he basically killed himself.”
“Suicide by cop,” I agreed, “though the term wasn’t yet invented back then.”
“Exactly.” She waited, head cocked a little to one side, eyes on me. I was tempted—oh, man! was I tempted!—to go back upstairs and start shredding tax forms again.
“The Socs beat the living daylights out of Johnny,” was what I finally said. “He was spooked as hell after that. Dally was just being protective. We all were.”
Later, when my wife went into the kitchen to make dinner, I crossed over to pick up the binder and have another look at it. I’ve always prided myself on being in tune with the twenty-first century; but there’s no doubt that my attitudes to a lot of things have shifted over the decades. The truth is, Dally and Johnny died in the fall of 1965: Lyndon Johnson was the president; the Vietnam War began to heat up; the Beatles were huge, even if we greasers preferred Elvis; it was the year of Selma and the Watts Riots. Long, long before Gay Rights became an issue. So I leafed through the last part of the essay, skipping over the stuff about the rumble and focusing on Johnny, the hospital, and Dally. I guess I had this nagging feeling that, if I were to look for a publisher as my wife had suggested, they’d come up with the same idea and want that change in their YA version, too. Anyway, I know I was looking for proof my wife was wrong.
You need to understand something. Of all the gang, I’d have said that Johnny was probably the one I felt closest to—barring Soda, of course, but he was my brother. He was the youngest by several months, and what you might call a bit of a late developer. Genetics, maybe? Malnutrition even, perhaps? Anyway, the others had all shot up several inches, were shaving daily, and had part-time jobs. Well, not Two-Bit, but he probably should, if he wasn't so lazy. No one would have said that to Johnny, though. He didn't look old enough for anyone to hire him. And the others had actual girlfriends. When I chatted girls up, none of them took it seriously; and Johnny was almost too shy to open his mouth around them. There’s no way either of us could have got that girl of Soda’s pregnant. Well, not that Soda did, either; but that was more a matter of morals. The point is that I knew Johnny. He couldn’t have kept from any of us anything so big as him and Dally being lovers. I admit there was probably a lot going on in his head that he never talked about. He wasn’t big on talking. But that didn’t mean he was good at lying, either.
We were all protective of Johnny; what I told my wife was true. But that goes for Dally as much as anyone. If I was aware that Johnny hero-worshipped him, I bet Dally was, too. Johnny probably would have done anything Dally asked. Which means, if he felt … “something”, he would have been really careful not to let Johnny even suspect.
The truth is, I really never did know Dallas Winston. He scared me. Given the times, if he’d been gay or bisexual, then he’d have been just as scared of us—of our finding out, and how we’d react. Probably with good reason, too. Given the times. So, if there was anything about his life that he didn’t want us to know, he’d take care that we never figured it out. (God, I thought, even in my own mind today I can’t do more than scout around the notion.) One thing I was sure of: he knew what he was doing when he pulled that gun on the cops. And he wouldn’t have done it if I’d been the one that died. Which may or may not signify … something.
I didn’t say anything about this to my wife. When she came back to the living room to tell me dinner was ready, the binder was back where she’d left it.
It was inevitable, of course, and only natural that “The Outsiders” would come up again later that evening. My wife was curious about these people who were once so important to me but about whom I never spoke. Well, she knew about Soda, of course, from those stories of your own childhood that you tell your kids. In which I tend to gloss over his ODing, and Darry having to go to the morgue to identify him; but it was hardly a secret. Steve came to the funeral. It was the first time we’d seen him in a couple of years; and I’ve long since lost track, though Darry may keep in touch.
“And Keith, of course—” She meant Two-Bit; but Darry and I are probably the only ones nowadays to use the old nickname. “—we see him sometimes, when he comes down to visit his mother in the nursing home. But Johnny seems to have been very close to you, and I don’t think I’ve even heard you mention him.”
“I could talk to Johnny,” I said, thoughtfully. “It was hard sometimes with the others. You’ll have gathered that I wasn’t on the best terms with Darry. For all the wrong reasons, of course; but there were a few months there when I practically hated him. I got on with Two-Bit—well, everyone gets on with Two-Bit—but he makes a joke of everything. Dally was … feral. There was stuff you just didn’t talk to him about, either because he couldn’t understand or because he knew all too well. I could talk to Soda, though. And I could talk to Johnny. Basically, because they listened.”
“And understood?” she asked. “Because, from what you say, the two people you found easiest to talk to were both lousy at school. One dropped out; one flunked a year.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” I said. It has always irritated me that people get so focused on grades. There’s more to brains than that. It’s like musicians who can’t read music, but learn by ear. “Soda understood what I meant. He was thoughtful, just about people rather than book lessons. Johnny … did you read all that part about Southern gentlemen? It was substance, not style. Not just a matter of dressing right or speaking right, or that sort of nonsense; but honor and ideals, keeping your word, loyalty to friends no matter what. He understood that poem by Frost when I didn’t. He died gold.”
“Well, he died a hero, I give you that,” said my wife, a bit tartly. Then, more gently, she added, “I’m not trying to run him down, Pony. It’s obvious how much you loved him—how much you all loved him, right the way through the story. Though I should point out that you wrote it only a few months after he died; and I doubt if you were being all that objective. I’m not talking about his killing that boy, who was, after all, well on the way to drowning you. Obviously, I’m grateful Johnny saved your life. If he hadn’t, I’d never have met you. However—” She paused a moment to be sure she had my attention. “Are you sure you didn’t romanticize the situation? Not the murder, or the Socs, or the fight; but the sort of kid Johnny was, and what he meant to you all.”
“Probably,” I said flatly. “One kind of does in a eulogy. That’s what you mean, I take it?”
I thought for a bit. Finally, I said, “I wrote a lot about Johnny that was plain truth. That he was a sophomore when I was a freshman, even though he was a good two years older than me. That he was jumpy at every shadow because of PTSD, though they weren’t calling it that back then yet. That he was a quiet kid in every way—never one to start trouble, but inarticulate to the point of silence. I’m sure I said some rude things about his family.”
“Well, it didn’t really have anything to do with what happened, did it?”
But then again, maybe it did. Later in bed, when I could hear my wife faintly snoring beside me and didn’t want to disturb her, I lay awake—I don’t know for how long—thinking about Johnny, and why he meant to us all that he did. I wanted to get up and read “The Outsiders” again, have it in front of me as my wife had, so that I could check things. It had all been so long ago. You forget. Not the gist of events, but their details; and not just details, but the immediacy of your feelings. What was it I’d written? Something like, “We needed Johnny as much as he needed the gang.”
Mom had always welcomed Soda’s friends at our house. God knows why Darry did it. Habit like as not, plus the fact that, if Soda’s friends had a place to go, then he’d not be off somewhere worse with them. They could all hang out together in a safe place where they could be themselves; and there wasn’t one of them didn’t need it. Maybe Steve. His folks weren’t so bad. But Two-Bit’s mother, for all she loved him, could do nothing with him. Dally’s Dad let him run wild back in New York, didn’t seem to care he got arrested, basically gave him nothing more than a place to sleep and the occasional belt round the ears. As for Johnny….
I’d been over to the Cades’ a few times. It wasn’t a place I went by preference; but there were times it was easiest to find Johnny there before heading off to the lot, or the drive-in, or wherever. If our place was kind of a mess, their place was a pigsty. I mean, we had stuff lying around, with the occasional blitz to put the place tidy, especially if the social worker was due. But Darry had us clean it properly once a week or so; and he was a real bug on keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean. Wipe the counters and sink every time we used them; mop the tiles and scrub behind the john. I didn’t complain, or at least not much—and the reason I didn’t was I’d seen the Cades’ place. Believe me, if you saw their bathroom just once, you’d cross your legs till they were braided before you’d use it by choice.
Johnny grew up in that house. His mother drank, which accounted a lot for the look of the place. His dad was worse, out of work half the time and taking it out on his family. She almost gave as good as she got. One time he slapped her, and she chased him round the living room with a frying pan. She hadn’t washed it in I don’t know how long. He ducked and weaved so she never got a really good whack at him; and, as she thrashed it in his direction, grease and guck kept dripping off onto the floor. Which was never swept, nor a vacuum cleaner taken to the rug they had. Johnny picked up some good habits, probably from our mother, and did make an attempt to keep his own room in order; but there was a limit to what he could do. Quite apart from not having much to clean with, when no one else keeps things tidy, what are the chances of his even remembering to make his bed? This was before duvets got popular; it was sheets and blankets to tuck in carefully, and a cover to pull straight. He mostly didn’t.
Johnny was small for his age; and, when he first got to hanging round with Soda, he was smaller still. Against his father, he didn’t have a chance. He learned how to duck, to run, and—when he couldn’t do either—to curl up small and protect his face. But he wasn’t a coward, you know. He was fine in a rumble; he rushed into a burning church to save a bunch of little kids he never met before; and he made sure his friend’s kid brother was the first one safely back out the window. With his folks, though, he never complained and he never fought back. He even loved them. He just took it. It was how life was. Leastways, it was how his life always had been before he had us. Round our place, he talked. Some. He said what he thought. Now and then. And believe me, he did a lot of thinking; he just had learned the hard way to keep his mouth shut. With us, he opened up. As far as he ever did, anyway.
When Soda and Steve were on a date with whichever girl they were each seeing, there wasn’t too much for Johnny to do but hang out with me. Or with Two-Bit and me. Basically, what I put at the beginning of “The Outsiders” has to do with that. If Two-Bit was there, then there was a lot of joshing and joking, because he’s like that. I mean, to this day he’s like that. He doesn’t visit often; but nowadays there’s Skype. We keep in touch, just as we drive over to spend a weekend at Darry’s now and then.
If Two-Bit was not with us, if it was just Johnny and me, then we could talk more seriously. Oh, often enough about girls, and what the others saw in them, and what sort we liked the idea of being around. Sometimes about school, or the Socs, or books. Not that there were any books at the Cades’, nor did he dare take anything home with him; but there was always plenty to read at our place, and Johnny’d sometimes come over and work his way through something, provided it wasn’t too long and the words weren’t too hard. He knew the words, you understand, or at least most of them. But his reading wasn’t that great. I don’t know if he was dyslexic; or maybe he just never got in enough practice.
Anyway, Johnny and I had no trouble getting along alone in that old church. With anyone else, sooner or later we’d have rubbed each other the wrong way. Even Two-Bit, easy-going as he was. Even Soda: he had so much energy, he’d sooner or later have fizzed like a shook-up Coke.
I must have slept eventually, because I woke to the smell of coffee. Shrugging on a bathrobe, I headed downstairs—and promptly spotted the red binder still on the coffee table. Out of sight, out of mind, I decided. When I bent to lay it back in the box, though, I saw with a pang of guilt that an odd corner of paper had started sneaking out. We must have been turning the old pages too hard, I thought. One of them has broken its holes and come loose. Then I opened the cover so I could fit it back, and realized I was wrong. Something had slipped from the pocket at the back. I drew it out, yellowed and fragile with age, and recognized it immediately. Johnny’s letter. I was sure I’d never put it there. It wasn't something I’d ever hand in to Mr. Syme. I figure Darry must’ve found it in my room, and put it with “The Outsiders” before shipping me the box.
Since I’d copied the text of the letter into the essay, I’d read it again already. Even so, I unfolded it gingerly, careful not to crack the old paper.
I’ve been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. It’s just when you get used to everything that it’s day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That’s gold. Keep that way, it’s a good way to be.
Yeah, well, the thing is, Johnny, the only ones who stay forever young are those who don’t live to get old. And sunsets come at the end, and after that is night. Kids see the world at the gold of dawn, kids who are green in the spring of their youth. I may not have hit winter yet; but I’ve sure got into autumn.
Then again, maybe that’s a different shade of gold.