On my drive home from work my car’s air conditioning finally gets cool just as I come to my parents’ neighborhood. After I turn into the entrance, in my side view mirror I spot a pale guy in jean shorts and a t-shirt hiking down the sidewalk. I realize who it is and know he has about a mile to go to beat the churning clouds already crackling in the summer sky. I slow down to the road’s shoulder and wait for him.
In my car, my t-shirt sticks to my chest. Flour dusts my arms following my shift of tossing pies at Lazy Moon Pizza. The flour mixes with my sweat into paste, gluing my hair together in clumps. I roll down my window as the guy walks up to my car.
“Hey,” I say. “Stephan.”
He looks both ways, but I called him by his first name. He bends to look inside my car.
“Yes?” Stephan says, with the same high-pitched upward lilt in his voice that I remember.
“It’s Chris,” I say. “Chris Wiewiora.”
Stephan cocks his head, not placing exactly where he knows me.
“Troop 87,” I say. “Let me give you a ride home.”
Stephan looks at the sky, then opens the door of my car.
It’s been a dozen years or so, but I still remember our Cub Scout troop’s Pinewood Derby. I had just checked-in my model-sized wooden car, Black Lightning. I named it for the color of spray paint I used and the two white lightning bolts I stuck to its wooden body.
One of the plastic wheels on a nail-axle had felt sticky, so I walked over to a card table in the corner where other Scouts made last minute modifications after weigh-in. I picked up a tube of graphite and aimed the nozzle at the sticky wheel, and squeezed. A thick puff of black flakes spewed out. I wiggled the wheel back and forth in the little area of space between the nailhead and Black Lightning’s body.
I took my index finger and flicked down on the wheel. It spun and stuck. I flicked again. It spun more. I flicked again and again, and finally the wheel whirred.
“Aww man,” one of the other Scouts said. “Stephan always wins.”
I looked at the the check-in line where Stephan stood in front of Mr. Faulkner, our den leader and his father. I thought Mr. Faulkner and Stephan were dorks, because they always wore the entire Scout outfit: a plaid neckerchief around the collar of a starchy, khaki button-up shirt tucked into pressed, above-the-knee shorts cinched in at the waist with an olive green belt bearing the Scout insignia on the buckle. Stephan also wore calf-high acrylic socks pulled above his ankle-high boots and he hiked his shorts up, above his hips.
Stephan handed his car over to his father who set it on a scale. Stephan’s car angled from the rear in a sharp wedge straight to the nose. Without its wheels it could have been used as a doorstopper. I saw that the scale read above the weight limit.
“I’ll have to use the drill,” Mr. Faulkner said.
“Weigh it again,” Stephan said. He rose his arms up to get his father’s attention and then let them fall to down to his side when his father stayed.
One of the other Scouts frantically flapped his arms up and down, while pinching his nose to make a high-pitched, nasal-warble like Stephan’s voice and said, “Weigh it agaaaain.”
I remember laughing at the bird-like imitation and then walking up with the rest of the Scouts, surrounding the scale, and grinning when it read the same weight as before.
Mr. Faulkner took Stephan’s car off the scale. In his other hand he held a cordless drill. Flecks of pine filled the drillbit’s spiral groove as Mr. Faulkner bored into the body of his son’s car.
At the beginning of the first heat of the race, I set Black Lightning against the starting block. The track sloped down like a roller coaster then flatlined into a drag stripe. Stephan lined his car up next to mine.
When the starting gate dropped, Black Lighting plummeted down the slope like butter sliding on a hot frying pan. Stephan’s car moved like a knife through peanut butter. The drilled holes underneath the body of his wooden car filled with air, holding it back with drag.
Stephan had immediately got knocked out of the entire race, while I made it to the semi-finals. I didn’t think about what it felt like for Stephan to lose, so much, for the first time. Instead, I only thought, At least I didn’t come in last place like a loser. At the end of the derby, we were both handed green ribbons with PARTCIPANT lettered in gold vertically down them. I threw mine away, because I didn’t feel that I should have been in the same group as Stephan.
At the end of 5th grade, I received my Arrow of Light, crossing from Cub Scouts into Boy Scouts, then I quit. Our troop didn’t do any camping and counted a half-hour knot tying exercise as a survival activity. I don’t even remember setting one fire or making s’mores.
Last year, before I graduated from university, I remember seeing Stephan at the honors college clomping around the computer lab in his hiking boots. I never said hello. As I drive Stephan home—even after I mentioned our troop—I realize he probably doesn’t exactly recognize me. I don’t look anything like I did when I went to Scouts: I don’t have my bowlcut, I’ve got a buzzcut matted down from wearing a hat at the pizzeria. Since wearing glasses, I’ve just gotten LASIK. And my now broad shoulders taper to my torso in a V down to my much thinner-than-fifth-grade-pudgy waist. To put Stephan at ease and cut the awkward silence between us, I talk to him.
“Where were you walking from?” I ask.
“From the bus,” Stephan says, staring straight ahead.
“That sucks man,” I say. “I rode the bus to school my first year at UCF. It’s never on time. It’s not a good schedule. And then the stops are too far away from anywhere.”
I’m talking too much, but what else is there to say? Remember when our Scout pack came over to my pool to do the swimming merit badge and everyone just drank Surge? Remember Surge? That swamp-thing green drink rumored to shrink your balls?
I want to reminiscence, but I don’t believe we remember things the same as each other. I remember the group of us who mimed slam-dunks as we splashed into the pool and slurped sodas on the deck. We recalled Michael Jordan’s buzzer lift off from the free-throw line for a game winning slam-dunk. However, I imagine Stephan would remember feeling awkward as the son of the Scout leader, trying to talk about Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS, but being ignored and called a nerd by us.
Still, I expect the normal small talk that boils down to the question: What are you doing in life? I want to say that I’m still living at home, because I’m in a gap year after college, but that I’ve just gotten accepted to graduate school. That I’ll be leaving soon and moving across the country with the girl I love and pursuing my dream.
But because he doesn’t ask me anything, I don’t ask Stephan what he is doing now either. Instead, in the quiet, I drive Stephan to his parents’ house in a cul-de-sac. As I come to a stop I consider how the picked on kids were just as well known as the popular kids who picked on them. Even though I did not make fun of Stephan to his face, I did grin and laugh at him. I want to say something; like I’m sorry that we were both boys, but in different worlds. But there’s nothing to say that will change how he was treated. Stephan gets out of my car.
Stephan doesn’t thank me. He just slings his backpack up on his shoulder and walks to his house. I wave just in case he turns around. Then I put my car in drive and accelerate away.
—Photo credit: derekGavey/Flickr