I remember the first time I heard the f-word. Bass Hilton had said it in reference to something I had allegedly done. I was riding my bike around the neighborhood, dodging tree roots and cracks in the sidewalks when I noticed him. He had dark brown hair, dull brown eyes, and a gap between his two front teeth. I think he just wanted an excuse to say it, and an excuse to talk to someone new.
Bass lived five houses down, on the corner, and was a year older than me. He was in my grade though, a victim of another f-word; failed. I can think of an instance in my first grade class when Bass was in trouble for sniffing rubber cement. He would brush it on just above his upper lip so the fumes had no where to go but straight into his nostrils. All the memories I have of Bass are pretty much like that. Bass always wore a black leather jacket. He probably got it, or maybe stole it, from a flea market somewhere. Back then though, I thought it was beautiful. In fact, my best friend at the time and I created a song and dance that included references to Bass’ leather. He liked our song. I don’t know why we did it, maybe because when you’re a kid you like to help and you’ll do anything to make someone smile.
Bass’ real name was Israel, but no one except teachers and the principal called him that. His father gave him that nickname for some reason. I never once saw Bass’ father, his mother only a handful of times. I never went into his house either, probably because Bass was never there. I used to wonder sometimes where he would go, what he would do, and why his parents didn’t care. Second grade came around and Bass was in my class again. We sat next to each other. Mrs. Brown put him there hoping I would be a good influence on him. I couldn’t explain exactly what that meant so life continued as it always had. Bass kept getting in trouble, skipping school, getting in fights, telling stories at the bus stop, and swearing.
“Hey, look at this,” Bass said at the bus stop one morning. He pulled out a cigarette from his leather jacket. “I’m saving this for after school.”
I don’t know if he ever smoked that cigarette. We were only in second grade and as much as life had hardened Bass, he was still just a kid. One morning I walked into class and the teacher was standing over Bass at his desk. It seemed there was some sort of problem with Bass’ leather jacket. Mrs. Brown no longer wanted him to wear it during class. He wouldn’t take it off though. I thought his behavior was typical, I knew he’d never take that jacket off for some teacher.
“Israel, take that jacket off NOW.”
At first he was angry, but suddenly as if something just quit inside him, he quietly said, “Please.”
Seeing that Bass was in second grade and Mrs. Brown was a large woman, she eventually won. The jacket came off and went in the closet. Bass sat uneasily at his desk next to me. He kept his right arm under the desk top. It was Tuesday so we had a spelling test, Bass was right handed. An inward battle the likes of which I’ll never know went on in Bass that morning. When he finally brought his arm out, I saw several round, scabbed sores that I later recognized as cigarette burns. I didn’t understand that. Bass left for a while. I saw him again in fourth grade, fighting the same friend of mine who made the song and dance for Bass back in first grade. He left for a while again until high school. He had been at Wood’s, a juvenile detention center, and Boy’s School off and on during that time. By now, Bass and I only occasionally said `hi’ in the halls. There was nothing to really talk about. Besides, I didn’t really fit with his crowd anymore. I was no angel, but Bass was over the edge. Gaps that are small when you’re small grow with time too. There were a few times in the alley next to the school where we would sneak for a smoke after lunch that I found myself face to face with Bass again. He’d tell me a few stories about the crimes he’d committed or of juvie. Most of the time, however, he said little, except for once.
I had moved from the old neighborhood across town but the news still reached me. Bass’ father had committed suicide a couple weeks back. That is what Bass told me about in the alley after lunch. He said that his dad had taken a shotgun and locked himself in the garage. He put the barrel in his mouth and blew his brains out.” I found him,” Bass said. He told me of the pool of blood and the body and of how there was no letter, no reason, and no explanation.
In the spring of that same year Bass died too. He was in a car accident. He was going around 100 miles per hour when he careened off the twisting road into a huge oak tree. His body was thrown some 60 feet. Bass laid on the road, battered, bruised, cut, and torn. The funeral should have been closed casket.
This past summer I walked through the old neighborhood. I saw the exact spot where Bass first cursed at me. I saw his house and the garage. I thought about the hand life dealt Bass and why mine was better. I can’t figure out why life is so hard, why Bass’ life was so hard. I don’t know what Bass would say about all this, or to me, but if I ever see him again, I’ll tell him I love his leather.