Around the age of eight, friendship becomes a political art. Before then, one falls into, or out of, friendship without much thought or regret; friendship is improvisatory and capricious and a great of it depends on factors not of your devising: who you’re seated next to in class, who lives next door to you, whose parents are friends with your parents (the latter is crucial, as these are the kids with whom you are bundled at interminable adult parties).
I had met Curtis on the first morning of first grade, and 1980 to 1982, second to fourth grade, was the summit of our friendship. We then drifted apart, slowly but inexorably, although we retained a bond from our high season, which meant that we would always find some room for each other. Curtis became a well-loved, sarcastic jock, I became bookish and moderately unpopular, yet the two of us would still eat together on occasion, or we would sit next to each other in class, where sometimes I quietly fed him a joke. As I moved away the summer before we started high school, I never found out whether our alliance—a meager thing held together by a mutual nostalgia, like many marriages—would have still lasted once we reached serious adolescence. It likely wouldn’t have, but as it will always remain an unanswered question, I can pretend otherwise.
In 1980, however, we were great friends, and, better, knew we were great friends. We shared a love of University of Virginia basketball, Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live and rock music (we were the hipsters of our grade, as Curtis had two college-age siblings who brought home with their laundry Elvis Costello, Devo and Cars records).
We had an insider language, a semaphore of raised eyebrows and nods and hand gestures, a few shorthand words. Here’s an example of the latter. A boy named Zennon rode our school bus. He was about six years old and looked younger thanks to his enormous dimpled face which seemed that of a caricatured infant. He was adorable: girls loved him, even the bus driver smiled at him. And each day, after Curtis got off the bus, Zennon smiled and shot him the middle finger. Zennon apparently had no reason to do so—he never talked to Curtis (indeed, being a first-grader, he was a nonentity), Curtis never picked on him, and Curtis was a highly popular figure on the bus who had no enemies or rivals. Yet Zennon, always with a demonically gleeful expression on his face, flipped him off daily. As I sometimes got off the bus with Curtis to spend the afternoon at his house, I remember the grinning face, framed by the bus window, and the middle finger, proudly extended in front of Zennon’s sprig of a nose.
So “Zennon” became our shorthand for any inexplicable fucked-up action. A kid named Eric who had soiled his pants in class but didn’t ask to go to the bathroom until the teacher, catching wind of it, screamed at him to leave—that was “very Zennon.”
In the election of 1980 (the first presidential election that I remember), Curtis backed Ronald Reagan. He could have hardly done otherwise: Curtis’ father—who owned an insurance agency, which Curtis’ elder brother was slated to take over—had been a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Detroit. Curtis began passing on “facts” and complaints and slogans (I recall there was an Oscar Mayer knockoff jingle that ended with “Jimmy Carter has a way/of screwing up the USA”); he was a drainpipe through which his father and his brother’s conversations sluiced.
I had no reason to dislike Jimmy Carter. In fact, my aunt had brought me to see a Carter rally in Roanoke (I recall nothing from it) in the summer of 1980. But Curtis, and soon enough our mutual group of friends, was adamant that Carter was awful, that he was ruining the country, and he needed to get the boot. It wasn’t that Curtis constantly spouted this stuff, it just came out unassumingly, sprinkled into talk about the Dukes of Hazard or the very Zennon situation of an old man in Fincastle who’d been caught stuffing gumballs into people’s gas tanks. I soon converted: Carter was lousy, Carter had made a mess of things, Carter should be gone.
(Once we were talking about presidents, Curtis said, “Abraham Lincoln, he’s the worst one of ‘em all.” Why? I asked. Lincoln was important enough to get his own holiday, so you figure he would’ve merited some praise. “Because he freed the slaves,” Curtis said.)
That fall, I had become friends with a boy named Patrick. He came from a distinguished rural family, the sort that had produced a cast of dozens of aunts and uncles and siblings, all handsome and faintly regal, all seemingly having descended from some colossal backwoods sire like Andrew Jackson. Patrick backed Jimmy Carter. His family had voted Democratic since before the Civil War, and they saw no need to change now, especially as there was a Christian man from Georgia in the White House.
But thanks in part to Curtis’ lobbying, Patrick was greatly in the minority for our class. We had one of those mock elections that newspapers like to write about, a bunch of ignorant eight-year-olds voting for president, and Reagan swamped the field; the Carter votes numbered perhaps a half-dozen. For Curtis, this was just as good as the actual election, so he rested from his labors. I, turned fanatic, stayed caught up in it. And it seemed in that last week before the election that everyone was caught up in it: there was a buzz of anxiety, of irritation, a vaguely-sensed convulsion that I intimated from newscasts and Time magazine covers and half-heard slices of conversation from farmers settling their bills at Nanny’s Market down the road from my house.
On a brisk sunny morning, a few days before the election, Patrick and I were walking from the recess yard back into school. I needled him with some slogan, and Patrick snapped back that he was tired of it, that didn’t I know that all people wanted was a change, they didn’t care what it was, they didn’t know what it was, and it wouldn’t even be a change, really, but even if it was, it would just be for the worse.
I paused, tried to calibrate, had nothing. I had reached the limit of a child’s capacity to understand another person. “Well, you can go to hell,” I said. He stared at me. “You’re telling me to go to hell? You can go to hell!” There was a thin vein of anger in his voice. He tramped off. Reagan won, of course; Patrick and I never spoke again.