I don’t look more disgusting or smell any worse, not to my knowledge, but all of a sudden on October 23rd I, Stewie Marx, am re-named El Creepo.
Sprawled across our couch on the fourth floor, I can feel it in my teeth how vicious the winds are roaring off the ocean, rattling our windows. Is it something I might’ve did?
All’s I can think, all’s I want, is to be Ronnie Fine for one measly day, but that being highly unlikely, I’m okay coiling up with a bag of Cheez Doodles, a straw and a nice jumbo bottle of Pepsi, watching Mighty Mouse careen across the screen, dispensing retribution with his pint-sized fists of iron.
Mom’s got different ideas.
“You, young man, are making me smoke,” she says, hovering like the Hindenburg just before it ignites. She takes a last noxious puff, blows it by my face and stubs her Parliament out so hard in the cut glass ashtray that its filter splits. “Listen to me: enough with the moanings and groanings.”
“Ma,” I say, coughing, waving at the bluish fumes, “come on, will you? Give me a break. Cigarettes make me nauseous and I’m no young man yet, not even close.”
“Get up, you!” she says. “And quit that whimpering act.”
“Act? If you knew the splitting headache I got.”
“What, again?” She starts cursing me out, in these old country words she knows I don’t understand.
“Wait, wait,” I tell her. “See how mixed up you get me? Stomach, I meant stomach ache.”
“Stomach ache, my foot!” She bends over and pries open one of my eyes. “You look fine, you’re strong as an ox.”
“What, all of a sudden you’re a doctor?”
“My poor baby, you’re not skipping school again. Period! End of story.”
“It’s bad this time, I swear.”
“So? Go get the Pepto-Bismol.”
“Yuk! That makes it worse.”
“Okay, Thomashefsky, do you know what I went through to get this job? They fire you on the spot if you’re late, so get your school clothes on. Now,” she says, pinching my ear, and that, as they say, is that. Except for ducking into the toilet to chuck my guts up. “And, take a hat, damn it!” she calls through the door.
I trudge six sulking blocks into that boisterous wind storm, cursing my bum luck, and then huddle bare-headed against the springy schoolyard fence in the corner by 6th Street, as far from everyone else as could be, just me, myself, and this corroded-looking face of mine full of monstrous pimply welts. I keep kicking the fence, carrying on under my breath about why aren’t I popular, and why’s everyone on my case, and how come nobody calls for me no more, while that dopey ass Ronnie, who’s just two floors down in my building, the one we’ve lived in since I’m three, struts around like he owns the joint. Why am I the one, how come I’m El Creepo?
Mr. Perfect, he don’t look worked up at all the day previous when I prove in black and white newsprint how we’re all getting blown to bits soon. His feet don’t touch the ground, nothing gets to him.
I feel like waving the headlines in his face. “You stupid tool, you! You don’t realize them Commies are about to drop an A-bomb on Brighton Beach and obliviate us all? Dummkopf! You even know what a fallout shelter is?”
“Stewie, bay-bay,” he goes, “you’re losing your cool, man. Best believe, that Daily News, it’ll rot your mind.”
“Excuse me?” I say. “At least I got one.”
At which point I snap out of my pathetic revenge daydream, face school, and who do I see barreling towards me but the arch-enemy himself, swaying like some drunken tailor, his wimpy arms slunk around the shoulders of the two most stuck up snobs in our whole 6th-grade class. Karen Mandell and Nedda Schoenfeld, it figures, sporting identical shiny yellow rain slickers. Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, making twin-engine airplane noises, giggling their asinine heads off. The second Nedda sees it’s me in the corner, she scrunches her eyes, and my pulse starts thudding.
“Eww,” she says, gagging, “look out, Ronald! We’re about to crash land into El Creepo. S.O.S!”
“El what?” I shout, stalking off towards the handball courts like I got urgent business to attend to. Then, I twist back around to give the hysterical threesome an unobstructed view of me kissing them off with my raised middle finger. “Think you’re funny? Last time I heard that I fell off my pet dinosaur.” The sad truth being, last time is yesterday, hurrying through the schoolyard.
Nedda thrusts her tongue out, while big mouth Karen points, covers her mouth and goes, “Oooh, he is so repulsive. You’d never see a gentlemen like Ronald do that, El Creepo.”
“Yeah? So, go make out together. All three of you’s.”
I slink towards school fuming, knowing we’re at the birth of a trend, me being El Creepo, and how things’ll keep plunging downhill from here.
First off, that nut Mrs. Plotkin don’t appreciate me bopping into class a fraction after the bell.
“Stewart Marx!” she says, whipping her clownish glasses off, seething. “Tardy again?”
“Sorry, I had to stop off in the Boy’s Room. I had to___”
“Silence!” she says. Her favorite two syllables.
Next, I’m craning my neck once too often toward the classroom window. Then, between the Dropped Pen Trick (to get a good look at Nedda’s cute kneecaps), and yawning loud enough for half the class to turn around smirking, the final straw involves some trick map question Madame Battle Axe springs on, who else, yours truly.
“Stewart!” she shrieks, seeing how slow I am to react. “Did you read today’s assignment? Stand up!”
“Well,” I mumble, rising, both hands on the desktop, “the story is,”
“No stories,” she says, cutting me off. “Yes, or no?”
“I started to, okay, but with my system lately, when the barometric pressure dips below about 25, I tend to get woozy.”
The class erupts while she has a full-scale conniption fit, screaming about the aggravation I supposedly keep causing, squirming in my seat, with “ants in my pants,” trying her patience all morning, not paying attention, the class clown, so I get carted downstairs to Mr. Beagle’s office to sit on the hard bench all by my lonesome and “think about it.”
The one thought on my mind though is that crumb bum Ronnie, us being such polar opposites it’s not funny. Mrs. Plotkin’s pet, what a hit he is with the female of the species, versus me getting clobbered on all fronts lately.
So, what is it with Ronnie Fine? There’s a reason for everything, right? That’s what they say, but why’d fate have to pluck him out of East Flatbush last year and, with all the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, drop him on my block? In my building! To rub my nose in how a person could sweet talk everyone? To teach me what?
Sitting cross-legged in front of our TV for a little Soupy Sales later, I can’t block Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky’s phony smile out until I hear Mom’s key turn the front door lock, and she storms unexpectedly into the living room, all breathless and flushed.
“So, this is how you waste time while I’m working?” she says. “Turn off that foolishness.”
Rotten weather has apparently forced the Fair Mart to dispense with her check out services early.
“I’m warning you,” she says, blocking the screen. “Go do your homework. March!”
“Me? I don’t got none. Trying to learn The Soupy Shuffle here,” I explain, but the second I sway left, so does she, blocking the screen. “So, guess what, Ma: as of today, it’s official, your son is known to one and all as El Creepo. Didn’t I tell you? No one likes me.”
“Oh, aren’t we over-sensitive,” she says, bending to snap the TV off. “So what? Kids call each other names. Now it’s your turn.”
“Yeah, but how come I’m not popular no more? Whatever I try lately, it backfires.”
“So? Stop trying. Or, better yet, try harder. And quit sucking your thumb, Mister. What are you, a two-year-old?”
“Wah-wah!,” I say, rubbing my eyes.
“Excuse me, before sixth grade,” she says, “did my Stewie, or did he not, have a constant parade of friends over the house? And, correct me, but did he get elected President in the class two years running, before this popularity kick?”
“Back then, mother dear, wasn’t I the undisputed apple of your eye? And, lest you forget, was this not also pre- a certain yutz moving in by us on the second floor?”
“It was pre- you turning into a pest and not helping your mother anymore, like your sister Elise.”
“Goody Two Shoes? She’s not what she cracks herself up to be, not even close.”
“Shut up, you!” Mom yells, clutching my arm. “You should only apply yourself like she does. What’s wrong with you is, all of a sudden, you’re too stupid to realize how smart you are.”
“Thank you, Mama, but this ain’t got nothing to do with smartness or stupidness.”
“Ain’t?” She stamps her foot hard enough that the room shakes. “When did you ever hear that word in this household? You’re turning into an ignoramus! Who’d you even learn such a trick from?”
“Who? Follow me, cause everyone’s a little slow to catch on lately.”
I lead her by the sweaty hand to our kitchen window. “See, two stories below? The smiley-faced little Johnny-Come-Lately residing there says ain’t ten times a day and the whole school lines up to kiss his backside. Including all the girls.”
“Is that right? So, let Mr. Smiling Face go be the most popular boy ever in the history of sixth grade, let him say ain’t to his heart’s content. See how far it gets him. And, as for the maidels, please, they’re in a constant flux at your age, they’re all farmisht inside, up and down five times a day with changes, so forget about them.”
“Changes? What would those be?”
“Never mind what. Oh, you know!” She slaps my shoulder. “The funniest part, you think this Ronnie’s so different? You’ll soon see, you’re two of a kind. Just learn your lessons, mind your teacher, and get an education so, God willing, when the time comes you land a job capable of supporting me in my old age.”
“You know what,” I say, “I love you Mamaleh, I swear, but even Abbott and Costello make more sense sometimes.”
“Who’s on first?” she says, laughing, and she chucks a dishrag at my head.
“Popularity? Don’t mean boo,” Dad says, sitting with a flyaway paper napkin tucked into the neck of his sweat-stained undershirt at supper later, clearing his throat, as he rolls a pile of golden brown Pigs in a Blanket onto his plate. “Not in the long run. It don’t last.”
“Yeah? Were you popular? Growing up?”
“Pass the peas and carrots, please. I never cared for it. Not like you seem to.”
“What did you care about?”
“Honesty, integrity, and responsibility. Family. Maintaining a good name. Learning. Justice.”
“Hey, Ma,” I call into the kitchen, “what is he talking about?”
“Listen,” she shoots back. “Worse comes to worse, for once you might learn something.”
“Okay, Dad, okay, tell me how it is that Ronald ‘The Numbskull’ Fine’s got this whole admiration society, cause I’d like to at least learn something.”
“Who? That Ronnie, from downstairs?” He bursts into such an uproar, laughing out loud, he has to put his utensils down and bang the table. “Ronnie? Please.”
“Hey, Ma, this is serious, the old man’s starting to repeat himself.”
“Guttinyu!” she hollers from the kitchen. “Leave me in peace and just eat your supper.”
“That little pisher? The one putting on airs?” Dad says, ignoring my side comments. “The point being, he’s not himself, and the umglicks around here all fall for it. Ruthie, excuse me, you ran out of mustard? You got horseradish?”
“What airs? Who is he if he’s not himself?”
“Stewie, get your father the jar of Gulden’s from the Frigidaire,” Mom says.
“He’s a pushover,” Dad says, as I slink to the kitchen. “Anyone with half a brain could see right through all his schtick-eleh.”
“Well, the whole neighborhood’s brainless then,” I say, shuffling back to the table. “The way Ronnie is, I couldn’t dream of ever being.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Consider yourself lucky, acting phony’s against your nature.”
“Yeah, right,” I mutter. “So blessed to be known, far and wide, as El Creepo.”
Regardless of what Mom and Dad advise, every morning, like clockwork, I have to go puke. The principal’s office sends notes home on a routine basis suggesting they seek professional guidance in adjusting my behavior to function in accordance with acceptable social norms, or something. Yeah, Mom and Dad don’t get it either.
“It means Stewie’s meshugge,” my big sister Elise translates. “He should go see a witch doctor. And learn to keep his mouth shut and not exasperate the teacher.”
“That’s so helpful of you, know-it-all,” I say. “But, they’re picking on me. Calling me names.”
Mom has her hair lacquered up at Renato’s, they get all fapitzed, like for a wedding, and take the train downtown one Saturday morning, but all she says later is she can hardly get over how peculiar the guy they spoke to is, with a goatee, oily hair, lilac-scented cologne, and a fancy cigarette holder, so even despite Dad’s suggestion that we at least give this psychological expert another try, to keep a small problem from growing bigger, she declares, “a Sigmund Freud he’s not,” and I escape having to go by the skin of my teeth. Thank you, Ma!
Meanwhile, sixth grade drags on forever, half my school takes up the El Creepo chant, and all I can do is fake how it’s just a joke I’m laughing off every day. Ronnie himself never chimes in, why would he? Each time I glance over at Mr. Cute-And-Adorable in class though, I picture him kissing his own lips in the mirror, and this terrific urge overcomes me to beat him on the head with a Louisville Slugger. I know it’s wrong, but just once.
I spend all July and August moping around, dreading the start of 225.
“You don’t see, the boy’s depressed?” I overhear Mom saying, so at the eleventh hour, the week before Labor Day, Dad suggests we go to the Boardwalk, for a little man-to-man talk.
“Out of curiosity,” he says, huffing, pumping his arms to match my pace, “who do you think was the fastest runner in your school last year?”
“So what?” I ask him.
“Who won every race at field day? You, right? Why do you think?”
“How should I know? I just did. I’m fleet of foot.”
“You tried harder than the other boys? Is that it?”
With each question, I lengthen my stride, and Dad’s getting so overweight he can barely keep up with me. So, I step on it even more until he grabs my arm.
“Slow down! So, how’d everyone you beat feel when they lost? Good inside?”
“You tell me.”
“Stewart,” he says, gasping for breath.
“I’m sure they were ecstatic, Dad. They all knew beforehand I would win anyway.”
“Oh, beforehand they knew? They didn’t stand a chance?”
“Why you asking me this? For all I know, everyone was rooting for El Creepo to twist an ankle.”
“El Creepo!” He laughs. “So, Monday starts 7th grade. Think you’ll still be number one?”
“What? There’s sixteen-year-olds in that school, of course, I won’t.”
He starts poking around his mouth with a toothpick. “Whoever’s the fastest,” he says, “or the most popular, or the best at anything, anywhere, my point being, there’s someone faster, or more popular, somewhere. It’s the way life is, so get used to it. Stop comparing yourself, stop being so self-centered, and just do what you do to the best of your potential. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, over my shoulder. “No problem. Thanks.”
That night, with the four of us glued to Bonanza, Mom announces, “Oh, give a look, it’s Little Joe! Somebody’s favorite.”
Elise swoons. “It’s not fair,” she says, letting out a sigh. “For anyone to be that cute.”
Whereupon in a flash I see what a dead ringer Ronnie is for the youngest Cartwright brother, and I can’t even follow the story anymore.
Fingers crossed my complexion might’ve cleared up, I hustle to the toilet, but what stares back in the mirror looks like a pot of cooked lumpy oatmeal. I lean forward over the sink and start poking around but end up just making El Creepo look worse, like that terrifying Twilight Zone episode involving plastic surgery run amok.
Give Mom credit, though, she talks to Ronnie’s mother and the night before school starts she sits me down to point out all the things I never realized me and him have in common versus most of the other kids: our dads are both war veterans who don’t have cars and bring their lunch in brown paper bags to the City on the BMT; neither of us go on vacation or to summer camp; we’ve each got big sisters who gets straight A’s in school; we can’t distinguish Pesach from Chanukah and don’t go to Hebrew or take Bar Mitzvah lessons; we laugh at the same TV shows, both dig Dion, Ray Charles, and Daddy G records, have about equal ability in sports (despite me being faster), and do about the same on tests too. (What’s left off the list: nervous mothers that bug us all the time.)
“Okay,” I ask her, “so, why then do the lapdogs keep following him around, while me they just pish on? I don’t get it, why can’t I get one invitation to a party?”
“What’s to get?” she says. “It’s just how it is. Temporarily. Things will change.”
Deep down though, I’m like, that’s bull, things don’t change. Good-bye cruel world, cause you’re El Creepo, now and forever.
It’s a new school, and the name calling stops for the first week until a “Screwy Stewie” campaign gets underway.
One afternoon Ronnie gets wind of it and corners the ringleader, this uncoordinated goon Larry Aaronson, in the schoolyard. “Tell me who you think you are to be ranking him out?” he says, grabbing the kid’s shirt. “Stewie’s a good kid, he’s a better athlete than you, and he lives upstairs from me in my building. You’re the screwball. Go tell him you’re sorry and shake hands.” Word spreads, and that curtails Screwy Stewie at birth. Big deal though, it’s no skin off Ronnie’s nose. And given my grudge, I can’t square the idea that of all the rotten eggs in school, the biggest one would stick up for me, especially since I keep praying for every plague and disaster I know to befall him.
Still, the next morning something makes me ring his bell. “Want to walk to school?”
“Give me five,” he says. It becomes a routine.
Ronnie plays shortstop and they put me at second base, so we practice turning the DP over and over on our winless baseball team. He bats third, while I hit clean-up. On a 3-and-2 count, the final game of the season, I line a single to left, knocking him in from second to break a zero-zero tie in the last inning. No one screams louder than him when they mob me at home plate: MVP! Stewie’s the greatest! MVP! MVP! He keeps it up till a vein in his temple throbs.
Soon, I have to admit, if you hang with Ronnie, you’ll have a good time. Being handsome per se has nothing to do with it. He just has this way how he fools around, guaranteed to make even the walk to school an adventure.
One boiling hot morning, summer after seventh grade, me and him take a dip in the ocean. As we dry off and change back into clothes, something I see makes me shudder: this gargantuan hairy boner he’s got, long as a ruler, pointing skyward, at an angle to the left. How could something even half so humongous exist? Must be a connection: good looking, giant twanger, all the girls love him. Unlike El Creepo, with my puny wormlike schmeckel. Guess he has me beat there too.
Dad just shrugs. “Who knows why? Could be a million reasons.” Then he laughs and changes the subject.
A few months later, in eighth grade now, we have to sprint the last two blocks to school one morning, and after our wild dash, while everyone’s settling into seats, we find ourselves in the coat closet hanging our jackets, when he catches me from behind and gooses me.
“Hey, what the hell?” I push him away, but when we exit the wardrobe he’s got a grin on his face even bigger than normal. “Woo-woo,” he says, pointing, telling some of the guys, “Stewie-boy got goosed! Look, he’s all red in the face. That’s okay, bucko, it could happen to the best of us.”
I raise my fists, shaking. “Damn straight, it better not happen again with me.”
Butchie Goodkin, who’s standing around sniggering, puts me in a headlock. “Got a problem, fag bag?” he says, then gives me a few noogies, messing my hair up, just as Mrs. Korenberg tears into the room.
“You boys!” she hollers. “Quit horsing around.” Story of my life.
They put us in the same academic track at Lincoln High and now Ronnie attracts a whole slew of new admirers. From the gum chewing rich girls by Seagate to the ones with big hairdos on the other side of the Belt Parkway, they all giggle and grab each other around the waist when he walks down the hall. “Look at that gorgeous creature,” I hear one say.
Sophomore year I finally stop throwing up every morning. I run varsity track and take honors math and science courses, they begin calling me Chico, while Ronnie acts in the school play, sings in the Chorus, takes Civics, Problems in Democracy, Speech, and becomes a champion on the Debate Team. Always a peanut, he lengthens out to almost six feet that year and changes from super-cute to a little gawky, still with the golden smile, personality plus and sense of humor people can’t resist. He begins to explore the city, the Village he says, and from the looks of it spends a fortune on fancy clothes. With no after-school job and a father who works in a factory though, where does he get it? Stories begin to circulate junior year that he’s mixed up in something, it’s never said what. He gets in with a fast crowd, that’s for sure. People mention goofballs, but a cloud of myths always swirls around him now, and I don’t believe that.
When Mom takes sick he comes see me every night with a delicious care package (stuffed cabbage with kasha, macaroni and cheese, or boiled chicken, always with an almond cookie), until they finally release her from the hospital. He’s the only one. Elise escapes out of town to Albany and Dad falls apart. “Forget it,” Ronnie says when I ask how I’ll ever repay him. “What are friends for?”
His latest girlfriend, a glamor puss from Manhattan Beach named Nina Lazarus, picks him up almost every morning for the drive to school in her shiny red Nash Rambler convertible. I miss our walks. “Certain villainous rogues are after me,” he explains, “and Laz is my bodyguard. She’s got heart. So easy-going, until she springs into action. An expert practitioner of jiu jitsu.” Then he thumps his chest twice. “I may just be falling in love.”
One afternoon, while we’re showering after a triangular track meet, Miller, the long distance stud on our team, asks me, “Chico, you still buds with what’s his face? That pretty boy, Fine?”
“Yeah. What do you mean though, pretty boy?”
He makes a kissing noise. “You sweet on him, baby?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask him. “We’re friends. In your wildest dreams, you only wish you could go with one-tenth of the good-looking girls he messes around with. Stupid ass.”
“Yeah, well maybe your boyfriend Romeo goes out with them, but then nothing happens. He don’t mess around with girls, guaranteed.”
“What are you babbling about? How would you know, moron?”
“The guy’s a cold fish. He’s funny, you get me? Off.” Miller grabs his crotch and dangles his other hand out in front of him from the wrist down. “I don’t know, that’s what I hear from Marcy Sugarman, with the Twirlers.”
“She’d turn James Bond into a cold fish. What is your problem?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Forget it.”
I find a seat in the last row of the sweaty auditorium just before the great debate, when this goofy-looking buck-toothed kid I barely know leans over and whispers, “Hey, did you hear? Hot off the press: Ronnie and Nina broke up. The dream couple.”
It’s Ronnie versus Karen Mandell, who’s let her hair grow below her waist and has taken to lugging a guitar around Lincoln. Our very own Joan Baez, but she’s nowhere near as cute as in 6th grade. The topic: Is Free Love Immoral?
Karen speaks first, or should I say whines, about monogamy and marital fidelity just reducing love to a duty rather than an authentic expression of deep affection. Students throughout the room gasp. It’s just a bourgeois capitalist institution based on jealousy, Karen says, and oppressive male egotism. Don’t you see?
Go fly home on your broom, someone calls, as a cascade of boos drown her completely out until Mr. Napolitano takes the microphone and bellows how he’ll bodily evict the next wise guy who can’t keep his trap shut. “Want to try me?” he shouts.
What’s wrong with having multiple lovers? Karen asks, her voice higher pitched and more pleading with each sentence. Isn’t bottling passion and intimacy up unnatural? Unhappy loveless marriages, she says, constitute one of the serious mental health issues of our day. She concludes her opening argument citing examples of Victorian-era hypocrisy that are still influencing current social policy.
A few of her avant-garde girlfriends and the half dozen or so members of the Human Relations Club present applaud.
Ronnie bows at the waist, winking to the audience, and he practically gets a standing ovation.
“I’m agnostic about free love,” he begins.
A few girls scream, like it’s Paul McCartney on stage, and the goof sitting next to me whispers, “What’s agnostic?”
“I do believe though, that if we simply ignore social convention, it’s a prescription for anarchy, disorder, and madness. As someone who intends to be a lawyer, as someone who reveres our democratic process, I advocate changing social institutions, if the will of the people so dictates, through legislation, not through individual action that flaunts existing statutes.”
Ronnie maintains his cool, despite a few more outbursts, he doesn’t read from notes, and he wins the trophy by acclamation. Being his pal always gives me a little glow, but never more than now. He’s so well spoken, so radiant. Smooth as a young JFK.
“Way to go,” I say, slapping him five on our walk to school the next morning. “Best believe, you had the multitudes wrapped around your little finger.”
“Hey, Mandell made it easy. Anyone would’ve sounded like a genius by comparison. I’m a little torn, though,” he says. “Depends on your definition, but I can’t justify why free love is immoral.”
“Don’t sweat it, Ron. You’ll do great as a lawyer. Same thing: you defend your client as best you know how. You’re pro-free love, though? For real?”
“I mean, to each his own,” he says. “Shouldn’t people be allowed to love who they want? And not be forced to lie about it by society?”
“Okay, but if anything goes, where do you draw the line so our whole social order doesn’t disintegrate?”
“Yeah, that was my argument, but I have to admit, it’s kind of lame. Listen.” He swallows and his hand shakes as he latches onto my arm. “I’m keeping a secret inside. Deep down. A big one.”
I can’t think what to say. We resume walking, a car honks crossing Oceanview at 7th, and I glance at his profile: the fingertips of one hand are touching his forehead, his palm’s pressed over his nose, and instead of those perfect Ronnie Fine features, he looks like me, the ugly duckling. “Hey, you could tell me anything, buddy,” I whisper, hooking my arm around his shoulder, as I see him sniff back a tear. “Whatever your secret, I promise, it’s safe with El Creepo.”