He was only seven years old and depending on the events of that Friday, he was either desperately in need of some loving, gentle guidance or a swift back hand. Either way, Jay was a great kid, really. He just always arrived completely disassembled. I had never tried to piece together a respectful young man, but accepted the challenge every Friday night for over a year.
You could taste the estrogen in his home. Three women, none of whom had a clue about what it’s like to be a boy or what a boy needs to become a gentleman, were trying all the wrong things in my opinion. Two generations above him, his portly Grandma was from the well-fed bayous of Louisiana and empress of the kitchen stove, the burners of which daily licked at a large beaten silver pot, wide as it was tall. And it was always there, always steaming and always full of some southern blend of fish or stew or unidentifiable tomato gumbo soupy stuff. Though she referred to it each Friday by a different name when I showed up for dinner, it always tasted the same. And because it was always there and always on in the same position, I seriously wondered if Saturday through Thursday weren’t just days when new ingredients were added at random from the refrigerator or scraped in from the plates of other mealtimes. I could see why Jay always relished going out to dinner with me.
I’m guessing he’s about 34 now, the same age as his mother when I first met her working together on our new church magazine. She was a sensual, mysterious woman in every regard. Southern, thin frilly-flowered dresses, milky white skin and fluffy blonde hair. Her sister, who completed the female royalty of the household, was much the same, only several years older, taller and much more weathered.
I saw a lot of myself in little Jay. He was the cherished prince of the household, the only male child and without fatherly influences or male role models for the entirety of his young, impressionable life. Though we were unlike in some regards, like me, he was the proverbial “boy in the window.”
There was no escaping the touch, the advice or the eye of the female aristocracy, so for the sake of survival, he’d learned to embrace their ways. Privy to their gossip about the other gender, the idiosyncratic female ways and for years enduring the mood swings of their unified monthly cycles, he was a boy drowning in estrogen who needed a savior. When he chanced to lift himself up to peer outside the window at the other neighborhood boys at play, he was scolded not to fall, enveloped once again into the overly protective womanly ways of the household.
Jay definitely needed a savior.
Tired of the silver pot dinners—both of us—one Friday night, I broke the ritual.
“Jay and I are gonna take off and get a bite tonight, y’all,” I said in a mock southern drawl, hoping the humor would compensate for the disinviting it implied. I had seen how he looked at me so many Friday night visits before which had taken their course and I got up to leave for home. He’d yearned to be able to do the same. The boy inside him needed the man inside me if not for just for the influence of one night a week.
I don’t think we waited for a discussion of my proposal nor an approval. We were out the door, in the car and driving off fast as boys do. He loved misbehaving with me and I could take the heat of the female disapproval for the both of us if needed upon our return. Tonight, we were defiant, forgetting to take our coats and determined to dine on fast food and root beer for a long time. High five!
Entering Long John Silvers, the lip of the silver counter stretched half the length of the restaurant, ending at the very round black woman commanding the cash register. I walked sidestep, eyes feasted upward at the menu bannering the wall above. I took mental note of the selections to dictate our order at the finish line where our defiantly delicious dinner could begin.
“What the hell are you doing, man? That’s just sick, Jay!,” I yelled out, seeing his tongue, lick the length of the silver counter on its way toward me. Clearly, he’d not been schooled in the gentlemanly manners of dining out. Perhaps never.
I paid and together, we mocked the stride of the gentleman who’d departed the register before us. Our pace entering the dining room, fine plastic cutlery in hand, to the table with a view, was deliberately dignified as if we were some proper gents in a castle. He cracked up as boys should, but can’t around years of smothering women. Taking seat and waiting to be served, I explained the manly art of napkinning. I showed him how it could be folded and tucked in the collar, shaken to the side and laid in the lap, or, in his case, both.
The butler presented us a tray of assorted, quite scrumptious, deeply fried, artery clogging somethings so covered in greasy, crusted batter, we weren’t exactly sure it was what we ordered, but it didn’t matter. As refined gentlemen we were there for the moment, and we didn’t care.
For men, once the food arrives, all decorum is off. The goal that evening was to munch with our mouths open, burp loudly, fart occasionally and talk about guy stuff.
Of course, being only seven and curious being exposed to this new environment, he won the competition for “most disgusting tableside act” in the final round, peeling and chewing the dry, discolored rind from the lip of the ketchup bottle.
“Bravo!,” I cried out, awarding his achievement with a greasy napkin to the head.
We talked much longer than the food lasted. It was mostly about sports, school and guy stuff and after a belching contest, made our way out the door and back to the palace where a worried royal ensemble impatiently laid in wait for our arrival.
He raced me to the door and it opened on its own. His mother remarked how she’d been busy with affairs of the house and asked about our outing. We vowed to keep the belching contest our secret so we rattled off some menu items we enjoyed and how to fold napkins properly as a cover up. He glanced my way. I winked at him and he laughed his way down the hall to get his bath before bed as instructed.
Jay and I spent many Friday nights out on boy excursions to eat disgusting food or play video games, throw a ball and sometimes to just to escape. It became the highlight of his week–and mine.
I don’t know what became of Jay. As I said, it’s been many years. The matriarch and her princesses moved away and I recall our last Friday together as the moving truck sped off. I watched the tearful face of the boy in the window for the final time and I winked and waved, wondering what might become of him and if our many Friday nights might somehow have changed the manhood of his destiny.
I still sometimes imagine him having found a wife or lover, the wisdom of a gentleman, or at least, the peace that comes with finally feeling he was one of the guys learning to be a man in the midst of an estrogen ocean.
I know that at least for a little while every Friday night, I did.