I Had Manners Even Then

Matt Muilenburg

My drug dealer had braces.

Pimples stalked his chin and cheeks like tweekers loitering behind the dumpster and the dirty blond hair hanging in his eyes centered a face that had yet to smoke out all its baby fat. He’d only been off the pacifier for nine or ten years, perhaps seven if his parents allowed a prolong suckle. He was my age, maybe a year older, a preteen yet to ripen his Adam’s apple. I had school books in my backpack the day I met him. He said that he had weed in his.

I thought I knew every kid in town via the social strata of Little League and diving boards, but I didn’t know this one. I hadn’t seen him cruising the mall or sizing up 7-10 splits at the bowling alley. This kid didn’t flick joysticks at the arcade, shoot H.O.R.S.E.s at the Y, or hurl jokes around the pool table at the diner where the old guys with cigar-stained tongues pulled tabs while we kiddos targeted corner pockets and chewed watermelon gumballs. He wasn’t one of us, the untainted, the boys still blinded by the umbilical cords wrapped around our heads. This kid used his umbilicus to lasso new clientele. And he paid for his braces with dime bags.

Drug dealers were myths for me in the early 90s, Big Footed doppelgangers of the bad boys the cops always, always, caught on TV. I had no reason to worry over their presence in Smalltown, Illinois, a fallacy I believed for years. And then one day, the weather warmed just enough to allow me to walk home from school.

That day, as usual, I was dressed in the bi-level blues of my Catholic school uniform – a pious sky blue on top and a depressing, stale navy on the bottom, the perfect polyester manifestation of heaven and hell, the buttered and the burnt sides of the toast I learned about every day in class. I took the safest route home available, tooling along Seventh Street, and quickly arrived at Peoria, Seventh’s well-traveled north-south counterpart. The school district worried over this intersection. Just a few years earlier, a fellow altar boy in training was smoked by a bumper a few blocks south of that crossing and he spent weeks in the hospital. For that reason and others, Peoria was a road for the crossing guards.

The guard at the corner of Seventh and Peoria looked up from her crossword puzzle and eased out of her aluminum lawn chair when she saw me hurrying her way. She was middle-aged, her hair frizzed into a perm, an orange reflective vest glinting across her torso, her dark sunglasses keeping the shine away from her eyes. She trudged to the corner as I approached, dragging her sign an inch off the ground, STOP flipped to dots, and I alloyed myself to her side. Together we watched the traffic rumble.

The pace was consistent, controlled, tamped down from the fifty-five that was allowed a few miles north, just before the Interstate-80 on-ramp. There was nothing along that stretch of Peoria to interrupt the flow, the closest stoplight blinking three blocks south, so I stood next to my temporary surrogate mother and waited. Eventually, the crossing guard seized a brief burp in the flow, scampered to the middle of Peoria, and held up her sign with her right hand, her left folding and unfolding in my direction, motioning for me to hurry. The drivers slowed to a stop, idling, all their busy work inhibited by my need to cross. I stepped onto the road, unable to look at the drivers in their cars, afraid that I’d see the impatience they had for me blazing in their eyes. So I looked straight ahead and saw, for the first and only time, my drug dealer.

He was the first kid with whom I crossed paths who didn’t look like the rest of us. While there were some casual discrepancies of dress and style amongst the boys of my age, our affects were rarely dissimilar – Nike-swooshed socks around our ankles, Nike-swooshed sneakers swallowing our feet, our shirts emblazoned with the mascots of various Chicago sports teams or emblems of faux prestige – mostly that Nike swoosh. We wore our backpacks over one shoulder and chewed gumballs with our mouths open, rebels of impoliteness. Our hats – turned frontwards. Our shirts – tucked in. Our watches – what watches? Time was for teachers, nuns, umpires, coaches, bus drivers, lifeguards, crossing guards – the watchers in our lives who’d been entrusted to keep us safe and get us home in one piece in time for our homework, our supper, and our prayers.