I first met David and Vinnie in 1991 when I found them relieving themselves against the wall of our house. They were lanky thirteen-year-old Townies, native residents of Charlestown, Massachusetts, showing the accustomed contempt for “Yuppies,” the new folks like us who were moving in and pricing them out of the neighborhood. When I popped out the door, they ran. David paused to turn, flash a daft grin gleaming with braces, raise one hand and point the other finger behind it at the fleeing Vinnie, as though to say, “It’s him! He did it! Not me!”
Within a year, I had gotten to know both of them. I had started helping coach a tennis team run by a community anti-drug program. David and Vinnie, who loved athletics, had joined. Like most of their peers, they took to tennis in a wild way. Vinnie, a stunning natural basketballer, adapted his fancy hoop skills, found a powerful serve and forehand, and glided across the court. David was just as likely to drop his racket and do the moonwalk between points. With little or no form, but fabulous quickness and strength, our guys could humble a middle-aged coach in one quick rally.
Most of the “coaching” involved nothing more than driving David and Vinnie and their confreres around the Boston suburbs, often to tony prep schools where our adolescent hardguys matched up against teams of WASP-y snobs. We’d go to Vinnie’s project last in our morning pickup rounds, braving rocks and snowballs from the resentful neighborhood kids. We generally had to wake Vinnie through a bedroom window — often as not pulling him out half-dressed under the sash. Grimy winter weather, of course. I wore a parka and a Greek fisherman’s cap. Vinnie dubbed me “Skipper” (pronounced “Skippuh” in the local argot), a nickname I liked better than any I have ever had.
HALF-TRAINED THEY MAY HAVE BEEN, prone to pick quarrels with each other, feasting on Ho-Hos and Boo-Boos and chocolate drinks and other convenience store rot, our boys still won plenty of matches. And when the suburban types teased them for any reason, most often their raspy, flat city accents, our guys would snap together like a single organism, ready to pound the privileged twits to pulp. Then we’d step in, load the cars, and drive away, hooting, howling, and telling stories. Sometimes we’d even fit in some tennis advice.
The boys’ behavior could get bad. On one ride home, I had a long, thoughtful conversation with one Spanish kid, only to see him pull something in another coach’s car on another ride that got him booted out onto the street in the old North Station neighborhood with the coach in a fury chasing him around the block. One boy, among the town’s best athletes, suffered a sudden brain tumor and we thought we’d never see him again. He showed up six months later driving around in a head brace and a van, haranguing the streets. Six months after that, he joined us again, as bad-tempered and competitive as ever. The language was raw, the trouble considerable. But it led to some rewards, even as we took on new pre-teens and saw less and less of some boys as they got older.
David, for example, got a scholarship through our head coach’s efforts to Virginia Military Institute — as a boxer. By the time he went away, I had taken a job downtown and stopped coaching, so I lost track of the guys unless I happened to see them in the streets. One early spring day a few years later, the kind of Boston day where people stroll around in shirtsleeves with snow still banked up, I opened my front door and found David walking by. Braces gone, wavy black hair gorgeously combed, David displayed a glamour I had never before been aware of, along with a feature I had not noticed, one blue eye and one brown eye.
“Skippuh!” he hailed me.
We traded greetings. I asked about VMI and about boxing.
“Boxing was easy. I did fine,” David said. “Real well, as a matter of fact. You know, fighting’s a big thing around here, so I wasn’t afraid to get hit — or to hit somebody.”
“You graduated? You’re here now?”
David grinned, that old daft look on his face. He finished a banana he had been eating, and, unthinking, tossed the peel into a snowbank. “Ach! Look at that! What a Townie, huh?” He retrieved the peel. He grinned even more broadly.
“I live in Prague,” he said. “I’m here to visit my mother. The guys around town think I’m crazy. I can’t wait to go back.”
We talked a bit more. David strode down the street toward the projects, his banana peel still in hand, with the sunshine of worldly assurance and success about him. He no longer spoke with a Townie accent, the raw tones that would have kept him from profitable English-language company. He was a gorgeous young man, and I hoped that he would not be our only one as the years went on.
Vinnie? We lost him.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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