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Adam Frey

The Reality of the World

Let me tell you about David Lee. David Lee might sound like a Chinese American kid with a big, clean grin, but let me assure you that in Birmingham in 1959 there were only about a dozen Chinese people, whom we called "Orientals," and David was not among them. No, the Lees were unmistakably WASP, in the tradition of General Lee and Traveller, except gone to seed.

David had dark brown hair that was absolutely straight, darker brown eyes, and lips the color of a maraschino cherry that has been left to soak too long in gin. When I first knew him he was six, I was five, and we would go into the walk-in closet together and practice kissing so that, as he explained, we would be prepared later when we had girlfriends. David was uncomplicated and seemed to know what he was doing, his lips were silky, and I would have gone right on kissing him, but he soon lost interest.

Within a few months, David had acquired a whole elaborate approach to lovemaking which he must have learned at the elbow of his big brother, Neal, who some years later achieved notoriety by robbing a bank. When Neal robbed the bank they handed over the loot in a white canvas bag, just like in the cartoons. The bag was booby-trapped: in the getaway car, it exploded, covering Neal—and the money—with indelible pink dye. It was incredible to us when we saw his picture in the paper, not because he had robbed the bank, but because he had been made to look like a fool. I still can hardly believe that a young man with such an assured romantic technique could have let himself be marked a dupe by the Birmingham Bank.

David demonstrated the Neal Lee way with women to me many times, sometimes using the navy blue easy chair and its matching ottoman to represent the lady in question. Lying directly astride this indigo creation, his six-year-old hips delicately but insistently in motion, David would drive his lips passionately into an upholstery button in the center of the seat, murmuring under his breath after an interval, "Let me kiss you, baby." Watching from a couch nearby, I worried that it was wrong for him to delay this communication until after he had already worked her lips into a kind of erotic chafing dish, but the truth is that this genteel brutishness was a Lee hallmark.

The lovemaking cranked itself up one whole level of intensity as David slid his hand manfully up the seat of the chair, asking, again only after resistance was impossible, "Let me feel you, baby." These first two steps with their accompanying ritual requests, ingeniously staggered in time so as to make argument useless, were followed by two others of increasing intrusiveness and gravity which I need not name here. Let me say only that when the course was completed the chair lay despoiled, exhausted, and utterly silent, while David arose somewhat worn. Unsure if it was all worthwhile, we turned quickly and with relief to more innocent games.

The Lees were our neighbors on a new and expensive street in the exclusive Mountain Brook section. My family was one of only two on the block who were Jewish. The other Jewish family was named Roth, and we consistently avoided each other—to prove to the neighborhood, I think, that our social lives could be hermetically separated from our identity as Jews. David was my first friend on the street.

Except in their essence, the Lees were a fine and upstanding family in the community. Certainly, they were important. David's father had a successful realty company and presided over the local realtors' association. He also served as toastmaster for the prestigious Oak Brook Country Club, where Jews were never admitted as members and where Mrs. Lee liked to join him for dinner. Mrs. Lee was tall, freckled, and drove a red convertible with the top down even in cold weather. You could smell her perfume and hair spray all over the back part of the house, and she spent long stretches of time in her bedroom with the door open, admiring herself in the mirror. She'd wander out into the hall in extraordinarily elaborate black lingerie, looking bleak and distracted. When she was sure that I had seen her in this costume, she would angrily complain to David that I was spying on her, and for a few days I would not be allowed in the house. Then, a couple of weeks later, the whole charade would be enacted all over again. Her erotic technique in this respect was an exact complement to Neal's; only after she was confident that her privacy had been violated would she insist that it not be. I'll say this for her, though: she had style.

I rarely saw Mr. Lee at home, but I learned one day that he kept a loaded rifle in the house, a weapon which seemed to belong somehow to the drama surrounding Mrs. Lee's lingerie. My own father, I later discovered, also kept a gun, but it was a pistol and he had the decency to hide it. Mr. Lee's rifle, like his wife's undergarments, would not be hidden, and its ugly existence obtruded unpleasantly into my childhood world.

In looking back, I wonder why I spent so much time with the Lees. They were not kind to me, and despite my admiration for David's masculine forthrightness, I had little personal liking for him. The rest of the family frightened me. Young children have limited options in making friends; geographically, the world is bounded by how far your mother's voice will carry, calling you in for dinner, and a lack of social expertise can easily cut up your few remaining choices. Yet I think now that I persevered with the Lees for one very compelling reason: they were the people who counted, who called the shots. They represented the reality of the world to me, and by surviving in their midst I thought I was outfitting myself for Life.

To be associated with the Lees was to learn to look on at a whole series of embarrassments and scandals. Right out of high school, David's oldest sister became pregnant by a wig salesman; they married in the shade of her father's gun. Another sister existed on Valium and lingered suggestively in public places, decked with makeup. Mrs. Lee herself was said to constantly threaten suicide; when she began having extramarital affairs this rumor subsided.

Even the Lees' domestic help was the subject of gossip. After a long and loyal career of lying to the neighbors to cover the pranks and crimes of the children, Ethel, the black maid, was suddenly discharged in a dispute about her pay. She was replaced by a white live-in called Mrs. Jones. This substitution was as offensive to the sensibilities of the neighborhood as it would have been if the Lees had purchased a white slave. No one was surprised, therefore, when it was determined that Mrs. Jones drank, wet the bed, and lacked humility. Ethel was found again. She resumed her post with a grim face.

These were things that adults talked about. Probably my mother heard them from our maid and told them in turn to my father. My father, who evaluated everything, said that the Lees were very mediocre people. I was secretly delighted by this assessment because it confirmed my own findings.

My superior attitude toward the Lees did not come from the scandals they populated, but from more subtle and refined distinctions that could best be made by a child. They had a piano in the den, not because any of the children took music lessons, but because it contained an electrified player unit that occasionally amused the Lees by spilling out tunes from the 1920s. That no one actually played this instrument confirmed the Lees' essential triviality. The furniture and decorations had been chosen for their unaesthetic qualities; there was nothing of real beauty in the house. The beet-colored Naugahyde recliners, like the piano, trumpeted the Lees' want—not just of character, but of taste.

My association with the family was mediated by the reinstated Ethel. She answered the phone and the door and would proclaim David at home, or out, as she saw fit. A small, tightly bulging woman in her late fifties whose gray uniform could not cover her abundant personality, she stared at me with piercing eyes that poked out from her head. I felt she almost saw into my soul; I wonder now if she didn't suffer from hyperthyroidism. One summer Saturday, though, she said something sharp that reached inside my skin. David and I were talking about going to a movie, and I said I would have to see if I could get the money for a ticket from my mother.

"Of course you can get it," Ethel said. "Jews have plenty money."

I ventured that I didn't think all Jews were necessarily rich.

Ethel looked at me with impatience. "Jews all got money because they smarter than other people, just like you smarter than David."

A shiver went through me—I felt exposed. She spoke, I sensed, not in her role as maid, but as high priestess for the Lees—what I might now call ex cathedra. For the first time, I saw myself through the Lees' eyes. I was smarter than David, and they knew it.

I waited for David to respond. From the beginning of Ethel's intrusion into the conversation, he had been staring fixedly at the kitchen table, his face placid, but his lips tightening in exasperation at the delay she was causing. Now he looked up, glad that the interruption was finished.

"I'll go with you to ask," he said, heading to the door.

"No, I'll go."

By the time I got home, outrage had caught up with me. I found my mother.

"Mama," I said, "the Lees think I'm smarter than David because I'm Jewish."

She glanced at me appraisingly for a moment before returning to the bills she was paying.

"Honey, you're smarter than David Lee for a thousand reasons."

If Ethel meant to run me out of the house with her remark, it worked. Like a jostled sleeper whose enjoyment of the night's heart has been disturbed, I became restless, tossing and turning from one new playmate to the next. Before long, I found a new friend at school—a Jewish boy with whom I shared more interests. If David minded that I didn't see him so often, he didn't show it. My parents never asked about him, and by the end of the year we were strangers.

Only our maid maintained a stubborn interest in the Lees. Occasionally she would report to us about something David had done. Her last reconnaissance, when I was fourteen, delivered the nougat that he was smoking pot all the time and sleeping with his girlfriend right in the Lees' house. I imagined David sitting up in his bed, shirtless and vaguely smirking, beside a pale, dark-eyed girl, equally shirtless, on whose undecided face swam remnants of blue eye shadow. They shared a hard-rolled cigarette, laughing once at nothing much. She flicked ashes onto the red and black carpet. Shot through with unexpected envy, I put David out of my mind as completely and permanently as I could.

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