Living Rooms, 1986

I don’t have much. What I do have, all the other kids have too, and then some. They are awash in Transformers and Gobots and Thundercats and whatever line of cartoon-powered action figures came out last week, along with all the attendant play sets. They bring them to the playground, showing off the spoils of weekend trips to Paramus and Danbury and other mall-filled towns. I can not compete in these contests.

I do have a few things I know, for a fact, that my friends covet. One is an Anakin Skywalker figure, procured for a few cereal UPCs and six to eight weeks of anxious waiting. None of the other kids in the neighborhood were sufficiently quick or sharp-eyed to notice this offer as part of their nutritious breakfast. I was, somehow. The Anakin Skywalker figure does very little. It doesn’t come with a light saber, and the figure’s legs barely move. Still, it is rare and it is mine.

The only other things I have that other kids lack are three issues of the G.I. Joe comic book that serve as Snake Eyes’ origin story. Snakes Eyes is a ninja and doesn’t talk and therefore everyone wants to know what his deal is. Of all the kids I know, only I am privy to that knowledge.

The Snake Eyes story is full of ninjas and flashbacks and urban blight—Snake Eyes and Stormshadow do battle on a graffiti-covered el train. The comics even have a B-story give a tantalizing view of Cobra Commander and Destro out of their usual disguises (kind of; they just put on other disguises to go incognito, for reasons too dumb to relate here). I purchased these issues from a corner store on Lefferts Boulevard during trips to my grandparents’ place in The City, which makes them seem even cooler. To me, anyway. I look at them and hear an A train rumbling outside.

The IssueThese G.I. Joe issues form admission to a Saturday afternoon of comic book swapping at my friend John’s house. John and other kids in the neighborhood want to read my Snake Eyes comics, I want to read their everything else, and watch some cable while I’m at it. I want to partake in all the luxuries denied to me at home. Maybe if I’m lucky, HBO will be showing Beastmaster, or that creepy as hell Nostradamus documentary with Orson Welles. I pile my G.I. Joe‘s in a plastic ShopRite bag, along with some old Hulk’s and Mad Magazine Super Specials and a Power Pack. I’m fully aware that no one else likes The Hulk or Power Pack, and that I’m the only kid who finds the Spiro Agnew jokes in the old Mad Magazines marginally amusing. But I need something to round out my haul, make it seem like they’re not the only things of value I own.

I’m friends with most of the kids who show up at John’s house, except one. His name is Matt, too, and he is a liar. I know he is a liar because I live with a liar who’s much better at his craft. My dad is the Doc Gooden of liars. He lies so effortlessly he makes all other practitioners of the art pale in comparison. He works in lies the way other artists work in marble or clay.

Matt lies for the worst reasons. He lies to make himself better than you. If I want to talk about Return of the Jedi, he will claim to have seen the “next” Star Wars movie. When I say there’s no such thing, he says uh huh yes there is and he got to see it because he has an uncle who knows George Lucas. When I read in his eyes that he’s full of it and tell him so, he suddenly remembers that Matt rhymes with fat.

I have nothing to counter with. Once another kid pulls out the Fat card, you’re sunk. He doesn’t have to worry about me returning the insult because he is nothing close to overweight. He is rail thin, and has the sunken eyes of a Dickensian street urchin.

I have no run-ins with Matt this afternoon, though. We all swap comics in peace. I get to read one issue of Secret Wars that makes little sense to me, but feel better for having a vague sense of what the thing is now. No Nostradamus documentary, but HBO does show a teen romp of recent vintage with enough dirty jokes to satisfy our uncomprehending tastes. We play in John’s tree fort until dusk settles on us. I huff and puff up a steep hill to get back home and feel all the weight of insults past.

By the time I’m safely back home, it is completely dark. It’s not until the screen door slams behind me, until all the effort of my walk home is spent, that I notice my Shop Rite bag of comics is swaying a little too freely from my hand. I look inside. The three G.I. Joe‘s are missing. I’m certain I put them in the bag before I left. I’ve never been more certain of anything else. But they’re missing all the same.

I howl to Mom that she has to drive me back to John’s house that instant. She refuses to do this, figuring John’s family is sitting down to dinner by now, and she’s not going to interrupt somebody’s dinner for some silly comic books. I try to explain that these are not just comic books, that these are it for me, but my tongue has apparently slipped into a different language. I can not make Mom understand the dire social consequences of losing these comics.

With a sigh, my mom calls up John’s mom. No, she hasn’t seen any G.I. Joe comic books laying around, but she’ll keep an eye peeled for them. Mom insists they’ll probably turn up somewhere, but I have already given up hope. They fell out of my bag and are in a ditch on the side of the road. The pulp is soaked with mud and being pecked by birds already.

Hours pass and feel like days. All is lost. I am a few minutes from bed time when the doorbell rings. No one but strangers ring our doorbell.

At the door is Matt. Standing behind Matt, his dad, with an iron grip on Matt’s shoulders. Matt’s Dad looks huge and hard. He has a smoky voice like my grandfather’s.

“You got somethin to say?” Matt’s Dad asks.

Matt keeps his eyes on the floor of our front porch. He won’t look at me as he pulls a hand from behind his back and forks over my G.I. Joe‘s.

“I took your comics,” Matt says.

“And how’d it make you feel?” Matt’s Dad asks.

“Trapped,” Matt says, eyes still on the floor.

“You sorry?” Matt’s dad asks.

“Yes, sir,” Matt says.

Matt doesn’t look sorry. He looks like an apology is being squeezed out of him. His dad’s enormous fingers clutch at Matt’s collarbone.

My mom sputters out some appreciative words, thanking Matt for his (eventual) honesty. Matt and his dad disappear, toward a pickup with its brakelights stabbing the dark.

“I feel so sorry for him,” Mom says once they’ve left.

“He stole something from me!” I protest. I have hardly anything. To my eyes, Matt has everything, which means he has more He-Man figures and Transformers than he could possibly play with and no siblings he must share them with. And he still had to take something from me.

“You don’t think he suffered enough?” Mom asks.

I close my eyes and see those fingers squeezing Matt, crushing him. And still my answer is “No.” It’s a terrible thing to say, which is why I say it. I don’t want a world where he is a victim, too.

“You got your stupid comic books back, didn’t you?” Yes. “Then go to sleep and try to forget it.”

So I go to bed, and I try.