That day after school a bunch of us walked home together. Even though we all lived within a few blocks of each other, I didn’t know most of them well; we were in the same sixth grade class at Hillcrest Elementary School, but only Randy was someone I would call a friend.
It was a Friday, so we didn’t have to do homework that night. Johnny suggested that we all go to his house for a game of Monopoly. We could call our moms when we got there and let them know where we were.
Then, he suddenly remembered, “Oh no, we can’t go to my place. Mom is having the carpets cleaned today.”
For some reason they all looked at me.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I have some chores to do, anyway.” I was supposed to mow the lawn every week, but I always put it off until Sunday. I had no intention of doing it on a Friday afternoon.
“Yeah,” Billy said. I do, too.”
“Uh-huh, me, too”, Mike agreed.
We decided that we’d have to make it another day. My house was the closest one to the school, so I climbed the front steps and went inside while the others continued on up the street.
A week or so later we were walking home together again.
“Let’s go play some football at my house,” Mike offered. Mike lived on a corner and his house had a big enough yard for a touch football game.
“No, wait. Darn it. That’s not going to work. I forgot that Dad just fertilized the lawn.”
Again, everyone looked at me for some reason. I would have offered my yard, but it wasn’t big enough for a game and there was a big mimosa tree right in the middle of it. I just shrugged.
Then it happened a third time. We were going to go to Warren’s for a glass of lemonade, but the upholstery was being shampooed at his house, and there wouldn’t be any place to sit.
We said our goodbyes and I trudged on home, but I was bored. I decided to call Alan. His Mom answered the phone.
“Sorry, Alan’s not here. He and Johnny and Randy are over at Warren’s.”
“At Warren’s? Really?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s where he said they were going,”
I hung up.
This was strange. I tried to think of a possible explanation. Maybe Warren got the day wrong and realized it after I’d already gone home. But why wouldn’t he call me and tell me? Maybe Alan’s Mom had misunderstood and they were at Johnny’s or Mike’s house. And again, if that were true, why wouldn’t they call and tell me? Maybe they just didn’t want me to join them. I mean, I really wasn’t that close to any of them except maybe Randy. But I knew he wouldn’t leave me out.
I was seriously thinking of just going over to Warren’s when it occurred to me that I’d never been in Warren’s house. In fact, I’d never actually been in Alan’s, Mike’s or Johnny’s house, either. I knew where they all lived, I’d been past their houses dozens of times, but except for Randy’s, I’d never been invited in.
The next day it happened again. We couldn’t watch TV at Alan’s house because his living room was being painted.
I was stunned by the amount of work my friends were having done on their houses. I couldn’t even remember the last time our carpets were cleaned, but I was pretty certain that Mom would have done it herself. We hadn’t painted the living room since the house was built. And Dad fertilized the lawn every spring, not in October. And all of that stuff cost a lot of money, more money than my family was willing to spend on the house.
I was tempted to call Alan’s house again, but I was afraid to. What if all the boys were over there? What would that mean? How would I feel about that? I put the phone down and decided not to call.
The next day at school I asked Randy about it. Randy was the only one I trusted to tell me the truth.
He motioned me over to a quiet corner of the lunchroom. “Look,” he said, whispering so no one else could hear, “you’re our friend, and nobody wants to hurt your feelings.”
“What do you mean, hurt my feelings?”
“Don’t blame them. It’s not them, it’s their Moms and Dads.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
But that’s all he would say.
That night I told Dad what had happened and what Randy had said.
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, boy,” he said. “Well. Yeah. I guess I’m not surprised. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
He sat down at the kitchen table and motioned me to join him.
”The same thing used to happen to me when I was growing up in Cleveland.”
“What used to happen?”
“Eddie, it’s no fun, I know, but there’s not much you can do about it.”
“All you can do is just hope that, in time, things change. That kids grow up and make up their own minds. That’s how things get better.”
He took a deep breath and let out a big sigh.
“Sometimes it’s not easy being Jewish.”