Memoir: the education of a toxic male, 1966-72

I met Kevin when my family moved into the south Oak Park home across the alley from his family, I was five, and he a year younger, and over the next six years or so we were constant playmates outside of school. A clever kid, Kevin was a natural athlete, who spurred my growth as a young male. In sports the older boys respected his skills and his fierce spirit, but they would also laugh at his temper. Kevin was a terrible loser, the one most likely, when a play or a game seemed unfair, to take his ball and sulk home. 

Beyond football and baseball games with the older boys, Kevin and I would splash dive and splash fight in nearby Rehm public pool all summer long. We also played tennis baseball on the courts, a two-person game of our devising. Cooler months we spent hours throwing the football or skating on the frozen tennis courts. 

(ABOVE: Kevin and I on the cover of the Oak Leaves Memorial Day edition, 1967)

Some of our play was malicious: Kevin took a deep dislike of his neighbor two doors down, the dark-skinned, heavily-accented immigrant, Al Kaval. In this fall day game Kevin made up, we filled our pockets with crab apples and rang the bell at Al’s front door. Kevin’s neighbor looked like Bela Lugosi to me. 

            “Yess, boyz?” He smiled uncertainly, yellow teeth exposed.

            “Yeah, uh, hey Al,” said Kevin, addressing the middle-aged man as his equal. “Me and Drew wanted ta… you know, get to know you better. So, ah… would you show us around your house?”

            Al Kaval’s eyebrows knitted. “Ah…Vell…,I”

            “Come on, it’ll only take a little bit!” Kevin insisted.

            The older man sighed. “Vell, OK,” and let us in. He said, “Come in!” 

            Kevin and I smiled at Al and asked him about pictures and pieces of his furniture. The moment he’d turn away from us to explain, Kevin and I crammed handfuls of the apples underneath papers and behind objects. The idea was to make this creepy immigrant’s life worse with strange smells and fruit flies.

Kevin’s basement wasn’t as finished as ours, but his dad kept a stack of old Playboys in it that he and I studied. By the time we were nine or ten, we were connoisseurs of its party jokes and alas, already objectifying the playmates as more or less attractive.  

Kevin’s dad, Cliff, was tall and imposing. A banker in the Loop during the day, he took his role as strict father very seriously. He had a stern look, and few words for kids like me, his son, or his daughter. More than once on Kevin’s face I saw the raw outline of his dad’s angry hand. Neither of us spoke about the dysfunctional adults we were born to. We accepted them like the weather.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I’d often hear shouts and growls coming from Kevin’s backyard. Cliff was attempting to turn the family dog, Smokey the friendly black lab, into an attack dog. Cliff’s intent was to use Smokey as intimidation to the juvenile delinquents who hung out on a park bench near curfew. Cliff and Smokey would slow their stroll near the bench and warn the kids to get out. Otherwise he’d have the cops on them. Kids who pushed back, which Cliff was hoping for, would be put back in line by Smokey’s bites, Cliff’s judo, and a gun he holstered under his arm. Kids would disappear then into the night, but many times, soon re-materialize with purloined Budweiser, illegal smokes, and laughter.

By the end of grammar school, Kevin and I had drifted apart. I forgot about him until twenty five years later, when my sister told me that Kevin’s sister Kim had become a sex worker and drug addict, and Kevin, in retrospect somewhat predictably, had shot two strangers to death in an Arizona road rage.


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