I used to be friendly with a kid called Sam Bamburger, whose mother was the first woman I ever heard of to get divorced. Sam was about nine at the time and up to that point something of an all-American kid, except maybe shorter and paler. He had fair hair and a small nose and the kind of face that looked either innocent or cruel. Sam played shortstop on my Little League team and had the reputation among the fathers of being a prospect—if he grew, that is. He never grew much.
Hard to say how we became friends. He lived not far from me, just the other side of Speedway, in a small corner house that overlooked a park. The park had the nearest swimming pool—nearest, I mean, to me. I used to bike there in the summer and lock my wheels against the chain-link fence that surrounded the pool. Afterwards, when I was tired of swimming, I looked around for kids to play basketball with on the court next door. Sam’s house was close enough that we could run back for a ball if no one was playing, but that can hardly be how I got to know him in the first place. I remember feeling that I didn’t have much choice in the matter—in our friendship. Maybe he took me in a game of pickup, and together we held court for an afternoon. (I was already about a head taller than Sam.) Sam liked leading; I liked winning.
Kids don’t really choose people, anyway. People are more or less thrust upon them. I do a lot of choosing now; it doesn’t mean that I like anybody more. I think it was Sam who got me to try out for Little League. I wasn’t very good at baseball, but I went along for the ride, and Sam liked giving me pointers. Which is probably how we became friends: him pointing things out and me saying, OK, I’ll try that next time.
After the divorce he started acting up in pretty harmless ways. At least at first. For example, he started what he called the gleek club. I don’t know if he invented gleeking, or where he got it from. Basically, gleeking was spitting, except the spit never touched your tongue or lips but streamed straight from the glands or ducts in the roof of your mouth. I guess it’s a pretty disgusting habit, which is why we did it, but it also involved getting control of a normally uncontrollable bodily function. And it didn’t do anybody any harm. We used to keep paper cups on our desk. After the bell rang we showed them to each other to see who had gleeked the most.
When Sam was eleven his mother got remarried to a computer programmer from Dubrovnik who taught at the university. The worst part about it, from Sam’s point of view, was that this guy had a son from a previous marriage who already went to our school. Sam called him Sputnik, since he sounded Russian and Sam didn’t know any other Russian words. The nickname stuck. Sputnik was one of those boys it’s almost impossible for other boys to like. He was tall for his age and had freckles, braces, and black hair that hung down to his collar. Every day he wore the same clothes to school: skinny gray pants, which he claimed were European, and a Windbreaker whose sleeve he used to suck on.
In retrospect I can see that he was one of the nicest kids you’d ever want to meet, but at the time it was hard for me to look past a few basic facts about him. He had a big Casio watch with a compass on it and sometimes, when he didn’t know what else to say, he would point to something in the distance and ask you what direction you thought it was. This was a game he was bound to win, and so I didn’t like playing it much. The game I liked was basketball, and the worst thing about Sputnik was this: whenever he got the ball, no matter where he happened to be on court, he used to turn to the basket and shoot. You were lucky if he hit the rim; most of the time the ball went straight out of bounds. If you asked him why he did it, he gave you this big shiny smile, which stretched out the freckles on his face, and he always said the same thing: “It was a challenge.”