“Purple Alligator,” Friend, Jan. 1991, 8
“Whom are you going to invite to your birthday party tomorrow?” Mom asked as I looked at the purple alligator piñata she was making for me.
Mom always made a piñata for our birthdays. She had made cowboys, horses, elephants, and pirates and stuffed them full of candy and surprises. We would invite our friends over, hang the piñata in our willow tree, and give everyone a chance to break it and grab some of the goodies inside.
“I’m going to invite everybody in the neighborhood.” I grinned as Mom glued big teeth and plastic eyes onto the alligator made of bright, fluffy tissue paper.
“Are you even going to invite Bobby Wilson?” my brother, David, asked.
I frowned and stuffed my fists into my pockets. “I wouldn’t invite Bobby to anything. He’s a jerk.”
“Benjamin!” Mom snapped, turning around and glaring at me. “You know you don’t talk like that about your friends.”
“I wasn’t talking about my friends.” I turned and stomped out of the house. Every time I thought about Bobby, I got mad. He was the worst pest a guy could have. He lived across the street and two houses down in a yellow house that needed painting. The lawn in front was never mowed, and most of the time it had big patches of brown in it because nobody ever watered it.
Nobody liked Bobby. He wore ragged clothes and a too-shiny baseball cap that looked like he’d dragged it from the trash. But the way he looked was only part of it. He was such a big mouth, bragging about all the things he had and all the things he could do.
“Mom’s going to make you invite Bobby to your birthday party,” David teased as he followed me out the front door and onto the lawn under the willow tree.
“I might have to take an invitation to his house,” I said defiantly, “but I’ll hide it in the bushes so he’ll never find it. When he doesn’t show, if Mom asks if I took him an invitation, I can tell her yes.”
We started to giggle, thinking of the good joke I’d play on Bobby.
“Hey, what are you two doing?” a voice called out.
David and I looked up. There stood Bobby, with his stupid baseball cap on his head.
“We’re not doing anything,” I said. “And we don’t plan to,” I added, hoping Bobby wouldn’t decide to stay.
Bobby strolled over and dropped down on the grass beside us. “I sure played a good game of baseball,” he announced smugly. “I hit about ten homers.”
“Ah, come on,” David scoffed. “You never hit a home run in your life.”
“I did so—with the new bat my dad sent me.”
“You don’t have a new bat,” I argued.
Bobby jumped to his feet. “I do too.”
I laughed and shook my head. “Go get your new bat and show it to us, then.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“I figure that that’s what you are.”
I wasn’t expecting what happened next. Bobby grabbed me in a headlock and was punching and scratching and kicking all at the same time. I rolled over and tried to break away from him, but he stayed right with me.
“What are you boys doing?” I heard Mom ask.
I jumped up, glared at Bobby, and ducked my head as I turned toward Mom. “We were just messing around.”
“Well, it didn’t look like either of you was having any fun. If that’s the way you’re going to mess around, then maybe you’d better do it cleaning up the garage. That way you won’t get into trouble.”
The rest of the morning David and I stayed in the garage, cleaning up and grumbling about Bobby.
“I’m never talking to him again,” I told David as I swept the garage floor.
“Don’t let Mom hear you say that, or she’ll really make you invite Bobby to your piñata party.”
“I’ll just skip my birthday this year if I have to invite Bobby. And I’ll give my purple alligator away.”
“Hi, Benjamin. Hi, David,” someone shouted.
We looked up and saw Bobby coming up the driveway on his old, beat-up bike. David and I didn’t say anything. We just kept right on working.
“What’re you guys doing?” Bobby asked, leaning his bike against the side of the house.
“We’d be out playing ball if somebody hadn’t showed up this morning and got all smart,” I muttered.
Bobby didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. He came into the garage and looked around. “You still want to play ball?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything, hoping he’d just go away.
“Guess what tomorrow is?” Bobby asked excitedly.
David and I didn’t ask.
“It’s my birthday! I’ll be nine.”
“Your birthday?” David gasped. “You and Benjamin have the same birthday! His birthday is tomorrow, and he’ll be nine too.”
“Be quiet!” I snapped at David.
“My dad’s going to send me a new bike. A ten-speed.”
“Why don’t you stop all your bragging,” I said. “You aren’t getting anything, and you know it. You don’t even know where your dad is. You’ve probably never even seen your dad, so stop telling us about all the great things he’s going to send you. He hasn’t sent you anything so far. And he never will.”
I figured that Bobby was really going to tear into me then, so I threw my dustpan down and put my arms up defensively. But Bobby didn’t charge at me, swinging. He just stared at me for a minute, all sicklike. Then he swallowed once, ducked his head, and backed out of the garage. When he grabbed his bike and wobbled it down the driveway, he was crying.
I had wanted to hurt Bobby—after all, he was the one who had made Mom put us to work. But as I watched him ride away with his head bowed and his shoulders hunched, I felt sorry for him. It was the first time I’d ever felt sorry for Bobby Wilson.
David was staring at me as if he couldn’t believe that I’d said what I’d said.
“It serves him right,” I defended myself.
David turned away and started straightening some boxes.
I saw Bobby a couple of times that day in his yard, just sitting under an elm tree, staring at the ground. There was a cold, empty place inside me. I wanted to make it go away. I tried to think of lots of different things—fun things, exciting things—but no matter what I thought or did, that cold, empty place just stayed there.
That night, before David and I turned the lights off in our room, I lay on my bed, staring up at my piñata hanging in the corner. But I didn’t see the purple alligator. All I could see was Bobby Wilson.
“Are you boys going to keep the light on all night?” Dad asked, poking his head into our room. “You’d better get some sleep, Benjamin. You have a big day tomorrow.”
“Dad,” I said suddenly, “what makes Bobby Wilson the way he is?”
Dad thought for a moment, then came and sat on the edge of my bed. “Mom said that you had a little trouble with Bobby today,” he mentioned. “What was the problem?”
“Bobby’s the problem,” I muttered. “He’s always acting like a hotshot, bragging about all the things his dad is going to send him and about all the things he can do. Why does he act like that? It makes me want to punch him.”
Dad thought for a long time. “Bobby doesn’t have a lot of nice things. Maybe he’ll never have them. But he wants them, just the same. He’d like a new bike, but the only way he’ll ever have one is to dream about it, to hope that someday his dad, whom he never hears from, will send him the best bike in the world.”
“But he doesn’t even know where his dad is.”
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you didn’t have a dad or mom here all the time? Tonight Bobby’s probably climbing into bed by himself. There’s no one to go in and tell him good night and ask him if he’s said his prayers. He wants those things as much as you do. But the only thing he can do is dream about them and maybe talk as if he has them.”
I lay in bed awake long after David had gone to sleep. It didn’t do any good to close my eyes, because I kept tossing and turning and thinking. It wasn’t until I looked over in the corner and saw the dark shape of my purple alligator that I knew what I was going to do the next day. After that, going to sleep was easy.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson,” I quavered the next day on Bobby’s front steps. Even though it was pretty late in the morning, Bobby’s mom was still in her robe and looked like she’d just got out of bed. “Is Bobby here?”
She stared at me a while and scratched her head. “I think he’s around in the backyard. You can go look. But don’t bang on the door anymore.”
I thanked her and walked around the house. Everything back there was kind of a mess. For a while I didn’t see anyone. Then I spotted Bobby sitting on a crate with his dumb baseball cap on his head and a cracked baseball bat in front of him. I called to him so he wouldn’t think I’d come to spy on him.
Bobby looked up. “What’d you come around back here for?”
I shrugged. “Just stopped by to see how things were going. I thought I’d wish you a happy birthday. It is your birthday, isn’t it?”
“Sure, it’s my birthday. I was going to have a big party.” He stopped and bit his lip. “I still am. But probably later. Mom isn’t feeling too well. And Dad hasn’t sent my ten-speed yet.”
“He will. Sometimes things just get here late.”
I hesitated, then blurted out, “Mom made me a piñata for my birthday. We’re going to break it this afternoon and have a big party.”
“I think I’ll ask my mom to make me a piñata, too, when she gets to feeling better.”
“She doesn’t have to do that. Why don’t you just share mine. There’s no sense in both our moms throwing a big party. Shoot, if your mom’s not feeling well, you can just come over to my place and we’ll have our birthdays together. In fact, you can be the very first one to take a crack at my purple alligator.”
“Do you mean it?”
I grinned. “Sure I mean it. I’ve never had a double birthday party before. Come on. We can help Dad hang the piñata in the willow tree.”
Suddenly we were running together. And I noticed that that cold, empty feeling was finally gone.