Eli Boyle's dandruff was more than enough indignity for one child. In fact, the word dandruff barely does it justice. He was like a snow globe drifting flakes when it is turned upside down on the Empire State Building or the St. Louis Arch or the Golden Gate. Our classmates made sudden noises—clapping their hands or dropping books—just to see Eli's head snap around and the snow dislodge and cascade from his head, drift onto his desk and settle on the floor of the classroom. When he sneezed, teachers would stop lecturing until the ash settled. It was hard to believe a human head could flake so much without losing actual mass and the glacial till of Eli Boyle's scalp was discussed with some seriousness as a potential science project. Walking down the hall, the dead, flaking snow covered his shoulders like two lesser peaks beneath Boyle's Everest of a head. So, as I say, at least the way I remember it, Eli Boyle's dandruff would have been enough humiliation for one kid to bear, enough embarrassment to ruin his life the way lives are ruined in elementary school, before they actually begin.
But dandruff was only the first of Eli’s afflictions. I will list them, but please, don't think me cruel or blame me for piling these horrors upon him. I was not his Maker; Someone Else visited these burdens upon Eli Boyle, Someone Far Crueler than I. Or just more indifferent. And don't think for a moment that I take anything but the most humble responsibility in relating these difficulties. When I am finished with this confession, this affidavit, this statement of fact, it will come as no surprise that Eli Boyle turned out to be a better man than I, and nothing would make me happier than to report now that the adolescent version of that good man started life with a clean slate, or at least a clean scalp. But I cannot. So I offer this accounting with no great joy, but with a fidelity to truth and a desire to recreate for those who care, for the record, I suppose, an Eli Boyle whole and pristine, just as he was then, all the more amazing when you consider the list of ruined parts that comprised him:
He had bad breath, like he'd eaten sour cream from a cat box. He wore braces on his teeth and his legs, had acne and a unique bacon-flavored body odor, picked his nose and ate what he mined, exhibited a zest for epic, untimely flatulence (the Social Studies Incident of 1976; The Great 1980 Pep Assembly Blow-Out ...), wore black framed, coke-bottle glasses, had thin red hair, skid marks in his underwear and allergies to pollen, cotton, peanuts and soap. He had a limp, a lisp, a twitch, waxy ears and gently crossed eyes and was—how to put this—afflicted by the random popping of inappropriate erections, boners as we would say then, as we did say then, through his gray, standard-issue P.E. shorts.
His overprotective mother dressed him like a janitor in Dickey overalls and flannel shirts at a time—the mid-1970s—when everyone else wore designer jeans and varsity T's. He was the oldest kid I ever knew to wet his pants at school, to cry, to sit in the front of the school bus, to call out for his mommy. He rode a three-wheeled bike with a flag on the back because of “balance” problems, ate a special lunch with no milk or cheese or whole grains, and had gran mal seizures, blackouts, muscle spasms and fits of gagging. He had to wear corrective shoes because of a deformed foot. He had scoliosis, skin lesions and scabies, and the nurse was always hauling him off for impetigo or infection or impacted turds or any of the other nasty bugs that he carried around like his only friends. The fact that he lived in a trailer wasn't awful in itself, because the great, prematurely-bearded quarterback Kenny Dale also lived in a trailer, but Eli Boyle lived alone with his mother in the worst park in the worst trailer, an old gray can with a dirt lawn and stained sheets for curtains.
He was what we called then, “a B-Flat SpEd,” which meant that while he was in Special Education, there was nothing really wrong with him. He was brighter than the other SpEds and was able to pull B's and C's in regular classes, with the occasional A, although he was a miserable failure in that rigid and unforgiving society that is really the only society in school. It occurs to me now that he was likely mildly autistic but we didn't know that word and so we felt accurate then calling him a spazz, a loop, a 'tard, a dork, a dweeb, a dick, a freak. It was even said that even the other 'tards in Special Ed made fun of Eli.
So that’s him, as complete and flawed and tragic and sad, as wonderful as I can remember him, pure and as imperfect, as unforgettable as anyone I’ve ever known. Eli Boyle. The man who saved my life.
And the man whose life I have taken.