We moved to Isabelle Avenue sometime in 1964. It was Pops and Mom and Max and me. Max was just a baby and my memories of that time are faint – images of Grandma and Grandpa’s house just down the street, some older girls knocking on our door asking if they could use Max as their pretend baby doll while they played house, and me meeting my very first friend. His name was Paul. He lived right across the street and was about a year older than me. I honestly have no memory of the time in my life before Paul. He was funny and talkative, and even at 4 he was the most adventurous person I knew.
As we grew up he would spend almost all of his afternoons at our house. My mom was like a second mom to Paul. He tried to wrangle an invitation to dinner almost every night. He loved just about everything my mom cooked and on those nights when he wasn’t on the dinner list he would hide in the rose bushes under our kitchen windows waiting for mom to go to the sink after dinner. In the dark of the evening he would pop up and scare the bejesus out of her. Year after year he would wait in those bushes and somehow my Mom was never prepared for his sudden and startling appearances.
He was the ringleader in our neighborhood. He taught my brothers how to make things explode in old pill bottles, and he made short work of just about any lock he ever encountered. I recall seeing him and Ron running out from the side yard after a loud “boom” – neither of them had eyebrows anymore. I never knew any of his alchemic secrets but I was often witness to the aftermath.
My Mom might give him a hard time but she adored him. He was the first of her “boys” that she mothered who were not her sons by birth. Each morning when we started the walk down the street to school, Mom would wait to see what Paul was wearing – she would yell, “I think you wore that yesterday – get back in the house and put on some clean clothes!” Paul never put up a fuss and nearly always did whatever she asked. Mom sometimes feigned annoyance at Paul’s constant presence, but the truth is that if he didn’t show up after school she worried that he was somewhere getting into trouble.
As I became a teenager Paul was the big brother who was always in my business. He was the one would tell me if he thought that the boy I was dating was a creep. He would often tell me who was really my friend at school and who was fake. He looked out for me even when I found his concern annoying. As I became an adult and moved out on my own it was not unusual for him to show up at my door – just to check on me and to catch up.
Paul never knocked. He walked into our living room when we were watching TV, eating dinner (his favorite), or just hanging out in the backyard shooting candles out with guns. One time I was at my brother’s home while he and his wife were out of town. I was in the shower and heard someone in the living room when no one was supposed to be home. Of course, I knew it would be Paul. Just a couple of years ago I got a call from Paul – he was ten miles outside of Eureka Springs – even 2000 miles from Isabelle Avenue Paul was still popping by unannounced. The last time I saw him was at Christmas when he came over to my brother’s house. He walked right in and inserted himself into whatever was happening at that moment. Paul was always welcome in our lives. He was one of us. He didn’t need to knock.
One of my favorite adventures with Paul happened was when I was four and he was five. We were at my house watching reruns of the Andy Griffith show. Isabelle Avenue wasn’t Mayberry but the story resonated with us. Opie had been caught in a lie – his report card gave him higher grades and he was reaping the rewards – mainly a new bicycle. Once his teacher realized the mistake she called Andy into the school to tell him about the error. Opie was ashamed and felt like he had no choice but to run away from home. He packed some fried chicken and an apple in a kerchief and tied it to a stick. He sadly departed with it over his shoulder, choosing to start a new life rather than own up to the truth about his grades.
Now I wasn’t in school yet and didn’t know much about grades, but the idea of sneaking some fried chicken out of the fridge and taking off on an adventure was pretty appealing to Paul. He talked me into coming along and we tied our food and essentials into bandanas and tied them to tree limbs and just took off. I was worried about not asking Mom for permission, I actually asked permission to leave the yard but Paul convinced me that it wouldn’t be running away if we asked before we left. So like Opie we took off on foot.
We went to the end of Isabelle Avenue and turned south on 21st Street and walked in the general direction of the Blue Angel that we could see above the neighborhood. We got to Fremont Street to the auto parts store when a neighbor spotted us. We were told to get into his truck and wait – he would drive us home after he got what he needed from the parts store.
In the back of that truck we made the best of it and feasted on cold fried chicken while we waited on our ride home. We had traveled 4 whole blocks and we were pooped. The neighbor dropped us off in front of my house and we continued to play in the yard until the street lights came on and my Mom told us it was time for dinner.
I am not sure if Mom knew about our adventure. I never told her and she never mentioned our absence or the missing fried chicken.
Paul knew absolutely everyone in the neighborhood and knew all their stories. He would tell of grand adventures with Michael next door or Randy down the street or someone else who might live a couple of blocks over. I call this blog The King of Isabelle Avenue as a reference to my father, but in truth the real king of the block was and always will be Paul.
Paul left us last week. My sad heart thought it couldn’t be more broken, but like all of us who lived on Isabelle Avenue, I am struggling to come to terms with a world without him walking into my house without knocking.
I like to imagine him and Mom feasting on fried chicken watching over us.
Godspeed Big Brother.