The Invisibles

By Anthony J. Mohr


Morris sounded desperate when he asked, “How can we become popular?” 

I ran my finger around the rotary dial and pressed the receiver harder against my ear. I had no answer for Morris. Only one girl was friendly with me—Patty—and that was because her father and mine had worked together in radio. 

Actually, I did know the answer: be an athlete. Looks for the girls, sports for the boys—that’s what vaulted you into eighth grade society at the Beverly Vista School in September 1960. But Morris and I couldn’t catch, throw, run, or dribble.  So Morris and I missed an astronomical number of parties.

They called them make-out parties or simply “make-outs.” A fellow reject once remarked that “some of these kids get invited to six make-outs a month,” a fact that pricked like a thumbtack. Starting this school year, the town fathers had decided not to hold any more dances at the Roxbury Park Recreation Center, because “there are enough private parties in the city of Beverly Hills.” But I never got invited to them, and movies were a poor substitute, even good ones like Psycho.

With its large playground, red tile roof, and brick walls punctuated by ornaments, soffits, and double-hung windows, Beverly Vista’s campus served as a stage for the popular kids. When a boy asked a girl to go steady, she waited for a crowd to gather before fastening his identification bracelet to her wrist. They’d kiss; the girls would scream; and as everyone dispersed, someone always said, “See you at Karen’s/Trudy’s/Nancy’s/Penny’s make-out.” I could be standing three feet away, but to them I wasn’t there. They didn’t realize the impact of their words on me. They were not acting mean. I was simply not part of their universe. From that truth, it was a short hop to the label Morris and I gave ourselves: The Invisibles.

Morris should have known the answer to his question. The most determined among us Invisibles, Morris studied the popular kids as intensely as Margaret Mead observed the Trobriand Islanders. Mark became Morris’ favorite subject. Morris had spent two weeks following him around, notebook in hand, recording his words and deeds, and then claimed to have discovered Mark’s secret: “empathy.” Empathy, as when, during the Berlin crisis, Mark put a hand on Jackie’s shoulder, looked in her eyes, and told her not to be scared. Empathy, as when Mark hugged Jill after she got a bad grade on a science test. 

But even armed with all his analyses, Morris remained incapable of copying Mark’s behavior. His movements were too jerky. His hair was combed too neatly and smelled of too much Brylcreem. Hiding behind oversized horn-rimmed glasses, Morris’ little eyes telegraphed anxiety, and his immature voice begged to be mocked. Despite memorizing examples of the populars’ cool wit, Morris couldn’t improve his clunky sense of humor. Jokes like “Are you brown from the sun? I’m Morris from the earth” stumbled out of his mouth to die at the feet of the popular kids who said nothing more than “oh” before they walked away.  

Yet Morris was generous. While another aspirant might have guarded his research like a state secret, Morris freely shared his data. He correctly predicted that Ron would ask Lisa to go steady. And during one of our past phone calls, when I had wondered out loud how to broach the subject of necking, Morris said he had overheard Toberoff tell someone that all he does is say, “C’mon, let’s make out.”

I had twisted the telephone cord around my elbow. How did popular kids learn these things? 

Morris had added, “You know what else he said? He was talking to Curtis and Spindler, and he said, ‘You want to know how to get a girl hot? When you’re sitting on a couch making out with her, blow in her ear.’”

“What does that prove?” I had asked.

“Who knows? But Toberoff says it works.”

And so tonight, Saturday night, I said nothing in reply to Morris’ question, and the wire between his receiver and mine remained silent until Morris said, “Barbara’s at Christie’s party.”

Barbara was a new arrival from Texas, a sweater queen with thick hair that glowed all the way down to her shoulders. She had showed up the first day of school with smiles, smiles, smiles. Within days, the boys imprinted on her like Hesse’s geese. 

I knew Morris liked Barbara, probably dreamed about her, because when I last visited his house, I saw her name, barely legible, traced in the fine dust on one of his bedroom windowpanes. As a newcomer, Barbara had been kind to Morris for a day or two, until the football team found her and she rocketed to their heights.

An idea flickered, a possible answer to Morris’ question, and I announced it without hesitation. “Maybe give a party and invite them all.”


It sounded shameless the moment I said it, a risk I wanted Morris to take. But perhaps it would work for both of us. After all, the Pirates, of all teams, had won the World Series, by one run in the ninth inning of Game Seven. Anything was possible. 

“I’d have to ask my parents,” Morris said.

“Okay,” I said, “but meanwhile let’s make a list.” Build momentum, I thought. “Got a pen?”

The noise of a hand rifling a drawer full of papers culminated with a “yes,” and we were off, writing down names. Morris’ voice slipped into an excited trance state, as did mine as we roll-called our classroom royalty: Stuart, Denise, Toberoff, Spindler, Jerry, Jill, Karen, Ron, Lisa, Janie, Penny, Steffie, Barbara (of course), Pam, Roger, Christie, Nancy, Fred, Trudy, Lonnie, Mike, Jimmy—

The receiver was too quiet. “Are you writing?” I asked. 

“Lonnie, Mike, Jimmy,” Morris repeated.

Edwin was another Invisible, but he had to get an invitation. He spent too much time with Morris and me to be excluded. Edwin was totally unathletic, with a falsetto voice, pink cheeks, and eyes that said “kick me.” His jet-black hair, combed straight back, was never long enough for ducktails. Edwin accepted his lot with grace, saying nothing more on Friday afternoons than “Want to come over tonight? I have nothing to do, as usual.” Later that evening, he’d sigh, “I wish they’d invite me to one of their parties.” Then his imagination soared into the exosphere. Edwin was convinced that they partied in the mansions somewhere behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. He insisted that “the invitations are really flowery,” with wording like, “Miss Nancy Flushman: you are cordially invited to attend a dance…”   

Morris added Larry, a kid from whom we detected incipient flashes of friendship.

“Scott?” I asked.

“You think he’s popular?”

With his blond hair cut in a flattop, Scott was on the fringe, in need of something—I did not know what—to clinch in-crowd membership. Still, he was one of the friendlier guys, and I thought we could become pals. Last year in phys ed, after I got walked, Scott had suggested I try out for the baseball team. Morris agreed; Scott would get an invitation.

I mentioned Patty.

“She’s not really in.”

“Morris,” I said, “let’s invite Patty.” I had thought about this. Patty was realistic for me, well-assembled without being gorgeous. More important, Patty would dance with me at the party. While I didn’t have a crush on her, the idea of doing the twist with her followed by—well, maybe something more—became tempting.

Morris acquiesced. “God, this is gonna be big,” he said. We were giddy.

We picked Saturday, November 19, 1960, a night sufficiently far out to be past the presidential election and early fall movie releases like Spartacus. It would also give Morris enough time to send invitations. Edwin’s theory notwithstanding, Morris bought simple invitations, which his mother—with her good handwriting—addressed.

Patty was the first to respond and, according to Morris, said she was looking forward to his party. That made me feel good. Toberoff shouted a “Yeah, I’ll be there” to Morris in the halls. With each day, one or two more Brahmans came back with a yes. Morris’s fear—that no one would accept—vanished. If anything, we thought we’d get too many guests.

I never told Morris about the conversation I overheard the day before the party. I was eating at one of the lunch tables at the edge of the playground. Jerry, Fred, and Toberoff sat at the other end of the long bench, about 15 feet from me, sharing a bag of potato chips.  

“Sure, I’m going. Why not?” Jerry said in his singsong voice. Laura Scudder’s potato chips crunched in his mouth. Fred added that there were no other parties that night, “only his.” Their conversation moved on, but the dismissive wave of Jerry’s arm and the curl on Fred’s lips told me everything. Deciding not to tell Morris he had no chance made me feel disloyal, but I didn’t want him to call it off. I wanted to go to my first boy-girl party and dance with Patty. My parents took me to see The Alamo that night, but I sat in the dark theater wishing I were at Trudy’s party and hoping for the best tomorrow.

Morris begged me to get there an hour early and help make sure everything was just so.  He measured the floor space in his den and pronounced it large enough for dancing. He obeyed his mother and removed the ashtrays. He decided to leave copies of LIFE magazine on the coffee table in case the kids wanted to read. The bar cabinets would be locked. His parents removed the celadon vase they had bought during a trip to Nationalist China. Morris said he would keep his St. Bernard in the bedroom, where the dog would be out of the way. He’d serve Hawaiian Punch. He didn’t need streamers across the ceiling. His parents had plenty of folding chairs.  He must have vacuumed the den floor six times. At the last minute Morris put out a bottle of Bubble Up and moved the Fritos and onion dip to the left wall, next to the record player and opposite the long, off-white sectional sofa. He diluted the Hawaiian Punch with another glass of tap water. A week earlier, his father had given him ten dollars to buy some records, and we had pored over the KFWB Fabulous Forty surveys, speculating on what popular kids liked. Now we spent 20 minutes figuring out the order in which to stack his new 45s, trying to balance fast and slow.

Toberoff arrived dressed in slacks and a madras shirt. We Invisibles had guessed wrong: Morris, Edwin, and I had put on sport coats and ties. It jarred me to watch Toberoff make small talk with Morris’ parents, to say how pleased he was to meet them and yes, he was learning a lot in his classes. He had said, at most, eight words to Morris since school began; half of them, his RSVP.

“Aren’t any women coming to this thing, Morris?” asked Toberoff once all of us were alone in the den. He used the word “women” instead of “girls.” Were we already that grown-up?

In a voice that sounded too reassuring, Morris replied, “Oh sure! They’ll be here. I hope. What I mean—"

In walked Spindler, with a grin for Toberoff and a quick “hi” to Morris and me. A veneer of sweat appeared on Morris’s forehead, and his lower lip trembled while he offered Spindler some Hawaiian Punch. Morris said, “I really like Hawaiian Punch—”

“You have a pool out there,” Toberoff interrupted.

“We do,” Morris said. “When we moved in, my father wanted a pool that—”

Spindler cut him off. “Hey, Rich, Lisa’s got the math answers.”

“C’mon, let’s go look at the pool,” Morris attempted.

The sliding door stuck, and the guests talked about Trudy’s party while Morris struggled with the latch until the door popped and jerked along its track. 

Outside, Morris tried again. “One of the nice things about the pool, Richard, is that—”

“All right. I like these lemons,” Spindler said, and he pulled two off a tree near the pool deck. “Catch.” He tossed one to Toberoff, who returned it. Spindler threw it over the fence, and we heard a splash.

“Good throw, Rich,” Curtis said as he came through the open door. He passed me without saying hello.

Morris raced over to shake Curtis’ hand, but Curtis raised his palm to catch the lemon from Toberoff. “How big’s your neighbor’s pool?”

“It’s big,” Morris said, “But I think ours—”

“Great,” said Curtis. He sidearmed the lemon over the fence and signaled for quiet in order to hear it splash down.

Morris said, “Maybe we ought to—”

“Easy, Mor. No sweat,” Spindler said. He looked at Toberoff and said, “Hey, remember at Karen’s party, how we wiped out that old guy’s car?”

It was the voices from inside that stopped them. Pam, Trudy, and Jill were greeting Jerry and Fred. Morris raced to turn on the record player—he started with The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” the then-current hit—but nobody danced. The party needed time to limber up and spread out from the refreshment table where it had congregated, except for Edwin, who, alone, thumbed through the 45s.

The doorbell rang again. Morris ran to open it and saw Mark and, behind him, Penny. Mark actually thanked Morris for inviting him. Morris was right; Mark was the friendliest of the populars. He entered the den to gleeful shouts.

Barbara came next. When she reached the den, she actually lingered with Morris for a minute or two. Jimmy Clanton’s “Go Jimmy Go” was playing, and I thought, Go Morris go. It’s your house, Morris. But Barbara started looking over Morris’ shoulder.

I was about to try to help Morris hold onto her when a sincere voice exclaimed, “What a beautiful house.” Patty had arrived. Before greeting any of us, she thanked Morris’ parents for the party. I did not know exactly how to start. I was too shy to attempt Toberoff’s “Come on, let’s make out” opening. Bobby Vee’s “Devil or Angel” was playing, so I simply asked Patty to dance, and Holy God, she danced close, as in head against shoulder. I wanted the record to play forever. When the arm tapped the upper stack and “Harbor Lights” dropped onto the turntable, I asked her to dance again. Morris was right to put two slow songs after a fast one.

I felt I should say something to Patty. “You know, you’re a good dancer.”

“But you were on the ship, and I was on the shore,” sang the Platters. Morris was three feet away, asking Stuart whether the baseball team would win this year and smiling too long when Stuart replied that it would. Patty’s head did not move from my shoulder. Several more seconds elapsed. The lyrics continued: “How could I help if tears were starting?”

Patty said, “You’re a good dancer, too.”

Ecstasy.

I should have guided Patty to the couch when the record changed to Brenda Lee’s “I Want to Be Wanted.” Instead I told her we would dance again later, but I needed to help Morris play host. Patty said she understood. I floated over to Morris, standing by the Hawaiian Punch and eating Fritos and trying to talk with Jill and Mark about the English assignment. “We have to diagram ten sentences,” Morris said.

“Oh,” Jill said.

“Thank you,” Mark said.

“I like diagramming sentences,” Morris said, “because—”

Laughter cut across the room. Morris’ dog was loose. Christie ran to pet it, and the beast responded by drooling on her Jax shoes.

“Give it some punch,” Jerry said. Stuart offered his Dixie cup, which the dog drained by chewing on it. Fred shoved another cup against its snout.

“We’re gonna have a punch drunk,” somebody exclaimed.

“Grind up some potato chips in it,” another said.

Morris’ dog indulged until it threw up on the floor. Someone said “ick.” Morris fetched a mop and pail. The underarms of his shirt turned into glistening dark ovals that plunged to his love handles. His pursed face exuded frustration. Around him danced the group. His party was in full bloom. The room temperature was up, making Morris sweat even more. Fred said they were out of potato chips. I went into the kitchen, emptied a bag into the bowl, and then shoved a handful into my mouth. It was the first time I had eaten all night. I carried the bowl back to the den and wolfed down another gob, not even pausing to drag the chips through the onion dip. As I swallowed, someone hollered, “Quiet!”

The party went silent. The records had run out. Then, into the hush, a female voice shrieked, “He did it. He asked her to go steady.”

It had to be Barbara. She and whoever it was were going to announce it in Morris’ house. I wanted to get Morris out of there, into the kitchen, upstairs, anywhere so he wouldn’t have to watch. I never thought they could be so cruel. But they weren’t cruel. No one, much less Barbara, could imagine that Morris thought he had a realistic chance with her.

Someone, I think Ron, said, “Don’t chicken out now.”

“I’m not,” replied a voice that wasn’t Barbara’s. This den was not going to become a lifelong trauma trigger for Morris. I merged into the crowd in time to see Patty holding a silver identification bracelet.

“She’s putting it on,” Christie yelled, and the rest of the girls squealed in unison.

“Get the man of the hour up here,” Curtis said. I felt a jostle against my left shoulder. Mark and Spindler led someone past me and toward Patty. “Kiss her,” Spindler said.

“Let’s have a long one,” Mike said. Patty retreated to a knot of girls, but they pushed her back into the center of what had become a circle.

“Scott?” Patty’s voice sounded, at once, eager and pure.

“Okay,” Scott replied. He folded his arms about her and they kissed. With one exception, me, the circle applauded.

Moments later, someone dimmed the lights and dreamy music floated out of the radio. Two couples melted into the sofa, and several more strolled the yard. Thanks to the outside lights, their shadows played on the pool house. Two of those silhouettes belonged to Barbara and Toberoff. When their shadows merged, I slipped back into the house.

On the sofa reclined Patty and Scott. Her lower legs were folded under her thighs, and her head rested on his chest. Paired with Patty, Scott was positively handsome. He had a perfect mouth, full and thick. His strong cheekbones tapered to a narrow cleft chin. Patty’s eyes, large when open, looked angelic when they were shut. As Scott’s fingers inched through her thick hair, I saw for the first time how beautiful Patty was. If they knew I was staring, they were too engrossed in each other to care, and as I gaped, Patty turned her head to meet Scott’s lips.

“Take it easy, old man.” It was Mark, putting a hand on Morris’s soft bicep and looking straight at him. “We’ve got to go. See you Monday.”

Seconds later, it seemed, mothers and fathers arrived to collect us. Everyone was careful to thank Morris’s parents. Morris had asked me to stay to the end so we could debrief each other, but I felt empty and wanted to leave. Scott and Patty were still on the couch. Before I passed through the front gate of Morris’ house, I heard Spindler say something to Curtis about Vicky’s make-out next weekend.

I walked home. I needed the six blocks to sort out the night. The marine layer made the air smell like the sea, even though the ocean was at least eight miles away. My mouth tasted of salt from the potato chips with a couple of tears mixed in, and since I had not had anything to drink—not even Morris’ Hawaiian Punch—I was thirsty. Although I kept telling myself I never had a crush on Patty, I felt defeated. I also felt guilty. The party had been a scheme I lacked the nerve to try on my own. Before he left, Larry had approached Morris. “Thanks,” Larry said, adding so that Morris knew, “but they came for the party, not for you.” Larry was right. They had played on Morris’ stage, and they had let him look. They were even.

In the dark of the street, Edwin called out my name. His house was close to mine. Early in the evening, he had danced with Barbara. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “It is true paradise to dance with Barbara. She hangs her head over your shoulder.” Little Edwin was taking two steps to every one of mine in order to keep up. I said I was glad for him. Outside his house, I declined an invitation to circle the block and keep talking about Morris’ “fabulous party.” 

That night, lying under the covers, I knew that Morris’ mother would be sitting on his bed now, talking with her son who, like me, was too ashamed to ask an adult for help. “You have a lovely group of friends,” she would tell Morris. “You ought to have them over more often.”

Morris would nod, saying nothing.

“Especially that nice girl Barbara. She’s so polite. And that charming boy she was with. I don’t recall his first name. They probably don’t date yet. They just stay together at parties, isn’t that right?” 

Morris would say, “Probably.”

I heard my parents arriving home, eager, I was sure, to ask about the party. I rolled toward the wall, pretended to sleep, and wished I were invisible.

 

Anthony J. Mohr's essays and short stories have appeared in or are upcoming in, among other places, The Christian Science Monitor, Bibliophilos, The Kit-Cat Review, The LBJ: Avian Life, Literary Arts, Literary House Review, Oracle, Word Riot, ZYZZYVA, and anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Soul—True Love, Freckles to Wrinkles, and This Path. He has attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Wesleyan Writers Conference and has studied with Bernard Cooper and Edan Lepucki. Three of his works have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Southern California.

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