When I was six years old I moved into a new neighborhood in Newark. My brother had been born a few months earlier, and my mother was busy with him, but even if he wasn’t around, my mom wasn’t the type to arrange play dates or take me to children’s museums or zoos, or engage with me in any of the activities that are such a big part of being a child today. She loved me, but I was expected to go out and play—it didn’t matter that I didn’t know anybody in the neighborhood—and come home for supper at six o’clock.
I was lucky. After a few days of watching kids play on the street and in the local playground, I was befriended by a boy who was a pack leader but who I could see also disdained leadership. I say lucky, because the neighborhood was filled with A-type kids who would steamroller over you if given half a chance. I didn’t know then what charisma was, and neither did the other kids, but there was a certain muted respect in the air when Chris was around—a warning to back off—that gave me all the cover I needed.
Neither did I know how terribly timid I was until I saw Chris in action. Shimmy up the drainpipe to the roof of our three-story grammar school? Break into the local poultry yard to rouse the chickens to a nighttime fury? Pummel some kid twice his size for bullying me? Wander into another neighborhood to see who the toughest kid was? Firecrackers? Curse words? The names of body parts? My blood ran hot and cold, hot and cold, as sometimes I watched, or listened, and sometimes I participated. I was a co-pilot with little to do except to try to enjoy the ride.
At fourteen, Chris and I went to different high schools. (My parents had been paying enough attention to know that the Irish Christian Brothers, ten blocks away, would give me a chance at a better future than the local public high school, which in the sixties in Newark was a scary place). I went out for football and then basketball, and didn’t see Chris for a couple of months. When I did, there was something wrong. He was hurt, but I didn’t know it at the time. We stayed friends, but I went to college and he didn’t. I had a career, he didn’t. He died before he reached thirty.
Why did Chris choose me? For a long time, I had no answer to this question. But then, when I started writing the novel that was to become Blood of My Brother, it came to me. Chris became Danny. The novel did not write itself. It went through many revisions. But I had a co-writer, a kid I met on the street more than fifty years ago, whose memory has haunted and saddened me, but that has now become a gift, a blessing. I hope, wherever he is, he feels the same way.
James LePore is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month, which means we are offering sensational deals on his work. You can read more about the program here.