“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” Stephen King writes at the end of his novella “The Body.” “Jesus, did you?”
When I was 12, my world revolved around piano lessons, model rockets, a tank of pet seahorses and a boy named Jim Wilson. We spent long hours together, Jim and I, acting like goofballs: engaging in hot-sauce eating contests at a place called Tippy’s tacos, listening to the Rolling Stones, feeding my Venus flytraps bits of cheeseburger. Once I made him laugh so hard that milk came out of his nose.
The one thing we took seriously was the piano.
Jim was a prodigy. Sometimes he would sit down at my family’s baby grand and play Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata,” or Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” or something called the “Bumble Boogie.” My parents, my grandmother, my sister and I would sit in the living room listening to him, amazed.
As we settled into the dog days of quarantine, I began to think of the way the age of 12 is a bridge between the person you have been and the person you will become. Music is a kind of bridge, too, a trigger of memory. Over the summer I hauled out my old John W. Schaum piano books from the early 1970s. I found them inside the piano bench, the one that accompanied that old baby grand that I inherited from my mother.
There on the pages were the pencil marks of my long-suffering teacher, Mr. Copely. “Good!” he has written in the margins of the music for “The Dangerous Journey” (Oct. 25, 1972). Next to the “Mexican Hat Dance,” however, he has written, tersely, “Phrasing!”
Mr. Copely was Jim Wilson’s teacher too. Sometimes we took lessons together. I was never half as good a musician as Jim, but, after half a century, I can say that I’ve almost nailed the “Bumble Boogie.” At times during this last terrible year, playing the piano was all that kept me sane.
In the movie “Big,” Tom Hanks, who plays a 12-year-old whose wish to be grown up has him wake up one day transported into the body of an adult, is walking through the New York toy store F.A.O. Schwarz with his boss (played by Robert Loggia) when he accidentally steps on a giant working piano keyboard on the floor. He begins to pick out the bass part of the classic piano duet “Heart and Soul.”
“Piano lessons?” Mr. Loggia asks.
“Three years,” says Mr. Hanks.
“Me too,” Mr. Loggia adds. “Every day, after school.” He then begins to tap out the melody with his feet.
Thirty-odd years on, Mr. Hanks and Mr. Loggia are still beautiful together, dancing on the keys. But I suspect another reason so many viewers were touched by the scene is that they, too, once played “Heart and Soul” with a friend. When I was 12, I played the melody; Jim Wilson played the bass.
As he plays the song in “Big,” Mr. Loggia softly sings some of the lyrics, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser in 1938: “Heart and soul, I fell in love with you/Heart and soul, the way a fool would do, madly.”
Jim Wilson changed schools after seventh grade. After a while, we lost touch. Soon I was on to other things: J.R.R. Tolkien, bong hits, the Grateful Dead. In the last 45 years, Jim and I have seen each other only twice — once entirely by accident, when he showed up as the organist at a friend’s wedding back in Pennsylvania.
It’s strange how people who once were the center of your universe can disappear from your life.
Often, though, they’re not lost at all. Last week, between Christmas and New Year’s, my family had mac and cheese for supper one night. On the side we had a hot sauce accurately named Thor’s Hammer. I had a little, and then my daughter Zai had some, and soon enough, our mouths were so ridiculously aflame that tears streamed down our faces; we were unable to stop laughing.
It wasn’t Tippy’s tacos exactly, but it was close enough.
“Are you OK?” my wife asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, after I’d regained the ability to speak. “I was just thinking about somebody.”
The next day, I reached Jim Wilson by phone. He told me that he’d spent most of his life as a music teacher specializing in the Kodaly method, working in elementary schools in Pennsylvania, not so far from where we both grew up. My son now plays the piano, I told him; I learned his daughter does, too.
We talked about Mr. Copely, and my Venus flytraps and the way my family used to sit around the piano listening to him play. We recalled a summer we’d spent together at the Jersey Shore, his prowess at Skee-Ball and the curious ingredients in my grandmother’s “hot dog stew.”
Then we started telling each other dumb jokes, doing imitations. It was a good thing that neither of us was drinking milk, because it would have surely erupted from our noses. We laughed and laughed, the two of us, like the pair of idiots we once were, young friends who had known and loved each other — even before we knew ourselves.
“Damn,” said Jim. “I’ve missed you.”
It occurred to me that, as the years pass, we all become like the child in “Big” — 12-year-olds mysteriously trapped in the bodies of adults.
I told Jim Wilson that I missed him, too. The way a fool would do. Madly.