The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Once the street was a street. Cars moved across it in both directions. It was something I could not play in. The curb was as high as the black spiked fence around the park. Cars were alive then. Ours was rust and beige, and when Daddy parked it right in front of the house I would always kiss the side of the right front headlight, as if it were the cheek beneath its eye. My sister Merry said that I was silly. But everything was alive then.
Then workers came and dug up the street. There were pits and wooden fences all over. Daddy couldn’t park there anymore. I stood by the curb and looked in. There were layers of things. The street was made the way I made things out of my building blocks, only bigger. There were black parts and gray ones, and rubble and dirt underneath. I had never seen dirt like that before. The only dirt I knew was in the little yard behind our brick apartment building. Sometimes I would play there, with Merry and the other kids. We would dig holes and connect them. But it wasn’t until I saw the street dug up that I understood the words “down” and “under.”
The world got less flat then, and scarier. Like the time our house cat Tiger attacked Chirpy the bird. He managed to swing open the door to the cage and swipe her with one paw. Merry caught him, but it was too late. There was blood, and Chirpy was ripped open. Things from inside were hanging out. I began to cry. Merry pulled Tiger away, while Mommy held me. The street was like that, and it scared me. But I was afraid to say anything. I would peer into the holes the workers had made and back away. I remembered how Daddy made me watch Mommy pull the paper-wrapped insides of a chicken out the night Chirpy died, telling me that everything had insides like that. Even me.
My father was still in the army then. He worked in an office, but I didn’t know that. He went off every morning in his uniform. We had the first TV in our building. It was the early fifties and there were lots of war movies. No one else’s father wore a uniform, and I thought that Daddy went off to fight in the war every day. And the war was like the street. The street was like Chirpy. All torn up.
It was summer then, hot and humid. No one had air conditioners yet, and we would sit by the window in front of a big fan, with the Venetian blinds half-shut. Merry had a new baby doll, and I had a big red truck. Our grandma, who we never saw because she lived too far away, had sent them to us. Merry and I would play on the floor. Mommy sat in a big chair reading to us, while the fan blew her limp red hair back from her face.
I liked my truck. I liked to put all my blocks in the back and cart them from room to room. But I loved Merry’s doll. If I was good, Merry would let me hold it and rock it so that its eyelids would close and open again. But if I held it too long she would grab it and say that boys couldn’t play with dolls.
I wanted a doll. I wanted my own baby doll. I wanted our grandma, who was a picture in a silver frame on top of the TV, to send me one, too. I tried to trade my truck for the doll, and was even willing to give Merry my alphabet blocks. But she insisted that boys could not have dolls. She was a year older, so she knew.
Our apartment had only three rooms: a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom, all off a narrow hallway. Merry and I slept in bunk beds in the bedroom. Our parents slept in a big bed in the corner of the living room, behind a bookcase. At night we would hear them fighting. I would climb down to Merry’s bed, and we would huddle together. Sometimes I fell asleep there. If Mommy got up early enough to wake us, she would always say the same thing. Not to us. Just to the room. “Why can’t they be like this during the day?”
They never fought during the day like my sister and I did. They only fought at night. It was the same fight over and over. Mommy wanted to take us back to the farm to see her parents, far away in Georgia. Daddy always said she couldn’t go, that he couldn’t afford it. His flat voice would get loud. Her voice was creaky, and all the kids in the building said she talked funny. No one else’s mommy talked like she did. No one else’s mommy came from a farm. And that’s why we had fish and birds and a cat, even though Daddy hated them. If a bird fell from a tree and someone found it, they would bring it to Mommy. When the neighbors’ dog was hit by a car, it was Mommy who fixed its leg by making a splint from pieces of my Tinkertoys.
One morning Mommy woke us to say that there was no electricity in the house. The workers in the street had shut it off. It was an adventure. She made our toast on top of the stove, holding it over the fire with a fork. That was how they did it on the farm, she told us. We played farm all day. The elevator didn’t work, so we had to climb down and up four flights of stairs, to go play in the park, to go shopping. We turned the park into a farmyard, and when we helped Mommy drag the bags from the market up the stairs, we pretended we were dragging bales of hay.
The house was lit by candles when Daddy came home that night. I had never seen the house all lit up that way, yellow and soft. Daddy always came home late, after Merry and I had eaten. He got home in time to tuck us in. He picked us up the way he did every night, tossing us so that we could touch the ceiling for a second, saying, “How’s my angel? How’s my soldier?”
Everything was magic that night. Daddy was laughing, and he made us a night light out of the empty tin can of peas we had for dinner, punching holes in it with a nail and putting a candle in the bottom. He tickled us as he tucked us in. So I asked him. I asked him if I could write to Grandma for a doll.
I remember how he grabbed me and shoved me against the wall behind my bed. It was the top bed, and we were eye to eye, glaring. “No boy of mine . . . ,” was all he said.
We could hear them yelling.
“It’s only a doll, Frank.”
“No boy of mine . . .”
“He’s only five.”
“Damn it, Ellie. You . . .”
Merry let me hold Pammy, her baby, as we fell asleep. Of course in the morning, she grabbed her back.
I remember how, at breakfast, my Mommy knelt on the linoleum by my chair. She had never done that before. She touched my face and said, “Darrell honey, don’t go asking your Daddy for dolls again.”
I remember her words, her face, the way her hair was limp already from the heat. There were jackhammers in the street. The windows were shaking. There was dust in the air. Then the lights came on. Then. Just then. Merry and I began to cheer. The fans began to buzz again, the TV came on all by itself, and the radio that Mommy liked to play while she washed dishes.
I don’t remember the times before that, and I don’t remember the times after. They were so ordinary that I remember nothing about them. But I remember that summer as if it were a movie all in color. Broken-up street. Heat like a damp stuffed elephant filling the house, the world, pressing down on us.
I wanted a doll. I couldn’t tell you why, but I wanted one. On the second floor there was an old lady I liked to visit, Mrs. Porter. Her children were grown and her husband was dead. Merry didn’t like her, so I liked her even more. Sometimes she baby-sat for us, when Mommy and Daddy went out. But I also liked to visit her by myself. “Why can’t boys have dolls?” I asked her. She was the grandmother I didn’t have, with us in New York City and our real grandparents in Georgia and California. She said her Benjy had a doll when he was my age, a cowboy doll, who sat on a big brown horse.
Benjy died in the war. Mrs. Porter gave me his Brooklyn Dodgers hat. I told Merry that he had a doll. She didn’t believe me. But when we saw Mrs. Porter in the store, she said yes, with Mommy there, standing by the cool open dairy section.
Summer is also my birthday. The beginning of August. On the weekend, we had a party on the roof and all my friends in the building came. There was a clown, and balloons tied to all the clotheslines. I was six, and about to begin school. So I got new clothes and school things, a pencil box with a wooden top that slid into itself, and a big box of crayons. There were presents from all my grandparents. But the best one of all came from Mrs. Porter. When I opened it, there was a doll inside, a big doll, a Davy Crockett doll, with a fringed jacket and a raccoon cap just like he wore on TV. I took him out of the box, the cellophane all crinkly. My best friend Dougie started to grab him — but Daddy got there first. “Put him back in the box,” was all he said, but in the voice that meant I better.
Downstairs, later, Daddy and Mommy were fighting again. They’d never fought during the day before. Merry and I sat together in the corner, by our toy chest, silent and afraid.
“Don’t spoil his birthday, Frank.”
“No son of mine . . .”
“What will I tell Mrs. Porter? It must have cost a pretty penny.”
“I told you, Ellie . . .”
We ate dinner in silence, with the fan blowing the yellow- and white-checked curtains in the kitchen. Mommy had her apron on. Daddy had big wet circles under his arms, turning his blue shirt black. After we ate, Mommy took out another cake, a little cake, just for the four of us, and I got to blow out all the candles again.
I wished that Daddy would let me have my doll back. He didn’t play with us that night. Mommy tucked us in instead. From her bunk below me, Merry said to her, “I told him boys can’t play with dolls.” I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Mommy stood up and kissed me and smiled at me and said, “Your daddy and I decided that you can play with Davy Crockett in the bathtub.”
Every night after that I took a bath, and every night Davy came in with me. I don’t know what happened to his cap or his clothes. He sat all day in the far corner of the tub, pink and naked. I remember how much I wanted to take him out, to put him in my truck. And I wished his eyes moved like Pammy’s did. But I was proud that he was a real person, and a grown-up. I knew my father well enough to keep Davy in the tub with me, and I knew my mother well enough not to thank her.
There were always people going up and down the stairs, visiting, borrowing things. No one locked doors back then. We kept our screen doors open to the hall for the breeze. The halls were thick with the smells of everyone’s cooking. People were always yelling across the courtyard, from one side of the building to the other. That was how we found out there wasn’t going to be any water for five days. My friend Dougie’s mother yelled the news across to us, from kitchen to kitchen.
When Daddy got home that night every surface in the kitchen was covered with pots and jars filled with water. We’d filled the tub and used it like the well on the farm. We thought it was a wonderful adventure, but Daddy was mad. “We can build a bomb, but we can’t fix a street,” he kept saying as we sat on the living room floor to eat. Our first inside picnic.
The tub stayed full, and we had sponge baths that night. We couldn’t flush the toilet. We had to pour a bucket of water into it to wash things away. Those days were even more exciting than the time the lights went out. Everything was upside down and different, filling pots from jars to cook, using jugs to rinse the dishes. It was just the way it was when she grew up, our mother told us — amazed that it could become that way again, in the biggest city in the world.
One morning, when we went to fill a pot from the tub so that Mommy could make Pastina, our favorite breakfast, Merry knocked Davy off his perch in the corner of the tub. He drifted to the bottom, and then floated up again on his back. We decided to leave him there to swim. He swam all day, and that night, the water came back on again. From the window we watched the workers filling the holes in the street. In a few days they would re-tar it, Daddy told us when he got home, angry at how long it had taken him to find a parking place, slamming his keys on the table between the last-filled jars.
That night we got to take real baths again. My sister and I both hated them, but since I’d gotten to play with Davy I liked them better. Except for the shampooing, which always burned my eyes, no matter how many times Mommy promised it wouldn’t.
It was a hot night, humid, tub water and air almost the same. I was wet again as soon as I got in bed. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to float above the sheet, not touching anything. In the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom. No one was fighting, so I climbed down the ladder, past Merry breathing softly, curled around Pammy, eyes staring up toward the ceiling.
I was just tall enough to flip on the bathroom light. Sometimes, if no one was there, I would flash it on and off and on and off. It was in the flashing that I saw him, Davy, propped in his corner next to the baby shampoo. And I began to scream.
Daddy was there in his shorts. Mommy was right behind him, straightening her nightgown. He held me and rocked me, and she knelt on the pink tiles behind him. “What is it? What is it, soldier?” he kept asking. Mommy kept touching my face and saying my name, the way she did when I fell out of the swing in the park and landed on my head. Merry stood in the hall looking in, trembling. But all I could do was point. The screaming became a wail, a sob, a silent wracking.
In the corner of the bathtub sat Davy: pink, plastic, naked, with arms and legs and head that you could turn around in circles. And from the joints of his limbs, from every joint in his body — blood was dripping.
Daddy held me and rocked me. Pulled me to his chest. I could feel it shaking as he said, “It’s only rust, soldier. Rust from the pins that hold his arms and legs on. He must have gotten wet.” Then he picked me up and carried me into the living room, where the four of us fell asleep in the big bed, with their big fan in the window blowing down on us.
In the morning when I went into the bathroom, Davy Crockett was gone. I never once asked about him. And I never saw him again.
The water was back. By the end of the week, our street was a street again. Shiny, new, black. The workers were gone. Cars went both ways again. Daddy could park in front of the house when he came home at night. I could kiss the car when we got out of it. And play with my truck in the sandbox, in the little fenced-in park right down the street, where my head got stuck between the bars once, and the firemen had to rescue me.
We wiped big circles on the glass, frosted in patterns of a spring that seemed impossible. There, from the window seat, we watched snow fall on the lawn and on the street, its rows of oaks and maples etched against the sky. Black on gray, black with its own silver tracings. Silently it fell. In silent thunder. Nearly two feet overnight, and still falling.
I’d hated this house when we came to it. Big dark rooms, old and creaky. I loved the yard, with its trees and flowers, but I hated the house. It scared me. Home was our apartment. Home was our building and all of my friends. This was not home. This was some distant, terrible place that my father was taking us to, away from everything we knew.
My mother was pregnant. I remember how she looked as we drove away from our street that final time, crying in the front seat, clutching her belly. Merry and I sat in the back, crying too, as we turned onto the street behind the moving van. It was the end of summer. The windows were down. And Daddy sang the whole way there, the same song over and over. “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin’ along. There’ll be no more sobbin’. . . .”
Now this house was home. I had my own room, and Merry had hers. The twins had a room of their own, too. Daddy had a den to go off to when we were being bad. The hiss of radiators was familiar, the life breath of the house. The creaking floors and stairs were familiar, too, the house talking back.
School had been canceled. Merry sat in her favorite spot on the couch, curled up with the phone. Timmy and Bobby had the TV on. Pounding hoofs and gunshots filled the air. But I heard all that from a distance. There was a bubble around us, Mom and me. We sat in silence on the window seat. She pointed. Down, between two bushes, where hardly any snow had fallen — a single yellow crocus pipped its head up through the frozen soil.
Later, I tried to draw it. Later, the snow turned to rain. By morning, it was sunny again. But whenever I walked by that window I could see the little golden sign that things would soon change. Yellow and brown, dusted with white.
I don’t remember the springs before that spring. They were there in the yard behind the house, the lawn in front, that expanse of earth we spread through as we never could in our apartment. But I remember every moment of that particular spring. I was thirteen. Merry was fourteen. The twins were seven. I remember the dance of colors, as buds unfolded into pale greens, dark greens, dusty greens, silver greens. But it was yellow that announced the turn of year: crocus, forsythia, and then daffodil. After yellow, the pinks began, the whites, erupting in the midst of a thousand greens, splattered, splashed, sprayed. I remember how I sat that spring, with pad and my first watercolor set, a gift from my granddad in Georgia. I threw out most of the things I painted. But I still remember one of the dogwood in front of the house: branches fragile, buds coral red. Mom wanted to frame it. She showed it to Dad at the dinner table. “What’s that?” he said, laughing. “A bleeding squid?” The twins were silent. Their crayon drawings covered the kitchen walls. Mom started to cry. And Merry, the only one who could talk back to him, grabbed the picture out of his hands, handed it back to me, and went storming up to her room.
Later, Mom asked me for it. I gave it to her and only saw it again years later, after she was gone, in the big maroon scrapbook she kept. It was pasted above the certificate I got that year for winning an art contest at school. I got to take special art classes at the local college. And I painted a lot of other things. Had other magic moments. But floating under everything I did was that tracery of brown and red.
The back yard was a long rectangle of green. Flat, with wavy edges where trees and bushes were planted. No matter how I did it, the lawn mower couldn’t cut through it in straight rows. Each bend and curve would throw me off. Lilies of the valley, tulips, hyacinths in their brick-lined beds, the bricks angling up from the earth. It was the first year I was tall enough to push the mower. I enjoyed the smell of cut grass, strong and sweet. But I hated the job. Hated having to get the twins to follow me with shears so that they could trim the edges the mower had missed. Dad would sit on the back stairs, drink in hand, calling out orders. “Darrell, over there!” Pointing a bony finger. “Darrell, tell them to go back over that patch.” The three of us fighting. The sky, cloudless.
When the yard was done, we brought out the badminton set from its box in the basement. Merry and I set up the net, and faced each other across it, with one of the twins on each side. Dad was still sitting on the back steps, and Mom came out and sat beside him. I remember how she leaned her head on his shoulder. I remember the feel of the wind as it lifted the shuttlecock, as it dropped and lifted the new leaves of trees, like they were breathing. That was a perfect moment. My arm raised, racket poised. Mom’s face tight, but smiling. Dad, pulling her closer. Merry laughing. The twins, in shorts and striped shirts, laughing.
Later, Dad wheeled the big grill from the garage. A burst of flames. Air heavy from grass, lighter fluid, spattering burgers. Hot dogs for the twins. Mom and Merry cleaning off the wooden picnic table. Then that silence, not the silence of winter inside, but the silence of spring when the first fireflies appear, the first stars. When the shadows get long and then disappear. When someone’s dog barks on another street, and it sounds like your dog right beside you. Chill in the air.
Mom got a sweater. The twins were back at the net. Merry had gone off to a friend’s. And in the distance, coming closer, the sound of bells.
The twins screamed, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Ice cream!” And he reached into his pocket and pulled out change, handing it to me, the three of us running up the driveway, not wanting to miss the truck. Bells the sound of summer as first yellow is the color of approaching spring.
Bobby and Timmy always got the same thing, a vanilla bar with chocolate on the outside. I wanted to get one too, but I wanted the ice-cream man to know I wasn’t a little kid. “A nut bar,” I said, voice cracking. Almost the same thing, but with nuts on the outside: grown-up.
There was still a little light out. The twins yelled at each other as they raced back down the driveway. The ice-cream man reached into the small white door on the side of his truck, fished around, and pulled a bar out. Ice-cream man? He was probably eighteen, working this job to make money for college. Long arm, muscles shifting under his T-shirt as he turned and offered the bar to me. The light caught the hair on his arm. Steam rising from white wrapper. The touch of his hand on my hand, cold, for a second. The look in his eyes, brown and focused. The way my hand shook as I fumbled in my pocket for the change. The way his fingers felt on my hand as he gave me change. His hand suddenly warm. My hand warm, wet. The other one cold from clutching the ice-cream bar.
My room was over the driveway. Next door, covering half the roof, was a mass of lilacs, bunched and rounded, purple clouds. I lay in bed. The smell of lilac was intoxicating. Sweet, heavy, thick as a quilt that night.
My eyes were closed. I was watching a movie, in slow motion. His arm, the steam, the way his shirt and skin and muscles moved. I’d noticed other guys before. In gym, with friends. I knew the way my best friend Arnie’s chest heaved as we came around the track at school, doing laps. I knew the way his arms bulged as he pulled himself up beside me on the parallel bars. Sometimes at night that hardening of arms and the hardening of my body came together. But there never were eyes before, the way he looked at me, looked into me, opened something up inside me. Arnie never looked at me like that. No one ever had. Scratching his chest with a hairy hand while he waited for me to tell him what I wanted.
There was a giant storm. Mom and I watched from the kitchen window as the birch trees in the corner of the yard snapped and toppled over. There was flooding on the highway, and Dad got home late. He wasn’t working for the army anymore, but for a big aviation company an hour’s drive away. Drenched, he swung open the back door to the kitchen, turned to close it. But the wind fought him, trying to get in, too. They struggled, and he turned to us at the table, furious. Merry shot up and helped him out of his wet jacket. The twins started chanting in unison, “Look at Daddy’s bald spot, look at Daddy’s bald spot,” fully revealed as the rain had washed down the long strands he always raked across the top.
Mom sat at the table, hands clenched over her plate. I’d won a track meet that day, and she’d planned a special dinner to celebrate. Dad came back down, in dry clothes, his head repaired. But he was fuming, telling us of his driving ordeal as the wind banged shutters, as a tree smacked the house.
Dinner was cold. Mom tried to be cheerful. When she finally told Dad about the meet, he grinned and stretched a hand across the table to me. “Good job, soldier.” Merry, who had just become a cheerleader, actually smiled at me. It added to her glory to have me win. But I squirmed in my seat. Thunder crackled. The lights flashed. Bobby started crying. And I was out on the street. Change in my pocket. Waiting for Eddy in his little white truck with the shingled roof. Waiting for the bells that did not come.
“What’s with you?” It was finals week. Arnie and I were sitting on the floor in my room, trying to study. “You’ve been weird for weeks.” I looked at him quickly and then looked away. “My sister says that Penny really likes you.” He laughed as he said it. “Is that it?” He punched me in the arm and laughed again. “Penny and Darrell. Darrell and Penny.”
I turned back to my book. “I told you, Arnie. I like her. I just like her.” He grabbed my book away. I snatched it back. “Just cut it out, will you!”
His brow was furrowed. “I was only joking.” I glared back, and he began to gather his books and notebook into a pile.
It was hot. I stretched out on my back when he was gone. I could hear the slam of the front door. A few weeks before, Dad had taken me into the den after dinner. He did that only when we needed a talking to. I had no idea what I’d done this time. The yard was done, the trash cans were out by the curb. I’d kept all my sketch pads and colored pencils hidden. From time to time Mom would put a hand on my shoulder, sigh, and say, “Darrell honey, I know your Daddy’s hard on you. But it’s all because he loves you. It really is.”
He sat in his big stuffed chair. There was a standing lamp beside him. Half his face was light, half dark. There were circles under his eyes. The whites were yellowish and marbled red. I sat diagonally across from him, in a hard-backed wooden chair we’d had in the kitchen of our old apartment.
He cleared his throat, looked down at his shoes. “Darrell, you’re big enough now to know the facts of life.” Arnie and I had talked about it. He found a book with drawings, and we sneaked it out of his parents’ bedroom and read the whole thing. So I knew what Dad was going to say. I knew it had to do with Dr. Bower, and how he slipped his hand under my clean white shorts and rubbed the hair a bit at my annual checkup. There was down on my upper lip. My sideburns were beginning to lengthen with golden fuzz — unlike Arnie, whose hair was thick and curly black. Like Eddy’s.
I lay on the floor of my room, thinking about that night. About the facts of life. I knew there was something wrong with me, that now I had two things to hide: my sketchbook and my feelings. Dad had told me all about what boys feel, and all about babies, and what girls’ bodies are like. He seemed so proud to be telling me.
Merry had to go to summer school. The twins went to Georgia to spend the summer with Grams and Granddad. Most of the kids went off to camp. I stayed home. Mom told me that things were slow for Dad at work. I was glad. I saw Eddy’s smile. The way he rolled his sleeves up. I tried to get there after everyone else was gone. With change in my pocket from mowing other people’s lawns, the Hausers’ across the street, whose kids were all grown. The Bates’s, with no kids, and even Arnie’s house, since he and his brother Mike were off at camp. “Aren’t you lonely this summer?” his mother asked me. I remembered the lake, the tennis courts, what it had been like the summer before. I got embarrassed and told her that I had just received a postcard from Arnie. I smiled as she paid me. I thought she looked lonely. I remembered that day later, in the fall, when Arnie called up crying because his father was moving out. Moving in with another woman. “You’re so lucky,” he said. “Your dad is always there.” I saw my father sitting at the picnic table, pouring another drink.
To make up for my not going to camp, Dad decided to take me on a fishing trip. I said at first that I didn’t want to go. He got mad, but also felt guilty. I could tell. Mom looked away. Merry said I was a stick-in-the-mud. Mom said no one asked her. But we went. Driving north to a lake in the middle of nowhere but trees. We set up our tent on a rise near the lake. There were crickets all day and frogs and birds like an orchestra of kindergarten kids. And in the woods, in the water, out on our little rented boat, Dad and I were like best friends. We saw the trees, we saw the fish darting gold and brown and gray beneath us. He pointed out stars. He told me stories about California, how he grew up near the desert. I thought he seemed out of place here. I wanted to ask him if he was happy, but I was afraid. At night, he even shared his beer with me. We sat by the fire. He smoked a pipe, tamping down the tobacco, sucking in the smoke. And I woke in the night, all hard and scared and sticky. Afraid. Heart pounding. Eddy’s face right in front of me.
End of summer. Umbrella of trees above the street, heavy and green. Here and there red or yellow leaves. Hot and sticky, just when it seemed over. Air conditioners hummed all over the house. Merry was on the phone, Mom was washing up, Dad was reading a car magazine. Everyone was back from camp. I looked out to the street from the window seat. A knot of kids was there, in a pool of light, around Eddy. There was change in my pocket. “Anyone want ice cream?” Dad said no. Merry was on a diet.
“Where you been, Darrell?” All the other kids were gone. “I haven’t seen you in weeks.” I told him I’d been busy. He laughed and asked me if I wanted my regular. I said no, just a plain bar, vanilla with chocolate on the outside. “It’s on the house,” he said as he handed it to me. His nose was peeling, red. The swell of his chest and the roping in his arms. The white of his teeth, one broken in front. Pointed like the bricks in the yard that lined the flower beds, all stacked at an angle. Long, white, steaming, he handed me the bar. I wrapped my hand around it, my fingers stuck to the cold. My throat was tight. I stood there, immobile. He looked at me like he knew something. Like he wanted to say something. Like he was afraid. His eyes were dark, pupils lost in them. I felt like the sky, floating over him, blue-eyed and cloudless. Afraid.
He put out his hand. “This is my last night.” I said nothing. His hand was warm. Big. Hairy. Mine was small and white and I pulled it away. “You’re a good kid, Darrell.” He smiled. I smiled. He turned and hopped back into the truck. The swell of his back. The lines of his tight white pants. The way he reached up to the roof to pull the string attached to the bells.
The leaves turned yellow, amber, crimson. We burned them in the street. The air was heavy and rich. Mom baked cookies. We sipped hot chocolate with little marshmallows floating on top. School started. The twins turned eight, and we had a giant party in the basement. It rained. It snowed. Arnie and I fought. Made up. Penny started calling me, but I hardly ever called back. For the first time, I tried to draw a person. The ribs of his T-shirt, the line of his neck. The way his jaw angled. Nose. Cheekbones. Dark eyes staring. I couldn’t do it. The inside picture and the outside weren’t the same. But he was in my hands. In my hands the way I touched my charcoal and my pencils. The way I touched myself, discovering. His smile. The way one side lifted higher than the other. The way my chest felt. The black of charcoal on my hands. The white of myself, under the sheets. Then spring, with the first crocus. We took down the storm windows, put up the screens. Daffodil, dogwood, then lilac and azalea and rhododendron, names mysterious, colors as familiar as the inside of my head.
A quiet night. An ordinary night. Neither hotter nor longer than the one before it. We were eating in the dining room. The windows were half-open. Merry was handing me a bowl of jello, red and sparkling under the chandelier. In the distance, around the corner, on Elmwood Drive, I heard the sound of bells.
My heart was racing. Timmy hopped up from the table, knocked his chair back. Dad barked at him, “Young man!” But he was at the front door already. Bobby yelled, “Ice cream!” and took off after him.
I had avoided him, and regretted it, until it was his last night. But I kept him in my hands and in my eyes all winter. I was fourteen.
“I’ll pay for them,” I said now. Mom smiled and I turned toward the living room. Dad called out, “Get me something, Darrell.” The twins left the door wide open. I went running down the path after them.
There was that little peaked roof of a house on wheels. The white, the kids. Words were coming up in my mouth. Taste. Feelings. My heart was pounding more furiously than it did when I was coming around the track. And I looked up. To see a tall, thin, blond stranger handing my little brother Timmy an ice-cream bar.
This is an excerpt from a just-completed novel by Andrew Ramer. He is looking for a publisher.