I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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In 1976, the year we were supposed to be learning the metric system, we fell in love with Katy Muldoon. We were in the sixth grade, and Katy sat at the front of our math class, raising her hand for every question, as though all of the answers to all of the problems were merely floating in front of her eyes.
We loved her when she wore a poncho, which was an exotic thing to wear in Chicago. We loved her when she came to school with her long hair chopped short like the figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s. We loved her when she began crying in the middle of class one day for no reason that we could see. We loved the small scar on her forehead, just above the eyebrow, from the time she had fallen off the slide in third grade, and we loved how the scar turned purple after she ran the fifty-yard dash in gym class. We loved her when she smiled at us and when she ignored us. It didn’t matter what she wore or did; we loved her regardless.
We were a pitiful lot of boys that year, the year we were supposed to learn the metric system. We rode three-speed bikes and tortured bugs. We learned how to shoot milk through our noses, to peel back our eyelids and make scary faces, and to create obscene noises with our hands and armpits. We had started growing hair in places we hadn’t had hair before, and we didn’t know what to think of that. We drank Tang and our mothers’ Tab, and we laughed like hyenas. We were not, by even the most generous definition of the word, cool, but we didn’t know that — not then, at least.
What we did know was that Stu Bronson was cool, cooler than any of us, and far more handsome, with his blue eyes and dark, curly hair. He was in love with Katy Muldoon, too, maybe even more than we were in love with her, and Katy loved that Stu loved her. We saw it in the way she blushed after he whispered to her, in the way she snuck glances at him during test time, and in the way she’d reach up to touch the scar on her forehead when she spoke to him, as though she were feeling it pulse in sync with her racing heart.
“Hey, Stu,” we’d say when we caught him alone. “You and Katy . . . ?” We’d let it linger, our eyebrows raised.
Stu would give us a look that asked, Me and Katy what? But then he’d shake his head and say, “Nah.”
“OK,” we’d say. “Because . . . you know.” And again we’d let Stu fill in the blanks.
Stu would laugh and wag that pretty head of his that we hated and then walk away. He wasn’t fooling us. We knew he was lying, even if we weren’t sure ourselves what we were asking, even if Stu didn’t know what questions he was answering.
It was the year the girls were all rounded up and ushered to the gymnasium to watch a movie while we boys played air guitar and the nose harp, stopping only when the girls returned, some giggling timidly, others acting grim. They treated us differently than before — not better, not worse, just differently — and when we demanded to be taken to the gymnasium to watch the same movie they had watched so that we could see for ourselves, we were told to sit down and be quiet.
Our math class met in one of the three mobile units, a trailer that had its own coatrack and restroom. While we did our conversions from feet to meters, Mr. Bilanski, our teacher, would go into the restroom and smoke a cigarette. As soon as smoke began rolling out of the vent at the top of the wall, we would nudge one another and point to it, then sneak around the room, setting the wall clock five minutes ahead or quickly jotting down answers from the teacher’s edition of the textbook.
The last week of October was Career Week, when adults would come during our math period and tell us what they did for a living and describe their jobs. The first guest was Stu’s father, who was an insurance salesman. He arrived carrying a briefcase and wearing a rust-colored suit, and we were happy to find out that he wasn’t good-looking. Even though we could see only the back of Katy’s head, we knew that she was watching Stu’s father and wondering why he wasn’t handsome, and then realizing that Stu would eventually lose his good looks, along with most of his hair. We asked all kinds of questions we normally wouldn’t have, like “What’s Stu like at home?” and “How much money do you collect if something terrible happens to Stu?”
Mr. Bilanski, who had been staring down at a ruler, as though mystified by the difference between inches and centimeters, peeked up to give us a look that meant, Go easy, boys.
Our own parents, who were roofers and electricians and short-order cooks, didn’t come to Career Week. It hadn’t crossed our minds to invite them. The other guests were friends of our teachers or people with whom somebody had done business, and they arrived wearing the clothes they wore at work. Marty Roush, a realtor, stepped inside our mobile-unit classroom wearing a gold blazer with a giant gold nameplate pinned to his chest. Bernard Dunn, owner of an auto-repair shop, wore crisp, ironed coveralls with his first name sewn onto an oval patch over his heart. We knew by how clean his clothes were that he made other people do the dirty work, and we couldn’t decide whether to envy him or hate him because of that.
On Thursday, when Mr. Bilanski introduced a travel agent named Martha as his wife, we gaped at one another, swiveling in our seats — his wife? — until Mr. Bilanski loudly cleared his throat. And we had to admit, she wasn’t half bad. She had a nice smile and pretty ankles. We were charmed by the way she walked around the room, occasionally touching the tops of our heads. “How would you like to go to Hawaii?” she asked. And, “Do you know how much a passport costs?” We gave Mr. Bilanski sly looks that said, Good job, old man! but he was too busy staring at that damn ruler again.
When we showed up at school on Friday morning, the last day of Career Week, it was dark outside. The sky churned overhead, the wind picking up with such force that several boys’ hats flew off. A younger kid whose baseball cap floated onto the grade school’s roof started to cry until Katy walked up to him and put her arms around him. The boy buried his head in her belly while we stood on the blacktop, watching a scene take place that we had imagined many times alone at night, except that it had been our heads pressed against Katy’s belly and our shoulders she had wrapped her arms around. We didn’t know who the crying boy was, but we hated him now. We couldn’t help it. We had come to understand that love was a daily sucker punch, and just when we thought we were over her and she didn’t matter to us anymore, we’d see a boy we didn’t know pressing his head against her belly, and we’d feel pain in the pits of our stomachs and want to go home and pop the heads off our sisters’ dolls or flush our Hot Wheels down the toilet or carry all our underwear outside and set the pile on fire while staring morosely into the flames. But more than anything else, we wanted to crawl into bed, curl up, and whisper Katy Muldoon’s name, longing for what we couldn’t have, until we fell asleep.
But we couldn’t go home, and we couldn’t crawl into bed, because it was Friday and the day had only begun. We’d been told that today’s visitor was a projectionist at the local movie theater, and normally we would have been interested in what he had to say, but since we had already heard so many others talk, we wanted him to come and go as quickly as possible so that we could get back to our normal lives.
When the door opened and we saw our guest, we all took a deep breath. The man had a black mustache and goatee, and he wore black makeup around his eyes, which made them stand out the way a villain’s eyes did in the old silent movies we’d seen on TV. He wore a black shirt with a black cape buttoned around his neck. His pants and shoes were black as well, and he carried a black case.
“Hello, hello, hello!” he said. “I’m zee magician!” He sounded foreign, but we couldn’t tell what country he was from. France? Poland? Romania?
Mr. Bilanski dropped his ruler and stood up from his desk. “Uh, I think there’s been a mistake,” he said.
“No mistake,” the magician said. “Just . . . magic!” He widened his eyes, and we smiled. We liked this guy.
Mr. Bilanski seemed irritated. He disliked changes in plans, as when Mr. Delgado, our principal, spoke to him over the intercom, ordering him to bring the class to an assembly in the gymnasium. He stared at the magician for a moment. “OK, then,” Mr. Bilanski said, sitting. “Come on in.”
The magician shut the door behind him, and as he walked to the front of the room, he pulled coins from our ears. When he passed Katy, he pulled from her ear a small white dove. He let the bird go, and it flew to the corner and perched on top of the intercom speaker. Katy gasped, put her hands to her chest, and exclaimed that she had never seen anything so wonderful.
“Monsieurs and fräuleins,” the magician said. He set his black case onto Mr. Bilanski’s desk, opened it, and removed a crushed top hat that he popped into shape with his fist. “Might I have a volunteer?” he asked. Our arms shot up, but the magician looked only at Katy. “Aha!” he said. “Only one volunteer in this entire room?” Ignoring the rest of us, he held out his hand to her. “Up, up!” he said as we groaned and put our arms down. Then the magician turned to us and said, “May I present my lovely — how do you say? — assistant, yes?”
Katy stood at the front of the class, holding the top hat, out of which the magician pulled a stuffed anaconda, a rotary telephone, and a bunny. He set the bunny on the floor, and it hopped across the room. The dove, still perched on the speaker, cooed. Then the magician made a magic wand levitate with one hand while quarters appeared and disappeared from between the fingers of his other hand. As he performed these feats, he asked Katy, “Are there any strings?” to which Katy yelled, “No!” “Is there anything fishy that you can see?” he asked, and Katy, staring beyond us as though in a deep trance, yelled, “No, nothing fishy!” When he was done, the magician stuffed the wand into Katy’s ear, making it disappear, and then deposited coin after coin in that dark whorl into which we all wished one day to whisper, “I love you, Katy Muldoon.”
“And for my final trick,” the magician said, “I would like for my lovely assistant to step inside this closet.” He pointed to the restroom. We started to correct him, but the magician held up one hand to keep us quiet while he opened the door for Katy. She obeyed, waving goodbye to us before ducking inside. The magician shut the door, pulled a wand from his cape, and swished it through the air a few times. Smoke seeped from the vent at the top of the wall, the way it did whenever Mr. Bilanski went in there for a cigarette break.
The magician said, “Is this normal? Zee smoke?”
Our hearts sped up. No, we yelled, it wasn’t normal!
The magician’s makeup accentuated his wide eyes. “Should I check on my lovely assistant?”
Yes, we yelled, hurry!
When the magician opened the door, he took a step back and said, “She’s gone!”
Mr. Bilanski stood from his desk, walked over, and peered inside. “What the . . . ?”
From where we sat, we couldn’t see into the restroom. For all we knew, Mr. Bilanski was in on the act, but there was something about both his and the magician’s demeanor that made us nervous.
“Pardonnez-moi,” the magician said, “but I must investigate.” He walked into the restroom, shutting the door behind him. As soon as smoke rolled from the vent, we knew for certain it was a trick, and we expected the magician and Katy to appear from another doorway, or maybe we would see both of them watching us with amusement from a window. More smoke filled the room, causing us to cough. A shy girl named Tammy opened two windows. Mr. Bilanski scratched his chin and looked at the restroom door, then cautiously opened it.
“It’s empty,” he said.
Stu joined Mr. Bilanski. When Stu stepped inside the restroom, we considered asking Mr. Bilanski to shut the door so that Stu would turn into smoke, but we didn’t. We just sat there waiting for Katy and the magician to return, as we knew they surely would.
Five minutes went by. Then ten. The dove remained perched on the speaker, while the bunny hopped from one end of the room to the other.
Mr. Bilanski said, “Where is she?” He couldn’t begin the math lesson without her, but he couldn’t keep waiting for her either. “Something’s not right.” He pushed the buzzer on the wall to call the principal’s office.
Principal Delgado was a large man with thick black hair who reminded us of Clark Kent. He always called everyone “mister”: “How are you today, Mr. O’Reilly? And what about you, Mr. Haleem?” But today he said, “What is it, Donald? Is there a problem?” as though we weren’t even in the room.
Mr. Bilanski told him about the magician. When he described what the man had looked like, we realized that we should never have let him into the classroom in the first place.
After Mr. Bilanski finished talking to Principal Delgado, he said to us, “Wait here. I mean it. Don’t leave your desks.” Mr. Bilanski hurried outside, leaving the door wide open. The wind, which had been picking up all morning, caused the metal door to bang against the trailer’s metal siding. It slammed repeatedly, and someone shouted, “Make sure the bunny doesn’t leave!”
We noticed Stu sitting alone, across from Katy’s empty seat. He was shivering. We wanted to ask him if he was OK, but we didn’t. We had decided that maybe he was, in some remote way, to blame for Katy’s disappearance. After all, if Stu hadn’t invited his father to Career Week, there would have been a different lineup of guests, and maybe the magician wouldn’t have come at all. We worked it out in our heads, making the most illogical sequence of events appear logical, and even though deep down we knew we were wrong, we weren’t going to give Stu the benefit of the doubt. We needed to believe it was Stu’s fault, because there was no one else in the room to blame except ourselves.
The police spent hours interviewing us at school, asking if we had ever seen the magician before, if we knew something about Katy we hadn’t told anyone, and if we were hiding anything important.
As it turned out, no one had ever seen the magician before. No projectionist in the area fit the magician’s description. It complicated matters that the magician had probably dyed his hair and eyebrows and that his mustache and goatee were almost certainly fake. The police checked costume shops, interviewed local magicians, and questioned kids at other schools, but no one could say who he was.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and our parents barely mentioned it, except to say, “That poor girl,” whenever Katy’s name came up. We, on the other hand, became haunted and obsessed, meeting on the blacktop before school, huddling in the cafeteria during lunch, walking slowly home after the last bell rang, all the while going over what we knew and didn’t know.
Mr. Bilanski stopped teaching us the metric system. He had begun feeding the dove and the bunny, showing up early each morning to clean up after them with the janitor’s broom and dustpan. Most days he let us sleep or read our copies of Mad magazine. On the rare occasion that he actually taught us, he went over basic pre-algebra, things we’d already learned. But one day instead of asking, “What is x?” he tapped his chalk on the board and asked, “Who is x?” When he caught his mistake, he rubbed his eyes. “Sorry,” he said, and then he pulled his pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one out, and lit it in front of us. He hadn’t gone back into the restroom since Katy had disappeared — none of us had — but this was the first time he’d smoked in our presence. He sat down, his eyes red and watery, and blew smoke toward the ceiling.
Stu lost weight. His face became gaunt, and he quit combing his hair. There were days he didn’t look as if he’d bathed. He furiously chewed his fingernails. We probably should have asked him how he was holding up, but we didn’t. We were eleven and twelve years old, and we took pleasure in Stu’s reversal of fortune even though we mourned the same loss.
When Principal Delgado announced that this year’s talent show would be dedicated to Katy, we excitedly dove into our preparations. We were going to do stand-up comedy and gymnastics. We wrote songs and memorized lines from Shakespeare. We gathered in apartments and basements, rehearsing for hours on end, giving each other critiques. “More energy!” we’d say, or, “Not so fast!” or, “Sing like you mean it!” We had a show to put on, and, by God, it was going to be the best damn show anyone in our town had ever seen. And maybe — who knew? — Katy might appear at the back of the auditorium, applauding us when it was all over.
On the day of the show, two of us stayed home with the stomach flu. Others of us had practiced singing so much that our voices gave out onstage. We saw Katy’s parents in the audience, Jim and Helen Muldoon, and they forced smiles and clapped after each act, but during the performances they held hands and whispered to one another. Once, Helen Muldoon leaned her head on Jim’s shoulder, and Jim began to weep — or so someone reported to us later.
After we had each failed to achieve the huge heights we were reaching for, Stu Bronson took the stage, and everyone gasped.
Stu was dressed like the magician, with a black cape, a fake mustache and goatee, and black makeup around his eyes. We couldn’t believe it! A few girls in the audience began to cry. The Muldoons stood up and left. Mr. P., the gym teacher, moved closer to the stage, looking as though he might climb the steps and do bodily harm to Stu, but then Stu pulled silk scarves from his mouth, one after the other, and Mr. P. stopped to watch. Stu made an entire deck of cards vanish. We couldn’t fathom why he was doing what he was doing, but nobody would interfere. He kept making stuff appear and disappear, some things small, like foam balls, and some large, like an umbrella.
“And now,” he yelled from the stage, “for my grand finale, I will bring back Katy Muldoon!”
“That’s it,” we heard Mr. P. say, but Principal Delgado held up his palm and told the gym teacher to wait a minute. It was as though Principal Delgado thought Stu might actually be able to do it. And we had to admit, we all thought it might happen, the reappearance of Katy Muldoon. If anyone could bring her back, we reasoned, it would be Stu Bronson, the only boy Katy had ever truly loved.
Stu made a big show of drawing shut the black velvet stage curtains behind him. Once the dark backdrop was in place, Stu waved his wand. He chanted what sounded like a made-up spell, and then he opened the curtains.
“Behold!” Stu shouted as he revealed a few feet of brick wall.
We leaned forward and squinted, but Katy was nowhere to be seen. Our hope was crushed.
Principal Delgado climbed the stage and ushered Stu away. Without any closing remarks or an announcement about who had won, the lights came up, and the talent show was over. Even though no one said it aloud, we understood that we would never see Katy again.
The next day at school, we knew what we were going to do. We didn’t even have to talk about it.
After the final bell we walked across the street, stopping just beyond the view of the teachers, and waited until we saw Stu Bronson. He came over to our side of the road and gave us a casual nod, as though we were all good friends. We returned the nod, out of politeness. Then we jumped him. We knocked him down, kicking and punching. Someone grabbed a hank of his hair and pulled. We expected him to scream or beg us to stop, but he lay there in silence. He winced, of course, and put his arms up to block the blows, but he did all this without making a sound, as though he had been expecting our attack, as though his performance at the talent show had been a calculated prelude to what we were doing to him now.
When it became clear that Stu wasn’t going to fight back or cry out for help, we backed off. He remained on the ground, curled up.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” we said. “What were you thinking?”
Stu said nothing. He was shaking, and his nose was bleeding. We couldn’t just leave him there, so we helped him up and brushed him off. Someone gave him a handkerchief.
“What happened to her?” Stu finally asked, and we shrugged. “I loved Katy,” Stu said, and we told him that we had, too.
We thought about Katy Muldoon every day for many years, and then we thought about her less, until we rarely thought about her at all. We were grown men with wives and children and divorces and secrets we kept to ourselves. We thought we had come so far from the bad manners of childhood and the ill-fitting clothes, from the shyness that overwhelmed us when a girl we liked caught our eye, from the unexpected waves of sadness and anger that we didn’t know what to do with. But we were fooling ourselves. The boys were still here, and always would be.
Over the intervening years, whenever we saw a young girl with a short haircut, our hearts would inexplicably speed up, and we would think of Katy Muldoon, even though decades had passed. The magician was never heard from again. It was as though he, too, had vanished from this world, although we knew better. He was out there somewhere.
In our dreams we occasionally see both of them with perfect clarity: We are sitting in an audience, watching Katy climb into a wooden box and crouch down inside. The magician closes the hinged lid and inserts three swords into the cube: one through the side, one through the front, and one through the top. The box is on a table with caster wheels, and he spins the table around for us to see each side, and then he removes the swords. The top panel flips open, and rising up out of the box is Katy Muldoon as she would be today, a forty-eight-year-old woman. She smiles and takes a bow, having performed the greatest illusion we’ve ever seen, which makes us love her now more than ever, even though she has broken our hearts over and over again and will doubtless break them many more times before the magician concludes his show.