Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
It’s Monday morning and I need to get to school, but I’m waiting out front of her house with its cracked sidewalk, weed-filled yard, wooden fence broken and in need of paint, and I’m thinking: don’t gawk. I don’t gawk though I hear something inside being broken, like a chair being thrown at someone. I don’t stare at the front window or try to see through the torn curtains when I hear a man’s voice, yelling something dirty. And I don’t let her catch me snooping when she comes flying out the door, turns to spit at someone hidden inside and slams the screen door; then struts down the sidewalk, wiping tears from her eyes and straightening her dress. I don’t gawk because we’ve gone through this many times before and I'm well-trained. Instead, I look away and we walk, she and I, quickly and silently, while she catches her breath, wipes her nose, takes a comb from her purse and yanks violently at her hair.
At the corner we turn left towards school.
She’s wearing a black-and-grey plaid dress that she made herself, and I really like how she looks in it. No one but Molly would wear a black dress to school.
“I like your shirt, Michael.”
“My uncle gave it to me.”
“It goes with my dress.”
“Did you get your math done?” she asks. “Can my brother copy it? I’ll make him change some of the answers so no one will guess he used yours.”
“Great,” I answer, but I know no one needs to make Ralph change the answers; he can’t even cheat right. Anyway, no teacher would believe he’d done a whole assignment by himself, certainly not math.
We turn again, this time onto Ellison Street, getting close to school.
Some people might find it strange that someone like me (from a good family) would walk to school with someone like Molly (from probably the worst family) but she asked, so I do. One day I was sitting under the sycamore at the far end of the playground (on the back side so I wouldn’t have to play ball) and she came round the trunk and sat down like we were old friends. “Whatcha doing?” she asked. Drawing. “You draw really well,” she said. Thanks. “Why don’t you walk me home, tonight?” If you want. Then she walked over to some girls nearby and I heard her say, “Told you so.” Ever since that day (four months ago) I’ve walked Molly home each afternoon and gotten up early to meet her in the morning. She lives blocks out of the way but I don’t mind.
The third afternoon we walked home together, her brother Ralph snuck up behind us and pounced on me, slamming me to the ground, sending my books and papers flying. I covered my head to protect myself but Molly lit into him, kicking and screaming that he should leave me alone, that I was hers. Still, though Molly’s tough, her brother’s tougher and he fought her off with no trouble, egging her on in a high-pitched old lady’s voice: “Oh, please, pretty please, don’t hurt me!” When they got tired of fighting, the three of us picked up my stuff and walked home together.
Molly and I are in the seventh grade. Ralph’s in the eighth––it’s his second time. He flunked seventh grade, too. He should be in high school; if he flunks this year they’ll probably throw him out or maybe he’ll just quit. Molly’s got two other brothers who did just that (one’s in Reform School) and there are other brothers as well; I don’t know how many. Molly’s the only girl. Ralph is always in trouble at school and needs help with homework so I give it to him. Actually, I just do the stuff, it’s quicker than getting him to understand. It makes for a funny friendship, him and me, but I figure we’ll go on this way as long as Molly and I walk to school together, which I assume will be forever.
But this afternoon almost ruins that. Wednesdays are difficult because Molly makes me walk her home even though I have to make it to choir practice by four. Me, I’m worried about getting to choir on time but Molly’s the one who’s acting disagreeable.
“You always get everything you want,” she says.
“What you mean?”
“You’re getting another drawing into Highlights, aren’t you?”
I shrug my shoulders, yes, thinking how good my drawing is––a drawing of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s biggest church. I drew it from a photo in our Encyclopedia Americana. A real artist came to our class on Career Day and when he saw it he put his arm around my shoulders and told the teacher: “This kid’s got talent.”
“You always get everything you want,” Molly continues. “You get good grades, your parents are rich...”
“My parents aren’t rich.”
“Your parents are rich, your brothers pass every grade, you’ve got a big house...”
And for some reason, that makes me remember my new job.
“I’m taking over my brother’s paper route,” I interrupt.
“...your family’s got a nice––what’d you say?”
“I forgot to tell you: I’m taking over my brother’s paper route.”
“You’re getting a job, too? And you’ll get money for it?”
“Of course, I’ll get money. I’m gonna start my own savings account.”
“I don’t believe it!” she cries. Then she throws her books onto the sidewalk and shakes her head from side to side in disbelief. “You are the luckiest person in the world!"
I don’t know what to say so I pick up her books and we continue towards her house but as we turn onto the final block I break the silence. “I’m going to buy good stuff with my money.” And being pretty clever, I add, “I’ll even buy you something.”
“Well,” and I’m thinking fast now, “how about those spring shoes they advertise in comic books? They look like regular skates but they’ve got springs instead of wheels and you can bounce so high and fast no one can ever catch you. Not ever.”
“I don’t think that’s something I’d want,” she says, looking disappointed.
Then I realize: “Wait! When I get my route, I won’t be able to walk you home.”
She stops. “Why not?” She grabs my hand and looks into my eyes, troubled.
“I'll have to get to the station,” I explain. “A paperboy’s gotta be punctual.”
“But everybody knows we walk home together!”
Suddenly she looks like she’s gonna cry.
I try to reassure her. “We can still walk together in the mornings.”
“I hate you!” she blurts out. And now she is crying. “You’re a stupid know-it-all rich creep and I never want to see you again!” She grabs her books from my hands, stomps up the sidewalk to the door, then spins around, face bright red: “Get out of here! You don’t belong here.”
And all I can think to answer is: “Am I supposed to pick you up in the morning?” Without answering, she slams the door. But a second later, it creaks open and she says, just loud enough to hear, “You’d better be here tomorrow. Or else.”
* * *
From outside the sanctuary I can hear practice has already begun, so I sneak in and tiptoe across the carpeting in the front of the pulpit, hidden from the choir loft by a wooden partition, fifteen feet high. That’s when I hear Judy Forneau complaining to Mrs. Taylor, the choir director: “He smells bad. And he talks to himself!”
“Michael does not smell bad, Judy, and you know it,” Mrs. Taylor warns her. “That’s a mean thing to say.”
I freeze, my face turns red, I can’t go up there, be a joke for them all to laugh at; but as I turn to escape my foot catches on the wire leg of a memorial wreath and it falls over with a clang. I hear Mrs. Taylor ask, “Is that you, Michael?” but I keep on walking, fast, out the door and across the parking lot, breathing hard––and how will I explain this to Mom?
Outside it's grown colder, I have to pull my coat tight around me to stay warm––so there's no way to smell myself through my coat to find out if I actually do have b.o. or not. I hate Judy Forneau, with her goldfish eyeballs and her glasses. I'd like to to use a stick to carve nostrils in her armpits. And I hate choir, I wish I hadn't ever been forced to sing with them. I wish I was still with Molly and she hadn’t gotten angry. It was warmer then, and nicer. I thought spring had actually arrived.
Then, turning east, it gets worse: I spot a group of guys coming my way, eight of them. They look dangerous, might even be from the Trailer Court. Kids like that will beat you up just for the fun of it. So I decide to limp––no one’s gonna beat on a kid with a limp. I even consider crossing the street to enter the park but that could be dangerous: fewer people there to protect you. The group (now much closer) appears to be headed towards Thirtieth Street, not through the park, so I cross and enter, acting as if I haven’t noticed them. But one of the kids yells: “Hey, Pozner! Your brother’s the one with the bad leg, so why you limping, you big phony?”
“What’s that?” I yell back, like I’ve been thinking about things far more important than they could ever understand. “You mean me?” I rub my leg as if it hurts but keep on moving to increase the distance between us. “My leg? Hurt it playing basketball, not a big deal, doctor says I’ll be walking good again in a few weeks.”
They all start laughing but keep walking and I trudge the rest of the way home feeling like garbage. I plop down on the couch in the sewing room. Mom comes in and demands to know why I'm home early from choir practice.
“I’m sick” I lie.
“Just sick,” I say. “And tired.”
She stares at me as if she’s some kind of super detective, then gets a look on her face that tells me she’s making a motherly decision to inquire no further. That decided, she says, “A person who is truly sick goes to bed. He doesn’t mope around the house. I don’t believe you are sick but if you insist on pretending, please go to bed now. I’ll send your brother up later with food. And," she adds, "I don't want to hear you mumbling to yourself about it.”
I glare at her, pull myself from the couch and plod up the stairs, put on my pajamas and check for hairs around my peeper––but I can’t find them without the aid of Dad’s magnifying glass. Could I have imagined them? Dad says I’m always imagining things. Worse, my peeper smells funny. Could Judy have smelled that? I go to the bathroom, scrub my crotch, and in the process get my pajamas wet. When my brother comes up with dinner I’m lying on top of the covers, reading. He looks down. “Did you pee on yourself?” he asks, nodding towards my crotch, a disgusted look on his face.
“Of course not.” I hate him for asking such a question.
“Then, what’s wrong with you?” Howard asks, still staring at my wet pajamas.
“Nothing,” I answer, pulling the covers over my body, up to my neck.
“No, really,” he insists. “Are you sick?”
And for no reason, I answer truthfully (more or less): “I hate choir.”
“Oh,” he nods. Then his expression changes. “Your good-looking brother has the solution.,” he says. “Time for choir practice and paper delivery conflict. Can't do both.”